Tuesday 20 December 2016
[Robert Flello in the Chair]
UK Nationals Imprisoned Abroad
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the case of Andy Tsege and other UK nationals imprisoned abroad.
It is a pleasure to see so many hon. Members here today. I will try to limit my remarks to 20 minutes. I was informed yesterday that only three Members had put their names in to speak, so I do not know how many Members present intend to do so. Clearly, I welcome the opportunity for the debate and thank the Backbench Business Committee for providing time for it.
During this festive period, hundreds of thousands of British citizens will be travelling home to their families or going on holiday for a break. People would expect such a trip to be uneventful. Why would anything go wrong? However, for some British citizens, what happened while they were travelling abroad has turned their lives upside down in a way that many of us could not begin to comprehend.
Two prominent examples of that are Andy Tsege and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Both are British—Nazanin is a dual national—and were arrested by foreign authorities and imprisoned without access to a fair trial. Andy was kidnapped by Ethiopian agents at Sana’a International airport in Yemen, with the Yemeni authorities stating that his detention had not occurred pursuant to any judicial process. Nazanin, whose two-year-old daughter was with her, was arrested while leaving Iran. The ordeal that both Andy and Nazanin have since faced is truly shocking, and on top of the injustice of their detention, their daily lives have been subjected to gross human rights violations.
In the time permitted, I will concentrate on the cases of Andy and Nazanin. A longer debate would of course have allowed the cases of prisoners of conscience of all nationalities, held around the world, to be raised, and many organisations have contacted me since this debate was allowed in order to draw attention to such cases. For instance, Ali al-Nimr is spending his 22nd birthday in prison in Saudi Arabia. His crimes were participating in a demonstration,
“explaining how to give first aid to protestors”
and using his BlackBerry to invite others to join him at the protest.
There is also the case of Nabeel Rajab, whose trial has been delayed for the fifth time and who is expected now to be sentenced on 28th December. That is perhaps a diversionary tactic because there may be less attention on his case as festive celebrations get under way. He is a Bahraini human rights activist and opposition leader. That case is of particular interest to the UK, because of the funding from the UK that is going into training and supporting the security and justice systems in Bahrain.
There is also the case, drawn to my attention just yesterday, of a dual UK-Lebanese citizen detained in Israel. The release of Mr Faiz Mahmoud Ahmed Sherari has been ordered by a military court in Israel, but as far as I am aware he has not been released.
I would also like to use this opportunity to raise the case of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. I know that many hon. Members here today have raised concerns about the pressures that that community are under in different countries around the world—perhaps most prominently in Pakistan, but also, I understand, in Algeria.
Today, however, I will concentrate on Andy and Nazanin. This will be the third Christmas that Andy has spent alone in a prison—he is now in a prison notorious for being Ethiopia’s gulag. He has not been able to speak to his partner and children in London for two years and has had no private access to British consular officials, leaving him unable to describe freely the treatment that he has received at the hands of his jailers.
Nazanin has been held, mostly in solitary confinement, for more than nine months. Her husband has campaigned tirelessly back in London for the UK Government to call for her release. It is still unclear whether the Government have done that. I hope that when the Minister responds, he will be able to clarify that. Have the Government actually called for her release? Her husband says that she has been at breaking point. She is currently allowed to see her daughter only for one hour each week in prison. Her daughter remains trapped in Iran, unable to see her father. Furthermore, representatives of both Andy and Nazanin have repeatedly raised serious concerns about their health.
The right hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. He raises the point about what our Government have done. In the case of Andy Tsege, I do not think it is in dispute that he was rendered unlawfully and was tried in absentia, and we would not recognise those processes. Does the right hon. Gentleman not think it extraordinary, therefore, that the Government have not even requested his release?
I do indeed. What the Government are trying to initiate, which I will come on to shortly, is providing Andy Tsege with a lawyer, but as I understand it, he has no right of appeal in Ethiopia, and therefore providing him with a lawyer does not seem to be of great use.
The mistreatment of British citizens imprisoned abroad is unacceptable in all cases, regardless of what crime has been committed, yet in these cases the astounding truth is that it is clear that Andy and Nazanin are being held unlawfully. Attached to Andy’s name was a conviction and death sentence, after a trial in absentia, which was condemned throughout the world. Although Andy was previously prominent in Ethiopian politics, no country other than Ethiopia had found evidence, at the time of his kidnapping, that the political organisation with which he was involved had conspired to commit acts of terrorism.
Nazanin was recently sentenced on charges that remain secret, despite her previous employment in Iran as an aid worker. The simple fact is that if these British citizens are not going to be charged with an offence recognised internationally, they should be released immediately so that they can spend Christmas at home, safe with their families, who want nothing more than for them to be at home and for their lives to return to normality.
Yesterday, a representative of Reprieve and I met the Ethiopian ambassador about Andy’s case. We are grateful to His Excellency and the Minister responsible for public diplomacy for their time. We are aware that last Thursday—15 December—Andy received a consular visit. However, like all the other consular visits, that visit was supervised by the prison authorities. As I stated, Andy has never met consular officials in private. We understand that during the visit the UK ambassador told Andy that the UK may have found a lawyer to help him to
“assess his options under the Ethiopian legal system.”
Unfortunately, that does not, in my view, demonstrate progress on his case. First, the UK Government’s approach to this case appears to ignore the fact that Andy is the victim of a series of crimes and is not a criminal. The UK Government’s failure to condemn the series of abuses that Andy has suffered and continues to suffer at the hands of the Ethiopian regime signals that foreign Governments can ignore international law and kidnap British citizens at will.
I declare an interest as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Ethiopia and Djibouti. The right hon. Gentleman has repeatedly referred to Mr Tsege’s “kidnapping”. Does he have any evidence that that was a kidnapping? Does he have any statements provided by the Yemeni Government to that effect? I ask because obviously that is not what the Ethiopians are saying. If the right hon. Gentleman does have such evidence, I am happy to help him with the case as far as that goes.
My understanding is that the Yemenis have stated that the process of getting Mr Tsege from Yemen to Ethiopia did not follow a judicial process that they recognised. Furthermore, as the hon. Gentleman may be aware, the UK Government have repeatedly asked for a copy of the extradition treaty that apparently exists between Yemen and Ethiopia and, as far as I am aware, that has not been provided. I hope that that might provide sufficient evidence for him to want to investigate the matter further.
In addition, the UK Government’s strategy of focusing on access to a lawyer in this case is unworkable for a number of practical reasons. There is no legal conviction and sentence to appeal. Andy was convicted and sentenced to death illegally in 2009, while living in London with his family. The trial was described by a representative from the US embassy in Addis Ababa as “political retaliation” and
“lacking in basic elements of due process”.
I maintain that Andy was abducted in 2014 amid a sweeping crackdown on opposition voices. There was no lawful basis for Andy’s rendition from Yemen to Ethiopia, and he has not been charged with any new offence.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I am slightly confused by this. Do the Yemeni Government accept that they knew that Andy was being removed from their territory, or do they say that it was done secretly without their knowledge?
At the risk of repeating myself, the information I have is that the Yemeni authorities clearly know that he was taken from there but have stated that they believe that no judicial process was followed to extract him in that way. That would imply that if there was an extradition treaty in place between Yemen and Ethiopia, it was not actually used as a means of extracting him from that country. Perhaps when the Minister responds he will give us some more detail on what he believes the position to be.
The right hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way, and is laying out his case carefully and strongly. I congratulate him on securing this important debate. May I pursue this question? He has already stated that Mr Tsege may quite possibly have been the victim of a crime or of several crimes. If no judicial process was applied in the rendition from the airport in Yemen, does that imply that there could have been an official but non-judicial process? Could there have been some sort of official complicity among Yemeni authorities as well, in which case should we be aiming fire at their potentially having committed crimes against Mr Tsege?
That is a very helpful intervention, and the hon. Gentleman has highlighted an area that requires pursuing. When we had the meeting with the Ethiopian ambassador yesterday, he implied that in the past there have been arrangements between the Yemenis and the Ethiopians and that perhaps those arrangements were used, as opposed to there being a formal extradition process. Yes, we might well want to question the involvement of the Yemeni authorities.
What is clear is that had the Ethiopian Government wanted to extradite Andy lawfully, they could have made a request for his extradition from the UK authorities—although I understand that there is currently no formal extradition agreement between the UK and Ethiopia. I believe that no such request was made and, as far as I am aware, the UK Government have been provided with no evidence of Andy’s so-called terrorist activities. I understand that the UK Government are apparently being encouraged to follow—this is the description from the Ethiopian ambassador—the open trial process that found Andy guilty in absentia as their means of obtaining information, rather than necessarily expecting it from the Ethiopian Government directly.
The Ethiopian Government have publicly confirmed, on a number of occasions, that there are no legal options open to Andy. Most recently, at the meeting yesterday it was confirmed that he cannot appeal his sentence because he was absent from his trial. A plea for clemency to the Ethiopian President may be possible, and I look forward to some information that we were offered at that meeting about how such a plea could be initiated.
I maintain that access to a lawyer will not achieve justice for Andy. By continuing to pursue an unworkable strategy, the UK Government are not living up to their duty to protect British citizens facing the death penalty overseas. On that point, we got a degree of reassurance from the Ethiopian ambassador that Ethiopia does not apply capital punishment, although he did set out a couple of exceptions to that rule, so it was half reassuring and half not.
Andy’s most recent consular visit also highlighted continued failures by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in handling his case. For instance, although the FCO has continuously claimed, and represented to a UK court, that Andy could call his partner and children whenever he wanted to, the prison director informed the ambassador at the latest visit that
“prisoners cannot make phone calls.”
That, too, was confirmed in the meeting with the Ethiopian ambassador yesterday. Thus Andy is not—and, as far as I am aware, never was—able to call his family, so his children face the third Christmas in a row without any contact with their father. He does not even have a pen and paper to write them a Christmas card. Given the fairly significant failures in this case and the way that it has been managed, I hope that the Minister will be willing to conduct a meaningful review of the Government’s approach, because I do not think that approach is delivering.
What more can be done to help Andy and Nazanin? Although hundreds of thousands of people have supported petitions and campaigns, in partnership with the tireless advocacy work of groups such as Reprieve and Amnesty International, ultimately it is the Ethiopian Government, the Iranian Government and our Government who have the most influence and leverage. To the Ethiopian authorities, I make a simple plea: let Andy make that call before Christmas. He has had two years without contact with his wife or children, and that can stop very easily if the Ethiopian authorities permit it.
To the Iranian authorities, pending Nazanin’s release, which I hope will be soon, I say: allow for visits for her young daughter involving extended contact, and in a suitable environment, taking account of the best interests of the child in line with the provisions of the convention on the rights of the child, which I am pleased that Iran has ratified. There is not time to raise the case of Kamal Foroughi in any detail, but I hope that other Members may refer to his case as well.
What should the UK Government do at this point? They need to call openly and loudly for Iran and Ethiopia to free Nazanin and Andy respectively. I believe that the weight of the Prime Minister calling for their release would be significant and set a strong tone that the UK does not stand by and let its citizens face appalling treatment, trapped in prisons, thousands of miles from their homes. We have seen the US and Canada—and the UK previously—secure the release of their citizens after publicly raising calls for the release of their nationals imprisoned unlawfully abroad. Yet the UK Government appear reluctant to do the same now.
The FCO stresses the work that it does for the families of Andy and Nazanin, and says that it repeatedly raises their cases with the respective Governments. However, all it appears to be doing is acquiescing in the dubious charges imposed on them by saying that it will not get involved in the legal system of another state, despite those legal systems being grossly, and so obviously, unfair. I am familiar with that argument—all too familiar with it—in relation to the constituency case of Neil Juwaheer, whose parents believe was murdered by Brazilian police in a Brazilian police station.
If we were to get just one official public statement from our Prime Minister unequivocally calling for Andy’s and Nazanin’s release, and for the release of other British nationals imprisoned unlawfully abroad, that would convince the public that our Government will stand up for their citizens and would send a strong and unequivocal message to foreign Governments. My call is for the Prime Minister, the Government and the Minister to give Andy and Nazanin’s families some seasonal comfort over the next week—pick up the phone, issue a statement and call for their release.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) on securing this debate. As we have heard today, Mr Tsege, who was a prominent figure in Ethiopian opposition politics, has experienced terrible difficulties. He has undergone experiences that give many colleagues in this House cause for concern, which is evidenced by the number of Members of Parliament, from many different parties, who are in their places today.
I am here today because a member of my staff recently met Mr Tsege’s partner, Ms Hailemariam, at her request here in Parliament, was deeply moved by the family’s plight and referred Mr Tsege’s case to me. I pay tribute to Ms Hailemariam for her tenacity and perseverance in championing her partner’s case; as I said, that is why I am here today.
I will focus on one aspect of Mr Tsege’s case—that is, the apparent absence of the appropriate due judicial process. Judicial process under law is not apparent from his situation, and we in the UK Parliament should defend the right of all our fellow citizens, wherever they are in the world, to have the benefit of due process under law, whatever they might be suspected or accused of. We should not tolerate without challenge a UK citizen being subject to peremptory abduction, rendition, imprisonment and the lack of a fair trial, as appears to have happened in Andy Tsege’s case. That is why so many of us are here today.
I am so sorry to interrupt again. Is Andy now under sentence of death, having been tried in absentia, so he is there permanently? Is there any chance of a review of his case by the judicial authorities in Ethiopia? In other words, are we down to political, international and diplomatic pressure to get him out?
As far as I understand it, in Ethiopia there is no right of appeal from a death sentence. I stand to be corrected if other hon. Members understand the situation differently, but I see some nodding in the Chamber.
I do not want to interrogate the veracity of the claims against Mr Tsege, but whatever the intricacies of his particular case, we cannot avoid the fact that a UK citizen has, by all accounts, been kidnapped, arrested, rendered and imprisoned, and then tried, convicted and sentenced to death in absentia, in flagrant contravention of the due process of law.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) on securing the debate. Is it not material to this matter for the international community that the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention described Mr Tsege’s detention as “illegal” and concluded that an “adequate remedy” would be to release him and afford him “adequate compensation”?
That is right. As we have heard, Mr Tsege was convicted in absentia in 2009 while he was at home with his family in London. He was not formally notified of the proceedings brought against him, nor of his ultimate sentence. Obviously, he was not given any opportunity to defend himself and the US State Department has described his 2009 trial as an act of “political retaliation” that was
“lacking in basic elements of due process”.
Mr Tsege was sentenced under Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation of 2009—a statute that the Foreign Office has noted has been used to
“restrict…opposition and dissent”
“members of opposition groups, journalists”
Mr Tsege was tried alongside scores of other political prisoners including his 82-year-old father. What is very concerning is that the anti-terrorism proclamation under which he was convicted was not introduced until a month after his in absentia trial began in June 2009. I know that many hon. Members share my concern about retrospective legislation, particularly in the case of criminal charges.
During the proceedings, the prosecution amended the charges against Mr Tsege, dropping the initial allegation that he was involved in plotting a coup d’état and introducing instead charges of conspiring to dismantle the constitutional order. I understand that UK authorities have noted that at no point have they been presented with any evidence against Mr Tsege from the Ethiopian authorities that would stand up in a British court, despite the requests made of the Ethiopian Government.
The civil liberties group, Reprieve, which I commend on highlighting the case, said that Mr Tsege was bound, hooded and bundled onto a plane headed for Ethiopia. It should be noted that the circumstances of his abduction, which have been widely publicised, have not been disputed by Ethiopian officials. The fact remains that the Ethiopian Government did not request his lawful extradition while he was living in London, nor have they produced any evidence to back up the claim of an extradition arrangement with Yemen. His kidnap at an overseas airport is a clear breach of the established international legal extradition process.
Further, the UN special rapporteur on torture reported to the United Nations Human Rights Council that Ethiopia’s treatment of Mr Tsege has violated the convention against torture. In addition to the marked difference in Mr Tsege’s physical appearance before and after abduction in his television appearances—it is clearly discernible—a British psychiatrist commissioned by Reprieve, who has assessed his case, has noted his deteriorating mental state. I understand that Ethiopia has not allowed the British Government to have a private consular visit, making it impossible for Mr Tsege to report directly instances of suspected mistreatment.
There have been some consular visits, albeit not private. When Mr Tsege was with the UK ambassador to Ethiopia he stressed that he only ever advocated the conduct of politics “by peaceful means.” That echoes his testimony before the European Parliament in 2006 in which he encouraged Members of the European Parliament to back the
“peaceful, just and fair struggle of the people of Ethiopia for freedom and democracy”.
In the years before his abduction, Mr Tsege mounted a global campaign to draw worldwide attention to concerning developments in Ethiopia. He testified before the European Parliament and the United States Congress, encouraging the latter to introduce legislation to encourage Ethiopia to engage in “democratisation and economic liberalisation”.
Some organisations, such as the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which has investigated the case, have concluded that the only proper solution is for Mr Tsege to be immediately released and returned home. It could well be argued that the UK Government should demand that. If, following his release, the Ethiopian Government then wish to pursue a case against him, they should do so legitimately by seeking his extradition and observing the norms of legal process. What is the Minister’s response to that and what steps have the UK Government taken in that regard? Have they pushed for Mr Tsege’s release from Ethiopia, or have diplomatic efforts been limited, as has been reported, to efforts to try to convince the Ethiopian Government to grant him access to a lawyer, which, as we have heard, will be of limited benefit at this stage? Perhaps the UK Government are aware of information that is not in the public domain; what can the Minister tell us to help us to understand the otherwise inexplicable treatment of Mr Tsege?
In a recent letter to supporters of Andy Tsege, the Foreign Secretary wrote that
“Britain does not interfere in the legal systems of other countries”,
but it is interesting to note that in recent years, two UK citizens who were arbitrarily detained have been released: Lee Po in China and Karl Andree in Saudi Arabia. I understand that, in both cases, their release came about following intervention by the UK.
The question is whether we believe that the circumstances of Mr Tsege’s arrest and subsequent treatment are acceptable. Surely they are not.
While the hon. Lady is on the subject of aid, I wonder whether she had an opportunity on her visit to look at the MSc in security sector management. I understand it was initially funded through a Department for International Development programme and it appears that some of the people who were responsible for Mr Tsege’s detention had taken part.
Thank you, Mr Flello. I did not have an opportunity to see the project to which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) referred.
In conclusion, disrespect for basic human rights continues to be widespread throughout the globe. I see that all too frequently as chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. It is in that capacity, as well as in my capacity as a Member of Parliament, that I raise concerns about Mr Tsege today. As the Secretary-General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, so eloquently stated:
“Upholding human rights is in the interest of all. Respect for human rights advances well-being for every individual, stability for every society, and harmony for our interconnected world.”
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Flello. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for this opportunity to discuss Andy Tsege’s case, which my speech will be focused on. Over the past year or so, I have been contacted by a lot of constituents who are concerned about the British Government’s apparent failure to support a British citizen with a partner and three children in London. I have met with Reprieve to talk about the case and I pay tribute to that organisation, not just for representing Andy, but for its work over many years in challenging the use of the death penalty across the world.
As we have heard—I will recap briefly—Mr Tsege was sentenced to death in absentia in 2009. He was at home in the UK at the time and had received no notification of the proceedings against him. He was convicted under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, legislation that was not even introduced until a month after his trial began, and there are reports that the prosecution frequently amended the charges against him. The trial was described by a representative from the US embassy in Addis Ababa as “political retaliation” and
“lacking in basic elements of due process”.
As we have heard, rather than the Ethiopian Government approaching the UK to see whether Mr Tsege could be extradited, he was kidnapped at a Yemen airport, bound, hooded, and taken on a plane to Ethiopia in breach of international legal extradition processes. For a while, no one knew where he was being detained, but he eventually surfaced at a prison that has been described as “Ethiopia’s gulag”. His partner is not permitted to travel to Ethiopia and neither she, nor their three children, have spoken to him in two years. He has been shown on state television, where he apparently appeared exhausted and to have lost a lot of weight. The UN special rapporteur on torture has reported to the Human Rights Council that Mr Tsege’s treatment has violated the convention against torture, and a British psychiatrist has reported that his mental state is deteriorating.
While Mr Tsege has been detained, he has been allowed only brief and irregular visits from British consular officials, and none of those visits has been private. I understand that the most recent visit was last Thursday, in which he was told that a lawyer may have been found for him to assess his options under the Ethiopian legal system. I am sure that the Minister will tell us that this is a positive step forward, but it will be small comfort given that Mr Tsege was illegally convicted and sentenced to death, that there was no lawful basis for his rendition from Yemen to Ethiopia, and that the Ethiopian ambassador has confirmed to Reprieve and to the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) that there is no right of appeal. Will the Minister explain what he believes legal representation for Mr Tsege would actually achieve and why the Foreign Office has not done much more to support him?
The Foreign Office, in seeking to explain its reluctance to help Mr Tsege, said that the UK does not intervene in other countries’ legal systems. Yet Reprieve points out that the UK has frequently requested and secured the release of British nationals who have been arbitrarily detained in other countries. It also points to President Obama’s successful request, before his visit to Ethiopia, for the release of bloggers sentenced to death under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation as evidence that the Ethiopian Government will respond positively to international pressure. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has also called for Mr Tsege’s immediate release.
I can understand why the UK would not wish, as a general rule, to intervene in other countries’ judicial systems, but surely that should apply only when we have confidence that the rule of law, due process and the independence of the judiciary from political interference—basic principles that should be at the heart of any legal system—are being upheld. Surely we have a responsibility to speak out where freedom of expression is under threat, and a duty to challenge torture and oppose the death penalty in all circumstances. The Minister must see that Mr Tsege’s case highlights concerns on all those fronts, and he knows that there are wider concerns about Ethiopia’s human rights record. The Foreign Office has expressed concern that, in an attempt to restrict dissent:
“Those detained under the ATP include members of opposition groups, journalists, peaceful protesters, and others seeking to express their rights to freedom of assembly or expression”.
Amnesty International’s annual report highlights how members of opposition parties and protesters have been extra-judicially executed, and that the elections took place
“against a backdrop of restrictions on civil society, the media and the political opposition, including excessive use of force against peaceful demonstrators...and the harassment of election observers”.
It also reports that the ATP was used to “suppress freedom of expression” and detain journalists in the run-up to the election, and that many journalists have been forced to flee the country. Amnesty has condemned the recent arrest of the Ethiopian opposition leader as
“an outrageous assault on the right to freedom of expression and should sound alarm bells for anyone with an interest in ending the deadly protests that have rocked Ethiopia over the past year.”
The Human Rights Watch report on Ethiopia also makes for disturbing reading, with evidence of
“harassment, arbitrary arrest, and politically motivated prosecutions.”
It says that the media “remained under government stranglehold” and that security personnel have tortured political detainees. Human Rights Watch also describes Mr Tsege’s removal from Yemen as “unlawful”.
Even if the Foreign Office thought that Mr Tsege’s trial and detention complied with international law—a very big if, given what we have heard this morning—surely the Government would still have an obligation to challenge the death sentence given that the UK unequivocally opposes the death sentence in all circumstances. That used to be a human rights priority for the Foreign Office, but those priorities have now been abandoned in a shameful sign that the Government’s human rights work has been downgraded.
The Government chose not to renew their strategy for the abolition of the death penalty when it ran out last year. I would be grateful if the Minister would tell us why, and what the Government are doing to ensure that the international community does not interpret this as a weakening commitment to global abolition, because that is what it looks like. Will the Minister tell us whether FCO resources for challenging the death penalty have also been downgraded? The Minister will no doubt tell us that the Foreign Office has replaced its six human rights priorities with its three pillars. I would appreciate an update on how the Foreign Office is working to support those pillars overseas. I urge the Minister to consider the questions that Mr Tsege’s case raises about Ethiopia’s commitments to democratic values, the rule of law and the rules-based international system.
The UK’s support for human rights—domestically and internationally—should be robust and categorical. Too often, the issue appears to be an afterthought for Ministers when abroad and to be seen as a nuisance at home. I ask the Minister to reflect on what Mr Tsege and his family have been through over the last few years and to consider whether he deserves better from this Government. It is shameful and indefensible to treat a British citizen in this way. I hope we hear a firm commitment from the Minister to do absolutely everything he can, using the considerable leverage at the Government’s disposal, to secure justice and freedom for Mr Tsege.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) on securing it. The Library background information shows that he has done a lot of extremely good work for the gentleman in question.
As the human rights spokesperson for the Democratic Unionist party at Westminster, it is incumbent on me to raise the plight of a gentleman who has been the beneficiary of political asylum here in the UK since 1979. We are all aware of how the asylum system works and the fact that asylum is not easily granted. I recently dealt with a gentleman seeking asylum whose brother was murdered in Zimbabwe due to his political affiliation, and it has been a long battle to have the Home Office recognise his status. As we all know, Zimbabwe will shortly hold elections, but it is an authoritarian regime. I can but hope that true democracy will happen and the dictator, Mugabe, will be ousted so that my constituent and his family can return home to the country he loves and where he wants to be.
The fact that Andy was granted political asylum shows that he has a valid case. Our asylum rules state that, to stay in the UK as a refugee, a person must be unable to live safely in any part of their own country because they fear persecution, as Andy clearly does. Such persecution must be because of a person’s race, religion, nationality, political opinion—as in this case—or anything else that puts them at risk because of the social, cultural, religious or political situation in their country, such as their gender, gender identity or sexual orientation. A claimant must have failed to receive protection from authorities in their own country.
We are aware of many other cases across the world, and the right hon. Gentleman referred to some of them in his introduction. I asked a parliamentary question in July in which I asked the Minister to urge
“the government of Iran to apply without discrimination Article 58 of the Islamic Penal Code to permit Kamal Foroughi’s early release.”
The Minister replied that
“Mr Foroughi’s lawyers would be welcome to have contact with the Iranian Judicial authorities.”
Has the Foreign Office had any opportunity to assist Kamal Foroughi’s lawyers?
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has also been mentioned. Human rights abuses are rampant in Iran, and this lady has been abused and had her personal liberty taken from her. There have been petitions, and MPs, including me and many others in this room, have joined the campaign—we are all here to make the case.
Andy, who was born in Ethiopia, was granted asylum because he is a well-known and respected critic of the Ethiopian Government. In recent years he has appeared before the US Congress and the European Parliament’s sub-committee on human rights to speak about the current regime’s poor human rights record. Andy fled Ethiopia in the 1970s after facing serious threats from the then Government because of his democratic political beliefs. His younger brother had already been murdered by Government security forces.
Andy’s safety in prison has been questioned, as have his cell and the people he is with. What has been done about that? We did not send him home, because we accepted that his life was at risk. His life is now at risk, and we have not secured his release and have perhaps not given the right help. Is that right? Surely we can and should apply diplomatic pressure to bring this British citizen, and father of British children, home to his family. The Foreign Secretary secured legal representation for Andy in June 2016, and he said:
“I have now received a commitment”.
What commitment did he receive, and what is he doing in relation to that commitment? It is important that we find out.
Since being kidnapped in June 2014, Andy has not been allowed access to his family, a lawyer or British consular officials throughout his ordeal. He has not been charged with any crime, and he has not been subjected to any legal process. In July 2014, Ethiopian state TV aired a heavily edited video of Andy apparently confessing to a number of offences. He appeared gaunt and disoriented, and he had noticeably lost weight. Screaming could be heard in the background. Torture is extremely widespread in Ethiopian prisons, and political detainees such as Andy are routinely abused to extract information and false confessions. Ethiopia is one of the world’s most repressive regimes. Christians are persecuted, stripped of their human rights, abused, tortured and reduced to second-class citizens in their own country.
The hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias) spoke about the aid that Ethiopia receives. Something is seriously wrong when a girl band—they are known as Ethiopia’s Spice Girls—received £5.2 million in aid, on top of the £4 million that they have already received, but we cannot help this man Andy. That is disgraceful. I understand the Foreign Office’s position, but I make it clear that we have a moral obligation to call for Andy’s release. I support those calls today.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Flello. I thank the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) for securing this important debate. I do not disagree with anything he said. I declare an interest as vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on human rights and chair of the all-party parliamentary group on democracy and human rights in the Gulf. I have tabled written questions on Andy Tsege, and I am thankful that we have now been afforded the opportunity to debate his case.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West (Chris Law), who is a vocal campaigner for Andy’s release and has worked closely with Andy’s family and Reprieve over the last six months. Unfortunately, my hon. Friend is unable to attend today’s debate, but I hope that my party colleagues and I are able to convey many of the points he would have intended to make.
As we are all aware, Andy’s situation is very worrying. Ethiopia is a country where tensions are high, where the human rights situation was described only last month as “dire” by a representative of Amnesty International, and where the recent elections in 2015 were held against a backdrop of reported political intimidation of opposition parties. Evidently, Ethiopia is a country fraught with problems, and it is concerning that Andy is currently languishing there.
Since his incarceration, the Ethiopian authorities have continued to peddle the myth that Andy is a terrorist and that his political party, Ginbot 7, is a terrorist organisation. Frankly, that could not be further from the truth and as his partner, Yemi Hailemariam, has said, he is a “politician, not a terrorist.” Ginbot 7, despite sustained pressure from the Ethiopian Government, has not been proscribed as a terrorist organisation by any other Government and, indeed, the UK is yet to be provided with any evidence of Andy’s supposed terrorist activity. It is appalling that Ethiopia is taking that line, and I truly hope that the UK Government have been vocal in rebuffing those claims to their counterparts.
I would be grateful if the Minister outlined whether the Ethiopian authorities have recently tried to provide any evidence against Andy and, if so, what the Government have said to the Ethiopian authorities in response. As per an answer provided by Baroness Anelay of St Johns on 1 December, Andy has now been visited by UK officials on 12 different occasions. That is in addition to the efforts of the Foreign Secretary and the UK ambassador, who regularly raise Andy’s case with the Ethiopian authorities.
Despite those prolonged and sustained efforts, Andy remains locked up in prison. The Government’s representations are welcome, but the Foreign Office must go further and call for Andy’s immediate and unconditional release. We keep hearing from the FCO that Andy has access to legal advice, but that simply does not go far enough. Reprieve has argued that any legal access is effectively pointless, as the Ethiopian Government have already said that there is no legal route by which Andy can be allowed to contest his death sentence.
The UK Government have repeatedly claimed:
“Britain does not interfere in the legal systems of other countries by challenging convictions.”
However, Reprieve categorically disputes that rebuttal. It is of the opinion that the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond), personally intervened in the case of Karl Andree, who was released from a Saudi Arabian prison in 2015. As such, will the Minister clarify why it seems that the Government’s approach to Andy is different from their approach to Mr Andree?
Furthermore, what is the Minister’s position on the comments made by the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) that, as Andy was kidnapped and sentenced to death in absentia, the Government should be calling for his release? Last Wednesday marked two years since Yemi and Andy’s children last held a conversation with their father—two full years in which he has had minimal contact with the outside world and has been stuck in a prison dubbed “Ethiopia’s gulag”. Andy now faces the prospect of another Christmas behind bars, without seeing or hearing from his beloved wife and three children.
In closing, I would like to draw a parallel with the situation of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Only last week, I met her husband Richard. After speaking with him, I could not stop thinking about how their family’s Christmas will not be celebrated. Nazanin and Richard have a young child, Gabriella. It is absolutely heartbreaking to think what they are all going through. The hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) has been a great advocate for her constituent, and I hope that the Government can assist further with the case. At a time when families around the world are coming together, the families of Nazanin and Andy could not be further apart. The Government must do more for them, and they must be willing to demand their immediate release.
It is an honour to serve—in haste—under your chairmanship, Mr Flello. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) on securing this important debate, which allows us to mention a number of cases. We have heard about the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. We need her release, but also, pending that, we need proper access for her family. The case of Kamal Foroughi, which was described strongly by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), is similar.
Like others, I will concentrate particularly on the case of Andy Tsege. I met his family initially after, as an officer of the all-party parliamentary group on human rights, I was made aware of his case by the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), who was also an officer and ensured that the group took up his constituent’s case, which he had been following. Obviously, since the right hon. Gentleman’s elevation to Leader of the Opposition, he is more constricted in what he can do and say in proceedings such as this, but I note his attendance for a large part of the debate, as I am sure have Andy Tsege’s family.
Let us be clear: we are talking in this case about a series of instances in which someone has been treated appallingly. Andy Tsege was tried in absentia, which is a scandal in itself. He was then sentenced to death, which is also a scandal and should be cause for alarm given the UK’s diplomatic stance. He was then rendered in a gross way from a third country and imprisoned in Ethiopia, where he has been tortured and mistreated. Let us remember that the anti-terror proclamation under which he was sentenced was not introduced until a month after his trial in absentia began in June 2009. Every stage of this case stinks. We must remember that Andy Tsege is a dual national, and the trial in absentia happened while he was here in the UK with his family.
We have been told in numerous parliamentary answers that Andy Tsege’s case is a priority for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but can the Minister tell us what less the FCO could have done had this case not been a priority? Thankfully, there have been a number of visits, but none of them has taken place free of the presence of the Ethiopian authorities. The FCO is also involved in the constant circular offer of legal assistance. As the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington said in introducing the debate, the fact is that Andy is not a criminal; he is the victim of a series of crimes. The Government should not collude in the fiction that there is a legal process or that there are recognisable charges against this UK citizen.
I am certainly not taking sides with the Ethiopian Government on this issue, but I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is using somewhat excessive language. The British Government have not been complicit at all. They have been active on the case for two years that I know of. Perhaps he might want to reconsider. He is normally much more reasonable than that.
If the hon. Gentleman checks, he will see that I said that the Government are constantly referring to legal advice and legal assistance, in circumstances where there is no process. We have already heard that there is no right of appeal for Andy Tsege, and that he was tried in absentia. What I said was that the Government’s line about legal advice colludes with the fiction that there is a legal process with recognisable charges. I did not imply any other degree of complicity, and I did not actually use the word to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I know that he chairs the all-party parliamentary group on Ethiopia and Djibouti; it would have been interesting if he could have offered some alternative narrative from the Ethiopian authorities. As I understand it, the FCO has neither been given one nor referred to one, although the Minister might correct me on that when he replies.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) on securing the debate and giving such a succinct summary of the case. It seems to me that the crime committed by Andy Tsege is being an outspoken critic of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. I thought that we in this country encouraged that kind of behaviour, so I am not sure why, as the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) has just said, we are now accepting the Ethiopian version of events.
What is clear is that if the cornerstone of the British case is that Andy Tsege should be allowed access to legal representation, that has to mean more than just a list of lawyers that he may or may not still possess. The bottom line is that we would not expect any British citizen to get such poor support from the authorities. Will the Minister demand private access to Mr Tsege? Will he ensure proper legal representation? In fact, will he do what we would expect him to do for anybody and demand this man’s release?
Thinking back to the case of John McCarthy, what would have happened if we had all just sat back quietly and said nothing? Would McCarthy ever have been released? We must shout loudly and clearly that we are not putting up with that for Andy Tsege, or for Nazanin Ratcliffe. We expect our Government to protect our citizens, stand up for the rule of law and make it absolutely clear to regimes around the world that if they have no respect for human rights and the rule of law, they will get no favours from us.
I thank Reprieve for its outstanding research and advocacy on the case of Andy Tsege and many others in which I have been involved. I say to the Minister, as have others, that the Government have intervened before. They intervened in the case of Karl Andree, and of my constituent Ghoncheh Ghavami, the young woman imprisoned in Iran for trying to go and see a volleyball game. She was released; her case was raised by the former Foreign Secretary with his Iranian counterpart. The former Prime Minister intervened in the case of Shaker Aamer, as did others.
I am delighted to see here the Leader of the Opposition, who is Andy Tsege’s MP, as well as the shadow Foreign Secretary. The Leader of the Opposition has worked on many such cases over the years. I went with him to Washington as part of the attempt to get Shaker Aamer released; the British Government were active in that case as well. The Minister himself has raised the case of the three young Saudis still on death row: Ali al-Nimr, Dawood al-Marhoon and Abdullah al-Zaher.
However, there are other cases in which the Government pull their punches, such as the case of Nabeel Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, who has been in and out of prison for five years, and is currently there on a charge of spreading false news by tweeting in a bid to discredit Bahrain. Believe me, that regime needs no help discrediting itself. There is often a suspicion that where our Government have trade or military links, they pull their punches on such matters. They are doing so in relation to Andy Tsege, who is a British citizen. Many of the people in the other cases that I have mentioned were not British citizens, or had dual citizenship. Undoubtedly we should intervene.
I know that time is extremely short. There appears to be no doubt—again, I am grateful for the briefing from Reprieve—that Andy Tsege’s case involves unlawful rendition. The Ethiopians do not appear to deny that; the Yemenis appear to accept it. That in itself should result in his release being immediately called for. There has been no due process. There is precedent for Government intervention, so I urge the Minister to give us some hope and confidence, particularly as we approach Christmas, that Andy Tsege can return home to spend time with his family in Britain.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Flello. A lot of the points have already been comprehensively made, so I will be as brief as I can in order to give the Minister and the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson the opportunity to respond. I join other Members in congratulating the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) on securing this debate, and I congratulate all the Members who have spoken and attended today.
Such cases attract considerable concern and public interest. I have been contacted—like almost every Member here, I suspect—by dozens of constituents calling on the UK Government to do right by these citizens and actively seek their release from unjust imprisonment. On behalf of the Scottish National party, I pay tribute to the campaign groups that have kept the flame of hope alive for so many prisoners, particularly Reprieve, Amnesty International and, here in Westminster, the all-party group on human rights. My hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) mentioned my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West (Chris Law), who unfortunately cannot be here; I also commend my hon. Friend the Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins), who supported the bid to the Backbench Business Committee for this debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West was told on 6 July by the then Prime Minister, David Cameron:
“Our consul has been able to meet Mr Tsege on a number of occasions and we are working with him and with the Ethiopian Government to try to get this resolved.”—[Official Report, 6 July 2016; Vol. 612, c. 878.]
Patently the situation has not been resolved. We have heard the details of the case from a number of Members: a UK citizen has been rendered from Yemen to Ethiopia, essentially abducted and detained after a trial in absentia that he knew nothing about, and is now under a death sentence, facing the rest of his life in prison with no access to legal representation or clear route for appeal. The point has been well made by several Members, including the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan): what is the point of legal representation if there is no right to appeal?
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) on securing this debate. The case has horrifying features. The legal system that I have seen in this country in many years practising at the Bar has many features that protect the human rights of individuals who face trial. Does the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) agree that Britain can have a real role in arguing for increased standards in human rights and representation at trial throughout the entire world?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place. I wholeheartedly agree with his point; I might touch on it towards the end of my remarks.
What other steps are the UK Government taking to monitor the wellbeing of their citizen, who is being held in what we have heard described as Ethiopia’s gulag? When will the next private consular visit be? When will he be allowed to speak to his family?
We have also heard about the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke about in some detail. It is another dreadful situation, in which a British citizen was lifted at Tehran airport and, after an unfair trial, sentenced to five years. Again, there has been massive interest in her campaign from civil society and the public; I saw some of the campaigners making their way along Parliament Street a few weeks ago as I was on my way to the SNP offices at No. 53. I am proud to be among the Members of Parliament who signed a card to Nazanin, to let her know that she was being thought about, at the reception recently hosted by Amnesty International in Speaker’s House. The card is in the oldest and finest traditions of Amnesty. I remember being taken as a young boy to a talk about its work in support of prisoners of conscience and about the difference that a letter can make, whether it is to prisoners themselves, to the detaining authority or to our own Government. But we should not have to write such letters; as Members of Parliament we should be in receipt of them.
I believe that we are united today in this Chamber and across the House in calling out these unjust imprisonments and calling on the Government to do more. The same is clearly true in the case of Kamal Foroughi. The SNP has welcomed the thawing of relations with Iran and the diplomatic progress that has been made, but how will the UK Government use that relationship to press for the release of these prisoners, or at the very least for consular access or third-party access from the likes of Amnesty and other human rights organisations?
The debate raises broader points for the UK Government. How can UK citizens denied their rights overseas be protected by any new human rights Act that the Government might bring in here in the UK? If UK citizens in such desperate circumstances cannot rely on the Government to defend their basic human rights, why should the rest of us at home have any confidence? The hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias) made a very important point about rendition, and particularly the use of the British Indian Ocean Territory. The Government have to be clear about whether that territory has been used for rendition and on what occasions, and while they are at it they should consider the resettlement of the Chagos islanders—an issue that I know the Leader of the Opposition is also exercised about.
The point about the UK’s position on the death penalty was well made by the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy); as is often the case, I agreed with almost everything she said, so there is not much need to repeat it. My hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and other Members all gave examples of cases in which the UK Government have interfered in or made comments about judicial systems in other countries. The key point in these cases is that there is no evidence that the judicial systems in question are meeting any international standards; these people have been illegally or unlawfully detained, so there is no judicial process for the Government to interfere with.
The UK Government have a duty to lead and to give confidence to all their citizens, here and overseas, that they respect human rights and the rule of law. This is the festive season; one of the great Biblical injunctions is
“to proclaim good news to the poor…liberty to captives”,
so let us hope that the Government will live up to the spirit of the season and call today for these prisoners to be set free.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Flello. I thank the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) for securing this debate and the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. This matter is long overdue to be addressed by the House.
Some powerful speeches have been made today. I thank the hon. Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier), for Foyle (Mark Durkan), and for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), and my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), and for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), for contributing to the debate. A running theme has been the fact that the Government have intervened in other cases, with the case of Karl Andree being a prominent example. The hon. Member for Foyle made a powerful speech expressing his frustration, which I think many of us feel, and his criticisms should be borne in mind. Many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, highlighted the perceived poor support for these prisoners from the Government and the failure to demand their release.
On the day the Foreign Secretary was appointed, he stated that even when British nationals depart our shores, their rights as British nationals travel with them—that
“when you leave Heathrow, when you leave Dover, a British citizen is basically the responsibility of the Foreign Office”.
Unfortunately, as this debate has highlighted, those words ring hollow in the cases of Andy Tsege; of many other British nationals who are being detained abroad, such as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Kamal Foroughi, who are both being held in Iranian detention facilities; of Ali al-Nimr, who is being held in Saudi Arabia; of Nabeel Rajab, a Bahraini human rights activist; and of many others who have been mentioned today.
We are concentrating on the case of Andy Tsege. As we have already heard, he was sentenced in absentia under Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism proclamation of 2009, while living here in London. That legislation has been described as a way to
“restrict…opposition and dissent”
“members of opposition groups, journalists, peaceful protesters”—
those are the words of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
It is worth noting that Mr Tsege’s case differs from many other UK consular cases, but that was not mentioned in a letter written by the Foreign Secretary on the matter on 14 December. Mr Tsege became a victim of extraordinary rendition in June 2014. He was apprehended by Ethiopian forces while travelling through an international airport in Yemen and taken illegally to a prison in Ethiopia to be charged and sentenced to death without a fair and free trial and without legal representation. My first question to the Minister is whether he will clarify why that point was not made in the 14 December letter.
The Ethiopian Foreign Minister has told UK officials that Mr Tsege is not permitted to appeal against his death sentence. After promising the previous Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond), that Mr Tsege would be allowed to see a lawyer, the Ethiopian Government have failed to deliver on that pledge. He has only just received a list of lawyers allowed to represent him, but has been given no way of contacting them. I hope for more information and clarity on that from the Minister today.
Andy Tsege’s whereabouts remained unknown for two weeks after he was taken. He was then kept in solitary confinement for 12 months. The UN special rapporteur on torture has reported to the UN Human Rights Council that Ethiopia’s treatment of Mr Tsege has violated the convention against torture. UK consular staff in Ethiopia have yet to visit him privately since he was imprisoned. Rumours of human rights abuses have emerged, and he recently reported that he feared for his life. Will the Minister provide an update on progress, Mr Tsege’s health, and the possibility of future visits?
The shadow Foreign Office team have been working hard to press the Government into action to secure Mr Tsege’s release and to raise awareness of the case at the respective agencies. My predecessors and I have regularly written to, met and spoken to the Foreign Secretary and Ministers to urge the Government to speak out on this issue, but so far they have refused to demand his release. The shadow Foreign Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), and the Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), have on two occasions held meetings with the Ethiopian ambassador and the Ethiopian representatives at the UN Human Rights Council. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition—Andy Tsege is a constituent of his—has had a request to visit him refused. My hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary represents Yemi and Andy’s family, who live in her Islington South and Finsbury constituency, and she has worked tirelessly to raise the profile of this case, which I am very pleased has been brought to the House’s attention today.
While the release of Andy Tsege, and that of the other UK nationals in the cases highlighted, is being negotiated, what interim action will the Minister take to ensure that such prisoners are treated fairly and humanely? We fully understand and respect that we should not wish to interfere in other countries’ legal systems and determinations, but Mr Tsege has been given no legal due process, nor has any evidence been produced of the crimes that he has allegedly committed. The legality of his extradition is also questionable. A British national has been illegally detained through the means of extraordinary rendition and has suffered human rights abuses. I press the Minister to use his influence and uphold our responsibility to secure Andy’s release and return him home to our shores.
I pay tribute to the families who have endured the forced removal of their loved ones, often without knowing where they are, how they are being treated and even whether they are still alive. I, too, attended Amnesty International’s Human Rights Day event, which the hon. Member for Glasgow North mentioned. I agree with him that we need to do more than write letters, as much as we know that such gestures are appreciated.
Andy Tsege’s partner Yemi has campaigned endlessly for the past two and a half years to try to bring her partner home to their three children. She has had one solitary phone call from Andy since he was apprehended. She has said:
“The saddest part in this ordeal is how Andy’s case has been handled by this government. It is surely the bare minimum for a British national to expect that his government will protect him and stand up for his human rights.”
She finished by saying:
“I am beginning to lose faith with what it means to be a British citizen. Not just for Andy, who has been abandoned by his Government, but also for me and my children, who were born and raised here. I fully appreciate the boundless complexities, but there is one very simple fact that every day that goes by we all lose the most precious of things which is time to be a family, and for Andy to be a father to our three children. I hope the government realises just how much we have sacrificed.”
I thank Yemi for her words, and all Members present will feel a sense of empathy with the sadness she has expressed. I hope that no one in Westminster will ever have to experience for themselves what such sacrifice truly entails. Will the Minister commit to securing Andy’s release as soon as possible? We have heard the heartache of the families left behind; how long is the Minister prepared to let that endure?
It is an honour to respond to this important debate, Mr Flello. I welcome all the contributions that have been made.
The debate is important because it has allowed Members of Parliament to express their concerns on behalf of constituents and the families of those affected by consular issues. It is important for Members to be able to raise these matters, but also for the Government to explain in more detail what we can do and are doing, as well as touch on the fact that many things are happening behind the scenes that we cannot share.
As many colleagues have outlined, the contact that Britons experiencing difficulties abroad have with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office may be the only time they have a relationship with the FCO, or indeed the Government as such. They want that support, and they want us to get it right and help them. In any typical year, we deal with more than 310,000 calls for assistance, and around 17,000 cases are running. That shows the scale of what Her Majesty’s Government are doing through our posts, embassies and high commissions around the world, as well as in the Foreign Office, of course. I shall spell out consular policy in general terms and the policy on the detention of Britons by other states, and I will look at the two big cases—the Tsege and Ratcliffe cases—in a little more detail. I do, though, recognise that there are many other cases that MPs may want to raise separately outside this debate.
I do not say this defensively, but simply to try to put things in perspective: I ask for a more cautionary tone from some Members. There has been talk of the FCO doing little, not caring, or not being committed, and I take a bit of offence to that, personally. I understand that that sort of thing is sometimes said because these are passionate issues, and MPs want to be seen to be doing all they can to help the family concerned, but I fully reject the idea that the Foreign Office or Her Majesty’s Government are not absolutely committed to helping every single Briton as best we can, often in very difficult circumstances, and to ensuring that justice is done, and that they can return to the UK as quickly as possible.
I shall not dwell on this, because that would not be appropriate, but my approach is shaped by my personal experience dealing with a very difficult consular case involving the killing of my brother in the 2002 Bali bombing. I think of that every time any family member comes to me and says that somebody is missing, hurt or needs to be brought home. I make sure that I and the team I am working with are able to do everything we can, but I ask Members to understand that a phenomenal amount of activity happens behind the scenes that we deliberately cannot talk about. In fact, talking about it openly could affect the agenda and how things are being interpreted in the relevant country, where they will read the headlines about us shouting from afar, as some Members have said. I know of cases that have been delayed by an unhelpful headline, because the country has taken offence at what they have read in the British press as it is reported back.
I appreciate what the Minister is saying, but he has heard the words of Andy Tsege’s family, who have been left behind. I understand the need to keep some things confidential, but surely the family should not be feeling the way that they are; the Minister heard their words expressed very clearly.
I understand what the hon. Lady is saying, and I shall address that specific case, but I should be clear that, in some cases, we are subject to the wishes of what the family want to do. I make an effort to meet the families, either with MPs, by myself or through our consular staff, and they themselves sometimes do not want things being made public—and sometimes I do not have permission to say what I am doing. Many cases have been brought up, particularly the two that we are focusing on, but I do not have permission to share in public what is going on, or to decide what can be said, because that is in the gift of that family, and we must respect their wishes. I ask Members to recognise that as well.
In these cases, we are often dealing with countries where governance, the rule of law and transparency are not at the levels that we in this country enjoy, defend or promote. We did not always have that right in the 800 years of our history; it took us a long time to get where we are today. Many countries are on that learning curve. It is absolutely right that our international development money goes towards helping to improve their justice systems, so that they have better, more transparent processes for dealing with such cases. That is the reality check—the prism through which we must look at these cases—but it should not deter us from ensuring that we work as hard as possible right across the piece to help Britons abroad.
As I say, consular assistance is at the heart of what we do in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Our consular staff give advice and practical support to British nationals overseas when things go wrong. That support, I stress, is not a right or an obligation. We do not have a legal duty of care to British nationals abroad, but this Government are proud, as I think successive Governments have been, of the long-standing tradition of offering British nationals the best consular service in the world.
I will not, because I am running out of time. If there is time at the end, I will. Independent customer feedback is overwhelmingly positive and shows that our staff approach their work with care, empathy and professionalism. As I have indicated, the volume, variety and complexity of cases are staggering. In the last financial year alone, our staff overseas dealt with more than 5,000 detentions, 3,600 deaths and nearly 4,000 hospital cases. We increasingly focus our precious resources on those who need it most: the vulnerable. Some things we do not and will not do, as has been implied by hon. Members today: we do not take decisions for people; we do not interfere in another country’s legal or judicial system, although as I said, we try to advance their systems through our other programmes; and we do not seek to get for British people a better deal than the locals get.
It is important that we use consistent criteria in determining how much support we provide in each case. Our job is to ensure that the public pressure in certain cases does not unfairly divert our attention from the large number of cases that never hit the media. While serious cases have been raised today, 13 British nationals face the death penalty throughout the world. There are more than 2,000 British nationals in detention at any one time, the greatest number of whom, about 400, are in the United States.
We have a clear process for engaging with detention cases. Host Governments notify us when a British national is detained, as long as that person agrees. We then make contact or visit the individual, where possible within 24 hours. Our priority is always their welfare—ensuring that they are receiving food, water and medical treatment, and that they have access to legal advice. In the majority of countries, our staff visit people in detention about four times a year. Some prisoners have described our visits as a lifeline; in some cases, they might be the only ones they receive.
Our assistance does not stop there. If British nationals tell us that they have been mistreated or tortured, with their permission, consular staff express our concerns to the authorities and seek an investigation. Where we cannot provide support, we work through others, such as the charity Prisoners Abroad, and they support detainees and their families and help to provide and maintain contact. If there is no family, Prisoners Abroad can help find people a pen pal or send them books to read or study. It can also help with prisoners’ resettlement in the UK after release.
The death penalty was raised by a number of hon. Members. Irrespective of the charges against any British nationals, we do all we can to ensure that the death penalty is not carried out. Indeed, yesterday, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution in favour of a moratorium on the use of the death penalty. We continue to press countries to advance their systems so as to remove the death penalty, as we did in ours.
I turn to the two main cases that have been mentioned; if there is time, I will progress to others. If I do not get a chance to respond now, I will write to hon. Members on the details of the questions they have asked, as I have done after other debates.
Mr Tsege’s case is well known to me, senior colleagues in the Foreign Office and Members in the Chamber. We are committed to offering the best consular support to him and his family. Since he was arrested and taken to Ethiopia in June 2014, we have worked hard to ensure his welfare, and his access to consular and legal advice. We continue to do so. We take every opportunity to raise his case at the very highest levels in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Government, whose own difficulties have been touched on today, are in no doubt about our concern for Mr Tsege and the priority that we place on ensuring his wellbeing. The Foreign Secretary and his predecessor have both raised Mr Tsege’s case personally with the Ethiopian Government, and our ambassador takes every opportunity to do so. I will visit the country at the end of January, and I will ensure that the mood and tone of this debate, and our important stress on the case of Mr Tsege, is related to the Government.
As a result of our continued high-level engagement, we have ensured that Mr Tsege is no longer in solitary confinement, and we have received a commitment from the highest levels of the Ethiopian Government that he will be given access to a lawyer. Last Thursday, our ambassador visited Mr Tsege, who appeared to be in good health and good spirits, and she was reassured about his welfare. Mention has been made of a private meeting not being allowed to take place, but the standard rules in Ethiopia are that all visits are accompanied. Those rules are followed by Ethiopians themselves.
I understand why some people have called for the UK Government to advocate Mr Tsege’s release, but we believe that calling for his release would not meet with success; just by shouting out, we would not win his release at this stage. Indeed, to do so could put at risk the progress made so far, including on our access to Mr Tsege. Furthermore, as I said at the start, we cannot interfere in the legal systems of other countries. We have, however, lobbied the Ethiopian Government strongly and consistently against the application and use of the death penalty. They can be in no doubt about our position.
On the case of Mrs Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, as hon. Members are aware, Iran does not recognise dual nationality—that is not the case in the UK; we consider Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe to be a British national—and has repeatedly refused permission for visits to her. We have repeatedly requested the Iranian authorities to grant us consular access so that we may be assured of her welfare. The Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and I have raised the matter at our respective levels. I also raised it with the Iranian ambassador only a couple of weeks ago, and I have met Richard Ratcliffe, the husband.
Since we were first made aware of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s arrest, we have been supporting her family. I have met the family on three occasions to reassure them that we will continue to press the Iranians for greater consular access. We also stand ready to assist, if requested, with the return to the UK of her daughter, who is not, as has been said in the debate, trapped in Iran. The daughter is allowed to return to the UK at any moment; it is a family decision for her to remain in Iran.
I am obliged to give the final minutes to the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who introduced the debate. In conclusion, therefore, I simply say to all hon. Members that we take the issue of those detained overseas very seriously. I pay tribute to the families and loved ones during distressing times, and I thank consular officers who work every day to support British nationals in their most difficult times. I also thank Members of Parliament for the role that they play in bringing aspects of different cases to the fore and in lobbying me personally. I stand ready at any time to meet them, even away from the Foreign Office.
Supporting British nationals in difficulty abroad is an absolute priority for me and for us at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We cannot always do as much as families want, but I assure the House that we do everything we can, and we will continue to work tirelessly to protect British nationals’ welfare and to uphold their rights.
I thank all hon. Members who have spoken, and the Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), for making time to attend the debate. The Minister has heard the consistent and very strong message from all Members today that Andy and Nazanin’s detentions are unacceptable and illegal, and that their trials have been frankly deplorable. He is also getting a consistent and identical message from their families. If I have concern about what he has said, it is that he is hiding behind family confidentiality. He must respect that, of course, but families are asking him to take the action that has been set out in this debate. We must have public, outspoken action now at the highest level, from our Prime Minister, to secure their release. We demand—
I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman’s peroration, but what he said is incorrect. I am following the advice of families very carefully indeed. I would say more if families allowed me to, and I think he disingenuously has misled the Chamber by making that suggestion.
CrossCountry Trains: Gloucester
I beg to move,
That this House has considered CrossCountry intercity train services to Gloucester.
Mr Flello, it is a great pleasure to hold the last Westminster Hall debate of 2016 under your chairmanship. Although the subject—the thorny issue of CrossCountry trains to Gloucester—is narrow, many wider issues of growth, regeneration, connectivity and, ultimately, responsibility are at stake today.
I will start with the wider issues. Small cathedral cities such as Gloucester are among Britain’s greatest jewels. We have an abundance of natural, architectural and human heritage. Whereas in the 1960s and 1970s developers and planners alike took a cavalier and unimaginative view of heritage, today, much boosted by a greater understanding of the modern uses of old buildings, and by the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, we realise that heritage, alongside modern retail attractions, is a driver of tourism and economic growth. Gloucester’s visitor economy grew by 8% last year, the fastest growth in the county of Gloucestershire and among the fastest in the country.
Gloucester has modern industries, including cyber, the reinvigorated nuclear power industry with the operational headquarters of EDF Energy, and sophisticated engineering, particularly aerospace and automobile. Also, the future of tidal lagoon power will potentially be headquartered in the city. But like other small cities, our ratio of private to public sector jobs is low—Gloucester ranks 56th out of 62 cities in Centre for Cities research—and we have one of the lowest rates of private sector job growth. Under the Governments since 2010, several public services have—understandably, given the pressures on public finance—been consolidated into regional hubs. The Courts and Tribunals Service, Her Majesty’s prisons and, most recently, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs are three examples. All the workers from Gloucester at those employers, as well as at Royal Mail some time earlier, have been offered jobs in Bristol. With the regionalisation trend and the growth of, and emphasis given to, big cities, Bristol has inevitably been the main beneficiary of the relocation of public sector jobs around the county. In both those cases—of tourism, because of Gloucester’s great heritage and the new retail attractions, particularly in Gloucester Quays, and of public sector employees whose jobs have been relocated to Bristol trying to get to work—there is a huge demand for the connectivity that good rail services provide.
Gloucester railway station is, in many ways, remarkable. It has the longest platform in the country, and it is right in the city centre, the advantages of which anyone who lives or works in a city knows. But it struggles with two competing facts. To enter the station trains have to come off the main line from Birmingham to Bristol and through the railway triangle and, from a train operator’s point of view, that takes extra time and causes services between those two cities to take longer.
In 2006, the then Gloucester Heritage Urban Regeneration Company—snappily named GHURC—closely considered what might be done to create an alternative station “on the main line” next to and parallel with Eastern Avenue, which is the main road entrance to the city. The GHURC carried out an extensive review and had many meetings with the landowner Network Rail and the train operators, and its chief executive, Chris Oldershaw, summarised why he believed a new railway station would not be possible:
“Extensive discussions between the GHURC, landowner Network Rail and the train operators were held last year to scope the building of a new railway station on the railway triangle. The train operators did not support this course of action and Network Rail finally ruled this out as unviable. Network Rail has said that the future of Gloucester central station is not in doubt and confirmed its intention to retain the station and invest in improvements over the next three years.”
In those talks, no one on the GHURC board, which included the then Bishop of Gloucester; my predecessor as MP for Gloucester, for quite a lot of the time; councillors from all parties; leading businessmen; and people from the voluntary sector, demurred from the decision that was made. Indeed, no other decision could have been made, given that no one—those who were to operate the trains, those who owned the land or those who were responsible for the rail services—wanted a new station and the Government of the day did not wish to provide any money. However—this is the crucial point that the Department for Transport must grasp—the corollary to that decision is the need to recognise that trains have to come off the main line to get into Gloucester station and then go out on to it again.
The situation is different for services to Wales, because Gloucester is on the way to Wales for trains from Bristol and from Birmingham and Cheltenham. That is a different issue, and I should make it clear that CrossCountry runs a good service to Wales and that all those trains pass through Gloucester. That is not the issue. The issue is the inter-city trains, many of which call at a huge number of stations. The longest such service is, I think, the Aberdeen to Penzance route, which goes through the cities—I re-emphasise “the cities”—of Britain. However, only three of the 63 inter-city services between Birmingham and Bristol stop at the city of Gloucester.
My crucial point today is that if the capital city of Gloucestershire is not allowed to have a new station on the main line, as was decided some years ago, before both the Minister’s time here and mine, we must accept that trains have to stop at the city of Gloucester, coming off the main line route and up the railway triangle. That is the core issue at stake with CrossCountry today. Great Western Railway long ago accepted that, and every service on its London to Cheltenham route comes into Gloucester. That will continue to be the case when the operator expands its services, with more direct trains to London in 2017, and more trains to Swindon thanks to the redoubling of the Swindon to Kemble line by the coalition Government, about which people across the county of Gloucestershire are pleased.
Why, therefore, does CrossCountry find it so difficult to stop at Gloucester? I believe that there are two key reasons. The ostensible reason is that the additional time the stop would take would mean that passengers travelling from Birmingham and Bristol would be delayed and might be tempted to travel by car instead. Anecdotally, I understand from people who work in the rail industry that, interestingly, when the services to Gloucester were taken out, mostly between 2003 and 2006 under the Virgin franchise, the amount of time scheduled for those trains to get from Birmingham to Bristol was scarcely altered.
The Department for Transport will be able to look into that in detail, but I was emailed this morning by someone who looked at the train schedule for a CrossCountry service yesterday on the Aberdeen to Penzance line. The train that was highlighted to me arrived a few minutes late at Cheltenham and left nine minutes late, but arrived at Bristol Temple Meads absolutely on time. I gently put it to the Minister—the Department will be able to do its research—that it looks to me as though the time scheduled for the Gloucester stops was not taken out of the schedule when the Gloucester stops were taken out. Effectively, it acts as a buffer for creeping delays on the service as it comes from north to south. The avoidance of Gloucester enables the operator to ensure that by the time the trains arrive at Bristol, they are on time. If that is the case, that would be a shocking example of how train operators are treating the city of Gloucester. Even if that is not the case, the operators’ approach to Gloucester is revealing.
On Radio Gloucestershire this morning, I was asked a series of questions by the journalist, who was effectively reading from a script provided by CrossCountry. They asked, “Why is it not acceptable just to go to Cheltenham and change there?” Imagine, Mr Flello, that you are travelling south-east from a certain point. What logic is there in getting on a train that goes west, in order to catch another train that then brings you back past the station from which you started half an hour earlier, as a means of getting to your destination to the south-east? That is the most extraordinary concept. If we did that everywhere, we could reschedule all our train services around the country, taking out a whole number of stops, closing down various stations and inviting people to travel in the opposite direction in order to go back through where they started from.
The journalist also asked, “If the trains stopped at Gloucester, what about other passengers from other cities trying to get to their destination as fast as possible?” Well, what indeed? But hang on—if we started taking that approach, we would start ruling out a whole series of cities so that we could cherry-pick which passengers from which cities we wanted to arrive at their destination fastest. There has to be equality of treatment for all cities on an inter-city service. That is my fundamental starting point.
To be fair, the Government have been extremely helpful on the wider issue of growth and regeneration. I referred to that at the beginning of the debate. The chief executive of the GHURC said:
“Network Rail has said that the future of Gloucester central station is not in doubt and confirmed its intention to retain the station and invest in improvements”.
The Government have done that. Most notably, the previous Secretary of State for Transport reached an agreement with Great Western Railway in the previous Parliament. One of the crucial issues about that agreement was an investment by Great Western Railway in a new, additional car park on the south side of the station. For the first time in the station’s 150 or 160 years, it got a new entrance from the south side. It links the hospital on Great Western Road and my constituents who live on the south side of the city. That was a considerable step forward.
Additionally, during the last few years, thanks to co-operation with Great Western Railway, we have a new lift for disabled passengers, the elderly and those with heavy baggage. For the first time, they can cross from platform 2 to platform 4. We have a canopy on the bridge that crosses the railway tracks, again for the first time in the station’s history. We are also looking at a series of improvements to the station infrastructure, including the underpass that goes under the railway lines, the nature of the forecourt and a new exit out of the current car park on to Metz Way. There is an application in for the next round of the growth fund.
I am confident that we will be able to achieve more improvements to the station infrastructure, but no station is better than the trains that arrive there, and that is the crucial issue that is missing. CrossCountry has no intention of delivering more services. The managing director said in his letter of 15 December that
“as has been explained before, at this time it is neither operationally possible nor commercially viable to increase the number of CrossCountry services at Gloucester station…it was apparent that the current railway infrastructure could not accommodate the inclusion of more stops at Gloucester”.
One of the reasons that the Department gave was that work at the Filton end of the entrance to Bristol station would impede additional stops at Gloucester. In fact, there are two lines there. They have been there for ever—there will always be two lines there, and there will be two more once the electrification has taken place. A stop at Gloucester should not impede anyone operationally from being able to go into Bristol. Indeed, Network Rail confirmed to me on the telephone that in the grander scheme of things, two additional stops a day would be frankly a relatively minor tweak to the operational schedule.
I want to leave a key point with the Minister today. He has been extremely helpful and has seen me several times, as did his predecessor. He wrote to me:
“I can assure you that there are two additional calls at Gloucester in the new Franchise Agreement which CrossCountry are funded for, and obliged to deliver, as soon as they are able to do so.”
That is very reassuring; two extra services a day means 730 extra services a year. That would hugely help my constituents in getting to work and traveling north and south with much greater ease. However, I do not have confidence that CrossCountry will live up to the Minister’s expectations. The crucial words in his letter are
“as soon as they are able to do so.”
I am afraid that CrossCountry’s letter makes it absolutely clear that it has no intention of doing so. In my last debate before Christmas, I finish with the irony of CrossCountry’s slogan, which is: “Going that bit further”. On this occasion, it has absolutely gone the opposite way.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Flello, I think for the first time. I had not even taken on board that you were in such an august position. I am delighted to see you there. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) for calling this debate and for being such a persistent advocate on behalf of the people of Gloucester. He is a textbook example of persistent, gentle, non-stop lobbying on the causes on which he is rightly passionate. We can all learn a lesson from him on how never to give up and how to persist on issues.
My hon. Friend raised this matter at Prime Minister’s questions recently. He regularly updates me on his offline conversations with Network Rail and CrossCountry. No one could be more helpful in ensuring that I get the full range of views on what is going on. Both he and my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) have been sensible and pragmatic in how they have approached the issue. They recognise that no solution is viable that sees any diminution in services to Cheltenham or Gloucester, and that is an important baseline from which we have to start.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester rightly points out, one only has to compare the flows of trains stopping at Gloucester when travelling from south to north with those when one is travelling north to south to see that we have an issue. Of the 63 trains that travel each day from Birmingham to Bristol, only three call at Gloucester. It is therefore of no surprise to anyone that his constituents are frustrated by the lack of provision for those who travel from Gloucester. All cities, no matter how large or small, should benefit from good transport connections, and Gloucester is no different. As a Department, we are well aware of that and are doing all we can to put this right.
That is why, as my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, we asked CrossCountry to explore the potential for additional Gloucester calls from December 2017. As he knows from the correspondence, CrossCountry has confirmed that, in its view, that is not deliverable, operationally or commercially, at present. Crucially, the requirement to run two additional services, should it become operationally possible to do so, is included in the CrossCountry franchise agreement. It is not a matter of whether CrossCountry would like to do so in an ideal world, but of whether it is possible for those services to operate on the network. I understand that it is impossible to find a workable solution that would allow the extra services to be deliverable in December 2017. I will explain the reasons shortly. We will continue to work closely with CrossCountry to see what can be done in the short term, should circumstances change; in the medium term, we will try to bring forward the extra services as soon as possible.
As my hon. Friend has set out, Gloucester has very well timed connections into and out of the main line of the long-distance inter-city CrossCountry network. There are 36 services from Cardiff to Birmingham, Derby and Nottingham, all of which stop at Gloucester. It is in the southern direction that there is a problem. Sheffield, Leeds, Newcastle, Manchester and Edinburgh can all be reached hourly with one change on the same platform at Cheltenham Spa and a 10-minute wait. The same applies for trains to Bristol and Plymouth, but with a 10 to 15-minute wait. One still has to change trains, and take luggage off and put it back on; it is by no means ideal. For Birmingham to Bristol services to serve Gloucester, trains need to be diverted off the main line. If those services called at Gloucester, it would increase the overall journey time by approximately 10 minutes.
My hon. Friend described the email he received on the punctuality of services. I was interested to hear about that. I am sure my officials have taken note of the details. If he will share the email with me, I will look carefully into that, because he put forward a persuasive narrative about punctuality and a buffer that was built in. I would be concerned if that were the case, and if it were an obstacle to further services calling at Gloucester. After extensive research, which included modelling timetable options with Network Rail, the latter has formally advised CrossCountry that it will not be possible to deliver additional station calls for Gloucester from December 2017 as there is not enough capacity on the network to accommodate the trains at present.
The Minister is being very gracious, but has he been able to confirm Network Rail’s view of the CrossCountry comment that it is impossible to do this? As he rightly says, the business of whether there is time built in to allow for delays on that service may provide part of the answer to his question.
It may well do, although I should point out that I think he has misconstrued some of my previous comments on Filton Bank and the operational bottleneck that occurs there. The work that is ongoing at Filton Bank to double the track capacity from two tracks to four is about enabling extra services by expanding track capacity. That work is not an impediment to the extra two services; it is what will enable them. That is why Network Rail is saying to the Department that there is not sufficient capacity on the network. Given that I have been in the debate since I heard the news, we have not had a chance to put the points about the timetable to Network Rail to get further information. That could change the situation, and we will get back to my hon. Friend if it does.
CrossCountry is a second-tier operator on all parts of the network; it is not the dominant franchise holder. That makes flexibility in its timetables significantly harder to achieve, because it answers to the dominant operator on any part of the network, particularly in and around Bristol and Birmingham. In a sense, the start and end points of its flows from north to south are determined by the wider national timetable. That can make it difficult to alter its timetables. We have to be certain that the intermediate stops and timings are robust and accurate, as my hon. Friend points out. The delay to those already on the train is a material point when considering a business case for altering service levels. Although the benefit-cost ratio for any intervention is merely a number and is not the entire story, it is part of the story that the Department and train operators have to take into account.
The blockage to providing additional station calls at Gloucester is predominantly a lack of network capacity and fixed capacity constraints at either end of the line in Birmingham and Bristol. I understand that my hon. Friend’s preference is for CrossCountry to offer a good service to his constituents who commute to and from Bristol. Not only should they be able to rely on local Great Western Railway services, but they should have access to a faster non-stop alternative to existing services. It is important that we look at what more GWR can do to increase capacity on that important commuter flow. CrossCountry has already had discussions with Network Rail on the improvements in Bristol and the impact that they can have on its potential to deliver more services. We will continue to work with both CrossCountry and Great Western to see how the service that Gloucester receives can be improved in the short term.
In the longer and medium term, we still need to work closely with CrossCountry to see whether passengers at Gloucester can get more frequent calls in the day. This will include looking at a full reworking of the timetable as part of the impending refranchising process. Post High Speed 2, a reduction in services through Birmingham New Street may open up the possibility of revised timings and more capacity. That is a priority for the Department. We are engaging our own technical advisers to look in further detail at operational deliverability and the financial and economic business cases, so that more can be done for the people of Gloucester.
With more and more people using our railways since privatisation 20 years ago, passenger journeys have doubled. That is also true for CrossCountry, which has seen growth from 32 million passenger journeys in 2007 to 37 million in 2015, leading to demand outstripping capacity in a number of places. We need to ensure that demand meets capacity, both on the CrossCountry network, and more widely across the national network. That is why the new timetable proposed from December 2017 seeks to provide additional annual seats, improving the journeys for passengers up and down the land.
As my hon. Friend knows, we recently announced a new direct award for Arriva to operate the CrossCountry franchise. This will deliver additional benefits for passengers: free wi-fi; upgrades to 4G connection, which will increase download speeds; improved access to better information systems; and 24/7 customer services. I recognise that all that is of benefit only if there are trains that passengers can board at the stations where they want to board them, and that includes Gloucester.
In conclusion, I note that CrossCountry has continued to do extensive research at the Department’s behest to try to find ways of calling at Gloucester on the Birmingham to Bristol CrossCountry route, but that has not been possible in time for the December 2017 timetable.
The Minister is very kind. As he said in his letter, CrossCountry is funded to deliver extra services in the new franchise agreement, which has already started, and the new timetable comes in in December 2017. I understand from Network Rail that the new timetable is not yet finalised, and will not be until March. Does he agree that there is still an opportunity for Network Rail to work with CrossCountry to identify how the timing of the trains—we are not talking about additional trains—can deliver the services in the new timetable from December 2017?
My hon. Friend is essentially right. I will try to answer that point, but it deserves far more than a minute. The crucial phrase is “operational capacity of the network”. If the service can be delivered within the network’s operational capacity, it should be delivered. As it stands now, I do not believe there is operational capacity, but I need to test that theory against the points my hon. Friend has made regarding the timetable to see whether that frees up any space on the network. If it does not, there is an ongoing CrossCountry consultation on the new timetable. Unless there is physical space on the network between Birmingham and Bristol to run the extra services, I do not see how they can be introduced to the network merely because both he and I wish that they could. I commit to keep working hard on this matter on his behalf, and to delivering on this as soon as I possibly can.
[Philip Davies in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered child poverty.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Let me share with the House my reasons for tabling this debate. My passion for campaigning against child poverty stems from the reasons why I stood for Parliament. It is a motivation that I know is shared right across this Chamber, because we all serve in politics to change lives. For me, that means that no child in Britain should grow up in poverty. We should not simply accept a situation where luck of birth can hold a person back throughout their lifetime. Those who grow up in poverty are more likely to fall behind in school, less likely to secure a stable job in the future and more likely to suffer from ill health in later life. This debate is about making sure that Britain is a country that gives every child the opportunity of the best start in life.
I want to rebuild a cross-party consensus and to welcome the sentiments expressed by the Prime Minister as she stood on the steps of Downing Street. She signalled a fight against “burning injustice”, with an unambiguous pledge to
“do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.”
I agree, because to succeed in the future we must create a country that makes the most of all our talents. That is the task facing all of us in this place. We should be judged by whether we do right by the next generation.
In my Barnsley constituency, more than one in four children grow up in poverty, so I stand here today to give a voice to those 5,114 children. The Minister will know that in her constituency, too, more than one in four children grow up in poverty. Surely we can find common ground on the need for a target to change those alarming figures, so that the children we represent here today can have the brightest possible future.
In Britain today, an average of nine children in a class of 30 grow up in poverty. For those nearly 4 million children, that can mean living in a cold and cramped home, falling behind in school and not being able to join in activities with friends. The Children’s Commission on Poverty empowered young people to share their own experiences of poverty. Over 18 months, the commissioners investigated how poverty affects their peers at school, and I want to give them a voice here today and share some of the findings.
The commissioners were shocked and moved by what they found. Luke, aged 17, said:
“I am surprised that even in the 21st century, children and young people are being subject to the harshest injustice in society even within schooling. This should never be right in one of the world’s richest countries.”
Poverty means children often have to dress differently and therefore stand out. A classmate described the situation:
“I saw some kids that didn’t have blazers or coats in winter and I could see they couldn’t afford it”.
Pupils shared how those in poverty do not all qualify for free school meals if their parents are working. When that is the case, a meal at lunchtime may not always be affordable, a situation that one child describes:
“It depends really on what my mum’s situation is. If I don’t have the money, I normally just wait until I get home [to eat].”
My hon. Friend is doing an excellent job setting out the problem that we sadly still face with child poverty in this country. Is he aware of the work of the holiday hunger campaign? Children who have free school meals during term time have a six-week-long summer holiday where they do not have access to those free school meals, and many of them go hungry. The campaign is doing excellent work.
I am aware of that campaign, which is doing incredibly important work in providing food and nourishment for children during the school holidays. I will be saying a little more about the problem she raises later in my speech.
For those who do receive free school meals, their poverty status can be highlighted by how they are required to buy their lunch with a token, which can hold up the queue as their card is inspected. Those children’s experiences should give us pause, for a renewed focus on child poverty, that understands the experience of those who live it every day.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that schemes such as we have in Scotland, where all children in primary 1 to primary 3—aged five to seven—are given a free school meal, help get rid of some of the stigma attached to school meals.
I absolutely agree. Just as I am seeking to build a cross-party consensus in the campaign against child poverty, I am seeking to build a consensus in every corner of our country. Again, I will say a little more about that later.
By seeking to understand the experiences of those who live in poverty every day, we can help to build a fairer country—one that delivers the vision set out by the Prime Minister as she took office. Let us be clear: that is now urgent. The Institute for Fiscal Studies projects the biggest increase in relative child poverty in a generation: the number of children growing up in poverty is expected to grow by 50% by 2020.
I am really pleased that my hon. Friend has secured this debate, because it is very easy at Christmas-time for there to be an orgy of consumption and we need to think about the families who are not going to share in that. My hon. Friend is absolutely right about what is coming down the tracks. Does he share my concern that, having dissed the idea of relative poverty, the Government have been trumpeting the fact that relative poverty did not fall in the last five years? More important, does he share my concern that changes made in the Budget by the previous Chancellor after the general election mean that every family in the bottom third of the income distribution is going to be worse off?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. I know that she has a long-standing interest in the subject of child poverty, which I will refer to a bit later in my speech. She raises the issue of poverty being relative, which reminds me of a quote:
“Even if we are not destitute, we still experience poverty if we cannot afford things that society regards as essential. The fact that we do not suffer the conditions of a hundred years ago is irrelevant… So poverty is relative—and those who pretend otherwise are wrong.”
That quote was from David Cameron.
I was reflecting on the projection from the Institute for Fiscal Studies of the biggest increase in relative child poverty in a generation, with the number of children growing up in poverty expected to grow by 50% by 2020. The Government have a choice to make and the power to stop that increase happening. Their decisions will shape what kind of country we live in.
Yet what have we recently learned of the Government’s approach from their response to my parliamentary questions? We have learned that the child poverty unit has been closed. Eliminating child poverty is no longer the goal of policy. The Government admit that no money is being directly invested by the Department for Work and Pensions to develop evidence on what early interventions best support children and that a maximum of only seven civil servants support the Government’s Social Mobility Commission. That is not a record that matches the Prime Minister’s rhetoric.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I am very pleased indeed that it is taking place. There is another aspect of this, which no doubt he will touch on in the course of his speech. This is not just about children living in poverty now and the projected increase of 50%, which is very alarming news, although the Government do not seem to be concerned. It is likely that the children who are growing up in poverty now will themselves have children who will live in poverty, so the problem will continue through successive generations unless firm steps are taken to decrease substantially the number of children living in such conditions.
My hon. Friend speaks with great experience of these matters. He is absolutely right: this is about investing in the future not just of those young people but of our country. By ensuring that young people get the best possible start at the earliest of ages, we ensure the best possible life outcomes not just for them and their families but for us as a society and a country.
Clearly, the reasons why people live in poverty are unique to each individual, but there are shared experiences and similar causes. At the most basic level, it is about families and individuals simply not having enough money to cope with the circumstances in which they find themselves. We cannot be serious about tackling the problem unless we include income in our analysis of child poverty and our policy response. Getting this right will mean that families have greater security in their home and at work, and that all families have an adequate income to avoid poverty and live decent lives.
That a family’s income shapes the quality of childhood is easily understood. Every family wants the very best for their children, and parents often go without to achieve that. Research from the Trussell Trust shows that one in five parents in the UK either skipped meals or relied on friends or family to feed their children last year. Of course, money is not everything—we all know that the most important factors are love and attention—but that does not mean it is nothing. Income is a central factor in meeting children’s needs, and the Government’s forthcoming social mobility Green Paper, a successor to the long-delayed and unpublished life chances strategy, cannot be adequate without addressing child poverty.
Tackling in-work poverty is critical. Two in three children in poverty grow up in a household in which a parent works, so the reality is that work no longer provides a guaranteed route out of poverty. Our response must be to have a wider approach to tackle insecurity at work, to better understand the increase in zero-hours contracts and to deliver a real living wage for more workers. To support people on low incomes, we need to do more to provide opportunities for progression.
The hon. Gentleman tempts me down a road, but I will resist the opportunity to get into that slightly different debate. He may seek to make further points later.
I ask the Government to look at the success being delivered at a local level through programmes such as the Workplace scheme in Newham, which identifies the needs of employers to upskill local residents so they can increase their earnings. Childcare must be more flexible and available when and where parents need it. It is one of the biggest tolls on families’ budgets: the cost of childcare pushes an additional 130,000 children into poverty.
The Government’s forthcoming Green Paper must cover income, child poverty and other structural determinants of children’s chances. It must recognise that childhood is a key stage in everyone’s lifetime, making up a fifth of the average lifespan, so it must be about ensuring a good and nurturing childhood as well as what happens next. I hope the Government will take the opportunity to change course so we do not continue on a path that will see more than 1 million children living in poverty over this decade.
Ever-increasing child poverty is not inevitable; it is the result of political choices. We have seen that before: child poverty rose sharply in the 1980s and peaked in the late 1990s, before falling significantly. The previous Government, who happened to be a Labour Government, showed us how that can be achieved. We should recognise the work of my right hon. Friends the Members for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), for East Ham (Stephen Timms) and for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne), and my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), who took the Child Poverty Act 2010 through this House.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very important debate. Will he acknowledge that one of the reasons why the Labour Government were able to maintain progress was the very precise and well tracked measurements and targeting arrangements, which ensured that when policy was not delivering the required outcomes it was possible to take adjusting action and bring things back on track?
My hon. Friend speaks with real authority and experience. I am delighted that she is here to support this debate. She has been incredibly helpful and generous with her time in supporting the work that I have been doing recently. I am very grateful for that point. She is absolutely right. As somebody said to me just the other day, “If it doesn’t get measured, it doesn’t get done.” If we are serious about achieving something, it is important that we set a target.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to refer to the previous Labour Government, who put children first and delivered the biggest improvement in tackling child poverty of any EU nation. In 1997, more children were living in poverty in Britain than in almost any other industrialised nation, but by 2010 we had lifted 1 million children out of poverty. That happened not by accident but because the Government set themselves a target and made achieving it a priority. Investment in higher-quality early years education, childcare and Sure Start centres was expanded fourfold. Support for families was expanded to enable them to enjoy greater control over their lives and greater security in their finances. The tax credit system was introduced and maternity leave was doubled.
We should pay tribute to the leadership of Gordon Brown—I know that will give you particular pleasure, Mr Davies—who legislated for a child poverty target with support from parties across the House. I am reminded of the former Prime Minister’s memorable observation that
“children are 20% of our population but 100% of our future.”
We have a duty to this generation to make progress on addressing child poverty once again, because it should scar our conscience as much as it does our children’s futures.
I genuinely believe that all of us in this Chamber feel that responsibility and want child poverty to fall but, as in life, if the Government want to achieve something, it is useful to set a target. The focus of debate should be what that target is and how it should be met, not the principle of having a target itself. No political party in this House has suggested abolishing all Government targets. As the House of Commons Library noted:
“A target is a clear expression of a policy priority, setting out exactly what the Government wants to have done and by when. Targets let those responsible for delivery know what needs to happen, so that they can plan, monitor and deliver”.
The Library goes on to explain that targets
“allow organisations to be held to account on whether they meet the targets, including by Parliament. They can provide a focus on long-term strategic goals in areas where short-term pressures would otherwise mean that these goals might not be achieved.”
That is why I believe that setting a target can help to realise a common purpose to tackle child poverty that includes communities, employers and government at every level.
My private Member’s Bill provides the House with an opportunity to make that intention clear. It will receive a Second Reading on Friday 3 February and I hope that it earns the support of Government. Parliament has a strong record on working across parties on the issue, most notably in passing the Child Poverty Act 2010, which committed the Government of the day and future ones to take action to eliminate child poverty. With my Bill, I do not seek to be prescriptive about what the target should be. Rather, we should be clear that our goal is that no child should grow up in poverty and that we will measure our progress with a target.
I hope that the Chair has noted my repeated efforts to convey that my private Member’s Bill is not politically motivated. It is too important and too urgent for that. In your constituency, Mr Davies, about one in five children grow up in poverty—3,743 children. Simply put, the present situation is unacceptable and without action what will follow will be worse still. Outside Parliament, consensus is growing that the Government need to do more and quickly.
I take this opportunity to place on record my thanks to those charities and stakeholders that recently attended a round-table event I hosted here in Parliament. We should all recognise the vital work that the sector undertakes every day to help those living in poverty. The Child Poverty Action Group has long campaigned on the issue, and I am proud to have its support for my Bill. Barnardo’s, the Children’s Society, Buttle UK, Gingerbread, the Family and Childcare Trust, Save the Children, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation or JRF, and the Equality Trust all have my profound thanks for their input. I hope that there will be others.
I am happy to meet the Minister or one of her colleagues in the new year to share the extent of support for a target among those who know the most about the issue. It is a concern, however, that the Government have been active in seeking to change how we understand child poverty while also removing a duty to reduce it. The Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 replaced the reporting obligations of the 2010 Act, bringing in the life chances measures of worklessness and educational attainment. The Child Poverty Commission became the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, and is now just the Social Mobility Commission. In answer to a parliamentary question, we have learned that its crucial work is supported by only seven civil servants, at most, and this week we learned, with some concern, that the child poverty unit has been quietly abolished, without adequate information on that fact being provided to Parliament.
No child poverty target, no child poverty unit, no staff resources and no stated intention to end child poverty—no matter how many children are set to grow up in poverty in the years ahead, we can and must do much better than that. We can see that from projects all over the country, because local communities have not been able to wait for the Government to take action. In my Barnsley constituency, we have a campaign bringing together members of the community and the local council to take action.
As part of the campaign, we asked the public to name just one thing that could make a difference to children locally. Ideas ranged from new requirements to develop affordable housing or to expand childcare, to the great example set by retired teachers lending their expertise to tutor local students. That has informed the ongoing work of Barnsley Council’s anti-poverty board. The campaign brings local partners together to support residents affected by Government spending cuts and welfare reforms. They have been working hard to identify families most in need and to target resources to provide debt advice, information on fuel policy initiatives and healthy eating programmes.
We recently opened a community shop in my constituency. It has agreements with many of the largest food manufacturers in the local area, redistributing good quality surplus products at much more affordable prices.
In a number of boroughs—certainly mine, which has a good deal of child poverty, unfortunately—the provision for nursery education means that we have very good schools for under-fives. Those schools are much appreciated, because many of those who attend come from households with low incomes. Is my hon. Friend aware that so many involved in nursery education have written to us to express deep concern that funding arrangements will so alter in the next two years that some of those nursery schools and classes will have to either close down completely or reduce the number of children attending?
My hon. Friend is right to draw our attention to that pressing concern. One of the primary motivations for the debate is to draw attention to the fact that the plight of almost 4 million children in our country is set to get worse, not better. That is a matter of profound concern to all of us. We all believe that child poverty should and must be reduced and that we have a responsibility to work together in order to achieve that stated aim.
Earlier, hon. Members drew attention to projects that seek to provide food for children during the school holidays. The community shop proposal that I mentioned might be of benefit in that and, as I said, one such shop has just opened in my constituency. After agreement with local food manufacturers, the community shop can sell good quality food at affordable prices to people on low incomes, and it can also help local people with other issues that might be holding them back. It can provide advice on financial matters, or train individuals to prepare for job interviews.
The community shop, brilliantly led by John Marren, is only one example—but a good one—of the crucial work going on around the country to support families living on low incomes and in poverty. Lives are changed by such initiatives, in which people come together to speak up for the less fortunate and to share their time and expertise to be good neighbours in the service of others.
I take this opportunity to recognise the efforts in this area of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field). As hon. Members know, he has a long-standing interest in understanding poverty and remains a powerful advocate. He has championed the Feeding Britain project, which works to reduce food poverty at local level. In the new year I look forward to welcoming Rosie Oglesby, its chief executive, to Barnsley to discuss the matter further.
I have made the point that across the country, in all our nations, we see ongoing work that makes a difference. The Scottish Government are consulting on proposals to establish a Scottish child poverty target. The Welsh Government have a responsibility to report on progress towards achieving their child poverty objectives. In Northern Ireland, the Executive’s child poverty strategy commits them to eradicating child poverty in the future. Those efforts must now be backed by the UK Government.
I shall briefly set out the reasons why the Government should prioritise early years interventions. Too many children are stuck following a path that was set for them in their infancy. The importance of children’s early years in forming their life chances is well understood. The House should note the longstanding contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) in campaigning for better early-years provision and conducting an independent review in the previous Parliament.
Today, a child born in a deprived area is likely to die nine years earlier than someone from a wealthier postcode across town. To put that right will require us to bring together Government, campaigners and educationalists to learn from best practice internationally. Theirworld’s 5 for 5 campaign is leading a global effort to do just that, focusing on the five things that shape a child’s basic care: good nutrition; healthcare; learning; play and protection; and, of course, a loving home environment. We should recognise the ongoing work of Theirworld and its president, Sarah Brown. By the time a child reaches the age of five, about 90% of their brain development is complete. We will best tackle the growing gap between the richest and the rest, both in and out of school, by thinking bigger about how to reinvigorate early-years provision through programmes such as Sure Start, rather than by accelerating the cuts we have seen since 2010.
Just as quality teaching makes all the difference in the classroom, a well-skilled nursery workforce led by early-years teachers is proven to help to prevent the poorest children from falling behind. One in five children, and a third of the poorest children, arrive at primary school having fallen behind in the key elements of school-readiness, and we should recognise Save the Children’s campaign to address that. I ask the Minister to lead discussions with colleagues across Government on how every child can benefit from an early education led by qualified early-years teachers.
In my Barnsley constituency, three in five children who attend an independent nursery do not have access to support from a qualified early-years teacher. A child’s education can provide a route out of poverty, building on a foundation that is laid in the early years. That is why I am so proud to champion City Year UK, a charity that empowers young people aged 18 to 25 to serve others in tackling educational inequalities. Through spending a year volunteering in disadvantaged schools, those involved develop lifelong leadership skills and become role models to raise the aspiration of others.
The current evidence demonstrates how the Government are not getting it right—by investing in a new generation of grammar schools, which the evidence shows do not deliver; by not investing enough in building the evidence base for early-years interventions; and by accelerating the closure of Sure Start children’s centres, which work so well. Policies across Government must seek to make a difference to children. Changes to tax and benefits over the next four years will take more than £1 in every £10 from the pockets of the poorest families, and that is why the Government should end the freeze on working-age benefits.
The four-year freeze promises to be the primary driver of increased poverty. Ending it would be not only morally right, particularly with prices at the tills set to rise, but sound economics. Less well-off households spend more of the money they have than better-off ones so, as well as a clear moral case for action on poverty, there is a sound economic one. It is estimated that £1 in every £5 of public spending is associated with poverty, and that that costs the UK taxpayer £78 billion. As well as redirecting public spending, poverty worsens the key economic challenges we face. It lowers productivity and limits spending power, which undermines the strong economy we need for the future. But the human cost is the greatest of all, which is why the Government’s penny wise but pound foolish approach to investing in children must end. Poverty destroys childhoods and limits futures. Stopping that, as the Prime Minister has pledged, should be the defining mission for this and for any Government. In times of profound change, those with privilege and wealth have a security that is not afforded to those without.
In setting out the reasons why child poverty should be prioritised, I have sought to take a constructive approach and find common ground. I have detailed the case for a target to reduce child poverty and highlighted the support of organisations with real experience and expertise. Will the Minister tell us the Government’s position on establishing a child poverty target? We can end child poverty so that every child can realise their potential. That has to be our ambition and it should be a challenge that unites us all. Through that effort, we can provide security, opportunity and hope to those who need it most. If the Prime Minister’s words in Downing Street mean anything—and we will judge this Government by their actions, not their rhetoric—the Government must set a target.
I am very proud to represent Barnsley, and I see at first hand the difference that the Government’s policies make to so many of my constituents. In standing up for them and their futures today, I am reminded of our Barnsley motto, “Spectemur agendo” or “judge us by our actions”. That will be my guiding principle today, as we hear the Minister’s response, and in the coming months. It would be an historic mistake to abandon the battle against child poverty, so let us set ourselves a target and take action.
It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate. I pay special tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for introducing it and for his work on the issue.
Everyone in this House knows why child poverty matters. My hon. Friend explained the reasons: it blights childhoods, damages children’s long-term outcomes and potential in adult life, and brings a heavy cost to society in the loss of skills, in the loss of contribution to our economy and in the cost to our public services of putting right the damage that is done. The experience of child poverty is felt in a number of different dimensions, including children’s educational experience and participation, their physical and emotional health and wellbeing, the quality of the housing and environment in which they live, and the quality of their social and family lives. That was explicitly recognised in the Child Poverty Act 2010, which included an obligation for the Government nationally and for local authorities to bring forward child poverty strategies to address the different dimensions of child poverty. Indeed, I hope those dimensions may be replicated in strategies that our new metropolitan mayors will develop on a larger geographic footprint. I invite those who are putting themselves forward as potential candidates for that office to think about the options and opportunities to develop child poverty strategies for their city areas.
We have had many measures and indices across the broad experience of poverty. I will mention just two. The Labour Government’s “Opportunity for all” included a set of indicators introduced in 1999 that was mysteriously—and, in my view, regrettably—abandoned by the Labour Government some years later. “Opportunity for all” was not focused specifically and exclusively on outcomes for children, but it presented a range of dimensions of poverty, exclusion and disadvantage, which I invite the Government to consider as they reconstruct their approach to measuring and identifying poverty and disadvantage. There was much to commend in “Opportunity for all” and I hope that the Minister is prepared to look at it.
More specifically in relation to children, the excellent UNICEF child wellbeing report card has been produced by the Innocenti Research Centre over recent years. It has looked again at a range of dimensions of child poverty and child wellbeing. What the indices have particularly highlighted and what commentators and researchers have asserted for many years is that, alongside all those different dimensions of poverty, as my hon. Friend has said, it is important for us to recognise that adequate income is key.
Adequate income is key for a number of reasons. Family income and the incomes that children enjoy within their family circumstances can be correlated with a range of other socioeconomic outcomes, over the range of indicators that I described a moment ago. Poor children and children in low-income families, as my hon. Friend has said, suffer poorer educational outcomes, poorer health outcomes and poorer social participation, and less potential is realised in adulthood. It is important, therefore, that we focus on the correlation between low income and a range of other disadvantages.
It is also important to measure income and relative income, as my hon. Friend said, because it is a measure of social participation and a way of ensuring that the poorest in our country do not get left behind as society becomes more prosperous and developed. If we were unwilling to look at a progressive measure of poverty, such as the measure of relative poverty, we would leave families and children behind in the context of social progress. For example, when my grandparents were children, it was considered perfectly acceptable not to have an indoor bathroom, which was not a measure of poverty. In a developed economy such as ours, we would consider that an absolute outrage today.
Relative income poverty is also an aspect of the measurement of equality. There is cross-party concern about the need to narrow inequality gaps. I hope that the Minister will comment on that helpful dimension to tackling inequality.
Measuring income enables us to compare and track our progress internationally. That will be particularly important because the UK, along with other countries, has now signed up to sustainable development goal No. 1 to halve poverty among women, children and men. It will be important for us to have measures of poverty to show our progress against that goal, which applies as much within the UK’s domestic context as it does to the UK’s seeking to eliminate poverty in developing countries around the world through its international aid efforts.
Most importantly, in a market economy such as we live in, income confers choice, dignity, autonomy, and status. It is humiliating—children feel the humiliation—for parents not to have enough money for their children to have the same experiences as their peers. When low-income parents have more money at their disposal, they spend it on things that are good for their children: on fresh fruit, vegetables, educational activities, outings, and on improving the quality of home life through paying off debt and improving the condition of the family home.
It is regrettable that the focus on income poverty that was explicit in the Child Poverty Act—not exclusively the focus of the Act, as some have liked to suggest, but exclusively in the Act—has been removed from statute by the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016, as my hon. Friend said, and replaced by measures in relation to educational attainment and worklessness. Those are, of course, both important to improving family income and addressing family poverty, but, as the majority of poor children are now growing up in working households, focusing on worklessness and not on in-work poverty misses the point and ensures that we overlook the necessary policy change.
As I often hear Ministers say, work should be the best route out of poverty, but too often today it is not. We have an obligation as a society to look after those who cannot work or who perhaps cannot work enough and cannot secure enough from earnings to provide and secure the necessaries for their children.
The Welfare Reform and Work Act has diverted attention from the importance of income, and it is doing so at a time, as my hon. Friend said, when things are about to get a lot worse. In 2017 we will see very acutely the effect of rising prices, particularly for essentials: food and necessaries of the household budget. We will see wages stagnating and both in-work and out-of-work benefits frozen and capped. We will see the effects of the erosion of the value of benefits specifically designed to support parents with the additional cost of raising their children. For example, we have seen the two-child policy, which the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) has rightly campaigned assiduously on over the past year or so.
We have seen the restriction of child benefit and fees are now required to enable single parents to access child maintenance. We have also seen ingrained design faults in universal credit, which affect family poverty. For example, the benefit is designed to disincentivise second earners or lone parents from improving incomes through earnings. It is regrettable that in his autumn statement last month the Chancellor did not address the glaring problem that arises from the insufficiency of the earnings disregard.
The policy measures that have been adopted by the Government to address family incomes, such as the national living wage and the increase in the personal tax threshold, do not adequately address the problem that we have. The national living wage increases have been countered, as I have said, by the failure to maintain the value of in-work benefits, so that, as wages rise, the in-work financial support provided by the benefits system is being more or less commensurately reduced, leaving families pretty much at a standstill as a result. The raising of the personal tax threshold is increasingly a poorly targeted mechanism for supporting the poorest families, including those in paid employment. Most of the benefits of the continuing increases in the tax threshold, Mr Davies, go to better-off earners like you and me.
So what do we need instead of the approach that we have today? First, we need policies that specifically address the incomes of the poorest families. I invite the Minister to look again at the way in which universal credit can be redeveloped to return to its original purpose to incentivise and reward work and increase amounts of paid work. We should reprioritise the financial support specifically designed to meet the needs of parents in raising their children. That means that the restrictions on benefits for children that we have seen in recent years must be reversed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central has rightly said, we need a much more determined strategy of investment in the services and support to help to produce the best long-term outcomes. I strongly endorse the call for a focus on early years childcare and education and for a cross-government approach.
I also support my hon. Friend when he says that we must reinstate meaningful and relevant targeting and tracking of progress. The social justice Green Paper offers Ministers an opportunity to bring forward targets that will focus attention properly on the problem and enable us to assess the efficacy of potential solutions that capture all the dimensions of child poverty, family income and the wider outcomes that we have discussed.
Finally, I suggest we need to underpin our ambitions with clear, firm and focused legislation. I greatly regret the watering down of the Child Poverty Act. As my hon. Friend said, that was put in place with cross-party support. It had support within the Westminster Parliament, in the Parliaments of Scotland and Wales, and across local government. It would be good to return to that consensual approach. If Ministers do not feel that they want to reinstate the Child Poverty Act, which I wish they would, but I fear they may not, may I at least invite the Minister to consider the potential for finally enacting section 1 of the Equality Act 2010? That would bring attention to bear on the wider dimensions of poverty. It could be readily picked up in the social justice Green Paper. I hope the Minister will consider that.
We need a real focus on what works, what makes a difference and how we know we are making progress. We cannot have the pick and mix approach that we have had over the past few years, because times are about to get so much worse for our poorest children. It would be a dereliction of duty on the part of all of us not to take action now to prevent that.
I thank the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for securing this important debate, which is a timely one. Most of us will of course celebrate Christmas with extravagance and excess. It is important to consider the fact that many people will struggle through the festive season. The Social Mobility Commission has said that in Glasgow more than a third of children live in poverty. In my constituency there are certainly areas where that figure is one in two children. In this day and age that is frankly scandalous.
I was a teacher before I came to this place and I saw at first hand the effect of child poverty on children’s education and life chances. It is almost impossible for a hungry child to learn, and difficult to concentrate when all they have had that morning is a can of juice or a packet of sweets. How can a child from a deprived background hope to compete educationally with their peers? They may not have a bag in which to carry their essentials to school. As the hon. Gentleman has already mentioned, with poverty comes stigma, which can further exclude children from the educational chances that may allow them to progress.
Education should be an enabler, and a way to allow all young people to reach their potential, but the reality is that by the age of three children from deprived backgrounds can already be nine months behind average development, and by the time they start school the difference can be as much as 18 months. For young children that can mean an inability to communicate, vocally or in other ways. They may not understand the simplest instructions. They may have issues with going to the toilet. Poverty has all sorts of impacts on children at that stage. The factors that contribute—poor diet, a difficult home environment, and parents juggling work and child care—show no sign of abating.
I hope that increases in early years education provision across the UK will make a big difference. However, I keep hearing the word “childcare”. In Scotland we talk instead about early years education. In Scotland education starts formally at the age of three. I do not mean learning to read and write; I mean learning to communicate, learning about relationships and starting to work through a simple curriculum. There is a subtle but fundamental difference between childcare and early years education. Childcare is about the parents. It is about supporting them, benefiting them and making their lives more convenient. Of course, it benefits the children as well—I will not deny that. However, early years education is focused 100% on the children. It is about improving their life chances.
There are differences between the early years packages that will be offered across the UK. In Scotland, all children will be entitled to 30 hours of early years education. In England, 30 hours will be offered to children only where both parents are working. That calls into question the purpose of the provision. We should also think about different parents and home environments; what about parents with disabilities or health issues that prevent them from working? Their children, who may already be socially excluded, will be further excluded if they do not have access to their 30 hours, and will miss out on chances that could raise them out of poverty and make a vital difference when they start school.
Other groups also need consideration. Grandparents play a massive role in helping with childcare. Some are the main carers for young children, but no provision is made for them in the 30 hours rule. In fact, they would also need to be in work to get access to the 30 hours of childcare. The Government need to rethink the 30 hours restrictions, and open the provision up to all children, if they are to make a difference in tackling the attainment gap at the very beginning of school.
We need to look at how poverty can be alleviated completely. That means a realistic welfare system that actually allows young children to flourish. As a teacher, I know that young children from deprived backgrounds are a massive untapped resource. They have great potential. The UK has skills gaps in the areas of science, technology, engineering, maths, digital skills and construction. Those skills shortages could be tackled in a serious manner if we created an environment that allowed young children from deprived backgrounds to achieve success.
In Scotland, we are committed to eradicating child poverty. The recently announced baby box will be a box of essential items given to every child born in Scotland, to help to level the playing field at the earliest stages of life. In Scotland, education maintenance allowance is still in place for young people in the later stages of secondary education. We still have free university education, which many of our young people can use. Certainly there will be no return in Scotland to selective education, which locks in inequality, scars children and prevents them from achieving their full potential. No child should have to grow up in poverty in the 21st century in the UK. I should like the Government to take a realistic approach to that problem. Many hon. Members now look forward to spending Christmas in comfort with their children, and we need to think realistically about how to allow all children in the UK to enjoy Christmas.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for obtaining this important and timely debate and for his sterling work in pursuing the issue of child poverty. His written parliamentary questions and private Member’s Bill have been important in keeping child poverty on the agenda and making sure that, although it is the last day of term here, we are debating a subject crucial to the children in our constituencies.
At this time families are preparing for Christmas at home, getting the tree ready and wrapping presents, but that is something not available to everyone. Some of my constituents recently got in touch for assistance because they have no money for Christmas presents for their children. Such families are dependent on the charity of organisations such as Glasgow’s Spirit of Christmas, the Salvation Army, and groups working in the Gorbals. There are many voluntary groups in constituencies which people have to approach to ask for gifts for their children. I cannot imagine the heartbreak it must cause parents to know that they just do not have the money—that Santa will not come to their door and their kids will wake up on Christmas morning with perhaps nothing at all.
The way those families have now been stigmatised in this country and been allowed to reach such a situation is nothing short of appalling. One of the families I mentioned has no recourse to public funds—the mother is working but just cannot work enough to bring in enough money to pay the bills, put food on the table and provide Christmas presents for her children. That is the reality today for families in the UK—the sixth richest nation on earth.
The hon. Member for Barnsley Central is correct to point out that the debate is about political choices and Government decisions that affect people in this country. He rightly quoted his town’s motto about judging people by their actions; it is a crucial point that we should take forward. He is also right to point out that the Labour Government made significant progress on child poverty, and I pay credit to them for that. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) correctly mentioned the significance of tracking, targets and actually having something to work towards. Without that guiding principle, how will we know whether we are making progress? How will we know whether lives are being improved or getting worse?
Let me talk a little about the impact of child poverty beyond the bald statistics, which can be pretty dry. Child poverty is about stigma and isolation, and there is a compounding impact that makes it difficult to escape from the cycle of poverty. In 2010, back when I was a councillor in Glasgow, Save the Children ran a series of events about the lived experience of children in poverty. It created what it called a museum of poverty, which contained things that it wished to banish from reality and ought to be things of the past. Those included pawn tickets, unaffordable fuel, benefit forms, homelessness, cheap, crap food that does people no good, and dinner tickets and tokens, which the hon. Member for Barnsley Central mentioned. Those are all stigmas that people in poverty have to carry around with them. We do not necessarily see them, but those people have to see and feel them every single day.
Things have got worse since 2010. We have let children down. The children who participated in those events may now actually be parents themselves. We now have brutal sanctions, the two-child policy and the rape clause, which will not only stigmatise the families it impacts but hurt them deeply. We have the benefit cap, there are people with no recourse to public funds, and delays in benefits leave people with no option but to go to food banks and rely on the charity of friends, family and strangers.
Absolutely. The evidence that the National Audit Office and charities across the country have produced on this issue makes that absolutely clear. I spoke to an organisation from Castlemilk, which is not in my constituency but has been working with food banks in my constituency. It had spoken to people who came to the food banks and tried to help them with their issues. Its evidence showed clearly that food poverty was about delays, some of which are built into the system. The six-week wait for universal credit claims leaves people with nothing until that comes through. That is absolutely unacceptable. Most worryingly, that organisation also found that people did not want to challenge things because they were worried about getting into trouble with the Department for Work and Pensions, their job coach or whoever they had spoken to. It is deeply disappointing that that service does not support people but punishes them.
A lot of very good work has been done on poverty in Glasgow. The poverty leadership panel has done a great deal of work. Glasgow City Council, in partnership with Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, Glasgow Centre for Population Health and a host of other organisations, produced an excellent report about the cost of the school day that is similar to some of work that the hon. Member for Barnsley Central mentioned.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) spoke about the developmental lag in education, which has an impact. There are things inherent in the education system that perhaps not everyone sees but are very important to people living in poverty. That report looked at the stigma about things such as clothes, transport and learning resources, and the impact of poverty on friendships, people’s ability to go on trips, food, and in-school events such as non-uniform days, fundraising events and clubs. People in poverty cannot participate in a great many of those things, and that has a huge impact, particularly on young children. Other children in a class can tell that a child is in poverty, no matter how they might try to cover that up.
The Conservatives in this place are reluctant to see “I, Daniel Blake”, but the example in that film of the wee girl whose shoes had been glued back together but kept falling apart, and the family who could not afford to put shoes on that child’s feet, is heartbreaking. Such experiences are damaging to a child’s health, wellbeing and very sense of identity. My son went through three pairs of school shoes and two pairs of trousers last year in primary 1. I was able to put shoes on his feet, but if I was not able to do that, what impact would going around in Scotland in the rain with wet feet every day have on him? That would be appalling, and many families are left in that situation. Schools in Glasgow have to buy outdoor clothes for kids who cannot afford warm jackets or welly boots so they can participate in outdoor play. So many families are close to crisis—they are an unexpected bill away from crisis—and the benefits system has left them in that situation. There is no dignity or respect there. We need to look at the root causes of poverty to deal with that.
I am glad to be able to say that the Scottish Government are taking action. They have a child poverty Bill out for consultation just now. Our ambition is to achieve change, but we cannot do that on our own. We have access to only 15% of the benefit system. We will do what we can with that 15%—we are committed to bringing in maternity and early childhood benefits to help with some of the expenses of starting school—but although that can be significant, it is only a small part of the picture. We need to look at the root causes.
Peter Kelly of the Poverty Alliance spoke about the missed opportunities in the autumn statement and said it was akin to
“being pushed off a cliff with only a pillow to absorb the landing.”
Families are still in very stark situations. It is estimated that because of cuts to tax credits, 200,000 more children will be in poverty by 2020. The two-child policy and rape clause will trap people in a situation that they just cannot earn enough to get back out of. CPAG estimates that due to cuts to universal credit, families will have to work a 13 to 14-month year to earn enough money back just to stand still in a situation where what they have is not great to begin with. Trussell Trust figures show that food bank usage increased in the first half of this year, and it distributed 500,000 three-day emergency food supplies across the UK, more than 188,000 of which were for children. That is pretty stark.
We can do a great deal to make change, and I absolutely agree with the hon. Member for Barnsley Central and other Members who have spoken that this Government should be doing so much more. They need to join the dots, they need a holistic strategy, and they need to play their part in resolving child poverty.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for securing this debate and his long-standing commitment to this issue. He made an excellent speech highlighting the scale of the crisis. The fact that, typically, nine children in a class of 30 are growing up in poverty is a stark image indeed. I wholly concur with his assertion that no child in Britain should grow up in poverty and that should be a priority for the Government. I hope that the Minister will respond to his key question and say what the Government’s position is on establishing a child poverty target.
Many other Members also made excellent contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), who has a great deal of experience in this area, made a compelling speech. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) alluded to the problems with funding for nursery education, which is certainly an issue in my constituency, and several Members mentioned the importance of early intervention and early-years education. My hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) made a good speech about the impact of the changes made by the last Chancellor in the last Budget on people in the bottom third of the income distribution. The hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) spoke about her personal experience as a school teacher of poverty’s detrimental impact on children’s ability to learn. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) mentioned the school holiday programmes that provide food for children in poverty who would otherwise go hungry during the summer weeks.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central made clear, we face a child poverty crisis under this Government. Today, 29% of children in the UK live in poverty. That is not just about not going on holiday or not having treats; it is about not having enough to eat or get by, being cold in winter, not having shoes that fit and struggling to survive. The Resolution Foundation estimates that in 2016 alone 200,000 children, predominantly from working households, will have fallen into poverty. That is on top of the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ projection, which has been alluded to, that the falls in child poverty that a Labour Government achieved at the beginning of this century risk being reversed.
There was a comprehensive strategy to tackle child poverty across the last Labour Government, which is something that our party is proud of, with interventions such as Sure Start and increasing existing social security and new, child-targeted assistance and investment in early years intervention, along with programmes to help lone parents into work. That wide range of actions increased incomes and provided tailored services to help families living in poverty. The recent news that the child poverty unit, set up under the previous Labour Government in an effort to eliminate child poverty, has been abolished is very concerning indeed. That shows that child poverty is becoming far less of a priority for this Conservative Government. Surely we can only tackle child poverty effectively through a concerted strategy across Government.
The Child Poverty Act 2010, brought in by the Labour Government, set four key targets to be met by 2021. They ranged from reducing the proportion of children who live in low-income households to reducing the number of children who experience persistent poverty. However, counterproductively, the current Government decided to abolish the numerical targets based on household income in the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 and replace them with a life chances strategy, which has measures such as educational attainment and family breakdown. By removing income targets and focusing on life chances, the Government are failing to tackle the cause of child poverty: lack of money. Growing up in poverty affects children for the rest of their lives. It is in every sense a life sentence.
The life chances strategy was scheduled to be published as far back as June. Now, questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central reveal that the Government will not publish it at all but will instead publish a Green Paper on social justice in the new year. Does the Minister agree that measuring household income is an important means of assessing the prevalence of child poverty across the UK? Will she assure the House that in any new proposal she will retain recognised indicators of income-related poverty?
Thankfully, a defeat in the House of Lords forced the Government to retain a legally binding commitment to measure and publish the number of children living in families on low income. However, that does not mean that they are required to publish a child poverty strategy every three years. Now we learn that it is no longer Government policy to try to eliminate child poverty at all.
The Government have introduced major changes to the social security system that have hit families with children hard. Supporting families to achieve and maintain an income that enables them to meet their needs is a vital element in giving children a good start in life. The major change to the social security system will be the reduction in the amount that someone can earn before their universal credit starts to be withdrawn. Single parents will be hit particularly hard. For example, from next year a single parent with two children working full time on the national living wage will receive £2,586 less a year under universal credit than someone claiming tax credits. The Child Poverty Action Group estimated that a single parent working full time on the national living wage would effectively have to work an extra two months each year to make up for that loss in income. It is utterly impossible for them to do that.
The cuts to work allowances are significant because of their impact in increasing in-work poverty. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the proportion of people in poverty in a working family is 55%, which is a record high. Four fifths of the adults in those families are themselves working—some 3.8 million workers. Those adults who are not working are predominantly looking after their children. Is the Minister concerned that, as a result of her Government’s cuts to universal credit, the huge gains the Labour party made in lifting more than a million children out of poverty will be undone? The Government’s tinkering with the universal credit taper rate at the autumn statement will not address the losses incurred as a result of their previous changes to work allowances.
The Government have promised to make work pay, but that is not happening for the three quarters of children in poverty who are in working families. Will they now reverse cuts to in-work support through universal credit? There is overwhelming evidence that child poverty has a direct causal impact on worsening children’s social, emotional and cognitive outcomes. Anyone who has been a teacher—many in the House have been—will have direct experience of that. The very wiring of the brain is affected when children are brought up in poverty. A hungry child cannot learn.
A British Medical Association report published in September highlighted the impact of austerity on children’s health, from increased mortality rates to the likelihood that children growing up in poverty may face greater health problems in later life. A secure, warm home and healthy, nutritious food are basic physiological needs. When those needs are not met, people’s health suffers both physically and mentally. That is particularly the case for children as they are still developing. Being in work or well educated cannot guarantee those essential needs will be met, but having money can.
If the Government will not be moved by moral arguments, perhaps they will be by the economic arguments. The failure to tackle the root causes of child poverty will result in losing a whole generation of future talent and untapped potential. The implications for these children and their families, but also for the country, are stark, yet the Government have cut the staffing of the Social Mobility Commission to the point that it now has more members than staff.
The Prime Minister has abandoned her pledge, made on the steps of Downing Street, to support families who are struggling to get by. I urge the Government to rethink their position on child poverty and reinstate the targets before it is too late.
I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing this debate on child poverty, and all Members from across the House who contributed to the discussion. Let me assure all that tackling child poverty and disadvantage and delivering real social reform is a priority for the Government. Our Prime Minister has set out clearly that she is committed to that. That includes taking action that addresses the root causes of child poverty and disadvantage, not just the symptoms.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the tone that he struck during the debate. This is about not just Government policy but everyone, whatever their political hue, at a local level working to combat these issues. That includes Members of Parliament, councillors and, as the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) pointed out, many organisations in our communities. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) made excellent points about the consistency required on targets and the opportunities that come from devolution and local mayors. Those points are well made.
Before I turn to targets, let me briefly touch on the child poverty unit, which was mentioned. The unit’s main function was to support Ministers in exercising their duties in relation to the income-based targets set out in the Child Poverty Act 2010 and the associated child poverty strategy. Following the repeal of those targets, which was explicit in the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016, responsibility for child poverty policy and analysis transferred to the Department for Work and Pensions. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission secretariat continues to be based in the Department for Education, and the Secretary of State for Education is the lead Minister for that commission.
The Government want to take a fundamentally different approach to child poverty from the one driven by the Child Poverty Act measures and targets. Our approach will tackle the root causes of poverty and disadvantage and drive continued action in the areas that will improve long-term outcomes for disadvantaged children, now and in the future. It is for that reason we rejected the narrow, income-based approach to poverty incentivised through the 2010 Act. In place of that, we have, through provisions in the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016, introduced two new statutory measures that will drive action on parental worklessness and on children’s educational achievement. Those are the two areas that we know can make the biggest difference to improving children’s long-term outcomes.
The 2016 Act puts a new duty on the Government to report annually on the proportion of children living in workless households, the proportion of children living in long-term workless households, and attainment at GCSE for all children and for disadvantaged children. The groundbreaking analysis conducted by my Department means that we now have a clearer understanding of disadvantage than ever before. We know that children affected by parental worklessness and its associated risk factors, such as family instability, drug or alcohol dependency and poor parental mental health, are disproportionately likely to experience poorer outcomes.
I am sorry; I would like to make progress, and I do not have much time. I will try to address all the points raised.
It is worth noting that the old Child Poverty Act targets were based on defining a household as being in poverty if its income was below 60% of median household income. That remains the basis for the “households below average income” survey, which is still the definitive source of data on poverty and low income; during the passage of the 2016 Act, the Government made a commitment to continue to publish the data.
I recognise the point made by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston about some of the obstacles to women in particular working, and working more hours, such as bunching around 16 hours, multiple caring responsibilities and so forth. We recognise that, which is why the Minister of State who holds this portfolio is undertaking a range of work to tackle those issues.
We also know—the evidence is clear—that work is the best way out of poverty. Working-age adults in non-working families are almost four times as likely to be living on a low income. The “Child poverty transitions” report published in June 2015 found that 74% of children in workless families that moved into full employment exited poverty; that 47% of children in workless households were in relative low income before deducting housing costs, compared with only 8% in households in which all adults were working; and that there are 100,000 fewer children in relative low income since 2010.
I am sorry; I want to address these points. The Government’s record on employment speaks for itself. The latest figures show the employment rate at 74.4%, unemployment at an 11-year low and 2.8 million more people in work than in 2010. That is important, because we know that being in work has wider benefits beyond financial ones. There is clear evidence that good-quality work is linked to better physical and mental health and improved wellbeing, and that better parental health is associated with better outcomes for children. That is why we are getting people into employment and working to change attitudes.
We are also introducing reforms to ensure that work always pays and to allow people to keep more of what they earn. We are cutting income tax for more than 30 million people this year and taking 4 million of the lowest-paid people out of income tax completely. By 2018, a typical basic rate taxpayer will pay more than £1,000 less in income tax than in 2010. We are also making sure that people working 30 hours a week on the national minimum wage do not pay any income tax. Together with the introduction of the national living wage, that will give full-time low-paid workers previously on the national minimum wage a pay rise of more than £15 a week. Under universal credit, people are moving into work significantly faster, and staying in those jobs for longer. That crucial welfare reform also increases support for parents; universal credit now provides up to 85% of childcare costs, meaning more support for working families.
The hon. Member for Barnsley Central is quite understandably focused on what happens next. The Prime Minister has set up—and chairs—a new Social Reform Cabinet Committee that brings together nine Government Departments to oversee and agree social policy reforms. Its task will be to lead the Government’s work to increase social mobility and deliver social justice. We will bring forward a social justice Green Paper in the new year that will identify and address the root causes of poverty and will build on the two statutory measures we have already set out in the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016. That is fundamentally different from previous approaches; it is focused on not only the symptoms but the root causes of poverty, and will ensure a clear focus on improving long-term outcomes for the most disadvantaged children.
The Government have a good record on child poverty. There are now 200,000 fewer children in absolute poverty than in 2010 and—under Labour’s own poverty measurements—100,000 fewer children in relative poverty. However, we know that we need to do more. To deliver real social change and real social justice, and to make Britain the country that works for everyone, we will bring forward the social justice Green Paper in the new year. That will say more on our approach to tackling the root causes of poverty and disadvantage. I hope that will be something on which we will be able to build common cause and agree for the common good. Our children deserve that.
I am grateful for the opportunity to have considered the important issue of child poverty. All of us who serve in this place do so in order to improve the lives of our constituents and the communities that we represent. However, the reality is that an increasing number of children are living in poverty, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies projects that that will increase by 50% by 2020. In practical terms, that means that nine out of 30 kids in every classroom around the country will be living in poverty.
If hon. Members believe, as I do, that that is not only unacceptable but avoidable, all of us—the Government very much included—have an absolute responsibility and a duty to act. It is in our interests to do so. As I said, there is a clear moral argument for doing so, which is frankly enough in its own right, but there is also a clear economic argument for investing in the future and the next generation of talent. Despite what we have heard from the Minister, the reality is that without a target, a clear strategy or a clear focus on making progress, that simply will not happen. The Government are in an incredibly privileged position; they have the opportunity and the power to act. I hope that they will do so.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered child poverty.
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the case of Brandon Rayat.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am very pleased to see the Minister here. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the case of Brandon Singh Rayat of Leicester today.
Brandon tragically took his own life at the age of 15 on 9 August this year, just 132 days ago, after what has been described by his parents as systematic, appalling and torturous bullying. He was a pupil at Judgemeadow Community College in Evington in my constituency. We are joined today by Brandon’s mother, Mina; his father, Rajinder; and his younger brother, Jaydeep.
Mr and Mrs Rayat have informed me that, in the 16 months leading up to his death, Brandon was subjected to repeated physical and psychological abuse by his peers. Because it is so shocking, I will not repeat in great detail the abuse. However, children—children, Mr Hollobone—who used to be Brandon’s friends started calling him terrible names. They set up a fake Facebook page, through which they repeatedly sent threats to sexually assault both him and his mother. He was also physically assaulted while at school. No one in this House would disagree when I say that that kind of activity is completely reprehensible.
In May 2015, Brandon was diagnosed as suffering from an acute stress reaction as a result of the bullying. Last November, the abuse became so bad that Brandon stopped attending school altogether. His anxiety turned the mere act of going to school each day into a phobia. He became lonely and isolated, and despite being prescribed antidepressants, his condition did not improve.
Two months before he took his own life, Brandon started to give away all his possessions and money to his loved ones. Brandon’s family tell me that despite what had happened, their urgent calls for help went unanswered. In the 16 months leading up to his death, Brandon tried to take his own life on a number of occasions. His parents begged doctors to transfer him to a secure medical unit, but the request was denied by local health services. Brandon repeatedly told his parents that he wanted to take his own life and attempted suicide in both March and July of this year. Despite that, still nothing was done.
Brandon’s family spoke to the child and adolescent mental health services, his GP and psychiatric services at the Leicester Royal Infirmary, yet none of them took the action that was necessary to prevent his death. Will the Minister tell the House when she responds what would have been enough—what threshold needs to be crossed—for someone like Brandon, or indeed his family, to access the care that he and they so desperately needed?
I have visited Judgemeadow Community College many times during my 29 years as an MP, and until now, I have never received a complaint about something that has happened there. Mr and Mrs Rayat have told me that Judgemeadow Community College was informed of the bullying in November 2015. Mrs Rayat also had a meeting with the school to discuss the abuse and the pupils who were orchestrating this campaign of hate. Indeed, I understand that some of the text messages were shown to the people in authority. Unfortunately, that did nothing to prevent or stem the abuse that Brandon was receiving.
It would be extremely helpful if the Minister told the House what criteria or guidance exist for schools in circumstances of this kind. When did either she or the Secretary of State last write to various local authorities, or perhaps directly to schools, to give them information and guidance as to how they should react in particular circumstances? Not all schools experience activities of this kind, and therefore I would not expect every school and every teacher in the country to be expert in dealing with such matters.
Mrs Rayat has informed me that she also had no success when she approached Leicester City Council. She was told she needed to ask for a health and educational support plan. To get that, she went to the information, advice and support services. Her inquiry was then passed to the council’s education team, which said it would need to go to the school to get even more information. After literally running around in circles, Mina Rayat then waited for months without a substantive response. During that time, Brandon was awaiting an evaluation for suspected autism.
That looks to me like bureaucracy failing to act, which affected the reaction times. I am worried about future cases such as this. That is why Brandon’s parents wanted me to raise this case in Parliament today. His case should have been a priority. However, I fear there are other examples of the buck being passed between various authorities.
Judging from my meeting with the family at my surgery, it seems that more should have been done to help both Brandon and his family with the events leading up to his death. An inquest into Brandon’s death will begin in January, and it is not appropriate for me, Ministers or Parliament to apportion blame to any individual until that has been completed. That is the system we have in this country, and it is one that the family respects, which is why they are prepared for the inquest. However—I speak not as an educationalist but a layperson—it is clear that Brandon was subjected to a barrage of abuse over a long period. It is my understanding, from what his parents have said to me, that the very institutions that are supposed to act as a safety net in situations such as this did not do so.
I do not have all the facts. Those will emerge when the inquest takes place, as well as a possible inquiry, which the family believe is extremely important. However, it seems that the system has failed this young man and this family. Will the Minister outline how this system could be made more effective and easier for families to navigate? These are not people who have had much contact with the education system prior to this occurring, so they do not know how to go through it.
As Members will know, it was National Anti-Bullying Week last month. Mina Rayat launched a campaign to ensure that no other young person or parent goes through the sheer hell that Brandon and his family were subjected to. I would like to put on the record the shining and admirable example of Mina Rayat and her family. She wants to ensure that, although her son has passed away in these tragic circumstances, no other family will endure what they have had to endure. Despite being grief-stricken, there is nothing more she could have done. She tried to push a broken system to save her child. To lose a child is the worst pain any parent could imagine, but to use her grief as a force for good is heroic.
What is most worrying is that Brandon’s story is not a one-off. Thousands of children in the United Kingdom are suffering from bullying, both at school and online, and this is contributing to a mental health crisis. This year, 87% more children than last year told Childline that they struggled to access appropriate professional support for their mental health problems. Some 72% of children have reported being bullied online and a quarter of a million children are currently receiving help from NHS mental health services. One third of these cases are related to bullying. These are frightening statistics, but we must bear in mind that many cases are not reported and, in reality, the figures are likely to be much higher.
Some parents may say to their children, when they come home and complain, “You just have to shout back at someone who is attacking you and stand up for yourself, or report it to a teacher.” Parents themselves may not understand the serious nature of what is going on.
Yesterday the Health Committee released its interim report on suicide prevention. It stated that 4,820 people died by suicide in England in 2016. But again, in reality, this figure is likely to be much higher. Suicide remains the biggest killer of men under 49 and the leading cause of death in people aged 15 to 24. My father committed suicide when I was 14. He was just 49 and to this day, all these years later, I still remember the knock on the door, answering that door and being told the news.
The circumstances that give rise to someone taking their own life are a personal issue for some of us, but also a matter of deep public concern. It should be a concern of Parliament and Government. We are in the midst of two separate crises. We have a crisis in youth mental health and a pandemic of bullying in our schools and online. To address this, we need a revolutionary change in the way the authorities provide support to victims.
Can the Minister please tell us that, when the Government refresh—that is the word used in the document—their suicide prevention strategy in January 2017, included in that strategy will be a section on how to address bullying? Will she also ensure that guidance on cases like Brandon’s is at the heart of the strategy across councils and NHS services in the United Kingdom?
Another issue is the bullies. All bullies believe they can push their target to the very edge and suffer no consequences. They may delight in the misery they cause—who knows? Under the current law, sustained harassment and intimidation, including verbal abuse, threats, abusive phone calls and sending abusive emails or text messages are all crimes. However—we have heard this so many times—the internet companies must be held to account even more than at present. They never seem to respond quickly enough to cases of online bullying like Brandon’s. When someone seeks to make a complaint, it is usually found that they are based in another country in some other part of the world, and trying to get to someone to deal with the issue is complicated.
As is all too common, no charges or investigations have been launched against Brandon’s bullies. Perhaps a more serious risk of prosecution would have deterred them. Had Brandon been murdered, criminal charges would have been a certainty. Mina Rayat and her husband have put the implementation of a specific cyber-bullying law at the heart of their campaign to achieve justice for Brandon and others who have found themselves in this terrible situation. Will the Minister give the Government’s view on those proposals? Will she also tell us what further action the Government are taking to deal with internet companies?
I shall end by saying that 2016 has been an unimaginably tragic year for the Rayat family. Unfortunately, Mrs Rayat is not the only mother in my constituency to have approached me this year about the death of a son. I pay tribute to Cheryl Armatrading and Amy Morgan who both lost their sons to knife attacks in Leicester. Cheryl’s son, Antoin Akpom, was brutally murdered in September 2013. His family has yet to receive compensation for his death or an explanation of why his killer was transferred to Leicester by the authorities, which allowed the killer to meet Antoin in a car park and to stab him to death. Cheryl is being supported by the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers), who is working hard on her behalf and is her local MP. I am acting as the constituency MP for Antoin’s son, Aquil.
Amy Morgan lost her son, Tyler Thompson, to a knife attack in November 2015. Last month, I attended a ceremony marking the first anniversary of his death at the City of Leicester College, hosted by headteacher, Anne Gregory, in Downing Drive in my constituency. Since Tyler’s death, Amy has worked in collaboration with Leicestershire police on their “Lives not Knives” campaign. Some young men in my constituency and across the country are facing a crisis of violence and intimidation, leaving behind them grieving families and broken communities. This violence must stop.
What sort of country do we want to live in? Do we want a country where our children are safe from the kind of bullies and actions that Brandon had to face, or a country where the actions of bullies remain unchecked? We want a country where these issues are raised and bullies are stopped in their tracks before it is too late. When children are suffering bullying to the point where they take their own lives, we need to change our response radically. The system failed Brandon this year. Please, let us ensure that no other child is failed in this way.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) for securing this very important debate, for the way he presented this tragic story to the House and for always standing up for his constituents with great dedication and passion. He is a great credit to them.
I express my deepest sympathy to Brandon’s mother, father and brother and to all his family and friends. His untimely and utterly tragic death is the reason why we are having this debate. We must do all that we can both to stop bullying happening at all and, crucially, to recognise and support the victims.
The right hon. Gentleman rightly asked what we could have done to prevent this tragedy. When children are victims of bullying, it is vital that professionals listen to them and their families and take seriously what they say. The bullying of Brandon and its consequences were not missed—not by his parents, his school or other services. His family tried and tried to get help, and the school and child and adolescent mental health services were involved. All of that needs to be investigated very carefully.
However, as the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, Brandon’s tragic death will be the subject of a coroner’s inquiry in the new year. I cannot pre-empt the findings and say at this point what specific organisations such as the Judgemeadow school should have done; that will come out of that inquiry. But whatever comes out of the inquiry, we must ensure that the vital lessons are identified, learned and put into practice to help prevent such a devastating event from happening again and families from suffering in a similar way.
The right hon. Gentleman raised a number of important issues and questions that I would like to address. First, let me say that bullying, for whatever reason and in whatever circumstance, is absolutely unacceptable and has no place in our society. As we have seen, it has had a devastating effect on Brandon’s family, but it has also blighted the lives of many other young people. We cannot simply dismiss bullying as part of growing up. Even when it does not have consequences as appalling as those that we have heard about today, it can have a profound and, in many cases, very long-lasting effect on the lives of children and young people and affect their education and long-term mental health.
The Government have sent a clear message that bullying is not to be tolerated in our schools. Every school is different, and individual schools are best placed to decide how best to tackle bullying as part of a wider set of activities regarding behaviour and discipline. We have trusted our headteachers and school staff to identify the circumstances surrounding bullying in their schools, to prioritise those issues, to drive their own improvement and to share best practice among themselves.
Schools have a specific legal duty to have a behaviour policy, which must include measures to prevent all bullying among pupils, including cyber-bullying. Teachers have powers to tackle cyber-bullying by searching for and, if necessary, deleting inappropriate messages or files on electronic devices, including mobile phones. The role of schools is so important. They must absolutely be held to account for how well they tackle and respond to bullying. That is why Ofsted inspections now look specifically at what schools do, examining their records and procedures and what pupils and parents say about how the issue of bullying is dealt with.
We must ensure that schools are supported to tackle bullying and that they can learn from one another. I was fortunate enough to meet during Anti-Bullying Week a couple of weeks ago some really inspiring teachers who have made a real difference to children’s lives through the way they have addressed the issue. My Department has provided £4.4 million of funding to tackle bullying. That includes £1.6 million for four anti-bullying organisations to support schools in tackling the issue, programmes to look at how incidents can be reported to schools more easily, and training for 4,000 young people to become anti-bullying ambassadors in schools and lead campaigns to empower others. We also recently published dedicated cyber-bullying guidance and an online safety toolkit for schools. Those resources will help schools to understand, prevent and respond to cyber-bullying, and can be accessed on the UK Safer Internet Centre website.
Beyond school, social media bring new challenges for young people. Bullying now goes beyond the school gates, which is why we have given schools greater power to deal with incidents outside school. The Government are absolutely clear that what is illegal online is illegal offline. Whomever bullying is aimed at, it is totally unacceptable. I can fully appreciate the desire of Brandon’s family for a change in the law to make cyber-bullying a specific offence. At the moment, the law does not differentiate between criminal offences committed on social media and those committed anywhere else. That means that the actions are illegal wherever they are committed, whether online, in the street or at school. The law as it stands can be used to prosecute online abuse. It is imperative that the individuals committing criminal offences, whether they are making threats of violence or sending grossly offensive messages, are caught and punished appropriately.
Any death by suicide is an absolute tragedy. Suicide is a leading cause of death among young people, and particularly among young men. Our challenge is to recognise the factors that pose the greatest risk and identify those most at risk, so that we can intervene effectively.
We recognise that our services that provide young people with access to specialist mental health support are in need of transformation. Too often when seeking help, children and their families are passed from service to service and face a succession of barriers and thresholds. The right hon. Gentleman rightly asked what threshold Brandon needed to meet and what an effective service would look like. The challenge to us all is to ensure that services come together to provide effective support to those who need it. The question should be not “Do you qualify for my service?” but “What can we best do between us to provide the support that you need?” To support that transformation, we have made £1.4 billion available to ensure that clinical commissioning groups develop local plans detailing how they will improve all aspects of mental health provision.
Our refreshed suicide prevention strategy will, as the right hon. Gentleman asks, acknowledge bullying as a potential contributing factor to suicide in children and young people and will therefore reference the importance of schools and links with schools. It is vital that schools and mental health services work more effectively and more closely together. We have recently been running a series of pilots on that, and we plan to learn from them. We are also taking forward a range of projects across Government on online mental health safety, including funding research into the effects of the internet on mental health and suicide risk, developing digital resilience strategies for children and young people and working in schools to improve mental health awareness and promote mental wellbeing.
The right hon. Gentleman rightly paid tribute to Cheryl Armatrading and Amy Morgan, who tragically lost their sons to knife crime. The Government’s modern crime prevention strategy sets out a range of measures to strengthen our response to knife crime, including working with the police and industry to ensure that there are effective controls on the sale of knives, spreading best practice and delivering measures designed to deter young people from carrying knives. We will continue to work with the Home Office to ensure that every step is taken to protect children from violence. We know that intervening early can help to prevent young people from becoming involved in gang and youth violence in the first place. That is one of the priorities in our approach to ending gang violence and exploitation, and we are working with partners to take that forward.
I am really pleased that the right hon. Gentleman has raised this incredibly important issue today. Bullying is completely unacceptable in any circumstances, but especially when it leads to unspeakably tragic events such as those that we have heard about today. It is vital that everyone is aware of their responsibilities and acts accordingly when they see or hear about bullying, in whatever form it takes. When everyone plays their part in tackling bullying, we will have a society that is respectful and tolerant of all—a place where everyone feels safe and valued. I hope that we can continue to work together to ensure that we build such a society.
I pay tribute to Brandon’s parents and brother for coming here today. I am a mother of two sons and I can only imagine the horrific pain that they have gone through this year. The fact that they have come here to campaign to ensure that other parents do not have to experience the same suffering is incredibly admirable. To do them justice, it will be incumbent on all of us—the Government, councils, health services and schools—to look very carefully at the outcome of the reviews of Brandon’s case and ensure that we all, at every level of the system, make the changes necessary to put the lessons into practice.
Question put and agreed to.
Jobcentre Closures: Glasgow
I beg to move,
That this House has considered closure of jobcentres in Glasgow.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Hollobone. I wish to take you and other Members back to 8 June 2010—at the time of 7.34 pm, to be precise. That was a big moment in the Minister’s parliamentary career, because it was then that he uttered his first words to the House as a new Member, in a Queen’s Speech debate on the economy and welfare. Tucked away within that speech was a line that I happen to agree with. Talking specifically about welfare, the Minister said then that prevention is “better than cure”. Those are such wise words from six years ago, but what a turnaround in approach we have today now that he is a Minister of the Crown. I accept that the Minister will not share my analysis. I accept that he probably—almost certainly—believes that he is on the same trajectory as he was back in 2010 when he advocated prevention with such eloquence. So I and some of my hon. Friends wish to adumbrate to him this evening the error of his ways.
I wish to start with the sham of a consultation that the Government have been dragged, kicking and screaming, to finally publish on their website. The Minister and his officials know, because we have told them on several occasions, that the basis on which they are proceeding with the consultation is a sham. There are 16 jobcentres in the city of Glasgow; the Minister wishes to close eight. He will consult on only three, because he believes that the rules surrounding this matter—the ministerial criteria—allow him to do so. However, he has been told by myself and several of my hon. Friends who represent constituencies that will be affected that the information the Government have used to calculate the distances between opening and remaining jobcentres—an incredibly important part of the rules governing the ministerial criteria—is flawed, because they have relied on Google Maps. Now that is fine for the average holiday traveller—indeed, I even use it myself—but the idea that a Minister of the Crown or a Government Department, no less, would use something as simple as an iPhone app to determine how they deliver services in Scotland’s largest city is nothing short of a shambles and a slap in the face to Glaswegians. We are clear that the consultation needs to be on the full package of closures—not on three, but on eight—and to give due consideration to the wider impact on the remaining jobcentres and how they will absorb staff members and all the extra people who will require their services.
The other thing that I wish to highlight, before giving several of my colleagues enough time to talk about their constituencies, is the specific impact that the closures will have on my constituency. The Minister wishes to close two of the three jobcentres that serve my constituency, which is the largest in in the city of Glasgow in geographical size and population. Yesterday I spoke with the staff at Castlemilk law centre, around the corner from the Castlemilk jobcentre, which the Minister wishes to close. They told me in no uncertain terms that the closure of Castlemilk jobcentre will inevitably lead to more poverty, more exclusion and more disengagement with the services that are currently available. The law centre does excellent work in ensuring that people are as engaged as possible with jobcentre services if they have physical or mental disabilities or are presented with other challenges. However, with the removal of the centre from Castlemilk, the staff fully expect their workload to increase and for people to disengage. They and I can foresee, in a way that the Minister perhaps cannot at this stage, the disproportionate impact on some incredibly poorly off people and some people who are incredibly challenged with physical and mental disabilities. I return to his words in his maiden speech: prevention is better than cure.
The Minister is aware, because I wrote to him, of a specific proposal by the management of Castlemilk jobcentre whereby they will agree a lower rental rate for the Department, if this is about saving money. They do not want to see the jobcentre go. Will the Minister address that issue for me? Langside jobcentre is right across the road from a college campus, in the second most densely populated council ward in all of Scotland. I cannot think of a better place for a jobcentre to be.
The Minister has not just managed to unite the Glasgow MPs and Members of the Scottish Parliament—including the two from his own party who represent Glasgow— against these plans. He has united the Church of Scotland, the trade unions, the Catholic Church in Scotland and two very large communities in my constituency against them.
I will sum up now, to allow as many of my colleagues as possible to speak. My ask to the Minister is very simple: halt these proposals right now, talk to us in a meaningful fashion about how to deliver a proper welfare service to the people of Glasgow, and engage with people in Glasgow by visiting the city during the consultation period. I know that he is coming to Scotland sometime next month to meet Ministers in the Scottish Government, so I seek an assurance that he will also use that visit to come to Glasgow and speak to some of those affected in some of the poorest communities in Scotland’s largest city.
Order. The debate can run until 5.30 pm. The guideline limits for Front-Bench contributions are five minutes for the Scottish National party spokesman, five minutes for the Opposition spokesman and 10 minutes for the Minister, with three minutes for Mr McDonald to sum up at the end. That means that I need to start calling the Front Benchers no later than 5.7 pm.
I see before me some of the most talented and best looking of the SNP’s representation in Parliament. Five of you have indicated to Mr Speaker that you would like to speak. I intend to call you in the order on the list given to me by the Speaker’s Office—I suspect that the order is to do with who got their application in first. Because you are all on the same side, I hope that you will not speak for too long and deny the person at the bottom of the list the opportunity to speak. You have about five or six minutes each, and Natalie McGarry is going to lead off to show us all how it is done.
I commend the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) for securing this important debate. It is indicative of the strength of feeling among Glasgow’s MPs that we have almost the entire cohort here, as well as the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier). We are all here to speak to the Minister about the issue and to raise it in the House. Our constituents are watching, because they are concerned about the impact on their communities.
Almost two weeks ago, I was shocked, like my hon. Friends, to learn through the press of the UK Government’s decision to earmark eight jobcentres across Glasgow for closure. That decision would close half of the city’s jobcentres. Two are in my constituency, while a third will close in the neighbouring constituency of Glasgow Central. That impacts on a fourth, Shettleston—the lone jobcentre in the east end to be free from the threat of closure. The plans lack logic and local knowledge and clearly lack input from local stakeholders. For those reasons and a whole host of others, they are inherently short-sighted.
The jobcentre closures in Glasgow are part of Department for Work and Pensions plans to cut its estate by 20%. However, the plan in Glasgow will see a 50% cut in our jobcentres. That prompts the question: why are the Government disproportionately focusing on Glasgow? The Minister pre-empted that point in his letter to Glasgow MPs by saying that Glasgow
“is in a unique position within the DWP Jobcentre Plus Estate as it has a greater density of small offices compared to other large Scottish towns and cities.”
I think that he meant that Glasgow is in a unique position, from the view of the DWP, in being convenient for an ideologically driven cost-cutting exercise.
In fact, Glasgow is indeed in a “unique position,” for want of a better phrase: almost half of Glasgow’s residents stay in the 20% most deprived areas in Scotland; the city has been labelled the “jobless capital of Europe”—not a claim that I am happy with, but it is unfortunately a reality—and the unemployment claimant counts in areas of the city and my constituency are double the UK national average. The so-called “unique” position that Glasgow finds itself in, through no fault of its own, illustrates that the UK Government should be doing more to help, not less.
Another issue that the DWP must consider seriously is the increase in demand for a reduced number of Jobcentre Plus offices. For example, Shettleston jobcentre—just down the road from my office—currently serves 1,025 welfare recipients. If we added in the areas of Parkhead, Easterhouse and Bridgeton, that figure would more than triple to 3,210, making it one of the biggest jobcentres in the UK, in one of the most deprived areas with some of the highest levels of unemployment. That does not make sense. It would add insult to injury if the Government forced people to travel further, at additional cost, to be inconvenienced in longer queues to receive a poorer service.
What assessment have the Government made of the potential delays for service users? What provisions are in place to ensure that the service provided does not suffer? I fear that if those questions are not answered and the concerns are not adequately addressed, we will be back in this Chamber or elsewhere in the House debating the reforms again. We will say that the Government’s failure to prepare properly and their failure to take heed of our warnings have led to people suffering unnecessarily, with more sanctions and less support.
The hon. Member for Glasgow South made very clear our opposition to the way in which the consultation has taken place. Neither jobcentre in my constituency that is due to close is included in the consultation, but I have grave concerns about those closures, which I spoke to the Minister about in our meeting last week. I raised with him some of the unique challenges in the east end—the hon. Gentleman has also addressed those concerns with him.
Territorialism and the historical gang culture are existing issues in the east end of Glasgow. I believe that the Minister and the DWP flippantly dismissed those serious concerns by pointing out that Shettleston had served as a youth hub jobcentre for four years, ignoring the extensive preparation and engagement work that was done with the police, stakeholders and the jobcentre. The same work has not been done in this situation, when it is more critical given the ages of the claimants, the historical nature of gang violence and the levels of unemployment among the mainly men involved. It is not sufficient to say that in extreme cases, remote sign-ons would work.
Further, I also brought up with the Minister, as did colleagues, the harm and undue impact on communities such as Easterhouse. Indeed, that area caused the former Secretary of State to have an “epiphany”. Easterhouse is isolated on the edge of Glasgow with inadequate public transport and an already failing town centre, and such communities cannot afford the loss of more infrastructure. Unemployment there is high but there are services nearby, including libraries, the citizens advice bureau and other stakeholders. Removing the jobcentre will destroy that joined-up thinking and make it harder for people to access services.
I do not want to take up too much more time, because everybody has the right to speak, but let me be clear: closing half of Glasgow’s jobcentres is a cack-handed plan, and it is being done in the most cavalier way. Ripping jobcentres out of the most deprived areas of the country—ripping them from the heart of communities and away from the people who need them most—is tantamount to social and economic vandalism. Glasgow is not the guinea pig of Westminster or Whitehall, so scrap these punitive plans now, Minister.
I am glad to be able to speak in this debate, Mr Hollobone, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) for bringing us all together.
The letter that the Minister sent to MPs said that the plans were
“right for the city, its customers and our people”,
but I see scant evidence from the people I know in Glasgow that the decision would be any of those three things. The decision seems to have been made entirely in isolation by DWP officials, without speaking to anybody else in the city. They have certainly not spoken to stakeholders in Glasgow, Glasgow City Council, which has condemned it, or the Scottish Government, who are not keen on it at all either. They have not spoken to the most important local partner in Bridgeton, Clyde Gateway, which has done a huge amount in the area to reduce the overt claimant count from 39% in 2009 to 28% in 2015. They know that that is due to the huge amount of work it has done in the area to improve the life chances of people in that community, but it has not been consulted. Clyde Gateway is a linchpin for the community in terms of economic regeneration, and it needs to be part of the process.
In Bridgeton, around the corner from the jobcentre, there is a citizens advice bureau, which does a huge amount of work to support constituents. The credit union is across the road. The Olympia is right there, with its newly refurbished library, which has computers and classes that help to support local constituents. The Glasgow Women’s Library, which helps vulnerable women with literacy and to improve their self-esteem, is around the corner.
Does my hon. Friend agree that another vulnerable group that we must take into account is disabled people? It is absolutely disgraceful that people with disability will have much further to travel to find jobs. Has any impact assessment been conducted in that regard? The Government have pledged to halve the disability employment gap; surely these plans undermine that policy.
I absolutely agree: the plans entirely undermine that ambition. Bridgeton CAB has been collecting evidence for the public consultation—my area is one of the few that will be consulted on—and it is very concerned that people accessing disability advisers will have much further to travel and that it will be much harder for them to get there.
To touch on transport, the Minister has stated that it takes 11 minutes by car to get from Bridgeton to Shettleston, but that entirely ignores the fact that nearly two thirds of households in the most deprived communities of Glasgow do not have access to a car, so they will need to get two buses. The Minister reckoned that it would take people 29 minutes to get there, but the two buses do not arrive in a neat 29-minute slot; one arrives much more regularly than the other. People trying to get there who have children to drop off at nursery or to pick up from school will find it more difficult to fit that into their day.
The consultation that Bridgeton CAB has done this morning highlighted that the time, date and frequency of appointments can be changed. The bus that someone got last week that worked out okay may not be the one they get this week, because the appointment time has changed. That adds a great deal of uncertainty and stress to the situation, because people are faced with the prospect of being sanctioned for being late. That is a huge fear for people. My experience in my constituency office—this is also the experience of the citizens advice bureau and other agencies in Glasgow—is that people are afraid to challenge even the first sanction. They do not want to get into conflict with people from the jobcentre, so they are not challenging the sanction. They think that they will be able to ride it out, but then something else happens at another time and they end up losing their benefits for even longer, which has a huge impact on their family income.
The fact that people have very limited means also means that they will be walking from one jobcentre to the other. It could take nearly 50 minutes to go from Bridgeton jobcentre to the Shettleston jobcentre. That has another impact. People are not walking from one jobcentre to another. That brings me on to my next point. We need to see in the consultation the catchment areas for the different jobcentres. People might be walking from Calton to Shettleston, or Dalmarnock to Shettleston. They could be going any distance to get there. We do not know what the distance will be. We do not have a full idea of what the actual impact on our communities will be without that information.
That is in huge contrast to the types of consultations that Glasgow City Council puts out for its schools. If it wants to close a school or move it somewhere else, the council puts out a map showing where each school pupil lives, or where the people travelling to the new school and new catchment area live, which makes the impact of changes on individuals very clear. We have not had that information at all.
The consultation process has a particular weakness. The Minister has told us that posters and leaflets will go out in the jobcentres, but the Department holds all the details of every single claimant. It could do a whole lot more to contact every claimant and ask them what the impact on each individual will be. I urge the Minister to do that and to come to Glasgow when he is in Scotland, so that he can come on the bus with us to see what the journey is actually like.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I have three brief points: on how the closure will affect my constituents in Maryhill; on the Government’s interaction, or lack thereof, with the Scottish Government; and on the bigger questions regarding the Department for Work and Pensions estate and the ongoing review of premises.
The latest figures show that in November 2016 the total number of unemployed claimants in Glasgow North was 1,509. The unemployment rate of 4.1% is the 90th highest of the 650 UK constituencies. As my hon. Friends have said, we do not know exactly how many of those people use the Maryhill jobcentre—at least I have not yet been able to find the numbers—and we do not know exactly where they live, because we have not seen the maps or the catchment areas. Along with my colleague Bob Doris, the MSP for Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn, I had the privilege of speaking to a few of them outside the Maryhill jobcentre yesterday morning, and I later met representatives of one-parent families. I, like other Members, encourage the Minister to come to Glasgow to meet some of those people and to hear about it at first hand. The online petition is important, and it is good to see, but nothing beats hearing people’s experiences first hand.
We heard from someone who travels from Acre, at the far end of my constituency, to the relocated jobcentre in Springburn. That is a journey of an hour, and two buses, each way—a total of four buses and two hours’ travel time—at a cost of £4.30 for an all-day ticket, which represents 46% of the daily allowance from their £72.40 weekly jobseeker’s allowance.
Another concern that users raised with us is the impact that the closures will have on the relationship between claimants and their work coaches. A number of the users to whom we spoke had developed positive and constructive relationships with their advisers, who want to help the claimants get back into work. The claimants were concerned that merged centres would mean a less personal service, the risk of a lack of understanding of individual circumstances and, in turn, increased fear of the risk of sanctions in the event of missing or being late for appointments because of, say, childcare responsibilities. Those are not just theoretical concerns; they are what we heard first hand from service users.
The Government’s consultation says:
“The city of Glasgow is split into 4 geographical areas—north, south, east and west.”
Well, that is true of every point on the planet, with the possible exception of the north and south poles. It gives the lie to the idea that a great deal of thought has gone into these consultations, particularly the consultations with stakeholders. I have asked the Minister and his officials on several occasions about the discussions with the Scottish Government, so it would be helpful if he could confirm or admit that he has not met his Scottish Government counterpart, Jamie Hepburn. Has there been any kind of discussion, beyond a formal exchange of letters, since the announcement of the closures?
In his letter of 7 December, Mr Hepburn told the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions that the lack of communication has been
“wholly contrary to the spirit of the Smith Agreement, and in particular, paragraph 58, which while recognising Jobcentre Plus would remain reserved, calls for our Governments to ‘identify ways to further link services through methods such as co-location wherever possible and establish more formal mechanisms to govern the Jobcentre Plus network in Scotland.’”
It is simply not good enough for the UK Government to keep the Scottish Government out of the loop like that. There is supposed to be a respect agenda between the Governments, as is written into the Edinburgh agreement and the Smith commission. Will the Minister now commit to fully engage with the Scottish Government on these closures and on any other proposals for the DWP estate in Scotland?
There are more questions to be asked about the DWP estate at a different time and in a different situation, but it is interesting that, in the consultation, the DWP admits that it does not own any of the buildings it occupies. Who has the upper hand in the negotiations with the contractors? What happens if the company that owns Caxton House in central London, where the Minister has his office, decides that, actually, it would be much nicer as luxury flats? Where would he go then? Perhaps the DWP can disperse some of its staff from central London to the Maryhill jobcentre.
Finally, it is worth reflecting on another point that was made, without prompting, by one of the people who Bob and I met yesterday. Such decision-making processes increase the distance that people in communities like Glasgow North feel from the Westminster Government. In 2014 we were promised a partnership of equals—a UK that Scotland should lead, not leave. As in so many areas of policy, the UK Government need to live up to that rhetoric. If they do not listen when Scotland speaks, they should not be surprised if people decide that perhaps full control of our jobcentres, and of all the other policies that are currently reserved, would be better coming back to Scotland.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) for securing this important debate. The last time the Minister and I met, I had lost my voice due to a bad cold. I am not sure whether he will be happy to know that it has returned.
Before I address the impact on my constituency, I express my dismay at how the closures have been handled. After the news broke in the press, it took the Department seven hours to write to us. We were not the only ones left in the dark, though. The Secretary of State for Scotland refused to give me a proper answer when I asked whether he knew of the plans. Even if he had, it would not have made a difference, as demonstrated by his shocking silence on the matter.
The doors of Cambuslang jobcentre are to shut without consultation. I do not think that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions comprehends what that will mean. The jobcentre is my neighbour—it is less than a minute’s walk from my office. On a daily basis, my team and I see how busy the jobcentre can be and how people rely on its services. People are required to actively look for work each day, with most of it done on computers. Some constituents have trouble with that and rely on assistance from jobcentre staff.
Although parts of Cambuslang are prosperous, some areas suffer from pockets of real deprivation. One such area is Halfway, which I have been proud to call home for almost two decades. There is a fantastic local community, but there are also deep-seated problems related to deprivation and poverty. It takes about 30 minutes for a fit person to walk from Halfway to Cambuslang jobcentre. Once that jobcentre closes, the round trip to Rutherglen jobcentre would involve walking for two and a half hours. Public transport links are good, but traffic is sometimes an issue. I have serious concerns about an increase in sanctions once Cambuslang jobcentre closes, particularly for those in Halfway who will be travelling the furthest.
There is also a lack of resource in the area. If someone does not have access to a computer, they might need to use one in the library to look for work. Like many other libraries, the one in Halfway has restricted opening hours—it is not open at all today, for example. There is also an effect on local government services, such as Routes to Work South, which is based in Cambuslang and happens to be the landlord of my constituency office. Will the jobcentre closure create extra strain for which South Lanarkshire Council will be expected to foot the bill?
Those are just some of the issues that the Department has failed to take into account, and I regret not having more time to go into greater depth. I urge Ministers to think again, to stop the plans and to engage in meaningful dialogue with the relevant Members so that they, the Ministers, can fully understand the impact of these cuts. Glasgow may be the first, but which city, town or community in Scotland or the UK will be targeted next? We shall see.
It is a pleasure to speak here today, although it is not a pleasure to speak on this subject. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) for securing this debate.
In my constituency of Glasgow North West, the proposals include the closure of Anniesland jobcentre, which serves not only Anniesland but Temple, Knightswood, Whiteinch, Scotstoun and Yoker. The latest statistics indicate that more than 16% of those of working age in the constituency are in receipt of out-of-work benefits, which is considerably above the Scottish and UK averages. People currently using Herschell Street jobcentre in Anniesland will be transferred to Benalder Street, Partick—the street has recently become famous for its graffiti about the Foreign Secretary.
The consultation says that it will take people 13 minutes to travel between the old and new locations. That figure, as my hon. Friends have said, is lifted directly from Google Maps. However, that does not reflect the day-to-day reality of the time involved in travelling between those two locations. In fact, no impact assessment has been done, so I decided to carry out one myself.
To see how the proposed changes would affect my constituents, I picked a street at random. By no means was it the most remote or furthest away; it was Banner Drive, a typical street in Knightswood. Thinking of a typical constituent, possibly one with childcare responsibilities who had to drop off a child at school or nursery, I looked for the local nursery, which happened to be Rowena nursery, a 20-minute walk from Banner Drive. Getting from Rowena nursery to the new location in Benalder Street will take 30 minutes by bus if the bus comes instantly. If the bus does not come instantly, that figure rises to 40 and possibly even 45 minutes. If we multiply that by two—the person will need to get back in order to pick up their child in time—it starts becoming extremely tight and problematic for someone with childcare responsibilities.
We have all heard of constituents who have been given unsuitable but inflexible reporting times. If someone is given a time that does not work for their personal circumstances—they may also have been kept waiting—they are faced with two choices. Either they go and sign on to avoid sanctions, in which case they might have to take their child out of nursery or even school for the day, or they take their child to school or nursery, potentially losing money for a long time. Unless jobcentre staff have been instructed to take childcare and caring responsibilities into account, it is a serious problem, and I worry that sanctions will increase as a result.
My colleagues and I first found out about the proposed closures when we read about them in the local paper, but it took a further seven hours before the Minister informed us. He told us in subsequent meetings that it was because he had a duty to let staff know first, and none of us would argue with that, but it has come to light that the Government had plans in place well before any announcement to staff. On 12 February 2016, plans were submitted to Glasgow City Council to convert the Anniesland jobcentre into private flats. Those plans were approved on 6 March, nine full months before either we or staff were informed of the proposals. Can he explain why staff and the local community have been deliberately excluded from the process, which has clearly been in motion for a long time?
It is time for the Minister and his Department to come clean about how wide-reaching and advanced the plans are across the UK. I cannot imagine that Glasgow is unique in finding out such things at the eleventh hour. The Government have indicated that they do not plan to consult on the majority of the closures, including Anniesland. That is not good enough. For changes so dramatic, there must be a full public consultation, including an impact assessment. When the Minister comes to Glasgow in January, I hope that he can join me on the bus journey that I took, to see what my constituents will have to do.
It is a privilege, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to represent the Scottish National party and the city of Glasgow on this issue. I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), who spoke with passion and dedication on behalf of his constituents.
I will address some general issues first. The decision to close offices will result in the poorest communities not being served by a jobcentre, making it even harder for those seeking employment to get support. Last year, one in three children were living in poverty in Glasgow, which has consistently the highest rate in Scotland, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. At 7.7%, Glasgow’s unemployment rate is one of the highest in Scotland, and it suffers high levels of deprivation. By closing offices in its most deprived areas, the Department for Work and Pensions risks reducing access to support for those who need it the most.
The Government cite the fact that claims can be made online, but Citizens Advice Scotland has made it clear that a large proportion of sanctions among its clients arise from problems accessing information technology, often because a claimant does not have the skills or IT access to meet the jobcentre’s requirements. The closures represent 50% of Jobcentre Plus offices in Glasgow, a much larger cut than the anticipated 20% cut to the estate announced in last year’s autumn statement. Tens of thousands of people will now have to travel further and incur additional cost to attend their required appointments.
The Government must be mindful that people travelling to jobcentres to seek work and employment support are doing so on very low incomes. Making them travel further can be financially costly and have health implications for the sick and disabled. Those attending jobcentres will have increased transport costs and travel time, particularly those required to register daily or weekly. Someone who must use a taxi for even three or four miles could have to pay up to £14.70, according to the website taxifarefinder.com. Additional costs will be involved for those unable to access jobcentres: the Department for Work and Pensions continues to use a high-tariff phone service that increases costs for customers, known locally as the telephone tax. Many people in Scotland are still unable to access digital services.
I have a number of questions that I hope the Minister will answer. The first involves the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan). We have been advised in previous meetings with officials and the Minister that Telereal Trillium owns all the buildings, but is that the case? As has been pointed out, a planning application—I have it here—was submitted to Glasgow City Council for 21 Herschell Street, which is the Anniesland jobcentre office, by Holmes Miller Ltd. Can he confirm that the land ownership certificate on that planning application says that the building is owned by Mactaggart and Mickel Group Ltd? Such examples show that a genuine public consultation must be undertaken, not one that just pays lip service.
While the Minister considers that, let me remind him of the concerns about the jobcentre closures, expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South, among organisations such as Disability Agenda Scotland and One Parent Families Scotland. Their concern involves the lack of an equality impact assessment. To be told that one will be done at the end of the process is, frankly, not good enough; a proper equality impact assessment should be carried out now, so we can see what the effects will be on women, those with disabilities and those whose primary language is not English.
The assessment requires accurate information, not the information in Google Maps, which is inaccurate—for example, it advertises bus services that no longer operate in the city of Glasgow. What advice has the Minister received on the possible outcome of a judicial review for a claimant who goes to a jobcentre earmarked for a closure that has not been publicly consulted on? Will he agree to put all eight closures out for public consultation? The proposal is city-wide and must be consulted on as such.
The full impact of the closures has not been vetted or tested. We believe that the full impact on claimants will be considerable, and it should not be undertaken for commercial reasons. The jobcentre closures are unnecessary and unwanted, and should be halted. The plans are regressive and morally outrageous. It is clear that the Westminster Government intend to make Glasgow a guinea pig, and to use it as a template for further closures across Scotland and the UK. I ask the Minister to give Glasgow an early Christmas present by halting the plans for jobcentre closures in the great city of Glasgow.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) on securing this debate on the disgraceful planned closure of half of the jobcentres in Glasgow, which has drawn contributions from so many Members who represent the people of Glasgow. I commend them on their focus and on getting to grips with the detail of the geography and with what the plans mean for those who will be affected.
On 7 December this year, the Department for Work and Pensions announced its proposal to close eight of the 16 jobcentres that serve the city of Glasgow by no later than March 2018. The proposal is part of the “People and Locations” office closure programme, which the then Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne), announced in the autumn statement in November 2015. We have no doubt that it is the wrong approach. The reduction in employment support in Glasgow will deepen hardship in many areas of the city.
A recent study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that looked into disconnected communities used Glasgow as an example to demonstrate the increasing scarcity of local employment opportunities, thus reinforcing the importance of local employment support services with contacts and knowledge of a local area. The study’s report noted the challenging combination of people’s reluctance to leave more geographically isolated neighbourhoods around the city and the withdrawal of the vital transport services that help them to get around. Those realities make having an accessible and well distributed employment support network all the more important and offer only evidence against the Government’s failed austerity approach, as does the higher unemployment rate in Glasgow. According to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, the unemployment rate in Glasgow as a whole was 7.1%—1.9 percentage points higher than the UK rate of 5.2%, and 1.6 percentage points higher than the overall rate in Scotland of 5.5%. The latest claimant count shows 5,810 people registered as unemployed at the jobcentres threatened with closure.
The Government’s plans are shameful—they are nothing more than the continuation of the Tories’ failed austerity agenda. There is no evidence to suggest that they will enhance the support on offer; indeed, they will diminish what is available, while ramping up pressure on employment service staff in other offices and on claimants. The demands on staff have already increased significantly as a result of changes such as weekly signing for new claimants in the first 13 weeks of their claim, changes to single parent conditionality, the roll-out of universal credit and the reduction of more than 6,200 in the overall number of work coaches between 2011-12 and 2015-16—a cut of 35%. The pressures on staff are likely to increase further with the introduction of in-work conditionality under universal credit; the remaining jobcentres in Glasgow will have to deal with twice the volume of claimants. That is a particular concern for the Shettleston jobcentre, which will be taking on the case-load from three of the jobcentres that are closing.
What assessment has the Department made of the impact of the closures on travel times for claimants and associated additional costs? What breakdown can the Department provide us with of the expected increase in case loads for the jobcentres that will remain open? Can the Minister guarantee that the 236 staff who work in the eight jobcentres that are due to close will be offered posts in the remaining jobcentres? What about travel time for claimants? How accessible will the remaining jobcentres be? The DWP does not appear to know, although I understand that, as a number of hon. Members have mentioned, it has been using Google Maps to try to check. The DWP work services director for Scotland apparently told Radio Scotland:
“We’re not clear yet how many of our customers will have extra travel costs. That’s part of the consultation.”
Three of the jobcentres earmarked for closure fall outside the criterion of 15 to 20 minutes’ travel time to the nearest jobcentre, so the DWP has to carry out a public consultation. The consultation document, which was put online only yesterday, gives the shortest journey time by public transport as 30 minutes from Bridgeton to Shettleston and from Maryhill to Springburn, and 45 minutes from Castlemilk to Newlands. A return trip with First Bus in Glasgow costs £3.75, while an all-day ticket costs £4.50. That is a major slice out of the jobseeker’s allowance of £73.10 a week for someone over 25, and an even bigger slice from the £57.90 that a young person aged 18 to 25 receives. First Bus does offer discounted bus fares for claimants, but only after the first 13 weeks for JSA claimants, during which, somewhat ironically, they will be signing on weekly.
When will the Minister publish the impact of these proposals on equality issues? We are particularly concerned about the impact on women, children and disabled people. In 2015 the Government set a target to halve the disability employment gap by 2020; how can that be squared with increasing the distances that disabled people need to travel to get employment support?
It seems that once again the Tories are pushing ahead with their failing austerity agenda, which flies in the face of evidence, thought or reason. Clearly the Government still have no plan. Instead, they are asking the most vulnerable to pay for their economic mismanagement. We stand against these poorly thought out proposals, and we hope that the Government finally see sense and scrap them.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) on securing this debate. I also congratulate his colleagues who contributed: the hon. Members for Glasgow East (Natalie McGarry), for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier)—I am glad that she has her voice back—and for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), who not only represents his Glasgow constituency but speaks for the Scottish National party from the Front Bench.
The Department for Work and Pensions delivers critical services and support to tens of thousands of customers across Scotland, England, and Wales every day, and our network of jobcentres is at the very heart of that. In all our constituencies, jobcentre staff are hard at work helping people to access the support they need and move into employment. As society has changed, so have our jobcentres. We have moved a long way from the caricature of jobcentres and the welfare system that was presented 20 years ago in films such as “The Full Monty” and “Trainspotting”.
Reforms such as universal credit are revolutionising the relationship between claimants and work coaches, ensuring that the support we offer is more personalised and better suited to claimants’ needs. That includes enabling claimants to access our services in ways that suit them. At the heart of reforms such as universal credit is a digitally focused approach that is more secure, more accessible and more efficient. The claimant count has dropped from almost 1.5 million in 2010 to around 800,000 now.
The background to this set of changes to the DWP jobcentre estate is that after 20 years, the private finance initiative contract that covers many DWP offices is nearing an end: it will expire at the end of March 2018. That provides us with an opportunity to review which offices we will need in the future, saving the taxpayer money while ensuring that our clients are able to access the support they need. When considering that question, our overriding priority has been the future services we will offer our claimants. In every case, we have sought to minimise disruption, moving existing jobcentres into nearby sites and co-locating with other services wherever possible.
The UK labour market is in the strongest position it has been in for years, but we cannot predict the exact path that it will take in the future. I reassure hon. Members that these changes will continue to ensure that we retain sufficient flexibility and spare capacity in the system. Let me be clear: our aim is to reduce floor space, not to reduce the workforce who are so important in supporting claimants back into work. Staff and services in jobcentres that are being closed are being transferred into nearby sites. In answer to the question asked by the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood), there are no planned job losses among jobcentre staff as a result of these closures.
When a jobcentre closes, the Department will consider what outreach services we can expand and what facilities may be suitable. The Department supports outreach activity at community and partner facilities right across the country, which allows our work coaches and partner organisations to support the shared needs of claimants. By working with a range of partners, including local authorities, we are able to expand the range and offer of our services. In Glasgow we work closely with organisations such as Anniesland College to offer such services, including helping claimants with their job search and offering benefit advice.
The Minister mentioned co-location and working with public sector partners. Now that we know that there was some discussion with Glasgow City Council about the Anniesland site, will he tell us whether there were any discussions with the council about the other seven sites earmarked for closure?
Through the course of this process, there have been many, many discussions about many, many potential options and permutations of site movements, co-locations and different sorts of arrangements. As we enter the consultation period, there is a further opportunity to talk about outreach facilities; no doubt some of those discussions will include consideration of local authority-run premises and so on. The process involves having lots of discussions about lots of potential ways of organising things.
For those claimants who are unable to attend a jobcentre because of their vulnerability, or because of the complexity of the transaction required with the Department, we have in place robust procedures. DWP Visiting undertakes home visits, or occasionally visits at an alternative agreed address, if appropriate. Travel expenses are refundable in certain circumstances, including when claimants are required to attend a jobcentre more frequently than every two weeks.
The hon. Lady asked about that in an earlier intervention, and I was coming on to address it, but as she has asked again I will answer now. Yes of course the consultation will consider the entire client population, including the particular needs and requirements of people with disabilities.
In certain circumstances, claimants are able to maintain their claim by post, including if they live more than an hour from the jobcentre, door to door, by public transport—I should say that right now I am speaking not specifically about Glasgow but about the general arrangements—or if they have caring responsibilities for a child and it is not possible for them to make arrangements for short-term childcare. Claimants can also chose to attend an alternative jobcentre to the one allocated to them if the one they have been allocated is not the easiest or least costly to attend.
Our jobcentres in the quarters of Glasgow have built up over time, primarily within large housing estates. If we look at employment trends, we can see that the claimant count in Glasgow has fallen from 24,200 in 2010 to around 13,500 today. The hon. Member for Glasgow East mentioned unemployment statistics from her constituency; she will know that the claimant count in Glasgow East is down 47% since 2010. As the count has dropped across the city, so has the use of some of the smaller jobcentres. In some cases, the change has been so dramatic that we are now using only 25% of the space we are paying for under the Private Finance Initiative contract that was agreed by the then Government back in 1998.
Our proposals seek to bring the smaller jobcentres together into larger existing sites in the same area, thereby reducing our rents and freeing up funding for our services while still ensuring that our claimants are able to access them. The reduction in sites in Glasgow is in line with our spending review 2015 announcement that we would reduce our overall estate by some 20%. The number of jobcentres proposed for closure reflects the prevalence of smaller jobcentres in Glasgow and the large amount of space we are underusing in the city. It does not reflect a cut in our investment. In fact, between April and September 2016, we recruited 122 additional work coaches in Scotland. That number is set to increase further over the coming months.
When deciding what changes to make, we have carefully considered the impact on our claimants, including travel times, about which several hon. Members asked. We feel that asking someone to attend a new jobcentre which is either less than three miles or less than 20 minutes by public transport away from their existing jobcentre is a reasonable ask. Many claimants already travel much further than that, as do many people in work to get to their place of work. There are three proposed closures in Glasgow that are outside those criteria: in Bridgeton, Castlemilk and Maryhill. In such cases, it is crucial that we fully understand the implications for our claimants before any changes are made, which is why we are holding a public consultation—as we do for all similar cases throughout the country—to seek the views of elected representatives, local authorities and community bodies.
I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I want to respond to some of the points made by his colleagues. If it turns out that I have done so comfortably within the time remaining, I will of course give way.
Having heard the specific concerns raised by hon. Members present in the meeting we held a few days ago, I have decided to put the specific consultations we are discussing online. They were uploaded to the gov.uk website yesterday and will now run for an extended period, up until the end of January 2017. As I said, I recently had that opportunity to discuss matters with hon. Members directly, and I welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate. A number of points came up in the debate; I am not sure I will get through them all, but I shall try to get through as many as possible.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North spoke of worries that the changes may affect the positive relationships—I was encouraged that he called them that—between claimants and work coaches. I reassure him that one of the important things we are doing is to change the work-coach model to one where they have a mixed case load and can maintain contact with a client, even if the benefit they are on or their circumstances change. Making those relationships richer and longer lasting is absolutely with the grain of what we are trying to do.
The hon. Members for Glasgow East and for Rutherglen and Hamilton West mentioned having heard about this announcement through the press—we had an opportunity to speak about that last Thursday. I am sure that hon. Members understand that we are unable to share details about plans for specific sites until commercial negotiations are complete. To do otherwise would risk our negotiating position with the landlords of the sites we wish to retain. Once we have finalised our proposals, our priority is to speak to staff. As hon. Members appreciate, that can take time, because we also have to get to people who might be absent on the day. In this case, the Daily Record published the story at 9:30 in the morning, while many of our staff were still in the meetings, which had only started at 9.15 am. The Department put out a press release in response to the article—it did not initiate making an announcement before telling hon. Members—and later that day I wrote to all the MPs for affected constituencies.
Several hon. Members asked about engagement with the Scottish Government. The Department has been involved in discussions about the related issues, including co-location, with the Scottish Government, local authorities, Skills Development Scotland and others for some time. Because of the commercial sensitivities that I mentioned, it is not possible to talk about specific site proposals in advance of any announcements.
I regret that I am out of time. The rationale for the proposals is clear: we have seen a sharp fall in claimant counts in the city of Glasgow. There are no planned job losses for the jobcentre network in the city, which is important. We will continue to offer the full complement of support to help claimants back to work, and we have a clear set of outreach and support measures to be consulted on.
I thank you, Mr Hollobone, and I thank my hon. Friends for their contributions to the debate. I wish to say one or two things to close.
The Minister referred to the fact that the claimant count in Glasgow is down and so is use of floor space. In my constituency, the Government want to close Castlemilk jobcentre, but it is in a town that was once larger than the entire city of Perth. That gives an idea of the geographical and population size of the community that that jobcentre serves. The Minister also wants to close the jobcentre in Langside in my constituency, although it serves the second most densely populated local authority ward anywhere in the country of Scotland. That gives an idea of what is meant by the small, out-of-town jobcentres that the Government are seeking to close.
Only this Government could ask people in a consultation about travelling for more than 20 minutes when they themselves deem that to be unreasonable. The Minister said that the Government think 20 minutes is a reasonable ask, so they do not consult on that, but they do consult when travelling for more than 20 minutes is involved, in spite of the fact that they think that is an unreasonable proposal in the first place. The Minister is all over the shop.
We heard about the situation in Anniesland, where the Department must have known as far back as February last year that not only had discussion taken place, but planning permission had been granted. A formal, legal process had been gone through. Staff were not told, and neither were Members. The Minister picked this fight—we will pick it up after the Christmas recess.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered closure of jobcentres in Glasgow.