Tuesday 29 November 2016
[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of Government proposals on supported housing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I thank hon. Members for their attendance. I formally congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Welfare Delivery on her newish role—this is the first chance I have had to do it publicly.
We are here to talk about the effect of Government proposals on supported housing. Once again, this is a Government targeting a significantly disadvantaged group with ill-thought-through plans that will have long-term negative cost effects and which have already had a negative effect on the provision and supply of supported accommodation. In a September 2015 Department for Work and Pensions release, the then Secretary of State stated:
“Supported housing supports hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable people across the country”.
Some of them are on crutches. The Department’s definition of vulnerable people covers older people, homeless people, people fleeing domestic violence, people struggling to overcome drug and alcohol addictions, and disabled people, including many people with mental health conditions and learning disabilities. Those are the people who use, and need, supported accommodation.
In 2010, the Department for Work and Pensions published a report that suggested that of people living in supported accommodation 25% had a learning disability, 42% had a severe disability or a physical disability, 17% were recovering from addiction, 5% had a significant mental health problem and 5% were fleeing domestic violence. We must ask ourselves why any Government would choose to make life more difficult or more uncertain for those groups of people. We are talking about a truly shabby policy on top of policies since 2010 that have significantly targeted, again and again, disabled people and other disadvantaged groups with cut upon cut. I will outline what the Government say they intend to do and why so many organisations and people have significant concerns.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will remember that only weeks ago we had a debate on homelessness in the House of Commons, and a motion was passed. I am interested to know how that motion can be implemented when there is a situation like this with regard to homelessness, particularly with capping going on. That is surely a contradiction in terms.
It is an absolute contradiction. Since 2010, we have seen a shocking rise in homelessness across the country, particularly in my constituency. I did a sleep-out for the Robes Project there last Friday evening, in very cold temperatures, so if Members have not already done so I urge them to sponsor if not me the project more generally.
In the 2015 spending review the Government outlined plans to cap the—
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. He seems to be a bit stuck in a time warp from several months ago. Does he not recognise that the situation has changed and that there is a commitment to a new funding model based on localism, which should help with the allocation of resources so that those most in need will get the most help?
I am about to run through how the Government have ended up where they are now, but when it comes to localism, this Government have a record of devolving responsibility without the resources to meet the demand. That point should not be lost, as it is an important factor in how many organisations see the current consultation.
Coming back to last year’s announcement, the Government said that they would cap the amount of rent that housing benefit will cover to the relevant local housing allowance—the LHA—for supported housing, with a top-up paid by local authorities. Initially, they announced that the measure would apply to those who had signed a tenancy since April 2016. There was an immediate backlash, and it was clear that the Government had not properly thought through the plans or considered very well whom they would affect. They then announced a delayed roll-out of the change, initially for one year.
The hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) alluded to the fact that there is now a consultation on further plans for a 2019 roll-out, including of the new funding model, but it should not be forgotten that the cap poses a considerable risk to supported housing as it might be insufficient to cover full costs for the people affected. Management costs for supported housing are significantly greater than generic housing costs. The limbo period has already caused some damage.
Alongside the delays to 2019 for both the change and the proposed new funding model, the Government have announced further damaging changes in addition to the proposals that they outlined last year. They have now included suggestions that will affect all universal credit claimants when the change is rolled out in 2019, not just those who have signed a tenancy since April 2016. There is concern among many organisations that the universal credit system is too clunky and inflexible to take into account what the Government had originally planned. It would be useful if the Minister indicated whether it is a “computer says no” approach rather than the flexible model that perhaps is needed. In another damaging change, the Government are applying a rent reduction to supported housing, with rents decreasing by 1% a year for three years up to and including 2019-20. That was not in the original plans and it has caused much dismay among the organisations and people affected.
I applaud the hon. Gentleman for bringing to the House this debate on a very important subject. Does he not agree, however, that it is local authorities that know where best to place the money and whom to help the most? That is what the new funding model will address. I am a firm believer that money should not come from the top, but locally. That is how best to spend it. I would welcome clarification about whether the funding will be ring-fenced. I believe that the Minister will promise that, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would like to hear that that is the case.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very important debate. Does he agree that as part of Government proposals regarding the provision of supported social housing, recognition needs to be given to the best locations, with good access to hospitals and other public services, as many of the people concerned are vulnerable and require care?
Location is important, and I will come on to discuss where needs are best met. For too many of the people directly affected, that has been in NHS accommodation, which has been inappropriate and at far greater expense, but the Government’s plans do not address that.
I do not think we should let the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) get away with what she said about passing responsibility on to local authorities. That is a cop-out. Local authorities can do the work with Government resources but if they are not given those resources all that happens is that they get the blame and the public suffer.
It is the individuals who need the accommodation who suffer, and also the taxpayer in the longer term, for reasons I will come on to.
I want to give some national and local statistics. It is estimated by the House of Commons Library, which I thank for the figures, that there are 651,000 supported accommodation places across the country. That is not a massive number, as accommodation goes. Across my borough of Southwark, there are 1,200 places in a range of schemes.
I want to flesh out a bit more who is affected, by citing a couple of anonymised case studies from AmicusHorizon. The first is Mrs W, who is disabled and lives on her own in sheltered accommodation. She has no close family, and has mobility problems, a visual impairment and a learning disability. That is who the Government are targeting. She lives in sheltered housing, which means that she is in an accessible and supportive community with unobtrusive support from a scheme manager who operates as a kind of warden. That support enables her to live independently. Her combined rent and applicable service charge is £123.10, which is £57.44 more than the applicable LHA rate.
The second case study is that of Mrs P, who lives in an extra care scheme. She lives on her own and does not have contact with her children. She moved to the scheme after a spell in hospital because of a fall. In the accommodation her health has improved and the staff provide support to ensure that she stays well and is able to get out more and attend social activities. Without that support she would be in residential accommodation at potentially higher cost. Her combined rent and applicable service charge is £174.71, which is £64.04 more than the applicable LHA rate. Golden Lane Housing, which is a Mencap subsidiary, provides homes for people with very complex needs in my constituency, including people with learning disabilities. I visited its accommodation in Rotherhithe, and the people being supported there do not just have severe learning disabilities; they also have communication impairment. One was deaf and could not speak, and that is who the Government are targeting with the change. The wraparound support that those people need is absolutely essential, and by its very nature it is more expensive than routine housing costs.
St Mungo’s is another brilliant local provider of emergency and supported housing in Southwark. It helps people out of homelessness, and helps people with high support needs. In its client group, as it calls them, in Southwark, 53% have slept rough; 73% have mental health needs; 44% have a significant physical health condition; and 55% have or have had a substance misuse problem. As well as providing shelter for those people, St Mungo’s runs workshops that improve life skills and help many residents to avoid more intensive NHS services and to stay out of the criminal justice system.
The Government’s plans from last year and from before that simply do not take into account the broader benefits of supported housing. First, there is the social benefit. Supported housing gives people who would otherwise struggle to live independently control and choice over their lives while allowing them to receive essential support. There is the human, personal benefit of supported housing. There is also a financial benefit. The cost of supporting people in specialist supported housing can be half the gross cost of residential care placements. Lifeways estimates that the average net saving achieved by moving from residential care to supported accommodation is at least £185 a week.
There is a clear cost saving available if we get the policy right, but the Government have failed to do that. The lack of specialist supported housing is pushing people with learning disabilities, dementia and a range of conditions into more expensive residential care, including hospitals. The National Housing Federation states that stable and certain funding for supported homes and services reduces pressure on public services such as the NHS, saving the taxpayer around £3.5 billion a year. That is the potential saving from getting this right.
I thank all the organisations that have given me briefings or meetings on the issue, including the National Housing Federation, Golden Lane Housing, Lifeways, AmicusHorizon, the London Borough of Southwark, St Mungo’s, the Salvation Army, which I think is here today, and London Councils. Their involvement and all the supported accommodation that they provide has built up in the years following the extensive shift in public policy to enable disabled people to live more independently. In particular, that shift was meant to support disabled people to live outside NHS accommodation and residential care. That reflects a demographic shift, and we need to be aware that we have an older disabled population. We should celebrate the fact that more young disabled people are surviving into adulthood, but that comes at a cost. They need more support. In Southwark, the fastest growing cost group to social services is 18-year-olds with learning disabilities. Mencap estimates that that group alone requires the provision of 1,000 new places a year in supported accommodation.
There are some worrying statistics on how things will be directly affected by the Government’s proposals. Golden Lane Housing has suggested that 82% of local authorities agree that there is a shortage of supported housing for people with a learning disability. More worryingly, 41% of current schemes could be at risk of closure if the Government do not shift their plans. Some 80% of schemes due to be built to support that group would cease and not go ahead, leaving many disadvantaged people unable to access the homes and support they need and directly undermining Government efforts to provide supported housing in the community as part of the Transforming Care programme.
All of that has been put at risk by the mess, limbo and confusion from Government on the issue. There has been a clear lack of co-ordination across Government, with a rush to continue the squeeze on budgets without thinking more strategically or for the longer term. In September, the new Secretary of State said:
“The Government values the role supported housing plays and is committed to protecting and boosting the supply of supported housing”.
However, DWP policies have put existing and planned supported accommodation at risk. For example, Golden Lane Housing had to postpone a £100 million five-year bond to provide supported housing. It would not have relied on a penny of public funding. It is also likely to have to turn down a £500,000 grant from the Homes and Communities Agency it applied for under the care and specialised support initiative to develop new homes. Accommodation has been put at risk as a direct result of the Government’s confusion on the issue.
Unable to meet higher needs, the executive director of operations at AmicusHorizon said:
“The impact of the cap will be more than £1 million of annual rent and service income being put at risk. It will also have a significant impact on our residents. None more so than those living in extra care schemes. We’ve calculated they will have to fund an average shortfall of £41.00 per week”.
The Government have said that
“from 2019/20 core rent and service charges will be funded through Housing Benefit or Universal Credit up to the level of the applicable LHA rate…For costs above the level of the LHA rate, Government will devolve in England an amount of funding for disbursement locally.”
Very little detail has been provided, and there is an ongoing consultation on the issue.
Lifeways is based in my constituency and provides accommodation for more than 5,000 people with learning disabilities across the country. It has commented on the uncertainty that the Government have created and the lack of clarity in the funding model:
“The current uncertainty about the future funding of specialist supported housing is putting at risk our ability to deliver high quality, permanent homes in local communities...The new funding model currently been consulted on needs to ensure that the money devolved is sufficient and gets passed on to the right people. People with learning disabilities must not be overlooked.”
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again; he is most generous. We have had lots of detail from him on what he sees as wrong and so on. I am a member of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, and we have heard quite a lot of evidence on this, but I wonder what he proposes to do about the matter. Does he think that the status quo is the way to progress ad infinitum, or does he have any concrete proposals?
As I have outlined, if the Government introduced concrete proposals and knew what they were doing, we would not be in this position. I have some specific recommendations for how the Government might go forward, even though I fundamentally disagree that this group of people should be targeted for a reduction in support.
Lifeways has expressed concern about the fact that providers need confidence to invest and build. The Government’s position since September last year has undermined that confidence and caused some schemes to be put on hold or cancelled altogether. Some providers of supported accommodation have said that they will pull out of the sector if the policy is not done in a way that reflects actual costs. The pressure is on the Government to get it right. While it is welcome that the Government have made exemptions for some groups—in particular, people fleeing domestic violence—Lifeways’ concern about people with learning disabilities should not be overlooked. Sadly, there is a clear history in public policy of people with learning disabilities often being left behind or neglected in policy initiatives. It would be useful to hear from the Minister whether there are plans for other groups to be offered specific protections.
Many organisations expressed concern about the difference between supported accommodation and sheltered housing. It would be useful to hear how the Government see the difference between supported accommodation and sheltered housing for older people and the homeless.
As a London MP, I wanted to speak about the higher costs in London. I am grateful to London Councils for the information that they have provided. Its figures are based on applying LHA rates to the current total weekly costs eligible for housing benefit. It should be remembered that most providers cannot reduce rents in reaction to lower housing benefit entitlements set by Government due to the higher cost of provision, because of the nature of the needs of people in supported accommodation. If the Government plans go ahead as on paper, it is estimated that the London Borough of Ealing could have an annual shortfall of £528,000 a year. “Red” Kensington and Chelsea has forecast an annual loss of £440,000 a year. My borough of Southwark could have a shortfall of £167,000 a year. It would be useful if the Minister outlined how the Government will ensure that those additional costs are recognised and met. There is a lack of detail on the local top-up fund that forms part of the consultation. An indication of how the Government intend to operate that would be useful.
Conservative Back Benchers are keen to suggest that discretionary housing payments will always cover any housing shortfall from the Government. I hope that we do not hear a lot of that this morning. It is an insufficient answer and only a temporary solution, even when such payments are possible. For Greater London, there was a £23 million cut in DHP between 2013-14 and 2015-16. My borough regularly spends well over what the Government provide for DHP. It would be useful to know how the Minister intends to meet that need without relying on discretionary housing payments.
I have some questions on the operation of the new scheme and funding model. Is there an intention to pilot the new funding model rather than rolling it out nationally? The changes proposed are significant. The National Housing Federation and others are keen to work with the Government to ensure a successful pilot, not just for the individuals but in terms of value for money under any new model.
The Government have suggested an element of ring-fencing, but ring fences do not always work; people are looking for an iron-clad ring fence on this issue. How will the Government give certainty that any ring fence would last in the longer term? If housing associations and others are to be able to plan to meet the higher level of need for supported accommodation that we know we will see, the ring fence must be iron clad, not just for current demand but into the future. The Government need to be clearer about how funding will keep pace with the level of demand. How do they intend to measure and monitor the level of need and the level of funding required?
I conclude by repeating that this policy change is very poorly targeted. It was ill thought-through last year, it has been poorly developed since and the limbo period has caused considerable discomfort. There is still a very poor level of information available on how the Government plan to take the policy forward from 2019.
It is a pleasure to be able to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on securing this urgent and important debate.
I agree that it is important that we put supported and sheltered housing on a secure footing for the long term, but I am not comfortable with the idea that we are targeting a particular group. I have some experience in this area and we have not been doing as well as we could have; this is an opportunity to improve the service that we provide for vulnerable people in this housing situation, because it is absolutely right that people deserve to be supported to live independently and with dignity.
There are many organisations and people who support vulnerable people, including older people, people with learning disabilities and vulnerable young people. Examples of all those types of organisations exist in my constituency and I am familiar with them. They need the confidence that any changes that the Government make will ensure that they can continue to deliver those essential services for those who need them and that money ring-fenced for supported living is spent on supported living.
Certainly. I will come to the work that the YMCA is doing in my constituency to increase the amount of housing it provides for vulnerable young people, even in these supposedly uncertain times. There is a real opportunity to do something significant. There is work to be done, but the Government are heading in the right direction. What the people who provide the housing solutions need is confidence and a secure footing, and this is an opportunity to achieve that.
Is it not then important that we commend the Government for opening up a consultation? I have met many housing associations in my constituency, including Yarlington and Knightstone, which build across the south-west. Although one or two of those associations have projects on hold, they have certainly got some good ideas about how we could succeed in this area and make it better for the vulnerable people who need support and who we absolutely must support.
I welcome that intervention and completely agree. I delivered supported housing in the past, and there were decisions made, or done “to us”. The current situation is exactly as my hon. Friend says: an opportunity to get the people who understand the situation, the challenge and the solutions to work with the Government to deliver those things. We need confidence in three areas: that we will continue to deliver these essential services, that money awarded for supported living is spent on supported living, and that funding will keep up with demand—that is extremely important.
Long before I came to this place, I worked with people with severe learning disabilities and often with very elderly parents who were looking after adult children. The stress and pressure on the parents were enormous. The worry about where their adult children would end up when they could no longer look after them was significant. They had no confidence that the current arrangements would ever provide housing in the right place that their adult children needed to help them to live full and free lives. It is important that we use this opportunity to focus our attention and to address how we can provide the housing needed to support the whole family as they look to move their adult children into secure, independent housing that looks after them as whole people. We worked hard to do that. Local people put in their money to buy a property where we could house up to five people, close to their families, with the people in place who could support them to live there, but the barriers were so immense that we could not continue that service. The property is not lost because it is supporting homeless people, but we were unable to provide a secure arrangement for those people, where they felt they had a home for life.
Particularly in Cornwall, to which people gravitate because of the quality of living, many people with learning disabilities are living with older parents. We need to meet that housing demand now and in the very near future. We are not discussing the built environment, but it is important that the Government use every resource available to Departments to increase the supply of housing for people who have learning disabilities, to ensure that they are in the right place, with good transport links, close to home, where they can still be in close contact with their families and where they are part of the local community.
Devon and Cornwall Housing run foyers in my constituency, which are places where vulnerable 16 to 18-year-olds with quite horrendous backgrounds are supported. They are invited to live there. Alongside the housing—the roof over their heads—they receive support on growing up and the skills needed to become independent and to live lives that we all take for granted. The YMCA also works in my constituency. Years ago, I was on the board of YMCA Cornwall and sat on a panel that interviewed young people to ensure that the housing we provided was for them and would give them the tools that they needed to move on. They are only ever allowed to live in one of those properties for two years, so it is important that in that time they are supported to learn the skills and have the resources and abilities to go and set up homes of their own.
The challenges facing young people who qualify for such supported services are considerable. For years, both Devon and Cornwall Housing and the YMCA have been influential in helping young people to gain a firm footing in their lives. As I have said, there is good news, despite the uncertainty referred to by the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark. Two weeks ago, I attended the annual general meeting of the YMCA. Bearing in mind that this is a rural, west Cornwall constituency where there are enormous housing challenges, the YMCA is being ambitious and is setting out to build 19 extra units in the constituency—it already has several—to support vulnerable young people. While the Government are focusing on what supported housing looks like and how we can respond appropriately and effectively to that important demand, will the Minister also pay attention to the barriers for young people in supported housing environments? A safe place to live is essential, but so is the right support to help them to move on from supported housing.
I would like to read a letter that I received from The Coach House, a foyer run by DCH in my constituency. It is right that we focus on supported housing, but we should also look at the barriers created by Government policy that hinder young people from getting the skills and tools they need. The letter says:
“Further to our conversation last week”—
I went along and sat in on one of the house meetings—
“about the young person I have that would like to do a university course at Cornwall College.”
This gentleman is 19 and has
“completed a level three music course at Penwith college. He completed it with triple distinctions. We went to Cornwall College to talk about him doing the foundation degree and was told that he would have to apply for student finance. I looked into how this would affect his benefits and was told that he couldn’t claim benefits if he had student finance. The rent at the Coach House is £230 per week student finance would not cover this. So he is now in the position that living in supported housing is holding him back. He still needs a lot of support so isn’t ready to move on. I think that if we could support him through the first year of his course he would be more than ready to move on. This would be a fantastic opportunity for this young person. He is more than capable of doing the course.
Since being told that he couldn’t do it because of funding his mental health has spiralled to the point that he hasn’t been getting up, washing, eating properly he is very depressed at the moment. I have just come back from the doctors with him and he has been referred to the mental health team”.
We could do more to help that young person to have a fantastic life—to get the skills and the degree he needs and to find the job satisfaction that we enjoy, but at the moment the system is hindering him from doing that further training. I would be interested to hear what work the Government can do across Departments to remove those unintended barriers.
In summary, can the Minister ensure that money given to local authorities will go in its entirety to supported living? Recently, we have heard about extra money for social care from an extra precept on our council tax. We are a year into that, but in my constituency I have struggled to be absolutely sure that the money has gone to social care. We would not want a repeat of that, so if the Government are to give money to local authorities to deliver locally based, locally driven solutions, we must be absolutely sure that it goes to where it is intended so that the people we are talking about receive the supported living they need and deserve.
What more can the Government do to increase the supply of supported housing for people with learning disabilities? How can we ensure that those homes are in the right places so that tenants can play a full part in local society and, equally importantly, access public transport? Finally, will the Minister address the difficulties faced by young people who want to gain skills but risk losing their support by doing so?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) for securing this debate. I intend to speak briefly, as this is not the first occasion since joining Parliament that I have spoken on the subject of supported accommodation, and I suspect it will not be the last. However, I have a few points to make.
When I last spoke on this issue back in April, I welcomed the delay in introducing the housing benefit cuts for those in supported accommodation, and I also welcomed the September announcement to further delay applying LHA rates to the supported accommodation sector until 2019-20. However, it is not enough merely to delay them; the UK Government must exempt supported housing tenants altogether from those devastating changes or find an alternative funding model. The change to housing benefit can undermine the ability of such tenants to pay their rent, thereby putting their home at risk and threatening their physical and mental wellbeing, as well as posing a genuine threat to housing associations’ financial stability. It could also end up costing us more money in the long term if those people move on to other forms of housing.
In previous debates, I have illustrated my concerns with practical examples from my constituency, and I will do so again. The Open Door Accommodation Project, based in Bathgate, which operates in my constituency, works with vulnerable young people. It has a number of supported flats throughout West Lothian and can accommodate up to 16 young people between the ages of 16 and 21. The flats are fully furnished, and most are shared accommodation. The aim is to prepare young people for their own tenancy. I was glad to hear that the shared accommodation rate will not apply to those residents.
When a young person joins the supported flat service, they are allocated a dedicated support worker who works with them to give personal and practical support and helps them to develop the self-confidence and skills they need to live independently. The young people being supported are already experiencing issues with the time it takes to receive benefit payments. That wait can have a huge impact on the likelihood of their sustaining their accommodation.
Another major concern is that there is no longer a seven-day run-on between accommodation, which means that young people have to move immediately when they sign up for a tenancy. That gives them no time to set up utilities or apply to the social welfare fund for the most basic of necessities. The uncertainty about the reduction of housing benefit further exacerbates those issues and, worryingly, might even put that vital supported accommodation at risk. How will such organisations plan for the future if they are faced with yet more funding challenges and uncertainty, which can only continue to deter investment in new schemes?
An area of particular concern for projects such as Open Door is the impact of the eligibility for the housing benefit single-room rate rising to from 25 to 35. That could make it much more difficult for young people to find suitable tenancies when they move on from the supported projects due to increased demand on single rooms and the difficulty in finding suitable flatmates in areas such as West Lothian and the Falkirk districts that make up my constituency—I do not believe that my area is unique in that respect. Those areas have a very different housing landscape from large cities such as Edinburgh or Glasgow, where shared living is much more common. An additional knock-on effect may be that a significant number of young people will move out of the more rural and suburban areas in search of shared accommodation, which may potentially have a negative impact on local economies and employers, as they may struggle to find young recruits.
I am also aware that the age increase to 35 could mean that a huge range of young and youngish people will be living in shared accommodation, which will lead to a new range of challenges. In particular, I worry about the vulnerability of teenagers who go through projects such as Open Door and then have to move on from supported projects to share accommodation with effectively middle-aged adults of 35.
There is much that concerns me about the UK Government’s proposals. I am, however, glad that there are plans to devolve funding to the Scottish Government for supported accommodation. In my opinion, that is a step in the right direction. It will help to ensure that supported accommodation is supported in a secure and sustainable way for the long term. I just hope that, as with the bedroom tax, Scotland will not have to mitigate the effects of yet another botched Tory attempt at savings that simply moves an increased cost burden on to Holyrood.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on securing this debate.
It is fair to say that there was a significant policy vacuum earlier this year, which was causing much concern for those involved in the sector. Credit is due to the Government for coming forward with proposals to fill that void. I particularly commend the ministerial team at the Department for Work and Pensions for the speed with which it responded with its statement on 15 September. It should be acknowledged that, back in July, it was a brand new team. This is not a straightforward matter, and it moved quickly to address the sector’s worries.
I believe that the framework within which the Government are working up their proposals is sensible. They carried out an evidence review, and they have acknowledged that the proposals cannot be worked up just within the confines of the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Communities and Local Government. There is a need to work with other Departments and providers.
The Government are also right not to be rushing to put the new system in straight away. As they move into the consultation and detailed design stages, I have six specific concerns that I want them to address in their work with those involved in the sector day to day. First, there is a widespread concern that the 1% cut in rents to commence from next March will impact on the viability of schemes, in particular those of small providers, and will lead to either a reduction in much-needed services or the closure of schemes altogether. Another worry is that the cut will lead to housing associations drawing back into cheaper, general needs housing.
I acknowledge that the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 provides that social landlords can be exempted from the requirement to reduce rents if that would result in serious financial difficulty or jeopardise their financial viability. The feedback that I am receiving, however, is that so many providers will be adversely affected and the measure is casting such a shadow of uncertainty over the sector that it would be simpler to exempt all supported housing from the provision.
Secondly, there is concern among providers that the Government’s proposed model from 2019-20—in which core rent and service charges will be funded through housing benefit or universal credit, and costs above the local housing allowance rate will be paid from devolved funding—could lead to a postcode lottery. The National Housing Federation expressed that opinion, and Riverside has provided regional maps to illustrate it. Emmaus, which serves my constituency, has similar worries, as has the Salvation Army, which is concerned that the housing support entitlement of vulnerable men and women will be substantially reduced everywhere except certain parts of London and the south-east. I acknowledge that London has serious homelessness challenges, but so do other cities, towns and coastal communities such as the one that I represent. We need a one nation solution.
Thirdly, it is important that any funding mechanism has the ability to maximise the amount of finance that can be leveraged in from external sources, whether banks or pension funds. Bear in mind that new developments are invariably funded over long periods of between, say, 10 and 30 years, because lenders are looking for certainty that their investments are secure over the lending period. Rents eligible for housing benefit provide that comfort, because that is Government-backed income. The worry, however, is that the local discretionary top-up funding does not provide the secure, long-term solution that investors seek—it is too risky. As the NHF has pointed out, we need to ensure that the ring fence for funding is iron-clad into the long term.
My fourth point concerns mental health. Rethink Mental Illness has expressed serious concerns that the position of those with mental health challenges could be seriously compromised. Housing is the foundation stone for those facing mental health challenges to get their lives back on track, so we need to look very closely at the proposals as they affect that. Fifthly, the sector is very diverse. It has a number of different parts and, although we should have a core system, we need add-ons to address particular worries and concerns. Finally, as has been mentioned, this is complicated and not straight forward, so I ask the Government for a pilot project, which is necessary before the scheme is rolled out across the country.
In conclusion, the Government are to be commended for providing a framework within which a sustainable system of funding for supported housing can be delivered. Our challenge is to address the devil in the detail. This is very complicated and we need to work with the sector during the consultation period and beyond to deliver a system that fairly and properly provides for many vulnerable residents.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, and it is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), who made some good points and struck a better note than some of his colleagues have done.
Repeat debates on the same subject suggest either that someone is going for easy political point scoring or that the matter is one that the Government are continuing to get wrong. In this case, it is clearly the latter, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on securing the debate.
In a debate last year, I stated that the Government’s housing strategy was a mess, unless we assumed that they wanted to dismantle the entire social housing concept. A year on, my sentiment remains the same. We only need to look at last week’s autumn statement to see that it allocated a further £0.25 billion to the right-to-buy pilot. Given the volume of right-to-buy properties that end up in the private rental market, that becomes a problem pushing up the housing benefit bill. The Government need to consider that, rather than attack supported housing, which provides lifeline services.
Supported housing provides refuges that can end years of hell, save people from domestic abuse, prevent rough sleeping, support people with mental health issues and allow older people to live independently in a safe environment. All those things combined can lead to an offset of savings within the NHS or can eliminate the need for people to be housed in more intensive and expensive residential homes, so helping to prevent bed blocking in hospitals.
My local Kilmarnock Women’s Aid organisation confirmed that it provides
“information, support and temporary refuge accommodation to women, children and young people experiencing domestic abuse.”
It believes that the
“impact of benefit sanctions and reforms are already having a disproportionate effect on women and lone parents. Universal Credit, which will be paid monthly to one householder, further increases the possibility of financial abuse.”
Therefore, it states:
“If refuge services are not exempted from Housing Benefit, a vital lifeline for women and children to find safety from domestic abuse could be lost.”
Against that backdrop, and as proof of a lack of joined-up government thinking, we have had a policy announcement confirming that the Government had no idea of its actual impact, which led to delays—which are welcome, but still only delays—consultation and now loose and woolly ideas for the future. The lack of greater detail from the Minister leaves a lot of uncertainty in the sector. There were some interventions on localism earlier, but the proposals do not offer confirmation that that will work; there is still insufficient clarity about what will happen.
In the here and now, we have had confirmation of the 1% rent decrease from 2017 in the supported housing sector, which will impose cuts on supported accommodation. The delay in the introduction of the local housing allowance cap until 2019-20 simply looks like a stay of execution, unless further clarity is provided.
Last year, an Inside Housing survey revealed the stark reality that 95% of providers might close their schemes, and the Government’s proposals have not changed much since then, apart from the possibility of some additional funding. The thing is, though, that we do not know how that funding will work. Will it make up the complete shortfall? I suggest that it will not, or else there would be no point in introducing a more convoluted system. The Government now seem to be hiding behind the discretionary housing payments excuse that they used for the bedroom tax. The Government have been defeated in the courts over the bedroom tax, so who knows what lies in the future for this?
As my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) said, it is a minor comfort that the relevant funding will be devolved to Scotland, although the Scottish Government are already spending £100 million to mitigate other Tory policies, and the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations has estimated a loss of funding of up to £14 million per annum. Will the Government take account of real need when looking at provision of top-up funding? Will the uplifts provided to the fund in future be at a flat rate? We need more clarity.
In a previous life, as a councillor, I was pleased to see the construction of a new development, Lilyhill Gardens, which provided supported accommodation to people with special needs, allowing them to live independently with the support of a telecare package. That project was truly transformational for the tenants, and won several awards. Local authorities and other providers would like to roll out similar models, but how can they do so when future funding is insecure? It is important that the Government provide clarity. In Scotland, we are trying to reshape the social housing model and provide a stock that is better suited to people’s living conditions and demographics, but it is really difficult to do that without clarity about funding. That could lead to bed-blocking and other things that will cost more money in the long run. Will the Minister reconsider this issue, apply an exemption to supported housing and abandon the Government’s penny wise but pound foolish strategy?
I certainly will, Mr Howarth. I am quite happy to stop at 10.30 am, as you indicated. I am quite happy to be the last to speak in this debate as well.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on setting out his case so well and allowing us all to participate. It is good to speak in this debate. Like other hon. Members, I have spoken before about this issue, which affects some of the most vulnerable people in our society, and we are back here to do so again. We are back here for a purpose: there are quite clearly outstanding issues for us to address, and the matter is worthy of consideration and continued debate until we get it right. We are back here to get it right. I am pleased to see the Minister in her place; I hope that her cold or flu symptoms do not prove too much for her. I am sure that she will be able to respond to the issues that we bring to her attention.
I appreciate the extension until 2019-20 of the introduction of the local housing allowance cap, as that gives short-term relief to supported housing organisations and allows them to organise and work out whether they can continue to provide their valuable service not only to their residents but to the rest of the community. What those organisations do is important. It is estimated that at the end of 2015, there were some 651,000 supported accommodation units in Great Britain. That gives us an idea of the magnitude of the issue. The estimated annualised cost of the supported housing sector covered by housing benefit in Great Britain at the end of 2015 was £4.2 billion. Back home, I get requests about housing benefit almost every day, if not several times a day, and I am sure other Members do too.
It is claimed that supported housing provides a saving of around £940 per resident compared with the cost of housing them in other Government-provided facilities. On my maths—I hope my figures are correct—that is a saving of almost £612 million per year.
Yes, absolutely; my hon. Friend is right. That was a very wise decision. It was supported by all and was done for the very best reason: to help vulnerable people in society. I will focus on those people in the short time that I have.
We must surely consider that saving when looking at housing benefit and supported housing schemes over the long term. In March 2016, the Government confirmed that people living in supported and sheltered housing would be exempt from the LHA cap for a year to allow the Government to carry out a proper strategic review of how supported housing is funded. That is good news. Let us give credit where credit is due: that is a step in the right direction. I have been furnished with the results of the consultation carried out by members of the National Housing Federation, which represents housing associations. More than 200 organisations contributed their views to that consultation.
I could not agree more. That is clearly what we are all trying to achieve, and I hope the Minister will confirm that that is the Government’s target too.
The National Housing Federation says that the following three principles should underpin reforms to the funding of supported housing:
“No-one with support needs will become homeless or end up in unsuitable accommodation…The actual housing and support cost of delivering a quality service will be fully met, and will be flexible enough to meet changing levels of demand”—
things change, and we must be ready for that—and the
“taxpayer and those living in supported and sheltered housing will have evidence of the quality and value for money of the services being funded.”
That seems a solid foundation on which to build a supported housing policy, and I hope that the Minister will respond positively to that.
We must look at all those principles in the light of what the Government seek to do. The local housing allowance cap will apply to all tenants in supported and sheltered housing from April 2019. Housing costs will continue to be paid through the benefits system up to LHA level. There will be no shared accommodation rate; the one-bedroom LHA rate will apply to under-35s in supported housing. There will be local authority top-ups, and ring-fenced funds will be transferred from the Department for Work and Pensions and allocated by the Department for Communities and Local Government. The 1% rent cut will apply to supported and sheltered accommodation from April 2017.
There are still problems and many issues to be addressed. The hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) referred to people with mental health issues, and I want to focus on them, because those issues come up every day in my constituency. I do not believe that the Government’s aims allow them to follow through on the principles that are in place. Only last evening, before I got my flight to Heathrow to come to the House, I had a young man with mental health issues in my office who was finding it difficult to get housing benefit to allow him to live close to his family. I had only to talk to him to know that he was suffering from severe depression, anxiety and angst and really needed help and support to allow him to live his life somewhat independently. I speak out for him, to ensure that the Government’s proposals do not stop housing associations creating supported housing schemes, which are needed not simply for the elderly but for people of all ages and from all walks of life.
We have had 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland. We often say that, but that does not lessen the statement. We have acute and complex issues in Northern Ireland; many people from all sides of the community and of all ages suffer from anxiety and depression and need help. It is important that supported housing schemes can be created and sustained. The Government must recognise that need and allow for it in their proposals.
Although the ring fence and the commitment not to use a shared accommodation rate for LHA for people under 35 are most welcome, we must ask how local authorities will prioritise the spending of their devolved funding. For example, will they prioritise people with social care needs over single homeless people? How will the Government ensure that local authorities get the right amount of money and that funding grows in line with need? How will we ensure that services that require relatively little additional funding, such as sheltered housing, are not caught up in complicated administration? The hon. Member for Waveney spoke about how complex that is both for us and for our constituents. How will we ensure that existing tenants are protected in the transition from one system to another? I know the Minister, and I know that her response will be positive. We want to hear positivity from her when she addresses those questions. I am aware that this issue is out to consultation, but it has surely been considered since the initial review in 2011.
I conclude with this comment. Reform is needed. The present system can be taken advantage of. We speak for the most vulnerable people—those with mental health issues, emotional issues and complex personal issues, who are in situations where they are taken advantage of, not supported—and we must ensure that they are not left alone. I implore the Government and the Minister to consider fully the responses of the bodies that deal every day with those vulnerable people, and ensure that we leave no one alone and vulnerable without the support that they need to live.
I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on securing the debate. This is a timely opportunity to re-examine the issues around the 2015 proposal to cap—in effect, cut—housing benefit for tenants in supported housing, given the Government’s temporary postponement of the plans, their further announcement in September that they were stepping back from the brink of implementation, and the publication of the report arising from their evidence review just over a week ago, which we are still digesting.
We have had insightful contributions from Members from both sides of the Chamber. One of the common themes is that supported housing is a crucial part of the social rented sector. It meets a variety of specialised needs in our communities—needs that would not easily be met in other ways. We heard that supported accommodation include homes for elderly people, for people fleeing domestic violence and for people overcoming addictions. For the majority, we are talking about homes for people with learning difficulties, substantial physical difficulties, serious mental health problems or other complex needs. In other words, they are people who would otherwise be unable to live independently—people who are frequently disadvantaged—some of whom are also very vulnerable.
We have heard stories from every part of the UK about the huge value of supported accommodation in our constituencies, the huge difference that it makes to the lives of those who need it and benefit from it, and the challenge and uncertainty that the Government’s proposals have caused not just to the people living in those homes but to those who provide those homes. My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) highlighted the impact of the arbitrary age restrictions on disabled young people—those under 35 in that regard. The hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) expressed a range of concerns about the financial implications of the proposed changes for local authorities and supported housing providers. He also called for a pilot scheme for any changes that come in, which seems to be a sensible suggestion that I hope the Minister will take on board.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) got right to the heart of the matter when he challenged the Government’s approach to social housing in the wider context of austerity. He also made crucial points about women’s refuges and the role they play in helping people leaving violent home situations. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) focused his remarks on the impact on vulnerable tenants in Northern Ireland, and the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) who, regrettably, was unable to make her own speech in the debate, emphasised the need for investment in the supply of supported accommodation to meet identified demands.
We should remind ourselves that, if we turned the clock back 40 years or so, many people with similar types of disabilities to those who live in supported housing today often did not live in the community. If they could not live with family or, as outlined by the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas), their family could no longer look after them, they were moved into large residential hospitals, often out in the countryside away from everyone. There was one in my constituency, and while I do not doubt that the residents had a high standard of professional nursing and medical care, most were not ill and did not need to be in hospital. Most of them were people with learning disabilities. It was an institutional model that cut patients off from wider society and robbed them of their independence. It also cost a fortune, even by the standards of the time. By contrast, there are now real homes in the area for disabled and learning-disabled people, and that is immeasurably better for everyone.
Supported accommodation has developed in the subsequent decades in a far more humane, appropriate and altogether better model of living for adults who would struggle to live independently without some degree of external support. However, the proposals we have seen from the Government in the past year to 18 months or so have put real question marks over the viability of that. The hon. Member for St Ives said that there is growing demand for supported accommodation, and I suspect that that is driven by changing demographics, with many members of the baby-boomer generation who were looking after adult disabled children at home no longer able to do so. Many young disabled adults, as we have heard, want to go to college and university, just like their peers. That has to be a good thing in the longer term, but it means that there is still a demand for supported accommodation. It has been a success, so let us not undermine that success with unnecessary cuts.
The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations represents dozens of housing associations in Scotland that provide supported accommodation of one sort or another. It estimates, based on projected turnover of tenancies, that nearly 6,000 new tenants could be affected by the proposed cap if it is introduced—obviously it is impossible to know exact numbers because the cap will affect future, not current, tenants.
The financial shortfall for those people—the gap between their housing benefit and their rent—is likely to add up to between £4.3 million and £5.6 million a year. That may sound like a small sum relative to the debates we were having in this place on the autumn statement last week, but for a tenant in supported housing in receipt of housing benefit the gap between their rent and housing benefit will on average be about £615 a year. That is nearly £12 a week, which would represent a substantial portion of income for, say, an adult over 25 on the new rate of employment support allowance. That would leave them with only about £60 a week to feed, clothe and keep themselves warm. A young person under 25 who has been assessed as fit for work would be left with only about £46 a week for their essential needs.
It is important to understand that many of the people we are talking about in supported accommodation may be on ESA for a lengthy period. Some may be in work or on jobseeker’s allowance, but for many the special needs that make them eligible for supported accommodation also make it difficult to find sustained full-time work. We should accept that some folk in supported accommodation will always need quite extensive support to have a decent quality of life.
We need to ask ourselves what happens when tenants in supported housing cannot pay their rent. The answer is simple. Whether people are in private sector, local authority or housing association-owned property, when rent arrears get out of hand or build up over time their tenancies are put in jeopardy. A rise in evictions and homelessness is not an outcome that anyone wants to see. It is also hugely costly to deal with the consequence of failed tenancies.
There is a real risk to social landlords’ willingness to invest in supported accommodation. If it becomes economically unviable to build and operate supported living, housing associations will not do it. That would be a disastrous outcome for individuals who could live independently in supported accommodation, and it would also leave local authorities with an almighty challenge of finding ways to meet the basic welfare and housing needs of some very vulnerable people.
In many of the case studies provided by the SFHA of current tenants with similar types of support needs to prospective future tenants, the only alternative safe forms of accommodation would be care homes or long-term hospitalisation. That would make us feel like we were turning the clock back. In my local area, finding care home places is extremely difficult, and I know that that is the case in many parts of the UK. Our hospitals cannot cope as it is with the problems of delayed discharges: having people in hospital who do not need to be there. That would become a hugely problematic issue if we lost the ability to place people in supported living.
The critical point is that either option—care homes or hospitals—is significantly more costly than a measly £12 a week for vulnerable people, which could make the difference between retaining and losing a tenancy. Money spent to keep people living in their community is money well spent and it is a false economy, and quite mean-spirited, to squeeze the already low incomes of economically deprived people, as the Government’s original policy proposed.
Before I conclude, what discussions has the Minister had with the Scottish Government about this issue? I welcome the plans to devolve funding in the area, but I hope she will confirm that it will continue at the current level. I am keen to know what engagement she has had with stakeholders in Scotland, most notably supported housing providers such as housing associations and local authorities but also the organisations that support tenants in those homes to live independently.
It is just wrong to target cuts on some of the poorest, most disadvantaged and, in some cases, very vulnerable people in our communities. It is also extremely short-sighted, economically counterproductive and socially retrograde. I appreciate that the Government are rethinking their approach. Sometimes the best thing is to accept that a previous ministerial team got it wrong and to recognise that the easiest, least bureaucratic and most cost-effective and compassionate way out is to back away from the cuts and exempt supported housing from the cap altogether.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) for securing today’s debate on an important topic, and for giving such a balanced picture of the impact of Government policy. We have heard important contributions from hon. Members across the House, including the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), who spoke of the shadow of uncertainty over the sector—something that I think everyone present will recognise—and described concern about the development of a postcode lottery. He called for a one-nation solution.
We heard contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) and from the hon. Members for St Ives (Derek Thomas), for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), for South Down (Ms Ritchie), for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) and, of course, for Strangford (Jim Shannon). The hon. Member for Strangford spoke about the importance of providing appropriate accommodation for people with mental health issues. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) did a good job of summing up the debate, and dealt particularly with the point that the special needs that make people eligible for supported housing can also make it harder for them to find employment. I think that all hon. Members would agree that money spent to keep people living in their constituencies is money well spent.
As has been said, the Government plan to cap housing benefit at local housing allowance levels for people living in supported housing schemes and to introduce a reduction of social rents in England of 1% a year. The housing benefit cap will force the closure of tens of thousands of supported homes for people most in need. The National Housing Federation predicted that 82,000 specialist homes would be at risk of closure if the cap and rent cut were implemented. Why the Government would pursue such destructive policies, which will drastically decrease the amount of supported housing that is available, is a question that still needs to be answered, especially when a number of national studies have demonstrated that supported housing services provide excellent value for the public purse. That is particularly true in relation to keeping the costs of health, care and criminal justice down—something that several hon. Members have mentioned.
Supported housing is one of the fundamental building blocks of independence. It includes a variety of schemes designed to provide both housing and support to help vulnerable people live as independently as possible in their community. Supported housing in the community is vital to the wellbeing of those people, and presents the best opportunity for them to take control of their lives. That is exactly why the Government must ensure that there is good local supported housing. Will the Minister explain what the Government are doing to ensure that the supported housing sector is properly funded to provide a vital service to vulnerable people?
Supported housing is a lifeline for people in vulnerable and sometimes dangerous situations. It is a way for vulnerable people to maintain their dignity and a degree of independence. Those are real people, with real problems, who need our support during these hard times. They are not statistics, or potential savings. They are domestic abuse survivors escaping abusive partners, older people in need of additional support, people with mental health issues or learning or physical disabilities, who need specialist care, or they are homeless people in desperate need of a safe place to sleep for the night. That is just a snapshot of the types of people who rely on supported housing. Anyone who leaves the Palace of Westminster late on a Monday night and walks past people sleeping in sleeping bags in doorways will be acutely aware of how desperate the situation is. Are the Government not ashamed to turn their back on the most vulnerable people in society?
Supported housing is a place of sanctuary and much-needed refuge. For example, the domestic violence charity Women’s Aid reported that 67% of its affiliated refuges in England would face closure if the local housing allowance cap were applied, while 87% of them would be forced to scale down their operations. With nowhere to go, women fleeing domestic violence would have even more perilous lives. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that there is good quality and properly funded supported housing for those who need the safety and security it offers? Good, well-funded and integrated supported housing makes economic sense. Evidence shows that it delivers average net savings to the public purse of about £940 per resident per year. Does the Minister agree that the cost benefit of supported housing is beneficial to the public purse, and that it should be properly funded?
I am pleased that the Government have finally listened to the Labour party and to housing and community groups, and have decided at least to delay the implementation of the LHA plan that was included in the previous autumn statement. However, the future of supported housing is still not secure. The Secretary of State’s written statement of 15 September promises at column 38WS to make “efficiency savings” to the supported housing sector in the same way as the rest of the social sector. The Government last week published a consultation, seeking views on their plans for a new housing costs funding model for supported housing. Will the Minister explain what exactly those efficiency savings will entail and how supported housing can be expected to make efficiency savings in a housing crisis? Ministers have promised a new, ring-fenced, fund; however, the similar, and once ring-fenced, Supporting People fund has been slashed by 45% since 2010. What guarantees can she give that a new fund will not also be cut?
The uncertainty is having an immediate impact; it has left tens of thousands of the most vulnerable people in limbo. Services coming up for re-tender are at risk of closure, irrespective of the outcome of the consultation. The charity Mencap said that the proposed cap had caused 80% of plans for new supported housing to be put on hold, and 40% of existing schemes to be threatened with closure. Does the Minister agree that the decision on the cap was merely delayed, causing unnecessary anxiety for those concerned?
Riverside has looked at the possible geographical difficulties of the new top-up scheme. I share its concerns about where the line is drawn between housing costs met by DWP through a national benefits system, and additional housing support costs met through locally administered funding pots. With LHA rates more modest in many lower-value areas of the country, significant top-up would be required just to meet core rent and basic accommodation-related service charges. For example, the LHA level for a one-bedroom Riverside home in Hull is £69.73, as opposed to £260.64 in Westminster—a difference of £190.91. In many lower value areas, significant top-up would be required. The local top-up funding allocations will need to perform a very different role in different parts of the country. In my area of the north-west, along with the rest of the north and the midlands, the top-up funding will mainly be meeting core rents and services, compensating for the fact that LHA rates are so much lower. In other areas, top-up funding can support new services.
The Government have committed to continue supporting “specialised supported housing”, but will still impose savings on general supported housing. Can the Minister explain what constitutes specialised supported housing as opposed to just supported housing? Homeless Link has said that the definition of “specialist” covers very few supported projects and would protect very few homelessness services. I would argue that any housing that provides expert support to vulnerable people is specialised and therefore should be protected from the LHA cap. Anyone in the sector will say that shelters and refuges are at capacity. It is already a struggle to provide the support needed to help people live independently. Vulnerable people are being turned away. That is happening now, and I dread to think what will happen when the Government finally announce the outcome of their consultation.
Supported housing is oversubscribed and more units are desperately needed. The Government need to do much more to secure the long-term future of supported housing. People who have fallen on hard times should not bear the brunt of Tory economic mismanagement. They deserve dignity and support. I urge the Government to rethink their position urgently, to listen to the deep concerns expressed by the supported housing sector and to ensure that all supported housing is fully exempt from the cuts.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I add my congratulations to those offered to the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on securing this important debate. Prior to his election, the hon. Gentleman worked in the field of disability and he continues to be an important campaigner for disabled people in his role as a Member of Parliament. He will know from his experience—we have heard a little of it this morning—how broad the supported housing sector is. He therefore has an excellent insight into the challenges of finding a proposal that will work across the whole sector.
As we have heard, supported housing is vital for many vulnerable groups. Whether additional support is needed for a short time to help someone recover from difficulties or setbacks in life, or whether it represents a longer-term arrangement, the valuable role that such accommodation plays is clear. Last week we published our evidence review of the supported housing sector, which we commissioned jointly with the Department for Communities and Local Government. The review has given us an important indication of the scale, scope and, indeed, cost of the sector across Great Britain. It estimates that there are about 651,500 supported housing units, predominantly provided by housing associations, local authorities and charities. The majority of the units—about 71%—are for older people, and the remainder for those of working age. It is estimated that at the end of 2015, just over £4 billion of housing benefit was being spent annually on the sector in Great Britain. That amounts to 17% of the total departmental expenditure on housing support. The review also provides an indicative estimate of just over £2 billion per annum for additional funding from other sources in addition to housing benefit in Great Britain. That was largely made up of local authority spending.
The focus of debate today is specifically the effect of the Government’s proposals on supported housing. The Government are committed not only to protecting but to boosting the supply of such housing, and ensuring that it provides value for money and works for those who use it, as well as those who pay for it. As Members will be aware, we have announced that a new funding model will be introduced for supported housing when the local housing allowance rates are extended to the social rented sector from April 2019. In future, housing costs up to the level of the relevant LHA rate will be met through either housing benefit or universal credit. Funding for the additional costs of providing supported housing in excess of that amount will be met through local funding, which is to be devolved to local authorities in England and to the devolved Administrations.
The hon. Gentleman must not fret; I will come to that later. Many comments were made by hon. Members and I will try to respond to most of them, but I am conscious that time may not allow for all. I will allow the hon. Gentleman time to come in at the end as well.
As hon. Members have heard, the Department for Communities and Local Government and my Department last week jointly launched a consultation on the detail and implementation of the new sustainable funding model. I welcome this debate as an important opportunity to draw Members’ attention to that. I will turn to the specific points raised by hon. Members in order. I hope to get to every point, but if time does not permit, I will write to hon. Members to clarify a few points.
My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) and the hon. Members for South Down (Ms Ritchie) and for Bermondsey and Old Southwark mentioned local funding and why it is important that local authorities and devolved Administrations are going to be involved. I absolutely believe that local authorities are best placed to make decisions about how to support vulnerable people in their own areas. We heard about location from my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) and the hon. Member for South Down, and they are right that it is important. However, it is also about understanding local need and being able to reflect that in the most appropriate type of provision.
The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark mentioned disabled people, and he was right to do so. As he will know, disability spending will be higher every year to 2020 than it was in 2010. He also spoke of the types of people living in supported accommodation and, like me, he celebrates the numbers of young disabled people who are both living longer and wishing, quite understandably, to live more independently. He is right to point out that that is also a challenge, but it is one that we are determined to rise to.
Likewise, we have a growing elderly population. At the start of the debate, the hon. Gentleman outlined some percentages of individuals living in supported accommodation and what their particular needs might be. I emphasise that people do not necessarily have single needs. We have an ageing population, and as people grow older, their needs tend to become more acute and they tend to have more of them. It is important that we have a system that enables those with really quite intense needs to live independently for as long as they can and, indeed, for as long as they wish to.
Under the Care Act 2014, local authorities have a general duty to promote an individual’s wellbeing when carrying out their care and support functions. Through the consultation, we will be seeking views on whether further protections may be required to ensure that all relevant client groups can gain appropriate access to funding, including those without existing statutory duties.
I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that Departments across Government have worked closely together on the proposals and will continue to do so. They include the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Department of Health, the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Education and the Home Office. We are also working with colleagues in the devolved Administrations.
We have to make it clear that this is not about targeting individuals but about ensuring that we have a system in which the quality of services is central and there is a clear focus on outcomes for individuals. Under the current system, effective oversight of quality and value for money is not strong enough. Through the consultation, we will consider new approaches to transparency and oversight. Our aim should be consistent standards for everyone living in supported housing, alongside a clear demonstration to the taxpayer of value for money.
We want to ensure simplicity and a streamlined process, in line with the principles of universal credit, which a number of hon. Members have mentioned. We have a solid foundation of universal credit delivery in every Jobcentre Plus, and people who are moved from housing benefit to universal credit by the Department after April 2019, and whose overall benefit entitlement will be lower, will be protected in cash terms under transitional arrangements.
As I have said, we recognise the diversity of the supported housing sector, in terms of both the groups of people who live in such provision and the range of support needs that they may have. Officials and Ministers from across the DWP and DCLG have held extensive meetings with representatives from across the sector to understand the nuances of what a new model needs to deliver. They have asked specifically about additions in the consultation document, including what potential role additional statutory provisions or duties for local authorities in England could play, particularly in terms of protecting provision for specific vulnerable groups. The task and finish groups we are setting up to consider a number of detailed aspects of the model are being carefully put together to ensure that the breadth of the sector is represented. I think three hon. Members asked whether the Government would commit to piloting the new funding model. There will be shadow-year arrangements in place on the detail and allocation of funding, to allow for the full transition to the new model from April 2018.
During the last two financial years, the majority of local authorities spent less than 100% of their allocation of discretionary housing payment from central Government. The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark has urged me not to dwell on DHP—this will be one of my few references to it—but we provided local authorities with £560 million in DHP funding in the last Parliament, and we have committed to a further £870 million over the next five years. The amount of top-up funding will be set on the basis of current projections for future need. Budgets for years beyond those already set will be determined in the usual way: at future spending reviews. I emphasise again that we want to work with the sector, through the consultation, to consider the wider strategic goals, such as responding to expected future growth in demand.
We see an opportunity here to do things differently, and to create a new strategic approach to commissioning supported housing. My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) made a number of important points about doing better. He also raised the issue of the YMCA. I have been pleased to visit a number of projects since coming into this role in July, and I have long been a supporter of the work of the YMCA and have welcomed the input it has made to this process so far. I also visited a foyer in St Ives, and I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend on the importance, particularly for young people in the supported housing sector, of having move-on accommodation and increasing their level of education and training so that they have a better opportunity of employment.
The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) spoke of Open Door in his constituency and its supported flat service. He made the valid point that there are very different accommodation landscapes across Scotland. We recognise that challenge, which is one of the reasons why we are devolving this responsibility to local authorities and to the Scottish Parliament.
The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) asked what contact I had had with Scottish members of the sector. In one of my roundtable meetings, I was pleased to have representatives from Scottish housing associations who came down to London to put their point of view across. I pay particular tribute to Scottish Women’s Aid, along with Women’s Aid nationally, which has been really constructive and engaged throughout this process, both with myself and with my noble Friend Lord Freud, who is the Minister for Welfare Reform. My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives mentioned a specific case in his constituency about students. I will be happy to meet him later to discuss that.
As we know, the Scottish and Welsh Governments have devolved responsibility for housing policy and already determine their own priorities. We anticipate that the Treasury will advise those Governments of their allocations at around the same time as the local authorities in England, which we expect will be in autumn 2017.
I am sorry, but I really have no time left and I would like to leave a couple of minutes for the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark to wind up—it will probably be 90 seconds now.
There is a specific point in the consultation about working with the sector to design an alternative model for refuges, which was raised by the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said we should get that right. He is absolutely correct to say so. That is why we are not rushing this, and it is why I am pleased to be here today. My first debate as a Minister was on supported housing and that is the issue again today. Getting this right and ensuring that the consultation is as full and thorough as possible is an important part of my role, so that when we move forward with the new funding model, it works for those groups who hon. Members have rightly identified.
I thank all hon. Members for contributing to the debate and I also thank the Minister and the Front-Bench spokespeople. Members from St Ives to Strangford have emphasised the need to get this right. The context is that the Government made an ill-thought-through announcement last year. They got it wrong, and while there have been some welcome comments from the Minister, I note that there was no apology for the damage done to the sector by that uncertainty and instability over the last year. It is a sector that saves the taxpayer about £3.5 billion through things such as preventing bed-blocking, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day).
I hope the Minister will use the consultation and the next few months to genuinely develop and improve these plans, to ensure that the Government get the policy right for the people, organisations and councils affected. I am sure there will be further opportunities to examine the issue in more detail, including through the joint inquiry by the Work and Pensions Committee and the Communities and Local Government Committee in the new year. I hope all Members will contribute more fully over time.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the effect of Government proposals on supported housing.
Dissident Activity (Upper Bann)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered dissident activity in Upper Bann.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. It is disappointing that I must focus today on dissident republican activity in my constituency. That said, I must take this opportunity at the outset to remind Members that Northern Ireland has come such a long way from the pain and dreadful history that our Province holds. We have made remarkable progress. We are making headlines—largely on a positive note—and now receiving global recognition for the right reasons.
However, there remains an element within our community that cannot look to the future. There are some who cannot and will not build on our strong foundation, which is delivering, and delivering well, for the people of Northern Ireland. It is that element that forced the security threat level in Northern Ireland to severe. It is that element that saw our Prime Minister, the then Home Secretary, deliver the news that an attack on the UK by dissident republicans was a strong possibility. It is that element that is continually undermining the great work that our political leaders in Northern Ireland are striving to achieve.
A town in my constituency is regularly brought to the fore, with reports of dissident activity. It has one of the highest threat levels, and we all need to be on our guard and highly vigilant. In 2009, my constituent, a serving police officer, responded to a 999 call. Constable Stephen Carroll attended without hesitation, in an attempt to fulfil his commitment as a police officer and his pledge to protect the wider public, but that call turned out to be an elaborate trap set up by dissidents who lay in hiding and fatally wounded him. I vividly recall attending Craigavon that evening, as the reports came through that the first officer of the Police Service of Northern Ireland had been shot. It is a night that I will never forget. I must commend the PSNI for its skilful and thorough investigation and for bringing those responsible before the justice system. Two men are currently serving life sentences for that brutal murder, but it does not erase the pain for Constable Carroll’s family.
My hon. Friend gives a very sombre recognition of the slaughter of an innocent police officer in Northern Ireland. Does he agree that one thing required in his constituency and all our constituencies is more police officers on the ground? We are about 800 short from what Patten recommended. We need the police to urgently recruit new members and the Northern Ireland Office to stump up the money for it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that we need communities to support the PSNI and all the investigations it is doing and to ensure that the evidence and information those communities have can be sent to the PSNI? The communities, together with the police and elected representatives, can then take on the dissident republicans and eradicate them totally from society in Northern Ireland.
I agree. Community support is important, and I will deal with that later on in my speech.
Our security personnel are on constant high alert. In my constituency, prison officer David Black was gunned down on the motorway as he travelled to work in 2012. That brutal ambush was carefully planned and carried out at the hands of skilled gunmen, who carefully targeted and shot him at high speed. Mr Black served Her Majesty’s Government in the Prison Service for more than 30 years and was awaiting the outcome of his retirement application. That is another mammoth loss, not only to his family but to Northern Ireland as a whole.
That is the distinct reality of the dissident republican activity we face today. They continue to generate support through illegal republican parades and protests. They are engaging with impressionable young men—a generation who have not fully witnessed the darkest days of the troubles. Having indoctrinated those teenagers, they send them out to engage in crimes, while maintaining a safe distance. In May this year, reports stated that a 10-year-old boy was cautioned after a masked colour party took part in a republican parade through Lurgan. It is extremely disturbing how young children are being exploited to try to progress a violent and brutal agenda.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he agree that the cancer of paramilitarism must be eradicated from all quarters and that to do that once and for all there must be community support for the PSNI and also community involvement with it, working together with all community and political organisations?
I agree entirely. It is important that the communities co-operate and that information is fed into the security forces.
At the time of that parade, the PSNI was aware of possible illegal parades and made several announcements regarding such activity. It urged the public not to engage in any way and reminded everyone of the repercussions of doing so. However, its pleas to the public were ignored by some, and following that parade, the PSNI followed through with robust and thorough investigations. Last week, it reported that a total of 81 files had been forwarded to the Public Prosecution Service for consideration. I understand that 35 of those files were on residents of the Republic of Ireland. There is a widespread concern that when those files are passed to the PPS, the good work of the PSNI is undone. On occasions, the files that are passed to the PPS for prosecution do not come before the justice system. In cases where they do reach the judiciary, sentencing is often too lenient and therefore ineffective as a deterrent, especially to the said impressionable young men.
In August this year, following a number of co-ordinated policing operations, locally based police officers working in conjunction with specialists from crime operations branch recovered a fully constructed explosive device, firearms and components for other improvised explosive devices in a number of searches in the area. Just a month later, in September, the PSNI uncovered an armour-piercing direct-fire mortar. Along with that find, three men were charged with targeting a former member of the security forces, and a fourth man was charged with attempting to kill police officers. We have recently seen the use of that type of weapon not only in my constituency but in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
In my constituency of Upper Bann, more firearms and ammunition have been recovered this year than in 2015; more people have been charged with terrorism-related offences this year than in 2015; and more explosives, including the vicious mortar, have been seized this year than last year. I want to put on record my admiration for the district commander, the chief inspectors and all the police officers on the ground for their resilience in working under these difficult and very dangerous circumstances.
The team of PSNI officers come under regular attacks in my constituency. Earlier this year, officers were on the receiving end of orchestrated, intense and prolonged violence when more than 100 petrol bombs were thrown and shots were fired at them during serious disorder in the local town in relation to the railway line. That railway line is famous in my constituency. It runs through a high-profile area of dissident activity and is the main thoroughfare from Belfast to Dublin, with trains approximately every 30 to 45 minutes. There have been numerous security alerts on the line, with more than 90 closures. This year, that has been somewhat reduced because of Translink’s work and that of the security forces. We all know that this is an attempt to lure police officers and forces of the Crown into the area so they can be attacked and their lives taken.
Such activity is simply not what the vast majority of my constituents want. They are trying to get on with their daily lives, but it is a stark reminder of how dissident republicans are holding the wider community back from enjoying the freedom and prosperity that Northern Ireland has to offer. I have met collectively the PSNI and Translink to discuss the impact that such closures on the line have on travellers on the railway and we are making steady progress.
The hon. Gentleman is being generous with his time. Does he agree that the interruptions to the Belfast to Dublin service add to the problems for Translink, which has received a lot of criticism from many travellers as a result of undue delays in travelling to Belfast or Dublin, which is having an impact on the local economy?
Indeed. That is my next point. Shoppers, travellers and people going to work are affected, and not all employers are as sympathetic as they perhaps should be in the circumstances when people may have to use buses for transport. It is a disaster from start to finish. It is unacceptable and affects the economy greatly.
The PSNI has received cross-community support—there is no doubt about that—for stamping out dissident activity where possible. With limited resources, it is delivering a high-profile response to tackling these criminals, but we cannot ignore the fact that they are maintaining a presence and continuing to build on their support network. In recent meetings with the PSNI it has said it is greatly concerned about that.
The dissidents have a strong recruiting process, including vulnerable teenagers, and even those who were involved in provisional activity are coming back to help to build devices. Not all have been built correctly. One day, God forbid, they may get lucky and take the life of a police officer, but we hope and trust that will not happen.
That is correct. One concern of the security forces is that the dissidents may not have the capacity for a full-blown terrorist campaign, but they only need to be there and to carry out attacks once a month or every three or six months because the security forces must remain on high alert. The cost to the economy is phenomenal and we must be vigilant about that. The security forces are very aware of that, as are the Northern Ireland Office and the Executive, but unfortunately the dissidents are there and the security forces must deal with them. In recent days, parts of the group have formed a new political party with a leading character in the area—the Minister will know who I am referring to. He is so blatant, sitting in the middle of a room proposing to organise a political party when he is responsible for many dissident activities. He is like Teflon-man: nothing sticks to him. It is unfortunate that he seems to get away with it.
What more can be done? We know that the judiciary is impartial, but can anything be done to exert pressure to ensure that the necessary sentencing is handed down? If money is an issue, will the Northern Ireland Office consider helping to provide more assistance so that we can stop dissident republican activity and bring some normality to my constituents’ lives?
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) on securing this important debate. It is important to reiterate the continuing threat in his community and other parts of Northern Ireland and to ensure that we articulate, as the hon. Gentleman did, the fact that, although there has been a huge transition in recent years, a small number of individuals continue the horror of the troubles. I will refer later to some of the hon. Gentleman’s comments.
I want to speak briefly about the wider dissident republican threat before turning to the specific points raised by the hon. Gentleman. It is important to say at the outset that through the hard work and sacrifice of many brave people, there have been great strides forward in the security situation since the troubles. However, as the hon. Gentleman so clearly articulated, we continue to face a threat from dissident republicans. Dissident republicans are relatively small, disparate and factional groupings, but they are also reckless and determined, and they have lethal intent. In Northern Ireland this year, they have been responsible for five deaths and since 2010, when policing and justice were devolved, there have been 199 national security attacks in Northern Ireland. Although the threat is severe, most people across Northern Ireland are not directly affected by it. Terrorists target their efforts against the brave police, prison and military personnel who work to keep all our communities safe. We owe these public servants a tremendous debt of gratitude for their work day in, day out across Northern Ireland. We always say that in debates such as this, but we must keep reiterating it because they are the people who look after every part of our community. They are immensely brave. I have the privilege of working with them every day, and I will continue to sing their praises.
An unacceptable burden falls on people and communities who are affected because terrorists seek them out to cause them harm, because they have the misfortune to be caught up in security incidents or because they happen to live in areas where dissident republicans operate. We have all heard about the terrible injuries and deaths caused by terrorists, but even where there are no injuries, the terrorists attempt to control and disrupt the lives of many people. Often frail, elderly people or young people must be evacuated on cold nights, people have to move out of their homes or miss hospital appointments and businesses may be impacted on because a small number of disaffected individuals target their own communities to achieve their bizarre aims.
For these reasons and so many others, those who seek the path of violent republicanism cannot secure broad support. They offer nothing to the vast majority of people who want peace and good fortune for themselves and their children. The good people of Northern Ireland have a right to live in peace. They do not want the violence, intimidation and control that those terrorist groups try to impose.
I agree with what the Minister is saying in response to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), whom I congratulate on securing the debate. Does the Minister agree that in an area such as north Belfast, which has seen a lot of dissident terrorist activity, one problem that people face and express concerns about is open displays of dissident paramilitary activity, whether it be through parades, murals or other activity? They want to see the police and security forces trying to put a stop to that, because it is designed to intimidate, to stake out territory and to create prominence in the media.
I recognise the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes and I support him in encouraging our police to try to bring an end to that activity. He also makes the point that many people have made, about the community articulating what they want and demonstrating that they do not want to kow-tow or capitulate to a small group of thugs who want to influence the progress being made in Northern Ireland. Both the police and our security services play an important role in identifying and pursuing dissident republicans and disrupting and suppressing their activity. We want to keep that pressure on.
I want to comment on some of the points made by my hon. Friend—I will call him that—the Member for Upper Bann. We say many things in these debates, but to go back to the police and the other people on the front line, nothing demonstrates more clearly the immense contribution that people have made than someone making the ultimate sacrifice. I am thinking of individuals out there who have actually been targeted by these people. The hon. Member for Upper Bann referred to Stephen Carroll and David Black—two people who were brutally murdered by these individuals. Of course, they are not the only people who have been targeted. There have been many other attacks, and the attacks continue.
Yes. We need to do everything we can, and I know that police colleagues are doing that as well. The constant dialogue that we have, not only with other MPs but through agencies and councils, through different people, ensures that we have an understanding of the threat on the ground.
I want to offer my condolences in this arena to the families of the two people I mentioned and the other people who have been killed or had their lives disrupted. I also want to refer to the comments made by Assistant Chief Constable Will Kerr. He said:
“I would ask all those with any influence in the community to use that influence to persuade people not to get involved in this type of activity. People who get involved, particularly young people, face the prospect of significant, possibly life changing, consequences.”
That is really important. It reiterates the point made by several hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for South Down (Ms Ritchie), that we all have a responsibility.
The point that the Minister makes is one of confidence in the Assistant Chief Constable wishing to demonstrate that pursuing a path of paramilitarism will always be negative and dangerous. Will the Minister reflect on how frustrating it is that, following the murder of Adrian Ismay in my constituency, the man who has been charged with his murder—Christopher Robinson— breached his bail conditions no fewer than five times, yet was still free and still is free to walk the streets? How can we encourage the community to stand against such activity when the system is not working with them?
I will not comment on the specific case, but I will touch on the broader issue of justice. Before I do, however, I want to refer to the point made by the hon. Member for Upper Bann about a 10-year-old child being targeted. I am thinking about my own constituency and the fears about the drug-dealing scum in my town who use innocent young people, because they are cowards. They franchise out that activity to someone else—to an innocent. I would say to parents, to families, out there: be extremely vigilant. These people are not bringing someone into a cause but exploiting innocent young people, and we must do everything we can to protect them.
I know that the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) will agree with me about this. There is supposed to be a direct correlation between those people who are actively involved in these activities, and drug activities. Both are equally insidious and both are a cancer in society that must be eradicated.
The hon. Lady makes a very good point, with which I agree.
I will briefly move on to the justice system. Justice is a devolved matter, and we treasure the independence of the judiciary, but I will make some observations. First, a review of the system is going on, but, as a citizen, I have observations on some of the choices that have been made, such as individuals being allowed to go to pop concerts. This is about confidence. I want a system that is independent, but it also has to be fit for purpose and reflect the demands of our broad public, who have made an immense journey. When we ask people to step away from paramilitarism and have faith and confidence in a system, whether it is the police or the broader judicial system, the system must be able to sentence; it must be able to process these things. I say this for people who are charged as well. I want them to have a good system that enables them to enter the process, understand and participate in it, and have their day in court. At the moment, I think there are huge question marks over its ability to deliver that. I know that the Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland is doing everything she can to deliver it. I implore my friends across Northern Ireland to make a positive contribution in seeking change in that process.
I want finally to mention what we are doing. On a personal level, I feel so honoured to serve as a Northern Ireland Minister in a Northern Ireland that is in a far better place. It is an exciting place to be. We talk about the terrible things that we have talked about today, but when the chief executive of Belfast City Council tells me that 82 cruise ships have docked in Belfast, when the city tour bus is going around Stormont and when we have thousands of tourists coming to so beautiful a place as Northern Ireland, we need to ensure that we have some balance. A small group of individuals are seeking to go back to the past, but I believe that the vast majority of good people desire to be in a different place.
From a resource point of view, we have put an extra £160 million in this year, and we have put £25 million into addressing paramilitarism. I say to colleagues in the House today and to other friends in Northern Ireland that if I can change things or help them on the path to greater prosperity and greater peace, I will do everything I can.
Question put and agreed to.
Equine Slaughterhouses (CCTV)
[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered CCTV in equine slaughterhouses.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main.
Believe me, like many horse-obsessed women, I could happily entertain Members with an equine monologue for at least an hour and a half, but although I would rather be taking about the brilliant exploits of horses I have known, the welfare of horses at the end of their life none the less remains an unavoidable issue requiring much greater scrutiny and action. Sadly, if someone keeps livestock, sooner or later they will have to dispose of deadstock. Those of us who care about horses would prefer to convince ourselves that every animal will either meet a natural, pain-free death or be euthanised by a vet. The reality for thousands of horses and ponies is, of course, very different. If we are concerned about their welfare, it is our duty not to be blinded by sentimentality, but rather to improve reality as we find it.
Protecting animal welfare at slaughterhouses is an emotive topic at the best of times. I am proud that as a matter of policy, Plaid Cymru believes that CCTV systems are the best means to monitor, and so protect, the welfare of animals in slaughterhouses. Smaller slaughterhouses should be supported so that they can install CCTV, as it should be borne in mind that small slaughterhouses often have welfare advantages in terms of the time and distance travelled by animals.
Although the use of CCTV in Welsh slaughterhouses falls within the competence of the Welsh Government, the specialised nature and geographical spread of equine slaughterhouses makes this a cross-border issue. Due to the lack of local facilities, horses kept in north Wales may well be taken to slaughter in the north of England. This is a particularly relevant issue to Wales, where the 2013 mislabelling of red meat scandal resulted in the discovery of horse meat in supermarkets, and also resulted in raids at a number of slaughterhouses, including one near Aberystwyth in the constituency next to mine.
As with almost any contemporary legislative or regulatory issue, Brexit has created questions on equine slaughter and broader animal welfare laws. Minimum standards for the protection of animals at the time of slaughter are set out in 2009 EU regulations. If—and I use the word knowingly in this context—one day the Government’s great repeal Bill does what is promised and transposes all EU law into UK statute, decisions on minimum standards in slaughterhouses will have to be made once again. Making CCTV mandatory in equine slaughterhouses, as well as in other slaughterhouses, must be a top priority.
Nowadays we no longer regard horses as working animals, but treat them as companions or pets, so the idea of horse slaughter is something that many people feel uncomfortable about. Sending a horse to an abattoir is far less common than it used to be. There are alternatives to abattoirs for horse owners wishing to provide a compassionate end of life for their animal, such as euthanasia by a vet or taking the horse to an experienced knackerman or to hunt kennels. However, the costs of those options have risen in recent years, making them unaffordable for some horse owners. Euthanasia by a vet and carcase disposal can cost more than £500, while a knackerman may charge around £150. In contrast, an abattoir will pay for the horse, so affordability never has to impact on the horse owner’s decision. It is important that all horse owners can afford to provide a humane death for their animals.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. Does she agree that one of the things that holds horse owners back from sending their horses to an abattoir is their lack of confidence? The World Horse Welfare survey shows that over half of respondents would consider using an abattoir if CCTV was in place.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for raising that point and will go into it in further detail. The fact that people lack confidence in the potential of abattoirs, and feel that they will be criticised by fellow horse owners for resorting to them is, in effect, a welfare issue itself. It may well be causing some horse owners to delay euthanasia and that causes welfare problems and distress. Addressing that is one of the key horse welfare challenges identified in a four-year study on the welfare status of horses in England and Wales. As mentioned, the results of that research, which was conducted by the University of Bristol and funded by World Horse Welfare, were published in a report called “Horses in Our Hands”, which was launched at Parliament this summer. It cited how emotional attachment to the animal played a role in delaying euthanasia, as did negative attitudes to killing, financial considerations and peer pressure.
Old, sick and unmanageable horses are too often sold or given away when owners should be taking responsible steps to end their life humanely. What happens to horses that are sold or given away when they are no longer wanted or useful? Very often they will be sent to horse sales and markets, passed between owners and shipped from pillar to post only to end up in the meat trade anyway. In Wales, the sight of unwanted and worthless ponies filling the pens at markets and being shunted from lorry to lorry is depressing. However, the distress caused to those animals is unnecessary, and if the public had greater confidence that horse welfare would be protected at slaughter, fewer horses might suffer prolonged misery.
According to the Food Standards Agency, the latest public attitudes tracker from May 2016 shows animal welfare as equal third when it comes to concern for our food, alongside salt and behind sugar and food waste. That lack of confidence is especially evident among horse owners. A high-profile exposé on the practices of a now defunct UK slaughterhouse in 2013 showed an appalling disregard for horse welfare, with horses beaten, stunned in sight of each other and some appearing to regain consciousness before they were finally killed. Those practices were revealed only through covert CCTV footage; had CCTV been in place, with access to the footage given to authorities such as the FSA, the proprietor, or the regulator, could have stopped the malpractice much sooner. That clearly would have been in everyone’s interest and particularly that of the horses that were undergoing the experience.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. Is she saying that there is a reluctance in equine slaughter facilities to put in CCTV? I know that in the red meat sector, although it is not compulsory, some have voluntarily done so. Is there is a reluctance in slaughter plants to do that?
The issue is that it is not compulsory; that is particularly pertinent in relation to horse behaviour and the behaviour of horse owners. CCTV is not necessarily present—its use is voluntary—in every slaughterhouse. It appears to have reached a certain point and be going no further—a plateau.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech, which I am following closely. Does she agree that the cost of installing CCTV has fallen rapidly in recent years and should not in any way be a barrier to good abattoirs installing CCTV without being required to do so?
Indeed, I understand that many larger-scale slaughterhouses already have CCTV installed externally; to all intents and purposes, including the internal installation as well would not be prohibitively expensive. I think that is an issue for smaller slaughterhouses, and that they need to be supported.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and congratulate her on securing this debate. She is being most generous in taking so many interventions. Does she think, as I do, that another flaw in the current arrangement is that in those slaughterhouses where there is CCTV, the owner has the option of not allowing the FSA to see the footage? In fact, not only is the CCTV voluntary, but access to the footage is voluntary.
It would indeed seem that if CCTV were present, we should be making full use of it. This is another aspect—given that CCTV itself is not compulsory—that should be mandatory; there should be access to the footage gained through those means.
It is important to emphasise that although we are having this debate today, that does not in any way presume that there is poor treatment in the UK’s five equine slaughterhouses, all of which also take species other than horses. However, horse owners have not forgotten that incident from 2013. A Facebook survey carried out by World Horse Welfare in September provided some interesting insights. Around 90% of more than 900 horse owners who responded did not consider the abattoir as an option for their horse, but 40% agreed that horse slaughter should remain an option within the UK as the costs of euthanasia are so high. More than 70% said that they would not use a slaughterhouse for their own horses because they did not have confidence that their welfare would be protected through the process or that the horse would have a humane death.
I thank the hon. Lady for securing the debate. I am unsure whether hon. Members are aware of this, but there are no abattoirs in Scotland licensed for the slaughter of horses. None the less, the wider issue of animal welfare at abattoirs is important to many people north of the border. At the SNP conference in the autumn—
Order. Will the hon. Lady sit down when she is being brought to order? “I am coming to my question” is not an adequate response. She is taking too much time from the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts). She should ask a brief question.
I believe that CCTV protects animals and workers in slaughterhouses and public confidence in the meat produced there. All those things are important. We have a real issue in relation to CCTV and public confidence. There is concern at present that horse welfare is not protected during the process, perhaps because of the particularly sensitive nature of horses. Specific characteristics of equines can make them vulnerable. For instance, they are “fight or flight” animals; when frightened, they seek to flee, and they become panicked or aggressive if they are not handled competently. They are sensitive and highly social herd creatures, and it is a legal requirement for them not to be killed in sight of other horses. Let us not forget that horses, unlike agricultural livestock, have been bred for hundreds of generations to interact with people. That is part of their behaviour pattern and is one of the reasons why we love them—those of us who keep them.
It can be the horse owners themselves who take their horse to slaughter, and that horse may have been a companion to them for many years. Society expects horse owners to feel an emotional attachment to their animals. The horse owner will want—perhaps more than most—a guarantee that the welfare of their horse will be protected at the abattoir, and they will want other horse owners not to judge them for ending their horse’s life in this way, which means that we need to ensure that the abattoir is, and is seen to be, a humane end-of-life option.
Will CCTV provide such a guarantee? On its own, of course it will not, as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the FSA, the Farm Animal Welfare Committee, the British Meat Processors Association and many others have said. CCTV is but one of many tools to help safeguard welfare. It should be seen not as a replacement for on-site monitoring, but as support for it. Official veterinarians work in every slaughterhouse across England and Wales and make regular unannounced checks on live animals at slaughter to ensure that their welfare is safeguarded.
The FSA’s veterinary audit team checks compliance. However, no single person can monitor the whole slaughter process—from animals held in lairage, through to being led to the stun box or slaughter area, through to the actual killing. CCTV that is in constant operation, placed to cover all live horse areas, such as the unloading, lairage and so forth, provides a record of the entire process and of the animals’ experience throughout.
As I have said, CCTV could have great benefits for the slaughterhouse operator, who is responsible for ensuring the welfare of animals while on the premises. Operators would be able to monitor and assess whether their staff were complying with the law. They would also have evidence to disprove spurious allegations of malpractice. In that respect, CCTV protects slaughterhouse workers and owners, and furthermore, it can be used for staff training and development. A European slaughterhouse told World Horse Welfare that CCTV was invaluable for staff training purposes.
The most common rebuttal of mandatory CCTV is cost. However, the costs, as the Minister explained in a debate on the issue last year, are “relatively modest”. CCTV systems can be purchased for less than £1,000 and many slaughterhouses already have the systems in place to monitor the exterior of their premises for security reasons, so why not inside as well?
To provide genuine transparency and engender confidence, the footage should be available to authorities. No law currently requires CCTV footage from slaughterhouses to be shared with official vets or the FSA, whose role is to monitor welfare at slaughter. For the use of CCTV to be effective, that must change. Mandatory CCTV in equine slaughterhouses must be legislated for in tandem with a requirement for footage to be made available to those authorities. Only that will truly deliver the transparency that the public need and expect.
What is the state of play? The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has said that it wishes to encourage a voluntary approach to installing CCTV. The Welsh Government have also indicated that they support the use of CCTV in slaughterhouses in Wales, but have failed to legislate to make it mandatory. It is clear that that approach is not working. The FSA, in its board report of 21 September this year, confirmed that take-up of CCTV had “plateaued” at 49% in red meat slaughterhouses. When slaughterhouses have CCTV, it might not be placed in areas which allow them to monitor horse welfare. We need a mandatory approach.
No horse lover could possibly disagree with the general thrust of the hon. Lady’s arguments; of course it is right that we should have CCTV where that can be done. However, only 5,000 horses a year are killed in abattoirs, of the 75,000 or 100,000 that are killed. Is there not a risk that if she focuses all her attention on persuading the Government to introduce primary legislation—an extremely difficult thing to do—she would be ignoring the horse welfare issues associated with the other 95,000?
I agree with the thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s arguments but perhaps the fact that, at present, so few horses travel through slaughterhouses to the end of their lives is, in itself, a welfare issue. If more horse owners, and the horse-keeping society as a whole, were more confident that that approach was appropriate, perhaps the number of horses doing that, in turn, would increase.
Let me return to the state of play. Another DEFRA approach has been to say that consumer and retailer pressure, as opposed to legislation, should be the means used to encourage the greater use of CCTV. DEFRA cites the fact that most major food retailers—I will not list them, but it is all the major supermarkets—now insist on the use of CCTV in supply chain slaughterhouses, and there are many assurance schemes, such as RSPCA Assured. However—this is pertinent—that consumer-pressure approach will not work for horses, because horse meat is rarely sold or eaten in the United Kingdom. Most of the horse meat that we produce is sold on the continent, mostly to wholesalers, so consumer and retailer pressure is not applicable.
In conclusion, I hope that the case for making CCTV mandatory in the UK’s equine slaughterhouses is clear. The current voluntary approach will not deliver that. Horse owners do not have confidence that abattoirs will protect horse welfare throughout the process. There is neither transparency nor accountability in the system for horses—just the memory of the horrific covert footage from 2013. The losers in this state of affairs are not just the horses, but horse owners, retailers and the general public, who all suffer from the negative consequences of bad practice and low confidence in equine slaughterhouses. I therefore urge the Minister to do all that he can to provide a system that ensures high standards of welfare and instils greater confidence in the sector by exploring a mandatory requirement for CCTV in equine slaughterhouses.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) on securing this debate. This is a highly emotive subject, which has to be approached, as the hon. Lady said, with practicality rather than sentimentality.
I should start by declaring an interest as a patron of the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation and as an honorary member of the British Veterinary Association. In that context, I would like to quote immediately from a letter from a constituent of mine, Diana Stark. She said:
“As a horse owner and veterinary surgeon I am most concerned about possible harsh handling of horses at the end of their lives when everything should be…calm and quiet…I feel strongly that if all those working in slaughterhouses knew they were being monitored they would be more likely to be considerate towards the horses in their care.”
My son and daughter-in-law are both qualified veterinary surgeons and they both own horses, so I know at fairly close quarters that one of the hardest things for any horse owner—indeed, for the owner of any animal at the end of its life, but particularly for a horse owner—to have to deal with is that end-of-life process.
It is fondly believed that people who own horses are rich, but there are huge numbers of people right across the country hacking with little ponies often bought for their children and enjoying equestrian sports. Many of them are not rich and the costs of disposal of a much-loved animal can often be a real burden. As the hon. Lady said, veterinary costs can be quite high. I do not think that many horse owners would want, given an alternative, to pass their animals to the knacker man. Even then, there is a cost.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) said, this comes down to a question of confidence. If the horse-owning public do not have confidence in the work of the abattoir and the slaughtermen, where do they turn? We know only too well—from the footage, from anecdotal evidence and, in some cases, privately from veterinary surgeons who witness things that they would sooner not witness as observers of slaughterhouse procedure—that there are things going on in slaughterhouses that any reasonable person would abhor. I commend the World Horse Welfare campaign for the introduction of closed circuit television cameras in slaughterhouses that deal with horses. Actually, I would go much further. I would like to see mandatory CCTV cameras in all slaughterhouses, and a mandatory requirement to provide footage on demand when required by a Ministry inspector or a veterinary surgeon dealing with that practice. The Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation also throws its weight behind the call for mandatory CCTV.
We are continually told—quite often by Ministers—that we do not want to burden rural business with additional costs but, as has been said, the cost of CCTV cameras and recording equipment has fallen so dramatically that it is practically available for anybody in this room to purchase. Indeed, my suspicion is that some probably have done, simply for their own security purposes. If it can been done in those circumstances, it can certainly be done in a slaughterhouse.
The object of the campaign is very straightforward. It is to seek to deliver, at the end of a working or entertaining life, a decent end for a much-loved and dedicated animal. I do not think that is too much to ask. I heard what my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) said, but primary legislation does not have to be lengthy or difficult. A private Member’s Bill with a couple of clauses, given a fair wind from Government and Opposition—I cannot believe that either would oppose such a measure—could almost go through on the nod. That is really all we are talking about.
The idea that this is somehow difficult is nonsense. It is not difficult. If the will is there, it can be done. That is what Parliament is here for and what we are here for, and I suspect it is what so many colleagues in the Chamber this afternoon are here to support. Let’s not duck it. Let’s get on with it. Let’s seek to ensure that every working or domestic animal in the land is given a decent end and a right to a decent end. That is a very simple request. I would like the Minister, in his closing remarks, to endorse this call to get on and do it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts)—my Welsh is getting better all the time—on securing this important debate. I declare an interest as an honorary life member of the British Veterinary Association. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), who has a long history of promoting animal welfare interests in Parliament. Before going into the detail of the topic, I want to pay tribute to the campaign launched by World Horse Welfare to secure mandatory CCTV in slaughterhouses as part of its drive to raise the profile of what the charity calls the invisible horse.
The invisible horse is an imaginative way of recognising that the welfare needs of many horses go unheeded because people do not always see these wonderful creatures from the perspective of whether their needs are being met. Sometimes, of course, that means that the horse is perfectly visible in a literal sense. Nevertheless, its needs are not properly recognised. In the case of the horse in the slaughterhouse, it is the risk of real invisibility that needs tackling with changes in the law. Let me be clear: the mandatory use of CCTV in slaughterhouses should, as the hon. Member for North Thanet has just pointed out, apply in all circumstances and in relation to all animals.
With your good will, Mrs Main, I would like to spend a few moments outlining the more general case for mandatory CCTV before focusing on the issue as it relates to equine welfare. There has been progress. The Food Standards Agency estimates that in 2016, some 92% of cattle in England and Wales were monitored using CCTV, with figures in that range also applying to pigs, sheep and poultry. Looked at another way, the percentage of abattoirs with CCTV has grown to 49.3% for red meat and 70.4% for white meat. However, there is some evidence that this growth in the use of CCTV has plateaued, as the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd pointed out, as the figures for 2016 are barely different from those for 2015. Coverage is not only incomplete; it is frequently not comprehensive, very often failing to cover the five principal areas in a slaughterhouse. There is no requirement for the footage to be independently monitored, with unfettered access for official vets and other enforcement officers.
In answer to a recent written parliamentary question in the House of Lords, Lord Gardiner stated:
“The vast majority of animals are slaughtered in slaughterhouses which have CCTV present, so the Government is not currently persuaded of the case for introducing regulation which would require all abattoirs to have CCTV, but we are keeping the issue under review.”
There are two problems with that response. First, it gives the impression that the welfare needs of a small minority can be compromised, although I am absolutely sure that the Minister did not mean that. Secondly, and most importantly, it overlooks the fact that, for some species, CCTV coverage is nowhere near as comprehensive as it should be. Equines stand as a good example of that.
In the equine sector, only five abattoirs are licensed to slaughter horses and all of those premises slaughter other animals as well. Indeed, in one case, 10 other species are slaughtered in the same abattoir. The latest figures suggest that around 4,000 horses per annum are slaughtered at those five establishments. The key point is not so much the number killed; rather, although the majority of horses were killed at abattoirs offering CCTV coverage—three of the five—the coverage was only partial. In other words, very few of the abattoir areas were monitored by the technology, even when it was present in some form or another. In fact, only a very small—and I do mean very small—number of horses were slaughtered under the scrutiny of comprehensive CCTV coverage in 2015-16.
Something therefore needs to be done. The situation is not acceptable. It is even more unacceptable when one considers the special circumstances that apply when slaughtering horses. The Welfare of Animals at the Time of Killing Regulations 2014 stipulate that horses must be killed in a separate room, or in a bay that is kept specifically for that purpose, and that a person must not kill a horse in sight of another horse or in a room where there are the remains of another horse or animal. That heightens the case for comprehensive CCTV coverage.
Additionally, World Horse Welfare believes that horses’ unique social and physiological needs make CCTV scrutiny even more critical, as the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd said earlier. Horses have a strong “fight or flight” instinct, which can make them panicked or aggressive when stressed. Competent handling is therefore required at all times.
CCTV must therefore be comprehensively applied and accessible to relevant authorities in order to support them in undertaking their duty of monitoring welfare throughout the slaughter process. Such technology would improve transparency and would not involve the relaxation of other rules relating to the direct oversight of the process or the need for other checks by officials, but it would be an important addition to the process.
There is another reason for our making CCTV coverage in slaughterhouses mandatory, and once again it relates to equine welfare in particular. For many owners of horses, this method of disposal of a well-loved animal would not be acceptable, with euthanasia carried out by a vet being the preferred option. Of course, that latter choice is rather expensive, with euthanasia costing some £500.
The recent “Horses in Our Hands” report for World Horse Welfare, which the hon. Lady mentioned, examined the problem and established, through research at the University of Bristol, that one of the four key priorities for equine welfare is addressing delayed death. In other words, some horses are kept alive for longer than is humane, and cost is often a factor in that decision. The risk is that the animal gets passed around, losing value and frequently ending up in the meat trade anyway. World Horse Welfare therefore views slaughter as an important option in that context.
When asked, more than 40% of horse owners agreed that slaughterhouses must remain available, and nearly two thirds agreed that sending a horse to a slaughterhouse is better than allowing a horse to suffer. CCTV makes an interesting difference to the perception of the acceptability of using equine slaughterhouses. More than 90% of horse owners asked would not use a slaughterhouse to end their horse’s life, but the figure reduces significantly if measures such as CCTV are made available.
This is not an animal rights issue. I deplore and condemn the concept of aggressive picketing and intimidation of slaughterhouse establishments and their staff. Rather, this is an important animal welfare issue. It is about raising welfare standards at slaughter, and it is about transparency and understanding that the humane slaughter of our horses is important for a range of reasons. Not least, it is important because surely we believe that the highest possible animal welfare standards must be maintained in a civilized society.
Mahatma Gandhi is often quoted as saying: “The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” I do not know whether that quote is accurate, but it does not really matter because the sentiment is good and sound. This debate is important because we judge ourselves by how we look after those more vulnerable than ourselves.
I am reluctant to intervene on the hon. Lady, who is making a very good speech. I commend the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) for securing this debate.
Will the hon. Lady reflect on the statistic that, according to the most recent figures from 2014, where CCTV is compulsory in slaughterhouses, only six cases have been referred to the Crown Prosecution Service by the Food Standards Agency? I strongly support the compulsory introduction of CCTV, but does it make a difference? Is she reassured that animal welfare is better with CCTV if only six cases have gone to the CPS?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I have made the point throughout my speech that we need comprehensive CCTV coverage. Some equine slaughterhouses have CCTV in only two of the five key areas, which is part of the problem. This is not just about having some form of CCTV in the slaughterhouse; it is about having comprehensive coverage of the process in the slaughterhouse.
I was trying to finish on the point that we judge ourselves by how we look after those more vulnerable than ourselves, which includes our equine friends. I therefore call on the Minister—I repeatedly say that he is a reasonable man—to proceed with mandatory installation of comprehensive CCTV in equine slaughterhouses and, in fact, in all slaughterhouses. I look forward to his response.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) on introducing this extremely important debate in such a professional and sensible way. It might seem odd, but I have not disagreed with a single word that she or any other speaker has said in this debate. Incidentally, before I forget, I declare that I, too, am an honorary member of the British Veterinary Association. I am also a member of the Countryside Alliance and I own a variety of horses, and have done so for many years. It is true to say that there is no correlation between richness and owning horses. Indeed, I have discovered over the years that owning horses is what makes one poor. I have had a rather large number of horses at one time or another.
I have also had the experience of taking horses to slaughter, and there can be no more terrible event in one’s life than to take to its death an animal with which one has had a day-to-day working relationship for many, many years—I am sure the same applies to dogs and cats, too. I strongly support the thrust of what has been said by all the speakers, especially the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) a moment ago. Their points are absolutely correct, and I strongly support World Horse Welfare’s campaign to introduce compulsory CCTV in abattoirs, of which there can be no doubt.
I hope that those who feel strongly about this subject will forgive me if I raise a couple of issues that I hope will not detract from the strength of the campaign, but that none the less need careful consideration. The first, which was touched on by the hon. Lady for Northern Ireland (Lady Hermon), is that there have been remarkably few prosecutions, even where there is compulsory CCTV. I am ashamed to say that one of the biggest prosecutions was of that dreadful man from west London called James Gray. I assure the House that he is absolutely no relation; none the less, it was an appalling case.
The question is whether introducing compulsory CCTV in the small number of abattoirs that kill horses would necessarily have a significant effect. My concern is that this might be one of those occasions where we make a huge effort to introduce regulation or new legislation that has little effect and might, on the contrary, assuage our concerns and make us feel that we have done something when what we have done is actually relatively inconsequential.
That is possible, of course, but it is hard to work out the cause and effect. In the case of horses, I suspect that it is probably because, depending on the statistics we use, only 4,000 or 5,000 are slaughtered each year in up to five abattoirs—there are none in Wales or Scotland. In other words, something in the order of 1,000 horses are slaughtered per equine abattoir spread over 50 weeks. A very small number of horses are being killed in licensed abattoirs today, and therefore there is no presumption that any of them is carrying out anything other than the highest possible standards of slaughter.
The hon. Gentleman is generous in giving way, given that I have just delivered my speech. It is a mistake to assume that the five abattoirs kill an equal number of horses, because they do not. The numbers are very uneven. The FSA’s figures show that the best records and CCTV coverage are sometimes to be found in smaller abattoirs.
The statistical point that I was making was not whether the same number were killed in each of the five abattoirs; it was that a relatively small number are killed across the whole of England. As far as I am aware, there is also little evidence of anything other than high standards in the abattoirs that do kill horses. We must not start by presuming that they are all bad people doing wicked things. They are not, necessarily; many of them are extremely professional abattoirs doing good things, so let us not start from the presumption that they are bad.
There is a bigger gap in the campaign that we are discussing. I think I am right in saying that the only horses that go to abattoirs are those going into the food chain, which in the UK is a relatively small number. If we presume that there are between 1 million and 1.5 million horses in the UK today, that means that 75,000 or 100,000 die every year in one way or another. Of those, only a tiny proportion go into the food chain. Again, my concern about the campaign is that we would be assuring ourselves that we were doing something terribly important about the euthanising of horses, whereas in fact we would be dealing with an extremely small proportion of those that are killed or die every year, and there may well be other abuses elsewhere that we could more usefully spend our time addressing.
That brings us to the question of horse passports. It must be remembered that the only horses that can be presented at an abattoir are those with up-to-date horse passports, in which no veterinary medicine appears. Nearly all horses, especially low-grade horses, will have had some form of veterinary medicine during the course of their life, particularly bute, which rules them out for presentation at an equine slaughterhouse.
My hon. Friend tempts me down a corridor that is not directly relevant to this debate. I take exactly the opposite view, which is that we should abolish passports and the database, relying only on some form of documentation for those horses presented to be eaten, to prove that they are fit for human consumption. All other horses and equines need no form of documentation to prove that. At the moment, of course, every zebra and vicar’s donkey is required to have a horse passport, merely in order to allow that small number of horses to go through abattoirs every year. That is a disproportionate bureaucratic solution to a very small problem.
The point that I am making is this. An extraordinarily small number of horses go through the abattoir. The only ones allowed to do so are those that have never had any form of medication. Therefore, many of the worst horses, in welfare terms—wilder, cheaper or less valued ponies—are unable to get into the abattoir, even supposing that it does have CCTV. We in this place often do things to make ourselves feel better. We are concerned about the end of life for horses; of course we are worried about it, and quite right too. Of course we are concerned that abattoirs should apply the highest possible standards, and it is absolutely right that we should take steps to ensure that they do.
However, my concern is that in concentrating solely on that, we are concentrating on a tiny part of the problem of horse welfare. A far bigger problem is the number of dumped horses and wild horses; we do not know where they are or what to do about them. This is a tiny problem, and we do not even know that it really is one. If we were to use our primary legislation to solve something that might or might not really be a problem, we would be fooling ourselves that we had done something useful.
CCTV has a dual purpose. First, it ensures that the slaughter of animals is done correctly. Secondly, it also ensures that slaughterhouse personnel have done it correctly—the proof is in the CCTV footage. Is there not a dual purpose? It protects both the slaughterhouse and the staff.
That is, of course, correct, but it applies only to the tiny proportion of horses that go to the slaughterhouse. That is the point that I am making; only a very small number are killed in equine slaughterhouses. There is no protection whatever for horses killed by the knackerman, although contrary to what somebody said a moment ago, most of the knackermen that I have met are extremely professional animal lovers; the notion that they are bloodthirsty murderers is incorrect. By far the biggest professionals of all in terms of killing horses are at local hunt kennels, where people feel strongly about horses and know more about them than almost anybody else. Hunt kennels provide a fantastic resource for the countryside by slaughtering horses at the end of their lives.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s argument that many horses might not be reached by a scheme, as they are not passported, but I refer him to my speech, in which I mentioned that horse owners who are concerned about the welfare of their horses, who have passports and who know whether bute has been used or not are a particular cohort of people whom we should address by making slaughterhouses as accessible to them as possible as an alternative.
I agree. Of course there are responsible, sensible, grown-up horse owners who would prefer their horse to go into the food chain, although I must say that I am not certain that I want my horse to be eaten. I would much prefer my horses to be burned, or buried in some instances. I am not certain that taking them to the abattoir to be turned into horse meat and sold in supermarkets across the continent is what I personally would want to happen, even though I believe that I am a reasonably responsible horse owner. However, my concern is not so much the people like us who are responsible and who understand about veterinary medicines and all that; it is about the hundreds of thousands of other horses that are not owned by responsible owners, that would not be taken to abattoirs and that have had veterinary medicines. They are the horses towards which we must address our concerns.
All I am saying is that the minimum—proper standards in the abattoir—must not be the enemy of the best. Although I support this particular campaign—it is a good idea, and we must find a way to ensure that there are no abuses in our equine slaughterhouses—I ask the Minister not to use it as an excuse for not doing something about the much bigger problem of the large number of horses that are unwanted, dumped on other people’s land or used in the extremely inhumane horse trade. There are a whole variety of welfare problems that this small matter would not necessarily solve.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to correct the record by clarifying one point. He referred to me as “the hon. Lady for Northern Ireland”—I am the hon. Member for North Down—and quoted me as apparently supporting the idea that the low number of prosecutions was evidence that CCTV was not working. Quite the opposite: I think that CCTV should be comprehensive throughout the entire slaughterhouse, and that Food Standards Agency staff should have compulsory and easy access to all the footage. That was my point. That would make horse slaughterhouses much more effective.
I know that the hon. Member for North Down will forgive me if I inadvertently misquoted her; of course we understood that she meant that we prefer to have CCTV in all slaughterhouses. If some remark of mine made her feel that I had not understood that point, I apologise. My concern is simply that by introducing legislation that is the least we can—
I definitely do not want the hon. Gentleman’s horses to be eaten. I watched a TV documentary on slaughterhouses as a teenager, and it turned me into a vegan; I have not eaten meat all my life. I support the campaign, because I think that any exposure of slaughterhouses would be beneficial, and I support CCTV cameras in—
I accept what the hon. Lady says. A couple of experiences that I have had in slaughterhouses over the years have nearly made me, the biggest beef-eater in Parliament, a vegan. It is a revolting sight, and I would certainly not want to see my horse taken there and slaughtered. However, she makes an extremely good point, which is that the only horses that go to horse slaughterhouses are those destined for the food chain. Other horses do not. Ninety-five per cent of horses are not destined for the food chain, and could not go there. There is a bigger issue. I always argue that we ought to abolish equine slaughterhouses in the UK altogether, thereby sending no meat at all into the human food chain, although I accept the animal welfare downside to that as well: where would those ponies and horses then go?
My message to the Minister is that we must avoid making one thing that we do—introducing compulsory CCTV into slaughterhouses—the enemy of the best. We must address the huge animal welfare concerns about horses, particularly about the large number of unwanted horses abandoned across our land, which is growing as we speak. Those horses will never go anywhere near an equine slaughterhouse, and the provision of CCTV in such slaughterhouses will therefore not help them even slightly at the end of their lives.
I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say, and congratulate the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd on obtaining the debate. I hope that she does not feel that I have in any way lessened the thrust of her argument, which was very powerful. None the less, I hope that one result of this afternoon’s debate will be that the Government begin to listen and think more carefully about the wider welfare issues that affect horses across our nation.
I am grateful to have this opportunity to consider the use of closed circuit television in equine slaughterhouses and to present the views of the Scottish National party. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) on securing the debate, which clearly has strong cross-party support, and Kate Fowler of Animal Aid on her tireless work to bring many of the issues that have been presented today to the attention of MPs; I also congratulate colleagues in World Horse Welfare and Blue Cross.
Undercover filming of poor welfare practices in slaughterhouses has, as we have heard, led to campaigns by a number of animal welfare groups to make it a legal requirement for all slaughterhouses to install CCTV—including those that slaughter horses. It is worth reminding ourselves why we are debating the issue today. The investigations that have been conducted have highlighted cruelty and regulatory breaches in no fewer than nine of the 10 randomly chosen English slaughterhouses that were filmed. The abuses included animals being punched and kicked in the head, burned with cigarettes, and beaten with paddles and broom handles, as well as sheep being picked up by their fleeces and thrown across rooms or smashed head first into solid structures, and animals being attacked with shackle hooks or being deliberately given powerful electric shocks through their ears, tails, abdomens and open mouths. That state of affairs is unacceptable.
Currently both the Food Standards Agency and the UK Government support the use of CCTV in slaughterhouses to prevent cruelty; but neither has yet taken the step of arguing that it should be made a legislative requirement. Five abattoirs in England are licensed to slaughter horses. The public would undoubtedly be surprised to learn that a total of 12,431 horses have been slaughtered in those abattoirs over the past three years. Indeed, according to World Horse Welfare, 4,515 UK horses were killed in slaughterhouses in 2014 alone.
I apologise to the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) for my late arrival.
I come from the Scottish borders, where there is a rich equestrian tradition. There may be five such slaughterhouses in England, but there are none in Scotland, which adds impetus and interest to our interest in this issue south of the border. Does my hon. Friend agree with what we heard—that although CCTV is important it should be just one of a package of measures to ensure the appropriate welfare of all animals sent to slaughter?
I agree with my hon. Friend. CCTV is an important initiative that will contribute to animal welfare across all the nations of the UK.
The practice of slaughtering horses in abattoirs is clearly relatively common, as is the gratuitous cruelty. That is a vital consideration, particularly given that 40% of horse owners state that the cost of euthanasia is too high, which leaves slaughterhouses as the only affordable alternative for their companion animals. As my hon. Friend has said, no abattoir in Scotland is currently licensed to slaughter horses. Nevertheless, the Welfare of Animals at the Time of Killing (Scotland) Regulations 2012 highlight the relevant standards. The regulations pertaining to horses provide that where
“a slaughterhouse is one in which horses are killed, the business operator must ensure that…a separate room or bay is provided for the killing of horses and no person may kill a horse except in that separate room or bay”
“a lairage in which a horse is confined must contain at least one loose box which is so constructed as to minimise the danger of any horse injuring itself or any other animal confined in that lairage.”
Paragraph 13 of schedule 1 to the Scottish regulations makes it clear that
“No person may kill a horse within sight of any other horse.”
That is broadly similar to the regulations that apply in England.
It is right and proper that slaughterhouses should protect against animal abuse. The Scottish Government take the welfare of animals at the time of slaughter seriously, and will continue to do so. They, along with the Food Standards Agency, have already recommended the installation of CCTV as best practice in monitoring the welfare of animals at the time of killing, regardless of the species. At present, the FSA estimates that 95% of animals slaughtered in Scotland are killed in plants where CCTV has already been installed. The Scottish Government continue to monitor its role in promoting animal welfare.
The European Union also plays a role in guaranteeing the welfare of animals across Europe. Approximately 80% of UK animal welfare legislation originates from the EU, with over 40 laws relevant to animal welfare. Those laws cover all four groups of animals—farm, research, wildlife and companion—and have developed over 40 years. In Scotland we place a value on that legislation. Let us hope that animal welfare will be recognised in the promised great repeal Bill and that there will be no attempt to dilute, cancel or repeal animal welfare laws such those I am advocating.
While CCTV will not prevent all welfare breaches, it is an invaluable tool to help vets, slaughterhouse operators and auditors ensure best practice and compliance with welfare laws. There is compelling evidence that properly monitored CCTV cameras work. Footage has been used to cast light on thousands of abuses resulting in slaughterhouse workers’ licences being revoked and abusive workers being successfully prosecuted. Independently monitored CCTV protects animals. Cameras also protect staff from bullying and false allegations, promote health and safety and deter workers from committing acts of cruelty. Where the cameras are properly and independently monitored and robust action is taken where appropriate, they are a powerful deterrent. Where their presence fails to deter abuse, resultant footage provides evidence for prosecutions.
The UK Government argue that voluntary CCTV schemes do not work. If that is so, let us make CCTV mandatory. Independent monitoring and robust action is essential; without them, the presence of cameras is worthless. I am calling for regulations to set out the details of how the footage is gathered and stored, who monitors it, how much they view, and how often. That change can be achieved simply under section 12 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which provides for the making of regulations
“for the purpose of promoting the welfare of animals for which a person is responsible”.
Such a change would not be without precedent as the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007 were introduced in that way. Israel and India have already taken similar steps.
Sheffield University has calculated that the cost of an independent CCTV monitoring system would be in the region of £370,000 a year for slaughterhouses in England, and substantially less for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In weighing that against the cost of not acting, it is worth noting that the Minister of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said on 3 February 2015 at column 251 that the cost of cameras themselves was “relatively modest”.
The 2016 Rotherham report suggests that the costs be met by placing a levy on each animal killed, so that industry and consumers pay, rather than government and taxpayers. In that scenario, the costs would be negligible—about a penny per animal. One penny per animal to avoid further scandals emanating from the industry and further reputational damage arising from welfare abuses, deaths of workers and horsemeat contamination seems like a good investment. That investment could address inconsistent management practice in slaughterhouses, inconsistency in CCTV usage, and variable retention periods, and challenge the many businesses currently unwilling to share footage with regulators.
Sending a horse to slaughter is clearly not the preferred choice for most horse owners, but it is an alternative to other methods of ending a horse’s life that are prohibitively expensive, and a more humane alternative to leaving a horse to deteriorate. We must ensure that horses and indeed all animals are treated humanely in slaughterhouses, and I urge the Minister to amend section 12 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 to mandate independently monitored CCTV in slaughterhouses.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) on securing this really important debate. The excellent speeches that we have heard from hon. Members reflect the strong public opinion that CCTV should be installed in all equine slaughterhouses. Forgive me, but I must declare an interest: a member of my family works in the meat industry.
I support the argument of the hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) and my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) that there should be CCTV in every slaughterhouse throughout the UK. Like my hon. Friend, I pay tribute to the animal charities, particularly World Horse Welfare, which contacted me about its campaign to make CCTV mandatory and whose work is helping the public campaign to grow. In its recent survey of horse owners, which has already been mentioned, World Horse Welfare found that 90% of those surveyed would not use a slaughterhouse to end their horse’s life, but that if measures such as CCTV were in place, 50% of respondents would change their minds. The fact that owners do not have faith that horse slaughter is humane may well lead to welfare problems as horses are passed through various routes until they meet their death. We have already heard that that is a particular concern for horse owners, who simply cannot afford the costs of veterinary euthanasia and the resulting carcase disposal, which can be well over £500.
I am presuming that the Minister will refer to the fact that under the relevant EU regulation, slaughterhouses are not required to have CCTV in place; that he will point to the Farm Animal Welfare Committee’s opinion document, which hon. Members have already mentioned and which was published last year; and that he will reiterate his own statement that he was keeping the issue under review. However, the Government must act to increase the confidence of the public, of horse welfare charities and of horse owners in the slaughter process for these animals.
According to the most recent Food Standards Agency survey of operating slaughterhouses in England and Wales, just over 49% of red meat slaughterhouses and 70% of white meat slaughterhouses use some form of CCTV for the purpose of protecting animal welfare. As hon. Members have said, that number has now plateaued. The British Veterinary Association and the Veterinary Public Health Association have called for mandatory CCTV in slaughterhouses too. These organisations have gone further, though, and requested legislation that would allow vets unrestricted access to the CCTV footage. The health Minister responsible will not agree to that, even though there are no national records to show how effective the current system is, yet the FSA’s authorised officers can ask the food business officer present for access to relevant footage. Will the Minister look into using legislation to strengthen the powers of vets when a breach is suspected?
The conclusion of the FSA publication is that CCTV can be used by operators as part of their system for monitoring and protecting animal welfare and to complement direct oversight by management and checks by officials. I stress the importance of the industry and the Government in reassuring the public that the welfare of the animal is paramount throughout the whole slaughterhouse process, because even though we are not known to consume horsemeat in this country, the recent horsemeat scandal is well remembered. The cost implications of using CCTV are thought to be manageable for businesses, even smaller companies. Many companies already have CCTV installed for security issues—many hon. Members have made that specific point, and so has the Minister on previous occasions.
It is now time for the Government and the industry to take the opportunity to make their commitment to horse welfare in equine slaughterhouses more transparent and effective and to make CCTV mandatory, as has been called for in this debate.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) on securing this important debate and articulating an emotive subject so sensitively. As she pointed out, people who have owned a horse all their life are often reluctant to see that horse meet its end. She acknowledged that even if we had CCTV in slaughterhouses, it would get us only so far, because people have a natural reluctance to see the horse that they have lived with for all those years go to a slaughterhouse, with all the uncertainty that they believe that would involve.
I acknowledge the work of World Horse Welfare and other groups on this issue and their long-standing campaign for mandatory CCTV in equine slaughterhouses. I must point out that this is a devolved issue and that my response to this debate applies to England. As hon. Members will know, devolved authorities in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are responsible for the welfare of animals at slaughter in their respective Administrations.
The Government share the British public’s high regard for the welfare of horses. We take seriously our responsibility to ensure that the right laws are in place to secure our horses’ welfare.
I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to make an early intervention. He will know well that the lead that is set at Westminster is often followed by the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland. If this Government lead the way with compulsory CCTV in slaughterhouses, that will set a very good precedent for the Northern Ireland Assembly.
I understand that; indeed, in many areas we learn from one another when different Administrations trial different pieces of legislation; we share ideas and often work together.
A variety of laws provide protection for the welfare of horses. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 places a clear duty of care on owners and keepers to provide for the welfare needs of their horses. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) discussed abandoned horses and made the important point that there are wider welfare issues that we must not lose sight of. He will be aware that, in recognition of the specific welfare issues that arise with some horses, the Government recently supported the introduction of the Control of Horses Act 2015 to help landowners and local authorities to deal with the problem of horses left on other people’s land without their permission, which can often give rise to animal welfare issues.
The Government are also firmly committed to improving standards of animal welfare at slaughter. At the end of their lives, horses are covered by WATOK—the Welfare of Animals at the Time of Killing (England) Regulations 2015—which sets out requirements pertinent to the protection of animals at slaughter.
I know that the Minister is very keen on animal welfare and does a great deal to promote it. I just wonder why it is not possible to have compulsory cameras for the slaughter of horses, both in the slaughterhouse itself and in the lairage, to ensure that the horses are handled properly all the way through. I feel that that is something that we could do, and it would not be so difficult to make it compulsory.
My hon. Friend will appreciate that I will come on to all those issues, which are so pertinent to the debate.
WATOK sets out protections for all animals, regardless of whether there is CCTV in slaughterhouses. There are clear legal obligations on all operators to have standard operating procedures, including monitoring procedures, in place for all slaughter operations, as well as trained stockmen and trained slaughtermen. Official veterinarians from the Food Standards Agency are present during slaughter operations to monitor and enforce animal health and welfare regulations.
On equine slaughter specifically, several long-standing national requirements in WATOK are relevant to the special needs of horses at the time of killing—the business operator must ensure that a separate room or bay is provided for the killing of horses; no person may kill a horse in a room or a bay where there are the remains of a horse or other animal; and no horse may be killed within sight of another horse.
As several hon. Members have pointed out, there are currently five approved equine slaughterhouses in England and Wales, and they are all located in England. Three of them have CCTV installed in some areas for animal welfare purposes. Some 3,280 horses were slaughtered in the past 12 months, and the two plants without CCTV were responsible for only 32 of those animals. From the perspective of equine slaughter, then, most horses are slaughtered in premises with CCTV—
The feedback we have had from the Food Standards Agency’s official veterinarians and reports is that it has not encountered any particular problems or concerns about the welfare of horses at slaughter. We should also note that the number of horses slaughtered at abattoirs in the UK has been in steady decline since 2012, when 8,426 horses were slaughtered. That fell to 5,000 by 2013, and in this past year it is down to just 3,280. That partly reflects a changing view among owners about the end-of-life choices that they have for their horses. It also reflects, as several hon. Members have said, how people are increasingly choosing to have their horses euthanised.
I want to talk about the meat of this debate, which is CCTV. As many hon. Members have said today, CCTV can and does play a useful role. Last year, the Farm Animal Welfare Committee published an interesting report that detailed the positive benefits of CCTV to slaughterhouse operators and those monitoring and verifying compliance with welfare standards. The benefits go much wider than any deterrent effect, and include, for instance, more accurate ante-mortem inspection in the lairage—for example, sheep often mask lameness if stressed when a stockman or vet is present, but behave normally under remote observation.
Another benefit is that CCTV can be a valuable training tool for operatives to encourage sensitive and sympathetic behaviour towards animals, and it can enable the spotting of any bad practices that could result in incidents or near misses. It can also allow the observation of activities in small or confined spaces that it would otherwise be difficult for the official veterinarian to observe. As the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals briefing for the debate also illustrates, it can be of use to operators and audit schemes in providing assurance that good practice and legal requirements are followed.
The Government understand the desire for the use of CCTV in all slaughterhouses, although we are yet to be convinced that it should be a mandatory requirement. I do, though, understand the calls for the Government to go further by introducing legislation to require slaughterhouses to have CCTV installed, and that official veterinarians should have unfettered access to CCTV footage. As I have made clear previously, the Government have never ruled out further action, and we keep the matter under review. I shall ensure that my noble Friend Lord Gardiner, who now has responsibility for the relevant part of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs portfolio, is made aware of the points made today. We will, of course, consider them all carefully.
It is important to highlight one other important point about CCTV made by the FAWC, which is that it is at its most powerful when used as a tool for food business operators to manage their operations and staff and to help with training. There is one area of caution here: CCTV cannot be a substitute for responsible food business operators, and nor can it replace the role of official veterinarians. If it is used, it is preferable that it is used because food business operators really want it and want to use it to improve the management of their operation. In considering legislation, we need to be careful that we do not inadvertently change the culture and thereby lose out on all the benefits from CCTV highlighted by the FAWC. It is for that reason that the Government have encouraged the voluntary take-up of CCTV in slaughterhouses, and will continue to do so.
It might help if I clarify the current situation concerning CCTV in slaughterhouses generally. The latest FSA survey figures show that in Great Britain 92% of cattle, 96% of pig, 88% of sheep and 99% of poultry throughput is currently from premises with CCTV. As the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) pointed out, the number of slaughterhouses with CCTV installed has been at the same level for the past couple of years. The numbers of high-throughput slaughterhouses with CCTV reflects the fact that, although the installation of CCTV in slaughterhouses is currently voluntary, it is also a requirement of many retailers and food assurance schemes. I acknowledge that many of the medium and smaller slaughterhouses have not yet installed CCTV. Many operators who have installed CCTV say that it is a positive training tool, so we would like to consider the issue to ensure that we get greater uptake of CCTV installation.
I shall briefly address some of the issues mentioned by hon. Members. The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd talked about EU law. She is right that the initial intention of the great repeal Bill is that existing EU regulations will be put on to a UK legal basis, but I should point out that there is currently nothing in EU law that would prevent us from legislating to introduce mandatory CCTV if we so wished. This also relates to a point made by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon). I do not intend to blame the EU and say that we cannot do it because it is not required; it is not required under EU law, but there is nothing in EU law that would prohibit it.
The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd also mentioned the cost. I have said in previous debates that the cost is indeed modest. She said that it can be under £1,000, and it can be for single cameras, as I have pointed out previously. However, when the FAWC looked into the cost, it estimated that for most abattoirs the cost of installing CCTV in the areas that people would want covered, which would require several cameras and additional monitoring systems, would be £3,000 to £10,000. As I have said previously and will say again, though, that is a relatively modest cost.
Does the Minister accept that there is a risk that the number of abattoirs killing horses and the number of horses killed in abattoirs might well decline further if CCTV is made compulsory? Many abattoir owners will simply say, “Why bother with horses?”, because they are a huge hassle anyhow and the carcass value is very low. Is there not at least a risk that the small number of abattoirs will become smaller?
There is another, wider point. This debate is focused specifically on CCTV at the point of horses’ slaughter, but all five of the slaughterhouses that are licensed to slaughter horses also slaughter other animals. The reality is that, were anybody to consider measures on CCTV, I am not sure there would be a specific reason to single out those abattoirs licensed for horses. I think that if someone was going to install CCTV, they would take a broader view, across all species, because the principles involved are broadly the same for each species.
The final point that I will make on the speech of the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd relates to her claim that in the case of horse abattoirs there is not retail pressure. I think she is missing a point here, as all five abattoirs also slaughter other animals—other farm livestock. That is probably why three of the five already have CCTV.
I know that my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) has been a long-standing campaigner on a wide range of animal welfare issues. He made a separate legislative point, saying that if there is not time for primary legislation to address this issue, perhaps the Government should give a fair wind to a private Member’s Bill. Obviously, private Member’s Bills are an issue for the House and for private Members; it is open to anyone at any time to bring one forward. However, I am not sure that we would need primary legislation if we decided to address this issue. Potentially it could be dealt with under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which has quite wide provisions to deal with these types of things. Nevertheless, I take on board his point, and if any Back Bencher wanted to introduce such legislation, they could obviously do so.
As I think I explained to my hon. Friend, my belief is that we probably could.
I will move on to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire made. He brought a refreshing sense of balance to this debate; we always need to question ourselves when we consider new measures of this sort. He made the very important point that we have had serious welfare breaches in slaughterhouses where there has been CCTV, so we should not see CCTV as a panacea for these problems. There are strong arguments for CCTV in slaughterhouses, but some of the breaches of animal welfare have been in slaughterhouses that already have CCTV.
Finally, the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for North Tyneside, mentioned access to footage. If the Food Standards Agency is conducting an investigation, it already has access to footage where CCTV exists; it can require access to that footage. Also, the British Meat Processors Association and others have developed protocols with their members about how to store, share and use data, where it is available.
We are obviously aware of prosecutions brought by the FSA nationally. So, where there are incidents or breaches, we get involved, and I am often involved in sanctioning the withdrawal of licences and other such sanctions.
In conclusion, I again thank all hon. Members for their contribution to this interesting debate. It is about 18 months since I last responded to a debate on the issue of CCTV in slaughterhouses. While the evidence on the impact of CCTV on animal welfare within slaughterhouses has probably changed a little in that period, I do take on board all the issues that have been raised today. In addition, I note that take-up of CCTV among some of the smaller abattoirs has plateaued over the last two years.
I reiterate that, as well as helping to protect the welfare of animals, many of the benefits of CCTV in slaughterhouses that were identified by the Farm Animal Welfare Committee’s report also help the slaughterhouse operator. Also, the Government have never ruled out mandatory steps on CCTV in slaughterhouses, although we have always encouraged voluntary uptake.
I assure the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd that this Government remain committed to promoting high animal welfare standards and protecting animal welfare on-farm, in transport and at slaughter, and I hope that I have been able to address some of the concerns that have been raised today.
Diolch yn fawr iawn—thank you very much, Mrs Main, for giving me the opportunity to close this debate.
I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to this debate this afternoon. I think that I need to put on the record, as I have heard everybody else doing so, that I have been an honorary member of the British Veterinary Association for about three weeks or so. It is important that I record that.
Listening to the speeches, the general thrust was to do the best that we can for the welfare of horses, and of domestic and agricultural animals more widely. I particularly welcome the support from the hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) of the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation, and also his comment that the cost of CCTV need not be prohibitive.
I also welcome the comments of the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), who mentioned the “invisible horse”, referring to the fact that there are many animals out there that are effectively not seen by anybody. It is very easy for an animal that is kept, say, in a field simply to disappear from sight; although we are concerned for its welfare, we are not really in a position to know much about what is happening to them.
I agree with the concern of the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) about the wider issue with horse welfare. I understand that there are almost 800,000 horses in the United Kingdom, although we do not know how many there really are, and a great many horses are owned by people who, in all honesty, are not interested in any aspect of their welfare. Although I feel strongly that CCTV would improve the welfare of horses in certain circumstances, we should not fool ourselves that CCTV in itself would resolve all the problems for horses. I share the hon. Gentleman’s discomfort with the idea that horses are meat animals. None the less, the fact that, although they are not meat animals, they are still large herbivores in itself affects their life experience.
Turning to the contribution of the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan), of course, Scotland and Wales are in the same situation; we do not have licensed equine slaughterhouses. That means that horse owners in Wales or Scotland have to travel outside our nations if they wish to use those facilities.
It is important that all the nations of the United Kingdom set standards for each other. Wales passed the Control of Horses (Wales) Act 2014, which dealt with fly-grazing; previous to that being dealt with in England. Interestingly enough, only a certain number of authorities have used those enabling powers. I suspect that is partly because some of them do not want to be seen to be responsible for the death of horses that come under their control, which is part of the irony of our relationship with horses. In welfare terms, we perhaps need to address that irony.
Finally, I turn to the contribution by the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon). She summarised the views of many in this House by saying that the welfare of animals in slaughterhouses is of paramount concern to the public. I very much welcome some of the Minister’s comments. I noted his comments that CCTV has a useful role to play; that it can make evident concealed injuries, such as lameness, which animals conceal when they are under stress and feel that they are being observed; that it can be used for training; and that it can be used in particular when it is difficult to gain access to smaller spaces.
I noticed the subtleties of the Minister’s comment that he perhaps remains to be convinced about CCTV but that he has never ruled out further action. He also said that this issue could be dealt with by a private Member’s Bill or a statutory instrument arising from the Animal Welfare Act 2016, which was certainly an interesting comment. I hope that he will commit to consider that matter further in future.
Of course, CCTV is not a substitute for responsible work practices or the presence of official veterinarians. Nevertheless, there is a strong feeling that it contributes to and enhances welfare. As for making CCTV mandatory, we have been talking about equines today but that could also apply—well, it should apply—to all other agricultural animals. The time has come to deal with this issue, and there are strong feelings about that.
I will close by saying that many little girls aspire to own their first My Little Pony and then to own the real thing—
And little boys, possibly. I am talking for myself and my own daughters; forgive me. However, horses are not necessarily well served if they are regarded an aspirational status symbol. They are neither an agricultural animal nor a visible family pet. They can be dumped, “invisible” and uncared for, in barns or fields. They can be cheap to buy; indeed, they can easily be free to acquire. The costs of worming them and maintaining their feet can be prohibitive for people who might find it easy to acquire them, and their value disappears after they reach a certain age.
Mandatory CCTV and ensuring access to CCTV footage will improve the reality of horse welfare, and indeed that of all animals sent to slaughterhouses, and I hope that we can address this issue further in the future. Thanks very much—diolch yn fawr iawn.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered CCTV in equine slaughterhouses.
Foreign National Offenders
[Sir Alan Meale in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the return of foreign national offenders to prison in their own country.
I am grateful to you, Sir Alan, for your time in the Chair, to Mr Speaker for granting me permission to hold the debate, and to my constituents who have sent me here to articulate their concerns. I welcome other hon. Members to the debate, and declare myself open to as many interventions as they care to make.
My main contention is that there are too many foreign national offenders in prison in this country and that they should be in prison in their country of origin. I invite the Minister to update the House on the latest figures, first on the number of prisoners in our jails. I think it is something like 85,000, which basically means that our prisons are full to bursting. It is good that we catch people who do bad things and lock them up, but my understanding is that more than 10,000 of those 85,000—something like 12%—are foreign national offenders. At a time when our prisons are full to bursting, when we, by the Government’s own admission, do not have enough prison officers and when public expenditure is tight at best, it seems that we need to redouble our efforts to ensure that we send those foreign national offenders back to their own countries.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Earlier today, the Minister gave evidence about this very issue to the Justice Committee and I asked him a question about it. Does the hon. Gentleman think it is inexcusable that there are 4,270-plus EU nationals in our prisons? If there is one group of prisoners we should return to their country of origin it is prisoners from EU countries, because they are costing the British taxpayer £169 million. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is essential, as part of the Brexit negotiations, that we get that problem sorted out once and for all?
I do think we should get the situation sorted out once and for all. I pray in aid the excellent report by the right hon. Gentleman’s previous Committee, which looked into the issue. I quote, I think, from that report:
“The public would expect our membership of the EU to make it easier to deport European offenders, but this is clearly not the case, and we continue to keep thousands of these criminals at great and unnecessary expense.”
There is in place an EU prisoner transfer directive, which means that countries can compulsorily return prisoners to their country of origin within the European Union. The last time we managed to wheedle a figure out of Her Majesty’s Government on how many EU nationals we had returned to their country of origin, I think the number was 101—pathetically low. Legislation, in the form of that directive, exists with which to do that, but we are simply not getting on with it. Perhaps the Minister in his response will confirm how many EU nationals are in our prisons, how many we have returned to their country of origin, and why we are not sending thousands more of these individuals back.
I have to tell the House that, beside EU nationals, there are representatives of 160 nations from around the world in Her Majesty’s prisons. Not only are we a cosmopolitan society at large, we are also a cosmopolitan city in Her Majesty’s jails.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. The figure I have for Jamaica is 567, and I, like him, would like the Minister to update us.
In a minute, I will come to a list of shame, of those countries that have the most foreign national offenders in our prisons.
The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that dissident republicans continue to wage a very violent campaign in Northern Ireland. These are individuals who claim they want to achieve a united Ireland through violence. At present, some of them are relaxing at Her Majesty’s pleasure in Maghaberry prison in Northern Ireland. Does the hon. Gentleman have any facts and figures relating to such prisoners who have requested to go back to the Republic of Ireland?
I do not have the answer to the hon. Lady’s question, but I hope that the Minister does, because he is paid to have that sort of information. I can tell her, however, that according to my figures, southern Ireland—Ireland—has 783 nationals in UK prisons and is No. 2 on my list of shame.
Some 80% of the world’s nations are represented in our prisons. A third of those prisoners have been convicted of violent and sexual offences, a fifth of drug offences, and others of burglary, robbery, fraud and other serious crimes, yet we have the privilege of paying for them to stay in our country. The National Audit Office, in a report just a couple of years ago, looked at how much that is costing our nation. The average annual cost of incarcerating a prisoner is £33,000, so the very least this costs us is something like £330 million a year. The National Audit Office estimated that if things such as police costs, Crown Prosecution Service costs, legal aid costs and prison costs were added in, the total bill would be between £769 million and £1 billion a year, with its median estimate being £850 million.
I come now to my list of shame, the list of the top 10 nations, according to the latest figures I have, on the basis of how many of their nationals are in our prisons. At No. 10 is Nigeria with 385, No. 9 is Somalia with 430, No. 8 is India with 458, equal sixth are Lithuania and Pakistan with 471, No. 5 is Albania with 472, No. 4 is Jamaica with 567, No. 3 is Romania with 629, No. 2 is Ireland with 783 and No. 1 is Poland with 951.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, not least for securing what is a very important debate. He mentioned Pakistan. People will remember Shabir Ahmed who is serving more than 40 years for raping dozens of children as part of the Rochdale grooming gang. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that he should be deported to Pakistan to see what he thinks of prison there?
That is a very sensible suggestion. I am not aware of all the details of the horrific crimes that that unpleasant gentleman has committed, but I do not see why British taxpayers should pay for him to be in prison—Pakistani taxpayers should. In fact, I would go further. I take the view that if a foreign national in this country commits a crime for which they are potentially imprisonable, they should be deported and banned from ever returning, whether they are in prison or not.
I felt that I had walked into an early edition of “Top of the Pops” when the hon. Gentleman did the countdown from 10 to one—I suppose that from his point of view it is “Bottom of the Pops”. In respect of that list, with one or two exceptions they are either EU or Commonwealth countries. We would expect, as far as the Commonwealth countries are concerned—Nigeria, Jamaica and the others—that Ministers would be able to elicit a better deal than the one they have. Only yesterday, the Polish Prime Minister was in the country. I asked the Minister this question earlier in the Justice Committee meeting. Should this issue not be the No. 1 concern when our Ministers are meeting the leaders of other countries? It would save the British taxpayer a lot of money and would enable those countries to imprison their own citizens. We would be happy to take back our prisoners who are in their countries.
As always, the right hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. From the list of 10, four are EU countries and four are Commonwealth countries. He is absolutely right. I hope that in the Prime Minister’s discussions with the Polish Prime Minister yesterday, she raised the fact that Poland was top of the list of shame and asked the Poles what they were doing to take their citizens back. I understand that Poland has a derogation from the EU prisoner transfer directive until this month. I hope that the Minister will get on to his Polish counterpart at the end of the month to say that we look forward to triggering the proposals that have become live.
Those top 10 nations account for 5,617 prisoners, but we have imported—I am afraid this is absolute truth—a wave of crime from eastern Europe with the accession of eastern European countries to the European Union. Poland has 951 of its citizens in our jails. In 2002, before Polish membership of the European Union, there were 45 Poles in prison in this country. I urge the Minister to get on with it, but I also urge him to speak to his counterpart in the Department for International Development. My list of shame of 10 countries could be cross-checked with the 28 countries that receive large amounts of aid from DFID. Indeed, I asked a few years ago how much aid we give in total to Jamaica, Pakistan, Nigeria, Somalia, India and Bangladesh, and the answer in that year was almost £1 billion, yet those six countries provide us with almost 3,000 foreign national offenders. It costs us more than £100 million a year to incarcerate those people in our jails, yet we are giving those countries £1 billion in international aid assistance.
I think we should do more things such as those we are doing in Jamaica, where we are using international aid money to build a prison to which we can return its nationals. That is a sensible use of the international aid budget. In Jamaica, we signed an agreement in 2015 to build a 1,500-bed prison. It will be built with British taxpayers’ money, and Jamaican nationals in prison in this country will go back to prison in Jamaica as soon as it is completed. Will the Minister urge DFID to look for similar arrangements in the other five countries that I mentioned?
Perhaps more worrying than those foreign national offenders in prison is the very large number of foreign national offenders who are in this country, but not in prison. Alarmingly, it takes the Home Office 149 days on average to deport a foreign national offender. That is simply too slow. The latest figures I have are for March this year. They show a total of 5,895 foreign national offenders living in the community awaiting deportation. These dangerous people are not even in prison. They are free to go about their business on our streets. Of that 5,895 FNOs, 84% have been at large for more than one year and 30% have been at large for more than five years. That is a national scandal. Very large numbers of those individuals will have committed further offences in this country since they have been outside prison. My contention is that those foreign national offenders also need to be deported. If they are not going to be in prison, they need to be walking the streets of their country of origin, not those of our country.
This is an alarming state of affairs, and I am looking to the Minister—he has a solid reputation for being enthusiastic about his portfolio and being skilled and articulate in arguing the case to get things done—to knock heads together in his Department and the Home Office to say that it is not good enough. The previous Prime Minister said to the Home Affairs Committee that the Government’s performance was not good enough, and I am sure the present Prime Minister would admit that. The issue is costing British taxpayers more than £800 million a year. Almost 5,000 foreign national offenders are at large on our streets. Some 10,000 are in prison in this country when they should be in prison in their countries at the expense of their own taxpayers. My constituents in Kettering are looking to the Minister to get it sorted out.
I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) for securing this afternoon’s debate. I know he has raised the issue before. The debate has raised a number of issues that I will try to tackle in turn. I welcome an opportunity to highlight the Government’s approach and the progress we are making.
Let me say at the outset that the House should be in no doubt that the Government are absolutely committed to increasing the number of foreign national offenders removed from our prisons. Any foreign national who comes to our country and abuses our hospitality by breaking the law should be in no doubt of our determination to deport them. Increasing removals is one of our top priorities. When I was appointed, the Prime Minister certainly made it clear to me that it was a key priority for the Department. All FNOs sentenced to custody are referred to the Home Office at the earliest opportunity to be considered for deportation.
My hon. Friend asked for an update on the numbers. Overall, since 2010 we have removed more than 33,000 foreign offenders from prisons, immigration removal centres and the community. In 2015-16, we removed 5,810 FNOs, which was the highest number since records began. That represents good progress, but there is certainly a lot more that can be done, and I am ambitious to do more. My hon. Friend asked for clarification. FNOs make up 12% of the overall prison population, with 4,180 EU nationals in prisons and immigration removal centres. He went through a list of his top 10. Without going into too much detail, I can confirm that Poland holds the highest number of offenders. Ireland is second and Romania is third.
The primary responsibility for the removal of FNOs sits with the Home Office. It is the Home Office that can remove someone from this country. The Ministry of Justice and the National Offender Management Service support that work by setting the policy and administering the removal schemes. As I am sure everyone present will recognise, the removal of an FNO requires a co-ordinated and sustained approach across Whitehall. My hon. Friend alluded to that. My Department works closely with the Home Office, the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development. Only last week I met ministerial colleagues from those Departments to agree a programme of work to increase FNO removals.
We have got oodles of time to explore the nitty-gritty of the issue. My understanding is that it is regularly on the agenda of the National Security Council. Can the Minister confirm that? Can he confirm how often the NSC meets to discuss the issue? Can he confirm that he is able to attend those meetings to press the case, given that the Prime Minister said to him that it is one of her top priorities?
I can confirm that I have met the Minister for Immigration twice in the past two months. He has the levers to remove people. I met him only this week. We have widened the meeting to include Ministers from the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development. We have got an ambitious programme and clear actions to take forward. We have agreed to meet as often as possible to give the issue the ministerial attention it deserves. In addition, we are making sure that when other Government Ministers meet Ministers in countries with which we have a concern about foreign nationals, this issue is included as a top priority in their briefing pack to raise with and get feedback from Ministers of those Governments, so that we can act on that.
I am certainly willing to look at that case. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I cannot make a decision here about who gets deported and under what terms; we have to look at the case very carefully. If he writes to me, I am willing to look at that with the Immigration Minister and the Home Office.
I intervene with reference to dissident republicans. Terrorism is not an issue that is devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly; it is a responsibility for this Government, thank goodness. I would like the Minister to reply to my earlier question. How many dissident republicans—who wage a violent campaign and who have murdered, bombed and shot people in Northern Ireland and elsewhere—have requested to return to prisons in the Republic of Ireland? Since they want a united Ireland, surely one can understand that they would wish to go back to prison in the Republic of Ireland.
I thank the hon. Lady for her very forcefully put question. I do not have those data to hand, but if they are available—I look to my officials—I will be happy to write to her with the detail.
There is a huge amount of activity under way on each stage of the FNO process, from the point of arrest to appearance in court, being given a prison sentence and removal back to the home country. For example, the Government have introduced clauses in the Policing and Crime Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, that will strengthen police powers with regard to early identification of nationality and will require anyone appearing in court to state their nationality. Those provisions are designed to help to speed up early identification of FNOs and so assist with their quick removal from the UK.
I believe that is included in the process that I have outlined. In other initiatives, my Department is currently working on proposals to introduce a new fast-track appeals process that will apply to all detained foreign offenders. That process will make sure that appeals are determined as efficiently as possible, so that foreign offenders may be removed from the UK more quickly.
We have also strengthened our ability to deport foreign offenders through new powers introduced by the Immigration Act 2014, which contains a discretionary power allowing us to deport first—the FNO can appeal later. That means that foreign offenders cannot delay their removal with frivolous appeals and are instead required to appeal from abroad, but only if the Home Secretary certifies that removal pending the outcome of any appeal would not risk serious irreversible harm following their return. More than 4,100 foreign offenders have been deported under that new provision since it came into force in July 2014, with many more going through the system.
In terms of wider cross-governmental work, which I have touched on, I am determined that we make extensive use of the influence and worldwide reach of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development, which my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering so articulately focused on, so that we can bring our relationships to bear in discussions, to make sure that we fast-track the process.
If my hon. Friend bears with me, I will come to those facts in my speech. Wider cross-governmental work means that there is a focus on countries in which DFID operates and for which we hold large numbers of FNOs in our prisons, such as India, Pakistan, Nigeria and Somalia.
I am sure hon. Members will appreciate that the barriers to returning FNOs to their countries of nationality are both varied and complex. That is why the action we take must be tailored to each specific country. To that end, I am working closely with my ministerial colleagues, with work ranging from Ministers pressing the issue with foreign Governments every time they travel overseas, to supporting other countries with our aid spending in order to increase FNO removals from our prisons.
The early removal scheme is our principal mechanism for removing FNOs from our prisons, especially those on shorter sentences. Under the scheme, offenders are returned to their home countries and are barred from entering the UK, potentially for life. In 2015-16, we removed more than 2,000 prisoners via that scheme. That is around 95% of early removals from prison. It is worth highlighting that although that number of removals is very welcome, I am working with the Home Office—I see the Immigration Minister has just walked in, which shows how closely he takes an interest in this important matter—to improve the removal mechanism still further and ensure that it is working as effectively as it possibly can. We have more than 100 prisoner transfer agreements with countries and territories around the world.
I am about to make a point about the compulsory and voluntary nature of removals. Where an agreement is in place, prisoners can be transferred on a voluntary basis or on a compulsory basis, meaning that their consent is not required. Most of the agreements we have are necessarily voluntary—which is the point my hon. Friend touched on—due to the standard of prison conditions and the treatment of prisoners in many parts of the world.
Our approach is that we will seek to secure compulsory transfer agreements wherever possible. We have one in place with EU member states, as well as with a number of other countries, such as Albania, the home country of one of the top nationality groups in our prisons. It is worth saying that we are working closely with Albania in particular to improve our prisoner transfer agreement in order to remove more FNOs from our prisons. For that reason, the Minister for Courts and Justice, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald), recently met the Albanian Justice Minister to reinforce the importance of returning FNOs as quickly as possible. In terms of compulsory agreements, which my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering asked about, we currently have compulsory agreements in place with Somalia, Libya, Rwanda, Albania, Nigeria and the EU. That is the factual answer to his question.
The most recent published statistics, from June this year, show that we have transferred 102 prisoners back to their home countries since the EU PTA came into force. We continue to see increasing numbers of transfers as member states become more familiar with the processes. I am determined to maintain that progress and build on it. The number of transfers should of course be seen within the wider context of our work to remove FNOs. The early removal scheme is only one mechanism. It is the most successful one, and 2,000 people were transferred under that scheme last year.
We are working across Government to consider options for securing transfers of EU nationals once we leave the European Union. That is one of the key Brexit priorities for the Ministry of Justice and we have made that very clear to the Department for Exiting the EU in terms of our negotiating position. Although it would not be appropriate for me to provide a running commentary, I hope that what I have said underscores how important the issue is for the Department. I am particularly focused on returning FNOs to those member states for which we hold large numbers in our prisons, such as Poland, Romania and Lithuania in particular.
It is worth bearing in mind that there are also, of course, British nationals detained in prisons overseas—the current figure is roughly 2,046. We are thinking of savings, but in that context there would be a bit of going backwards and forwards.
The time available for today’s debate only allows for an overview of the numerous initiatives and policies under way. I am willing and available to meet with hon. Members who want to look at our processes in more detail and contribute to them. Wherever possible, we will always look to remove those who have broken our laws and will continue to work with Governments across Europe and the world to increase the number of prisoners removed. Be in no doubt that the Government are absolutely committed to reducing the number of foreign national offenders in our prisons, which is why each year we are increasing the numbers of people removed.
Question put and agreed to.
Refugee Family Reunion (Immigration Rules)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered immigration rules for refugee family reunion.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. The world is facing the greatest refugee crisis since the end of world war two. According to statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which I checked today, an unprecedented 65.3 million people have been forcibly displaced worldwide for various reasons including famine, war, poverty, climate change and internal repression. That total roughly equals this country’s entire population. Of those 65.3 million people, 21.3 million are classed by the UNHCR as refugees.
An International Rescue Committee report published in March described the rapid acceleration of the problem. In 2010, 10,000 people a day were displaced from their homes, and by 2014 that number had quadrupled. Again, that comes from UNHCR statistics. It is slightly less than that now, but still very high.
The UK has legal obligations to refugees under international law. There is a rigorous process of assessment before someone is granted refugee status, and only then are they allowed to apply for work and look for somewhere to live. The refugees I have met have all been determined to do everything they can to contribute to the UK. They have also been determined to be reunited with their families.
I am the chair of the all-party group on refugees, and I have initiated a public inquiry entitled “Refugees Welcome?”, which has just completed four oral evidence sessions. We have received hundreds of pieces of written evidence and will be visiting Bristol and Nottingham later this month to see for ourselves how refugees who have been granted status in this country are treated. The refugees we heard from in person gave powerful testimony about their difficult journeys, their painful experiences in their countries of origin, and their desire to contribute to and be part of this country, which has welcomed them. They also spoke about periods of destitution and poverty after being granted status. That subject will be dealt with in our report. Pertinent to this debate, they spoke of their natural desire to be reunited with their family as soon as possible.
This is a highly gendered issue. Women and children are far more likely to have been left behind than men. Their only hope of escape is to wait for a male family member to reach a country of sanctuary and then apply for reunion. Recent research by the Red Cross shows that 95% of applicants waiting to join family members in the UK through refugee family reunion are women and children. It also found that the process was not safe.
I understand that, under the current rules, if the child turns 18 before the refugee status of the family member in the UK is confirmed, they are no longer eligible for family reunion. Does the hon. Lady agree that that is a problem, and that the Government should look at changing the rules so the age of the child is considered when the Home Office procedure begins?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I will come on to that issue. I completely agree that it is unjust and leaves many vulnerable young people in danger and alone.
Fifty-one per cent. of the families Red Cross helped in 2014 were at risk of violence, torture or harassment during the process of applying for family reunion, so the process is not safe. The British Red Cross also told me that, to date in 2016, it has supported the travel of 1,551 people accepted by the Home Office under refugee family reunion, 580 of whom were from Syria. As of the beginning of September, 767 children granted family reunion visas had arrived in the UK after assistance from the British Red Cross, 280 of whom were from Syria. Those are hardly huge numbers. In its 2015 research, “Not So Straightforward”, the British Red Cross found that the current UK policy for refugee family union is not simple, not affordable and not safe.
The system is failing many women and children. Women for Refugee Women, which is represented here today, told me that it knows of many women in the UK who have had to flee from danger without their children and then struggled to bring their children to join them, as the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) said. The problems include, first, delays from the Home Office. If a woman has waited many years in the asylum process, her children back home may be older than 18 by the time she has been granted status, so they are not allowed the automatic right to join her.
Secondly, there are the costs of accessing family reunion rights. I hope the Minister will address both those issues. For instance, a woman whom Women for Refugee Women knows well, and whom I am going to meet later today—she has given me permission to describe her story—entered the UK in 2007 after being imprisoned in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a human rights activist. She left behind her children, aged 12, 15 and 17. It was three and a half years before she was called for her first asylum interview, and she was not granted status until 2013. By then, her children, still vulnerable, were 23, 21 and 18, and were therefore refused the right to join her. She is still struggling to find a legal route to be reunited with them. She has already spent £600 per child on the first application and has been told that she needs to spend still more for the appeal. As can be imagined, those sums are an incredible burden for a refugee woman who can access only very low-paid jobs due to her interrupted employment history.
This afternoon, at a City of Sanctuary event that I hosted, I met two brothers. Both were Syrian. One was granted status quickly, but the other was still in the process after being in detention. Their parents are still in Syria. They cannot come on the resettlement scheme or on family reunion, even though the first brother now has a full-time job and has said he is willing and able to support them.
I want to talk about expanding the scope of refugee family reunion rules to protect children and bring families together. The UK, unlike most European Union states, does not allow children to bring family members to join them here. Under the Dublin regulation—EU regulation 604/2013—they can be transferred to another EU member state if they have a relative living there, but that just moves children around the EU and places more burdens on the states that receive the most refugees. It does not allow children already here and granted status to bring their parents here.
May I point out that the Dublin process is a two-way process, and that we are taking children who have family here from elsewhere in the European Union? We have resettled a number of children this year, and the process is gathering pace.
I acknowledge that it is a two-way process. That is important, but there is a lot more we can do.
Someone fleeing war, torture or conflict may have lost relatives or been separated from parents or children. They may have been cared for by an aunt or an older sibling. They may have a wider idea of family than the nuclear family of western social policy. As the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West said, their children may have reached 18 by the time their status is confirmed, but they may still need protection or be dependent. If refugee family reunion rules in the UK are to ensure the security of refugees’ family members and family unity, they must address relationships of dependence beyond those currently permitted.
My hon. Friend is making an incredibly powerful case. The reason why people run needs to be at the heart of how we do our refugee policy. Nobody decides to leave their family lightly. We need to counter the idea that one member of a family is at risk but another is not to understand how to have a dignified and humane approach to refugees.
I agree. I find it difficult to understand why a child who has come from a place that is deemed unsafe for them to go back to cannot simply bring their parents here.
In July, the Home Office published updated guidance on refugee family reunion, which set out details of types of cases where exceptional circumstances may apply—for example, in the case of dependent children over the age of 18. It is important that there are exceptional circumstances, and it is a welcome sign that the Government recognise the importance of family reunion, but it is not enough. People are usually granted leave to remain in exceptional circumstances for only 33 months, and they may be subject to other restrictions to which those granted refugee status are not subject. Those restrictions are left to the discretion of Home Office officials, which does not give them the certainty that a change in the rules would provide.
The Home Affairs Committee, in HC 151, its sixth report of this parliamentary Session, reviewed the work of the immigration directorates:
“It seems to us perverse that children who have been granted refugee status in the UK are not then allowed to bring their close family to join them in the same way as an adult would be able to do. The right to live safely with family should apply to child refugees just as it does to adults. The Government should amend the immigration rules to allow refugee children to act as sponsors for their close family.”
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) for that work.
The same Committee, in HC 24, its seventh report of this Session, on the migration crisis, stated:
“Family reunion of migrants has been shown to have benefits in terms of integration and support networks, in addition to the human rights requirements of allowing families to be together, and there is clear scope for further measures to facilitate women and children joining husbands, fathers and other male relatives who have reached the UK…We also recommend that the UK broaden the scope of family reunion rules”.
I therefore support the Home Affairs Committee, the Refugee Council, Refugee Action, Amnesty International, the British Red Cross and many others, and call on the UK Government to end the discrimination against children, allowing those recognised as refugees the right to be joined in this country by other family members. Further, the definition of “family” should be expanded to include a wider range of family members. I recognise that that is challenging, but those people have come from war zones.
Our system needs to be properly implemented to fulfil our legal and moral obligations. The effect of cuts to legal aid is that refugees and UK citizens struggle to be reunited with their family members. Legal aid for specialist legal help for family reunion was cut by the coalition Government in 2013, on the grounds that it was considered a straightforward immigration matter that did not warrant the need for specialist legal support. The evidence, however, from the British Red Cross, the Refugee Council, Women for Refugee Women and my own caseload shows that many of the cases are far from straightforward—they are complex and require specialist legal advisers. Given what is at stake for families, there should be legal aid provision to assist refugees making family reunion applications.
Furthermore, those refugees who have been granted citizenship cannot sponsor family members in the same way as those only with refugee status. That seems particularly harsh. They are subject to the same minimum income and other requirements of the spousal visa process as other UK citizens. I understand why that has happened, but it is difficult for newly arrived people to meet such conditions—for those who have arrived here from war zones, it seems unnecessarily harsh. I therefore ask the Government, after their review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, to reinstate the provision of legal aid in family reunion cases. Will the Minister comment on that?
I also ask the Government to expand the scope of family reunion so that those who have been granted UK citizenship, or who were born UK citizens, can sponsor family members in the same way as those with refugee status. I further ask that they be granted legal aid in the same way.
Rather than simply turning down an application if there is not enough information, it would be helpful if the Home Office asked for more information. The Refugee Council reported to me that applicants are not being given the opportunity to submit further evidence for their application when their supporting documentation is deemed insufficient. They are simply told that their application has been turned down, which forces them into lengthy and costly appeals processes. During that time, refugees who want to come here continue to live in precarious conditions, often in a third country—for example, if they have fled Syria, they might be in a camp in a neighbouring country such as Lebanon.
That would save the Government money on the appeals process and, most importantly, it would end the practice of leaving families stuck in vulnerable and precarious situations for months on end, waiting for an appeal to be heard. I therefore call on the Government to revise their practice guidance to officials carrying out the process and to move to asking for more information, rather than simply rejecting a family if there is insufficient information.
Demonstrating a relationship involves further complications. In applications for a sponsor’s spouse, whether through marriage or civil partnership, as well as an unmarried partner, the applicant must demonstrate a “subsisting relationship” that preceded the sponsor’s application for asylum, as well as the intention to live together permanently. Again, I understand why that has come about, but I hope that the Minister accepts that relationships and marriages happen, and children are born, while refugees remain in third countries awaiting decisions on resettlement. The rules exclude such families from reuniting, because they are deemed to be post-flight families.
For unmarried and same-sex partners, applications must also demonstrate that the couple
“have been living together in a relationship akin to marriage or civil partnership which has subsisted for two years or more.”
Again, I ask the Government to recognise that resettled refugees are likely to form family relationships during the often lengthy period between their flight from their country of origin and their resettlement in the UK. I ask the Government to revise their rules accordingly.
The process should be safe. The British Red Cross report, “Not So Straightforward”, which I mentioned earlier, described how, although the initial application for family reunion can be made online, the following process requires family members wishing to join relatives here in the UK to travel to their closest visa application centre. The report highlighted examples of families risking their lives to travel to an embassy, crossing conflict zones, or of people being turned away from the embassy when they arrived, even when they had appointments. I therefore ask the Government to change the rules so that the process is safer, by allowing refugees in the UK to submit the family reunion documents, rather than forcing their family members to make journeys that are often costly and dangerous.
In conclusion, I ask the Government to consider eight requests, and I hope that the Minister will be able to give an answer to some, or at least an indication of the direction of travel. If he cannot grant my requests, will he agree to meet me in any case to discuss them further?
First, will the Government allow children recognised as refugees the right to be joined here in the UK by family members? Secondly, will the Government expand the definition of family to include a wider range of family members? Thirdly, will the Government reinstate the provision of legal aid in family reunion cases? Fourthly, will the Government expand the scope of refugee family reunion so that those who have been granted UK citizenship can sponsor family members in the same way as those with refugee status? Fifthly, will the Government grant legal aid to refugees with UK citizenship? Sixthly, will the Government revise the guidance so that officials ask for more information, rather than simply rejecting a family’s application because of insufficient information? Seventhly, will the Government recognise that resettled refugees are likely to form family relationships during the often lengthy period between flight and resettlement, and revise the rules accordingly? Eighthly, will the Government change the rules, so that the process is safer, by allowing refugees in the UK to submit the family reunion documents?
Those people have fled from war, persecution and torture. Many of them have gone through terrible journeys to reach sanctuary in the UK. Many are children. Surely it is not too much to ask that they are allowed to be reunited quickly, safely and easily with their families. After all, is that not what we would want if it happened to us?
I thank the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) for securing this important debate, and I commend her for it. The topic is important to my constituents, as it is to her and, of course, to the many refugee families and lone children throughout the world.
The UK Government have made some progress in expediting the move of refugee children to the UK from the fallout of the Calais “jungle” camp shutdown. That has to be welcome to an extent, but the lack of speed and organisation has been disappointing. While delays continue, children go missing, fall victim to traffickers, are bought and sold, are damaged, and are alone.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that the Government seem to be changing the rules retrospectively on the children whom we take from Calais, specifying certain countries rather than persecution as the question at the heart of the issue? Just as this debate is about how to help those being persecuted, it is important that we as a country do not renege on our commitments.
I very much agree with the hon. Lady. At times, it feels like a feast of moving goalposts, which does not help those in most need of the support that we should be giving them. The Government need to do more to speed up the process of helping.
Lone children wandering Europe, who are now estimated to number in the hundreds of thousands, will not reduce in number if we ignore the situation in Syria. That is why we must take a joined-up approach and not separate the problems. I am confident that the Minister will tell us about how the Government are putting more money into support for refugees than any other country in Europe, but simply throwing money at a problem is not enough. We need to accommodate the points made by the hon. Member for Bristol West and to change our system, taking into account individual circumstances, which would make a real difference to families and, most importantly, those young people who are so often left alone.
I recently raised in the House the case of one of my constituents who had lost their son. He had not been known to the family for more than a couple of years and was sadly thought to be dead. Luckily, we found that he was still alive. However, having had the joy of discovering that, the family then had to battle to bring him to join them in Scotland. At one point, they did not know whether they would ever see him again. I commend the Home Office for the support that it has given the family. Although it took a bit of time to arrive, that support has been productive, and we are hopeful that there will be a positive outcome to that case in the near future. The Home Office must work with all the agencies on the ground that do such an amazing job to help children who are alone in a war zone. We need to do so much more to ensure that the process of bringing those young people back to join their families is much faster.
The humanitarian situation in the region affected by the Syrian conflict is vast and growing. Atrocities happen every minute of every day, and the children caught up in that situation who so often flash up on our TV screens and social media feeds sadly face many more years of conflict, pain and hurt before there is any end in sight to that conflict. It is so sad to consider that children and families are separated.
We must do what we can now. We must act swiftly and with compassion. We must not continue waiting for child refugees to come knocking at our door; doing so leaves them with little option but to make dangerous journeys, often with dangerous people who do nothing but profit and prioritise money over their safety. Where it is safe to do so, we must actively seek out displaced families and children in conflict zones. We must make more of an effort before an entire generation of children is put at risk of losing the care of their families, many of whom have been affected by emergencies and cannot support their children without help.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) on bringing this crucial issue back to this place. I must confess that I find it difficult to fathom why any Government would put as many barriers in the way of family reunion as the current Government and their predecessors have. I want to focus on children who have been granted refugee status in this country—children who are recognised by the state as part of a group that is in danger in its home country. What possible benefit is there to them or us in denying their parents the opportunity to be reunited with them?
Even if the overarching concern is financial, it is expensive to keep a child in care. In the long term, such children have a higher chance of developing mental health problems, getting involved in crime and becoming homeless. By virtue of having been in care, their life outcomes are lower than those of the average child, and dealing with those reduced outcomes is expensive for any country. Can I convince the Minister to consider that allowing the parents of such children to come here to look after them could be classed as preventive spend? Given that we know that preventive spending means huge future cost reductions, would that not be a sensible financial decision?
The Government may well argue—they have in the past—that we cannot let that happen lest it creates some perverse incentive for unaccompanied migration, but that argument is flawed on several levels. Not just that—it is offensive and betrays a deep cynicism about humankind. First, there is no evidence from other jurisdictions that permit family reunion for unaccompanied children that such incentives actually exist. It is worth stressing that in the EU, only the UK and Denmark do not permit reunion in such cases. In all earnestness, I must ask the Minister on what evidence the Government base their assumption—or is it simply an excuse?
Secondly, as I said, that argument is based on a base and deeply cynical view of human nature. Yes, some people would abuse the system, just like there are MPs who abuse their systems and companies that abuse the tax system, but should Governments really reach a position based on what a minority of those vulnerable people might do? Who would send their child off unaccompanied into a foreign country with strangers on the off-chance that they might get to safety and be able to send for their parents? Surely only those who were desperate and genuinely in fear for their lives and their families’ lives, such as the parents whose three-year-old was murdered and eaten in front of them by terrorists and the mother who was forced to watch as soldiers raped her little girl in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I should say “mothers and fathers”—there have been many more than one.
Given that unthinkable choice—rape, murder or an uncertain journey into the unknown that could end in their child reaching a place of safety—what would any parent here do to protect their child? Perhaps one day they will see them again, but if not, at least those children have a chance. Who would send their children on such a journey? Only someone who was desperate—only genuine refugees.
I echo Amnesty International’s call—it was also one of the eight requests of the hon. Member for Bristol West—for the Government to reinstate legal aid in family reunion cases. The Scottish Legal Aid Board continues to fund such cases, but given the complexity of some of the processes involved, particularly for refugees with a limited grasp of English, natural justice surely demands that legal aid must be available to all so that the proper evidence on which to make decisions is submitted. I know that that costs money, but the alternative, which is that those with valid claims—those who are at risk of suffering the terrible atrocities I have just mentioned—routinely fail due to a lack of proper legal support, should be repugnant to a civilised society.
The Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association raised several detailed points about the definition of “family” when it comes to family reunion. Does that cover grandparents or siblings in the case of parental deaths? There must be far greater recognition of the difficulties that refugees face. I spoke earlier about the financial cost of putting children in care to the taxpayer and the cost to those individuals in terms of life outcomes. It has long been agreed that it is far better to place children with a wider family network if their parents cannot be with them. In this country, that is called kinship care, which is rightly praised by all Governments because of the sacrifices that are made and the benefits to us all. Yet when grandparents, siblings, aunts or uncles of refugee children are willing to make that sacrifice and take care of those children—as all kinship carers do—which would benefit us all, that is suddenly deemed not such a good thing and they are not recognised as family.
In short, the Government have got themselves into a complete and utter fankle in this area. They need to look again at family reunion so that refugees who have already had to give up their homes, families, friends and familiar surroundings do not also have to give up their families and never have to choose between safety and family because of decisions made by the UK Government. We in the Scottish National party group will continue to press the UK Government to be at the forefront of efforts to respond to the humanitarian crisis and ensure that our systems for dealing with these complex issues are fit for purpose and reflect a kind and compassionate set of values.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I, too, thank the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on refugees, for securing this debate. I agree with pretty much everything she said. In fact, this is one of those debates where I probably agree with everything that everyone has said so far.
I also thank the organisations that have once again been in touch with excellent briefings. It is only a few months since the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) led a debate on the very same topic, and we had a debate prior to that on UN pathways. I salute all those campaigners for their perseverance, which reflects the significance of this cause.
In international human rights instruments, the family is the fundamental unit of society, and no one should ever have to consider making a choice between finding a place of safety and living with their family. Refugee family reunion is also a hugely significant part of what should be a strategic response to the refugee and humanitarian crisis, the circumstances of which the hon. Lady set out.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene when he has only just got started. I have listened carefully to all the contributions. Will he take a moment to pay tribute to the many churches and community groups that do so much to welcome and warmly embrace the vulnerable people who manage to make it into the UK, who may be isolated and frightened and do not have the language or an education?
The hon. Lady makes a good point. The churches who have taken such steps deserve our full praise. In fact, some have gone even further and are now trying to get involved in offering homes to refugees through resettlement programmes and so on. Many other organisations deserve praise as well, many of whom will have been present at the meeting that the hon. Member for Bristol West organised today, which I very much regret having missed.
To return to the point about how family reunion is also important as a part of our strategic response to the crisis that the hon. Lady described, there are two reasons for that. First, it provides safe legal routes for many people who are also at risk of persecution. It stops them from having to rely on smugglers, as my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) said. Secondly, it is a vital method of building support networks here, because family members arriving in the UK will have help and assistance in integrating and settling into communities. They can then provide support to the refugees with whom they are reuniting. These are people whose rehabilitation and ability to integrate can be greatly enhanced through the presence of partners and children.
In short, family reunion is an effective way for this country to step up to its obligations to do its fair share for those fleeing persecution—an obligation that we are a long way short of being able to say we have fulfilled properly. We have the family reunion basics in place, but vital improvements need to be made. They fall into two categories: the scope of eligibility rules and making the process much easier for those who qualify. In the time available, I will mention a handful of areas in which we need to see improvement.
We have heard about the cut-off age of 18, which I regard as brutally harsh. Why are we saying that an 18-year-old Syrian woman, separated from her family during escape and now living with her grandmother in Damascus, does not automatically qualify to join her refugee mother here in the UK? One hard and fast cut-off based on age is too arbitrary. Cohabitation and dependency are surely better guides to whether someone can really be considered part of the family unit of which we should be promoting a reunification.
More generally, the rules are also too restrictive regarding the range of other relatives who can apply. Particularly in this crisis, many, such as kids with only an uncle in the United Kingdom, will not fall into the limited partner or children categories under the rules, but they have no-one else to turn to. I also support calls made by hon. Members today and recently by the Home Affairs Committee for the UK to change its mind on parents being able to join refugee children here. Quite simply, there is no evidence that following the approach taken in every other EU country—with the exception of Denmark—will undermine child safeguarding. On the contrary, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) pointed out, it will promote child safeguarding.
While we are on the subject of different types of qualifying relationships, the hon. Member for Bristol West raised an important point about the latest statement of changes to the immigration rules and concerns expressed by organisations such as ILPA about the definition of unmarried partners. There are concerns that the new rules could be read as altering the definition of unmarried partners so as to create a new requirement of cohabitation, which could be difficult to prove if, for example, a couple is gay and same-sex relationships are prohibited or perhaps because persecution has meant separation. I understand that the intention was to consolidate the rules rather than to change the definition, and it would be useful for the Minister to clarify that point.
Hon. Members have also touched on refugees who have family members who are British citizens or, indeed, persons settled in the United Kingdom. There is a strong case for opening up family reunion rules to apply in such circumstances, and the eye-wateringly prohibitive immigration rules on spouses are particularly inappropriate when used in that context. The consequence is that we have seen British citizens or settled persons living in refugee camps across Europe with family members who they cannot get admitted here. I and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East, along with other colleagues, met some of them in Calais and Dunkirk earlier this year.
Hon. Members have also rightly highlighted post-flight families. Surely it is wrong to expect refugees, particularly those fleeing persecution and perhaps waiting for resettlement in a third country, not to develop family lives while in third countries, especially if they are waiting to go through programmes such as the one the United Kingdom now operates.
In response to those concerns, I have no doubt that the Minister will highlight the possibility of exceptional grants of leave outside the rules based on the recently amended guidance I referred to, but that remains far from good enough, with the ridiculously high hurdle of exceptional, compelling compassionate circumstances utterly inappropriate for the times we live in, because previously tragic and exceptional circumstances are now all too common and therefore not exceptional at all.
The guidance retains a caution that leave outside the rules is appropriate only rarely—and, with just 175 such grants in five years, that part is clearly being scrupulously implemented. Just 175 grants outside the rules in five years is wholly insufficient. Hon. Members’ suggestions are all sensible proposals to expand the scope of the eligibility criteria, but we also need to ensure that practical problems do not prevent those who do qualify for family reunion from achieving that goal.
I will give a few examples. Organisations such as Red Cross have shown how tricky the process can be, as shown in “Not So Straightforward”, the report mentioned by the hon. Member for Bristol West. In fairness, the Government have listened to recommendations, but they can do more. There is a need for qualified legal support. I fully back calls for the reintroduction of legal aid funding, which remains available in Scotland—from the Scottish Legal Aid Board, as part of its advice and assistance scheme—so it can be done.
Problems have been highlighted with applications being treated in essence like any other immigration application, as the hon. Lady pointed out, with the entry clearance office refusing to wait for extra information. Applications should not be treated like normal immigration applications; these are profound questions of family unity and protection.
The Home Affairs Committee has highlighted problems with the short entry clearance periods sometimes granted to families, who then face an impossible task to arrange transport in time or having to choose between leaving separately and risking one of the entry clearance periods running out. I recall a reassurance being given in the debate in June that that issue would be addressed, so it would be useful to know whether progress was being made.
A final, practical issue is about making applications easier to submit, because 95% are made by women and children and, as the hon. Lady pointed out, many of them are required to make dangerous journeys to third countries to find the nearest British embassy. I urge the Minister to work with organisations to explore ways of making sure that people are not put at risk in trying to access what should in essence be a safe legal route.
The work the Government have done in the countries neighbouring Syria has been excellent, but that is not the issue today. My hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian put it perfectly. It is not enough for us simply to support other countries to host refugees. Particularly now that those countries are way beyond coping, it is more imperative than ever that we step up our efforts in hosting refugees. Refugee family reunion is an utterly compelling way to provide protection, ensure better support groups here and provide safe legal routes for those who would otherwise be likely to take horrendous risks. It is a win-win policy that the Government should expand and make easier to access.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) on securing this important debate and, if I may say so, on making a powerful speech. With a big immigration and migration case load, I have seen examples of the problems she cites. It is a particular and random cruelty to meet a constituent who applied for refugee family reunion and, because it has taken so long, the children are now over 18. It is important to do something about that, among the many other things she raised.
Some Members are marvelling at why our approach to refugees is not as fair or humane as we would want. There is nothing to marvel at: we have had a debate on immigration in this country down the years that, sadly, has rendered the issue of refugees toxic. Much of the unfairness in the way that refugees are treated is to do with the fact that, in popular opinion, “immigrant” applies as much to a refugee or asylum seeker as to anybody else. I will return to that in closing my remarks.
One of my hon. Friends made the point about how desperate people are. We really must focus on desperation. I have been able to visit refugee camps, not just in Calais but in Lesbos and Lebanon. I cannot stress how desperate these people are. It is also worth reminding the House that thousands of those people have crossed the Sahara and seen their friends and comrades lose their lives; they have been at the mercy of criminal gangs in Libya; and, finally, they have crossed the Mediterranean, sometimes sat on rafts or ships and seeing family members die. Desperation is the key, and making it harder and more difficult for people to claim family reunion—the notion being that that will help to somehow choke off applications—completely understates the desperate situation those people are in.
I am glad that my hon. Friend is highlighting so many things and broadening the scope of the debate a little bit, but I reiterate that if we make routes for family reunion safe and legal, we are cutting off the business model of the traffickers. That is surely something we all want to do.
I have to tell my hon. Friend that the weight of the public debate on immigration sometimes stops politicians doing the fair and rational thing on refugees. When we live in a political time in which a well-read tabloid newspaper can have on its front page a series of six pictures of lorry drivers and the headline, “Foreign lorry drivers reading their phones”, we are talking about a toxic debate, which, as she says, militates against what is fair, appropriate and reasonable in dealing with refugees.