Wednesday 11 May 2016
[Geraint Davies in the Chair]
Domestic Violence Refuges
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Domestic Violence Refuges.
Domestic violence is violence or abuse inflicted in the home by one adult on another, often in the context of an intimate relationship. It may be psychological, physical, sexual, emotional or a combination of these. I acknowledge that men may also be victims, but I intend to focus today on domestic violence against women and the support that is available in refuges.
It is important to consider the scale of the problem. The Office for National Statistics revealed that in the last year domestic violence accounted for 16% of all violent crime and that 1.4 million women were victims. One in five children witnessed domestic violence and 62% of children living with domestic violence are directly harmed by the perpetrator, in addition to the harm caused by witnessing the abuse of others. Perhaps most shocking is the fact that two women are murdered in Britain every week by their partner or former partner. I am sure all hon. Members agree that that is appalling. These women need the Government’s support.
The problem is not new. Back in 1874, Frances Power Cobbe wrote a paper, “Wife Torture in England”. When the then Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, read it, he apparently wept and promised there would be an inquiry. There was an inquiry, but the sad fact is that nothing of substance happened until 1971, when Erin Pizzey opened the first women’s refuge.
Jenny Smith was an early beneficiary of Erin Pizzey’s refuge in Chiswick. I was moved when I heard her speak recently of the abuse she endured at the hands of her mentally unstable husband. The early 1970s was a time when there was no law against marital rape in the UK, when a lone woman could not apply for a mortgage and when domestic violence was rarely mentioned. Jenny Smith endured vicious beatings, knifings, burns, bites and attempted drowning. One day, she saw a tiny newspaper ad with a phone number offering help. She plucked up the courage to call and within hours she had left her home in Hackney, east London, and was standing outside the women’s refuge, an ordinary terraced house in west London, with her seven-month-old daughter on one arm and her 23-month-old at her side. She was safe.
Instead of receiving support, victims of domestic violence are often criticised. How often we have heard: “It’s her own fault; she should have left him”? That is easy to say, but we must remember that, apart from the physical difficulty of escaping from a controlling, violent partner, women who have been abused, beaten and degraded have little confidence. Their self-esteem is at rock bottom. Sandra Horley, chief executive of Refuge, said:
“Domestic violence is one of the only crimes where it can feel like the victim is being punished, rather than the perpetrator. Even with the full force of the law in place, there are many cases when a woman is not safe in her own home and where her ex-partner is determined to seek revenge. We know of women who have been too scared to leave their heavily locked homes to go to the shops, or who have sprinkler systems installed in case their former partner tries to burn the house down. They become prisoners. And when they do try to break free? We know of one woman who recently left her home to go to the shops, only to be followed by her abusive ex-partner. He viciously attacked and raped her to show that he was always watching; always in control.”
Women’s refuges play a crucial role. They are so much more than a roof over a head. Lives are transformed as specialist refuge workers support women to stay safe and access health services and legal advocacy, and provide immigration advice. Most important of all, refuges are safe places in anonymous, secret locations where women can be sure they will not be tracked down by a violent partner. Refuges provide an invaluable service for those who need it most. Without adequate refuge provision, women experiencing domestic violence will be faced with a stark choice: flee to live rough on the streets or remain with their abuser and risk further violence or even worse.
Earlier this year, the Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities and Family Justice, the hon. Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), said in a written answer:
“Under this Government, there are more refuge places than ever before.”—[Official Report, 8 March 2016; Vol. 607, c. 130W.]
The hon. Lady is mistaken. Under this Conservative Government, 17% of refuges have been forced to close because of funding cuts. Erin Pizzey said recently:
“The closing down of refuges over the last two years is a source of great worry for me. The majority of women coming into my refuge needed long-term therapeutic care with their children”.
Despite two women being killed every week by domestic violence in our country, unprecedented funding cuts to local authorities mean refuges are being closed one by one, ending essential services that provide victims of domestic violence with a safe space, support, healthcare and everything else needed to rebuild a life shattered by abuse.
The amount of money allocated to women’s refuges is not ring-fenced or protected by the Government. Instead, the majority of funding comes from local authorities. As they have been subject to drastic cuts, cash-strapped councils have been forced to close many refuges. Despite their life-or-death importance, refuges are often one of the first front-line services to go. In addition to the places that have been shut down altogether, many have been radically cut, with new time limits on length of stay. Research by Women’s Aid shows that 30% of the 145 domestic violence services asked said they expected to get 30% less funding than last year and a shocking 17% said they did not know whether they would get any local authority funding at all.
On top of that, 48% of 167 domestic violence services in England said they were running services without any funding. Devon has been particularly badly hit by cuts and there are no refuges left. In my area, Lancashire County Council needs to save a further £262 million over the next four years, so it will no longer provide funding for the non-statutory part of the Supporting People budget. This funding is essential if we are to retain Lancashire’s nine refuges, which provide a lifeline for victims of domestic abuse across the county. In my constituency, 1,530 domestic abuse incidents were reported to the police in the last year. Many of the women admitted to the refuge were assessed to be at high risk of serious harm or homicide. When they escaped, they brought their babies, children and young people with them.
Even before the latest round of funding cuts, demand for refuge accommodation far outstripped supply. At this time, when all the evidence shows that we need more refuges, Government funding cuts are forcing them to close. It is a fact that without long-term sustainable funding many more refuges will close and others will be forced to make experienced, trained staff redundant. Consequently, they will become little more than hostels. This is another worrying outcome. According to Women’s Aid:
“The tendency towards funding generic rather than specialist domestic violence services will result in the loss of 35 years of acquired expertise in relation to domestic violence.”
Currently, fewer than one in 10 local authorities run specialist domestic violence services and 32 of the domestic violence services that have closed since 2010 were specialist services for black and minority ethnic women. The closure of these services is dangerous for all women, particularly those who rely on specialist domestic violence services, such as women of colour or trans women.
Escaping domestic violence is a traumatising and emotional process. These women have specific needs that are often not catered for by generic domestic violence services. It is vital that when an abused woman tries to escape from her abuser, she has somewhere to go. Many of the refuges that remain open have been forced to reduce their capacity, and Women’s Aid reports that 6,337 of the 20,000-plus women looking for help at a refuge were turned away last year. The most dangerous point of an abusive relationship is when women try to leave. Before embarking on an escape, they need to know that they have somewhere to go, because being forced to return to their abuser is unthinkably dangerous.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on obtaining the debate and pay tribute to Women’s Aid, which does tremendous work in my constituency. Does she agree that one difficulty in the past has been the reporting of domestic violence, whether it be sexual or another type of violence? In my area, we found that domestic violence was not separated from social violence; the figures were not there. We have now managed to achieve that and are seeing the true figure, and I have seen a big increase in domestic violence in my constituency during the past 12 months. It is important that it is reported.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I totally agree: the first step to tackling domestic violence is ensuring that it is recognised and reported as such.
Another worrying effect of the funding cuts is that many local authorities are introducing local connection rules, meaning that only local women can access support. When refuges are not permitted to take women from outside their area, women whose safety depends on their putting distance between themselves and the world of their abuser have nowhere to go.
The Government actions to cut local authority budgets mean that there is no longer any sustainable funding for women’s refuges. The Government’s actions are shamefully irresponsible. In March 2015, the Government provided £10 million for domestic violence services to support the national network of specialist refuges and, in December 2015, a further £3 million of funding for domestic violence support. That additional emergency funding for specialist domestic violence services was welcomed, but it is no substitute for the provision of long-term, sustainable funding.
I am pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), has confirmed, in answer to a question from me, that the Government intend to provide
“£80 million of dedicated funding up to 2020 to tackle violence against women and girls. This funding will provide core support for refuges and other accommodation-based services, a network of rape support centres and national helplines”.
I was also pleased to hear that in April 2017 a new violence against women and girls service transformation fund will be introduced. That fund will
“support local programmes which encourage new approaches that incorporate early intervention, establish and embed the best ways to help victims and their families, and prevent perpetrators from re-offending.”
The Minister said that the criteria for applications to the fund
“will be published in due course.”
That announcement raises more questions than it answers. When exactly will the application process open? When will the criteria be announced? How much of that funding will refuges be able to access? Will the funds made available be enough to prevent any more closures? Does the Minister here today know how urgent the situation is? Is he mindful of the fact that two women are murdered every day? Many of the refuges are the difference between life and death and they are set to close. Without clearly defined, sustainable funding, other refuges will be forced to shed staff—staff who already have the expertise to know the best ways to help victims.
I hope that in his response to the debate the Minister will provide answers to those important questions. I also hope that he will let the Chancellor of the Exchequer know that at the end of every cut he makes to local authorities, there is a woman who will die, avoidably, at the hands of a man who once promised to love her. Cuts to public spending are creating orphans who could have grown up with parents. I beg the Minister to ensure that this Government do not unravel 40 years of good work. I beg him to listen and to act without delay.
Order. This is obviously an enormously important subject that concerns people’s lives and deaths. A large number of hon. Members—10—have applied to speak. I therefore ask them to confine their remarks to five minutes. I hope to start calling the Front-Bench spokespersons at half-past 10.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies.
I rise to speak about only one thing—the need for an exemption for women’s refuges from the rules surrounding the reduction in housing benefit. The Government are kicking the can down the road for now—in fact, they have kicked the can down the road every year for the past seven years, so they are saying, “Let’s keep on kicking it.” But in 2017, unless refuges are exempt from the reduction in housing benefit, there will be an enormous reduction in refuge beds across the country. Even if nothing else comes out of today and these weeks when we are talking about the Housing and Planning Bill and our benefit systems, I beg the Government to exempt refuges.
The money that the Minister will no doubt say at the end of the debate the Government are putting into refuges will be completely and utterly wasted and useless without housing benefit. As someone who has run 18 different women’s refuges, I know what a balance sheet for a refuge looks like, and I can tell the Minister what will happen without housing benefit. The £10 million was allocated well, as my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper) pointed out, and no one will criticise that allocation. However, I saw at least one third of the applications that went in, and I know that every single one had in its business plan that the sustainability of the refuge would be based entirely on housing benefit-plus. The Government signed off on a load of documents, agreeing the sustainability plans of organisations up and down the country, based on a premise that they were about to completely and utterly undo by reducing housing benefit.
It is complicated and difficult for people to understand what running a refuge actually looks like. The grants that the Government give are what we use to pay for staff. They are used to pay for a family support worker, who will enable a child to re-engage with a mother who has had no control over their relationship because her control has been completely stripped away by a perpetrator of violence. They allow key staff to give counselling and support to women who have been brutally raped, beaten, kept locked away and controlled to a degree that no one in this Chamber could ever imagine. That is what the grants from the Government pay for.
What pays for the nuts, the bolts, the beds, the buildings, the place where people live, their home, and their security is housing benefit. The reduction will directly and entirely damage what refuge providers use to pay for things such as CCTV, security support and all the extra stuff that people do not have in their house but might need if they have been ritually raped for the last six months of their life. That is what housing benefit pays for. I cannot say this with any more dramatic effect: half of the refuges that I ran, and half of the hundreds of beds that I used to manage at Sandwell Women’s Aid, would not be there without housing benefit. Already, 115 women and their children are turned away from refuges every single day in this country. Already this year, in 2016—it is only the beginning of May—46 women are dead.
I want almost nothing else; I just want to hear that the Government will permanently exempt refuges and support accommodation from universal credit, from the changes to housing benefit and from the rules on localisation. I am pleased to say that one of the women who lived in my refuge managed successfully, with the Child Poverty Action Group, to take the Government to court and win back her local support allowance for council tax benefit and local crisis money. She had been told that she was not allowed to have that because she had not lived in the area. She had lived in the neighbouring borough, a metre over the border in Birmingham, but she did not have a local connection thanks to the delegation of rules. The Government did not give in. They were forced to by the courts.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if the cuts go ahead, society picks up the cost elsewhere, including in health circles? Women and children turn up at A&E units, GPs dole out antidepressants, and there is the cost of counselling. There is a cost to children’s education, and future opportunities are lost. Families who move between bed and breakfasts or are in insecure homes end up in debt. There is a human cost, as children do not enjoy the love, support and parental guidance that so many of us take for granted. Without that guidance, they may well get into trouble. Does my hon. Friend agree that society will pick up a far bigger cost if the cuts go ahead?
I will. Not only do I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer); it is a fact. We must do something and act sensibly by exempting refuges. We know it is going to be done, so we should just do it today so that refuges can look at their budgets for next year and not have to offer redundancy to brilliant staff—every single year, staff are put on notice. Let us allow refuges to thrive and to do the job that they are better at than we are.
I will attempt to keep within my five minutes, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper) on securing the debate.
Domestic violence is a massive issue in Northern Ireland, as my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) indicated. Refuges cater for women who are alone and for those with children. The length of stay depends on the needs of each woman and her children. Our refuges are run by and for women and children suffering domestic violence. We often remember the women, but we must remember their families and children as well.
There are currently 12 Women’s Aid refuges across Northern Ireland. They are modern and well appointed, and some have been purpose-built. Children’s workers plan an ongoing programme of play and social activities. I want the Minister to know how important the Women’s Aid refuges are across Northern Ireland, and indeed across the whole United Kingdom.
Many women stay in refuges more than once as part of a process of ending a relationship with an abusive partner. Refuge addresses are kept confidential to protect women’s safety, and women can choose whether to stay in a refuge close to their home or further away. The refuge that caters for women in North Down and Ards is well used, and I have referred many ladies to it.
Northern Ireland’s 24-hour domestic and sexual violence helpline can help victims find suitable refuge accommodation to meet their specific needs, such as location, size of room, accessibility, children’s requirements and so on. Some Women’s Aid groups provide move-on houses, which we provide in Northern Ireland—I am sure it is done here on the mainland as well—as a temporary option for women and children who are preparing to move on from living in a refuge.
Domestic abuse is an incident of threatening behaviour or violence, which can be physical, sexual, psychological or financial. Sometimes the abuse comes in many of those forms—maybe all of them together. Every one of those types of behaviour can happen over a long period of time.
My hon. Friend is outlining a whole series of incidents, which we all recognise. Does he agree that the Minister and the Department need to give the courts a message to ensure that the perpetrators know that such activity is totally and utterly unacceptable? The courts need to crack down resolutely on the perpetrators.
As always, my hon. Friend brings an extra element to the debate. Yes, the courts need to be robust and hand out sentences that are appropriate given the harm that perpetrators have caused.
Age, gender, race and sexuality do not matter, nor does how much someone earns or where they come from; anyone can suffer abuse. Everyone has the right to live free from abuse and fear. Victims in Northern Ireland can contact the domestic violence helpline, a local refuge or other domestic abuse support services.
The Northern Domestic Violence Partnership is a multi-agency partnership of local organisations that provide services to victims of domestic violence and abuse. Collectively, the agencies involved are tasked by the regional steering group on domestic violence to translate the regional strategy into local actions. The NDVP has developed “The Bigger Picture”, a resource manual that outlines a range of activities and services available to support people living with domestic or sexual abuse in the Northern Health and Social Care Trust area. It provides the information that is needed when it is needed.
Although domestic violence mainly affects women, we must remember that men can be affected as well. They may be affected to a much lesser degree, but they are affected. There are more forms of domestic abuse than those that we might think of immediately. Financial abuse, for example, is a method of control by withholding finances, and it often involves a perpetrator withholding joint finances from a victim. That can leave victims hungry and isolated, and with restricted mobility, which adds up to a clear case of domestic violence.
Physical violence, although not necessarily the most common form of abuse, is the most commonly recognised form of domestic abuse. Some violent attacks can lead to victims going to hospital. Such physical activity can hurt, frighten, degrade or humiliate someone.
The organisations involved in providing refuges do fantastic work, using volunteers and donations from the public, which reflects the general public’s desire for refuge services to be fit for purpose. However, that should not take the onus off the Government to ensure refuges are given the maximum support. Despite the tight economic conditions, refuges and associated organisations must be given the support they deserve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper) for securing the debate, which means a lot to me personally.
I asked in business questions whether we could have a debate on funding for domestic violence refuges, simply because the hon. Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) claimed in Prime Minister’s questions that Lancashire County Council had closed down nine women’s refuges, which I knew not to be the case. I was so concerned about that misrepresentation of the facts that I asked for a debate.
The response from the Leader of the House was disappointing. The gist of it was, “Well, you’re a shadow Minister. You have contacts. Arrange your own debate.” It was a disappointing response and negated the whole point of business questions. However, I do have contacts and friends, and I am proud to stand here among my Labour colleagues and really pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley has brought the debate to the House.
I spoke to a contact of mine who is a Lancashire county councillor, who commented on the statement made by the hon. Member for Pendle, saying:
“It’s a shameful exploitation of an awful case. Funding is being changed so it’s more targeted. We have nine refuges and none will close. The Tories didn’t have an issue with it at the budget.”
What has actually happened in Lancashire is that the Government have pulled the “Supporting People” money, which means that the grant to refuges has been reduced. The refuges are run by charities. The county council has plugged the gap for this year, but it is looking at other funding streams for next year to keep those vital services open. That is the reality.
When I was a councillor, I was a trustee of a women’s domestic violence refuge service. I saw for myself what my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) pointed out—the hand-to-mouth existence of people in refuges where there is an over-reliance on volunteers. The problem is with paying staff wages at the end of the month, which my domestic violence service struggled to do a number of times.
Refuges are a vital service. I have come here to say just one thing: providing domestic violence services and refuges should be made a statutory duty for councils, and the money should be ring-fenced so that it does not get spent elsewhere. Domestic violence services save millions of pounds of costs to the police and the NHS. It is vital that the Government take action now, make providing domestic violence services a statutory duty for all councils, and fund them properly.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper) on securing this debate. In its 2014-15 annual report, the charity Refuge said that it assists more than 3,000 women and children on any given day throughout the UK, but how many women living in abusive situations do not or cannot get help? Ellie Hutchinson of Scottish Women’s Aid said:
“We believe there are no hard to reach groups, only hard to reach services.”
I will talk about two women who have found it not just hard to reach but impossible to access domestic violence services even when places are available, and even when—at least until 2017, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) said—housing benefit is still available. Amy was subjected to systematic domestic violence over several years. Her husband saw her as his possession. She was his punching bag after a hard day at work. She finally contacted local authorities, charities and the police, but she was unable to get housing benefit. No one could help her escape, so she did not. Right now, she might be sitting at home with a burst lip, a bruised back and an eye she cannot see out of. Who knows? Nobody knows, and nobody can help her.
Janice was a prisoner at home, and she was psychologically, physically and verbally abused over a long period of time. She was told by her own family that she had made her bed and so she had better lie in it. She sought help once. She searched online and made secretive phone calls to plan ways to escape, all the time terrified that her husband would find out what she was up to, but she had to know who would take her and her children in when she could not access public funds and had no money of her own. The answer was nobody. Nobody could help her. The charities cannot exist on fresh air alone, which is all she had to give. Janice has now given up and has resigned herself to that life of torture.
Why have Amy and Janice had to remain in abusive marriages? Why are they not entitled to financial support to gain places in refuges? It is because Amy is not called “Amy”—her name is Zinia. And Janice is not called “Janice”—her name is Maryam. Those two women have one thing in common: their entitlement to stay in the UK is not settled. They are both entirely dependent on their abusive partner. They are not entitled to public funds without their partner’s say so. Therefore, they are not entitled to housing benefit, and they are not entitled to escape violent situations at home, even if a refuge has a place for them. UK immigration laws do not permit refuges to help such women, for Zinia—or Amy—is an asylum seeker. She was advised by her lawyer that, unless she could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the abuse had occurred, it was “best not to mention it” and that it would likely affect her credibility when making an asylum claim in her own right, because the Home Office requires absolute proof.
If the Minister agrees that women’s refuges in the UK should be available to all women, will he do as his ministerial colleague did in a previous Westminster Hall debate a couple of weeks ago and agree to make representations to colleagues in the Home Office so that domestic violence refuges can be available, at least in principle, to all victims, regardless of where they were born, and certainly not on the say so of their violent husbands whom they are fleeing?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper) for bringing this issue to the House’s attention. My experience before becoming a Member of Parliament was partly in music, but I also spent 26 years doing work on violence against women and girls. Today, I will specifically focus on one particular group of women, those involved in prostitution.
Some 80,000 people in this country, mostly women and girls, are involved in prostitution. Fifty per cent of them have been raped or sexually assaulted, and 95% of women in street prostitution have severe drug problems. Fifty per cent of off-street prostituted women are migrants, usually trafficked. Women in prostitution are 18 times more likely to be murdered than other women. They are also at risk from their partners—who are often, although not always, pimps—their pimps, their traffickers and their clients. They are frequently in and out of a criminal justice system that penalises them, rather than the men who abuse them. They are suffering from mental health difficulties, for which they are unable to get help, and their drug problems often go untreated.
There is a parallel with domestic violence. Women were often accused of staying with their abusive partners, of choosing the abuse, and they still are, as hon. Members have mentioned. Women who are both living with an abusive partner and suffering violence at work as a prostituted woman are also often accused of making a choice to be in that situation, which is focusing attention on the wrong place. We need to be focusing on the perpetrators, but to do that properly we need adequate support for women involved in prostitution.
Eaves, one of the few services in London that specialised in services for women involved in prostitution, has sadly had to close due to cuts to funding. In my constituency of Bristol West, One25 does lots of fantastic work to support, help and advise women involved in prostitution. It works in partnership with St Mungo’s for women who are homeless, and it has a diverse source of funding to try to keep itself going, but like any other voluntary organisation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) said, without core funding it is frequently unstable, which means that the women who need its help and support are at risk.
Such women have complex needs. They are hard to help, and they may often be difficult to engage, or just difficult, but that does not mean that they do not deserve our help and protection. What does it say about us as a country, and about our approach to gender equality, if we continue to allow women to be bought and sold, and then abused? At work, bakers are required to bake and bus drivers are required to drive a bus. If a woman involved in prostitution is told by her client or pimp to have sex or to do certain sexual acts that she does not want to do and is then forced to do them, she has been raped. There is simply no other job like that. It is not a job like any other; it is a job in which rape and sexual and physical assault are a daily, constant and present threat. There is no other job like it.
I would like to see the report on ending demand by the all-party parliamentary group on prostitution and the global sex trade to be seriously considered by the Government but, for today, I urge the Minister to consider funding for this specific group of women. We cannot allow them just to be left by the wayside. We cannot allow them and their children to be left unprotected. It is too important for that, and I beg the Minister to think seriously about this specific group of women.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am pleased to take part in today’s debate, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper) for securing it. I have spoken in previous debates on violence against women, including on the role that men can play in ending violence against women. This is the first occasion on which I have been able to discuss in detail—four minutes’ worth of detail, anyway—the support that is offered to survivors of domestic and sexual violence.
The point at which someone decides to leave a violent relationship is one of the most critical points in their life and in the lives of their children. It is vital that adequate support is available to everyone at the moment they decide to leave such a relationship. Often the availability of such support will be the deciding factor in whether the abused actually leaves their abuser.
In previous debates, I have debated the issue fairly and commended the UK Government, which is not easy for a Scottish nationalist, for the progress they have made in addressing domestic and sexual violence. The most pressing issue for refuges is the capping of the local housing allowance in the social sector. Let us give the Chancellor the benefit of the doubt. I do not believe he made the policy announcement during the spending review with a complete understanding of the consequences that capping would have on refuges. He has bought himself some time by delaying the introduction of the cap but, whether the consequences were unintended or otherwise, he must fix it now. The policy completely ignores the additional costs borne by our local refuge support centres.
The Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners’ Rights, Alex Neil, categorically said in a letter to the UK Government:
“Without the existing levels of housing benefit to cover these costs, refuges will be forced to close.”
Refuges are vital services that must be protected. Not for the first time in his ideological austerity drive, the Chancellor has proved that he knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing, which is simply not good enough. I am keen to find out from the Minister what analysis, if any, the Government have carried out on the wider implications of this policy.
The last few years have been difficult and challenging for domestic abuse service providers who operate in England. According to Women’s Aid, between 2010 and 2014 there was a 17% reduction in the number of refuges run by dedicated domestic abuse service providers and—shamefully—a third of all refuge referrals are turned away due to lack of capacity. The Government must ensure that capacity is built back up and that no one who is abused is turned away from the support that they seek.
One such group looking to add capacity in my neck of the woods—in Renfrewshire—is a newly formed charity called Jubilee House, which I was proud to help launch at an event late last year. The charity is currently converting a large property into a refuge for women and children, and I am very much looking forward to speaking at the Jubilee House charity gala in Erskine on 27 May: the last few tickets are still available.
It goes without saying that we all want to see violence against women eradicated from our society. The turnout for this debate shows the commitment that we all have to achieving that goal. In recent months, we have held numerous debates on this topic and we have all committed ourselves to working in partnership. However, an important feature of working together is to act as a critical friend, and I hope that my contribution to this debate will be taken in that manner. The Chancellor is making false choices, and in doing so he has failed to acknowledge the vital services that will be lost or eroded as a result of his decisions.
Refuges are used by women and children in their hour of need, when they are at their most vulnerable; indeed, if we cannot support those women and children, they may be trapped in violent and destructive relationships. I strongly urge the Government to reconsider their approach, and offer full protection for women and children by ensuring that supported accommodation, including refuges, is fully exempt from the housing benefit cap.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I sincerely thank my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper) for securing this urgent and necessary debate.
The scale of relationship violence in the UK today is truly shocking. It is to all of our shame that violence against women and girls is still at endemic levels, but it is to this Government’s shame that, despite their promises to protect women and girls, the very lifelines that many women rely on for safety and protection are disappearing from the map. A toxic combination of local authority cuts, the cap on housing benefit and the impact of local authority commissioning processes is creating a fragile and unsustainable women’s sector.
The consequences of Government policies and inaction are stark. In 2014, almost a third of the women trying to access domestic violence services were turned away due to lack of space. One of my key concerns is about access to specialist provision, where the problem is even more acute. The damage already done to specialist services—those that support black and minority ethnic women, Jewish women or the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community—is chilling. In the past 12 years, Imkaan, an organisation representing dedicated BME women’s services, has estimated that 15 BME specialist services have closed. Now there are only 34 BME women’s organisations that offer services to victims of violence. Between April 2014 and March 2015, 17 of Imkaan’s member organisations supported more than 21,000 women, and yet Imkaan says that 67% of its members face an uncertain future.
For Latin American Women’s Aid, the only refuge of its kind in the UK, the situation is equally precarious. Between 2001 and 2011, the Latin American population in the UK grew fourfold and yet this organisation has lost its contract with Islington Council, which claimed that the service it provides was not necessary. In the short term, Latin American Women’s Aid is keeping afloat through emergency funding supplied by the Department for Communities and Local Government, and I thank the Minister for that.
In my own constituency of Rotherham, Apna Haq, which has provided refuge and support for women and girls of Asian descent since 1994, lost its contract and funding from the council, and it is now fighting to survive.
Such dedicated services are vital for women. They are experts in their provision, designed and delivered by, and for, the users and communities they serve. This enables them to innovate rapidly to meet women’s changing needs, for example recognising new forms of abuse, such as revenge porn and online harassment, long before the authorities do.
There are still a wide range of services to support women and a wide range of laws to protect women. However, does the hon. Lady agree that we still need to do much more on prevention of violence and on reducing the ongoing scepticism that women are met with when they report violence?
The hon. Member is absolutely right and I wish, with every bone in my body, that this Government would focus on prevention of all forms of violence and abuse, because all we are doing currently is dealing with the horrific outcomes of violence and abuse, rather than tackling them at source.
These specialist organisations are community-led. The women who seek shelter see themselves reflected in the staffing and the management of the services. Consequently, these organisations understand the dynamics of the abuse faced by the women in those communities and can tailor their services accordingly. As a result—and this is vital—specialist services are trusted by the women who use them. Their presence is known in the community, meaning that women will self-refer, enabling those women to leave a violent relationship because they know that support exists.
However, despite their necessary place in the sector, specialist services are at a distinct disadvantage to mainstream housing providers and women’s organisations when it comes to commissioning. The application of a free market approach is not working, because—as a result of the tailored support that they provide within a specific community—specialist providers simply cannot compete with mainstream providers on cost. Existing commissioning criteria value cost per bed, not quality, trust or the ability to generate self-referrals. This approach is to the detriment of the sector, and ultimately to women’s lives.
Will the Minister listen to the providers of those services when they tell him that the current system is failing BME women? Will he instruct local commissioners to alter their commissioning criteria when awarding contracts, to emphasise the quality of provision? Will he ensure that local commissioning criteria include evidence of an organisation’s track record, the ability to generate self-referrals, and the ability to innovate and tailor services to women’s needs? Will he recommend to local commissioners that they do not always need to retender specialist support services?
If the Minister does not address the current instability in funding, he needs to recognise the dire consequences for existing specialist services. Currently, providers cannot guarantee security of employment for their staff for more than six months, and consequently they lose the very experts who are trusted by women seeking help. Instability of funding forces refuges to compete with other women’s services, rather than working in partnership with such services for the benefit of the women they all serve. One-size-fits-all provision simply does not work for this country’s most vulnerable people.
Will the Minister hear the call from specialist organisations for a single, national, ring-fenced budget for specialist BME women’s and girls’ services? Such a fund would guarantee that these services continue, and are led by and for the communities they serve. There is already a precedent for this, in the form of women’s violence services that are supported through the nationally administered rape support fund.
Finally, the Government’s ending violence against women and girls strategy, published in March 2016, mentions a 2015 review carried out by DCLG of domestic abuse services. The review indicated the increased pressures that specialist services are facing and the lack of provision for victims with the most complex needs. Can the Minister please make a commitment to publish that report?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and it is a pleasure to speak in this debate, which was secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper).
I should put on record the fact that I am a trustee of a charity, Empowerment, which has provided independent domestic violence advocacy services along the Fylde coast and across north Lancashire. I am also a long-time supporter of the Women’s Aid charity, having spent many years fundraising for Lancaster and District Women’s Aid by putting on performances of plays such as “The Vagina Monologues”, where women come together to talk about women’s lives and their bodies, and to raise money for those sisters who are fleeing violence.
That is an important point to make, because the funding for women’s refuges comes from three main sources. Yes, it comes from the rent that the women pay, but there is also charitable income—raised by people like me many others across the country, who either drop some coins into a charity box, do fundraising fun runs or put on performances of “The Vagina Monologues”—and local government funding, which has been under particular strain recently.
Every year, around 12,000 women and their children use refuge services, so nobody can say that their lives have not been affected by domestic violence—if someone thinks there is nobody in their life who is affected by domestic violence, perhaps the people affected are just not telling them, because domestic violence is very difficult to talk about. That is why these services are absolutely critical and why it pains me that, on one day in 2014, 112 women and their 84 children were turned away from refuges because there were not enough spaces for them. When two women a week are killed by a partner or former partner, we are talking about a crisis and one that, frankly, is only getting worse.
I want to raise the capping of housing benefit to the rate of the local housing allowance in the social sector, because it is having a crushing effect on the funding for our women’s refuges. The money from housing benefit is the secure funding that the refuges know they can receive and rely on in a very insecure world. The capping policy will have an impact on refuges, which use the housing benefit claimed by their clients to cover their rent and service costs, because delivering women’s refuge services is not cheap.
These are specialist services. The independent domestic violence advisers will support a woman and her children to come out of domestic violence and to rebuild their lives, a point that other speakers have highlighted. In response to written questions, Ministers have confirmed that they do not have basic information about the number of people in supported housing claiming housing benefit. We need to find that out, because the impact of the Government’s decisions is crushing the support offered by women’s refuges.
I am disappointed that the hon. Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) is not in his place, because he has been talking quite a bit in the press about women’s refuges in my county of Lancashire. I would like to tell him that no council, whatever its political colour, would choose to cut support for women fleeing violence. All parties know that women need these services. I honestly believe that all councils, whatever their colour, want to deliver these services, but we are seeing huge cuts. In Lancashire, we are expected to make another £262 million of savings over the next four years. These services are not statutory, and we have to deliver the statutory services, so there comes a point where women’s refuges are taking the hit. One third of all local authority-funded domestic violence services had been cut by 2012.
Given that the last women’s refuge in Cumbria closed its doors in March and 46 women have already died this year, we know that we need to be doing far more to support women’s refuges. We need more women’s refuges, not fewer. I implore the Minister to look again, particularly at the housing benefit changes, and to exempt refuges.
I echo the numerous powerful speeches that we have heard in this debate, which began with the compelling contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper). Supported housing, including young people’s foyers, is for the vulnerable—people in receipt of mental health services, the homeless, and victims of domestic violence—but it is important to remember that sometimes people are in more than one of those categories. We have heard the statistics about two women being killed every week, which means one every three days. The British crime survey says that one in four women will suffer domestic violence in their lifetime —8% in any given year—but the point was also made about unreported cases, because this goes on behind closed doors. We have public policy initiatives to encourage people to report incidents of domestic violence, yet we are cutting all the support services. It makes no sense. These are people who need support, not clobbering.
We have a new Mayor of London, so I am optimistic, but on the watch of the hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) we have seen two out of every three women turned away from London refuges. That is for reasons of capacity, before we even get into the whole “no recourse to public funds” debate. Week after week, I see women and children in my surgery who present themselves—victims of domestic violence who have been unable to access any kind of safe housing. There is no option of a specialist refuge, so it may be an uncertain bed and breakfast—that is, if they have recourse to public funds—or it may be the street.
I want briefly to raise the work of Southall Black Sisters, which is outside my constituency boundary. It has been involved in many landmark cases that have changed the law. A well known example is that of Kiranjit Ahluwalia, whose conviction for murdering her husband in 1989 after 10 years of sustained abuse was eventually quashed in 1992. It was a case of diminished responsibility; it was retried and led to a film with the Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai called “Provoked”—the case hinged on provocation.
As has been said, the point about geography—when people are told, “You’re in the wrong borough; you can’t access these services”—is already stymying these services. Southall Black Sisters goes further than it says on the tin: it has helped people outside the borough of Ealing—the case I have referred to was from Crawley in Sussex.
Another, similar case that Southall Black Sisters took on was that of Zoora Shah, who originally came from Bradford. She poisoned her husband while under enormous duress—depression and sustained domestic violence to her and her kid for many years. I am a member of the Select Committee on Justice, so I know that individuals find the legal system difficult, costly, protracted and adversarial. Legal aid is becoming scarcer and scarcer, so the support services that come with the refuges are absolutely vital in this day and age.
The caps on housing benefit, cutting rents in social housing—all these things are having a cumulative effect. In my constituency, we have a YMCA foyer, which my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) and I opened with great fanfare. It will have to close its doors because it is not getting the rising rents that its whole business plan is based on. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) put it very well when she talked about the cumulative effect of all these crazy policies that pick on the most vulnerable in society. It is ill-advised, costly, crude and nothing short of cruel.
These services are now condemned to closure. Only the month before last, we celebrated International Women’s Day in this place. The Minister needs to reverse the cuts to allow women to live with dignity. That is all we are asking. How can any Government allow such a state of affairs to continue, relentlessly pursuing these swingeing cuts that are decimating support services for women suffering domestic violence? Opposition Members have made the case for ring-fencing and statutory obligations so that funding is protected. We also need the abolition of “no recourse to public funds”, whereby, someone’s legal status means they are not allowed to access services. That straitjacket should not apply. It is a moral case, if nothing else.
We have seen U-turns on a range of Government policies. Just in the last week—on the day I asked a question about it at International Development questions —a U-turn on child refugees was announced. We had a debate about education in London, and everyone was talking about the idiocy of the forced academisation programme; two days later, that had gone. Let us hope that history repeats itself. The Minister is a reasonable man, and he must listen. This issue must be next on the list.
We are doing well on time, all of a sudden. We have more than 30 minutes. If the Opposition Spokespeople can keep within 10 minutes, there will be more time for interventions on the Minister —we want democratic accountability—and perhaps for Julie Cooper to wind up.
If that was not an incentive to speed up and allow the Minister plenty of time, I do not know what is. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper) on securing the debate, which gives us a chance to discuss something that we have discussed many times in the Chamber, but we have not yet got to the nub of the issue.
First, I thank Women’s Aid and Scottish Women’s Aid for providing the briefings that have supported the valuable contributions and experience of many of the Members who have spoken today. The fact is that while there are on occasion men who suffer from domestic violence, the majority of the vulnerable individuals who access these services are women and children.
At the most vulnerable time in her life, no woman would choose to go a refuge, leaving her home with no belongings to go into a situation that was unfamiliar and completely alien for her and her children. It is not a desirable situation or outcome, and it needs vital funding. I echo the sentiments of the hon. Lady. She made a heartfelt contribution and made serious comments about the risks of the lack of funding. Ultimately, that will result in the degradation of these services’ ability to truly meet the needs and requirements of these vulnerable individuals.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) always makes the most powerful contributions on these matters, and I would not expect any less from her. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) contributed valid points about how the issue affects all women. Asylum seekers are victims too. Irrespective of nationality, women need support. I hope the Minister will seriously consider that.
The one point I want to make in this debate—it is the only one that really needs to be made—is about the exemption for local authority housing and the impact it could have on the ability to provide services. Refuges are an important space to assist women escaping terrible, violent situations. There is no way to put into words the experiences of these women. The services they will receive at the front door from that staff member are all down to the necessary funding, whatever the mechanism is. Refuges provide a safety net for women escaping physical and sexual violence, and we must ensure that the Tories’ austerity measures do not destroy those vital support systems.
Cuts to vital services leave people in crisis. Having left everything behind, women are under more strain than ever before—more than we can ever imagine. Ultimately, it is the staff who receive the women who have to worry about the funding shortfalls and making their own ends meet at the end of the month. That is another point I want to raise: the real cost is not only to the victims of violence, but to the staff who deliver the services. The women and men who provide the services also have livelihoods, families and children and they also have to put food on the table. The Government’s constant cuts mean that many of the people delivering such vital services will never be able to fully meet their own needs because of funding ambitions and meeting one funding aim to another. Housing benefit provides them with that vital staple that allows them to deliver those services.
The hon. Lady is making a valuable point about the uncertainty for staff. That is something we really have to consider, because the levels of stress on staff members who work in these vital services cannot be overestimated. The lottery of funding and the stress of having to put in funding application after funding application to shrinking pots has to be taken into serious consideration.
Absolutely. I know at first hand that many of the women who work in these services—it is predominantly women who work in such services—are the ones who struggle to make ends meet and put food on the table, as well as to support the women who need their vital support. If the Government intend to continue to cut, cut, cut, at what point will they focus on the big-picture politics and look at where those cuts are starting to take away from other budgets in other places? Local authorities—local government in Scotland is devolved—need funding to support services.
In Scotland, we have invested an additional £11.8 million as part of the SNP Government’s equality budget for 2015-16, with £2.4 million of that budget allocated to ensure that court cases involving domestic violence are seen to and £1.85 million awarded to Rape Crisis Scotland over three years to allow it to expand its advocacy services across the country. The Scottish Government are committed to addressing such concerns.
Various points have been made about the increase in reporting, which are valid points. Reporting is essential and an increase is always to be encouraged. However, the process of justice and the process of getting to that point is so far removed from the reality that still too many women will remain in homes, in unsafe situations, because the funding is not there. If the funding is not there, the services cannot do outreach and make sure that those women can leave their terrible situations.
I am proud of the work done by my colleagues in Edinburgh. The hard work done by Women’s Aid and other organisations across the UK is a vital support that is needed in crisis. The Government must surely listen to the calls from every Member who has spoken today. I call on the Minister to seriously consider making refuges exempt from the housing benefit caps. I join colleagues in calling for the much needed funding to protect services across local authorities and for the Minister to commit to funding domestic violence services at all costs.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. You have presided over a disciplined debate with a clear purpose: to question the effectiveness of the policies that the Government are pursuing and to alert the Minister to what I hope are the unintended consequences of the policies as we all understand them.
I begin by paying tribute to all those who work or have worked in refuges for their incredible work under extremely challenging circumstances. Their work is literally a lifeline. I also want to speak to every woman who may be listening to this debate who is at risk of violence or abuse. I offer them our solidarity and assure them that they are at the forefront of our minds today and all days.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper) on securing the debate. She gave us a timely reminder of the history of women’s refuges. My hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) spoke about specialist domestic violence services, especially BME services. The issues we are considering today are incredibly important, and the debate speaks to why I and many other Members in the room are in politics. We came into politics to stand up for the people who need our support and to help women, children and the vulnerable when they go through some of the most difficult challenges that any of us could imagine. We are in politics to give voice to the voiceless.
All women facing violence should have a place to go. If the Government’s changes go forward, they will be faced with having no place to go. They will need refuge and there will be no refuge. How we support women when they need refuge—when they are escaping violence and abuse and trying to help themselves and their children—tells us a lot about the sort of society we are and the sort of Government we have. The Prime Minister has set a similar test for society. He said before the election that a good society looks after its vulnerable members, but the Government’s crude cuts to housing benefit mean they are on course to fail their own test. Vulnerable women, children and men will have no place to go; they will not be looked after.
Academics at the University of Lancaster have produced research arguing:
“Substantial reductions in national budgets are leading to cuts in local services to prevent and protect against gender-based violence against women and girls.”
Although the services to protect women from violence are provided at local level, the budgets to fund services and the nature of the commissioning processes are largely set at national level. No cuts should be carried out that lead to a loss of vital housing support, such as temporary refuges.
We have heard today about the statistics, but behind each statistic—each cold number—are lives destroyed, futures destroyed, and sometimes deaths. We have heard how families in every constituency are affected. We have heard stories from Heywood and Middleton, Ealing, Lancaster and Bristol West, and from across Scotland and Northern Ireland. I thank the two male Members here today, the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), because these debates are often dominated by females, which they should not be.
Although the Government have done some very positive things, they are in danger of failing; the money they have put in will be worthless if the refuges are not there for people to go to. One of the key aspects of any policy on protecting women must be the proper funding of refuge shelters so that they are available for any woman going through an acute crisis.
Violence against women and girls is never acceptable—we all know that—but in Britain today it is far too common. We have heard harrowing details during today’s debate that reinforce the need to fight to keep refuges open. We heard testimony—as powerful as ever—from my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), and we heard that the Government’s housing benefit cap will have a significant harmful effect on supported housing and women’s refuges. In the 2015 spending review, the Government announced that housing benefit would be capped at the local housing allowance rate in the social sector. The majority of supported housing tenants depend on housing benefit to cover the cost of their housing, and the application of that cap would have a significant impact on the most vulnerable residents in our communities.
The policy will have an impact on refuges, which use housing benefit claimed by their clients to cover their rental and services. The effects of the change will be stark. The cap could see refuges losing much of their income each week and raises the question of whether they will remain viable and open on an ongoing basis.
The Government recently announced a 12-month delay in their proposal to bring supported housing rents in line with local housing allowance, meaning that new tenancies from 2017 will be affected from 2018. I believe the delay has come about because the Government have realised that there is a problem. The cut in housing benefit must be halted at least until the full facts are known. Ministers have admitted that those facts are unknown at the moment. Specialist housing for vulnerable tenants is generally more expensive to run because of its tenants’ support needs, so higher rents are charged, which are often met by housing benefit. The Government have made no exception for this type of accommodation in their plans to cut housing benefit support for social tenants.
In answer to a question on women’s refuges asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), the Minister said that the Government are
“committed to making sure that no victim of domestic abuse is turned away from the support they need.”—[Official Report, 15 October 2015; Vol. 600, c. 487.]
However, that does not correlate with what Women’s Aid is reporting. It says that nearly a third of all referrals to refuges are being declined because of lack of space. No woman should be turned away at the point of need, and no child should have to go back to an abusive parent, but it is happening. A third of all referrals are being declined.
In the summer 2015 Budget, the Government announced a £3.2 million fund to boost the provision of services for victims of domestic violence, including refuges. Of course we welcomed that, but it is not enough. By implication, the new fund suggests that the Government understand the importance of refuges, but as Women’s Aid points out, that money will cover only short-run costs, when what is needed is long-term national funding to guarantee security. The Government’s new strategy for stopping violence against women could fail because of cuts.
There is an important role for the commissioning process in domestic violence services. Local commissioners should be instructed to ensure that they are taking the right commissioning decisions for women. In an area as sensitive as domestic violence services, a premium must be allowed for ensuring high-quality services. The women and children involved require nothing less. This debate is an opportunity to scrutinise current policy. I urge the Government to think again and roll back the changes that have already been made and suspend any others in the pipeline. Capping housing benefit in the social sector at the relevant local housing allowance will put women fleeing domestic violence at risk. Women are most at risk when they try to leave. At that point, the danger could be fatal.
The Government should carry out a full impact assessment—I believe they have not yet done so—of the effects of the proposed changes, and of any other options they consider. They must consult charities, housing associations, local authorities and the women who know. Organisations know their clients and the effects that the benefit cuts will have. The consultation should set out the knock-on costs for refuges, and Ministers should set out the arrangements that are in place and their arguments in support of their measures, because we have not heard why they introducing them. We have seen neither the impact assessment nor the evidence. The cut in housing benefit must be halted, at least until the full facts are known. Will the Minister do that to help protect some of the most vulnerable members of our society?
I have a few questions for the Minister. In a fairly recent debate on cuts to local housing allowance, I asked the Minister for Housing and Planning, the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), several questions to which he could not respond at the time. I have since written to him; will the Minister remind him that my letter remains unanswered?
Will the Minister commit to a full impact assessment? How many people does he expect to be affected when housing benefit for tenants in supported housing is capped? Finally, will the Minister take this opportunity to commit to making women’s refuges exempt from any changes to housing benefit?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper) on securing this important debate, to which I am pleased to respond. I have listened with great interest to hon. Members and am heartened by the passion that these critical services rightly inspire among them.
This debate follows the March publication of the Government’s ending violence against women and girls strategy, which has at its heart the principles that no one should live in fear of abuse; no victim of domestic violence or abuse should be turned away from the support that she needs; earlier intervention should be made so that fewer women reach crisis point; and that we must ensure that preventing violence against women and girls is everybody’s business.
We want to end violence against women in all its forms. That requires action to prevent abuse from the outset—as has been said by several hon. Members—so we need a range of services to support women who are experiencing abuse and to support women at immediate risk of serious harm, or even death. Our goal is simple: that no woman is turned away from the support she needs. All our efforts are focused on achieving that. As many hon. Members have said, refuges are a lifeline that provides a route from fear and violence to safety and independence. While driving early intervention to stop abuse, we must also ensure that the support women need at crisis point is available.
When the Minister says that no woman will be turned away, does he mean no woman? Does that mean that all women should be entitled to these services? If he agrees that they should, will he do as I asked earlier and make representations to the Home Office and the Home Secretary that they look at changing the anomaly of women who are excluded because of their insecure immigration status? I do not think the Home Secretary intended that.
I can now cross the hon. Lady off my list of Members to whom I shall refer later in my speech. Yes, I will do as she requested and raise that point with the Home Office.
Although it is for local areas to make decisions on support for women who are experiencing abuse, we want to work with local commissioners of services to deliver a secure future for refuges. We know that local partnerships are working hard to deliver vital services, and I commend the work done by people in refuges up and down the country. The best areas have convened excellent partnerships to inform local service delivery. They have clear strategies and pooled budgets to get the most for their money.
We want to bring all areas in the country up to the level of the best, which is why we will publish a national statement of expectations on the provision of services to tackle violence against women and girls. We are going to provide support for commissioners and funding to help local areas to achieve those expectations. The national statement of expectations will set a framework for effective local commissioning, reinforcing the need to bring local service providers together, plan on the basis of local need, and be clear about accountability for service delivery.
I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister knows that, tragically, one in four girls—some as young as 14—are hit by their boyfriends. In addition to all the other good work that the Government are doing, does he agree that that we need to talk to girls much more about respecting themselves and others, and about gender equality and empowerment?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and absolutely agree with her. One hears about many situations in which, unfortunately, young girls are exploited by young males and peer pressure is put on them. We should be absolutely resolute in our opposition to that and about informing young girls that they should absolutely be able to say no without fear. My hon. Friend makes a really important point.
The Minister is very kind. I just want to add something that I think he really wanted to say: it is also about making sure that every boy grows up knowing about respect, consent and empathy. It is not just a girl issue, and I know the Minister wanted to say that.
I completely agree. The hon. Lady and I might not agree on lots of things in this House, but we fully agree on that issue. It is not just the responsibility of girls to know when they should say no; it is absolutely the responsibility of young males to respect girls and use that respect in a dignified way so they do not put young girls under pressure to do things that they do not want to do.
I thank the Minister for giving way, given that my speaking time was so reduced. The point about female empowerment and the importance of educating young girls and teaching young boys about respecting women and girls is well made. To come back to the point of the debate—I am sure the Minister is going to do so—what are the Government planning to do to make these refuges exempt from the reduction in housing benefit and to ensure that they can remain open? I just want to keep the debate on track.
I assure the hon. Lady that I anticipated that that issue might come up. It is already written in my speech, and I will explain the Government’s position in a few moments.
As I was saying, planning for local need must take account of the needs of all women in our local communities, including those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, those from isolated communities and those with complex needs. It should also take account of the need for women and children to move from one area to another to build safe and independent lives. That point has been made by a number of hon. Members. It is absolutely wrong that services are not provided for women who need to move from one area to another when they seek refuge and safe haven from the situation they are in.
Although that approach needs time to work, we must act if it does not deliver a transformation in service provision, so we will review what we are doing after two years. We are developing the national statement with service providers and commissioners to ensure that it reflects their significant expertise. To answer the hon. Member for Burnley, we hope to publish it very soon.
We understand that meeting the expectations that we are setting will be very challenging, so it is vital that local areas are funded to meet those standards and to provide the critical bedrock of specialist accommodation-based support. We will launch a two-year fund to help local areas put in place the reforms needed to meet the national statement and to support the provision of accommodation-based services. We secured £40 million in the spending review to support victims of domestic abuse. That builds on the £10 million of funding for strengthening the provision of safe accommodation in the previous spending review period and the £3.5 million fund to support the provision of domestic violence services in 2015.
We invited bids for that funding. There was interest from across the country, and 46 successful bids were announced in December 2015. We hope that there will be a similar degree of interest in the upcoming funding. To answer the question asked by the hon. Member for Burnley, we hope to open that fund very, very soon.
Is the Minister aware that the funds he is talking about, which were allocated in December 2015, had to be spent by March 2016? As always with these rounds of 10 million quid here and 10 million quid there, there is no eye on the future. It is short-termist, and if anything it provides work, not help, for women’s refuges.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I know from her speech that she has significant experience of this area. To give her a bit more assurance, the funding that we are putting out is to cover a two-year period, which gives more time in the way that she mentioned.
I want to talk about a subject that many hon. Members mentioned—the future of refuges and the supported housing sector. My Department and the Department for Work and Pensions commissioned a major evidence review of supported housing to give a better picture of its scope, scale and cost. It will report shortly, and we will continue to work with and listen to providers to develop a long-term, sustainable funding regime for this sector.
We all do what the Whips tell us when they say “shortly”. I will have to leave the hon. Lady with the word “shortly”, but I assure her that we take this issue very seriously and that we will come forward with a long-term, sustainable funding regime. We have been absolutely clear that we want the most vulnerable to be supported through the welfare reforms, so we are deferring the application of the local housing allowance cap to supported housing for an additional year so we have more time to get this right.
At the start of my speech, I said that we want to make ending violence against women and girls everyone’s business. The Government have to lead by example. The Department for Communities and Local Government is working with the Home Office, the Department of Health, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury to ensure that no woman is turned away from the help that she needs. The point that the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) made is very important. We are certainly looking at that across the relevant Departments to ensure that no woman in the position that she mentioned is turned away.
We rely on the knowledge, the expertise and the critical friendship of many organisations. We are talking to the providers of refuges and services for the survivors of domestic abuse as we develop our policy. We are also talking to the Local Government Association and local authorities to understand how we can support their work. I sincerely hope that together we can all seize the opportunity to make a real difference to the lives of women living in fear of abuse.
I am grateful to all Members who took part in this powerful debate on a truly shocking subject. I hope the Minister and the Government are as shocked by the issues as we all are, and I hope we can focus on the facts. The Minister talked about the national statement of expectation, which I welcome, but I hope that the expectation is that all women in this country—and I mean all women—who need access to a refuge will know that they have that access.
Let me remind the Minister of the Government’s record to date: 17% of refuges have closed since they came to office as a direct result of Government policies such as cuts to local authority funding and changes to housing benefit. I hope the Minister will cease to think that short-term funding pots are the answer. To ensure that women are safe and to give them the resources they need, we need long-term, sustainable funding. If he were only to reverse the changes to local authority funding and council tax and make statutory funding of women’s refuges a requirement in all authorities, that would be significant progress.
As I said at the beginning, this is not a new problem but an age-old problem, and I hope the Government have the courage to make it a problem of the past. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) said, they must not keep clobbering the most vulnerable of women.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Domestic Violence Refuges.
Organised Sporting Events: Charges
I beg to move,
That this House has considered powers of local government to charge for organised sporting events.
I have called the debate mainly to highlight an ongoing dispute between Stoke Gifford parish council in my constituency and Parkrun Ltd. It has now developed into a much bigger issue to do with the freedom, authority and ability of directly elected local councils to charge for organised sporting events in their parks and recreational areas. The other question is what actually constitutes an organised sporting event.
The dispute has led to the intervention of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who threatened—in a letter to the chairman of the parish council, Councillor Ernie Brown, who is present in the Public Gallery—to consider the use of legislation to stop Stoke Gifford parish council charging for organised sporting events in its park. In the autumn, I was contacted by a small number of local residents, and I passed their concerns on to the parish council, mindful of the fact that, ultimately, this is a matter for directly elected parish councillors.
I want to say that, obviously, I fully support and understand the aims of Parkrun Ltd as an admirable organisation for getting people to do exercise. The fact that a small, local community idea, which started in Teddington, now provides organised runs every weekend in 850 locations and 12 countries throughout the world is fantastic. I understand that UK Parkrun Ltd attracts a large number of runners, with some 395 events every Saturday and Sunday. That is clearly great.
Let me set the scene. Little Stoke park is used regularly by about 3,000 people for organised sporting events, including 12 regular football teams, 12 occasional football teams, four rugby teams, tag ruby league and Australian rules football, and it provides a 3G all-weather football pitch. Little Stoke park has a significant number of other, diverse user groups, amounting to about 1,000 people, who access the existing community hall facilities on a regular basis, and the venue also accommodates occasional bookings, which include the likes of children’s birthday parties and other one-off events. The general public have access to a range of other facilities on the site, including a BMX track, a Jurassic park and a children’s play area.
In recent years, the average income generated from pitch and hall hire at Little Stoke park has been approximately £35,000 per year. Over that time, there has been considerable investment in the site’s large car park, of £55,000; in parks machinery, of £90,000; and in a large section of path, which has been converted into a pedestrian and cycle route and incorporates solar lighting in the ground to enhance the safety of park users. Furthermore, the construction costs of a 4 metre-wide path on one side of the park were £140,000, while the 3G pitch was also enhanced at a cost of £52,000 during the same period. That all shows me that we are talking about a sensible and responsible parish council, which is making sure that its park is well managed, with good outdoor facilities that can continue to be used well into the future.
In the past three years, the parish council has welcomed Parkrun, but weekend runs organised by it had begun to dominate the park, with up to 300 runners arriving every weekend. The park is just over 30 acres and has 120 car parking spaces for visitors, but all the parking spaces are filled by the Parkrun runners on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
I hear what my hon. Friend has to say, but does he also agree that sport and, in particular, Parkrun have a really important role to play in bringing people from different backgrounds together, and bringing communities and women together—a lot of women enjoy a park run, with the camaraderie of other women? Obviously, there are cost issues, but does he not think that such activities should be encouraged, rather than discouraged?
I am not, of course, seeking to discourage any such activities. As I said in my opening remarks, I appreciate fully what Parkrun does and is trying to achieve, and the benefits of that. The debate is about the ability of a local council to raise money for the maintenance of its facilities, and about what constitutes an organised sporting event, which I will come to later in my remarks.
The parish council is not seeking a large amount from Parkrun Ltd—a contribution that would have equated to less than a pound a runner, put towards the maintenance and possible future enhancement of the facilities. The chairman of the parish council, Ernie Brown, even offered to apply for a grant for Parkrun—all Parkrun had to do was to ask him officially, but it has not done so. The parish council has also made it clear that the dispute is not about charging individual runners—just as it would not charge individuals who go for walks, or runs—but only about charging for regular organised events.
I am one of the vice-presidents of the Local Government Association, and I chair the all-party group on local democracy. That is on behalf of the National Association of Local Councils, which represents 7,000 town and parish councils. I can understand what my hon. Friend’s parish council is going through. The Government talk about devolution and more local powers, so I am shocked that we have to have this debate, to be honest, especially as the council had gone to so much trouble even to get Parkrun involved and to help it apply for grants. How can we talk about devolving powers more locally, only for the Government to stick their nose in? How can that be right?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. What we are talking about flies completely in the face of localism and the devolution agenda; a sledgehammer is being used to crack a nut, on an issue that should not be a matter for the Secretary of State or any national Department—this is a local matter.
The point is, with up to 300 people turning up every Saturday and Sunday, and stewards organising and timing the runs, the event is most definitely an organised one. I run regularly in the Bristol half-marathon and the Bradley Stoke 10 km, both of which it is worth noting that I pay for—I accept that, because they are organised sporting events. This year, I know that the Bristol half costs £38, because I entered it in the past few days. Moreover, when my daughter, Sophie, as a teenager, played football for Stoke Lane Ladies at that very park, all the players had to pay £2.50 per game per week, to contribute to the maintenance of the park and its facilities. She has now gone to play rugby in America, while she is studying at university, which I am hugely proud of.
The fact that Parkrun refuses to make a contribution, on principle, to the park for its events means that other local groups and organisations are beginning to question why they have to make a contribution, when Parkrun clearly does not. It is important to note that Parkrun in the UK is a limited company, and not a registered charity. Parkrun only publishes abbreviated accounts, so we cannot see whether it pays its directors or any staff—I have heard it does, but I cannot confirm that. Perhaps the Minister can help us with that in his remarks.
Parkrun has numerous sponsors and supporters for which the full sponsorship details—how much and in return for what—are also not noted in the accounts. Sponsors listed on the website include Fitbit, Intersport, Alzheimer’s Research UK and VitalityHealth. The supporters listed include the London Marathon, the mobile phone company Three, and Muckle LLP, a law firm.
People have made the point that Parkrun Ltd events are organised by local volunteers. That is great, but we must never forget that Stoke Gifford parish council are volunteers who work tirelessly for their local community, as do other volunteers who run many other organised sporting events in the park and make a financial contribution to its upkeep. Incidentally, Parkrun’s website has a shop link on it from which sales are made on behalf of Wiggle Ltd.
I am not against Parkrun making profit and paying staff. I do, however, object to the argument that it should have the right to use Little Stoke park for free for organised events that dominate the park when all other local organisations have to pay to do so. The pressure that some of the Parkrun lobby have put on our democratically elected parish councillors has been appalling: they have received an influx of aggressive emails from non-constituents, 50 freedom of information requests and letters with threats of changes to the law from the Secretary of State. Parkrun has also threatened a judicial review, which would be massively expensive for a small parish council to fight and a further waste of local taxpayers’ money. I have been told, and I take this seriously, that some local councillors feel that a hate campaign is being waged against them.
I would like to highlight some of the legislation referred to in the letters between the Secretary of State and Stoke Gifford parish council. Parish councils have the right to charge for organised sporting events under section 19 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976, which gives local authorities the powers to provide various recreational facilities, including
“premises for the use of clubs or societies having athletic, social or recreational objects”.
The Act gives the local authority the power to provide those facilities
“either without charge or on payment of such charges as the authority thinks fit.”
The Secretary of State mentioned in a letter that, under section 151 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989, he has general powers to make regulations to amend or revoke any pre-existing powers for the local authority to charge. However, having looked into that with the House of Commons Library, I see that section 152 of the 1989 Act, which defines the relevant authorities that section 151 refers to, does not include parish councils, which suggests that the Secretary of State cannot do that. Recent legislation that the Secretary of State and I voted on in the Localism Act 2011 allows local authorities the power of competence
“to do anything that individuals generally may do.”
Under that power, section 3 of the Act has provisions regarding charging, which, as far as I can see, the parish council meets.
None of that has been tested in a court of law, and hopefully the Secretary of State would not like to embark on an expensive legal battle with a small parish council. Stoke Gifford parish council’s decision to charge Parkrun for the use of its local park is not a matter for central Government and that should remain the case. The truth of the matter is that Parkrun Ltd, however admirable, has become a victim of its own success: it has now reached a size that overwhelms local facilities, so—like other sporting organisations—it needs to make a contribution to the facilities it uses. I do not want to discourage runners—being one myself, I fully appreciate the benefits of keeping fit—but Parkrun Ltd is no longer a small voluntary group; it is an organisation with nearly a million users registered on its website.
I am sure the Secretary of State agrees that we want people to be realistic about the actual cost of running local services and we want to promote the localism agenda by giving local representatives the power to run their facilities on behalf of local people as they deem fit. The Government have stated their commitment to devolving greater powers to local authorities, but an exception seems to be made when the local parish council does something that Secretary of State does not agree with.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) for providing us with the opportunity to have this important debate. The debate is useful and timely: as the days grow longer and we get warmer weather—over the weekend we thought we were going to get some, but that seems to have changed—more and more people will be using their local parks and green spaces for organised or spontaneous events as groups or as individuals. Local parks are, of course, community assets and it is important that local authorities, as the stewards of those assets, maintain them for communities to use. We have a long tradition of free use of public parks, but—as I shall shortly set out—it is appropriate that, in the right circumstances, local authorities are able to charge for the use of specific facilities in those public parks.
We should acknowledge the importance of our public parks and green spaces. They are places where one can exercise, relax and enjoy being part of a community or find peace and solitude in a busy world. They are also places of ever-changing beauty, where the march of the seasons is marked by growth, bloom and falling leaves. Our parks and green spaces are certainly good for the soul and good for the body.
This is an Olympic year and, with our elite athletes heading to Rio for the Olympics and Paralympics in August and September, we should not be surprised if, inspired by what I am sure will be the golden glories of Team GB, young people—and those who perhaps are not so young—are inspired to demonstrate their own athletic abilities. The place many will head to for that is their local park.
The local park is a natural venue for exercise and sport and it always has been. For generations, our parks have played host to countless local sporting triumphs as they are transformed, for a short time, from parkland to hallowed turf. Our parks and green spaces are therefore not just vital community assets but special places where, for many, memories are made. I freely acknowledge that proper maintenance of those community assets rightly requires investment and financial commitment from local authorities.
There is no problem with local authorities using parks to raise revenue. They legitimately charge for a variety of events and specific activities that take place in their local parks.
I will come on to what we believe it is or is not reasonable for people to pay for. I understand my hon. Friend’s point that the parish council, in anything it charges for, may simply be looking to cover maintenance costs and so on rather than to raise revenue to put into the coffers for revenue’s sake.
It is appropriate for the public to pay a reasonable sum for the exclusive use of a facility such as a tennis court or a football pitch or for shared use of a facility such as a golf course. It is also appropriate for charges to be made for special or seasonal events such as outdoor concerts or other ticketed events that generate a profit for the local authority or the event organiser.
The argument on both sides is interesting, and I too declare an interest as a runner; I am going to the sixth Eastleigh Parkrun on Saturday morning. I am concerned because we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) about male-dominated sports tending to involve subscriptions being paid for general use, and an understanding that there is wear and tear. However, for half an hour once a week, with no clear wear and tear issues, I would be concerned. We have an obesity crisis in my constituency and problems of diabetes and amputations. Parks are for people and people make parks. I want there to be clarity about whether, if we start making charges for such significant runs, which happen across the country, we will set a dangerous precedent. Things are working very well in other parish councils.
Thank you, Mr Davies. I am not necessarily disinterested, but that is not an interest that I pursue at this point.
We have no issue with local authorities charging for the use of facilities when it is legitimate to do so. Indeed, it was the Conservative-led coalition Government who legislated to give local authorities the general power of competence enabling them, among other things, to charge for the use of specific facilities where they considered they could not rely upon other legislation in doing so. As with all local authority decisions, the decision to charge for the use of a specific facility should be both transparent and accountable. Local authorities are, of course, ultimately accountable to their electorate, who can exercise the ultimate sanction at the ballot box. Indeed, earlier this month millions were doing just that as they voted in local elections. Where a local authority decides to make a charge it should, of course, be clear about what it is charging for, how much it is charging, and under what power it is making the charge. Otherwise, how are those affected by the charge to know that it is fair, legal and proportionate?
There must also be accountability. Those affected by the decisions of democratically elected local authorities of course have the right to object to them. Otherwise power would be exercised without responsibility or consequence, although, in response to what my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke said on the matter, I would always encourage communities to lobby councillors in a respectful and dignified manner, and not in a way that none of us would find acceptable and appropriate.
Parkrun is a network of local runners, and Parkruns are free, weekly 5 km runs in local parks. The runs take place every Saturday morning and are free to participate in, and the local organisation is done by local volunteers. My hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke mentioned profits, and my understanding is that Parkrun is a not-for-profit company that relies on donations and sponsorship. It is not an organisation that relies on membership, or on subscription or registration fees. I understand that the events are run by volunteers, and are set up not to make a profit for anyone but merely as a vehicle for people to come together as my hon. Friends have described, for a morning run on a Saturday.
On that point about coming together, does the Minister agree that there is still a worrying gender gap—of about 2 million—between the number of women and men doing sport? Parkrun and other schemes, ideas and activities like it make an important contribution to trying to close that gap, and that should be encouraged and acknowledged.
My hon. Friend has immense knowledge of the subject and did an excellent job as Sports Minister. I agree with her, because many males take part in organised sporting activity such as football; but often once girls reach adulthood they do not take part in organised sports. Some do, but the majority do not. Therefore I strongly agree with what my hon. Friend said about Parkrun, if it means women feel able to come together and exercise in a safe environment because they are in a group of other women who support them. It is an excellent example of communities organising events on a voluntary basis. It is a great use of parks, and, as has been said, it enables the public to enjoy healthy exercise. The Government strongly endorse that.
I am on the Health Committee and was involved in the recent childhood obesity report, so I understand all the arguments. We need to encourage not just more women but more people—full stop—into sport. However, the case in question involves a very small parish council. I have mentioned that I chair the all-party group on local democracy, and parish councils do not have the same revenue streams as city and district councils. The parks must still be maintained.
I have been working with the National Association of Local Councils to lobby the Government so that, for example, when we devolve business rates to town and city councils through devolution deals, we also look at devolving some of them to parish councils as well, if the town and parish councils put a strong argument together. I am not a mathematician but I do not know how they can be expected to maintain something when often—I know this is true of some parish councils that I have dealt with through the group—they have a budget of a couple of grand a year. How can they pay to maintain the park when it is getting so much more use, if they have no more revenue streams?
We have a strong relationship with NALC and I very much respect my hon. Friend’s work in the area in question, which is extremely important. We have had significant discussions and we have made it clear that the parish precept is the way in which parish councils will provide services. As I have said, in many other cases there are significant ways in which councils can legitimately secure other income for the use of facilities such as tennis courts and football pitches.
We were disappointed that, in asking people who use Little Stoke park for Parkrun to make what it describes as a contribution, Stoke Gifford parish council chose to become the first local authority in the country—-indeed, as I understand it, the first in the world— effectively to charge for that type of community running event. It is quite legitimate to charge for specific facilities and specific activities. It is quite another thing to seek to overturn a long-standing tradition of free access to parks for everyday use. The Secretary of State has written to Councillor Brown, the chairman of Stoke Gifford parish council, about the matter. As I have explained, the Government strongly support the organising of events by communities on a voluntary basis to enable the public to enjoy healthy exercise. As my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke said, and as the Secretary of State put it, that is the sort of activity that local authorities should encourage, and I echo that sentiment.
Local authorities rightly have the power to charge for the use of specific facilities that they provide. The Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 lists some of those facilities, such as sports centres, swimming pools, tennis courts, golf courses and bowling greens. The everyday use of a public park should not be charged for. Our parks and our green spaces are precious. It is entirely right that local authorities, which are entrusted to look after those valuable community assets, take their stewardship of them seriously. That should not be at the expense of the communities who use them.
Our parks are almost endlessly adaptable. They are more than turf and vegetation; they are a home to nature and a home away from home for communities of dog walkers, cyclists, and those who enjoy a stroll or a run. Every Saturday morning at 9 o’clock, in nearly 400 parks in the United Kingdom, they are the venue for a free Parkrun. Charging for facilities and events is quite legitimate. Seeking to charge for everyday use is not. I welcome the debate that we have had, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke on securing it.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
[Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of the UK steel industry.
Before I begin, I would like to congratulate the steel football club of Middlesbrough on re-entering the premier league this weekend. I congratulate the chairman, Steve Gibson, who yet again has shown what a great model can be provided by a fantastic chair over many years. It is high time he was given a knighthood for his services to football.
Today is about the British steel industry. I want to reiterate that the British steel industry has a future. It is not a sunset industry; it is not a basket case. We, as steel MPs, have hammered home the well-versed arguments of industry and Community, the steelworkers’ trade union, that the Government have not provided the will to back trade defence mechanisms, especially in the case of the lesser duty tariff; that Chinese and Russian dumping is causing chaos in the world, European and British steel markets; that an imposition of the carbon floor price on energy-intensives has had significant repercussions; and that compensation for the carbon price floor and the EU emissions trading system has been slow to non-existent, despite continuous British ministerial promises. Business rates also need fundamental reform.
Despite all that, only this week we saw seven potential buyers come forward with the intention of purchasing the remaining Tata assets. Those assets across the UK—from Port Talbot to Shotton, Trostre, Llanwern and Hartlepool—are manufacturing different products at different levels of the stream of steel production. Prior to that, Dalzell and Clydebridge were purchased by Liberty House. Various Caparo sites previously in administration were also purchased by Liberty. Long product sites such as the Teesside beam mill, Skinningrove and the integrated works at Scunthorpe were all purchased by Greybull Capital, with the intention of significant investment. That is not evidence of a sunset industry. Those are serious players with real desires to invest and make money.
While those boons are obviously welcome, I am worried that we see it in the press that somehow everything is okay now. It is not. There is still a great deal of worry out there. I am particularly concerned about people who are leaving the industry to get jobs elsewhere because they do not see security for them and their families.
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing up that issue, because skills retention is key. There are historical precedents that the Government could look to—not very old ones, but from the previous Labour Government in 2010—for how to use facilities and Government finance in order to retain skills. I will get on to that a little later.
What could have been for the Teesside Cast Products site in Redcar, the second most efficient plant in Europe, if it had been given time and the Government had committed to step in and co-invest, instead of the miserable inaction of a Government paralysed by dogma? It was saved once, but the lessons of how that was achieved were ignored.
Our British steel industry is a world beater. Investors desire to own it. International market conditions are changing right now. Indeed, indicators regarding strip in the UK are far more positive. As world demand increases and Chinese steel sites are closed due to international pressure, we are well placed to capitalise on that, but only if we now rally hard behind our British steel industry.
On the international situation, does my hon. Friend agree that a real acid test for the Government is their position on market economy status for China, which would be wholly illogical given the Chinese Government’s control over their native industry?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point; I want to come to that later. Indeed, I believe the European Parliament is voting tomorrow on whether or not to grant China MES. Ultimately, the European Commission will have its say later in the year, but the implications for energy-intensive industries—not only steel, but manufacturing per se—go way beyond what anyone has talked about in any depth. That has been ignored to a certain extent—or, rather, quietly allowed to go under the radar—but the consequences for British manufacturing are profound.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that we have seen some tremendous leadership from both the Community union, leading the trade unions, and UK Steel leading the employers? That leadership and inspiration should be matched by the Government in taking us forward and ensuring a bright future for steel, as well as a very good past.
I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning Community, which is my union and former employer. Community has shown the positive role that trade unions can perform in partnership with employers. Mutual co-operation between employees and employers is necessary in order to get an industry through a difficult period, whether through a short-time working agreement, negotiating pensions or trying to find buyers for a steel site. Community is an exemplar in the trade union movement—I would say that, as a present Community trade union member and a member for many years, but there is a lot that the union movement can learn from it.
Can we also talk about the purchase of British steel? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that local authorities and national Government can learn from the example set by North Lincolnshire Council, which has agreed a resolution that fully embeds the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012, enabling the use of UK steel in its procurement policies and committing to using British steel in its construction projects wherever possible?
I applaud that council for doing that; it is exactly what we wanted. The all-party parliamentary group on steel and metal related industries called upon our local authorities, or any authority at any tier, to support British manufacturing, in particular steel, via the EEF. We worked with UK Steel and the trade unions in order to push that. It is good to see a local example of that.
We now need to rally hard behind our British steel industry. As I have said, examples of purchasers coming forward are clear. We now have seven buyers that have shown an intention to purchase the remaining strip/tube and the remaining assets. However, as I have said before, I do not think Tata has completely left the field. I suggest that there are potentially eight players on the field at present. It will be interesting to hear what the Minister says about Tata’s position and whether she believes it has completely left the field. I do not think it has, and it will be interesting to see in the coming days and weeks what Tata may or may not do.
The main issue, though, is how Tata continues to behave and whether it wants to be viewed in the full glare of the world’s media spotlight behaving in a sensible, rational and responsible manner. It remains incumbent upon the Government to provide the necessary oversight to ensure that Tata does exactly that, so that we can ensure current British steel capacity, ensure our defence and civil capability and demonstrate internationally that the UK values and wishes to protect an industry it leads the world in.
That brings me to the steel sector materials catapult and international competitiveness. The UK has some of the best expertise available globally for innovation in steel. As a result of its extensive expertise in both materials and energy, the Materials Processing Institute has been approached to join a national Swedish initiative to transform the steel industry in that country from coal-based to hydrogen and renewable energy over the next 20 years. At the end of this month, the institute will receive a delegation from the German steel industry, which has an interest in transitioning to more recycled and electric steelmaking.
Meanwhile, the UK has the opportunity, through the materials catapult proposal, to take advantage of our home expertise and leap ahead of our European competitors, yet the proposal has still not been taken up by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. I believe that could be achieved with a minimum of £5 million and could secure the research and development aspect that is vital to an industry moving forwards and developing. Again, that exposes the lack of an integrated industrial strategy on materials and materials research.
Tata clearly states that it has refused bids from cherry-pickers. However, the Government must remain vigilant. A total buy-out does not prevent a sudden, total closure of UK sites, so that a purchaser can retrench the position of, say, an integrated works in Holland—I can think of one such company, but I will not mention which. The Government must maintain that key watch role. Indeed, now is an ideal time for them, while potentially laying out a 25% equity stake, to specifically design a fully integrated industrial strategy to demonstrate to key investors what future they envisage for British steelmaking, not only to retain and maintain what capacity we already have, but to point to key investment opportunities so that we can hold our ground and increase our capacity and world market share. This is where the nation needs to leverage existing national excellence.
At the same time as the UK’s leading steel manufacturing institutes have come together to propose the materials catapult, it is understood that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is considering other, less suitable innovation providers to develop proposals to support the steel and wider metals industry. The danger is that public money will be used to duplicate and crowd out existing world-class providers. Instead, the Government should take up the materials catapult proposal, which is widely supported by the industry. It would build on our world-leading expertise, offer best value for money and have immediate nationwide benefits. Furthermore, a purely social response is that the Materials Processing Institute, part of the materials catapult bid, is situated in the borough of Redcar and Cleveland, footsteps from the edge of the former south bank coke ovens and the Teesside Cast Products integrated works, which no longer exist. An assurance of investment in the catapult would not only benefit the UK steel sector, but directly help an area so badly damaged by the loss of Sahaviriya Steel Industries in autumn last year.
My trade union, Community, is the leading union in the Save our Steel campaign to secure a sustainable future for the UK steel industry. As the sales process for the divestment of Tata Steel UK’s business proceeds, it is vital that the Government focus on the future of the UK steel industry. In answer to every question about an industrial strategy for the UK, the Secretary of State for Business has dismissed it as semantics, stating that the existence of the Steel Council demonstrates an industrial policy or approach that achieves the same outcomes. This is simply not the same as or comparable with a long-term coherent industrial strategy and does not ensure the future of the industry. The Government must stop dodging the issue now.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for introducing this important debate. Will he concede that the difficulties in the steel industry started in 1994, when 35,000 people were employed in the industry? The number stabilised around 2010 and has been stable since. Would it not be more sensible to have a cross-party constructive discussion to solve these problems?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. I have been chair of the all-party group on steel and metal related industries for five years and we have tried to reiterate the arguments for the steel industry. In 2012, when I first mentioned a debate about Thames Steel Services in Kent in the south-east of England, which is obviously not in my constituency but is part of the steel family, we did not get much of a hearing from the Government. Following that, we had further debates on the impending crisis, which we could see coming because of dumping from Chinese markets and other repercussions of Government policy. Ministers from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport responded. They were not even Ministers from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. I kindly suggest that the hon. Gentleman looks at the record of the last few years. Colleagues in this Chamber who are members of the all-party group from other parties are well aware of that history.
The Government must stop dodging the issue and start to work on a strategy to protect and boost the industry across the UK. A real concern is the amount of time that Tata Steel is allowing for the sales process and that an arbitrary deadline will be imposed that is too soon for credible investors to develop a viable bid. Tata allowed time for the sale of its long products business to a credible investor. It should provide the same opportunity to bidders for the rest of its UK business as it allowed in every contemporary example, including SSI back in 2010 and Greybull Capital now—and, indeed, as was allowed in Tata’s own acquisition of Corus back in 2006.
The story is lost to some extent, but Tata achieved its purchase of Corus in competition mainly with a Brazilian company, and it achieved it only because in 2002 Tony Pedder, who headed up Corus at the time, was in competition with the same Brazilian company to create a merger, which then failed. Four years elapsed to allow Tata to purchase it. Some would argue that it paid an expensive share price, but that time elapsed and both competitors ratcheted up the share price because they thought the British assets were so key and vital, as they still are.
Public sector steel contracts must specifically consider UK steel, but I and my colleagues are concerned about recent reports that British steel is not being used in vital upcoming manufacturing projects—for example, Ajax vehicles. The Defence Minister, the right hon. Earl Howe, revealed in answer to a parliamentary question that 40% of the work building those vehicles will be carried out in Spain and a majority of the supplied steel will come from Sweden. This came after the Prime Minister hailed the deal as a boost for British manufacturing. Another example is the Aberdeen city bypass. Negotiations on a £12 million contract for 10,000 tonnes of rebar for the bypass have been reported as being at an advanced stage with Turkey.
Legislation and warm words are not enough to guarantee the viability and sustainability of a UK steel industry. The Government must act now to ensure that British steel is used in every public sector manufacturing contract and that British jobs are protected.
My hon. Friend has made some important points about procurement and the defence industry. His example of Aberdeen is particularly concerning, not least because rebar is one of the main products produced by the Celsa plant in my constituency. It has been used very successfully in projects such as Crossrail and elsewhere. Does he think it is time the Scottish Government fully explained their reasons? They said they would do everything they could to save steel jobs, but that seems to be falling down at the first hurdle.
Indeed. In a spirit of cross-party politics, we want a positive response from the Scottish Government on revisiting that issue, looking at the contract and looking to British-sourced rebar steel, made in Britain by British workers, so that our British steel industry can thrive.
It is important to remember that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) has said, lack of customer confidence is the surest way to undermine the steel industry. The Government must work with Tata to ensure the continuity of client contracts. I know that a lot of work has been done on that in the background. It is essential to preserve the commercial viability of any sale. Retaining essential skills and competencies is vital for the future of the business. The highly skilled workforce cannot be allowed to fragment or disappear. Indeed, in 2010, £60 million was set aside by the then Labour Government to retain the existing workforce at Teesside Cast Products in Redcar. Not one hard redundancy was endured over a 22-month period among core Corus workers, to ensure that a purchase could allow a new owner to retain those workers. To avoid a fire sale and irreversible mistakes, the Government must demonstrate to all stakeholders in the industry that they are taking a proactive approach to ensuring the continuity of operations.
This is a time for leadership by the Government and no issue is more important for them to lead on than the lesser duty tariff. Europe currently uses the lesser duty rule to impose the lowest possible duties on unfairly traded products that have been dumped in European markets and exported at prices below those in the home market. Duties introduced by Europe are usually way below the actual margin of dumping, the result of which is that dumping continues and unfairly traded products are allowed to compete in European markets and depress prices.
The US does not follow the lesser duty rule, which means it can implement much tougher sanctions reflecting the margin of dumping. For example, it recently imposed duties of 236% on a particular grade of Chinese steel.
My hon. Friend kindly mentioned Llanwern steel works. I also have Cogent Power Orb works in my constituency, which manufactures a very specialised steel product that is unique for Tata and profitable due to great management and a fantastic workforce. When I visited Cogent Orb in the last two weeks, I was told that in January as much steel came into Europe as in October, November and December 2015. Is it not clear that this is an ongoing problem and that we have not seen enough action yet?
Most of the changes in the market have been market reaction, not a result of regulations. Trade defence mechanisms are sitting there waiting to be used. They could vastly improve the situation very quickly and help to prop up and support the industry. It is hard to know why those instruments have not been used, and I am certain that steelworkers find it excruciating that there are mechanisms and levers that the Government could use to at least sustain the situation during a period of dumping.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, as many of my constituents in Ogmore have told me, there has been real leadership from Carwyn Jones and the Welsh Labour Government in the package they have put in place, within the powers they have, and that it is about time the UK Government stepped up to the plate and used the facilities and options available to them?
First, I would like to congratulate and welcome my new hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) and say how privileged and happy I am to have him intervene during my speech. I believe that this is the first time he has spoken in the House, so I am very honoured that he has taken this opportunity, but I am even more impressed by the fact that he has got straight into the job and is representing his constituents in a very steadfast way.
The US Government are in the process of introducing new laws that will enable the US to take even tougher action against Chinese dumping and which will make Europe an even more attractive target for dumping. However, there is hope, as it has become widely recognised in Europe that the lesser duty rule is killing our industry. The European Commission has proposed that it should be scrapped, and that has been supported by the European Parliament. The European Commission is demonstrating the very reform and flexibility that the Prime Minister kept banging on about wanting to see in the European Union, so why will he and his Government not support the European Commission in that action?
I would be very happy if the Minister responded to that question, because that is the type of reform we want. When the facts and the market change, the mechanisms need to change. In my opinion, the reason why the lesser duty tariff has lasted so long is that the level of dumping was previously nowhere near the levels it has been at in the last four years. When the facts change, our trade defence mechanisms need to change in order to support our industry, yet even now the UK Government continue to lead the charge among the small group of nations blocking the scrapping of the lesser duty rule. Our own Government are arguing that end users of steel need access to cheap Chinese product.
Despite all the rhetoric, the UK Government are failing to stand up for our steel industry. They say they have delivered on four of the five industry asks, including
“backing EU-level action on anti-dumping measures”,
but the Government’s opposition to scrapping the lesser duty rule exposes the enormous gap between rhetoric and reality. Furthermore, on 5 February, the Secretary of State signed a heavily publicised letter to the Commission calling for Europe to
“use every means available and take strong action”
on Chinese dumping. That letter is simply not consistent with the Government’s position on the lesser duty rule.
Even more importantly over the coming weeks, the EU will make decisions that will impact on the granting of market economy status to China. It has become increasingly clear that Chinese dumping poses an existential threat to the UK and European steel industry. Despite that, the UK Government continue to act as a cheerleader for China in Europe in its bid for MES, whether we remain in the European Union or not. Market economy status for China would be a complete disaster, as it would make it even harder for European producers to gain protection from unfairly traded Chinese imports. That issue is becoming more urgent, as the Commission must take a decision on it by December of this year, and the European Parliament votes on it tomorrow. I do not know, but I have heard that Tory MEPs are being whipped to vote that through. That has serious implications yet again, in terms of what the Government say and what the Government are prepared to do.
I thank my hon. Friend for being generous with his time and giving way again. He makes an extremely important point about market economy status, and I absolutely agree. He highlights, aptly, that the crucial point in this is what the UK Government and Tory MEPs do in Europe and not, as some have suggested, that the European Union in some way putting the kibosh on the steel industry. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is misleading for Brexit campaigners to suggest that the steel industry in the UK would be better off if we left? The truth is that leaving the EU would be a body blow to the steel industry.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I know that the Minister will agree with this. What would we be saying, as a nation, to Greybull or the seven potential buyers of strip and tubes in Britain if we removed ourselves from the European Union? They are purchasing, obviously, in the context of our being a member of the European Union. The implications of removing a pillar of the deal that has just happened—it took more than 12 months in relation to long products and Greybull—would be so massive that it does not bear thinking about, but then again, the Brexit campaign is more politically led than economically led. I make that quite clear because the matter is that important, and not just for steel. The Chemical Industries Association has come out very strongly for remaining within the European Union, as have trade unions in the manufacturing sector, because it is the only practical option if we are to retain any form of manufacturing in this country.
Another matter is business rates. This one cannot be immediately resolved, but it needs looking into. The review of business rates that concluded in advance of the Budget did not go far enough to deliver savings for UK producers. Business rates in the UK are up to 10 times higher than those paid by competitors in France and Germany. The Government should act now to level the playing field by removing plant and machinery from business rate calculations. Including plant and machinery in the calculations is anti-investment and anti-industry. Tata Steel recently invested £185 million in the construction of a new blast furnace in its Port Talbot steelworks and, in return for that investment, received a £400,000 increase in business rates. That is patently uncompetitive and ridiculous.
Back in March 2012, I gave a speech in relation to the closure of Thamesteel in Kent. That just goes to show how long we steel MPs in this place have been fighting, not just for our constituencies but for our countries’ steelworks, our steel culture, our steel families and our people. I want to repeat what I said that day, quoting a Teesside man of steel:
“When I see a blast furnace, I see a thing of beauty...I see something that has given thousands and thousands of people a way of life, a good, honest wage, the ability to pay their mortgages, go on holidays and bring up their families. That to me is fabulous, that is a beautiful thing. When you come to Middlesbrough and see that skyline...That blast furnace is the heart of Teesside. As long as it pumps, there is life in Teesside.”
It was not just a Teessider’s fairy tale when we saved TCP. The men and women from Kent, Stocksbridge, Rotherham, Hartlepool, Corby, Port Talbot, Shotton, Llanwern and Trostre all have the same view of their steelworks, as does every single steel community. It is a story for all steelworkers in Britain. There is a way to save our steel sites and UK steel if the Government do something to facilitate the process and lend their support, so the question for the Minister is: will you follow through on those promises, because now is the time for action?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) on his brilliant speech, and Middlesbrough football club on getting to the premiership. It is good to see another Yorkshire team in the premiership.
It would be even better if another Yorkshire team, Sheffield Wednesday, joined Middlesbrough in a few weeks’ time. It is another steel football team.
I want to start by underscoring and supporting the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland about business rates, energy prices, Chinese dumping, skills retention and procurement, which are all very important. I will just add that the sales process that Tata is undertaking needs to hold to a deadline that allows for a sale that delivers responsible ownership for the future. There is a lack of confidence in the current deadline. The feeling is that it is not the right deadline, not the right timetable, so comments on that from the Government would be welcome.
In the previous debate on this issue, in the main Chamber, I spoke about speciality in my constituency. I talked about Tata in Stocksbridge and I will simply reiterate the point that we make some of the best steel in the world and we do that with the best workforce one could ask for. I will leave it at that. My key aim today is not to reiterate the comments that I made then, but to make the point that we have a responsibility not to lose that capacity, especially in such a strategically important industry, so in the rest of my speech, I will focus on making just two key points.
First, the role of the Government in the current situation demands leadership, as my hon. Friend pointed out. The Government have at last shown a willingness to engage, and we are obviously all very relieved about that. They have also demonstrated, I think and hope, that they will be pragmatic in their approach. However, we need the Government to fulfil a much more powerful role, that of strategic lead in ensuring that the Tata sales process is placed firmly in the context of how the industry needs to develop in the long term to secure its sustainability. We need that role to be taken on by the Government now with no more delays or prevarication. Will the Minister please give us that direction? Will she give us concrete actions that demonstrate confidence in the future of steel in the UK?
My second point relates to the importance of innovation in delivering sustainability, and I echo entirely the comments made by my hon. Friend. Innovation in manufacturing improves productivity and secures its future, and there is no better example of that than the steel city, Sheffield. Huntsman developed the crucible process in Sheffield and Harry Brearley developed stainless steel there. Bessemer built the first commercial application of the converter process in Sheffield, and that technology revolutionised steel making, improving its quality while lowering costs significantly, leading to a far wider range of applications for steel products. The steel city became the biggest steel producer in the world, mainly because of Bessemer and his process.
All Sheffielders are immensely proud of our city’s history and achievements. Steel is in the DNA of Sheffield. It is in our blood. We are also passionate about reasserting the fact that steel making is an industry of the future, not of the past. The impact that Bessemer’s technology had on steel making demonstrates entirely that that future depends on investment in research and development.
The Minister should put investment in innovation at the heart of her support for the steel industry and place it at the heart of the much needed industrial strategy for steel. I can think of no better way of doing that than by announcing, as a matter of urgency, that some of the £500 million allocated to the Higher Education Funding Council for England will be brought forward to ensure a timely response to the needs of an industrial, rather than an academic, timetable. Whichever way the Minister does it, she should do it.
The Government need to signal quickly that they understand the importance of innovation to steel and manufacturing. By so doing, they will help to underpin the search for a new long-term ownership and sustainable future for Tata Steel, and they will underpin and make more robust the long-term prospects for the whole steel-making capacity of the UK.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) on securing the debate. There are many familiar faces here, which is no surprise as Labour Members have raised the issue of steel in the House well over 220 times since last May. The Save our Steel campaign has been exerting real pressure for more than a year. The work of Community and other unions and, most importantly, the thousands of steelworkers around the country, has been remarkable. Still, when crunch time came, the Secretary of State was caught unawares in Australia, and the Prime Minister was in the Canary Islands. Only when the situation became a public relations disaster did the Government start to wake up.
The announcement that the Government would take an equity stake and provide other forms of support was, of course, welcome. We know how much that must have hurt the Secretary of State, and we salute him for crossing the Rubicon and finally acknowledging that the Government have a role in building a well-functioning industrial base. Who knows, having had that damascene conversion, he may even be ready to utter the words “industrial strategy” now. Stranger things have happened. Unfortunately, that realisation came too late for the people of Redcar, as my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) so movingly described a few weeks ago. It is a betrayal for which the Government shall not be forgiven—a betrayal that deserves no forgiveness.
The Government now have the opportunity to ensure that they do not make the same mistake twice. I have some simple questions. The first is on energy costs. The compensation package is of course welcome, but much more can be done. At Port Talbot, large amounts of gas, particularly from the coke ovens, are recycled and used as energy. It is, by definition, a form of renewable energy. Why, therefore, can we not receive renewables obligation certificates for it?
In addition to the plans for a new generator, Tata has submitted an investment package of £130 million, which would upgrade equipment and deliver massive energy efficiencies and cost savings. I understand that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has carried out the technical investigation, but has yet to give the project the green light. Can the Minister explain why there has been such a delay in giving the green light?
It is possible that state aids are an issue but I have been in contact with Commissioner Vestager and, in a letter to me, she quite clearly stated that she remains
“ready to work with the UK authorities on how best to make use of the possibilities offered by EU State aid rules to support energy intensive industries.”
The offer of help is there. Why do we not use it?
Secondly, for Port Talbot, Trostre and Llanwern, business rates are devolved, so a co-operative approach between Westminster and Cardiff is needed. Tata strip, speciality and bar pay £28 million a year in business rates. Meanwhile, the IJmuiden plant in the Netherlands pays £2.5 million a year in business rates. How can we possibly justify UK business rates that are more than 11 times those in the Netherlands?
I understand the Government’s concerns and fears about setting a precedent on business rates and about the broader implications that would have. However, that is simply a matter of sitting down and sorting it out. The Government could set a tapered ceiling by saying that the only businesses where plant and machinery could be exempted are those with, for example, capital expenditure of more than £30 million or those with more than 3,000 employees. They could specify that only companies fitting those criteria would be exempt.
Thirdly, on procurement, the Government have trumpeted their changes to procurement guidelines, and they should be congratulated on those changes. However, as we learned on Monday with the news that the latest set of British Ajax battle tanks would largely be built in Spain with Swedish steel, those changes are utterly toothless. That news seriously questions the Government’s commitment not only to British steel, but to British industry more broadly.
The Secretary of State has spoken of his desire for a new industrial revolution. Well, steel is central to that. Earlier this week, Nick Reilly, the former head of GM Europe, said:
“If we lose the steel industry in this country...There is a high risk that maybe one of the manufacturers—maybe Vauxhall, maybe Toyota, maybe Nissan—will move out of the country if they cannot source steel locally. The real risk then is that that could snowball and the majority of the manufacturers go.”
That is a key consumer of steel making it clear that the end of British steel will be the end of much more. As Mr Reilly concluded:
“What we are then talking about is not the 30,000 to 40,000 jobs at risk in the steel industry, but hundreds of thousands of jobs across British industry.”
The situation could not be more urgent. I implore the Minister to answer the questions as specifically as possible, and that that answer is not more committees, working groups and warm words with frozen actions. I implore him: let us start to see some real action on the issues of energy, procurement and the dumping of Chinese steel, so that we can finally give some confidence to the future of the British steel industry.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop), who, as always, is bang on the money regarding the British steel industry. He brings his incredible experience and insight to the debate and I am proud to sit alongside him on these Benches.
I welcome the positive news about the number of potential buyers for Tata sites. The people of Teesside will be pleased to hear that positive news for steel communities around the UK. As my hon. Friend said, that is testament to the fact that the argument is, at last, being won. Steel is not a sunset industry and has a vital long-term role in the future of British manufacturing. It is also a positive statement that Britain can be a global leader in steel with the right support and, as other hon. Members have said, a serious industrial strategy from the Government. I am glad that the Government seem to have learnt their lesson, albeit at a terrible cost to us on Teesside.
I have spoken before about the anger still felt in Redcar that nothing was done to save our steel making from closure. We have never had answers to the questions I posed in the previous debate on the topic, when I asked why European state aid rules were a barrier to co-investing with Sahaviriya Steel Industries but are not for the companies now coming forward for the Tata sites, and why the private sector options that we put before the Minister—which would have kept the coke ovens going and mothballed the blast furnace, rather than losing our national assets for good—were not taken up. I also asked why the Government said that they could not put British taxpayers’ money into Thai banks. Why are they any different from the investors coming forward now? There is still a justified sense of anger on Teesside when people see the Government pulling out all the stops now, and feel that nothing was done for us, but I do not want to keep looking back. We must rebuild and get back on our feet, and we are doing that.
I start, as my hon. Friend did, by congratulating everyone at Middlesbrough football club—the chairman, Steve Gibson, the manager, Aitor Karanka, all the players, the staff and, of course, the fans—for a well-deserved promotion to the premier league. We are back where we belong as a premier league club in a premier league town. We now have to build on this opportunity for our global brand to show the world once again that Teesside is a great place to live, work, play and invest. Just as steel was the driving force of our former industrial might, so it can still play a vital role in our future regeneration.
I welcome the fact that the shadow board for the South Tees development corporation met for the first time yesterday. It is a strong board with a great deal of local experience and expertise, and I look forward to working with the development corporation on the future of the SSI site. That site can play a major role in job creation and the economic regeneration of the area.
I want to briefly set out two key areas where I think steel can play a key role in driving the regeneration of Teesside. The first is in relation to steel and the circular economy. While we may never be able to forge steel again without our blast furnace, there is a great opportunity on Teesside to lead the way in metal remanufacturing, refurbishment and recycling. The second area is in research and development. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, I urge the Minister to give a high priority to the benefit of the materials catapult on Teesside at the Materials Processing Institute. The MPI pilot-scale electric arc furnace in Redcar is the only example of its kind in the UK and offers innovation, process development and future opportunities in the adoption of electric arc furnace technology.
I could not agree more with what the hon. Lady is saying about catapult centres, but, for firms like Mettalis in my constituency, it would be better to incentivise R&D credits across the piece and also look at the other method of driving innovation, which would be to make the enterprise investment scheme applicable to steel as well.
I appreciate the hon. Lady’s point because I do not think it should be an either/or: we can work together on investing seriously in research and development in steel.
On the MPI facility, no other such facility in Europe possesses equal capability. Support for a materials catapult on Teesside will give British steel making the cutting edge in research and development, encouraging greater investment and resilience for the industry. The MPI, as my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland has said, has had a direct approach from Sweden. We have also got experts coming from Germany, Australia and Holland. If foreign Governments and commercial operators are engaging with our researchers in the UK to future-proof their steel sectors, can the Minister explain why it is such a struggle to convince officials in the British Government? Do they know something that industry and innovation experts do not?
So those two areas show the potential that we have on Teesside for steel to play a key role in our economic regeneration. It must not be forgotten that we have a thriving chemicals industry and a dynamic port. We have the potential for more investment in energy from waste, carbon capture and storage, carbon dioxide conversion and potash mining. When oil and gas recovers, that can also play a vital role in our economy. I thank the Government for making Redcar College one of its spokes for national colleges for oil and gas. We have great opportunities. Boro have done their bit to get us in the premier league; now it is time for all of us to step up.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) on securing this important debate today. I rise to speak not because I have a major steel manufacturer in my constituency, but because I have more foundries than any other constituency in the country. I want to emphasise the strategic importance of the steel industry to the metals industry throughout the country. Quite rightly, the focus has been on the immediate impact of the steel industry’s demise on employees and the communities surrounding steel production, but the knock-on effect will spread throughout manufacturing and the key manufacturing regions in this country. The west midlands, particularly the black country, is hugely significant in that respect.
The foundry industry in the black country is absolutely crucial to two other manufacturing success stories in this country: automobile manufacturing and civil aviation. Anything that reduces the capacity of those two industries to be successful and to drive our exports will have implications far beyond the immediate closure of the steel industry.
I want to compliment the West Midlands Economic Forum, a research group, and its steel taskforce, which is trying to bottom out the implications for local industry of the demise of the steel industry and act as a mouthpiece for it in securing alternative supplies. We must be clear that there is a real threat to companies. We know that some are already seeking alternative suppliers of steel, quite rightly, because they need continuity and certainty for their forward business planning. If they cannot rely on the British steel industry surviving, then for their own survival, they have to look elsewhere. That vicious circle has implications for our native steel industry. Even if we get it up and running—I believe it has a great future if we do—it could lose some of its future market share as a result of the decisions made during this period of uncertainty.
It is absolutely essential that we have more from the Government than just the benign warm words about the industry that we have heard. My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) emphasised that we need a proactive declaration that will generate confidence not just among the steel-producing industry but among the thousands of small businesses that depend on it for their future. That means seeing what measures are being taken in Europe within the very tight rules that I admit the EU applies to ensure that there is not unfair and uncompetitive practice. Other Governments in the EU have successfully done that in support of their industry.
Finally, I will cite investment in research and development. In France, there is investment of €20 million to €30 million a year, leveraging further private investment; €l9.1 million has been given to the German Salzgitter company for innovative new steel processes; and there is long-standing relief in Germany for energy costs worth up to an estimated €8 billion a year. If they can do it in Germany, we should be able to do it here. We look to our Government to say that they are willing to implement such measures, to provide the necessary reassurance and confidence that our steel industry will survive and that its role in manufacturing will continue.
It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Mrs Moon. I thank the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) for securing this important debate. His commitment to our steel industry is unwavering, and it is a pleasure to work alongside him and all the other members of the all-party group on steel.
With a steel finishing plant in my constituency, much of my parliamentary time since becoming a Member has been dedicated to this subject. Fortunately, the future of that plant, and the plant in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), is known. I once again put on record my appreciation of the unions, the workers and the Scottish Government, and also of Tata and Liberty House. The task of saving Scottish steel was not an easy one, but we on the Scottish steel taskforce rose to it. The future of the industry in the rest of the UK, although not a certainty, looks more promising than it did a number of weeks ago. With seven bidders now interested in taking over Tata Steel’s operations, I hope that colleagues around this room will soon be celebrating the saving of industry and jobs in their constituencies.
I am glad to hear those words of support for the steel industry in the rest of the UK, but obviously we need action as well. Can the hon. Lady explain the apparently advanced stage of negotiations with Turkey for 10,000 tonnes of rebar and a £12 million contract for the Aberdeen bypass? That rebar could be bought from UK suppliers. Does she have any information on that, and does she agree that we need to do everything possible to ensure that UK suppliers are used?
More than £115 million has already been awarded to subcontractors based in Scotland, and with an estimated £60 million of subcontracts still to be advertised during the construction phase through the Public Contracts Scotland website, there is still plenty of opportunity for other UK-based companies to bid.
As Members will no doubt be aware, however, the celebration will be short-lived. The steel industry still faces some fairly hefty challenges, and it is up to us to continue piling pressure on the Government to ensure that the correct measures are taken, to safeguard the industry and protect jobs. It would be remiss of me not to recognise the measures that the Government have so far taken. Efforts have been made to help steel and other energy-intensive industries, for which we are all grateful. More undeniably remains to be done, and it is not only about taking action; it is about a shift in the Government’s thinking. In Scotland, the approach is to view steel as a vital strategic asset. The Scottish Government have outlined their vision for the industry and, in doing so, their commitment to it. As resilient as our centuries-old steel industry has been, it will survive only with the proper support. That means taking steps to address the unfair playing field of the global market. The industry wants the anti-dumping investigation process to be hastened—it is much more rapid in the United States than in the EU. I would like the UK Government to take UK Steel’s recommendation on board and, through the European Council, work with the Commission to set out a clear action plan and timetable for changes to speed up the process.
Action must also be taken on the lesser duty rule. We are clearly at an impasse between what industry has been calling for and what the Government are prepared to do. UK Steel has made pragmatic suggestions of ways to change how tariffs are calculated without necessarily scrapping the rule. I would like the Government to engage with it to find a steel sector solution that will ensure that future duties are robust enough to tackle unfair imports.
As I have mentioned many times, we continue to head towards market economy status for China, without properly addressing the dumping issue. The industry has issued grave warnings that that could lead to serious job losses across many sectors, and I would like a proper response from the Minister about how China can be given market economy status while the effectiveness of the EU’s trade defence instruments is preserved. I would also like to know more about what further action has been taken on energy costs. We are at a disadvantage compared with other European countries, and I should like a full and frank response on how wholesale costs are to be brought down.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop), a great parliamentary champion of steel, for securing this all too crucial debate. I also thank him for giving evidence to the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills on 28 April, during its inquiry on the UK steel industry, as a follow-up to our December report. Yet again he gave the Committee his valuable insight and wisdom about, and experience of, the industry. Steelworkers and the steel industry could not be better represented in this place than by my friend and colleague.
Reference has already been made to trade defence instruments and market economy status, and I will not dwell on them. I want to focus on three things: time, confidence and Government action. On the question of time, I do not think anyone can be any doubt that, given the scale and relative complexity of the operations, the sale of Tata’s steel business will not be a straightforward or quick process. Such sales take years to plan and execute. Although it is welcome that there are seven bidders expressing an interest, and a firm offer is needed sometime after 23 June, due diligence and negotiations on matters such as the pension scheme will take time. Bimlendra Jha, the chief executive officer of Tata Steel in the UK, said to the Select Committee that with the kind of losses that Tata is enduring,
“urgency is important. We cannot continue to bleed.”
He would not commit to a definite timescale, nor to keeping all steel facilities in the UK open and all jobs safeguarded within those facilities until such time as a buyer is found and a deal formally done.
That being the case, the role of Government is crucial. What can the Government do to safeguard assets, capability and employment during this potentially lengthy sales process? Will the Minister articulate further the nature of any co-investment? Would the Government provide bridging finance and other help to cover the transition between Tata ownership and the new owners of the business?
That is crucial. Any such commitment would provide much needed confidence in our steel industry, as well. It is a foundation industry that is strategic in its importance to the economy and vital to our manufacturing base.
That brings me on to my second point: confidence. I have pushed the Minister and the Secretary of State on the matter, because it is of central importance. The Minister heard that for herself from the local management and workforce when she visited the Hartlepool pipe mill a couple of weeks ago. Suppliers and customers have the perception that the Tata steel business will not be there in a couple of months’ time, as it might have been pushed into administration. Suppliers, certainly in our part of the country, have had their fingers burned with the closure of SSI. They do not want to be an unsecured creditor in an administration situation, with the likelihood of receiving no money and being out of pocket, and the possibility that their own business will come under threat.
Customers for Tata’s steel products, especially in sectors such as energy, infrastructure and oil and gas, have very long-term horizons in their requirements. They want to be certain that their orders will be there. If they are not, they will look elsewhere. That is not in the long-term interests of the UK steel industry or the viability of Tata’s successors. Credit lines and insurance are being withdrawn, and I cannot stress how important that is. What else can the Minister do—I know that she has worked hard behind the scenes—to provide extra reassurance, further commitments and definite indicators of confidence? Perhaps that would include the public sector placing orders with Tata Steel.
That brings me to my third point, which is about Government action. Procurement is one of the industry’s requests for Government action, and that theme flows through my other points. The Minister must be aware that she has not delivered in full what could be provided for the steel industry. Everyone is aware of the massive global forces at work, with steel prices and overcapacity, but Mr Jha told the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee that UK steel manufacturers suffer from structural weakness—business rates, energy costs and procurement. What is the Minister going to do about that? We should not be looking to the past. Although we should celebrate our steel past, we should look to a future with steel as a massively important part of a modern manufacturing industry.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) on securing this most important debate.
Steel and the steel industry are vital to the UK, Wales and my constituency. The Tata steel plant in Port Talbot is in the neighbouring constituency of Aberavon and the Trostre plant is in the nearby constituency of Llanelli. Hundreds of my constituents go to work in those places every day. I have personal knowledge of the community that has grown up around the plants. My father worked at the site of the Steel Company of Wales, which is now Tata Steel. When I was at Cynffig Comprehensive School I played hockey for the Steel Company of Wales. It was the centre of the community. The plant put food on our plates at home and contributed enormously to our social and sporting lives. The same sense of community is felt today by the 4,500 workers and their families who still work at and depend on the plants.
A constituent of mine, Andrew, started as a technical apprentice at British Steel, Port Talbot, in 1994 and worked his way up to the role of laboratory manager. Having spent his entire working life at Port Talbot, Andrew is passionate about steel and the steel industry and is committed to its future in the local community, often championing the company and the apprenticeship schemes. Andrew has made a great many friends over the years, and many of these friendships are forged in a way that cannot happen in other industries; 12-hour shifts in a challenging environment pull people together in a way that makes them feel more like family, and when pain is felt by their colleagues it is felt by all.
Does my hon. Friend share my view that when a community is hit by a tragedy such as this, it is incumbent on all of us—Government, Members of Parliament and everyone—to make sure that the community sticks together and that people are supported through a difficult time?
I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. It is time to work together. The uncertainty over the past 12 months has been greater than at any time in Andrew’s 21-year career. Owing to the cyclical nature of the steel industry, there have always been highs and lows. Andrew told me about his personal experience of the past few months:
“Back at the end of 2015 I wondered how we can continue with the losses being incurred. Time and time again, Tata asked the Government for help with trade restrictions, yet, month after month we were informed that our losses were huge.”
From initial despair to waves of hope, the plant continued to operate under the most trying of circumstances.
I have asked questions in the Chamber, but I wish to press the point again. Will the Government use the current threat to the UK steel industry as an opportunity to change the way we do things, so that innovations and a thought-through structure can be established that will protect the steel industry for many years to come? Innovation is already taking shape in Neath Port Talbot. SPECIFIC—the sustainable product engineering centre for innovative functional industrial coatings—is an academic and industrial consortium led by Swansea University, involving several strategic partners, and funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, Innovate UK and the European regional development fund via the Welsh Government. SPECIFIC’s vision is to deliver buildings that generate, store and release their own energy, which is an example of a radical and transformative energy solution using buildings as energy systems. Steel is a key element of that, and SPECIFIC is working with Port Talbot steelworks and its downstream operations to develop functional coatings for steel, which rely on high quality steel. Together, they are creating a pipeline of products for the future that will help to ensure that we have a sustainable and competitive steel industry.
SPECIFIC and Tata are working on innovation in construction, and those products and systems, such as solar integrated roofing products and new forms of heating system, are already entering the marketplace. Steel from Port Talbot is being turned into systems in Shotton. No matter what the asset base or ownership of any future UK steel model, technology and innovation are critical, and it is equally critical that such technology and innovation are in close proximity to the major steel-making sites.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I praise my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) for leading the debate with such knowledge, passion and authority, as he always does.
There have been some excellent contributions so far, and I will focus on a few specific points, rather than reiterating things I have previously said in our many debates on steel. As always, I pay tribute to the Celsa workforce and management in my constituency, and to the work of Community, GMB, the other trade unions and UK Steel. I praise Carwyn Jones, the First Minister, for his leadership in recent months. He has worked constructively with the UK Government on these issues. His leadership was head and shoulders above the others’, and it is deeply concerning to hear in the last 10 minutes that apparently the Conservatives, Plaid Cymru and UKIP have voted together to block his reappointment as First Minister, which is quite extraordinary when we need a First Minister in Wales to get back on with addressing crises such as the steel crisis.
I reiterate my point about the EU. We are approaching the referendum, which is a crucial decision for the country, but it is also a crucial decision for the steel industry, the engineering industry, the automotive sector and all those other sectors about which my hon. Friends have spoken. It would be a body blow to the steel industry for us to come out of the EU, particularly given the single market and the lack of clarity on what sort of market we would have were we to come out. The Minister knows my views about market economy status and the lesser duty rule, and all I would ask is what the Government will do in the European Parliament and at the Foreign Affairs Council on 13 May on the issue of China. Will they continue to press the issue in Europe? Ultimately, it is what the UK Government do on this in Europe that matters. We can achieve more for the steel industry by working together across the continent.
Briefly, on net energy costs, which are particularly important to Celsa as it uses an electric arc furnace, UK Steel rightly points out that:
“electricity costs make up 11% of an integrated steel plant’s marginal costs and 20% for an electric arc furnace.”
Yet we are still seeing prices that are uncompetitive. Despite the energy intensive industries compensation package, we are still seeing prices that are in the region of 25% higher than in Germany. What consideration has been given to any further review of the carbon price floor and the climate tax impact? What about network costs and wholesale costs? Are there additional measures that could be taken there?
Finally, on procurement, worrying information about the Ajax vehicles was shared in the Daily Mirror, which has been leading the way in campaigning on steel. The majority of the steel for those vehicles will come from Sweden, and 489 hulls will be built in Spain before being brought over to Merthyr Tydfil. Surely that cannot be right. Can the Minister provide any assurances about the new Type 31 frigates? Indeed, can she update us on whether the Ministry of Defence is keeping accurate records? Obviously, if we do not know what the records are, we do not know where the steel is coming from and we cannot take the necessary action.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak this afternoon. I will address the two key issues of business rates and dumping—I raised the latter earlier at Prime Minister’s questions. Clearly, firmer action needs to be taken on both issues. Very little progress has been made on business rates. The opening remarks of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) were relevant, and the Government should consider exempting the steel industry from those charges.
The point I made at Prime Minister’s questions related to dumping, which is key to this debate. I had a good meeting yesterday with the Industrial Communities Alliance, which raised its concerns in the strongest possible terms. Clearly, when we look around the world, other countries are taking robust action on Chinese dumping. The Obama Administration, with which I disagree on a lot of issues, has taken strong action, and rightly so. We have seen duties of 288% imposed. What consideration have the Government given to such steps as part of the international comparison group? That group has met, and we should learn lessons from around the world where we can.
I am also aware that the lesser duty rule will be discussed at the June European Council meeting, so it would be interesting to know whether the Government have any scope to review their position in advance. The key debate in Corby at the moment, however, is on the future of the Corby Tata site. People are rightly worried about what the future holds, and it is encouraging that considerable interest is being shown in obtaining the portfolio, but it must be the right deal. Confidence will be key to that. Ministers have been right to talk about the importance of confidence for buyers and suppliers. We need more of that confidence, and we need more of that work. We need the Government to wade in and make the case.
Long term, the future of the industry will depend on strong action on dumping and more work on the other asks. In particular, bringing forward the energy exemption package might help. I am grateful to the Minister for coming along with me to the Tata site in Corby a few weeks ago. We met the excellent Labour leader of the council, who has been very good on this issue, on which we work closely—it is important that we put party differences to one side and work together. The message was clear: the industry, and the Corby site in particular, needs time and investment. We have a strong plan in place, and we need the opportunity to see it through. Anything the Minister can do to help us achieve that would be hugely appreciated by me and my constituents.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I start by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) not only for securing this debate and for his robust speech but for his stout defence of the steel industry during his time in Parliament and previously as a regional trade union organiser. I also pay tribute to Community and the other unions for their work and drive to save the steel industry in Scotland and elsewhere.
We have heard some useful contributions today, including from the hon. Gentleman, and the message that stands out to me is that the steel industry has a future. It is not a basket case. I absolutely agree, and that is the fundamental base from which we must approach the issue and upon which it must be grounded. We must talk up the industry as he did, not talk it down as others have in the past.
The hon. Gentleman and almost every other speaker in this debate posed serious questions to the Minister regarding the lesser duty rule and tomorrow’s vote on Chinese market economy status, to which I hope she will respond. We have heard contributions from the hon. Members for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White), for Newport East (Jessica Morden), for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), for Redcar (Anna Turley), for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey), for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), for Neath (Christina Rees) and for Corby (Tom Pursglove) and from my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier). The very good debate we have had, to which they all contributed, and the turnout for it are a tribute to the industry.
It is worth stating on the record again that the Scottish National party Scottish Government have worked determinedly to find a new operator for the Dalzell and Clydebridge steel plants, and to maintain industrial steel production in Scotland. We said that we would leave no stone unturned and that is exactly what we did. It is also vital that the UK Government now work more co-operatively with the EU on anti-dumping measures, and bring forward a credible strategy—
I have given a commitment that my speech will be very brief, to allow steel MPs to have their say, so for that reason I will not take interventions.
The Government must bring forward a credible strategy for heavy industry in the UK and take similar concerted action to save steel plants, steel jobs and steel communities in England and Wales. There have been job losses at UK steel plants for a number of years, especially as a result of Chinese steel, as has been outlined. The warning signs were there for the industry. The UK Government have been slow to act in the face of these challenges.
We urge the UK Government to work with trade unions and potential investors as the Scottish Government have done, to find a future for the workers at the English and Welsh steel plants. In the short term, it is critical that strong anti-dumping measures are secured with our EU partners. Whereas the EU imposed a tariff of up to 16% on dumped Chinese cold-rolled steel, the US recently fixed duties on it at 266%. As the hon. Member for Corby said at Prime Minister’s questions earlier today and indeed in this debate, we wonder whether the Prime Minister’s recent meetings with the US President, Barack Obama, allowed him to learn from the way that the US has acted in this regard.
The Business Secretary was reportedly the ringleader in blocking the EU’s attempts to regulate Chinese steel entering Europe—that is according to a spokesperson for the European Steel Association. That would be indefensible. Moreover, the Scottish Government have been excluded from talks on steel dumping, which is also outrageous, despite our request to be involved because of our interest in Scottish plants.
I take the opportunity again to pay tribute to and congratulate the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland on securing this debate, and I offer our support and solidarity as he and others in this House work to deliver a bright future for the steel industry in this country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship for the first time, Mrs Moon.
I too congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop), both on securing this debate and on the promotion of Middlesbrough Football Club. I am just sorry that it is not Cardiff City being promoted this year. One of the proudest moments I ever had was being awarded the man of steel award by his union, Community, when I was first a Member of this House and campaigned on the Allied Steel and Wire pension scheme, but he is absolutely a man of steel. What he does not know about the steel industry is simply not worth knowing.
I also congratulate my other hon. Friends and other hon. Members for their contributions, including my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), who mentioned Bessemer Road in Sheffield. As an example of the links between different steel communities, there is also a Bessemer Road in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), bordering on my constituency. That just emphasises the links and the sense of community and solidarity between different steel communities.
I also congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) and for Redcar (Anna Turley) on their contributions. She has defended her constituents with incredible passion and energy, and I just want to express our solidarity with her and her constituents over what has happened in Redcar. My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) reminded us of the wider economic impact of steel making, particularly in his region, the midlands.
Although I welcome the expressions of solidarity from the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier), I must say that I thought what she said about the Aberdeen bypass, after an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth, was staggeringly complacent. It was a breath-taking answer that did not practically express the solidarity with steelworkers in Wales, England and other parts of the United Kingdom in the way that we had expected. There needs to be some more reflection on the importance of that solidarity being expressed right across the United Kingdom.
I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), the Chairman of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, who is doing incredible work on this subject in that role. My hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees) again spoke with passion about the importance of the steel industry in her community.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth told us the incredible news that the Conservative party, Plaid Cymru and the UK Independence party have just formed an alliance in the Welsh Assembly to block the appointment of the Labour First Minister. They have no mandate to do that, and to do it at a time when we are in crisis over the steel industry is the kind of game-playing politics that will not be forgotten in our steel communities in the future.
I also congratulate the hon. Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove), who represents a very important steel-making community in this House, and the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray), who spoke for the Scottish National party at the end of the debate, on their contributions.
I will not speak for too long because I want the Minister to have a chance to respond to the debate and I also want my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland to have at least a brief opportunity to respond to her remarks. However, we are in a situation now where we can see the impact on our economy of what is happening in the steel industry. Manufacturing crawled ahead with 0.1% growth in March, barely reversing the 0.9% decline we saw in February, and output in the sector is 1.9% below what it was a year ago. Those are the worst figures for the last three years. The recovery is not happening in manufacturing.
“The march of the makers”—[Official Report, 23 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 966.]
is not occurring in manufacturing. We know that the plight of UK steel, drowning under the flood of Chinese steel, has contributed to that, as well—obviously—as the uncertainty over the Brexit referendum and so on and the impact that is having on our industries.
We are seeing the impact in things such as the closure—the unnecessary closure—of the Redcar steel plant. Basic iron and steel manufacturing is down 37.3% a year on from the figures in March 2015. That is the sort of impact that this situation is having. I will quote Lee Hopley, the chief economist of EEF, the manufacturers organisation. I think the Minister criticised me for quoting the EEF in a previous debate, but Lee Hopley said:
“There isn’t too much in the data to lift economic spirits as a small increase in manufacturing output in March doesn’t change the picture of an overall weak start to the year.”
That is the economic background to today’s debate. We cannot afford to let the steel industry in this country die, because if it does the impact will go far beyond the steel-making communities that we have heard so much about today.
I will just reiterate the key points that the Minister needs to address, following this annus horribilis that we have had in the steel industry under this Government’s leadership. It is not all the fault of the Government, but it is their responsibility to respond, and to respond quickly and effectively.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland said, the insufficient action on trade defence mechanisms is the first charge against the Government—their slow response. More important is the lesser duty rule, which my hon. Friend also mentioned. Why are the Government still resisting getting rid of or reforming the lesser duty rule, but instead leading the opposition in Europe? Why are the Government not moving ahead with the reform of business rates that has been mentioned by so many speakers today?
There has been a failure to provide the bridge to the future in Redcar. We know what the implications of that failure are. We also know that the steel industry is not a dying industry. As my hon. Friend said, seven potential buyers have come forward to show interest in purchasing the remaining Tata/SSI assets. However, my hon. Friend also said there is a possibility that Tata itself might still be interested in this situation. What is the Minister’s response to that? Is that a serious possibility? Can she tell us anything about that?
Also, can the Minister tell us whether the Government will now swallow their pride and admit that they need to have an industrial strategy and to call it an industrial strategy, and to set it out clearly for us? Can she also answer the points that my hon. Friend made about the catapult and the importance to the UK steel sector and to research and development for the future, if we are going to have a future for our steel industry?
I will not give way, because it would be unfair of me not to leave enough time for the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland to respond to the debate. However, I note the presence of yet another Sheffield MP here in debate.
As I said, the Business Secretary should swallow his pride over an industrial strategy. What assurances can the Government give us that there will be sufficient time for the sale? None of us is convinced that the current timetable is necessarily achievable. What more will the Minister do on procurement, on making sure that the customer base is preserved, on making sure the highly skilled workforce are not lost and on taking action on tariffs? Finally, will she recognise the danger for our industries of market economy status being granted to China?
On that point, and to allow the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland sufficient time to respond to the debate, I conclude my remarks.
It is an absolute joy and pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mrs Moon. As ever, it has been a very good debate. I nearly said that we have had the full set that we always have in a debate on steel, but we are missing from the Public Gallery the excellent Mr Roy Rickhuss, who leads the outstanding Community union. I am sure he will be following these events and reading about them in Hansard.
As ever, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) for securing this debate. I also pay tribute to all those who work in our steel industry—management and workers—and to all those, including the unions, who have been playing such an outstanding role in this incredibly difficult past 12 months. I make it very clear that I want to make a complaint about the hon. Gentleman, because I think he had a quick look at my speech. I thought it was brilliant that he opened on that very positive note. I wanted to do that in my speech.
Unusually for me, I will read certain things out, including quite a few facts and figures, because I want to make it absolutely clear that there is no disagreement among us on this: we all believe that steel genuinely has a future in the United Kingdom. There is no debate either about the quality of the steel we make here and the outstanding quality of the workforce.
We know that it is important—“vital”, in the words of the Prime Minister—that we have a strong British steel sector. In economic terms, steel was worth some £1.7 billion in 2014, representing 0.1% of the total UK economy. At that time—sadly, it is not the case now—it employed 34,500 people. As so many Members on both sides of the House know, the steel industry is a critical, integral part of many places and communities. The Government are clear that the steel industry has a viable long-term future in the United Kingdom, and that is why we have taken unprecedented action.
I have to chide Opposition Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove) praised his local Labour leader because he does not care what party they represent; they are working together and fighting in the right way in the interests of everyone at Corby. I am sometimes a little saddened that Opposition Members never give some credit for the outstanding work that this Government have done in relation to the future of the steel industry.
In a moment. I am happy to allow the hon. Gentleman a quick name check, but I want to make this point first: this Government have taken unprecedented action and given unprecedented support for our steel industry. This Conservative Government have said that we are willing for a potential buyer to look at investing hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money by way of debt financing. That includes looking at power plants, notably at Port Talbot, so that we can keep those blast furnaces open. We are also looking to take up to a 25% stake or share in that new company. That comes from a Conservative Government. If anyone had said that 12 months ago, they would have been laughed at. That is how seriously the Government take the importance of the steel industry, and that is what we are prepared to do.
We know that there is a bright future for the UK steel industry. Just look at what has happened in the past few months. Not only has Liberty House bought Tata’s Scottish plate mills at Dalzell and Clydebridge—I was delighted to be there when Tata literally handed the keys over to Liberty—but it has also brought most of the Caparo assets out of administration. We think that that might have saved up to 1,000 jobs. The continuing sale to Greybull of Tata’s long products division based in Scunthorpe is further evidence that the industry has a viable future.
The Government are committed to the record infrastructure investment programme. That is only possible because we continue to take the difficult decisions to keep the economy strong. HS2, Crossrail, the new aircraft carriers and the unprecedented procurement rule changes for publicly funded projects that we have made in recent months mean that the United Kingdom’s steel industry can compete and will win major public contracts.
I very much agree with the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty). I was very pleased to visit the outstanding Celsa steel plant based in his constituency just a few months after my appointment last year. He levelled criticism at the SNP in Scotland and the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier). It really is not on. If I said, “Go and check out a website,” I would rightly be derided by Opposition Members, and properly so. The Scottish Government have to put their money where their mouth is and change the procurement rules. They have to copy and learn from what the United Kingdom Government have done and ensure that that steel in Aberdeen is going to British plants. There are no excuses now for that not happening. I am very proud of what we do.
The hon. Gentleman can keep on shouting, and I will start to fall out with him. I am happy to say that I will be visiting his constituency and the steelworks there. As he knows, he will get an invitation, just as everyone always does. In Sheffield, we have good examples of outstanding steel makers and ability. Some 50,000 tonnes of Celsa’s UK steel has been used in Crossrail—the biggest construction project in Europe, built almost exclusively using British steel. Some 95,000 tonnes of British steel was used in the construction of the new Elizabeth aircraft carriers, and Network Rail sources 98% of its steel rail from the United Kingdom—as we all know, it comes mainly from Scunthorpe.
On the point about Ajax, a large part of that steel was unfortunately not made in this country. The remainder was certainly going through a UK buyer. There is of course more that we could do, but we are mapping out indicative quantities of steel for key projects in the infrastructure and Government construction pipelines, including HS2, new nuclear and offshore wind. One piece of work that I am determined to carry on doing relates to fracking. There is a huge job that can be done that will have huge benefits for our steel industry. I will speak bluntly: we have to get on with fracking. I met representatives of that industry only recently. We know that fracking could have real benefits for our steel industry. It was a great joy and pleasure to go to the plant in Hartlepool, which also has excellent unions, good management and an outstanding workforce and is hugely important for that community. They make an outstanding product. They do not make the seamless pipes that have to be used for fracking, but I do not see why we cannot look at making their pipes absolutely compliant so that they can be used.
I had another great visit going up to Rotherham to meet Members who represent the steelworks there. It also has an excellent workforce, outstanding unions and good management with a credible plan and a long-term future. I am proud, as we all should be, of the fact that one third of all landing gear apparently has a component made in Stocksbridge. I was also told that every aeroplane in the world has at least one component made from steel from Stocksbridge.
Of course. It is important to say that it is Rotherham and Stocksbridge steelworks. Those are just some of the examples of our outstanding and world-leading steel sector. We can talk about Rolls-Royce engines and Formula 1 cars. Tata Steel has supplied more than half a million tonnes of strip steel to leading companies in the UK’s auto sector, including BMW, Mini, Jaguar Land Rover, Vauxhall and many others.
Unfortunately, the clock is against me, and I have not addressed all the points that the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland made. I know that he wants to talk to me about the Materials Processing Institute, which officials visited yesterday, and I think we are making real movement there. Mrs Moon, forgive me; I have not been able to deal with all the excellent points and speeches that have been made. The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) makes good points about research. She knows that we continue to talk on that. I cannot say much more about the process with Tata, but we take all those points, and we work unstintingly. I pay credit to the Secretary of State and the officials for the work they are doing to secure a viable future for our outstanding steel industry.
In winding up, I would like to say that the critical point about Tata being the eighth player remains fundamental. We still want to know what Tory MEPs will do tomorrow in relation to the market economy status vote. We need to see a legislative framework going from paper to actual action in terms of policy and an industrial strategy. The Government do have an industrial strategy, but we have to bear it in mind that in the past 12 months we have only seen action and promises made as a result of the tragedy at Redcar and a Prime Minister faced by Welsh elections and the European referendum.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
[Steve McCabe in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the control and monitoring of building regulations.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe, for what I think is the first time you have presided over one of my speeches in Westminster Hall. I am pleased to have this opportunity to highlight what I believe to be the inadequacy of the current system of building regulation.
This debate comes at an opportune time because the Government are currently prioritising house building and pushing for more affordable homes to be built, which is a good thing. Nevertheless, I am concerned that, without a proper building regulation system, an admirable commitment to build more homes will have the unintended consequence of compromising the quality of those homes. Building regulation inspections are increasingly being undertaken not by local government inspectors, as in the past, but by approved inspectors employed by private building services contractors. The problem is that all too often those approved inspectors are not monitored to ensure that they undertake sufficient checks and are not accountable to anybody when something goes wrong.
To highlight the problem, I shall relate an example of how the existing building regulations system failed properly to monitor a builder to such an extent that it put at risk the health of homeowners. In my constituency there is a row of houses that was built between 2007 and 2011. A couple of years ago I received a complaint from one of the residents, who alleged that his drinking water had been contaminated with sewage. When I investigated, I discovered that the local water company had no knowledge whatever of the houses, which were a later addition to a larger development where no problems had been recorded. It is worth noting that the houses in question were never registered with the Land Registry, which caused another problem I had to sort out—but that is a story for another day.
It seemed that the water company had never supplied drinking water to the row of houses or cleared the waste water system that had been installed. It turned out that the drinking water supply to the houses was linked to another house in the original development, and that house was supplied by the water company. The builder paid the very large bills run up by the house, which he apparently owned, and in turn billed the new houses, none of which had a water meter. In addition, the builder had installed in the road a waste pumping station that was serviced by a fish-pond pump that regularly broke down, resulting in blockages. Mr McCabe, you simply could not make it up. On at least one occasion, when the tank was full the builder was seen pumping the sewage out on to the railway line next to the development. The water company for our area and the National House Building Council are now in the process of designing a proper waste system for the homes, which have all suffered from waste water leaking into their foundations, leading to smells and, in some houses, rats.
During my investigation, I also discovered several other building defects in some of the homes, including dangerous gas pipework that had been installed by the builder without contacting a gas supplier. I immediately raised the matter with my local authority, Swale Borough Council, which explained that the building regulation inspections had been undertaken not by the council but by a private building services company. The council insisted that it had no authority or responsibility to monitor inspection work undertaken by a private company, although it would be more than happy to take on such a responsibility.
When I contacted the private building services company, it was very helpful. The company insisted that its inspections were in accordance with the building control performance standards issued by the Department for Communities and Local Government, and I am sure that they were. The guidance requires an approved inspector to determine a risk-based inspection regime, but accepts that it is not practicable to inspect all items of work relating to the building regulations.
The company said:
“The overall responsibility for achieving compliance with the building regulations rests with the builder.”
At first, I could not believe that that was the case. However, it was confirmed to me by a Minister in the coalition Government when I met him after tabling an oral question to ask that local authorities be
“given powers to force independent building control inspectors to ensure that there is proper compliance with building regulations.”
I have to say that at that meeting it soon became apparent that there was no appetite to beef up the regulatory system.
Allowing builders to police themselves is probably fine in theory, particularly when we are talking about responsible builders, but it is certainly not satisfactory in practice when dealing with people like this particular builder—to call him a cowboy would be to insult Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger. One of the affected residents had so many problems with her house that I eventually persuaded the NHBC to pay for her to have a structural survey. That report makes frightening reading.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He is right that we are not experts and so rely on an independent approved inspector to ensure that building regulations are adhered to. Does he share my concern that, although approved inspectors are regulated by the Construction Industry Council, not one of them has ever been struck off regarding the quality or professionalism of their work?
I agree that it is about accountability. I will come on to that issue, so I am pleased that my right hon. Friend raised it.
As I said, the report makes frightening reading. I shall read out just five of the 27 findings listed in the survey:
“Finding No 1: Generally: The property was found to be constructed to a very poor standard. We found numerous breaches of Building Regulations that would have been in place at the time the property was constructed. We have serious concerns over significant elements within the building that, if left without further attention, may pose health and safety risks to occupiers and users of the building.”
Finding No. 6 states:
“Structure/Floor: The beam and block floor within the garage has not been designed to meet the minimum loading requirements. This has subsequently resulted in its collapse. Exposed beams within the garage did not appear to have the minimum bearing on the supporting structure.”
My fear on reading that finding is that the rest of the ground-floor beams have been constructed in the same way.
Finding No. 7 reads:
“Structure/Upper Floors: Deflection and bouncing of the floorboards was noted to the upper timber floors. Movement of the floors has caused spot lights to fall from the ceiling.”
Finding No. 20 is on drainage:
“The mains foul sewer and drainage system serving the property do not discharge to a suitable drainage system in accordance with Approved Document H: Drainage and Waste Disposal.”
And finding No. 23, on lighting and electricals, states:
“Internal lights work intermittently suggesting that there may be issues with the electrical wiring and supply.”
Those are just a few of the damning condemnations. It is scandalous that any builder should be able to get away with such dangerous work. However, it is even more scandalous that nobody appears able to do anything to bring the builder to book. The local authority, the approved inspector and NHBC can do nothing, and it appears that the Department for Communities and Local Government can do nothing, too.
It would be bad enough if this case were the sole example of the lack of accountability in the construction industry, but unfortunately I have other examples of homeowners who have been unable to receive redress for poor quality work by builders, some of which are large national housing development companies. Let me give one example. In my constituency, there are a number of 12-flat residential buildings, in which the heating and hot water supply to the flats is supplied by just two domestic boilers. I am no heating engineer, but even I can see that such a system cannot cope with the demand, particularly in the winter, so it is hardly surprising that over the past couple of winters I have received regular complaints from tenants in the flats about a lack of heating and hot water. I arranged for a local heating company to investigate those complaints on my behalf. It said in its report:
“All boiler rooms throughout the estate have the same problem. Most boiler room faults are caused by leaks in the copper pipework, the leaks become worse, soak electrical components and the system fails. Boiler room 5 has had ongoing issues with lack of hot water temperature. There is a constant flow of water being drawn through the cylinder and the recovery is not quick enough to maintain a constant temperature. All copper pipework throughout the estate appears to be substandard quality and has resulted in regular leaks.”
I eventually contacted the plumbing company that worked on the original system. It said in its response that it did not design the system, but it made this very interesting comment:
“It was evident on completion that the system design was flawed and we raised this continually with the developer”.
I took up the matter with the developer, who refused to accept responsibility and insisted that the system was adequate when it was installed and that the problem was a maintenance issue. They advised me to contact the property management company, which I subsequently did. That company eventually hired the local heating company, which had produced the report—whenever it is called out to a breakdown, it tries to patch up the system as best it can in the circumstances.
That heating system is still not working properly and does not provide sufficient hot water to all the residents. The whole system needs replacing, but the costs of undertaking such a major exercise would have to be met by the current tenants, because their lease states that they have to fund work undertaken by the property management company. Because the developer refuses to accept responsibility for what was patently a design fault during the original construction phase, they are getting away scot-free. That cannot be right. Sadly, that is not an isolated incident, as my mailbag can testify. Once again, there appears to be no accountability and nobody, except me, to whom the affected residents can turn for help, but I am limited to hitting my head against a brick wall of indifference.
I would like to talk about which regulations are actually enforced. Currently, the building regs require buildings to have a range of measures that are deemed necessary to make houses more energy-efficient or healthier for the residents. For instance, they require that all new buildings have extractor fans in bathrooms and kitchens, are properly insulated and have smoke alarms, but they do not require developers to install building alarms or burglar-proof windows and doors to a standard approved by the local police. That seems very short-sighted. It highlights the fact that current building regulations are simply out of date.
The truth is that the system is simply not working, not least because those charged with regulating building work are not themselves regulated. The time has come to undertake a review of how the building regs are monitored and enforced. My own preference is for local authorities to be given the ultimate responsibility for taking enforcement action against builders who do not comply with regulations and the approved inspectors who are supposed to ensure they are compliant.
I am, by nature, somebody who believes that we British are over-regulated, but in this instance I believe that better regulation is needed. A house is the most expensive purchase that most people make, and they have a right to expect value for their money. Too often, they do not get it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing this important debate on an issue that affects a great number of our constituents.
On the whole, the system of building regulations in this country—the system by which the work that builders do is monitored—is of a good standard, but that does not mean that it does not go wrong at times. I recognise my hon. Friend’s concerns, particularly given the terrible situation that he set out and the difficulties that his constituent faced as a result of it. I do not want to comment too much on the detail of that case, simply because I do not sufficiently know the background. He referred to the specific to comment on the general, and I will therefore address the general—the overall system—in my comments.
It is appropriate that I first talk about the system that is in place for redress when people find that the properties they have purchased are not up to the standard that they expected. We recommend that such a person first complains to the person who carried out the work—the builder or the developer—and makes known to them their concerns about the work that they believe to be inadequate. Most responsible builders and developers will put right work that is not to the expected standard.
Should that not work, the next level of complaint is to the warranty provider if a new home warranty is in place. There are many different providers—NHBC, which my hon. Friend mentioned, is one of the largest—and they do a good job of ensuring that the standards that people rightly expect when they buy and move into a home are met, and that the system enables them to raise concerns about work that has been done. The consumer code for home builders provides protection if a home was built by a home builder that is registered with one of the supporting warranty bodies, such as NHBC, on or after 1 April 2010.
Should a constituent not find acceptable redress through those routes, there is the option to bring a civil claim against the builder in the civil courts and to pursue appropriate redress through the legal process. I have received a number of complaints about the process by which building control is carried out, but they are not focused only on approved inspectors. Local authorities, just like any other organisation, will not necessarily get building control right every single time. The reality is that the processes and the system that is in place allow these issues to be addressed at an earlier stage. I have set out some of the options that exist to enable redress to be found and problems to be rectified.
There are isolated cases—my hon. Friend spoke of one in his constituency—in which the impact is significant, but for some reason the system has not found a way to bring redress to correct the problems. I do not know whether civil action has been considered in that case, but that is the ultimate fall-back option for those affected by poor-quality building work—work that does not meet the standards that it should.
I accept what the Minister is saying, but the biggest problem that people have is cowboy builders. The people who bought that particular property had no recourse to the courts because the builder maintained that he was subcontracted to another builder, who had subsequently gone out of business and had disappeared back to Europe. That is one of the problems that residents face today.
At the risk of giving legal advice to the constituent in question on the basis of my hon. Friend’s explanation, helpful though it is—I do not want to stray into the specific legal position—when somebody buys something with a certain expectation, there is always the option of looking at whether a legal redress is the right course of action.
We also monitor and regulate the work that approved inspectors do. At the heart of my hon. Friend’s concern, or at least one part of it, is the way the approved inspectors system regime is working for our constituents. The Construction Industry Council Approved Inspectors Register is the approval body for approved inspectors, and it has reviewed its activities. One of its recommendations was that there be periodic audits of approved inspectors to ensure that they are doing the work that we expect them to do, to the standard that we expect them to do it. CICAIR started carrying out audits last year to pick up issues with particular approved inspectors—hopefully, before complaints are raised. The Building Control Performance Standards Advisory Group has also strengthened the standards that apply to both types of building control bodies—local authorities and approved inspectors—to give better targeting of building control work.
The role of building control can only ever be as a spot-checking service. The issuing of a building regulations compliance certificate at the completion of work is not a complete guarantee of compliance throughout the process; it is only a spot check that seeks to hold developers and builders to account and to ensure that the standards that we expect are applied.
I thank the Minister for his thoughtful response. As he has already agreed, an important way to make the inspection regime more transparent would be to make the approved inspector’s report available to people who are buying a new home. I would be grateful if the Minister would update the House on his progress in putting a new system in place.
I put on record my appreciation of the work my right hon. Friend has done in this area. She has been a powerful and effective advocate on behalf of her constituents when they have run into such problems. Indeed, in an Adjournment debate much earlier in this Session, we discussed some of the things that she wants to be done.
One of the ideas discussed was to modify the system to allow greater transparency of the process by which approved inspectors ultimately sign off work. Only the other week, I had a meeting with representatives of CICAIR to discuss initial proposals. It is something I intend to take forward, appropriately, to ensure that the system continues to work, while adding layers of transparency in line with my right hon. Friend’s desires and her comments in the House during that debate.
I will be happy to write to my right hon. Friend with details of exactly where we are in that process, but I assure her that I have heard, loud and clear, the concerns that she has expressed—in particular during the earlier debate—and I intend to act on them and find a way to deliver the transparency that she and her constituents are looking for. There are some complexities within that; I want to ensure it is done in co-operation with industry and in a way that people across the field support, but I think it will be welcome and I intend to deliver it. I will write to my right hon. Friend to ensure that she is fully updated on where we are in pursuing that process.
If an approved inspector does not take all reasonable steps, a complaint may be raised with the regulatory body, CICAIR. It will investigate whether an approved inspector has acted negligently or in breach of contract. It is also possible to make a claim against an approved inspector in the civil courts—that is another route by which redress may be sought—if they have not acted in accordance with the regulations or as they should, to give homeowners reassurance, and to give developers and builders reassurance that they are complying with the appropriate regulations.
Approved inspectors are, of course, insured. That should not be necessary and we hope that jobs are done properly, and we should not put unreasonable expectations on the process—as I said, it is a spot check, not a complete guarantee—but there is the option of civil recourse if people feel it to be appropriate. That is not advice, but it might be the right thing for them to do.
We have been talking about how we can better regulate approved inspectors and bring them to book, but how, and where, is anybody able to bring a builder to book? There is no such recourse or mechanism. The builder whom we have talked about in the debate is still building houses. He has been struck off the NHBC list of approved builders, but he has probably signed up somewhere else. If that happened in any other walk of life, he would be in court, charged with a criminal offence, and be put in prison—and he is not.
I had anticipated my hon. Friend’s concern, and I am about to talk about some of the ways in which accountability can be enforced, against not only the approved inspector but the builder, if they are in breach of our expectations.
Section 35 of the Building Act 1984 allows a local authority to bring a prosecution in the magistrates court for a breach of the building regulations. Prosecutions must be brought within two years of the date of completion of the building work and—I accept this is an area on which my hon. Friend might wish to have further discussion—approved inspectors have no powers to bring a prosecution. Further, section 48 of the Building Act prohibits a local authority from bringing a prosecution where an approved inspector is the building control body.
Where approved inspectors identify concerns that are not addressed, however—where they are not satisfied that the builder is doing what should be done—they may in effect step back from compliance; they may cancel the initial notice; and the local authority may then, if appropriate, step in to take the action of which I have spoken. We do not have centrally kept statistics on the number of prosecutions, or their outcome, or on how many prosecutions take place for reverted work from approved inspectors, but a regime is in place to ensure that local authorities can take action.
The constituency case to which my hon. Friend referred is a particularly extreme and complex one. On the level of the problems, I was especially struck by the comment that the properties were not registered with the Land Registry, which seemed odd to me. I do not know by what process people could then purchase or occupy them. Concerns in the specific, however, may not necessarily or uniformly apply in general.
I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to intervene again. Not only were the properties not registered with the Land Registry, but one of the homeowners who approached me said that she had spent £10,000 doing her house up only to discover that she owned not that house but a house three doors down. Given that there was nothing with the Land Registry, it took my help to get things sorted out. That was the problem that I was talking about earlier. It is a total scandal, and the builder responsible is still out there working.
The specific case seems to be an extraordinary one. Of course, homebuyers would normally employ a solicitor of their own, whom we would expect to carry out inquiries in that area. Again without commenting on specific circumstances, given the limited information available, some of my hon. Friend’s constituents may find recourse in looking at the process by which they acquired the homes, as well as the process by which the homes were built.
Clearly, the problems my hon. Friend discussed are specific and serious. I am well aware from his comments, and long-running contributions even before this debate, that he has concerns about the area. I also recognise and have commented on the contribution made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller). She has been an effective advocate for her constituents.
I do not want to give the wrong impression of the role of approved inspectors, or whom they owe a duty to. They are doing a spot check, not providing a complete guarantee. They should and must act professionally; where appropriate, they are audited and regulated to that end. They have insurance to ensure that if anything goes wrong protection is in place for those who may be affected. We are looking at how we can increase transparency, following the powerful comments and the advocacy of my right hon. Friend, given her concerns about constituents.
I will continue to look at the way in which the process works. I am happy to continue to have discussions to that end with my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, who introduced the debate, but I cannot pretend that we will change the entire nature of the system. On the whole, it works well, it delivers the appropriate standards and most homes in this country are built to an extraordinarily good standard, by international comparisons. We should be proud of the system we have and of the people who work in and contribute to it, day in, day out. That does not mean that there will never be problems; where there are, we want to find ways to address them. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend to ensure that we do that in the appropriate way, in the appropriate time.
Question put and agreed to.
Northern Ireland Economy
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Northern Ireland economy.
It is good to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr McCabe. This is a timely debate, with Northern Ireland having just had elections to the Assembly, and it would be remiss of me not to mention—or, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) said, to gloat about—the success our party has had. May I pass on my congratulations to Mrs Arlene Foster, our party leader? I hope by tomorrow she will be the new First Minister for the next five years in Northern Ireland. That is the last bit of party politics I will bring into the debate, in case you chastise me, Mr McCabe, or I get some dirty looks from the Social Democratic and Labour party.
This will be a pleasant, humorous and serious debate and none of us will mention Brexit and all such things. Arlene Foster has gained huge respect across the whole of Northern Ireland, with more than 200,000 people having voted for her leadership and for our party. We look forward to the next five years. Two weeks have been allowed for us to get a programme for government in place, but hopefully it will not take that long and we will get up for business and deliver for the people of Northern Ireland. I pay tribute to my many colleagues who did not stand for re-election but contributed to the Assembly for many years and worked for the people of Northern Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman is very kind to allow me to intervene so early. As he has mentioned the programme for government and his party leader, may I urge all of those who will be designated as Ministers that they must give top priority to funding for our schools right across Northern Ireland? A number of constituents have raised with me what is something of a funding crisis in schools, so I would like him to assure us that that will be given priority.
I will give the hon. Lady the best assurances that I can. I am not a Member of the Assembly, but that message has been made clear and she has put that on the record, so it will be taken back. She is right that education is an important aspect for the future generations in Northern Ireland.
We are all well aware of the difficult times that Northern Ireland has faced. We are the smallest of the four regions and, as I have already alluded to, we are still suffering from the results of the troubles, which have been a debilitating factor in the economy’s growth. That has made inward investment slightly more difficult and for the local business sector—small, medium and large businesses—sustainability has continued to be an uphill struggle. My speech contains good news for Northern Ireland, but it will also be realistic about lessons we have to learn, what we can do better and how the Assembly can move forward in the future.
At the outset, I want to praise all the companies who provide employment in Northern Ireland. I recognise the determination and energy they put in every day, along with their workforces. Their resolve has sent unemployment rates in Northern Ireland to an all-time low. When the economic crisis hit the whole of the United Kingdom, in my constituency we were at 8.5% unemployment, but as of last week that figure has come down to 4.1%. Even at the best of times the figures never fell below that, so we are encouraged by that. I have no doubt that the selfless work and processes established by companies right across Northern Ireland will continue for many years to come.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the main sources of employment in his constituency is manufacturing industry? Despite all the nonsense that has been spoken about the uncertainty for manufacturers because of the EU referendum, and the prospect of the people of the United Kingdom voting to leave the EU and break its shackles of dominance on our economy, manufacturing industry has actually forged ahead.
A source very close to me, yes. My hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim is right: despite all the nonsense that has been talked, the manufacturing sector certainly will continue if we leave the European Union.
According to reports this week, Northern Ireland’s growth is dependent on the retail and service sectors, as they
“continue to report the fastest rates of job creation.”
I have certainly witnessed that in each of the three towns in my constituency. Growth is slow, but small retail businesses—I am not referring to charity shops—are starting to move back on to the high street, which is a good thing.
We may be the smallest region in the UK, but we are powerful on the world stage. Some 30% of the famous London red buses are manufactured in Ballymena by a local firm, Wrightbus. That is of course a big contract in London.
We will move on from Brexit a wee bit; we will come to it later.
Some 25% of all computer read-write heads are made by Seagate Technology in Londonderry, at the UK’s largest nanotechnology site, and 40% of the world’s mobile crushing equipment is made in Northern Ireland. We have some of the largest pharmaceutical companies, which employ thousands of people across the Province.
It is evident that the people of Northern Ireland remain committed to helping to grow its economy. However, despite all the good news, we cannot ignore the significant job losses that have been reported by companies—two of the most high profile are Michelin and JTI, and some others face making redundancies—because of problems in the global market and sometimes because of energy costs.
I am glad that my hon. Friend has mentioned energy costs. Does he agree that the cost of energy is one of the biggest threats to manufacturing in Northern Ireland, as it has been in England, Scotland and Wales, and that that is in part due to the insane policy of trying to move towards renewable energy when we have cheap forms of energy in coal, gas and oil?
Absolutely. I thought my hon. Friend was going to mention the EU again; he disappointed me greatly in not getting it slipped in. He is right: we need to look at other ways we can help. Some companies across Northern Ireland, certainly in my constituency, have availed themselves of gas lines, which have made a big difference to electricity costs, especially for bakeries. As the Executive move forward, I believe we have a big part to play in reshaping energy policy.
I meet companies regularly, as I am sure all right hon. and hon. Members here do. One of the major issues they raise continually is business rates—if it is not energy costs, it is business rates. In Northern Ireland, we have capped rates for manufacturing at 30%. I have to say that that is a success for my own party—other parties agreed to it, but it was brought forward by the Democratic Unionist party and we have achieved great things with it. Companies today are surviving because of it, and without it, those companies would not still be here.
My constituency of Upper Bann is the second largest manufacturing base in Northern Ireland outside Belfast. For every manufacturing job in the Province, 1.5 jobs are supported elsewhere in the economy, contributing £2 billion in wages to staff and a further £2.2 billion though jobs supported outside the sector. I fear future losses if we do not address the issue of energy costs, which I keep coming back to, because it is crippling a lot of our companies.
Will the hon. Gentleman join me in pressing the new Executive to ensure that one of the first things they do is resolve the issue of providing a proper and appropriate superconductor between the Republic of Ireland and the north? It is widely believed, and stated to me by the energy companies, that Northern Ireland’s manufacturers and residents have higher energy costs than their neighbours in the Republic because of the lack of a modern, 21st-century superconductor process to allow electricity to move around the whole country and island.
I am grateful to the Minister for intervening. He is absolutely correct, but that project has been held back by environmentalists—I do not want to get on the hobby-horse of my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim—and, I have to say, by Sinn Féin, as far as planning permission is concerned. We need to address that. The Minister is quite right that that will make a big difference to energy costs. I think Northern Ireland has the second most expensive electricity after Japan, and addressing that would help the economy to grow even more.
Despite the difficult times we have had, 40,000 new jobs were created in the past five years. A lot of that, of course, was done through the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. Mrs Arlene Foster was the Minister in the Department at that stage, so she has a good track record, along with her colleagues in the Executive. We also welcomed £2.9 billion of investment in that time, which is almost three times the £1 billion target. We are well on the way.
We look forward to the reduction of corporation tax. Our party is focused on that and has promised its delivery. Is it a silver bullet? No, but it is certainly part of a large armoury that will be available to the Executive. It is estimated that 30,000 jobs could be created through the reduction in corporation tax, which would mean 10% growth in our economy. Our party and the First Minister will certainly be pushing for that. The Northern Ireland Assembly today is in a good position to maximise the potential of all those things, but we need the Government’s support behind us.
Tom Hall, the vice-president of international technology and operations at Allstate, has said:
“Our experience in Northern Ireland far exceeded our expectations. We came here originally for the cost savings. We find ourselves staying for the people and the talent that is available.”
That leads me on to a key factor relating to Northern Ireland’s economy—one that I am proud we are delivering. Northern Ireland is the top region in the UK for educational attainment. The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) raised the issue of education, which we need to make more progress on. We cannot rest on our laurels. However, the official figures show that in 2015, 83% of Northern Ireland students achieved the three top grades in A-level exams, compared with 77.3% across the rest of the UK. Students and young people play a pivotal role in the Northern Ireland economy. Their input is not given enough focus, and the skills and expertise they are achieving needs to be given the accreditation it deserves.
Northern Ireland is the only region of the UK that has increased salaries for new jobs in the past year. However, new salaries in Northern Ireland remain lower than the UK average of £33,815, so there is still some work to be done. We need to stop haemorrhaging our trained professionals to other countries, which can offer better rates of pays. It is a vicious circle that we are in: while better pay is available in other countries, it encourages our young people to go to them and perhaps not return—if they are going for educational purposes or to learn skills or whatever and returning, that would be a different story. We need to improve our rates. The only way we can do that is to encourage the private sector to invest in Northern Ireland and to reduce the public sector. That is something that we are trying to achieve, and it has been achieved to an extent, but again there is still some way to go.
As I said earlier, our manufacturing sector was certainly one of the worst hit, but the 30% cap on manufacturing rates has made a big difference. The latest figures show that companies may now be prepared to pay for new recruits and to invest in new staff. That may go some way to encouraging young people to embark upon apprenticeships, especially plumbers, electricians, bricklayers and other such areas in the construction sector. There remains a concerning lack of skilled tradesmen throughout Northern Ireland. Last year it was reported that the construction industry was paying grossly over the odds, as they had to bring recruits in from other countries to ensure that they met their completion dates.
Does my hon. Friend agree that that is one of the reasons why it is important that Northern Ireland, like other regions of the United Kingdom, gets its fair share of the money raised through the apprenticeship levy? That is an issue that needs to be addressed by the Treasury and also the Northern Ireland Executive.
My hon. Friend is correct. We need to get our fair share of that in order to push this forward. I recently visited my local training centre in the Craigavon area. I have visited it many times, and in recent times it hosted a regional skills competition. I spoke to one of the instructors there, who told me of one young man who came to him—I think it was three years ago—as a trainee plumber. The instructor knew when he saw the young man working that he had something special. That young fellow lives in a village called Katesbridge outside Banbridge.
He is in his early 20s, and is a constituent of the hon. Lady, and he is the world champion plumber. He went through all the heats, he went to Brazil, he won the heats in Brazil, and he is now the world champion plumber. That is some achievement for a young lad from Katesbridge in—I emphasise this again—the hon. Lady’s constituency. For a young man like that who has come in and developed a skill, the world is his oyster. He can do whatever he likes and demand his price. That is what we want to see: more young people getting into those skills, including the basic skills. It has to be realised that, while parents want all their children to be Einsteins, brain surgeons, dentists, GPs and so on, that is not going to happen, but there is still a lot of money to be earned with those skills, which we lost during the economic crisis.
Lastly, I want to focus on the agri-food sector. I have come from the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs just now, and we had a very interesting debate. This sector plays a significant role in the Northern Ireland economy. It contributes £1 billion of added value per annum and has demonstrated a strong track record of export growth, employing over 100,000 people, but the outlook for our farming community remains grim. Dairy farmers have witnessed their incomes fall by over a third in the past year. The realisation is that they are producing milk well below the cost of production. Something more needs to be done to help them. They cannot continue on this ongoing basis of haemorrhaging money and cash flow.
My party wants the industry to bring forward supply contracts that minimise price fluctuations and seize a greater share of their profits along the entire food chain. Six years ago in Northern Ireland, we were doing approximately £60 million of food exports. This year, the figure will be £95.5 million. That is a clear testimony to the quality of our food and drink, which is an essential part of our tourism industry. Our industry target is £1 billion by 2020 and we are already well on our way to achieving that.
It is my understanding that that is the opinion of the Ulster Farmers Union, but everybody has their problems. I think that the National Farmers Union may have come out in support, but I am not sure; it could still be sitting on the fence. We do not know which way it will go. However, the Ulster Farmers Union has come out with that silly statement.
The year 2016 is the Northern Ireland year of food, and fantastic work is underway through Food NI. The hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) and I hosted an event on St Patrick’s day in this House. It was the second time that an event had been held in this House to promote Northern Ireland food, and it was a fantastic success. This week, the fancy London outlet Fortnum & Mason is promoting Northern Ireland produce to help local retailers. Today, a lot of VIPs and other invited guests have been there to sample some of that food.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he agree that a large proportion of Northern Ireland’s agri-food industry is dependent on exports? In that respect, it is important that we achieve a direct export capacity to China, Taiwan and north America.
I absolutely agree—I think the hon. Lady raised the point in the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee previous to this debate—and that needs to be achieved quickly.
It is humbling to hear all the success stories—sometimes, there are stories of not so much success—especially coming from a wee country that was deep in conflict for many years. To me, that shows a strong work ethic from the Northern Ireland community and the business community to keep trying. Our economy is settling into a reasonable state of stability, but we must acknowledge the unease of local businesses, farmers and investors as the referendum looms.
I am appalled by some of the scare tactics that have been put forward by those in the remain campaign. Membership of the EU costs £350 million a week. Combined with red tape, bureaucracy and many EU laws taking precedence over UK law, we have reached a point at which the costs have outgrown the falling benefits.
Nine years ago, devolution was restored to Northern Ireland. In that time, we all faced many local, national and international challenges. We faced up to them and overcame them. However, we cannot take our foot off the gas. The incoming First Minister’s five-point plan prioritised spending on the health service, creating more jobs and increased incomes, protecting family budgets, raising education standards for everyone and investing in infrastructure. That is what we are about and what we need to do to deliver for all the people of Northern Ireland.
I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I again congratulate the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) on securing the debate. Like him, I congratulate everyone who was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly on Friday and Saturday of last week. There is a major job of work to do, and I am sure they will get down to that as part of their preliminary work tomorrow.
I will focus my contribution on the role that tourism and the visitor economy can play in bringing prosperity to Northern Ireland, but first I want to echo the comments of the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) about education. Clearly, education, skills and training are directly linked to the economy. However, on 23 March, schools received a letter from the Minister saying that their budget would be at a certain level. It a major cut, which will have an impact on the delivery of the curriculum to many pupils throughout the schools sector. That will have an impact on our economy in the long term, which needs to be addressed as a priority.
Will the hon. Lady accept that, given how the block grant works, the only way more money can be found for education is through reform of the education system in Northern Ireland? I am talking about holding less money at the centre for Department-inspired initiatives and instead giving it to principals, and about showing less favouritism to certain growing sectors of education at the expense of other sectors, some of which are already working under capacity.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. I agree that there needs to be investment in schools and education. That is the priority, because investment in well-developed children’s education will lead to better outcomes for training and our economy.
Northern Ireland is undoubtedly a beautiful place, and our appeal has been strengthened by our growing position as a world-leading location for films and television. In that respect, tourism is an important revenue generator. In the year from October 2014 to September 2015, it brought total expenditure of more than £700 million to our economy. That helps to support jobs and gives communities new livelihoods.
As a co-chair of the all-party group for the visitor economy, I am anxious, as are many members of the group, for the Government to bring forward proposals to reduce VAT on tourism on a UK basis. That fiscal incentive would have a deep and generous impact on the Northern Ireland economy. We need only look at the south of Ireland, where VAT on tourism has been levied at 9% over the last number of years. As a consequence of that measure, about 9,000 jobs were created in the two years after it was introduced. We are part of the UK, which is one of only two of the 27 countries in the European Union that do not have a lower rate of VAT on tourism, so that immediately places us at a disadvantage.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann also raised the issue of Brexit. Obviously, I take a very different view from him and his colleagues in the Democratic Unionist party. I and my colleagues in the Social Democratic and Labour party believe that we should remain in the European Union and I give a little warning based on evidence direct from Danske Bank. This week, it said in the quarterly sectoral review for 2016 that the economic growth forecast for Northern Ireland had been revised down to 1.6% from 1.8%. Angela McGowan of Danske Bank was reported in the business press yesterday as having indicated that that was due to the threat of Brexit, austerity and slower global growth, which takes us back the global commodity markets. She said:
“The message remains that Northern Ireland’s economy continues to expand, but the pace of growth is slowing. While the continued reduction in the public sector jobs will weigh down overall growth in the short to medium term, by far the biggest risk to growth this year is Brexit which has lowered investment and growth in the first half of this year…but there is no reason the private side of the economy should not bounce back”
after the referendum, which I hope will produce a remain vote.
Those on the leave side have not produced any evidence on which to base their arguments, and they do not know what the far side of a leave vote would look like. However, I know that there will be a severe impact on our local economy. I firmly believe that there is a future for the Northern Ireland economy and for our young people, but that depends on several factors. One is staying in the European Union, otherwise we will close easy access to the 500 million potential tourists in the EU and block off one of our biggest areas of growth.
I once again congratulate the hon. Member for Upper Bann on securing this important debate. I hope that the Northern Ireland Executive will get down to work and ensure that new areas of growth can be tapped into and that new areas for visitors can be created. That can happen only in a context in which we are totally open for business and totally open to new markets. That means remaining in the European Union.
Further to that, I want our agri-food sector to grow—
I understand that the Minister, the shadow Minister and the Scottish National party’s spokesperson must start to speak at 5.10 pm, but I wondered whether it would be possible to have a couple of extra minutes, Mr McCabe—there are two other Members left to speak.