House of Commons
Monday 5 December 2016
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Unskilled Migration: Employment Levels
The latest labour market statistics show that more British people are in work than ever before, the unemployment rate is at its lowest level for over a decade and nine in 10 people in jobs are UK nationals. However, the Prime Minister has been clear that as we conduct negotiations to leave the European Union, it must be a priority to regain more control of the numbers of people who come here from Europe.
There is no point in national London politicians lecturing people in places such as the black country with national statistics, because this has different impacts in different communities. Why are low-skilled migrants still coming here when we have hundreds of thousands of unemployed people in Britain? Why have the Government not stopped companies from just advertising jobs abroad or using workers from overseas to undercut wages here? And why do the Government not require large firms to train up local apprentices if they do have to hire someone from abroad?
It is a little rich getting that sort of lecture from a Labour Member, because the Labour party failed to put controls on in the 2004 enlargement and most of its Members who were in charge then have admitted what a mistake that was. There are no lectures coming from my party—only hard answers. The answer is that we will be restricting immigration when we move to leaving the EU.
Does the Home Secretary agree that students should be removed from the “tens of thousands” target? Does she also agree that as the data are extremely poor, we should strain every sinew to try to get better quality data so that we can form a judgment about whether—and if so, how—we can ensure that exports, which is what foreign students are, are maximised in this country?
Absolutely hopelessly long. Sorry, but that was really hopeless and we have to do a lot better.
I share my right hon. Friend’s view that students play an important role in contributing to the economy and are most welcome in the UK. The internationally recognised definition of a “migrant” is someone coming here for more than 12 months, so they are likely to stay within that definition, although I am aware that there are different views on this matter.
Perhaps the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee can be the author of the textbook.
Thank you, Mr Speaker—the pressure is on. The Home Secretary refers to the measure of net migration, but she was asked about the target. Does she agree that international students should be taken out of the Government’s target, as the Foreign Secretary has said over the weekend and as the Chancellor of the Exchequer seemed to hint some weeks ago? Does she think that foreign students should be included in the target?
As I told the House, and as the right hon. Lady is aware, there are different views on this. The definition that I referred to was the one for international students, which is held by the Office for National Statistics; more than 12 months and they represent an immigrant, and therefore are part of the numbers.
I am not sure that students are unskilled in any case. Nevertheless, is it not the fact that there are people in this country who will not do the jobs that unskilled migrants do? Is not the point, therefore, that in the black country and elsewhere it should be not Brussels after Brexit but the United Kingdom that will decide which migrants are needed to do the jobs that UK people will not do?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. One in 10 18 to 24-year-olds is still unemployed, and we want them to have the opportunity to take up these jobs. That is one reason why, alongside other initiatives such as the apprenticeship levy, we are encouraging businesses to participate more in local employment and work more with local young people to make sure that they can take those jobs.
The UK relies on more than 80,000 seasonal workers to pick its fruit and veg every year, with the Financial Times recently suggesting that 98% of those workers come from within the EU. Will the Government commit to protecting access for seasonal workers from the EU to safeguard our agricultural sector going forward?
The hon. Lady has raised an important question, and I know that the National Farmers Union met my colleague the Minister for Immigration recently to discuss exactly that point. We are aware how necessary it will be to ensure that we have some sort of seasonal scheme in place, and we are looking carefully at it.
Has the Home Secretary had any discussions with her Cabinet colleagues about the pull factor of the increase in the living wage and the impact it may have on immigration?
My hon. Friend rightly says that the national living wage could be a pull factor, but other factors are also at play, such as currency fluctuations, which can have the opposite effect, and I urge him to consider those.
Assuming that a deal is reached under which EU citizens who were here before a certain cut-off date can remain after we leave the European Union, can the Home Secretary tell the House how the Home Office will document them—we are talking about an estimated 3 million people—so that employers and landlords will know thereafter to whom legally they can offer a job or accommodation and therefore distinguish them from those EU citizens who arrived after that?
The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We are aware that there is a certain expectation and concern about the European Union citizens here. As the Prime Minister has said, she hopes to be able to reassure them, but it is right that we do that while looking also at the over 1 million UK citizens in the rest of the European Union. There will be a need to have some sort of documentation—he is entirely right on that—but we will not set it out yet. We will do it in a phased approach to ensure that we use all the technological advantages that we are increasingly able to harness to ensure that all immigration is carefully handled.
Is the Secretary of State aware that the London School of Economics Centre for Economic Performance looked at the issue of immigration employment regionally? It found that the areas with the largest increase in EU immigration had not seen the sharpest falls in employment or wages since 2008. One author of the report said that there was still no evidence of an overall negative impact of immigration on jobs or wages. On the question of students, there is an increasing consensus in all parts of the House that students should be taken out of the immigration target. Technically, anyone who stays more than 12 months may be an immigrant, but in practice, they should not be in the target.
The hon. Lady might want to take up her interesting views with the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) who seems to take a slightly different view. One thing that is for certain is that when we do leave the European Union, we will have more control over immigration from the European Union and we will be making sure that the immigration that we do get from the European Union achieves the right balance of attracting the type of people who can really boost the UK businesses that need it.
Immigration remains a reserved matter and we will consider the needs of the UK as a whole. Applying different immigration rules to different parts of the United Kingdom will complicate the immigration system, harming its integrity and causing difficulties for employers who need the flexibility to deploy their staff to other parts of the UK.
I know that the Home Secretary agrees with me when we say that Vote Leave was irresponsibly short of detail during its campaign, but one of the details that it did give us was when the former Justice Secretary promised that Scotland would be responsible for its immigration policy. Is that still the case, or is that planned?
If the hon. Gentleman had been paying attention to what I just said, he would know that it remains a UK competency. Given that the Scottish people voted in 2014 to maintain Scotland’s position as part of the United Kingdom, may I suggest that he looks at the powers in the Scotland Act 2016 to make Scotland a more attractive place in which people will want to come to live and work?
Notwithstanding all the attractions of living in Scotland, is not the balance of population movement still to the south?
We do have a specific Scotland shortage occupation list, which recognises the need to attract certain types of occupation to Scotland and which takes account of Scotland’s needs.
One group of families that a distinct immigration system for Scotland would help are the “skype” families. There are 15,000 kids across the United Kingdom who are separated from a parent abroad because this Government have the least family-friendly immigration rules in the whole of the developed world. Almost half of Scotland’s people do not earn enough to meet the crazy financial threshold to bring the partner whom they love from abroad to live here. Will the Minister for Immigration allow the Scottish Government to set their own threshold, or how will he explain to those children why they have to live apart from one parent?
At least the Scottish National party is honest about the fact that it wants to increase immigration, unlike the Labour party, which repeatedly refuses to say that that is its policy.
I am sure there is no suggestion that anybody would be anything other than honest in this Chamber.
What is so difficult about some state variations in immigration rules? Many visas tie people to a specific job and employer. We have Tech City visas, which have special rules for certain UK cities, and we do operate a common travel area and an open border with Ireland, which is a completely distinct immigration system. Does the Secretary of State accept that there is no practical reason why we cannot see significantly different rules applying in Scotland for those significantly different needs?
If the hon. Gentleman were to examine the evidence of the Fresh Talent scheme, which the Scottish Government reviewed in 2008, he would see that only 44% of those applicants remained in Scotland, and more than half of those jobs were not appropriate for the level of education of those who took them.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a good reason why immigration is a reserved power, and that the slippery slope that the Scottish nationalists are trying to take us down would, if taken to its logical conclusion, end up with a border?
I am always very careful not to get on to slippery slopes, as one ends up at the bottom of the hill in a bad place.
Well, one can always come to the Chamber to be illuminated by the hon. Gentleman.
The Minister cannot get away from the fact, though, that different parts of the country have different labour and immigration needs. In the northern isles at present our fishing industry is being crippled because white fish boats in particular cannot get the visas for the crews that they need to go to sea. Will the Minister meet me and representatives of the fishing industry to find a way around that?
I recognise the problem and have had meetings with a number of right hon. and hon. Members on the issue. I do not recall, however, that during the referendum campaign the fishermen around the coast of our country were campaigning to repatriate powers so that they could attract more Filipinos to work in the industry. I understand the problem and will continue to meet right hon. and hon. Members to see what we can do to help.
We have reformed policing to ensure that there is a sector-led approach to improving representation. We established the College of Policing as the professional body which is delivering a major programme of work called BME Progression 2018. Alongside this, innovative schemes such as Direct Entry, Fast Track and Police Now are making the police workforce more diverse than ever before.
Does my hon. Friend agree that even though a lot of work has been done, some forces have a long, long way to go to make that quota better?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The police have done a great deal of work on diversity generally, particularly seeing more women coming in, but there is more to do in relation to black and minority ethnic communities and women generally across the force. I hope that forces right across the country will be very focused on this as they go through their recruitment exercises now.
Police forces across the country are currently recruiting. The police funding formula has always been protected. We are doing a formula review. I will be meeting the police and crime commissioner and the chief constable of Northumberland shortly to discuss that and feed it into the review. The force there has benefited over the past couple of years from the ability to increase precepts above most others due to de minimis.
All police officers deserve our praise, but volunteer special constables who serve on foot in the local areas in which they live represent their local communities particularly well. Will the Minister congratulate Northamptonshire on the efforts that it is making to recruit more volunteer special constables?
I am happy to endorse my hon. Friend’s comments. The volunteers in the police force, who we are looking to empower even further through the Policing and Crime Bill, do a fantastic job and deserve our great thanks.
How long, how long? I do not normally believe in quotas, but really diverse police forces have been a long time coming in this country, so let us see some action. Let us see some action, too, on recruiting more officers to police the roads in our country, where people drive like lunatics because they know that there is no one there to catch them.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has joined our cause after so many years of seeing diversity going nowhere under the Labour Government. It is this Government who have driven diversity by trusting local police forces to make sure that when they recruit, they recruit to represent their communities. That is why we are seeing BME representation going up and representation of women going up. We need to do more and I hope the hon. Gentleman will join us in encouraging forces to do that in their current recruitment.
Is the Minister aware that a more diverse police force has been an aim of forces such as the Metropolitan police since the 1970s? Is he aware that the underlying reason why there has been limited success is, sadly, continuing poor police-community relations? And is he aware that funding cuts are restricting the recruitment of officers, whatever their colour or gender?
The hon. Lady may like to note that this year, as I said earlier, the Government put protection in for police funding in the settlement, so police are benefiting from that protection. Police forces across the country are recruiting. In fact, the Met is one of the exemplars for how to get a diverse workforce; Police Now was literally the first visit I made in this role. The latest recruitment has seen increases to 25% in respect of women. That is good, but we need to go further and I am glad that the hon. Lady wants to join us in seeing that develop.
Freedom of Movement
The Prime Minister has made it clear that article 50 will be triggered before the end of March 2017. We are still working hard on our negotiating position, but we do not want to show our hand of cards before we get into the poker game. However, I assure the hon. Lady that we are determined to get the right deal for Britain.
The Government’s approach to Brexit seems to hinge on their ability to persuade other European member states to allow Britain to opt out of current freedom of movement rules while retaining tariff-free access to the single market. Can the Minister name me one European Minister who has told him that that might be possible?
There are certainly 3.2 million EU nationals in the UK, and it is in their interests to be able to satisfy their Governments about their status here. As the Prime Minister has said, the only circumstance in which we would not want to guarantee their status would be if the status of UK nationals living elsewhere were not similarly guaranteed.
Does my hon. Friend agree that free movement of workers, together with the operation of the laws of supply and demand, inevitably depresses wage levels in this country?
I do not have a degree in economics, but it is true that supply and demand would operate in this area. That is why we are determined to be able to control the numbers of those coming from the EU, just as we already control numbers coming from outside the EU.
In any discussions, will the Minister raise the issue referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin): recruitment agencies, for example, that exploit workers from the EU and undercut UK workers by advertising for unskilled workers outside the UK, but not in the UK?
All these matters will need to be discussed, but I add the point already made by the Home Secretary. When the eastern European countries joined the European Union, transitional arrangements that would have protected jobs to some extent were not put in place.
Tackling knife crime is a priority and we are taking firm action, including warning young people about the dangers of carrying knives, working with retailers both online and on the high street, and legislating for tougher sentences. During October, 21 police forces took part in a week of action against knife crime. In Essex, test purchases were conducted, habitual knife carriers were stopped and searched, and 12 individuals were arrested.
I thank the Minister for reminding us of the action that Essex police are already taking. Over a four-month period, the knife amnesty got 311 knives off the streets. Will the Minister commit to continuing a knife amnesty and will she come to Southend to see the complexities and interaction between knife crime and drugs crime in Southend?
I am very grateful to my colleague for raising that point and I will be delighted to visit him in Southend. He will be pleased to know that the Home Office is working with the Essex police and crime commissioner, along with the Institute of Community Safety, to see what more we can do to help the situation in Essex. I understand that they will agree a plan of local action during a meeting this week.
Last week, a memorial service was held in Leicester for Tyler Thompson, who was killed with a knife aged only 16. The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) said that 311 knives had been given in during the amnesty in Essex. Does the Minister have the figures for the whole country?
I do not have the answer to hand at the moment, but this was the first week, with 21 forces engaged in Operation Sceptre. That had a hugely beneficial effect, in terms of not only the surrendering of weapons across the country but arrests across the country. It sent out an incredibly clear, firm message: we will not tolerate people carrying knives as they will use them harmfully on innocent citizens.
Asset Recovery Regime
Since 2010, £1.2 billion of criminal assets have been recovered, and a further £3 billion have been frozen. The Serious Crime Act 2015 provided new powers, and the Criminal Finances Bill will further improve our capability, but there is more to be done. Next year we will publish a new asset recovery action plan, and the Cabinet Office will look at the UK’s response to economic crime more broadly. This will include looking at the effectiveness of our organisational framework and the capabilities, resources and powers available to the organisations that tackle economic crime.
I thank the Home Secretary for that. The Criminal Finances Bill contains many measures to combat illegal and immoral financial activity, but can my right hon. Friend confirm that the new law enforcement measures in relation to unexplained wealth orders will ensure not only that we can better combat illegal activity but that the principles of transparency will be upheld?
My hon. Friend raises a really important point. Unexplained wealth orders will send a powerful statement to those who wish to launder the proceeds of their crimes in the UK. They are an investigative power and so will be subject to the same court rules that apply to the existing civil recovery investigative powers.
What my right hon. Friend says is welcome, but can she assure me that the asset recovery regime will extend to all forms of crime, and particularly tax evasion? The potential financial gains from tax evasion are large, and whatever people think about it being a victimless crime, it is wrong, and the regime should apply to it as well.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is an important part of the new proceeds of crime legislation, and, yes, it will be included in it.
What discussions is the Home Secretary having with her European counterparts to ensure that once we leave the European Union, we will have access to all the data we can currently access in relation to assets held abroad?
I can reassure the hon. Lady that I am having extensive discussions with European counterparts and with European bodies that help to keep us safe, so that when we do leave the European Union, we will, as far as possible, be able to have access to that information. When people voted to leave the European Union, they did not vote to be less safe.
Further to that, the simple question is: will we be a member of Europol post exit from the European Union?
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that we recently opted into the new elements of Europol. In terms of looking forward, we are in discussions on that matter. I can tell him that we are one of the largest contributors to Europol. We play an important part in it. It will be part of the ongoing negotiations. [Official Report, 12 December 2016, Vol. 618, c. 3-4MC.]
What practical measures have been put in place to combat money laundering and terrorist financing?
I refer my hon. Friend to the new legislation. She is absolutely right that the trouble is that criminals will always try to get ahead of us in finding ways to launder their money and the proceeds of their activities. We are determined to make sure that we get ahead of them, which is why we are having the new legislation put in place.
Is the Secretary of State aware that the cross-border flow of proceeds from criminal activity, corruption and tax evasion is estimated at over $1 trillion a year, and that half that money was looted from poor and developing countries? What steps is she taking to make it easier for these poor countries to recover stolen assets from UK, Crown dependency and overseas territory financial institutions?
We take dealing with the proceeds of crime incredibly seriously, and the idea that there are people who commit criminal acts and then come to the UK is very unwelcome. One of the elements we have to deal with that is the new unexplained wealth orders. They do apply to foreign persons also in the UK, and they will go part of the way to addressing exactly what the hon. Lady describes in terms of the transfer of illegal funds.
Unaccompanied Asylum-seeking Children
In July the Government launched the national transfer scheme to ensure a more equitable distribution of unaccompanied asylum-seeking and refugee children across the country. The scheme is designed to support local authorities like Peterborough City Council. In support of the national transfer scheme we also increased central Government funding to local authorities caring for unaccompanied children by up to 33%.
Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that in areas such as Peterborough, which has already borne a major burden in both EU and non-EU migration, we will not be expected to pay once again for the huge ongoing costs of children and young people who are unaccompanied minors—we have 40 such cases in Peterborough—and that we will receive bespoke central Government funding?
I can reassure my hon. Friend that each child that his council looks after does attract additional funding, so I hope that that will address his particular financial concerns about the council’s obligations. I would like to put on record our grateful thanks to Peterborough Council, which does a fantastic and generous job in looking after some of these most needy children.
Unlike almost every other EU country, the UK does not allow unaccompanied child refugees to sponsor their parents to join them—a situation that the Home Affairs Committee has described as “perverse”. Does the Home Secretary agree that it is in the best interests of the refugee children, as well as in the interests of our society, to allow them to be with their parents?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s motive in making this point. However, I would respectfully say to him that that could have a very detrimental effect in terms of a pull factor, with children coming to this country—potentially being sent or indeed trafficked to this country—in order to have their parents brought over; so no, we will not be looking at it again.
On the burden put on local authorities, one of the elements to which I refer them is the controlling migration fund—a new source of funds that I hope they will be able to access to support unaccompanied minors. On the Modern Slavery Act, I will have to get back to my hon. Friend.
Child protection organisations such as ECPAT UK fear that a lack of support and resources is preventing some authorities from offering the required level of professional services to adequately protect vulnerable children from traffickers. Why are over a quarter of local authorities unable to participate in the national transfer scheme for unaccompanied children? Will the Home Secretary agree to look at this as a matter of urgency?
The funds that we put in place to support unaccompanied children represent a sum that we agreed after consultation with local authorities to work out the costs. It is the average cost. We acknowledge that some children will have different needs and will therefore end up being more expensive, and some less so. We hope that this is the right amount to be able to support them. We believe that it is the right amount. We are always willing to try to listen to local authorities if they have other suggestions. I particularly refer them to the controlling migration fund, which we hope will be able to give additional support.
For the year ending June 2016, 16% of violence against the person offences recorded by the police resulted in a charge or summons. There were almost 30,000 convictions for violence against the person offences in the year ending June 2016. That represents over 75% of the people prosecuted and shows a rise of more than 1,500 convictions on the previous year.
According to the Home Office data on crime in England and Wales, violence against the person and sexual offences have risen under this Government and their predecessor, while charges have fallen or broadly stayed the same, as in the case of sexual offences. In Enfield, we have seen an 11% increase in violent crime over the past year. Why should people trust the Government when public safety is being put at risk via these statistics and falling police numbers?
The right hon. Lady may be confusing recorded crime with actual crime. The crime survey shows that violence is down by over 25% since 2010. We are seeing an increase in recorded crime. We should welcome that, because it shows a better recording of crime, and also, importantly, a willingness of victims to come forward.
In 2014, the current Prime Minister said that there were
“utterly unacceptable failings in the way police forces have recorded crime”
and that this has let down victims. yet all three forces inspected this August are not recording crimes properly. In Manchester, 17,000 violent crimes were simply ignored. Will the Minister tell this House why his Prime Minister failed to make any progress in two years?
The Prime Minister—the previous Home Secretary—and the current Home Secretary are seeing a reduction in crime. The police should be proud of that while running things efficiently for the benefit of the taxpayer. There is also an increase in recorded crime, which, as the Office for National Statistics itself has outlined, is because of the willingness of victims to come forward as a result of their increased confidence in the police to deal with the issues. That is to be welcomed.
Freedom of Expression (Religious Satire)
Freedom of speech and religion are core values that make our country great. They are, indeed, protected in law. What is or is not a joke, or what constitutes satire, is, I believe, in the eye or ear of the beholder and is not, perhaps, for Government to opine on.
Why did the Home Secretary and her Ministers not give voice to those principles during the manhunt and vilification of the gymnast Louis Smith?
One of the first actions that I took when I came to office in July was to publish a hate crime action plan, to which I refer my hon. Friend. It enables anybody who is the victim of any sort of hate crime, which I think is what he is referring to, to have the confidence to report what is going on and to make sure that the police take action so that they do not feel singled out and abused.
Immigration Detention/Adults at Risk Policy
The intention of the adults at risk policy, developed as a result of the review by Stephen Shaw, is part of a wider programme of work that aims to improve the way in which vulnerable people in detention are managed. That should enable the delivery of the issue raised by the hon. Lady. The policy came into effect on 12 September, and the intention is to ask Stephen Shaw to carry out a short review in 2017 to assess progress.
The Government’s commitment to reduce the number of survivors of sexual violence in detention is welcome, but how will observers know whether that is happening? Is information now being collected on the numbers of women in detention who disclose that they are victims of sexual violence, and will that information be made available?
The hon. Lady is right to point out that we are taking a significant package of measures to make sure that people are detained for the minimum time possible, that their vulnerabilities are properly recognised and understood, and that access to mental health and other health services is made available. As I have said, we will ask for an independent review in the course of the year, to make sure that that is working.
The Istanbul convention, which the Government have yet to ratify, requires countries to develop gender-sensitive reception procedures, such as women-only accommodation. What steps are the Government taking to guarantee the safety of women in initial accommodation, including women and children-only corridors?
The hon. Lady is right to point out the importance of making sure that women are safe. It is the absolute priority of this Government to keep women and girls safe, including in our detention system. The Government have signed and will ratify the Istanbul convention and, as the hon. Lady knows, we are well exceeding all its targets.
We have established a joint fraud taskforce, bringing together Government, law enforcement and the financial sector to tackle the crime of fraud. The recent arrest of 14 individuals involved in laundering the proceeds of international cybercrime also demonstrates how a multi-agency approach, including international partners, is crucial in tackling cybercrime and cyber-enabled fraud.
Fraud, both in person and online, is of great concern to my constituents in South East Cornwall, particularly among the elderly and vulnerable. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating voluntary organisations such as citizens advice bureau and Victim Support on their work in supporting fraud prevention through education and in supporting victims of crime?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out the very important work that many voluntary bodies do in raising awareness. Citizens Advice, Age Concern and Victim Support make sure, including in the lead-up to Christmas, that people are aware of the pitfalls that await them online and of the scandalous fraudsters who pick on some of the most vulnerable people in society.
I certainly welcome any voluntary work that can be done, but as the level of fraud now stands at £193 billion a year and as local police forces are clearly completely unable to cope, we really need a far more serious strategy from Government to tackle the spectre of online crime. Will the Minister tell us what more can be done to support local police forces and provide some protection for our constituents?
First, that is why we established the joint fraud taskforce, which includes police and crime commissioners, police forces and victims groups, to make sure that we co-ordinate better our response. It is also why the Government have sponsored and supported the Cyber Aware campaign and Cyber Essentials, to help to make businesses aware of the fraud that awaits them, and banks have sponsored the Take Five campaign. In addition, the national cyber-security strategy sets out a programme in which the Government have invested billions of pounds to make sure that our law enforcement agencies have the capacity to tackle that crime when it is presented to them.
Police have described so-called binary options betting websites that masquerade as investment vehicles as the biggest scam and fraud being perpetrated in the UK. What do the Government intend doing about them?
When one of those websites is reported through Action Fraud, our law and order agencies set about trying to make sure we either dismantle it or signpost people away from such areas. In Scotland that is devolved, and it is up to Police Scotland. The broader picture is to make sure that the public and the consumer are aware of what awaits them online, and that they take some very basic steps to protect themselves when they are, for example, Christmas shopping to ensure that fraudsters do not take their money away.
In July this year we implemented new powers in the Immigration Act 2016 to prevent migrants from profiting from working illegally, by making that a criminal offence. That ensures that the profits of working illegally can be seized as the proceeds of crime, and assets may be confiscated on conviction.
I thank the Minister for that answer and ask him to set out to the House what other measures the Government are taking to ensure that those who are here illegally cannot access UK benefits, such as housing or welfare payments.
I reassure my hon. Friend that adults with no legal status here are not eligible to receive public funds in that way.
Victims of people trafficking tell me that they are often prevented from assisting in criminal prosecutions against individuals from abroad who commit criminal offences because they do not have any access to public funds. What discussions has the Home Office had with the Ministry of Justice concerning providing support to victims of people trafficking?
I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that if people who are here illegally have been exploited through modern slavery because they have been trafficked, it is important that we treat them with a degree of compassion and respect, and that we treat them differently from people who are not in that situation.
Leaving the EU: Departmental Staff
The Home Office constantly reviews its capabilities in order to deliver the Government’s agenda. Work is under way to understand and respond to the immediate capability impacts as a result of the decision to leave the European Union.
The Secretary of State has just confirmed that the 3 million EU citizens in the UK will have to be documented. If that processing adds roughly 10% to the Home Office workload, does the Minister accept that it will cost at least £100 million a year and require 3,000 extra staff? If he does not, what is his estimate?
Let me make it clear that people who are here from elsewhere in the EU working legally do not need to receive additional documentation at this time. I reassure them that their status is assured. What happens in the future is a matter for the negotiations, but I make it absolutely clear that no additional documentation is needed at this stage.
May I make the case to the Minister for updating the systems and the use of computers and information technology in border control—particularly as, with Brexit, we will need to count people in and count people out more effectively—and for investment in our ports, such as the port of Dover?
Certainly, exit checks introduced in 2015 have given us an additional tool to track people as they enter and, in particular, leave the country. New technology, such as e-gates, has helped very much in that regard.
The internet presents new opportunities for terrorists, and we must ensure we have the capabilities to confront this challenge. The Investigatory Powers Act 2016 ensures that law enforcement and the security and intelligence agencies have the powers they need in the digital age to disrupt terrorist attacks, subject to strict safeguards and world-leading oversight. The Criminal Finances Bill will add to the ability of UK law enforcement to identify, investigate and disrupt terrorist finance activity.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the passing of the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 is important for ensuring that our security services and law enforcement agencies are able to combat those who wish to do us harm?
Yes, it is. It is also important to recognise that it is all very well the agencies having the capability, but they must also have the capacity. That is why, over the next five years, the Government are making an extra £2.5 billion available to the security agencies. We will use that to strengthen our counter-terrorism network abroad and at home.
Overall counter-terrorism and police spending has been protected in real terms against the 2015-16 baseline over the spending review period. Following the recent European attacks, we revised our risk assessments and are delivering an uplift in our specialist response capability, which includes a £144 million programme over the next five years to uplift our armed policing so that we can respond more quickly and effectively to a firearms attack.
We are past 3.15, but that has never bothered me, and it would be unkind to the point of cruelty to exclude the hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), from whom the House will wish to hear.
Violence against Women and Girls
In March, we published the new violence against women and girls strategy, which sets out an ambitious programme of reform, supported by increased funding of £80 million, to make tackling these crimes everybody’s business, to ensure that victims get the support they need and to bring more perpetrators to justice. We have also introduced a new domestic abuse offence to capture coercive control, and consulted on new measures to protect victims of stalking.
As a trustee of Helping Victims of Domestic Violence, a local domestic abuse charity in my constituency, I have seen at first hand just how worrying domestic abuse and sexual offences can be. Will the Minister meet me and the police and crime commissioner in my constituency to see what more we can do together?
My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to the voluntary sector organisations that do so much to support victims. I would be delighted to meet her and the police and crime commissioner for her constituency to see what more we can do to support those victims.
Does the Minister share my concern that Survivors Hull and East Riding, which has supported local victims of sexual trauma for more than two decades, is about to close because of a lack of funding? Would she be willing to meet me to discuss what more resources can go into providing a service locally for those victims?
The hon. Lady is right to raise that case. I am horrified to hear of such a valued service facing that situation. I would be very pleased to meet her to see what we can do to access funding.
There were 18,000 domestic violence offences against women in the last year in Leeds alone, so there are still far too many. Does the Minister agree that we need to do more to educate boys and men about this crime so that that figure comes down considerably?
The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point about the important role that men can play and the importance of educating young people about appropriate sexual relationships. He will be pleased to know that world-class resources are available to do that not only from the Home Office, but from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre. More such work is going on in schools than ever before.
To mark the UN’s 16 days of activism against gender-based violence, it is vital that we work together across Government and across political parties to do all that we can to end violence against women and girls. As I made clear at the College of Policing conference last week, protecting vulnerable people is one of my top priorities. As the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) said, we must include men in that as well. Last week, I hosted an event with ministerial colleagues, campaign groups and survivors to raise awareness of and demonstrate my commitment to ending female genital mutilation within a generation. This Conservative Government will continue to take steps to achieve our ambition that no woman should live in fear of abuse, and that every girl should grow up feeling safe and protected.
Despite those good intentions, twice as many women report rape now than four years ago, and the proportion of reports that lead to successful prosecutions has gone down. In my constituency, I speak to women who have been raped and had to wait up to 20 months for specialist counselling. When will the Home Secretary improve the care for victims of violence?
The right hon. Lady will be aware that we encourage the reporting of crime, particularly rape. We want people to have the confidence to do that and to know they will be treated well. We absolutely recognise the need for funding to support people, which is why the new violence against women and girls strategy has been launched, and we have pledged an increase of £80 million to 2020 to make sure we do just that.
My hon. Friend raises an important point, and I appreciate the concerns of the Waveney domestic violence forum. I can assure him that I am working closely with the Secretary of State for Justice to improve the family justice response to domestic abuse, and with the judiciary to consider what additional protections might be necessary. We are also supporting innovative pilots, working with perpetrators of domestic abuse, which include disruption as well as support.
The worrying rise in post-referendum hate crime, which we all condemn, has disproportionately affected women—we have seen hijabs ripped off girls, death threats to Gina Miller and family, and the tweet at the weekend about wanting to “Jo Cox” the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry). Thankfully the instigator of the tweet has now been charged. Are the Government, after years of inactivity towards social media platforms, embarrassed by this burgeoning abuse of women on and offline? Is it not another aspect of Brexit for which they clearly had no plan?
The hon. Lady is right to raise these horrendous crimes, which have no place in our society, but she is wrong to say that we have been sitting on our hands. We have introduced not only the hate crime strategy but a whole series of offences, for which I am pleased to see the police successfully prosecuting people. We have also done groundbreaking work with the internet industry, which is taking seriously its responsibility to take down dreadful incidents of online hate crime.
My hon. Friend is right to raise this serious situation. I commend him and the Metropolitan police which, along with other police forces, has been working on Operation Sceptre, which includes knife sweeps. I recommend that he speaks to the head of Sutton Borough Council to see if they are interested in working with the Institute of Community Safety to undertake an area review and make sure that everything is being done to stop this dreadful crime.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to raise this issue. It is a local matter, of course, but it sounds like that important balance we tread between peaceful protest and responding to the law might have been handled in a rather tricky way in his constituency. I would always urge that peaceful protest is allowed, but I wonder sometimes whether police forces strike the right balance, as in the example he has given.
As was made clear during the Prime Minister’s recent and very successful visit to India, it is one of our largest visa markets, and we continue to make improvements to the visa service by expanding our priority services, including new products, and expanding our reach of visa application centres across India. There continue to be large numbers of visa applications from India. Indeed, the latest figures we have, for last year, show that 385,000 Indian nationals visited the UK—an increase of 6% year on year.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that it is not appropriate for us to outline our negotiations as they are ongoing. I will say, however, that, as both the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary have clearly outlined, we put security first, and the security and safety of our citizens is paramount for this Government.
A fire at an illegal waste site in Slitting Mill caused weeks of distress for local residents, and significant cost to Staffordshire fire and rescue. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss what additional changes to the law can be made to prevent such instances, as well as how the costs incurred by the fire service can be recovered from the site operators?
My hon. Friend has previously raised this issue with me on behalf of her area’s fire service. I appreciate that what the fire service had to deal with was really challenging. Balancing out the best way to deal with the problem itself incurs costs, so I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss it.
I thank the hon. Lady for raising this issue; we are pressing to do exactly that. I have spoken to Kevin Hyland, the independent commissioner, about this subject, and I have had a roundtable on working with commissioners and the police force to ensure that the police not only press charges, but collect the information from the victims of modern slavery, so that we can make sure that investigations can lead to convictions. I share the hon. Lady’s views.
Why has the Home Office blocked three Iraqi Syrian bishops from coming to the UK to consecrate the first Syriac Orthodox church? Is it not at least disrespectful and probably shameful that they have been given the reason that they do not have enough money or that they might not leave the UK at a time when we should be showing solidarity with Church leaders at the frontline of persecution?
It would not be appropriate for me to comment on individual cases, but let me say that all these applications are considered on their individual merits, in line with UK immigration rules and guidance. There is no policy of denying entry clearance for visas from Syrian nationals.
In the first nine months of this year, there were almost 600 assaults on police officers in the West Midlands police force alone. Will the Minister meet me, representatives of the Police Federation and my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) to discuss the growing problem of assaults on emergency service workers?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the debates we have had in the Chamber and elsewhere about this issue. It is completely unacceptable to see any kind of assault on a police officer, and that is an aggravating factor. We are working with the Ministry of Justice and are in contact with the Sentencing Council, which is independent, on this issue. I shall meet the Police Federation in the next few days.
I welcome the recently announced Home Office measures on police competence to investigate sexual offences. Will the Home Secretary accept from me that it is time for the police service, and particularly the Met police, to take a serious look at their respective detective training regimes, which I suggest are at the core of the unfortunate publicity?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Home Secretary outlined last week the importance we place on this issue. It is important, as we saw with the Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary inspection, that the Met police takes the opportunity to get to grips with training to ensure that its teams are properly trained to deal with these delicate issues.
If the refugee family reunion section of UK immigration rules was widened, many refugee children could arrive directly from the conflict region rather than via Calais. Will the Home Secretary commit to look again at these rules so that children do not have to risk their lives to be with their families?
We are constantly looking at our immigration rules to ensure that we have the right balance to support vulnerable children on the continent—most of them coming from Calais—whom we are trying to help, but we have other programmes that enable us to give direct help to vulnerable children who are out in the conflict regions.
As the Home Secretary knows, those of us with coastal constituencies in the south of England are feeling particularly vulnerable to the activities of people traffickers who are bringing illegal immigrants across in private boats. What measures have been taken since the review of small ports and airports that was promised by the previous intelligence Minister?
I share my hon. Friend’s view that we need to be constantly vigilant in case people traffickers are trying to get ahead of us, and if they fall between the cracks of our security and ply their evil trade. We have launched a number of initiatives, including Operation Kraken, which enables us to work closely with voluntary and private sector groups along the coast to ensure that any incidents are reported.
The Government seem determined to place restrictions on freedom of movement at the heart of Brexit, but the horticultural sector is heavily dependent on 80,000 workers a year coming from the European Union to work. Will the Government commit themselves to ensuring that Brexit, whatever form it takes, will not leave the industry in the lurch, and that it will continue to get the workers it needs?
The result of the referendum made it clear that we need to control the number of people coming from the European Union, and the negotiations will take that and other matters into account.
Past waves of immigration have proved successful because of the integration of new communities into existing ones. The report by Louise Casey has not yet been published, but it has been said that it suggests a form of cultural separatism in the Islamic community. Is that true and, if so, will we be responding to the report in an appropriately thoughtful way?
My right hon. Friend’s question gives me an opportunity to thank Louise Casey for her report, and to say to him and the House that we will of course study it carefully to learn better how to improve integration in our communities.
I trust that we shall be hearing about it in the House before very long. In fact, I think I can say that with complete certainty.
What steps are the Government taking to identify and address criminal activity associated with Scottish limited partnerships?
That question has been raised by other SNP Members during the passage of the Criminal Finances Bill. I shall be meeting them shortly to discuss it, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has agreed to conduct a review.
Order. These chaps have already spoken. I think I will call Alison Thewliss.
Thank you, Mr Speaker; that is very generous of you.
I am currently dealing with two ongoing constituency cases that have been caused entirely by incompetence on the part of VFS Global. One of them involves a granny who is stuck in Iran and cannot go to Scotland to see her daughter and newly born granddaughter in Glasgow because of the ludicrous booking system for visa appointments. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me to discuss the issue?
As the Immigration Minister, I should be delighted to meet the hon. Lady to discuss that specific issue.
Will the Home Secretary indulge my obsession? Will she tell me what plans she has after Brexit to redesign our passports after Brexit—and will they be blue-black?
I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution to this vital debate, and I look forward to further discussions with him about the best way to handle it.
That is very reassuring.
A person has been convicted and will spend the rest of his life in prison for the murder of four young men. Is the Home Secretary aware of that murder, and is she aware that if the police in London had acted differently, two of those lives might well have been saved? It is unfortunate, to say the least, that the Met, when investigating murder, seems on occasions to model itself on Inspector Clouseau.
I shall be happy to look into the specifics of the case but, as the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, I cannot comment on them here. Obviously the Metropolitan police are out there every day investigating and preventing crime for the benefit of London.
Will the Policing Minister assure me that, when the review of the formula for policing allocations is conducted, the needs of rural constabularies such as Wiltshire will be properly considered?
I can say to my hon. Friend that, in the funding formula review, we are looking at all aspects. Rural forces are feeding directly into that. I am aware of the issues that they are raising. We will look at that and feed back on it as we go through the review.
Many Russian nationals who were involved in the murder of Sergei Magnitsky and the corruption that he unveiled have harboured their assets in the UK. An opportunity to deal with that issue has been provided by the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab), my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) and 27 other Members in the form of an amendment to the Criminal Finances Bill. Will the Government now support that so that we can keep Russian corruption out of London?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. I met his colleagues and my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) to discuss that matter. The Department is looking at the amendment as tabled. We already have a number of powers to deal with people who have been accused in this area. However, we will look at the amendment and reflect on it. We will get back to Members on Report.
I am sure that Ministers will want to join me in welcoming the first Syrian family to arrive in my constituency under the community sponsorship scheme and to congratulate St Monica’s parishioners, who are providing support to the family, but will Ministers also look at the wider funding and commissioning arrangements across all Greater Manchester local authorities for the support of asylum seekers and refugees to ensure that we can look after all these people properly?
I join the hon. Lady in congratulating her constituents on welcoming the family. I also congratulate all the community groups who have generously stepped forward to welcome families. Often those families need a lot of assistance—for example, help with their children, with translation and with learning the English language. Having community support around them is so helpful. Of course, I will keep the support under review.
The following Member took and subscribed the Oath required by law:
Sarah Jane Olney, for Richmond Park.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on Southern rail.
Performance on the Southern network has been affected by a combination of factors over the previous months. Those have included trade union action, infrastructure reliability and operator issues. The unions have stepped up their industrial action in the run-up to Christmas, additionally co-ordinating it with action on the underground network.
Let me be clear: this strike action is politically motivated and has affected passengers for far too long. Union leaders have even described the action as “carrying on Fidel’s work.” That will be of no comfort to passengers who just want to get to work.
I have a letter in my folder to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) from the director of railway safety at the Office of Rail and Road. Responding to the safety concern from the unions, Ian Prosser says “DOO is safe.” The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and ASLEF should not be misleading the public about their dispute with Govia Thameslink Railway. Once again I can assure the hard-working staff of the GTR franchise that no train staff are losing pay and no one is losing their job.
Passengers want and deserve improvements, which is why in September the Secretary of State appointed Chris Gibb, a leading railway professional, to work with the operator and with Network Rail to identify areas in which performance on the network can be improved quickly. Some of these £20 million interventions are under way and would be making a significant difference by now, were it not for the fact that owing to continued industrial action by the RMT and now planned action by ASLEF, Southern rail services are to be subject to further delays and alterations now and over the coming weeks.
In recognition of the disruption to services this year, the Secretary of State announced on 2 December a refund package that will compensate season ticket holders with a package equivalent to one free month in acknowledgment of the exceptional issues experienced this year. He also announced that GTR will be the first franchise to introduce Delay Repay 15, starting on 11 December. Compensation alone is not enough, however. We have to restore a timely, reliable and predictable train service. That is why the work of Mr Gibb is focusing on reducing the network rail faults, and why we have new safe driver-only operation trains that can cope with the volume of people wanting to use them. It is why I will continue to ensure that the management of the train operating company is doing everything in its power to run improved services. But we also need the union leaders to stop their needless, unreasonable, disproportionate and politically motivated strikes.
I thank the Minister for his reply. I am putting this question today with the support of Members from right across the House. On Friday, we heard that Southern rail services were to be severely disrupted every day from tomorrow until further notice. However, that grim warning of imminent service collapse comes after more than two years of rail chaos, which started long before any strike action began. Back in May 2015, the then rail Minister said that our services were “flashing red” in her Department. Eighteen months on, my constituents are regularly in tears of anger and frustration, jobs are being lost, relationships are being broken up and the economy is being seriously damaged. This situation is intolerable, and the Government cannot simply wash their hands of any involvement. Will the Minister roll up his sleeves and get stuck into resolving the crisis? The Transport Select Committee has called for all parties involved to sit down together and resolve the dispute, so will he convene a meeting with the unions and GTR to work this out and restore reliability to this vital public service? In so doing, he would be showing that he is not prepared to allow this crucial piece of infrastructure simply to collapse.
To end the stalemate, will the Department take charge of this contract in the open and strip GTR of the franchise and bring it back in house? That would at least increase the transparency around what is going on. When, for example, will a concrete timetable for GTR to publicly report its performance be revealed? Will performance data be published daily or weekly, and where will they be published? This contract and information about it are shrouded in secrecy, and it is time to make it accountable. Will the Minister answer the outstanding questions on the force majeure application from GTR? Will he provide urgent clarity about whether GTR is in default? The Transport Committee called for a decision on whether GTR was in default by early November 2016. It is now December. Why has the Minister not answered on time?
I do not think the Minister has any idea of the pain that passengers and businesses in Brighton and beyond are suffering. If he did, he would be doing more about it. We have a catastrophic stalemate. What exactly is he going to do about it? My constituents in Brighton want to hear that he is going to get involved. Anything else is not enough.
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s urgent question. The best thing she can do on behalf of her constituents is to go and speak to her close friends in the RMT and tell them to call off their disproportionate and unreasonable industrial action. That is the best contribution she can make.
Thank you for calling me during this urgent question, Mr Speaker, which is important because it is about not only the Brighton main line, but communities in my area. Students trying to get to school from Edenbridge on the Redhill to Tonbridge line and people trying to get to work on the Uckfield line have endured misery. This is about the unions, but the nationalised Network Rail has also failed us again and again. Will the Minister please get on with sorting out that organisation, too?
My hon. Friend is entirely right to point out the impact on his constituents in Kent. I travelled to Sevenoaks today through London Bridge and saw some delays. The only long-term solution for this overburdened part of the network is for both Network Rail and the train operating companies to align the incentives and work together to fix the underlying problems that plague the network.
That this House is still having to address the abysmal service provided by Southern after a year and a half of sub-standard service is testimony to both Southern’s incompetence and the extent to which the Government are committed to privatised rail, even when franchises have become so deeply dysfunctional that they are unable to provide a decent public service. GTR should have been stripped of its franchise long ago for failing to plan properly to take on the franchise, as it has admitted, and for providing what is by far the country’s worst rail service. Hon. Members whose constituents rely on Southern will be well aware of stories of passengers fainting on overcrowded trains, jobs being jeopardised by repeated lateness and parents having to say goodnight to their children from a delayed train.
The Government have defended Southern to the hilt, excusing all its failings as the consequences of an easily avoidable, resolvable industrial dispute, allowing the cancellation of hundreds of services a week and repeatedly throwing taxpayers’ money at the problem as a sticking plaster on an irredeemably dysfunctional concession franchise. The Minister mentioned Mr Gibb, but why did we not hear about Mr Wilkinson, who stood up in Croydon and said that he wants dust-ups with the RMT and to starve staff back to work and to get them out of his railway industry? He is the sort of person the Minister ought to be talking about.
On Friday, it was announced that Southern season ticket holders would be eligible to receive compensation equivalent to one month’s travel. Yet more taxpayers’ money is being spent on the service following the £20 million committed to Southern just a few months ago. The compensation will apply to some 84,000 passengers, but Southern is responsible for 620,000 passenger journeys a day. While any amount of compensation for passengers is welcome, will the Minister take this opportunity to acknowledge that the measures announced on Friday will not come close to compensating the majority of passengers who have suffered from Southern’s abysmal services for the past year and a half? Considering the 1.8% fare rise scheduled for the start of next year, the few commuters who receive compensation will see it wiped out by inflation-busting fares. Sadly, a decent rail service—
Order. I know how to deal with such matters. Members are taking too long. The Minister finished just in time, but I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman exceeded his time. We must establish a discipline that if it is two minutes, that means two minutes or under, not two minutes, two and half minutes or three minutes. I am sorry, but we have to stick to those procedures.
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is so opposed to the idea of compensating Southern’s passengers, but he is right about one thing: the dispute is entirely resolvable. It is resolvable because the RMT should recognise that the current mode of operation is safe and call off the strikes. ASLEF can also call off the strikes. We could then get on with improving the network.
I am pleased to hear the Minister say that no GTR staff will lose their jobs, but that is not the case for my constituents, some of whom have been sacked for being late. The balance of rights and responsibilities in our society is somewhat off if some people trying to improve their terms and conditions is costing other citizens their jobs.
My hon. Friend is entirely right to point out the grossly disproportionate nature of this industrial action and that communities across the GTR network are experiencing a poorer quality of life because of this unwarranted industrial action.
The overall situation for passengers—[Interruption.]
Order. The shadow Secretary of State must take some sort of soothing medicament, which will have the effect of calming him. He will be aware that I suggested to one of his north-east colleagues some time ago that it might be advisable to take up yoga, because it would have a therapeutic effect.
Or even yogurt.
The overall situation for passengers, caused by a variety of reasons, is intolerable, yet GTR is receiving £1 billion a year in fees and the Department is exposed to £38 million of lost revenue. What can the Department do to resolve this situation?
Some months ago, as the hon. Lady will be aware, we asked Chris Gibb to look into the operation of the network, the infrastructure and the train operating company. We look forward to receiving his report by the end of the year, which will guide us in the decisions we take in the new year as to how to make rapid, noticeable, identifiable improvements in this network.
The RMT members who are adding to the disruption for all our constituents are also the employees. May we be told how much they earn, how many of them have signed up to the new operating arrangements and quite what issue is preventing the RMT and the operators from reaching agreement and allowing other workers to get to work reliably? I am talking about how students and teachers can get to work, and how old people can visit their friends.
My hon. Friend is right to point out why this is such a grossly disproportionate action the RMT is taking. More than 220 of the 223 staff involved have signed up to the new contracts to carry out the role of on-board supervisors, so they are striking against a role that they have already agreed to take up. That is both unreasonable and disproportionate.
Part of the problem is that every promise made from that Dispatch Box has not improved the service one iota in the past 18 months, including today, a non-strike day, when the service from Brighton to London was a complete shambles. Will the Minister get to his feet to say he will do whatever it takes to improve this service?
I entirely recognise that the service today has been disappointing, because of a broken rail between East Croydon and Gatwick, but, as the hon. Gentleman points out, this is happening far too often on non-strike days. I expect both GTR and Network Rail to address these underlying performance issues, but they can do that only if they are not also faced with unwarranted, unjustifiable industrial action.
My constituents who commute regularly look at the Southern rail situation with horror. What assurances can the Minister give them that such action by the unions could not spread to other areas, particularly given that we are renegotiating the South West Trains contract?
I recognise my right hon. Friend’s concern. All I can say to her is that I expect all train operating companies across the country to do their utmost to ensure that they run a timely, efficient, reliable and punctual service. I hope that will be the case with whoever emerges from the franchise competition for South West Trains.
I have here analysis of the feedback from the 1,000 constituents who have been in touch with me about the performance of Southern rail, and it is a catalogue of misery. The failure of Southern rail is affecting my constituents’ work, family life, health and wellbeing, and they have had enough. When will the Minister confirm rail devolution for London, so that Transport for London, which has a proven track record and high levels of customer satisfaction, can run these services? When will my constituents’ Southern rail misery end?
I recognise the picture that the hon. Lady paints of the problems her constituents are facing. I hope she will join me in urging all sides in this dispute to return to the negotiating table and reach an agreement that puts the needs of passengers first, not the interests of the rail unions.
I apologise for my interjection earlier, Mr Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) was absolutely right to say that the price for the RMT’s self-indulgent, politically motivated strike action is being paid in jobs by people, particularly young people, who are trying to get to work. This action is neanderthal, its day has well gone and that strike must end. Will the Minister confirm that the train operating companies will be able to take greater control of the works of Network Rail in the future, so that we can solve some of the structural problems?
I thank the hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) for his great courtesy. May I gently tell him that I now realise why, 20 years ago, he was affectionately described to me by a very near constituency neighbour of his as “peppery”.
My hon. Friend has clearly been paying attention to the weekend press. I should perhaps observe that the Secretary of State will make a speech on this issue tomorrow evening. He may therefore wish to pay close attention to the following day’s papers as well to learn more about what might be announced.
I know that it suits some to blame all the current problems with this line on the rail unions, but let us be clear: my constituents have been putting up with a disgraceful and shabby service for the best part of two years now. My hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) asked about TfL, which has better satisfaction rates and provides better services. We want this company, GTR, to be stripped of the franchise and the franchise to be transferred to TfL as soon as possible. Will the Minister confirm whether the Government still intend to facilitate that? We do not want to wait until 2021: get on and do it now.
The hon. Gentleman is certainly right to identify the problems on the network, but they can be solved only if we are not facing industrial action on the network, day in, day out, which makes it impossible for those who wish to deal with Network Rail, GTR and other train operating companies to address the problems.
Can the Minister clarify whether, in his view, the intolerable conditions for commuters in my constituency are caused more by a firm that has not been well run for some time, or by the unacceptable union practices, which have been rendered all the more disgraceful at Christmas time?
That is an important point. It was noticeable that the RMT adjusted its strike days because of the public outrage over the strikes that were occurring in the immediate run-up to Christmas. I urge it to go one step further and call off its strike altogether and get back round the negotiating table.
Coincidentally, I delivered a petition to No. 10 Downing Street this morning, calling for Southern to be sacked. Will the Minister acknowledge that it is not just the unacceptable and pointless union action that is causing chaos on the network, but repeated Network Rail equipment failure, repeated train failures, which are Southern’s fault, and a shortage of drivers, which is Southern’s fault. When will the Minister step in and take control away from the failing company, pass responsibility to Transport for London, which the Liberal Democrats called for as far back as 1999, and ensure that passengers are provided with much more generous compensation?
The right hon. Gentleman’s analysis of the multiple causes is correct, but what he does not fully appreciate is that the need to focus on Network Rail as a source of many of the delays means that we must have full, rapid and ready access to the track day in, day out. We cannot do that against a backdrop of continual industrial action, which makes it harder to maintain the railways.
I have long campaigned for compensation, so may I thank the Minister for the welcome step towards it today? On the Horsham line, we have a huge number of trains being cancelled or delayed as a result of failures with onboard cameras—cameras that seem to work well elsewhere. May I urge him to get GTR to get a grip on this? Either there is a technical fault, or some other issue is causing interference.
My hon. Friend deserves particular credit for the assiduous nature of his campaign for improved compensation for Southern passengers. I am glad to hear that he welcomed last Friday’s announcement. I understand that the level of faults on the driver-only operation trains to Horsham are running at almost double what is usually expected on the route. GTR is looking into the matter further. I am hoping to hear more from it in due course, and I will write to him with the outcome of that investigation.
I started commuting—both regularly and frequently—from Forest Hill to London Bridge and Waterloo East in 1963. In all those 53 years, the service has never been as unreliable and as chaotic as it is today. I now no longer use Southern to go to London Bridge, as I use the overground service. Unfortunately, large parts of my constituency, and just about every other constituency of Members concerned about this matter, do not have that option. Many of my constituents blame the management for what is going on, and an equal number blame the unions. Another set blames Network Rail and the infrastructure. We have heard from the Minister today about track failures causing chaos on the Brighton line. When will he and the Government do something to reassure my constituents, and those of everybody in this Chamber, that the Government are actually trying to do the best they can for commuters, rather than leaving commuters to the fate of the most incompetent organisation in the entire UK rail industry?
The hon. Gentleman has given new meaning to the description “delayed journey” and we are deeply grateful to him.
As Members will be aware, Chris Gibb is an experienced railwayman with a deep understanding of the industry and of that network. His report will look at all the issues that the hon. Gentleman has just raised. We look forward to receiving it and deciding the most appropriate action we can take to deliver the improvements that not only he but all of us in the Chamber are impatient to see.
Given that from tomorrow two of my towns, Seaford and Newhaven, will see their rail service cease to exist once again and instead have bus replacement services, and that from next week 14 of the stations in my constituency will see no rail service at all for nine days out of 14, the Government response is just not good enough. They need to intervene between the unions and Southern rail and get this sorted.
My hon. Friend has never been anything less than assiduous in campaigning on behalf of Lewes, Seaford and Newhaven and their rail services, but the diminution in service to her constituency is due to an ASLEF threat of strike action against something that its members have been doing for many, many months—30% of our commuter network is driver-controlled operation. ASLEF has been operating this system for many, many months on the new class 700s, yet its members are now striking against precisely what they have been doing. That, also, is disproportionate and unreasonable.
Commuters in Croydon and elsewhere have suffered enough, and after two years of rail chaos they certainly should not be expected to pay any more for the services they use, so will the Minister now show that he recognises the extent of the failure and rule out any fare rises on Southern rail services next year?
We have been very clear that we are going to cap rail fare increases on regulated fares at retail prices index plus zero, but to recognise the impact on Southern passengers we announced last Friday a compensation package that equates to one month’s free travel for annual season ticket holders. In addition, as I said earlier, we will be introducing Delay Repay 15 early on the GTR network from 11 December.
Our constituents in Sussex are at their wits’ end. We are at our wits’ end. Notwithstanding the chaos being caused by these completely unjustified strikes, last week’s announcement on compensation was a good start, but only a start, and it was taken away with the other hand by the price rises that went with it. When can we have a proper, transparent penalty system where GTR pays penalties every time its trains are late, cancelled or delayed, and that is set against the price rises without the commuters having to go through a bureaucratic claim process? GTR needs to sort this out urgently.
I recognise my hon. Friend’s concern to make sure that automatic compensation for Delay Repay is broadened as fast as it can be. We need to ensure that the system works, and works well. We need to ensure that passengers are on the trains that they say they were on that were delayed, so we need a technological solution. I am keen to improve the operation of Delay Repay 15 and GTR will be the first rail company that we try it out on.
Residents in Croydon have been suffering from the terrible service for many months now. Does the Minister agree that this is partly due to track and infrastructure failings, partly due to GTR’s incompetence, and partly due to the intransigence of the RMT? Will he commit to spending money on fixing the points and signals and, if the RMT cannot be prevailed upon to call off this needless strike, will he consider legislating to ban such strike action on critical public infrastructure?
My hon. Friend is right to identify the fact that the line will need investment, not just the £20 million that we have already put in, which will support the work of Chris Gibb, but the money to ensure that one of the most overburdened parts of our network is able to properly meet the needs of those who rely on it to get to work, to school and to all the other activities that life depends on in the south-east.
I, too, thank the Minister for the start in terms of compensation for all those who suffer this intolerable situation across the network every day, including all those using the route across to Southampton airport, often travelling to Gatwick airport from Swanwick. Will the Minister confirm that he is looking at the broad-ranging harm caused by these disproportionate, political strikes, which are affecting regional airports as well as local businesses?
I always recognise the importance of Southampton Airport Parkway in the overall network, both for South West Trains and on the Southern network too. I am always happy to meet individual colleagues with particular concerns, and I will be more than happy to discuss Southampton airport’s needs with my hon. Friend further.
I have the misfortune of having the misery line run through my constituency of Wealden. I welcome the Government’s move to one-month compensation. It is now time for the unions to show similar boldness and call off the strikes. However, the timetable is not worth the paper it is written on. What more can the Minister do to get GTR management to get a grip and start running a service that does not require compensation from the Government because it is so appalling?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s involvement over recent weeks; she has been a staunch advocate for the people of Uckfield, who indeed suffer from an inadequate railway line. The most important thing at this stage is for the unions to call off their industrial action and for both GTR and Network Rail to be allowed to focus on what really matters: ensuring that we have a reliable, timely and punctual railway network.
Residents in Sutton want to get rid of this horrendous performance, which has been exacerbated by the unions, so that they can get back to merely poor performance and so that the underlying issues of rail, rolling stock and more drivers can start to be tackled. I welcome the compensation, but what about the passengers who pay-as-you-go using the Oyster card? What can they expect in return?
My hon. Friend is right to point out that even in inner suburban London, people are equally reliant on Southern rail. They will also be eligible for season ticket reductions, should they have annual, quarterly or weekly tickets, as well as Delay Repay 15 compensation from 11 December. That, to me, underlines the importance of ensuring that the network functions well for everybody, wherever they live on the Southern network.
The Minister has rightly referred to a letter that I received from the director of rail safety, specifying that this form of technology is not only safe but has been properly tested by Southern as safe. Given that the unions continue to use safety as the cloak for this dispute, will the Minister consider using legislation to stop unions striking on grounds of safety when the industry regulator has deemed the relevant issue to be safe?
My hon. Friend has done the country a great service during his time on the Transport Committee in trying to nail the myth that DOO is in some way an unsafe means of driving trains. The language from the director of rail safety at the Office of Rail and Road was abundantly clear and it was examined closely at the most recent Transport Committee meeting. He could not have been clearer. It is now for ASLEF and the RMT to pay heed to his words and call off their unreasonable and disproportionate strikes.
State-owned Network Rail is clearly not fit for purpose; the private sector train operating companies have weak and ineffectual management; and the rail unions are organising politically motivated strikes. If that were happening in local government, the Government would have sent in their own commissioners to sort out the organisation. Why do they not do so in this case?
My hon. Friend is right to point out the importance of getting track and train operators to align their incentives and work together to ensure that they deliver a better service for passengers. The Secretary of State has made no secret of the fact that he regards joint working and alliance working as being at the root of what will bring a better level of service on the Southern network.
We look forward to making further announcements on that in due course and to delivering the improved service that all passengers want, whatever political party they support and whatever their views on how the railways should be structured. They want a timely, reliable and punctual rail service. The RMT and ASLEF are in the way of that, with their disproportionate and unreasonable industrial action.
Children and Social Work Bill [Lords]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I am delighted to be able to open the debate in the absence of the Secretary of State, who is in Shanghai at the education summit. I know she regrets not being here, and she sends her apologies.
As the Secretary of State made clear when she spoke at the national children and adult services conference a few weeks ago, nothing is more important than making sure that children get the best start in life, feel safe, are well looked after and are able to fulfil their dreams. Nowhere is that more important than for those children who do not have the benefit of a loving family to help them on their way and to support them as they grow up, or who face other significant challenges, which make it harder for them to flourish and thrive.
Children’s social care professionals perform some of society’s most vital, most important work, and we entrust them with nothing less than keeping our children safe and making life-changing decisions about what is best for their futures. These are highly challenging, highly complex tasks, performed by deeply dedicated and committed individuals.
However, as we all know, the system in which these individuals work is far from perfect, meaning the help and support being offered to vulnerable children in different parts of the country is a long way from being consistently excellent. Evidence from Ofsted shows that most local authorities struggle in some way to provide consistently effective core social work practice. That is why this Government are determined to bring about the widest-reaching reforms to children’s social care and social work for a generation.
Reviews by Professor Eileen Munro, Sir Martin Narey and Professor David Croisdale-Appleby, among others, have given us a deep understanding of the challenges faced by children’s social care. They have described a system in which initial social worker training is not consistently preparing students for the challenges of the job, and those already doing it too often lack the time, specialist skill and supervision needed to achieve real change for children and families; a system that focuses too much on management and is governed by prescribed approaches rather than excellent practice; and a system where services have not always been designed around vulnerable children, and innovation has not been given enough space to thrive.
Over the last six years, the Government have taken important steps towards addressing these challenges. For example, we have raised standards in children’s homes and enabled young people in foster care to remain with their carer up to the age of 21. We have invested £100 million through our innovation programme to allow radical new approaches to children’s social care to be developed and tested. In April, we announced a £200 million extension to the programme to take this further still. We have taken a variety of steps to enhance the status, skills and capacity of the social work profession—both for children and for adults. Those include appointing chief social workers; publishing definitive statements of the knowledge and skills required by adults’ and children’s social workers; and investing over £750 million since 2010 in traditional and fast-track routes into the profession.
Will the Minister give way?
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I would just like to explain some of the tenets of the Bill, and then I will take his intervention.
We are starting to see things change. This year, we have seen the first “outstanding” judgments under the most recent—and most challenging—Ofsted framework. Local authorities are testing innovative ways of supporting families through the children’s social care innovation programme. Examples of excellent leadership across the country are being celebrated by Ofsted and others.
However, we are under no illusion that there is still much more to be done. That is why, in July of this year, the Department for Education published a clear and ambitious vision and plan for the changes that need to be made to drive sustainable improvement across the whole country. This is our plan for putting children first. It sets out fundamental reforms across each of the three pillars on which the social care system stands: people and leadership, practice and systems, and governance and accountability. This Bill is a crucial part of delivering reforms across those three pillars.
Part 1 concerns children who are in care or supported by the state. Clause 1 sets out, for the first time, a set of corporate parenting principles designed to establish consistently high standards in the support of looked-after children and care leavers, and drive a culture of excellent corporate parenting. The principles are intended to help a local authority to think and act in the interests of the children in their care in the same way as any good parent would. This is not about putting a new set of duties on local authorities; it is about changing behaviour and practice. The aim is to ensure that all parts and every tier of local government have the needs and circumstances of looked-after children and care leavers in their minds in their planning and decisions. This responsibility goes beyond just children’s social care, reaching across the whole of the local authority.
Clause 2 will ensure that the corporate parenting ethos extends into adulthood and that all care leavers are clear about the support on offer to them and how to access it. Care leavers will have access to information about the services available to them through a local offer from their local authority, with each local offer based on consultation with care leavers themselves.
Clause 3 will give all care leavers access to support from a personal adviser at any point up to the age of 25. We amended the Bill in another place to make sure that the service is offered at least annually so that care leavers can take advantage of it whenever they need to.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, may I make a little more progress, and then I will come back to him?
The next section of the Bill recognises that children who are adopted or who leave care under another permanence order often have ongoing difficulties resulting from their early life experiences. Clauses 4 to 7 will therefore give them access to the same support that looked-after children receive from virtual school heads at local authority level, and that designated teachers provide in schools to help with their education. Following an undertaking given in the other place, we are bringing forward amendments that will extend these provisions to children who have been adopted from overseas.
Clauses 8 and 9 expand the factors that courts and local authorities must take into account when deciding on the most appropriate place for a child. They do not give priority to one type of placement over another, but they do place more emphasis on stability and what would be in a child’s best long-term interests, taking account of the impact of any harm that the child may have suffered.
I now give way to the hon. Gentleman.
I am extremely grateful to the Minister. I was trying to tell him that I have to speak in a Delegated Legislation Committee at half-past 4, so the clock was ticking down for me. I want to ask him about a specific point relating to some casework that I have done in my constituency. It is about the lack of safeguarding checks for 16 and 17-year-olds in private fostering arrangements. I had a situation where a young person within that age group in my constituency went into a private fostering arrangement, and the parents were unable to get the assurances they would have had in a public setting. That is not addressed in the Bill, and I wonder whether the Minister would be willing to look at it if I tabled an amendment at a later stage.
Yes, of course. My hon. Friend the Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families is very keen to engage in debate on the details in Committee. I know that he will be very interested in the particular case raised by the hon. Gentleman and want to debate it with him.
In Oxfordshire we have had a situation where children in care have been abused, and that has led to Operation Bullfinch. How will what the Minister has set out make that situation better?
The local safeguarding arrangements set out in the Bill will provide a strong statutory framework that puts responsibility on the police, the NHS—through the clinical commissioning group—and the local authority to ensure that a robust safeguarding system is in place, but with greater local flexibility than we have at the moment, so that the arrangements are as effective as possible in meeting local needs. I also believe that the combination of improved national arrangements for analysing serious cases, which I will come on to, including child sexual abuse and exploitation, and for learning from them in a more systematic way, including higher standards for social workers, as set out in the Bill, will enable Oxfordshire and other counties across the country to keep children safer than is currently the case.
Chapter 2 of part 1 of the Bill focuses largely on arrangements for the safeguarding and protection of children. Earlier this year, Alan Wood, the former director of children’s services in Hackney who is president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, carried out a review for the Government on the role and functions of local safeguarding children boards. His report, which was published in May, found that local arrangements were patchy. Less than half of LSCBs were judged by Ofsted to be good or better, and he reported that there was a clear consensus in favour of reform. Strong partnership is, as we know from serious case reviews, key to keeping children safe.
Clauses 12 to 15 will establish a new child safeguarding practice review panel to review serious child safeguarding cases that are complex or of national importance. The purpose of the panel will be to improve the way in which we learn from cases where a child has died or been seriously harmed and neglect or abuse of the child was known or suspected.
Clauses 16 to 30 will introduce a stronger statutory framework for child safeguarding and protection at local level. The focus will shift away from wide-ranging local partnerships and will place a duty on the three key agencies involved in safeguarding children—namely local authorities, the police and the health service—to work together, and with any relevant agencies, to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.
I will give way to my hon. Friend and am sorry that I did not do so earlier.
The Minister will be aware that this is not the original Bill, thanks to the good work of the House of Lords in removing clauses 29 to 33 on the duty to innovate. At the recent national children and adult services conference in Manchester, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said of that duty:
“It’s about how we can put you in the best position to protect those children properly.”
The trouble is that the “you”—meaning 150 organisations, including Coram, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the British Association of Social Workers and 90% of all social workers—said that they did not want it and that they were opposed to it. Will the Minister confirm that he will not try to reintroduce those clauses in this House?
I listened carefully to my hon. Friend, who will be aware, of course, that Eileen Munro, whom he appointed to look into this whole area when he was the Minister, supported the power to innovate. The Local Government Association, ADCS and Catch22 also support it. The power is not to do with taking rights away from children or with saving money; it is about giving councils the opportunity to develop new ways of working that they believe will improve outcomes for children.
My hon. Friend says that it is not about taking rights away from children, but one of the scenarios is the abolition of independent reviewing officers, who absolutely can be the only voice independently standing up for vulnerable looked-after children in local authorities. If they go under the proposals, how is that not taking away the rights of children, particularly vulnerable children?
This is not about abolishing any statutory responsibilities. My hon. Friend should wait to see the amendments tabled in Committee. I am sure that he will want to talk about his concerns in more detail with the Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families, who will take them very seriously indeed, particularly given my hon. Friend’s background and experience.
Chapter 2 covers other provisions relating to children, so we are talking about the rights of the child. Will the Minister consider amending the law so that a child has the right to have the names of both parents on their marriage registration certificate?
I know that that issue has been discussed and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families will listen very carefully to my right hon. Friend if she tables such an amendment.
We are not introducing change for the sake of change. If existing LSCB arrangements are working, there will be nothing to prevent them from continuing in a similar vein within the new legal framework set out in the Bill. Importantly, the local safeguarding partners will have a clear responsibility for the arrangements and the flexibility to change and improve them if they are not working.
I should briefly mention two other provisions in chapter 2 of the Bill. Clause 11 is largely technical and allows the Government to use their powers to intervene in combined authorities where their services are failing vulnerable children and young people, in the same way as the Government can intervene in individual authorities. Clause 31 was an amendment to the Bill, and it will enable the Secretary of State to extend whistleblower protection to people applying for jobs in children’s social care, as well as to existing employees.
Part 2 sets the legal framework for the establishment of a bespoke regulator for all social workers in England. High-quality social work can transform lives, and social workers play a critical role in our society. Every day, social workers deal with complex and fraught situations that require a great depth of skill, knowledge, understanding and empathy. However, when social workers are not able to fulfil their role competently, the consequences can be grave. In order to protect the public from these risks, social workers have to meet high standards of acceptable practice and competence, which are overseen by a regulator.
The need for an improved system of regulation for the social work profession was highlighted in recent independent reviews by Sir Martin Narey and Professor David Croisdale-Appleby. Our ambition, through the establishment of a new bespoke regulator for social work, is to continue to improve the practice of social work and raise the status of the profession. For too long, the bar on standards has been too low. Some graduates are leaving courses and being registered as social workers without the knowledge and skills required to do the job, and that cannot be right. The new regulator will ensure, following consultation with the profession, that minimum standards are set at the right level. The new regulator will be a separate legal entity, operating independently of Ministers in its day-to-day work. The Government have always been clear that we have no intention of making decisions about the performance of individual social workers. As with other independent health and social care regulators, the Professional Standards Authority will oversee the operations of Social Work England. The PSA has welcomed the revised clauses.
We are planning to table a further amendment regarding the national assessment and accreditation system. That will introduce a nationally recognised post-qualification specialism in child and family social work, which will reinforce the focus on quality of practice.
There are two other crucial measures that are not in the Bill, but about which amendments will be tabled shortly. First, amendments will be tabled to ensure that looked-after children in England and Wales can legally be accommodated in secure children’s homes in Scotland. Recent case law has cast some doubt on the present arrangements. Secondly, amendments will be tabled regarding the power to innovate. That power is a direct response to the issues raised by Eileen Munro in her independent review of child protection. She has said:
“Trusting professionals to use their judgement rather than be forced to follow unnecessary legal rules will help ensure children get the help they need, when they need it. Testing innovation in a controlled way to establish the consequences of the change, before any national roll out, is a sensible and proportionate way forward.”
The purpose of the power is to allow individual local authorities to test new ways of working by changing or disapplying specific legislative provisions within a controlled environment, with a view to achieving better outcomes for children. As hon. Members know, the other place was unhappy about the clauses that were included in the Bill at introduction. We appreciate that this is a new way of working in Government and we understand why some noble Lords were wary, but the provisions are too important just to let them drop. I emphasise that this is a grassroots power, empowering local authorities to test new and better ways of working in the best interests of children.
Will the Minister give way?
If the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I am coming to the concluding elements of my comments.
Local government overwhelmingly supports these measures, and the national associations and individual authorities have made it clear that they do not want us to lose this opportunity to allow them to test new ways of working. We have, therefore, reviewed and substantially revised the clauses to make sure that they avoid the issues raised in the other place, and there are several notable new features. We have removed the provision that allowed a body carrying local authority functions under an intervention arrangement to apply to use the power. Only local authorities can apply to use the power and if they do not wish to, that is the end of the matter. The power was never intended to be used to alter or remove children’s fundamental rights or entitlements. Its sole purpose is to allow local authorities to trial better and more practical alternatives to the sometimes very specific and overly prescriptive requirements set out in legislation in order to provide better outcomes for children. The new amendments will put that beyond doubt.
We will set out further provision for the process surrounding the power to ensure that it is based on sound consultation, transparency and robust safeguards. All applications to use the power will be subject to local consultation, scrutiny by an independent panel and parliamentary approval. Pilots will be closely monitored. Those changes will be in addition to amendments the Government tabled in the other place about the scrutiny process that accompanies the power—
On that point, will the Minister give way?
I will not give way to the right hon. Gentleman because he was not here at the beginning of my speech, when I set out a lot of the basic principles surrounding the Bill.
As I said, those changes will be in addition to amendments the Government tabled in the other place about the scrutiny process that accompanies the power and ruling out the use of the provision for profit. The Government are committed to working with the sector. The changes we have made are the result of significant consultation and we believe that these clauses are the safest possible way to test new approaches. My hon. Friend the Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families is very keen to meet any colleagues who have concerns to discuss these provisions further.
This is a Bill for the welfare and prospects of vulnerable children and young people. All its measures are designed to improve the services that so many of them rely on, and I commend it to the House.
We welcome any attempt to improve the lives of children in care, and I am sure that aim is shared in all parts of the House. The challenges facing those children are significant, as is the effort needed to tackle them. The National Audit Office said recently:
“Nationally the quality of help and protection for children is unsatisfactory and inconsistent, suggesting systemic rather than just local failure.”
The Government need to take action in the Bill to address that failure, rather than make it worse. I hope that the Secretary of State is listening to this very important debate, even if she is not able to attend the Chamber.
A new report by LaingBuisson for the Department for Education, which was published only last Friday, considered the options of outsourcing and developing markets in children’s social services. That is privatisation by another name. Quite simply, it would be not just the wrong solution, but no solution at all.
Following the excellent work of my noble Friends and others in the other place, the clauses that would have allowed local authorities to derogate from their existing legal obligations are no longer in the Bill. However, given the seriousness of the proposals and the timing of that report, I must ask the Secretary of State’s Department to think again and guarantee to this House that the Government will not seek to use the Bill as a vehicle to privatise children’s social services.
I hope the Minister can give us that assurance later, because there is a good deal to welcome in the Bill. From the principles of corporate parenting to the local offer for care leavers, there are steps towards helping young people in care and leaving care that we welcome. I do not want to have to divide the House in later stages and the Opposition would like to make progress collectively.
This issue is vital to the collective good of our nations. The services that are provided and the great work that is done on the ground by many public sector workers should be applauded, as they change lives every single day. I must declare an interest as my niece is one such worker. Our aim collectively within the Bill should be to enhance and enable that important work. Privatisation and fragmentation are not the answer. Our overall concern is less with what is in the Bill than with what is not in it. In short, the Bill lacks the ambition to have the meaningful impact on the lives of vulnerable young people that is needed.
If we are to make significant progress, we have to improve child mental health services. The Bill focuses on adoption, which is hardly a surprise—in the past several years, the Government have taken several steps to make it easier to adopt, such as the Education and Adoption Act 2016 —and we welcome measures that support adoption, but surely the Minister is aware that only one in every 20 children in care goes on to be adopted, so can he explain to the House why the Bill, much like the last one, focuses exclusively on adoption and does not contain provision for other forms of care? Would this not have been an opportunity to come forward with a comprehensive strategy for children in all forms of care? Will he indicate whether we might anticipate further legislation or whether he thinks that no changes are needed?
Similarly, we welcome the principles of corporate parenting, but there are questions about why the Bill does not go further. I am sure the Minister agrees that children in care will often have complex needs that require a joined-up approach across public services in order to get the best possible outcomes, so will he explain why there is no provision in the Bill to facilitate ways for public services, such as health and education, to play a key role in ensuring good corporate parenting? These public services play a key role in ensuring the best outcomes for children in care, yet there is no apparent involvement for them in the corporate parenting principles.
The principle of the local offer is welcome, and we supported it when it was introduced for children with special educational needs and disabilities in the Children and Families Act 2014, but we have since seen failings in practice, with the quality of local offers varying wildly between local authorities, no minimum guarantees of quality, no statutory guidance and no certainty that the local offer will be available to all those who need it. When there are no minimum guarantees of quality, we know which areas will lose out. Overwhelmingly, it will be areas already facing disadvantage that will not get the support they need.
There are already unacceptable variations in spending on children’s services between regions. In one local authority, £4,970 is spent on children in need; in another, it is only £340. The Department for Education’s own figures show that these spending inequalities fall along our all-too-familiar geographical divides.
In my conversations with Hull City Council’s children’s services department, it talks to me about the resource inequalities it faces and the very disadvantaged community it serves. It is not asking for powers to innovate; it is asking for proper resources to provide the services that young people need in the city.
My hon. Friend makes a significant point. Local authorities in the north-west, such as mine, have faced cuts of 50% since austerity while trying to deal with the complex needs of their communities. I ask the Government to look again at that.
In the south-east, spending tends to be much higher than average, but, as we move through to the midlands and the north-west, spending in local authorities is far lower. Once again, levels of spending on public services fall on either side of the north-south divide, with the north losing out. In his final report as Her Majesty’s chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw has singled out the north-south divide as one of the great challenges facing our education system and our country, and only this morning the Children’s Commissioner said that the problem was simply that parents in the north were not as ambitious as those in the south. I am sure that the Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families, a parent from the north himself, will agree that such comments are neither acceptable nor helpful. In an effort to ensure that all regions of our country, north and south, benefit from the local offer, I hope he will seek to put clear national standards in the Bill that all local offers will have to meet. There is a clear case for proper guidance on what the local offer should contain and how to make it accessible to all those who need it, drawing on the best available practice. Will the Minister tell us why these issues have not been addressed in the Bill, and whether the Government will bring forward amendments during its passage?
Part 2 establishes the new regulator, Social Work England. I want to pay tribute once again to the excellent work done by the parties in the other place. Following their scrutiny, plans to place regulatory control with the Secretary of State were defeated. I am sure that the Minister would acknowledge the norm that regulators are operationally independent from Government and, in this case, serve the interests of children. Will he guarantee today that that independence will be respected as the Bill is ultimately agreed?
While we welcome the new regulatory body, assuming that it is effective and independent, we will seek answers to a number of questions about how it will function. After all, the Government seem to want Social Work England to have a representative improvement and regulatory roles within the profession, yet they have not told us how it will be achieved. We have no detail on the remit of the work of the new regulator. As it stands, we will find out only through a series of regulations to be made by the Secretary of State. Will the Minister tell us exactly what the remit and powers of the new regulator will be, and why it is appropriate for those to be decided in secondary legislation, away from scrutiny of the full House? After all, we have been down this path before. Only four years ago, the General Social Care Council was closed. What, then, will be done differently this time to ensure that we do not look back in a year or two and see yet another regulator that has been closed down?
We broadly welcome what is in the Bill, although we hope that the Minister will answer some of the many questions that remain. Once already in the other place, the Government’s plans for the outsourcing and privatisation of our children’s services, dressed up as “innovation”, were defeated. Nobody in the profession believes that privatisation is the answer to the immense challenges it currently faces, and neither can it alleviate the growing demand for children’s services.
My hon. Friend is doing a very good job of putting forward the case that exists in the country. Is she concerned that the Minister has not said much at all about what “innovation” he expects would require a local authority, in effect, to wash its hands of its statutory duty in respect of our young people and children?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Most people who work in the profession believe that privatisation is absolutely the wrong answer and will not help with any form of innovation that the Government might currently want. In fact, the best way of helping would be to restore the investment in our community and local services that the Government have cut over the last few years.
I call on the Minister to confirm today that the Government will not seek to bring these clauses back into the Bill. I am sure that he knows as well as Opposition Members and indeed all Members that these plans do not offer a real solution. If the Minister fails to take that suggestion on board, Opposition Members will be far less conciliatory when we debate the Bill again.
The Bill is a very good one. It has been amended in the House of Lords, and we will need to consider the implications of that in due course. The central points of the Bill are well founded. I am particularly impressed with the theme of reflecting the work of the Munro report and improving the capacity of social workers to use their own judgment, rather than simply rely on box ticking. That is an appropriate theme for the Bill and it explains why the regulatory structure introduced by the Bill will help. It is through such a regulatory system that the ability to make judgments will be made easier.
It is important for social workers to have a clear eye on what professional regulation is all about. The profession should be operating, of course, at arm’s length, which is usefully stressed in the Bill. A register of social workers makes a lot of sense, because one of the things that we must do is enhance professionalism in social work. That is where I have some difference with the Government, in that I think that ultimately we should have a professional body for social workers. The Education Select Committee made it clear in a recent report that it thought there was a strong case for such a body, and I think there is an appetite for that beyond the Chamber. I urge the Government to have an open mind, and I suggest that they continue to send signals that they would like a professional body to be established. I also think that an independent review of proceedings in five years’ time makes a huge amount of sense, because that is a realistic timescale.
There is, however, one area in which I think the Bill needs some additions, or at least some recognitions. Given that more than 70,000 children are effectively children of the state and that so many more children are subjected to sexual abuse, and given the historical sexual abuse that has taken place, our failure to place the issue of sex and relationships education front and centre is becoming increasingly obvious. The Government must embark on a full consultation to provide reassurance that something will be done about this most important matter. I ask the Minister to confirm that there will be a realistic and meaningful consultation on the introduction of statutory SRE.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has raised that point. May I ask him to back Labour amendments to make SRE part of the safeguarding of all children, so that we can finally ensure that we keep every young person in the country safe?
To an extent, that will depend on what the amendments are, and whether the Government make it clear that they will organise a full consultation. However, I note what the hon. Lady has said, and I am sure that the Government have noted what I have just said. We need a full, meaningful and comprehensive consultation on this important matter.
Five Select Committee Chairs sent a letter to the Secretary of State. Obviously, I organised one of them. The others came from the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee—Members may well ask what it has to do with SRE, and I can explain if they wish me to—the Women and Equalities Committee, the Health Committee, and the Home Affairs Committee. All those Committees effectively said precisely the same thing: we need SRE to be introduced statutorily in our schools.
Finally, I want to say something about latitude for local government. The Select Committee did some work relating to children in care, particularly those with mental health difficulties. When we went to Trafford, it was strikingly obvious to us that through co-operation with other agencies, coterminous structures and strong leadership, the council was delivering outstanding results. Its ability to benefit from strategic leadership at the top end, operational leadership within the structures themselves, and a coterminous relationship not only with its own organisations and related agencies but with the police force was clearly extraordinarily beneficial for working practices and the way in which decisions were made and responses given on issues connected with children in care and children at risk. Therefore, the Government are right to move towards giving local government more latitude in the way it formulates its structures to deliver outcomes.
In short, there is a lot to be said for the Bill. It is critical that we acknowledge that some form of professional body will be good for social workers and social work generally. The absence of SRE is a pity. It is important, however, that the Government give the firm commitment I have asked for. Generally speaking, the Government are going in the right direction on local government.
I am aware that very few clauses in the Bill affect Scotland but, as a member of the Education Committee, I may have some points of interest and I might be able to help the Bill to become even better.
When a child or young person cannot live at home, we all owe it to them to make the process of finding a new, stable family as efficient and straightforward as possible. Clause 1 would introduce seven “corporate parenting principles” that local authorities must “have regard to”. I ask the Minister: why are those not mandatory? The Joint Committee on Human Rights has said:
“We have considered the arguments and the evidence for and against introducing a statutory duty on public authorities in England requiring them to have due regard to the rights of children in the UNCRC in the exercise of their functions relating to children, equivalent to the duties already introduced in Wales and Scotland.”
If Wales and Scotland can have such a duty, I find it difficult to understand why it will not be mandatory in England. The Joint Committee went on to recommend that Parliament takes the opportunity presented by the Bill to ensure that there is “such a duty”.
It is important that children are the focus of and are at the heart of any Bill that is introduced in this Parliament. We need to look at how children are affected by legislation introduced by not just the Department for Education, but Departments across the board.
In Scotland, the First Minister has said that people who have experienced the care system will be the driving force of an independent review of how Scotland treats its looked-after children. That is the mandatory duty in action. In Scotland, we want to move forward and to listen to young people, and we are looking at extending what is happening in Scotland to people who have been in care and are going through the process of becoming adults who stand on their own. It is good that the Bill looks at what happens to children after they leave care, but I ask the Minister to examine what we do in Scotland, because we are moving forward at a far faster pace than England and Wales.
A former children’s Minister in Scotland has said:
“children don’t need a system that just stops things happening to them”.
We have safeguards, but we also need a system that
“makes things happen for them. A system that supports them to become the people they can be”,
fostering a sense “of belonging”. I am sure that the Minister agrees with that and with the fact that that should be a guiding principle for any legislation. What steps will the Government take to respond to the recommendations made earlier this year by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child? When do they plan to publish their official response? What further steps will the Government take to ensure that policy development across Whitehall has children’s rights at its heart?
Clause 31, which is the one measure in the Bill that affects Scotland, relates to whistleblowing. The Scottish Government acknowledge and respect the need for whistleblowing. They believe that procedures should be in place across the public and private sectors to support staff in raising any concerns to ensure that people can work in a safe and secure environment. They believe that it is important that NHS workers in Scotland should be able to raise any concerns about patient safety or malpractice, because that helps to improve our health service. That should be the case not only in the health service, but across all professions, especially in the social work sector, given the importance of child protection. We welcome this measure and are really keen for the Government to see it through.
Social work is regulated in Scotland, and I again ask the Minister to look at how the Scottish system works. When the Education Committee heard evidence from social workers and their representatives as part of the inquiry referred to by its Chair, the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael), one of the first things they said was that we should look at the Scottish system. I encourage Ministers to do that. The Scottish Social Services Council regulates the profession and all social workers in Scotland have to belong to it. I am pleased that England will be moving forward in a similar way.
I share the apprehensions expressed by the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) about creeping privatisation in the care sector, especially in relation to children. It is imperative that children should be looked after when they cannot be with their own parents and families, and the duty to protect children is shared by us all in society, not just by professionals. This is another reason why whistleblowers can be important.
The Bill will improve the situation in England, but it has to be seen in the context of child poverty. The Institute for Fiscal Studies states that child poverty in the UK is projected to rise by 8 percentage points by 2020, which makes it even more important that these provisions are right. Many more children could be drawn into the care system as a result of the ongoing austerity programme across the UK, so will the Minister please look at what we are doing in Scotland? We might not be perfect, and we might not get everything right, but we put children and their experiences at the heart of our system and we listen to them. I ask him please to look to the north, as well as to Wales, which is also doing really good work on child protection and childcare across the board.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I welcome most parts of the Bill, and I particularly welcome the fact that it is now without certain parts, as I said earlier. It is good to have this opportunity to discuss child protection and social workers. We spend far too little time in the House highlighting the excellent practices that we expect our social workers to achieve in highly adverse conditions. I have always referred to social workers as our fourth emergency service, and I am proud to be a patron of the Social Worker of the Year awards, along with the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck). I attended the awards dinner just over a week ago, at which fantastic examples of dedication, hard work, skill and expertise were on display. Alas, none of that made it into the mainstream media, as is so often the case.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the challenges facing social workers are particularly intense as a result not only of immense reductions in funding, but of the fast-changing climate and the Government’s occasional initiative-itis that seems to attach itself to the social work sector?
Social workers are certainly under a huge amount of pressure, but that initiative-itis has, to an extent, gone into reverse, not least through the shrinking in the past six years of the “working together” rule book—the bible of social workers and social work practice—which amounted to more than 750 pages when this Government came into office. Social workers were spending all their time checking what the rulebook said, looking over their shoulders and ticking boxes, rather than being allowed to get on with the business of being social workers, and eyeballing families and the vulnerable children whom they are there to protect and work with. With the support of Professor Munro, that work was an important initiative that tried to take away many of the administrative burdens on social workers, notwithstanding their other pressures and challenges.
I am proud of the work that the Conservative party has done in this area, starting with the commission on social work that I chaired back in 2007. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond) is in the Chamber because she played an important role in the commission. We produced the document “No More Blame Game—The Future for Children’s Social Workers”, which is as relevant today as it was then. The trouble is that social workers are still too often subject to the blame game, especially in the tabloid press, from which it would appear that it is social workers who abuse and murder vulnerable young children. Of course they do not; they are there to try to protect such children. Parents, carers and others commit those foul acts, but people would not believe that based on the reports. Too many people view our social workers with disdain.
From that piece of work, of which I am proud, came the suggestions for consultant social workers and a chief social worker. In 2010, our manifesto commitment was to take child protection back to the frontline. I am also pleased and proud that the first review initiated by the Department for Education after the 2010 election was not about schools or education matters; it was the excellent Munro review into child protection. I was slightly surprised that the Minister prayed in aid Professor Munro so explicitly. I appointed Professor Munro and worked closely with her, but the problem is that many of her 15 pertinent recommendations are still to be implemented, and they do not involve the removal of a local authority’s basic duty to protect vulnerable young children.
I support the Bill as it stands, but it could certainly be improved by a number of enhancing amendments, although I would not include among those any that would rehash clauses 29 to 33. I was alarmed by the Minister’s comments that strongly suggested that those clauses will be revisited. That would be a shame because, after the good work done in the Lords, we were promised a period of reflection —perhaps it could be referred to as a pause, as we have had for other legislation—but that reflection will not have lasted long if the Government return with amendments. I caution them to extend the period of reflection before they hurry into repeating what was clearly a mistake. A clear majority in the House of Lords and a great majority of important organisations involved in child protection were not in favour of the proposed changes and made their feelings clear.
Let us be clear, many good things have happened around child protection under this Government. The reform of fostering and adoption regulations has helped not only fosterers and adopters, but, most importantly, children who are being fostered. It has also helped more children to get adopted. There is more to be done, but a lot of progress has been made over the past six years. Ofsted’s inspection system is now much more appropriate and rigorous.
The Munro review gave rise to a lot of innovation in child protection. The child sexual exploitation action plan was published back in November 2011—well before the Savile scandal became so public and made CSE a headline issue of which we have never seen the like. We have the Staying Put policy which, although perhaps underfunded and less effective in certain local authorities, includes the right to a personal adviser until the age of 25 and places a duty on local authorities to stay in touch.
These are all good things being innovated through the Bill that, along with staying close until the age of 21, offer support to vulnerable children in the care system at what is often a most fragile time in their lives. Previously, at the age of 18 or even 16 they faced a cliff edge, coming out of care into the big wide world without the help and support—the safety net—that so many of these children and young people need.
The hon. Gentleman is being extremely generous in giving way a second time. Does he agree that much of this could be quite academic if funding does not accompany these exciting developments?
Funding is, of course, part of this, but we can do a lot better with existing funds, although the National Audit Office report showed that funding on vulnerable children had gone up as well. But what was not working properly is when social workers were spending, through the integrated children’s system and other very bureaucratic systems, up to 80% of their time in front of a computer filling in forms to do with child protection, rather than getting out there and dealing with children face to face. That was a huge waste of resources, but more importantly a huge waste of opportunities to deal more effectively and early on with children, who really did need to have the support, and often intervention, of professional services and social workers in particular.
Despite all these innovations, we still need to do an awful lot better for vulnerable children, children in the care system and our care leavers. It is a fact that 40%—almost half—of our care leavers aged 19 to 21 are classed as not in education, employment or training, and 4% of them are in custody. Two thirds of children in the care system have special educational needs, almost half of them with a diagnosable mental disorder. The percentage for the educational achievement of children achieving A* to C GCSEs is still in its teens, compared with its peer population now with over 60% achieving those grades.
I particularly welcome some of the Bill’s corporate parenting principles— although it will be interesting to see how they work in practice—that apply to physical and mental health, which is so important. Although this Government have again done a lot to raise the profile of mental health, particularly among children and young people, and have injected a further £1.4 billion into that area, the problem is that not nearly enough of it—and that is not enough in itself—is getting through to the frontline, to help the children and young people who so desperately need it, when they need it and where they need it.
These are challenging times. The NAO report on children in need of protection, to which various hon. Members have already referred, flagged up some worrying observations. Too often the way we look after vulnerable children is a postcode lottery. We are still very poor at sharing best practice in this country, yet a child in need, a child in care and a child in desperate need of protection should be dealt with no differently whether they are in Durham, Worthing, Exeter or anywhere else throughout the United Kingdom.
There was a surge following the horrific case of Baby Peter, but the number of children coming into the care system continues to rise: there are now in excess of 70,000 children in the care system in England—the highest since 1985, when the environment in respect of why children tended to come into the care system was very different. I do not know whether we need to take more children into care, or fewer, but I do know that we need to take the right children into care at the right time, and give them the right support and services if they cannot be supported living with their families or other kinship carers.
Another thing I am very proud of is the Government’s initiative on promoting adoption, which had fallen into neglect, frankly, after the good work done in the Adoption and Children Act 2002. The adoption figures have started to fall back considerably and there is still a very big grey space following the Munby judgment. But that should not have happened, because those adoption reforms were about bringing forward an easier system for adopters to offer their services and for children to go through all the hoops. There were too many hoops and it took too long for children to get adopted. We needed to bring onside not only those involved in adoption at the local authority level, which largely we did, but, contemporaneously and in sympathy, those in the legal profession, as many judges felt put upon, in that they were being told how to run cases in their courts. I am afraid that the Government have failed to do that and should not therefore be surprised by the disappointing reversal in the adoption figures, which I hope will be reversed again, because adoption does offer the best chance at a second childhood—a second possibility of being brought up in a safe and loving family—for a lot of children who still do not get that chance and are still in the care system.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that although many younger children are being adopted, it is far more difficult to place older children? We need to do more to promote the benefits to those children of adoption at a later age.
The hon. Lady is right about that, but shiny, squeaky new babies have always been much more attractive to people who want to adopt than problematic teenagers who have been through all the trials and tribulations of broken families—perhaps abuse, neglect, mental health problems and behavioural disorders—and have been pushed from pillar to post in the care system. Those are the children we have most let down, which is one reason why the introduction of adoption scorecards was based not just on improving the number of children adopted, but on concentrating on those harder-to-adopt children: older children; large sibling groups; and children from black and minority ethnic communities. Too often these children were at the back of the adoption queue. I am glad to say that in recent years disproportionately they have found themselves more likely to get adopted than they were before. This is still not enough and there remains a lot to be done, but that was absolutely the right focus to bring in over the past few years.
Another thing I am concerned about is that despite all the good work the Government did on paralleling the kraamzorg system for health visitors in Holland, we have lost 722 health visitors since January and there has been a 13% decrease in the number of school nurses since 2010. They are really important people in early intervention—in identifying children with problems, and those for whom the support of social services and other caring services is essential, sooner rather than later.
Of course, I am also worried by the recent rise, again, in social worker vacancy rates in many authorities around the country, and too often the positions are taken by temporary social workers. Social work, particularly when dealing with child protection, is an area where staff need to forge empathetic relationships with those vulnerable children and families whom they are there to look after. Being pushed from pillar to post, from one home to another, from one social worker to another reviewing officer—or whoever it may be—only accentuates the instability and vulnerability of those children.
I worry when, even in this place, we are still too quick to point the finger of blame at the social workers because a child has been brutally assaulted or killed, as still happens in too many cases, by their carer, parent or close relative. We hear the talk of “wilful neglect”. There are social workers who are not doing their job properly, and there are social workers who are not up to the job and should not be in social work, and they should be removed from it, but they are a small minority. We should not make the rest of our excellent, hard-working, dedicated social worker force feel constantly that they are the ones to blame for many of these tragedies. We have to up everybody’s game, but they are part of the solution; in the vast majority of cases, they are not part of the problem.
It is odd therefore that at the heart of the original Bill, since eviscerated of clauses 29 to 33, which it would seem are about to make an unfortunate reappearance, were radical new proposals supposedly to test new ways of working, under the guise of promoting innovation. As I said earlier, the clauses were not remotely welcomed by the vast majority of people who are involved in the whole field of child protection. They were opposed by the British Association of Social Workers, the Care Leavers Association, the Children’s Rights Alliance for England, CoramBAAF, which is the Government’s appointed adoption provider, the Fostering Network, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and Action for Children. In various polls, about 90% of working social workers did not support those clauses either, which was hardly surprising given that the clauses came out of the blue. There was no consultation on absolutely fundamental changes to the way in which we apply duties of care to vulnerable children in this country.
I pay tribute to the House of Lords, particularly to Lord Ramsbotham, for putting forward the amendments that saw those clauses taken out of the Bill. Lord Ramsbotham referred to clause 29 as nothing less than
“the usurpation of the proper parliamentary process.”
“how the courts are expected to respond where a young person or child in a particular local authority area is clearly disadvantaged by the arbitrary disapplication or modification of the law as it is applied in all other parts of the country.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 8 November 2016; Vol. 776, c. 1056.]
As I said earlier, a child needs protection wherever he or she may be in the country. We cannot have a competition between different areas on ways of looking after vulnerable children, some of which will not work and some of which might. Every child needs the protection of the law as set out by Parliament, and it should not be subject to a postcode lottery, as is convenient for certain local authorities.
In the debate in the other place, Lord Low said:
“It is perfectly possible to test different ways of working…within the existing legislative framework…it makes no sense to get rid of the duty.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 8 November 2016; Vol. 776, c. 1063.]
The squeeze on funding, which Members have mentioned, and which is, I am afraid, inevitable at the moment—[Interruption.] I am afraid that it is inevitable because of the disastrous way in which the Labour Government ran the economy into the ground. In too many cases now local authorities are providing only what is their duty; additional services are no longer on the agenda at all. Taking away that duty means that some of these fundamental things could not happen in the future.
Clause 29 as it was would have allowed local authorities to request exemptions from their statutory duties in children’s social care. Every Act of Parliament and every subordinate piece of legislation concerned with children’s social care from 1933 onwards could have been affected. The proposed mechanism for exemption orders was to be statutory instruments, which would have handed over enormous powers to the Secretary of State and the Department for Education. I am afraid that the Minister for School Standards is wrong: the DfE acknowledged that this part of the Bill directly concerns children’s fundamental rights. How can vulnerable children challenge those lack of services? I gave an example—it was one of many examples raised in the House of Lords—of independent reviewing officers. I am a big fan of IROs—I think we can do better, and there is a bit of a postcode lottery—as their role is to stand up and be the voice, or the advocate, of children who are not getting the services to which they are entitled and which they need from local authorities. If no IRO is available because an exemption has been applied for and granted, which means that the authority has no IROs, where is that child to go? There are not just IROs, but key legal protections that exist in the form of regulations now, including the ban on corporal punishment in foster care and children’s homes, protection for disabled children placed away from home, leaving care entitlements and complaints procedures. All of those could be granted an exemption and could disappear from fundamental rights, which we apply to protect vulnerable children now. This would be the first time in the history of children’s welfare that legislation made for all vulnerable children and young people could be disapplied in a particular area. This is a very radical proposal that warranted at least a Green Paper and a White Paper and proper consultation, but there was none.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the NSPCC and Action for Children said that
“the case that the Government is making presents considerable risk. Despite numerous conversations with ministers and officials, the evidence for the need for this power remains unconvincing and does not justify the potential risks of suspending primary legislation.”
The British Association of Social Workers said:
“If the clauses are re-introduced it will pave the way for significant and dangerous changes to the provision of children’s social care which would jeopardise hard fought victories for children’s rights spanning decades.”
How would the pilots for these provisions be monitored? How would we monitor whether children were still safe and what the results were for those children? It is no surprise that only one in 10 practising social workers surveyed by the BASW and by Unison thought this was a good idea. That is why I have severe reservations if the clause is to be returned to the Bill.
The Munro review took away much of the bureaucracy from social workers. It gave flexibility on the timing of assessments of children and how social workers could prioritise. It gave greater powers and confidence back to social workers to use their professional judgment to do what they thought best in the interests of vulnerable children. Sometimes they will get it wrong. I always say to social workers, “What I want to do, and what the Munro review was all about, is to give you the confidence to make a mistake—hopefully, not often, but to do it for the very best of reasons, not simply because that’s what it says on page 117 of the rule book and you needed to tick the boxes.” That is not what social work is all about. It is not a science. It is a complicated and challenging job.
If we are going to give social workers those flexibilities and allow them to act in different and innovative ways because they think that is the best way of looking after vulnerable children, we do not need to take away the statutory duties of the local authorities which are the corporate parents of those children, so that those new ways do not have to abide by the fundamental duties which ensure that social workers are doing the right thing and looking after those vulnerable children.
Finally, I shall look at a few specific clauses and ask the Minister some questions, which I hope he will refer to in his summing up. Clause 1 is about corporate parenting principles, which I welcome, but it is not clear exactly what they amount to in practice. Are they in addition to the section 23 commitments of the Children Act 1989 or do they replace them? I have used examples which I welcome: promoting physical and mental health, promoting high aspirations and securing the best outcomes for those children and young people. Nobody could vote against such things, but in clause 3 new section 23CZB(7) states:
“Where a former relevant child to whom this section applies is not receiving advice and support under this section, the local authority must offer such advice and support . . . at least once in every 12 months.”
Once in every 12 months will not go very far for a vulnerable child who needs intensive help. Subsection(4) makes provision for personal advisers. The problem is that too many children in care whom I met and children leaving care had never heard of personal advisers, let alone knew who their own personal adviser was.
In clause 4 new section 23ZZA(3) gives a local authority this extraordinary power:
“A local authority in England may do anything else that they consider appropriate with a view to promoting the educational achievement of relevant children educated in their area”—
motherhood and apple pie. Why do we require that sort of thing in legislation? It strikes me that a bit much of this is a bit too mushy and full of cotton wool—too many vague assumptions which in practice, particularly with funding pressures and duties taken away, will not amount to a row of beans, if we are not careful.
Obviously, the primary focus and concern is the duty of care to children, but there is also the issue of mothers who might well end up having successive children who end up in care. The local authority needs to have a responsibility for those vulnerable women, who may well be victims of a coercive relationship and have complex needs as a result. The sooner there is intervention and therapeutic care, the better, to avoid subsequent issues—maybe subsequent children and subsequent costs and concerns for all.
My hon. Friend, who has great expertise in this area, is right. Of course we cannot look at vulnerable children in isolation; we need to look at their families holistically. There are some really good examples. I hope that the Minister will stick to his word and provide funding for things such as FDAC, the family drug and alcohol court set up by the excellent Nick Crichton, a fantastic family district judge.
At FDAC, a mother—often a single mother—at risk of losing a child to the care system because of substance abuse or an abusive partner, say, is given a clear choice of an intensive package that will help her back on to the straight and narrow so that she can bring up her own child. It is a tough, challenging exercise. Alternatively, perhaps both parents will be involved. If they are able to do that, the whole family is put back together and the child stays, which is the best outcome. If not, that child will head for care.
I have sat in court, as has my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who will speak shortly, seeing mums who have had six, seven or eight children taken into the care system. We have to tackle the root of that problem: why is it? Is it that the mother just does not know how to parent, in which case what are society, social workers and the troubled families programme doing to help her become a fit parent if she remotely can? If she cannot, that child must go to a safe family elsewhere who can give them a second chance of a beneficial and happy upbringing.
I would like to make a few other quick points, Mr Deputy Speaker; I am aware that there are not too many speakers for this debate, so I have an opportunity to elaborate on some important points a little longer than the Chair normally allows. I know how generous you are in these matters, which are of great interest to you.
Clause 5 is about the designation of a member of staff at school
“having responsibility for promoting the educational achievement”
of children in the care system. That is a good initiative, but it already exists for children with caring responsibilities and alas that does not work in practice. It is a good idea, but it has to have some teeth so that it means something on the ground: that children in the care system have special attention from a designated teacher who understands the particular needs of such children, who are often subject to bullying, mental health problems and everything else. There must be more than a clause on paper in a Bill: the proposal has to work in practice.
There are some good points on the child safeguarding review panels, although I have concerns about the independence of the panels. Certainly when we gave a commitment before the 2010 election that we would publish serious case reviews—opposed by the Labour party, although the reviews have now become the norm—one of my concerns was also about the calibre of the people producing those SCRs and the quality of some of the reports. Effectively, they were not properly monitored; they were monitored only on a local basis. Some time ago, I put forward the idea that a national body should oversee the quality and that there should be a national register of authors of serious case reviews with a requirement for continuous professional development; there needed to be training, which would be updated. Before now, anybody, effectively, could apply to be the author of a serious case review. We need to regulate that important area rather better.
Under clause 13, the panel
“must publish the report, unless they consider it inappropriate to do so.”
Given that, previously, when serious case reviews were published, they were seen only by a few people locally and Department for Education officials if we were lucky, it was really important that, other than in exceptional circumstances where there could be detriment to surviving children or families, the reviews should be published and the lessons learned to see how they could apply elsewhere. This new review panel is an exercise in doing that and in disseminating best practice rather better. I very much support that, and I would like more details on how it is going to work.
Then, however, we have the section about safeguarding partners. These appear to be replacing the local safeguarding children boards, which are a really important feature of bringing together local agencies to make sure that we have workable solutions and partnerships in place, particularly to deal with child sexual exploitation at the moment. We need to be convinced about how these new bodies are better than, or different from, local safeguarding children boards and, in particular, about how they are going to be funded. Clause 20, on funding, says:
“The safeguarding partners for a local authority area in England may make payments”
towards the expenditure of these bodies
“by contributing to a fund”
or making payments directly. It also says:
“Relevant agencies for a local authority area…may make payments”.
The problem with LSCBs at the moment is that not all the partners pull their weight. In too many cases, key partners are, first, not turning up at the table and, secondly, not helping to fund the work of the LSCBs. Too often, it falls to the local authority—the default partner —to pick up too much of the tab. If we are going to put these things on a statutory basis, can we make sure that it is laid out clearly and unequivocally that the funding contribution from, and the active participation of, all the relevant partners is absolutely essential?
I am also concerned because clause 21 says:
“The safeguarding partners for two or more local authority areas in England may agree that their areas are to be treated as a single area”.
How big can they be? It is important that LSCBs are able to come up with local safeguarding plans and local plans to tackle child sexual exploitation in their areas—plans that are relevant to Rotherham, given the particular problems there, to Rochdale or to wherever. If these bodies are going to be looking after huge areas, their effect will surely be diluted in key hotspots. The Bill also talks about having cross-border constabulary co-operation, but these are very large areas, and I am concerned about how big these new bodies could become.
On the part of the Bill about the new body, Social Work England, I think we need to improve the regulation of social workers. I am not sure whether this is the right way to do it, and I would like to see more details. The demise of the College of Social Work is a shame, and I think it would have performed a lot of this function if it had been allowed to continue and to thrive. A lot of effort went into setting it up in the first place.
I am also concerned about the independence of Social Work England. My understanding is that it will be an Executive agency of the Department for Education, and we need to have some clarity over that.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
Yes—I am delighted I am getting a response.
I can reassure my hon. Friend that the new Social Work England regulatory body will not be an Executive agency; it will be a non-departmental public body, so it will be at arm’s length from the Government and provide the independence that people called for and that I think is right.
I am grateful, and gratefully reassured, and I look forward to being able to support that provision, as opposed to some others that I am not so reassured about.
In clause 31, one of the overarching objectives of Social Work England is
“to promote and maintain public confidence in social workers in England”,
and that is quite right. However, that is also the job of the chief social worker. One disappointment to me is that when we set up the chief social worker—originally, it was to be one chief social worker covering the elderly and children, but then it was split into a child social worker and an adult care social worker—the point was for them to be a high-profile face of social work, particularly for the public, and a reassuring face of child protection for the public in times of high-profile tragedies and disasters involving safeguarding issues. Therefore, while the current chief social worker for children said recently:
“I don’t pretend I am the voice of the profession. I am a civil servant and I see my role”
“offering advice to ministers based on what other people tell me about a the system”,
I think there is more to the role. This person must not just be a civil servant. They need to work closely alongside Ministers and civil servants, but equally—in action out on the street—to work alongside social workers, consultant social workers and practitioners at the sharp end. We need to revisit the balance that we currently have in that regard.
I apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker, for going on at length. This is a subject that interests me enormously. I have spent most of my career in Parliament involved with child safeguarding and child protection. I am very proud of the progress that has been made over years, but very worried that we still have a long way to go. Most of this Bill will help in that journey, but certain parts will not. I hope that when scrutinising the Bill in Committee and on Report, the Government reflect a little more before they rush to do some things that clearly are not in the best interests of vulnerable children.
It is a true pleasure to follow the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and his detailed, precise and, some might say, exhaustive analysis of the Bill before us. I think I can speak for all Labour Members in saying that we share many of the concerns that he outlined about getting right the legislation on how we protect young people in our country. I associate myself with the excellent introduction by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) in which she raised Labour Members’ concerns about the Bill while recognising that many parts are welcome and could take us forward. We share the wish across the House to provide the best safeguarding for all children.
I see this Bill as being about how we best support our children in an imperfect world—a world that we are all painfully aware of through our casework and work within our communities. That is why we all share the concern expressed by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham about the importance of partnership working—in particular, working with professionals. Many of us will have dealt with cases where we are acutely aware that we are not professionals but wish to help, and where the guidance of social workers with years of experience in complex and delicate matters has been of vital assistance to us. We therefore recognise that not involving them in this conversation may take us backwards rather than forwards as a country. Some of us have real concerns about what will replace the local safeguarding boards, and how we make sure that the multi-partnership work that has worked in some parts of the country and led to some significant changes is not lost in the process of recognising where change is needed.
In a wish not to indulge one of the customs of this House where the same thing is said several times, let me try to offer the Minister some ideas about things that I believe are missing from the Bill. I hope that we will find cross-party consensus in adding to it. One of those things, as well as a concern to avoid any suggestion of privatising such a delicate and important service, is to make sure that in talking about safeguarding we involve the concept of prevention, particularly the idea of acting earlier within the system to make sure that children are protected. I am particularly drawn to clause 16, which talks about the safeguarding and promotion of welfare of all children, and the role that local authorities might play in that.
Bearing in mind the comments of the Minister, who is sadly no longer in his place, about ensuring that a robust safeguarding system is in place, I wish to let him know that I will table amendments to bring in one of the most crucial parts of safeguarding we have yet to get right—sex and relationships education for all young people. We cannot say that we safeguard our children when we make sure that they are taught about composting but not consent. Many of us may have stories of our own sex and relationships education. I might have feared that I was forever scarred by having once fallen asleep in a classroom only to be awoken by somebody waving a female condom in my face. However, it is no laughing matter. Many of us are acutely aware of the many pressures on our young people that we need to be able to address, and, crucially, in a positive and inclusive manner. All parents will tell us that they are concerned about the world today. In a former lifetime, I was a youth worker, and we used to say that we had all been 15-year-olds but none of us had been 15-year-olds in today’s world. I am incredibly grateful, for a start, that Facebook was not around when I was at school. One third of young girls in this country report being sexually harassed at school. Three quarters of girls in a Girlguiding survey said that they were anxious about sexual harassment in their age group, and 5,500 sexual offences, including 600 rapes, were recorded in UK schools over the past three years alone.
I say that not to make parents fearful, but to ask what we can do to make sure that every young person in this country has the tools and the confidence to lead the lives that we would all wish for them, and to be able to know when no means no and yes means yes. That is why it is important that we do not let it become the internet that educates our young people or the playground that tells them what passes for acceptable sexual conduct, but that we give every young person the kind of training that we would want for our own children.
That is not a critique of parents. Indeed, many parents work very hard to make sure that their children have good ideas about sex and relationships education. We need to recognise that parents can only ever be 50% of the answer, because this is also about the other children that children will meet. Giving every child good sex and relationships education should be considered part of safeguarding, because it will make sure that every young person, whoever they come into contact with, has the skills and the tools to lead the life that they wish to lead and to deal with the modern world as it is, not as some might wish it to be.
I know that Members across the House will support that proposal. I am mindful of the support of the Select Committee Chairs, one of whom—the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller)—is in her place. I was taken by her Committee’s report, but this is not just about the Women and Equalities Committee: the Select Committees on Home Affairs, Education, Health, and Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy all agree that now is the time to make sure that every child is given access to good sex and relationships education.
The hon. Lady has prayed in aid the Home Affairs Committee. I think that she is referring to the previous Chair, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who signed up to a letter, but he did not do so on behalf of the Committee. As a member of that Committee, I did not support it. I certainly support proposals for high-quality sex and relationships education. There are ways of achieving that, not least through building resilience and supporting families, which is what the Bill is about. We can do that in lots of ways, not just the path suggested by the hon. Lady. I ask her to please acknowledge that there is significant opposition to her proposal.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, but I hope that we will be able to change his mind during our discussion. We have been having this debate for some time, and I tell him plainly that the young people of Britain are crying out for this kind of education. Time and again they say, “Ignorance is not bliss; confidence is what we want.” It is not about replacing parents; it is about supporting them and making sure that young people, wherever they are, have the right environment. It is too important not to listen to our young people when they ask for this kind of education to be done in an age-appropriate fashion in their schools. Now is the time to get it right. Select Committee Chairs acknowledge that, and, although the hon. Gentleman did not support the letter, I believe that many do. It is right that we have this debate and I hope that we can allay those fears, because the consequence of not doing so is to leave young people at risk, and I do not think that that is acceptable in the 21st century.
I agreed with the Secretary of State for Education when she said that she was minded to see this happen and that she wanted to consider all the options, and I believe that this Bill is the right way to do it. There were discussions about doing it as part of the proposed education Bill, but that has stalled, for whatever reason. The matter is too important to delay any longer. That means using this legislative opportunity to acknowledge that, in order to safeguard every young person, they need to be taught about consent—not just the biology of sex, but how to have positive, equal and safe relationships. The honest truth is that that is not happening for too many of our young people and we are seeing the consequences.
I will ask the Government to make sure that that work is part of safeguarding at a local level; that schools are given the guidance to make it available to every young person in an age-appropriate and inclusive way; that they work with communities; and, above all, that they do not simply consult, but set a timetable, because for too long our young people have been asking us to get this right, and for too long their voice has not been heard.
The hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) is no longer in his place, but I hope that there will be cross-party support for amendments that I will table on this subject. I will certainly seek that support, and I know that many Labour Members—including, I suspect, the Front-Bench team—will support those amendments. I would be happy to sit down with Ministers and look at how we can make these proposals work, because I do not think that any of us can be happy with the situation that obtains. There is general agreement that this needs to happen, and yet there is no legislation to make it happen. We are failing our young people if we keep kicking this issue into the long grass.
I hope that I can convince the Minister that there will be cross-party support on another area as well. Although the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) is yet to be convinced about the case for the changes I have just outlined, I hope that he will be convinced to back the amendments that I will propose on child refugees. He and I were certainly on the same side when it came to supporting the young people left in Calais. I acknowledge the Minister’s statement about safeguarding child refugees and recognising the importance of extending safeguarding proposals to our young people. However, I believe that his statement was undermined by the guidance that was issued by the Home Office at the same time. The Minister’s statement caused the noble Lord Dubs—a tremendous champion of our child refugees—to withdraw his amendment to this very Bill about this very matter. That amendment was withdrawn on the basis that there was good will across the House about making sure that we safeguarded child refugees, including during the process of transferring them from overseas to the UK.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her outstanding work on unaccompanied asylum seekers, who are often voiceless. Does she think that enough is being done to provide post-trauma and post-traumatic stress counselling for those children, who have seen things that are quite unimaginably horrible?
My hon. Friend raises an incredibly important point. Counselling should be part of the safeguarding process.
Many of us who deal with these young people are concerned about the fact that many of them are still in France, precisely because of the guidance issued by the Home Office, which set out a two-step process and specified that nationality would be one of the criteria for helping child refugees—ahead of their best interests. It cannot be in the best interests of a child to put nationality before need, and I hope that the Minister will recognise that the detail in his statement of 1 November is undermined by such a strategy. It is right that we clarify in amendments to the Bill that the country will always put the best interests of a child first, and that includes child refugees.
I was with the hon. Lady on the Dubs II amendment. Perhaps the link with her proposed amendments is that we can agree on the outcomes, but the question is how we achieve them. If we will the ends, is a prescribed piece of statute needed or are there other means to achieve what we want? We will debate amendments about SRE at a later stage, but the issue with her proposals about safeguarding is the practical implementation. We saw with the Dubs amendment that we need to pay careful attention to practical implementation. Prescribed legislation is not always required, but we need to hold the Minister to account and ensure that he stays true to the good words in his statement.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. I agree with much of what he has said about the difference between having to prescribe, and recognising locally led solutions. However, I disagree with him fundamentally on both points for precisely the reason that he is putting out. The outcomes that are being achieved are not what we desired; they are not the will of this place. The desired outcome in sex and relationships education is not being achieved at a local level because there is no clarity about what schools should be teaching, so too many young people are not getting the appropriate support. Even with the best will in the world and the best parenting, unless we wrap those children up in cotton wool, the other young people they meet may present a risk to them.
So, too, with child refugees. Sadly, with the Dubs amendments, good will has slowly ebbed away in this place when the implementation has not matched the outcome that we desired. Nowhere is that clearer than when the Government try to say that nationality is more important than need. Many of us were delighted by the statement that the Minister made on 1 November, and then we were horrified to read the Home Office guidance, which seemed to stand against the spirit of the statement. I believe it is necessary to clarify that we must always act in the best interests of those children, just as Lord Dubs sought to act in their best interests when he tabled his original amendment.
The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate will know the battle that we have had throughout proceedings on the legislation. As difficult and uncomfortable as some of the debates may be, and although some people may have concerns about child refugees, we must surely all want to act in their best interests. I am sorry to have to tell the Minister that some of the Government’s conduct has led many of us to believe that amendments are necessary. I will seek support from across the House to make this happen so that we can put the matter beyond doubt, because, sadly, the guidance from the Home Office does cast doubt on it.
I do not wish to echo the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham in terms of length—not to undermine anything he said—but through my proposals I am looking forward to being part of the legislative process. I am looking forward to scrutinising the Bill. I am looking forward to seeking cross-party agreement on these issues, because all of us in this House recognise that protecting children is one of the most important jobs we do. There may be disagreements about how to get there, but we do have to get there. We cannot avoid these issues any more. Whether it is our young people facing an uncertain world or the young people stuck in child centres in France right now, we have a responsibility for all of them, just as we have a responsibility for children through our corporate parenting rules. I hope that the Minister will listen and respond on all these issues. I am happy to meet him, as I am sure are many others, but we will not rest until this is resolved.