Wednesday 30 November 2016
[Mike Gapes in the Chair]
Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the seasonal agricultural workers scheme.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. It is also a pleasure to see other colleagues here today, including members of the new all-party group for fruit and vegetable farming, of which I am the chair. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise British growers’ concerns about recruiting workers in the coming years. I will focus my comments on the fruit and vegetable industry, but I emphasise that a flexible, seasonal workforce is vital for other parts of the food and farming industry, such as sheep and poultry farming. The industry as a whole is worth more than £100 billion to the nation’s economy. Within that, horticulture is worth £3 billion. Fruit and vegetable farmers have a vital role to play in making us all healthier.
As the Minister knows, I represent the beautiful constituency of Faversham and Mid Kent in the heart of the garden of England. When I drive from Headcorn on one side of my constituency to Faversham and the surrounding villages on the other, I see fields full of great British fruit. Depending on the season, there are strawberries, raspberries, blackcurrants, apples, pears, cherries and plums. Apart from growing healthy local food, fruit and vegetable farmers are part of the fabric of rural life. British growers employ thousands of people across the food and drink sector, look after the environment and contribute to the local and national economy, but they are facing tough times. They are worried about the speed of the introduction of the national living wage, face uncertainty over our future relationship with Europe and struggle with falling farm-gate prices and declining profitability. While recent yields have been good and the volume of strawberries sold in the UK has increased dramatically, around half of fruit farms are making less than a 2% margin and fruit farmers’ incomes have fallen by 43% over the past five years.
From speaking to local farmers, I know that opinions were split over Brexit, but one thing that all growers are worried about is access to labour, particularly since our decision to leave the European Union. The horticulture industry needs thousands of seasonal workers every year to pick and pack their produce. The British Growers Association estimates that the horticulture industry employed 80,000 seasonal workers this year and forecasts that that need will increase to 95,000 by 2019. The vast majority of those seasonal workers come from the European Union, and they do demanding work hand-picking fruit and packing it into punnets with care and speed. We should put on record the fact that we welcome those seasonal workers to Britain and are grateful for their contribution to our economy. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] It is getting harder for farmers to recruit seasonal workers. The National Farmers Union’s end of season labour survey found that in 2015, nearly a third of growers had experienced problems recruiting workers. Some 69% of growers expect the situation to get worse by 2018.
I, too, represent an area with a large number of horticulture businesses, including fruit farms, soft fruit and glasshouses. We have a big food production sector, too. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need action immediately? The old seasonal agricultural workers scheme worked extremely well before 2013. We need a trial scheme to be brought in as soon as possible.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend about the need to bring something in soon. My farmers are asking for a new scheme to be trialled as of next year because of the problems they are already experiencing in recruiting workers for next year, but I will come on to that point.
Organisations that recruit seasonal workers, such as AG Recruitment in my constituency, have told me that there are four times fewer people looking for jobs than last year. The NFU surveyed seasonal worker recruitment companies, and nearly half said that between July and September 2016 they were unable to meet the demands of the sectors they were supplying. That compares with nearly 100% being able to recruit enough workers in January, February and March this year. One farmer in my constituency, Tim Chambers, has told me that normally he would expect around 80% of his workers to ask for a place next season as they leave. So far this year, it has been only 50%. David Figgis, another local farmer, says that compared with last year the number of seasonal workers he has been able to recruit to start in the new year has halved. There is already a problem recruiting workers, before we have even left the European Union.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the excellent speech she is making. It chimes exactly with what I am hearing from growers in my patch. May I add that seasonal workers exactly fit the Government’s immigration policy, because the controlled environment that growers and farmers provide ensures that these are people who come and go, having done an excellent job in between?
My hon. Friend is completely right about that, and I will come on to that point. Under the previous scheme, we know that the vast majority of seasonal workers went home after working. It is not a question of immigration.
Coming back to the current problem of recruiting workers, one issue is that the falling pound means that wages sent home are worth less than before. It is a fact that EU workers are feeling a lot less welcome, and many of these workers have a choice as to where they work. They do not have to come and work in the UK; they are in demand across the whole European Union. Another farmer in my constituency, Simon Elworthy, has told me that there is a genuine risk of British fruit going unpicked next year because of a shortage of labour.
Like other Members, this issue affects parts of my constituency. The west Lancashire part grows a lot of vegetables. Will my hon. Friend note that when we met the NFU, it said that it was not just the UK that was reliant on migrant labour? We need to put paid to that myth that all the workers could be UK-grown—all OECD countries are reliant on labour from outside their borders to pick fruit and vegetables.
My hon. Friend is completely right about other OECD nations. I will mention other countries that have seasonal agricultural workers schemes for exactly that reason in a moment.
Another point that has been made by several of my local farmers is that because of the shortage of labour, there is a risk that British fruit farmers may go out of business. I mentioned how tight their margins are, but if we add to that an inability to pick all the produce because of a labour shortage, they will struggle to stay in business. One consequence is that we will probably see the cost of British fruit go up. That will happen just at the point when we want to improve our balance of trade. Fruit is a sector where I would argue we are among the best—and perhaps are the best—in the world. I suspect that my colleagues who, like me, have strawberry growers in their constituencies agree that you cannot beat a great British strawberry. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] The noise around the room suggests that there is consensus on that point. Despite that high quality, there is a risk that we may see British produce replaced by imports. What an enormous shame that would be. It would clearly not be a good thing economically.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. I am sure she will agree that it is not just about the farmers struggling on workers or prices, but the processors that process the fruit or vegetables. In Northern Ireland, some of those factories are dependent on people from other countries, who can make up 40% and 60% of their workforce.
The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. I am focusing my comments on pickers, because that is the most visible part of the supply chain in my constituency, but there are hundreds and thousands of workers involved in the whole supply chain—between the plant and the table, so to speak—including large numbers of packers, processors and all that. The whole supply chain is affected.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. The issue is not only about processing in factories. In my constituency of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, a big farming area, up to 95% of factory workers are migrants. The issue is not only about fruit and veg, but about bacon and so on. Beyond that, the jobs cannot necessarily be done by my own constituents. I have only 635 at the moment who are looking for work. That is a big problem, too.
My hon. Friend rightly refers to the large number of people working in the supply chain. Most of us—I know this is the case in my constituency—do not have many people looking for work.
Farmers have told me how their EU workers are genuinely worried at the moment about their legal rights to be in the UK. There are also concerns about their safety following reports of attacks on migrant workers. I hope the Minister will reiterate that the status of EU workers in the UK remains unchanged. It would be helpful to communicate that clearly to EU workers in the UK to make absolutely sure that they feel welcome and understand that legally they are allowed to remain and work in the UK while we are in the European Union.
The recent referendum result was decisive and, rightly, the Government plan to negotiate a Brexit deal that controls free movement. However, that creates a challenge for an industry that relies on seasonal migrant labour largely from the European Union. This is where the Government may be able to help. I want the Minister to look into piloting a new seasonal agricultural workers scheme, known as SAWS, for 2017, next year.
We used to have a seasonal agricultural workers scheme until 2013, as my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham) has mentioned. Similar schemes exist in other OECD countries, including New Zealand, Canada, the US and Australia. Organisations from the NFU and the Fruit Advisory Services to the Migrant Advisory Committee agree that our old seasonal agricultural workers scheme worked well, as my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier) mentioned. SAWS had robust entry and exit checks, which meant that more than 98% of those who came to work in the UK returned home when their work was complete. For that reason, those coming to Britain under SAWS did not count towards immigration figures. This debate on SAWS should not be seen as part of a wider debate on immigration. It is very much about the workforce for a specific sector.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and I congratulate her on securing this debate. On the seasonal workers who return home after they have worked here, whom she has mentioned several times, it is obviously the case that they are able to secure employment here more easily and more readily than is the case closer to home in their own nation states. As in so many other issues relevant to the Brexit negotiations, their countries benefit from the moneys that they earn here and return to their own nation states to spend, so it is not a one-way system; it is a two-way process that should benefit farmers in the UK and the workers’ countries of origin as well.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. On the new scheme that we would like to pilot, we would expect it to include all the positives of the old scheme: oversight by the Home Office; checks on arrival and departure; restrictions on the length of placement; and independently accredited standards.
People often ask, “Why can’t British farmers employ British labour to do all the work? Why do we look to recruit people from overseas?” I have brought this up with farmers in my constituency. I know that they and many others have tried to recruit locally, and it is possible to recruit small numbers locally. I held a jobs fair in Maidstone a couple of months ago. Representatives were there from the local fruit farms and they recruited workers on that day. However, the problem, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), is that there simply are not enough people looking for work. It is almost a downside of the very low unemployment rate that we have, which overall is clearly a good thing, but the fact is that there is not a swathe of people looking for work.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point, and I refer Members to my declaration of interest. On a good labour supply, horticultural farmers and producers often plan 10 years ahead, so they are planning for well into the 2020s at the moment. For them to plan, they need a good labour supply and Government policy to deliver that, or they will not invest now for the longer term.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point about the investment decisions made in the farming sector where plans are made years in advance. It takes a long time for fruit plants to produce a crop, so farmers have to plan ahead and they need to feel secure about their future workforce. There is a short-term and a long-term problem, so reassurance is needed.
On the scale of the problem, in the picking season, farmers in my constituency need thousands of extra workers. A single large farm needs about 1,000 extra workers in the peak picking season. Across my constituency, between 5,000 and 10,000 seasonal workers are needed, and it is a pretty long season because strawberries can now be grown from March to October. However, in my constituency, only a few hundred people are on jobseeker’s allowance, so there is a big gap between the scale of the demand and the number of people looking for work. There is a real problem of numbers.
The days of fruit picking as a holiday job for students are long gone. We not only have a very long season, but supermarkets put enormous pressures on farmers, demanding absolutely impeccable quality and consistency of product that has to be available at high speed to meet demand. That involves picking at a very fast rate, which requires workers who are experienced and physically fit. Although the work is seasonal, workers do it for a significant period of time, often year after year. They cannot just show up and do the work for a couple of weeks. That is a myth that I want to debunk.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on a concise debate. I have similar issues with growers in the vale of Evesham in my constituency. On the supermarkets that she mentioned, does she agree that they have an important role to play on pricing in their negotiations with farmers, because the price point is another pressure on many of our farmers?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Supermarkets clearly have an important role to play on price. We want the price to reflect the cost of production. However, there is a balance to strike. If prices go up significantly, will British consumers still buy the product at the same rate? It is not an easy nut to crack. I will do my utmost to make sure I am concise, as my hon. Friend commented, and I am coming to the end of my speech.
Although some say that we should solve the problem through British recruitment, there is another approach that I have sometimes heard proposed, which is that we should solve the problem through mechanisation. These days all fruit and vegetables could be farmed mechanically using robots without a substantial workforce. There have definitely been significant advances in mechanisation. Lots of processes are now much more automated and mechanised. The horticulture industry is investing in mechanisation. I recently heard about a machine that has been developed for the robotic picking of strawberries, but that is some way off. It may be a decade or so before that becomes a real prospect.
The hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) made a point about price. Many of the machines are extremely costly and investing in them will not solve the problem of the prices paid for produce. The machines are possibly a dead end.
The hon. Gentleman has made exactly the point that I was coming to. Mechanised fruit picking for many fruits is some way off, and it would be expensive, particularly in the early years. Many parts of fruit farming are capital intensive, so we could introduce new technologies only gradually; otherwise the product would be completely unaffordable. It will take some time, so he is absolutely right.
I will briefly repeat my requests to the Minister. Will he reiterate that the status of EU workers in the UK remains unchanged and emphasise that farm workers in the UK should and must feel welcomed, because we value their contribution to the economy? Will he look at issuing some guidance to farm workers confirming their legal rights to remain in the UK?
Will the Minister look at trialling a new seasonal agricultural workers scheme from next year? That would be welcomed across the agricultural sector, especially by fruit and vegetable farmers in my constituency who want to be able to carry on producing great, fresh and healthy British fruit and vegetables.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) on securing this very important debate and on the way she presented her case. As she did so well, there is no need to go through the statistics again on why we need such a scheme. However, I underline the points she made about the need to plan ahead, given the challenges faced by the agricultural sector in particular. We know that labour is still at the heart of agriculture in the UK and we need to consider the issue in terms of other agricultural sectors, not just horticulture, such as livestock and poultry.
I understand the argument from Migration Watch that we need to focus on innovation in industry and that to introduce a seasonal workers scheme would detract from the importance of investing in technology and skilling up the workforce, but I accept the points made by the hon. Lady about the time needed to deliver that kind of step-change in the industry and the difficulties that will be faced. I am confident that the industry will invest and innovate, but as she said, it will take time, and the agricultural sector does not have time when it comes to fulfilling its labour needs in the immediate future and the medium term—because of Brexit. Therefore, although Migration Watch has a point, that is subsumed by the immediacy of the needs faced by the industry.
The hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) made a point about the high levels of employment in some parts of the country—not in all, but in some—that make it genuinely difficult to fulfil the needs of the farming sector. I represent a constituency with farming in the western aspects and unemployment in my constituency is 1.9%. That is perhaps unusual for a Labour constituency, but there is a real challenge for rural areas to fulfil employment needs and it is not always easy for people living in urban areas to travel to the countryside and do that kind of work.
The fact has to be faced that British workers are keen on permanent work and the supply of British workers to work on the land is not what it was. I grew up in an area where every morning women would pile into the Land Rover at the end of the street and go off to work on the land. That no longer happens. My own mother worked on the land in the horticulture sector, on and off over the years when she needed the money. The transitional nature of that work is something that the British workforce nowadays finds difficult to accept and we have to tackle that reality. I know that the National Farmers Union has some ideas on how to tackle that obstacle.
We are where we are and we cannot allow the industry to be damaged by a refusal to face the fact that we need to find labour over the next few years. The impact of Brexit is already being felt by the sector when it comes to labour supply, so I absolutely support the case made by the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent.
The Government have a responsibility seriously to consider the need for a seasonal labour supply scheme for the agricultural sector and to place the need for such a scheme in the context of an overall plan for Brexit. I do not think that we can run away from that argument this morning; it is really important. Agriculture wants certainty from the Government on labour supply over not just the next one or two years but in the medium term; the sector needs certainty on what Brexit is going to look like. It is not just the agricultural sector of course—the financial services sector, manufacturing and every part of our economy need that certainty—but we have to acknowledge that agriculture is very dependent on the European Union for much of its funding and for much of its supply of labour, so it is particularly vulnerable to how the Government respond to Brexit and handle the negotiations for Brexit with Brussels.
Are we going to have a Canada-type deal? Are we going to have Canada-plus? Are we going to have a deal along the lines enjoyed by Norway or Switzerland, or are we going to stay in the single market? The Government need to start answering those questions. Are we going to conclude the negotiations in the two years, once article 50 has been triggered, or are we going to need a transitional deal?
It is not just agriculture that needs certainty. The Country Land and Business Association points out that rural tourism is also very dependent on seasonal labour:
“Tourism Alliance data notes that one in four workers within the tourism sector are non-UK nationals. As such, the decision to leave the EU and the potential to limit the availability of a non-UK workforce will undoubtedly be of significant concern to these businesses.”
The evidence shows that urban tourism can stay open to some extent through the winter, perhaps with more limited opening, but rural tourism tends to close its doors. There is a real challenge here for the Government. We really need some certainty from the Government on what their plan for Brexit is going to look like.
Very good points have been made on the case and need for investment in the farming sector and for security in relation to labour supply if we are to give the agricultural sector—farmers—the confidence to invest. I agree strongly with those points. Certainty is everything in business—agriculture is no different from any other part of the economy in that respect—but the point can be made more strategically. If farmers and other rural businesses are to have the confidence to invest for the long term and to innovate and invest in the technology that enables them to become more profitable in the long term, they need not only the scheme under discussion this morning but a clear sense of the strategic direction being pursued by the Government on Brexit. I hope that the Minister will address that point; farmers up and down the country really want to know where Britain is going on Brexit. It is of huge importance to them and to the farming sector in my constituency and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) on securing this important debate.
I welcome the opportunity to acknowledge the contribution that seasonal workers make to our rural economy. They are critical to UK agriculture plc. It is worth noting that a small number of seasonal workers are British citizens who go to work in the fields in the summer and autumn months to increase their pay packets, but the vast majority are non-UK nationals. I will focus my contribution on them, because they play a very large part in the north Cornwall workforce during the summer months.
We are facing a seasonal worker shortage at a time when UK food production may need to increase to meet the country’s needs. I believe that implementing a new seasonal workers permit scheme for non-UK workers would give farming businesses certainty at a time when they need it. Without such a scheme, the UK could be at a significant disadvantage, as many other developed countries around the world have a seasonal workforce. At this crucial time when we are withdrawing from the European Union, we need to give the agricultural sector certainty about future workforce planning. Farmers and other rural businesses need assurances about the labour market and about how any future schemes will operate, so they are confident that they will have that role in the long term as the UK removes itself from the European Union.
It is also worth looking at an accommodation strategy to house seasonal workers in the summer months. A lot of farm-based businesses in north Cornwall have raised the problem of accommodation with me. Having such a policy would mean that people coming to Britain to work knew they had somewhere to stay before they agreed to come. A seasonal scheme would also benefit other rural and coastal businesses, which face similar increases in trade throughout the summer months. Tourism Alliance data show that one in four workers in the tourism sector, in which north Cornwall plays a huge part during the summer months, are non-UK nationals. A dedicated strategy to meet increasing pressures during the year for farmers and the tourism sector would be welcome.
Prior to 2014, there was a quota-based seasonal workers system that enabled farmers to recruit temporarily from overseas. It took a pragmatic approach to labour, and it was controlled through the UK Border Agency and managed by contracted operators. I ask the Minister to consider learning from what worked back then and to implement a strategy to check workers in and out. It should be overseen by the Home Office and managed by licensed operators, and it should not just support EU citizens but be open to the wider world. I ask the Minister to consider an accommodation strategy to cope with temporary population changes, and a 12-month permit in conjunction with other industries, such as food processing or tourism, that would enable us to offer a full year’s work to committed non-UK workers.
This debate has been a great opportunity to put the farming case for seasonal permits. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
As always, it is a pleasure to speak in this Chamber. I congratulate the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) for bringing forward this issue and for comprehensively setting the scene for us all to try to follow. My contribution will obviously be from a Northern Ireland perspective. My plea, like the hon. Lady’s, is for us to help our seasonal workers.
I hail from Strangford, and my constituency has some of the finest agricultural land in the entire United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I represent the home of the trademarked Comber spud, which is a treat to any palate across the United Kingdom. Nobody who has had a Comber spud will ever want any other kind of spud—I say that with great respect to Members who will probably make a plea for their own areas.
The land in Strangford is so fertile that we can sometimes have three harvests in a year, as opposed to the two that farmers in other areas of the Province have. We have some of the lowest levels of rainfall—I hope I do not tempt providence by saying that, but that is what the stats say and they have been accumulated over a number of years. That is wonderful news for our farmers, who struggle to make ends meet and put food on all our tables. However, as my mother used to say to me when disciplining me for misbehaving as a young boy, “You reap what you sow.” That is a solid principle. The harvest must come in or it is all for naught. If farmers do not have the labour to bring in the harvest, the result is clear: a waste of food and money. That is unconscionable.
Is not the point also that the industry is constantly pushing the boundaries of innovation and increasing productivity, thereby fulfilling what the Government are asking it to do by improving production and productivity? If we are not careful, we will constrain the one thing it really needs, which is a decent seasonal workforce.
I thank the hon. Lady for those very wise words. I am sure the Minister is listening intently. I fully endorse what she said, and I am sure others do too. Governments have encouraged the agricultural sector to grow, and with that growth has come the complications for seasonal workers, which we are debating today. I hope that point is taken on board.
When there was a labour shortage in 2008, horticultural businesses lost an average of £140,000 as crops were left unpicked in the fields and retailers were left to try to fill their shelves with imported produce. We are not too old to remember 2008 and the peculiar difficulties that farmers and retailers faced. A shortage of labour puts at risk horticultural businesses, which contribute £3 billion to the UK economy and employ about 37,000 people on a permanent basis. We must address that issue, because we are possibly facing the same scenario again. I know that from my constituency, and I am sure the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent and other hon. Members who have spoken and will speak later will endorse that view.
The briefing outlines the situation that we are currently in. I declare an interest: I am a member of the Ulster Farmers Union, the sister organisation of the NFU, of which I am also a member. The NFU 2015 end-of-season labour survey has shown for the first time since the seasonal agriculture workers scheme closed that growers are starting to struggle to source an adequate supply of seasonal workers to meet their needs. Some 29% of respondents stated that they experienced problems in 2015, and 66% said that they predict that the situation will worsen by 2018. That cannot be allowed to happen. This debate is an opportunity to address that problem at an early stage, and I hope the Minister and the Government will do so.
Those data were collected pre-referendum, with full freedom of movement within the European Union. Since the referendum, labour providers have reported a marked drop-off in interest from EU workers in seasonal work. That was demonstrated by the results of the NFU labour providers survey, which shows that between July and September 2016, 47% of labour providers said they were unable to meet the demands of the sectors they were supplying. That is almost half; it is a colossal figure. That compares with the 100% of labour providers who said they were able to recruit sufficient numbers of workers during January, February and March this year.
That is not good news for our farmers, for our constituents or for us in this place. Many crops produced in the United Kingdom are seasonal, which creates a structural problem that requires the annual recruitment of sufficient seasonal workers. Those jobs are fluid and flexible, but they do not provide the stable, permanent wage that people need. I say this gently: farmers do not want to undercut wages by bringing people in to do the work; the fact is that they cannot get enough labour to do the work at the right time.
I was taken by the figures that the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent mentioned—I think she referred to 1,000 workers for one section of land. Think about that for a second. That is 1,000 workers who have to be housed and looked after. That is a colossal figure, and it is for just one place, not the whole of the United Kingdom. That puts where we are into perspective.
In my constituency, we have Willowbrook and Mash Direct, which are local agri-food producers. I know how hard they work to encourage local people—those at home—to work for them, but the reality is that a large portion of their workforce is not from Northern Ireland. In one of those factories the figure is 40%, and in the other it is 60%. We need seasonal workers in Strangford, across Northern Ireland and throughout the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Those companies could not operate without a seasonal workforce, and I know they are not alone. The NFU said that the industry currently uses about 80,000 seasonal workers, and that figure is expected to rise to 95,000 by 2021. The projected figures show that we need more seasonal workers; we must not decrease the number we already have. A flexible workforce is needed across food and farming—an industry worth £108 billion to the nation’s economy. The input of agri-food, therefore, makes a massive contribution to the economy, as anyone who represents an agri-food sector or constituency knows—those who do not probably know from the facts and figures.
Workers from across the skills spectrum are needed throughout the industry—for example, in livestock and poultry businesses to process and pack meat. Cereal farmers need workers to weed crops and drive complex machinery. Farming is not as simple as it was years ago. There is more complexity to it today, and bureaucracy as well—there is a certain level of regulation to meet to move products throughout the world. Dairy farmers need workers with high levels of animal husbandry skills. I am old enough to remember the small milking ventures in my constituency, because I had many friends in farming. The systems were easy to work with then, but with all the complexity and technology today, people need a degree to work in a milking parlour.
The UK is not alone in the need to outsource help; Canada, the US and other countries do the same. My own son applied to go to Australia for a year on a work permit visa to see the country while working on different farms—he fell in with a girl, which of course put an end to all that, but that happens sometimes in this world, so he did not take up the opportunity in Australia. That scheme appeals to many young people wishing to take a gap year, and the Australian Government have made it easy for young people to do it, at great benefit to farmers and their economy. It is an opportunity to see other parts of the world, and to learn a wee bit more about farming and how people do things there.
The scenario is clear. We once had an extremely successful quota-based scheme for seasonal agricultural workers, which enabled farmers to recruit temporary overseas workers to carry out crop growing, harvesting, on-farm processing and packing. I have been informed that it was robust and effective, controlled by the UK Border Agency and managed by contracted operators. It has provided a pool of labour for the horticulture industry for the past 60 years. Exceptionally high rates of return to home countries meant that the seasonal agricultural workers scheme was never an immigration issue.
We must bring something similar into play as a matter of urgency, and that is why the debate today is so relevant to our times. The NFU has called on the Government in 2017 to trial a substantial fixed-term work permit scheme for agriculture and horticulture targeted at non-EU workers. That is what the farmers in my constituency and I are calling for in today’s debate. This country knows how to carry out such a scheme, because we have had one before. We only need to bring it back and update what is necessary.
The NFU has said that a new seasonal agricultural workers scheme could include “all of the positives” of the previous SAWS arrangements, but with “new criteria” that could include oversight by the Home Office—UK Visas and Immigration; I hope the Minister will respond to this point—management by licenced operators, and checks on arrival and departure for scheme workers. The scheme could be open to workers from anywhere in the world, have independently accredited scheme standards and include restrictions on the length of the placement period.
I ask the Minister gently but firmly to indicate how willing the Government are to take into account where we are, and to address the needs before we have to address a crisis. We should go from this debate in Westminster Hall and proactively put in the time and effort needed to bring a pilot scheme into play by 2017. That is what we are all asking for, and I look to the Minister for leadership. We need help, our constituents need help, and we need to make progress, as the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent said, to ensure that our agriculture sector can grow even more, producing more jobs, and so that great product, the Comber spud, can continue to be available for palates and plates throughout the United Kingdom and further afield.
I am delighted to be following so many illustrious hon. Members and, in particular, to be speaking in a debate called by my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately), who has done an awful lot in the 18 months that we have been in this place to represent the farming and agricultural communities that overlap our areas so much.
It is a huge privilege to be at this important debate, because the question it asks is fundamental and, in many ways, will shape British agriculture not only for the next season, or even the next two or three seasons, but for the next generation. The danger, however, is that we could see British agriculture going from being an industrial heart of innovation and technological improvement, and from providing taste explosions such as those from the strawberries my hon. Friend was describing, to a desert—perhaps simply a commuter belt of dormitory villages.
The question is therefore fundamental to what we want our countryside to be in the next 20 or 30 years. I am pleased that my hon. Friend spoke with such passion and eloquence, and that so many voices from around the United Kingdom—I am sure we will hear from Scotland shortly—are speaking out, because it is not simply a matter for the garden of England, which we all know is the most beautiful part of the kingdom, and it is not simply a matter for soft fruit farmers; it is a matter, as everyone has mentioned in different ways today, of migrant labour in the different areas.
We must get the system right, because if we do, we will have migrant labourers who are able to come, perhaps for a period of a few weeks or months, depending on whether they are here for tourism, fruit picking or other areas of the agricultural industry, and then to go. They will take their revenue and go home, continue their education, rejoin their families, or whatever it might be. If we get it wrong, we will have a real problem, because either we will have to close down large swathes of British agriculture, and perhaps swathes of tourism, or we will have done something that we did not intend, which is to create permanent migrants. The alternative to temporary migration when the economy is such a strong draw, as our growing economy is after six years of tough decisions, is that migration becomes permanent.
Communities might be complaining about a few thousand fruit pickers every now and again, but the pressure from people coming with their kids and families will be quite different. We should recognise that we are talking about a fundamental question for the United Kingdom industry. If we are to get this right, it must be a temporary migration scheme open to many other industries, not just agriculture. Such a scheme would open up an enormous opportunity for the UK to grow flexibly and create space for innovation.
One of the big problems for companies is that hiring workers is great, but firing them is not. No one wants to lay people off, in particular as companies innovate and come up with new ideas and new technologies, and as the agricultural sector revolutionises how we grow food in this country—as it has done, let us not forget, for the past 300 years, because we invented so many of the great reforms on land that allowed people to leave the soil and go to the cities, which led to the urban and economic regeneration of the United Kingdom that enabled us to become the powerhouse of the world. Those innovations are carrying on, but if we force people to have workers on permanent contracts, innovation will be discouraged, because the economic and emotional cost of moving people on and letting them go creates a drag. For an innovative sector such as agriculture, what we want and really need is temporary workers. They fill the seasonal hole and they allow innovation.
We can get this right, because here in the UK we are combining so many wonderful things. I joked a little about the garden of England perhaps becoming a desert, but the truth is that it is not one. It is already a centre of innovation, and what people often forget—I know that the Minister will not, because he has looked into this carefully—is that agriculture and technology work incredibly closely together.
Were the Minister to visit Kent, he would be very welcome at East Malling research centre, which is at the forefront of agricultural innovation. Not only are the people there developing new forms of apples and strawberries—some even better than the ones grown in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent, however extraordinary that might seem—but they are coming up with innovative ways of using water, so that food can grow in areas where water is very much at a premium, in particular in sub-Saharan Africa. They are also looking at the robotics that my hon. Friend referred to. Those areas are really challenging, but because we are blessed in Kent, we get the two of them working side by side and developing together, and that innovation spreads to the rest of the world.
I am reluctant to interrupt my hon. Friend’s fabulous speech, which we are all enjoying, but as a fruit farmer’s daughter and a fruit farmer myself, I feel it is imperative to ask whether he agrees that these agricultural workers are a fairly unique breed. They must be both skilled technologically and strong physically. The type of work we ask them to do is unusual, skilled and often back-breaking. As such, they are a group of people who need to be able to move around—perhaps even more than other migrant workforces.
I completely agree. My hon. Friend knows very well that we share a passion for the British apple. As my right hon. and hon. Friends here will know, it is now russet season. May I strongly encourage those who have not had a Kentish Russet this season to do so? They are truly the champagne of apples—well, the English champagne of apples. They are the most fantastic product.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent said, we are talking about creating a system—I know the Minister is listening carefully and following the theme of this debate—that allows innovation in the agricultural sector to increase. As a boy in Kent, I did quite a lot of fruit picking, and I know that many other people did that too. My picking was not quite of the standard that my dear friend Marion Regan would require, as I was not packing for Wimbledon, which is where her strawberries go. We used to go as kids to a pick-your-own farm. Of course, we ate half the stuff before it got into the punnet.
Getting the system right would not mean some return to the halcyon days—which have not existed for a long time—of east-end Londoners going hop picking in the summer, because those east-end Londoners, thank God, now have very good jobs and spend their holidays all around the world. I am afraid that the idea that hop picking in Kent is an alternative to Ibiza is simply not credible for large swathes of people. Perhaps it is for some.
The change that we as a nation voted for on 23 June means that we have to reinvent ourselves and remember some old skills. Some of those skills are to do with imagination and creativity, which was the extraordinary thing about the seasonal agricultural workers scheme. Although other OECD countries copied the scheme, it was innovative when it came in. Indeed, extraordinarily, it almost—I do mean almost—still exists. It was last operated in 2013, which is only a few years ago. One of the many organisations that operated it, the Harvesting Opportunities Permit Scheme, or HOPS, stopped only then, and it still runs a recruitment agency for agricultural workers, so it could easily be brought back. We are not talking about a complete redesign; we are talking about switching back to a scheme that worked extremely well until only recently.
None of that will compensate for the many workers deciding not to come because they will take a 10% or 15% pay cut if they are paid in pounds but want to take their money back to parts of the world where they spend in euros, so a new scheme will not be a direct replacement. It will not simply turn on the tap immediately. We must recognise that there are still challenges for farmers, not just in Kent but around the country, but such a scheme will go some way to offering opportunities. If we look at the issue seriously, as I know the Minister will, we will create the flexible scheme that Britain needs, that farming needs and that many of our friends in Europe need.
We are of course about to enter—in some ways, we already have—the toughest negotiations the world has ever seen, on hundreds of lines of Government business, industry, migration and any number of other questions. Everything is to play for. As we started those negotiations, we must demonstrate our good will towards our European neighbours. Whatever people may think about the European Union, we are all friends with our European neighbours, and we must show them that we are open. We must show them again that we are believers in free trade. We created the rule of law and the system of international agreement—that system was created largely in the Chamber not far from here. If we remind them that openness is something that we feel we still share, and that we are not just willing but actually very happy for their young men and women to come and do a significantly better job than I ever did in Kent’s strawberry fields and take money home to enrich their own communities, that will go a little way—perhaps not far, but certainly a little way—to showing our good will to our European friends in particular, but also to people around the world. That would be an important gesture, not just for us but for them.
May I briefly sum up and ask the Minister a few questions, which I know he will be delighted to answer? Will he consider introducing a pilot scheme as soon as possible? I mentioned HOPS, which I am sure would be delighted to assist, should the Home Office be willing to engage with it. I am sure that he will not need to give reasons why he will not, so I shall skip over any explanation he might otherwise have given. Will he please collect data from that pilot scheme and share them with Members and groups such as the National Farmers Union, which has done a lot of work on this issue, and the Country Land and Business Association, which likewise has devoted an awful lot of energy to supporting not only the agricultural sector but all industry in rural areas? That would allow us to evaluate and, yes, to adjust. We do not pretend for a moment that the first scheme that will roll out will be perfect. It will not be, but we would be happy to work with him on that.
Does my hon. Friend agree that as the industry has been so proactive in asking us to have those discussions, it behoves the Government to involve the industry—the NFU, the CLA and so on—in developing the scheme that is most appropriate to service the issues that have come to light during this debate?
My hon. Friend makes an absolutely essential point. Not only does it behove the Government to consult the industry widely because of all the efforts it has made, but we simply will not get a very good answer unless we do that, because the experts are the people who are doing the work, not the ones who are legislating on it. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will be only too willing to meet members of the NFU and the CLA. I remember his willingness to meet all manner of groups in his former occupation as aviation Minister, when he listened carefully to the people of west Kent and came up with absolutely the right answer. We will skip over that.
My last point is this. We have offered evidence that businesses will not survive if they rely solely on UK workers—a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent made extremely well. The farmers in my community need help now. I know that the Government, my hon. Friend the Minister and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural affairs are listening. I urge the Minister to act with a little alacrity, because as my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent said, the season for strawberries is not in June; it is in March.
I am pleased to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) on introducing the debate. I am a member of her newly formed all-party parliamentary group, and I look forward to doing much important work in this area.
I represent a constituency that sits in the middle of the Scottish soft fruit and potato areas, and I will concentrate today on soft fruit growers’ particular problems with agricultural employment. When I was growing up, I picked strawberries, raspberries and indeed potatoes. Everyone did in those days, but the world has moved on and—dare I say it—the industry is much more professional. Part of the reason for that is the spread of cultivation methods, with different berries now grown—blueberries are an important crop in my area—changes in the industry and the increasing demands of the major supermarkets.
Recent trends show increasing use of polytunnels as against open-field production for growing soft fruit. Indeed the season can now last for up to nine months of the year. This is a vital part of the Scottish economy, particularly for areas such as Angus. The soft fruit sector alone contributed many millions of pounds to the Scottish economy in 2015. The total for the horticultural industry in the UK, as has been said, is over £3.8 billion.
Most of the growers in my area rely, to a greater or lesser extent, on migrant labour. Many previously utilised the SAWS scheme, but since its abandonment they have relied on labour from other EU nations. With the prospect of leaving the EU, the future of those people is uncertain and it would be an utter disaster if we got to the positon where they too had to leave the EU, because that would lead to the complete collapse of many of those industries. The NFU has called for an assurance for EU workers already in a position to have the right of residency in the UK, which is a call I heartily support. I know the Minister will give the usual response, but Ministers really have to grapple with that. I appreciate that there are difficulties with our European neighbours, but that is important to the industries and, if it is not dealt with, we face real disaster. Many people have settled in our communities and become an important part of them. It is ridiculous that we cannot assure them that they remain welcome here.
The original SAWS scheme relied principally on young workers, often students. It is a huge pity that the issue of young people coming to work in the UK agricultural sector became tangled up with more general immigration. It is worth noting in passing that it is a two-way street. When I was at university I remember many people went to France to pick grapes, for example. Many of our young people also benefited from those opportunities.
I will make some progress, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind. The vast majority of those who came to work in agriculture were here specifically for a short period and always intended to return to their home nation at the end of their visa period. Indeed, as the NFU points out, there was a 98% return rate. Unfortunately, as in many other areas, there is often a serious collision between perception and reality.
Under the previous scheme, some 21,250 visas were issued in its last year of operation for workers to come to the UK for periods of between five weeks and six months. In the last year of the scheme, I was told by Angus Growers, a producers’ group that covers Angus and the surrounding areas, of about 2,000 people whom it employed at the peak of the season the majority came through the SAWS scheme. It now employs many people from other EU nations.
It is worth pointing out the benefits to the UK of young people coming here. They not only earn money that they can take back to their home nation but learn English and gain a good impression of our country from the people they meet. That is an exercise in soft power and, if we end up outside the EU, we will have to look seriously at our relations with other parts of Europe and the world.
According to “Rural Scotland in Focus 2016”, launched this week by the Scottish Government, three quarters of Scotland’s migrant farm work is undertaken in Angus and Perth and Kinross, with the vast majority in the horticultural sector. Those areas—my area and adjoining areas—which are the heart of the Scottish fruit sector, rely on those workers. They should not be seen just as a form of cheap labour. Many companies have tried to recruit local workers and, as has been said by Members who are no longer in their place, one of the problems is that there are not sufficient local unemployed people to take up such posts.
A Conservative economic success.
It is the Scottish Government’s success—the hon. Gentleman is getting it wrong. There are many more migrant workers employed in my area than there are unemployed people, and not all of those who are unemployed are capable of the labour required, because picking raspberries, strawberries and potatoes is not easy labour—I speak from experience a long time ago. Indeed, my local authority, in conjunction with growers, set up a berry scheme with the aim of providing opportunities for the long-term unemployed that had some success but not enough to take the place of those coming for work. A seasonal workers scheme is therefore necessary.
If we are unable to get sufficient seasonal workers to come, that would have a devastating effect on the local industry. I stress that horticulture provides jobs not just in picking but in the whole infrastructure behind that, from administration, processing and packing to transporting the fruit which, by its nature, has to be done quickly and efficiently. That provides many full-time jobs for local people as well as for seasonal migrant labour.
As has been said, there are real concerns that fruit and vegetables could remain unharvested if growers cannot obtain sufficient labour. The growers and agricultural industry in general are aware of the issues that surround the use of migrant labour, but they rightly point out, as I said, that many of them are students who come to this country, and there are genuine benefits to the UK from their coming and going back.
One issue that has not been touched on is what happens if the labour is not here? Some larger growers have already invested in farms in eastern Europe and are likely to invest more there. There has been talk of the great British strawberry, but unless we tackle this issue our export markets may disappear as that becomes the great Polish strawberry or the great Romanian strawberry. It is in our interests.
The National Farmers Union, with the support of horticulture and fruit growers, has come up with proposals for a renewed SAWS scheme, which it hopes would match its demands and tackle concerns about the use of migrant labour. In a rare degree of unanimity in the Chamber, I think we are all supportive of that, and perhaps of a trial, but, if the Minister is to go down the road of a trial, may we have one that takes in all parts of the United Kingdom, unlike for the post-study work visa, which, despite Scottish concerns, was for only a few English universities?
I make no bones about the fact that I firmly believe all existing EU workers should have the right to remain, but the NFU proposal is a sensible and genuine attempt to come up with a scheme that would meet Government objectives and allow this valuable industry to have the labour it requires. I urge the Minister, along with everyone else in the Chamber, to give that serious consideration.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) on her passionate defence of her position. We would not want the pricing model of the British strawberry to go the same way as Toblerone or Marmite—or, worse still, for it to be outsourced entirely. The discussion has highlighted the often overlooked yet crucial role of economic migrants in the rural economy and shown that we need carefully managed migration policies if we are to ensure that we will not be worse off as we voyage into these uncharted post-Brexit waters.
Whatever side of the argument we are on in that debate, we must all agree that a thriving agricultural sector is vital to the strength of our rural economy. The figures I have say that 302,000 people work in agriculture and that the total income from farming, although it is declining, was in excess of £3.75 billion in 2015. We have heard slightly different figures in the debate, but agriculture is the lifeblood of hundreds of communities up and down the country. Within that, the horticultural sector is an important plank of British agriculture. It contributes £3 billion to the UK economy. However, the nature of the life cycle of crops and fruits means that inevitably it relies on seasonal workers. Figures in the Financial Times yesterday put the seasonal workforce at 80,000, 98% of whom are from the EU.
I certainly do not want those jobs to disappear. It is of course right that British people should be encouraged to work in agriculture, but realistically the seasonal nature of much of the work means that it will be difficult to achieve that in the short term. As we have heard, there are gaps that need to be plugged. My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) eloquently dealt with the arguments of Migration Watch, and the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent described the difficulties with mechanical fruit picking. How do we resolve all that?
Obviously, agricultural workers, whether from the EU or of any other origin, should be allowed on UK farms seasonally, or permanently, and the Government need to work out a system that would guarantee a stable and predictable flow of farm workers. Most developed countries have some sort of temporary migration programme; it is not unusual. I believe that they even have one in Poland, in which they take workers from Moldova and Ukraine. It is not a bizarre idea; we have had it for a long time in this country. Economists value such systems and say that there is a triple benefit—I will not say triple lock; that is a bit controversial at the moment. There is a benefit to the host state, because the labour gaps are plugged; the system is good for the state that the migrants come from, because it does not engender the brain drain that we hear of.
As the shadow Minister knows, there has been a terrible increase in hate crime since the referendum, 85% of which is race-related. Does she agree that that disgraceful behaviour not only threatens our identity and values but causes many overseas workers to reconsider whether to choose this country for work?
The hon. Lady anticipates a later part of my speech. I was going to refer to yesterday’s Financial Times, which reported that a chap called John Hardman, of HOPS Labour Solutions of Kenilworth, 20% of whose recruitment is for agriculture jobs—I think it is an employment agency—said:
“Post-Brexit, Romanians and Bulgarians have had the view that Britain is a xenophobic, anti-European place and that they can go to Germany, Holland and Belgium, with better conditions and earn better wages, since the devaluation of the pound has reduced their net income by 15-20 per cent.”
The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent and other hon. Members alluded to such conditions. We do not want that to happen; it is a good point.
The hon. Member for Angus (Mike Weir) pointed out that for the migrants themselves there are many benefits, including those to do with language. Such schemes are seen as good, and we had one from 1948 to 2013. Originally, the point of it was the opportunity for cultural exchange, with young people in war-torn Europe gaining the opportunity to contribute to the reconstruction of its economies—including Britain’s—by offering seasonal labour. In 2009, 21,250 agricultural workers were given short-term permits under the scheme. All of those were from Bulgaria and Romania, as Britain had started to use the scheme to ensure that citizens from countries newly admitted to the European economic area could contribute to filling those identified labour shortages. Along the way there have been adaptations; under the Labour Government in 2005 the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, which we established to give trade unions an effective voice in the prevention of exploitation of tied labour, was incorporated.
There has been a large degree of consensus in the debate that the scheme was a sensible, managed and welcoming migration policy, but in 2013 the Government decided to scrap it—quite controversially. Conservative MPs for Kent and Essex constituencies voiced concerns at the time. Fast forwarding, yesterday’s Financial Times contains some alarming things. The NFU, which many hon. Members have mentioned, is publishing a new survey later in the week. The article reports its worries that
“the supply of pickers for late-season crops such as potatoes and brassicas—cabbages, cauliflowers and turnips—was only enough to meet 67 per cent of the industry’s needs.”
There is a shortfall there. The article also states:
“In a letter to Robert Goodwill, the immigration minister, dated November 10 and seen by the FT…the NFU’s deputy president, warned: ‘There is a clear emerging labour crisis in the industry’ and ‘a very real risk that British fruit and vegetables will be left to rot unpicked in British fields in 2017’.”
We do not want to get to that point, obviously.
To some extent there were warnings in 2013. The British Growers Association said that scrapping the scheme would have
“a significant and damaging impact on investment and production decisions affecting the UK with immediate effect”.
The NFU, again, also gave a warning at that time. Even the Government’s Migration Advisory Committee predicted:
“In the medium- and longer-term, farmers are likely to experience increasing difficulties in sourcing the required level of seasonal labour from the EU (including the UK) labour market.”
I was speaking in a debate in this same 9.30 slot a week ago; I am having an attack of déjà vu. It was a debate on the effect of Brexit on higher education. Some of the questions are enduring ones about, short term, allowing people in and out. These are not migratory flows that would have a long-term impact. There has been an unusual level of consensus in the debate; I do not think that anyone has argued against bringing the scheme back temporarily.
Researchers from the University of Sussex have found that the working conditions of agricultural workers have not changed in any substantial way since the closure of the scheme. As a result, attracting sufficient British workers to the task is becoming increasingly challenging. Those claims are worrying and, given the post-Brexit climate that we are heading into, they need to be properly addressed and considered. The Government need to work with employers and unions to see what impact the scrapping of the scheme has had on jobs, wages and working conditions.
The NFU is calling for the reintroduction of a migration scheme for agricultural workers to be piloted, with a particular focus on students, as the hon. Member for Angus mentioned. Perhaps the Minister could at least commit to offering a proper, comprehensive assessment of the impact of scrapping the policy. Has there been an increase in labour productivity in the sector that will feed through to higher wages? Are jobs disappearing in agricultural firms? As those firms will be unable to produce goods without access to labour, it would be good to have a level-headed assessment.
The Government cannot say that they were not warned. Anyone who hopes that leaving the single market will allow the Government to liberalise migration policy in the agricultural sector will be as disappointed as the curry chefs who were told by the International Development Secretary that, if we voted to leave—
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am in the last minute of my speech, and I should prefer to wind it up: my apologies.
The Government aim to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands whatever the economic costs, and insist on the mantra “Brexit means Brexit”, even though we do not know exactly what that means. They include student numbers in the calculations, despite the overwhelming evidence that the public do not want that. They seem to have boxed themselves into a corner, because they will not be able to liberalise immigration in a sector when the economic case and rationale are clear.
I know the Minister from his previous incarnation. He is a very reasonable chap. I had a win for my constituents because of his actions; so I hope he can do the same thing today. We have seen that dogmatic quotas and targets can result in counter-productive policies. I hope that he will listen to the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent about having just a temporary trial scheme next year and about seasonal agriculture workers being at the forefront of the negotiations.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) for initiating this important and informative debate, and I congratulate her on her elevation to the chairmanship of the all-party parliamentary group for fruit and vegetable farming. She presented her case with her customary eloquence and passion, and I am grateful to her and to all hon. Members who have participated. I assure all hon. Members that I will reflect very carefully on the points that have been raised.
When I was appointed as the Minister for Immigration, I was interviewed by the Home Office staff magazine. One of the questions they asked me was, “If you weren’t a politician, what would you be?” I note in passing, and with relief, that they asked the same question of all of my ministerial colleagues at the Home Office, rather than it being a question solely for myself. I replied, “I’m a farmer, first and foremost. Politics has always been the other thing I do. My family have been on the same farm in north Yorkshire since 1850.” Indeed, I have carried out many of the same jobs as the hon. Member for Angus (Mike Weir); I suspect my father should have been arrested for using child labour, given the age at which I began doing those tasks.
It is important that we consider the issues before us today. I understand the position of the farming community and, every bit as importantly, I absolutely appreciate the importance of food and farming industries as a crucial component of the UK economy and of the fabric of rural Britain. I will just put the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) right on one point before I move on: seasonal workers do not contribute to net migration figures; someone has to be here for more than a year to count towards those. Indeed, the reason the seasonal agricultural workers scheme was closed was not because it was unsuccessful, but because the Government were required under EU law to lift the restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian nationals, who then had unrestricted access to the labour market.
The issue of how we meet temporary labour needs in the agriculture sector is a long-standing one. In the past, the immigration system made provision for a seasonal agricultural workers scheme, under which overseas workers were admitted to for up to six months to undertake crop harvesting. Those arrangements worked very well indeed. The reason why the seasonal agricultural workers scheme was phased out was because the sector had access to an expanded pool of labour, following successive accessions of eastern European countries to the European Union.
As part of our commitment to reduce net migration, the Government’s consistent position has been not to introduce new migration schemes for non-EU nationals to meet labour needs at lower skill levels. The previous seasonal agricultural workers scheme was phased out on the recommendation of the Migration Advisory Committee at the point at which restrictions on the employment of Bulgarian and Romanian nationals were lifted. While the UK remains a member of the EU, EU nationals continue to enjoy the right of freedom of movement in accordance with the UK’s treaty obligations, and employers in the food and farming sector can continue to recruit EU workers to meet seasonal labour needs.
It is not the Government’s policy to admit non-EU nationals to meet labour needs at lower skill levels. However, I appreciate the concerns that have been raised about whether the present situation is sustainable. I met Minette Batters, the deputy president of the National Farmers Union, and Ali Capper, who is also from the NFU, at the beginning of the month. They raised that very point with me, and I have undertaken to reflect on it carefully. Indeed, at the Conservative party conference in Birmingham, I met the president of the NFU, Meurig Raymond, who also raised that very point.
I know there are concerns that the UK’s impending exit from the EU, or even the fall in the value of sterling, might lead to an immediate shortage of labour as EU workers go home, although the data do not support that so far. The most recent labour market statistics were published by the independent Office for National Statistics earlier this month. They cover the period up to September 2016—after the referendum—and show that the number of EU citizens in the UK labour force was higher in the quarter to September 2016 than it had been a year earlier.
Not only that, but the number of workers from the eight countries of eastern and central Europe that joined the EU in 2004, and from Bulgaria and Romania—the countries most commonly associated with low-skilled labour—are also up year on year. To be precise, there were 129,000 more workers from those countries in the UK in the third quarter of 2016 compared with a year earlier. That does not suggest that there is a major exodus from the United Kingdom although, as I have said, I will continue to monitor the situation carefully.
The Government wish to ensure that any decisions we take on the short-term need for seasonal migration schemes do not pre-empt future decisions about how the immigration system will work post-Brexit. As I am sure hon. Members will understand, there are constraints on what I can say about the future arrangements for EU citizens who want to work in the United Kingdom; the way in which we will control migration post-Brexit is yet to be determined. One of the opportunities of Brexit is that we will be able to control both the numbers of migrants from within the EU and the activities that they undertake when they are here.
Can I read from the Minister’s comments that the Government’s plan, if they are to control and restrict freedom of movement, is to leave the single market?
I think that question goes above my pay grade. The Leader of the Opposition will have an opportunity to ask the Prime Minister about that at Prime Minister’s Question Time—presumably once he has finished paying tribute to Fidel Castro.
What I can say is that, in framing those future arrangements, the Government will give careful consideration to the needs of the agricultural sector and, of course, every other part of the UK economy. The Government have made it clear that we will work with sectors of the economy to ensure that the potential impacts of Brexit are understood and taken into account when developing our approach. However, we will also be mindful that, in voting for the UK’s departure from the EU, the British people sent a clear message that gaining more control over the number of people who come here from Europe must be a priority in our negotiations.
There is no doubt that there is a debate to be had about whether workers admitted to the UK to undertake seasonal work on a temporary basis are an immigration issue. For example, they may not, as I have said, count towards the official net immigration statistics produced by the ONS if their stay is less than 12 months. However, they certainly have an impact on the communities where they are located, and they do use public services.
A wider issue is the balance to be struck between short-term fixes and the longer-term sustainability of the sector. The horticultural sector has clearly acquired a profound dependence on migrant labour. A Gangmasters Licensing Authority survey following the closure of the seasonal agricultural workers scheme found that, of the 234 farms that responded, only eight had employed any UK nationals at all to undertake seasonal work. Whether we arrived in that position because UK workers have ceased to be available to growers, or because migrant workers have become more readily available to them—or both—may be an academic point now. However, it is still sensible to ask whether the Government should act to perpetuate that dependence in future.
I will deal briefly with a couple of points raised during the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent asked about those EU citizens who have already settled here. The Prime Minister has made it clear that she wishes to protect the status of people already here. Indeed, the only circumstances in which that would not be possible would be if British citizens’ rights in EU member states were not protected in return.
Points have been made about the reaction following Brexit and potential xenophobia. I am meeting the Romanian ambassador later today and I will make the point that this country still welcomes people to come and work here. Indeed, as long as we remain a member of the European Union, those people are free and welcome to come here and participate in our vibrant, thriving economy.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) made a point about accommodating seasonal workers. I agree that it is important that we look at accommodation, not only because we need to ensure the welfare of the migrants, but because the lack of rural accommodation is a barrier to the recruitment of UK workers. The working group on seasonal workers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs continues to look at how increasing the availability of accommodation can be incentivised. Employers can offer some accommodation costs against the national minimum wage. My hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) said that non-EEA seasonal workers coming here temporarily do not impact on the migration figures. I mention in passing that I have two Egremont Russet trees in my orchard and I can attest to the quality of their fruit.
This has been an excellent debate, and I repeat my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent. I will allow her a few moments to sum up before the end of the debate.
I thank the Minister for the time and care he has taken and for his comments. I particularly thank all hon. Members who have contributed. It has felt like a pretty lively debate. We have had strawberry wars about who produces the best strawberries. We have debated which the best apples are—the Russet performed very strongly; it is the English sparkling wine of apples, perhaps. We have also heard Kent compared to Ibiza. There has been a lot of emotion in the room as well.
To be serious, we have talked about how times have changed. Many of us have at some time picked fruit at a young age—who knows who was the youngest—and done our bit in the past. However, people do not work on the land any more, as the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) said, so we need a reliable supply of seasonal workers for our farms. I urge the Minister to keep looking at this, and to look not only at the overall figures for EU migrants but specifically at the agricultural sector to see what is happening to it. It is absolutely vital. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) said, this is an existential question.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Criminal Justice System: Equality of Access
I beg to move,
That this House has considered equality of access to justice in the criminal justice system.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I am pleased to have the opportunity to discuss this important topic. In the past six years, many lawyers have spoken of their fears about access to justice. When they do, they are often accused of special pleading, as if only lawyers care about people being able to use the protection our laws afford us.
There is a problem in this country with the debate about access to the courts and the provision of legal aid. The Government say that our legal aid budget is generous. The Government speak about court users, who must contribute to the running of the courts, as if most people have nothing better to do than spend their lives in court or as if people relish rushing off to court as often as they can. The truth of people’s attitude is, of course, quite different. I can do no better than quote a giant of the Labour movement and labour law, Lord Bill Wedderburn. In his seminal 1965 book “The Worker and the Law”, he wrote that
“most people want nothing more from the law than that it should leave them alone”.
The truth is that most people would hope never to have to use the courts—the employee who is being underpaid or unfairly treated, the businessperson owed money by a customer who will not pay or the mother who is injured in a car accident on the school run. For those who commit criminal offences, the situation is very different, but no doubt many of them wish the law would leave them alone.
There have been cuts to legal aid funding in many areas of law since 2010. It would be wrong to suggest that cuts have been visited only on criminal legal aid, and it is important to put things in context. First came the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. At that time, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) was the Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor. The Act removed eligibility for publicly funded legal assistance from a raft of areas of social welfare law. For those seeking legal help with debt advice, there is no support—no support for housing advice, unless someone faces being made homeless, and no support for welfare benefits advice; the latter is particularly troubling. Past figures show that many appeals against the Department for Work and Pensions are successful. Between December 2014 and June 2015, 53% of those who appealed against fit-for-work decisions had that decision reversed. People would have to go to court far less if the decisions of Government Departments were better.
The cuts have given rise to a geographical concept I have never heard of before: a legal aid advice desert. The Law Society has a campaign devoted to the eradication of the cuts. There are areas of the England and Wales jurisdiction where legal aid advice for housing cases is disappearing. My constituency of Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney shares with the neighbouring area of Rhondda Cynon Taf just a single provider of legal aid housing advice.
The figures show that civil legal aid cases have decreased dramatically since LASPO became law. In July this year, Young Legal Aid Lawyers, along with the Legal Action Group and the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, wrote to the Prime Minister. They explained that in 2012-13, before LASPO, there were 724,243 civil law cases funded by legal aid. By 2015-16, that figure had plummeted to just 258,460. As they told the Prime Minister, that is a picture of justice denied. The Act removed most private family law matters from the scope of legal aid. Divorce proceedings, child contact arrangements and financial and property disputes are no longer eligible, save where there is evidence of domestic violence.
At the time of LASPO coming into force, the Government made a commitment to review the effects of the Act within three to five years. We are squarely in that timescale now. The calls for that review to start have reached a crescendo. In recent months, the Trades Union Congress and Amnesty International have produced reports highlighting the scale of the problem. I pay tribute to both organisations for their work. It is surely time that the Justice Secretary set that review in motion. Perhaps her reason for not acting is that she is in possession of another review—a review of the effect of employment tribunal fees—that the Ministry of Justice appears to be sitting on, which we strongly suspect is because that review is critical of the fees.
In 2013, the then Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), introduced more reforms. He sought to impose restrictions on the availability of judicial review; to restrict the ability of foreign nationals to receive publicly funded legal assistance; to remove publicly funded legal assistance for nearly every area of prison law; and to make further cuts to immigration law and to family law. A proposal for competitive tendering for criminal legal aid fees was also floated, but later abandoned.
The right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell asserted, without providing evidence, that the legal aid bill was spiralling. He also asserted, without providing evidence, that the public had lost confidence in the legal aid system and that campaigners were using judicial review as a tool to block his Government’s unimpeachable legislative programme. We can debate whether the economic argument was ever really made out. However, those reforms were a further restriction on access to justice. Worse still are the restrictions on judicial review, which can only be characterised as a flagrant set of measures to reduce Government’s accountability to the people.
During the past six years, we have witnessed a curious sight little seen before. Outside the Old Bailey here in London and outside courts across the country, we have seen the strange sight of gowned and bewigged lawyers protesting against cuts to legal aid. That, in turn, gave rise to more curious sights still: a huge and grotesque papier mâché likeness of the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell being carried aloft around Parliament Square, and the barrister and former Tory MP Sir Ivan Lawrence taking to a platform erected in Old Palace Yard to call on the legal profession to strike. If 2016 has been the year that saw old certainties undermined, perhaps we should have seen it coming from that moment alone.
The question is, what brought criminal lawyers to that point? The profession has not seen a rise in fees for more than 20 years. While it is abundantly clear that many QCs have done and continue to do well from legal aid, the position is very different for the majority of junior barristers. Some reported at the time not being paid for their work or paying more in travel to get to court than they would receive for the court appearance itself. Solicitors firms throughout that time have had to do much more with much less.
The profession told of a real and present fear that it simply could not take more cuts. Diminishing fees would mean greater case loads and pressure to accumulate more clients and devote less time to those cases, all in order to stay afloat. For some professionals, that would mean compromises in quality and integrity that were a bridge too far, and they feared that firms willing to stack ’em high and sell ’em cheap would prevail.
It was rumoured that long-established and trusted law firms would disappear and that those that had been a presence on the local high street and had served their local communities for decades would be replaced by warehouses of inexperienced and exploited paralegals. It was also rumoured that removing those firms from the high street would leave no physical presence, which would be replaced with a faceless website and call centre run by G4S, Tesco or even Eddie Stobart.
The Government abandoned their restructuring of criminal legal aid and opted for more cuts. Mr Grayling imposed a reduction of 17.5% on solicitors’ fees, a huge reduction in resources that would have serious implications for any business. The cut was to be introduced in two stages: an initial 8.75% reduction last year with a planned further cut of 8.75% cut in April this year. The second cut was postponed for one year by Mr Grayling’s successor, Mr Gove.
Order. The hon. Gentleman is aware that we normally refer to hon. Members by their constituencies, not their names.
I am sorry, Mr Gapes.
It is hoped that the new Justice Secretary will shortly confirm that there will be no further reduction, but the warnings from lawyers to the Government have continued. They have warned about the future of the justice system, miscarriages of justice, and two-tier justice with one law for the rich and another for the poor. That is the peril we risk creating if ordinary people are denied proper legal representation.
Wealthy defendants in criminal cases sometimes seem to have unlimited resources and create the mistaken impression that justice can be easily bought or easily evaded. That may be unpopular. People convicted of the most serious offences may have benefited from legal aid. Newspapers often howl with outrage at the sums involved, but such cases are often the longest and most complex. The answer is not to deprive people of representation. If the state and the public choose and demand that certain activities are to be criminalised, a cost is involved. It is the mark of a civilised society.
We must ensure that those who want representation are represented. Only then can we be confident they are properly tried, and properly acquitted or convicted. A proper trial means competent prosecution and defence, and since 2010, the Crown Prosecution Service too has seen significant restraint. Its budget has been cut by around 25% and its staff has been reduced by 2,500. The Government will say this has not led to any problems and cannot be blamed for trials collapsing, cases being dropped or disclosure of important evidence being missed, but the truth is that the service is stretched and that has implications for access to justice.
Access to justice does not apply only to those accused. Victims of crime also need access to justice. They must be confident that their case receives the attention it deserves, that it is adequately resourced and that it is handled with care and expertise. Austerity has made access to justice more difficult for thousands of people, not just for the reasons I have given. Yes, the Government have cut legal aid and the budget for the Crown Prosecution Service, but they have also closed courts around the country. In February, it was announced that 86 courts and tribunals would be closed, but it was reckoned that 97% of citizens would be able to reach their required court within an hour by car. That is fine for those who have a car and drive, but what about those who do not? Many people rely on public transport and for them the journey time is greater. With those closures and greater travelling times comes a diminution in the principle of local justice.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Two of the courts that were closed across the country were in my constituency. Some of the reasoning was that the closures would facilitate a roll-out of technology and that access to justice would be more available than ever, but nothing has replaced the closure of those courts. There has been no technology, no hubs and no additional video link technology. We are left with a significant deficit in access to justice.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting and correct point, which underlines the position across the country where access to justice has been denied to too many people. It has been replaced not with an improved service, but with a diminution in the principle of local justice.
The Government have rightly looked at technology to ameliorate some of the problems. Trials have been launched with greater use of video links, including for defendants who need not appear in court unless necessary. Mobile vans have been parked near witnesses’ homes to allow them to give evidence without going to court. However, there are other examples, to which my hon. Friend alluded. Solicitors in Exeter were left frustrated by a new court system enabling all defendants to appear over a video link from local police stations to Plymouth magistrates court but which, however, denied them proper and private consultations with their clients. Technology must be utilised, but it must not be assumed to be good in and of itself. It must not be adopted without allowing defendants a proper defence—there must be no compromise on that.
We are worried about access to justice. One of the first acts of my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) on becoming leader of the Labour party was to ask Lord Bach to convene a commission to assess access to justice in our system, and it is considering what can be done to improve the current situation. An independent group of commissioners is looking at the whole system. They have been invited not for their party sympathies, but for their expertise. An interim report was recently launched and is already a great piece of work with innovative and exciting ideas. It is hoped that it will be finalised next year.
Lord Chief Justice Thomas observed earlier this year that
“our justice system has become unaffordable to most”.
There can be no greater indictment of the position we find ourselves in today. I hope the Minister can offer some reassurance but, sadly, I do not hold out much hope.
I join the welcome to you in the Chair, Mr Gapes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) on securing this debate on an important subject.
Access to justice is at the heart of everything we do in the Ministry of Justice. The sad thing about the hon. Gentleman’s remarks—of course he is entitled to point to areas where things are unsatisfactory—is that he did not talk about the context. The context is that there are far fewer cases and that, because of that, in some parts of the country courts sit for only a quarter of the time they could sit. Therefore, we are working against a changing picture, and not least against the background of the Government spending £1 billion to modernise our courts and tribunals. Every time one introduces modernisation, one has fewer unnecessary directions hearings; and one enables witnesses to give evidence by video link. Any of these changes affect the sort of court estate we need and issues of access to justice, but in a positive way. It is clear that he has concerns about access to justice and I hope that I can reassure him.
We are still spending a great deal of money on legal aid. The changes the hon. Gentleman referred to were made by the then Lord Chancellor, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), to concentrate legal aid on matters of most importance to individuals—for example, when a home was a risk, where someone’s livelihood was at risk because of the threat of imprisonment in a criminal case, or where someone might lose their children in a care case involving domestic violence. I think most of us would agree that my right hon. and learned Friend concentrated the effort where it was most needed. I do not think it is seriously arguable that he did not.
A review by March 2018 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offences Act 2012 was promised; it has to be completed by a particular date in March 2018. We have only just entered the period in which the review might have started, so it is not as though we have been dragging our feet for years. The review will go ahead.
To say that in this country we do not have debt and housing advice is incorrect. What is the citizens advice bureaux network doing? It is providing just that. On Friday, I opened a new bureau in Letchworth, where the debt and housing advice from Citizens Advice is well regarded. Shelter, which has a contract with the Legal Aid Agency, is a fantastic organisation giving advice about housing matters. The Department for Work and Pensions puts a great deal of effort and time into welfare benefit advice and giving people information.
The hon. Gentleman suggested that there were legal aid advice deserts for housing law. That is not so. Every part of the country has housing advice available. The point about housing advice is that in some areas of the country there are many more housing cases in which people might lose their homes than there are in others, so the provision is not exactly the same in each place, but it is national. The fact that there is one provider with a number of offices in one place does not mean that there is no advice. There is advice from that provider, and often the provider is very expert. If we said that that area had to have two firms, we would reduce the amount of work available to the provider that has the expertise, so it is not as simple a question as the hon. Gentleman suggested.
I was glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned Sir Ivan Lawrence. I do not remember the occasion in question, but I pay tribute to his contribution in this place over many years before his retirement.
Turning to access to justice more generally, I think it is true to say that our courts and tribunals are open to everyone, regardless of their circumstances and location. As my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice and the Senior President of Tribunals made clear in their joint statement in September, a modernised Courts and Tribunals Service must be just, proportionate and accessible. It would be undermined if it were not. However, the services that our courts provide at the moment do not always accommodate our citizens’ busy lives or meet customers’ accessibility needs. Access to justice is not just about how close people are to a court. Our programme will reduce the need for many customers to attend court. Modern technologies offer significant benefits in that respect, and we intend to explore every opportunity to use those technologies to make access to justice easier.
To return to my point about the courts in my constituency having closed, I completely buy the notion, if we are starting from a position of what is best practice in supporting vulnerable victims and witnesses through the court process, that having old-fashioned buildings was not necessarily the best practice that we would like to see, but nothing—no technology, digitalisation or modernisation of the justice system—has come in to replace the courts in my constituency. Can the Minister give me any information on what might be happening?
I am of course happy to look into the situation in Halifax and write to the hon. Lady, but I will make this point to her. Because our courts are used for only about 50% of the time, we are trying to use them more fully and to have courts that are more modern and have modern communications—wi-fi, video links and so on—so we are closing some courts and investing the money in improving the remaining ones. That is the overall plan.
The Lord Chief Justice gave this example—a Welsh example—the other day to the Select Committee on Justice. Wales is mountainous in parts and has road issues and so on, but in Dolgellau, where the court was closed, a video link has been established so that it is easier for local residents to give evidence and they do not have to travel to Caernarfon, for example. There are areas where such changes have already been made. There are some areas where we are proposing to make suitable alternative arrangements, and we have a more general programme of considering questions such as whether it is possible to sit a court for a particular case in, say, the town hall or another public building. Such courts have been characterised as pop-up courts. We also have that initiative, which we are working on at the moment. Attempts are being made, but I will of course write to the hon. Lady about Halifax.
A significant amount of the work of magistrates courts will be conducted online. That will of course mean less attendance at courtrooms. It will increase the speed of the process, save money and remove the need for defendants to attend court at all. Our ambition is for attendance at a court building to be reserved for the more serious cases, in which there is to be a trial or there is a serious issue of sentencing.
We are making a lot of progress. The common platform programme has already introduced the ability to plead guilty online for certain traffic offences, as part of the single justice procedure whereby one magistrate deals with the cases. We have introduced wi-fi into all criminal courts, and the programme will continue so that we get an end-to-end digital process. The police will build a digital file, which will go to the CPS, which will put it into the right condition for court. Then, once it is going to court, all the users of the system will be able to draw down that information, that case file. The judge will be able to give directions online. We will have far fewer ineffective hearings and hearings that it would be possible to avoid by using technology.
Many vulnerable people come into contact with the courts, and it is important, through the changes, to ensure that they are helped to access digital services. We are currently consulting on how to improve their access to the digital process, as part of the announcement that was made in September.
The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney represents a constituency in south Wales. He will know that, during the consideration of court closures in that area, particular efforts were made to find suitable alternative provision; we have discussed places such as Dolgellau. I appreciate that some individuals may find themselves in difficult circumstances when needing to attend court. Anyone who has a concern about travelling to court on the same transport as the person they are accusing or anything of that sort should make it clear to the police and the CPS that they have that concern. Arrangements will always be made to ensure that witnesses can get to court in a satisfactory way.
It is right to thank the hon. Gentleman for initiating the debate. It is important to recognise that we are in a period in which crime is falling, the number of cases is falling and the way in which we do the work is changing, so he is right to say that, when it comes to legal aid for criminal cases, there is a case for discussion and seeing whether it is possible to improve the two main legal aid schemes: the advocates scheme and the litigators scheme. I can assure him that the Ministry of Justice is in productive discussions with both parts of the profession—the Bar and solicitors—to see whether we can find legal aid schemes for their work that are more attuned to modern needs, but that also fit in with career progression and all those things that are of concern to the Bar and solicitors. We are doing that actively at the moment; we are in discussions with them.
The hon. Gentleman recalled some remarks that were made at the time suggesting that judicial review would be dead following the changes made by the then Lord Chancellor, who is now my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. In fact, more than 4,500 cases were started the following year, so I think he is right to feel that that did not happen after all.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the review of employment tribunal fees. I cannot tell him the outcome yet, because we are still doing it, but I think it is good that the Government are prepared to review that issue, just as we are also reviewing the immigration fees at the moment. I do not think that should be criticised; I think the hon. Gentleman should welcome it.
Question put and agreed to.
ESA and Personal Independence Payments
[Nadine Dorries in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered employment and support allowance and personal independence payments.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Dorries. First, I wish all my constituents a happy St Andrew’s day. It is a privilege to bring the difficulties of many of my constituents to the House for consideration, and those of the people across the UK who have experience of trying to access support when they need it most through either employment and support allowance or personal independence payments. Since I became an MP, a large percentage of the constituency casework that I or my staff have dealt with has been a result of ESA and PIP issues.
Owing to the very nature of the benefit that they are trying to access, these people are vulnerable. Many are experiencing serious illness for the first time in their lives and are facing a huge process of adjustment. That is hugely stressful, and this process is hugely stressful for those individuals, who often feel dehumanised and part of a process. The assessment procedure only serves to make things worse. Of the ESA and PIP cases that my office has dealt with—I will discuss one particular case in detail today—many have involved complaints about the assessment process. These assessments are often inhumane, needlessly stressful and unfair to claimants. Many other cases have required intervention following unsuccessful personal independence payment claims, the vast majority of which have been overturned on appeal.
My constituency is sadly not an anomaly when it comes to appeals figures. The latest statistics on appeals against PIP decisions show that 65% of appeal decisions found in favour of the claimants. Not only does that highlight a deeply flawed system, but it clearly shows that a number of people who are subjected to these highly stressful and often prolonged, protracted processes to get the support that they need are ultimately entitled to that support. The statistic of 65% of appeals overturned evidences that, and unless the Government can tell me statistics to the contrary, I am going to assume that their system is not working. It suggests that the system needs to be radically reformed. The high appeal and overturn rate is unacceptable—and unsuccessful on the Government’s part, if they are trying to drive down the number of illegitimate claimants—particularly when it impacts so negatively on the claimants who require this support the most.
If you will indulge me, Ms Dorries, I want to turn to the case of my constituent, Donna. I have the permission of my constituent to raise this issue, and they have asked me to do so in order to illustrate the impact of the benefits system on their life and to highlight the serious inequality they face. Donna, who lives in Carluke, is a mother of two children. She has a supportive husband. She established a café called the Hope Café, which is a mental health charity, and she is an advocate and a champion for supporting those with mental health problems. I commend Donna on her bravery in opening up to me so fully about her experiences with the Department for Work and Pensions. She has given me permission to share her story in full, because she hopes that it will illuminate the effect of malpractice and the effect that the assessments had on her life.
Donna became seriously ill with severe depression and anxiety 10 months ago. She told me that her mental illness made her believe that her two young children, aged eight and 10, would be better off without her in their lives. She told me that her mental illness made her believe that she was useless and worthless and had no skills worth sharing with the world. It made her think that her close friends and family were ashamed of her for being weak. That is the mindset of someone in the grip of depression, and it is incredibly difficult to break out of. Months later, thankfully, she is recovering, and as her background is working in mental health, she is keen to use her personal story to highlight the flaws in the benefits system and hopefully improve the process for others.
Donna went through the application process for both personal independence payment and employment and support allowance, which she found, in her own words, extremely harrowing. She first contacted my office to ask whether we could intervene to support her, as she was required to attend capability assessments for ESA and PIP. Donna, being logical and thinking that this would be an end in itself, asked whether she could endure one assessment. We are aware that this is not how the process works. Instead, Donna underwent an employment support work capability assessment and was asked back for a further personal independence assessment. On both occasions, she endured the lengthy assessment procedures, because these are classed as two separate benefits and the assessments are carried out by two separate providers. She found both assessments incredibly difficult. She told me that the questions she was asked made her re-live the worst days of her life, and she felt that if she had not got the award, it would have been overwhelming. At points, it made her want to give up.
Let me make the point clear: people experiencing severe depression already feel worthless. Being rejected for financial support gives concrete evidence for what they believe, in their minds, to be fact. For many people, it is the last straw. Donna told me that she was not surprised that, as a result, the suicide rates that she deals with every day are increasing.
Donna told me that her illness affected not only her, but her whole family; however, she has been lucky to have great support from her family and friends. Many others are not so lucky. For many people, where would they be without family support? At the point of rejection from the benefits system, who are they supposed to turn to? Donna’s case highlights the fact that no consideration is given to the detrimental effect of the system on the already overwhelmed mental state of a person going through the assessment process. The reason they are in that position in the first place is often because of circumstances beyond their control. Consideration must be given to each individual applicant and their circumstances. The recent film “I, Daniel Blake” by Ken Loach highlights both the hard-hitting, honest and gritty reality and the brutality of this Government’s policies.
Donna also brought up the fact that assumptions are made about claimants based on the observations of the health care professionals. She asked for a copy of her medical assessment report and was disgusted that comments were noted about her appearance, personal grooming and whether claimants are tired or sweating. The comments were as follows:
“Looks tired…looks thin…underweight, clothing loose, dark circles under eyes ... unkempt, untidy … unwell … troubled … sweating … pale … facial expression showed no emotion but was tearful … restless … fidgety… difficulty coping due to anxiety … seemed agitated … poor rapport, poor eye contact … withdrawn … self-harm thoughts identified … no delusion … no obsessive ideas … unable to complete five rounds of ‘serial sevens’ … unable to calculate correct change when asked a sum … unable to spell ‘world’ backwards … unable to remember three objects first time … had insights into their illness.”
I ask the Minister: is this the kind of system that the Government have set out to achieve? Is this a system that offers fairness, dignity and respect? Where, ultimately, is the humanity in that process? Although many of those factors may be indicative of illness, many are circumstantial and subjective, given the particular illness that someone may or may not be assessing. For example, how would Donna’s entitlement have been affected if she had been immaculately dressed, had been having a good day or did not exhibit some of the behaviours outlined in that prescriptive list?
It has taken Donna 10 months to feel better. For seven of those months she has been awarded personal independence payment, and for the past four months she has been receiving employment support allowance. Access to those benefits has been vital to her recovery. Donna wishes to return to work when she can, and she can manage her own health. She knows her limitations, yet at this stage, due to her recovery, she faces the prospect of losing those benefits, which help her to sustain her family at this already difficult time. She is all too aware that if the support is removed too soon—which could mean pushing her back to full-time work—while she is at a vital stage in her recovery, she could end up right back at the beginning again.
Like physical illnesses, mental illnesses take a long time to heal, and there is no consideration of that in this process. Donna suggested that it would be helpful to her health to have a phased return to work—as a professional in this area, she knows only too well about recovering from depression—whereby she could still claim benefit and return to work slowly to build up her strength. Permitted work was explained to Donna, but as she knows only too well from her professional experience and from talking to others, as soon as a claimant lets the Department for Work and Pensions know that they are able to work for a few hours, they are ultimately called for reassessment and asked to go back to work full time. Donna told me that she would like to do a few hours a week volunteering, to get back herself back on her feet, but the criteria apply even to voluntary work. There is no middle ground.
Donna’s case illustrates that the work capability assessment is not fit for purpose. Sadly, that chimes with the calls from mental health organisations across the country, including Citizens Advice, the Disability Benefits Consortium, Mind and the Scottish Association for Mental Health. They have highlighted that the tick-box method of the work capability assessment fails to identify claimants suffering from debilitating mental health problems, and it certainly fails to take their needs into consideration.
I mentioned figures for personal independence payments earlier. Similarly, the latest figures show that 59% of initial ESA decisions were overturned on appeal. The Government have made one small concession on ESA by scrapping the retesting of chronically ill and disabled claimants—so one small part of the system now relies on common sense over bureaucracy—but that has simply fixed one part of an altogether broken system. Although exemptions from repeated assessments for chronically ill claimants and those with long-term illnesses are welcome, it is extremely disappointing that the Department for Work and Pensions and the Secretary of State have not considered that for PIP claimants.
I hope the Minister will take heed of the problems I have discussed with the work capability assessment and consider the effects that the process can have on the mental wellbeing of claimants. I respect the hard-working staff at the Department for Work and Pensions who ultimately are asked to administer this Government’s policy. My constituents and people up and down the UK deserve a social security system that is designed to offer people dignity, respect and fairness. It is time that the Government stepped up to their responsibility. We are all citizens, we are all human and we all deserve respect.
Let me add that when the responsibility for personal independence payments is devolved to Scotland—I am sure the Minister will come to this point—we will look to design the system appropriately. As she will be aware, it takes time to get the system right, because ultimately we are talking about the most vulnerable people in society. They deserve a social security system that gives them fairness, dignity and respect. I am sure we can all agree on that.
I now call Mr Shannon—you are on the list, Mr Shannon. Did you put in to speak?
I did indeed, Ms Dorries. Absolutely. I am more than happy to be called—I am just surprised to be called right away.
You are first on the list today; I know it is unusual.
The first shall be last and the last shall be first. Whenever it happens, it is always good to be called. Thank you very much, Ms Dorries—I actually thought that the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) might have been asked, so I was looking at him, but no doubt he will participate at some stage.
I thank the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) for setting the scene well. We are back to discuss this matter again in Westminster Hall, and it would be remiss of me not to give a Northern Ireland perspective on where we are. I am grateful that the Minister is in her place and all of us in the House appreciate it when she responds. I will give my opinion today—and others will give examples—of where the system is falling down. I have to highlight those key issues because my staff and I deal with them every day of the week. We see people across the table from us with angst and anxiety and all the associated issues of stress, and we say, “How can we help them and do things better?” I will speak about some of those things today.
I have recently spoken about the changes to the employment and support allowance work-related activity group and what that means for people. The biggest issue is that the Government need to understand the difference between “ill” and “unable to work”. That, in a nutshell, is what the debate is about—the interpretation by the Department for Work and Pensions of what it means to be ill and what it means to those people who sit across the table from me every day and tell me they cannot work. The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East referred to people being pasty, sweaty and anxious, and my staff and I see those things every day of the week.
In the last month, we have seen in my office a former ward sister, a former construction business owner and a social worker, all of whom are now on ESA. Let me be clear: I do not believe for a second that those people are choosing not to work out of laziness. Who would want to go from earning £500 a week down to £75? People do not, but that is what happens.
The inference from the Government in this whole policy is insulting—I say that with respect—and more importantly, is based on a false premise that cannot be allowed to stand. I have to challenge that in the House, respectfully and kindly, and say it to the Minister and Government directly. As hon. Members know, I do not criticise—I do not feel that that is necessarily what I do—but I need to highlight the issues and ask nicely for genuine compassion and understanding.
The rationale seems to apply to PIP applicants as well. PIP is supposed to be for the help that people need to work. Apparently, the PIP assessment is intended to provide
“a more holistic assessment of the impact of a health condition…on an individual’s ability to participate”
in everyday life. It covers sensory impairments, development needs, cognitive impairments and mental conditions, as well as physical disabilities. Those five categories cover everything—medically, physically, healthwise——that there can be. The assessment looks at the extent to which the individual is capable of undertaking various activities. For some activities, someone can score points to help to meet the threshold for PIP if they can undertake that activity only by using an “aid or appliance”. That could include such things as artificial limbs, colostomy bags, walking sticks and non-specialist aids such as electric tin openers and long-handled sponges.
I want to highlight two cases, one of which involves a young lady who has ulcerative colitis. My age is such that I can probably remember the day she was born. I have got to know her very well over the years due to her diagnosis with this unseen disease, and how it has affected her and other people in my constituency. She worked in the civil service but was granted medical retirement before 30 because her employer could no longer facilitate her working. A Government employer could not accommodate her ability to work one day and not the next, as her illness dictated.
I understand the reasons why the Government and the civil service had to take a decision and say, “Look, we are going to have to terminate your employment.” However, that is where the problem started, and I cannot understand how they expect someone else to employ her when they let her go. It should be understood why this lady is no longer able to work and why her employer, the civil service—she was Government-employed—had to let her go. Why is this young lady in this conflicted position? She is asked, in respect of PIPs, “What job can you do? Where can we find you some work?” Let us be honest: that wee lassie would love to work if only she had the opportunity, but she cannot because of her disability. She is on ESA and is dealing with the stress of the proposed changes. We should never underestimate the impact of the stress of this position. I stress that as strongly as I can, because I see that all the time. She rang to make an appointment for her PIP form to be filled out. How will she be assessed? That is the question I am asking. She is currently on the higher-rate DLA—deservedly so, by the way. Will that be taken away from her? Ministers would say no, but the experience we have had so far in my office is raising fear in our mind and the minds of constituents. I see that all the time.
The young lady’s condition has not improved one iota since her last DLA application. If anything, I would suggest that it has worsened, and there is real concern that the PIP changes will not help. The stress makes her even more ill. It is a vicious cycle that is repeated over and over again. The PIP is for people who need help for hygienic purposes and for safety issues, but the problem is that that is not being translated into the new proposals. I genuinely hold the Minister in the highest esteem. From her response, we need to understand how the system works and how it can help the people on whose behalf we are here to make a plea, so that we can take away the stress and hassle.
On 11 March, it was announced that the number of points awarded in the PIP assessment would be halved for aids and appliances for “dressing and undressing” and “managing toilet needs”. Why would the Government reduce the points for things that are needed? I cannot understand that. As a result, 290,000 claimants will no longer receive the daily living component, and a further 80,000 will receive the standard, rather than the enhanced, daily living component. Budget 2016 estimated additional savings of £1.3 billion a year by 2019-20. That is great but where does it leave my constituent, who needs help during the night?
Order. Mr Shannon, lots of people wish to speak. Would you try to keep your speech to about nine minutes so everybody has an equal amount of time? Thank you.
I did not realise that. I will try to go at my Northern Ireland speed, which is very fast. The young lady I was talking about needs her sheets changed at night, and often replaced entirely, as well as someone to come in and take care of her during her bad periods. Her DLA paid for a carer to help her. Will PIP do the same? The answer should certainly be yes, but the points system is not set up for illnesses such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. The Crohn’s and Colitis UK website contains a link to a PDF offering help and advice on the PIP for sufferers. The PDF is 70 pages long—that is how complex the system is and how much help people need to fill out the application. If that does not put off someone who is seriously ill, I do not know what would.
Is this what was intended by the Government’s welfare reform? Did they intend to make it so complex and intricate that many people will give up and live in sub-standard conditions, rather than get the help they need to live with their illness? We should be concerned about people retreating inwards, their lack of confidence and the problems they face.
Ms Dorries, you have given me a time limit. I just have two more paragraphs to get through very quickly. I wholeheartedly believe that the new system is failing people. I had a doctor on the phone to say that his patient’s decision was made without the assessor taking the time to request any information about the patient from the surgery. The doctor said, “Jim, if he doesn’t get this help he will have to go to a nursing home at 46 years of age.” The care packages that health trusts put in place are not sufficient to handle people who are not able to pay privately for the additional support they require. On their behalf, I again ask the Minister, most sincerely, kindly and humbly: please look at this benefit, remember why it was set up and understand that, for many, it is the difference between having support to live and simply being able to exist. Do not continue to push these ill people, many of whom suffer from mental health problems due to the stress and strain of long-term illness. In this House, MPs are called to protect and help the vulnerable, but that is not what this new ESA and PIP system does.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, which seems almost a daily occurrence this week, Ms Dorries, given the Bill Committee I am also serving on. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley). This is an important debate and a topic that regularly comes up, particularly in this room, which shows the importance of Westminster Hall. We are fortunate that we have a Minister who is very engaged and proactive when it comes to listening—particularly when the system is not quite working as it is intended to—and when it comes to acting and working with experienced charities, policymakers and all sorts to bring us all together. What we all want, regardless of which side of the House we sit on, is a fair system that supports the most vulnerable in society. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who, during my time as a Minister, was really proactive and constructive on this issue. I had many good meetings with him to discuss specific issues and lessons we could learn from Northern Ireland, and to share best practice.
Two issues have been raised: PIP and ESA. I gently remind Scottish National party Members that Scotland could take responsibility, certainly for PIP. During my time as a Minister, I had a good relationship with my counterpart in the Scottish Parliament. He was aware that Scotland could take on that responsibility as and when it was ready.
Some 1.8 million people have already gone through the PIP process, which is considerably better than the old DLA system, and that is widely accepted by the vast majority of charities who represent people who have been through the system. Under DLA, only 16% of claimants got the highest rate of the benefit. Under PIP, it is 23.5%. It is far better at identifying hidden impairments and fluctuating health conditions. For example—this has been highlighted in the two previous speeches—under DLA, only 22% of those who had a mental health condition accessed the daily living component, yet under PIP, 66% did. For the higher rate of mobility, it was 9% under DLA; it is 24% under PIP.
The new system is far better and more streamlined. The assessors are there to help people to fill in the forms. The fundamental problem with DLA was that it was, in effect, self-diagnosis. People would fill in a very long, complicated form. A lot of people did themselves an injustice by not highlighting all the issues they faced, often because they took them for granted. For example, they might think, “I can’t sleep at night. That’s just the way it is”, but they did not then highlight that in their forms. The forms were complicated, so people would not necessarily know which were the right bits to put down.
Even worse, 70% of claimants on DLA had an indefinite award. It is very attractive for MPs to say, “We don’t want anybody ever to go through an assessment”, but the reality was that, under DLA, 70% did not. That sounds great, yet one in three claimants’ condition changes so significantly within 12 months that they should be on a different benefit. The vast majority of people who go through the system have a deteriorating condition, so if their condition has changed, it has probably changed for the worse and it is highly likely that they would therefore go from the lower rate to the higher rate of benefit.
That was the single difference that contributed to why, under DLA, only 16% of claimants got the highest rate, and 23.5% get it under PIP. There were people who, for 10 or 20 years or more, were on a benefit below that which they were entitled to. They were unaware that they could have had an opportunity to go up. It is right, therefore, that we assess people to ensure that they are given the correct benefit.
Now, common sense kicks in. If someone is on the highest rate of benefit, they have a deteriorating condition. Unless there is some miracle cure, they are likely only to be reassessed at the end of the 10-year period, and it would probably be very light touch. In effect, someone would phone and ask, “Has there been a miracle cure?” The answer would probably be no, and they might ask, “Can you provide the GP’s evidence that there has not been a miracle cure? That’s fine. You will go through.” It is those who are on the cusp of going from the lower benefit to the higher benefit who will have another assessment. The system is programmed to say, “This person nearly meets the highest rate of benefit. I suspect they will need it in nine months’ time.” It will automatically trigger a reminder to people that there is a reassessment, so they are not left languishing. I urge hon. Members to be careful in trying to stop people having an opportunity for an assessment.
In cash terms, in 2010, DLA delivered £12.7 billion of benefit support. The combined DLA and PIP is now at £16.6 billion. When the scheme was first launched, the time until assessment was terrible. We had lots of debates here on that. I was not the Minister then, but I was warned when I first went into the role that we would have almost weekly debates. Some people were waiting up to a year for their assessment. That was unacceptable. For nearly 18 months now, it has been in a settled state, taking about seven weeks for an assessment and 13 weeks for the whole process, end to end, which is well below the initial target of about 16 weeks. Again, charities and those with a huge amount of experience accept that the system is working well. The forms have been streamlined. They are still longer than we might like, but it is always a balancing act because, if we do not capture all the information, people could miss out on the benefit they need. I repeat that the assessors are there to help the claimant. The Government set the amount of money and the points that are required, but the assessors are there to ensure that the form is completed.
I have sat through assessments, and I have seen two different extremes. I saw the assessment of a practising nurse, and the assessment was super-quick. They used lots of very long words of which I had no understanding, and they were able to breeze through. At the other extreme, I saw an individual for whom English was not his first language. He had a mental health condition and was socially isolated. If he had self-diagnosed under DLA, he would not have qualified, but the assessor spent one hour and 10 minutes teasing out and piecing together the jigsaw to make sure that all the challenges he faced in his everyday life were accurately reflected. He would have ended up getting a higher benefit than he would have received under DLA.
I urge those who criticise the assessments to go and view one, which can be arranged. They will have their eyes opened, because too many people claim knowledge based on a film that is there to make money, rather than based on the real world. Frankly, that is an insult to the huge amount of hard work that these trained professionals do to help some of the most vulnerable people. The facts are there to compare DLA with PIP.
Rather than commenting on the film, which is a dramatic portrayal, will the hon. Gentleman comment on the “Dispatches” programme? That was not fictional; it was an actual portrayal of the assessment process that people go through.
Mr Tomlinson, the same applies to you as applied to Mr Shannon.
I will not be long. I am glad that the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) intervened. I have a feeling that she will not let me intervene on her later, so I can link this in nicely. The “Dispatches” programme showed an isolated incident that was totally unacceptable. The individual was moved, and rightly so. That is why we have external inspectors. Remember that we are talking about 1.8 million people, and I urge her to take up my invitation to go and view an assessment. Hearsay is not the right way to hold Governments to account. This is so important that people in positions of responsibility need to invest some time in going to see what is actually happening.
That is patronising.
It is not patronising. This is an important subject.
There have been further improvements, including the removal of the 28-day rule for terminally ill people. That cross-party campaign has made a huge difference to those who are terminally ill, and it is a welcome measure. There is ongoing training, and I would like to see automatic recordings of all assessments, which would help the appeals process. That requires a change in the contract, which I understand is the intention.
It is also right that assessors now encourage people to bring somebody with them into the assessment, which is particularly helpful for people who are not necessarily articulate, for whom English is not their first language or who would not have the confidence to display all their challenges.
As the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East said, the ESA and PIP assessments are not a million miles apart. I have too often heard of cases where someone has done one assessment one month and the other assessment the next month. In respect of the Green Paper, many organisations will lobby for some serious data sharing.
In conclusion, because I have focused on PIP, I will briefly address ESA. The Green Paper is a wonderful opportunity, as the charity Scope said, because disabled people need “expert, tailored employment support”. We need to focus on what individuals can do, rather than on what they cannot do. It is important to provide tailored support, to recognise that people have fluctuating health conditions and to utilise the best parts of the universal credit system to allow for flexibility and common sense, particularly in relation to voluntary work that builds confidence to get people back into work. We need to provide ongoing support, through a specific named coach, when people go into work for the first time. I will continue to pitch, as a matter of importance, the small employer pilot, which was so successful that it should be rolled out across the rest of the country as quickly as possible. We need to unleash the opportunity for disabled apprentices. Everyone agrees it is a great thing, and we have signed it off. We now need to see it making a real difference, particularly for those with a learning disability.
I thank the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) for securing this important debate. I will focus on some of the logistical issues around PIP that could be improved at local level, drawing on the experience of the excellent Merton centre for independent living in my constituency.
Merton CIL is a user-led disabled people’s organisation that delivers a range of services to disabled people across Merton. The practical experience and casework of its members has brought together a range of issues in relation to both ESA and PIP that demonstrates how disabled people are facing a significant and unfair disadvantage when accessing the benefits to which they are rightly entitled. Disabled people have been disproportionately hit by welfare reform, with the cumulative cuts to benefits and social care affecting them, on average, 19 times more than non-disabled people.
Merton CIL’s experience has shown that PIP assessment centres are amazingly inaccessible. Some of my constituents in Mitcham and Morden in south-west London have been asked to travel as far as Deptford and east London to get to their assessment centre, journeys of about two hours each way, which is unacceptably difficult for many disabled people, many of whom pass their local centre en route to faraway destinations. Even the local centres in Wandsworth and Croydon are difficult to get to, because many disabled people in south-west London lack transport links. Unbelievably, some centres have no disabled parking, and others are not accessible for wheelchair users. Most have cramped and unpleasant waiting areas. All that demonstrates a lack of consideration and thought into practicalities. It is imperative that all PIP assessment centres should have an audit of accessibility and should be fit for purpose for use by disabled attendees.
Research has also shown that the practice of overbooking appointments for assessment centres is commonplace and is based on the assumption that some people will not turn up, but the practice causes great distress and inconvenience to those who do. Shockingly, an assessor told Merton CIL that she had 20 assessments on her list per shift but that she expected to do only six in the time available.
Many of my constituents have had to wait hours to be seen, or have had their appointments suddenly cancelled less than an hour beforehand. Many disabled people need to wait a substantial length of time even to get an appointment, and then to be kept waiting for hours on end, or to have a last-minute cancellation, after weeks of preparation and after getting someone to provide transport and to attend the appointment is completely unacceptable.
Finally, and perhaps most worryingly, inaccurate assessments for both PIP and ESA are widespread, making the wrong decisions and causing a lot of pain to individuals who are entitled to those benefits. PIP works on a points system, and Merton CIL has witnessed many assessments in which people are assessed as having zero or very few points, with the result later being overturned in tribunal. For some of my constituents, their assessments were so far removed from their lived experience that they felt sure that their notes had been mixed up with someone else’s.
Some of the disabled residents to whom I have spoken say that they have felt intimidated by aggressive assessors. Meanwhile, Merton CIL advocates who have attended appointments with residents have sometimes been prevented from asking questions or taking notes, in direct contravention of DWP guidelines. It is crucial that providers address that at local level by working with individual centres and staff.
There is a range of other ESA-related problems, such as the practice of arranging unnecessarily frequent repeat assessments, the unfair and sudden stopping of ESA payments and the difficulty of successfully contacting the DWP to correct issues. We all know of the terrible pain and hardship that come with the appeals process, and it cannot be acceptable that two thirds of people applying for PIP and ESA are being forced to undergo a lengthy appeals process in order to access a benefit to which they are entitled.
I hope the Minister will address some of the basic practical issues with the administrative process and with access to assessment centres in order to ensure that every centre is reasonably accessible by public transport and has disabled parking. People should expect to be seen when they receive an appointment.
I am sorry that I will be unable to be here for the Minister’s speech, but I wish those practical issues to be addressed.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) for securing this important debate.
I was recently contacted by a constituent after his DLA was stopped when he failed to attend an assessment that he knew nothing about. A missing letter resulted not only in the loss of more than £400 a month in DLA payments but, because he was no longer in receipt of DLA, he had had more than £30 a week in severe disability payments taken off his ESA. If that was not enough, he had his plus one bus pass taken away. This gentleman suffers from severe mental health issues, including dementia, depression and anxiety. He also has a heart condition that needs regular monitoring. The lack of funds and the bus pass being taken away has meant that over the past few months he has now missed at least three health appointments. His dementia means he has memory problems, obviously, and because he is no longer in receipt of DLA he has now lost his carer and is solely responsible for his own medication. When he asked about all these changes he was told that he did not have a good enough reason for missing his appointment. The decision to remove his DLA will stand, and his failure to attend the assessment means he is not eligible for PIP. His appeal will not be decided until the new year.
While my office is looking into ways of helping this man, the fact remains that the Department for Work and Pensions, and by extension the Government, think it is perfectly acceptable to leave a man with dementia and a life-threatening heart condition with zero support for more than four months, just because he missed one appointment that he has no memory of being notified about. Sadly, he is not alone
The Government’s ongoing transition from DLA to PIP means that thousands of disabled people are losing out. According to DWP statistics, of the more than 46,800 claimants in Scotland who have been reassessed from DLA to PIP, only 77% were successfully awarded the new benefit. Almost 11,000 people lost their award and were left at the mercy of the system. Despite the rosy picture painted by the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), the system is seriously failing people. As we have heard today, I am not the only MP with a large number of constituents who have lost access to the higher-rate mobility component. Taking away a person’s mobility vehicle makes it significantly harder for them to sustain employment or education. It reduces their options, increases their dependency on family members and adds to social isolation.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East mentioned, the latest statistics and appeals against PIP decisions show that a staggering 65% of appeals find in favour of the claimant. Coupled with almost 60% of initial decisions on ESA assessments being overturned, a reasonable person would be left wondering about the cost-effectiveness of a system that routinely makes such bad decisions. When we add in the recent United Nations report that describes the austerity policies of this Government as amounting to “systematic violations” of the rights of disabled people, it is clear that the system is deeply flawed.
The Government’s Green Paper on disability employment support is a critical opportunity to get the system right for sick and disabled people, but one cannot help but be sceptical when they insist on pressing ahead with cuts to the ESA work-related activity group. The Government claim this will incentivise disabled people into work, despite there being no actual evidence to support this. The real barriers to returning to employment, such as ill health, the attitudes of employers, skills barriers, reasonable adjustments and the availability of suitable jobs are not addressed by cuts in financial support. In fact, creating additional financial pressure can make people less likely to return to the labour market, as the added stress damages their already fragile health.
By carrying out cuts to ESA WRAG, the Government are sending a clear signal that they do not recognise the additional barriers faced by those currently unable to seek work. People with the most complex needs often have higher costs related to work activities, as they need to spend money on transport and communication support to go to interviews, attend training courses and secure work experience. The cuts to ESA WRAG will further penalise people who are already struggling, and will not address those additional issues. Cuts to ESA should, as a minimum, be delayed until the provision suggested in the Green Paper is tested and shown to support disabled people into employment, including people with complex needs.
Some 15% of the UK benefits system is being devolved to Scotland, and I am pleased that the Scottish Government are committed to ensuring that the mistakes the UK Government have made with PIP and the assessments are not repeated. The priority is the safe and secure transfer of social security powers to Scotland to ensure that everyone who relies on benefits will receive the right amount at the right time. Nobody should fall through the gaps, and everyone should be treated with respect and dignity. That is the social security system I would like to see, but on current form I think it is unlikely that that is the system that will be seen in the 85% of the system still reserved here at Westminster.
I wish to offer my thanks and congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) on securing this debate. I am delighted to participate, although I really wish it was not necessary. I intended my contribution to be brief, but I am afraid that my efforts to help the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) will make it a wee bit longer than I thought it would be.
I wish that the austerity agenda—a political choice—did not fall so heavily on the shoulders of those living with disabilities. I wish that the UK Government would put an end to the revolving-door culture of work capability assessments for those seeking to claim personal independence payments, although I think we all welcome the removal of the merry-go-round of reassessments for those with chronic conditions. I wish that those who find themselves grappling with a health condition or a disability that limits their ability to work—indeed, their ability to live as full a life as they would wish—did not feel as though they were being punished for it. I wish that those claiming personal independence payments, or seeking to claim this benefit, which is gradually replacing disability living allowance, were not confronted with such a flawed system that needs radical reform.
I am sure the hon. Lady will welcome the fact that an extra £3 billion is now being spent to support those on DLA and PIP compared with DLA alone in 2010, and the fact that 23.5% are on the highest rate compared with 16% on DLA. That is good news.
The hon. Gentleman would do well to remember the fact that, according to OBR figures, although more money is being spent, that is down to the fact that demand has increased, so we should treat those figures with a little more caution.
The fact that the system is flawed is demonstrated by the fact that 65% of appeal decisions found in favour of the claimants, which means that that 65% initially had their application turned down, causing untold stress and anxiety about how they would cope in future. The hon. Gentleman spoke of work capability assessments as an opportunity. Well, I am afraid that my constituents in North Ayrshire and Arran did not see this process as an opportunity. Perhaps the constituents of North Swindon found it so, but certainly in my part of the world, that was not the case.
To be clear, I said PIP assessments were an opportunity; not the work capability assessments for ESA, which need to be reformed.
Surrounded by such a wealth of opportunity, it is hard to keep up. Nothing in the system that my constituents experience is seen as an opportunity. It is seen as extremely negative, intimidating and humiliating. When the hon. Gentleman talked about the assessments, perhaps I misunderstood him, but if I have I certainly am not alone. One might think that these assessments always resulted in somebody’s entitlement or benefit being increased, but I can assure him that in my constituency that is almost never the case.
The hon. Gentleman, perhaps in the interests of trying to be helpful to the Chamber, talked about how we should go and see an assessment taking place. Perhaps this is just me—I have not done a survey or anything—but these assessments are not a spectator sport. We are talking about people’s lives. The people who go through them very often find them humiliating and damaging. If I were to go through one of those assessments, the last thing I would want is an audience. Perhaps I might want a member of my family, or a close friend, but I certainly would not want my MP, who would in effect be a stranger, although their name might be well known to me. I certainly would not want the occasion to become a spectator sport. We must be careful about MPs filling the galleries when people are having their lives exposed and deconstructed by strangers.
This is a debate about social justice. Employment and support allowance is a form of financial support for people with life-limiting conditions whose ability to live a fully satisfying life, something we would all hope for, is effectively removed. That should be remembered during debates such as this one—and during the assessments. The hon. Member for North Swindon has informed the Chamber that the assessors are there to help, and I am sure that they think so too, but claimants feel stressed. They are confronted by assessors who are, by definition, strangers and who have little or no knowledge of their condition. We have all heard stories: for those who have not heard them, Parkinson’s UK can keep them going all day. There are stories, for example, of people with Parkinson’s being asked by the work capability assessor, “How long are you likely to have Parkinson’s for?”
We know that the criteria for work capability assessment are flawed and that people whose conditions fluctuate are always at risk of what might, strangely—as it is all relative—be called a good day. Such things are not taken into account by the work capability assessment, and nor is the impact of pain and fatigue, or the degenerative nature of conditions such as Parkinson’s. As a result, too many employment and support allowance applicants are placed in the work-related activity group, instead of the much more appropriate support group, which recognises that the claimant is simply not well enough to work. I reassure the hon. Member for North Swindon that I know that the Government have reversed the need for repeated work capability assessments for the chronically ill—that is welcome, but it simply does not go far enough. It is a matter of great concern to all fair-minded people that from April 2017 people placed in the employment support work-related activity group will receive £30 a week less than someone in the same situation today. That makes the failure of the system more alarming.
Flawed criteria are a particular difficulty for people with conditions such as Parkinson’s in receipt of disability living allowance—I could mention a range of conditions but time forbids it—when they are being assessed for PIP. Under DLA, if a person could walk no more than 50 metres they would be eligible for support. For PIP that distance has arbitrarily—randomly, it seems—been reduced to 20 metres. That is such a short distance that it is not a useful or helpful estimate of a person’s mobility. Given the fluctuating nature of some conditions and the failure of the process to register such fluctuations, many people are losing their Motability vehicles, on which they rely heavily.
The hon. Member for North Swindon will be interested to know that recent investigations found that under DLA 82% of people with Parkinson’s received the full mobility payment, whereas under PIP that has dropped to 40%. That is a massive drop, and those people lose their vehicles within 28 days of an assessment decision being made against them. I do not see how anyone can come to this Chamber and say that that is acceptable. Those people are being isolated in their own homes and effectively punished for their illness. Their dependence on family members increases.
Order. Will the hon. Lady apply the restriction of nine minutes to her speech?
Yes, Ms Dorries.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am being pressed by the Chair to conclude my remarks.
Everyone welcomes the Green Paper. What we do not welcome is the headlong rush to cuts before there can be proper analysis, which could be used to correct the system. We need an evidence-based and compassionate approach. Frankly, I do not see that. We should all want the same thing: we should all want to support people with disabilities into work, and to support those who cannot work. We need to make sure that we do that properly, and I urge the Minister to reflect on that and on all the suggestions made today.
Ms McGarry, I did not get notification that you put in a request to speak, but I could call you for a few minutes if you concluded in three or four minutes.
Thank you, Ms Dorries; that was an oversight, and I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate. I thank the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) for securing the debate. She made an excellent speech, in which she articulated her constituency case well. She opened the debate in good style, with a lot of information.
Two weeks ago, there were two lengthy debates in the House of Commons on the Government’s punitive welfare reforms—specifically cuts to the ESA work-related activity group; 127 MPs laid down a marker and said that the Government must pause, reflect and reconsider the cuts. The Government did not oppose the motion, and some would be forgiven for thinking that it was a sign that they were listening to our concerns. It feels as if we have debates such as this one week in, week out; but if we have to keep bringing the matter back to the Chamber we will. The time for conciliatory debate that does not powerfully challenge the Government is over. It is right for constituents and Members to be angry, especially when there is no evidence that cutting ESA WRAG incentivises people into work.
The people of Glasgow East—like people across Scotland and throughout the UK—listened to the Prime Minister speaking on the steps of Downing Street when she promised to fight injustice and lead a Government for the many, not the few. However, by the time the Chancellor stepped away from the Dispatch Box on Wednesday, the benefit of the doubt had evaporated. Sometimes what a person does not say is more telling—or more damning—than what they do say. The Chancellor of the Exchequer spoke at length—6,092 words—but failed to mention ESA once. He could even find the time and words to ask whether the shadow Chancellor could dance, but no words could be found for disabled people or ESA.
Since the Government announcement of punishing cuts, MPs of all colours and stripes have railed against them. The matter is so important that it keeps being brought back to the Chamber, and the Minister is constantly called back to answer. I appreciate that the Minister of State is present to do that today. The case seems to be devoid of logic and compassion. Reducing ESA to the rate of jobseeker’s allowance is wrong for a number of reasons. People on ESA are already assessed as unfit for work, whereas people on jobseeker’s can actively seek work. It is therefore unsurprising that ESA recipients should need more support, for longer, than JSA recipients. Indeed, more than half of ESA WRAG recipients are on welfare support for more than two years. Such long time periods are linked to higher associated costs of illness and disability.
It is extraordinarily perverse and callous to expect those with illness and disability to suffer on £73 a week for a prolonged period of two years. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made that point forcefully: why would someone with a job at £500 a week want to go down to £73 a week, if they could help it? I cannot, and I never will, understand how any elected representative or Government could support proposals that serve no purpose other than picking the pockets of the sick and disabled, and putting them through the trauma of a broken and unfair PIP or ESA assessment. Where is the humanity in that? Like other hon. Members, I look forward to seeing the Green Paper; but before then it is time for the Government to rethink the assessments, and to pause the cuts to ESA WRAG.
It is a pleasure to take part in the debate, Ms Dorries. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) for securing the debate and for the way she set out the case, highlighting how pressing the issue is, as our postbags show. She raised a case of great concern—the experiences of her constituent Donna. The assessment notes that my hon. Friend read out struck me as closely mirroring a constituency case that I am now dealing with. A gentleman, who had been in work, suffered mental health problems and as a result of them fell out of work. He was assessed for social security support and failed. Some of the notes from the assessment that my hon. Friend quoted were very similar to his. Sadly, my constituent committed suicide. The harrowing cases that we have heard today are very concerning.
I also note the contributions from other Members today. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) rightly asked why on earth someone who had previously had £500 a week would choose to receive £73 a week. That is not a choice that anyone would make. He also highlighted the apparent dichotomy that is at play: the Government are telling his constituent that they are unable to employ him, while expecting employers to employ people who are in a similar position. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that.
I listened carefully, as I always do, to the contribution of the former Minister, the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson). He gave a stout defence of the Government and of his own record in government. As always, I want to be as constructive and as consensual as possible, but I must remind him that the accounts that we have heard today and in previous debates are personal testimonies from constituents, not just hearsay. I do not know whether that was a slip of the tongue from the former Minister, but the experiences of the constituents that were highlighted today are not just hearsay.
The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) rightly highlighted the disproportionate impact that welfare cuts are having on those with disabilities. They are affected many times more than those without disabilities. That appears to fly in the face of the commitment from the previous Prime Minister, David Cameron, to protect those with disabilities in the social security system.
I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Corri Wilson) to her place as the Scottish National party’s new disability spokesperson. She highlighted another very troubling constituency case; I hope the Minister has taken heed of it and will commit to looking into it.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) is absolutely right that this debate is centrally about social justice. She also rightly highlighted the indignity felt by our constituents when they go through these processes. If the Government are to get this right, they need to look at how people feel they are being treated. Whether the Government agree or not is irrelevant; what is important is what the people who experience the system feel, which is clearly different from what the Government feel.
The hon. Member for Glasgow East (Natalie McGarry) rightly said that, when it comes to ESA WRAG, we are not going away. I will focus on ESA WRAG for the majority of my speech, because this is a further opportunity to quiz the Minister on her plans. On 17 November, a motion on ESA that I moved in a Backbench Business Committee debate with the support of eight other parties was carried by Parliament. In that debate, the Minister took an intervention from the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), who supported the motion. He pressed her on potential financial mechanisms that would
“fully compensate for the loss of the WRAG payments for new claimants”.
The Minister replied:
“Yes. Let me give my hon. Friend that reassurance.”
Perhaps my interpretation of “fully compensated” is different from the Minister’s, but I understood from what she said that new ESA WRAG claimants would be getting equivalent financial support through the mechanisms outlined by the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate:
“the hardship fund, the flexible support fund and the third-party deals”.—[Official Report, 17 November 2016; Vol. 617, c. 464.]
I tested that in a written question but I did not get a clear reply, so I hope that today the Minister will take the opportunity to say what she understands “fully compensated” to mean.
The Chancellor appeared in the autumn statement to undermine the Minister’s apparent pledge. The Chancellor said in response to the shadow Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), that the savings of £330 million from the ESA WRAG cut would now be invested in a package of support, as opposed to direct financial help. Presumably, he meant the Green Paper package, which is currently being consulted on and which was previously budgeted as £60 million next year. That is as clear as mud to me and to the many others who are looking on and trying to understand what the Government are going to do, how much they will commit and the mechanism by which that will be implemented.
The only thing that the Government have been clear about is that they want to cut ESA WRAG. They have not said what is coming in to replace it. They have really put the cart before the horse. I understand that fresh Ministers are perhaps flogging that horse to catch up, but the plans for halving the disability employment gap appear to be falling away; we do not know whether that is still a commitment. The cuts to ESA WRAG and the system to replace the Work programme should have been consulted on first.
The point has been made across this Chamber today and it has repeatedly been made across the House in previous debates: the Government have it the wrong way round. It is like announcing that they are going to scrap the TV licence in April, but only now going through the process of deciding how it should be replaced, with no guarantee to the BBC of how much financial support it would receive. In fact, this will probably receive a third of the public funds, but get practical support in order to generate better outcomes. That just does not wash. It may be a policy that appeases some people, but it is clearly not the way to treat anyone. It has no evidence of being any fairer or delivering better outcomes, because we have no idea how the system is going to work.
I must critique what appears to be the Government’s main motive, which is that for someone to get an extra £29 per week on top of jobseeker’s allowance is a disincentive to work. Here is what my constituent Janice had to say when she got in touch with me this week:
“Being unemployed and reliant on benefits is demeaning and depressing. Employers need to focus on what people CAN do rather than on what they can’t. There are ways to work around: many can work from home with flexible hours and would jump at that opportunity.”
Does Janice strike the Minister as someone who chooses or wants to be out of work? Of course not. She is like hundreds of thousands of sick and disabled people up and down the land who desperately want to work. Cutting the money they could receive will not change their minds or incentivise them any more than what already motivates them: dignity, self-worth and getting a job that they can sustain. Cutting away that vital support will add an layer of stress and worry and, with additional work search costs, will hinder their ability to find the work that they so desperately crave. The MS Society points to research published last year by Scope’s extra costs commission, which says that living with neurological conditions such as multiple sclerosis can cost people an extra £200 a week.
I plead and hope that the Minister will say what she and the Government plan to do to help people by providing additional employment support and financial support. She must realise and accept that people who are in ESA WRAG are in that category because they are currently unfit for work; they have an illness or a disability that means that they cannot currently work. ESA WRAG is often their only income and yet, from April, people on ESA WRAG who are sick or disabled will somehow be expected to sustain themselves on the same rate as jobseeker’s allowance. The Government must think again.
It is lovely to serve under your chairmanship again, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) on securing an excellent debate. It has been really constructive and has brought to light more cases to show the Minister and the former Minister, the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), how people experience the cuts, how sick and disabled people experience the assessment process and the indignity they too often face. I wish Donna all the very best and I hope she continues to recover. It is the personal stories that bring this issue to life.
I thank all hon. Members who have contributed so well today—I should have started by saying happy St Andrew’s day. It is so important to understand what people are going through and to put a human face to it. The former Minister said, “Go and observe one of these assessments.” He is right that we should all try to do that, but I am sure he is aware of observational bias. We should not take our own observations as the only form of evidence. Up and down the country, we are hearing and seeing examples of what sick and disabled people are going through every day.
This is the first opportunity that I have had to discuss this issue with the Minister, and I want to focus on what the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) also focused on. We will not go away and this issue will not go away. We will continue to campaign on it, because it is a real injustice: £1,500 a year from the most vulnerable people, the poorest of the poor, some five million people—I will not continually repeat the statistics that we repeated in the two debates just two weeks ago.
What is so disappointing is that all the evidence—from the UN committees investigating human rights concerns and breaches of the convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, from our own Equality and Human Rights Commission, from the Government’s Social Security Advisory Committee, from a whole list of well-respected charities, such as Parkinson’s UK, Scope and so on, and even from the Government’s own Back Benchers—is being completely ignored. We heard about the Backbench Business Committee debate, when the motion was carried without contest, which is almost unprecedented.
The strength of feeling in this House has been expressed, yet what was so absent in the autumn statement was anything that sick or disabled people could grasp for how their lives would be made better. Their lives have been made a misery over the last six years and it will get worse. I know that the Minister is new in her post and she has said some very positive things. We have also heard very warm words from the Prime Minister, but when it comes to doing anything, the Government have put their hands in their pockets and turned away. We cannot have that. It needs to change.
The Government have put forward arguments about incentivising claimants and argued that cuts will incentivise people into work, which is quite disgraceful, really. It implies that people are making a choice. As we have heard, people are not making a choice to live on £70-odd a week when they have had a decent living before. They do not choose to do that. As the fifth richest country in the world, we have an obligation to treat people with dignity and respect. It is about choices.
I want to pick up on the point that other Members have made about what other discretionary funds people might be able to draw on. I was going through the Minister’s earlier speech last night, and the flexible support fund was mentioned. We need to understand some things about that fund. First of all, it was investigated recently for fraud. The former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), tried to claim that it was being supplemented by £15 million a year to cover the costs. That is not the case; it is actually £15 million from 2015 alone. That fund does not go anywhere near to matching the loss that people will experience and the in-year deductions that will be made as a result of these cuts.
I will finish on a point that was raised in my constituency. We all have hundreds of different cases; my case load has gone up exponentially as people have been subjected to these increased cuts. I want to talk about John Ruane, who has a brain tumour. As a consequence, he has three to four epileptic fits a week. I was contacted by his surgeon, because John was refusing to have a life-saving operation, as he had passed his work capability assessment—how could that happen to somebody with a life-threatening condition?—and he was worried that he would be sanctioned, in the same way that we saw in “I, Daniel Blake”. John had no means of support, and it has taken us months to sort this out. He has now, finally, had his ESA reinstated, but he was scared of being sanctioned because of what had happened, and the stress that he was placed under, as well as the indignity, just is not right. That is one case; I could cite loads of others.
Within the context of ESA, we cannot ignore the work capability assessment. Again, more than two years ago the Work and Pensions Committee raised the WCA as an issue in its report on ESA:
“Simply ‘rebranding’ the WCA by taking on a new provider will not solve the problems: a fundamental redesign of the ESA end-to-end process is required”.
Very briefly, I want mention another one of my constituents, a young woman who is going through the PIP process. She was a high-flyer, in a good career, and she is only in her 30s, but she is suffering from Lipedema, Dercum’s disease, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. She has pain in every part of her body, but particularly in her hands. She cannot even cook or prepare her own food. She has gone through the PIP process and she feels that it is just like a slap in the face. She needs that support to enable her to recover, and she feels that she is being thwarted at every turn.
This is about choices—choices about what we do. It is about whether we as a country feel that it is right to support our most vulnerable people or to support those on the top incomes—which is what the autumn statement analysis shows that we did. We on the Opposition choose that we should protect and support the most vulnerable in our society. This is about choice, and I hope that the Government will listen and do something about it.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) on securing this debate and all hon. Members who have contributed to it.
These are important services and they are at the heart of our nation’s values and its interests. Of the 2.5 million people claiming incapacity benefits, 1.3 million also claim PIP or DLA. A further million claim PIP or DLA, but not incapacity benefits. Many of these people will also access other support and state services, as well as support provided by partner organisations.
What we do is vital, not only to enable someone to meet their living costs and endure, but to support their ambitions. We have that dual responsibility. In addition, I am very conscious, because of the combined areas that I look after, that I have the largest budget of any Minister in any Government Department. That is a huge responsibility to the general public, who fund it, and to those whom these services are designed to help. It is a responsibility that I take very seriously indeed.
PIP and ESA are entirely different benefits, designed for different purposes, and each has its own legal criteria. ESA provides support to those who face barriers to work and looks at what work a person can do, rather than focusing on what they cannot do. Unlike ESA, PIP is non-means-tested and available to disabled people regardless of their employment status. PIP provides a contribution towards the extra personal costs arising from their disability or health condition and can be paid on top of other benefits.
The PIP assessment is designed to treat all health conditions and impairments fairly, and the assessment criteria take into account the impact of all impairments, including mental health, on an individual’s ability to carry out a broad range of everyday activities. That breadth is one of the benefits of the new system in comparison with what went before, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), who outlined some other improvements that the system makes.
The title of this debate refers to two benefits, but understandably much of the debate has focused on people, and quite rightly so, as the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) said. In developing our policy and delivering our services, we need to remember that it is not just about those who have been featured in today’s debate. It is also about those who have not been featured and who rarely get a mention: those who are not on benefits and are not yet in crisis, but are financially fragile; those in ill health; those with multiple caring responsibilities who do not qualify for carer’s allowance; and those who, despite hardship, do not for a variety of reasons access the benefit support available to them. Our concern and our support should stretch beyond the reach of our benefits. What we take forward from the Green Paper and all we do in the interim must have help for those people in mind.
ESA and PIP are massive systems, and both have rightly undergone, and will continue to undergo, continual improvements. Contrary to what the shadow Minister said, we have made many changes. Recent changes include the announcement that we will stop ESA reassessments for those with severe health conditions and disabilities. In designing the changes, I have asked that we plan ahead and see whether we could have permission to share information with local government. That could enable local authorities to stop requiring those very same people to fill in forms for locally administered schemes. In his speech, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) outlined some of the potential benefits of doing that when he mentioned social care and other services.
With ESA, we now have clinical data to hold contractors to account. I pay tribute to the DWP’s chief medical officer and her team for the work they have done on that and on data sharing. We have trialled greater flexibility on the time given to the early stages of an application process to ensure that all the health information is available to the assessor. That is the best way to cut down on incorrect decisions being made at that early stage.
Will the Minister give way?
If the shadow Minister will forgive me, I will make some progress.
We are rolling out that trial. The past presence test will no longer apply to claims for DLA, PIP, attendance allowance and carer’s allowance with regard to refugees, people with humanitarian protection status and their families. We are extending hardship payments. The ESA appeals process has been reformed, with mandatory reconsideration clearance times down from 35 days to nine. The number of weeks and the percentage of case load having to go to appeal to get the right decision are both reducing. Huge strides have been made in identifying hidden impairments, including through training of staff.
The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East spoke at length about the factors of appearance. Many people might look perfectly together and presentable but have deeply hidden issues. We have done a huge amount in training staff to recognise that, and more is planned. The Secretary of State has announced his focus on the use of sanctions with those with mental health conditions, and the Green Paper gives us the possibility of major reform to different parts of the system in unison. In that consultation, we want to examine how we might simplify and improve the assessment process and how we can use information better to effectively support people, such as sharing data—with claimant consent—with support organisations and other state services. The reform of the work capability assessment—which we have not been able to do to date because it requires primary legislation—is a focus of the Green Paper. We could separate out decisions on entitlement to employment support and entitlement to financial support.
Will the Minister give way?
I will just make a little progress, because I have some announcements to make.
The Green Paper also looks at statutory sick pay and other issues that would have benefited people such as Donna—if I have understood her situation—by enabling a phased return to work, which is obviously what people need. Rather than having someone continually jump through hoops, we want that support to be wrapped around the individual, whatever situation they have been landed in. Not only does that support need to be exactly what they need, when they need it and personalised—whether it is delivered by a jobcentre, a GP practice nurse or another—but their experience of the whole system has to be what they need, when they need it. Having to wait for an assessment to be carried out before someone can have a conversation about their situation and hopes is not smart. We need a joined-up, common-sense approach in all we do. We should not just start thinking about what assistive technology or equipment someone might need when they hit the employment market. We need to think about that when they are at school or college and receiving careers advice.
Will the Minister give way?
Forgive me, but I will make some progress.
That kind of quality support can be reached only through stellar local working. That is why the Green Paper consultation is more than an information-gathering exercise; it is a call to arms. We have to build new commitments and shared outcomes locally. I urge all Members to help us in the consultation process and to come along to the drop-in event in the House on Monday between 3 o’clock and 5 o’clock. It will offer information specific to Members’ constituencies, guidance on how to run an event or get involved in one, as well as bringing partners together to respond to the consultation and thinking about what needs to be done in the local area. During the consultation process, we will continue to develop those networks, facilitated by the flexible support fund, and also busting some of the myths about what local services we will commission to support those on benefits.
I briefly turn to Motability, which the hon. Members for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Corri Wilson) and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) particularly focused on. Members will know that a scheme has been set out—I am very grateful to Motability for doing that—to try to help with the transition from DLA to PIP. It is a challenging time for individuals. That scheme is the £175 million package that Members will be familiar with, which enables individuals to keep their car for seven weeks, allows them to buy back their old vehicle and offers a one-off payment of £2,000 to help to meet their continuing Motability needs. Motability is also helping to pay for new adaptions to non-scheme cars, with insurance thrown in. We are aware of how difficult it is—despite that mitigation and the other sources of transport subsidy that might be available—for an individual to be told that they will lose their vehicle with only a few weeks to make alternative arrangements.
There are other problems too. I want to outline one that is of particular concern to me. It relates to people leaving the country for extended periods longer than 13 weeks. That is a problem for students, but it is also a problem for someone who might want to take up a career opportunity, a sabbatical or other opportunities that require travel. Our systems must be able to support someone following their dreams and ambitions. They must enable a person to thrive, so this situation should not be left to stand. We have been discussing with relevant Departments ways to enable PIP claimants to keep their vehicle pending appeal, and we are exploring options to allow those who are not in receipt of the higher Motability component to have access to the Motability scheme. I am also exploring how claimants who are out of the country for extended periods can be better supported. We have a plan and the Treasury’s blessing. This week I have written to Motability to ask for its help in delivering that plan. I anticipate that the plan will require some changes to its processes, but I know that it will do all it can to help us in this matter, as it has in the past. We have a remarkable and unique partnership with Motability, and I hope in my tenure to maximise that.
I have spoken at length about the work-related activity group. Time is short but, briefly, we are looking at a range of measures to help to ensure that someone’s experience of these systems—that is fundamentally the heart of what Members have been discussing today—can be improved and that we are aware of all the issues. That includes looking at developing service user panels to create a real-time reporting mechanism on people’s experiences. We can use those panels to design our benefits systems. There are a raft of other measures that I do not have time to outline today, but they will help us to do that. I will bring forward measures shortly.
The final thing I will do before I hand over to the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East is reassure her that I will be there to assist when devolution transitions further powers to Holyrood. I am already talking to her colleagues there about how we can get the best outcomes for the issues she mentioned. Again, this comes down to all Members of this House—whichever part of the country we represent and whatever our political hue—working together to get the best outcomes in the systems. I hope that all Members will come to the drop-in session next Monday.
I thank you for that, Mrs Dorries. I thank all hon. and right hon. Members—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Road Safety: Sentencing Review
[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered road safety and the Government’s proposed sentencing review.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. In January 2014, I stood before the House of Commons and called on the Government to review the sentencing guidelines for maximum penalties for driving offences that lead to death or serious injury. I urged the Government then to make changes to the rules and guidelines set out by law that mean that drivers who end the lives of innocent people on our roads sometimes have their sentences reduced to mere months.
In Bradford, our local “Stop the Danger Drivers” campaign calls for tougher action to tackle these criminal drivers. Does my hon. Friend agree that tougher action is needed to tackle dangerous driving, which blights so many of our local communities?
I agree with my hon. Friend 100%. Right across the country there are people concerned about this issue.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
It is again a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey.
In January 2014, I raised the issue of the need for a sentencing review for maximum penalties for driving offences that lead to death or serious injury. Many Members of Parliament stood with me and explained why the issue mattered to their constituents and why the review is so desperately needed.
Let me begin by talking about why this issue matters so much to me and my constituency. In the village of Overton in my constituency, a nine-year-old boy was tragically killed in 2009 while crossing the road. The driver who so carelessly mowed young Robert down was unlicensed and uninsured. He hit Robert, took his life and then drove away. He did not stop to help and did not report the accident. He resprayed his car to hide the evidence, attempting to cover up his crime. The driver who took Robert’s life incurred a pitiful sentence of 22 months, yet that was the very limit of what was possible under the law for that offence. That man hit a young boy and took his life, and after driving away and leaving that child to die he was sentenced to a grand total of 22 months and a four-year driving ban.
My constituent, Sean Morley, was similarly knocked over and left to die by a driver who left the scene. Does the hon. Lady agree that the sentence needs to reflect the severity of the crime? Currently, it is prosecuted under hit and run, so people get the same sentence that they would have got if they had knocked off a wing mirror.
I agree totally. That shows that this is a cross-party issue that affects communities across the country.
That driver served only 10 months in jail. Clearly, that cannot be right. Almost two years ago, I asked the Government to reconsider the arrangements for sentencing. Currently, those who cause death by driving in the way I have described face a number of charges and a wide scale of sentences, ranging from mere months to 14 years, but the reality is that sentencing guidelines mean that there must be a large and, frankly, improbable series of aggravating factors for a judge to issue anywhere near the maximum sentence. Tougher penalties are not being used, because judges are being held back by guidelines that prevent them from handing out longer sentences. I know from the many families I have spoken to that there are instances when tougher penalties were very much needed.
In 2004, the Labour party was right to fight for higher maximum penalties. The Government, encouraged by the tireless campaigning of many Members from all parties, were equally right to incorporate new rules on drug taking while driving into the Crime and Courts Act 2013 and to amend the Road Traffic Act 1988. We know that there is a tremendous amount of cross-party support on the issue in this House. Both of those Governments can be rightly proud of having introduced changes that go in the right direction, but there is much further to go.
I have spoken about Robert Gaunt from Overton in this House previously, and I wish I could say that that case is tragic but unique, but it is not. Innocent people have been killed by drivers who have been given low sentences across our country, and it has continued since I raised this issue in 2014.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing this important subject to this Chamber. I just wish we had longer than half an hour to talk about it. My constituent, Joseph Brown-Lartey, was, sadly, killed by a dangerous driver. I have talked about him before and I am working on the Justice for Joseph campaign. I want to make the point that, as my hon. Friend said, she and indeed all of us present have been working on the issue for many years, but we do not seem to be getting anywhere with the Government. I hope that this debate will push it forward.
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. Again, that highlights the point about diversity —she represents an urban constituency, mine is predominantly rural. These issues occur absolutely everywhere.
The average sentence served by a driver who kills or seriously injures another human being while driving is, believe it or not, only 11 months. Families are losing loved ones because of reckless, dangerous and negligent driving, and the law is not doing enough to hold those responsible to account. Innocent families are being let down by the system and the punishments given simply do not fit the crimes committed.
Let me explain the situation. If a driver is caught driving with
“a deliberate decision to ignore (or a flagrant disregard for) the rules of the road”,
the starting point for judges when sentencing is eight years. That can be longer for a number of reasons, such as when a person is killed or when the driver is driving a stolen vehicle. Let us reflect for a moment on how subjective that is—“a deliberate decision” about, or “ a flagrant disregard for” the rules of the road. If a driver is seen to be creating significant danger—the lowest level of seriousness—the starting point for a sentencing judge is three years and the maximum term is five years. If a driver is injured, the sentence is shortened. If the victim was a friend, again the sentence is shortened; and on and on we go.
As I said in 2014, it is absolutely right that our criminal justice system differentiates those who make a mistake, commit a crime and acknowledge it, and those who flee, hide and pervert the course of justice, as in the case involving Robert Gaunt in Overton. I wholeheartedly support the provision of a range of different sentences for driving offences—indeed, our country’s justice system is built on that—and I am calling for a logical development of the existing system and more consideration of the sentences given.
As a result of the rules and guidelines set out by the law, drivers who end the lives of innocent people on our roads have their sentences reduced again and again until, bit by bit, they decline to mere months. Drivers who plead guilty before their trials have their sentences automatically reduced by a third, and most will be released on licence after serving only half their given sentences. For the families of those who are killed, that is clearly not justice—nor is that justice for the rest of society.
After the injustice of cases such as that of Robert Gaunt and many others like it nationwide, people from my constituency launched a petition calling for sentences for this sort of crime to be increased. More than 1,300 names were added online and a further 2,000 collected on paper. The campaign continued, even though a change of Government meant an early closure of the online petition. Many of those who signed had probably never signed a petition before, and perhaps have not since, but they did so on that occasion out of a passion for justice for Robert and for other victims of road accidents throughout our country.
Almost two years ago, as I said, I asked the Government to look at the maximum penalties for driving offences that lead to death and serious injury. I asked for the same thing that the family of Robert James Gaunt was calling for back in 2009—but we are still waiting today.
In response to a recent parliamentary written question on this issue, the Government stated:
“It is our intention to commence a consultation before the end of the year which will look at driving offences and penalties.”
I welcome that, and I am pleased that the Government are still willing and open to do something. However, almost two years ago, that same commitment was made to me when I brought the issue to the House of Commons. I and other Members of Parliament who were passionate in support of a sentencing review were told that one would take place and that justice would be offered to those who had lost loved ones so tragically.
If we change the law and the sentencing guidelines are reformed properly, that will bring some measure of justice. I hope that that would give people who are uninsured or unlicensed grounds to pause before they get behind the wheel of a vehicle. So let me be absolutely clear why I am here today: we urged the Government to act; the Government promised to hold a review; and the review has not taken place. It is taking far too long.
Since 2009, my constituents have been calling for changes, and many others across the country and across party have been making the same plea. At a recent meeting of the all-party parliamentary group for transport safety, I had the opportunity to ask the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), who has responsibility for road safety, why that has taken such a long time. He admitted that there had been considerable delay. In response to a recent question in the House of Lords by Lord Berkeley on this issue, the Government responded that the criticism that they had taken too long was “fair”.
The Government keep telling the House their intentions. I am pleased that they intend to conduct a review. I am pleased that their intention is to take this matter as seriously as everyone in this Chamber does, but it has been almost two years since I was promised in the House of Commons in 2014 that a review would take place. On that occasion, the Government told me that a sentencing review would start, but for all the promises we have been given, I have yet to see anything actually happening. Intentions are grand and fine things, and they are to be welcomed, but they are not much use if we do not get a real review and if sentencing guidelines are not reformed. It is now time to see real results.
I have been urging the Government to look at the issues since 2011. I will continue to raise them again and again until action is taken, and many, many colleagues in this House feel similarly. It is time for the Government to give us the review that Members of Parliament are calling for. It is time for the Government to deliver on the promises they made to me almost two years ago. Most important, it is time for us to give families the opportunity to receive the justice that they have waited so long for. It is time for a review, and I and many others will keep asking for it until it arrives. This is not about politics; it is about justice. It is time for us to move on with the issue. I have left the Minister a considerable amount of time in which to respond and, I hope, to make some commitment on a timeline for when justice can be expected.
I understand that Mr Jake Berry wants to contribute. To be clear, the revised time for the conclusion of the debate is 4.43 pm. We want to hear the Minister’s reply, so brevity would be much appreciated, but before I call Mr Berry, may I confirm for the record that you, Susan Elan Jones and the Minister, are quite happy for me to do so?
Thank you, Mr Bailey, for calling me. I congratulate the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) on an exceptionally good, thoughtful and thought-provoking speech. I want to add to it only briefly—I, too, want to give the Minister as much time as possible to respond.
I want to draw attention to an issue that I raised in Prime Minister’s Question Time on 25 November 2015. On 3 August 2015, an intoxicated John Morton offered Amy Baxter, aged 27, and Hayley Jones, aged 32, a lift home in his car. He crashed that car. The injuries that Amy Baxter suffered are so severe that she did not see her children for seven months, because of her head injuries. Even after that, it was too distressing for those children to see her. She is paralysed from the neck down. Her injuries have been life-changing. The issue is not just about death; it is also about serious injuries caused by dangerous driving.
Unbelievably, when Mr Morton pleaded guilty in March 2015, he was simply sentenced to a three-year driving ban, a fine and a 20-week overnight curfew. That is an appalling thing for the family to deal with. They feel that he really has had no punishment whatever for causing life-changing injuries to one of their family members.
But it gets worse than that. Three weeks after Mr Morton was given his overnight curfew, he went to Bolton magistrates court to have his tag removed to enable him to go to a stag party in Portugal. When the family came to see me, they said they felt like that was another sentence with which the magistrate had slapped them in the face. That is absolutely disgusting behaviour by our courts. I do not for one moment blame the magistrates, because I do not believe that they have the sentencing guidelines or flexibility to attach real punishment to people such as Mr Morton.
I wanted to contribute to the debate to say that I certainly have not forgotten Amy Baxter’s tragic injuries and the fantastic campaign that her mother, my constituent Pauline Baxter, has run. Following my question at Prime Minister’s questions to the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, I went to see my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who was at the time Secretary of State for Justice, and he told me, as he told the hon. Member for Clwyd South, that something would happen and there would be a review of sentencing. Amy Baxter’s is just one more appalling case, and I say from the Government side, reflecting cross-party support for the hon. Lady’s call: “For goodness’ sake, let’s get on with it.” We have had promise after promise. How many poor mothers like Amy Baxter have to see the drink-driver who caused them life-changing injuries not punished properly before the Government will take action? I hope that the Minister will respond with something concrete, because there is frustration on both sides of the House about the intolerable delay in the Government’s review of these sentences.
May I say how wonderful it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey? I thank the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) for securing this debate on road safety and the review of driving offences and penalties, and all hon. Members for their contributions. She first highlighted the tragic death of her constituent, Robert Gaunt, as far back as 2009. Young Robert’s death, which could have been avoided, must have been devastating for his family and friends, as she rightly and understandably outlined.
Many of us have had road deaths in our constituencies that need not have happened. It will be no comfort to victims and their families, but we should not lose sight of the fact that despite the significant increase in road users, our roads are getting safer and road deaths are at their lowest ever. In the time allotted to me, I will look at some of the issues that the hon. Lady raised.
On sentences and sentencing guidelines, once offenders are charged and convicted, their sentencing is a matter for the independent courts, which decide on sentences having considered the full details of the case and the offender. The courts are best placed to decide on just and proportionate sentences. My hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) also referred to the sentencing guidelines in his passionate speech. Those guidelines are produced by the independent Sentencing Council, and the courts are required to follow them in deciding on a sentence, but it is worth stressing that a judge may depart from them if it is in the interests of justice to do so. The council plans to review those guidelines in due course. One good thing about them is that they lead to greater transparency about the sentences that are imposed and ensure that there is some consistency. A review of the guidelines for motoring offences involving death is on the Sentencing Council’s work plan, as I have alluded to. That review was postponed following the Government’s own review, which I will talk about. New draft guidelines will be subject to a full public consultation shortly.
Both hon. Members raised the question of maximum penalties. It is worth stressing that although sentencing is a matter for the courts, we all know that Parliament sets the legal framework within which the courts operate. Maximum penalties are set by Parliament to cover the most serious imaginable behaviours for specific offences, which is why the maximum penalty is rarely imposed. When deciding what sentence to impose, the courts are required to take account of all the circumstances of the offence and the offender, and any mitigating or aggravating factors. Some people have suggested that the courts should impose the maximum penalty in every road traffic case that results in death. However, imposing the maximum penalty for any death in any circumstance for any offence would be contrary to our system of justice. Making all sentences the same would remove the courts’ ability to single out and highlight the most serious cases and offences.
The issue of release was raised, and it was suggested that those who plead guilty can get up to a third off their sentences at the judge’s discretion. In fact, under statute, all offenders serving determinate sentences are released automatically at the halfway point; that is not the case just for driving offences.
Despite what was said, the Government have taken some action, although we want to ensure that the courts are able to respond appropriately to the full range of cases that they are likely to face. Changes have recently been made to the law. In the past, where offenders caused very serious injuries, the offence with which they were charged related solely to their driving, not the harm they caused to the victim. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 created a new offence of causing serious injury by dangerous driving, with a five-year maximum penalty. In addition, in the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, the Government increased the maximum penalty for causing death or serious injury when driving while disqualified. The previous maximum was only two years; that has now been increased to 10 years. That came into force in April last year. Those changes mean that there is now a range of offences dealing with dangerous driving that have appropriate maximum penalties and more properly reflect the harm caused.
The hon. Lady raised the issue of failure to stop in the event of a so-called hit-and-run. Failure to stop is a summary-only offence with a six-month maximum penalty, because it is designed to deal only with drivers who fail to stop and report an incident. Where there is evidence that the driver caused death or serious injury, or the driver was found to have been driving carelessly or dangerously, separate charges apply. Where the driver seeks to evade detection, they may be charged with perverting the course of justice, which has a maximum penalty of a life sentence.
I touched on reduction of sentences as the result of a guilty plea, and I want to expand on that slightly. The sentencing guidelines provide a sliding scale of reductions, depending on the point at which the plea is made. The maximum reduction is a third, for a plea at the first reasonable opportunity; the recommended reduction falls to 10% when the offender pleads guilty on the day of the trial. Where the case against the offender is overwhelming, the guidelines provide for discretion on the part of the judge to give a lower reduction.
I am rather perplexed. The Minister is not providing total support for the existing guidelines. We are all very much under the impression that the Government want the sentencing guidelines to be reviewed. Can we have absolute clarity that they will be reviewed, and may we have a timescale for that?
If the hon. Lady will bear with me, I am trying to deal with the points she raised and how the law stands. I will then come on to what further action the Government will take.
On murder and manslaughter—an issue that has been touched on—I understand why in many cases causing death by driving is thought to be equivalent to attacking someone with a weapon. Under the current law, the Crown Prosecution Service can and will charge a person with manslaughter when the evidence supports that charge, it is the public interest to do so and there is a reasonable prospect of a conviction. Successful prosecutions have secured manslaughter convictions in driving cases.
Careless and dangerous driving has come up in such debates and there have been suggestions that the distinction between careless and dangerous driving should be abolished and replaced with one offence of bad driving. What amounts to dangerous driving is determined not by considering the driver’s state of mind or intentions, which in the context of driving is often difficult to ascertain, but by examining the nature of the driving.
The law sets out an objective test designed to compare the driving of the defendant in the specific circumstances of the case against what would be expected of a notional careful and competent driver. In general terms, if the court considers that the driving falls far below that standard and it would be obvious to a competent and careful driver that the manner of driving was dangerous, it will find that to have been dangerous driving. Our law needs to reflect that while the harm caused in homicide cases and fatal driving offences is the same because someone has died, the culpability of the offender for the death may be significantly different.
Of course hon. Members want to know what happens next in the Government’s review. There can be nothing more tragic than the loss of a child, or any life, especially when that loss was avoidable. I know that there are concerns about sentencing for some driving offences and about the maximum powers available to the courts, as we have heard in the debate. It is important that those serious offences are considered in relation not just to the range of driving offences but to the full range of criminal offences to maintain proportionality within sentencing.
As I acknowledged in a debate only two months ago in this place, for too long those concerns have not been acted on. At that time, I reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to consult on the offences and penalties for driving offences resulting in death and serious injury and I do so again today. It is very much the Government’s intention that the consultation will be delivered, as promised in the previous debate, before the end of the year. I intend to honour that commitment.
I hope that the review comes soon, because people have been waiting for it for a very long time.
Question put and agreed to.
Homophobia in Sport
Before I call Stuart Andrew to move the motion for the next debate on homophobia in sport, I should inform Members that, owing to an administrative error, reference to evidence taken by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee relevant to the debate has not appeared on the Order Paper as it should have done. I convey the apologies of the House Authorities to that Committee and to hon. Members present for the debate.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered homophobia in sport.
I point out that the error on the Order Paper is not my fault—promise. I am pleased to have secured what I think is an important debate, because, for me, sport has the potential to be a great equaliser in society. It brings together people from many different backgrounds to participate and spectate in the best possible spirits—although, indeed, as a Leeds United fan, shall I say perhaps the spirits have not always been the best of late?
We have made great progress. There are great examples of some of our leading athletes who have felt able to come out. I am proud to mention two from my county. Nicola Adams, whom I am proud of, said at the time that she was worried about how everyone would react, so she used to say that she was single rather than that she was with a girl. She felt like she was lying all the time, and she did not like having to do that, so, in the end, she thought, “Well, this is who I am. And if there is nothing I can do about it, why should I hide it?” Keegan Hirst, the rugby player from Batley, said:
“I tick every macho box. How could I be gay? I’m from Batley for goodness’ sake. No one is gay in Batley.”
Those are two brave individuals who have come out and brought a bit of a spotlight on to the issue.
We notice most sharply that we have a problem when one of our nation’s most successful athletes thinks that sexism and homophobia are still huge problems in sport and that they are inextricably linked. Sue Day, the former women’s rugby captain, said:
“If she has got physical strength or something that is not perceived to be feminine, then she must be a lesbian. If a man is gay”
“he can’t possibly be good at sport because he is not masculine enough”.
She went on to say:
“There is a huge amount of sexism in sport. The men have been allowed to play sport for many years whereas the women haven’t. Sexism and homophobia are so inextricably linked.”
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that many of those views start at an early age? At school, when we divide our children into certain genders and certain sports, that only reinforces these things. I played football growing up, but there were not many girls playing it—I had to play hockey; I was not allowed to play football at times. Do we need to widen access to all sports so that all genders get the opportunity to experience sports of all kinds?
I am grateful for that intervention and I certainly agree. We can look at some of our successes—I think of the England women’s football team and the British hockey team—which are fantastic, but we need to encourage more choice in sport for all genders.
The perception that Sue Day spoke of is widely expressed in sport at all levels by professionals and spectators alike. I cannot emphasise enough how welcoming and inclusive sport is becoming, and much credit for that must go to the spectators. The vast majority of fans find the shared bonds of loyalty to their team far more important than anything else, but we must aim for the best on the field as well as off it. There is clearly some significant work to do.
I do not want to be perceived as being only critical of the situation in our sports clubs and among our spectators, because I am not. There is much good practice from clubs and governing bodies and great examples of spectators working together on the issue, but we need to pull all of that work together. When clubs get behind such initiatives they can have a huge impact, but we need some national direction. I would be interested to hear from the Minister on what the Government are doing in that respect and what progress there is from national governing bodies.
A great deal of good work being is done across the country by fans, clubs, coaches, professional leagues and governing bodies, but now is the time to bring that together. With the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport undertaking an important inquiry on this issue, we must build on the momentum to take a bold and strategic step forward so that we can start tackling the problem at all levels.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I agree that some central direction is necessary to bring together all the good work happening at club level. One thing that prevents senior sporting stars from coming out is a feeling that they might lose corporate sponsorship if they were to reveal their true sexuality. Would it not be useful for the big corporate organisations to say it would not matter a jot to them or affect sponsorship if a footballer or rugby player or whoever decided to come out?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. In some aspects of sport—I will come on to football in a bit—huge amounts of money are spent on sponsorship, and I can understand why some players may fear that that would be a problem. He makes a strong point that I think all sponsors need to think about when drawing up those deals.
To come back to the inquiry that is happening at the moment, I commend the previous Culture, Media and Sport Committee report into racism in football, which also highlighted the prominence of homophobia in football and has done much to bring the issue into the open. I look forward to the important report from the current inquiry. Its terms of reference touch on some of the things I will raise, including looking at the experience of gay sportsmen and sportswomen and what those tell us about different sports and the progression of attitudes in general; the approach of governance bodies throughout sport; and how homophobic abuse compares with other forms of harassment.
I will also look at how successful governing bodies have been in tackling the issue; how homophobia is being tackled at school; what action is being taken by teachers and coaches involved in youth and amateur sport to ensure homophobia is challenged at an early stage; and whether football has a particular problem with homophobia in comparison with other sports. I will outline some of the problems that we still have in sport, including the effect on athletes, the potential loss of great talent, and the general lack of participation and the drop-off rates among LGBT athletes.
One thing that triggered my effort to secure the debate was a recent BBC Radio 5 live survey. I have to say that it included some positive figures, but one thing that struck me was the finding that 8% of football fans would stop supporting their team if one of its players came out as gay. The majority were obviously positive about it, but when we consider the huge number of spectators who go out and watch football every weekend, 8% is a significant number. Knowing how passionate and loyal many supporters are about their teams, the fact that something like that was a trigger to stop them supporting their team alarmed me.
The “Out on the Fields” report is one of the world’s biggest studies of homophobia in sport. It studied gay and straight people worldwide. Statistics from the UK in the survey showed that 77% of participants have witnessed or experienced homophobia in sport; 85% believe that an openly gay person is not safe as a spectator; the most likely location for people to hear abuse in sport is in the spectator stands, followed closely by the school PE class; and that most people surveyed believe that sport is more homophobic than the rest of society.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing such an important debate. Does he agree that this type of behaviour is abhorrent and inexcusable? Whether in the locker room or the playground, it should not be explained away as “banter” or simply “having a joke”, or that the person on the receiving end is overly sensitive. Such behaviour often amounts to hate crime or harassment, which carry serious criminal penalties.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Language is incredibly important, and the wrong language can lead to much more dangerous actions if we are not careful. She is absolutely right that that needs to be tackled and understood, and washing it away as banter is unacceptable.
The “Out on the Fields” survey also found that 70% of gay men are completely or partially in the closet when playing youth sports, with many making the choice to give up sport so that they can lead an open life. What a sad choice that is. An online survey of more than 1,200 sports fans across Britain conducted this year for Stonewall looked into homophobic, biphobic and transphobic attitudes and experiences among sports fans. It found that 72% of football fans had heard homophobic abuse while watching live sports in the past five years. Disappointingly, 22% of 18 to 24-year-olds said they would be embarrassed if their favourite player came out as gay, while 22% were likely to agree that anti-LGBT language is harmless if meant only as banter. However, there were some positive trends. Some 88% would be either proud or neutral if their favourite player came out as gay, while 63% said more should be done to make LGBT people feel accepted in sport, so there is a basis of positive work for us to build on.
YouGov polled some 2,000 LGBT people for Stonewall’s 2013 “Gay in Britain” report, which found that more than 60% of gay and bi men, and nearly 40% of lesbian and bi women, expected to face discrimination from opposing teams, spectators, officials and fellow teammates when taking part in sports. LGBT young people frequently felt unwelcome or had negative experiences when taking part in sport. Research by the University of Cambridge involving more than 1,200 young people, again for Stonewall, found that 23% had been bullied while taking part in sport. Furthermore, METRO Centre’s 2014 “Youth Chances” survey found that 24% of trans young people felt that their gender identity had stopped or reduced the chances of their participating in sports groups or organisations locally.
I will come on to football, because it is the one sport which thousands of people go to watch every week and is followed as a national treasure. I think, if we are honest, it is the focus of concerns about homophobia. Those concerns are not limited to football, but it does seem to have a particular problem. As I said, it is by far the biggest sport in the country, so it could therefore be the leader in this area and drive change across sport and throughout society. Some great work is happening. Stonewall greatly welcomes the FA’s four-year action plan, which runs until this year and outlines the FA’s plans for the inclusion of LGBT people in football. It covers key areas, including education, sanctions, steps to encourage reporting and partnership working. It is vital that progress on the plan is reviewed and a clear series of next steps is put in place.
There has also been some fantastic work by some of our clubs, such as Crystal Palace, which has a full-page LGBT fan group page in its programme for each match. Fan groups, such as the Proud Lilywhites of Tottenham Hotspur, the Gay Gooners of Arsenal and the Proud Canaries of Norwich City are all good examples, because visibility is valuable in tackling some of these issues; I believe that fan groups are a key element of that strategy. Last weekend, the Premier League, the Football Association, the English Football League, the Rugby Football Union and sports clubs across Britain hosted a rainbow laces takeover organised by Stonewall. Teams such as Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool laced up during training sessions and showed public support for the campaign on their social media channels.
However, to go back to that survey and the reasons why I tried to secure the debate, an article was printed in the Daily Express, the online version of which attracted some appalling comments. I am not going to read them out because I do not think they are appropriate. As ever with these things, these people hide behind an anonymous name and have not got the guts to come out and say these things publicly. If people suggest that there is not a problem, those words prove otherwise.
I mentioned the survey finding that 8% of fans would stop supporting their team if it had a gay player. That, together with the sponsorship issue, may be a reason why no major footballer in this country has felt able to come out as gay. That concerns me. As I said earlier, that means we do not get the best of them, but I am more concerned about their mental health. It must be incredibly difficult for someone to understand their sexuality but feel that they cannot come out. As a gay man myself, I know how difficult it is to not have the confidence to go public and the relief you feel once you have done it.
When that survey came out, Greg Clarke from the FA said that now may not be the right time to come out. I am a fairly level-headed person, and I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he made those comments from the perspective of wanting to protect players. I can sort of understand that, but saying, “Now’s not the time,” is a very different point and sends quite a negative message to the players and the general public. Now is exactly the right time for us to address this.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. He is a well-known and very vocal defender of LGBT rights in the Chamber. Does he agree that the FA and the Scottish Football Association will be left behind, given the fact that our society is far more forward-thinking than they are with their reactionary and homophobic attitude to LGBT rights in sport?
Absolutely. They need to catch up with the times. I look back in awe at how far society and this country have come in my lifetime. When I was in my teens, which feels like a billion years ago, the age of consent was 21, and now we have equal marriage in our country. That is fantastic. To say that now is not the time for gay players to come out is just not acceptable. The hon. Gentleman is right.
It is really important that there should be an onus on the clubs to support players and develop LGBT-inclusive stadiums and friendly environments. We talked a moment ago about banter. Football can sometimes lead the way. Show Racism the Red Card was a great campaign that has changed attitudes. People are now careful about what they say when they are watching football, but if someone makes a homophobic statement, how do they know the person next to them is not from the LGBT community? They need to think about that and how it makes people feel. That campaign showed how we can change and challenge racist attitudes, and we need to do exactly the same with homophobia.
There is a clear business case to be made to clubs about how detrimental concealing any aspect of a player’s identity is to their wellbeing, to their high performance and to attracting and nurturing new talent. We should push for more co-ordination between the FA, the Premier League and other leagues across the country. As individual clubs have a great deal of autonomy, the leagues need to be the driving force behind this work. I want to outline what action should be taken by sport’s governing bodies, which have to drive this if we are to achieve consistent progress across all levels of sport.
National governing bodies of sport have a responsibility to ensure that steps are taken to tackle homophobic, biphobic and transphobic abuse in sport and to increase LGBT participation. It is essential that that is done at both a grassroots and professional level. They should start by researching why we have such low participation rates. Unless we understand that, we cannot get to the root of the problem.
NGBs should take a clear zero-tolerance approach to this abuse by ensuring that appropriate sanctions are in place and that cases of abuse are monitored, recorded and dealt with appropriately. That means training staff appropriately—everyone from stewards and match officials at games to coaches and players. The most common place that we hear this abuse is, unfortunately, on the terraces. We must tackle that homophobic banter. The invisibility of gay people in the crowd can be a real issue.
We must make significant investment in supporting that work, with key deliverables for the short, medium and long term. NGBs should develop action plans to encourage wide participation. Those should be produced in partnership with LGBT sports organisations, clubs and supporters. The Amateur Swimming Association ran LGBT roadshows to get people to engage with its audit in partnership with the Government Equalities Office steering group, Pride Sports, Ditch the Label, Transsexuals in Sport and Stonewall. More of that should happen.
It is key that NGBs support grassroots clubs. Targeted guidance, training and resources should be produced that are easy to implement in these environments. Stonewall has developed a plain-English best-practice toolkit for grassroots sports clubs and would welcome input from NGBs in developing and promoting that further. I hope they will take it up on that.
The FA should lead the way on this issue. It is the wealthiest governing body, with the most participating clubs, and it can lead the charge, following the best practice of smaller organisations such as the Amateur Swimming Association. A co-ordinated, consistent and maintained strategy to deal with this is important. We need joined-up working and consistent pressure to apply and spread much of the excellent best practice. Crucially, we need to investigate the participation and drop-off rate as part of that strategy. The loss of talent because people feel that their sexuality is not compatible with their sport is alarming, but no governing body is looking into that.
I am aware that there has been some great work. The “Out on the Fields” report came about following calls from SportScotland, with the support of the Australian federal Government. We ought to work with the FA and others to renew the charter that is coming to an end this year and ensure that we have clear and achievable objectives and expectations. We must also make gay people more visible through the support and promotion of LGBT fan groups. We need to achieve a situation where we fully understand the issues and are committed, in a measurable and achievable way, to achieving the positive outcomes that most of us want to see, not only for the sake of LGBT people in sport but in order for sport in this country to flourish.
Nobody should have to make a choice between being open about who they are and continuing to take part in sport. That choice will ultimately cost people personally and will leave sports across the country without talent that could be adding so much to our future success. I hope we will be able to do as much as we can. All of us were very proud when Britain came back from the Olympics with so many medals. Let us be proud of every area of sport that truly reflects every part of our society.
Order. The debate must conclude no later than 5.43 pm. We need to get on to the Front-Bench speeches no later than 5.23 pm. The Chairman of Ways and Means ruling is that the Scottish National party and official Opposition Front Benchers have five minutes and the Minister 10 minutes in a 60-minute debate. That leaves the Back Benchers with approximately five minutes. I hope Members will bear that in mind.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) on securing this debate and on his excellent speech, which was detailed and heartfelt. I could not help but agree with everything he said.
Perhaps I should declare an interest in this subject, as an openly gay MP who plays a lot of sport, in particular football. I grew up playing football as a wee girl in West Lothian, and I have to say that at the age of 11—which was probably about the peak of my football talents—there were not many girls playing or a huge amount of encouragement.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed running rings round the boys in my school and the local community, it was unfortunate that, up close, there was a lack of support for girls. It was not until I got to university that I was able to play alongside other young women in a proper, structured setting. Funnily enough, in my University of Stirling team was a Scottish women’s national team player, Leanne Ross. The rest of us might have been a bit below par, but Leanne made up for it and she will be part of the Scottish women’s team when it goes to the European championships.
I care passionately about diversity and equality, particularly in football, because I played it growing up and still play occasionally. I worked at my local club, Livingston football club, selling everything from pies to pints, and I have been to my fair share of international and Scottish and English premier league matches. It is fair to say that in general terms women’s football does not have anywhere near the sort of issues that the men’s game seems to have. I have found that women’s football is generally very welcoming to women, whatever their sexuality. However, as the hon. Member for Pudsey identified, for women to show sporting prowess seemed to define their sexuality. I tended not to find that when growing up, and I did not receive abuse in that realm. When I played football and a bit of rugby, for the first time in my life I met other women who were gay—and straight—and I felt in a safe space and among people who reflected similar ideals and values as me.
However, I can tell Members—sadly, from personal experience—that hearing homophobic jokes and jibes, and a general lack of acceptance in other parts of my life, prevented me for a very long time from dealing with my sexuality. The major societal shifts of recent years helped me to feel I could come out and that it would be okay. With the support of friends, family and peers in this place, I came out just after I was elected. It was personally challenging, but ultimately liberating. I am extremely lucky—I am always conscious of how lucky I am—not to have experienced much homophobic abuse. I stand on the shoulders of those who came before me and fought so hard for equality. For me, sport in its various forms was a haven and sometimes a sanctuary in the years when I was struggling with and confused about my sexuality, and I felt safe.
It makes me very sad that today we are debating those who experience homophobia in sport and cannot come out and be who they are in their chosen sport. However, there are chinks of light, and the hon. Member for Pudsey alighted on some of them. I hope that discussing and lifting the lid on the issues will challenge people like Eric Bristow, the darts player who made some horrendous comments this week. I hope he sits at home thinking about what he said and realises that such comments and views should be consigned to the dustbin of history.
The Culture, Media and Sport Committee found that abusive posts are sent to football players on social media every 2.6 minutes. I am sure that many footballers do not want to add to that, but when the English Football Association’s chairman made his comments about footballers not coming out, he did himself and the sport an injustice. Believe you me, Scottish football is in no way immune from offensive behaviour, but in Scotland the Equality Network has developed an LGBT sports charter to which a number of Scottish Premier League clubs have signed up. I do not doubt that a lot of good work is being done across England—we have heard about much of it—as in Scotland, but it is incumbent on us all to work with those organisations across the political divide and the various nations of the UK to stamp out homophobia in sport. I am sure that colleagues share a desire to see that happen.
At a time when record sums are spent in football, which is something the hon. Member for Pudsey referred to—Paul Pogba was recently transferred to Manchester United for £93.25 million—how can governing bodies and premier league clubs not have the funding or resources to put into this issue? That cannot be the case. I hope that in years to come, the sexuality of those of us in the public eye—in sport or whatever other walk of life—will be no more significant than whether we have Marmite on our toast in the morning.
As Chair of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, I want to talk briefly about its inquiry and to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) on securing this debate on this important subject. When we look back at the incidence of racism in football, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, it is clear that society has moved on hugely. That is something that the Committee has considered throughout its inquiry so far. The sort of racist banter and chanting from the stands that was commonplace at football grounds in the 1980s is simply unacceptable in society today.
The football bodies have strict rules that they enforce against people who engage in racist talk at matches. Fans can be evicted from stadiums and clubs may face sanctions in competitions if there is consistent racist chanting from the stands. That is simply not tolerated because it is not tolerated by society. So the question is: why should it be any different for homophobia? Why is there still more progress to be made?
The chair of the Football Association, Greg Clarke, told the Committee—the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) mentioned this—that he did not believe that now was the right time for a footballer to come out in England. That does not mean that he does not believe the FA’s job is to try to support players who want to come out, but he felt that now was not the right time and that football was probably a couple of years away from the right time. He directed his remarks to the attitude of fans in the stands. I do not think the issue is as simple as that. First, we have received evidence suggesting that there should be more training for stewards and people who work in football grounds to ensure that they are aware of homophobic abuse and tackle it if they hear it from fans, so that those who engage in such behaviour know that they will be ejected.
There is a second question about the culture within a sport like football. Why can Keegan Hirst, a rugby league player from Batley, play rugby league at a Huddersfield football stadium when a Huddersfield football player would find it impossible to come out and play in the same location and the same community? It is a myth that community support for football is not accepting enough, and it is clearly nonsense when seeing Keegan Hirst playing.
The 8% of fans who were identified in BBC’s Radio 5 Live survey were alighted upon by Gary Lineker. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with him that it would be no bad thing if those 8% of fans just stayed at home and kept quiet?
The hon. Lady is quite right. People engaging in racist abuse would be evicted from the ground. They would have their membership card taken from them. Why should it be any different with homophobic abuse and why should the whole of football bow to a very small vocal minority? If someone like Keegan Hirst, a rugby league player, can come out and play with the support of his club and his team mates, why can a football player not do so as well?
The Committee took evidence from John Amaechi, the Englishman who played National Basketball Association basketball in the United States and who, as a sportsman, came out as a gay athlete. He said it is the job of the managers and trainers of premier league football clubs and elite athletes to know everything about their players. They know what they eat, where they live, what their home life is like and how stable their relationships are because all that has an impact on their ability to play. He said it is impossible for a club not to know that a player is not straight, but whether they know they might be gay is a different matter. It may be wrong for a club to confront an athlete about their sexuality, but they should know enough about them to understand there is a likelihood of gay players in their squad, so they should be able to police the culture and banter in the training ground and the locker room to make sure there is no discriminatory or discouraging language or behaviour.
A number of excellent organisations are seeking to promote the right attitude and to stop homophobia in sport. We should not think the solution to the problem is one or two premier league football players coming out and that the rest of society will fall in line. That is not the solution. There must be a broader movement across society to change the attitudes and behaviour of people who participate in sport and attend sporting events. Stonewall campaigned massively on the issue and will be giving evidence to the Select Committee shortly. My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey mentioned the rainbow laces campaign. There are also organisations such as Athlete Ally and Sport Allies, which seek to use all participants in sport—all athletes—to support the cause of promoting, supporting and giving respect to gay athletes and encouraging and supporting people if they come out, to change the nature of the debate and the culture as part of a broader change in society.
I welcome this debate. The Select Committee hopes to conclude the oral evidence sessions for its inquiry on 13 December, when the Minister herself will give evidence, and we will produce our report in the new year.
I call Stuart C. McDonald, who has four minutes.
I thank the hon. Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) for initiating this incredibly important debate and I welcome the work being undertaken by the Culture Media and Sport Committee on this issue.
Sport can be an immensely positive pastime or, for a lucky few, a profession. It brings immense enjoyment and huge health benefits, and can also be an incredibly positive social experience, but sadly, as we have heard, for too long sport has had an uneasy relationship with the LGBT community. That is not just a problem at the top of sport; it is quite possible that at grassroots level, away from the public eye, the level of homophobia is even greater. That creates a real problem with participation of LGBT people in sport, and in some sports in particular, whether as players or supporters or in any other capacity.
One piece of research mentioned in submissions to the Select Committee inquiry suggested that 40% of LGBT people have been discouraged from participation in sport. Another concluded that almost 60% would be more likely to participate if sport was more LGBT-friendly. That is bad for the LGBT community, but also for sport in general. I know that you will be very concerned, Mr Bailey, at the prospect that homophobia means that we will miss out on an LGBT player scoring the goal that finally takes Scotland to the World cup finals, for example. Perhaps more realistically, it means fewer supporters paying large sums of money to be badly disappointed yet again.
To increase the chances of either type of participation by those in the LGBT community, we need serious and persistent action to be taken to ensure that football and all other sports are as open and accessible as possible to the LGBT community. Hon. Members have highlighted various ways in which that could be done, such as by challenging attitudes and the language used in the school sports environment. There is also the significance of professional role models and the need for leadership from governing bodies and politicians and for a broad-based campaign against homophobia.
My hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) mentioned safe spaces, so in the short time that I have left, I want to highlight and pay a wee tribute to the outstanding volunteers across the country who have indeed created safe spaces in sport for LGBT people— homophobia-free places where they know that their participation will be welcomed. No doubt facing a good dose of scepticism and a decent dollop of ridicule, those men and women across the UK are, week in and week out, grafting hard in setting up and then running LGBT-friendly sports clubs. In some ways, they are doing all the things that we have asked for in the debate: showing leadership, providing role models, tackling prejudice and stereotypes, and boosting participation.
Almost certainly the best example of that is the Gay Football Supporters Network national league and each of its member clubs. Established in 2002, 15 clubs from Scotland, England and Wales now take part, and five more take part in a cup competition. From London Titans to the Nottingham Lions, and the Cardiff Dragons to the Leicester Wildecats, opportunities exist for LGBT players across the UK.
I can speak personally from my experience with Edinburgh’s HotScots football club. If you were to watch one of our games, Mr Bailey, you might argue that there was not much “hot” about some of the football that we play, the weather we play it in or, indeed, anything else about the club. However, I can never speak highly enough of the fantastic and supportive environment that the club has provided for me and for so many individuals since its foundation a decade ago. It is a place where no assumptions are made about a person’s sexuality just because they play sports and where two huge aspects of the player’s identity no longer seem to collide badly. That club and others not only provide a safe and supportive space, but do important work in challenging perceptions about LGBT people in sport by regularly taking part in matches against other, so-called mainstream clubs and by running a five-a-side tournament open to other clubs and teams across the United Kingdom. Other clubs, such as Stonewall, Village Manchester and Glasgow’s Saltire Thistle, participate in “mainstream” leagues.
HotScots has a positive relationship with the Scottish Football Association, and I encourage all governing bodies and all hon. Members who have such clubs in their constituency—
Order. I have to move to the Opposition spokespeople now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate the hon. Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) on initiating this vital debate, not least because I applied for the exact same debate myself for this week. It has been an excellent debate, with excellent contributions, not least from the hon. Gentleman, who spoke of the challenges facing individuals, such as Nicola Adams, in deciding whether to come out and of the upcoming CMS Committee report on homophobia in sport.
In a good intervention, the hon. Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) spoke about corporations playing a role by creating an environment that makes it easier for sportsmen and women to come out.
My hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) spoke of reaching the peak of her football powers at the age of 11, of her history of playing alongside current Scottish internationals and of the women’s game not having quite the same problem as the men’s game. She also spoke movingly of the time when she was struggling with whether to come out.
The Chair of the CMS Committee, the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), spoke of the Committee’s review and of his disagreement with the FA chairman’s rather one-eyed approach to the problem. I look forward to the report being published and to analysing the recommendations. My hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) spoke of volunteers creating safe spaces for LGBT sports clubs and of the Gay Football Supporters Network national league.
Last Sunday marked 38 years since the assassination of San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk. The Human Rights Campaign notes:
“Harvey Milk dedicated his life to advocate for a better and more equitable society, not just for LGBTQ people, but for all who had been marginalized—whether it was because of their race or ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity, age or socioeconomic status.”
Harvey’s vision, in which everyone receives the same dignity, respect, rights and protections, is a vision that we should all work towards.
“Hope will never be silent”
was Harvey’s famous cry. Thirty-eight years is a long time, and although considerable progress has been made, it is clear that the barriers and homophobia that Harvey Milk battled against still exist in our society and, sadly, in certain sections of various sports.
I regularly talk about the power of sport to evoke positive change. Sport can help to improve an individual’s physical and mental health. It can help to lift people out of poverty. Sport can bring people together, as we have heard. The power of sport can also bring about important political change. We witnessed that when the newly elected President of South Africa, Nigel—[Interruption.] Nigel? That is something we would not want to see. Nelson Mandela used the 1995 rugby world cup to unite all of South Africa following years of apartheid. That was around the time I started playing the game.
We should never underestimate the positive change that the power of sport can bring about. The Show Racism the Red Card and Kick It Out campaigns, which have been referenced already, have done a fantastic job in helping to tackle racism. The work that these organisations do helps to make football a safe and more welcoming space for all fans, regardless of their backgrounds. Showing the same attitude and commitment as these organisations is the way we will eliminate homophobia from sport. Tackling homophobia is not the responsibility of one particular group. Rather, it is the responsibility of us all to tackle it head-on and help to eliminate it.
I welcome the work being done by Stonewall to help to make sport inclusive of all. Its Rainbow Laces campaign, which has also been referenced already, is one that we can all support. However, a recent article by PinkNews highlighted the abhorrent abuse on social media meted out to players, teams and Stonewall following premier league football teams donning rainbow laces. That happened just recently—last week, I think. It shows that we still have a long way to go to achieve the vision of football being a safe environment for everyone, regardless of their background.
Following the BBC survey that several hon. Members have referenced, I contacted a range of bodies to find out what they are doing to tackle this important issue. I am pleased that all organisations are doing proactive work in this area and that agreement exists on the need to continue taking action to eliminate homophobia from football and sport more widely.
The worst thing that we can do about homophobia in sport is ignore it or kick the issue into the long grass. That is why I, too, was bitterly disappointed by the comments of the FA chairman, Greg Clarke. He suggested that he was “cautious” of encouraging a player to come out because they might suffer “significant abuse” from fans. He also said that he was unable to offer the required support if a player did come out. To my mind, that is even worse than discouraging players from coming out. It is completely the wrong attitude to take and shows a complete lack of leadership on the issue. Instead of urging people to remain silent about their sexuality, the FA chairman should be doing all that he can to ensure that football is a place for everyone. I know that the Minister feels strongly about that and I hope that she will outline what she and her Department are doing to encourage the FA to come into the 21st century on this issue.
Harvey Milk said:
“Hope will never be silent.”
His words are as true today as they were in 1970s San Francisco, so let the majority of decent, well-natured and friendly supporters speak out against anti-LGBTI remarks made at matches, online or on the training ground. Let us speak out and say that football and sport more widely is for everyone to enjoy, without fear of abuse.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) for securing this important debate and for ensuring that it takes place today. This is a cause that I know everyone here cares deeply about. I also put on record my support for colleagues in the Culture, Media and Sport Committee for their continued work in examining homophobia in sport.
Personally, as a non-white woman who spent many years playing county-level sport, I know that prejudice can be deeply divisive. However, as a previous report on racism in sport showed, homophobia is becoming a bigger problem than other forms of discrimination. Like racism, like sexism—like any form of discrimination —homophobia has no place in sport. It has no place in our society. As the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) said, all too often homophobia is painted as banter or laddish behaviour on terraces and in the playground. A Culture, Media and Sport Committee report stated:
“The FA should work with relevant organisations and charities to develop and then promote a high-profile campaign to highlight the damaging effect of homophobic language and behaviour in and around football at every level.”
The term “at every level” is key here, but it should not just be limited to football; we need to ensure that that happens in all sports.
Tackling homophobia throughout society starts with education. A child believes only in the equality that they are taught by their peers. More work needs to be done to emphasise what is not appropriate in the classroom and in the playground. We need to ensure that our coaches and professional players lead the way in promoting equality and speaking out against all forms of discrimination.
When a young LGBT person has a negative experience, it can have lifelong consequences, such as a rise in mental health issues, including self-harm and depression, failure to attend school and low participation in sport. That is what we cannot afford to see in our country. In a survey of LGBT students who did not participate in sport, almost half said that sport culture was too intimidating and too unwelcoming. A similar number stated that negative experiences led them to avoid sport in school. That can go on to have a long-term, knock-on effect on educational attainment.
All too often, we hear stories about sportspeople posting homophobic tweets. These players are role models to aspiring, young children; these role models are message carriers and children look up to them. If a child sees their favourite player using homophobic language, they will deem it acceptable and attitudes will just not change. These attitudes will transfer over when that young person plays in their junior league. Social networking sites can play a big part in helping to combat homophobia and other forms of discrimination. I was pleased to add my name to a cross-party amendment to ensure that more action is taken on abuse on social networking sites. Many LGBT people continue to feel excluded from sport when it should be the other way round. As the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) said, we must open up sport to anyone who wants to participate and not tolerate racists and homophobes.
Rugby has been a pioneer for LGBT inclusion. That was highlighted by the partnership between World Rugby and International Gay Rugby with the aim of eliminating homophobia in the sport. They have published a memorandum of understanding in which they agree to recognise and respect the common goal of eliminating homophobia and promoting the rights of each player, spectator and official involved.
Football has seen Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign take off in recent years. Just last weekend, we saw players, managers, officials and fans show their support across many of our top divisions. An article in PinkNews this week highlighted the abuse directed at clubs that supported the campaign on social media. Yet let us not believe that this abuse just occurs online; there would have been spectators in the terraces sharing exactly the same vile views as we saw in those tweets. Homophobic remarks are all too common and are unacceptable. Some 50% of football supporters say that they have heard homophobic abuse at matches. Fans can take a lead here, as whether or not we eliminate homophobia from sport is reliant on the response from spectators. I was as shocked as most that 8% of football fans stated that they would stop watching their team if it signed a gay player. However, let us appreciate that nine out 10 fans would not see it as a problem. Let us make it clear that the people in that 8% are in a minority and that their views have no place in football or any other sport.
Up and down the country, from football fields to hockey fields, in the playground or on social media, we must ensure that homophobia is tackled head on with tougher punishments, better education and stronger campaigns endorsed by our sporting role models. We have all heard Greg Clarke’s recent comments, which were met with anger on both sides of the House—I really do believe that. We need to channel our anger into positive action. As the hon. Member for Pudsey said, if 2016 is not the right year for a sportsperson to talk openly about being gay, when is?
As always it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) for securing this debate. I am also grateful for the excellent contributions that he and others have made today.
Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales. Much progress has been made since then, including the introduction of equal marriage during the previous Parliament. Although my Department welcomes this debate on homophobia in sport, as it does the inquiry by the Select Committee, it is sad that in this day and age we are still having it. My Department has submitted written evidence to the Select Committee inquiry on behalf of the Government, and I look forward to giving oral evidence to the Committee next month. If, because of the time limitations, I do not cover all the issues that were raised during this debate, I am sure that we will do so during the Select Committee evidence session. I have been really impressed by the breadth and quality of the oral and written evidence submitted to the Committee so far, and also by the bravery of those who have spoken out in public about the challenges that we still face.
As hon. Members will be aware, we published our Government strategy for sport and physical activity last December. The strategy committed Sport England to placing
“equal emphasis on the support for LGB&T people in sport as it does for other characteristics protected by the Equality Act 2010.”
It includes a number of other actions to ensure that all under-represented groups can take part in sport and wider physical activity. One of the actions was to ask Baroness Grey-Thompson to carry out an independent review of the duty of care that sport owes to all its participants at all levels. The review is wide-ranging, but I have specifically asked the Baroness to consider any particular issues relating to minority groups, including LGBT people. She will be reporting shortly and I look forward to receiving her recommendations.
Colleagues have asked about the role of NGBs in sport. In our evidence to the Committee, we pointed to some of the progress being made by our sporting bodies to promote inclusion, celebrate diversity and tackle discrimination in all its forms, from grassroots to the elite. We also provided evidence of the support given by the sport NGBs to clubs to carry out a number of anti-homophobia initiatives, working with established organisations such as Pride Sports, Stonewall, Kick It Out and Football v Homophobia.
At the same time, we recognise that homophobia in sport continues to be an issue and does need to be addressed with further action. It should be acknowledged —as others have done—that it feels like this issue is more prevalent in men’s competitive team sports than in women’s. However, I noted from the statistics provided by my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey—nearly 40% of lesbian and bisexual women expected to face discrimination—that maybe the reality is quite different.
As others have acknowledged, sport and physical activity provide enjoyment, improve physical and mental health and wellbeing for millions, and contribute to the country’s economy. Data from the last Active People survey suggested that the percentage of people who play sport regularly who are gay, lesbian or bisexual is slightly less than that of the heterosexual population. Research with the LGBT community in the UK shows that homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in sport are still prevalent, and barriers remain to participation.
We recognise that there could be under-representation or specific barriers to taking part in sports and physical activity for some LGBT people and that that may not be apparent when looking at overall participation levels. My officials and I are working closely with the Government Equalities Office and others across government to identify measures to address that under-representation and break down those barriers. The Government are also working hard with sports bodies in this area. We will measure the success of programmes to increase LGBT participation through the Active Lives survey, which is Sport England’s new way of measuring engagement in sport and activity in England.
I will mention two things briefly in the time that is left. We should acknowledge not only that we broke records in the medals tables at the Rio Olympics and Paralympics, but that Team GB broke another record. Rio 2016 had a record number of out Olympic athletes—44—almost double the number competing at London 2012—and nine out Paralympians. My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey mentioned Nicola Adams. We had the gold-medal-winning hockey team, which included Helen Richardson-Walsh and Kate Richardson-Walsh, the first married couple to stand on the top step of an Olympic podium together. Tom Daley has made history on a number of occasions, but since he announced that he was in love with a man, after he competed in the Olympics in 2008, he has been publicly supported by very many people, including his fiancé at the games. Lee Pearson, our 10-time Paralympic gold medallist, who has been supported by UK Sport for over 17 years, was chosen as the Paralympic GB’s flagbearer for Rio 2016. He has been openly gay throughout his time competing. Of course, Team GB walker Tom Bosworth, who gave evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, is the first British track athlete to come out as gay. He proposed to his partner on the beach during the Rio games; that is one of my favourite memories of the summer.
The recent launch by Sport England and UK Sport of the sport governance code fulfils a major commitment in our sport strategy. It keeps us at the forefront of global work to ensure good governance in sport. Improving leadership and diversity in the workforce and in governance is central to ensuring that we have the very highest standards of governance across all sport bodies that receive public money. To be reflective of wider society, we need to increase diversity among sporting organisation leaders and to help the sport sector to be more inclusive and welcoming to all.
I want to turn to football, because many people have mentioned it. It is fair to say that football has made a great deal of progress, but it clearly has a long way to go. English football continues to deliver the “Inclusion and Anti-Discrimination Action Plan” for the whole sport. That includes the implementation of football’s protocol to support LGBT players, managers, referees and other participants who decide to come out. The Football Association reports to my Department about the plan every six months, on measures relating to education and guidance to clubs, players and managers, stewards and spectators. Football is assisted in its efforts to address homophobia in the game by well-established anti-discriminatory groups. However, there is evidence to suggest that homophobic chanting and language are still an issue at football grounds, and that, of course, can have a serious impact on those who play football.
Let me turn to the comments from the chairman of the FA that hon. Members have mentioned. When anyone comes out, it is a personal decision. Now could be as good a time as ever for somebody to come out, but the chairman’s saying that is the complete opposite of the kind of support that a player needs. I hope that that will be reflected upon. As others have said, we cannot let a small but vocal minority spoil the game for everyone else.
In conclusion, we have had an excellent debate; I am grateful to all those who have contributed. I am looking forward to appearing in front of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. Rio 2016 showed us we are moving in the right direction in some sports. Clearly, we have a long to go in other sports—
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).