Tuesday 15 November 2016
[Mr David Nuttall in the Chair]
State Pension Age: Women
I beg to move,
That this House has considered acceleration of the state pension age for women born in the 1950s.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall, and to appear in front of the Minister. I look forward to a positive response from him to all the remarks made today.
A woman born on 6 March 1953 retired on 6 March 2016, aged 63. A woman born a month later, on 6 April 1953, retired on 6 July, aged 63 and three months. A woman born on 6 May 1953 retired a few days ago, on 6 November, aged 63 and six months. A woman born on 6 June 1953 has to wait until 6 March 2017, when she will be aged 63 and nine months. A woman born on 6 July 1953 will not receive her pension until her 64th birthday, in July 2017. We are beginning to get the picture. For each month that passes, women’s pensionable age increases by three months. Let us just dwell on that—a three-month addition to someone’s pensionable age for each month that they were born later than their neighbour, friend or colleague.
I spoke of a woman born in March 1953, who retired this year aged 63. A woman born a year later, in March 1954, will not retire until September 2019, when she will be aged 65 and a half. She will be two and a half years older than a woman born a year earlier before she receives her state pension. A woman born six months later, in September 1954, will have to wait until she is 66, in September 2020. Over an 18-month period, women’s pensionable age will have increased by a whopping three years. As we keep saying, we are not against equalisation of the state pension age. The issue is the pace of change, as well as the lack of appropriate notice.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and on making these compelling historical points about women. For that reason, and because of the documented evidence that he has submitted here today, does he agree that there is a compelling need—and an imperative on the Government—to bring about transitional protection and transitional payments for these women?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention. She makes a telling point. The significance of having the debate today, for which I am grateful, is that next week we will have the autumn statement. That is the opportunity for the Government to respond to the injustices that women are facing and to do the right thing. We often hear about people who have been left behind. The Women Against State Pension Inequality have been left behind, and the Government must act.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate. He has certainly done women a great service, because he has been working on this issue for a long time. The other dimension to the issue, which we see when we do an analysis of it, is that it affects women in different ways. There are different poverty levels involved, so things such as bus passes may not be accessible to them.
Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I will come later to the proposals that my party has made. We have been able to test the number of women who would be taken out of poverty as a consequence, and it is a very important point.
We should remind ourselves what a pension is. It is deferred income. Women and men have paid national insurance in the expectation of receiving a state pension. That is the deal, plain and simple: people pay in, and they get their entitlement. They do not expect the Government, without effective notice, to change the rules. What has been done to the WASPI women has undermined fairness and equity in this country.
The hon. Gentleman is certainly painting a picture. Does he agree that the impact of the changes to the state pension age cannot be seen in isolation from the impact of historical gender inequality?
Absolutely. The hon Lady makes a valid point, because women have faced inequality in pension entitlement, whether in the state pension or occupational pension schemes. In the past, they were even denied access to occupational pension schemes, and we are still battling for equal pay for women. It is simply not right that in addition to all the injustices that women have faced, they now face the injustice of having to wait much longer than they expected for their pension.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He is making a compelling case and outlining the lottery of the current arrangements. The WASPI petition was signed by 2,249 of my constituents and I also received many letters. Does he agree that additional transitional arrangements are needed to support a group of women who in the past have often been working mothers and are now carers for elderly parents and sick husbands, and who have often had low-paid manual jobs and just have not been able to build up private pensions?
Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point and demonstrates, rightly, why hon. Members across the House need to unite. This is not about one party—let me make that absolutely clear.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will in a second. This is about all of us recognising that, as a House, we have a responsibility to do the right thing. It is about giving encouragement to the Government, just as happened last year with tax credits when we realised that we were going to be punishing hard-working families, to do the right thing by the women affected by this issue. That is what the Government have to listen to and respond to in the autumn statement.
I will take another couple of interventions and then I need to move on.
Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), the fact that this issue kicks in at the latter stages of a woman’s career, when her caring responsibilities can increase significantly because of elderly parents and her own health may start to deteriorate, means that the level of uncertainty and anxiety is greatly increased. Suddenly, the prepared-for pension does not materialise, and women with caring responsibilities are left in limbo.
The right hon. Lady makes a valid point, and I will come later to the notice period because the issues are both the lack of time that women have had to prepare for the changes and the caring responsibilities that many women in particular have. She is right to raise that point. I will take one more intervention and then move on.
This is a very important point. I have lost count of the number of women in Dudley who have told me that they have not had time to make plans for the new arrangements. They have had to take time off to bring up their children, or reduce their hours or retire early to care for ageing parents or grandchildren. Other women have told me that they have lost their husbands and have not just had to come to terms with the bereavement, but have been thrown into financial turmoil as a result.
There is an additional unfairness in former industrial areas such as the black country, where women typically left school at 15 or 16, started work and did hard work all their lives. That is very different from someone graduating in their early twenties and doing an office job. Women in the black country have done their bit, and that is why the Government should be coming up with proper transitional arrangements so that they can plan properly for their retirement now.
I agree with that point. Many of the 2.6 million women affected have made more than 35 years’ worth of national insurance contributions. They have paid their way. They have paid their dues. This is about us accepting our responsibility. As I mentioned, 2.6 million women are affected by the increase in pensionable age and have an entitlement to a pension that they should have had. They need to be treated fairly—no more, no less.
The Government often state that the increase in pensionable age under the Pensions Act 2011 means that no woman will have to wait more than 18 months for their pension. That is disingenuous, as it came as an addition to the changes in the Pensions Act 1995, which are still being implemented. It is a fact that women’s pensionable age is increasing by six years over a very short period. That is the issue and the reality. It is about the combined impact of the 1995 Act and the 2011 Act. The Government have a duty to be truthful about the matter.
I am conscious that many Members want to speak and I do want to take interventions, but I will press on, if I may, and take interventions later.
The issue is not only the sharp acceleration of pensionable age, but that many women were unaware of the increase in pensionable age. As the Select Committee on Work and Pensions reported in March this year,
“more could…have been done”
to communicate the changes, especially between 1995 and 2009. Women have been let down not only by the rapidly increasing pensionable age, but by a failure of communication. We face the rapid acceleration of pensionable age and also the nightmare scenario for many women that they were not aware that it was coming. They have had little notice and no time to prepare for an increase in pensionable age. They have not been able to adjust accordingly, and in many cases we are talking about women and families who are struggling.
The Prime Minister talks about those who have been left behind and the duty the Government have to deal with it; the WASPI women have been left behind and it is now our responsibility to deal with it. We cannot just shrug our shoulders and blame past Governments for the failure to give women notice. We have a collective responsibility to deal with this issue and we have to show leadership. We cannot take the line that the last Parliament made a decision and there is nothing we can do; that is an abrogation of responsibility by all of us.
When the Government came forward with proposed changes to working tax credits that would have damaged millions of families in the UK, after much opposition, the Government ultimately relented and removed the proposals. We need to campaign in Parliament and throughout the United Kingdom to achieve the same objective here. We are not going away. The Government have to recognise that women should not be punished in the way that they are being by this increase of three months for every month’s difference in their age.
The Government have asked what we would do. That is why, in September, we in the Scottish National party published our own report looking at various options. We suggested a return to the timeline of the 1995 Act, which would slow down the increase to a pensionable age of 65 by 18 months, and defer the increase to a pensionable age for women of 66 years into the next decade. The cost of deferring over an additional 18-month period would be £7.9 billion. The Government estimated that the acceleration of state pensionable age in the 2011 Act for both women and men saved around £30 billion from 2016-17 to 2025-26, but that is simply not the case. That was scaremongering from the Government and, not for the first time, they got their numbers wrong. Depending on the timescale for the increase to age 66, there will be additional costs in the next decade.
I am grateful that, through the Backbench Business Committee, we have secured this debate, which is supported on an all-party basis, with a number of Conservative Members supporting the motion that was originally put forward. Of course, that happened on the back of many of us here today and in Parliament putting petitions down on behalf of the WASPI women. The WASPI women are going to be knocking on Members’ doors this week, next week and until we do the right thing.
We are often told that this is about the money. “We can’t afford it,” they say. This is not about women getting something they are not entitled to; it is about entitlement based on national insurance payments and about the Government meeting their obligations out of the national insurance fund—yes, for those who were not aware, inside Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs there is a national insurance fund. I am grateful to the Government, or more specifically the Government Actuary’s Department, for stating that there is a projected fund surplus of £26.3 billion at the end of 2016-17, rising to £30.7 billion in 2017-18. The argument that the Government cannot do this is therefore bunkum. The money is there. These women have paid into the fund and we should meet our obligations. Women have paid their dues, the fund is in surplus and the Government can make restitution.
Next week we will have the autumn statement. If the Minister chooses, he could tell the Chancellor of the Exchequer about the strength of feeling on this issue. Next week the Chancellor could, if he is minded, deliver some good news for the WASPI women. Will the Minister demand that the Chancellor uses the surplus to do so? The money is in the national insurance fund to allow the Government to take action—to right a wrong, to reflect on the injustice of a sharp increase in pensionable age, to show leadership and to recognise that Parliament collectively got it wrong with the timetabled increases. This is, after all, about fairness. Men are seeing a one-year increase in pensionable age; for women it is six years, over too short a period. The Minister can be a hero to 1950s women by addressing the injustices that many are facing.
We are often told that there was no choice in the scale of the increase or the timing, and Europe was forcing equalisation upon us. In our report, we published the scale of increases in pensionable age in each European country. There are only two countries that are seeing such a rapid increase in pensionable age: Italy and Greece. When the Prime Minister took office, the first debate she fronted was on Trident renewal. The motion did not have a price tag, but the Chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), informed the House that it could be as much as £205 billion. The Government effectively asked Parliament to give them a blank cheque. We can find hundreds of billions of pounds for weapons that can blow humanity to smithereens, but we cannot meet what should be a contractual obligation to 1950s-born women. Where is the fairness? Where is the humanity? Of course, the Government will be prepared to find £7 billion to renovate this place. If I had a choice, I would fund the WASPI women’s pensions first, and not spend a fortune on this place.
I know that a number of Conservative Members are here, and they are broadly supportive of the WASPI campaign. It is a pity that we do not have those who so far do not support it, but I say to the Conservatives: is there anyone on the Government Benches who is prepared to stand up and say that it is right for women’s pensionable age to increase at the rate of three months per month? How can anybody possibly think it is right that pensionable age should increase by three months per month? I would be happy to give way to anyone who wants to stand up and say that it is right, but I suspect that we will get what we always get: silence—silence and the hope that we, the Opposition, the Tories who support this and the WASPI women will go away. As I have said, we are not going away. We have given the Government an option and, unlike their Trident nuclear weapons commitment, it is costed. More importantly, not only are we not going away; the WASPI women are not going away.
The Pensions Commission that reported in 2005 suggested that at least 15 years’ notice should be given on any future increase in pensionable age. Given that, I ask the Minister: how can the Government defend the 2011 Act and some women receiving pretty negligible notice? Does the Minister think that is acceptable? There would be uproar, and no doubt legal challenges, if occupational pension schemes behaved in such a way. Can we imagine the outcry from Members of Parliament if we were told, with little notice, that our pension payments would be deferred by an additional six years?
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I want to make a little progress, and will take interventions later.
Just as workers pay into occupational schemes, men and women pay national insurance in return for a state pension. Why should women be treated so shoddily? It is little wonder that WASPI women are considering legal action. For too long women have suffered injustices as far as equal pay is concerned. They tend to have much poorer workplace pension protection than men and are now facing state pension inequality. Why do we not stop, take stock and put in place mitigation? Let us have equalisation, but let us do so fairly. When we consider what has been done as far as communication is concerned, it is dismal. Women should have been written to at the earliest opportunity, letting them know what was changing and allowing them to consider their options. Yet in 2011, the Government said their approach was to inform women through leaflets and publicity campaigns. That was a failure of responsibility to act and inform appropriately.
It was only in 2009 that the DWP began to take responsibility and proactively write to women to tell them about the 1995 Act. They started to tell women in 2009, but it took the DWP years to issue all the letters. Last night I was given the response to a freedom of information request on the timeline of the letters—perhaps the most damning thing about this whole debate. Women born between April 1953 and December 1953 were formally told of the increased pensionable age only in January 2012. Women born between December 1953 and April 1955 were told only in February 2012. A woman born in April 1953 under the old regime of retiring at 60 would have expected to retire in April 2013. She was given just one year of formal notice of her new retirement date of July 2016. It was 17 years after the 1995 legislation before the DWP could be bothered to formally tell the women involved—too little notice; too little, too late. We should all hang our heads in shame at the way the WASPI women have been treated. If there is one issue that should force the Government to agree to change now, it is that new information and the timeline of notice given.
Why have we been able to find this out through a freedom of information request from the WASPI women? Why have the Government not come clean about this before? Who knew about this in Government? Did the Minister know? I have had many letters on this issue from the women affected. Rosina wrote to me:
“When the 2011 Pensions Bill was announced, it accelerated these changes, so that Women’s SPA would be 65 by November 2018 and then both Men’s & Women’s SPA would rise together to 66 by 5th April...Letters began to be sent out...but many never received them. I received my letter in early 2013, just before my 58th Birthday and just 2 years before my expected retirement age of 60. The letter advising me that I would now have to wait until I was 66 before I could draw my pension! How can I be expected to plan for a 6 year increase with just 2 years notice? How can this be acceptable? I had already made plans for my retirement. I will lose over £40,000 of pension because of this. I have paid into the system in good faith and the system has now failed me. I want the Government to stand up and admit that they have ‘wronged’ us Women of the 50’s by their gross mismanagement and...that they will now do the right thing and pay us what we are due.”
I cannot put it any better than Rosina. Will the Minister now accept that we have a responsibility to Rosina and the 2.6 million women who have been cheated out of their entitlement?
My hon. Friend has come forward with a shocking revelation today, thanks to the WASPI women who made the FOI request. Nearly half a million women had only a year’s notice to change their retirement plans. I do not think that is acceptable, particularly given everything we have heard about why women are more likely to be dependent on a state pension and likely to be in poverty in old age. Does he agree that it puts an absolute moral imperative on the Government to take responsibility for their failure to let women know before a year in advance that they were going to lose out in such a way?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. I know that the Minister is a decent and honourable man. I hope he listens to the evidence and will go back to his colleagues in Government and recognise that the surplus we talked about is there in the national insurance fund. He would make us all happy, but more importantly he would make the WASPI women happy, if the Government showed they were prepared to act.
The issue of notice is raised a great deal, and it has been said that notice was given in magazines and the like. Given the high-profile television campaign at the moment for workplace pensions, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the issue should have been on television 15 or 20 years ago?
Absolutely. There has been a gross failure of communication at all levels. Many of us have access to occupational pension schemes. We are members of the House of Commons scheme. We get an annual statement of our pension entitlement. That is what the DWP should have been providing, rather than waiting 17 years before communicating with the women involved.
I am conscious of time and I want to begin to wrap up. Much of what I have been talking about was picked up by the Select Committee report in March this year. It said:
“Well into this decade far too many affected women were unaware of the equalisation of state pension age at 65 legislated for in 1995.”
The National Centre for Social Research stated:
“In 2008, fewer than half...of the women who, at that point, would not be eligible for their state pension until they were 65 were aware of the...change.”
That statement referred to research carried out in 2011. Given that we knew there was a lack of appreciation of the 1995 changes, why pour oil on troubled waters by accelerating the timescales in 2011? That was simply vindictive and cruel. Today, let us correct that. Let us show compassion and deliver fairness to the WASPI women.
I have been dealing with this issue on a UK-wide basis, but I want to briefly touch on Scotland. To put this into context, there are 243,900 WASPI women in Scotland. I would dearly love for us to have responsibility for pensions in Scotland, but we do not. The commitment the SNP has given in supporting the slowdown of the increase in pensionable age is one we would legislate for if we had the powers, but we do not. The powers that Scotland has over social security are limited to 15% of such spending in Scotland. We have limited powers. Section 28 of the Scotland Act 2016 grants exceptions to reserved areas where we can top up payments, but this does not include pensions assistance or payments by reasons of age.
I mention that because the Secretary of State, responding to a question I asked about WASPI mitigation last month, said that the SNP
“now control a Government who have the power to do something about this and put their money where their mouth is.”—[Official Report, 17 October 2016; Vol. 615, c. 580.]
The Secretary of State created the impression that we hold powers in areas where we do not. I sought to be charitable to him in a point of order I raised later that day; rather incredibly, I received a letter from the Secretary of State on the 19th arguing that his statement was correct. Let me be clear: it was not. I then raised a further point of order on the 19th, when the Speaker suggested I apply for a face-to-face debate. I am grateful the Minister is here, but it is unfortunate that the Secretary of State is not. He should be dragged to this House and forced to accept that he cannot blame the Scottish Government when they do not have competency for the failures of this Government, and it must stop.
This is an important matter. We cannot have the UK Government suggesting that the Scottish Government have powers that they do not have. I wish we did have powers over pensions. If we had those powers, we would do the right thing by the WASPI women. Until such time as we have such powers we will push the Government to accept their obligations. This Tory Government have ducked their responsibility to the WASPI women for too long. It is time to face up to reality. Pensions are not a privilege; they are a contract, and the UK Government have broken that contract with the WASPI women.
I am looking to start the contributions from Front Benchers at 10.30 am, so based on the number of speakers I have been notified of, that will mean about five minutes maximum per speaker. I call Tom Elliott.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I congratulate and thank the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) for securing the debate, which is very timely. The most recent changes to the women’s state pension age will have a direct impact on around half a million women across the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman outlined the historical issues extremely well.
It is estimated that in Northern Ireland around 80,000 women will be affected. A number of weeks ago I, like other Members, presented a petition to the House containing the signatures of hundreds of residents of my constituency who are concerned about the unfair changes to the women’s state pension age. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to Wilma Grey, who lives in my constituency and is the co-ordinator of Women Against State Pension Inequality in Northern Ireland. She tirelessly campaigns on a voluntary basis to raise awareness of this issue.
Nobody would disagree that rationalisation of pensions is necessary, but it must be sustainable and ready for an ageing population who are living longer. If pensions are not properly funded and addressed, they have the potential to be a millstone around the neck of future Governments. We accept that, but few things are so clearly deserved in life as the state pension. I reiterate the promise that if someone works hard their whole working life, the state will take care of them in their old age. That ideal has underpinned our society for more than 70 years, but the promise is precisely why I am deeply worried about the manner in which the Government have decided to equalise pension ages.
This is the key issue: women who were born in the 1950s were made a promise and the promise is now being broken. Worse still, the changes are being made with little to no notice. These women, who have rightfully been considering and planning for retirement, now face uncertainty that threatens what should be the most relaxed period of their lives. Today’s national insurance contributions pay for today’s pensions, and many of these women believed that when they started paying national insurance contributions—some of them at the age of 16—they were entering into an agreement with the Government to retire at 60.
Raising the retirement age may be a necessary evil. With life expectancy climbing, it is unavoidable that we must work longer and retire later. However, the problem is that although that principle may be sound, the reality is somewhat different. When Her Majesty’s Government introduced the Pensions Act 1995, women were supposedly given 15 years to prepare, as the women’s pension age would not begin to equalise with men’s until 2010. However, no one who was aged 44 or over would have been affected at the time. It is therefore understandable that any discussion of pension changes was viewed as irrelevant.
The Government at the time should have made a concerted effort to publicise the changes widely and to spell out the implications for the women affected, but that was glaringly absent. To compound that, the Pensions Act 2011 increased the overall state pension age to 66 by 2020, accelerating the rate of increase for women. Because they had not been notified previously, it was only at that point that many women learned of the changes to the state pension age, with some women reaching state pension age at 66 when they had anticipated drawing their pension at 60.
It is therefore no surprise that the women affected by the changes are frustrated by the implications for their post-retirement planning, both financial and otherwise, and by the fact that the Government have substantially moved the goalposts without effective communication. That unfairness must be addressed and the Government must now consider the introduction of appropriate transitional payments.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) for securing the debate.
I find myself speaking on the Women Against State Pension Inequality women for, I think, the fourth time. Frustratingly, despite three previous debates and the launch of a UK-wide petition, which attracted 2,534 signatures in my constituency and would have attracted more had there been more time; despite legal action from the WASPI women being seriously on the table due to what has been, in effect, the mis-selling of this group of women’s pensions; and after a Work and Pensions Committee report concluded that
“more could and should have been done”
to communicate the changes, we seem to be no further forward. Everyone is feeling the frustration.
The situation is worse than the hon. Lady described. Five and a half years ago I stood in this Chamber with my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves)—our then Front-Bench spokesperson—and challenged the Government on this issue. We did that again the year after and again the year after that. The hon. Lady described recent action, but the situation is even worse: we have been telling the Government that this is wrong since 2011.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, and I go back to my original point: after all this time, all this activity, all the warnings, and all the stories of hardship, we are still no further forward. When will this Government wake up to the fact that pensions are not a benefit? The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Tom Elliott) described them as a promise. They are not a promise; they are a social contract, which has been cruelly and thoughtlessly broken. It is time for the Government to step up and take responsibility for the way in which this matter has been mishandled over a number of years, and stop dragging this misery out for the women caught up in this injustice.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will not—I am very conscious that other people want to speak, so I apologise to the hon. Lady.
Around 2.6 million women have been affected by these changes, and in Scotland, the number of women affected is 243,900. On behalf of the Scottish National party, Landman Economics analysed the costs and distributional impacts of potential changes to pension arrangements for women born in the 1950s who are losing out, in the context of the surplus in the national insurance fund, which is projected to stand at around £30 billion at the end of 2017-18 according to the Government’s own figures. With that surplus now forecast to be larger than it was before, the £7.9 billion that it will cost to give those women relief and a delay in the rise of their pension age is very much affordable.
The Landman report costed a return to the Pensions Act 1995 by immediately restoring the timetable in that Act, raising the pension age for women from 63 in March 2016 to 65 by April 2020, with no further increase to 66 until the mid-2020s. That is the second most expensive option, costing about £7.9 billion over five years. That cost is not trivial, but as we have heard today, it is not prohibitively expensive either in the context of other Government spending plans. It has the merit of completely eliminating the problem of an accelerated increase in pension ages for women born in the 1950s by returning to a timetable set out two decades ago, giving women much more time—necessary time—to adapt to the changes. It would then be possible to increase women’s pension age to 66 at some later point in the 2020s. That measure has the benefit of being progressive and reducing relative and absolute pensioner poverty.
The UK Government’s position, even after all the mistakes in the process have been laid bare for all to see, has been characterised by intransigence and wilful stubbornness. It is time to do what is right, fair and just. It is time for the Government to stop telling us that they have no choice. It is time to make the right choices, and it is time for justice for the WASPI women.
My thanks go to the hon. Members who secured this important debate. I want to contribute on behalf of the women in my constituency who find themselves affected by the change to the state pension age. They are angry about the pace at which the change has been accelerated, angry about the way it was done and how it was not communicated properly—many learnt about it from the media, not a Government body—and angry that the Government have not acted to help them.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government are being cloth-eared, that they should listen to the cries of anger across the UK and that these women need to be heard?
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) said, clearly the Government have failed to listen over successive years when the issue has been raised. As other hon. Members have mentioned, there has been debate after debate, and question after question.
The women affected in my constituency are not just angry but anxious and worried, because they face real financial insecurity. I will focus on that. Some 3,100 women are affected in Newport East, and 135,000 are affected in Wales. Many have been hit particularly hard, with significant changes to their state pension age and, as was mentioned earlier, a lack of appropriate notification.
Last week, a new constituent—I very much welcome new constituents—contacted me. Her story illustrates the financial insecurity facing many people. She had to sell her long-term family home in Bristol and move away from her children, parents and friends in order to make ends meet and to tide her over until she is 66. This is a woman who, as a single parent, received no support when her children were small. She worked all her life and then discovered, far too late in the day, that she will have to survive for longer. She is recovering from breast cancer but does not feel able to work at the moment, and she is trying to navigate the disability benefits system. This is a woman who explained to me how she would ring the DWP every single year when she was working to check that she had paid enough contributions to get her full pension at 60. In her words:
“This is not the retirement I planned at all—I live in a constant state of worry due to the cancer and financial pressures. The goal posts have been moved twice”.
She said that this is surely discrimination against women at its worst.
My hon. Friend is making an important point. Is she as surprised as I am that there are no Government Back Benchers here? Could that be because there are no WASPI women in their constituencies?
The constituent I speak of moved, in fact, from a constituency where she was represented by—
Or maybe not in that case, but I will leave that there.
Another constituent explained to me the impact of her pension date being deferred for the second time with little time to make compensatory arrangements. She has worked for 45 years and paid her way, and the changes to the pension age, which mean that she is not in receipt of her state pension at 60, will deny her more than £38,000. She, too, has cancer and is considering whether she has to give up work.
My hon. Friend was also in the debate with me and our hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) back in 2011, so we are veterans of this campaign. Does she think that the Government should look at the net cost of any transitional arrangements? As she points out, many women who are missing out on their pension are now relying on disability benefits because of the incidence of ill health among the women affected.
My hon. Friend makes a crucial point. The change to the state pension age is affecting people who are ill and on disability benefits, and the Government should look into that.
My constituent who has cancer and is considering giving up work tells me that instead of seeing retirement as a positive development, she is dreading the financial insecurity after having worked for 45 years. These women had a picture of what their retirement might look like and it has been cruelly taken away. They did not expect the Government to change the rules. It would be good to know whether the Minister gets just how tough it is for many trying to find work at this stage, especially those who are ill or who have a disability. What will Ministers do for that group of women?
Women who have contacted me from Newport East add their voices to the calls for more reasonable transitional arrangements that are particularly mindful of those who are ill, who depend more on the state pension in retirement and who have limits on their ability to work. We need the Government to move on this issue and ease the impact of the changes on those most affected. The Government have an opportunity in the autumn statement. There are a number of options on the table and they are all ways in which the Government could act. We need them to take responsibility for what has happened to these women.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) not just on securing the debate, but on bringing forward the report and putting on the table some real facts and figures that the Government cannot deny.
I often tell constituents that I speak from a different world from the Government, and today the Government’s attitude to the WASPI women has proven that to be the case. I come from a world where women worked, often intermittently because of family commitments that involved childcare and family caring. Those women suffered lower pay and a lack of pension contributions, often due to part-time work. However, they always had the comfort of their contract with the Government that they would receive their pension at the age of 60. That contract was broken by the Pensions Act 1995, and the women were not notified. Yet the previous Minister continued to tell us that women were generally aware of what was happening with pension changes. They may have been generally aware, but they did not know that it was happening to them in their personal circumstances. That has been proven by the lack of notification and the fact that the information that did come from DWP was often conflicting.
In the Government’s world, these women were deemed suitable for a rapid increase in pension age. Into the bargain, it was deemed necessary for them to pay more national insurance contributions than they were originally contracted to. Since then, as the proverbial has started to hit the fan, we have all become aware of the bigger picture and the implications for the women. In the past year, the Government’s Budget contained inheritance tax cuts of £2.6 billion, capital gains tax cuts of £2.9 billion, corporation tax giveaways of £8.5 billion, higher rate tax relief of £3 billion, and individual savings account and savings relief of £2.5 billion. That is nearly £20 billion of tax giveaways for the people who live in the Government’s world, but not for the people who live in our world. At the same time, the Government brought in the right-to-buy discount on social housing, which will cost something like £12 billion.
This is an alien world to the one that me and my constituents inhabit, and yet the previous Minister hid behind the stock answer that the alternative transition will cost too much money, and asked where that money will come from and what cuts we, in opposition, would make. As we have heard, our preferred option would cost £8 billion and there is no need to make cuts. I have outlined simple tweaks that could be made to the Budget. There is £30 billion of surplus in the national insurance contributions fund, so the money is clearly there, and there is an autumn statement coming up in which the Government could do something.
The name “national insurance fund” is a misnomer, given the way things are happening. This generation of women has lived through the endowment mis-selling scandal and the payment protection insurance mis-selling scandal, but to have to live through the state mis-selling pensions is something else. It is no wonder these women are going to court. This is not about where to make cuts; it is about making the correct moral decision.
Last week I went to the funeral of a former councillor colleague, Jim Buchanan. He was a great campaigner for social justice and could not believe this position, which affected his wife—and, by default, the two of them as a couple—and many others. Jim actually joked that he would need to work longer to keep bringing extra money into the household. Instead, sadly, he died at 63, leaving behind a widow who is still affected by the pension increases. There are many such cases across the country.
I say to the Minister that there are now Tory Back Benchers involved, and there is cross-party support for the campaign. Do the right thing and act. The forthcoming autumn statement is a golden opportunity to do something that these fantastic WASPI women, and the local Ayrshire WASPI campaigners in my constituency, deserve.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) for securing it and for giving us all a chance to speak. It was a pleasure to join him and others in going to the Backbench Business Committee—this debate is the result of a combined request from many of us here in the Chamber. It is good to see a goodly number of Opposition Members, although there are perhaps not so many Government Members.
I welcome this debate, which was secured with a great work ethic. If people do not work, they do not eat. If people pay their dues, they reap what they sow. That is the premise on which an entire generation was raised, but I have been told that the dues have been uplifted and that, for some, the harvest is not due for another three and a half years, so they have to keep slogging on.
That might seem okay. What is three and a half years in the grand scheme of things? It is not that long. I want the House to consider a lady who left school at 14, as was then permissible, to work in a local sewing factory. She worked there for the next 35 years, until the factory was closed and relocated abroad. With no education and no skills, she took on a job cleaning the floors of schools and buildings, which she has done on her hands and knees for the past 11 years. For that lady to wait another three and a half years is not a small thing—it is more years of an aching back, fingers that remain bent and knees that are worn away.
I have a constituent who describes herself as “June ’54 and furious.” One source of her fury, apart from having to wait for her pension, is that she is having to wait for her entitlement to winter fuel allowance and a bus pass. We need to remember that it is not just about pensions; it is about things that will help these women in their declining years as their health declines. Small things are adding to my constituent’s fury.
The hon. Lady is very clear. Many of my constituents are equally furious. They might not have been born in June ’54, but they are equally furious. The lady she mentions and the lady I spoke about, who worked for 35 years in a sewing factory and 11 years in a school, are representative of ladies across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Northern Ireland pensioners’ parliament, which has done tremendous work? One person in my constituency, Mr Nixon Armstrong, has been a great ambassador in getting rights for these women.
All Members from Northern Ireland have had a chance to meet the pensioners’ parliament, which has lobbied us on this issue. We are here today to speak on their behalf.
We all know the background to this debate. The Government changed the timetable because of the increase in life expectancy, but as we have illustrated, the numbers do not equal the human cost or the health implications. Even for women who have a job in an office and are expected to continue working for another six years, the repetitive strain of typing, and so on, has not been taken into consideration and has been ignored.
Women born in the 1950s are justified in their argument that they have been hit particularly hard by the significant changes to their state pension age, which was imposed without appropriate notification. They have not been looking to the future and thinking, “I’ll take a high-tech job at night-time and do a course to get a qualification. I can’t do this hard-labour job for the next 30 years.” The fact is that these women have been subject to the whim of Government, with no notice for them to change their future potential.
I understand how the world works. If the Government continue to borrow, the debt continues to rise. We all know the story. Changes must be made, but how we make those changes is a problem. I fully support the Women Against State Pension Inequality campaign in calling for a fair transitional state pension arrangement that translates into a bridging pension between the age of 60 and the increased state pension age.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that most people accept that there has to be some change because of the increase in life expectancy? The problem is the utter confusion, the lack of clarity and the complete absence of proper, coherent information. Does he agree that one small thing the Government could do today is to be completely upfront, honest and transparent and say exactly where we are? My constituents and his constituents are in the dark on this issue.
Some 4.5 million people in Great Britain will have their SPA increased by less than a year, and 500,000 born between October 1953 and 5 April 1955 will have their SPA increased by more than a year. In Northern Ireland, 76,000 people face a further one-and-a-half-year wait on top of previous rises, which is simply not acceptable. Something must be done to bridge the gap, especially for those who physically cannot keep working. Is there an argument for opening the door to the personal independence payment just a little further to enable these women to have an income without working? That is unlikely, as the Government have made it clear that they are determined, by hook or by crook, to lessen the number of claimants, despite what people’s doctors say—that is a debate for another day.
Jobseeker’s allowance is restricted, and the employment and support allowance criteria ask, for example, whether a person can lift a cardboard box or move a £1 coin. If only that was all it took for a woman to work again, but it takes more than that. I am sorry to say that the Government have not understood the real issue.
We do not have a benefits system that allows us to bridge the gap, so who will help these women? They do not seek to have something for which they have not worked. They are not asking for a handout, like so many people do; they are asking for a return on their hard work over 45 years or more. Why have we let these people down? What will be done today to help those whose hard work means their bodies can no longer continue at this pace?
Individual cases do not necessarily make good law, but I have not recounted an individual case. There are many such women in my constituency and across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It is time that the Government acknowledged the effect that the acceleration has had and is having. They should seek to do the right thing for this generation, who have worked hard in all areas to build this country and who deserve the same respect and attention that they have given to this country all their lives.
I am grateful for the chance to speak in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) on his excellent, terrifically detailed speech. I will not go into great detail, but I wish to make three points. When I first got involved in politics, which was not long ago, I was shocked when an old hand said to me, “Politics isn’t fair.” I hope that we can all prove him wrong. This debate is about fairness for women who have had their pensions taken away. They are struggling at the moment, and they need the Government to be fair.
It is kind of the hon. Gentleman to allow me to intervene. Not long ago, on 13 July, the new Prime Minister stood on the steps of No. 10 and talked about all parts of the nation, including Northern Ireland, and about bringing the United Kingdom together. She said that her Government would be not for the privileged few but for the many. We need to hear from the new Minister—I welcome him to his place—the new Prime Minister and the new Government that thousands of women have suffered an injustice. I am one of those women born in the 1950s who is affected; I am one of the furious ones. This is an opportunity for the Prime Minister to meet her words with action. Does the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) agree?
I certainly agree. That goes to the heart of what I was saying about the world needing to be made fair for these women.
Do the Government have the will to deal with this matter? As my hon. Friend the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Tom Elliott) did, I congratulate Wilma Grey on all her work. What came home when we petitioned Stormont and others is that there is still a mass of women who do not know that this is happening—or they vaguely know. Do the Government have a complete database in Northern Ireland? If 76,000 women are affected, how many of them actually know? Are we working on a database? Will that database be used to ensure that everyone knows? We can then concentrate on whom we can help. If we cannot help everybody, can we look for those who really need help, such as those with ill husbands or ill children to look after, those who cannot get a job and those who live out in the sticks? So many different areas have been addressed today. I would rather see the Minister helping everyone, but if not, let us look at the details and make sure that we know who needs help so that we can get involved.
I have spent my life trying to get people in Northern Ireland working together. Will the Minister work with the four separate campaigns so that we get much better detail on this issue and a result that is fair to everyone?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. This is the fifth or sixth time that we have had this debate, and every single time the Government’s response and stance has been littered with absolute hypocrisy. This Government lecture the Opposition about how they are the Government of responsibility, the ones making the difficult choices and the ones who can be trusted, yet they do not even allow people the chance to be responsible for their own pensions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) made clear in his speech, women were not given the slightest notice. Some of the women with the steepest hike were given a year’s notice. How does that encourage responsibility?
If anything, the Government have shown how irresponsible they are in working out solutions to problems in society. We have said for years now that people have to make 30 or 35 years’ worth of national insurance contributions to get their pensions. The generation of women that we are discussing have been paying in for 45 or 46 years now, yet they are being told, “Sorry, you still can’t get your pension.” We say that we care more about our pensioners than anybody else, and we pride ourselves on how we look after them, yet as has already been stated, the only other European country that has hiked the pension age at such an incredible pace is Greece, which a few weeks ago tear-gassed pensioners for protesting against austerity. Is that really where we want to put ourselves in terms of how we deal with constituents?
The thing that blows my mind is that if a private company were acting in this way, it would be taken to court. By the sound of things, if the Government do not act soon, they might be taken to court as well. We cannot blame individuals for being pushed to it; the Government are leaving them with no option. This is the last chance for the Government to do something right.
In every debate on this subject, we have called for transitional arrangements, and the Government’s response has always been, “What transitional arrangements are you asking for?” The Scottish National party has gone away and paid our own money to commission a report. I have printed it out, and I am happy to give it to the Minister at the end of this debate in case he does not have a copy.
Our report—I must give credit to Howard Reed of Landman Economics, which did a power of work for it—found independently that the figure of £30 billion being thrown about by the Government was nonsense. Implementing some form of transitional arrangement would cost £8 billion spread across five years. Bearing in mind that we are spending money on nuclear weapons, airstrikes in Syria and renovations to this building, I think it is about time that we got our priorities straight in terms of who needs what most. Even if we were to forget or not bother criticising the poor choices made by this Government, by the end of this year, the national insurance fund will sit at a surplus of £26.3 billion, which is expected to rise to £30.7 billion. The idea that we cannot afford it is nothing other than a bare-faced lie from the Government.
I must say, not just for the Government’s benefit but for that of any women from Women Against State Pension Inequality who might be watching, that we know that our report is not completely perfect and involves an element of compromise. We recognise that this Parliament has only a couple of months left to make an effective change to get something for these women. Therefore, we suggest delaying things for the people with the greatest hike for another two and a half years, to give them an extra chance. Also, all women benefit from the fact that the rise to 66 is pushed to the next Parliament, so the report affects every single woman affected by the changes, although in different ways. We have been reasonable and tried to be genuinely conscientious in coming up with something that the Government can support.
I am at my wits’ end to know what we need to do for this Government to act. We have proved that women in every constituency and from all backgrounds are affected, brought hundreds of petitions before Parliament with thousands upon thousands of signatures, had umpteen debates and gone away and done the Government’s homework for them, and yet we are still told that the Government will not act. What more do we need to give them in order for them to give us something?
I thought that the Government were just arrogant, but now I see that they are both arrogant and incompetent. They do not know what notice they gave women. They do not know the effect that the changes have had on people. They do not even know what powers they have given to the devolved Administrations to deal with things. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber said, the Scottish Government do not have the power to top up pensions. Even if we did, I would ask why the Government should effectively ask the Scottish Government to tax Scottish people twice so that they can receive a pension they have been paying into all their lives. However, we do not have those powers. We have argued that we would quite like them; if the Minister is prepared to move on that, we are more than happy to listen.
Most of all, the Government have managed to allow a genuine problem that transcends party political leanings and affects every constituency to become a party political issue in their own minds. The Government are so adamant that they cannot give the Opposition an inch that they are prepared to put this on the backs of women who have suffered their whole lives from inequality and unjust policies. That is completely unforgivable. If this Government are so arrogant and obsessed with not giving the Opposition an inch, they should come up with their own plans to sort the issue. We have jumped through every hoop that the Government have put before us since I first raised the issue during this parliamentary term.
Surely by now the Government recognise that this issue is not going away. It is a reasonable ask, and it is doable. The Government are out of excuses, and hell mend you if you do not do anything to fix it.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) on securing this debate on an important issue. I am sure that ’50s-born women up and down the country will be listening eagerly to hear whether the Minister is prepared to do anything more to alleviate their plight. I also pay tribute to the many MPs across the House campaigning on the issue, particularly the all-party parliamentary group on state pension inequality for women, which is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley).
I was never in any doubt when I took on my role as shadow Pensions Minister that this issue would be one of the biggest and most contentious, and I have been proven right. I have already had contact with groups from across the country, all campaigning on the same message: the previous Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition Government’s rapid changes to the state pension age are simply unfair.
Most of the women recognise, as others have said, that the state pension age must be increased in recognition of a workforce that is living longer and to address the gap in the retirement age between men and women. However, what cannot be accepted is the unfair and unjust approach that the previous Government took and that the current Government are not prepared to change. The policy has had failures from the start. There has been a severe lack of communication from the Government on the changes, leaving 2.6 million women in doubt about their circumstances and providing only uncertainty to potentially vulnerable people up and down the country.
The Minister has heard many Members outline the case on behalf of ’50s-born women. The hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber made a comprehensive speech that left us in no doubt about how unfair it all is and how the Government could change things. Although I do not recognise some of his financial numbers, we agree that some changes could certainly be funded if the Government had the will.
There is some Conservative support for the WASPI women. The hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), who has now left, spoke about the lottery faced by ’50s-born women when it comes to retirement age. That is hardly fair. My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) spoke about the different levels of poverty created by the Government’s policy, and another Conservative, the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman), spoke about people in the latter stage of their careers who find themselves with caring responsibilities and little income to support them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) spoke of bereaved women left with no support. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) described herself as a veteran of the campaign and reminded us that we have been having this debate and talking to the Government about the issue for more than five years, yet they do nothing. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) spoke of angry women, but also of anxious women, one of whom has had to sell her home and move away in order to make ends meet. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke of the hardship of a woman in her sixties forced on to her hands and knees to scrub floors to make ends meet. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) spoke of the half a million women given too few years to prepare for retirement, many of whom probably have some of the lowest incomes in the country.
I know of another example: a 61-year-old woman having to live with a friend, who receives just £8 a week from a private pension and is worried how she will afford basics such as dental treatment. She is like so many others: not fit for work, but not sick enough for employment and support allowance. She walks to the jobcentre every day, even in the snow, with her walking stick. She was let down by the last Parliament, and now this Government are letting her down.
I believe the Minister to be a caring and compassionate man who is looking for answers to a problem that is not of his making but is tricky for the Government. Indeed, the absence of Conservative Members in the Chamber illustrates how tricky this issue is for the Tory Government. Sadly, some very specific ideas put forward by the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), have been rejected by the Government. That has probably been driven by the Treasury’s not being prepared to invest in a better quality of life for the women most affected.
That is very disappointing, but there is still time: the Minister has an ideal opportunity to do something positive. He can go to the Treasury before the autumn statement and fight for the resources that are needed, and he can then have clauses added to the Pension Schemes Bill that is currently in the other place, to allow the necessary changes. Then again, he may feel constrained by the threat of legal action from WASPI, which has raised more than £100,000 to challenge the Government’s failures in the courts. Perhaps he can confirm whether he feels that his hands are tied.
Contrary to what the Prime Minister claimed, the Opposition have tried to help her out of this hole and laid out plenty of options for the Government. Labour set out six transitional options and we are still waiting for the Government to properly address them and their potential. We proposed delaying the state pension age increase until 2020; capping the maximum state pension age increase from the Pensions Act 2011 at 12 months; keeping the qualifying age for pension credit on the previous timetable; allowing those affected to take a reduced state pension at an earlier age during the transition; extending the timetable for increasing the overall state pension age by 18 months so that it reached 66 by April 2022; or paying those affected a lower state pension for a longer period. Sadly, the Government chose not to follow up any of Labour’s suggestions.
Of course we recognise that solutions cost money, but the Government have made vast savings as a result of the late changes to the pension age and should be able to reinvest some of them to do something to help the vulnerable women who have been ruined because of a decision that they had no say in and certainly did not vote for.
The hon. Gentleman says, rightly, that the Labour party has presented options. Does he welcome the fact that the Scottish National party is presenting a costed option? The Government cannot argue with the figures.
I do not recognise some of the numbers that the SNP is using, but believe me, we want a solution just as much as the SNP. I believe that Conservative Members do too, and we need to work together to achieve that solution.
We have had half-hearted attempts from the Government to quell the voices of women who are rightly angry about these changes and the impact they will have on them and their families, but those attempts are not good enough. An independent review into the future of the state pension age that will not even consider the existing accelerated timetable is not good enough either. Sadly, previous Pensions Ministers have chosen to bury their heads in the sand, but I hope the new Minister is as anxious to find solutions as we are. Failing to use the Pension Schemes Bill to marshal in change would be a missed opportunity by the Government to address the concerns that are being raised by hundreds of thousands of women throughout the country. The Government must think again, and they must do so urgently to cause minimum hardship.
I am well aware that past Ministers have ducked the issue, claiming that sufficient transitional arrangements are in place. The accounts we have heard today, and many others that I am sure the Minister is aware of, demonstrate that those arrangements are totally inadequate. Despite his past misgivings, the Minister can provide real hope for the women affected. I hope he will take the opportunity to do so today.
Before I call the Minister, I ask him gently to allow a couple of minutes at the end, so that Mr Blackford can sum up and wind up the debate.
It is a great privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. It is also pleasing to see so many Members present, which shows the importance of the issue. The Westminster Hall debates that I address usually have a much smaller audience. It is also fair to say that Members from all political parties have been present at different times in the debate.
The Minister studied jurisprudence at university and had a career in the retail industry, so he will recognise the concept of good faith. Does he accept that the women concerned in this matter entered into a contract with the state about their pensions in good faith and that the Government’s actions amount to bad faith? If so, what is he going to do about it?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which I will attempt to answer in a moment, after I have thanked the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) for opening the debate and hon. Members from both sides who contributed.
I must say that this is the first time that my rather limited attempts at jurisprudence between 1976 and 1979 have been mentioned in the House. At least they will now be recounted in Hansard rather more than they are by my tutors of the time. The serious point that the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) makes is that hon. Members feel that the Government have broken some form of contract, presumably non-written, with state pensioners generally or WASPI women specifically. I have heard that point made several times today, but the Government’s position is very clear: this was not a contract. State pensions are technically a benefit. I add no value judgments to that, but since he made a legal point, I felt I should place the answer to it on the record.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I think I should continue, but the hon. Gentleman will have time at the end.
I am sorry, but—
I am very sorry, but to allow time for the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber to wind up, I have to continue. I am happy to discuss the matter—although not my jurisprudence degree—outside the Chamber.
I have been quite clear in public and in the House that the Government will make no further changes to the pension age of those affected by the 1995 Act and the 2011 Act, nor pay them financial redress in lieu of pension. I know that Members present do not agree with that, but I feel it is right to state our position clearly without leaving any doubt. That view has not changed.
It is important to acknowledge that state pension age increases cannot be looked at in isolation. The acceleration of the state pension age is a consequence of serious and fundamental changes that continue to affect the wider state pension system, such as the significant changes in life expectancy in recent years, the huge progress made in opening up employment opportunities for women and the wider packages of reforms that we have introduced to ensure a fair deal for pensioners.
Life expectancy, as everyone knows, has been increasing for a number of decades; people are living much longer. However, the increase in life expectancy over time has not been linear. Between 1995 and 2011—in just 16 years—remaining life expectancy at age 65 increased by 3 years for women and 4 years for men, an unprecedented increase compared with past decades. There are significant variations across council authorities and within Scotland, for instance. I could spend a lot more time going into those differences, but I feel I have made the point.
Employment prospects for women have changed dramatically since the state pension age was first set in 1940, especially for women affected by the acceleration of the state pension age. The number of older women aged 50 to 64 in work in 2016 stands at more than 4 million —a record high. Some 150,000 more older women are in work than this time last year, and 580,000 more than five years ago. In addition, independent research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that employment rates for women aged 60 and 61 have increased as a direct result of the changes in state pension age. Furthermore, to help older women remain in work, the Government have abolished the default retirement age.
Will the Minister give way?
I am really sorry but there is not enough time. Members should hear me out.
Some women may wish to continue to work but be unable to do so. The welfare system provides a safety net for those of working age, which has been ignored by many speakers, and there are a range of benefits tailored to individual circumstances. The system is designed to deal with problems ranging from difficulty in finding work to disability or ill health making work difficult, and to help those with increasing caring responsibilities.
Will the Minister give way?
I am sorry, but there is not enough time. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Well, okay, out of respect for the hon. Gentleman.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I took eight minutes, leaving him with around 15.
I gave the example of a 61-year-old woman in dire straits, and we heard many other examples of individual women who are not being looked after by the state benefits system. What can we do together so that the most vulnerable can live a life?
I know about the eight and 15 minutes, but I was asked by the Chairman to leave some time for the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber; I was not being discourteous at all.
Benefits are a complex subject that I am sure we will have plenty of time to discuss elsewhere. Suffice it to say that the range of benefits is quite wide. If the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) feels that there are gaps in the benefits system, I would be pleased to discuss them with him, but obviously not now because there is not enough time. I am trying to make progress, as you requested, Mr Nuttall.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and many other MPs shared cases of hardship, and of course I am sympathetic to them.
Will the Minister give way?
I will be very specific.
The new information that I provided in my introductory speech was that a woman who was born in July 1953, who would have expected to retire in July 2013, was told by the DWP only in January 2012 that she would not be retiring until 2017. When did the Government and the Minister know of those facts? Why will they not now listen on that basis? The statement is that there will be no further changes, but these women have been seriously negatively impacted. The Minister must respond.
I shall respond in due course. I want to finish my point about the welfare system. The Government are spending £60 billion on supporting people on low incomes, £50 billion on supporting disabled people and £15 billion on incapacity benefits for working people. According to some of the contributions we have heard, it would appear that the Government are really not spending any money at all.
Will the Minister give way?
Will the Minister give way?
I really cannot take any more interventions, simply because of the time. It is not in my nature, because I like interventions, but I really cannot.
The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) and others mentioned a notional national insurance surplus fund. The fact is that, in order to maintain the minimum work balance of the national insurance fund, a Treasury grant of £9.6 billion was made in 2015-16. Public sector finance is complicated. It is easy just to pick out one bit.
I wish to spend a little time discussing the Scottish National party’s proposals. Its independent report suggests rolling back the 2011 Act and returning to the timetable in the Pensions Acts of 1995 and 2007, but that is simply too expensive for the Government to consider. The report puts the cost at £7.9 billion, but my Department’s direct comparison for the same period is £14 billion. We can discuss it however many times, but our modelling is comprehensive and no one is trying to take advantage of anybody else. I really believe that the SNP report has underestimated the impact by somewhere in the region of 50%. It has done so by ignoring most of the costs and applying costs only to the five-year window from 2016-17. Costs beyond that horizon have simply been ignored.
The Pensions Act 2011 not only increased the female state pension age to 65 sooner, but brought forward the increase to 66 for both men and women. The increase to 66 generates significant savings of more than £25 billion, yet such an important element of the Act is omitted from the paper, along with the associated costings.
John Ralfe Consulting, which is independent, reviewed the SNP option. Mr Ralfe concluded that:
“Sadly, the SNP has not managed to pull a Rabbit out of its Hat. The real cost of Option 2”—
the SNP’s preferred option—
“is almost £30bn…The SNP can claim the cost is much lower simply because it has chosen to ignore most of the costs.”
I hope that demonstrates that that option is simply not deliverable.
In the limited time remaining, I shall address the notification issue. In answer to the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Tom Elliott), between 2003 and 2006, the DWP issued 16 million unprompted products called automatic pension forecasts. People contacted the Department and it gave out all those forecasts. In 2004, the Department ran a pensions campaign that included informing people of the future equalisation of the state pension age. The Government made sure that the information was there, but I accept that it was not communicated by individual letter, as it was later when, as I am sure Members will be aware, millions of letters were sent out.
To say that nothing happened is not true. I have seen a leaflet on equality in the state pension age that was widely circulated, with many, many copies printed. A summary of the changes was issued and the general public were advised, although I accept that they were not informed by specific direct mailing in the way mentioned by some Members.
It is very kind of the Minister to give way. He will recall that in an earlier intervention I quoted the Prime Minister, whom he serves. Does he appreciate that his words make the Prime Minister’s words sound extremely hollow? This is not a nation in which the Prime Minister appears to care about all the people of the United Kingdom. Will the Minister please take that message back to the Prime Minister?
I certainly will not take that message back to the Prime Minister, because I do not accept that anything I have said today is incompatible with what the Prime Minister said on the steps of 10 Downing Street. Governments have to make difficult decisions, and the allocation of public spending is one of the most difficult.
It is not fair to say that the acceleration of the women’s state pension age has not been fully considered. It went through Parliament, there was a public call for evidence and there was extensive debate in both Houses. The Government listened during the process and made a substantial concession worth more than £1 billion. Finally, Parliament came to a clear decision. As it stands now, it would cost more than £30 billion to reverse the 2011 Act.
Will the Minister give way?
I am very sorry but I cannot give way because there are only three minutes remaining.
I conclude by reiterating what I have told the House and, indeed, the public before: we will not revisit the policy or make any further concessions. The acceleration of state pension age was necessary to ensure the system’s sustainability in the light of increasing life expectancy and increasing pressure on public resources. Mr Nuttall, I have left three minutes, as requested.
I thank all Members who have spoken in the debate. I have enormous respect for the Minister, as I think he knows, but I must say that I am plain disgusted with the response we have had this morning. To that end, I shall be contending that we have not considered the acceleration of the state pension age for women born in the 1950s.
This is not acceptable, because we are now looking at a cliff edge. As I explained, there is an increase in pensionable age of three months for every month that passes. The Minister talked about a leaflet—a leaflet!—that went to the women concerned. We now know that a woman born in 1953 was given just over one year’s notice in 2012 that her pension age was going to increase to July 2017. We now know that a woman born in September 1954 found out in February 2012 that, rather than retiring in 2014, she would be retiring in 2020. Where is the fairness? Where is the notice from this Government?
I have heard various figures from the Government, but this is the first time the House has been told about that £14 billion. The Minister should come with me and I will take him through the Institute for Public Policy Research model. I stand fully behind the £7.9 billion. To hear him dispute that figure is disingenuous, to say the least. The Government have failed to accept responsibility for the WASPI women. The Minister should hang his head in shame. The Government must act, and we will continue to push them.
That this House has considered acceleration of the state pension age for women born in the 1950s.
The Chair’s opinion as to the decision of the Question was challenged.
Question not decided (Standing Order No. 10(13)).
The fact that the Question is not decided shall be reported to the House. It is possible for the Question to be put to the House subsequently for a decision without further debate.
On a point of order, Mr Nuttall. Given that this debate was granted by the Backbench Business Committee, I understand that it is open to any Member to take this to the Committee and ask its members to push for a vote on the matter in the House. The Government must and will be held to account.
As Mr Blackford will be aware, that is not a point of order for me. He is aware of the rules relating to access to the Backbench Business Committee, as all Members are.
Could Members who are not taking part in the next debate leave quietly and quickly, so we can make progress?
Yazidi Former Sex Slaves: UK
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the treatment and care of Yazidi former sex slaves of Daesh in the UK.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I will begin by putting on the record my thanks to Members from all parties in both Houses of Parliament for the good will and support that they have shown in the days leading up to this debate. I also thank politicians from as far afield as Canada and Germany for the support they have shown me, as well as the many UK and Irish citizens who have contacted me in recent days to thank me for securing this debate and to urge me not to forget the plight of the Yazidi women and children who are currently being held in sexual enslavement by Daesh, particularly those in the city of Mosul, which we hope will be liberated soon.
My reason for seeking this debate is very simple. While every one of us earnestly hopes that in the coming weeks or months the liberation of Mosul will be complete and that Daesh will finally be driven from the city and out of Iraq once and for all, we also recognise that, as a result of that liberation, there will be hundreds of thousands of terrified people fleeing the city, and that a massive humanitarian support operation will be required to help to rebuild Mosul, allowing its citizens to return home and resume their lives in peace. I applaud the efforts being made by the UK Government, the Iraqi Government and the international community to prepare for that operation.
However, I will concentrate today on the fate of one small, specific group of people who are being held inside Mosul—3,000 or so Yazidi women and children. Since 2014, they have been raped, tortured, brutalised, bought, sold, held in sexual slavery and even murdered by Daesh. I plead with the UK Government not to allow this group, which is arguably one of the most abused and vulnerable groups of people on this earth, simply to be subsumed into the greater refugee crisis that is being predicted for northern Iraq in the coming months.
I will give way briefly to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. This subject is very important and I thank him for bringing it to Westminster Hall for consideration.
None of us fail to be moved by the violence and degradation that has been carried out against those who have been made sexual slaves. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we must address not only the victims’ physical issues but their mental issues, including the trauma that they have suffered? The Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development should work together to ensure that they can help these Yazidi families, especially as they are in our hearts every day.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I know that he is a great champion of minority communities in the middle east and I entirely accept what he says. I will develop that point later in my speech.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. It is very timely that he has brought this subject to Westminster Hall. I was fortunate enough to be on the edge of Mosul last week and I saw six of the camps for internally displaced persons, which is why I have come here today to contribute to the debate.
However, I would like to ask the hon. Gentleman a question of fundamental importance. We all want to help those people who are victims of sexual slavery. The British Government and the Ministry of Defence have provided forty 50 calibre machine guns to the Peshmerga, to try to help to relieve the situation in Iraq. In addition to wanting to help the Yazidis, does he support the position of the British Government and the MOD in helping the Peshmerga?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and yes I do. However, that is an entirely separate issue to the one I am considering today. While we support and will continue to support the military defeat of Daesh, I will concentrate today specifically on this tiny minority—the members of the Yazidi community—who are in desperate need of our help.
These innocent women and children—whose plight, in many ways, has become emblematic of the base depravity and callous barbarism of Daesh—need our help. These innocent women and children have witnessed the slaughter of their husbands, their sons and their brothers as Daesh has attempted genocide to try to erase all trace of the Yazidi community, and they need our help. These innocent women and children, who come from a very traditional and conservative religious community, and may well have been physically and psychologically irreparably damaged, need our help.
My motion today simply says to the Government: when Mosul is liberated and these innocent Yazidi women and children are free from the sexual enslavement of Daesh, please do not let them become lost in the throng of civilians fleeing Mosul towards the refugee camps. I ask the Government to recognise what these women and children have gone through; to see them as the unique case that they are. Together let us find a specific UK response that recognises the unspeakable atrocities that they have suffered, simply because of who they are and what they believe.
I am sure that we are all aware that there are British citizens among the members of Daesh in Mosul and in Syria, and that they have committed crimes of violence against Yazidi women and other women. Will the hon. Gentleman join me—I am sure he will—in urging the Government to act as an agent of justice, collecting evidence so that justice may be brought against those British citizens?
I absolutely concur, and the full force of the law must be brought against any British citizen who is in any way involved in what has been happening within Iraq and Syria.
I am sure that everyone in Westminster Hall today is very well aware of the catalogue of atrocities carried out by Daesh against the Yazidi community. I will not go into too much detail, but it is worth reminding ourselves of the level of barbarism displayed by Daesh in its genocidal assault; some of it beggars belief. At the start of this year, I arranged for a young Yazidi woman to come to the UK to speak to this Parliament. Her name was Nadia Murad and the personal testimony that she gave that evening in February will live long with everyone who heard it.
Until August 2014, Nadia lived quietly in the village of Kocho with her mother, her brothers and her sisters. Then Daesh arrived, with the sole intention of completely destroying that small community through murder, rape and kidnap.
That evening in February, Nadia told us in her own words that
“They used rape as the means of destruction for Yazidi women and girls, ensuring these women will never return to a normal life.”
Days after Nadia was taken captive, she had to watch from a school building as six of her brothers were executed. Thereafter, she was taken to Mosul, where she says she was among thousands of women and children being held in the city. It was there that she was given to a Daesh fighter. She was repeatedly tortured and raped by the man, before one night, in desperation, she tried to escape. She was caught and punished. She said, about the man,
“he beat me up, forced me to undress, and put me in a room with six militants. They continued to commit crimes to my body until I became unconscious.”
Three months later, remarkably, and showing incredible courage, she attempted another escape. This time she was successful and is now resettled in Germany.
As I said, I was in the camps last week. What the hon. Gentleman says is very powerful and true. Just how bad the situation with the Yazidis is cannot be overstated. When I asked the people who work in the camps, “How bad is this? What is the youngest person who has been raped and abused by Daesh?”, the answer that came back was, “A two-year-old”. That is the youngest person they have had in the camps who has been raped and sold as a sex slave. I just want to put that on the record, to reinforce the hon. Gentleman’s point.
I genuinely thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. It is unthinkable to any normal person what the community have had to suffer. I do not want to go into too much detail because I believe it is far too upsetting, but the detail is there for people to see. But what I will say in praise of Nadia Murad, who was a teenage girl at the time, is that rather than hiding away from the world she has devoted her life to highlighting the plight of the people of her community, pleading with the world not to turn its back on them.
I want to add that it is not just women; young boys are being sold for sexual slavery as well, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will mention that.
Yes, absolutely. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point.
Nadia Murad is, without doubt, one of the bravest and most courageous people I have ever met or, indeed, am likely ever to meet. I am absolutely delighted that her selfless dedication to the cause of her people has been recognised internationally. As well as being nominated for a Nobel peace prize, she was recently awarded the Václav Havel human rights prize by the Council of Europe, and the highly prestigious Andrei Sakharov award along with another young Yazidi girl, Lamiya Aji Bashar.
In September, I was given the enormous honour of being asked to go to the United Nations with Nadia, where she was made a UN goodwill ambassador for the victims of people trafficking by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. It was while I was in New York that I met a remarkable man—Dr Michael Blume from the State Government of Baden-Württemberg in Germany. Dr Blume runs what is known as the special quota programme, a scheme that has taken approximately 1,100 Yazidi women and their children to Germany so that they can receive specialist psychological treatment as well as get the much-needed physical and emotional support that will assist them in their recovery. Working alongside Dr Blume is Dr Jan Kizilhan, who this year was the joint winner of the Geneva summit’s international women’s rights award for what was described as his “extraordinary and inspiring” work in rescuing Yazidi and other women who had been enslaved, assaulted and sexually abused by Daesh.
Together, Drs Blume and Kizilhan have taken some of the most terribly damaged and vulnerable women and children out of northern Iraq and are currently providing them with treatment they could not have had if they had stayed there. As Dr Blume explained, part of the problem is that there are only 25 psychologists in the whole of northern Iraq and the vast majority of them are male and Muslim, meaning that a heavily traumatised Yazidi woman would not want to be treated by them.
Let me be clear that I am not demanding that the UK Government adopt the Baden-Württemberg model lock, stock and barrel, but what I am saying to the Government is, “Please look at what can be done by an Administration with the desire and willingness to make things happen.” The Minister-President of Baden-Württemberg, Mr Kretschmann, said when launching the scheme:
“This is an exercise in humanity, not in politics”.
How we deal with the plight of these innocent Yazidi women and children speaks to our collective attitude to supporting the rights and safety of religious minorities. Does my hon. Friend agree that more than ever we must commit to helping these poor women and children and say that we will always stand with those who are so vulnerable?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. We must commit to helping. We cannot stand by and leave it to others to take up what is a very challenging position.
I would like to point out briefly how the Baden-Württemberg scheme works. Dr Kizilhan, himself a German-Yazidi, and his team go to northern Iraq to identify women and children they believe they can best help. The selection is based on the following criteria: first, whether the woman or girl has escaped from Daesh captivity; secondly, whether there is clear evidence of severe abuse and psychological damage from their period of captivity; and, thirdly, whether treatment in Germany will help, beyond what is available locally. If those three criteria are met, with the approval of the Kurdish Regional Government the women and her children are offered refuge and intensive treatment in Germany. As I said, there are currently 1,100 former Daesh sex slaves, both women and children, in the Baden-Württemberg area—the youngest is eight, the oldest is 55 and the average age is about 19.
In Germany, once the women and children are sufficiently settled in shelters, they receive not only specialist trauma counselling but German language lessons, and for those who are of school age it is compulsory for them to attend school. I understand from what I have read that the results of the programme are very encouraging. Indeed, some of the women now have jobs and are able rent their own apartments. Admittedly, recovery varies considerably, and for some it will take much longer, but Dr Blume told me that in Germany they have not had a single case of suicide, whereas in the camps in Iraq suicide among traumatised women is, tragically, fairly common.
This is a programme that works and I believe that the Government would do well to look at it very closely, to see how this country can directly help those innocent victims of Daesh. When we spoke in September in New York, Dr Blume was clear that any Government or Administration wishing to establish a programme to help these women and children would be welcome to avail themselves of the tried and tested model currently in place. Germany provides a safe haven for the women and children, and I can see absolutely no reason why the United Kingdom cannot also do that.
My experiences last week showed me that a lot of the Yazidi women are traumatised because their children have been taken from them. All of a family’s members are not located in the camps—they did not escape together. One of the psychological problems the women have is coming to terms with the fact that some of their children remained in Mosul and were sold on as sex slaves, and they do not know where they are. They do not want to be located further away from Mosul. They want to be located back there, so that they can go and find those children, who are being repeat sold on as sex slaves.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. It comes down to choice. The women are given the choice to go to Germany; they are not forcibly taken there. Many women who apply do not go; likewise, many women who could go choose not to.
As I said at the start of my speech, it looks increasingly likely that the people of Mosul, having been held captive by Daesh for more than two years, could be liberated within weeks. In the immediate aftermath, there will be an urgent need to care for civilians fleeing the fighting. In that maelstrom, we must ensure that the Yazidi women and children, who have been most wickedly and cruelly affected by Daesh, are given the care they urgently require and deserve. If learning from what others have done is the best way to do it, I urge the Government to do that and to act quickly and decisively.
As I understand it—the Minister can confirm this—the Government’s policy for victims of modern slavery recognises that up to two and a half years of discretionary leave to remain can be given precisely in such cases as that of the Yazidis. If that is the case, I urge her to move quickly to ensure that the United Kingdom becomes a safe haven for those victims.
Time is running out. I hope that the liberation of Mosul is near, but let us be honest: if we do not do something now, we will not do anything. If we do not do anything, history will be our judge, and I predict it will pass a particularly harsh judgment on us.
This has been a wide-ranging debate, and I will not have the opportunity to answer every point in these 10 minutes. I will ensure that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development respond to some of the specific questions. I thank the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) for securing this debate on an incredibly important subject. To hear about the plight of the Yazidi people at the hands of Daesh is utterly harrowing. We must do all we can to support the victims and defeat the vile perpetrators.
It is inspiring to hear about the case of Nadia Murad, who survived such appalling abuse and is now using her freedom to raise awareness about these terrible crimes. Nadia’s Initiative is working to ensure that all marginalised communities subject to mass atrocities, sexual enslavement and human trafficking can have a global voice and get the support they need. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman invited Nadia to speak in Parliament earlier this year and attended her appointment in New York as the first United Nations goodwill ambassador for the dignity of survivors of human trafficking.
Tackling modern slavery, which includes human trafficking, is a top priority for this Government. The enforced sexual slavery of Yazidi women by Daesh is a particularly horrendous example, but sadly modern slavery is a global problem that exists all around the world, including our country. That is why just three weeks ago at the Vatican the Home Secretary announced a new modern slavery innovation fund of up to £11 million. It will be used to test innovative programmes to reduce the prevalence of modern slavery, particularly in those countries from which we see the greatest number of victims in the UK. That is also why we have announced a new child trafficking protection fund of up to £3 million, which will primarily fund work in the UK to support victims of child trafficking from aid-eligible countries.
Both funds are primarily seeking innovative ideas and are open to bids from organisations in the private, public and third sectors. Both funds form part of the £33.5-million UK aid programme that the Prime Minister announced in July. Working with our partners, that investment will help to tackle the root causes of slavery. It will support effective co-ordination among international partners and help to uncover and test new ways to tackle this horrendous crime.
I will just make a bit more progress.
The hon. Gentleman talked about what more we could be doing right now for the several thousand women he identified who are in Mosul. While I totally agree with him, we need to be focused on defeating Daesh and bringing lasting peace to these countries. Clearly there is more that we need to do right now. Through our human rights and democracy fund, we are supporting projects on the ground in Mosul that are particularly targeted to support those members of the Yazidi community, whether male or female, who have been exposed to the most appalling sexual violence, as the hon. Gentleman said. That work is reaching several thousand people right now.
We have a long and proud tradition of bringing people into our country who seek refuge. There will be the possibility of the victims of this awful sexual exploitation coming to our country, but our priority is to support those communities on the ground now. As Members have said, people want to stay in their communities and their homes.
I will give way once I have finished this point. We are providing psychiatric help and all sorts of other help on the ground to the people who have experienced these horrendous things.
Will the Minister accept the voice of experience that says that specialist treatment for the most traumatised victims of Daesh is not available on the ground and that there has to be something more than just saying, “We can deal with this problem in northern Iraq”? We have a responsibility to ensure that we give them the best, and the best is not in northern Iraq.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to provide good psychological and other support for people in Mosul right now. My understanding is that the available DFID funding is being put in place. I am sure that more can be done. Because we have so little time this morning, I will ensure that the DFID Minister who is funding this work writes to the hon. Gentleman and other Members who have raised the issue this morning to ensure that we communicate exactly what is happening on the ground, including the amount of money, support and specialists we are sending over there to support local people in delivering these things.
I concur with the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara). There are very few mental health services. There are also very few non-governmental organisations operating in the field of mental health services in northern Iraq, as he said. It is a huge problem. The first thing the British Government could do to try to resolve the situation is ensure that the Yazidis are kept in a Yazidi camp, with other populations, such as Arabs—the Yazidis may fear them due to the mental issues and torment they have experienced—located in a different camp. At the moment, they are in the same camp, and that is proving exceedingly destructive. The first thing the British Government and the Minister could do is ensure that Yazidis are looked after in a camp of their own.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. We are part of a global coalition of 67 countries working hard to support the Iraqi Government as Mosul is liberated to ensure that civilians are protected and the humanitarian impact is minimised. We are also looking at long-term programmes of reconciliation and peace in the area. Good progress is being made, with several dozen settlements already set up.
I happened to visit a fantastic NGO in my constituency on Friday, called ShelterBox, where I met someone who is a frequent visitor to Iraq. ShelterBox is part of the team of British NGOs setting up new camps literally as we speak. Its intention is to provide support in a co-ordinated way. With people flooding out of Mosul, it wants to ensure that each of those communities is properly looked after, with all the issues about their different faith backgrounds and the levels of trauma they have faced properly taken into consideration. I heard at first hand from people who are in Iraq and are going to Iraq—I hope they have arrived safely today—about the work that is going on. The best thing I can do is ask the Secretary of State for International Development to provide the quantum of the activity that is going on. Members will appreciate that it is a fast-moving, dynamic situation, but we will ensure that they get the latest information about the number of people going there, the type of support and the specialist provision that has been called for that focuses on the Yazidis.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute asked another important question, which was about whether we would be doing everything we can to ensure that data and evidence are being gathered so that we can secure prosecutions. I reassure him that we are doing everything to collect and preserve evidence so that it can be used by judicial bodies to make a judgment about the atrocities that have been taking place. Any UK nationals who have gone there and are participating in those atrocities can be prosecuted for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide in our domestic courts. Our absolute priority is to do our best to support the victims now. It is important that we send out a clear message that people cannot act with impunity. The appalling atrocities will be dealt with and people will be brought to justice. I hope that reassures Members that we take this matter extremely seriously and are doing everything we can to help the victims of the appalling situation in Iraq.
Question put and agreed to.
Circular Economy: Leftover Paint
[Mr Graham Brady in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the circular economy for leftover paint.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I thank those Members who have turned up for the debate on this important issue. Originally, my near neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) was to lead the debate, but was unfortunately unable to do so at the last moment and I gladly offered to take over. Had he been able to be here, my hon. Friend, whom I have known for a long time, would have been a great champion on this issue, not least because he sponsored early-day motion 300 on the remanufacturing of paints in July last year. I am pleased that that early-day motion was tabled, as it shows the widespread support in Parliament for creating a circular economy for leftover waste paint.
To create a truly circular economy takes time and co-operation and needs the backing of the Government, largely because markets cannot deliver this new concept, a circular economy—although, when I think about it, I am not always sure it is that new—through business as usual. Government support is often required to get markets aligned and to make sure that we have developed those markets to maximise the potential of the concept. Although the Waste and Resources Action Programme has helped to make progress, much more remains to be done.
As the hon. Lady may have heard before the start of the debate, the British Coatings Federation is headquartered in my constituency and, unsurprisingly, I have been nailed to the floor several times on this issue. She is right: what we need to do is get a critical mass of sales of recycled paint, as paint, to stimulate the market and move the issue in the public’s mind. Government, particularly local government, should be able to do that. I was also interested in the briefing. As hon. Members can tell from my accent, I come from New Zealand, where, despite being an earthquake country—as people may have recognised—paint materials are being used to make a sort of porous concrete, although I hope not load-bearing.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He points to the importance of society recognising the win-win situation here. Nobody likes waste, and common sense tells us that if we can reuse it, we should. The ingenuity of modern science is such that it looks as though waste paint can be used to manufacture certain types of concrete. Work on that is ongoing. One only has to look at the paper industry to see what can be done if our minds are truly focused on maximising the potential from waste products.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned that the BCF is in his constituency. I have the world-famous Ronseal in my constituency, a very old company headquartered in Chapeltown. It is now officially Sherwin-Williams, but to local people it will always be Ronseal, a famous name. I have to say this: it does exactly what it says on the tin. No doubt every hon. Member present has used one of its products at some point.
I am proud to have such a company in my constituency, not just because of its amazing slogan that is now part of the language, but because it is good in every way. It makes quality products. It has a workforce to be proud of, who are very loyal to their employer, and it has a real commitment to innovation. I had the pleasure of visiting the company once again the other week to be shown how it is changing its manufacturing processes to decrease waste wherever it possibly can, not just because that is good for the environment but because it is good for the company as well. It reduces cost and effectively improves productivity.
I do not think there will be any division here today on just how important the paint and coatings industry is to the British economy. The sector supports some 300,000 jobs and sells 675 million litres of coatings each year. If we do the maths, that works out at 21 tins of coatings sold each and every minute of the year. The sector directly contributes £180 billion per annum to the UK’s GDP and is a great exporter to the rest of the world.
Why do I and the industry believe that a circular economy is important to the sector and to consumers? Before answering that, I will first set out the scale of the problem that we as a country face with leftover paint. The best way of putting it is to relate it to everyday experience, and I do not think Members of the House will be any different from the rest of society on this one.
There is no doubt that in our garages and sheds we all have unwanted and unused paints. The average UK household has six cans of leftover paint—probably more in my case, if I am honest—taking up space somewhere on the premises. Although some of that paint is no doubt kept for repair and touch-up work in the future, some 30% of people have responded to surveys saying they over-purchased the product in the first place. It is easy to see why that might happen. People overbuy paint because they want to buy from the same batch to get the same colour, which can lead to some of the oversupply problems. Through the project PaintCare, the industry is trying to develop tools to enable customers to be more precise about what they buy, which can only help the situation. I applaud that initiative.
The cost to local government of disposing of the 55 million litres of waste each year, or 71,500 tonnes, which is equivalent to the weight of a luxury cruise ship—albeit, I admit, a fairly small luxury cruise ship nowadays—is estimated at about £20.6 million. The problem is mainly left to local authorities to deal with through general waste or at their household recycling waste centres.
Currently, only 2% of paint or other coating is reused or remanufactured. Most of the remaining 98% is lost to us as a resource, principally because it is incinerated or ends up in landfill. The reasons for that are many and varied, but in the main it is due to the fact that two-thirds of household waste recycling centres do not accept liquid paint, because the disposal of liquid waste, including liquid paint, to landfill is banned in the UK, pursuant to EU requirements. The cost to local authorities of dealing with it is very high, which means they are effectively disincentivised and feel unable to accept liquid paint as part of their waste collection service. Householders are therefore often left with no option but to dispose of paint in general waste. In other words, many residents throw away their waste paint in the normal waste collection, no doubt in black bags so that the bin men do not see it. By so doing, they pass on the problem to others to deal with.
PaintCare consumer research also indicates that 62% of households would use their household waste recycling centre to dispose of waste paint given the opportunity, which points to the importance of that network as a means of disposal for leftover paint. I therefore very much welcome the BCF PaintCare project. I pay tribute to the BCF—it is located in the constituency of the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford)—which has been assiduous in pursuing this project for the reason I outlined earlier: it is good for society, the environment and business, so it is a win-win all around.
The PaintCare project is attempting to turn an environmental threat into an opportunity by working towards a systematic approach to collecting and sorting waste paint. It will also make the remanufacturing of paint from waste products a more viable economic process, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out. However, a remanufacturing industry needs a market—I will come to that point later. The project also involves the BCF working with local government to develop new processes to deal with the waste. At the same time, paint manufacturers are investing millions of pounds in projects to demonstrate how remanufacturing can be made more viable, with a view to developing a long-term market for it.
That innovative work is an excellent example of how a circular economy can work and secure both waste reduction and economic growth. I know that the Minister has a certain view of circular economies—at least, she said in a previous debate that she does not like the term. I also know that there can be a negative side to the concept of the circular economy, because it can be seen to trap economic growth within a certain space, but in my view it is a sophisticated way of describing a common-sense process that has the potential to make the circle bigger and encourage economic growth. There is a saying—I do not know whether it is special to the north of England—“Where there’s muck there’s money.”
Yes, “Where there’s muck, there’s brass”.
The important point is that, wherever possible, we should be generating economic growth from waste. It does not matter which term we use to describe the process by which we systematically embed this concept into our economy more generally; we should be committed to doing it. If we are to embed the circular economy on a national scale, it needs Government support. I therefore challenge the Minister to act and to commit to ensuring that 5% of all Government painting contracts use paint products containing a significant percentage of remanufactured content. That will help to stimulate a market for reused paint.
Paint manufacturers are doing their bit; the Government must now step up and play their part too. After all, many companies of all sizes are demonstrating their willingness to invest in this sector and in solutions. Several million pounds has already been invested in commercial ventures and in supporting social enterprises. If the Government are really going to have an industrial strategy—I believe they are serious about doing that—let us ensure that that kind of commitment is at the heart of the process. Let us ensure that the concept of making the best possible use of our resources and recycling them over and over again is embedded within the industrial strategy.
As long as we have houses to paint, and as long as consumers have a desire to protect and look after their homes, we will need a painting industry, which means that we will also have an issue with leftover paint leaking into our environment or being disposed of in general waste. We need to tackle that issue, so creating a circular economy in paint surely makes perfect sense. Not only will it benefit the environment; it will help hard-pressed councils to reduce costs and create a new industry in the remanufacturing process. Like many things, however, Government assistance is needed to help that contribution to the circular economy to grow and prosper. I therefore ask the Minister to update the House on the Government’s progress in this area. Will she commit to a 5% Government target? It is interesting to note that California in the United States—one of the more progressive elements of that continent as it stands now—has made that kind of commitment to procurement, and I think there are initiatives along those lines in New Zealand. The UK should take the lead in Europe. If we are going to leave the European Union, let us at least make the most of where we are and show a bit of leadership on this issue.
What work is the Minister doing with the industry to develop the innovative approaches we need to deal with leftover paint? What will she do to help local government to develop capacities to deal with the mountain of waste paint that we consumers leave behind each year? I look forward to her response and the responses of the other Front Benchers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady—I never thought I would be saying it is a pleasure to speak in a debate about paint so early in my parliamentary career. I thank the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) for introducing the debate and for being an able substitute for our colleague, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman).
What we are discussing is a very simple concept, but given the statistics that the hon. Lady outlined, it is clear that action is needed. The fact that only 2% of leftover paint is recycled and reused at the moment is startling, especially given that we have a drive towards recycling in general and that people are more aware of the issue in a wider context. As she outlined, disposal to landfill results in £20.6 million of extra costs to taxpayers, although that comes through at local level.
Another issue is the widely adopted waste management strategy of the non-acceptance of liquid paint at recycling and waste disposal centres, which runs the risk that people may dump paint, although it does not give them an excuse to do so. I always get really irritated when the public complain that dumping has happened and blame it on the local council. It is not councils’ fault, but they can sometimes allow bad behaviour to happen. As the hon. Lady outlined, people may hide paint disposal in black bags in their general refuse, which defeats the purpose of disposal. Another risk is that people seem to think that sinks, drains and toilets are a fantastic disposal mechanism. They think that liquid paint can go down there, but unfortunately it still goes into the waste disposal system. It either goes through the sewage treatment works or, worse, there is a risk that it enters the river system, which presents another hidden risk of pollution.
We need to ensure that people recycle more and buy less. We need to work with retailers, because they actually encourage us to buy more. Many of the paints and coatings at DIY shops are three for two, so our human instincts kick in and we say, “Well, I’ll just buy the extra tin to get a saving, and if I’ve got any left over I’ll keep it for the future.” We have to educate the wider public and retailers.
I double-checked the waste management strategy at the local authority where I used to be a councillor, and it has fantastic recycling rates, but it confirmed to me that it is unfortunately now in the same position as many other local authorities and does not accept liquid paint. It had a tie-up with a charitable organisation, RePaint Scotland, which folded locally due to a lack of funding, so now there is no way to recycle paint. So my local authority, too, only takes paint to landfill, once dried out or filled with sand to continue the drying-out process. We need to consider how to support such charities. We are paying for paint to go to landfill anyway, so it would be much better to support the charities instead. In the long run, they can also make a difference by supporting other community organisations, vulnerable tenants, or people in new tenancies, and giving them pride in their homes.
Without wanting to allude to typical jokes about Scotsmen, I have an instinct for recycling and reuse. Last year, I was in the States with my in-laws—I was staying there because my wife is American—and they were selling a property, which had a basement full of leftover things, including years of leftover paint. However, we cleaned out the basement and actually used a lot of the paint to paint it, brightening it up, which made a huge difference and made the house sellable. That was my instinct: not to dispose of the paint, but to reuse it.
I discovered something else with the remnants of the leftover paint. As has been outlined, we were not able to dispose of liquid paint in waste disposal, so we had to dry it out. I can tell the House that sometimes drying out paint is not an easy job, believe it or not. It was really warm in the States, we had the paint tins sitting out open and we spent days literally watching paint dry—I had to get that pun in. So we can see how, if people without patience want to dispose of paint quickly, the risk is that they will choose the wrong behaviours.
I also want to touch on the wider circular economy. We buy into the principle of it, and I will mention a couple of things that the Scottish Government are doing for the wider circular economy. They are starting to lead the way, and I hope that the UK Government will follow suit. Earlier this year, the Scottish Government published “Making Things Last”, a strategy to do with developing a circular economy strategy for Scotland. They also launched a £70 million circular economy fund, which is aimed at stimulating innovation, productivity and investment.
At the time, David Palmer-Jones, the chief executive of Suez Environnement’s UK recycling and recovery business, suggested that the UK Government should take
“a leaf out of the Scottish administration’s book”,
by incorporating circular economy principles into business, energy and industrial policy, and I hope we will hear something from the Minister on that. I also agree with the proposed challenge to achieve 5% of Government contracts using recycled paint—I am interested to hear about that as well. I again commend the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge for introducing the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) for putting on the agenda this important issue of the circular economy—important to debate in itself, and important in the context of where leftover paint fits into that agenda. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) for her contribution, which outlined the importance we should give to some of these niche areas, because the principles behind them then obviously expand to so many other areas.
A startling amount of paint is left over—55 million litres a year, which I understand is equivalent to 20 Olympic swimming pools-worth of paint. That is a baffling thought. I want to put on record my thanks to PaintCare and the British Coatings Federation for their interest in the subject. They are really putting an aggressive agenda forward on how we draw the reuse of leftover paint into the circular economy, and on the opportunities before us, which we are debating this afternoon. There are real opportunities in the reuse and remanufacturing of paint.
I always think that any debate on the circular economy has to begin with the issue of consumption. As the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) said this afternoon, offers that encourage us to overbuy clearly move things in the wrong direction. We also know that there are issues around the size of containers, because they are so large. Price is not proportionate to volume in those containers, so we often buy the larger pot of paint, just in case we need it and, obviously, to see the same colour match, as opposed to buying smaller quantities, which is de-incentivised by the size of the containers. That in itself is an issue that the paint industry could look at. Again, I ask for the Minister’s comments on that, and perhaps on how the Government could help the paint industry look at how to reduce the amount of leftover paint. We know that this is an issue right across industry, and hits on so many other areas too.
We recognise the incredible work of PaintCare in trying to educate the public about the use and volume of paint. PaintCare has a calculator for use on its website, which I had a look at, to help customers make better choices about volumes of paint. We can all benefit from that, because it means a reduction in cost for ourselves as customers, and it provides very useful advice using the technology that is available.
There are other principles to look at, and this afternoon I want to focus on the opportunities we have to reuse and remanufacture paint. We all understand that too much paint is being disposed of at landfill sites or going to incineration, which clearly has a detrimental impact on the environment. Therefore, it is really important that we ask why that is happening and what steps we have to take to move the agenda forward not just in generality, but by having targets year by year.
First, many have identified the fact that far too few household waste and recycling centres accept paint. There should be a universal approach, not a postcode lottery. Will the Minister therefore look at how she may support local authorities to ensure that all centres accept paint that has not been used? Having that postcode lottery is detrimental to the whole recycling business. We know how there are different rules from local authority to local authority. We press the Minister to move forward and to have a universal system, so that we may all understand what gets recycled and how we can dispose of things in the best way possible, and so that we have that link back to reuse and remanufacturing. Everything should be collected in the best way possible, and not put into landfill or sent for incineration.
I was struck by a meeting I had recently with Tetra Pak, the manufacturer, looking at how it disposes of its materials. It is a unique manufacturing sector, and it now recycles 100% of its products through a process that begins with universal collection. Tetra Pak itself, as an industry, started to put its own banks in place for waste products. It then worked increasingly with local authorities to incorporate Tetra Pak products into kerbside collection. It continued, where kerbside collection points were not being taken up by local authorities, by having Tetra Pak’s own collection, so there is now 100% coverage of opportunity.
That seems to be a sensible way of introducing a universal approach, but clearly we want to see local authorities having the responsibility, with support from Government, to take waste products. There are of course issues about storage, but they can be addressed. What Tetra Pak does with the products, once collection is done, is carry out its own remanufacture of 100% of the materials—the aluminium, the plastics and the pulp of cardboard is remanufactured by Tetra Pak and put into other products. That just shows what can be done, and we urge the Minister to look at that.
The UK clearly needs to ensure that there is continued research into the chemical composition of paint and how it can be reused. We know that the paint that is currently remanufactured is mainly water-based paint, and therefore we need to look at the science behind paint to ensure that we can recycle an increasing amount of the material. That is an important part of this—putting money into research is so important in the whole waste sector. Likewise, there is an onus to deal with packaging for paint—the paint containers can often be appropriately recycled, but at the moment they themselves end up in landfill, which is a blight on our environment.
We have heard that only 1% of paint products are reused and 1% are remanufactured. Just 2% are reutilised; 98% go to waste. That is a very poor statistic, and having a 5% obligation on local authorities through their procurement processes would be a good way to start to move the agenda forward.
We also have to look at the opportunities for reusing paint. We have heard that there are lots of opportunities for local authorities to be in touch with local projects and voluntary sector organisations that could really benefit from that as opposed to having to budget for paint. If such projects are properly managed, they could be scaled up nationally, not just focused on locally, to support voluntary organisations and other community interest companies to reuse paint.
I observed a couple of weeks ago a fresh pot of paint being used on external boarding around a building site and thought, “Actually, that could be reused or recycled paint that has been collected from elsewhere.” We know that there is a lot of waste, and that adds to the on-costs of projects. Dialogue could therefore take place not just with the voluntary sector but with the construction trade, where there could be real opportunities in looking at how organisations could use remanufactured and leftover paint. If we are going to see an expansion in the construction industry, there is certainly an opportunity to reuse such products and ensure that they do not go to landfill.
People probably do not know much about remanufactured paint, but it is around 25% to 30% reused paint, to which new paint is added. There is an opportunity for remanufactured paint to be available on the market, perhaps at a reduced cost. That could address some issues around inequality and help to move paint on an industrial scale. There are opportunities that we can look at to address that issue.
I want to raise the issue of why paint ends up in incinerators or landfill at all. What I will say about paint applies to so many other products; this is about the whole approach that the Government need to take—whether it is about organic material or manufactured goods—to the whole issue of the circular economy, and why it is so important to mainstream the circular economy into manufacturing processes, everyday public sector use and the way we think and operate as a country.
Yesterday, in another debate, I mentioned the research that is being undertaken into how we mitigate sending anything whatever to landfill and move away from incineration. The techniques of chemically breaking down materials or autoclaving them with high-pressure steam enable waste products to be separated into raw products in different ways, so that a far higher proportion of the components of the original material can be put to alternative use. Those components can be put back into manufacturing processes or even put into energy production. I know that work is being undertaken on how paint can be reused in products such as load-bearing concrete, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), who I am sorry to see is no longer in his place. It is important that we look at all options for repurposing paint.
Investment in research on those processes is vital to prevent so much more from ending up in landfill. As I mentioned yesterday, the Biorenewables Development Centre just outside York, a project that has sprung from the University of York, is looking at how we can mitigate waste altogether. That is of huge interest to me, and I know that it will also interest the Minister, given her background. I urge her to look at the opportunities that are being created through the research that is being carried out and try to bring that agenda back into the mainstream.
Ahead of next week’s autumn statement, I note the call from the British Coatings Federation and PaintCare for remanufactured paint not to be subject to VAT. Not only has VAT been paid previously on part of the product, but that would result in a narrowing of price margins between remanufactured paint and new paint. That seems a sensible incentive, and I trust that the Minister will raise that with the Treasury ahead of the autumn statement.
This has been an interesting debate. I have to say that I did not know we could debate the reuse of paint in such depth, but it springs into so many other agendas. I trust that the Minister will embrace the circular economy, as the Opposition do. I know that she has some issues with it, including its name, but it is being promoted heavily and the concepts are good and right for our future. It is right for our environment, after all. I therefore trust that she can move on from that position to ensure that we see the research and long-term funding that are needed.
I make one final plea in light of the uncertainty about the future and our relationship with Europe. Many of the research projects that are currently being carried out are funded by the EU and involve relationships that have been built between academia and industry across Europe. I would like to see the Minister get behind those projects and ensure not only that they continue, even if that takes us beyond 2020, but that those relationships are sustained into the future and that we will be able to take forward many more initiatives to ensure that our environment is safe.
I thank the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) for leading this debate on the circular economy for leftover paint. I am off script now, but I also want to thank my officials for doing their best to produce an interesting speech. This issue clearly matters, but let us try to spice it up a bit with some real candour.
We have all been through the ritual when doing DIY of going to B&Q, Homebase or whatever, doing the painting and ending up with half a tin of paint that simply is not used. Being the good people that we are, we do not like to throw anything away, because we may need to touch it up again later. That has led to the situation that has already been described. The average UK household has six cans of leftover paint stored in their home, and surveys show that people buy more than they need. I agree strongly with the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) that a lot of focus needs to be put on consumers thinking about what they actually need to paint the rooms that they are looking to decorate. I am afraid I do not think a website will particularly help with that, so there is a lot to be said for retailers and manufacturers being proactive in their discussions with customers and promotion of products.
Only a small proportion of leftover paint is remanufactured, despite the economic and environmental benefits that it is suggested that could deliver. The all-party sustainable resource group and the all-party parliamentary group on manufacturing have produced some interesting reports, including the “Triple Win” report, which the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) co-authored. PaintCare’s report “Creating a circular economy for leftover decorative paint in the UK” was launched about a year ago. Both those reports offer suggestions about how to increase the opportunity for this market.
Like others, I do not really like the phrase “circular economy”—I am more into thinking about being resource efficient—but I accept that it has become the lingua franca. There are opportunities to make money; one person’s waste can be another person’s raw materials. It is important that we do our best to make best use of materials and resources and keep them in circulation for longer, wherever that makes sense for the environment, the economy and society as a whole. I would argue that the market and businesses already get that, especially in an age when precious resources are increasingly scarce and regulatory frameworks and fiscal challenges promote the reuse of products rather than the use of virgin raw materials.
I accept that if we are to achieve the transition to a circular economy, innovation is essential—not only the development of efficient new business models but the innovations to which the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) referred. I will bring to the attention of my hon. Friends in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy the research project and the institute that she mentioned, but she will be aware of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s comments about Horizon 2020 projects and his intention for the United Kingdom to remain engaged in those—and indeed our own funding streams—on the basis of value for money.
One of the concerns from both academia and from where there is applied research is that 2020 is only just round the corner. People are now looking beyond 2020, to what their futures are. Although I heard what the Chancellor said, it is important that we look to the future and give further guarantees to ensure that projects continue.
I recognise what the hon. Lady says, but it is not unusual for a Government to talk about the spending envelope for which they have responsibility. I am not privy to what will be in the autumn statement next week or in future Budgets, but given that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has talked keenly about the need for future investment and having innovation as a key priority, I am sure the hon. Lady and I will both be listening with interest to what he has to say next week.
The hon. Lady also referred to VAT. She knows it goes against EU law to not charge VAT. A considerable battle was eloquently championed by her hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff), among others, to try to secure zero rates for certain products, but who knows what the future holds once we leave the EU or what the future of VAT will be?
I apologise for not being here at the start of the debate, Mr Brady. I was making an application to the Backbench Business Committee for another debate.
Is the Minister aware of the report by WRAP—Waste and Resources Action Programme—which claims that by 2030 the circular economy sector could require an extra 205,000 jobs, but that if we embarked on what it calls a transformational scenario, whereby we are incredibly ambitious about it, it could create more than half a million jobs? Does she feel this is something that can simply be left to the market or should we be far more proactive? It would also potentially offset about 18% of the future job losses expected in skilled employment, so it could be of real benefit.
The good news is that this Government have successfully created more jobs than the rest of the European Union put together over the last six years. I am not aware of the unemployment forecasts the hon. Lady is referring to. I have no doubt that new and efficient profit-making business models will create jobs. The Government are currently negotiating with the rest of the European Union on the circular economy package, so there is an element of the regulatory framework that may create incentives. However, Governments often create regulations that prevent the circular economy from functioning as effectively as the markets coming up with those opportunities. Often, regulation gets in the way.
In DEFRA we have been working constructively with organisations such as the British Coatings Federation on making better use of leftover paint, including identifying potential regulatory barriers to its recycling and remanufacture and how those might be overcome. We welcome the federation’s voluntary initiative, PaintCare, which aims to promote the reuse or remanufacturing of about 20 million litres of paint that would otherwise end up being disposed of. It is good to see the paint industry seeking to resolve this waste problem through creative thinking and working in partnership.
As the PaintCare initiative has developed, DEFRA has been looking at the regulatory barriers. As part of that, the Environment Agency is providing detailed guidance to determine the parameters within which materials such as leftover paint can meet end-of-waste criteria, through its IsItWaste tool. The agency will continue to work with such programmes and businesses to facilitate the development of operations to encourage further reuse of valuable materials.
We are aware of the challenges with many household waste recycling centres not accepting paint for recycling. The PaintCare report points out that councils face various challenges with that. DEFRA is engaged in regular discussions with the Department for Communities and Local Government about providing effective household waste and recycling services, but it is for local authorities to decide the best disposal options for paint and other materials, based on what options and facilities are available locally and what the market generates.
Will the Minister give way?
I was about to answer the hon. Lady’s point about the postcode lottery and wanting a universal system. She gave the interesting example of how Tetra Pak, which is subject to elements of extended producer responsibility, came forward with its special process to try to make sure that as many Tetra Pak cartons as possible are collected. The EPR principle does not currently apply to paint, but perhaps it should. Instead of putting the onus on—dare I say it?— councils and central Government, perhaps the paint manufacturers themselves should think about how they start to ensure that paint is collected in every local authority area, which would then help them to reuse it in remanufacturing and similar.
On pricing, I was surprised when I suddenly detected some conservative notes from the hon. Member for York Central. She is absolutely right that one of the best ways to shift remanufactured paint would be for it to be cheaper than standard paint, and people can feel virtuous about it as well. I recognise that that is not as straightforward as it sounds, because the process needs investment and so on. Nevertheless, there are ways to encourage people to do things, often by pricing.
Through WRAP, guidance is provided to local authorities, including options for best practice when dealing with paint through reuse schemes such as Community RePaint, which I am sure hon. Members are aware of. It is a UK-wide network of more than 60 community-run paint reuse projects. However, the numbers are limited and quite a lot of them are concentrated in certain parts of the country. Perhaps we will want to consider not only encouraging manufacturers but good local schemes to come forward.
I want to come back to the relationship between central Government and local authorities, because we clearly have a problem at the moment. Only 2% is reused or remanufactured, yet we know the potential in the industry is huge. What interventions will the Government make to support local authorities to be able to increase beyond the 2%?
To be candid, I am not sure that central Government are going to do anything apart from what I have already described in relation to the WRAP guidance and the Environment Agency. I personally believe we should try to reduce the amount of paint coming into the system in the first place. We need a better consumer understanding of how much paint is needed to paint a room. People should be able to take the room measurements to the shop and easily calculate how many litres are needed. That is the best way to prevent the problem in the first place.
The circular economy is not an either/or strategy; it is both. It is about having active interventions to drive an agenda forward. We have a real problem with paint, as we have heard so eloquently put this afternoon. The Government standing back and saying they will make no further interventions means that local authorities will never have the means to move the agenda forward, so I press the Minister again about what interventions she is prepared to make to progress the circular economy around this issue.
I have already answered the hon. Lady. I have said what I was going to say. From what she has said, I take it she agrees that perhaps having extended producer responsibility on the paint industry might be the way to go. That is not currently being considered by the EU in the circular economy package, but perhaps we will consider it when we leave the EU. The concept of extended producer responsibility is about trying to reduce waste and recovering the cost of waste. The Government have supported a pilot paint reuse project in Cheshire. We have provided more than £30,000 in match funding through the innovation in waste prevention fund.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
It is a pleasure to resume the debate. I was pointing out how the Government have supported a pilot paint reuse project in Cheshire with more than £30,000 of match funding through the innovation and waste prevention fund. That project involves local charities and work with the local recycling centres and housing associations to increase paint donation and minimise disposal. The provision of clearly marked paint collection containers, the training of recycling centre staff to sort paint and advise the public, and an awareness-raising campaign led to 23.5 tonnes of paint being collected, which is more than double the original target of 11.4 tonnes. The reuse rate was also much higher than anticipated, with 78% of the donated paint—more than 18 tonnes—being reused and only 22% needing to be disposed of.
WRAP will publish a summary of the project and lessons learnt along with a video case study next year. That shows there was an opportunity for other people to use the leftover product. In that case it was housing associations, but in other cases it could be the construction trade, to which the hon. Member for York Central referred earlier.
A question was asked about Government procurement. Government buying standards do not currently include remanufactured paint, and DEFRA and other Departments do not purchase a great deal of paint directly; contractors who undertake work on the Government’s behalf tend to purchase the paint. Overall, the Government’s policy commitment is to buy sustainably, which is set out in “Greening Government Commitments”, and Government procurement officers will take account of that when buying more sustainable and efficient products and getting suppliers to understand the need to reduce the impacts of the supply chain.
Industry-led initiatives such as PaintCare are important if we are to achieve the vision of a more resource-efficient circular economy.
Will the Minister give way?
I will not.
We must make the best use of resources in a way that supports growth and protects the environment and human health, as has already been said. The industry’s proactive action so far should be supported by an efficient and effective regulatory framework. That is why we are working with the industry to look at regulatory barriers. As I have already indicated, the Government are undertaking some projects through WRAP or the Environment Agency to try to stimulate admittedly modest changes, but I genuinely believe that the real impetus will come from the industry, whether that is about establishing a wider network for recovering paint or helping consumers generate less waste in the first place.
This has been an important debate. The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge will be delighted to know that I have started to use the phrase “the circular economy”. I recognise what she said: it is sometimes limiting. However, I assure her and others that businesses—especially high-value businesses—are clear that recycling and recovering materials is an important part of helping the environment, and it makes sense commercially. To that end, I thank all those who participated in the debate.
This has been an interesting opportunity to air the issues relating to paint. The Minister seemed to indicate—I am sure she did not mean it this way—that this is a rather boring topic. The old saying is that something is “like watching paint dry”, but most people use paint decoratively to make life better, not worse, to cheer themselves up and make their homes look brighter and nicer to live in. I therefore think that paint, and the paint and coverings industry, is an important part of our everyday lives and plays a significant part, too, in our economy. I contest the view that paint is a niche topic or that it is not really something that should engage the interests of parliamentarians.
The role of Government in our economy is increasingly clear—they have acknowledged it with the industrial strategy they have promised to develop—so I was surprised to an extent by the Minister’s remarks, which, in summary, were focused on a hands-off approach to the development of the circular economy and the work being done by the coatings industry in particular. I recognise that the Minister supports the work being done by the industry and that many of the efforts of Government have been delivered through WRAP and the environment agency. Nevertheless, the feeling was, “It is up to the industry and consumers, and the industry working with consumers, to deliver what the industry is looking for.”
Developing the remanufactured paint aspect of the industry is not just about supply and demand, pricing and markets. It is actually about confidence in the recycling process and the quality of what is produced. One of the reasons why the industry is keen to see Government take on a 5% target for procurement is that it would send a strong signal to consumers more generally, both commercial and domestic, that that paint is worth buying, worth using and serves a valuable purpose. I think that the Minister missed that point in her response.
I would also compare the Minister’s response with what we heard from Ministers in what was the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which we now call the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy or BEIS—I cannot get my head around that acronym—in relation to other manufacturing processes. In the steel industry, the message about procurement has been heard, and procurement rules have been changed not just for steel but for the benefit of manufacturing more generally. On top of that, real efforts have been made to enable the steel industry to develop extra capacity to meet future demand. For instance, in relation to shale gas, there are projects, I believe supported by Government, to ensure that UK steel can—if possible—take advantage of that developing industry. It is really disappointing to hear that kind of commitment on the one hand, and the lack of commitment we have heard today on the other.
The point about jobs is moot. We do not really know whether any extra jobs will be created in recycling and remanufacturing paint, because we do not know whether the overall demand in the UK would increase. The Government believe that exporting—building free, international trade—is our way out of Brexit and, even without Brexit, that would be the way to grow our economy. I actually believe that that is correct. On that basis, it is absolutely right that we should expand our economic activity. We should consider manufacturing more paint but, when doing so, we should maximise our resources. I do not accept the argument that there is not necessarily any job potential in that kind of initiative, because the more that we can produce and export, and the more that we can produce paint and coverings material sustainably, the better it is for UK plc.
On household waste recycling centres, I was particularly disappointed. When it comes to plastic, paper and glass, we no longer expect consumers or industry to take responsibility for the collection of those waste materials. That job is now with the local authorities, and local authorities up and down the country are working with the recycling industry—companies such as Viridor—to ensure that that material is collected properly, sorted and processed and then used for the purpose of making new materials.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
In a moment. On that basis, it is absolutely inexplicable to suggest that consumers or industry should take responsibility for waste materials. I take the point entirely, and I made it myself, that paint use should be reduced wherever possible, but there will always be a quantity of leftover paint. Different people paint in different ways, believe it or not. There will always be a market for collecting paint for recycling, and on that basis it is hard to understand why the Minister seems to think that dumping waste paint in general waste, which is actually illegal, is something for the industry to think about. I accept that it is the consumers’ responsibility, but we need to make it easier for consumers to dispose of their waste paint sustainably. I give way to the Minister.
I cannot intervene on a closing contribution.
Okay. Finally, I will go back to procurement. The Minister admitted that buying sustainably is at the heart of the Government’s procurement strategy. In that sense, it is really hard to understand why the Government cannot make a simple commitment to a 5% target. It is not a particularly ambitious target; it is a fairly sensible, modest target. If the Government sent out a clear signal to all of those public sector bodies that procure and use paint—prisons, schools, hospitals and so on—that they expect 5% of paint and coatings orders to be made up of remanufactured paint, that in itself would help to send out a signal to the market that this is a serious business that is capable of growing in the future.
I have to say that I have been very disappointed indeed with the Minister’s response. I would have thought that an industry that is so important to UK plc—I gave the statistics earlier—is not being given more support by the Government. We have illustrated in the debate that it is doing everything it can itself to ensure that it becomes more sustainable, that it reduces waste and that it absolutely makes the most of the resources that are wasted at the end of the day. The Government are doing very little to support that industry, and in the context of Brexit, that is very disappointing indeed.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the circular economy for leftover paint.
Red Wednesday Campaign
[Robert Flello in the Chair]
We have an extra 15 minutes for this debate, given the earlier suspension.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Red Wednesday campaign against religious persecution.
It is a pleasure to speak on this very important subject under your chairmanship, Mr Flello. All over the world, thousands of people are persecuted because of their faith, through false imprisonment, physical and mental torture, rape, slavery and, more subtly, discrimination in education and employment. For some, their faith can cost them their lives.
In partnership with the charity Aid to the Church in Need, on Wednesday 23 November Westminster abbey and Westminster cathedral will be lighting up their iconic buildings in red. Other faiths will join in that act of solidarity as a tribute to the people worldwide who are suffering injustice and risking their lives for their faith. I have written to Bolton Council to ask it to join this movement and light up Bolton’s historic town hall in red on 23 November to promote solidarity with those who are suffering. Aid to the Church in Need is also encouraging smaller, more personal acts of recognition on that day that everyone can take part in—for example, simply wearing red for Red Wednesday or using the hashtag #RedWednesday on social media to raise awareness of the plight of others. Having greater awareness and understanding will help to ensure that we never take our freedoms for granted.
This year, I joined colleagues from both sides of the House on a visit to northern Iraq to meet persecuted Christians fleeing the terrorist group Islamic State. In Mosul and elsewhere, Christians have been systematically targeted and the noon symbol, the Arabic equivalent of the Latin N for Nasara or Nazarene, has been daubed on their homes. They have been given the grim choice of paying the jizya tax, converting to Islam or being put to death. Many chose to flee, especially when their money had run out and they could no longer pay the extortion. That persecution, along with that of the Yazidi and many Muslims, led last April to the debate, granted by the Backbench Business Committee and led by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), on recognition of the genocide perpetrated by ISIL in the region.
The Christian community in Iraq is one of the oldest in the world, dating back to the first century. There were thought to be 1.5 million Christians in Iraq before the invasion in 2003. However, that number is reported to have fallen now to about 230,000. Although many people have been persecuted and have fled the region, that figure shows the targeted nature of the persecution and, if it carries on in that direction, we will soon see the end of Christianity in much of the middle east.
We know that there is a civil war in Syria and Iraq, but sometimes the religious context is overlooked or obscured by more dramatic events. When we met His Holiness Ignatius Aphrem II, the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, he gave us a sense of how overlooked many people feel. He used the example of the protection given to eight frogs in Australia. The pond in which the frogs lived was the subject of a huge local campaign, and a small fortune was spent to save them. He said that, in comparison, many Christians in Iraq felt ignored. Of course we have to protect our natural environment, but I am sure that many colleagues would be as concerned as I am about the scarcity of letters and emails on religious persecution compared with, say, badgers and bees.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on initiating this timely debate. Is he aware of the persecution faced by the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Pakistan? Since they faced criminalisation in 1984, hundreds of Ahmadis have been murdered in sectarian hate crimes. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government must continue dialogue with countries such as Pakistan to better promote religious tolerance?
I agree wholeheartedly with what the hon. Lady has said. It is so important now to reflect on the effects of increased globalisation. What goes on in one country, especially if endorsed by the Government—I am thinking of the Ahmadiyya community no longer being recognised as Muslim and being proscribed from describing themselves as such—is transmitted around the world as an idea and does not help to foster community relations here, so the hon. Lady makes a superb point.
In October 2016, Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore, Pakistan, told a Foreign and Commonwealth Office conference about his niece’s first year at school. That Christian girl was required to memorise a lesson that she was a Muslim and all non-Muslims were infidels. He spoke about how some textbooks in Pakistan’s schools foster prejudice against members of religious minorities, including Christians, Hindus, Jews and Sikhs.
Studies of the problem have been carried out both by the Catholic Church in Pakistan’s National Commission for Justice and Peace and by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. The report, which covered the Punjab and Sindh provinces, noted more than 50 hate references against religious minorities in those provinces’ textbooks. That is a very important example of religious persecution not always being about death and destruction. It can be found in all kinds of other measures, including ones that normalise the sense of persecution in schools. That kind of literature or information and that kind of understanding can be developed in schools and the wider community. I would be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister included in his reply what steps the Government are taking to stop that happening, particularly in nations that receive British aid to provide not just education but security in the region and beyond. I think that that is an aspect of what the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) was highlighting.
Oppression of religious communities is not always due to conflict between religions; it can also be part of state oppression, particularly in the remaining communist countries. North Korea is perhaps the most notorious, but we can also see the oppressive treatment of Christians in Cuba and of Muslim Uyghurs in western China.
Britain has her own problems with religious persecution, so it is not just an international problem. The case of Nissar Hussain from Bradford is a particularly shocking example and has gained widespread public attention only after 20 years of suffering following his conversion from Islam to Christianity. Violent punishment for apostasy has no place in any society.
Organisations such as Aid to the Church in Need and Christian Solidarity Worldwide have done a huge amount of work to improve the lives of the persecuted across the world, but we are looking for long-term solutions and, especially for the middle east, one that does not lead to the disappearance of Christianity or other religious groups.
I encourage colleagues and people watching the debate to take part in Red Wednesday next week, to read the report, which will be released on 24 November, or to write to their local council to turn a local monument red. The importance of raising awareness of this issue cannot be overstated.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this very important issue to Westminster Hall. The Red Wednesday campaign against religious persecution is very important. The hon. Gentleman and I were together on a trip to Iraq just in September, so we know very well about the persecution. It is good to remember such persecution on Red Wednesday, because this year 100,000 Christians will be killed because of their faith; 200 million Christians live in a persecuted neighbourhood; and 2 billion will face persecution and discrimination. If ever there was a good cause to follow and to recognise, Red Wednesday is it. Does the hon. Gentleman agree? I am sure he does, but let us see what he says.
I absolutely agree. The figures that the hon. Gentleman highlighted show how widespread concerns about persecution across the world are. On every continent, people of all religions suffer in so many different ways. I will conclude with the quotation from an Iraqi Christian, which sums up the way many Christians feel at the moment:
“The attacks on Christians continue and the world remains totally silent. It’s as if we’ve been swallowed up by the night.”
It is a pleasure to work under your chairmanship, Mr Flello, and an honour to respond to this important debate by spelling out our approach to human rights. I am pleased to see hon. Members here in the Chamber who have gained a reputation for raising these matters and for holding the Executive to account to see what we can do to make sure we underline the values that are important to us in the United Kingdom.
After the last election, we had a rethink about how best to consolidate our international approach to promoting human rights and democracy abroad. Our manifesto commitment was:
“We will stand up for the freedom of people of all religions—and non-religious people—to practise their beliefs in peace and safety”.
Before the election, we had eight themes, which I think was a bit too cumbersome. They have been narrowed down to three core pillars. They are, first, the values, including democracy, the rule of law, freedom of the media, freedom of religion or belief and women’s rights; secondly, the rules-based international system, supporting human rights as one of the UN’s three pillars that help to provide a nominative framework for the prevention of conflict and instability; and finally, human rights for a stable world—so, managing the risks of UK engagement in countries with poor human rights records, which includes our overseas security and justice assistance framework and contributing to tackling extremism.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
Before we were interrupted by the Divisions, I was explaining that in this House we often ask ourselves what is the value of international aid. We can contextualise the support we give and the trade we do with other countries in terms of the influence we derive when we have questions about their democratic values, concerns about how they follow the rules-based international system or, indeed, worries about whether they are following human rights. I make it clear that, where we can, our support and financial assistance go to non-governmental organisations, rather than directly to Governments. When we provide support to Governments directly, we try to ensure that they abide by our shared commitments and standards.
When the Minister has discussions about international trade and aid in relation to human rights, for example, what sort of response does he get? More importantly, what is the role of the United Nations? Does it make much progress?
The hon. Gentleman speaks of the United Nations as if it were another organisation. We are part of the United Nations. We affect the approach of the United Nations on such matters. As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, we are concerned not only about security matters but about improving standards of life, democratic values, the rule of law and humanitarian rights across the world. We want to use the UN as a vehicle through which we can leverage change.
Let us look at our own history. Without going into detail, it took us time before monarchs did not have their head removed, before people were not sent up chimneys and before the slave trade was abolished. I am not making an excuse for not pushing such things but, ultimately, we have to effect cultural change at a pace that works, rather than galvanising the opposite message from the one we want to push.
The Minister knows, as he said earlier, that I am one of those who have spoken out many times in this House on behalf of Christians. The all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief, which I chair, speaks out for those of the Christian religion, those of other religions and those of no religion. When it comes to human rights, we want Muslims to speak up for Christians and Christians to speak up for Muslims. Has the Minister seen much evidence of that taking place around the world, when he has had an opportunity to speak to other countries?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to stress that. We want believers and non-believers to allow freedom of belief. That is what we are pursuing, and it is exactly Britain’s approach when we have dialogues with other countries. The fact that we have an economic relationship with other countries allows us to have necessary frank conversations, sometimes behind closed doors; I appreciate that many hon. Members might feel that they do not hear enough of what we are saying and what pace of change we expect from other countries as they raise their game. A great example, which I know the hon. Gentleman has raised on many occasions, is the use of the death penalty. We abhor it, we ourselves have moved through it and we encourage other countries that use the death penalty to meet EU guidelines and ultimately to remove it.
If there are no further interventions, I will move on. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) on securing this important debate. It is an opportunity to confirm the Government’s commitment to the right to freedom of religion or belief. It is understandable that his speech focused on the harrowing situation faced by Christians in parts of the middle east. I certainly share his concern. As I mentioned earlier, this Government have a manifesto commitment to support freedom of religion or belief for people of all religions and non-religious people, which is exactly the point raised by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). In particular, we are working internationally to deliver our commitment for Christians in the middle east.
The Minister will recall the debate held on 20 April this year, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) referred and to which the Minister responded. The House unanimously called on the Government to make an immediate referral to the UN Security Council, with a view to conferring jurisdiction on the International Criminal Court so that perpetrators could be brought to justice. I was pleased that the Minister said in that debate that the Government were
“supporting the gathering and preservation of evidence that could in future be used in a court to hold Daesh to account”
“will do everything we can to help gather evidence that could be used by the judicial bodies”.—[Official Report, 20 April 2016; Vol. 608, c. 996.]
I have two questions for the Minister. How have the Government been facilitating the gathering and preservation of evidence of crimes, as they promised, and what steps are they taking to ensure that members of the global coalition, united to defeat Daesh, are also gathering and preserving such evidence? Given that Daesh is now rapidly losing ground in Syria and Iraq, and with the battle of Mosul raging, does he not agree that the Government should make clear how they intend to deal with the perpetrators when they are caught, and should do so with a sense of urgency?
I remember the debate well. I made it clear—I think that I was the first Minister to do so—that I believe that war crimes have been committed in Iraq and Syria and that crimes against humanity have been committed by Daesh and other extremists in that location, but it is not my opinion or the Government’s opinion that counts, because it is not a political judgment. It must be a legal judgment, and there is a process that must be approved. We cannot get a UN Security Council resolution passed until the evidence is gathered. There is a mechanism to get to the International Criminal Court, and it includes the collection and collation of evidence, as my hon. Friend highlighted.
I will not go into too much detail, other than to say that gathering the evidence, by its nature, requires people to expose themselves to dangerous circumstances. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has said on a number of occasions, the wheels of justice grind slowly, but they grind fine. As we saw in Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia, it can take many years until those people end up in The Hague, but they are held to account. That is why the Foreign Secretary, when he visited Washington DC in July, made the case and encouraged others to support his view that we must not allow the issue to be missed. We must collect the evidence. If I may, I will speak to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) outside the Chamber and familiarise her with a bit more of the detail, but I hope that she understands the sensitivities of spelling out too much, simply because of the dangers entailed.
I welcome that, because evidence has come to my attention that several prominent leaders of Daesh are individuals in respect of whom the ICC has the ability to exercise its jurisdiction now, due to their nationality. I would be grateful if the Minister met with me to discuss it further.
I would be delighted to do so. I simply make the case that the Foreign Secretary is extremely passionate about the issue. Indeed, it came from the voices in the Chamber saying, “What is Britain doing to hold these perpetrators to account?” We must work with the Iraqi Government, UN organisations and other members of the international community to deliver justice and promote the rights of all minorities, as well as to hold perpetrators to account.
It is also worth mentioning that we are working further afield than the middle east, as well. In Pakistan, we regularly raise concerns about the freedom of religion or belief. In March 2016, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, the then Foreign Secretary, raised the importance of safeguarding the rights of all minorities, including religious minorities. In Nigeria, we are providing a substantial package of intelligence, military development and humanitarian support in the fight against Boko Haram, including training and advice on counter-insurgency, and £5 million in support for a regional military taskforce.
Promoting religious tolerance is critical to reconciliation and securing a lasting peace in any combat area, but particularly in Syria and Iraq. That is why we developed the Magna Carta fund, which is being used to support several projects to promote freedom of religion or belief. In Iraq, we have funded a series of grassroots meetings between religious leaders of all faiths to promote religious tolerance. Over the past year, we have supported a project promoting legal and social protection for freedom of religion or belief in Iraq. The project aims to prevent intolerance and violence towards religious communities by inspiring key leaders in Iraqi society to become defenders of freedom of religion or belief.
Our commitment to promoting freedom of religion or belief is not confined to the middle east but extends right across the piece. It is integral to our diplomatic network in promoting fundamental human rights around the globe through our conversations with host Governments and other influential actors such as faith leaders, and through our project work and organisations such as the United Nations, the European Union and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
Is the promotion of religious tolerance in Iraq being done from primary school age? I have seen some documentaries in which certain charities run schools to promote better understanding between different religions. Has there been much success with that?
Yes. I can write to the hon. Gentleman with more detail, but he is absolutely right that that is the age at which messages about understanding, reconciliation and recognition of the various pressures and influences are most received. Our work involves primary and secondary schools as well.
The foreign and commonwealth conference on this matter, which took place last month, was a ground-breaking conference on how protecting freedom of religion or belief can help combat violent extremism by helping make societies more inclusive and respectful of religious diversity. The conference brought together a range of experts and high-profile speakers. All participants, including many Foreign and Commonwealth Office staff, shared and benefited from practical and innovative ideas to advance the cause. We have also updated and reprinted the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s “Freedom of Religion or Belief” toolkit, which provides officers with guidelines on how to identify violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief and what to do about them, and with further sources of information for those who wish to examine the subject in more depth.
In conclusion, the Government will continue to fight for the freedom of religion or belief internationally. We do so not only because it is right and is enshrined in the universal declaration of human rights and in article 18 of the international covenant on civil and political rights but because extending freedom of religion or belief to more countries and more societies helps to make the world safer and more prosperous, which is in all our interests. We recognise that progress requires a response from the whole of society, so we welcome the opportunity to work with this Parliament and other Parliaments, with religious groups and with civil society partners such as Aid to the Church in Need, Open Doors and Christian Solidarity Worldwide. We believe that freedom of religion or belief is a universal human right and we will continue towards the ambitious goal of ensuring that it is enjoyed by everyone everywhere.
Question put and agreed to.
Release of Spectrum Band
I beg to move,
That this House has considered release of the 700 MHz spectrum band for mobile data in 2020.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Flello. I vote that we also give you control over air conditioning. I hope that this afternoon we can provide a beacon of hope for people with poor connectivity in rural areas, but that beacon might be my face after standing here talking for more than 10 minutes.
Order. The hon. Gentleman reminds me to say that if right hon. and hon. Members wish to remove their jackets, they may do so.
Definitely my favourite Chair.
There can be little doubt that mobile connectivity is changing every aspect of our lives. Even in Westminster, this new way of doing things has had an impact—we need only look around this Chamber to see that. Someone somewhere in the country might be live streaming this very debate on a mobile device—I would not want to bet on that, but the appearance of the former Minister, the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), may enhance the chances of it.
We can all agree on the basic truth that mobile connectivity, which was once a luxury, has become a fundamental part of the way we now live. I am sure I am not alone in being able to remember having to drive around looking for a phone box when my pager went off—I was just out of school at the time—but we now constantly carry around devices that far exceed the functionality and processing power of the desktop computers that not so long ago seemed to represent the cutting edge of what digital technology could offer.
I want to use this debate to underline the ever growing importance of mobile connectivity and to consider the specific potential of the release of the 700 MHz spectrum band, which if correctly managed could make a major contribution to a society that is more connected than ever before. Using 700 MHz mobile data could provide coverage over a wider geographical area, and the signal could effectively penetrate buildings, so it could play a pivotal role in bridging the gap between where the UK is now and the next wave of connectivity-driven innovation with the emergence of 5G. As we move towards the 5G world, we will require a mix of short-range high-frequency spectrum bands, backed up by long-range low-frequency bands such as 700 MHz.
I want the debate to demonstrate that the type of digital infrastructure that we choose to create involves fundamentally political decisions. Although this place may not be renowned for moving with the times, it must be recognised that we need frequent, better-quality debates in Parliament about connectivity. With that in mind, I want us to consider how other European countries are tackling the connectivity challenge, and how different political choices have been made on spectrum and different outcomes achieved, but let us first consider the reality today.
We already know that a major shift in consumer behaviour means that many people are switching to mobile devices for access to the internet. In 2016, 66% of adults used their mobile phones to go online, up from 61% in 2015. Some 86% of UK mobile customers currently use a smartphone. Perhaps most significantly, 92% of under-35s now view their smartphone as their primary device for accessing the internet. We can also point to a growing trend of favouring mobile data over public wi-fi. Research has found that 72% of people prefer to use their device’s 3G or 4G connection to access the internet even when they are in a public space. That demonstrates that behaviour is already straining at the leash when it comes to—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
The debate may now continue until 6.15 pm.
I return to the theme of the importance of mobile connectivity. I was about to mention the transformative potential of what is generally known as the internet of things, which we see on the horizon. It is becoming more of a reality day by day, and will involve a tremendous number of devices being hooked up and the aggregate power of the internet really bearing fruit. With that, the demand for mobile connectivity is only going to increase.
Mobile data will underpin the use of new technologies such as precision farming, driverless cars, remote healthcare and smart energy grids. We are already seeing the cutting edge of the process coming into play with the increasing use of immersive augmented reality apps such as Pokémon Go, which is the reason why my phone is currently broken—thanks to my two sons, it went for an 8 km walk to hatch an egg, but that is a different story. At the same time, media companies are increasingly adapting their content for mobile users, and technology is constantly pushing the parameters of what mobile devices are capable of.
It is clear that we know why we want to transform mobile data connectivity, but I want to focus on how we can make that change happen. We know that the Government agree that connectivity represents a fourth utility, but they need to match the rhetoric with unambiguous action. I put it to them that we have moved far beyond the stage at which spectrum licensing could be seen as a cash cow for the Treasury. Previously, the 3G spectrum auction raised about £22 billion, while the 4G licence auction raised £2.34 billion. In contrast, other countries sought to raise much less, in return for operators delivering greater coverage.
Spectrum should be considered in terms of the wider economic and social benefits it can provide, particularly when considering the ongoing challenge of rural connectivity. The UK’s approach to the mobile sector has left more than a quarter of Scotland’s landmass without any voice coverage, and nearly half of it without any data coverage. Across the mobile networks, indoor coverage drops to 31% in rural areas, compared with 91% in urban areas. Those are exactly the kind of disparities that 700 MHz could be pivotal in redressing.
The problems currently facing rural mobile customers are well documented, and will be particularly familiar to rural MPs. Unless the Government tackle the problems at the outset, when they are setting the terms for spectrum licences, they will end up having to apply retrospective sticking-plaster solutions to problems ultimately of their own making. We saw that with measures such as the mobile infrastructure project, which delivered only one tenth of the 600 potential mast sites identified in its original plan.
Although we can recognise the pragmatism behind such projects and the current positive direction of travel on getting more from existing licences, the UK should be moving much further, much faster on rural connectivity. As new licences for spectrum become available, let us get things right from the outset. There is an historic opportunity to redress centuries of rural isolation and exclusion by making mobile a truly universal service, which means access to the internet on any device, any time, anywhere.
That is why we need a better picture of the Government’s thinking on spectrum policy at this crucial moment. One solution that was proposed recently—it has received a great deal of coverage, but in my view that coverage was unwarranted—is so-called national roaming. That may be attractive on the surface but it is fundamentally flawed, because on its own it will not encourage mobile network operators to improve coverage. In fact, it could end up acting as a disincentive to the improvement of coverage.
What the proposal for “national roaming” demonstrates is the basic difficulty we face when it comes to making the mobile marketplace work. Currently, mobile network operators lack the significant profit motive to roll out infrastructure and improve rural coverage. A network operator’s revenue comes from subscriptions and the consumption of content. So from a purely market-driven perspective, those companies have little incentive to invest in comprehensive rural infrastructure.
To get the best outcome from 700 MHz, we can learn a lot by looking at licensing models that are already in use throughout Europe. In Germany, coverage obligations for 700 MHz state that providers must get broadband coverage to at least 98% of households nationwide and at least 97% of households in each federal state. Indeed, across Europe we see far more comprehensive 4G coverage on offer than is the case here. If Swedish network operators can offer 99% population coverage for 4G, in a country that has a larger landmass and a lower population density than the UK, why are we lagging so far behind?
How competition works in practice is also key. The UK has gone from having an equitable distribution of spectrum holdings to having the worst spectrum imbalance in the G20 countries. With half of UK operators now constrained by small spectrum holdings, the competitive pressure that kept prices in the mobile market low is lessening. Will the Government consider a cap on spectrum allocation to redress that imbalance, and will they consider having a fundamental review, which will be needed anyway when 5G comes?
We also need to consider additional mechanisms that target market failure in areas of low population density. As with broadband, getting mobile connectivity to households that are very hard to reach will be a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. In Germany, the 800 MHz licence involved an “outside to in” approach across four stages, requiring operators to provide 90% coverage in smaller towns before moving on to the next stage. Will the Government consider using such a model?
One nation—one small nation—that has made strong progress is the Faroe Islands. With challenging topography and a population density of 91 per square mile, it now has 100% population coverage and 98% geographic coverage for 2G and 3G, including 100% coverage on roads, even in tunnels, and in a radius of about 100 kilometres in the seas around the islands. The Faroese are currently in the process of rolling out 4G, which is expected to achieve a similar level of coverage to 2G and 3G. Faroese Telecom has shown that that is the way forward, and it is keen to offer solutions for rural Scotland and engage with the challenges we face, which are similar to those it has already faced. I believe that the Minister or his officials may already have a meeting coming up with its representatives.
Such willingness only underlines the case, which I know Ofcom recognises, for a “use it or share it” solution in rural areas. Such a policy is a sensible and workable alternative to a step such as national roaming. As groups such as Faroese Telecom show, there are organisations willing to step forward to fill any gap. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s views on such a policy, which has already been put in place in other countries, including the US.
If digital connectivity is now considered a utility, a radical shift towards comprehensive mobile data coverage is required. Will the Government commit to looking at the examples I have cited as they consider the criteria for new licensees? Will the Minister also consider setting new targets of 95% landmass coverage and 99% population coverage indoors, not only for voice but for data?
I want the debate around spectrum policy to acknowledge that where there is market failure, it is incumbent on Ofcom to intervene to address the situation. Spectrum is a public asset and we must do all we can to make sure that it gets used in the public interest where possible.
There is a compelling case for fresh thinking and a longer term view of mobile connectivity from the Government. They ought to accelerate the move away from the traditional revenue-focused approach and instead consider this asset in a holistic manner factoring in all the social and economic benefits that comprehensive mobile connectivity can provide.
Before I finish, I will explain the need for universal connectivity in terms that are closer to home. I want visitors to my constituency to enjoy a rail service with world-class connectivity when they travel from Edinburgh down the Borders railway, which was recently recognised as the best tourism project in the UK. I want visitors who opt instead to take in the stunning coastal scenery along the Berwickshire coast to get constant access to mobile data throughout their visit. On arrival in my constituency, I want all visitors to have constant access to online information about local businesses and landmarks. I want them to visit hotels and restaurants that can receive electronic payments. When they take to the hills around Liddesdale, I want them to be connected when they visit remote but remarkable sites such as the imposing Hermitage castle, so that they can make use of an immersive app to enhance their experience. I want people in every corner of these islands to have the option to experience the benefits that connectivity brings, and I want them to be able to do so on any device, any time, anywhere.
I, congratulate the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Calum Kerr) on securing this important debate.
As the hon. Gentleman has already mentioned, there are obviously many benefits to releasing the 700 MHz band, but we should not lose sight of the fact that there are some current users of the spectrum who will be negatively affected. Chief among them are the UK’s programme making and special events, or PMSE, sector. It is the backbone of our creative industries, using wireless radio equipment such as microphones and in-ear monitors to stage concerts, festivals, west end musicals, sporting events and a whole host of other key cultural events in the United Kingdom.
I recently met the British Entertainment Industry Radio Group, or BEIRG, the industry body that represents the sector. It is profoundly concerned that unless adequate mitigating steps are taken, the industry faces severe problems as a result of the 700 MHz release. Most notably, without the allocation of adequate replacement spectrum for the sector’s use, standards of production will fall, as more wireless devices are forced to operate in a much smaller amount of spectrum, increasing the risk of interference.
Ofcom has allocated the 960-1164 MHz band, for which the sector is grateful, but no other Administration or regulator in the world has shown any intention of following Ofcom’s lead and allocating this band for PMSE use. That means that the market for new equipment to operate in the new spectrum will be UK-only, which means it is too small for any serious manufacturer of wireless equipment to make the business case for, or to commit to making new products for. PMSE users therefore face being forced to vacate the 700 MHz band in quarter 2 of 2020, without being able to use the new spectrum because no equipment exists that can operate within it. With lead times on equipment of around three years for most manufacturers, the UK faces a situation whereby spectrum-intensive events, such as TV broadcasts, festivals and west end theatre, will be unable to continue offering the world-leading production values that consumers have come to expect.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important contribution. I could not possibly have got every aspect of the matter into my own speech without talking for far too long, so I welcome what he is highlighting. Does he agree that there needs to be—there already is an element of this—a fundamental review of all parts of spectrum and a strategy for not just tomorrow but further into the future, to address those kinds of concerns, as well as looking at existing allocation across all media areas?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. We need to be careful about the unintended consequences of some of these changes. Some of those consequences can, with careful consideration, be anticipated; others will probably come in time, but that needs to be carefully reviewed and monitored.
The PMSE sector comprises many small operators, which are not all in the robust financial circumstances we would like them to be. Without assistance, they face some difficult times in the future. The Government and Ofcom’s recent announcement that a compensation scheme will be introduced is hugely welcome, and I thank the Minister for that. Although the importance of increasing mobile phone and broadband coverage is clear for all to see, we must ensure that unintended consequences do not have a negative impact on our hugely successful creative sector and that PMSE operators are able to continue their world-class work. I would be grateful, therefore, to hear from the Minister whether the Government have any further plans to assist the PMSE sector with the transition.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Flello. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Calum Kerr) on securing this important debate. I am sure that the tens of millions of people who have heard about it will be streaming it right now on their mobile phones, to get Members’ words of wisdom.
An important set of points have been made. On the point made by the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), there is a clear need for further debate and scrutiny, and for far more attention than is given to the subject at the moment. That was laid bare in the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, who highlighted a number of issues that are important—nay, essential—to ensuring a fair distribution of the opportunities provided by the technology in the future. He mentioned the need for rural coverage to take priority—for an outside-in approach to be applied. For far too long, people in rural or less commercial areas have found themselves stuck at the back of a queue, unable ever to get to the front because they are always overtaken by a commercial imperative. The situation in the Borders is, I think, similar to that in my own area, where some 432 miles of road are not covered by 2G, let alone 3G or 4G signals. Those issues must seriously be addressed.
I commend my hon. Friend for his suggestion about the approach taken by Germany. He pointed out that not only is there a requirement there to get to 90% coverage in smaller towns before widening access, but they managed to raise €5 billion through the licensing process, so that approach can be taken and at the same time a return made for the public purse.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is also noteworthy that in Germany they have mandated minimum data speeds, with a minimum average of 10 megabits? Coincidentally, our own measly universal service obligation for fixed wired broadband stands at that same speed.
My hon. Friend shows just how on top of his brief he is by pointing out that anomaly and the lack of ambition we often see when it comes to broadband and wireless access.
That brings me on to the need to accelerate the process. Although it is important that there is further debate and that the considerations for manufacturers and those using the facility at the moment need to be carefully taken into account—I think we would all support that—we should not allow that to hold up the development of something that should be giving us not only a commercial edge, but a social edge for people across the whole UK.
There is rural-proofing and the need to accelerate, and I also completely agree with the “use it or share it” approach. There needs to be an acceptance that we must access all the technology as productively as possible. When we consider ambition, it is important to remember that in the United States they freed up the spectrum in 2008. That is how far behind we are. The UK already lags behind countries such as Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Sweden, which have all committed to accelerate the programme. There are important debates to be held, but there is also a need to pick up the pace—I hope the Minister will indicate how that will be achieved—to ensure that we can take advantage of the benefits.
My hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk also mentioned the need to be ready for the internet of things. That is not something we need to be ready for; it is being deployed here and now, and nowhere is it more important to rural areas than in mobile healthcare. There is an opportunity to give people the chance to improve and restore their health and get the kind of social benefit from the technology that at the moment they cannot access. Until the spectrum issues are solved, people will not, however, be able to do that.
I conclude by repeating one of my hon. Friend’s lines that we should all take away: everyone—the people in every corner of these islands—should be getting the best and fastest possible access and the best possible advantage from new technology.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Flello. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Calum Kerr), who I congratulate on securing this important debate. He has considerable experience and expertise in the area and brings a wealth of knowledge to the debate and to the House in general. He clearly set out what we can achieve if we get this right from the outset, tackling the considerable disparities across the UK.
The hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) clearly laid out the unintended consequences that could arise from the changes, particularly for our creative industries and the PMSE sector. He made clear the need to determine from the outset exactly how spectrum licensing is to be used and how to mitigate any possible issues. I echo many of the comments made, some of which I will come on to.
The auctioning of an electromagnetic frequency for public use may not set pulses racing or minds whirring, but it is the quality of the debate and not the quantity of people here today that shows how important this is. It is a matter of considerable significance for the public, our businesses and our country’s economy. In fact, it is one of the public sector’s most significant assets. How it is auctioned and regulated and, crucially, how the public stand to benefit from any auction are issues of critical importance to the expansion and growth of the digital economy and the economy at large. That is why we have been pushing the Government to be so much more ambitious in this crucial area. The sector is crying out for more clarity, vision and ambition.
In an always-on world, where the demand for mobile data is increasing at almost the same rate as digital entrepreneurs can think of novel ways to use it, the provision of mobile data, both geographically and in terms of residences and businesses covered, is crucial. It should absolutely be seen as a utility in this day and age, and we should, as far as practically possible, do everything in our power to achieve near-universal coverage, regardless of any vested interests that may try to hold back progress, and to overcome the flaws and market failures that hold back investment in infrastructure.
Recent analysis by Ofcom made the future trajectory of data usage clear. It suggested that between 2015 and 2030 demand will increase forty-fivefold. Since March 2011, data traffic has increased by 710%. It is not just usage, but the way in which data are used that is transforming our economy. The next decade will see only more change—change that we cannot currently imagine.
Let us look at some recent examples from around the country and the globe. In Germany, the annual harvest is on the cusp of a digital revolution, with sensors monitoring everything from air temperature to harvesting rates in real time, increasing productivity and bearing down on food insecurity. One German company has spent more than €2 million developing ways to automatically transmit information from the harvester operating in the field to grain experts thousands of miles away who can instantly assess the yield.
For there to be a true success story in Britain, data coverage is vital. That is not just in residences and not just on one mobile network, but across all networks, on the many transport arteries that criss-cross the United Kingdom—motorways, train routes, where coverage is still abysmal, and our waterways—and in the most rural parts of the country. The 700 MHz spectrum will help in achieving coverage in hard-to-reach places, particularly due to its ability to penetrate through thick walls. It will help to provide that foundation layer of connectivity. To do that, however, the licensing conditions for auction have to be ambitious and tough. The auction cannot just be a boon for the Treasury; it has to bring substantial benefits to the public at large and to our digital economy.
Does the hon. Lady agree that it is possible, as we can see from the German example, to put tough conditions in place and still raise some money from the auction?
Absolutely. I could not agree more. The issues that have been raised today need to be seen alongside that point. The income for the Treasury should not be the first and only priority.
In our view, while Ofcom does a fantastic job of regulating and auctioning the frequencies, such decisions are in reality political. Where and how coverage targets are met matters greatly, and we in this place should be setting tough conditions for the auction. We would like the Government and Ofcom to be much more ambitious, and we would like to see clear licensing commitments to reflect that ambition. Geographical coverage is still poor, as we have heard. The targets set by the Government—to reach 90% of geographical coverage for voice and text by 2020—simply do not go far enough to meet the challenges of a data-driven world. In fact, as the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) mentioned, we are lagging behind many of our international competitors, who have significantly improved coverage through different and imaginative approaches to licence obligations. For example, Denmark has focused on specified postcodes, France has covered an incredible 99.6% of its population, the Netherlands has covered all main roads, waterways and airports, and Cyprus has specified rural areas and high schools as priorities.
With that in mind, I will conclude by asking the Minister a number of questions, in addition to those asked by the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk.
Just before the hon. Lady asks her important questions—I can see the Minister is desperate to hear them—does she agree that there is a false economy here? By seeking money up front for the sale of licences, we inhibit the speeds that exist out there in the country. That holds back productivity, where we have an enormous challenge. If we show a bit more vision and foresight and plan for the longer term, we will get faster speeds and the overall benefit to the country and the public purse will be far greater.
That is absolutely right. The hon. Gentleman will know that we discussed that point at length in the Digital Economy Public Bill Committee. In fact, we have brought the band back together again—it is nice to be in the Chamber with all the team. He is also right that the Minister is desperate to hear my questions—he always is—so we will crack on.
Does the Minister still expect mobile data on the spectrum to be available by quarter 2 in 2020? Working with Ofcom, what conditions does he specifically expect to set to achieve much improved geographical coverage and coverage along major transport routes? In particular, what consideration has he given to outside-in licensing, as was mentioned earlier? Will he ensure that the prime focus of the auction of an enormously valuable public sector asset is on ensuring public benefit through increased and expanded coverage, rather than on raising revenue or maximising benefits for the mobile network operators? As the hon. Gentleman just mentioned, that will bring incredible benefits to productivity and our economy.
Finally, as regards the European Union, the Ofcom strategy document, which was written before Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, makes explicit reference to the importance of the EU to the 700 MHz clearance programme, in terms of consultation and technical considerations. The European Parliament and the European Council are leading the joint decision on the timing and release of the frequency. The Minister will be aware that the European Commission recently published a draft decision that includes proposals that would require member states to allow the use of the 700 MHz band for electronic communications services under harmonised technical conditions by 30 June 2020, yet the timetable laid out by the Prime Minister indicates that we will have left the European Union right in the middle of that deadline. I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed the steps he and Ofcom are taking to ensure that Brexit does not adversely impact achieving data usage on the spectrum. Finally, what contingency plans are in place?
Rarely has Westminster Hall seen a debate of such technical expertise and such unanimity on the thrust and direction that Members want to see. They were unanimous that increased connectivity is important and drives productivity; that when we clear the 700 MHz spectrum, we need to ensure that the concerns of those who currently use it are taken into account; that we need to use licence conditions for mobile operators in order to reach more people; that we must work appropriately to deliver the very best connectivity that we can; and that demand for that connectivity is going up. That is a reasonable summary of the points made on the direction of travel.
First, I will cover the current use of the 700 MHz band, why that is changing and what will happen as a result. I will then turn to the broader points raised on connectivity. This band of spectrum is an important public resource, and we will auction the use of it with the aim of getting the best benefit. It is currently used for digital terrestrial television, which is the TV we get through an aerial. Some 75% of UK households use it in some way. When TV was first launched in 1936, it used a large block of radio frequencies for which there was no competing use. Today those frequencies are in demand for mobile phones—in particular for mobile phone data—and other technologies, such as wireless microphones for the programme making and special events sector, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) referred.
Demand for mobile data is growing exponentially, as Members have said. The figures I have are that in January 2011, 27% of UK adults had a smartphone and 2% had a tablet. By August 2016, that had grown to 71% and 59% respectively. That meant that demand for mobile data doubled every year from 2012 to 2015. That trend is forecast to continue, and Ofcom has decided to reassign some spectrum from DTT to mobile, namely the 700 MHz band. That will mean that there is enough spectrum for DTT services and new spectrum to carry a lot of data longer distances, making it very useful for providing coverage across the UK. The 700 MHz spectrum is important because it can carry heavy data loads over longer distances, which is particularly important to the debate about ensuring that we have rural connectivity.
Working with Ofcom, we have set up a programme to ensure that we can clear the 700 MHz band, and up to £600 million is available to support the necessary changes. The main change is to adapt the infrastructure for TV to ensure that that switchover can happen. Support is also available for that for the PMSE sector, as my hon. Friend for Mid Worcestershire mentioned. To answer his questions specifically, Ofcom is consulting on the assistance to be provided. The details of exactly how that support will flow will follow on from that consultation. I met the industry body last month to hear the concerns directly, and we will continue talking to the industry to ensure that the switchover happens effectively. Although the spectrum is essentially domestic, in that the distances it covers mean that there is not overlap, there is overlap in the fact that other countries use equipment on similar spectrums, and therefore in the manufacture of equipment. I acknowledge that, but I think that the issue can be dealt with, given the taxpayers’ money set aside for mitigation.
On the questions on rural connectivity raised by the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Calum Kerr), I agree strongly that we have seen a positive direction of travel. It is rare that an SNP Member describes the Government thus, but I am delighted that he did. No doubt he will agree that this week’s announcement by Virgin that it will cover 360,000 more premises in Scotland, the majority with fibre to the premises, was extremely good news.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh)—I almost called her my hon. Friend, we have spent so much time together—made a very interesting speech. Both she and the hon. Gentleman raised the need to ensure that licence conditions include coverage, which is well understood by the Government. It was a mistake by the Labour Government in the early 2000s to set out licence conditions without such geographic coverage requirements. We had to reverse that after the licences had been set, in 2014, to get enforceable targets into the licence conditions, and we are strengthening that enforcement in the Digital Economy Bill that is currently before the House. There are now licence conditions for the four main providers to reach 90% geographically, which is equivalent to about 98% indoor coverage.
Can the Minister confirm that he is saying that the Government will adopt an outside-in approach to licensing in future rounds?
We have actively brought that into the existing licences, even after they were struck by the previous Administration. The hon. Gentleman can see clearly the attitude that we take to the need for high-quality, ubiquitous coverage of voice and text and then of 4G, as well as to the groundwork needed to make sure that we prepare for 5G in the years ahead as that technology comes on stream.
I just want to push a little further on that point, if I may. The Minister has suggested that there is an attitude and a direction of travel, and has accepted what needs to happen. Will he go a bit further and say that that will be the Government’s approach?
We expect to auction mobile licences for the 700 MHz band in late 2018 or 2019. It will be for Ofcom to conduct those auctions. The hon. Gentleman can see that the Government’s existing policy is to insist on licence conditions on mobile coverage. We are clear about the need for broad mobile coverage and the need to hold the mobile network operators’ feet to the fire on their licence conditions. Some licence conditions go further than 90% geographic coverage—not least those of EE, because it has the emergency services licence—and also include road coverage, to make sure that we get not simply geographical coverage but coverage of the geography where people use phones, which, along with premises, is on the roads.
The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk mentioned the Faroes. I am meeting Jan Ziskasen from the Faroe Islands Government tomorrow to understand more about what they have done. Areas of sparsity with similar geographies to some parts of Scotland can always give us a greater understanding of what can be used to deliver connectivity in those geographies. I am enormously looking forward to that meeting and to hearing what more we can do.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley asked a number of specific questions. First, she asked whether we expect availability by 2020. The answer is broadly yes, we do. As I said, the auctions will take place beforehand, but we want to get on with this as soon as we make the switchover. I have answered her question on coverage being included in licence conditions; that is existing Government policy.
The hon. Lady asked a question about maximising revenue. She said that we should not maximise revenue first and foremost, but should instead look to the benefits of productivity. If only that had been the approach of the last Labour Government, perhaps the list of countries that we are behind would not be so long.
Finally, the hon. Lady asked whether we will work with EU partners. Yes, of course we will. I will be travelling to the Telecoms Council myself next month to make sure that while we are a member of the European Union, we continue to work with our European partners to get the very best connectivity for the whole country.
This is a happy, consensual debate, is it not? The Minister almost gave my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) a positive commitment—he managed to row back as fast as possible, but the direction was still positive. Does he support the concept of “use it or share it”, and will he consider it as another potential solution in rural areas, where existing spectrum licence holders are clearly not providing a service?
That is a matter for Ofcom to consider in setting the details of how the spectrum is auctioned. It will of course consult on exactly how that auction takes place, and I am sure it will have noted the hon. Gentleman’s comments.
I hope that I have answered all the questions asked today. This is a very important issue, if a rather technical one. I am grateful for the interest in it—
That interest extends to constant interruption by SNP Members while I am trying to finish my speech—I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.
I am extraordinarily grateful for one last opportunity to intervene on the Minister. I asked a question during my speech about the opportunities for accelerating the process. I wonder if he could give an answer on that.
I apologise for not answering that question. These changes are best done in an orderly way, with a clearly set timetable. In this case, there are three and a half years still to run. Having set the timetable, I think it is best to stick to it, especially because of the impact on existing spectrum users, and to make sure that the changeover happens in the most orderly way possible.
With that, unless there are any further interventions, I will finish by saying that I am grateful to Members for the broad consensus of support for what we are trying to do to improve connectivity through the use of the 700 MHz band.
I will just say a few words to wind up the debate. I thank hon. Members for coming and taking part in the debate.
I am concerned that because of the backgrounds of people in this place, there is not enough knowledge on this subject. The moment my colleagues saw “700 MHz” in the debate title, I got umpteen taps on the shoulder and people saying, “What is that? Is it broadband?” and I went, “Well, actually, it is mobile, but mobile broadband.” I am concerned that there is a lack of knowledge in this place. As I often say, we cannot move for tripping over a lawyer, but try finding somebody who understands technology and it is a challenge. Because of that, the danger is that we shy away from the issue, pass the buck to Ofcom and do not debate it. I say well done to the hon. Members who are here for taking part—we all have a responsibility to keep talking about this.
Order. It is not usual to have interventions in the winding-up speech.
That is a shame. I am sure it was going to be a very good point; the hon. Gentleman is very well respected in the technology space.
We should be more conscious about what we do in that space, because there is a political dimension to policy setting on spectrum. We have talked today about the level of coverage. That is a political decision, and it is not fair to pass the buck to Ofcom. I am not saying that we are doing that fully, but we must debate and decide and be conscious of the direction of travel. The Minister has made some positive noises, but I would like to see more details firmed up. I would like to see 99% indoors coverage, 95% geographical coverage and an out-to-in approach. A fundamental review of spectrum policy is needed if we are to get the infrastructure that will deliver the access that I am sure the Minister and all of us want.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered release of the 700 MHz spectrum band for mobile data in 2020.