Wednesday 14 September 2016
[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
Social Fund Funeral Payments
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Social Fund funeral payments.
May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David? I look forward to what I hope will be another constructive debate on this topic. Before commencing, it is appropriate to place on record my appreciation to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), and the hon. Members for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) and for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), who have all campaigned on the huge disparity between people’s profound need at a sincere time of grief and the support that Government are prepared to offer them.
I am also greatly indebted to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), who as Chair of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions compiled an important report on this subject, “Support for the Bereaved”, which was published in March this year. I know that he wished to be here this morning but, due to scheduling, the Committee is taking evidence for an inquiry this morning, so its members are unable to do so. May I also welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Welfare Delivery, the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), to her place? I have not thus far engaged with her as a Minister, but I know her to be a compassionate Conservative. I know she is well placed to respond appropriately, and I trust that when she does, this debate will have a tangible outcome.
When the Select Committee’s report was published, Citizens Advice in Northern Ireland commenced its work, motivated by a desire to assist those in society who often struggle to find the right information, let alone access the help they require. I believe that its quest should be ours today. While we should always strive to provide dignity in life, we must also ensure that people have dignity in death.
The problem can be summed up as curtly as this. SunLife’s cost of dying survey puts the average cost of a funeral at £3,700. The average payment for the preceding year from the social fund was £1,347. That is a shortfall of 62%. We know that eligibility for the payment is confined to those in receipt of income support, housing benefit, tax credit, universal credit, pension credit, jobseeker’s allowance or employment and support allowance. We therefore recognise as a society that any recipient of this payment is already in need of Government support to make ends meet. Starkly, we are forcing individuals for whom every penny counts to accept a financial burden of £2,300.
I am listening very carefully indeed to the hon. Gentleman’s speech, as ever. I invite him to take this opportunity to put on the record his appreciation for the contribution made by armed services charities. In Northern Ireland, and I expect throughout the United Kingdom, those charities have been very good at helping the families of veterans when they fall on hard times and are unable to meet their funeral expenses.
I am indebted to the hon. Lady. She is entirely right. At a time of grief and sorrow, pride sometimes gets in the way of people seeking the support they most earnestly need. While quietly and under the surface there are many membership organisations that, through benevolence, step in to support, they should not have to.
We are burdening those in receipt of benefits with a 62% deficit of £2,300. I know that the Government’s position—indeed, it was accepted by the Select Committee—is that in all these instances people have a choice to make. They have a choice as to what type of funeral they have, whether they engage the services of a funeral director and whether they assume additional costs. We accept that people have choices.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He talks about choices. Does he agree that one of the invidious choices that some families have to make is going into considerable debt from a variety of sources in order to pay for a funeral? At a time when immediate relatives and next of kin are grieving tremendously and finding it very difficult to make ends meet, this added burden sometimes leads them to go to money lenders or other sources to get the resources.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When the Government talk about choices, they also express a desire for the ideal situation that people make provision for their own end of life. Ideally, that is what we should do. Ideally, it should come from our estate and from our savings, but those who are most in need are recipients of benefits from this society because we recognise that they cannot pay for themselves.
I ask this question of the Minister—I do not do so glibly, but it starkly illustrates the difficulty we have. Take JSA as one example. A recipient of JSA gets £73.10 per week. How much of that £73.10 do Government believe should be set aside for funeral provision? I do not wish to be facetious: that is the serious concern of many people who struggle by themselves and do not get enough from Government. We are saying, “Really, you should be saving for after life as well.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining this debate. Does he agree that there is a degree of humility when it comes to folk who cannot afford to pay for a funeral? They also need more help when it comes to the form filling and the process itself.
I agree with my hon. Friend, and I will come on to some of those issues later in my speech, as well as recognising the particular difficulties we have in Northern Ireland when it comes to those choices. The Select Committee did a good bit of work on the application process and the SF200 form, which I will refer to later as well.
The Minister will know that the social fund payment is broken into two categories: what is considered to be a non-discretionary award and what is considered to be a discretionary spend. The Committee has canvassed this issue. The Members I mentioned previously—the hon. Member for South Shields and others—have recognised that the £700 award, which was formulated at a time when it met discretionary spend needs, was frozen in 2003. The Bank of England’s calculator suggests that that £700 is now worth £495.68, yet the costs have not frozen; they have risen exponentially. That figure was set at a time when Government said they would meet the costs, but I am afraid this policy is now compounding the debt and the pressure on families who look to Government for support. That is 13 years of diminished spend, and the cost of discretionary items has risen exponentially, at more than three times the rate of inflation year on year since 2003.
Let us consider what is discretionary. I do not find it comfortable that the provision of a representative of the clergy or an officiant at a ceremony is a discretionary spend. I know that people have different views on faith, but for me it is not a choice. I recognise that there are many in our country who do not live a faithful life but who, when they approach the end, build that relationship for what is to come. I do not believe that that spend—whether it is a faith-based clergyman or someone who will simply officiate at an ordinary funeral—should be discretionary, nor do I believe that the hiring of a place of worship should be. We cannot expect it to be a discretionary cost for people at a time of grief and sorrow to sort out a place aside from their home to welcome family and friends who want to pay their respects to their loved one.
Discretionary cost is also associated with a cremated remains plot or storage space. Cremation is a non-discretionary spend, so its cost is covered; burial is also a non-discretionary spend and interment is covered. Burials cost substantially more than cremations and the Government will cover the cost of interment of a body in a burial, yet providing a plot for ashes or a safe place for them to be kept is non-discretionary. Given that there is a huge saving for the Government in the discretionary element of cremation, the provision of a cremated remains plot or storage space should be moved from non-discretionary to discretionary.
Embalming is a discretionary spend. The Government say a family choose whether a body will be embalmed. It is not required scientifically, but is most important, should a family choose to have an open coffin or to spend time with their deceased loved one. As part of that categorisation of non-discretionary spend, the Government are making the choice more difficult for those in receipt of benefits or who can ill afford it. They are saying, “We will pay £700”—which in no way represents the cost of the non-discretionary items added together; indeed, it has been frozen since 2003 and is now worth less than £500—“but you choose: are you going to use it to have an officiant at a ceremony, to have a place to put the ashes of your loved one, to embalm the body before disposal or to mark their final resting place with a memorial?” It is appropriate to spell out these aspects of the end of life sincerely and earnestly, to illustrate some of the choices that the policy is asking people without sufficient means to make.
In an evidence session during the Select Committee’s inquiry, an official from the Department for Work and Pensions said that, ideally, eligible claimants should know what their entitlement is before a funeral. It is sensible and plausible that people do not go to a funeral director and ask for these discretionary items, amassing a substantial cost that they can ill afford. That is sensible and, when I consider the delay in having a funeral in England and Wales, it is also practical. People may wait two, three or four weeks for a funeral. That is not so in Northern Ireland, where traditionally people are buried two or three days after death. So at a time of sorrow and grief, we not only ask people to come to terms with loss and their inability to provide for their loved one and to make arrangements, contact family and friends, but to contact DWP’s advice line to see whether support is available. Three weeks sounds practical, but three days is less so, yet the constraints are the same across the country. Colleagues from other parts of the country may wish to add their experience, but in Northern Ireland the short time frame does not allow people to do what the DWP official described as ideal.
All this—the question of discretionary or non-discretionary and the cap in 2003—has led to a crisis of funeral poverty in this country. The Local Government Association has highlighted its concern. In 2009-10, there were 2,200 public health funerals, at a cost of £1.5 million to local authorities. In 2010-11, there were 2,900, at a cost of £2.1 million. The BBC survey of all local authorities in this country had a response rate of three quarters. It is estimated that there will be 3,500 public health funerals this year.
We know what they are. Paupers’ funerals have been described as funerals for which there is simply no one to pay, no family support and no ability to give someone a send-off from a loved one, so the state steps in. The number of such funerals has risen exponentially to 3,500 this year. That has led the National Association of Funeral Directors to ask why, if funeral poverty is rising, social fund funeral payments have decreased. The social fund payments of £40 million in 2016 represent a 10.9% decrease from £44 million in the previous year. The number of public health funerals is rising and funeral poverty is rising, yet Government support is falling. With a fall of £4 million between last year and this year, we are returning to 1993 in real terms, when the Government spent £90 million on social fund funeral payments.
Last year, the social fund proudly stated that it had reduced outstanding debt and returned more than £150 million to the Treasury. The number of public health funerals is rising, spend is decreasing and the cost to local authorities and funeral poverty are rising; rather than proudly stating that they are handing £150 million back to the Treasury, the Government have the choice to use the money more appropriately and to provide the support that is needed.
To be fair, the Government gave a timely response to the Select Committee’s report. The Minister has had the chance to consider some of her narrow brief—DWP is not a narrow Department and has many considerations—and today gives her the opportunity to add some meat to the skeletal response and skeletal commitments that were offered.
The Government have talked about dialogue between funeral directors, interested third parties and stakeholders. I will be interested to hear what the Minister says to update the discussions that have been taking place since 2015. We should have an appropriate response from the Government today on how those discussions are progressing without just placing the onus on funeral directors.
There was much in the Select Committee’s report about funeral directors doing this and that. The Government could define what a simple funeral is. There are choices, as I have outlined, about what is discretionary and what is non-discretionary. I will be interested to hear not just what stakeholders, funeral directors and their association are prepared to do, but what the Government are prepared to do.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on initiating this debate and on how comprehensively and eloquently he has introduced it. In my experience as an MP, people do not necessarily want to talk about funerals, but as they get older the issue becomes more of a burden and a worry. We have a new Prime Minister and a new direction in a Government who are not for the privileged few but for the many. This is an opportunity for the Government to take a new approach and relieve this burden from many elderly people—often widows living alone—who are worried about passing on debt to their families. This is a real opportunity, as my hon. Friend said, to have a new, fresh start.
I agree entirely. In 2004, six years before I was elected, I was assisting in one of our advice centres. A lady came in and said she had nothing, but that she had been turned down for pension credit. When we looked at the reasons why, we saw she did have something. She had very few savings, but she had a lump sum of £4,000, which brought her total savings above the threshold for pension credit.
I asked her about the £4,000 and her response was, “That’s not mine. That’s Wilton’s.” Wilton is a funeral director in my constituency. For her in 2004, the consequence of doing what the Government asked of her—to take responsibility for herself and to take pride at the end of her life knowing that no one else would have to step in—was to be ineligible for the Government’s pension credit when she needed it most.
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s relaying that story to the Chamber; I am sure that many of us have similar stories. Just a few weeks ago, I dealt with a constituent who, to get out of that predicament, has paid for their funeral in advance so that the money cannot be held against them in their benefit claim. That is an awful situation in which to put constituents, especially elderly and vulnerable people living alone.
Absolutely right. I am grateful for that intervention. It is also important, when someone makes that choice, that they tell their family or loved ones that they have done so; if they do not, it is perfectly plausible that a family member, doing their best for their loved one, will go off and engage someone else, not knowing that that financial provision had been made. The period of three days makes that a more likely proposition in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the United Kingdom.
We are talking about simple funeral costs and simple funerals. The Select Committee report considers what a simple funeral is. I believe—I hope that the Government will listen to this earnestly—that the £700 at which the amount was capped in 2003 not only needs to be increased to reflect the cost today, but should be index-linked. It should rise with inflation so that we are today taking a decision that will not just change the situation for people in this financial year, but have a long-lasting positive impact for anyone who finds themselves in the position that we are discussing.
The Minister will know that one consideration was about the SF200 application form. Having had a chance to consider the matter following the Government response in May, can the Government say whether they will accept the recommendation and ensure that the form indicates clearly the conditions associated with who pays and who applies? That is very simple, but it means that when someone gets to the end of the process, either before or after the funeral, they do not find that Government support is not there for them and they are left with a debt.
The Government said that they were conducting their own direct research with users. I am keen to know where that is at and what it has uncovered. Additionally—I am sure that Scottish colleagues will raise this—there was a proposal that we should follow the Scottish model of indexing funeral payments with inflation. There was some criticism of that model in the Government response, but I would be keen to hear about that.
A particular issue that arose during the Committee’s consideration was the situation in Northern Ireland with bereavement benefits. The Government have considered bereavement benefits and decided that it is inappropriate for cohabiting couples with children to be eligible. That is the Government’s position. They have considered the Committee’s report and decided to stick with that position, but in Northern Ireland we cannot, because the High Court found against the Northern Ireland Executive, so in Northern Ireland there is eligibility for cohabiting couples with dependent children.
Given that we administer what is a Government scheme in Northern Ireland—it is not a Northern Ireland Executive scheme, but the wider social fund of this country—I am keen to find out from the Minister, who may need to write to me, whether the money required to meet the additional burden in relation to bereavement benefit comes out of the Northern Ireland Executive’s money or whether the Government are making up that shortfall even though they are unprepared to do so in the rest of the United Kingdom. We have found ourselves in this position because of the judiciary, and the courts may well step in in England as well.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on initiating the debate and on the very effective way in which he is putting across his case. Does he agree that in the interest of compassion at a time of bereavement, that judgment is actually right and the Government ought to look at the matter again in England and throughout the United Kingdom?
I do agree, although the Government flag up what I think are important associated considerations. Could we see two individuals, one a married spouse out of the home and one a cohabiting spouse in the home, applying and have the difficulty of deciding who is entitled and who is not? The Government have flagged that up. The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that the matter needs further consideration. There is the particular issue for Northern Ireland, and I think that the wider impacts are worth further reflection.
There are a number of issues on which the Government hold no information, and I will go through them quickly. The Minister may or may not get a chance to take them down, but I know that many hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate. The Government hold no data on the number of people unable to afford a funeral, on the average cost of a funeral or on the types of funeral chosen. The Government have no idea of the number of people plunged into debt. The Government hold no data on the number of local authority or public health funerals and have no proportional breakdown in their accounts as to how the £40 million paid out of the social fund breaks down into discretionary and non-discretionary payments.
I refer to all that because those are the answers that hon. Members who have doggedly pursued this issue over many years have received. Having highlighted all that has been highlighted in this opening part of the debate, and in expectation of what is to come from colleagues, I think that answers to those questions must be the starting point for a Government who wish to deal appropriately with the disparity that people face and the debt that people are plunged into.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to introduce the debate and, as I said at the start, I commend all those who have done much more work on this issue than I have. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) said, with a new Government, a new Minister and the stated ideal of standing for those who need it most, this is one good opportunity for the Government to deliver.
Order. Seven hon. Members wish to speak. By my maths, that means between four and five minutes each. I hope that colleagues will be fair to one another and not squeeze anyone out.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) on securing the debate. It is a pleasure to serve with you as our Chair, Sir David. I am privileged to follow the eloquence of the hon. Gentleman. I completely agree with all the points that he made, but I would like to bring my own perspective to this matter. I welcome the debate and feel that the fact that I unfortunately had to arrange my husband’s funeral a few months ago has given me a close insight into the issues raised here today.
The death of a close family member or friend always comes as a terrible shock. Whether it was expected or unexpected, the emotions and feelings that immediately come to the surface are grief at the loss of the loved one and the knowledge that one’s life has changed for ever. It should not be a time to have to worry about finances; it should be a time to grieve and come to terms with that loss. However, in the society we live in today, we find that in many people’s lives finances are uppermost in their minds as they struggle to make sense of the situation that they find themselves in.
My first point is that the necessary practicalities of arranging a funeral have to start almost immediately and the impact of that is that poorer families may quickly fall into debt. Although there may be some support for those on low incomes, it is becoming apparent that the grant of £700, which has been frozen for the last 13 years, can no longer cover the cost of a basic funeral. Those on low incomes may be able to claim the grant, but they still need to find the additional funds. As evidenced by the Work and Pensions Committee, many can run up huge credit card bills that spiral out of control or fall into the hands of payday loan companies or, even worse, loan sharks, causing long-term financial hardship that will be very difficult for some ever to get out of.
My second point is on the lack of openness about the cost of funerals. In my own case, it never occurred to me to shop around or do a price comparison. In the aftermath of a death, people are vulnerable and not always thinking straight. I just contacted the funeral director who I knew was very local, and I must add that they were extremely helpful, kind and respectful throughout the process, but it does seem to me that we should give this issue more thought and seek to persuade funeral directors to be open about their costs and make them available online, so that we can all make better informed choices. When I return to my constituency, I will be contacting the funeral directors in Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough and urging them to do that.
Thirdly, I am exercised by the various tragic situations in which vulnerable low-income people, some found in my constituency, may find themselves following the death of a family member who they may have cared for. As we all know, an estimated 6.5 million people in this country are taking on the absolutely important job of looking after, and caring for, someone in their family or friendship circles. It is possible that during that time such a carer may be eligible to claim a carer’s allowance, but following the death of that relative they will find, obviously, that the carer’s allowance will cease to be paid to them. That may put them in a position where they need to claim for employment and support allowance. If they are found eligible, their income will be significantly reduced.
Even worse—I have to bring this up—some three months later, that person, perhaps one I have spoken to in my constituency, may have to pay the bedroom tax. That has the knock-on effect of their suddenly seeing their life, income and quality of life completely reduced. How many of us in this Chamber would be able to live on less than £50 a week? I hope the Minister will take that on board when she looks at the wider issues of bereavement in low-income families. The Government would have us believe that moving to a smaller property will deal with that issue, but we already know that we do not have enough properties anywhere to put people who are paying the bedroom tax into—we certainly have not got enough available.
I heard the hon. Member for Belfast East tell us that the Minister is a “compassionate Conservative”—not a phrase we often hear up in the north. I urge the Minister to take heed of the recent findings of the Work and Pensions Committee and launch an urgent inquiry into the industry, to tackle the causes of funeral cost inflation and to address rising funeral poverty. Everyone, whatever their means, should be able to say goodbye to their loved ones with respect and dignity.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) for bringing this very important debate forward. I recall speaking on funeral poverty around this time last year, and was deeply encouraged by the consensus around the Chamber that the current situation was simply not sustainable. It is a sad and inescapable fact that far too many people struggle to put food on the table and keep body and soul together. They cannot afford to live and now we learn that they simply cannot afford to die. It is a very cruel fact and a cause of deep shame for all of us; it is a burden for too many families.
I was moved last year, following the debate, to support the Fair Funerals campaign. I wrote to every single undertaker in my constituency of North Ayrshire and Arran to ask that, as a matter of course, grieving families are offered the cheapest and most affordable option when they come to bury their loved ones. One would think that this might be offered automatically, but apparently, sadly, it is not. I simply cannot understand why it is not automatically offered.
Let us not forget that the families in question who are grieving are only thinking, naturally enough, of giving their loved ones the best and most fitting send off. Cost is not the first thought in their minds. For too many families, it is only after the event that the practicalities of payment truly hit home and leave so many struggling to pay off very high costs, saddling them with debt for many years in the future.
Social fund funeral payments vary depending on the particular circumstances of those seeking to bury their loved ones. However, for those already on benefits or low incomes, the payments are simply inadequate in the face of rising costs for even very modest funerals. They are simply not keeping pace with costs. The average award from the UK Government for help with a funeral in 2014-15 was £1,375, less than 40% of the estimated average cost of a funeral. Alongside that, burial and cremation charges continue to rise—80% over the last decade. This leaves grieving families struggling with grief, but unfortunately also struggling with debt. There is also some evidence to suggest that often people on benefits or low incomes do not even know that they qualify for the modest help that is available.
Of course, as has already been mentioned, we could encourage those who are able to afford them to take out monthly funeral payment plans. To those thinking of doing so, I urge caution. I suggest they either take careful advice or read the small print extremely closely, because over time many individuals end up paying much more than the cost of the funeral itself and the balance is not refunded to grieving families.
I say to the Minister that, to protect the public, the time has come for an official regulatory body to investigate capping the costs of funerals and, importantly, to compel funeral directors to inform clients of their lowest-cost options. That is so those who are grieving and will struggle to pay back the high costs can make a more informed decision about the cost of funerals, with all the relevant information available to them.
The Scottish Government are doing much work on this and have commissioned a report in preparation for the devolution of funeral payments to the Scottish Government, but I think much more needs to be done. This issue confronts those on low incomes in Scotland and across the United Kingdom. I know that there is a level of consensus in this Chamber and I am interested to hear the Minister’s response. I will finish where I began: it is to our shame that too many people cannot afford to live, and now simply cannot afford to die.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) on setting the scene so movingly and thoughtfully. His speech was easy for us all to follow and appreciate and, more importantly, for the Minister to respond to. The funeral payment scheme that is currently in place is complex and certainly does not adequately cover the associated costs of a funeral. I am also pleased to see the Minister in her place and congratulate her on her elevation to the position she now holds. I understand that in the past the Minister has had a similar debate in Westminster Hall on this subject. I think I came along to support her and added a contribution at some point—which was uncharacteristic—and I very much look forward to her response.
I have had a number of cases in my office regarding funeral payments. One of the main problems is that people have to commit to the funeral without knowing whether their claim will be upheld. I have had people in my office who have had to take out payday loans—I would not recommend it—believing that the funeral will be paid for, only to be refused or given an amount of money well under what was needed to carry out the actual funeral. They are then left with truly massive bills and debts, because they believed they were eligible and wanted to respect the memory of their loved ones. The scheme was set up to prevent families from having to allow their loved ones to go through a pauper’s funeral service, which is not a nice thing for a loved one.
I also commend what the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) referred to. In many cases when people come to my office I say, “Were they members of the services or any of the army regimental associations? Because there is help available through the Royal British Legion and the army associations as well.” In some cases they can step in, but not always.
I was a councillor for 26 years and can well remember the odd time when a note was brought to the council saying that someone was to be given a pauper’s funeral in that section of the graveyard. It is unbelievably sad to sit in a chamber when a name comes up and to think, “There must be some family or someone who knows them.” All of a sudden, they are in the paupers’ section. It is a very cheap funeral, but it is unbelievably sad that there is no one to claim the body and, worst still, that no one can afford to claim it.
My office regularly fills in forms, as lots of people come along for help and assistance. They are asked who their next of kin is, and there may be three or four children. Who is on benefits? If three are and one is not, that means they will not get any help. The person who passed away may have four children or two children, whatever the case may be, and then somebody will come along and say they are estranged from their mum and have not spoken to her for many years, but they have to prove that. It is a very complex system. This is not something that any compassionate person would like to see.
In my opinion, unless there is reform of the scheme, as my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East has referred to, we will see many more people put into the unmarked sections of council graveyards, as it used to be in days gone by. There will be even more people getting themselves into massive debt using extortionate lenders, and then the desperation takes over. I am not being dramatic in saying this. The cost to councils and health trusts of paupers’ funerals in Northern Ireland has risen by almost 50% between 2010 and 2015. More than £180,000 has been spent in Northern Ireland since 2008 on funerals for people who die alone or without relatives able or willing to pay. Health trusts and councils have carried out about 90 funerals since 2008, and in 2013-14—the most recent period with the most complete statistics—around £32,600 was spent. The figure is about 46% more than the £22,200 recorded in 2008-09. However, spending fell a wee bit, to £25,500, in 2014-15.
Across the UK, the cost to councils of paupers’ funerals has risen, as the Minister will know, by almost 30% to £1.7 million in the past four years, whereas the number of funerals has also risen by 11%. It shows the dire situation that people are in that they would allow a loved one’s body to remain unclaimed for two weeks in a morgue and then allow them to be cremated or buried in the paupers’ section. My hon. Friend referred to the £700 of state help available, but a no-frills funeral today costs £3,700.
I will conclude with these comments. A quick browse online on the likes of Macmillan Cancer Support, CLIC Sargent or other websites makes it very clear that people cannot rely on a grant to help them with the cost of a funeral. CLIC Sargent’s website says:
“We can’t give full details and exclusions here, so please don’t take it for granted that you will get everything listed above”,
and refers to “necessary” or “reasonable” costs. It also states:
“Many people find that the Funeral Payment doesn’t cover all the costs”—
that is very clear—and that it
“can also be reduced by the value of some of your child’s estate…It is important to remember that if you do receive a funeral payment, it may not cover all the funeral costs.”
That is aimed at grieving parents. Surely there is a better way that we can handle this. Therefore, I support a simplified approach, as my hon. Friend and colleague said. I also believe that the amount available must be uplifted to recognise the changing times we live in.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I give thanks to the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) for bringing this debate to the Chamber and for his kind comments towards me.
Members will know that back in 2014, I introduced the Funeral Services Bill. This Bill called for the Government to carry out an overarching review of funeral affordability. At that time, more than 100,000 people were estimated to be suffering from funeral poverty. That means, simply, that they were unable to afford to bury their loved ones or had incurred significant debts in doing so. Since 2004, funeral costs have risen by a staggering 80%, with the average funeral generally costing just under £4,000. In this climate of rising costs, the only payments that have not increased are the Government-administered social fund funeral payments, for which, between 2014 and 2015, the Government turned down 24,000 applicants.
I am really proud that my Bill started a national conversation and gave this issue the prominence it needed. I have continued to campaign on behalf not just of those we know about who are struggling with funeral poverty, but of all those who have stayed silent, or who have stopped me in the street, written to me or sent me deeply personal messages stating that they would never want anyone to ever have to go through what they have—the stress, shame and indignity of not being able to offer their loved ones the one final goodbye they wanted. The pressure of that while trying to grieve is immensely distressing for so many people. In a country where we do not readily talk about death and dying, I have been heartened to see in the past few years a diminishing of the last great taboos of discussing dying and death.
I am not going to spend the time I have today going over how the social fund operates; I think hon. Members have done that justice already. I would like to use the short time I have to share my efforts, and those of other interested organisations since December 2014, in trying to seek some long-needed reform to the social fund payments through the introduction of an eligibility checker, as proposed in my Bill.
In late 2015, I, along with the National Association of Funeral Directors, Citizens Advice and others, attended a roundtable with the then Pensions Minister, Baroness Altmann. There was broad agreement that the introduction of an eligibility check would stem the tide of people committing to costs before they knew of any award, thus avoiding debt. At that roundtable, the Minister gave a cast-iron assurance that she would explore the eligibility-check option.
Correspondence between myself and the Minister continued. She advised me that research into the issues raised was ongoing, as were discussions with stakeholders. In April this year, I wrote to her dismayed that she had not mentioned the eligibility check in her recent correspondence. I pressed her for an update on the research and discussions with stakeholders that the Department had undertaken. I also asked for clarification that, as a wealth of research had already been conducted in this area, her Department were not simply duplicating existing work.
Two months later, I needed to remind the Minister that she had failed to respond to my letter. In that reminder, I also asked that the Government’s response to the Work and Pensions Committee report on bereavement benefits, which also asked for an eligibility check, was corrected, as the Government falsely said in their response that an eligibility checker already exists. It does not and the record has still not been corrected.
I then received a letter simply dated July 2016 from the Minister. It said that:
“we are looking to see if a checker is the best solution”,
and that I would receive an update this summer. The Minister then resigned, saying:
“Unfortunately over the past year, short-term political considerations, exacerbated by the EU referendum, have inhibited good policy-making.”
Well, no shock there.
Although I am always keen to debate these issues, I am totally fed up with the Government’s poor response and incompetence on this issue, and the way in which this Minister’s predecessors have messed me and all these other organisations around. I welcome the new Minister to her place and have read her letter to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), who chairs the Work and Pensions Committee. In it, she also writes of conversations with stakeholders. I imagine that stakeholders can only say the same thing so many times without getting completely fed up.
My questions to the Minister today are really simple: what research has been done by her Department? Where on earth can any of us find it? Who are these mystery stakeholders? I want to make it very clear to all those suffering from funeral poverty that even if this Government continue to let them down, I and my colleagues never will.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) not only on securing and initiating this debate, but on his in-depth analysis of the situation regarding social fund payments for funerals and its background. He said that payments in this area have been frozen for years and discussed the issue of working with the funeral industry. In such circumstances, perhaps capitalism takes over, rather than the needs of the individual.
I am particularly struck by the fact that many people on low incomes who face end-of-life issues, whether abruptly or as a result of a serious illness, are provided with additional stress because of their low income. It is something they could do without, and I immediately think of those I have been involved with. There are people on a low income as a result of their illness—for example, those with contaminated bloods—and have all the associated problems from that. It means they have no ability to work. People may have hepatitis C or HIV, which can bring on death much more quickly; as a result, their relations perhaps cannot pay for funerals. We have to be particularly compassionate and we are looking for a compassionate response today from the Minister. Above all, we are looking for actions.
It is appropriate that we are debating the social fund funeral payments and associated funeral poverty. As the hon. Gentleman and others across the House today have highlighted, although payments may be a devolved matter, the DWP is responsible for the level of payment, which has been frozen at £700 for the past 13 years.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the report published by the Work and Pensions Committee earlier this year. It identified and characterised the crux of the problem as the rising cost of funerals and the decreased value of state funeral payments, which are pushing families into debt and distress. The Minister should take that on board in her response today, in her further interrogation of the matter before a final response is made to the Work and Pensions Committee report and in her further actions, but she should also realise that the changing nature of welfare reform has had impacts that have placed low-income families into greater poverty.
The falling value of state support is exacerbated by the rising cost of funerals. The Fair Funerals Campaign estimates that the social fund now covers, on average, only 37% of an overall funeral bill. At this time of great sadness, and maybe remorse in some cases, high funeral costs are not only an added financial burden. Funeral poverty can cause great distress, and perhaps feelings of shame and stigma, as people struggle to carry out a basic human ritual. The grief and stress caused by the death of a loved one are prolonged and added to by financial worry and hardship. Those in the funeral industry try to delay sending out bills because they recognise that there are particular problems, but there is a need for greater conversation and, as the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) suggested, a cap on funeral charges, which could assist people on low incomes.
I support the calls from the Northern Ireland Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, and from others in the independent sector in Northern Ireland who have given so much support to people, that the Department for Work and Pensions should follow the lead of the Scottish Government, who plan to increase the payments once they obtain these devolved powers.
Funeral poverty is a problem not only in Northern Ireland but throughout the regions of the UK. The DWP should increase the level of social fund funeral payments to reflect that, and I hope the Minister will today indicate that the Department wishes to move towards a certain path or trajectory that will allow the unfreezing of funeral payments and a corresponding increase in order to relate funeral payments to the cost of living out there. Indexing the payment is much fairer than the current system, in which we have seen a 13-year freeze as funeral costs soar.
We are discussing a sensitive, sad and regretful situation for many people, and it is important that the DWP engages with the funeral industry, responds to the Select Committee report and introduces a legislative amendment to increase funeral payments whereby those on low incomes who in some instances face the abrupt death of a loved one, or a death following a long period of sickness and inability to work, are given the due solace that they urgently demand and very much deserve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. Like others, I congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) on securing a debate on this delicate and emotive subject.
It appears that even the dead are subject to austerity. Real-terms spending from the funeral fund has decreased over the years whereas, as we have heard, the cost of funerals has increased and a £700 cap on particular costs has remained in place since 2003—that has been a failure of successive Governments. We have heard that the average payment covers only 40% of the average cost of a funeral.
The House has had wider debates about dignity in dying. It seems that the poorest in our society might not get the chance of dignity in death, but the reality is that they are not the ones who suffer. It is their dependants who have the stress of trying to find the money and the stress, and possibly even the feeling of shame, of not being able to send off their loved one as they see fit. Under the current system, dependants also have to live with the stress of signing up for funeral costs, then applying for a grant and then waiting to see what money they might get back.
The processing timescales can also be an issue. Earlier this year I was contacted by a distressed constituent who was advised that the average processing time was five to six weeks. In 2015-16 some 30% of applications took longer to process than the 15-day turnaround target. Such performance is almost commendable given that answers to my written questions have confirmed that the number of staff working in the social fund section of the DWP has halved from 798 in 2013-14 to 349 in 2015-16, which is shocking.
Even after the award of a grant, a family might have to suffer the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions trying to recover the costs from the deceased’s estate. With a static budget of £40 million, I question the value of pursuing estates, which last year returned a yield of only £200,000, or just 0.5%. Will the Minister advise us on the merits of pursuing such estates? What costs are associated with the recovery? The administration probably outweighs the costs recovered.
The only thing worse for families than the stress of waiting to hear how much they might be awarded is the stress of outright rejection. In 2014-15, the rejection rate was 37%, despite a massive decrease in the number of applications since 2010-11. Coincidentally, 2010-11 was the year that budget loans became eligible for funeral expenses, too—that is something else on which the Government hold no data. The Government clearly need to streamline the system to make eligibility easier to understand.
Changing tack slightly, Oxfam’s recent report found that the richest 10% of the UK population own more than half of the country’s total wealth. The top 1% own nearly a quarter, whereas the poorest 20% share just 0.8%. What have the Government done about the widening inequality in both life and death? In their most recent Budget, the Tories introduced a measure to help the families of the deceased: inheritance tax relief of some £2.6 billion. There was also a reduction in capital gains tax of some £3.4 billion. That is £6 billion of giveaways to the rich, yet the funeral payment fund stays static at £40 million. The Government could easily double funeral payments to cover 100% of average funeral costs without materially affecting the UK budget. For me, that would be the real face of compassionate conservatism.
I am glad that the transfer of powers means that the Scottish Government have already stated that they plan a 10-day turnaround for applications and a more streamlined and dignified system—they are currently consulting on such matters—but the reality is that they have to manage that within an ever-tightening budget. As we have heard, the UK Government have no real data to give the Scottish Government a good starting point.
This issue is about doing the right thing, even though many people will not know the importance of such payments until they reach this point in life. The Scottish Government’s attitude in their consultation exercise is to do the right thing, and hopefully the UK Government will learn from that. We certainly do not want to see the return of paupers’ graves. We can afford greater dignity for families suffering bereavement.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) for securing this debate on such an important matter. Like many hon. Members here, I participated in last year’s debate on funeral poverty and am pleased to see that the Work and Pensions Committee has since conducted an inquiry into the matter. I agree with the Committee’s recommendation that the price of a basic funeral should be agreed with the industry and that social fund funeral payments should be set at that level.
As others have noted, the level of state support via social fund funeral payments has been frozen since 2003. According to research by the Fair Funerals campaign, the average award of £1,225 covers only 35% of the cost of a funeral. For those who do not meet the qualifications to receive the payment, finding the money to cover the difference is incredibly difficult—many Members mentioned that in this debate and in previous debates.
As indicated by research conducted by the Fair Funerals campaign and others, for various reasons many do not shop around for funeral quotes. Oft times, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) said, they are initially offered higher-priced services by funeral directors rather than being given lower-priced services.
I have recently been made aware of a case in my constituency of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill about a local funeral home that, notably, had not signed on to the fair funerals pledge. My constituent had requested that a non-essential component of the funeral not be included. However, they were billed for it and later told that they owed the money, because that non-essential service was standard. Furthermore, they were significantly overcharged for services that, because of the circumstances of the death, would have been impossible for the funeral home to provide at all. I do not have time to go into the detail, but when a family member of the deceased attempted to discuss the discrepancies in the bill with the funeral home, they were ignored and forced to pay the bill.
In the light of that case and others that have been reported, I welcome the Work and Pensions Committee’s recommendation that an index of local funeral directors and their comparative costs for a fair funeral should be publicised. I further suggest that the industry-agreed price of a basic funeral—the price at which the social fund funeral payment is to be set—should also be publicised, with a breakdown of the services included in it, as other hon. Members touched on. Easy access to that information would be most helpful, and I would welcome the introduction of an eligibility checker.
In North Lanarkshire, the council area in which my constituency falls, funeral costs rose by 13% between 2014 and 2015 alone. According to Citizens Advice Scotland, the total cost of a funeral for those living in my constituency falls somewhere between £2,600 and £8,000. As more than half of households in North Lanarkshire have an annual household income of under £20,000, the cost of a funeral in my constituency can represent more than a third of annual household income.
The cost is particularly acute since a third of the UK population have savings of £250 or less. Recent reports have found that not only are many unable to pay for the cost of a funeral, but 40% of people find themselves forced to incur high-interest credit card debt or forced to take out a high-interest short-term loan to cover the shortfall. According to a finding published in The Guardian on 20 October 2014, Jobcentre staff have actively been encouraging individuals to take on such debt to pay for funeral costs.
A defence that funeral providers often use is that users have a choice of services. But, given the urgency of the situation, the lack of transparency in the options and costs that many funeral services provide, the cultural and social pressures to provide a good send-off and the difficulty of dealing with any administrative issue while in grief and often shock, some funeral providers are clearly taking advantage.
Given the rising cost of funerals and the number of people forced to take on short-term high-interest debts such as payday loans to pay for them, I suggest that an extension of the eligibility requirements for receiving a social fund funeral payment should be taken into consideration, to limit the number of individuals forced to take on debt to cover the shortfall. The social fund funeral payment is essential for those on lower incomes. However, it is set too low, the administration is bureaucratic and cumbersome for people at their most vulnerable, and the current qualifications for receiving it are too strict. I therefore urge the Minister to work to eradicate funeral poverty through amending the funeral payment; to take those providing funeral services to task; and to consider the recommendations of the Work and Pensions Committee and the points made by hon. Members today.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) on securing the debate and introducing it in a very effective and compassionate way.
For the sake of those watching the debate, let me start by explaining some of the issues. Social fund funeral payments cover the actual expenses of a funeral, such as the burial plot, grave-digging, cremation fees, reasonable transport costs to move the body and reasonable expenses for one return journey within the UK for a responsible person to arrange or attend the funeral. In addition, as we have heard from other hon. Members, up to £700 can be paid for such things as funeral directors’ fees, flowers, church fees and so on. The payments have been capped at that level since April 2003.
The Welfare Reform Act 2012 extended the scope of budgeting loans to include funeral costs, allowing claimants to top up the payment via loans deducted from their future benefit payments. In our view, that has allowed the UK Government to dodge the responsibility of increasing the cap in line with inflation; the grant today would be £1,027.66 if it had been increased in line with the retail prices index.
The funeral payment form can be obtained by going to a Jobcentre Plus office, by downloading it from gov.uk, or with a call to the 0345 Department for Work and Pensions bereavement service helpline, which costs up to 55p a minute from a mobile phone. I put it to the Minister that such helplines should be free to the consumer; they should not have to pay 55p a minute for them. Payments can be, and normally are, recovered from the deceased by the Department. Funeral expenses are legally the first charge on the estate.
The social fund will be devolved to the Scottish Parliament with other social security powers. Separately and in advance, after the scandals about the disposal of infant remains by hospitals and local authorities, the Scottish Government legislated to update the law around burials, cremations and funerals with an Act that was passed unanimously by the Scottish Parliament. The key relevant points are that it gives the Scottish Government the power to regulate funeral directors, issue a code of practice for them—although there are two voluntary trade bodies for funeral directors, around 20% are not members of either—and issue guidance on the costs of funeral expenses, and that it allows local authorities to provide travelling expenses to relevant people in case of the death of a looked-after child or adult.
The DWP social fund funeral payment application form is 23 pages long, with 12 pages of accompanying notes—a lengthy form by normal standards, but particularly strenuous when filled in by someone dealing with death of a close relative or friend. In 2014-15, 59% of applications were successful in gaining an award. The time taken to process the forms, along with the DWP policy to pay only invoices for actual incurred expenses, rather than advancing cash to pay expenses, can mean real problems for those organising funerals and reluctance from funeral directors to allow terms on tick. In contrast to the DWP policy on universal credit, for example, the form can only be posted or handed in to a Jobcentre Plus office; it cannot be done online. That leads to many extra days’ delay through posting and processing. I ask the Minister to look specifically at that issue.
The Scottish Government have highlighted the disparity between the process for paying benefit to a terminally ill claimant and the process for paying for their funeral. Claims based on the DS1500 form take an average of six days to process—one of the few parts of the DWP system that appear to work extremely effectively and efficiently. But when death is, unfortunately, inevitable in the near future, no cognisance is taken in regard to funeral payments. The Scottish Government are examining whether DS1500 applicants or their proxies can apply for the funeral payment and receive a decision in principle before they die, allowing them and their families to plan more effectively and decrease the stress and confusion following their death.
The UK Government cannot go on ignoring the needs of people on low incomes. Funeral costs are, sadly, an inevitable part of people’s lives. Forcing people already on benefits to pick up the enormous cost of a funeral is heartless and cruel. Citizens Advice Scotland states:
“The UK Government’s funeral payments fund has failed to keep up with the real cost of funerals in the last few years leaving some families saddled with debt to bury or cremate their loved ones.”
The average award from the UK Government for help with a funeral in 2014-15 was £1,375—less than 40% of the estimated cost of an average funeral in the UK, which is £3,702. We ask the UK Government to commit to increasing spending and increasing the uptake of their social fund funeral payments, to ensure that payment meets the essential cost of a funeral and to further increase the package available in Scotland.
My hon. Friends the Members for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Philip Boswell) and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) have already made the point that the UK Government must urgently consider tightening regulation of the funeral industry to ensure that the continuous rising cost of funerals is stopped in its tracks, so that lower-income families are not left with a huge financial burden at their time of grief.
Citizens Advice Scotland said in 2015 that there had been an increase of 35% in the number of advice sessions with clients about funeral costs, taking such sessions to their highest level ever. Within the industry itself, there is also a worrying trend for encouraging people to enrol in what are sometimes cost-inefficient funeral plans, as we have already heard from hon. Members in this debate, in the belief that it will save their loved ones money when the time comes. In many cases, it can mean that the individual ends up paying thousands of pounds more than the actual cost of a funeral.
The Scottish Government’s new powers over funeral payments provide an opportunity to set up a new benefit that is more streamlined, more predictable and better integrated with Scottish policy, as part of a wider focus on funeral costs and funeral planning. The Scottish Government have recognised the impact of rising funeral costs on families on low incomes.
We believe that a new system could help to combat funeral poverty in Scotland. Therefore, the Scottish Government have commissioned a report and recommendations by John Birrell, chair of the Scottish working group on funeral poverty, to consider what action can be taken in a number of sectors. We need to look at speeding up the time it takes for a decision to be made about funeral payments, and we also need to put in place monitoring arrangements to track funeral poverty, alongside plans to evaluate funeral payments.
In closing, I will say that this Parliament had a great debate last year on assisted dying and the consensus of all hon. Members across the House was that people were entitled to a good death. I would like the Government to consider that people are not only entitled to a good death but to a good funeral.
As always, Sir David, it is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), not only on securing this debate but on the compassionate, sensitive and very eloquent way in which he put his case across. In particular, his comments about the importance of ensuring that there is dignity in death as well as in life really resonated with me, as I am sure they did with all Members here in Westminster Hall today and beyond.
There have been a number of memorable speeches in this debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss), in memory of her husband—our dear colleague, Harry—and the personal experience that she went through. She made a point very sensitively, in a speech that was very moving as a whole, about the worry that people experience regarding finances as well as having to come to terms with their grief. Almost across the board today, the point was strongly made that the issues around debt that people face as a result of funeral costs compound their grief. My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), following in the wake of her ten-minute rule Bill, very eloquently described the issues that arise.
The Government are facing some confusion around the eligibility checker for the social fund. Does it exist, or not? Will it be used, or not? Progress in this area has been disappointing and I know that the Minister will address that in her response to the debate.
There is an issue about fair funerals. An important point was made about the need for us to consider looking at regulation of funeral services, in light of some of the overcharging that has occurred.
Although the point that the social fund for funeral payments just has not kept pace with inflation is very important, I will not labour it. The hon. Member for Belfast East has already made the important point that the figure for payments is the equivalent of £495 today; it has remained static since 2003 and it does not cover the cost of the average funeral. I would be grateful if the Minister told us what plans the Government have to uprate that figure and said whether any such uprating would be index-linked and continue in the future.
In addition to the adequacy—or not—of the social fund funeral payments, there is also an issue about people’s eligibility for support; again, that point has already been made this morning. That issue must be looked at.
We heard about the approach being taken in Northern Ireland about cohabiting couples. I will cite one of my own constituency cases, involving the father of a constituent. Sadly, my constituent’s father passed away in the summer. He was given a funeral. My constituent’s dad had been living with his partner, but for various reasons his partner did not want to get involved in the funeral and was unable to pay for it. So it fell on my constituent to organise the funeral himself, at a cost of more than £2,000.
My constituent is in a low-paid job and is supported by universal credit, so he could not afford the cost of the funeral. He tried to apply for a social fund payment, but because his father had been living with his partner he was told that he was not eligible. His father’s partner had not applied for a social fund payment, but he was still told that he was not eligible for such a payment. Obviously, my constituent will appeal that decision and he has my support for that appeal.
The eligibility issue has been raised a number of times today and consideration of it was also included in a report by the University of Bath. That report said that the Department for Work and Pensions rules take no account of the status of relationships and particularly the quality of relationships. Once again, if the Minister could examine that issue I would be very grateful to her.
The other point made consistently throughout the debate is about the issue of debt, particularly for those already on low incomes. A very valid point was made—I cannot remember who made it—about the context of all the welfare reforms that are currently going through. How on earth are people meant to save for funerals given that someone might die unexpectedly? That is a real issue. There is a scandal here. We had hoped that we had put these stories behind us. We are not in Victorian days—we are the fifth richest country in the world, and there is this increase in paupers’ funerals. As I say, this is not Victorian Britain; this is 21st century Britain and the situation is quite scandalous.
There was a report in The Guardian earlier this year that a Liverpool credit union had been inundated with requests for help, as people tried to acquire cheaper credit; the alternatives were payday loans or, even worse, going to loan sharks. Meeting funeral costs is a real worry for people. Similarly, the UK Cards Association says that payment of funeral costs is the single most placed payment that people make using credit cards. I am also worried that the Government are not collecting any data on this issue and that we cannot monitor the worsening state of affairs. Again, I would be very grateful if the Minister said exactly how she intends to address these issues.
There is a silent epidemic of funeral poverty, which, as I say, has been adding to the grief of losing a loved one. Given the Prime Minister’s very welcome words about tackling the injustices in this country, could this be an area where the Government take action? We need action and not just words.
It is, of course, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir David.
I add my congratulations to those that have already been offered to the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), not only on securing this important debate but on the sincere and thoughtful way that he has addressed a really difficult and emotional subject. Many Members have already paid tribute to him for how he has tackled this issue, but I also thank him for the particular way that he has addressed it.
Of course, a period of bereavement is a very difficult time; bereavement is one of the toughest experiences that any individual or family will ever face. This debate has raised many very important issues and asked important questions about how the Government can best support the bereaved and vulnerable people who are going through that experience, including the practical challenges that bereavement causes.
I fully understand the importance of providing the right support at the right time. The hon. Member for Belfast East has caused me to consider the real cultural differences in different parts of the United Kingdom. His example from Northern Ireland, where a funeral will usually be conducted within just a few days, highlights that the issue is about ensuring that the support is there in a timely fashion. There is a big contrast with other parts of the UK, such as England, where the period before the funeral might be as long as three weeks. I thank him for making me think about that this morning.
An awful lot of work has been taking place on funeral payments and support for the bereaved. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), even if she asked me some challenging questions this morning. She has been most robust in how she has tackled my Department on this matter. She had a private Member’s Bill last year, and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) raised the matter in a Westminster Hall debate last year.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) mentioned that debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for mentioning the fact that I raised this issue in a Westminster Hall debate, albeit at somewhat of a tangent to this morning’s debate; I think that was two years ago. Perhaps this is an annual occasion in Westminster Hall, where we have the opportunity to raise these serious issues and to discuss—for me, from a very different position—the challenges that remain within bereavement services and how the Government and the funeral industry can help. If I remember correctly, when I raised the issue, I was particularly tackling the relationship between funeral directors and hospitals.
More recently, members of the Work and Pensions Committee—I thank them for their work; they are not here today because they are serving on the Committee—have looked in detail at the support the Government provide for the bereaved. I thank them for their insight and recommendations. In particular, I thank the Chairman for the correspondence we have shared since I came into this post.
Quite rightly, the debate has focused on the costs of funerals and on the application process for funeral expenses payments. I will respond to those points and to many of the other points that have been raised, but first, it is important to set on the record the support that the Department provides for vulnerable people at a difficult time. We continue to make a significant contribution towards the cost of a simple, respectful funeral for applicants on qualifying income-related benefits. We meet the full necessary costs of a burial or cremation, which we know can vary. Before I came to this place, I was the cabinet member in my local authority with responsibility for cemeteries and graveyards. I can remember that we constantly reviewed the costs of burial plots and compared how they varied across even one county. Those costs vary enormously across an entire country.
The cost of any medical references or the removal of active implanted medical devices will be covered for cremations, as well as reasonable costs if a body has to be moved more than 50 miles. Travel costs are covered for the applicant to arrange and attend the funeral. In addition, as many Members have said, the Department also meets other costs up to a maximum of £700. In 2014-15, funeral expenses payments were paid for around 6% of deaths in Great Britain. The average payment made has increased in value over the past 10 years by about 27%—from £1,081 in 2005-06 to £1,375 in 2014-15 —as necessary costs have increased.
Despite the current economic uncertainty and pressures for savings, we have protected the £700 limit for other costs people face. However, we know that in the majority of claims the other funeral costs exceed the £700 limit. In 2012, we made interest-free social fund budgeting loans available for funeral costs in addition to the funeral expenses payment. Last year the average award for budgeting loans was £413.
The loans can be crucial in supporting people at a difficult time by ensuring that they do not face financial pressures caused by turning to high-cost lenders or credit cards. We have heard from Members about payday loans and the use of credit cards for paying funeral costs. It is important to emphasise that we made those payments available in 2012 and that they are interest-free. It is worth noting that this country provides the most generous support, after Norway, for funeral expenses compared with other European countries. However, we know that there is more we can do, and I want to turn to the specific issues raised during the debate.
The hon. Member for Belfast East spoke eloquently and with a great amount of detail, much of which pertained specifically to Northern Ireland. He will know that the Northern Ireland Executive are responsible for the funeral expenses payment scheme in Northern Ireland. He raised a very specific matter about bereavement benefits and cohabiting couples. He mentioned the recent court case, which indicated that the Northern Ireland Executive would have to treat cohabiting couples the same as married couples. I am aware that the Executive are appealing the case, and we understand that a date for the appeal hearing has been set for 24 October this year. The Government are watching that matter closely and will consider the implications of the outcome of that appeal.
The hon. Gentleman and many other Members have mentioned the issue of eligibility checkers. We have considered the merits of an online checker, but that can cause additional confusion to bereaved people. The research we have done with service users indicates that the bereaved often prefer to talk to someone in person. That was something I discovered when talking to the banking industry.
When the next of kin has to report a bereavement to the bank, they often prefer to do it in person or by talking to someone, rather than doing it online. That is why we have a dedicated bereavement telephony service, where staff are incredibly highly trained. They are specialists in what they do. At the end of the day, we are determined to provide the best service and the service that people want in their time of need.
We are investigating other solutions, including giving claimants an earlier decision on eligibility before they commit to funeral arrangements, but we want to test that with users. Via the social fund, the Department collects and publishes comprehensive data on applicants, application and award volumes, expenditure and processing time. That allows the Department to monitor the operation of the scheme. Extra data could be generated, but that would come at a significant cost, both in money and time. Although the £700 is not index-linked, there is no cap on the necessary costs category, which is where we have seen much of the inflationary pressure. Inflation in funeral costs has been reflected in the year-on-year rise in average payment amounts. As I said earlier, the average payment has increased in value by about 27%.
In the short time I have left, I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss). She adds a very personal dimension to this issue, and I thank her for sharing her experiences with us. We are considering a systematic review with the industry on the causes of funeral cost inflation. The hon. Member for South Shields talked about round tables and discussions with the industry and stakeholders. I assure her that if Twitter is anything to go by, there is absolutely no reluctance on their part to meet me and discuss these important issues. I have meetings scheduled for next month, when we return after the conference recess.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran mentioned the consultation with the Scottish Government. As she might expect, we are watching that closely. We are having ongoing discussions with the funeral industry, academics and bereavement services to ensure that we continue to look at this important issue. We believe that the best approach is to work with the industry, rather than dictating a cap on costs, but we want to see absolute transparency on costs and the provision of price lists that people can take away from funeral directors. Through that, the bereaved will have greater knowledge of what they are paying for and how much things will cost them.
When considering the level of support for funeral costs, a balance needs to be struck. We do not want to see the funeral expenses scheme influence or inflate the prices charged by the industry for a simple funeral. The scheme cannot undermine personal and family responsibility for meeting funeral costs. I take on board the point that the hon. Lady made about payment schemes. If nothing else, the debate has caused me to think carefully about how we can best encourage people to find responsible schemes, should they wish to take out some sort of insurance policy.
I am conscious that I am very tight on time. I will draw my speech to a close simply by thanking Members for a very constructive and informative debate. The points made will certainly help my discussions with the industry.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Social Fund funeral payments.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the use of airguns by under-18s.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and to have the opportunity to raise this issue so that the Minister can deal with it. The genesis of this debate commences with the tragic death of George Atkinson at the age of 13 as a result of an airgun accident. It is the wish of George’s parents, John and Jayne Atkinson, my constituents, to support action to help prevent such a tragedy from happening again. Although the events of George’s death happened 17 years ago, I do not need to remind the House that the pain of that loss remains strong for the family. The wish to help to prevent further such tragedies remains strong. Sadly, the circumstances of George’s death could be repeated today unless further action is taken, which I hope the Minister will consider.
I will explain what happened to George on that day in July 1999. George died when a pellet from an airgun hit his head following the gun going off accidentally in the home of his cousin, aged 10, who was with him at the time. The boys were in the garden of the property with at least five other children when the incident occurred. George and his cousin had got access to the gun from the property. In handling the weapon, the trigger was inadvertently pressed, resulting in an injury to George that led to his death. It was an accident and a terrible loss of life. I had met George at his school previously. He was a lovely bright boy with a promising future. His parents, Jayne and John, were obviously distraught at his death, but they have been resolute in their determination to get measures in place to help to prevent such tragedies from happening again.
The family recognise that George’s death was an accident. Both then and now, they have been steadfast in the demands that they want to be considered. At the time of the accident, Mr Atkinson, George’s father, was quoted in a newspaper:
“We don't blame anyone and we are not calling for changes to the law to ban air weapons—all I would say is that air weapons should be kept in a locked cabinet of suitable quality.”
Sadly, George’s death is not the only case where a child has been killed. There have been 17 deaths in the last 27 years, including one earlier this year. There have been 21 incidents of injury to persons between March 2015 and March 2016. I met Jayne again recently at my surgery. Her concerns remain and it is my duty, as her Member of Parliament, to bring them before the House today.
The family have asked me to raise two specific issues, which I hope the Minister will look at. First, they have asked for air weapons and ammunition to be securely locked away in properties, on the same principles as section 1 firearms. That is a simple issue that I will return to in a moment. Secondly, they want the UK Government in England and Wales to review the policy on the licensing of airguns to be adopted in Scotland at the end of this year. The family simply want me to ask a question: if it is positive and good enough for Scotland, what is the position in relation to England and Wales? I will take each issue in turn.
First, on secure control, as the Minister knows, airguns of low power are not subject to firearms legislation and can be held without firearms or shotgun certificates. There is a comprehensive list of legislative requirements that cover airguns, which I support and do not want changed, but for the purposes of this debate it is worth reminding ourselves of those regulations. Low-powered airguns—the most common type of airgun, usually used for target shooting or vermin control—are not subject to licensing under the Firearms Act 1968 and can therefore be held without a firearms or shotgun certificate. High-powered airguns with self-contained gas cartridge systems require the requisite licence or authority issued under the 1968 Act. There are a range of other measures in place that I support, which are strong and are recognised as necessary.
It is an offence for a person under 18 to purchase or hire an air weapon or ammunition for an air weapon; an offence to sell, let on hire or make a gift of an air weapon to people under the age of 18; and an offence for anyone under the age of 18 to have with them an air weapon or ammunition for an air weapon, unless they are supervised by a person aged 21 or over, are part of an approved shooting club or are shooting at a shooting gallery and the only firearms being used are air weapons or miniature rifles not exceeding .23 inch calibre, or unless the person is 14 years old or above and is on private premises with the consent of the occupier.
It is an offence to part with possession of an air weapon, or ammunition for an air weapon, to a person under the age of 18; an offence for a person shooting on private land, regardless of age, to use an air weapon for the firing of a pellet beyond the boundaries of the premises; an offence for a supervising adult to allow a person under the age of 18 to fire a pellet beyond the boundaries of premises; an offence for any person to have an air weapon in a public place without a reasonable excuse; an offence to trespass with an air weapon, whether in a building or on land; an offence to have an air weapon if prohibited from possessing a firearm; an offence to fire an air weapon without lawful authority within 50 feet—15 metres—of the centre of a public road; an offence to recklessly kill wild animals, birds or live quarry with an air weapon; an offence to cause a pet or animal to suffer unnecessarily; and an offence to use an air weapon with intent to damage or destroy property. Those are strict conditions. No one would deny that they are right and proper. I am not attempting to change those conditions or to water them down. My focus is elsewhere.
Although my focus is on injury to under-18s and their potential access to air weapons, I have also had a briefing from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which has indicated that, despite the strict conditions, there has been an increase of 49% in complaints about airgun attacks on animals over the past two years compared with 2010 to 2012. The RSPCA has asked for licensing to be looked at and for the age of unsupervised use of airguns to be raised from 14 to 17. I hope the Minister will reflect on that; it requires a response.
However, I want to focus on the key point that the family have raised with me: the definition of what happens. The incident that led to George’s death happened despite all the conditions in place for keeping airguns safe in a property, and they could still lead to potentially dangerous activity today. The law currently states:
“It is an offence for a person in possession of an air weapon to fail to take reasonable precautions to prevent someone under the age of 18 from gaining unauthorised access to it. A defence is provided where a person can show that they had reasonable grounds for believing the other person to be aged 18 or over. The maximum penalty for someone convicted of this new offence is £1,000.”
I want to ask the Minister, on behalf of my constituents, what a reasonable precaution is. If the air weapon was a proper firearm—I say that pejoratively; it still has the ability to kill—it would be required to be kept locked in a metal cabinet with access denied to anyone but the keyholder. It would be under the control of the keyholder under the regulations that I have referred to.
I want the Government to consider a simple, small change on behalf of my constituents—a small, but important change that would bring the current legislation on air weapon ownership into line with the ownership of other weapons. The wording of the current legislation should be tightened to clarify that air weapons must be stored and locked in a metal gun cabinet. If that were the case and we had greater controls, we might prevent further tragic incidents, such as that which happened to my constituent, George Atkinson. At the moment, it could happen tomorrow, to anybody who has airguns in their property.
Although clarifying the legislation might not stop an incident occurring—because people can leave cabinets unlocked—it will ensure that if an incident does occur, there is clarity about who is responsible, why it has occurred and where there has been a failing. I do not believe there is sufficient clarity in the current definition of “reasonable precautions”. The phrase does not mean anything—it is open to judicial discretion. It does not mean a locked metal cabinet. This is a small but significant change, which would deter unauthorised access, particularly among individuals under the age of 17. In this case, they were as young as 13, and George’s cousin was 10. They explored the use of that weapon and had access to it because of the lack of secure protection.
The family have not asked for this, but it is an important issue for me: there should also be a requirement for all new air weapons to be sold with a trigger lock. In my constituent’s case, access to the weapon was possible because it was not in a locked cabinet, but the accident that resulted in my constituent’s death happened because they touched the trigger and did not expect the trigger to be used. It was an accident. With not just a locked cabinet but a trigger lock on the airgun, authorised use is controlled. This is not about banning airguns; it is about providing an additional safeguard. George’s death exemplified how a trigger can accidentally be pulled and result in death. The purchase of trigger locks with air weapons would greatly improve the safety of those weapons and militate against George’s case being repeated.
The family has also looked over the border and asked that I seek clarity on the Government’s position on licensing arrangements, given what is happening in Scotland. I have sat where the Minister sits, in that Department, doing that job. I know how difficult the challenges are. I am not today arguing for a licensing system, but it is important that we get clarity on the Government’s view, given that from 31 December there will be a licensing system in Scotland. Those wanting to buy an air weapon will have to apply for a licence as if it were for a normal firearm. Although there are already conditions in place, the licensing regime will provide further elements of control over access to those weapons.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way—I did seek his permission to speak before the debate, Sir David. There are 34 items of legislation in place in relation to firearms. The British Association for Shooting and Conservation has put forward some recommendations, including that no one under the age of 18 should have an air rifle except under supervision. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the legislation in place is fairly thorough? Does he feel that enforcing supervision more rigorously might be a way of moving forward?
If the hon. Gentleman had been here at the start of the debate, he would have heard me list most of those 34 items of legislation, because I recognise that those are important pieces of legislation. I am asking the Minister to look at two simple things: a lockable cabinet, so there is no access by children and young people who do not realise that this is a weapon that can kill, even though there are regular controls; and the issue of trigger locks. I entirely concur with the hon. Gentleman—the next portion of my speech covers this point—that it is important, as part of general understanding, that those who have weapons are encouraged to look at the good husbandry of those weapons. I spoke to a number of shooting organisations and individuals prior to the debate. They are very keen to ensure that we have proper training and proper use of gun clubs, with people getting involved in air gun clubs, so that they understand the complexities of the weapon and the fact that they can still be weapons that can cause danger and death if misused, despite all the legislation I have mentioned.
The right hon. Gentleman has not yet mentioned the storage of ammunition and I wonder if he is coming to that. With shotguns and other firearms there are quite strict regulations about separate storage, so that even if kids get into the gun cabinet, they do not find the ammunition alongside the gun.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. It is another central point about lockable cabinets—perhaps I should have made it clear that I mean separate, lockable cabinets for a weapon and for ammunition.
Given the time left now in the debate, the purpose is not to raise wider airgun issues; it is to focus on those two issues. It would not be damaging to responsible airgun owners, or to those whom the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) wishes to support and defend, to have lockable cabinets for ammunition and for the gun. That would not be to the detriment at all of those users. The second issue is for trigger locks to be looked at as an additional protection, because all of us have been children, interested in exploring and looking at what our parents do. The management of those issues is extremely important to ensure the safety not of the responsible users, but of those who do not know the capacity of the weapon that might be available to them. In George’s case, that led to his tragic death.
Jayne and John Atkinson have continued to press this issue over many years, including through me. I hope that I have now put it on the Minister’s agenda. I would welcome his view on the three main points and his response on the issue of licensing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir David. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) on securing the debate, as it is on not just an important subject but one that I know he cares passionately about. He has been concerned about and has been working on the issue for some time following the tragic death of his young constituent, as well as during his time at the Home Office. It is worth noting that, sadly, only this month a young man aged just 19 died from injuries sustained from an air weapon, which again brings home to us the seriousness of any kind of weapon.
The right hon. Gentleman outlined some very important points. We can all agree that gun controls are needed to minimise the risk of harm to the public. The regulation of air weapons has long been a matter of passionate debate, with lawful users arguing that they should be allowed to enjoy their property without unnecessary restrictions, and those who argue for tougher regulation to improve public safety. Public safety is naturally at the top of my agenda as a Home Office Minister, but I am also keenly aware of the need to strike the right balance—and there is a balance to be struck, particularly on weapons that present less risk and that are used in well regulated environments such as shooting clubs.
As the right hon. Gentleman said, this country has some of the most robust firearms regulations in the world. The statistics show that those regulations work and are effective. The number of firearms offences recorded by the police fell by 40% between 2009-10 and 2014-15, including a 40% fall in offences involving air weapons. There were fatalities as a result of those offences in 2014-15, but in that year they were at the lowest level since records began back in 1969. That shows that the regulations are working, but any injury, let alone a fatality, is one that none of us wants to see.
Although offences involving air weapons are often less serious offences, we have to be very clear and make sure that the public are aware that these weapons can cause death or serious injury. In 2014-15, there were no fatalities but there were 37 serious injuries as a result of offences. However, there were small rises in the number of offences involving both air weapons and other weapons last year, and as we have heard this morning, deaths can occur due to both offences and accidents. We must not and cannot be complacent, and that is why we are currently strengthening the legislation further in the Policing and Crime Bill and targeting loopholes often used by criminals. I will return to that point in a moment.
The law recognises that some air weapons are more dangerous than others. Only lower powered air weapons can be held without a licence or certificate. More dangerous air weapons are classed as either civilian section 1 firearms or prohibited section 5 firearms. A licence or certificate is required for section 1 or section 5 firearms and is issued only to suitable persons by the police or the Home Office. The Scotland Act 2012 devolved responsibility for lower powered weapons to the Scottish Government who, as the right hon. Gentleman stated, introduced a licensing regime under the Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2015. He asked us to bring in a similar scheme here, and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about the way things are monitored in people’s homes. We have to recognise that Scotland has a different framework of offences, so we are not necessarily comparing like with like.
The misuse of air weapons in this country is caught by the criminal law, and the restrictions in place on the sale and possession of air guns are a proportionate way of protecting public safety. Although no licence is required to possess low-powered air weapons, they are still tightly regulated. As we have discussed, the sale of air weapons, which are firearms, is prohibited to those under 18. Except in special circumstances, under-18s cannot possess them; the exceptions include the use of the weapon as a member of an approved shooting club and being under the supervision of a person who is at least 21. That supervision is important, and we need to ensure we are all educated about it.
It is an offence for a person to trespass with an air weapon or to have one in a public place without a reasonable reason to be there. As well as the criminal use of air weapons, there have been tragic accidents, as the right hon. Member for Delyn outlined, which have sometimes involved young children or teenagers with unsupervised access to air weapons. We are all responsible, if we are in that position, to make sure unsupervised access does not happen.
We recognise that it is important that those who lawfully possess air weapons store and handle them securely and safely. The Home Office provides guidance on the sort of practical steps that can and should be taken to secure air weapons, and on how to handle them. It is an offence for a person to fail to take reasonable steps to prevent unauthorised access to their airguns by those under 18.
I accept that point, but what are reasonable precautions? For clarity, we should say that air guns should be locked in a secure metal cabinet. That is a reasonable precaution in my view, but there is no definition in the current legislation.
It may be necessary to take a higher level of precaution, for example, when an air gun is stored in a house with children. That is a good example of the right hon. Gentleman’s point. We need to recognise what is reasonable. The whole point of having a check of reasonableness is that what is reasonable can vary according to the circumstances. For example, although locking away an airgun when not in use is reasonable for many people in many circumstances, the use of a trigger lock might be sufficient. The right hon. Gentleman and I had a brief conversation about that before this debate. I will take away that point and look at it further, and I will come back to him in writing shortly. We need to get the balance right between reasonableness and ensuring people are safe.
As I said earlier, the Policing and Crime Bill contains a number of provisions to strengthen the regulation of firearms, including a new definition of lethality, which will clarify the law relating to firearms, including air weapons. The Firearms Act 1968 defines a firearm as
“a lethal barrelled weapon of any description from which any shot, bullet or other missile can be discharged.”
That makes lethality integral to knowing whether something is a firearm, yet the law does not define what lethality is. That raises a number of problems, which the Bill will resolve by defining lethality as a muzzle kinetic energy of 1 joule. That follows a recommendation by the Firearms Consultative Committee.
We recognise that there are legitimate uses of air weapons, such as shooting sports, so we need to strike a balance, but I am cognisant of the fact that we must keep firearms control under review to ensure that we always do everything we can in a reasonable way to protect public safety. That is why, as I said a few moments ago, I will look at the specific point that the right hon. Gentleman raised about security and the locking away of firearms and weapons as part of a reasonable approach to ensuring we have a safe and secure environment.
Before the Minister sits down, will he give me a commitment to look at the issue of compulsory trigger locks? The current legislation mentions reasonable precautions, but there is no definition of “reasonable”, no requirement to have a trigger lock and no requirement to have a locked cabinet. I want the Minister to look at those issues seriously and reflect on them.
The outline is there for a reasonable approach that will allow flexibility for the authorities and individuals. If somebody owns a gun, they have a responsibility to ensure they are acting in a safe and appropriate manner. What is reasonable in one place can differ from what is reasonable in another. For example, a household that has children is different from a household that does not. The law reflects the need for flexibility. I take the right hon. Gentleman’s point on board, and I will look at it and the point about trigger locks. I will write to him shortly.
Question put and agreed to.
Cross-departmental Strategy on Social Justice
[Nadine Dorries in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered cross-departmental strategy on social justice.
I am delighted to have secured this vital debate, which I applied for with my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), on the importance of joined-up thinking on social justice. I am delighted, too, that we have obtained it so early in our new Prime Minister’s tenure, because my right hon. Friend has already made it abundantly clear that she is personally interested in social reform and in continuing the one nation tradition that has been a consistent and defining strand of 21st-century conservativism.
I propose to use family policy as an example of an area in which greater cross-departmental strategy, involving several Ministers and one Cabinet-level Minister with overall responsibility as a primary element of his or her portfolio—not only as an adjunct—could reap exponential benefits, in particular for the poorest families in our society. That is crucial, because as many Members present today know—I thank those attending for their support, in particular those on the Government Benches—family breakdown is a key driver of poverty. It causes so many problems, not least financial ones, but also problems in health, including mental health, educational difficulties—leading to employment disadvantages—addiction and housing pressures.
In taking charge of the newly minted Social Reform Cabinet Committee, the Prime Minister has put social justice right up there on her list of priorities, alongside Brexit and the economy. The message could not be clearer. She stood on the steps of No. 10 and talked about governing for everyone:
“That means fighting against the burning injustice that, if you’re born poor, you will die on average 9 years earlier than others”.
She also highlighted the fact that
“If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university.”
She has indicated that she intends to take personal responsibility for changing such unacceptable realities. To my mind, that is not only encouraging, but exciting.
Moreover, I applaud the Prime Minister’s stated ambition, a
“mission to make Britain a country that works for everyone”.
Most, if not all constituency MPs must have completely agreed with her when she said:
“If you’re from an ordinary working class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise.”
We all very much want to work in harness with a Government who see it as their duty to deliver success on behalf of everyone in the UK, not only the privileged few, and who also have social justice explicitly at their heart.
Let me explain what I mean by using the example of family policy. I am sure that other hon. Members will have other policy areas to share. For too long, there has been a view in Government that an aspiration to help families struggling to nurture their children and to hold down stable relationships was indefensibly interventionist and intrusive. Before my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) laid bare the social, financial and emotional costs of family breakdown in our poorest communities in his paradigm-shifting reports, “Breakdown Britain” and “Breakthrough Britain”, fractured families were simply not considered policy-relevant. He punctured the myth that relationship breakdown was none of the state’s business by pointing out that the public purse was picking up the tab and by exposing the easy complacency of those who are better placed in our society.
I accept that no social stratum is immune to family difficulties. I know that from almost 30 years of leading a law firm specialising in family law. Many people in this House, for example, come from broken homes or have seen their own marriages falter, and no one judges them. However, the social justice narrative articulated so eloquently by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green and the Centre for Social Justice highlights how more advantaged people tend to experience family breakdown somewhat differently from people in our poorest communities—although I have to say from my own experience that children can suffer grief from relationship breakdowns however affluent their background.
When the family relationships of those from better-off backgrounds experience shipwreck, they or their parents can deploy reserves of social and other capital to soften the potentially harmful effects on them and the children involved. For example, in good schools, staff are less embattled than in deprived areas and have more time for each individual pupil; or the family might have enough cash that a split does not plunge the people involved into poverty or they can pay for counselling.
All that stands in stark contrast to what happens for the poorest 20% of society, where debt, educational failure, addictions to substances, and under or unemployment often conspire together to compound the damage of broken relationships. Such pressures make relationships hard to maintain, or for parents to spend time with their child to encourage interaction between them. As a result, half of all children in communities of the 20% least advantaged no longer live with both parents by the time they start school—seven times as many as those in the richest 20%.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Her words are important and resonate with those in a recent speech by the noble Lord Sacks, who referred to the “two nations” we now have—those, perhaps the preserve of the rich, who benefit from the association of children with two parents, and those who do not, the 1 million children who have no contact whatever with their father.
Yes, Jonathan Sacks, who is so respected and speaks from a heart of compassion, indeed said that. I very much support those words, because we know that about 1 million children have little or no contact with their fathers, and they are vastly over-represented in our poorest communities.
What I said about the poorest 20% on the income spectrum holds true for those who have a bit, but not a lot more. The Institute for Social and Economic Research found that, on average, women’s incomes dropped by more than 10% after a marital split, and that family breakdown is a route into poverty for many. The single fact of family breakdown can tip people out of a degree of financial security and into a much more precarious and uncertain set of circumstances, in which they are also far more dependent on the state.
As I always state in such debates, I make no criticism or condemnation of single parents. So many of them strive so valiantly to support their children and to do their very best for their family, often in challenging circumstances. However, the fact is that lone-parent households are twice as likely to be in poverty as couple families. In 2015, 44% of children from lone-parent families were in households living on less than 60% of median income, as compared with 24% of children from two-parent families. Inevitably, single parents struggling to juggle their time will face greater challenges to spending time with their children.
Some might suggest that parents raising children on their own should simply receive more support from the state, but single parenthood is a risk factor for poverty internationally. Swedish statistics show that parental separation is the biggest driver into child poverty, by a large margin, and that is in the country with the most generous welfare regime in the world. The state does not and cannot protect a child against the absence of a relationship missed with one parent or another. As this Government’s emphasis on life chances has made clear, however, we cannot look only to the effects on income. Poverty is not only about income, but about many other things in life, not least, particularly in a child’s life, poverty of relationships. How are the nation’s children and young people faring in terms of their mental health and wellbeing?
Research commissioned by the previous Labour Government shows that children who experience family breakdown are more likely to experience behavioural problems, to perform less well in school, to need more medical treatment, to leave school and home earlier, to become sexually active, pregnant or a parent at an early age, and to report more depressive symptoms and higher levels of smoking, drinking and other drug use during adolescence. The most up-to-date research also demonstrates those associations. The recently published “Longitudinal Study of Young People in England” found that young people in single-parent families had greater mental health challenges than those with two parents, and there was a greater likelihood of them being above the “caseness” threshold, which means that someone is suffering from such psychological distress that they need clinical help.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s comment that social injustice is based not just on financial poverty but, in effect, on social poverty—things such as bereavement, family breakdown and children’s time being consumed by them acting as carers. Does she agree that we should look at how things such as the pupil premium are calculated to ensure that they take into account the whole range of social injustices that children in this country face?
We certainly need to look at a range of solutions for supporting such children more, and that could be one. My hon. Friend raises the concerning issue of young carers, who are certainly under-supported and under-resourced and whose number is underestimated, as I know from my own area.
I am patron of a young persons’ mental health charity, Visyon, which cannot cope with all the requests for help that it receives, including from children as young as four years old. I recently asked how many of those children have mental health issues because of relationship difficulties, and the answer was virtually all of them. Similarly, young people in step-families were reported by the longitudinal study that I referred to as being significantly more likely to be above the caseness threshold than those living with two parents. We are often reminded of the need for more and better mental health services, but the role of family breakdown in fuelling that need is almost never mentioned. Would it not be wonderful if we could start to look earlier in the chain of difficulties and challenges that such children experience at how we can prevent family breakdown from occurring, as it does in so many cases?
When the study that I referred to was publicised, digital media received the lion’s share of the blame for driving poor outcomes. I have no doubt that over-exposure to screens and the online world does children and adolescents no favours—I and many other Members spoke about that only yesterday during the debate on the Digital Economy Bill—but digital media are here to stay, and we must be ruthlessly honest that family background can make children more likely to get less help than they need to navigate the challenges of the digital world. That is why I said in that debate that
“whatever protections the Government devise, they cannot be comprehensive. Parents need to be given as much information and support as possible to enable them to engage with and protect their children from harmful behaviour online in what is a very challenging environment for many parents.”—[Official Report, 13 September 2016; Vol. 614, c. 841.]
That might not be the responsibility of the Ministers promoting that Bill, but I believe that it should be grasped by someone in government.
Families with two super-invested parents who have time and motivation to supervise their children’s internet use and coach them to be savvy digital natives are at a distinct advantage over others in helping to protect their children from self or other, abusive sexual experimentation. My main point is simply that when it comes to social harms, there is still a tendency to emphasise factors external to families and to look for solutions at a safe distance. However, the report of the Government-commissioned “Longitudinal Study of Young People in England” stated:
“Schools would seem ideally placed to cut through to all young people in year 10 and provide them with the support that they need around wellbeing”.
I accept that schools have an important role to play—many do so and support children with difficulties and disadvantages well—but the challenges are huge. We should surely also equip and educate parents so they can help their children. I commend Keith Simpson, headmaster of Middlewich High School in my constituency. When he seeks to support children with challenges in his school, he seeks to work with their parents, too.
The Institute for Public Policy Research, in its report “A long division”, found that no less than 80% of the factors influencing pupil achievement come from outside school, and family influence is particularly strong. Equipping and educating parents must include helping them when their own relationships are under strain and being honest about the effects that a culture of family breakdown has on the next generation.
The Government has a self-interested responsibility in this area, given that young people with poor mental health and wellbeing often grow up into adults who struggle, with implications for employers, national productivity and health services. University College London’s research department of epidemiology and public health has shown that 60-year-olds still suffer the long-term effects of childhood stress linked to the trauma of family breakdown. As someone who has been involved in a law firm that has undertaken family work for three decades, I can confirm that the bereavement and grief that young people feel from missing relationships can be profound and last a long time.
Members will be pleased to hear that that brings me back to the title of the debate, “A cross-departmental approach on social justice”, which has clear implications for the Prime Minister’s broader social reform goal. I have touched on just some of the social problems that restrict a child’s life chances and make life in Britain much less fulfilling and prosperous for so many than we in this place want it to be. If we are to cut through and make a lasting difference to those problems, a much more concerted and co-ordinated effort has to be made from the very top of the Government to address family breakdown than has been made to date.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. Children’s experience of school demonstrates perfectly how their experiences transcend departmental lines. You—she, rather—will not be surprised that when I spoke to colleagues in my constituency who work in the education sector, their primary concern was not curriculum reform, exam success, assessment or even funding, but children’s mental health. That has an impact not only on health policy but on children’s education—and their life chances, for which the Department for Work and Pensions is responsible.
Ms Ansell, I am more concerned about the length of your intervention than your use of the word “you”.
My hon. Friend puts that point very succinctly, and better than I have in my prepared speech. She speaks not only from long experience but from the heart. Her commitment to family concerns has become well recognised since she entered the House, and I thank her for that.
There are examples of good practice in the form of joined-up governmental thinking. The previous Social Justice Cabinet Committee found that when Departments took a strategic approach to working together on issues such as the dreadful outcomes for care leavers, on which the DWP’s work was backed up by the work of the Department for Education, the then Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Department of Health, the Department for Communities and Local Government, and the Ministry of Justice and others, they could generate a wave of reform, not just a few isolated initiatives. For example, Jobcentre Plus advisers now know that when they have a care leaver in front of them, they will get extra support or flexibility, including early access to the Work programme; there are more funds for housing for those people and help for them to save through the junior ISA; and there is a care leavers champion in the criminal justice system. The list of co-ordinated Government action is long and should make us and our former coalition partners proud.
I and many others were deeply encouraged when Lord Freud explained during the Report stage of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill in the House of Lords that the life chances strategy would cover measures relating to
“family breakdown, problem debt, and drug and alcohol addiction.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 25 January 2016; Vol. 768, c. 1084.]
I welcome that. It would be wonderful for the kind of cross-departmental work and ministerial leadership that we have seen on support for care leavers to be applied to family life. When it comes to the knotty problem of family breakdown, I am an incurable optimist, despite my law firm background, but I doubt our ability to successfully reverse the epidemically high rates of divorce, separation and family dysfunction in our society unless there are clear accountabilities across the full range of Government Departments represented in the Social Reform Cabinet Committee.
I pay tribute to my noble Friend Lord Farmer for his commitment to promoting and strengthening family life and all he has done in this place. I also pay tribute to Dr Samantha Callan, who works with him, for the many years of work research and advice she has dedicated to this field, particularly but not exclusively with the Centre for Social Justice. She has laboured for years to emphasise the concern we should all have about the impact of family life on children in particular. At times she may have wondered whether anyone from Government was really listening, but I am optimistic that those years are behind us and that now there are people in the top levels of Government who are listening. My noble Friend Lord Farmer recently wrote in The Times that we need a Minister in every Department who is explicitly responsible for leading a strand of family-strengthening policy. I agree and would add that we also need a Cabinet Minister with overall responsibility for the family.
Better support for marriage by beefing up our slender tax allowance that recognises enduring aspirations to make a commitment in the teeth of the many financial pressures that can make marriage seem so unattainable would be good, as would be community-based support in family hubs for people to get advice when they are struggling with parenting and relationships. I hope the Minister has seen the report I recently produced as chair of the all-party group on children’s centres entitled “Family Hubs: The Future of Children’s Centres”, which proposed that and a number of other actions to strengthen family relationships in our local communities.
Support for action to ensure that prisoners maintain the family ties that can boost rehabilitation efforts and make jails safer would also benefit from a co-ordinated approach. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), our previous Prisons Minister, for all he has done to emphasise the importance of strengthening prisoners’ family relationships. Mental health services that work with all the family dynamics underlying children’s problems could be better co-ordinated, but without a level of steely-eyed determination I fear our life chances indicators in these areas will put us to shame.
As I said, I am incurably hopeful, particularly as our new Prime Minister is the only person ever to have had the title Secretary of State for the Family—albeit that was preceded by the word “shadow”, when we were in opposition. It is now time for family policy to come out of the shadows, take its rightful place in her new Cabinet Committee along with many other important areas of social justice—I am look forward to hearing about those from colleagues over the course of the debate—and be tackled unflinchingly with the energy and talent of all those around the Cabinet table.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, and an absolute pleasure, as it always is, to follow the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), whom I see not just as an hon. Member but as a friend. We share many issues of importance and it is rare for there to be a debate on which we are not on the same side, as we are today. She set the scene well and comprehensively, very much along lines that I will espouse.
I see the Minister in her place. It is the second time that she has been in Westminster Hall today—it is my second time as well. It is nice to see her in her place and I look forward to her response. The response she gave us this morning on funeral payments was excellent.
The hon. Member for Congleton has brought an important issue to the Chamber. “Social Justice: transforming lives”, published by the coalition Government in March 2012, emphasised tackling poverty in all its forms. That was the theme of the document, which gave the following definition of social justice:
“Social Justice is about making society function better—providing the support and tools to help turn lives around.”
It is about how we can help people help themselves and how we as a society can help them. I will give some examples from my constituency of self-help programmes and how society comes together to help those who are less well-off. The document continues:
“This is a challenging new approach to tackling poverty in all its forms. It is not a narrative about income poverty alone: this Government believes that the focus on income over the last decades has ignored the root causes of poverty, and in doing so has allowed social problems to deepen and become entrenched.”
That is my opinion of what Government have done, and they brought the document forward to address that issue.
I remember being impressed with the big society. Indeed, we could not fail to be impressed by its theme. Whether it achieved or not was the issue, but what it set out to try to achieve is something we all like. I was excited and happy to be part of the ideal of a society in which we help each other. This is our motivation for being in this House: we are here to help others, whether that be in the House or more directly back in constituencies with constituency issues.
Despite the failures of the House to make any substantial effort on the big society, I have seen communities rallying round and helping each other out. In the main town in my constituency, Newtownards, the community groups work hard together and individually in their estates to make lives better. That same theme of communities rallying round permeates all the way down the Ards peninsula and further over on the other side of Strangford lough down towards Comber, Ballygowan, Saintfield and Ballynahinch. People are coming together to work on behalf of those who need help.
I have had calls in my office from young people who go to their local campaigner group in the Newtownards Elim church—this is an example of how they play a small role and how communities can interact socially and do something. When the bus was parked in a car park, they noticed that that there were weeds and rubbish lying all around. The campaigners—they are like a boy’s brigade or girl’s brigade—discussed that in their planned meeting and contacted the local council to offer to clean up the area as part of their programme. That is a small example of social justice at work in communities: young people recognising what the issue was and responding. Those who are fit to do, do for the benefit of the community.
There is a thriving food bank in my area that does tremendous work, but that comes down to people buying and donating food for those around them who are unable to provide for themselves. That is the big society in action—exactly what the hon. Lady was referring to. I have never seen food banks as a negative; I see them as a positive that delivers when communities, Government bodies and the Churches come together in a true, ecumenical sense, and they can then deliver for those who are less well off. The theme in relation to compassion is “your pain in my heart” and the members of the thriving food bank feel that.
Local churches take turns on Christmas day either to deliver Christmas dinners to the elderly and those who are alone or to open church halls so that people can come and be together even if they do not have a family they can call their own. That again is big society in action. Christmas, as we all know, can be one of the happiest days of the year but it can also be one of the saddest. It is sad if someone has died or for those who are alone. It can be happy when we have family around us, but not everyone has that possibility.
What have we done in this place to help see social justice in action? Tax credits were cut—I am glad to see the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), in his place—and other benefits tackled in welfare reform. Savings could have been used to help in other ways, but young mothers are having all sorts of problems due to the Concentrix palaver; I use that as an Ulster Scots word.
As a rule I do not make complaints, but I had to complain about Concentrix to the Government because it was carrying out a policy of changing tax credits without doing its homework. Apart from that, for almost four hours one day we could not even get through to the company, which is a problem. I know there was a question about the issue in the main Chamber but I could not stay for it, but that is an example of what we went through. It targeted young mothers in an horrific manner, which is a debate for another day—I know you will bring me into line for that shortly, Ms Dorries.
Constituents came to use my office phone to try to get things sorted out, having used all of the credit on their phones. The ordinary person cannot be expected to phone Concentrix for 35 to 40 minutes, which has sometimes happened. They are people whose benefits have been stopped and, as one of the suppliers of food bank vouchers, I am helping them wherever I can with food parcels. They do not have enough money to put in their electricity meters and some have moved their family in with their parents because they need some respite. Is that the big society ideal, with social justice at its heart? That was the hon. Member for Congleton’s question and it is also mine.
We need Departments to work together on ways to help people and not hinder them. Welfare reform has not only targeted young families and single parents; it has eradicated the need for child poverty targets to be met. Again, that is a topic for another day, but it is one that massively impacts on today’s debate on social justice. All those issues are linked and so must our response be. That is what this debate is about: linking it all together and responding.
Housing benefits and tax credits administrators work closely together to cut off claims when investigating allegations. I have become immensely frustrated with the process at times; why can those partners not work that closely to help people who are in tough situations? When somebody changes their working hours their tax credits and housing benefit changes. Everything goes on hold and it takes some five to six weeks to process, which is a difficulty.
Why can jobs and benefit offices not help somebody in receipt of a benefit to receive all they are entitled to, instead of referring them to third parties? Many people are embarrassed about claiming and will not go to someone else. Why can that not be handled in a cross-departmental way? If we look constructively at the hon. Member for Congleton’s contribution, in which she set the scene, we can see that that is what she is asking for. It is also what I am asking for, and I believe it is what the debate is asking for as well. We should help those who need help more constructively, positively, effectively and quickly, and not drag the system on.
We have read about the people who abuse the benefits system and live a life of luxury. There is an idea that some of those who claim are lazy and cheat. That is simply not true and there is no evidence for it that I am aware of in my constituency. I look at young single mothers who work and try to provide for their children and I feel compassion; in many cases, my heart aches for them as well. I look at men in their 50s who are unemployed after a factory closes. They have worked all their life and do not know anything apart from that work. They wonder who will employ them and have compassion for them, but compassion is not enough—there must be action. That can only come when this House puts in place a strategy that allows us to do what the welfare state was designed to do: to help those in need.
I am confident that the Minister will give us a positive response; I have great faith in that. I urge her to stop looking at numbers and forgetting that they are attached to people who have lives and who need help. She should do what people around the UK are doing—seeing a need and meeting that need. There is a great need for change in the way compassion is dealt with in this place. We can, and must, be compassionate and effective. That is what needs to happen. I leave everyone with the words of Nelson Mandela, who was important for all of us in the House because he was such a colossus:
“Our human compassion binds us the one to the other—not in pity or patronisingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.”
Order. Allowing 30 minutes for the Minister, the Opposition spokesperson and the hon. Member for Congleton to wind up, there are 25 minutes left for the remaining four Members to speak. I will let Members do the maths and work that one out for themselves.
It is a pleasure to serve under you, Ms Dorries—my constituency neighbour—and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for securing the debate. I, too, will talk mainly about family policy, but I think it important to look at all of the five pathways to poverty so ably identified by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), whom it is an enormous pleasure to see with us today.
We still have an issue with worklessness, despite the British jobs miracle, when this country created more jobs than the rest of Europe put together. We need to remember that there are 843,000 young people who are not in education, employment or training, which is why we have to keep on creating jobs, as we have over the last few years—the job is not fully done yet. Speaking on the steps of Downing Street, the Prime Minister specifically identified those in work, but often work that is insecure, does not pay well and leaves them worried about their mortgage. That is where we need what I would call an “ABC” approach, by which I mean a job, a better job and a career. We need to think more about training for people in entry-level jobs to increase their skills and give them the opportunities to progress up the work ladder, perhaps by re-engaging them with local further education colleges and so on, if we are going to deal with that cohort of people whom our new Prime Minister quite rightly identified.
It is also really important that we roll out the universal support offer alongside universal credit. Universal support delivered locally has been rolled out, but as I understand it universal support across the country as a whole would give responsibility to work coaches for things such as addiction and debt. Rather than just passing over a leaflet on addiction, that work coach would take responsibility and perhaps try to get an unemployed person into a drug rehabilitation programme or link them up with someone who could deal with their debt issues.
Educational failure is absolutely key to social justice. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), among others, has pointed out that there is a 19-month gap between the brightest children and those who are the furthest behind when they start school—a gap from which many children fail to recover throughout their time at school. One thing we could do is to get outstanding primary schools in the poorest areas to set up early years provision to try to narrow that gap.
Drug taking is a huge issue across our country, not least in the criminal justice system. It is concerning that a third of recovering addicts are still unable to become fully abstinent. I, for one, do not think it right that we just maintain people for years on methadone and other substitutes. We need a higher ambition for our fellow citizens. We need to raise our gaze around the world to countries we can learn from, such as Germany and Sweden. I have already mentioned serious debt, but it is a huge issue for those it affects. I think universal support will be a part of the solution when it is fully rolled out, but I pay tribute to organisations such as Christians Against Poverty, The Salvation Army, which does great work in my constituency, and the citizens advice bureau, which also does great work locally. They come alongside people to manage their debts so they do not get overburdened by them.
As the prisons and probation Minister, I had the good fortune to come across a small charity in Blackpool called Jobs, Friends & Houses. I say to the Minister that that small local charity is an example of cross-departmental working in the voluntary sector at the local level that the national Government could do very well to learn from. It is funded by Blackpool police and Blackpool Council, with some support from Public Health England, and it took recovering drug addicts who were coming out of prison, trained them in construction skills and had them doing up run-down houses in Blackpool. It also enabled them to live in good quality housing, which the ex-offenders themselves had often done up, and provided a support network for them at weekends. It ticked every box. Although the charity did not receive any support from the probation service, it set a really good example. The Minister will probably know that 22% of benefit recipients are ex-offenders, and this is precisely the type of project we need to see working cross-departmentally at the local level. Indeed, I would like to see it spread across the UK as a whole.
When I was at the Ministry of Justice, I was delighted that the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), when talking about families and prisoners, said:
“Critically, education should also help prisoners to acquire the social skills and virtues which will make them better fathers, better husbands and better brothers. Ensuring that prisoners can re-integrate into family life and maintain positive relationships is crucial to effective rehabilitation. Families are one of our most effective crime-fighting institutions. And we should strengthen them at every turn.”
Those are wise words, not least because if someone’s family relationship breaks down while they are in prison, they will probably not have anywhere to live or a family to go back to, and families are helpful in helping prisoners to find work.
I have a quotation from the other side of the Atlantic. It is from President Obama’s speech on father’s day on 21 June 2010. He said:
“So we can talk all we want here in Washington about issues like education and health care and crime; we can build good schools; we can put money into creating good jobs; we can do everything we can to keep our streets safe—but government can’t keep our kids from looking for trouble on those streets. Government can’t force a kid to pick up a book or make sure that the homework gets done. Government can’t be there day in, day out, to provide discipline and guidance and the love that it takes to raise a child. That’s our job as fathers, as mothers, as guardians for our children.”
That was powerfully put and brings me on to the final area of family.
I will not reiterate the excellent points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, but I want to encourage the Minister to go back to her Department and ask her officials to look around the world at what works well. I note that the Americans set up the National Fatherhood Initiative in 1994. Since then they have had the fatherhood, marriage and families innovation fund, which looks at job training, parenting, domestic violence prevention—a key priority of the Prime Minister—and relationship support. They have also had the fatherhood and mentoring initiative, which looks at raising awareness of responsible fatherhood and works to re-engage absent fathers with their families.
In Australia there is a network of family relationship centres, which the Minister’s officials might want to look at. In my experience of Whitehall, officials and Ministers are sometimes not quite good enough at looking at best practice around the world that the United Kingdom could localise, fit to our own conditions and usefully learn from.
I want to be quick to allow colleagues to speak, but I have four proposals that I want the Minister to raise across Whitehall for what we could do to strengthen family life in this country. First, improving access to psychological therapies is a really good thing that the NHS does for our constituents. Therapy for couples, which has proved to be really useful and helpful, has been virtually squeezed out. This was an issue before I became a Minister two years ago. I am concerned to find that no progress has been made in the intervening time.
Secondly, during the antenatal stage—the one time when dads turn up with mothers to go to programmes in big numbers—we are missing a trick if we do not try to strengthen the relationship between mum and dad before the child is born. The fathers are there. It is an open goal. Some hospitals are doing it under the wire at the moment. Why do we not do it everywhere?
Thirdly, the family hub is an idea whose time has come. Perhaps the Minister will look at what they do on a bipartisan basis in America and at the family relationship centres in Australia and learn from them. We can localise such initiatives and make them appropriate to the UK. Fourthly, my final request is that the Cabinet Office should make sure that its What Works centre looks at this area of strengthening family policy. It is not acceptable that the Cabinet Office does not extend its work to this area. There have been studies by the Department for Education showing that relationship support is extremely effective. The last one was in 2014. The Cabinet Office needs to keep that work going.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing this debate on an important matter that has such wide-reaching consequences that I feel a debate in this Chamber simply does not do it justice. I am sure there will be another opportunity to have this debate on the Floor of the House.
When the hon. Lady speaks of “these families”, she speaks of my family. After losing a parent to mental health, I grew up in a one-parent family before living with my aunt and uncle and my foster sister. I was the first to go to university. I grew up in damp council houses with hard-working parents who struggled to make ends meet. My sister, now a graduate, and my brother going to university are testament to the hard work and ambition in my family. But my story is not unusual. Where I start is sadly where many people end. So when each of us speaks about this in this Chamber, I expect us to show more sympathy and respect, because we are talking about real people’s lives. I know the hon. Member for Congleton understands that.
In the UK, the social justice strategy stated that from the outset its approach was to aim to tackle poverty in all its forms. I am not being political when I say this, because I grew up under a Labour Administration; however, a quick glance at my constituency casework brings up many examples of where, sadly, policy is adding to the hardship faced by many people across my constituency of Lanark and Hamilton East. I am under no illusions that we are somehow the exception to the rule. The strategy is failing people up and down the UK, and pushing people further into poverty.
The initial changes to universal credit have left many families without money for periods of four to six weeks. In one part of my constituency, I have been informed that the universal credit rollout, which was targeted towards single males, many of whom are vulnerable and without the safety net of families, were the targeted group who already rely on food banks—not a sign of the big society, but a sign that the system is failing. For many, the lump sum payment is not easy to manage and the lack of budgeting experience will not allow them to manage a large lump sum in one go. Does the Minister have any solutions that will alleviate some of this burden?
Another universal credit concern was raised with me by Women’s Aid South Lanarkshire: the fact that universal credit is paid to only one person in a couple. Vulnerable women who find themselves in controlling relationships could find themselves even less able to financially support themselves. But perhaps the worst aspect of the social justice strategy that is failing my constituents is the harsh application of sanctions being enforced on claimants across the country. We need only look at our constituency casework to find such issues. If a Member does not find such issues, they are blessed. I spend a lot of my time concentrating my office’s efforts on supporting these people.
Perhaps worst of all, I have heard many examples of constituents being sanctioned for the most basic of reasons—including being five minutes late to an appointment and not attending a meeting at the jobcentre owing to attending a job interview—and there have been many instances of admin errors. Another form of sanctions imposed by the UK Government concerns those executed by Concentrix. I welcome the news that Concentrix will no longer have the contract with HMRC. However, as part of the apparent fishing exercise to stop tax credit payments, Concentrix has blanket-lettered many single-parent claimants asking for evidence that they are not co-habiting. It seems abhorrent to me that nobody seems to have any consideration or empathy for the devastating effect that receiving such a letter from Concentrix can have on a person. One constituent of mine ended up homeless. I do not want to go into the wherewithal of it, but these are the consequences of the Government’s actions when they contract with an American company that is not accountable. How will Concentrix be held to account for its failure and a series of administrative errors—we will call it that—that resulted from this exercise?
Many vulnerable families have been left with no money as a result of a Government contract. Who will hold Concentrix to account? I hope the Minister will be able to indulge me in answering that. I have yet to receive a response, despite the fact that I asked this question in November 2015. When I asked on behalf of several constituents what evidence was being used to trigger the letter, I received no response from Concentrix and no response from any Government Department that could justify such actions.
Despite the UK Government’s social justice strategy’s apparent aim to tackle poverty in all its forms, current statistics show that around one in five children in my constituency are still growing up in poverty. That is simply unacceptable in a modern, thriving society like ours. We need to take urgent action to help children who are living in poverty now and to prevent children from living in poverty in future. That means there must be more focus on the work being done across Governments, therefore I welcome the news that the Government will look at that in more detail. I say that not because I want to be partisan, but because the issues are serious and fundamental and must be addressed. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) will agree with me about that.
The Scottish Government propose in the consultation that their new approach will build and refine a framework that supports children growing up in poverty and their families. In addition to the ambitious target of eradicating child poverty, the Scottish Government are preparing for new powers to be devolved to them as part of the Scotland Act 2016. They will have control of only 15% of social security responsibilities in Scotland. The sad fact is that the other 85% will remain here with the Minister, so I rely on her to respond to my concerns and give them deep and serious consideration.
The Scottish Government have pledged to increase carer’s allowance to the same level as jobseeker’s allowance, to abolish the bedroom tax, to scrap the 84-day rule, which removes income from the families of disabled children, to abolish employment tribunal fees, and to replace the Sure Start maternity grant with an expanded maternity early years allowance, restoring payments for children beyond the first two years. There are also plans in place to block the sanctions regimes when Holyrood takes control over the welfare and social security powers that they will then have.
Those measures constitute a fairer, more equal society and a better Scotland, but it should not be the role of Scotland to eradicate poverty on its own. The Government have a responsibility to do their job and assist the Scottish Government and other parts of the UK in making sure that the issue is tackled. We cannot be glib and sit in one room talking and sounding off. We must do more to tackle the matter seriously. As the hon. Member for Congleton has said and as I have reinforced, families are affected, and we should not diminish the importance of their lives. Social justice should be at the heart of what the Government, and all Governments, do. We have the privilege of representing our constituents, and the responsibility to do so.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing a debate on such an important issue.
I am sure that many of us were very encouraged to hear the new Prime Minister state clearly that social justice will be at the heart of her Government, continuing the excellent work of the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, and that the Government’s agenda will be focused clearly on addressing not just the symptoms but the causes of poverty. In its report, “Breakthrough Britain”, the Centre for Social Justice identified five pathways or causes of poverty in the UK. Those were family breakdown, educational failure, addiction, debt and worklessness. I am delighted at the way the Government have for some time now sought to address those issues by, as we have heard, creating jobs and getting more people into jobs than ever before—there are far fewer workless households—and by reforming education and raising standards of education in schools.
I particularly want to focus on the place of family. Unless we address the matter of family breakdown, we will never truly address the issue of poverty and social justice. We need to put family at the heart of any agenda.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
To pick up where I left off, there is clear evidence that we will never truly deal with the issue of social justice and social mobility if we do not put family at the heart of any agenda. Research conducted by the Centre for Social Justice has shown that children who experience family breakdown perform less well at school, gain fewer qualifications and are more likely to be expelled. Helping families to stay together is the ultimate social mobility agenda.
While it is not just about money—we must remember that these are real people’s lives at the heart of this—we cannot ignore the cost of family breakdown. Family breakdown is estimated to cost the country £48 billion a year, with £7 billion on the health service, £4.5 billion on the police and £13.1 billion on increased tax credits. That is in addition to the pressure it puts on our housing stock and social services. Despite that massive cost to the taxpayer and the pressure that family breakdown places on our national services, next year the Government will spend more on repairing cathedrals than they will on supporting relationships and families staying together. If this Government are really to build a one nation Britain, their social reforms will have to work to close the family gap, because the benefits of a stable family life are not shared equally and are becoming a middle-class preserve.
I know these are generalisations, and people will always point to exceptions, but the latest Government data show that 76% of children in middle to high-income households are living with both parents, compared with only 48% of those in low-income families. It is clear that family breakdown is damaging the life chances of the poorest children in our country, and it should be a matter of social justice. I am aware that social justice is easy to talk about and much more difficult to achieve, but we do need to talk about it. I say that as someone who has learned the hard way how important family is. We should not shy away from saying that strong families, strong marriages and couple relationships are a good thing, because the evidence is there to clearly demonstrate that that is the case.
Too often, successive Governments have kicked this issue into the long grass or put in the “too difficult to deal with” pile. I do not believe we can afford to do that any longer. If we do not take steps and put measures in place that will actively support couples and families and reverse the trend of family breakdown in this country, we will fail future generations of our poorest children.
The title of this debate is “Cross-departmental strategy on social justice”. If we are to have such a strategy, we will need a cross-departmental strategy on the family. In my time in this House, it has struck me that family policy is not really owned by any Department or Minister. While it is true that family matters cut across many Departments, they are too vital to the life chances of millions of children across our country to not be owned by anyone in government. Because family matters are often seen as difficult, intangible and hard to address, there is a real danger that they end up falling between all the stools.
I believe that the Government need to do more. I support the proposal by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton that children’s centres be converted to family hubs as a first step. I also call on the Government to extend the married couples transferable tax allowance further and to continue to eradicate the couple penalty in the welfare system, so that it is no longer a disincentive for couples to stay together.
We need someone in the Cabinet who will champion the family. We need cross-departmental co-operation to develop family-friendly policies and a family test with real teeth that shapes policy. We need the Government to not be afraid to boldly say that strong families, marriages and couple relationships are good. They are good for our children and for our national wellbeing, and they will play a key role in dealing with the causes of poverty across our country.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double). It is noticeable that speeches from my hon. Friends have centred on the family. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), to whom I pay tribute—he has a new title now, which I forget; is it sheriff of Northstead?—quite rightly said, family is
“the best anti-poverty measure ever invented”.
I am sure that that will be endorsed by the new Minister, whom I welcome, and our new Prime Minister, who has made it clear that her focus continues to be fighting against “burning” social injustices. At the root and heart of injustice is the lack of opportunity to have the care of two parents and, indeed, to be part of a commitment of marriage.
The point of this debate, which I was involved in seeking to secure, is for the Minister to do a very straightforward thing: to confirm, as we hope is the case, that there is a cross-departmental strategy on social justice and that the Government will publish a life chances strategy. We look forward to the Minister telling us the date of publication of that strategy, which was mentioned in the Queen’s Speech:
“To tackle poverty and the causes of deprivation, including family instability, addiction and debt, my government will introduce new indicators for measuring life chances.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 18 May 2016; Vol. 773, c. 3.]
I hope the Minister will reaffirm that commitment.
The House authorities struggled when they saw the title of the debate. Who is the Minister responsible for this cross-departmental strategy? The title of the debate was deliberately designed to raise that question, because we need a clear answer on who is leading the way. Traditionally, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), to whom I pay tribute, led that charge, given his background with the CSJ and all the hard work done, not least in opposition. We need to know clearly that this strategy is owned across Government and that not only will a life chances strategy be delivered, but it will have real meaning—that it will not consist of good soundbites and a good press release and then gather dust on civil service shelves. That is important.
While I respect the Minister for responding to this debate—no doubt a lot of concerns focus on the Department for Work and Pensions—this issue goes beyond specific departmental responsibilities and affects all parts of Government. We know the family has to be at the heart of that, because it is in stable families that we can have social justice across Departments. When the life chances strategy is published, I will be doing a word search not only for “family” but for “marriage”. I want to see hits on both those words, because they are key determinants.
My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) mentioned Jobs, Friends & Houses, a cross-departmental approach with the charitable sector. May I take that a stage further? Although there is a question mark about who is responding to the cross-departmental strategy on social justice, we can be in no doubt about the impact of a lack of such a strategy. While there are great opportunities through local charities that bring things together, the impact is on those like Lucy. My test of the Government’s cross-departmental strategy is a “Lucy” test.
Lucy was a child who was sexually abused and placed in care. She later went on to suffer from depression, which caused educational failure. She began shoplifting to pay for a drug habit following a short spell in prison, and she lost touch with her grandmother, her remaining relative. The spiral of complex needs led to injustice for Lucy. She was able to buck the trend, but sadly there are all too many Lucys—58,000 are homeless with substance misuse and criminal justice issues. We must tackle this problem. Lucy is an example of the way forward. We must bring things together properly with a national strategy that enables the Lucys of this world to have joint commissioning from their council to avoid the silos between the Probation Service and the NHS, and to have a dedicated, named mentor and advocate. Lucy is now back in contact with her grandmother, out of contact with the police and on the road to recovery.
I appreciate, Ms Dorries, that you want me to conclude. Those individuals with complex needs do not understand cross-departmental strategies, but they understand when they fall into the gaps between departmental silos, funding streams and statutory responsibilities. We have to ensure that the strategy goes to the root causes of poverty and into entrenched areas so that we do much better for such people. We know we need more residential rehab, which has had 50% cuts. Areas such as Birmingham are not making any referrals to abstinence-based residential rehab. We have to ensure that the Lucys of this world get a better deal. To pay homage to the old Heineken adverts, this life chances strategy has to reach the parts that other strategies do not reach and the lives of the Lucys of this world.
I will call the Minister at 15.58, so perhaps the Opposition Front Benchers will work out the timing for themselves.
Thank you, Ms Dorries. I will try to do the maths on the timing.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing this debate and on her thoughtful speech. Let me say at the outset that Scottish National party Members share the desire to support families, to promote social justice and to improve the prospects of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. We recognise that that will require cross-departmental action that cuts across a range of policy areas and Government functions, including areas of devolved responsibility—a point that may be reflected this afternoon in the fact that only Back-Bench Members from Scotland and Northern Ireland are in the Chamber today.
Where we part company with the UK Government is in our analysis of the underlying drivers of poverty and deprivation and in the prescriptions we offer to address it.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will not give way because I am very short of time.
The hon. Member for Congleton put great emphasis on family policy, and clearly families are at the heart of a stable society. We have heard from other speakers today and from the Government in recent months about life chances. That is an innocuous enough term. Who could take issue with improving life chances? The problem is that the shift in the Government’s rhetoric has masked a sharp move away in policy terms from consideration of the economic drivers of disadvantage, particularly low income, towards social phenomena such as family breakdown and addiction, which we have heard a lot about today but which actually affect children in families across the income spectrum.
Don't get me wrong—children are often very badly affected by parental separation or a parent’s problematic use of alcohol or drugs, but that will not necessarily push them into poverty. Likewise, problematic levels of debt are by no means the preserve of low-income households. I agree with the hon. Member for Congleton that support for all families who are coping with these issues is important regardless of their income level, but if we want to achieve greater social justice and to close the gaps in educational attainment, job prospects, and long-term health and life expectancy between the wealthiest and the poorest, it is intellectually dishonest to pretend that low income is anything other than the core driver of poverty. It is a distraction to think we can tackle child poverty without recognising that material deprivation, lack of money in a household and chronic financial insecurity—symptoms of a labour market that is increasingly characterised by low-paid, temporary jobs with fluctuating hours of work—and excessive housing costs lie at the heart of the gulf in prospects. We cannot tackle these glaring inequalities if we are not prepared to bite the bullet of these gross disparities in income.
The reality is that the Government’s austerity agenda continues to reduce the incomes of families in lower paid jobs and those unable to work because of serious illness or disability. Austerity has hit the incomes of women and disabled people disproportionately. The four-year freeze on working-age benefits, including child tax credits, working tax credits and jobseeker’s allowance, will see families lose an estimated 12% of the value of their support by 2020. Two thirds of children growing up in poverty in the UK live in working families, so cuts to tax credits have an enormously detrimental effect on parents in low-paid jobs. That undoubtedly puts pressure on families and strains relationships.
The cuts to the work allowance will also hit low-paid working parents, including single parents, some of whom could lose as much as £2,600 a year. The cuts to the work allowance also remove from universal credit one of the cornerstone benefits of the system, namely that it was supposed to remove the work disincentives—the so-called benefit trap inherent in the previous system. Universal credit now replicates that flaw so that for many low-paid parents there is now no incentive to take promotion or increase their working hours because their family will be worse off. According to the Resolution Foundation, work will pay on average £1,000 a year less for working families in receipt of universal credit.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) talked about the Concentrix fiasco, which we debated in the main Chamber today. All I can say is that it has caused extreme financial distress and hardship. I know of at least two families who have lost their home because of that. The Government really must take responsibility.
Another key issue in addressing life chances is housing costs. There is a chronic shortage of affordable housing across the UK, a consequence partly of grossly inflated house prices and partly of the failure of successive Governments to build enough affordable homes. I am glad to say that in Scotland we have taken a very different approach and have started to reverse that situation. We are committed to building 50,000 more affordable homes in the next five years, which will go some way to meeting need, but we cannot avoid the fact that children who grow up in a warm, dry, decent and stable home will have better life chances than those who do not. That is a good example of why we need cross-departmental efforts to tackle child poverty. Again, it goes without saying that poor housing puts terrible pressure on families and relationships.
Last week, I attended the launch of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s “Solve UK Poverty” report. One of the most important messages that comes out of that is about the dynamic nature of poverty. In this place, we often trade in lazy stereotypes about entrenched poverty, and there is no doubt that some parts of the country are affected by that because of deindustrialisation and so on. Nevertheless, for most people it is unexpected life events that push them into poverty, whether it be redundancy, relationship breakdown or long-term illness and serious health problems. One of the most important things that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlighted is families’ level of resilience. Clearly, when unpredictable events that could happen to any of us strike, poorer families have less of a cushion. They are much less able to cushion themselves against such events that can have long-term, far-reaching consequences.
I will finish by talking about how we measure child poverty and pick up some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East. The Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 removed the statutory child poverty targets that were to be met by 2020. A cynic might assume that that is because the Government know that the Institute for Fiscal Studies is correct in its projection that the rate of child poverty in the UK is set to increase to over 18%—affecting almost one in five—by 2020 as a direct result of austerity reforms.
Life chances indicators may provide some useful insights, but given that two thirds of children living in poverty have working parents, focusing on worklessness will not take us much further forward and misses the big picture of widening inequality eroding young people’s life chances. I am glad to say that in Scotland we are taking an alternative approach to child poverty which focuses on maximising household resources, investing heavily in high-quality early-years education, including 30 hours a week free childcare for all nursery-age children and for the most disadvantaged two-year-olds, and renewing the focus on closing the attainment gap in schools between those from the lowest income groups and their better-off peers.
The Scottish Government are also consulting on legislation to measure child poverty with proposals for ambitious statutory income targets and duties on Ministers to report every year on published delivery plans. We have also protected the education maintenance allowance, which has helped young people from low income families to stay on at school or college so that they get the qualifications they are capable of achieving, and ensured that those who get the grades they need to go to university can study on the basis of their ability to learn, not their ability to pay tuition fees.
We should not dodge the big issue about income, but should recognise that it is at the heart of families and their ability to sustain the normal shocks and events that most people go through at some point in their lives.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Members for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing this important debate.
I welcome the genuine concern focused on the poorest families by the hon. Member for Congleton. However, as she said, while family breakdown is a key driver of poverty—the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) made much the same point—poverty is a key driver of family breakdown, and it is important that that remains in the frame. There are almost 1 million zero-hours contracts in our society, as well as high housing costs, insecure rental contracts and insecure work, all of which create a great deal of instability in the home and for families. A Government who are focusing on tackling social justice should take note of that.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke compellingly of the community groups in his constituency, which work hard to make lives better. He did say that he had never seen food banks as a negative. I have to disagree with him on that: I see the sharp rise in food banks in our country, one of the richest nations on earth, as a stain on the reputation of this Government.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) spoke very clearly and importantly on the role of education in helping people in prison—helping them to become better fathers, mothers and so on and aiding their rehabilitation. He also spoke about the importance of improving access to psychological therapies.
The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) raised the important issue that universal credit is paid only to one person in a couple. That raises the problems that particularly women in abusive relationships can face, and I ask the Minister in particular to address that point.
The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay also called for family hubs, but I have to say that in my constituency Government cuts are putting our family hubs in jeopardy. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford), whom I absolutely agree with, pointed out that low income is a core driver of deprivation.
The hon. Member for Congleton spoke with pride about the social justice narrative of the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith). I have to take exception to that, because we of course have to bear in mind the record of what he achieved while in office. We saw the slashing of social security support and a failure to ensure the levels of high-quality, well-paid and secure jobs that would prevent an additional 800,000 children from being in poverty by 2020.
The hon. Lady and I can agree on one thing: the need for an interdepartmental approach to enable social justice to thrive, and to counter social injustice. Where we may disagree is on the interpretation of how to achieve that. I would point to whole swathes of Government policies and previous coalition Government policies as drivers of deprivation. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that the Budget has left people on low and middle incomes proportionately worse off as a result of tax and social security changes. Regressive economic policies whereby the total tax burdens fall predominantly on the poorest, combined with low levels of public spending, especially on social security, are key to establishing and perpetuating inequalities. Is that really social justice?
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will not, because I am very short of time; I am sorry.
Is it socially just that 3.7 million sick and disabled people will have approximately £28 billion-worth of cuts in social security support from the Welfare Reform Act 2012? That does not include the cuts to employment and support allowance work-related activity group support due to start next, or cuts to social care. Is it socially just that in addition to facing the misery and hardship of poverty, the children affected have greater risks to their future health and wellbeing? One witness to the recent inquiry by the all-party parliamentary group on health in all policies into the effects of the 2016 Welfare Reform and Work Bill on child health told us that
“as children’s lives unfold, the poor health associated with poverty limits their potential and development across a whole range of areas, leading to poor health and life chances in adulthood, which then has knock-on effects on future generations.”
There is even increasing evidence that poverty directly impacts on how neural connections develop in the brain. In particular, the hippocampus, which is key to learning, memory and stress regulation, and the amygdala, which is linked to stress and emotion, have weaker connections to other areas of the brain in children living in poverty compared with children from more affluent homes. Those changes in connectivity are related to poorer cognitive and educational outcomes and increased risk of psychiatric illness for nine to 10-year-olds; that includes depression and antisocial behaviours.
The inequalities that the people of our country face at the moment are reminiscent of the Victorian age. The International Monetary Fund has described income inequalities as
“the most defining challenge of our time”.
In the UK, 40 years ago, 5% of income went to the highest 1% of earners; today it is 15%. Unless we address that, we cannot get to grips with all the other issues talked about in this debate. Of course, this is not just about income. The Panama papers revealed the shocking extent to which the assets of the richest are kept in offshore tax havens, where tax is avoided and evaded. According to the Equality Trust, in the last year alone the wealth of the richest 1,000 households in the UK increased by more than £28.5 billion. Today, their combined wealth is more than that of 40% of the population. While the wealth of the richest 1% has increased by 21%, the poorest half of households saw their wealth increase by less than one third of that amount. I could go on.
Of course, social injustices are not confined to tax and social security policies. There is inadequate funding for nursery schools, so we are seeing them struggle to provide the expertise that can make a real difference in early-years development—something very pertinent in my own constituency. What about the impact of the Government’s decision to bring forward the equalisation of the state pension age for women born in the 1950s, the so-called WASPI women—Women Against State Pension Inequality? What about the restrictions in access to justice through legal aid and the fees charged for employment tribunals? What about the reducing of access to education by trebling tuition fees and scrapping the education maintenance allowance? What about the cuts to local authority budgets—they have been very high indeed in my constituency—leading to cuts to Sure Start and threatening vital adult social care?
Cuts to the police authorities mean that we are seeing increased problems with social cohesion, creating real anxiety at all levels of society, with people in certain areas afraid to go out of their house. There is the threat to the social housing sector, such that people do not feel that they have a secure home to live in, through the Government’s right to buy, bedroom tax and 1% annual cut to social rents. Those are all combining to threaten the social housing sector.
This Government and the previous coalition have facilitated exploitative labour markets with poor-quality jobs and zero-hours contracts, the number of which is heading towards 1 million, and have further contributed to maintaining power within an elite. Where is the social justice in that?
Governing is about choices. The amount of revenue lost to the Exchequer each year as a result of tax fraud is £16 billion—the same as we spend on disabled people through the disability living allowance and personal independence payment. If the Government truly believe in social justice and fairness, they need to reflect that in their policies across the board. They need to clamp down on tax fraud and ensure that the most vulnerable in society are looked after properly and not plunged into poverty or worse, and that opportunities are there for all.
It is, of course, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. Like other hon. Members, I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) on securing this important debate on social justice.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton in particular is a very committed and diligent campaigner on these issues, and I thank her for the work that she has done to raise the profile of social justice matters. I also thank hon. Members on both sides of the House for their contributions to this discussion. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), who unfortunately has had to leave the Chamber, but whose commitment to these issues is indeed incredibly well known.
The Government, too, are committed to building a country that works for everyone. That means taking action to help the most disadvantaged. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said on the steps of Downing Street, we will fight against the injustices we see in our society and, in doing that, we will do everything we can to give people more control over their lives. However, we know that, as many hon. Members have said today, our strategies need to be joined up across Government so that we can effectively support and transform the lives of the most vulnerable. That is why the Prime Minister has established a new Social Reform Cabinet Committee—to bring Departments together to deliver social reform. In addition to the Prime Minister, that Committee includes the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Home Secretary and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster; in total, nine Departments are involved.
The Prime Minister has been clear that tackling poverty and disadvantage and delivering social reform will be a priority for this Government, but I would like to take this opportunity to respond to the many issues that hon. Members have raised and to set out the ways we are currently tackling disadvantage, removing barriers for people and ensuring that everyone has the right opportunities to fulfil their potential.
This afternoon there has been a focus on relationships and families, and rightly so. Good-quality relationships are the basis of a strong and stable society, and we are committed to strengthening and supporting family life for our children and for future generations. The evidence is clear: what matters most is the quality of family relationships and not necessarily whether parents are part of a couple, cohabiting, married or separated. It is important to acknowledge that families come in many different shapes and sizes and we need to be able to support them all.
Over the last four years, we have invested £30 million in relationship support services, allowing 160,000 people to access preventive support. More than 48,000 couples participated in counselling, and more than 17,000 practitioners have been trained to help families in difficulty. We are developing new programmes of relationship support services to help couples with relationship issues, and those focus particularly on the most disadvantaged in society. They are aimed at helping parents to manage and resolve couple conflict.
What we know more clearly than anything else is that conflict has the most impact on children. We want to support parents to stay together where they want to and can, but also support parents, when they have separated, to continue working together in the best interests of their children. My officials are actively working with a range of Departments. Given the prevalence of relationship distress in disadvantaged groups, we are working with Department for Communities and Local Government colleagues, who are responsible for the troubled families programme, on strengthening the focus of that programme on relationship support and parenting.
We recognise that relationships come to an end and it is important that those parents get the support they need to keep conflict to a minimum and to agree on what is best for their children. Over the last two years we have funded 17 projects to help test which services work best in helping separated parents. These have been up and down the country in very different and varied areas, including the constituencies of some of my honourable colleagues.
What I found particularly interesting from one project was the evidence that the involvement of grandparents could be incredibly useful and constructive when couples are separating, to help them work in the best interests of their grandchildren. We have learned a great deal from these projects and are now deciding how best to invest in the help for separated families and single parents in the future.
I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton refer to the Government’s work on care leavers. As a former member of the Education Committee, I was but one small part of the work looking at the impact that Government and agencies can have on care leavers. It is absolutely right that these young people, some of the most vulnerable in our society, whose educational, health and employment outcomes are significantly poorer than those of their peers, are made one of our priorities. We are committed to giving them the support they need as they make the difficult transition to adulthood, independent living and, of course, work.
Since the first cross-Government care leaver strategy was published in October 2013, the Department for Work and Pensions has continued to take action to improve the employment support we provide for care leavers. In July this year, the Government published a new, more ambitious strategy to improve care leaver support across this Parliament. This includes setting out in law, for the first time, what it means for a local authority to be a good corporate parent, and creating a new care leaver covenant, which will be launched shortly.
Offender rehabilitation was spoken about by my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton and the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who has a great deal of experience and expertise in that important area. We are committed to offender rehabilitation and prison reform. Helping offenders to get into work and make a positive contribution is in the best interests of the individual and wider society.
We know that ex-offenders who find work are significantly less likely to return to prison. Reoffending rates are around 20% lower for prison leavers who go into a job. Work is the best route out of poverty, and for offenders work is essential to rebuild their lives and achieve independence and stability for themselves and their families. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire referenced Jobs, Friends & Houses, which is working in the Blackpool area. Close to my own constituency, I have seen some of the work done at Winchester prison that has seen the prison working with both education providers and local businesses to help prisoners acquire employment placements.
We also recognise what an important stabilising and motivating influence families can be in prisoner rehabilitation. Family engagement in prisons across England and Wales helps increase wellbeing and reduce reoffending. At Winchester I saw the work done by the charity Spurgeons, which is one of many partners delivering this support across the prison estate. Spurgeons supports imprisoned fathers to help them with their parenting skills, and to help their families handle the stresses associated with having a parent in custody. Classes are run on parenting skills and the impact that custodial sentences have on families. Family days are then held to support building better relationships during custody and after release.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised a number of very important issues, including a discussion of the big society, which I too have seen working in my constituency. We might have a discussion about the role that food banks play, but he is absolutely right to point out the role that the Church has in both establishing food banks and supporting people who use them. In Southampton just last week, I was at the 20th anniversary of the Basics Bank, which operates in a network of churches across the city. It is based at Above Bar Church, but also operates in Swaythling Methodist Church in my constituency.
The hon. Gentleman also talked about universal credit, and of course this is an important part of the Government’s welfare reforms. During the summer recess, I visited the Newcastle jobcentre where UC is operating in the full service. I saw the commitment and determination of the work coaches, who play an absolutely critical role in encouraging and supporting people—not just into work, but once they are in work, in that journey to better employment, longer hours and higher wages. Actually seeing it in operation was an incredible experience. The support and encouragement the work coaches were giving to the individual jobseekers coming in was really motivating to me. I saw the commitment they had and their enthusiasm for the transformational difference universal credit has, where nobody is penalised for taking on more hours.
It is an important change and one that we need to emphasise: to explain clearly that this is a route where there are no cliff edges and where work coaches can make sure they give budgetary advice. That is an important part of the transformation that we can make to people’s lives. They can give support and, importantly, build relationships with those jobseekers.
The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) also spoke about universal credit. She raised a very important point, which I must address, about Concentrix and the contract; HMRC has confirmed it will not extend that and also that those who have had their tax credits stopped will be made priorities, to make sure that their cases are looked at.
I pay tribute to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire. He gave me a great long list of questions, which I fear I am not going to have enough time to answer in full. I reassure him that we do look at the work being done overseas and learn from best practice in places such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the Netherlands. I am absolutely open to suggestions of what works to help build and strengthen family relationships wherever it happens in the world. In this country we are not isolated from the impacts of what other countries have learnt before, and we should be willing to learn from our neighbours.
In conclusion, let me reassure hon. Members that this Government are absolutely committed to fighting against the injustices of society and to ensuring that everybody has the right opportunities to fulfil their potential. Our priorities remain making work pay and supporting families into work and out of poverty, by tackling the root causes of poverty and not just the symptoms.
In his moving explanation of Lucy and the Lucy test, my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate was absolutely right to point out that these are individuals who are impacted. We must do our utmost to make sure that that Lucy test is used to ensure that the policies the Government have across a broad range of Departments are effective and deliver the outcomes we are looking for.
I thank colleagues for the many thoughtful and constructive contributions they have made, with practical suggestions for cross-governmental working on promoting social justice—in particular my hon. Friends the Members for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) and for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).
I also thank the Minister for her response. I hope she will take away some of the points made during the debate. May I ask her please to consider writing to answer the points she has been unable to respond to today? I thank her for her response and for referring to a number of projects providing relationship support in different parts of the country. I hope to see them extended more widely right across the country, because that is very much needed, and prioritised, along with other proposals.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered cross-departmental strategy on social justice.
The BBC and Political Impartiality
[Geraint Davies in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the BBC and political impartiality.
Thank you, Mr Davies, for your chairmanship of this debate. May I begin by saying that this debate is about the BBC and impartiality, and the bias that has a tendency to creep in? This is not in any way meant to be a full-scale attack on the BBC, which is an organisation greatly respected by everyone, not least myself. In fact, I think that some of the programmes made by the BBC are absolutely second to none—in particular in the news department, which I am going to talk about in a bit more detail in a minute.
News and current affairs programmes on Radio 4 such as “From Our Own Correspondent” or “The Report” are absolutely excellent. I also pay tribute—as I am sure you would, Mr Davies, if you were able to—to the contribution the BBC has made to the Welsh language in Wales. Nor do I think that there is any argument for privatising the BBC; again, that is not what I am here to suggest. But I do think that unless the BBC is able to deal with the bias that many people have complained about, it is going to be harder and harder for it to justify the licence fee, which is in effect a tax on everyone whether they are supporters of what the BBC says or not. I will come to some examples of that.
Peter Sissons made the point in his book that there is a cultural bias within the BBC because it is a metropolitan organisation that seems to be peopled by employees who have a certain world view. It is always difficult to put people into categories, but in my opinion, one could fairly say—I have been in and out of BBC studios on a more-than-weekly basis for about 17 years now, as you know, Mr Davies—that that world view is somewhat left of centre. I have been in many BBC studios and canteens and I have yet to see anyone sitting there reading a copy of the Daily Express or the Daily Mail, loudly complaining about immigration, Brussels or suggesting that claims about climate change are somewhat overegged, yet that is a perfectly normal situation in many other places. Anyone trying it in the BBC studios would probably find that their promotion ceiling was hit fairly quickly.
The reality, of course, is that although the BBC goes out of its way to try to be impartial, it is very difficult for it to be when all—or most—of its employees share a particular set of opinions. We see that in several ways: for example, pressure groups are dealt with in different ways by the BBC. One could google its website right away to see what I am talking about. Organisations such as the Institute of Economic Affairs—one might suggest that that is a right-of-centre organisation—will always come with a health warning on a BBC webpage that it is a centre-right think-tank or a centre-right organisation. The situation is similar for the Adam Smith Institute or the Centre for Social Justice, which is always described as a think-tank set up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith).
Meanwhile, other think-tanks that are asked to comment or supply speakers are not given health warnings in the same way. Organisations such as the Institute for Public Policy Research, which is a left-of-centre pressure group, is very rarely described as one. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is a left-of-centre pressure group that supports higher taxes and higher spending. That is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, but it has a left-of-centre view in everything that it suggests. It is never, ever described as that; it is always described as an anti-poverty charity or think-tank, or in some kind of a positive way.
When it comes to climate change, we see the same thing happening. Groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are simply described as that and their spokespeople are given licence to say whatever they want, whereas that is not the case for an organisation that may question some of the so-called consensus about climate change. The Global Warming Policy Foundation, for example, will always be described as an organisation set up by Nigel Lawson that questions the scientific consensus around climate change.
We see that bias creeping in when speakers are interrupted. For example, in November 2013, Evan Davis interviewed two speakers on the European Union, one of whom was Paul Sykes, who obviously took the view that the EU was not a good thing. He was interrupted 11 times a minute. The other speaker, Karel De Gucht, who I think was an EU trade commissioner, was interrupted just twice a minute. We see that bias in the number of speakers and the kind of views that they espouse. Again, in January 2013 when “Newsnight” ran a special on the European Union, the overwhelming majority of speakers—I think 18 out of 19—were pro-EU, with only one alternative voice.
I am listening to my hon. Friend’s speech with great interest, and I congratulate him on it. Does he agree that each morning on the business section of the “Today” programme, we still get an unrelenting diet of doom and gloom about Britain’s economic prospects after the Brexit vote? If anybody is trying to talk this country into recession, it is the business section of the “Today” programme. Does he share my concern that it should grow up and accept the result from the British people that we want to leave the European Union, with the positive benefits that that will bring this country?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. It is not just that programme, but many others and many other aspects of the BBC. I took a few examples of this from the website earlier. I do not want to go through all of them, but an article asked, “Was there a Brexit graduate gap?” to try and perhaps suggest that people voting to leave the EU were not intelligent. Another article said, “PM condemns ‘despicable’ post-EU referendum hate crimes”.
In fact, if I may come to that point, I think the referendum campaign was run in a relatively fair fashion. In Wales, I was in and out of the studios a lot and I will not complain about what happened during the campaign, but what has taken place afterwards has been an absolute disgrace.
The worst aspect is the fact that there have been hate crimes, and we should not shy away from that. There always have been and possibly always will be. Every single person I know who campaigned for Brexit totally and utterly condemns hate crimes of any sort. Every reasonable and rational person condemns them. I have said to BBC reporters, “Why are we not allowed to go out there and say that we totally and utterly condemn these crimes? Why do we even have to put up with suggestions on BBC websites implying that somehow people who voted for Brexit are responsible for these despicable crimes that have taken place?”
We see headlines such as “Young Muslim women say they’re feeling the Brexit effect”, “Hate crime ‘still far too high’ post-Brexit”, “UN blames UK politicians for Brexit hate crime spike”, and “Brexit: Children hear racist abuse ‘for first time’”. There is one after another, always with the suggestion that somehow those 17 million people who went out and voted for freedom from the European Union are in some way responsible for the actions of a despicable minority who are condemned by absolutely everyone.
To put that in perspective, in the past we have seen despicable crimes by religious extremists. Whenever those crimes have taken place, the BBC has rightly made it absolutely clear that those crimes have been carried out by a tiny minority of people who share those particular religious views and that the vast majority of people sharing that religion do not support any form of violence. The BBC is right to make that point and yet, it is not doing so when dealing with Brexit.
I am following the hon. Gentleman’s speech closely. Since the 1999 European elections, a number of independent reports have shown the bias of the BBC on EU matters. The bias that he refers to in terms of climate change and other scientific matters is different. The fact is that the BBC has very few scientifically trained people and they do not understand that “consensus” is not a scientific word. They use that word to censor people who do not agree with the majority of the scientists. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is a difference between those two biases within the BBC?
I suppose all biases are different. I accept the point the hon. Gentleman is making, and in fact, I was going to come on to climate change in a moment. Suffice it to say that I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) said: the reporting since the referendum has been an absolute disgrace, and the BBC has to remember that a majority of those who voted, who buy their licences, do not support membership of the European Union. The BBC should be out there reflecting that particular opinion instead of putting up people such as Gary Younge to go out and give the impression somehow that Britain has become a dangerous place for eastern Europeans. Having been married to one for 15 years or so, I can say that that is not the case.
Slightly naively, I thought that this would be a general conversation about BBC bias rather than being purely about Brexit. I hope my hon. Friend will forgive me for asking a question that may be unrelated. Sections 4.4.31 and 15.4.18 of the BBC guidelines address all these concerns, so the existing guidelines are there. Has he attempted to engage with the BBC about enforcing them?
I certainly have engaged with the BBC on this matter and others, and I will come back to that in a minute if I have time.
The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) made a point about climate change, and that involves a different, but important, kind of bias. It is regrettable that the BBC has accepted hook, line and sinker the so-called scientific consensus on climate change and not allowed anyone on to the airwaves who wants to question it.
There may well be a consensus of scientists who can be found, who will say that carbon dioxide emitted by man has created the very small rise in temperature that we have seen over the past 250 years, and that that is the only driver of climate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, incidentally, would not say that, but let us not go into a debate about climate change. Let me just say that there are certain questions that should be asked—that one can ask—to which the scientists have no answers.
It would be perfectly reasonable for the BBC to allow on air people who are willing at least to put those questions and to allow the public to make their mind up as to whether the scientists had answered those questions. Yet on the rare occasions when the BBC has allowed a dissenting voice, there has been all sorts of trouble. For example, Quentin Letts was recently on a BBC programme asking what is the point of the Met Office and, because he suggested that the Met Office was getting certain things wrong, there was a huge hullabaloo and the whole programme was taken off the internet. Some sort of apology was issued, and I believe that many BBC staff were sent off on some training mission, presumably at taxpayers’ expense.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that even BBC presenters are now saying that the BBC has gone totally in favour of global warming views and that impartiality was abandoned long ago? The BBC spent tens of thousands of pounds fighting a freedom of information request that sought to identify that seminars were held to ensure that its top executives were directed towards the pro-climate change view.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Top executives have been sent off on training programmes where they are expected to spout the “man-made carbon emissions have caused all sorts of climatic problems” line, which simply is not true. Incidentally, if anyone from the BBC is listening, I will debate this with the best scientists the BBC can find in the country or across the world. Bring them on.
With my heavy goods vehicle licence I could outfox any of those so-called scientists, because they simply do not know the answers to the pertinent questions on this matter. I really hope that the BBC has the courage to do that. Who is going to lose out here? If I am getting this wrong and I do not know what I am talking about, I am the one who will look silly. Please, BBC, put me on a radio programme with the best scientists on climate change and we will see who is looking stupid afterwards.
I want to mention one other, perhaps seemingly minor, matter, which is the way in which the word “conservative” is used. I am fed up to the back teeth of hearing the BBC use the word “conservative” to describe radical Islamic clerics in Iran and Iraq. Anyone googling it will see what I mean. These extremist people who have absolutely ridiculous views about gays and women, believing them all to be second-class citizens, are quite often described as conservative, albeit with a small c, but that does not come over on the radio. I have sat listening to the radio while lunatic clerics have been described time after time as conservative, and then the next news item is something about the Government in which members of the centre-right party who believe in equality and human rights are also described as conservative. That juxtaposition is simply not fair. That use of language would not be tolerated by many other people.
Of course, I could go on for a rather long time about things that have gone on in the BBC, but I have made my point. It matters that the BBC has this inbuilt bias. BBC executives need to do something to address that bias. I want to see the BBC continue. I enjoy listening to most parts of the BBC most of the time, but if the BBC is to justify what is effectively a tax on every single man, woman and child in this country, it has to start reflecting the diversity of views out there, being careful to note that the majority of people in this country have shown that they are opposed to the European Union, that almost certainly a majority of people in this country believe that immigration needs to come down and that a surprisingly large number of people think that the current hysteria over climate change has been somewhat over-egged.
If you do not have the prior permission of the mover and the Minister, you are not allowed to make a speech. The Minister might take an intervention.
I might take a long intervention.
I hope not.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. It is also a pleasure to address this incredibly important issue at an auspicious time, because the new BBC charter for the next period is due to be published tomorrow. The debate is important and timely, and my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) is modest in asking if anybody from the BBC will be watching, because I imagine that the BBC is hanging on his every word. I have no doubt that the BBC will have heard and noted the argument he has put with some vim.
I agree with my hon. Friend on a number of fronts. At the start he briefly mentioned the importance of the Welsh language and the BBC’s role in promulgating it. I am passionate about that too. I congratulate the BBC on its work in supporting and sustaining the Welsh language and in allowing people who speak English and Welsh, or just Welsh, to be able to participate fully in our national life.
I also agree with my hon. Friend on the importance of genuine impartiality, which is the nub of his speech and the purpose of this debate. It is worth briefly going through why impartiality is important and what is in place to ensure that it happens. As the charter review has shown, everybody will agree that the BBC is at the heart of British culture. I think the BBC is one of the nation’s most treasured institutions, and there is broad agreement that, as a public service broadcaster funded by the licence fee, it is vital that accurate and impartial news is at the centre of the BBC’s output. So far, so good.
No one would dispute that this has been a challenging period for the delivery of impartiality and accuracy, and I am now most concerned with how to ensure that the BBC’s future is secured in such a way that the objectives of impartiality and accuracy remain at its heart and are effectively delivered.
The partiality of the BBC is no longer in question, because more and more people, when they leave the BBC’s employment—from Jeremy Paxman to Robert Aitken to Roger Mosey—have come out to say that there is bias in many different areas. Indeed, one only has to look at the pro-republican bias of BBC Northern Ireland. There is not a single Unionist commentator who would be quoted on BBC Northern Ireland. Nearly all of them come from a republican, pro-left wing background.
I certainly acknowledge that some former BBC employees have made that argument. We have all read the cases that they have made, but the question is how to ensure that the charter principles of impartiality and accuracy are best executed.
I mentioned the editorial guidelines earlier because they are clear on that specific point. Does the Minister accept that there might be a fear among BBC management that taking on a high-profile, popular figure who is a public favourite can be difficult? There are plenty of examples, but are they using the procedures they already have to deal with them? If not, why not?
I was going to come on to the editorial guidelines. The White Paper made it clear that impartiality and accuracy are absolutely central to the future role of the BBC. The next charter, to be published tomorrow, will explicitly put impartiality at the core of that role, enshrining it in the BBC’s mission and including it in the public purposes. The question is how that is delivered. One argument that is accepted by the BBC—this is important—is that having a diversity of internal opinions and a diversity of people from different backgrounds inside the BBC and working for the BBC is an important way to deliver on that objective. The BBC itself has goals to broaden the diversity—both as interpreted in protected characteristics legislation and in terms of social and geographic background—of those who work in it, to ensure that the internal debate better reflects the country that the BBC broadcasts to and that its employees are drawn from.
I am a former BBC insider myself; I worked there as a journalist on and off for 20 years. The Minister is absolutely right that we need diversity of background. It is worth noting, just out of interest, that by my calculation there are more former BBC employees on the Conservative side of the House than on the Labour side.
I do not want to take too much time from the Minister, but I will say one other thing briefly, if I may. As a journalist who worked for the BBC for 20 years, I completely agree that we have to ensure that there is no institutional bias. I love the BBC, but I have to say that sustaining a strategy of institutionalised bias would require a level of organisation that, in my experience, is beyond the labyrinthine structure of BBC news and current affairs.
My hon. Friend makes a very insightful point. On his point that there are more former BBC employees on the Conservative Benches than on the Labour Benches, I should point out that there are far more Conservative than Labour MPs altogether—long may that be so—so we should look at the proportions rather than the absolute numbers.
Let me move on to how things will be structured in future. Of course, it has to be for BBC to ensure that it provides impartial news and current affairs. It would be improper for that to be a matter for Ministers; the White Paper makes it clear that, under the new charter, it will fall squarely to the new BBC board. However, there is an important and new role for the BBC to be held to account in delivering impartial news under the new charter, because Ofcom will take on the regulation of editorial standards, including ensuring that the BBC meets requirements in impartiality and accuracy.
We have been working closely with the BBC and Ofcom on preparing the draft charter, and the framework agreement that comes with it, for publication tomorrow. Before the new charter comes into effect, there will be the opportunity to debate it in the devolved Assemblies and in both Houses. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth that he will have the opportunity to raise these issues then, and that the House will be able to debate them further.
There is no doubt that impartiality is one of the most important functions of the BBC. Getting it right is vital to its long-term future, to its support among the populace and to its ability to do its job as the national broadcaster. The BBC Trust commissions research on the trustworthiness of news, and its 2015 survey showed that 53% of people said the BBC was the one source that they turned to for impartial news coverage. That demonstrates how important it is to get this right, but it also shows us that more than half of people trust the BBC most for impartiality, so the statistic works both ways. It underlines the importance of this debate and demonstrates that, as we implement the charter, as the BBC board takes effect and as Ofcom puts in place its regulatory regime, it is very important to take into account all views on the matter.
Does the Minister accept that that is a rather circular argument? The BBC’s monopoly and the huge amount of resources it gets from public finances have allowed it to become the main news organisation in the United Kingdom. If the bias with which it presents the news becomes mainstream, of course it is going to be accepted as a trustworthy organisation, but only because it has been able to use its power to mould the views of the population. That is why the question of the licence fee and impartiality is important.
I accept the logic of that argument. The fact that the BBC is the single most trustworthy source for impartial news for the majority of the population—some 53%—demonstrates both its success, in that many people regard it as impartial, and how important it is that it gets the impartiality balance right. But impartiality is not just about dividing straight down the middle between two arguments. Impartiality and accuracy are both important. A national broadcaster ought to be able, if anyone can, to bring a sense of objectivity to our national debate and challenge it with facts, if that balance is delivered correctly.
I am sure, then, that the Minister will not be too pleased about the way in which the BBC described the last autumn statement by the former Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne). It referred to public expenditure being slashed to levels of the 19th century, taking us back to the Dickensian era. That is how it reported it. I am sure the Minister does not accept that that was an impartial way to report it, or that that reporting does not demonstrate a left-wing bias within the organisation.
I do not think it behoves me, as Minister responsible for broadcasting and media, to pick up on particular episodes, because the debate has to be seen in the round. The hon. Gentleman tempts me, but I will not be drawn into a line-by-line analysis.
Does the Minister agree that nobody in this debate is conspiring to do anything? The fact is that there is a cultural bias: most BBC presenters would probably be able to define the subjunctive, but would not know the second law of thermodynamics. Until the BBC gets scientifically trained people, there is bound to be an inherent bias.
The hon. Gentleman makes his point forcefully. I am sure the BBC’s human resources department has been watching and has noted it too.
I hope that the new charter set out tomorrow, with the new BBC board and with ultimate editorial recourse to Ofcom, will help us to seek what we are all looking for: an impartial and accurate BBC news service, which can inform and entertain the population of the UK according to its public service broadcasting principles. I strongly support the BBC in achieving that goal.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Universal Basic Income
I beg to move,
That this House has considered universal basic income.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this debate.
If I asked people what a universal basic income is, I would get many and varied answers. It is even referred to with different titles, as universal, unconditional, basic or citizen’s income. That is not a bad thing, because it highlights the fact that we do not have one clear-cut, complete, top-to-bottom definition. Until we do, we cannot decide if universal basic income is a solution or not, but I hope we can agree that the current welfare system has failed.
If we were all given a blank sheet of paper and asked to design a welfare system, nobody—but nobody—would come up with the system we have now. They would need thousands of sheets of paper and would end up with a mishmash of abandoned projects, badly implemented and half-hearted ideas and a system so complicated that it lets down those who need it the most. We need only look at the personal independence payment and at tax credits to see recent examples of people being punished by a system that is supposed to support them. At the same time, the current system allows those who would abuse it to do just that. The expected expenditure on UK social security and tax credits in 2016-17 is forecast to be more than £218 billion. We are spending 28% of our total public expenditure on social security, but it is still not clear whether our welfare system is helping or hindering the most vulnerable people in our society.
Inequality in the UK continues to get worse as we tinker around the edges of our welfare system. The richest 10% of households in the UK hold 45% of the nation’s wealth; by contrast, the poorest 50% own just 8.7% of that wealth. We have seen that inequality manifest itself in different ways, across gender, age and nationality. For instance, the average household in the south-east of England has almost twice the amount of wealth as the average household in Scotland.
Despite attempts to improve the current system, in-work poverty has vastly increased, with the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimating that two thirds of children living in poverty in the UK are in working families. The rapid increase in food bank usage also reflects the failure of our system. In 2008-09, the Trussell Trust issued almost 26,000 three-day emergency food supplies; by 2015-2016, that figure had grown to more than 1.1 million, with almost one in three of recipients being referred to food banks because of a delay in their benefit payment.
Unfortunately, my constituency has some of the worst rates of deprivation in Scotland. Of the thousands of cases that my office has handled, I would conservatively estimate that at least one in 10 are related to benefits. I am seeing people who are left confused and anxious by a system of mystifying complexity. It lacks compassion; it processes people as if they were mere numbers going through a machine; and its rigid inflexibility prevents people from accessing the support to which they are entitled. I believe that it leaves people feeling less and less empowered.
Sharon Wright, a senior lecturer in public policy at the University of Glasgow, has said:
“Received wisdom dictates that benefit receipt is the outcome of making ‘wrong choices’. Welfare reforms have become increasingly punitive, on the rationale that strong disincentives and coercion are required to prompt the ‘right choice’.”
As she points out, claiming benefits is not a life choice; it is the result of unforeseen circumstances in a person’s life, such as unemployment, sickness or disability. However, welfare recipients still face hostility and a strong social stigma that defines them as being workshy or lazy, or as having given up on a sense of personal responsibility. I could spend the entire debate highlighting the failings of the welfare system, but I can summarise them by simply stating that our welfare system is not working.
A universal basic income could be a solution to this problem. In the words of Malcolm Torry, the director of the Citizen’s Income Trust:
“Technology lying idle, human creativity frustrated, wealth flowing from poor to rich, and finite resources uncontrollably exploited …we are still waiting for the next new key concept. A Citizen’s Income might be just what is required.”
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He mentions the EUROMOD report by Mr Torry, and I wonder whether he saw the part of the report in which it is stated that, in order to support a universal basic income, the basic rate of income tax would have to rise to 48 pence in the pound. Can he say how on earth that is supportable in a modern economy?
As I said at the very start of my speech, there are many and varied approaches to this issue; no one has worked up the complete solution at this stage. What we are aiming for is acknowledgement of the fact that our current system is not fit for purpose, and the people of the United Kingdom should be looking for “best of breed”. If we are not prepared to take on that challenge, then we are not in the right job.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree with me that his proposal for a universal basic income has the potential to eradicate poverty, to make work pay and to ensure that all citizens can live in dignity, which does not happen today?
Absolutely. The aims of this approach are laudable ones and are not something that we, as representatives of the people, should turn our back on.
As a general definition, a universal basic income would be an unconditional basic income given to each individual irrespective of their other income. At this stage, everything else needs to be defined, including what proportion of the welfare system would be replaced by a UBI. We should be sincere in our approach to this issue by saying that its successful implementation would require a revolutionary shift in attitudes towards social security.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he agree that one of the most successful universal payments that we had was child benefit? It was well targeted, it helped with the costs of raising children, it redistributed wealth between families without children and families with children, and—crucially—it was paid to women, which of course improved their children’s prospects. Does he not think that an earlier, simpler and more effective move might be to return to the days of universal child benefit, and to make that the political priority rather than a universal basic income?
I take on board the hon. Lady’s comments. My concern about that idea is that it would entail a change to just one aspect of what we are trying to achieve. It is a very important aspect of what we are trying to achieve, but it would not fulfil the requirements of everybody who relies on welfare.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. A basic income has long been Green party policy, so I am very glad to hear him talk of it. Does he agree that as well as making the very strong case that he is making for a basic income on the grounds that our welfare system is not working, there is also a case to be made for it on the grounds that increasing automation will create a huge revolution in the way that work is done? There are estimates that by 2025 we could be losing a third of the jobs in the UK retail sector. For that reason too, we need to look outside the box and explore this idea in a lot more detail.
Yes, we are going there. I believe that it is called the “gig economy”, in which people share jobs and try to find a better work-life balance. People do not want to have to put in all those hours of work in simply to make money if it is not within them that they want to spend all that money. That chasing of the capitalist dream is hopefully something that is confined to the past.
If we genuinely want to create a more effective system of state support, we need to be prepared to address the difficult questions. Part of the challenge will be to bring together the patchwork of individuals and organisations that have expressed an interest in pushing forward the UBI agenda. Groups such as Citizen’s Basic Income Network Scotland and the Citizen’s Income Trust have helped me to outline what options are open to us in defining a basic income.
It is argued that the benefits of introducing a basic income include: reducing poverty and boosting employment; providing a safety net from which no citizen will be excluded; and creating a platform upon which all people are able to build their lives. More generally, it could be argued that a basic income would bring about increased social cohesion and mark the end of incentives that discourage work and saving.
In the time available to me today, I can only touch on the wide range of questions that will need to be answered in order to implement such a scheme. Who will be eligible for basic income? What will be the rate of payment? Over what timeframe will it be implemented? Most important, can the affordability of such a scheme be demonstrated? Having clear answers to these questions is vital, but that will not be enough; we will also need the political will to make changes.
The Irish Government published a Green Paper on a basic income as far back as 2002. It concluded that a basic income would have a substantial positive impact on the distribution of income in Ireland and would reduce poverty in a more effective way than the existing welfare system, but 14 years later the concept has not managed to evolve into a fully formed Government policy.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me again; he is being most generous with his time. The Irish Government came up with this proposal in 2002, but 14 years later they have still not been able to implement it. Also, would he reflect on the fact that in Switzerland this idea was actually put to a referendum and two thirds of voters voted against it? Is not the real reason that these people have gone against a basic income is that they realise it destroys the incentive to work?
I am not here to speak on behalf of either the Irish Government or the Swiss Government, but there is absolutely no indication that providing somebody with a basic income removes the incentive to work. Instead, what it does is to put life choices in front of people, so that if they want to study part time, work part time or work on a farm voluntarily they will not be penalised for doing those things, and therefore it is more likely that people will be prepared to take on work at a level that suits them.
If policy makers regard the basic income idea as simply an academic or abstract economic concept, we will never see it being used to break down the worrying levels of poverty and inequality that we have in the UK. The United States, Canada, Namibia and India have all piloted basic income schemes, while Finland and the Netherlands plan on trialling limited local schemes.
Many Members will be aware that Switzerland has already held a referendum on the implementation of a basic income. Although the proposal was rejected, that shows that other nations already have a more developed understanding of the concept. The charity GiveDirectly has announced that it will launch a full basic income trial. The project will involve at least $30 million and academic support from leading researchers. The trial will fully adopt the basic income model by making regular cash payments to every resident in several villages in Kenya.
I secured this debate with the humble notion that I do not have all the answers to the questions. I hope to facilitate discussion, to debate with my parliamentary colleagues and to consult the relevant organisations about the benefits and feasibility of the basic income concept. I believe it was first proposed by Thomas Paine in his 1797 pamphlet “Agrarian Justice” as a system in which at the “age of majority” everyone would receive an equal capital grant—a “basic income” handed over by the state to each and all, no questions asked, to do what they wanted with. Could this be an idea whose time has finally come?
On 25 May 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced before a special joint session of Congress the dramatic and ambitious goal of sending an American to the moon before the end of the decade and returning him safely. Not for one minute did he intend to design the rockets himself, and he had no ambition that I know of to be on the flight. His not unrealistic and ultimately correct proclamation was built on the premise that he knew America had the time, the money, the brain power and the will to achieve the goal. He challenged the American people to succeed and they rose to that challenge. I stand here in front of the Chamber today and I challenge all of us to work together to create a fairer welfare system—one that does not trap people in poverty, but instead acts as a platform from which the citizens of the United Kingdom can build better lives for themselves.
If Members want to take off their jackets, as I already have, they are obviously free to do so.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies. I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) on securing this important debate. I want to raise three particular areas that I think we should examine, given that the conditions of the 21st century demand that we investigate basic income in more detail.
First, as the hon. Gentleman powerfully set out, our social security system is no longer fit for purpose and requires fundamental reform. Through my constituency surgeries, I see at first hand just how badly the system is failing. The combined impact of bureaucratic complexity and a brutal, punitive sanctions regime that almost seems designed to humiliate those that need help the most can be absolutely catastrophic for vulnerable families and individuals. We simply cannot go on tinkering with a model of social security that was designed to meet the economic and social conditions of the 1950s. However, it is absolutely crucial that any move to a basic income protects and increases the income of the poorest and those who are unable to work on account of disability. A universal payment for all must not undermine additional help for those who need it most.
Secondly, fundamental changes to our economy and labour market are working together to make work itself increasingly precarious. Well-paid jobs on permanent contracts have dwindled, while short-term, zero-hours contracts and bogus self-employment are rife. Alongside a genuine national living wage, a basic income would provide a vital buffer against this new age of insecurity and an escape route for those caught in the trap between a complex, punitive and quite simply outdated social security system and low-paid, insecure and all too often exploitative employment.
Thirdly, a basic income would give people more control over their working, caring and personal lives. That is especially important for women, who despite the growing number of stay-at-home fathers continue to do most of the heavy lifting of child and elder care without payment, but it is also about having the opportunity to contribute more time and effort to our local communities by doing things we might simply want to do. There is far more work that needs to be done than that which is simply parcelled up into what we call jobs. We only have to look around our local communities to see railings that need painting, older people who need visiting and allotments that people would love to tend, but we cannot necessarily do many of those things—they are in some ways important economic activities—because right now we are penalised for doing so.
We must not get carried away—basic income must not be seen as some kind of panacea for all our problems, but it could play a key part in rebalancing towards more satisfying lives and a more sustainable economy. I very much welcome today’s debate, and the growing interest across the political spectrum in an idea that my party has fought for over many years. It is heartening to see the invaluable work being done by groups such as Compass, the Royal Society of Arts, the Fabians and the Institute for Public Policy Research, as well as by long-standing advocates such as the Citizen’s Income Trust. It is refreshing to hear Members from other political parties talk positively about an idea that treats people on the basis of the best in them, not the worst.
We do not have all the answers yet—of course not. Getting to a meaningful basic income from where we are now presents major challenges. I think 34 MPs signed my cross-party early-day motion, which calls on the Government to fund and commission further research into the various basic income models, looking at their feasibility and how the challenge of moving to a basic income might be met. I hope that we can build on that number and that between us we can generate universal support for an idea whose time has definitely come.
I point to the progress being made in other countries. In Finland, the coalition Government have announced a €20 million experiment that will test two or possibly three basic income models over the next two years, involving up to 180,000 citizens. Green councillors in the Dutch city of Utrecht are also planning a basic income pilot, as is the Canadian province of Ontario. In New Zealand, the opposition Labour party is actively considering basic income as a means to combat the possibility of higher structural unemployment. In a sense, the UK would just be catching up by doing its own research into this. I mentioned a whole range of different independent organisations that are doing research, but it would be most helpful if the Government commissioned some research and did some pilots of their own. A lot of the figures that we need to investigate on how best to make this a serious policy proposal are figures that the Government have but the rest of us do not. I make a plea to the Minister to look seriously at this proposal and to use some of the resources at his disposal to invest in a pilot and some more research, because I genuinely think this is an idea whose time has come.
We have had an interesting debate already this afternoon, and I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) on stimulating discussion of whether a basic income model of social security would better meet the needs of our citizens at a time when we are facing significant demographic and economic change. He and the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) have highlighted some of the pilot schemes under way internationally, particularly those in other advanced economies, notably the Netherlands, Finland and Ontario in Canada. There is a tacit acknowledgement that all the schemes are in an early stage of development or implementation, and some have not even commenced yet; nevertheless, they offer insights into how basic income models might work in practice and how they might be adapted for a UK context.
My hon. Friend pointed out that the idea has a long pedigree, dating back to the late 18th century. I first encountered the concept of a basic income or citizen’s income models a number of years ago through the work of the late Scottish feminist economist Professor Ailsa McKay, who was particularly interested in exploring ways to close the income gap between women and men—a gap that more than 40 years after the Equal Pay Act 1970 continues to grow through the course of women’s working life and becomes most acute in old age. The idea of a citizen’s income did not have so much currency back then, but more recently there has been greater interest in a range of basic income approaches and the start of a more serious debate. Although that debate is still in its early stages, I am glad it is opening up.
As we have heard, the proponents of basic income schemes argue that giving every citizen the automatic right to an income could help tackle our growing problems of extreme poverty and destitution, streamline the complex bureaucracy of the existing benefits system and promote greater social inclusion. Those are all laudable aims, but for me one of the most attractive aspects of a basic income approach is that it would to some extent neutralise some of the toxic rhetoric that has developed around social security recently and has perpetrated divisive and damaging stereotypes about people living on low incomes. A basic income or citizen’s income would undoubtedly help us to move away from the trope of the undeserving poor and make it much harder to blame those swept away by rough economic tides for their own financial insecurity. That in itself makes it pretty appealing. When the gulf between the wealthy and the rest has not been so stark in living memory, any social security system that promotes social cohesion and a meaningful contract between the citizen and the state deserves to be explored.
None the less, I still have a lot of questions about how a basic income model would work in practice and whether it can live up to the grand claims sometimes made for it. My questions are mostly pragmatic. My biggest concern is that a minimum income could act as an income ceiling rather than a floor for large numbers of people, particularly those who are already the most economically disadvantaged and for whom the prospects of supplementary income over and beyond that are the most fragile. It would be counterproductive if those who are unable to work or have limited capability for work were to find themselves caught in a new, newly differentiated poverty trap.
I also worry that the value of a basic income could become eroded over time. We have seen, for example, how the value of the state pension has been diminished over recent decades to the extent that no one expects to live on it as a sole source of income any more. The poorest pensioners have to receive top-up pension credits to bring them up to a basic standard of living and those lucky enough to have had the opportunity to save through an occupational pension scheme depend on that income to top up their state pension. I wonder how we can avoid the risk that the value of a citizen’s income would shrink over time, entrenching poverty for those who would be most dependent on that income.
In addition, we would still face the major challenge of tackling income inequality and the widening gulf between those in secure, well paid jobs and the increasing numbers in insecure, intermittent, low-paid work. In my view, that is key to building a fairer society. A basic income could arguably smooth the fluctuations in earnings for those in precarious employment, but it would not do anything to close the earnings gap and it would mean that over time those in well-paid jobs could move even further adrift. My own sense is that a greater emphasis on reducing income inequalities in the tax and benefit system as a whole would go further towards promoting social cohesion. I will be interested to see the extent to which the basic income schemes being trialled in an international context address that point.
I am also interested in how basic income models could articulate and interact with those parts of the tax and benefit system that would still need to be based on assessment and means-testing. Most of the proposals I have seen for basic income models in the UK context exclude housing and disability benefits. Aside from state pensions, the biggest chunk of our social security budget goes on housing benefits and the level of support claimants get varies widely across the country, depending on the housing market in different areas, whether a claimant lives in private rented accommodation or social housing, and their income levels, because it is a means-tested benefit that is gradually reduced as earnings or incomes rise. Someone living in London renting in private sector accommodation and working in a minimum-wage job would receive a lot more in local housing allowance than someone in similar circumstances in my constituency for example, simply because the market rents are so much lower in my constituency. It is hard for me to see how we get away from variable rates of housing support given the huge disparities in housing costs across the UK, so we would still be left with means-testing for large numbers of people. Unless we are very careful on how withdrawal tapers are managed, a lot of people in rented accommodation could be left substantially worse off.
Similarly, there would still need to be capability assessments of some sort for those unfit for work, assuming that we recognise that sick and disabled people face extra costs and have less recourse to alternative income streams. In some cases, people will need long-term support. If one of the advantages of basic income models is that it gets away from harsh conditionality regimes and punitive sanctions, the problem for sick and disabled people is that they would still be subject to assessments and conditions even if the benefits themselves are non-means-tested.
I retain an open mind about the merits of basic income models, but until we examine specific models, it is impossible to fully assess the pros and cons or any potential unintended consequences of such substantial policy change. We need to be cautious in our approach, while looking carefully at the emerging evidence on how these models might work in practice and could be used to benefit people in the UK.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) on securing this debate, which is most welcome and timely. The contributions that we have heard demonstrate that we are in absolute agreement that our current social security system is not fit for purpose. It is not delivering for claimants, who frankly deserve better, in a whole range of different ways. The Minister and I have exchanged views on that in many debates in the past; the detail is there for everybody to review.
Like the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford), I am open-minded on this issue. I want to see the evidence, and it is very early days yet. We know that the current social security system is not delivering, in particular for people in work on low incomes, who might also go from in-work to out-of-work and back into work. The system is not flexible enough. The rapidly changing labour market is not currently catered for by our social security system. The Bank of England’s chief economist, for example, suggests that 15 million jobs are at risk of automation. These are huge changes, which have been growing over the last 20 years or so. Whether or not those jobs will be replaced by new sectors, we have seen a massive change in the labour market, with zero-hour contracts and insecure, low-paid work—our social security system is just not dealing with that. It is not fit for purpose in today’s labour market and there are huge ramifications for how we adapt and develop our social security system to ensure it can properly respond to the rapidly changing circumstances that workers face, and provide them with the necessary security to build happy and fulfilling working lives.
In the light of those great challenges, the Government’s ongoing failure to implement the universal credit programme is of serious concern, and questions about that were again raised last week. Universal credit was meant to attempt to address some of the challenges around flexible working. Unfortunately, because of the way it has been pared back in recent years, as well as the difficulties with implementation—at great public expense—that has just not happened.
Would my hon. Friend accept by contrast that Labour’s working tax credit, after initial teething problems, was very effective in reaching low-paid workers, lifting families out of poverty, making work pay and responding to changing work circumstances?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend has, as ever, hit the nail on the head. I am proud of Labour’s record of lifting nearly 1 million children out of poverty as a result of that policy. It is one of which we should be justifiably proud.
We need to respond to the rapidly changing labour market. The Government’s failure to deliver on the heavily diminished universal credit project has led to considerable problems and it is right that we look at the alternatives out there.
There are, of course, different views on what universal basic income is. At its simplest, it is about all of us having a non-contributory, unconditional lump sum, which would be available to all citizens regardless of means. I would like to explore both the positives and negatives. We have already heard some of the positive arguments, such as its simplicity and the way in which it may lift people out of poverty. Currently, there is very poor take-up of income-related benefits across the country. A mere half of those entitled to income-based jobseeker’s allowance are claiming their entitlement. That might have something to do with the current Government’s sanction regime, but it is undoubtedly affecting the numbers of people experiencing poverty in the UK, which now stands at 13 million people. By offering a simple, single sum to all, UBI may go some way to tackling the poverty that so many of our citizens are facing.
In replacing our complex system of universal contributory and means-tested support with a single, simple mechanism, UBI would also allow for a greater simplification of social security administration, with subsequent savings to the Department’s budget. Again, we really need to look at that.
Secondly—this is a really important point—by offering support to everyone regardless of their circumstances, UBI could go a long way to ensuring that the British public retain trust in the social security system. Over the last six years, we have seen the complete erosion of the social security system and the denigration of claimants. Some of the language that has been used—not by the Minister but by some of his colleagues—is frankly shameful.
The recent Fabian Society report, “For Us All”, demonstrated that the Government give as much tax support to people on high incomes through the shadow welfare of tax reliefs as they do to the poorest in our society. It has been suggested that if we were to replace the Government’s tax reliefs for the wealthy with a single universal payment, the reality that social expenditure benefits us all would be much clearer. It would get us away from the Government’s divisive rhetoric of strivers and skivers. Fundamentally, Labour believes that we should value our social security system, which, like our NHS, is based on the principles of inclusion, support and security for all, should any one of us become sick or disabled, or fall on hard times.
Let me focus on some of the concerns. Alongside those arguments in support of UBI, it is clear that tension could arise between its simplicity and its adequacy in supporting people with vastly differing needs and circumstances, which the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan described. A flat rate could not possibly provide the additional costs associated with disability—approximately an additional £500 a month—which are one of the causes of disabled people being twice as likely to be living in poverty. The Government, with their swingeing cuts, have not recognised that. To allow for variations in need, UBI would need to be supplemented with additional top-ups, increasing its expense and complexity, which is where we get to some of the issues discussed earlier.
My final substantial concern is the cost. A recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggested that realising the policy would require not only an increase in income but a considerable shift in the general public’s understanding and knowledge of what and whom a social security system is there for. We know from the British social attitudes survey’s time-series analysis that although superficially there are peaks and troughs of support, when people understand what the system is for, whom it is for and the circumstances in which people make claims, they are a lot more supportive of it, so we need to inform people and extend their understanding.
I welcome this debate and I again thank the hon. Member for Inverclyde for securing it. I look forward to further exploring the strengths of UBI, but we must make informed decisions and evidence-based policy.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, as always, Mr Davies. I would like to join the congratulations to the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) on securing this important debate. I thank everybody from all parts of the House who contributed to it. I was particularly interested in the speech of the hon. Member for Oldham West and Saddleworth—
I am so sorry.
I think she confirmed that the official Opposition are considering a universal basic income. We already knew that the Scottish National party will look into it further after their conference, and we now know that the official Opposition also see some benefits in it.
I think the Minister is running away with himself. I said it would be useful to explore it. That is not how he characterised it.
I am grateful for the clarification.
A universal basic income or similar systems that guarantee a minimum income to all have been debated and discussed at some length across the world. This debate has been stimulating and important, and discussing UBI and similar concepts, such as the negative income tax, which was a popular subject for academic debate before UBI, is an engaging activity. Any system that promises protection and, to quote the recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Compass,
“freedom of choice for individuals between work and leisure”
is bound to sound appealing. It is difficult to argue with a utopian system that enables individuals to choose whether to work or to engage in leisure activities, alongside all the other valuable things that people do, such as voluntary work and caring.
However, as the Compass report suggested, the big issue with UBI is not whether it is desirable but whether it feasible. Would it be affordable, and could it be introduced in a way that prevented losses among the poorest sections in society? The hon. Member for Inverclyde said we should not turn our back on laudable aims. I could not agree more, but laudable aims are not enough. When Jack Kennedy said he wanted to put a man on the moon, he knew that just willing it would not make it happen. It had to be technically feasible.
The Citizen’s Income Trust, which the hon. Gentleman cited, and the RSA claim to have developed cost-neutral models for a scheme, but less highlighted is the fact that they could do so only by collecting huge amounts of additional tax. I can confirm that that is not everybody’s definition of cost-neutral. As the JRF and Compass report found, the additional tax revenue required to deliver a sustainable UBI would be as much as £160 billion. Such a system is clearly unaffordable, even if we assume that the introduction of a UBI would not affect individual behaviour in the labour market and that nobody would give up paid work as a result of its introduction. That assumption, of course, goes against common sense. It goes against trials that have happened in other countries, which have been referred to, and the principles of this Government and all recent Governments that I know of.
I have got the Compass figures in front of me. The report says that the net cost of the hybrid model that Compass proposes would be about £8 billion a year. That is a significant sum, to be sure, but it is not impossible if we are talking about a revolution in the way that work is organised. The problem with many of the contributions this afternoon is that it has been assumed that we go on as we are now and suddenly graft a citizens’ income on top of it. I think the way work is going to look in the future will be very different; therefore we need to look at bolder ideas.
I think the hon. Lady has the relevant page in front of her; I do not, but I have it nearby. From memory, if she casts her eye about three lines further up above the £8.2 billion figure, she will find another figure for what the impact on income tax will be. That is where the total effect, which is so much greater, is laid out.
I am spoilt for choice. I give way to the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth.
I am interested that the Minister is picking on one model. We need to be clear that there is a range of different models. He needs to clarify that in his remarks.
I am more than happy to clarify that the report looks at five models. There are three different proposals that might be called pure UBI models, which would deliver different levels of universal income; then there are two hybrid or adjusted models. The one that the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) referred to was, I believe, model No. 5, so it was the second of the adjusted models. The other ones are more expensive. The pure UBI models are more expensive than that one.
As we have heard here and in the main Chamber on a number of occasions, when the money is required, it is found, whether it is to renovate this place or Buckingham palace, or to spend on the vanity project that is High Speed 2 or on Trident nuclear missiles. The money is there; it is just a question of which box we want to put it into.
I do not know where to go with that. I am not sure that it is true that the money is there; in fact, I am confident that it is not. In this country, the only way in which we raise money for public expenditure is through taxation on individuals, companies and other activities.
Everyone watching the debate will be interested if the Minister can tell us which of those initiatives that my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) cited cannot be afforded by the UK Government?
One of the main things that I am in the Chamber to say is that a universal basic income has a number of drawbacks, one of which is the great cost attached. If I may, I will now continue through my remarks.
The Government’s approach to welfare has been about recognising the value and importance of work, making work pay and supporting people into work, while protecting the most vulnerable. A universal basic income goes against every aspect of that approach. Indeed, it would put at risk the huge progress that we have made over the past six years in transforming lives through the power of work. Employment is at a record high. As we announced this morning, there are now 31.77 million people in work.
I hope that the Minister, in his analysis of the Government’s track record in relation to paid work, will also address the rise of in-work poverty under this and the previous coalition Government?
If the hon. Lady will bear with me, the claimant count is close to its lowest for 40 years, unemployment is at the lowest rate for 10 years and pay is rising. Our reforms are working. Why would we put all that at risk by implementing a blunt policy of financial handouts that does not treat people as individual human beings, with their own different ambitions and aspirations? UBI would also make no allowance for those with additional needs—a pure UBI system has no additional payments for those with disabilities or variations in housing costs, as the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) highlighted. Our reforms are about supporting people to reach their full potential, treating them as individual human beings and giving them the opportunity to get on.
Universal credit lies at the heart of the Government’s commitment to reform the welfare state, as the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth, rightly identified. We want a welfare state that is fairer and more affordable, tackling poverty and welfare dependency, while supporting the most vulnerable households. The Government believe that work is the best route out of poverty, which universal credit supports by supporting people into work and by making work, and more work, pay. Together with the rise in the personal tax allowance, investment in childcare and the national living wage, our reforms are ensuring that support goes to those who need it most. There is additional help to cope with essential living costs, such as housing and childcare, and we will ensure that being in work will always pay.
Universal credit is already changing people’s lives for the better. Claimants are moving into work more quickly and staying in work longer than under the legacy system. For every 100 people who would have found employment under the old jobseeker’s allowance system, 113 universal credit claimants will have moved into a job.
There is so much in that sentence, and the preceding ones, that I do not know what to pick on first. The increase in wages is slowing down, according to today’s figures. Also, will the Minister explain why millions of people will be affected by the cuts in work allowances for UC under the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016? In effect, they will get a £2,000-plus a year cut.
According to this morning’s figures, we still have good wage growth in this country, and at a time when we have low levels of inflation, so real wage growth is also close to 2%. The hon. Lady mentioned universal credit, which is a massive reform to the welfare and social security system, with the smooth taper rate taking away the cliff-edge points at 16, 24 and 30 hours a week. Those are important developments in supporting people into work and up the hour scale.
Some of the extra things we are doing include childcare, with the 30 hours for three and four-year-olds, the tax-free childcare and the increase under universal credit relative to tax credits from 70% to 85% of eligible childcare costs. Those are all critical things that the Government have been doing to reform welfare, and to help people into work and to develop in work.
Our high employment rate shows that an active welfare system that helps people into work, rather than only handing out money to everyone in the same way, is the right approach. Compare that to a system of universal basic income. I have already mentioned the report from Compass and the JRF, which shows that UBI would be prohibitively expensive. The report also shows that UBI would create too many losers among the poorest families and dramatically increase the number of children living in poverty—a point confirmed through modelling even by the Citizen’s Income Trust. UBI would dramatically increase inequality, because it does not account for individual needs and circumstances.
Some, such as the RSA, in what was a reasonable line to develop, suggest introducing adjustments—some such points have been made in the debate—and maintaining additional means-tested benefits alongside a UBI to fix that inherent flaw. The problem, however, is that the more we adjust to counteract the inequalities inherent in a UBI system, the closer we come to something that begins to resemble universal credit.
Universal credit is far more than simply a system of giving out money. It incentivises claimants to move off benefits and it provides tailored support to help people find work and increase their earnings. In contrast to UC, a UBI allows for no work-based conditions on payment to encourage that or to increase incentivisation, and for no complementing support to help people make the most of their potential.
Even the most modest of UBI systems would necessitate higher taxes, as I was discussing just now with the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion. Those increased taxes would be combined with the erosion of the tax-free allowance. At the same time, it would cause a significant decrease in the motivation to work among citizens, with unforeseen consequences for the national economy.
Trials of UBI have been mentioned in the report and in the debate today, such as those in the 1970s in the USA and Canada. The results showed that 5% of primary earners moved out of work, and an even greater number among secondary earners. The recent report that we have been discussing highlighted those results, but called that a small drop. From the perspective of a Government who have had to work hard with business—to have the entire economy working hard—to increase the employment rate by 4.3% over the past six years, that does not sound like a small drop to me.
Whereas at first sight a UBI seems attractive, as more scrutiny is given to the idea, the less attractive it becomes. As recently as June of this year, the concept of a universal income was formally rejected by Switzerland, as hon. Members know, with nearly 77% of people opposing the plan in a referendum.
I will briefly address some of the particular points made by hon. Members during the course of the debate. The hon. Member for Inverclyde suggested that our existing system has been driving up inequality, but 300,000 fewer households than in 2010 are now in relative low income. The evidence is clear about the role of work in helping families, and children living in those families, out of poverty. The evidence is strongest about where it is possible to move into work—[Interruption.]
Order. There has been some sedentary commentary, but we have until 17.38, so if people want to ask to make an intervention, please do—obviously, it is for the Minister to allow.
Will the Minister give way?
Three out of four people in low-paid work are still in low-paid work 10 years on. How is the system helping them?
Helping people on relatively low incomes to increase their incomes by moving up the hours scale or the earnings scale is of course an objective that the hon. Lady and I share. That is why we have made the childcare reforms that I alluded to and brought in the national living wage, which will affect people who were previously on the national minimum wage but will also have a ripple effect on pay grades immediately above that. The critical thing, which we come back to time and again, is that universal credit will reform the system, in which there are certain cut-off points on the hours scale, to ensure that there is as smooth as possible a transition through work.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion talked about less secure employment. It is certainly true that today’s labour market differs in several ways from the labour market of the 1960s and 1970s. Several factors are at play, including the long-term shift to the service sector and the fact that people are living longer. Yes, it is also true that people are much less likely to stay in a job or work for one employer or even in one sector for their entire careers, but it is important to note that three-quarters of the increase in employment since 2010 has been in full-time work. Only around 14% of people in part-time work would prefer to be working full time, although obviously we want to increase the opportunities for them.
Relatively few people in the economy rely on zero-hours contracts, which give people on average around 25 hours of work per week. We know from surveys that most people on zero-hours contracts are not seeking to increase their hours. Although those types of contracts clearly are not even close to being suitable for everyone, there are some people for whom they work. A lot of people on zero-hours contracts are students or people coming back into the labour market, and such contracts can be a good way in. It is absolutely right for the Government to have banned exclusivity clauses that prevent people from taking up other work.
Will the Minister give way?
Will the hon. Gentleman forgive me if I press on? The extremely important point of technological change was raised, and that needs to be debated in the House and elsewhere. Some proponents of a universal basic income cite the inevitable changes in the world of work, driven by technological advance and artificial intelligence, which they believe will make many jobs obsolete and increase unemployment. That argument has a long pedigree, which goes back beyond the spinning jenny, and I do not at all belittle the importance of that discussion or the implications of structural change. We must of course be sensitive to such possibilities, but time and again over the decades, as technological change has removed the need for one type of work, it has created another.
In conclusion, although a universal basic income may appear to be desirable at first glance, any practical implementation would, I am afraid, be unaffordable. Because UBI does not properly take into account individual needs, it would markedly increase inequality. Universal credit is the right system for the United Kingdom. This responsible Government are implementing a system that encourages work, supports the most vulnerable and is affordable.
I invite Ronnie Cowan to wind up the debate, for a couple of minutes.
Thank you very much—and it is pronounced Cow-an, as in cow, as in “moo”.
I thank the Minister, the hon. Members for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) and for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), and my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) for their contributions. I also thank the Members who interceded and kept the debate going, which is an important part of the process: the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) and the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight), who is no longer in his chair—he adopted the seagull strategy of fly in, make a lot of noise and leave.
I am disappointed that the Minister seems so intransigent in his support for the current system. It concerns me slightly that he is so happy with the status quo. I end with a quote from Noam Chomsky, who said:
“Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.”
I ask the Government to take responsibility.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).