Wednesday 2 November 2016
[Mr James Gray in the Chair]
West Sussex Schools Funding
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the funding of West Sussex schools.
Good morning, Mr Gray, and thank you very much. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time in Westminster Hall. [Interruption.]
I am grateful to have the opportunity, with my West Sussex colleagues, with whom I have been working for a considerable period of time on this matter, to draw the House’s attention on this occasion, which certainly is not the first, to the question of fair funding for West Sussex schools. I am fortified by the presence and support of my hon. Friends and parliamentary colleagues for West Sussex, who have been campaigning on this matter for a long time now. We have campaigned together and are wholly in agreement. Those of my hon. Friends who are able to be here will speak to explain the case further to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. I welcome her to her place and am delighted that she will answer on behalf of the Government. May I say to her at the beginning that the very rude things I will say about her Department are absolutely in no way aimed at her at all? I regard her, as we all do, as an exemplary and remarkable Minister—none of this happened on her watch.
For the 32 years I have been a Member of Parliament—I am an amateur compared with my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley), who has been here much longer than me; he is not the Father of the House but practically the grandfather of the House—the treatment of West Sussex in local government finance terms has been unfair and indeed wholly unsatisfactory. The issue of today’s debate is really the catharsis of 30 years of financial bad treatment for West Sussex. In respect of education, it is now a question of fairness.
The position is surgically plain. West Sussex has per pupil funding of £4,198, which is £438 per pupil below the national average and makes schools and academies in West Sussex the fifth worst-funded nationally. That is not acceptable to the West Sussex Members, it is not acceptable to our county council, and much more importantly it is increasingly unacceptable and causes great anxiety to parents, pupils, headteachers and staff. We look to the Department for Education to fix it.
The current situation puts us below our neighbours in East Sussex and Surrey, and well below the very well funded urban authorities of the city of London, which comes right at the top of the pile with double the funding of West Sussex. Our position in West Sussex is therefore very bad. There is no other way of describing it, not least since we all agree that every child deserves the same chance in life when it comes to state-funded education. Frankly, they are not getting it. The figures graphically show that, in West Sussex, it is emphatically not the case. It is not even as if the results are anywhere near as good as they should be. Indeed, they are disappointing and must improve. Resources are a part but only a part of that equation.
The West Sussex Members of Parliament met Ministers in September last year and again in February this year to press the case. We met the Minister for School Standards 10 days ago for a useful meeting, and we are to meet the Secretary of State this very afternoon. The aim is to try to find a sensible way forward to resolve a crucial and unacceptable situation, and to try to understand the thinking of the Department for Education. It has big reforms to come and will look for our support. We need to fix the grassroots basis of the funding of local education before we move on to some of those more exotic, and indeed welcome reforms. They will require our support, but without this situation being fixed, it is difficult to see how that can occur.
It is not only a question of long-term funding. As Conservatives, we were all elected on a manifesto commitment to fix fair funding for the future. I am sure my right hon. Friend agrees that there is a lot of concern about the immediate funding for schools and a requirement for transitional funding. I wonder whether he will come to that in his remarks.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I pay tribute to him for the work he has done in leading our group, and for the enormous amount of work he has done on behalf of headteachers and schools, not only in his constituency but elsewhere. He is quite right, and I hope that by the end of this inadequate speech, he will feel that I have dealt with some of those problems. It is not just the future but the now. We need to resolve the position between the now and the future—we all welcome strongly the introduction of the new funding formula.
All the West Sussex Members—I am sure those who speak will make this point—are entirely satisfied that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education, the Minister for School Standards, the Under-Secretary who is here today and their officials accept that West Sussex schools are underfunded compared with the national average. As I said, the figures are there in stark reality. What we really need is for them to act now and restore some balance to a situation that is out of kilter.
As I say, we warmly commend the Government for bringing forward the new plan for the national funding formula, which will be introduced from 2018, and the release of a very small sum of additional money already given by the Department surplus. The Minister knows that West Sussex Members of Parliament, supported by headteachers and parents in all our constituencies, have lobbied vigorously for urgent consideration to be given to the adequate provision of transitional funding to help tide over hard-pressed local schools until the new formula can be introduced. West Sussex schools can thus get on an equal footing with those in other counties, which is surely only right and fair.
On 14 September, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, when giving evidence to the Select Committee on Education on her roles and responsibilities, confirmed that her Department was approaching this matter in a sensible and rational way and that it was
“going to provide interim support.”
That was in her answer to Q221 in evidence to the Select Committee. It is that question on which we will press her this very afternoon, so that we can get to a better school funding system in an orderly and sane manner, based in future on pupil numbers, and less on some extraordinary and archaic formula based on past political considerations, which will recognise that West Sussex has been losing out for years.
As I have said, the present situation is both unacceptable and wrong, and we insist on its being put right. It is not correct or fair that a typical secondary school in the Mid Sussex or Horsham constituencies, for example, will receive more than 15% less than the national median funding for schools.
When on 7 March my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), the then excellent Secretary of State for Education, announced in a written statement a consultation on national funding formulae for schools and high needs, she made the point that the transition to the new system should be manageable. It is that question that we look to the Minister of State, the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to help us resolve this morning. It is the collective judgment of all the West Sussex Members of Parliament, who have worked closely together and have gone carefully into the matter, that present levels of funding will, without transitional funding, inevitably have a damaging effect on local schools and children’s learning. Each of us must speak for our own constituency—my hon. Friends will do so—but in Mid Sussex, as things stand, good schools are placed in the intolerable position of having to preside over further real cuts to school budgets that are frankly no longer sustainable.
The Government have rightly urged schools to achieve efficiencies, but those have already been adopted by the schools in my constituency and elsewhere, not least to meet the new costs arising from, among other things, increases to teachers’ pension and national insurance contributions for 2016-17. Having listened to the concerns of parents, councillors, headteachers and teachers, and having consulted more widely, we all agree that school budgets are already squeezed to the limit. It is, I am afraid, understandable that headteachers are considering a number of dramatic measures, some of which I wholly disapprove of, to make ends meet. We therefore ask the Under-Secretary, and will ask the Secretary of State this afternoon, to allocate transitional funding to support our schools to meet those serious cost pressures until the national funding formula is introduced.
A powerful letter sent to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister by a number of West Sussex headteachers, with the support of a number of my parliamentary colleagues, sets out a request for £20 million of transitional funding. That would represent an increase of approximately £200 per pupil across West Sussex. That sum of money would put our schools back on a more or less even keel against the arrival of the national funding formula.
I want to mention the special concerns of special needs schools in my constituency and West Sussex more generally. They find it very hard going to deliver the education service that I know the Under-Secretary and her ministerial colleagues would insist be delivered to children who have considerable difficulties. They are trying very hard, but in some cases they will simply no longer be able to do it. The situation in West Sussex special needs schools is very serious. Woodlands Meed school in my constituency is a remarkable school, but is in an untenable position. Not only has the county council treated it extraordinarily badly and, in my view, dishonourably, over the question of new building to consolidate schools into one, but its financial situation is extremely serious. It is impossible for the children at the school to be educated properly without the necessary support staff. I make a plea today for children with special needs in West Sussex; they are not getting a fair crack of the whip.
My hon. Friends and I, and the county council, are well aware of the restraint required in public expenditure. However, we believe that the situation in our county is very serious. We all earnestly entreat the Under-Secretary and her ministerial colleagues to consider favourably the coherent, sensible and reasonable requests that we make on behalf of our constituents.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) on securing the debate and on his excellent framing of the argument.
As we look to our newly defined national future, the challenge of improving our national productivity is real and acute. Only through increased productivity will we deliver the public services and increases in the standard of living that every generation expects. Education and skills are among the most important drivers of that vital transformation in our national productivity. We need to continue the already positive improvement in science, technology, engineering and maths, and to my mind our trading future requires better results in foreign languages. Investment in education, properly targeted, is money well spent.
This is an important issue for the whole country, but the challenge is especially important for those of us who represent West Sussex, which is the worst funded of any county authority with funding of £4,198 per pupil. Under the current funding formula, the county receives £44 million less than the national average and some £200 million less than some London boroughs. I and my colleagues were pleased to stand on a manifesto that pledged a change in the funding structure of our schools, and I am delighted that the Government, having secured an overall majority, are pressing forward with far-reaching and long overdue reform. I await with interest the Government’s response to the first consultation.
A wide range of factors was proposed for possible inclusion in the funding formula. I am sure the new formula will be better than the current system, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State described as arbitrary, unfair and out of date, but while the Government’s aim of maintaining higher funding for schools with issues of deprivation is laudable, I hope they will recognise the need for all school places to have satisfactory and effective funding. I am sure they will.
There are pockets of deprivation in every town and rural area. Every school has problems to confront, and ensuring proper recognition of the basic costs of providing the teaching staff and delivering the curriculum will be key. That is especially difficult in areas within commuting distance—subject to Southern rail and the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers—of London. The cost of living in my constituency is very high, which makes it harder to recruit and retain the excellent teaching staff that children and parents rightly expect. That is especially true and worrisome in an area in which school infrastructure rarely seems to keep pace with population growth, adding to the strain placed on headteachers and staff. There is a worrying impact on class size, as at Tanbridge House school or Forest school in my constituency—at Forest secondary school, top set classes in core subjects already have 35 or 36 pupils. That obviously has a direct impact on teachers, but it also has practical consequences in classrooms designed for 30 pupils with a number of PCs to match. Schools that provide targeted support for struggling pupils used to do it in sets of 12 or 15, but now find that those sets have grown to 20, which means less effective lessons in which it is harder to focus.
Fair funding—redressing the balance—is critical. I look forward to the second consultation and what I trust will be an appropriate recognition of the high basic cost of education of every child. We are very proud of the good results generated by the schools in my constituency, but no one, least of all the Minister, would take that as a source of complacency. Excellent teaching, committed leadership and supportive parents all still need a solid underpinning of funding. In the immediate term, that foundation of solid funding is a source of real concern for headteachers across the county.
Costs have undoubtedly risen in the current year. I have had input from a large number of schools in my constituency; it would be invidious were I to go through every single one of them, but I will focus on one in particular. The Weald school in Billingshurst is an outstanding school. The current head has been in place for eight years. He started with 95 teachers and a senior leadership team of nine, including two deputy heads, and 1,440 pupils. He has managed to maintain 95 teachers, although the senior leadership team has been cut by a quarter, with now only one deputy; but the number of pupils has increased to 1,650—a 14% increase—and there has been a real-terms decrease in the per pupil funding of the school.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex said when proposing the motion, this has been a problem for 30 years. With extra costs in recent years, reserves have been eaten into and in many cases eliminated. As did other schools in my area, The Weald predicated its financing on fair funding being introduced from 2017-18. It and other schools have had to contend with particular issues that will arise in the current year. From April 2016 there was a 1% increase in teachers’ pay, which meant a 1.23% increase for schools once national insurance is included. That equates to a £75,000 incremental cost to The Weald. For the past 30 years, schools have contributed 14.1% to teacher’s pensions. From September 2015 that went up to 16.4%—for good reasons, but it has an ongoing annual impact of £170,000 on The Weald’s budget. From April 2016, employer’s national insurance contributions were increased, which is an important and valuable change for the Treasury but will cost the school an estimated £120,000.
Looking forward, the impact of changes to the education support grant are expected to add an extra £45,000 of costs, while the apprenticeship levy will add an extra £30,000—and that is before any future increases in teachers’ salaries. The sum of those figures amounts to an estimated deficit of £425,000 in the next financial year for The Weald school. That is why there is so much demand in the immediate term for transitional funding to help schools to get over the hump until fair funding is introduced.
To appreciate the gearing effect, my right hon. Friend referred to £20 million raising the West Sussex average per pupil funding from where it is now, at the bottom, to being halfway towards the average. That £20 million would equate to £250,000 flowing through to The Weald school. As the Minister will see, no one would say that is easy living or easy budgeting in the context of a forecast deficit getting on for half a million pounds, but £250,000 would make a real impact on managing the short-term costs until the introduction of the fair funding formula.
As my right hon. Friend said, in trying to work out what to do, headteachers have been setting out alternative options that they could pursue. The one that has generated the most attention has been the threat to modify school opening hours, which I do not believe is appropriate in any circumstances. None of the other options being considered has happy consequences either; they include larger class sizes where practical, curriculum shrinkage and further staff reductions. It would be particularly galling if reducing the syllabus or not replacing staff occurred on a temporary basis, only to be reversed as and when—we hope—satisfactory results come through from the fair funding of the schools.
I congratulate the Department for Education on pursuing fairer funding, which I trust will put appropriate weight on basic per pupil costs. I recognise the fiscal constraints under which the Department is operating, but I hope the particular funding pressures on schools are recognised. When announcing the decision to delay the implementation of fair funding, the Secretary of State for Education said she would take a sensible approach to transitional arrangements for 2017-18. She made similar statements to the Education Select Committee, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex referred. I look forward to the Minister’s response, and I also look forward to seeing the Secretary of State this afternoon. This is an issue that I very much hope we can address.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) on securing the debate on behalf of West Sussex Members, who are concerned about school funding in our county.
I will not repeat the case so ably made by my right hon. Friend and by my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) for redress to the unfair funding for the county over the mid to long term, because it has been perfectly well set out. I have also set it out before, in a debate in this Chamber last November, and I will spare my colleagues from hearing precisely the same remarks again. Another reason I am not going to set it out is because the Government accept that there is unfair funding in West Sussex. In response to the petition that has been organised by schools in West Sussex, the Government said:
“We recognise West Sussex is a relatively low-funded local authority.”
That is objectively the case—it is the third worst funded authority and is pretty much on the bottom as far as shire counties are concerned.
The Government have recognised the need to do something about that, so we do not just have warm words from them; we have a commitment to introduce the national funding formula. It is important that that is recognised and welcomed, because it is a brave step. Future funding should not be allocated to schools on a rather arbitrary and unfair basis but should be based on a proper assessment of need and with a view to ensuring greater fairness. That commitment was in the Conservative manifesto, the policy was announced by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer and it has been reiterated by the current Education Secretary. I understand that the introduction of a national funding formula has cross-party agreement; perhaps we will have confirmation of that later.
We are not arguing about the need to move to a fairer system in the mid to long term, or whether that will happen. I should just say that I think it is important that those who are pressing for fairer funding in West Sussex acknowledge the Government’s position on this and the commitment to introduce a national funding formula. It does not help when our county council issues statements on the matter and does not recognise that the national funding formula has been pledged, or when headteachers refuse to acknowledge it. I urge those whom I am supporting to take a little more care in ensuring that the way in which they present their case is balanced and is likely to be well received by those who have made a commitment to move in the right direction.
We are discussing the interim situation before the national funding formula is introduced, and the recognition that that formula has been delayed by one year, to 2018-19 rather than the year before as was originally pledged. On the expectation of fairer funding, it will be hard to introduce a fairer formula and not see some improvement for West Sussex, which is funded on the most palpably unfair basis at the moment, and for the situation to improve—but we should recognise that that improvement might be incremental.
In the meantime, schools in West Sussex face a particular difficulty. The Government have protected school spending overall, in the same way they have protected other key budgets, and that should be recognised. In a difficult fiscal framework, when there is a need to save money and when the country still spends more than it earns, the schools budget—a massive budget in the Government’s overall programme—has been protected. Nevertheless, the way in which that has been achieved means there has been flat cash for schools in West Sussex at a time when their costs have increased and costs have been loaded on to them. That was ably set out by my right hon. and hon. Friends.
It might help the Minister if I give a practical example, because I want to persuade her that the impact on these schools is real. In my constituency, we have a very good school, Steyning grammar school, which is in fact a comprehensive, not a grammar school. The excellent headteacher, who is presiding over an increase in standards year on year, has supplied me with figures, which I am happy to send to the Minister. The school has seen a real-terms cut in funding of around 10% since 2010 as a consequence of the increased costs it is having to meet and reductions in certain grants. As a consequence, the percentage of the school’s budget that is accounted for by staff costs is increasing from around 80%, where it should be, to 84%. Teaching full-time equivalents have fallen from 132 in 2010 to 118 in 2016-17.
In budgetary terms, this meant that in 2015 the school’s budget was just at break-even. In this financial year, 2016-17, the school has set a deficit budget of £600,000, which it will cover from reserves, but for 2017 it forecasts a deficit growing to £850,000 a year, which it will not have the reserves to cover. That will require the school to take action and to reduce its staff levels, which are at the national average in terms of ratios. Unlike schools in other parts of the country that are much better funded and have more generous staff-to-pupil ratios, that school does not have room to make those reductions without there being an impact on the delivery of education and, it fears, on standards.
I strongly urge the Minister to look at the funding and the impact on school budgets in counties such as West Sussex that are facing real-terms funding reductions because of these cost pressures. She must look at the impact on those schools’ budgets on the ground, to recognise that they are not engaged in a game of playing bleeding stumps but face particular difficulty.
Constituents of mine attend Steyning grammar school, which is an excellent school. With a deficit of £850,000 and staffing at 84%, 85% or 86% of the total budget, if there are forced changes in staff numbers, it would be particularly galling to go through the cost and the pain of reducing staff numbers by whatever means, only to be required as a result of fair funding coming through to then source and recruit new teachers to resurrect those posts and start delivering again for pupils.
I agree with my hon. Friend. He is much better at maths than I am and is able to point such things out. That is what underlines the whole case for transitional funding. I do not necessarily argue that there is a link between performance in the public sector and funding. We should never assume there is an automatic link between the two, such that any reduction in funding is unmanageable or will have an automatic effect on performance. It is incumbent on any public sector institution to run efficiently and to make savings, but by any objective measure the funding of schools in West Sussex is already among the lowest in the country, so there is no fat to cut without there being an impact.
If we still have to make national savings and the schools budget is to be included within that, that should be achieved on a fair basis, but at the moment, the situation is impacting disproportionately on schools that are poorly funded. That is unfair. I was Police Minister when we cut the policing budget by 20% in real terms, but the impact was felt across all police forces. Although there was some difference in how forces were funded, we did not have a situation where some forces faced no cuts at all and others faced reductions and therefore felt they were being treated entirely unfairly.
It is important to recognise the particular situation of these authorities. That lends weight to the case for some kind of transitional help. Again, the Government recognised that, because in announcing the national funding formula they announced a £390 million uplift nationally in school funding, which was then put in the baseline. That has been applied year on year and is a large sum of money nationally. I recognise that, but if we look at the practical effect, the uplift amounted to less than £1 million for West Sussex’s budget, which meant the actual increase was something like £10 per pupil. The impact on schools’ budgets was therefore relatively low.
Because it was very broad, the distribution of that sum in the transitional uplift did not give sufficient help to the areas of the country that most needed it and was not sufficient to cushion them against the increased cost pressures they are facing. To bring West Sussex up to the average level of county councils—never mind the average national level—would require an uplift of £15 million a year, and it has had less than £1 million. That is why the schools are in this position. To bring funding up to the national average, as my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham said, would require a much greater uplift of £40 million a year.
Because of the cost pressures, the reduction in funding and its effect on schools in the county, and because the national funding formula will not be introduced for two years, there is a strong case for interim funding for the worst funded areas, despite the Government’s overall protection of the budget nationally. That would require taking decisions ahead of the introduction of the formula, which I appreciate would be difficult. It would require finding a basis on which to fund only those schools right at the bottom of the pile, rather than too broadly, which is what happened before. Again, that would be difficult, but it is necessary and right, or else schools in West Sussex will cut their budgets in a way that will see staff numbers fall. That is why I urge the Minister to look at this carefully and to recognise that a very fair and reasonable case is being made by schools in the county and that this deserves special attention.
It is very gracious of you to call me to speak, Mr Gray. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) on securing this important debate. I echo his tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin), who has led the very united charge by all West Sussex MPs. Of course, two of our number are slightly compromised in their support, one being the Minister for Schools and the other, my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith), being a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Department for Education. I am sure that their supportive sentiments are with us in spirit.
Those West Sussex Members are united with the county council, with every headteacher in every school in every constituency in West Sussex, and with the many thousands of parents who have written to us, signed petitions, joined us in presenting a petition to Downing Street just a couple of weeks ago and supported the “Worth Less?” campaign, which flags up the significant differences in the way pupils are funded and therefore treated and viewed in West Sussex, compared with so many other parts of the country. We are also united with all the local media, which is supportive.
This is a huge issue for all our constituents across the county. It comes on top of other huge issues such as the abject failure of our local rail service to deliver our constituents to their places of work and education remotely on time or reliably. The other huge issue is the work on the A27 in our constituencies. So this is a busy time for us, the issue is taking up a lot of time and resources and we need something to be done about it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Horsham rightly praised the Government’s efforts to reform education over the past six years, dragging this country’s educational standards into the 21st century, but as it stands the way we fund our schools in West Sussex remains resolutely in the 20th century.
We all welcomed the Government’s manifesto commitment, and their honouring in principle that commitment, to review the funding formula to ensure that we have a fairer funding formula to benefit counties such as West Sussex. Therefore, the Government’s announcement last year was widely welcomed in our constituencies, where things have been very tight for some time, but, frankly, time is running out to come to the rescue. The news earlier this year that the review is being delayed by another year is a potentially fatal body blow. We do not know what fairer funding will look like, how fair it will be in cash terms to counties such as West Sussex, or how long it will take to phase it in. It is unlikely to happen overnight. It is not an easy exercise and there will be winners and losers in other parts of the country. Therefore, there is still a lot of uncertainty.
The then Chief Secretary to the Treasury said in a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham that the
“Government wants to see every child achieve to the best of his or her ability regardless of their background or where they live.”
That is something of a grammatical car crash, but it is a sentiment with which we wholeheartedly agree. He went on:
“At the March Budget, the Chancellor announced that the Government will accelerate the move to the”
national funding formula.
“Subject to consultation, the aim is for 90% of the schools who will gain funding to receive the full amount they are due by 2020.”
We do not know what the full amount they are due equates to and we are now talking about 2020 at the earliest before that transition works its way in. That is almost another four years of pain, tightening budgets and difficult choices, to which my hon. Friends have alluded.
We have heard the figures and I will not go through them again, but it cannot be right that there is such a substantial anomaly between child funding of £4,196 per annum in West Sussex and, the most extreme example, child funding in Tower Hamlets of £7,014 per annum. In our neighbouring county of East Sussex, funding is substantially more, at £4,450 a year. The difference just to bring us up to the average funding is £41 million a year.
The Chief Secretary mentioned in his letter an additional £500 million of core funding to schools over the course of the spending review. That is welcome, but £41 million just to get us to the average represents 8% of that £500 million, which is being spread among the whole country. For us, that £41 million would represent 1,518 additional teachers in our schools, which are losing places, having to make redundancies and are not filling vacancies. The result is that subjects are being dropped and class sizes are becoming larger. That is the realistic outcome of the present situation and it can only get worse until it is resolved.
Hon. Members have lobbied hard. We have met Secretaries of State and Ministers, and we have further meetings later today. We have met many teachers and have been lobbied by many teachers and many parents. I will read out some letters from schools. One school in Worthing wrote to parents: “School leaders have made every conceivable cut to our provision and now we are faced with reducing basic services still further, all to the disadvantage of your child. Our finances are so bad that we are all having to consider the following types of action: modifying school opening hours, increasing teacher-to-pupil ratios again, reducing basic services such as cleaning and site and premises work, stopping any investment in books and IT equipment, designing curriculum offers that fulfil only basic requirements, not replacing staff who leave. As you can imagine, such radical considerations are the very last thing that any school wishes to do but we are being given no option. We do not understand why children in our school are worth less than others around the country. Even when a national funding formula is introduced, it will take at least three years to have a really significant effect on our budgets. We cannot wait that long.” That is a common cry across all our schools.
An excellent school in Worthing, Thomas A Becket junior school, is the largest primary school in Worthing; indeed it is one of the largest primary schools in south-east England. The head has written to me saying that its
“funding has been severely reduced by the reorganisation due to the Worthing Age of Transfer process.”
That happened recently and was very successful. The head continued:
“However, the main point I would like to draw to your attention is that if Thomas A Becket Junior was located in a London borough the school would receive, on average, an additional £1.8 million in its annual budget, enough to employ an additional 65 teachers. I have no doubt that with this extra budget share my school could improve at the rate of London schools over the past few years…The facts are well known to you; schools are facing an 8% decrease in real terms funding due to unfunded NI and pension contributions over which we have no control.”
Academies are also suffering. Shoreham academy in my constituency is rated outstanding. The head wrote to me:
“The huge difference in funding levels across the country mean that West Sussex schools are now at breaking point as a consequence and students are being treated unfairly and unjustly in terms of educational funding.”
This is not just vague bleating. Outstanding headteachers are really concerned and worried about the future prospects for their schools and their children. We share those concerns. These schools have dipped into their reserves in recent years because they have faced years of accumulated deficit because of the way the funding formula is fashioned, and in many of our schools there is nothing left in the tank.
As I said, we have the support of the county council. Louise Goldsmith, leader of West Sussex County Council, wrote to the former Chancellor, saying that the teaching
“profession has undoubtedly become less attractive in recent years and whilst we realise that there are a lot of new initiatives being promoted by the government to attract new teachers, and we welcome these, in the short term we need to be able to attract high calibre staff to West Sussex now. Unfortunately, due to the current low level of funding, the schools are having difficulty doing this, especially as they are unable to offer any enhanced salaries.
The government has stated that school funding is being protected in 2016/17. Whilst we obviously welcome that fact, in real terms the funding is in effect being eroded by unfunded cost pressures, such as the increase in employer’s pensions contributions and national insurance contributions, pay awards, the national living wage, as well as any ‘in-year’ growth in pupil numbers.”
The county council has had to top up a lot of money from its reserves and other areas, in a county where we are under severe pressure because of the high elderly population and the huge impact on the social care budget competing for increasingly scarce resources. In addition, as we have heard, West Sussex County Council has always generously recognised and endeavoured to fund the high special educational needs we have across the county. We have had shortfalls in the capital costs of new schools. We have an increasing population. There is the knock-on effect of Brighton: people moving out of Brighton into West Sussex because of cheaper property is raising costs in our county. There has been the cost of the recent age of transfer exercise that I mentioned, and there is the cost of living in West Sussex. It is one of the most expensive places to live in the whole country, yet our funding formula does not acknowledge that we have different cost pressures from other parts of the country.
We have support from the local media. All the local media have written editorials on the issue. For example, the Worthing Herald has written:
“The low funding, together with rising National Insurance and pension costs and the government’s decision to cut £600 million from education grants, has left schools at breaking point.
This is no exaggeration—our headteachers, who have been called upon to absorb further cuts while already struggling to make ends meet, fear schools may have to consider not opening five days a week if the funding crisis is not addressed by the government.”
It exhorts its readers to write to MPs and others. I exhort readers to write to the Secretary of State for Education and particularly to make submissions to the formal consultation on a fair funding formula that is being undertaken at the moment. We need examples of the real hardship that is happening here and now and can only get worse until this issue is resolved. We need those on the Secretary of State’s desk.
There have been disappointing explanations of the situation from Ministers. A previous Education Minister, who is now the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), wrote back to the then cabinet member in West Sussex in slightly less than satisfactory terms. He wrote that the councillor
“mentions that schools in West Sussex are experiencing cost pressures as a result of increased pension and National Insurance contributions. It may be helpful if I explain the rationale behind our changes. We are asking schools, like other employers across the public sector, to contribute more towards their employees’ pensions to ensure that the costs of public sector pension schemes do not fall unfairly on taxpayers.”
Well, they are falling unfairly on taxpayers. Taxpayers in West Sussex are having to forgo other things from the county council because it is having to make up that money. The pension impact is considerable. Pension rates have gone up from 14.4% to 16.8%. That is an extra 2.4 percentage points added to the bill, and no extra money has been given to our schools to cover it. That is on top of the pay rise, which is only 1% but still adds £500 to the salary bill for the average teacher, and the increase in national insurance costs of some 2.3%, again for the average teacher.
The former Education Minister, in his helpful advice as to how we can do things to get round the funding shortfalls, goes on to talk about headteacher recruitment. He says that
“whilst the national headteacher vacancy rate remains fairly low at 0.2%, I do recognise that some schools are facing headteacher recruitment challenges. This was one of the reasons why we reformed leadership pay so that schools could pay more to attract the best headteachers. The government funds a number of targeted programmes that aim to address leadership supply, particularly within challenging schools. For example, Future Leaders aims to develop the skills of high-potential aspiring headteachers who want to work in some of the most challenging schools in the country. The Teaching Leaders programme develops middle leaders in primary and secondary schools in challenging contexts, putting them through a rigorous two-year training programme. A number of these middle leaders will go on to be the headteachers of tomorrow.”
We do not need the new, targeted teachers and headteachers of tomorrow; we need the basic subject teachers of today, and we are losing them. There are massive gaps in terms of teachers offering foreign languages, for example, across many of our schools. Those subjects are disappearing from the curriculum. The curriculum choice being offered to our pupils is shrinking simply because we do not have the teachers because we do not have the funding to attract them to one of the most expensive counties in the country.
There is no fat left. There is no money left in the reserves. There is virtually no leeway left for our headteachers somehow to juggle these finances. There is an urgent and critical need for the formula change, but also an urgent and critical need to recognise that we have a funding shortfall now and we have to have some help in the form of transitional funding to address that urgent situation now.
As I said, there is a shortfall of £41 million a year. The additional money that we have had in the past amounts to £930,000—a fraction of the reality of our funding shortfall. Yet again, West Sussex loses out. We lose out on central Government spend for the infrastructure in the county, yet our county is a large payer of taxes to central revenue. It is just not fair that our schoolchildren should lose out now and their whole future be compromised because we have an unfair funding formula that will still take several years to resolve and in the meantime is inflicting potentially huge damage on the life chances of our young people.
I hope that the Government will look again at the possibility of funding the shortfall with a transitional relief package. It is very hard for us as constituency MPs to support the Government’s programme on things such as grammar schools, with which in principle I certainly have a deal of sympathy but which will divert funds when we need those funds now in order to plug gaps in all the schools, of whatever type, across our county. We need the Minister and the Secretary of State to look more sympathetically on a dire situation that will only get worse over the next few years.
I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will have in front of her, either now or shortly, “Annex C: local authority schools block units of funding 2015 to 2016”, which is part of the guidance entitled “Fairer schools funding: arrangements for 2015 to 2016”. It lists every education authority in the country, and at the bottom, by £90, is West Sussex. In some charts, we are fifth lowest. Some say we are third lowest. This annexe C, issued by the Department, spells out that we are £90 lower than the next lowest, so I say to the Minister that in the transitional funding that is needed, she should ensure that that £90 at least is made up. When we start looking at the allocation of the £390 million to 69 unfairly funded authorities, we would expect that the lowest-funded authority would get slightly more than 0.2% of that £390 million. Bromley went up by 11%. Shropshire, the county of my birth, went up by about 7%. Why did West Sussex get not the 0.9% given to the Isle of Wight, which is funded more fairly than West Sussex, but less than one quarter of that? Those are the challenges.
My hon. Friend has done our area a great service by raising the issue in this way, but he is such an old silverback—in a gorilla colony, as he knows, the silverbacks are the ones to whom everyone listens—that he remembers the long-gone days when these formulae were fixed in the most abstruse and archaic manner. Does he agree that it is preposterous that, as our hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) mentioned, we are being funded in a positively 18th century manner to equip our children to do work for modern times? It is not on.
I agree with my right hon. Friend. I seldom correct him, but he may have said that I was the Father of the House. If I get re-elected next time and three of the five other people who were first elected before me do not, I might then have that role, but until then I shall look on myself as—
I will not regard that as unparliamentary.
We have heard mention of special needs, and in my constituency Palatine school and Oak Grove college do really well with their pupils. Both heads have written to me, and I have passed that on to the Department. I bring up Palatine school because its aim is that every pupil should be empowered. How can the dedicated teachers empower their pupils, with special needs or not, if they do not have the funding? The message that we will take up with the Secretary of State, and will take up now with her colleague the Minister, is this: get on with some transitional relief, which will make a significant difference to the heads’ burdens.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) talked about Steyning grammar school, and my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) talked about schools in his constituency. In our part of West Sussex, people go to schools outside of their constituencies, so we are in this together. I hope the Minister comes down to meet some of the heads and the pupils, who behaved impeccably at that petition event at Downing Street. I hope they can be as proud of her as she would be of them. However, it does need money.
The issue is the historic negative. All funding up to now has been based on what happened before, and it gets worse and worse. I ask the Minister and her advisers, especially the statisticians, not to treble count deprivation. Everyone knows that high needs have to be met and that pupil premiums are justified, but if they affect so much of the grant for schools, we get a distortion. When we move past the transitional stage to the next fairer funding national scheme, no other education authority or school within an area—there is a possible exception of one outlier at the top and one at the bottom because there is always some exception—can be more than 35% from the highest or lowest. There has to be a narrower range than at present. The £8,000 per pupil in Westminster may be the exception because there are very few schools in Westminster, and we may find something at the other end that needs the least funding, but beyond those, we cannot allow a gap of 100% or 50% and must bring it down to about 35%. That can become one of the rules within which the exemplifications are worked out. I know perfectly well how local authority funding has been run and how health service funding has been run: exemplifications come in, Ministers arrange things and there are some anomalies that cannot be dealt with. However, they can be dealt with, and West Sussex is one of them.
I have said to you privately, Mr Gray, and I say to the Labour party spokesman, the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane)—I am sorry there is not a Liberal here for this important debate, but I am sure they would agree with us—that I cannot stay for the Minister’s winding-up speech because I have a charity’s trustees meeting to attend. However, I hope that my short remarks, especially the point about annexe C, which spells out that West Sussex is at the bottom, shows what the Minister needs to change.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I will just point out the political geography of the room. I did a similar debate the other week with Merseyside MPs, and the Minister for School Standards was on his own on the Government side. Being a Greater Manchester MP, I thought I was probably more isolated from my colleagues in that debate than I am today, but I will not go into those traditional rivalries when we are talking about West Sussex.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) on securing this debate and on standing up, so eloquently and effectively, for the schools in his constituency and county. From my brief time in this place over the past two years, I know that politics can be like herding cats. To have so many—five—Members from the county pressing the Department and the Under-Secretary today is good to see. I would like to have seen the Minister for School Standards but if, as Woody Allen said, 80% of success is showing up, I am glad he is representing the other 20% today.
I want to make some remarks about the campaign and congratulate the hon. Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin), who has clearly put in a shift, on organising it. Headteachers from 250 schools in the county have said that they need the transitional funding—the campaign has brought all of them together. The campaign has delivered a letter and petition with the names of 100,000 parents on to the Prime Minister—that is an incredible feat, so very well done. Headteachers are saying that they need the additional funding and cannot replace staff, which was alluded to by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who talked about retention and selection. They have campaigned very effectively and today we have heard the statistics about the differential levels of funding. Members have spoken with passion about individual schools in their constituencies.
The right hon. Member for Mid Sussex made two incredible points. One was that it is a fundamental basic in policy to fix schools funding—we have huge differentials across the nation. He also spoke with passion about special educational needs, which we do not do often enough. I hope, unfortunately, to find an ally with the education for all Bill, because clearly this issue is not mentioned at all. Any education Bill coming through Parliament should have special educational needs at its heart. I hope we can turn that around collectively.
Last week the Government U-turned in abandoning some of the education for all Bill, which would have included the fair funding formula. We now know, as has been alluded to by Ministers, that it is going to be kicked into the long grass for quite some time, which has created uncertainty. Back in July, the Secretary of State said that she would bring forward the next stage of the consultation
“once Parliament returns in the autumn.”—[Official Report, 21 July 2016; Vol. 613, c. 969.]
That was on 21 July and, to the best of my knowledge, we still have not had that statement. It would be good if the Minister could say today when we will be hearing that because Members on both sides of the House want to know.
At the moment, a confused and chaotic narrative is coming out of the Education team on a number of issues. Labour Members support the fair funding formula, but as the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) said, the Government have been really good in the past few years with subsidiarity in decision-making—the funding formulae for skills and apprenticeships are a completely devolved function to Greater Manchester. The hon. Member for Horsham alluded to the fact that education and skills are vital to our national productivity. Traditionally, the precept has been set where local authorities could always top up the education resource that they were given from Government, which some counties and metropolitan authorities have done well. However, in the past few years, particularly with the London Challenge, they have had an enormous amount of resource, although I do not deny that that has come with an enormous amount of success.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham rightly talked about the Thomas A Becket junior school and the comparative differential. We probably know that the Thomas A Becket junior school has come from a lot further down in terms of its results and attainment, but the differential is still too large to be fair. We believe that, as with the London Challenge, we should invest in all our schools rather than take money from some to give to others—that is taking from Peter to pay Paul—which is what we do not want when the fair funding formula is introduced.
I disagree slightly with the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs about protected budgets. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that school budgets will have fallen by 8% over the course of this Parliament—the budget was protected only in cash terms rather than in real terms, meaning that the schools budget is at the mercy of rising pressures, pupil numbers and the impact of inflation on the true value. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham alluded to those pressures in his excellent speech. There are pressures on recruitment, selection and retention of teachers, particularly in areas such as his, which has rising house values and a heated economy, with people having to travel to London to work.
With inflation rising to a two-year high and many predicting it will rise again in the light of Brexit—if we have a chaotic Brexit, the situation could be worse—it looks as though schools funding will face even higher real-terms cuts. The IFS has said that, over the course of this Parliament, funding will fall for the first time since the mid-1990s, making it harder for us to secure funding for schools. It estimated in April 2016 that there would be a 7% real-terms reduction in per pupil spending between 2015-16 and 2019-20. In that context, how will the Minister secure fairer funding for schools? Will it come at the expense of schools in the most disadvantaged areas?
In conclusion, I pay tribute not only to all the Members who have stood up so effectively for schools, but to the schools in West Sussex and to West Sussex County Council, which is doing its best in difficult circumstances. We have a chaotic school funding system and the Government are dragging their feet on getting to grips with it. I hope the Minister enlightens us today about the way forward.
It is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) on introducing this really important debate on funding for schools in West Sussex. He presented it in his usual robust, assiduous and charming style. I also congratulate his colleagues from West Sussex, who present a formidable, united front on this issue. My right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) and my hon. Friends the Members for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) and for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) are a veritable tag team to be reckoned with. I know that when they go and speak to the Secretary of State this afternoon, they will make their case powerfully and persuasively, as they have done today. I know we all share the same ambition: to see a country that works for everyone, where schools improve and where every child, no matter which county, constituency or part of the country they live in, has the opportunity to go to a good school, to get a great education and to fulfil their potential.
Let me start with the fundamental reason we are here today: to make sure that our children benefit from an outstanding education. We need good schools in every area of the country. Investing in education is truly an investment in the future of our nation as a whole. That is why we are committed to providing equal opportunity for all children to succeed, irrespective of where they come from in the country and where they happen to grow up. A fair funding formula is a fantastic way of achieving that and providing a crucial underpinning for the education system to act as a motor for social mobility and social justice, as we all desire.
As many of my hon. Friends have said today, the Government are prioritising investment in education. As pupil numbers increase, so will the amount of money for schools. This year the core school budget will be more than £40 billion—the highest on record—which includes £2.5 billion for our most disadvantaged children through the pupil premium. That funding is also protected for the rest of this Parliament. The current funding system is holding us back, though. I do not think anyone in this Chamber disagrees with that. It is preventing us from getting the record amount of money that we are investing to the parts of the country where it is most needed.
I am grateful for the constructive and helpful way in which the Minister is winding up the debate. To pick up her point about the welcome increase in education expenditure and the number of new pupils coming into schools, the excellent St Paul’s Catholic college in Burgess Hill—a really good school in my constituency—has had a 31% increase in pupils, but there is so little money and room to manoeuvre in its staff budget that it does not have enough staff to cope with that 31%. It makes do, but it does not have adequate staff, which is one of the problems of the existing baseline and why the school needs the transitional funding to get through to the national funding formula being introduced.
My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I will talk shortly about the transitional funding, which I know he and his colleagues from West Sussex are all very keen on.
We are clear that without reform the funding system will not deliver the outcomes we want for our children. As many Members have said today, it is outdated, inefficient and unfair. There are two reasons for that: first, the amount of money that local authorities receive is based on data that have not been updated for more than a decade, so although local populations have changed the distribution of funding has not, and the impact of that is hugely unfair. We have heard many of the relevant figures today. West Sussex is receiving just under £4,200 for every pupil, whereas in Birmingham, for example, that figure is £5,200. Although there will always be variations in the amount different areas receive, because their needs and local costs vary, a system that creates such significant differences cannot be fair.
We are still in the consultation period, the next stage of which will be announced shortly, so I am not able to comment on that today.
Different local authorities take very different decisions about how to distribute their funding. There are 152 different local formulae, so a primary pupil in West Sussex with low prior attainment currently attracts £863 in extra funding, whereas in Trafford, for example, they attract more than £3,000 extra, and in four local authorities they get nothing. My county, Hampshire, provides no extra funding for pupils in receipt of free school meals, whereas Warrington chooses to allocate more than £3,000 to each secondary pupil in the same situation. That is why we are committed to fixing the system.
Earlier this year we launched a consultation on the new fairer funding formula for schools. The second stage, including the details of the national funding formula, will be announced in the next few weeks. Our aims are clear, and I hope Members from all parts of the House will agree that they are worthy ones. We want to create a formula that is fair, objective, transparent and simple. It should be clear how much funding is available for each pupil and that should be consistent wherever they are in the country. From 2018-2019, we intend to begin moving towards a system where individual school budgets are set by a national formula and not by 152 locally devised ones.
The reforms will mean that the funding is allocated fairly and directly to the frontline where it is most needed. They will also mean that funding reflects the needs of pupils, so the higher the need, the greater the funding. The reforms will be the biggest step forward in making funding fair in well over a decade. It is therefore vital that we take time to get them right. We need to debate the important principles that will underpin this and listen to the submissions that are coming back as part of the consultation. We have a responsibility to ensure that the system we set up now enables schools to maximise the potential of every single child.
I am aware of the concerns raised by hon. Members today that fairer funding for schools in West Sussex and other parts of the country is very much overdue. We agree that the reforms are vital, but they are also an historic change, which is why we have to take the time to consider the options and implications very carefully. We cannot afford to get this wrong. Crucially, we must consult widely with the education sector before we make changes. We will carry out the second stage of that consultation later this year and make final decisions in the new year. The new system will be in place from April 2018.
In the meantime, we have confirmed arrangements for funding in 2017-18 so that local authorities and schools have the information and certainty they need to plan their budgets for the coming year. That is so important, because a key message coming out of the first round of the consultation is about the ability to plan ahead and certainty about the future. Schools need to know where they stand.
Areas such as West Sussex, which benefited from the £390 million that we added to the schools budget in the previous Parliament, will have that extra funding protected in their baseline 2017-18, as they did in 2016-17, but I take on board the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West, who said that West Sussex received a disproportionately low amount. We will look into that.
The next stage of our consultation, which is coming out shortly, will set out the detailed proposals for the national funding formula and show how the formula will make a difference to every school and local authority budget in the country. We will explain how quickly we expect budgets to change. We have been clear that we want schools to see the benefits of fairer funding as quickly as possible, but the pace of change must be manageable for them. The strong message is certainty and the need to be able to plan ahead. We fully take on board the real-term impact on budgets of the recent changes to pensions and national insurance contributions that my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs mentioned.
All local Members have spoken about the transitional arrangements. I hear them and I know that they will make a powerful case to the Secretary of State this afternoon when they see her. The Minister for School Standards has been working hard on the arrangements. As usual, we will finalise school funding allocations for the coming financial year in December, taking into account the latest pupil numbers from the October census.
Reforming the funding system to ensure that areas such as West Sussex are fairly funded is only half the story. As hon. Members have pointed out, as with all public services, it is vital that schools spend the money that they receive as efficiently as possible. The most effective schools collaborate through academy trusts and federations, or as part of teaching school networks or clusters. They share knowledge, skills, experiences and resources to drive the important changes that support their school’s education or vision. Schools are best placed to decide how to spend their budgets and achieve the best possible outcomes for their students. Lots of schools in West Sussex are already doing that, despite having very low funding compared with other parts of the country. We recognise that the Government have a role to play in ensuring that schools are supported to make every single penny of their funding count. That is why we launched a package of support for schools in January that includes new guidance and tools to help them make the most of the funding they receive, and we will continue to update and improve that offer to schools.
I am enormously grateful for the support that my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex and the other West Sussex Members have given to the agenda. They have all raised important issues. I hope that they are reassured, more than anything, about the Government’s long-term commitment to reform school funding so that there is a fairer system for children in West Sussex and across the country—a system where funding reflects the real level of need, so that pupils are able to access the same educational opportunities wherever they happen to live.
A fair national funding formula underpins our ambition for social mobility and social justice, and will mean that every pupil is supported to achieve the very best of their potential, wherever they happen to live. Although we should recognise that there are challenges currently, and that challenges will lie ahead, I hope all hon. Members give support to and work with the Government to achieve that vital aim.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the funding of West Sussex schools.
Small Shops Regulation
I beg to move,
That this House has considered small shops regulation.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. This is not a great new philosophical argument or something from Shakespeare, but it is far easier to regulate than to deregulate. Whether the regulation starts via EU institutions or is domestically derived, one need only look at the daily Order Paper of this place to see the direction of travel. For every perceived problem, the first call is for more government. This debate is perhaps a little unusual. It is an appeal for less government in order to free up our small businesses, which are so often at the heart of our communities, so that they can do what they are good at: serving the public, making a profit, operating efficiently, employing staff and, yes, paying taxes.
I refer to the 2016 “Local Shop Report” by the Association of Convenience Stores, which represents just a small part of the entire small shops sector. There are more than 50,000 convenience stores across the UK, with Scotland strangely having the highest density, with one shop per 995 people. Some 74% of these shops are owner-managed, and they have taken up many services that have been abandoned by state agencies or the more traditional post office, including mobile phone top-ups and bill payment services, such as PayPoint, that accept payments for a wide range of services that are important to Government, including council tax; they even accept payment of court fines and utility bills. Other valuable services are provided, such as sales of lottery tickets, newspapers, stationery, stamps, tobacco and alcohol, snacks and sandwiches and, of course, more traditional groceries.
More than half of customers walk to their local shop, with one in five visiting every day. Twenty-two per cent. of shop owners take no holiday at all, and 24% work more than 70 hours a week. Fully 70% of these shops open for more than 85 hours a week. The total value of sales is £38 billion a year, representing a fifth of the total grocery market, and the sector accounts for 390,000 jobs.
More than that, small shops are the heart of their community. Some 84% of these independent retailers take part in community activity every single year. By way of context, I am working with local traders and boat owners in Ramsgate in my constituency of South Thanet to make the Christmas lighting in and around Ramsgate’s royal harbour even bigger this year than last year. There are no prizes for guessing who are offering the prizes for the best-dressed shops and boats. Yes, it is the local shops. Whether the local hair salon, the coffee shops or the restaurants, small shops are very much at the heart of every single community in this country.
Small shops are often the birthplace of enterprise, where entrepreneurs’ dreams can become a reality. I come from a small shop background. My father had a small chain of greengrocers in north Kent from the 1950s until the 1990s. The rise of supermarkets caused a degree of suffering for such small shops, but who looks out for the elderly customer who comes in every day but has not been seen for a few days? It is often the independent retailer. Such retailers now face new competition from the new giants of online sales such as Amazon.
Unfortunately, many of the regulatory hindrances are driven by increasing compliance demand, often from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the ever-changing tax code. Currently at 22,000 pages, the tax code is simply out of control. Just one part of the tax code, the annual investment allowance, started in 2008 at £50,000 a year before going up to £100,000 a year from April 2010; it then dropped to £50,000 a year from 6 April 2012; from January 2013, it went up to £250,000 a year, and then up to £500,000; and now, since 1 January 2016, it is back down to £200,000. How can a small shopkeeper or a small business keep track of that background of uncertainty when trying to make long-term investment decisions?
VAT thresholds have very hard edges, which can be a disincentive to grow lest the business gain a new administrative burden and, depending on the type of trade, face the potential loss of margin and profitability. I hope that Brexit will allow us to rethink the structure of VAT, with simplification at its heart.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Does he agree that, although each individual new regulation may seem fairly reasonable in itself, the cumulative effect of all these new rules and regulations, such as the tobacco display ban and the plain packaging of cigarettes, is a problem for small shops?
There is a ratchet effect. One at a time does not seem too bad, and individually these regulations are often imposed for good reasons, but when they are put together as a framework for how small businesses and retailers have to operate, they become a true minefield of problems.
Adding to that minefield, small retailers face the new burden of pension auto-enrolment for their staff. I have no criticism of the Government’s great ambition: auto-enrolment is essential so that people can build their own retirement funds in excess of the state pension. The roll-out thus far for larger business has been successful—I am a member of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, which has looked at that—but for the smaller employer, and notably the smaller retailer, I have asked for a free software tool that overlays the freely available real-time information software for payroll management, and HMRC has steadfastly refused.
It is good to note that the latest figures, published just last week, show the greatest ever increase in the salaries of the lowest paid due to the rise in the minimum wage. However, for smaller shops there are concerns that as hourly rates increase ahead of inflation in the years to come, the owners of these businesses might earn less than the staff they employ.
Of all tax and regulatory reforms, business rates relief has been the most welcome among smaller businesses. There has been small business rate relief, charitable rate relief, rural rate relief and enterprise zone relief. However, because of the high value of business premises in London and the south-east, new valuation assessments are in some cases creating huge increases to the business rates of businesses that are already paying higher salaries.
A real problem on the horizon that is causing much concern to the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, the Chartered Institute of Taxation—I am a member of both—and, I am sure, the other accountancy institutes is the proposed roll-out of Making Tax Digital. If the underlying desire is to advance tax cash flows to quarterly, the Government should simply say so. People go into small business to run a business and earn a profit. They do so for aspiration and lifestyle reasons, not to spend time complying with additional administrative burdens. The Making Tax Digital programme should simply be scrapped until HMRC can prove itself capable of dealing with existing workloads to an acceptable standard. It should at least start with bigger businesses—those above the VAT threshold—that are more able to cope.
Adding together the last few years of real-time information, in which businesses have to provide monthly returns for payroll, and the software costs of auto-enrolment, and now Making Tax Digital, the Federation of Small Businesses estimates the compliance cost in software and professional support to be £3,600 per business per year. That is some way in excess of the well received employment allowance of £3,000 a year that every business can claim against its national insurance contributions.
Finance raising continues to cause difficulties. We have seen the welcome expansion of new forms of lending driven by the internet, such as peer-to-peer, but banks remain cautious, requiring guarantees and often over-zealous security coverage requirements. The reality is that family and friends are still often the primary source of seed financing. In February I obtained a written answer from the then Financial Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Gauke), about the take-up of the seed enterprise investment scheme. I learned that the amounts raised nationwide were extremely and worryingly low: just £168 million for 2013-14. I will not go into the flaws in the seed EIS application process or HMRC’s labyrinthine rules on getting such applications approved, but it is clear to me as a chartered accountant and chartered tax adviser that we need a lighter-touch regime to encourage more of the “friends and family” type of investment.
For many of our shops, which are often located in historic town centres, planning regulations can prove a barrier to sensible growth and plans for the future. We have the rather daft situation in which a conservation officer in one local authority will have an entirely different view from a conservation officer in the authority next door. That adds to uncertainty and costs.
Government Departments and local authorities have large procurement budgets, but bureaucratic rules still exist, particularly on contracts over a certain size and when EU procurement rules come into play. Those rules make it close to impossible for smaller retailers and businesses to even consider facing the cost and complexity of applying for lucrative bids.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) mentioned cigarettes. I have been working closely with the Tobacco Retailers Alliance and the National Federation of Retail Newsagents on the issue of illicit tobacco. For many shops, tobacco sales drive footfall and lead to other sales, but the Tobacco Manufacturers Association suggests that because of the increasingly draconian rules on tobacco sales, plain packaging, hidden counters and the tobacco taxation escalator, 30% of UK smokers now buy from illicit sources. That is hardly surprising when a packet of cigarettes costs 50p in the Ukraine and still hovers around the £2.50 mark in much of eastern Europe. Local retailers are losing not only turnover from tobacco sales, despite the low margins, but other turnover through lost footfall.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I agree with the thrust of his argument and with his specific point on illicit tobacco sales. Is he aware that his debate is well timed because it coincides with the excellent “Freedom from Fear” campaign by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, which is aimed at protecting shop workers from abuse and assault? Does he agree that small shopkeepers and their staff are all too often in the frontline of such attacks and that stronger deterrent sentences are needed to protect them?
Just last week in Ramsgate, I invited the Kent police and crime commissioner to a retail crime forum to address that very point. It was quite worrying how many small shopkeepers in the room had suffered attacks in the last year or burglaries of what is often very high-value stock. Consideration could be given to tax incentives to encourage small shopkeepers to beef up their security, not only for themselves but for their stock. The right hon. Gentleman’s point is very well made.
A Ramsgate newsagent who came to my crime forum last week estimated that his turnover is down £150,000 per year because of illicit tobacco sales. That is happening on every shop on every high street. It means less taxation on what is an entirely legally derived profit, and it means a vast cash windfall for illicit tobacco traders. HMRC estimates that the loss to the Exchequer is £1.8 billion per year; the TMA estimates that it is closer to £2.4 billion. We need a grown-up debate about the taxation of tobacco, because we have reached a tipping point that is promoting unregulated, potentially dangerous purchases of unknown tobacco products. That completely flies in the face of what are sensible anti-smoking public health measures.
I will finish a little off-key, on the issue of insolvency, on which I have listened to many smaller businesses, including retailers. Hon. Members may have to listen carefully, because the chain is quite complex. When a primary contractor in a supply chain fails, having not been paid by the head client, the insolvency practitioner who is appointed will seek to recover the contract value from the head client, but that usually comes with a negotiated settlement of contracted amounts. That leaves the smaller participants down the supply chain unpaid, and we often see a domino effect of failure and insolvency through that supply chain.
There is a sizeable business in Broadstairs called Blaze Signs. Members can guess what it makes: yes, signs. It is a substantial local employer with a substantial local workforce. It makes 20-foot high signs for Marks and Spencer, Sainsbury’s and McDonald’s—huge signs that can be seen from a few hundred yards away. On the failure of the primary contractor in the chain, Blaze Signs has been left completely unpaid, despite its signs having being delivered and erected, because the insolvency practitioner has sought payment from Sainsbury’s, M&S or whichever company is at the top of the chain.
We need to give some consideration to a technical change to Insolvency Act 1986 rules. In the instance of unpaid bills at the top of a supply chain, where there are identifiable elements further down the supply chain supplied by participants who have been part of that final unpaid contract, the rules should be changed so that the payment bypasses the failed company in the chain and the smaller participants receive their money for goods properly supplied. That would almost be akin to putting a Romalpa-type clause on a statutory footing.
I am confident that the Government fully understand the challenges that smaller retailers and businesses face. I seek the Minister’s reassurance that the commitment to deregulation will continue and that the old mantra of “one in, two out” is realised. I will be pleased to hear from her how we can improve the business environment in this country still further.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) on securing this debate on small shops regulation. He has brought his detailed knowledge of and passion for retailers in his constituency to the attention of the House, and they are fortunate to have such a champion.
As someone with a business background, I am acutely aware of the impact of regulation, which not only imposes costs on businesses but often diverts resources from more productive activity. As we heard from my hon. Friend, small shops play a unique role in the fabric of British social and economic life; he cited several statistics from the “Local Shop Report” organised by the Association of Convenience Stores that really explain the benefit shops bring to our high streets. Small shops are the lifeblood of any community.
I agree with my hon. Friend that it is easier to regulate than to deregulate. I am finding that in my new role, and I might add that I am constantly vigilant against that instinct. We are recognised as a world leader in deregulation. Over the last Parliament we delivered savings to business worth more than £10 billion through what was then the one in, two out initiative. That made a real practical difference for small shopkeepers through, for example, reduced audit requirements and the simplification of health and safety requirements.
We are committed to delivering a further £10 billion of savings in this Parliament through deregulation. For the first time, that target will include changes in national regulators’ policies, as well as laws. For instance, we are working with the Financial Conduct Authority to review the way we combat money laundering. I hope that that will deliver more effective controls on criminals and simpler financial services for small businesses, including retailers. We are making good progress against our new target, and have made almost £900 million-worth of net savings through the measures already implemented since the last election.
Deregulation is of course only one part of easing the burden on shopkeepers. We are trying to create one of the most internationally competitive tax systems, which is why we have complemented the national living wage with radical tax reforms to boost the take-home pay of the lowest-income workers. But, of course, we need to help employers to put all this into action, so we are cutting taxes and employer national insurance by increasing the employment allowance and reducing corporation tax. The increase in the employer allowance from £2,000 to £3,000 will benefit up to half a million employers and mean that a business, such as a small retailer, will be able to employ up to four people full time on the new national living wage without paying national insurance contributions.
As well as earning a proper wage now, it is vital that people save for their retirement. My hon. Friend mentioned the issues relating to auto-enrolment. So far, more than 6.7 million people have been automatically enrolled into a workplace pension by more than 250,000 employers. We understand that small employers may find complying with automatic enrolment challenging, which is why the Department for Work and Pensions and the Pensions Regulator are working to make automatic enrolment as straightforward as possible for them. For example, as part of that work, the Pensions Regulator has launched an interactive step by step guide on its website—I think my hon. Friend mentioned it.
I thought that was a good idea. I am obviously not a DWP Minister, but I shall write to the Minister responsible, mentioning the idea proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet. It seems like one of those simple steps that the Government could take to facilitate an improvement.
My hon. Friend spoke about insolvency. Of course, sometimes, no matter how hard people try, businesses unfortunately fail. That can be very difficult to live with, particularly when a small business fails as a result of the ripple effect from an insolvency further up the supply chain. The law already allows for retention clauses to be enforced in the event that a customer to whom goods have been supplied fails and those goods can be recovered. My hon. Friend suggested that any money subsequently recovered from the “head client” by an insolvency practitioner should be shared down the supply chain to particular suppliers. It is, though, a basic principle of insolvency law that unsecured creditors should be treated equally.
There is a narrow range of exceptions to that principle, but any extension to those exceptions could prejudice the interests of other creditors in an insolvency, who may also be small businesses. The regime has to balance the interests of many different stakeholders, including lenders, employees and suppliers. Returns to creditors can be improved by ensuring that the insolvency process is as efficient and cost-effective as possible. To that end, I am pleased to say that a new set of insolvency rules for England and Wales will come into force next April, which will further reduce the costs of insolvency by removing some of the unnecessary regulations and driving the increased use of technology.
On the business environment and tax, I reassure my hon. Friend that the Government are committed to creating one of the most internationally competitive tax systems for small businesses. Earlier this year, Her Majesty’s Treasury made the Office of Tax Simplification permanent. The OTS will advise the Treasury on how to further simplify the tax system. This year has seen the biggest ever cut in business rates in England, worth £6.7 billion. Some 600,000 of the smallest businesses, many of which are retailers, will not have to pay business rates again. Although there have been fluctuations in the annual investment allowance, it is now at its highest ever permanent level. We have announced that we will cut the rate of corporation tax to 17% by the end of the Parliament.
My hon. Friend said that there was a great deal of disquiet among small retailers in his constituency about the programme to make tax digital. I have heard such disquiet in my meetings with the Federation of Small Businesses and discussed it with the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. There are some signs of progress. There is no chance of the programme being rowed back or changed radically, but the Treasury is consulting on changing the threshold and removing unincorporated businesses entirely. It is also consulting on delaying its introduction for one year for businesses of a certain size, and there is even the possibility of some financial support for very small businesses. So the Treasury is listening. I think the consultation deadline is fast approaching, so I urge my hon. Friend to make haste in contributing his views on behalf of his local retailers.[Official Report, 3 November 2016, Vol. 616, c. 1-2MC.]
As we have heard, the trade in illicit tobacco robs small shops of the income they deserve, in addition to causing a tax loss for Government. In 2015-16 we lost £2.4 billion-worth of revenue because of that illicit trade, so I thank my hon. Friend for his work to counter it. In March last year, the Government published a refreshed strategy called “Tackling illicit tobacco: From leaf to light”, which outlines how we will continue to target, catch and punish those involved in the illicit tobacco trade. By joining up all interested parties throughout the Government and leading the way in the international fight against illicit tobacco, more than 3.5 billion illicit cigarettes and more than 599 tonnes of hand-rolling tobacco have been seized in the past two years alone.
In conclusion, I thank all the right hon. and hon. Members present for their excellent contributions to the debate. Small shops remain a crucial part of our local and regional economies, creating jobs and injecting billions of pounds into our economy. I am passionate about supporting the sector—indeed, I am chairing a round-table of retailers this afternoon—and want to see it flourish. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet again for securing this important debate.
Question put and agreed to.
Good Parliament Report
[Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Good Parliament report.
“The Good Parliament” report was published in July and during my speech I will quote a couple of sections from it. The first is this:
“Parliamentary reform is too often the result of individual MPs expending significant time and political capital.”
For me, that is the key reason why this report is important.
The intention behind the report was to try to ensure that Parliament is a more representative place, so that it is more representative of society, has a better division between the genders, has a better representation across classes, so that it is not quite so middle class, male and of a certain age, and so that it has greater diversity.
Another line from the report is this:
“2018 is a timely reminder of the promise of equality in parliamentary participation and representation in the UK.”
The report comes in the run-up to 2018 and hopes to make changes in advance of both 2018 and the 2020 election. This is absolutely the perfect time for it to come out. I recognise the incredibly hard work that Professor Sarah Childs, who is in the Public Gallery today, put into it, and the good intentions that the House and Mr Speaker in particular had in commissioning it, which are hugely appreciated.
Before I talk about the report’s recommendations, I will talk a bit about who I am, why my circumstances matter and why the report is so relevant to me and people like me in Parliament. I am not from a wealthy background. Nobody in my family has a degree. I am absolutely not from that kind of traditional privileged background that people imagine politicians come from. I am not saying at all that I grew up on the breadline, but my family were certainly not affluent in any way.
I am also an MP from quite far away. My constituency is 500 miles away from here, so I am tackling geographical issues. I am not unique in that. My Scottish National party colleagues are similarly from far away places. We tackle geographical issues that London MPs, for example, cannot even imagine. It is really quite difficult to tackle them.
I am also a female MP. Women are still very much in the minority in the House of Commons and we still face— I do not want to say “discrimination”—barriers because of our gender.
I am also a relatively young MP. I was 29 when I was elected, which in House of Commons terms—we could include the House of Lords in that—is incredibly young. In House of Commons terms, 29 is still pretty young to be elected.
I am also a parent of young children. I have a three-year-old and a five-year-old. When I was elected, they were obviously even younger than that. It is unusual, particularly for female MPs, to be parents of pre-school children, because it is incredibly hard to do this job if you have them, particularly when tackling all the other issues that people like me face. I am so far from home. I also suddenly have to finance this role. Obviously we get paid, but coming into this House without having a salary beforehand and having to pay back all of the money spent during election campaigns is hard to begin with. It is not easy. I feel that there are a lot of barriers in my way. I am from the SNP. I am no big fan of Westminster. I am not about this place being wonderful, but even if Scotland gets its independence, or when Scotland gets its independence, future generations of parliamentarians should not have to face the barriers that I have had to face in becoming an MP and in being an MP.
The hon. Lady is very kind to give way so early on. I commend her for what she is saying and I agree with everything she has said so far. Does she agree that one way to address one of those barriers is to consider the possibility of MPs job sharing? The report does not consider it, but a future one might. One way to keep one foot solidly in our constituency, perhaps to provide the kind of family care that she is talking about, and represent people here is job sharing.
I will come to that. First, I am going to talk about some of the recommendations in the report and the reasons why they are so good. I will also talk about a few things that are not in the recommendations but that I feel would have benefits—job sharing is one of those.
I, too, commend the hon. Lady for securing this debate and for what she has said about the report. On the point she so strongly made about her being a young person in Parliament, a mother of young children and a woman living miles away from her constituency, does she agree that essentially what is important is that people such as herself can be in Parliament to make it more representative and fundamentally do the job that it is supposed to do? We therefore need her and others to get over those barriers so that Parliament can be the sort of institution that it needs to be for this country.
I absolutely agree and will say why Parliament being representative is so important. Part of it is so that we can inspire people, so that young people who look at Parliament are not as disengaged as some currently are. A lot of young people look at Parliament and think, “There’s nobody there who’s like me”, or, “There are not enough people there who are like me. I can never achieve that.” If young people do not see people like themselves in Parliament, why would they bother to become engaged? Why would they think, “I can become an MP”, if we are not living that and showing that, and if we are not destroying the barriers I have mentioned, so that they can become Members of this Parliament or of others?
The other reason why it is really important that this place is representative is the role that we have as Westminster parliamentarians in a world-leading Parliament. We have not done very well recently at being a world- leading Parliament. I am quite embarrassed to go into Commonwealth Parliamentary Association meetings or Inter-Parliamentary Union meetings to talk to groups of parliamentarians from other countries and tell them about how wonderfully democratic Westminster is, because it is not. There are too many issues with this place, so that I find it really hard to say to people from other Parliaments, “You should follow our rules”, because our rules are not great.
If we were genuinely reforming this place and if we were genuinely a 21st century Parliament, it would be much easier for us to work with other Parliaments, help other Parliaments and trailblaze. If we were such a Parliament, that would be a better place for us to be.
I will go through some of the report’s recommendations and say why they are important. One of the first recommendations is about standards of behaviour. That recommendation is really important, not only because of the farce that is Prime Minister’s questions but because of some of the quieter things that people do not hear so much about. Some of my colleagues have had their outfits commented on by male MPs. That is not appropriate. People should not be making odd comments about outfits. That behaviour is not tackled enough in the House of Commons and there is not enough of an argument made when people face that kind of behaviour. Not enough people are standing up about it.
The next recommendation I will discuss is collecting statistics by gender and other characteristics. Basically, the intention behind that recommendation is that the Speaker should keep account of how many people are speaking, what percentage of women are speaking, what percentage of women are asking questions in debates and what percentage of people from working-class backgrounds are asking questions in debates. It is all well and good to get us elected to Parliament but if we are encountering barriers, or if our Whips Office does not let us talk often enough, for example, or if we are not managing to catch the Speaker’s eye, or if any of those types of things happen, they are issues. If we examine the statistics and try to work out what barriers are in place, we can work out how to overcome those barriers. Such statistics would be really useful information for us to have in the future as a House, so that we can consider tackling those issues.
The biggest section in the report is on procedural and timing changes, which would make the biggest difference. There are a huge number of recommendations. One of them is that the Government should announce recess dates at least one Session in advance, which is about making business in the House of Commons a bit more predictable. We had the ridiculous situation this year when the Whitsun recess in May was not announced until February or March. We did not know when the summer recess would be. People in the House of Lords could not tell their staff when their summer holiday would be.
In some ways, it is all well and good for MPs—we signed up to this—but for the staff, it is not fair and there is no good reason behind it. The only reason it happens is that the Government do not want to cede power. I am not blaming this Government any more than previous Governments. All Governments have been in control of the recess dates. It would be easy for them to announce the recess dates a bit further in advance than they currently do. Even if they said we will definitely be off for the whole of August and then tinkered with the other dates a bit later, that would be helpful. A move towards explaining the recess dates further in advance would be better for everyone.
I have already said my constituency is 500 miles away. I have to fly to get here. I cannot get the train. Some of my colleagues from Glasgow and Edinburgh occasionally get the train, but I am three hours past them. My constituency is really far away. The lack of business predictability means that my flights are more expensive. I am costing the taxpayer more money because I do not know when the Government will have votes far enough in advance to book anything. If I had more predictability —if the Government parted with that information a little further in advance—that would be cheaper for the taxpayer, which surely would be a good thing.
The thing about business predictability is that the Government do not have to go the whole way. They do not have to say, for example, “We will definitely be having Third Reading of the housing Bill on 15 November.” What they could say is, “That day will definitely be Government business, and that day will definitely be Back-Bench business.” That much they could tell us a good month in advance, and it would help with the cost and constituency engagements. If there is a vote on a Wednesday night, I cannot get home, and my constituents lose out on my presence. If I had a better understanding, because the Government told me further in advance, it would be better for my constituents and for taxpayers’ money.
One of the other recommendations is to abolish the party conference recess and sitting Fridays. We have been over the issues with private Members’ Bills in the past few weeks. There has been uproar about the way they work. I understand that some Members are particularly positive about the way private Members’ Bills work because they relish the opportunity to talk them out, but for me, being so far away from London, sitting Fridays mean I have to commit too much of my week to being here. I cannot just pop home of an evening to a constituency engagement. I already have problems representing my constituents as well as I would like, and committing to sitting Fridays makes things even more difficult. It is not just me. I am speaking from my point of view, but many colleagues are affected, whether they are in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. For anywhere without very easy access, sitting Fridays are hard.
There are a couple of other things in the report about procedure and timing changes. It suggests that when the restoration work goes ahead, a couple of things should be trialled. One is remote voting, so that Members on the Parliamentary Estate can vote remotely. I am from Aberdeen. The previous Member for Aberdeen South was Anne Begg, who uses a wheelchair, and she missed a vote because the lift did not come. How was it fair for her constituents that she could not physically be there because the lift was not working? She should not have been in that position, and the ridiculous voting system we have continues to make the situation worse. Remote voting on the Parliamentary Estate would be an interesting thing to trial. I am not sure exactly how it would work, but we should look at trialling it.
Another trial suggested in the report is a new format for PMQs. There is a lot of agreement in all parts of the House that PMQs is not the best way to showcase our Parliament. I do not know how we could do it better—less bad-tempered, less vicious and in a more collegiate manner—while still holding the Government to account, but I am pretty sure that the current system does not work very well.
The last thing on procedure and timing changes is dress codes. We have some bizarre rules about dress codes in “Erskine May”. Women are allowed to wear hats and men have to wear jackets and ties unless the Speaker tells them that they can take them off. In the midst of summer, the Speaker rarely tells Members that they are allowed to take their jackets off. That does not seem all that fair.
I did not want to say “never” because I was not sure whether there was a precedent. The report suggests that the dress codes should be changed to business dress or national dress. That is much clearer for people than the current oddities in “Erskine May”, which allows me to wear a hat, but not my hon. Friends who are male. If we could improve that, things would be better.
The next section of the report is about gender quotas, and it puts responsibility for that on a number of people. It is not just about political parties needing to have gender quotas. It talks about a number of different areas where there are issues with the under-representation of women. We do not have enough women giving evidence as Select Committee witnesses. We do not have enough women standing for Parliament for political parties. We have so few women among the lobby journalists. The report makes a call for that to change.
On gender quotas, does the hon. Lady agree that it might be a good idea to look at best practice across the United Kingdom? For example, in Northern Ireland, in a short timeframe and against a backdrop that is, for a variety of reasons, difficult in terms of female representation, our only MEP is female, our First Minister is female and almost 50% of all our Ministers and Statutory Committee Chairs are female. I am not saying that is unique, because Scotland and Wales have made similar advances, but does the hon. Lady agree that replicating best practice should be looked at before we move to quotas, which I and my party would not be in favour of?
There are ways that different parties have done it without quotas, but the party that seemed to be most successful in making the biggest change here in Westminster was the Labour party, which had women-only shortlists. I have an automatic dislike of women-only shortlists. I do not like the idea. I just have an issue with it, but it is one of the few things that has been proven to work really well. Despite that gut reaction, if I think about it with my head, I realise that there are positive benefits. Looking at best practice across the UK and the world is an interesting and sensible way to go. Political parties will approach the issue in their own way, and it would be sensible for them to be allowed the leeway to do that. As the hon. Gentleman suggested, in Scotland we have made great changes. We have a gender-balanced Cabinet in the Scottish Parliament, and that is a positive step forward.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this fantastic debate. The points she has made are so relevant. On the matter of gender—she will correct me if I am wrong—is it not still the case that there are more men in Parliament today than there have ever been women since they were allowed to become MPs? As Rabbie Burns said:
“O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!”
People look at this Parliament and do not see society reflected back. We need a multi-pronged attack. Making some of the changes that Sarah Childs suggests in her report will encourage women, but we have to look at the issue across the board.
Absolutely. It is pretty dire that the number of women ever elected is less than the number of current male MPs. It does not make sense. Although we have made positive changes, it is not enough. We need to go further. I do not think that is entirely within the gift of political parties; everybody needs to take responsibility. That is one of the really good things about the report: it gives the whole House the responsibility for a lot of its recommendations. Some specific responsibility is given to two political parties, and they will interpret that in their own ways, but the whole House needs to take ownership.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. I also thank Professor Childs for her work, and the Speaker for his long-standing commitment to these issues and on moving the debate forward.
The hon. Lady makes a very important point about the flexibility that political parties should have to take their own measures. I was not elected on an all-women shortlist, but I am a massive advocate for them and the change that they have brought about. I also believe that were they to be removed, we would see a roll backwards. It is very important to find ways to put stakes in the ground so that we do not see a rolling back on the progress that we have achieved. I also support the hon. Lady’s point that we need to see a shift in representation of MPs and elected politicians and around the culture of politics, which includes representation in the staff of the House as well as in the media.
Absolutely. The report recommends looking at the gender balance of the House of Commons Commission, as well as in Select Committees and other Committees across the House, but this is not just about gender. We still do not have enough people from working-class backgrounds, from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, or from minority religions or non-Christian religions in the House of Commons. Political parties can achieve some change in all of those areas, but changing the culture of the House and the barriers to becoming an MP could support change.
The report makes suggestions for changes to the buildings. If the renovation work is going to go ahead, there is a real opportunity to make real changes. One suggestion is that we have more toilets, which seems eminently sensible. I do not think anybody would disagree with that and I am hoping that the Minister will stand up and say, “Yes, we’ll accept that one.” That would be great. There is a recommendation on artwork, which suggests that more women are depicted in the artwork hanging around the House of Commons, and that there is more work from women artists. That would be hugely positive.
On the matter of artwork, I could not agree with my hon. Friend more. She will be aware of the work that I and other colleagues have done on this issue. Walking around the palace, it is full of mainly dead men of a different era, not even of today. The famous cupboard that Emily Wilding Davison hid in is hidden away from the public. There is no public representation of it. My hon. Friend makes a valid point about women being properly represented in all parts of Parliament.
Even if there are, they are not in very prominent positions. It would be nice to have more female artwork.
Members probably expect me to talk about the report’s recommendation to look into a crèche. The fact that I took my children to a Select Committee meeting was fairly publicly discussed. There is a real issue with the lack of flexible childcare here. I phoned the House of Commons nursery and asked them if they could take my children for the afternoon, and they said, “We can take your children for six weeks of afternoons.” I said, “Well, they live in Aberdeen. What use is that?” There is a real problem with childcare provision.
There is such a contrast with the Scottish Parliament. Someone who is giving evidence to a Committee of the Scottish Parliament or who has come to see their MSP can leave their children in the Scottish Parliament crèche while they have that difficult conversation for an hour with the MSP, perhaps about problems they are experiencing with housing—conversations that they might not want to have in front of their children. Members of the public can use the crèche for free, and MSPs and passholders pay for its use. That is a really good system and one that we should consider adopting if we are going forward with renovations in the building as it is. I get that the nursery was a massive step forward and everybody was hugely supportive, or was convinced to be supportive, of the nursery taking over a bar, and I understand that a number of MPs still seem quite upset that the nursery took over a bar, but that is only a step on the way forward; it is not the flexible childcare that those of us from further away and those of us who choose not to base our children in London require.
My last point about the recommendations is about the promotion of the role of an MP. I have been really clear that I am not a fan of Westminster, but I think it is incumbent on me and people like me, who are not from that traditional male group of politicians, to say to young people, “You can do this. You can get involved in this place. You can get involved in politics. You can get involved in making a difference in your country.” A number of my colleagues and I have tried to be really honest about what our job involves. It is not just about sitting in PMQs and people shouting at each other and then being on BBC News or wherever. It is not just about those things. It is about all of the casework that we do. It is about all of the everyday things such as about doing five minutes on a bike for the Poppy Appeal and getting comprehensively beaten—I will do better next year. It is about all of those things that we do that are not mentioned in the media, but that are fabulous experiences for someone coming into this who has never experienced anything like it before.
The number of things that we are privileged enough to do is absolutely unbelievable, as is the number of amazing things that we get to do and the amount of change that we get to achieve for people in their everyday lives. If we are better able to promote that and to explain to people how being an MP actually works, people would be more likely to come into this role with a better attitude and intentions.
The hon. Lady makes a very important point about understanding the reality of our lives as Members of Parliament. I have six years’ experience since I set up the Fabian Women’s Network mentoring scheme, which does a lot of political education and mentoring for those who might seek to come forward in political life. Does the hon. Lady think that there might be an opportunity for Members of Parliament to be engaged slightly more formally in ways to promote and help people understand the role of parliamentarians?
Yes, absolutely. One of the report’s recommendations uses the phrase
“a diversity of people are, and can be, MPs”
and recommends having case studies on the House of Commons website about a range of different people and the backgrounds that we come from, so that young people in particular can understand what it is that we do. There is also a suggestion of a residential course, which would be a really good idea because it would give people hands-on experience.
I am going to the Patchwork Foundation awards tonight. The Patchwork Foundation tries to get under-represented groups more involved in politics. It does absolutely fabulous work—again, not in formal structures but more informally, through mentoring and similar things. It is quite difficult for me to get involved in some of those programmes from Aberdeen. I cannot take patchworkers out and about in my constituency, because they are not going to come 500 miles to do that, so there are some issues. It might be better if there were more formal structures.
There are some other points not mentioned in the report that are worth considering. I mentioned the financial barriers to becoming an MP. It is expensive to stand for election and it is difficult to make the change after being elected. As a newly elected MP, it was difficult for me to suddenly be able to finance the five extra dresses that I needed and to pay for things out of my own pocket before being set up properly with the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. It is hard to come up against those barriers and to begin that life.
I took a £50,000 pay rise when I became an MP; I had never earned more than £26,000 a year and I had debts to pay off when I was first elected. It was very difficult in that initial period. There is not enough recognition of the circumstances that people find themselves in. I am not saying that MPs’ salaries should be increased—I definitely do not think they should be—but the institutional barriers for people from less affluent backgrounds should be considered more carefully in the future.
I do not think geography is given enough consideration, even though there are quite a few of us from far away—perhaps we just have not shouted loudly enough about it. Five hundred miles is a very long way and I cannot just drop everything to come here for a vote. It is even worse for my colleagues from the highlands who have to get two aeroplanes or drive for four hours and then get an aeroplane down, when there are only two a day. There are something like five or six aeroplanes a day from Aberdeen, so it is not as bad for me as it is for some of my colleagues. Because of the way the business of the House works, there is a lack of understanding about and recognition of the geographical challenges for MPs from further away. The boundary review will compound that, because MPs from the furthest away constituencies will be representing a wider geographical area. In addition to doing a large amount of travelling, they will have to represent a constituency that takes six hours to drive across, or even longer in some cases, so the boundary changes will create some real issues.
Job sharing, which the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) mentioned, and maternity leave go hand in hand. The Green party has talked about job sharing for MPs, which is a really interesting concept. I do not think it would be possible for a single parent of young children to do this job. I cannot imagine a way in which they could do it, but a job share that enabled two MPs to be elected on half the salary and staff costs, with one office that they run together—the MPs would actually end up working for more than their allotted hours—would make the job more flexible and accessible for single parents and people from caring backgrounds. I do not see how somebody with caring responsibilities for, say, an elderly relative or a disabled family member could be an MP at the same time, but a job-sharing option would make that much more possible.
We do not have maternity leave. I was a local councillor when I had both my children. I had the first one, Harris, at the end of April, I was back in the office within four weeks and I took a promotion in the local authority in June. What was I supposed to do? There was not another option. My constituents would not have been represented if I had not been there. It is not fair for constituents to be disadvantaged because their MP happens to have a baby. If I had a baby right now—it is not going to happen today, obviously, and hopefully not any time soon—I would not have been able to fly for four weeks before having it, and I would not be able to fly for two weeks afterwards because I would have to have a caesarean section. Why would it be fair for my constituents not to have somebody to vote for them when it is not their fault that I had a baby? We need to think better and smarter about this. It could be easily overcome with a bit of sense. I do not think it is fair for constituents to have that issue. I think changes should be made to voting in particular when Members have children.
The attitudes, the misogyny and the abuse that some people from non-traditional backgrounds face are a real barrier. I have spoken to people who have said, “I could never be an MP because you get so much abuse.” I know that those things are an issue for people from all backgrounds—they are an issue for 45-year-old males from a privileged background—but I think they are more of an issue for those of us from less traditional backgrounds. Adopting the recommendations in “The Good Parliament” report would inspire the cultural change that would make the difference. It would make the House of Commons a more positive place to work, with fewer barriers. It would make this a more representative Parliament.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, and to follow the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman). We may not agree on much, but she has made a strong start to her time in Parliament and should be proud of that. She is a very good role model for other people—women, young people and whoever else—who want to enter Parliament, and she is doing an excellent job in representing her constituency, for which I have a great affinity. I think Dyce is in her constituency.
Is it a bit further north? I used to spend a lot of time in Dyce when I worked for Asda. I am sorry it is not in the hon. Lady’s constituency, because it is a fine place.
When I first saw that this debate was taking place, my first question was, what is “The Good Parliament” report? After reading it, I rather wish I had not asked. It could be referred to as the “less accountable Parliament report” or the “dumbed-down Parliament report”, and it would certainly be better titled the “politically correct Parliament report”. There is not time to go into all the things that are wrong in the report, but I will pick out a few points in the limited time that I have.
The hon. Lady made the point that it is absolutely terrible that she cannot get up to her constituency on a Wednesday evening, and said that everything should be changed to allow her to do so. I checked, and in the 2015-16 Session of Parliament this House sat for 158 days out of 365. When people complain to me about Parliament, they say that none of us seems to be here when debates are taking place. I have never heard the complaint from the public that we are spending too much time here or that there are too many of us here during debates. I suggest to the hon. Lady that having 158 days to represent her constituency in Parliament is not too much to expect.
I am completely opposed to all-women shortlists and quotas. I could not care less if every single MP were a woman, if every position in Parliament were held by a woman or if everybody in the Cabinet were a woman. It is of no interest to me. As far as I am concerned, as long as they are there on merit, their gender is irrelevant. We should be gender-blind. I really think that the true sexists are the people who see everything in terms of gender. We should judge people not on the basis of their gender, but on the basis of their ability.
One thing I very much agree with the hon. Lady about is that we need more people from a working-class background in Parliament. One of the points I always made to the Conservative party when we were looking at things such as all-women shortlists—fortunately, we did not go down that route—was that replacing Rupert from Kensington and Chelsea with Jemima from Kensington and Chelsea does not do an awful lot for diversity in the House of Commons. Replacing Rupert from Kensington and Chelsea with Jim from Newcastle would do an awful lot more for diversity in the House of Commons than a tokenistic approach to diversity that sees things only in terms of simplistic diversity—gender or race.
No, I certainly would not concede that point.
In the Conservative party, we had a female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, decades ago. She managed to get to the very top and stay there for an awful long time, and as far as I am concerned she was the best Prime Minister this country has ever had. I suspect that most people in this Chamber hate the fact that Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. When a woman actually got to be Prime Minister, they all hated it. Today, we have another female Prime Minister on the Conservative Benches without all this tokenistic claptrap, and she is also doing a fantastic job. It is rather patronising to say that women need all these extra things to help them get to the top; they do not. We do not need to be patronising to women. They are more than capable of rising to the top.
I find the idea that people can represent only people who are the same as them completely alien. There will be many women in my constituency who think I do a great job representing them in Parliament, and many women who think I do a terrible job. There will be many men who think I do a good job and many men who think I do a terrible job. What most people are concerned about is their representative’s views on issues: what their opinions are and the things they stand up for.
I can honestly say that, when I have been out canvassing during all my years in politics, people may have argued, agreed or disagreed with me about particular issues, but I have never yet had a person say to me that they would vote for me if I were a woman and that they would not vote for me because I am a man. Gender is irrelevant to the general public. They want their parliamentarians to stand up for the things that matter to them.
Being in Parliament is not a nine to five job. We pass laws that affect the country and we hold the Government to account. If we had nine to five days in Parliament, we would not be able to attend Select Committees if at the same time we wanted to be in the Chamber to attend debates or questions. There is lots to do as a Member of Parliament. It is very responsible work. The report is patronising and mostly full of claptrap. I want to make it clear that there is at least one dissenting voice. One day people might look back at this report and laugh, but for many of us at the moment it is not a laughing matter.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Moon. I am delighted to be able to speak in this debate. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) for calling it. I welcome the work of Professor Childs and everyone else who participated in “The Good Parliament” report. I wish to touch on a few recommendations around the way the House operates and the impact that that has on democracy more widely. I want to stress that the report is not about us as MPs, but about democracy and giving people access to Parliament. It is about Parliament showing leadership and about demonstrating that, by deeds not words, we are as representative as we possibly can be.
It will come as no surprise to my hon. Friends that, as chair of the all-party group on infant feeding and inequalities, I want first to mention the issue of breastfeeding. It is a vital public health issue that, despite the efforts of many committed people, does not get the prominence that it should. In the UK, we have the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world. This is not about the choices of individual mothers, but about society’s attitudes. I would talk at length on the matter if I were not short of time, but I recommend people read Dr Amy Brown’s book, “Breastfeeding Uncovered”, which highlights a lot of the issues.
There has been a lot of talk about breastfeeding in the response to “The Good Parliament” report, but it is a tiny aspect of the report. It is clear that even in the House there are various opinions on breastfeeding in Parliament. The hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) called it exhibitionism; certain journalists were surprised when I tweeted a picture of myself breastfeeding; and some people said that if women could not breastfeed while driving a tank, they should not be allowed to do it in Parliament. Those are ridiculous arguments. “The Good Parliament” report recognises that
“permitting entry to infants would have symbolic benefits—showcasing the Commons as a role-model parent-friendly institution.”
That is where we wish to be as a Parliament. I think we could all agree on that. In showing that leadership, it would also encourage businesses across the country to consider their own practices.
Yesterday, a friend who works at SNP headquarters in Edinburgh posted a photo of the breast pumps belonging to her and her colleague, both of whom have been supported by the SNP to express milk at work. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North said, we both breastfed our babies in council meetings. Councillor Fay Sinclair is doing so in Fife. It is happening in Australia, Iceland and Scotland, and in the European Parliament. There is no reason why we in the mother of Parliaments should not embrace it, too.
I mentioned at the start that “The Good Parliament” report is not just about us, but about how Parliament does its business. The way we do our business excludes women from the life of this building, and that has a negative impact on our decision making. I attended an interesting event yesterday that was organised by Sense About Science. It was called “Evidence matters”, which of course it does, but which evidence and are we getting it from the right source? I am deeply concerned that the evidence we receive as a Parliament is not good enough because it excludes the views and experiences of women.
Dr Marc Geddes has produced interesting research on witnesses at Select Committees, from which it is clear that they are very much male, pale and stale. Out of the 3,228 witnesses who gave evidence to the 1,241 Select Committee sessions in Session 2013-14, only 792 were women. That is just shy of 25%. No Committee came close to calling an equal number of women and men to give evidence, and for some Committees—Defence, Energy and Climate Change, and Communities and Local Government—more than 80% of witnesses called were men. For the Treasury Committee, it was more than 90%.
I do not believe that there are only men with expertise in these areas, and we need to understand why this imbalance exists. Dr Geddes’ research also highlighted that 67% of witnesses are coming from London and the south of England, even when Government witnesses are excluded. “The Good Parliament” report suggests we consider gender thresholds, but I believe Select Committees must also look at when they meet so that people can get to them. We should look at building into the parliamentary timetable a more considered way for when Committees meet. Committees need to recognise it is difficult for people to get here, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North mentioned. For Committees that meet in the morning, such as the Treasury Committee, it is really hard for people to get here to give evidence.
A 10 am meeting means an early flight or train or an overnight stay, rearranging the school run and making arrangements for childcare. Late-night meetings might end up the same way. We should consider building a system that takes into account the needs of people, rather than the needs of London-based Committees. I would encourage Select Committees to get out and travel outside London. The best meeting of the Communities and Local Government Committee was when we took public evidence on devolution in Manchester and actually heard from people in Manchester. It was useful to be able to hold to account other witnesses who came late in the day because we had heard evidence first hand.
I want to briefly mention the crèche issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North mentioned. Joeli Brearley from Pregnant Then Screwed came to listen to a debate in this room and had to sit at the back juggling a wee one and popping in and out because there was no crèche provision for her.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) on her superb introduction to this debate. She set out the huge range of issues that we have to consider and will, I hope, act upon. I very much welcome the recommendations in the report. I hope that they are given the opportunity to be implemented faster than we have seen female representation grow in this place.
Having been elected only last year, I still look at some of the goings-on here with a mixture of wonder, bemusement and sadness. My job before I was elected enabled me to peer into many other workplaces and their cultures. I am sorry to say that, if the culture we have here were replicated in an ordinary workplace, the company could expect to be involved in many employment tribunals every year. It would also find it difficult to recruit good people and would have an even harder job retaining good staff.
Although it is a huge privilege to work here, we should not be afraid to challenge archaic practices and cultures where we find them. At how many workplaces does someone’s finish time vary and change at incredibly short notice? How is that in any way family friendly? In which workplaces is it acceptable for colleagues to stop speaking to you because they disapprove of something you have or have not done? Would we expect to start a new job without any feedback or appraisal of progress, but still be promoted or demoted on a set of opaque criteria we are not privy to? In which jobs would it be considered normal to engage in arguments on Twitter with work colleagues? And I am talking about people from the same party; they sometimes come with insults and abuse that would breach any dignity at work policy.
I am chair of the all-party group on social mobility. We are currently conducting an inquiry into access to the professions, which includes law, finance, the arts, media, medicine, the civil service and politics. In terms of Parliament, as we have heard, the stark fact remains that there have been fewer female MPs elected than there are male MPs currently sitting in the House of Commons, and less than 30% of MPs at the moment are female. Although the report looks mainly at gender issues, we cannot isolate that from other factors that influence representation here. According to the Sutton Trust, 32% of MPs were privately educated compared with 7% of the general population. Of those, the research shows, almost one in 10 went to Eton. Nearly 10% of all MPs attended the same school: a school that of course only boys can attend.
The recommendations on sitting days are welcome. Why, for heaven’s sake, do we have a half-term recess next week that starts on a Wednesday? No schools are off then and I am not aware of any school breaks that start on a Wednesday. I certainly welcome the recommendations on producing a statement on maternity, paternity, adoption and caring leave. We would not expect our constituents to forgo those hard-won rights, so I do not think we should, either.
Recommendation 43 places the onus on political parties to increase the diversity of parliamentary candidates. My party has been at the forefront of this, and with the creation of the Jo Cox Women in Leadership Programme, I am confident we will continue to be so. The reality is that it is up to the political parties to seriously look at the way they select candidates if we really want to change things.
My party has made great strides towards gender equality. I have a great amount of respect and admiration for my Labour colleagues, but it is still very much the case that someone has to have connections with the centre, the kind of informal networks that we see in all professions, if they want to succeed in politics. We have to recognise that, to be selected as a candidate for a major political party in a winnable seat, someone must first of all win an election that in all likelihood will be just as challenging as the real one, but without the party’s resources, or the finance. They may not have the time to get the nomination, particularly if they are in a full-time job outside politics, or have caring responsibilities, or both. The reality is that, if they are working at the local Tesco, and have three kids under 11, they will struggle to find the time to run a successful election campaign. Some unions are getting better at recognising those challenges, and we need to go further and support them.
There is a huge London focus in most professions, but arguably it is most acute in politics. The Speaker’s parliamentary scheme is helping to open up opportunity, but a number of people do not apply to it at all because the cost of living in London is so high. Those who are on the scheme can struggle because the cost of living is so high, even on the London living wage. That is why people with supportive and well-resourced families have an advantage. We must therefore stress the importance of open and funded internships and placements, which do not rely on self-finance. We hope to present the result of the all-party group’s inquiry next month. It is pretty clear that it will show patterns that restrict opportunity, repeated throughout the various professions— with politics no exception. There are pockets of good practice in all professions, but they are just that—pockets. In Parliament we have a unique role and an opportunity to lead by example, to show that in this country, whatever a person’s background, they will have the same opportunities as everyone else.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Moon. I am delighted to take part in the debate and to support the recommendations in Professor Childs’ report calling on Parliament and the parties to do more to improve the diversity of Parliament and the political system.
When I entered the House of Commons as a new MP last year, one of my first impressions of Westminster was that a large majority of MPs—outwith the SNP, obviously—were white, middle-aged, men. They all looked like slightly older versions of me. I am 36—not quite middle aged. Despite some minor progress on the issue of increased diversity, it is clear—and now confirmed in “The Good Parliament” report— that the UK Parliament remains
“disproportionately white, male and elite.”
Some progress has been made on increasing the level of female representation in Parliament, but it has been slow, and little has been done to try to remove the barriers that prevent so many talented women from pursuing a career in politics. Twenty-nine per cent. of current MPs are female, and that percentage has increased by only 10% in 10 years. Based on that, we shall have to wait another 20 years to have a Parliament with equal representation.
In attempting to address the issue, we should not limit ourselves to Professor Childs’ report, excellent though it is. We should learn from the experiences of other countries to increase diversity. On a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association trip to Canada during the conference recess, I was fortunate enough to have great companions, including the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), and to meet with the Federal Parliament’s standing committee on the status of women, Quebec’s circle of women parliamentarians, the women’s group for policy and democracy, and Equal Voice. They told me that, despite the 2015 election, which represented the most diverse group of parliamentarians that Canada has ever had, Canada still lags behind the UK; only 26% of MPs are women. The experience of that election tells us that it is not just about the number or percentage of women candidates standing; it is about the winnability of the seats. For each party, the Liberals, Conservatives, the New Democratic party and Bloc Québécois, the number of females elected as a percentage of their group was less than the percentage of female candidates on the ballot.
Each group that we spoke to is determined to do something about that. They were all heartened to hear of Scotland’s experience, but in particular I want to mention a new national initiative being launched by Equal Voice. Daughters of the Vote will recognise a significant event in Canadian history: the 100th anniversary of the first voting rights granted to a select number of Canadian women in 1916. Equal Voice is inviting young women aged between 18 and 23 to participate in a national initiative in which 338 women—one from each constituency—will be selected to take their seat in Parliament. The women will meet and hear from outstanding women leaders from every sector. Daughters of the Vote is an initiative to identify and to encourage young women who can lead the country to a fairer and brighter future. That is something that we could and should do here.
Back on this side of the pond, it is clear from “The Good Parliament” report that, if we are serious about tackling the barriers that prevent women, disabled people, people identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex, and others from pursuing a career in politics, we must have leadership on the issue. We must commit to making a concerted effort to removing barriers, and win over colleagues who adopt the “If you’re good enough, you will be elected” mindset. I welcome statements by the Speaker that he intends to lead on the recommendations from Professor Childs’ report, and I hope that he is supported in his efforts by all our party leaders.
I welcome what the report says about a gender-neutral approach to family life. I have a young family, and I have difficulty in balancing the promises that I made to the electorate and to my family. Anything that Parliament can do, no matter how small, to achieve that balance, is to be welcomed. Pursuing inclusivity is not about ticking boxes or being politically correct. The issue is not just about making the political system fairer, more inclusive and accessible. It is also about creating one that is more effective, which draws on the talents, skills and experience of all citizens. I support “The Good Parliament” report and the Speaker’s efforts to act on it. I may be white, male and in my mid-30s, but I am also an ally who will support any attempt to create a Parliament that is truly representative, transparent, accessible, accountable and effective in all its functions.
Mrs Moon, I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship—chairwomanship, I should say. It is the first time I have ever done that, and you know how much I love you.
When I saw that the report is called “The Good Parliament” I thought it was a reference to the 1376 Parliament, which was when we first had a Speaker at all, and when we impeached nearly all the Government’s Ministers and imposed a new set of Ministers of our own—maybe we will do that later today. The history of our Parliament has not been very good in relation to women. Sometimes we boast about “the mother of Parliaments”—a terrible phrase, but I will not bore people with how inaccurately it is regularly used. More important, for a long time women were not even allowed to attend the debates of the House of Commons other than by sitting in the room above the Chamber that had been built in the kind of false ceiling above the ventilator. When they were finally allowed in the Gallery, they had to have a grille so that they could not be seen, in case that somehow disturbed the male MPs.
When I arrived at theological college, when I was training to be a priest at Cuddesdon, it was the first year there was more than one woman training there. I know that that was difficult, both for many of the men—including the gay men, bizarrely—but also for many of the women, because for the first time women could not be treated as honorary chaps. I think we are only just beginning to get to the point in parliamentary terms where we no longer treat women as honorary chaps in the way we do business. That is one of the things that must change.
I warmly commend the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) for bringing forward the debate. We probably will have to have a debate in the main Chamber at some point and I hope that the Government will enable that to happen, because I think that—notwithstanding the views of the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who is a splendid chap but just wrong about everything—we should air the issues.
There are some things that it may be difficult to change. There might be unintended consequences of changes to where and how we vote that make things even more difficult for people post-maternity and paternity; but there are things we can do. On the question of all-women shortlists, I would point out to the hon. Gentleman that before the 2001 general election in Wales, 10 Labour MPs retired, and the Labour party, which prides itself on being a party of equality, selected 10 candidates every one of whom was a man, because we did not have all-women shortlists then. I benefited from that, in one sense, as did the people of Rhondda, no doubt—[Interruption.] Or maybe not. The point is that surely every party needs to find its own mechanism to try to make Parliament more representative, both in this House and, I would argue, in an elected House of Lords.
I am not going to, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind, because we do not have long.
There is a real difficulty for parents. It is shocking how few mums—mothers of young, or actually of adult, children—we have in Parliament. There must be reasons for that, and we need to explore them. As the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) has just pointed out, it is very difficult for dads of young children as well. They must decide where their kids will be educated, and it may well end up being in London, because that is the only way they will be able to see them for most of the week. That then poses questions for them in their constituency, if that is some way away. I do not think that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is anywhere near helpful enough about that. I can feel hon. Members agreeing with me—I may even have the hon. Member for Shipley with me on that.
I simply think that IPSA’s role is confused: on the one hand, it is a regulator; and on the other hand, it is meant to be a support mechanism, and those two roles conflict. In this area, it is making things increasingly difficult for people with families to think of becoming Members of Parliament, in particular if they are from ordinary working-class backgrounds. I think that that means IPSA is failing, and we need to address it.
There are more pictures and statues of women around Parliament than one might think, but they are not part of the standard tour, which is all about white dead men. It would not be a bad idea—I would be happy to organise this—to create a tour of women in Parliament, which could easily be done around the building.
Another point was made about restoration and renewal. We have got to get that right—the disability access in the building is shocking. Take eyesight, for example, and being able to see in debates: this Chamber is quite good, but other rooms are shockingly bad. We need to transform that.
Finally, we can see the sexism in politics in how Hillary Clinton is treated. Let us hope she wins.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mrs Moon, and to follow the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) for securing the debate, and I welcome the report, which is an important addition to an ongoing debate about the representation of women in politics.
Many of us female parliamentarians—including all the women on the SNP Benches in this Chamber today—are new, serving our constituents in Parliament after being elected for the first time in 2015. A number of shocking experiences, some of which were reflected in the report—comments about how we speak, dress and so on—and all of which were entirely unwelcome, made the difficult situation of entering Parliament as a new MP even more difficult to deal with. The report highlights a number of issues. The question for us is: are we prepared to accept that this is the way it is? That is what we were told when we entered Parliament: this is the way of Westminster. Well, we are not prepared to accept that. We have an opportunity to change and we have to seize that opportunity with both hands.
Women have been fighting for a long time. Mention has been made of women who have achieved great things in Parliament, and yes, they have, but let us never forget that every opportunity that has come to women in every walk of life has come not by accident, but after having had to fight for every single opportunity. We have to continue that fight, and the fight is clearly continuing today in this debate.
Why is it important that Parliament should reflect society? Because we are making decisions about all the people in society every single day of our working lives, whether the members of society are men, women, LGBTI—lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex—black, Asian, from a minority ethnic community, or disabled. That is important, and no one knows better about how to make decisions than those people themselves. That is why we have to work hard to increase their representation.
We do so in the knowledge of what we are encouraging people to come into, which is not good enough. We know that we need to make a difference. With the help of colleagues on the SNP Benches, in the Scottish Parliament and in the wider SNP, I am pleased with what we have done to encourage women to come into politics. We have a women’s academy in the SNP; we have worked to give training or opportunities to practise debating skills, or have just encouraged women to come forward. For almost every woman who has come forward in any political party, someone has asked her whether she has ever considered standing for election. It is never something we put ourselves forward for; it is always something that is suggested to us.
As we hold debates in this Chamber or the main House of Commons Chamber, we should remember that people are looking in at us—at how we conduct ourselves, how our colleagues of the opposite sex reflect what Parliament is like, and how they demonstrate respect for us or otherwise, as is sometimes the case. That should always be at the forefront of what we do.
In the short time I have remaining, I will address the issue of quotas, which raises its head so often. If we had a level playing field, we would have a Parliament that represented society. It is a matter of fact that we do not have a level playing field—or is anyone here today brave enough to stand up to intervene on me and say that women are not as good as men in any of the jobs we do throughout Parliament? That is of course not the case—
I appreciate what my hon. Friend is saying—I am not intervening to make that point. The SNP introduced our national quota system at the spring 2013 conference. At the start of that conference, I was completely against a quota system, not unlike the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), but a debate on the day changed my mind. I am now a big advocate of quotas.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention—[Interruption.] Other comments have been made from a sedentary position, but I am happy to accept interventions on that point or any other. It is worthy of note, however, that many men in this Parliament and beyond very much support the work being done on equal representation. That is something that should be commended, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his work.
I mentioned the elections and our representation in Parliament. The SNP has gone from having one female Member of Parliament to having 20. At the 2016 Scottish parliamentary elections we increased women’s representation in the SNP group at Holyrood from the 25% of 2011 to 43% by adopting positive mechanisms to ensure that women are properly reflected in Parliament, which is the right thing to do.
It is also worthy of note that it is a matter of political will. In any political party, candidates go through a vetting process, and men and women all go through the same process, and at the end of the day it is up to the political party to decide whether it wants representation to be equal, because people have already passed the test—the bar of being effective and capable. I accept no argument that selection is on merit, because if it were we would see more women in Parliament than we have today. Indeed—I am sure many will agree—we women also set ourselves a very high bar to begin with, before we even enter any race or competition, so quality is guaranteed and is never an issue.
We have a lot of work to do, and the fight continues. We all know that nothing will come to us because people gift it to us. Before us, however, is a set of recommendations and, to replicate some of the positive change discussed and certainly seen in my political party—we have also heard from the Labour party over a number of years—we must commit ourselves to implementing them, and now.
Before we move to the Front-Benchers, given the time constraints I suggest that the Scottish National party has five minutes, the Labour party seven minutes and the Minister 10 minutes. With some generosity on everyone’s part, I hope that that leaves us with a minute or two for the formal wind-up from Kirsty Blackman.
With you in the Chair today, Mrs Moon, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairship. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) stated, the report, which we are grateful to Professor Sarah Childs for and to Mr Speaker for commissioning, outlines some clearly much-needed change in this place.
I stress at this point that my hon. Friends the Members for Aberdeen North and for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and I were each elected as councillors—young, female councillors, and some of the youngest female councillors in Scotland. There is no shortage of talent in our local authorities, and the job does not end here in this Parliament, because we must continue it in local authorities too.
I was probably the most unlikely candidate ever to find myself in this esteemed institution. I had no desire to be here for a great many years, and in fact it will come as no surprise to Members that I actively campaigned against this institution. None the less, we are here and we are part of the UK for now, so it is worth stating that as a young LGBT woman who was a young carer, getting into an institution such as a university even to get into the door of this place was one of the biggest challenges that I faced. I faced those challenges, so I know that young men and women up and down this country face the same challenges every day. For so many people even to get into this place is inconceivable and unimaginable.
I stress that I am proud to be a member of the Select Committee, the first ever Women and Equalities Committee. It is long overdue for this Parliament to have a discussion about equalities—not only for women, but for every single protected characteristic under the Equalities Act 2010.
I want to take this opportunity to summarise the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North, because there is no better way to make them. Sadly, this place is still full of middle-class white men, 10% of whom are Etonites. That is apparently a good place to go to school. However, there are many children up and down this country who did not have the benefit of such privilege and such an esteemed education and will never enter this place. This is their Parliament, and they deserve to have their voices heard.
It is worth also saying that this place’s job is to be representative. It is hard to believe that when we witness middle-aged white men waste time by filibustering their way through debates in the Chamber. I distinctly remember that happening during a debate on marriage. That sends a message to young people at home that this place is out of touch and has no grip on reality. [Interruption.] The summary of the report sets out standards of behaviour; the Government Members who are chuntering from a sedentary position could learn some decorum. Clearly, whether we deal with standards of behaviour or gather data, we should ensure that new parliamentarians get more than one minute to sum up in a debate after the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) has waxed lyrical in his ever-entertaining way about how much he adores a former Prime Minister. Trust me—we know that.
The report has some practical implications. Gathering data to ensure that this place is representative is a start. We must consider how we measure the success of the work that we do. The proposed procedural requirements and changes would be helpful. Remote voting would make a great difference to those who have just had a child and simply cannot make the journey—and why should they? We should modernise the dress code. It’s 2016. Hello—no one wears top hats anymore. There is no cost to enhancing the crèche facility and allowing people to access this institution. This is their Parliament and they should be able to access it. It is not for the privileged few, and it is not only for Etonites.
I am conscious that I am running out of time, so let me say honourably that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central has been an absolute champion on issues such as breastfeeding, the tampon tax and the rape clause. To me, she is an award-winning MP. My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) is also a role model and champion for gender equality. He is the father of two daughters, and I would welcome the opportunity to have a Daughters of the Vote style initiative here in Westminster; such women rightly deserve to take a seat in our Chamber. I look forward to the Minister’s comments and would love to see the report take legs, because Professor Sarah Childs’s work deserves to be heard and acknowledged.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I thank the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) for securing this debate. During my first appearance at business questions as shadow Leader of the House, I asked the Leader of the House to consider having a debate on this subject, and he said that he would take it away and look at it.
I know Professor Sarah Childs. We went to the first Commonwealth Heads of Government women’s forum meeting in Malta late last year. I do not know how many women Prime Ministers there have been in the Commonwealth, but it is surprising that that was the first such meeting.
The report is excellent. It synthesises some of the main issues we are all talking about. Cleverly, it has three dimensions and 43 recommendations. It is impossible to do it justice in such a short time, so I hope that we will have more time to debate it. We need to separate out the issues. What struck me from reading it was that there is something for society to do—we need to change society—but the political parties and the House also have roles to play. The report provides a snapshot of where we are. I would not be standing here if many grassroots members of my party had not cajoled it to ensure that I got here. It took me 20 years to get here. I came in on an all-women shortlist, and I challenge the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) to say that I am not good enough.
In the longer term, we have to change behaviour in society, from schools to the workplace and civil society, through education and legislation. When I first came here in 2010, there had been a huge change in the number of Members, and we had an induction day. I suggest that at such induction days, needs assessments should be done of all the MPs—male and female—with families, and then, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said, IPSA should be asked to ensure that there is enough childcare provision for those Members.
I agree that women should be allowed to breastfeed anywhere, but I am not sure that I would have liked to do it in the Chamber. Children need routine. As a lawyer, I am not sure that I would ever have done it if I went to court. There is a time and a place for it, although it is for an individual to choose. I agree with the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), but women should be given time and space. I would actually prefer for them to have their maternity leave in that year.
I am whizzing through the report. Recommendation 3 proposes voting at the door of the Division Lobbies. That could cause confusion, because it is important for the Whips to be able to count votes. We have a family room—that is an easy win—and children could go there, but we need to get either the House or IPSA to pay for proper childcare by someone who can look after children, and we need a service for such emergencies.
On recommendation 25, we have a fantastic Secretary of State for Education, but, as usual, the woman has to do two jobs—she is also the Minister for Women. The Equality and Human Rights Commission, whose job it is to try to prevent discrimination in society, faces huge cuts. Will the Minister look at reversing those cuts if possible? The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) is right that we need a level playing field. Women make up 51% of the population, and we therefore need to be represented.
Recommendation 12 goes to parties’ commitments. It is about paternity, maternity, parental, adoption and caring leave, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) rightly said. Given that we are going to have a great repeal Bill, can the Minister say whether all those rights that were won in Europe and that our party played a part in securing will be secured?
Recommendation 29 is about language. I understand that we are in a situation where the Clerks will decide what can and cannot be said in the Chamber. I am not sure whether “Erskine May” would say that one Member trashing another under parliamentary privilege was good tempered or just someone being thrown to the lions.
The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) and I had the pleasure of going to Canada—it was indeed a pleasure. The Canadian Parliament is going through its own restoration and renewal process and a new Chamber is being built. More importantly, we saw the powerful image of the Canadian Prime Minister surrounded by a diverse group of Members of Parliament—a Parliament in which women have key roles. Women and men of ethnic minorities and even First Nations all have important roles in the Canadian Parliament, and the Prime Minister is sending the message that Canada is a welcoming, tolerant and inclusive society.
The report needs to be looked at carefully, not dismissed or put on the shelf. If the Minister looks at page 2, he will see that a lot of different groups will have to respond to the recommendations. Will he comment on whether one main body, perhaps in the Cabinet Office, could track those recommendations, perhaps using a Gantt chart? It is important that we do not lose sight of them, since they are all very good.
Finally, we should consult Members. Things are sometimes done in committees for which Members feel that they do not have responsibility, but when my right hon. Friend the former Member for Lewisham, Deptford looked at changing the hours of the House, we had a consultation. Members were involved and different motions were tabled. The Youth Parliament will sit next week, which will give us an opportunity to show our young people that they, too, can become Members. Once again, I thank Professor Sarah Childs and hope she understands that we appreciate the hard work that has gone into the report.
It is a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Mrs Moon. I very much congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) on securing this important debate. If I may say so, I would like to see more Members like her. She can be proud to be here and we are proud to have her. I thank Professor Sarah Childs for her report. This is a recent report and a significant work. The work she continues to do on the subject of gender and politics is important.
I have listened to the contributions of hon. Members with great interest and I assure them that the Government take this subject seriously. The debate comes at an important time for Parliament as an institution as it considers the recommendations made in “The Good Parliament” report.
In the report, which was published a few months ago in July 2016, Professor Childs outlines a blueprint for a more representative and inclusive House of Commons. It contains 43 recommendations to a variety of stakeholders, including the Government but not just the Government. Also included are the Speaker of the House, the House of Commons Commission and a number of Select Committees in the House among others. The report also recommends the establishment of a Commons reference group on representation and inclusion.
Mention has been made of the Women and Equalities Committee, an important Committee of the House, which is undertaking an inquiry into women in the House of Commons after 2020. It is examining both the impact of the proposed boundary changes and the recommendations made in Professor Childs’ report. The Government have submitted written evidence to the inquiry and very much look forward to reading the Committee’s report.
All sides should acknowledge that progress is being made. This is the most gender-diverse Parliament in British history and we should celebrate our many talented parliamentary colleagues. We have our second female Prime Minister, and women now make up an unprecedented third of the House and a third of our Cabinet. Therefore, the House as an institution has made great strides since 2010. The House of Commons nursery opened on 1 September 2010 to support Members and other passholders with childcare responsibilities. The nursery now provides a post-6 pm service, and of course the children of Members have unrestricted access to the Estate when they are accompanied by a parent.
The House of Commons monitors and reports on the diversity of its staff. The Commons has goals to increase the diversity of its staff and monitors the position carefully and actively. Outreach has greatly improved and grown, including the annual Parliament week, and civil marriages, for example, can now be conducted on the Estate. Improvements have been made and changes have taken place, but there is still a long way to go to reach a representative and inclusive House. That is not just about finding diverse talent. This should be a place where all people want to work. The Government are carefully considering the recommendations contained in Professor Childs’ report and look forward to working with the Commons reference group on representation and inclusion, which is considering the recommendations.
A lot of progress could be made if the main parties worked together to build a more consistent voluntary approach to growing diverse talent. I am glad that only a week or two ago the Women and Equalities Committee took evidence from all the main parties about this important issue. That hearing received media attention, which reflects the good work that the Committee is doing. Indeed, “The Good Parliament” report specifically called on the Leader of the House of Commons to support the permanent establishment of that Select Committee. It is clear that the Committee has a key role in driving forward this agenda, so I am pleased to say that the Government are indeed able to offer that support.
Professor Childs also recommended setting the recess dates for each parliamentary session at least one session in advance. Members and staff of the House, together with their families, want to know that information as far in advance as possible. That is perfectly understandable, so we make every effort, as previous Governments no doubt did, to announce recess dates as soon as is reasonably practicable. However, the setting of recess dates is complex and depends on many varying factors, not least the progress of legislation through this House and the other House. It is difficult to settle a whole session in advance. The consideration of Lords amendments, for example, could never be predicted before a Bill has even begun its passage through both Houses.
I am sorry, but this is nonsense. It is perfectly easy to work out when the recess dates will be next year—I can give the Minister a draft later this evening if he wants. At this stage last year I predicted exactly what the recess dates would be this year, and that was what the Minister ended up announcing. Frankly, I do not know why he cannot get on with doing it for next year now.
Of course, if it were as easy as that, no doubt the Labour Government would have done it between 1997 and 2010. With regards to the recommendation relating to the conference recess, it is important to note that any decision would have to be made some years in advance because things are booked years in advance—large-scale plans are made for conferences by all the parties—and it would require cross-party agreement. As always, such issues are subject to discussions between parties, which should continue to be the case. Only if agreement were reached on that change would it be possible to consider that proposal and the one to abolish sitting Fridays.
On that subject, Members will know that the Procedure Committee has looked in detail at that. Abolishing sitting Fridays, as referred to in Professor Childs’ report, has not formed part of the package of recommendations in the Committee’s latest report on private Members’ Bills. Should the Committee be minded to resume the line of inquiry, the Government would consider the proposals in detail and respond in the appropriate manner.
With regards to political parties providing data relating to parliamentary candidates, also referred to in Professor Childs’ report, there are no plans to introduce legislation at present. Once again, we believe we can make progress if the parties build a more consistent voluntary approach to growing diverse talent. I am glad that the Women and Equalities Committee took evidence from all the parties about that.
One other specific proposal I want to talk about is the aim to increase the voice of disabled people in this place, which is also under consideration. The three-year pilot of the access to elected office fund, which aims to support people with disabilities to stand for election as local councillors or Members of Parliament, is being reviewed. The views of disabled candidates, all political parties and disability charities have been sought as part of this inclusive process. An announcement about the future of the fund will be made in due course.
To conclude, I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate and who continue to contribute to this area of work. We thank Professor Childs for her work and, for that matter, Mr Speaker for his leadership.
I very much appreciate the Front Benchers giving me a little bit of time at the end. I thank everyone who has taken part in the debate. I will not name them all because of time constraints, but I thank them for coming along and, in the main, supporting the recommendations in “The Good Parliament” report, or at least the direction of travel in the report.
I want to mention briefly the Procedure Committee, because a number of its members said they were sad that they could not come today because a Committee meeting clashed with the debate. I am sure they would have been keen to see some of the changes to procedures that have been suggested. I am looking forward to the Commons reference group on representation and inclusion, which I understand is due to meet for the first time this month. That is a great thing, and I am really pleased that it is getting off the ground.
I am keen that all the recommendations in the report are considered. As individuals, we might dislike certain recommendations, but the House as a whole and those people who are tasked with taking them on need to consider all of them seriously, and look at evidence for and against adopting each of them.
More widely than that, all of the under-represented groups need to have more of a voice in this place, whether it is people who support gender equality, on which the report mainly focuses, or people who support disabled candidates such as Jamie Szymkowiak in the SNP. The SNP is the gayest parliamentary group, and changes such as that are being made in positive, more inclusive political parties. I have an internship scheme specifically aimed at people from poorer backgrounds who would struggle to come to parliamentary offices in the main. Any such changes are to be welcomed. We need to work together to make them.
On what the Minister talked about, I do not think we can say, “Look at the wonderful things we have done.” We should have been doing all of that before. We cannot in any way rest on our laurels until we have genuine 50:50 representation and remove those barriers to under-represented groups coming into this place. We cannot rest. We need to keep working until we make this place better.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Good Parliament report.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Housing in Kent
[Sir Alan Meale in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered housing in Kent.
I recognise that more new homes need to be built in the United Kingdom, and I acknowledge that the Government are taking steps to encourage the building of those homes. However, I feel that Kent is being asked to take more than its fair share of the new house building, particularly since we have already seen in recent years unprecedented housing growth that has led to great pressure on our local infrastructure and services.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He will be aware of the housing and infrastructure problems in Dartford that cause terrible congestion at the Dartford crossing. Does he agree that more housing in the area simply adds to the number of people, the number of vehicles and the congestion? It is therefore vital we have the infrastructure to go with those new housing plans.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing such an essential debate. A nonsensical 18,560 new homes are planned for the Maidstone area, notwithstanding the already serious and chronic traffic congestion around the town. Does he agree that local authorities must be much bolder and more robust in using the legitimate constraints provided for in the national planning policy framework to set more sensible and sustainable housing need figures in their draft local plans?
As the MP for the neighbouring constituency, I share those exact concerns, but our local authorities are put in an invidious position by the Government, and I will raise that concern. In order to meet Government targets, local councils in Kent are planning for 155,000 homes to be built by 2031.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for securing this debate and for all the brilliant work he has done on this issue. He talks about pressure on local authorities. One of the biggest pressures is where developers that have been given permission to build do not build, and instead sit on the land waiting for another day when things are good for them. That pushes pressure on to others and the local authority. That is completely wrong. Does he agree that the Government need to ensure there are severe penalties for developers that sit on the land where they have been given permission to build? That is completely wrong and undermines the whole objective of creating more housing in the area.
I am more than happy to agree, and I will raise that issue later in my speech.
I mentioned that Kent is having to plan for 155,000 homes by 2031. However, in the same period, the number of jobs likely to be created in Kent has been estimated to be only 121,000. In essence, Kent local authorities are being expected to plan for 34,000 homes for people who work outside the county. In contrast, Cornwall—which I know is on the other side of the country but is still part of the United Kingdom—is only being expected to plan for 47,500 homes to be built in the county. That is less than one third of the target being imposed on Kent. Continued housing growth in Kent at the current level is simply unsustainable. It will lead to the loss of more and more green fields and inflict immeasurable harm on our beautiful county, which, after all, is the garden of England. Those additional homes will lead to thousands of extra cars on our roads, thousands more children in our schools and thousands more people using our health system, all of which are already stretched to the limit.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. In Medway alone, we are facing an arbitrary demand for an extra 30,000 houses. Does he agree that the high housing targets we are seeing across Kent are undeliverable and will do nothing to benefit or improve the lives of the people who already live in our communities, unless there is acceptance of the burden being placed on Kent, backed up with proper investment in infrastructure and services? He has outlined some of the pressures.
I do agree. I was born and raised in Medway and am a proud man of Kent. I believe we have taken more than our fair share. Unfortunately, the problem is not new for Kent. Our local authorities have consistently had high housing targets imposed on them. The need for such high targets comes from migration, both internal and external. Kent County Council’s figures show that 84% of population growth in Kent is due to migration, with the Government consistently imposing high housing targets to keep up with the movement of people.
More migrants, mean more houses, mean more migrants, mean more housing. It is a vicious circle that has resulted in agricultural land being covered in concrete and many natural habitats being lost. The situation is not helped by a planning system that encourages developers to build on green land despite brownfield sites being available, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) said.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In Thanet, we are supposed to be taking grade one agricultural land—the finest agricultural land in the country, bar none, with wonderful alluvial soil—for houses when we have brownfield sites available. Another threat is at Manston airport, which some people want to smother in houses simply to take overspill from London, which has nothing to do with Kent and nothing to do with Thanet.
I am delighted my hon. Friend has raised that issue. Another example is Isle of Sheppey in my constituency. In Queenborough and Rushenden, the Homes and Community Agency owns a large brownfield site, which has good access to road, rail and local amenities, but has remained undeveloped for years. Two miles away, in Minster on Sea, thousands of homes have been built on green fields as part of the Thistle Hill development. The main roads on Sheppey are now some of the most congested in Kent.
In Sittingbourne, too, there are plenty of brownfield sites on which to build, yet Swale Borough Council is being forced to allocate additional green land in its local plan for housing, although it is not needed at present. When that land is included in the local plan, developers are effectively given the green light to build on it straightaway, instead of developing the brownfield sites that already have planning permission. That is nonsense and affects many small communities, such as the village of Borden, where a planned development of 665 houses will change that rural community out of all recognition.
This is not the first time that has happened in my constituency. The village of Iwade, at the time of the 2001 census, consisted of just over 400 dwellings with a population of 1,142. In just 15 years, Iwade has grown and now consists of 1,690 dwellings with a population of 3,087. It is no longer a village; it is a small town. It is not the only area of rapid growth in the past decade. Eden village, Kemsley, Milton Regis, Minster on Sea and The Meads have also seen major housing developments. My constituents in Sittingbourne and Sheppey have seen their area change beyond recognition in the past 25 years. All those developments have reduced our green open spaces, destroyed good agricultural land and affected the lives of whole communities.
My constituency has made more than enough sacrifices to help to solve the housing crisis, and enough is enough. We do not want the character of our area to change any more. My constituency is not unique in Kent. As my hon. Friends have said, many areas are facing similar pressure for housing development. We are calling on the Government to help us to protect what is left of our green fields, open spaces, traditions and communities.
Does my hon. Friend agree that to facilitate more houses in Kent we need another Thames crossing? It must be built in a way that gives motorists choice to ensure that we have resilience in Kent. The only way to achieve that is to build another lower Thames crossing east of Gravesend, which is option C.
Order. This debate is a short one—only 30 minutes. The mover of the debate has so far been very understanding in giving way and I have been kind in allowing that, but perhaps we could allow him to make his speech and, if there is time left before the Minister speaks, I will be willing to allow other contributions. Perhaps hon. Members could be more understanding.
Thank you, Sir Alan. I am more than happy to take that into account. I will be summing up fairly shortly.
I agree that we need a lower Thames crossing, but we need it for existing residents and communities, not to encourage more housing. The Government should spread responsibility for providing new housing land to other areas of the country. As more people move to Kent, particularly from London, the county is finding it increasingly difficult to cope with a rapidly growing population. Other parts of the country are not taking their fair share of the housing needed to help to overcome a national problem.
Government statistics for house building in the June quarter of 2016 show that there has been an unequal amount of house building between north and south. In the south-east, 3,180 dwellings were started, compared with just 960 in Liverpool city and 1,090 in Greater Manchester. How is that proportionate? We have a national housing crisis, yet certain areas are taking the brunt of the new building.
I understand there are different needs in different areas, but these statistics show the south-east is taking responsibility for five times more new homes than if it were divided up equally between regions. That is unfair and Kent is a real victim of that unfairness. It is time for the Government to act and to reduce the number of homes for which they expect local authorities in Kent to plan. Ministers can do that by making it clear to local authorities that no further green fields have to be allocated for housing until all the current brownfield sites in their area have been developed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I am in a slightly difficult position because some of my colleagues, whose support I value highly, have spoken passionately about their concerns. I entirely understand those concerns and some legitimate points were made, but I must set out some points of difference and I hope they will bear with me while I do so. I will come to their legitimate points, with which I am in complete agreement.
The first thing to say at the outset is that the Government do not set housing targets for local authorities. We have a local plan-led system in this country. The Government require local councils to carry out a robust assessment of housing need in their area and then, subject to whatever land constraints they face, to meet that housing need. That is incredibly important.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) said something my constituents often say to me that it is worth exploring. There is a feeling that more and more homes just lead to more and more people living in the area. Actually, there is pretty compelling evidence that if we do not build the additional homes that an area needs, the people still come, but rather than living in their own homes, they just live in more overcrowded conditions. We have only to look at what is happening now in some parts of our capital city, where people live in sheds at the bottom of gardens and in other completely unacceptable conditions. If people want to live in an area but we do not provide enough housing to allow them to live in decent conditions, they still come.
I will take my hon. Friend the Minister up on one thing. He said that the Government do not set targets for local authorities. My authority, Swale Borough Council, put in a target for housing that was then rejected by the Government and it is now having to increase that target. It is wrong to say that they do not set targets.
Just to be clear on that point, what will have happened is that Swale Council’s plan will have been examined by an independent inspector, appointed by the Planning Inspectorate. The inspector’s job is to test that the assessment of housing need in that area is realistic. If it was rejected, that would be because compelling evidence was presented that the assessment was not realistic.
I have taken the time to look at the data for each of the local authorities—I apologise if I miss anyone out—that hon. Members in the Chamber represent. I will start with my hon. Friend. His council is in the best position. The annual household growth projections, which are not Government figures but independent Office for National Statistics figures, show projected housing growth in Swale of 540 households a year, and Swale Council delivered 540 net additions to the housing stock in 2014-15. In Dartford, the projections show 603 extra households a year. The council is currently delivering 570. In Maidstone, the projections show nearly 900 extra households a year, but the council is currently delivering only 580. In Thanet, the projections show 600 extra households a year, but the council is delivering only 380. In Medway, the projections show nearly 1,350 extra households a year, but the council is delivering 480.
I say to my colleagues that if, as a country, we do not build the number of homes necessary to accommodate our population growth, we will continue to see what we have seen for the last 30 or 40 years, which is housing in this country becoming increasingly unaffordable for people to buy or to rent, with all the consequences that that has for inequality, both geographically and between generations. I will leave colleagues with just one statistic—it is a national rather than a Kent statistic. Of people who are my age, 45, 50% owned their own home when they were 30 years old. For people who are 20 years younger, who are 25 today, the projection is that in five years’ time just one quarter of them will own their own home. That is the consequence of years and years of failing to provide enough housing.
My hon. Friend made two other points that I want to tackle, and then I will come to all the areas where I am in the happy position of being in complete agreement with all my colleagues. One of the issues was migration. He referred to the figures for population growth in Kent as a result of both internal migration from within the UK to Kent and external migration into the UK. It is important to draw a distinction between population growth and household growth, because they are different. Migrants tend to be younger, so there is less of an impact on household growth than population growth. At national level, about half our population growth is due to net migration, whereas only just over one third of household growth is due to net migration. The household projection figures that I cited for each local authority already assume a reduction in net migration from the current levels.
In addition, my hon. Friend is absolutely right that there is a huge imbalance in the level of house building in different parts of the country. That is a reflection of a market economy and of where people wish to live. Some of our colleagues—they are not in the Chamber at the moment because this debate is about Kent—live in areas where houses can be acquired for very low prices because people do not want to live in those areas and do not want to buy those properties. Therefore, if the Government were to adopt a policy of trying to set targets for every area and saying that each part of the country should assume a uniform level of housing, the reality is that we would see very sharp house price inflation in areas where demand was larger than supply. We would also see homes that people do not want to buy on the open market in areas where the demand does not exist.
I hope colleagues accept those points in the spirit in which I have made them, because the job that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has given me is to ensure that as a country we start building the number of homes that we need to build. I now come to the points that my hon. Friends made with which I have complete sympathy and which we will seek to address in the White Paper that we will publish later this year.
My hon. Friend made this point very powerfully, and my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford reinforced it in his intervention. One of the main things that my constituents say to me—in Croydon, we have all the same pressures to which all my colleagues have referred—is that in recent years, the infrastructure has not been put in to support the additional housing. The consequence of that is that people say, “I understand why more housing is needed in this area, but it is making it harder for me to get my children into the local school. It is making it harder for me to get an appointment at my local GP practice. It means that my train, when I go to work in the morning, is more overcrowded.” Hon. Members are therefore absolutely right to press the case for investment in infrastructure that ensures that local communities—not just the people who are lucky enough to get the new houses, but the local communities in which that housing is placed—benefit from the new housing. My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford has been a doughty champion of the need for an additional, third crossing of the Thames, and my brother is a constituent of his, so he can rest assured that I hear about the misery that is inflicted on him whenever there is a problem with the existing crossing.
I pay tribute to the excellent work that my hon. Friend the Minister is doing. I completely agree with him about infrastructure, but linked to that is the issue of developers who sit on land or landbank. What are the Government doing about that? They can do something about it by ensuring that there is a severe penalty. That would ensure that those who get planning permission develop in good time. If they do not do that, they should lose the planning consent and be penalised in order to make the system much fairer.
I had noted my hon. Friend’s very good point even before that intervention—I had noted it from his previous one—and I was just coming to it.
My diagnosis is that we have basically three problems—three reasons that lead to us not building enough homes as a country. The first is that, in some places, we are not releasing enough land. Those tend to be in the parts of the country where demand is at its most acute.
The second reason is that there is a growing gap between the planning permissions that we are granting and the homes that are actually being built. Hon. Members may be interested to know that in the year to the end of June, the planning system in England granted a record number of planning permissions—277,000 homes were consented in those 12 months—but people cannot live in a planning permission. We must do a better job of turning planning permissions into actual starts.
There is a range of reasons why that does not happen. My hon. Friend puts his finger on one problem—developers landbanking and taking too long to build out—but there are others. Often, the utility companies are too slow to put in infrastructure. Councils sometimes rely too much on pre-commencement planning conditions that delay schemes starting. There is a range of factors. If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I cannot set out today what will be in the White Paper, but I can give him a categorical assurance that the White Paper will include measures to try to deal with the problem that he talks about.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) spoke powerfully on the third issue that I want to address. I had the privilege last week of visiting his constituency and seeing some of the area for myself. He spoke about the importance that people attach to green fields. My constituency has a significant amount of green belt land, so I know perfectly well the importance that my constituents attach to that, but in other parts of the country, where there is no green belt, people feel equally passionate about green spaces. Therefore it is absolutely the priority of this Government to try to ensure that development is concentrated on brownfield land. We have already made a number of interventions to try to make that more likely. I do not have time to go through them all, but will reference a few.
Perhaps my hon. Friend and I can talk in more detail separately, but one thing that I would point out to him and his council is brownfield registers, which were legislated for in the Housing and Planning Act 2016. A number of local authorities are already trialling them, but the idea is that local authorities draw up a register of brownfield land. They could possibly link that with the planning permission in principle reform in the Act, so that developers can see where there are sites that are suitable for housing development and have permission in principle. In that way, they will have clear planning certainty that those sites can be progressed. The Government have a clear manifesto target to get 90% of brownfield sites developed by the end of this Parliament. I reassure him that the Secretary of State and I are passionately committed to trying to ensure that, to the maximum extent possible, we focus development on brownfield sites.
One problem with some of those sites is contamination from previous uses, so we have tried to put in place funding programmes that can help with remediation. A good example is the new starter home land fund. My hon. Friend referred to a site in his constituency that has been sitting vacant, and he is frustrated that it has not been brought into use while developers pick on greenfield sites elsewhere. I say to him strongly to look at whether that fund could help to bring that land back into use.
I also refer my hon. Friend to our neighbourhood planning system. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) is, coincidentally, now in the Chamber. He played a pre-eminent role in pressing forward that policy. It presents a huge opportunity to local communities to control where the development goes within their communities. One of the problems we have right across the country is that too many councils do not have up-to-date plans in place. The result is that the presumption in favour of development applies and we get speculative applications where, essentially, developers are picking the sites they want to see developed rather than local communities saying, “If we need 800 homes in this area, we will decide where the right sites are for them to go.” The combination of ensuring that local councils have local plans in place, and ensuring that individual communities below that have neighbourhood plans that set out in more detail exactly where the right sites for housing are within that neighbourhood, gives people control over the planning system.
One thing I want to achieve is minimising the number of cases that end up on my desk because a council has turned down a speculative application. A colleague or another Member of the House will be furious and will ask the Secretary of State to call the application in. Not only is that incredibly divisive, but it wastes a huge amount of time and money. What we want in England is a plan-led planning system in which communities decide where the appropriate places are to build the housing that we need.
I will make only two final points—I am conscious of the time. Density is one of the other things that we want to look at in the White Paper, which might reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey. It is particularly relevant in London. How can London accommodate more of its own growth? If we want to protect our precious greenbelt, we need to look at whether we could have more intense development on the sites that we have already developed. In my constituency, when faced with the choice between building on our precious greenbelt and metropolitan open land or having a number of very tall buildings in the centre of Croydon, people much preferred the latter. There is huge potential in major centres and around public transport hubs to have denser development. That does not have to mean unattractive tower blocks. Actually, the most densely developed borough in London is the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where there is some incredible architecture. We can get high-quality, dense development that provides more homes on a given plot of land.
I hope my hon. Friends are reassured by my response. It is my job to make the moral case for building the homes that our country needs, so that we have a country that works for everyone and so that young people who work hard and do the right thing have the opportunity to get on the housing ladder. I am also very cognisant of the concerns that have been expressed in the debate by hon. Members who are passionate about protecting the character of their local areas. I firmly believe that, with the right policies, it is possible to strike the right balance between those two very important objectives.
First, the notion that the Planning Inspectorate is not accountable to Government is quite bizarre, because the Secretary of State can call in any plans that he wants. To say that it is independent is disingenuous. The projected targets that are being placed by the inspectorate on local authorities are taking into account the notional migration into the areas that need those houses. The houses that are being built are not actually solving the problem of homelessness in our boroughs. We still have homelessness. We still have people that need homes and are not getting them because, as the estates are being built up, they are sucking in more people. I will leave the Minister with that thought.
Question put and agreed to.
Social Media and Young People's Mental Health
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of social media on the mental health of young people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I called this debate because I have become increasingly concerned about the mental health problems afflicting our young people and about the role of social media in adding to the strain that they are under. I should perhaps declare an interest: as the father of two young children, I look with an increased sense of foreboding to the day when they acquire their first smartphone.
From the reaction I have received to this debate within Parliament and beyond, I sense that there are many parents and carers up and down the country who are concerned about this issue. The problem is that parents today can feel particularly helpless. Unlike in the past, when parents could draw from their own experience to help navigate their children through the minefield of adolescence, the extraordinary pace of change means that many parents simply cannot do that now. They are not digital natives, so it is hard for them to prepare their children for the digital deluge to come.
Let me start with the background. It is not an exaggeration to say that it sometimes feels as though this generation of young people is one of the most unhappy since the second world war. No MP can fail to be aware of the pressures on young people’s mental health. As the MP for Cheltenham, I see it in the brave young people from local schools who come to my surgery to talk about in-patient care and waiting times for talking therapies. I see it in the growing workload for staff at the excellent Brownhills eating disorder clinic at St Paul’s Medical Centre. I see it in the statistics provided by Teens in Crisis, which provides counselling services across Gloucestershire for young people: in 2013, it was receiving 20 to 30 self-referrals per calendar month; in 2016, the figure was around 70.
This debate is not principally about how we, as a society, pick up the pieces. It is not about NHS resources, or about what more we need to do to bring parity of esteem. Both of those issues are very important and were extensively debated last week in an excellent debate arising out of the publication of the Youth Select Committee report on young people’s mental health. Instead, this debate is about what we can do to address problems upstream, before they have caused damage. My view is clear: we need to be as focused on preventing these problems as we are on curing them, and that means focusing on causes.
Today, my focus is on what an increasing number of studies suggest is playing a very significant part in this precipitate decline in young people’s mental health: social media. Social media are, of course, utterly pervasive among young people. They are totally immersed in a virtual world. That world can be very positive but it can also be harmful, to both the way they perceive the world around them and the way they perceive themselves. Increasingly, young people seem to be finding it hard to distinguish between the real and virtual worlds.
Let me make it clear that this is an emerging topic in academic research. Association and correlation are not the same as causal link, but it is becoming tolerably plain that social media can have a damaging impact. Turning to some of the studies, the Office for National Statistics’ 2015 publication, “Measuring National Well-being: Insights into children's mental health and well-being”, found that there is a “clear association” between longer time spent on social media and mental health problems. While 12% of children who spend no time on social networking websites have symptoms of mental ill health, the figure rises to 27% for those who are glued to the sites for three or more hours a day. That is particularly worrying for girls, because research shows that girls are far more likely to spend excessive amounts of time on social sites than boys. One in 10 girls was found to be in the top category for time spent on the websites, compared to just one in 20 boys.
How can social media have this negative impact? Embryonic research suggests that there are three principal routes: first, online bullying; secondly, the phenomenon of what I call “compare and despair”; and thirdly, sleep deprivation.
Taking bullying first, a study in 2014 by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children found that bullying or trolling was by far the single largest category of upsetting experience encountered online. MentalHelp.net found that 95% of teenagers who use social media have witnessed cyber-bullying and 33% have been victims themselves. Bullying is as old as the hills—there is nothing particularly new about it, unpleasant as it may be—but the power of social media to amplify its impact is so transformational and can be so damaging. Social media provide new and inventive ways to be cruel, such as body shaming and hurtful posts, excluding children from online games, setting up hate sites, creating fake accounts and hijacking online identities, and they have the power to scale up that bullying by using the technology to spread its impact widely through a school community or even beyond.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this incredibly useful and important debate. Does he agree that in the past children who were bullied at school would be able to escape that by going home, but now with social media, bullying is constant and they can be exposed to it every hour of their lives?
I am sure the hon. Gentleman must have had a copy of my speech; the next paragraph says precisely that.
Whereas in the past, children could physically escape their tormentors, nowadays social media make that impossible. The way I put it is that platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram bring bullies into the bedroom, so children’s homes are no longer the sanctuaries that they once were.
Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the problem is the anonymity that some of these platforms provide? As our colleague, the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Stuart Blair Donaldson), just pointed out, children cannot escape from this kind of bullying, but nor can they necessarily identify the perpetrator. Does my hon. Friend believe, as I do, that the platforms need to do a lot more by way of regulation to try to minimise that?
I absolutely agree and will be developing those points in due course, because it seems to me that social media providers have to do more. It is no good simply to give us these vague blandishments, saying, “Oh well, you can click to get some advice.” They have to become far more robust about it. The anonymity also creates an element of menace about the whole thing and simply adds to the level of bullying.
The second route is the phenomenon of “compare and despair”. What do I mean by that? I am referring to the fact that young people observe imagery online that can inspire profound feelings of inadequacy. In many cases, they are not yet mature enough to realise that everyone has apparently become their own PR agent: people are increasingly projecting an online image of their lives that is beautiful and perfect in every way, and even though that may be misleading in reality, it may not feel that way to a 12, 13 or 14-year-old.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on delivering a very eloquent speech. He is coming to a point I want to raise about teenagers in particular who have eating disorders. I have found that to be quite a prevalent problem, often involving people who feel under pressure. That pressure can come from social media because people are looking at the success of others and feel they have to aspire to it. As my hon. Friend said, they look at other people who seem to have a perfect body and so on, and that seems to be a growing problem in teenage mental health.
That is absolutely right. At the end of my hon. Friend’s intervention, he hit on a particularly important point in mentioning the growing problem. Let us be clear: negative body image has long been with us. When I was growing up, the finger was pointed at hard-copy magazine publishers and the size zero models that were in those magazines, but once again social media have the power to magnify the impact.
Interestingly, a study compared the impact on women of Facebook images against those on a fashion website. It found that the former led to a greater desire among them to change aspects of their appearance. One can speculate about the reasons for that: is it because people think, “Well, I recognise that in a fashion magazine things may be airbrushed and stylised, but I do not expect that on a Facebook post,” so it is somehow more damaging? I offer that as a possibility but there may be plenty of others.
As well as body image concerns, there are issues about popularity and feeling inadequate. Anecdotally, it is clear that teenagers make a habit of comparing their own posts’ popularity with those of other people. We increasingly get the sense that young people fear that their existence compares unfavourably with others. Much—probably too much—gets read into the absence of “likes” or “views”.
Finally, there is the effect that social media have on sleep patterns. That might sound rather prosaic, but it is important. A study presented by the British Psychological Society in September last year in Manchester found that the need to be constantly available and responding 24/7 on social media accounts is linked to poor sleep quality. Research from the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference that was tweeted to me this morning suggests that almost half—45%—of students admit that they check their mobile device after going to bed, and that a staggering 23% check it more than 10 times a night. The concern is not just that they turn up to school exhausted but that sleep deprivation is well known to be a trigger for depression.
I know that the Government are very mindful of that issue and that a lot of excellent work is being done to support parents and schools to help children to use social media safely. The Department for Education funded MindEd to set up a new site, MindEd for Families, which was launched earlier this year and which I have looked at. It provides free online advice on a range of mental health issues affecting children and young people; it includes, of course, a section on social media. This morning I read the Department’s advice sheet entitled “Advice for parents and carers on cyberbullying”. It is really helpful and very good. I also pay tribute to the fact that the Government are continuing to provide funding to the YoungMinds parents helpline, which is a national service providing free and confidential online and telephone support, information and advice.
That is all hugely welcome—there is great deal more as well, and I look forward to hearing about that from the Minister—but the fact remains that young people’s mental health does not appear to be moving in the right direction. Against that context, I will make two points. First, if we are going to maximise the effectiveness of our response, I believe we need a more thorough and scientific investigation of the causes, because although strong emerging evidence shows a correlation between social media use and declining mental health, the time has come to bottom it out with something more robust.
Back in February 2014, the House of Commons Health Committee launched an inquiry into child and adolescent mental health services. A subject it took evidence on was the impact of bullying and of digital culture. It recommended that
“in our view sufficient concern has been raised to warrant a more detailed consideration of the impact of the internet on children’s and young people’s mental health…and we recommend that the Department of Health/NHS England taskforce should take this forward”.
That was eminently sensible and I invite the Government to do so, if they have not already. Again, it may be that we will get more information, but I was a bit concerned that that view may not be finding favour, because in answer to a question from Lord Blencathra, the Government said:
“The Department does not itself conduct research, but funds research through the National Institute for Health Research…and the Department’s Policy Research Programme”,
which they said
“have not funded specific research into the possible mental and psychological impact on children of using Twitter and Facebook and have no plans to commission research on this topic.”
Of course, I entirely recognise that public funding is tight and we cannot fund every single project, but it seems to me that the sheer weight of the evidence is now sufficiently strong that it calls for that robust study to take place.
My next point echoes one that was made earlier: social media platforms need to face up to their responsibilities. We rightly hold headteachers accountable for bullying and abuse that takes place on their premises. Social media platforms also need to take their fair share of responsibility for what takes place on their own digital premises. Creating safety guides is not enough. Suspending people from Facebook or even expelling them is perfectly sensible in theory, but does it happen in practice?
As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), in an excellent debate last week, said about social media companies:
“They are huge companies employing many thousands of people, yet the numbers in their scrutiny and enforcement departments are woefully low.”—[Official Report, 27 October 2016; Vol. 616, c. 481.]
I am not here to beat up the social media companies. I think they do some important work and what happens is a fact of life, but I think they need to step up and face up to their responsibilities, because they have to recognise that they can be a force for good but that they can also be a force for something far less welcome.
In conclusion, social media are the phenomenon of our times. They have the ability to take all the ordinary experiences of growing up—the triumphs and disasters—and magnify them beyond anything we could ever have imagined a generation ago. They can create heroes in seconds, but they can crush people too. Their capacity to intensify bullying, enhance body anxiety and exaggerate exclusion is becoming increasingly clear. If we want a society that truly tackles those problems upstream, builds resilience in our young people and prevents as well as cures, the time has come to ramp up our response.
This is only a 60-minute debate and seven Members of Parliament have written in to take part, if they can. As is laid down by the Chairman of Ways and Means, I have to provide the Front Benchers a total of 20 minutes of speaking time, which only leaves a short period for all the hon. Members who have indicated that they want to speak. Therefore, I will impose a time limit of four minutes per Member. If hon. Members go over that limit, I may drop the limit further.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) on securing this important debate.
Perfection: the state or quality of being perfect; a state completely free of faults or defects. Perfection is popular. People are attracted it. People are attracted to you. In 2016 perfection is everything, or rather, to young people it is. Among young people, there is a pressure to be perfect, to act in a perfect way, to look perfect, to have a perfect body, to get a perfect number of Instagram likes, and to be in a perfect friendship group. If young people do not meet those high standards, the self-loathing begins and the feeling of worthlessness sets in, sometimes with fatal consequences.
While preparing for this debate, I have spoken to lots of young people. One explained how he felt about social media, saying:
“Young people are made to feel like they live an unfulfilled life, because theirs doesn’t live up to the seemingly perfect lives they see on social media”.
And that is just the way it is. With technology and social media sites making it so easy to edit and amend—or rather, correct—photographs, it is easier than ever before to manipulate the truth, allowing us to present ourselves in our own filtered sense of reality, showing only what we want to show. That can result in people critically comparing their lives with the lives of others, and using others’ posts as a measure of success or failure in their own life. That cannot be right. We must teach young people to aspire not to unattainable perfection, but to personal satisfaction, and to love themselves for who they are.
For young people today, the pressure to succeed is all around them, so much so that the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children reports a 200% increase in recent years in the number of young people seeking counselling over exam stress alone. For others, the coping method is more worrying: the Mental Health Foundation estimates that between one in 12 and one in 15 people self-harm, with some research suggesting that the UK has the highest rate of self-harm in Europe. We may be shocked by those figures, but many young people who self-harm do not harm themselves in a way that requires medical attention, so those numbers only show part of the picture. Social media do not always help with that. One person told me about a problem relating to the website Tumblr, saying:
“Young people are able to type any mental illness into the search bar and there are ineffective controls to dissuade people from seeing...harmful content. When I self-harmed, I would find Tumblr was my place to go to see material by other users that would encourage me to hurt myself.”
That illustrates that social media can not only cause mental illness in young people, but perpetuate the problem.
Social media are vital tools for young people today and we must not seek to interfere with the good they do. Another young person I spoke to explained that they suffer from chronic depression and acknowledged that occasionally social media worsen their mental health, but when they are feeling low and cannot leave the house, social media mean that they are not alone; contacting friends is instantaneous, wherever they are. It is important not to forget the benefits of social media, which can do a lot of good.
There are many lessons for us to take from the debate. Young people must know that they are valued for who they are, no matter what their Facebook timeline, Twitter feed, Snapchat story or Instagram followers say. Young people are perfect for being who they are.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Alan. I thank the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) for bringing the debate forward, and I will try to be brief.
I want to take part in the debate to tell the story of one of my constituents, Declan Duncan, an incredibly brave young man from Castlemilk in my constituency. His life was made a complete misery by the use of social media, and he wrote to me to tell me about some of the experiences he has been through. I have met him on a number of occasions and was moved to tears when he told his story in public at Castlemilk Youth Complex, which gave him enormous support. I pay tribute to the people there, particularly to the youth worker, Christopher Lang, who really helped Declan.
Declan was bullied throughout primary school and high school, starting off from the fact that, since birth, he has had a tracheostomy because of a collapsed windpipe. When he was in high school, he came out as gay at a very young age—something that I certainly would not have had the bravery to do when I was in high school. The bullies used social media, in addition to face-to-face bullying, which we would understand to be traditional bullying.
People made up fake profiles in Declan’s name using his photographs and said that he was doing all sorts of vulgar things that were completely false and untrue. They also set up petitions and shared them on Facebook, Twitter and all the rest of it, encouraging people to—to quote from one post—“run him out” of Castlemilk. There was even a concerted effort to get people to turn up to school one day with things such as tomatoes and eggs, and to run him out of school. All of that was organised on Facebook. Declan sent me some screengrabs of some of the stuff from the time, and people even complained that their posts had been deleted. His life was made a complete misery.
The Castlemilk Youth Complex told me about a phenomenon that is happening at the minute: there seems to be a website that is being used by people to create what is made to look like a genuine news article. People can type in anyone’s name, use any photograph they wish and claim that they have done anything, and it is then spread all around Facebook and Twitter. The youth complex has cases of particularly vulnerable individuals being targeted by these rancid people in the most vulgar fashion.
That is a fine point, on which I will aim to end. Social media platforms need to do more but, in addition, teachers need to be better empowered. Although I respect that that specific matter is for our Government in Scotland, I think that the social media platforms need to engage better with educators to combat bullying in their schools.
Declan has since left high school. He is now studying social care at college and doing very well. The last time I met him, he was a happy young man at the gay pride event in Glasgow. Castlemilk Youth Complex will go on to support other young people who are being targeted in such a way. I hope that all of us here, other Members of Parliament, local councillors and teachers will work better with and get on to the social media companies, as the hon. Member for Cheltenham suggested, to ensure that all those other people like young Declan out there in our constituencies get better support, which they so badly need.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) on securing it and on setting the scene so well, and I congratulate the other Members who have spoken or who will speak.
This is a pertinent issue. Social media can be a wonderful tool for arranging get-togethers to catch up with old friends and for enjoying updates on the lives of people who live far away. I have seen social media wonderfully used to promote family events, to ask people to pray for a specific need or to provide help through churches and church groups. Social media can do good things.
I saw the part that social media played in spreading information on the dangers of legal highs. I met a young man who organised a peaceful protest outside somewhere that sold legal highs, as they were then known. The protest was well organised, respectful and well attended due to the proper use of social media, and it highlighted the dangers to those using such drugs. Social media brought good from a terrible situation, so they can do good.
I have enjoyed photographs, witty remarks and jokes that have been shared by others, and I can see the benefits of social media when they are used appropriately. However, as the hon. Gentleman said, this debate is sadly not about the good that social media can bring; it is about the bad that social media do to some people’s lives when they are misused. They can become a mistake that will always be there for all to see. They can be a weapon for people to be bullied or mocked in perpetuity. They can be a tool for people to be socially excluded, and they can be the harshest judge and critic that a person will ever have.
How can we protect our children from that? The obvious answer is that we should not allow our children to use social media, which is unrealistic. There is an age limit on most social media sites, but that is not enough. We must step in. We have all seen figures showing that children who spend more than three hours each school day on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter are more than twice as likely to suffer poor mental health. Whereas 12% of children who spend no time on social networking websites have symptoms of mental ill health, the figure rises to 27% for those who spend three hours or more a day on such websites, so there are health issues. That is not the Minister’s direct responsibility—I am pleased to see her in her place—but we need answers.
How can parents protect their children and how can the Government help that protection? The limitations in place are not working. Enough is Enough, an organisation for internet safety, conducted a survey that found that 95% of teenagers who use social media have witnessed cyber-bullying and 33% have been victims themselves. Too many children are seeing and being part of something that we seek to protect them from.
A study exploring the relationship between teenagers, social media and drug use found that 70% of teenagers aged 12 to 17 use social media and that those who interact with social media on a daily basis are five times more likely to use tobacco, three times more likely to use alcohol and twice as likely to use marijuana. The figures clearly show that there are health and addiction problems related to too much use of social media. In addition, 40% admitted that they had been exposed to pictures of people under the influence via social media, which suggests a correlation between the two factors.
Although all that might not be substantive enough for a court of law, it is jarring enough that the House must consider how we can better regulate things to protect young people. Can we legislate for protection? Can we allocate funding to train schools in dealing with problems caused by social media? Can we ensure that no one can set up profiles until they get older? All those things need to be worked through with healthcare professionals and those who know about social media. The Government, and the Minister in her response, must decide to take action to protect our children. As the hon. Member for Cheltenham said, we are all here to protect children. Action must be taken now.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) for securing this debate, which is a reflection of how fundamentally our society has changed. Technology is a huge part of that. Young people today are growing up in a world that is markedly different from any experience we had of growing up, with the possible exception of my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Stuart Blair Donaldson).
As we have heard today, social media are a double-edged sword. Social media can be an important social outlet and an extraordinary source of information and education, and they enable people to connect with each other over vast distances. The benefits that social media offer to both young and old are plainly obvious but they can also be a dangerous, insidious tool. Social media are a stick with which too many of our young people can be beaten. They can be a yoke of oppression around their necks as they are pressured to conform, to be governed and even to be alienated by the false reality that is too often projected to and targeted at our young people.
It is alarming that research has associated online social networking with severe psychiatric disorders, including depressive symptoms, anxiety and low self-esteem, as well as poor sleeping patterns—sleeping patterns are so important to physical and mental wellbeing. The conclusion has been reached that young people’s immersion in social media should be considered a serious public health concern.
We all know that people fill their Facebook pages with pictures of their apparently perfect lives, which pressures others to portray and edit their lives in the same way for Facebook. It is thought that that is why young women are now three times more likely than young men to exhibit common mental health symptoms. That statistic has risen alongside the growth of social media, so we need to pay attention to it.
Barnardo’s has carried out important work on the effects of social media on the mental health and wellbeing of young people. It has concluded that access to online pornography and other harmful online content can distort not only young people’s body image but their view of healthy relationships. It can even lead to harmful sexual behaviour, often due to distorted ideas of consent and what a healthy relationship actually looks like.
Of course, as we have heard, social media can also be an insidious tool for those who use them as a vehicle for bullying. Social media can be extremely intimidating for victims, who can find them very difficult to escape because of their sheer prevalence in young people’s lives.
I am delighted that the Scottish Government’s “Respect Me” campaign recognises the importance of this issue and the essentialness of addressing it and taking it extremely seriously. Young people inhabit a different world from us as they develop, grow and find themselves, which makes them vulnerable and poses all sorts of challenges. It is our job to do all we can to protect them, and I am interested to hear how the Minister will proceed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. The development of social media and the role they play in each of our lives is significant, yet there is limited focus on their impact, so I sincerely thank the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) for securing this debate. Social media are neither inherently good nor inherently bad, but there is no doubt that they can have a negative impact on the mental health of young people. I take this opportunity to draw attention to a few adverse effects of social media and how they can affect the mental health of children, teenagers and young people.
One of the most notable consequences of social media use is that it can create an unhealthy need for constant approval. When a young person uploads a new photo of themselves, the number of likes can act as a barometer of their perceived popularity that they can instantly compare with their peers. In the past, being at the receiving end of a compliment or even a smile may have been enough for a teenager to feel good, but now they will often need dozens of likes on their profile picture or dozens of retweets to feel the same sense of acceptance. It can be incredibly important for a young person to feel as if they fit in, but with social media creating such an obvious scale of approval it can be painfully difficult for a teenager to think they are popular.
Aside from that, social media can be damaging because they can create unrealistic expectations. Young people naturally compare their appearance with that of their peers, but when the photos they see of their friends have had filters and effects applied, they are comparing themselves to unrealistic standards. When people use social media to post about their lives and how they spend their weekends and holidays, teenagers will compare their lives, too. Inevitably some will see themselves as having less interesting or less exciting lives than their peers, which can be damaging to their self-esteem. Of course it is not only friends and family with whom young people compare themselves. Social media give opportunities to follow celebrities, which gives way to even more distant and unrealistic standards to which to aspire.
We should be cautious not to overplay the dangers of social media. It is important to recognise that all technological developments of this scale can have positives. History should serve as a reminder that we often get ahead of ourselves when a new technology plays a role in our lives. Social media are having an adverse effect on the mental health of young people, but they are not inherently bad. Indeed, in moderation, social media can help young people to have a more positive adolescence. If platforms such as Facebook are used to organise face-to-face interactions, rather than replace them, young people can create relationships with far more ease than previous generations.
Social media can also be a great alternative education tool and a way for young people to express themselves, but we should be cautious of them and recognise the negative effect they often have on the mental health of young people. It is vital that social media companies do more not only to manage the content of their pages and sites but to take responsibility for their impact on young people and their mental health.
It is great to see attention and parliamentary time given to debate mental health issues again, and I am particularly pleased that we are debating the roots they can have in social media. I hope we can all learn from this discussion and that concerns raised today will be taken on board by the Minister and eventually translated into Government policy.
Order. Before I call Stuart Blair Donaldson, let me just tell you why you are being called last: because you intervened earlier and took some time. Do not think that your being new to the House goes against you in any way. You now have your four minutes.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Alan. As has been mentioned today, I speak as the youngest male MP and as someone who has grown up with social media—a digital native. I also speak as a vice-chair of the all-party group on body image and as someone with my own hashtag on Instagram—#instaMP, if anyone is interested.
I thank everyone who got in touch with me to share their stories and experiences of mental health and social media, particularly Vicky Kerr, who shared her dissertation on the subject. Social media can be a great tool in many ways, but platforms such as Instagram often portray a rose-tinted picture of a person’s life and can promote the idea of self-worth based on how many “likes” a picture gets.
The fact that young people can readily access at any time of the day pictures of famous people sharing their seemingly perfect lives can make them question their own self-worth. Additionally, the predominance of photos of those beautiful people present young people, mainly young girls, with a skewed vision of how they should look. The people they look at often look that way because of their job—they can dedicate time to it and will often have nutritionists, personal trainers and I dare say the odd bit of Photoshop. Most young people do not have access to such facilities, and famous people often do not acknowledge that they use them.
Constant exposure to those images and basing a positive self-image on likes can lead to significant deterioration in a young person’s mental health. In extreme cases, that can lead to the development of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia. That might be an over-simplification of a complex and serious illness, but the idealised body images so often portrayed in both conventional and social media have an effect on people at risk of suffering from it.
Unfortunately, social media often hinder rather than help people who suffer from significant mental health issues. Young people can often get caught up in eating disorder promotion on social media. Hashtags such as #thinspiration and #skipdinnerwakeupthinner allow people to connect and share tips on how to lose weight, purge and starve themselves. That makes the problems more severe and can have severe and tragic consequences. I have witnessed the devastating effects that losing a daughter to an eating disorder can have on a family, which is why I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate and raise awareness—I wish I had more time to speak.
As a society, we could do a lot more to promote healthy body image and to talk about and be more open about our mental health, whatever age we are. I will leave Members with a quotation:
“The quickest way to get a bikini body is to put a bikini on”.
Thank you once again, Sir Alan, for your excellent chairmanship today. I thank the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) for bringing this crucial debate to Westminster Hall and for providing such a comprehensive review of the field. He highlighted the extraordinary pressures on the mental health of our young people today and the importance of prevention, research and specific interventions.
I begin by declaring an interest: I have worked in mental health as a psychologist and continue to maintain my skills and engagement in line with my professional registration requirements. In the short time I have today, I will cover the positives and negatives of social media, sum up the thoughtful contributions from Members and make recommendations to the Minister.
We have heard that there are many aspects to the new world of social media. Indeed, as a candidate I had never before tweeted but was told that it was crucial to the campaign and that I needed to develop a social media profile. Social media are coming to everyone of all ages, including me. I have noticed that they make people question themselves: “Is this relevant? Am I witty?”—not usually, in my case—“How do I phrase this? Will I make a mistake and be criticised?” They can help us to link with many people but are also a pressure. I was interested to learn about Instagram today from my youthful hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Stuart Blair Donaldson)—something else that I hope I never have to learn to use.
We know from psychological research that, for introverted teenagers, linking with peers can be easier through social media than in person. Social media can have an affirmative effect, as we heard from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and can help to build self-esteem and friendship networks. However, some problems emanate when young people’s social lives begin to completely link with social media and online activity, rather than with active involvement with others for some part of the day and building friendship networks of people with whom they can spend quality time and engage. One key question about social media must be how much is too much and how much is healthy.
In a 2012 survey, 53% of social media users in the UK said that social media had changed their behaviour. Of those, 51% said that the change was negative because of a decline in confidence. Young people are particularly vulnerable to peer pressure and negative comparison. They may feel inadequate because they do not seem to have as many friends as their peers, as we heard from the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), or because they feel that they are not physically perfect. Research indicates that this trend may affect girls more than boys, but none the less it can affect all our children and young people.
Millennials apparently take around 25,700 selfies in their lifetime. A recent NHS report has shown a large increase in the number of young women suffering from mental health problems as a result of selfie culture—we heard that point put forcefully by the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson). We also heard about dangerous websites that can encourage young people to self-harm or to reduce their weight to critical proportions. Earlier this year, Instagram introduced anonymous reporting tools and a support network designed to tackle issues from self-harm to eating disorders. Some of the answers may be online, but most definitely not all of them are.
Hon. Members have spoken eloquently about the fear of missing out. There is increasing pressure on young people to be part of the group and to be included in online activity constantly, so they become agitated, anxious and find it difficult to switch off and resume everyday activities. It almost becomes an obsession.
Cyber-bullying was raised by the hon. Member for Cheltenham and by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), who spoke eloquently about his constituent. It is unacceptable and can lead to suicidal behaviour, particularly in vulnerable populations.
On the sensitive issue of sexting, it appears, worryingly, to be much more common. Sexting affects a considerable proportion of young people, who may feel pressure to sext their naked body parts to third parties. Those photographs can then find their way online, to mentally scar those young people and leave them literally exposed to the world in perpetuity.
It is clear that society has moved online, and our responses need to take account of that. I ask that the Government look at standardised online materials for children and adolescents to help them to prevent harm caused by social media use and to take precautions for themselves. I also ask that police service resourcing be supported to take action against sites that specifically focus on young people and aim to undermine their mental wellbeing. As always, we must target the online predators who may target young people. Safeguards for online sites must be introduced. Children and young people need education on safe online usage, as do their parents. As the hon. Member for Cheltenham eloquently said, we need to develop research and treatment to help people who have had their mental health damaged online. There is a lot to take forward, but we must do so with care, together.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) on securing this important debate. I draw attention to the contributions made by my hon. Friends the Members for Neath (Christina Rees) and for Ogmore (Chris Elmore). There is not enough time for me to mention everybody who spoke because, as usual at the end of these short debates, we are tight for time, but I particularly thank the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Stuart Blair Donaldson). He spoke of a painful experience, which is always so difficult to do.
Young people are growing up in an age in which online culture and social media are so central to everyday life. That is particularly true of social networking sites, to which more than 85% of children now belong. We have heard some interesting statistics relating to that throughout the debate. Commenting on social media and mental health, the Children’s Commissioner said:
“Excessive use of social media has been linked to poor mental health…When combined with bullying it can have a terrible effect.”
Consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Sebastian Kraemer gave evidence to the Health Committee as part of the inquiry into young people’s mental health mentioned by the hon. Member for Cheltenham. On the impact that digital culture can have, he said:
“It makes intimidation more alarming and more chronic. You can be teased in the playground and it has gone with the wind, but if you have got your photograph on Facebook then it stays there forever…The medium is not the cause, but it certainly facilitates different ways of harming each other, of abusing each other, and that is what young children do.”
Parents are seeing the link. In a survey of more than 1,000 parents with children under 18, four fifths blamed social media for making their children more vulnerable to mental health problems. It seems that the excessive use of social media can be linked to depression and can play a role in heightening underlying anxieties and lowering self-esteem—we have heard about some interesting cases.
These days, there is much concern about body image and appearance, which is another potential cause of anxiety and low self-esteem. It is clear that social media can intensify such feelings. A small study in the United States found that teenagers were affected by the “like” culture, with photos with more likes being more attractive to them. This like culture was found to affect self-esteem, as the hon. Member for Cheltenham and my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore both said.
The damaging impact of social media has been seen as one of the causes leading to the increase in the number of children and young people self-harming in the past 10 years. ChildLine has seen a 35% increase in the number of contacts from young people with anxiety. That increase has been linked to the rise of social media, which has increased the pressure to attain a so-called perfect life. With increasing numbers of young people self-harming or being diagnosed with depression or anxiety, will the Minister tell us what action is being taken to understand the possible links between social media and depression, anxiety and other mental health issues? I agree with the hon. Member for Cheltenham that we need a robust strategy and some research that proves the links.
We have heard much about cyber-bullying, which is a growing problem, with more than one in 10 young people admitting they have been affected by it. We heard about Declan; I am very glad to hear that he has moved past the bullying phase that was so affecting him. Bullying UK found that 43% of young people aged between 11 and 16 had been bullied via social networks. Bullying has been found to be a factor associated with children’s mental health issues. One study reported by the Office for National Statistics found that children who had been bullied at 13 were more than twice as likely to have depression at age 18.
Stress and anxiety have also been linked to cyber-bullying. Will the Minister outline what action the Government are taking to tackle cyber-bullying and what measures will be put in place to help young people who are affected? Following the debate on young people’s mental health in the main Chamber last week, my concern is that help is not getting through to children before mental health problems escalate. Indeed, in 2015 the Children’s Commissioner found that one in four young people experiencing serious emotional or psychological problems were being turned away from specialist mental health treatment.
Early intervention can help. Lorraine Khan of the Centre for Mental Health said:
“There is good evidence for a range of interventions to boost children’s mental health, and the sooner effective help is offered the more likely it is to work.”
However, Government cuts to local authority budgets have meant the loss of services for children and young people. Cuts have been made to the numbers of social work staff and educational psychologists, and to mental health services in schools, leading to a reduction in care and support for young people. In the face of such cuts to early intervention and prevention services, will the Minister outline what steps are being taken to develop better early intervention?
From pressures about body image to cyber-bulling and the pressures caused by social networking sites, it is clear that we need to do more research on the impact that social media are having on young people’s mental health. Although Ministers have pledged extra funding for mental health services, we know it is not reaching the front-line services that children and young people need. Schools and colleges must be supported to help their students to cope with the challenges of online culture that we have heard about in this debate. The internet and social media are clearly here to stay, so it is vital that the Government ensure that young people receive the help, support and guidance that they need in this digital age.
I shall do my utmost, Sir Alan. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) on securing this very important debate. Contributions have at times been distressing, but they have been hugely important. He is right to raise awareness about the impact of social media on young people’s mental health. I thank all constituents and colleagues who have bravely allowed their stories to be shared today; it does have an impact and it is important.
As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, in recognising the harms that are occurring on social media, we must not reject the positive role that social media can play. Instead, we have to put social media in their place and know that, like any tool, their impact is dependent on how they are used. How we use social media depends on our intentions, for good or ill, and on our skills.
For the disfranchised and those without a voice, social media have provided a powerful medium for advocacy and outreach, and at times messages that would not otherwise have been heard have found a global reach. Even for the most vulnerable groups, the evidence shows that by no means all influences on social media are negative, and that only a minority of people will use social media to exploit and harm others.
The Samaritans undertook a consultation as part of its Digital Futures project, which looked at how people use online sources in relation to suicidal and self-harm content. The study found that, as well as negative experiences, those who took part in the research also highlighted using the sites to build peer networks. Three quarters of those who took part said that they looked for support online.
If we can harness the power of online platforms, we can use them to deliver the effective prevention interventions that many Members have called for, to raise mental health awareness, and to provide advice and support. Indeed, many of the support organisations that help our young people and adults who experience emotional challenges and issues of poor mental health have a presence on social media. As the Minister with responsibility for public health and innovation, that is something I must encourage.
As constituency MPs and Members of this House, we can all cite examples of social media platforms being used to inflict harm, whether through grooming or cyber-bullying, or of the anxiety and low self-esteem caused through hyper-use, which some Members have described. The Government reject the laissez-faire attitude that says this is all just an inevitable by-product of our connected world and shrugs its shoulders. No child should be groomed, bullied or harassed online, or simply left without the skills they need to critically and sensibly engage with social media.
That is why we are working in partnership with industry, the community and schools to address the challenges. New technology and social media continue to be misused to exploit and target the vulnerable. We have been clear that we expect social media companies to respond quickly to incidents of abusive behaviour on their networks. We have robust legislation in place to deal with internet trolls, cyberstalking and harassment, and perpetrators of grossly offensive, obscene or menacing behaviour. We are absolutely clear that these are crimes, and will be treated as such.
The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre has available various resources, which can be accessed via its website. The “Thinkuknow” programme has web resources to educate and empower young people at risk of sexual abuse and exploitation. I hope that some of them may access that if they are watching the debate. We know that the worst cases of bullying, including cyber-bullying, can lead to serious depression and even thoughts of suicide. A recent study by the national inquiry into homicide and suicide found that bullying—the sense of there being “no escape” was articulated by many colleagues—was a factor in the suicide of children and young people. I particularly thank Declan, the constituent of the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), for allowing his story to be told and may I say how sorry I am that he had to go through that experience. We know that we must do better.
That is why all schools are required by law to have a behaviour policy and measures to tackle bullying in all forms among their pupils. Schools are free to develop their strategies, but they are clearly held to account by Ofsted. That is also why the Government Equalities Office announced £4.4 million of extra money to tackle bullying, and why over the next two years four anti-bullying organisations will go in to support schools to tackle bullying and to improve the support that is available. In particular, the GEO has invested £500,000 in the UK Safer Internet Centre to provide advice to schools and professionals on how to keep children safe, and a further £75,000 in CEOP to support a national roll-out of Parent Info, which is delivered through schools, to stop parents feeling helpless because they are not digital natives. It is a free service and helps parents to show their children how to use the internet and mobile devices appropriately.
We are also working with the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, which brings together 200 organisations to form the digital resilience working group to take forward work to equip children and young people to identify and respond to risks online, including cyber-bullying and negative influences.
We know, as colleagues have said, that young people, as well as their parents and carers, continue to feel the impact of unrealistic representations of body image, which have a pervasive impact on social media. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham may be aware that the Government launched a body confidence campaign in 2010, which publishes a regular progress report on how we are addressing negative body images to tackle the very “compare and despair” trap that he so rightly highlighted. I agree with him about the importance of prevention and resilience building. A great deal of work is under way to try to target the sources of online abuse and harmful content upstream, at source.
Central to tackling the challenges posed by online bullying, exploitation and self-image will be supporting young people, as well as those who care for them, to build resilience. This year, Public Health England’s £337,000 Rise Above campaign is intended to do just that, building the resilience of young people by providing online information and tackling issues that include body image and online stress.
Alongside supporting young people in developing resilience, we know that parents and schools have a role to play in preventing mental ill-health, and we will continue to work with the Department for Education to improve mental wellbeing in schools, and to support children and teachers in addressing mental health issues through educational resources and by providing single points of contacts for mental health in schools.
My hon. Friend rightly highlighted the good work of the DFE in developing the MindEd web-based tools for children and parents. We are looking for ways in which those tools can be developed further to support local areas and to improve online contact.
Underpinning all of that is the need to tackle the stigma around mental health in all areas of society. That is why we have increased funding for Time to Change, which is our national anti-stigma campaign, to ensure that young people are confident in coming forward to get the help that they need. Underpinning all of that is our programme to reform and improve mental health support for young people. That is why we have increased investment in mental health to £11.7 billion, and local clinical commissioning groups are required to increase spending on mental health each year. That is part of a holistic strategy to improve key areas of mental health services, such as perinatal mental health, services to tackle eating disorders and better crisis care resolution in the community, as laid out in “Future in mind” and “The Five Year Forward View for Mental Health”, so that we can give young people with mental health problems the care and support that they deserve.
My hon. Friend was right when he said that we need to have the proper research in place, because this is an emerging area. That is why the Mental Health Taskforce asked the Department of Health, working with relevant partners, to publish a report by February 2017 to set out a 10-year strategy for mental health research. The final 10-year strategy planned for publication will identify the needs of mental health research. It will include a specific focus on the mental health of children and young people.
We know that there is much more to do and my hon. Friend is aware that the Lords Select Committee inquiry into children’s access to and use of the internet is currently under way. We are watching that closely and will look at its recommendations about online safety and the role that the Government, regulators and media companies can play to protect our children online because we know that more needs to be done.
We recognise the challenge of social media for young people up and down this country. We are determined to do our part to equip them with the tools they need to meet that challenge, not only in terms of their mental health but to protect them online, to make them more resilient and alert to the risks, and to make them confident digital natives who can critically and sensibly harness the power of digital tech for good.
This has been an excellent debate but a debate in name only, because there is a profound consensus about the potential for social media—as well as being a force for good, it can cause harm.
I was very pleased to hear from the Minister that some embryonic research may develop into something more robust. Such research is welcome. That is important because we need that platform to press the social media platforms to do more.
I reiterate the point that, in schools, we expect headteachers to take control, in Parliament, we expect the Speaker to take control and, if people are not behaving properly on social media, the platforms should be robust in dealing with them.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No.10(14)).