Wednesday 18 January 2017
[Mr David Hanson in the Chair]
Education Funding: Devon
I beg to move,
That this House has considered education funding in Devon.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson.
The situation for schools in Devon that will result from the proposals set out in the Government’s consultation is of great concern to us all. As a member of the f40 Group, Devon has historically been one of the lowest-funded education authorities in the whole of England. At the moment, in education funding, it stands in 143rd place out of 150 local authorities. Devon received a schools block unit of funding allocation of £4,346 per pupil in 2016-17. The national average was £4,636, which means that there is a shortfall for Devon of £290 per pupil, or £25.5 million for all 88,065 pupils in the local authority. For those listening to the debate who are not as informed as you are, Mr Hanson, it is worth pointing out that, when I speak about Devon, I exclude the unitary authorities of Torbay and Plymouth, but no doubt Members who represent both places will want to contribute to the debate.
The current situation is manifestly unfair, not only for pupils in Devon but for teachers and headteachers, whose performance will be judged against that of other schools throughout the country. Devon Members of Parliament have been campaigning for a fairer funding settlement for many years, so this is not something new. I have been a Member of the House since 2001, and other Devon MPs have served for longer. I think it is fair to say that we have all been campaigning, throughout the Labour years when money was channelled away from rural areas into Labour heartlands, under the coalition Government and under the Conservative Government. Quite frankly, under this Government, we expect better.
Cost pressures, combined with the necessary fiscal consolidation, have had a significant cumulative effect on school budgets. Let me give a few examples of such pressures—other Members will cite others. Areas such as my own, East Devon, have experienced significant population growth because of the often required growth in house building and the incentives for it that there are now. The inevitable resulting growth in pupil numbers has had and is having a huge impact. The education services grant, which previously gave authorities and academy trusts money to fund their schools’ services, has been cut. The national living wage, which has absorbed much of the increase in social care funding—we have debated how much in the House—has had the same effect on education, with an increase in staff costs. Initial analysis suggests that the apprenticeship levy could cost Devon County Council as much as £424,000. The change in the SEND—special educational needs and disabilities—code of practice, which enables people with special educational needs to remain in education up to the age of 25, has added huge pressure, especially considering the increase in the average cost of specialist independent provision. Of course all Members welcome the change, but it needs to be properly funded. Devon County Council proposes to reduce funding to all schools by £33 per pupil for two years to make up for the high needs block shortfall; Devon’s high needs block has increased from £53 million in 2014 to £61 million in 2017-18.
It is not that some of those measures and developments are not welcome—we are very positive about some of them—but it is important to recognise that schools are now expected to do more with less, which inevitably leads to cuts, redundancies or increased class sizes.
The effect of these pressures on contingency reserves is being seen in the level of carry-forwards being forecast for maintained schools in Devon. We have a huge backlog, particularly in respect of the maintenance of many of our primary schools. In 2015-16, contingency reserves were £21.1 million, but in 2016-17 the figure is estimated to be £9.6 million. That is hardly much of a contingency reserve, given the number of schools we have across the county.
A number of headteachers in my constituency of East Devon have said in letters to me that, as a result of these pressures, there is
“a very real probability that our schools can no longer continue to sustain high quality provision of education and essential support for every pupil without the urgent necessity to take some very undesirable as well as far-reaching decisions to reduce costs in order to balance the finite resources available. Sadly, the implications of these decisions will undoubtedly impact upon the children in our care, including those from some of our most vulnerable families, and these will ultimately manifest further into the wider community.”
Since they are in one of the lowest-funded education authorities in the country, schools in East Devon were looking forward to the new funding formula, especially considering the year-long delay. The review and the subsequent public consultation are certainly welcome, and I encourage constituents to respond to it. It is important to emphasise that the proposals are not final and that they are subject to the consultation, which I understand runs until the end of March; the Minister may wish to enlighten us further on that.
I do not want to get into a bidding war between different authorities, but I would like to highlight some of the misunderstandings about funding that have arisen between us and our neighbours in Cornwall. The foreword to the Department for Education’s consultation on the national funding formula notes that
“a primary school in Cornwall teaching a pupil eligible for free school meals with English as an additional language would receive £3,389, whereas if the same child was at a school in Devon the school funding would be £4,718.”
That difference is mainly explained by the amount allocated directly to schools by each authority to support disadvantaged pupils or those with additional educational needs. Devon County Council delegates a much larger proportion of funding directly to primary schools. For example, using the free school meals deprivation factor alone, Devon allocates £1,378, compared with Cornwall’s £340. However, Devon still trails Cornwall in funding per pupil; Cornwall’s average funding per pupil is £4,355, which is £9 more than Devon’s average of £4,346. If Devon got the same rate as Cornwall, we would receive an additional £792,000 for education across the county.
If implemented, the national funding formula proposals will result in 212 Devon schools, or 62%, gaining; 129 schools, or 37%, losing; and two schools, or 1%, remaining the same. The proposals will reduce Devon County Council’s overall schools funding by £500,000 for the first year, when the Department for Education proposes transitional arrangements to prevent schools from gaining or losing considerably in one year and to ensure that the national budget can cope with the changes throughout the country. When the transitional arrangements are removed, the proposed changes will result in a relatively slight increase of £1.4 million, or 0.38%, in Devon’s overall funding for schools. The Minister may point to that and say that Devon will be a net winner, but a 0.38% increase is woefully insufficient to meet the rising cost pressures. It will not even meet the 0.5% increase in the apprenticeship levy. We need to go beyond the headline figures.
Illustrative funding under the national funding formula in the first year of transition would see 15 schools in East Devon gaining funding but 20 losing out. On average, that would mean a 0% change in the amount of school funding for East Devon. That includes all my secondary schools in East Devon losing funding: Sidmouth College, Exmouth Community College, Clyst Vale Community College, the King’s School and St Peter’s Church of England Aided School. How can it possibly be fair to reduce the level of funding available to schools in East Devon, a part of the country that has been historically underfunded?
The headteacher of the King’s School, Rob Gammon, has said that these cuts would have a “considerable” impact, especially considering the other rising costs. The chair of governors at Exmouth Community College, the excellent Councillor Jill Elson, has also expressed concern. The school is already one of the biggest in Europe. It is certainly—I hope the Minister will confirm this—the biggest secondary school in England; if it is not the biggest, it is the second biggest. It has an excellent headteacher in Tony Alexander, who has done magnificent things in that place. The school has found savings of more than £l million per year over the past five years, and it has now been asked to increase its pupil numbers to 2,900 by 2020.
Similarly, the headteacher of Sidmouth College, James Ingham-Hill, has expressed his “bitter disappointment” following the publication of the proposals. He said that
“without a significant rise in funding over the next few years, class sizes will need to rise to unprecedented levels and standards are bound to fall in all underfunded areas of the country.”
He also said that the proposed formula
“leans heavily towards measures of prior attainment. Devon has a high standard of pupil attainment in primary schools, so the county’s secondary schools will also lose out from a formula that penalises this success.”
This Government talk about reintroducing or expanding grammar schools to allow those who are good to get on, but at the same time they seem to be introducing a national funding formula that penalises at secondary level parts of the country that have high levels of achievement at primary level. That seems to contradict entirely what we, as a Government and a party, are seeking to do. What they are saying is that the less an area achieves at primary school level, the more money it will get at secondary school level—in other words, let us tell all our primary headmasters in Devon to lower standards, lower attainment and lower the exam results because more money will be made available to secondary schools. That is a perverse incentive that has no place in any kind of logical, joined-up thinking.
Currently, schools in Devon face a triple whammy. One is the historical underfunding. I look forward to the speech by the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw). I hope that he will not be too party political, otherwise Conservative Members will need to point out the educational gerrymandering that went on under Labour and the expensive private finance initiative that has saddled primary schools, particularly in Exeter, with an almost unsustainable weight of debt. That went on for many years under “old Labour”, as we must now call it, so I hope that he will approach this in the spirit of being a Devon MP, not the only, rather diminished red beacon in the south-west.
I think that we would all agree across the House that the Minister needs to go back to the drawing board and look again at the national funding formula in order to get this right. The Government must take a holistic approach to the issue and fully consider not only the historical funding factors—I have not yet said anything about the huge amount of money that Devon County Council has to come up with every year just to get children to school. I think that Yorkshire’s bill was a bit higher than ours, but it must be about £25 million that we have to come up with to get children to school. I have not even touched on that cost this morning. I have been talking about what happens when pupils actually get to school, if there are going to be schools.
Therefore, the Government must take a holistic approach to the issue and fully consider not only the historical funding factors but the current pressures on education budgets in order ultimately to give schools in areas such as mine a real financial boost. Fairer funding has been promised by many Governments, of all persuasions, many times, and it is my hope and belief that this will be the Government who finally deliver.
Having been a Minister in the Government from 2010 to 2016, I am acutely aware of how easy it is for Back Benchers of all parties to demand more funding from the Government. I am equally aware of the quite appalling financial situation that we inherited in 2010. This country simply cannot go on a financial spending splurge, which would saddle our children and our children’s children with ever more debt, particularly at the same time as we are renegotiating our relationship with the world outside the European Union. It would be absolutely wrong, counterproductive and irresponsible in the extreme to adopt some of the spending proposals, which seem to change fairly regularly, that Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition come up with from time to time. So I am not suggesting that.
What I am saying is that, within the spending envelope that the Government have set out, we want fairness. I believe that all Members in this Chamber this morning, across the party divide, would agree that, for too long Devon, as a county, has lost out in terms of educational funding. We have waited and waited and waited for the new review of the situation, in the expectation that finally that will be recognised and our children, our teachers and the other staff in education will receive a fair and properly funded settlement. On the face of it, I have to say to the Minister that that does not appear to be the position we are in. I say to him gently, as south-west MPs come together perhaps more regularly than we have in the past, that it was the south-west that delivered a majority for this Government in 2015. It is the south-west that often considers itself to be an overlooked part of the country in terms of spend and infrastructure. It is the south-west and south-west MPs who, together, will not put up with being overlooked any more. We have come together this morning to say, “Let’s look again at the review, let’s get it right and let’s get a fair deal for Devon.”
Before I call other right hon. and hon. Members, we appear to have an abundance of time, but I intend to call the Opposition Front Bencher at 10.35 am. Five right hon. and hon. Members wish to speak, so I hope that you can self-regulate in that 45 or so minutes.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) on securing this debate. However, although it is very important that we discuss and focus on the Government’s new proposed funding formula and its impact on Devon, we should not lose sight of the big picture, which is that funding for all schools in England will fall dramatically in this Parliament. The National Audit Office has confirmed that by 2020 English schools will suffer overall a cut of 8% in real terms in their funding.
As the right hon. Member has already said, huge expectations were raised when the Government said they would consult on the new formula. At the time, I warned Ministers in a meeting with them that changing any funding formula when overall funding levels are falling is a risky business, because it inevitably creates more losers than winners. My assessment of what is being proposed for Devon rather mirrors that of the right hon. Gentleman, namely that we are just fiddling around the edges here. Overall, Devon would gain a tiny amount—a 0.38% rise in overall schools funding—but many schools would lose out. As he has already pointed out, that minuscule improvement would be more than wiped out by the cost to our schools of the increase in the apprenticeship levy, although that is only a 0.5% increase and is dwarfed by the overall cut of 8% in school funding in this Parliament that I referred to a moment ago.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about a “triple whammy”. If Devon faces a triple whammy, Exeter will suffer a quadruple whammy, because—like many cities in shire counties—we are already at a double disadvantage. Devon schools are already among the worst funded in England, receiving £270 per pupil less than the England average, but Exeter schools lose out even more badly because they subsidise the huge cost of providing school transport in a largely rural county and the cost of keeping open small rural schools. Two of my high schools, St James School and Isca Academy, have each lost £300,000 a year since 2014.
Despite Exeter’s position, under the Government’s new proposed formula we will lose out by 0.14%. All the Government seem to be proposing for my constituency is to take money away from primary schools, the majority of which would lose out in the new formula, to give a tiny bit more to most, but not all, of my high schools. That is not robbing Peter to pay Paul; it is more like robbing Peter to pay Peter. The overall impact will be that by 2020 the average student in Exeter will suffer a £420 cut in annual funding compared with 2015-16, and that is after seven years of coalition and Conservative Government. That will have very serious consequences for children’s education in my constituency.
Two of my primary schools in the least well-off parts of Exeter will actually lose funding. I have been told by a headteacher that one primary school in Exeter is planning to move to class sizes of 45 to cope with the funding squeeze. Under the Labour Government, we got class sizes down to a maximum of 30. We are losing teaching assistants, school counsellors and support for children with complex and special needs at a time when the Government claim they are concerned by the deterioration in young people’s mental health and wellbeing.
Since the Labour Governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown invested significant extra resources in all our schools, attainment in Exeter’s schools has risen significantly. We have also benefited from five brand-new high schools, which replaced the dilapidated schools that I inherited in 1997, and new and improved primary schools. That has given a huge boost to the life chances of my constituents’ children, and that progress has been maintained despite the funding freeze since 2010. However, that quality will not survive the sort of cuts our schools now face. As the right hon. Gentleman has already said, Conservative-run Devon County Council is proposing to raid the schools budget even further, to the tune of £2.22 million, because of the big deficit it faces in the budget for children with special needs. I am sure we all agree that Devon must fulfil its legal obligation to some of our most vulnerable young people, but that will mean a further cut of £33 per pupil to schools funding across the county.
There is widespread reporting in the media and discussion in this place about the crisis in our health and social care system, but we are also seeing the beginning of if not a crisis, then a serious deterioration in education. We have a recruitment, retention and teacher morale crisis, even in an attractive place like Devon, where people like to live and work. But the Government, as the right hon. Gentleman acknowledged, focus on irrelevancies, such as their ideological obsession with free schools, forced academisation and the reintroduction of selection. I hope that we see real opposition from Devon’s Conservative MPs to some of those damaging Government policies, rather than just warm words. They should stand up and fight for the interests of Devon’s children and families and vote against their Government’s damaging policies.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) on securing this timely debate. After his many years on the Front Benches, it is very good for the rest of us in Devon to have him back on the Back Benches, because we face a number of challenges. His experience, energy and expertise will help us try to tackle some of these long-term challenges.
I am delighted that the Minister is in his place. He knows that I think he is a tremendous Schools Minister. In all seriousness, his rigour and commitment to increasing the academic achievements of young people in this country are appreciated up and down the country. He is making a difference, and that is tremendous. I also know that the consultation exercise on funding is genuine. I expect him to nod vehemently here. The reality is that if the funding stays as it is, it will not attract the support of a number of us here in this room, because it is unfair.
It is true to say that we have been waiting for years in Devon for a revision to the national funding formula. When the Secretary of State came to the House just before Christmas and announced that a new funding formula was about to be unleashed on the world, it seemed to be extremely good news for us in the far south-west. The expectation was that some of the overfunding of schools in other parts of the country would be corrected to improve things for those of us living in the west country. Everyone thinks it is just a place to go on holiday and have cream teas and so on, but it has genuine challenges of infrastructure, connectivity, education, social services and health that we need additional investment to help us with.
We were like thirsty men and women crossing the desert, approaching the oasis. The end was in sight. Good news was just around the corner. Sadly, when we started to look at some of the details, it was not an oasis at all—it was a mirage. That was disappointing. In the Secretary of State’s statement at the Dispatch Box, I heard her say, “Isn’t it great that over a number of years we will correct the fact that pupils in Plymouth”—I will explain the difference between Plymouth and Devon in a second—“currently receive £500 a year less than pupils in Coventry?” Coventry and Plymouth are very similar places, as they were both devastated by Hitler in the second world war and rebuilt.
We were encouraged to think that a long-standing grievance and injustice would be corrected. Even though it is true that many Plymouth schools are doing well, and I thank the Minister for that, unfortunately when we start to look at the numbers, we see how illogical they are. Schools face similar challenges with similar pupils from similar backgrounds and, as my right hon. Friend said, have transportation issues and costs on top of that, so it is crazy to learn that in many Devon schools the situation will go backwards.
My constituency is two thirds Plymouth and one third Devon, so I am partly encouraged by some of the news that the Minister has brought in recent weeks, but I am concerned about some of the outcomes in the consultation document. He will remember coming to Ivybridge Community College just before Christmas to open a new maths block. Unfortunately, I could not be there, but the reaction from the school was, “What a great man! He spoke very positively and inspired the young people.” He perhaps neglected to say that as part of the national funding review, the college—an outstanding beacon of excellence in Devon—was about to receive a cut of £203,000 from its budget. That would not have gone down quite so well in the new building opening ceremony.
Ivybridge Community College is outstanding and has been brilliantly led for many years. It is in a multi-academy trust. Three of the primary schools involved in that trust are: Stowford School, which faces a 2.75% cut, representing £37,000; Woodlands Park Primary School, which faces a 2.57% cut, representing £28,000; and Yealmpton Primary School, which faces a 1.35% cut, representing £9,000. In total, the multi-academy trust faces a cut of £277,000. It is being penalised for being outstanding and teaching kids in a most remarkable way. That simply is not good enough.
It is rumoured that the Minister carries around with him—he possibly even takes it to bed at night—a list of all the education authorities in the country, showing where they are in relation to each other and what the baseline is. It may even have different colours in it, with green for those doing well and red for those at the bottom. If he looks at that list, I think he will find—if the list exists at all—that Devon appears about an inch from the bottom of the second page. Our baseline is right down at the bottom compared with all the other education authorities in the country. We were expecting to come up his list. We were expecting to come towards the top of at least the second page, if not the first. What has happened? We are either standing still or going backwards. We are staying right at the bottom of his list of education authority funding. I am sorry to say that that simply is not good enough.
The Minister will be pleased to hear about one thing that is happening in my area at the moment. My four secondary schools in Plymouth—two in Plympton and two in Plymstock—and Ivybridge Community College in Devon are consulting with parents, staff and everyone else about becoming a large multi-academy trust over the next 12 months or so. That is what the Government are seeking to inspire. It is all very exciting and I fully support it, but the four schools in Plymouth, which are having their budgets increased, are coming together with an outstanding school in Devon that is having its budget slashed. It teaches children from similar backgrounds who are from exactly the same golden triangle of Plympton, Plymstock and Ivybridge. It makes no sense and there is no logic or reason to it.
I am afraid that the Minister, of whom I am a great fan, must look again at the formula and tweak it in some magical way. I realise it is difficult when applying such a formula. For years no one has understood what either the local government or the education funding formulae are all about. I know it is very difficult. One cannot just take £100 and put it there. I urge the Minister to look again at the formula, because the formula that we have seen and the proposed education settlement for the next two years are simply not acceptable.
I want to conclude on this point. I had a meeting with my Whip yesterday. He is a very fine man and we talked about the future and how well the Government are doing. Of course, this was on the back of a most outstanding speech by the Prime Minister yesterday, setting out a clear, strong and coherent vision for this country, which many of us can get behind. However, I said to my Whip, “There are a number of things coming down the track about which I need to give due notice.” It is wrong for any colleague to say to the Government, “I don’t like what we are about to do tonight; I am going to vote against it.” Proper notice needs to be given. That is the mature way forward, but I wish to send a clear notice, if I may, Mr Hanson, to my Whip, to the Government and the Minister, and perhaps the Parliamentary Private Secretary can take a little note and send it to the Education Whip. If the education funding settlement does not change in relation to Devon schools and if there is no significant uplift in whatever format it comes in six, nine or 12 months’ time to be voted on by the House, whether in a statutory instrument Committee or wherever else it might be, I will vote against it.
Previous speakers, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire), have set out clearly Devon’s underfunding predicament and its history. I want to delve a little more deeply into some of the causes and the action that the Government need to take now.
I was fortunate. Prior to the start of this parliamentary Session, I had a meeting with the Devon Association of Primary Headteachers and the Devon Association of Secondary Heads. Their input was illuminating to say the least. The current funding formula is unfair and the proposals for the future funding formula are equally unfair. But why? The heads are concerned that the consultation is one in which they are not really being listened to. It is far from clear to them what assumptions the Government have made in coming up with the new formula. My headteachers would be delighted to meet and help the Minister in Westminster or in the constituency. Unless we can help him really understand the issues and make sure his assumptions are right, we will always get a second-rate result. We cannot simply take the old and fiddle with it. We have to fundamentally look at what it is that we need to do differently.
Part of the problem is the decisions made by central Government and those made by local government. When I sent one of my many letters to the Minister, which he swiftly replied to, he explained that I should draw comfort from the fact that the school block was ring-fenced. That sounds great, but unfortunately it does not really work. As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon has pointed out, it is for the local authority to determine what goes into each school. The approach taken by Devon, as has already been explained, is very different from the approach taken by Cornwall. Partly for that reason, the statistics appear to show that Cornwall gets better funding than Devon, but that is because the local authority has chosen to adjust in a different way.
I do not think our children should be the victims of a postcode lottery, depending on which council does what. I am not in favour of prescription, but I am in favour of guidance, and we need to make sure that every child is fairly funded, whichever county they are in. So we need to look again at the school block and exactly how that is calculated. We also need to look at how the local authority distributes it. If we look at the proposed new formula, it gives some strange results. The small rural schools do better, as do the large schools, but the ones in the middle lose out. There is something strange about a formula that comes up with such results.
We also need to look again at the high needs block, because the mental health challenges—not just in our county, but across the country—are growing exponentially. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) has explained, there is no counterbalancing increase in the social care budget to meet the need, so we are really challenged. In my constituency, 17% of the cohort are in the high needs group. That is a very high number, so the high needs block needs to be carefully thought through.
Some things need to be addressed now, and we cannot wait for the new funding formula. My headteachers tell me that, come April this year, if nothing changes in the cost base that they face, they have got to the point where they will have to make teachers and teaching assistants redundant. They will also have to do away with any form of counsellor support for some of the children who have mental health or family issues, and that gives rise to a real concern not only about finance, but about the basics of safeguarding.
So how can the Minister help us here today? First, he should abolish with immediate effect through a statutory instrument the application of the apprenticeship levy to schools. It is utter madness that a public body such as a maintained school, whose wages are paid through the local authority, hits the employment legislation’s minimum level. As a consequence, the council, because it pays the wages, has to pay the apprenticeship levy, which it then passes down to the school. As has already been mentioned, that is now just short of £500,000. Spread between the schools, that is a huge problem and a challenge that could be easily resolved. The Minister should think about that. The concept of the apprenticeship levy was about commercial businesses and trying to ensure they invested properly in apprentices. Teachers are not apprentices. There could be apprentices in the administration area, but, given the pressure on schools, is that really where we want schools to spend their money? It is like having a tax credit that cannot be spent, so the levy has to be scrapped. It deserves urgent attention because the crunch point is soon: April 2017, which is not many days and weeks away.
Secondly, I want the Minister to look at the special education needs extension to those aged 25. It is right that those with special education needs should be given all the support that they need. Because of the peculiarity of the way in which the system works, an individual parent whose child is entitled can nominate the school to which they will go. The school, even if it goes above the published admission number, has to provide the support that is needed, which is extremely expensive and difficult for schools to meet, so there needs to be a way of supporting schools that are faced with that.
Although the local authority makes some provision, it is not adequate and does not work. So will the Minister look at whether the local authority should dig not just into the education pot but into the healthcare pot when trying to fund some of the new costs hitting schools that are effectively having to become social care workers at the same time?
My right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon referred to the removal this year of the education services grant. We should all try to live within our means, but that removal is a straight cut. It is not as if the schools are suddenly finding another way. They cannot raise business rates. Where will they find the extra money to provide those services? They can of course work together, and work differently, but a complete cut is not a viable way forward.
The coalition Government could be praised for introducing the troubled families programme, through which local authorities could help families identified with multiple social and educational problems. Under this watch, that funding now only comes into play when a child is over 11 years old. I wish I did not have to say this, but in my constituency we have to make extreme interventions for a large number of children—in some schools, up to 85%. Children coming to school today are often not toilet-trained; many of them have real challenges with some basic reading skills. In part, that is a result of changes in our society. The Minister cannot change society, and we cannot change the fact that children are glued to iPads instead of conversing with their parents and their peers, but we need to recognise the consequences, budget accordingly and ensure support is there for those troubled families.
I urge the Minister to look at the issues now. We cannot wait until the new funding review. This is crucial; it is about our children today, our children tomorrow and our country tomorrow. I urge him to consider the issues now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) on securing this important debate. While I am doing thank yous, I want to say a personal thank you to the Minister, who just a few weeks ago accepted my invitation to come to North Devon to meet in a roundtable setting with a delegation of headteachers representing pretty much every education sector in Devon. The Minister came, I know that he listened and I am grateful that he did so.
Let us continue this positive start. I welcome the Government’s commitment to the new national funding formula and the principle that we must eradicate the unfairness of the current system. Good; that is a tick. The Government’s additional funding of £390 million to the least funded authorities in 2015-16 made a real difference, with an increase in funding per pupil in Devon of just over 4.5%. Good; that is another gold star for the Government. As I am sure the Minister will be pointing out, under the indicative figures for the new funding formula, more schools will gain funding than lose it in my constituency of North Devon—so it seems like we are getting gold marks all round for homework at the moment. However, I am afraid I have to move gently to a position where we are potentially putting the Minister in detention.
The Government are moving in the right direction—that is true—but under the indicative figures very little will be done to correct the fundamental, historical unfairness of funding in Devon, especially in my constituency of North Devon. That inherent and historical underfunding has existed for many decades, under Governments of all colours, and it needs to be put right. I thought that the national funding formula would put it right. From what I have seen of the indicative figures, I am disappointed.
As right hon. and hon. Members have said, Devon is a very poorly funded local education authority. Under the current system, funding is £290 less per pupil than the average across England, which means that North Devon schools receive just under £4 million less per year than the national average. If the proposed national funding formula changes were brought in, the cumulative change to North Devon schools funding—these figures are provided by the House of Commons Library, which is a neutral and always accepted source of facts, as everyone here knows but I note for those outside of this place—would be between 0%, no change at all, and a 1% increase across the board. Crunching the figures, that means that, at best, across all its schools, North Devon would receive an extra £40,000. Clearly, that does not rectify the imbalance and historical unfairness in the current system. North Devon would continue to receive an unfair level of funding. The principle of a national funding formula is sound only if it rectifies the imbalance that sees my constituents and those of other hon. Members here lose out. What is currently on the table does not do that for Devon, and certainly not for North Devon.
Not only does the proposed formula fail to correct the unfairness between Devon and the rest of the country, but it throws up some perverse variations between schools within North Devon. There are 52 schools across all sectors and all age ranges in my constituency. I have visited a great many of them in my 18 months as Member of Parliament for North Devon, and it is a pleasure to do so. They are fantastic schools doing tremendous work, with teaching staff and managers working really hard to get some excellent results. Six of those schools are secondary schools.
If we put those 52 schools in a league table ranked in order of the percentage change to their funding next year compared with this year, something rather worrying happens. The three schools at the bottom of that league table, which lose the most under the proposals, are the three secondary schools with the most rural catchment areas in my constituency: Chulmleigh, South Molton and Braunton. I feel sure that that was not the intention when the formula started to be cooked. It needs to be recooked, because that is the result under the indicative figures, and that cannot be right. These are schools where the teaching staff, managers, pupils and parents are already struggling because of the historical unfairness. I had hoped that the national funding formula would do something to correct that, but on the indicative figures at present, it does not.
I have been written to by the headteachers of many schools across Devon and they are all saying the same thing: “We don’t get it. We don’t understand why this historical unfairness is being allowed to continue.” Most make the extremely reasonable point that the national funding formula is a fine idea in principle and congratulate this Minister and this Government on the principle of wanting to correct the historical unfairness, but the devil is in the detail and I am afraid that the detail my headteachers see does nothing to address the historical problems.
I want to draw out two specific points that headteachers have raised with me. The first is high needs educational funding in Devon. High needs expenditure has grown rapidly, from £53 million in 2014 to an estimated £61 million in 2017-18. To meet the forecast overspend, Devon County Council has been forced to approve transferring more than £2 million from individual schools budgets to the high needs budget in 2017-18, just to bring the expected deficit down to zero. Someone else used the phrase, “We are robbing Peter to pay Paul.” That cannot be right.
The second issue, which has been raised by a number of my colleagues, is the personalised transport budget in Devon. In a largely rural, sparsely populated area such as the one I represent, that is a real challenge. The personalised transport budget for children with special needs accounts for 34%—more than a third—of the total schools transport budget in Devon. That is £21 million, and an overspend of more than £1.2 million on that budget is forecast for this year. The cost of transport cannot be taken from the high needs budget. It must be funded from county council budgets, and we all know that local authority budgets also face challenges. Those are two areas that I believe we need to look at.
Let us look again at the overall position. Devon is one of the lowest-funded local authority areas in England for education. In 2016-17, Department for Education funding per pupil in Devon is £4,346. That is £290 per pupil less than the English average, which means that DFE spending on education in Devon is more than £25 million a year less than the English average. I am afraid that the proposed indicative figures do nothing to correct that fundamental unfairness. As I am sure the Minister will tell us, this is a consultation and those are only indicative figures. I say, good, because we need to change what is being proposed. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon, I am sure that it is a real, genuine consultation and that the Minister and the Government are listening. It seems to me, to the people who run, teach in and manage the schools in my constituency, and to the parents whose children go to those schools that the current proposals are unfair.
I wish I could be more elegant in my language. I wish I had a more sophisticated argument and could indulge in some fine Churchillian parliamentary oratory, but I cannot. It comes down to three words: this is just not fair. Devon was hoping for a fairer slice of the funding cake. Instead, it seems to the schools community that we have received only a few crumbs. I say gently and helpfully to the Minister—-please get on the hotline to Mary Berry and rebake this cake.
It is a pleasure and a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) on securing this debate. I am delighted that he was my mentor when I got elected to this place, and my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) was also brilliantly good at looking after me and keeping me on the right track.
I enter this debate with a certain amount of trepidation, because my constituency has done rather well out of this process, but there are some issues that I want to raise. Let me set out the context. I am one of the very few Members of Parliament on the Conservative Benches who represents a totally inner-city seat outside London. I have only one rather muddy field, called the Ponderosa pony sanctuary, in my constituency, and everything else is very much inner city.
I declare an interest: I am a governor of St Andrew’s Church of England Primary School, and in the 1980s and early 1990s I worked for a woman called Angela Rumbold, who was the Member of Parliament for Mitcham and Morden and a Minister at the Department for Education. She was very much responsible, with Kenneth Baker, for introducing the local curriculum, local management of schools and things like that. My constituency has high levels of deprivation. There is an 11 to 12-year life expectancy difference between the north-east of my constituency and the south-west. I am very concerned indeed about that. We must ensure that children who are at school in a low-wage and low-skills economy have a good education and can end up going on to university and other schools.
I am delighted that Government have provided greater education choice in my constituency. I have not only three grammar schools, which I will talk about in a second, but the creative arts school, which is doing incredibly well, and a university technical college. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his interest and for taking the time yesterday to have a conversation with me and some people from the UTC about some of the issues they face. Plymouth does not fall within Devon county’s remit. Therefore, I feel somewhat of a fraud. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon pointed out to me earlier that my constituency has done very well out of this. Therefore, I am very grateful.
We need to ensure that children are able to read, write and add up when they leave school. I do not think we talk enough about standards. I sit on school governing bodies, and I think we should spend more time talking about how we are going to help children to achieve, rather than reviewing policy. Indeed, I occasionally feel that, when I go to school governing meetings, we end up spending more time reviewing policy than people spend reviewing west end plays. I am always slightly concerned about that.
Schools in Plymouth are likely to receive a 3.9% increase, but there is an issue. I understand why the Government’s position has changed and why they are looking at deprivation, because it is an important issue. The majority of my schools have done quite well, although there are some up in Compton that have some concerns. The grammar schools have also written to me, because they do not fit into the deprivation issue, so they do not get as good a deal as possible. I am very grateful indeed to Dan Roberts, the headteacher of Devonport High School for Boys. He said that he recognises that public services need to shoulder their fair share of the burden of public debt, but he has real concerns that the latest proposals will cause serious damage to the one type of school that our current Prime Minister believes has the potential to transform education in our country. He said that this is not all children in Plymouth but
“If you happen to be an able child attending Devonport High School for Boys we are actually receiving a reduction of 2.9%.”
Other grammar schools have said that, too.
I would be grateful if the Minister were willing to meet me and some of the grammar schools to talk about how we could ensure that they can make savings and so that he can hear the case from the grammar schools, too. I think that the Government are on the right lines in talking about deprivation, but then I would because I represent a totally inner-city seat with high levels of deprivation. However, there are some issues that most certainly need to be looked at and tweaked. I very much look forward to meeting him with my school governors from the grammar schools in the near future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I congratulate the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) on securing the debate. He said recently in the Exmouth Journal that he would raise his concerns in Parliament, and it is good to see politicians keeping their promises—he has certainly done so today.
Under this Government, schools are facing their first real cuts in 20 years. My right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) summed it up. We have to look at the big picture, because many rural schools are affected. We had a similar debate about the Minister’s county of Sussex, which is very poorly underfunded, a few weeks ago, and Members had exactly the same concerns. Their hopes were raised by the proposed introduction of the manifesto commitment of a national fair funding formula, but up and down the land most people’s hopes are being dashed. We must put this in the context of what was announced in the Budget: £3 billion will be taken out of our education system by 2020. That is an 8% cut. In my constituency, it is an 11% cut, so no matter what we do with the fair funding formula, it will be insignificant, given the situation that schools face.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies initially predicted the real-terms cuts of 8% that I mentioned, but the Office for Budget Responsibility predicted sharply rising inflation over the course of the Parliament, so the cuts will get even worse. The right hon. Member for East Devon spoke eloquently about fairness, but nothing is fair about that. The funding formula was supposed to redistribute a sum of money to help schools where help is inadequate and to provide our children with the excellent education to which they are entitled, as pointed out by the hon. Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones).
The National Audit Office has said that the Department for Education is expecting schools to find a total of £3 billion in savings over the course of the Parliament, but the Department has failed to communicate to schools how to do that, given the pressures pointed out today, such as the apprenticeship levy and rising costs and national insurance costs.
The Opposition support the principle that all schools should have a fair funding formula, but the answer is not simply to take money away from some schools and to redistribute it in different budgets across the country. The solution is to invest in education and to help every child to receive an excellent education, as pointed out by the hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter). He talked about an education oasis so, with an Oasis reference and my being a Mancunian, I should ask him not to “look back in anger”. He spoke with passion about his concerns and the consequences of Government action. A whole range of both Conservative and Opposition Members are extraordinarily disappointed.
Given cost pressures, inflation and an increase in pupil numbers, schools budgets are facing real-terms cuts. There has already been a sharp rise in the number of secondary schools that are in deficit, reaching nearly 60% of the total in 2014-15, according to the National Audit Office. According to the North Devon Gazette, only three schools in Devon are set to gain extra funding under the proposed national funding formula, as announced by Secretary of State. The changes to education funding have been branded “ridiculous” and “a shambles” by Devon headteachers. The hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) rightly pointed out that the Government are simply not listening at the moment, and while they are still in consultation, we have to plead with them to start listening.
Michael Johnson, the headteacher at Chulmleigh Community College, said he had received calls from other headteachers who simply did not know what they were to do. He said:
“Early indications are that all or most Devon secondary schools will receive less through the new funding formula.
I have had other secondary school headteachers telling me today ‘I don’t know what I am going to do now’.
Nationally, this formula offers the same money for more children and we have now got increased costs that we have had imposed upon us.
With the limited information available to us at this time, we believe that most secondary schools in North Devon will not be better off and will continue to face budgetary shortfalls.
So far, this exercise looks to me like the same budget has been through a hot-wash to present it differently. It looks like a shambles to me.”
That is a headteacher in one of our schools.
Mr Glenn Smith, the principal of Honiton College, said that Devon is one of the lowest-funded education authorities in England:
“Whilst the announcement in the…2015 Autumn Spending Review of firm proposals for the introduction of a new fairer national funding formula from April 2017 was most welcome, this promise of ‘jam tomorrow’ has since been delayed by 12 months and we still await further information around the detail, timing and implementation of any such policy.
Meanwhile the legacy of an unsatisfactory funding settlement has been further worsened for schools by rising expenditure demands owing to national policy decisions beyond our control, notably those associated with staffing costs.”
Mr Smith sent a stark warning to the Department that harsh cuts in Devon might see some of the smaller schools not able to produce a balanced budget, in effect putting them into special measures, so they might therefore be lost altogether. He worried:
“Maybe, when some Devon schools start to buckle under the increasing financial pressures, the government will start to make education a priority once more.”
The right hon. Member for East Devon said that we should not be too political, although he was critical in quite a party political way of the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown Governments. Mr Smith of Honiton College, however, said:
“Tony Blair’s top three priorities for government were: Education, Education and Education—God knows how far down”
the importance and fairness of education policy have gone. Schools did extraordinarily well under that Government: schools were rebuilt and they got more money than they had had in a generation.
I was beginning my teacher training in 1997, and I spent most of the time going around with buckets to collect the rain. By the time I left education, 10 or 15 years later, after the Labour Government, if the roofs had not been rebuilt, it was only because the school had been rebuilt. The only thing going through the roof were standards and attainment, so Labour Members will not stand for any lectures about our record.
On top of that, the hon. Members for Newton Abbot and for North Devon rightly pointed to the requirements for special educational needs in Devon, where there is a particular problem. “Schools Week” has done an analysis of local authorities’ high-needs budgets, which are given a set amount by the Government depending on how many special needs pupils each council caters for. Many heads are already struggling to cope.
Devon faces a £4.5 million shortfall this year, and the council is proposing to move £55 per pupil from its schools block funding—the money for pupils in mainstream schools—to its high-needs budget. Lorraine Heath, headteacher of Uffculme School, said that the reallocation would cost her school £56,265,
“which I have not budgeted for”.
That was her reaction. She said that the only way to meet the cut would be to reduce staff numbers and to increase class sizes.
In conclusion, may I praise the Devon MPs who are holding the Government’s feet to the fire on the issue? They are standing up for their constituencies and their county. I also remind them, however, that it is their party’s Government who are doing this.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson, and to follow the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane). The hon. Gentleman, as a Labour shadow spokesman, defended his party’s legacy, but since this Government came to power, 1.8 million more children than in 2010 are in schools graded by Ofsted as good and outstanding—1.8 million more children receiving a higher standard of education. This year 147,000 more six-year-olds are reading more effectively as a consequence of the reforms implemented since 2010.
I also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) on securing his important debate. I am sure he agrees that we share the same ambition to see a country that works for everyone, where all children receive an excellent education that unlocks talent and creates opportunity, regardless of where they live, their background, ability or needs.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones) referred to the funding levels for schools in his constituency. He is assiduous in visiting the schools in his constituency, as I saw at first hand when I joined him on one of those visits. We had a roundtable discussion with a number of his local headteachers. Overall, his schools will receive an increase of 0.7% in funding as a result of the national funding formula. As I said at that meeting, however, we are paying close attention to the responses to the first-stage consultation and to the second-stage consultation on the detailed proposals. The latter consultation closes on 27 March.
The Government are prioritising spending on education. We have protected the core schools budget in real terms so that as pupils numbers increase, so will the amount of money for schools. That means that schools are receiving more funding than ever before, totalling more than £40 billion. The existing funding system, however, prevents us from getting that record amount of money to where it is needed most. Underfunded schools do not have access to the same opportunities to do the best for their pupils, and it is harder for them to attract the best teachers and afford the right support. That is why we are reforming the funding system by introducing a national funding formula for both mainstream schools and high-need support for children with special educational needs. That will be the biggest change to school and high-needs funding for well over a decade, and means that we will for the first time have a clear, simple and transparent system that matches funding to pupils’ needs and the schools that they attend. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to introduce a national funding formula.
The right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) is right that introducing a national funding formula when we are still tackling the historic budget deficit that we inherited from his Government is challenging. We have protected core school spending in real terms, but I accept that there are cost pressures on schools. We believe that it is nevertheless important to use this one-time-only opportunity to introduce a fairer funding system.
In the current system, similar schools and local areas receive very different levels of funding, with little or no justification. For example, a primary-age pupil who is eligible for free school meals attracts an extra £1,378 for their school if they live in Devon but an extra £2,642—£1,264 more—if they live in Brighton and Hove. Those anomalies will end once we have a national funding formula in place. Introducing fair funding was a key manifesto commitment for this Government, and it will mean that the same child with the same needs will attract the same funding regardless of where they live.
We launched the first stage of our consultation on reforming the schools and high-needs funding system in March last year. We set out the principles for reform and proposals for the overall design of the system. More than 6,000 people responded, and there was wide support for the proposals. Building on that support, we were able in December to proceed to the second stage of the consultation and set out detailed proposals for the design of both the schools and high-needs funding formulae. The consultation period will last until 22 March, and the issues raised in this debate and others are part and parcel of that process.
Under our proposals, money will be targeted towards pupils who face the greatest barriers. In particular, support will be boosted for children from the most deprived families and those who live in areas of deprivation but are not eligible for free school meals—those whose families are just about managing. We are putting more money towards supporting pupils in both primary and secondary schools who have fallen behind, to ensure that they, too, have the support they need to catch up.
Overall, 10,740 schools—54% of all schools—will gain funding, and the formula will allow them to see those gains quickly, with increases in per-pupil funding of up to 3% in 2018-19 and 2.5% in 2019-20. Some 72 local authority areas are due to gain high-needs funding, and they, too, will see that quickly, with gains of up to 3% in both those financial years. As well as providing for those increases, we have listened to those who highlighted the risks of major budget changes for schools during the first stage of our consultation and will include significant protections in both formulae. No school will face per-pupil reductions of more than 1.5% per year or 3% overall, and no local authority will lose high-needs funding.
My hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) mentioned my visit to the outstanding Ivybridge Community College in his constituency. It was a pleasure to see such high academic standards being delivered in that school. He referred to a list. I do have such a list, which says that under the new national funding formula, schools funding in Devon as a whole will rise from £377.2 million in 2016-17 to £378.7 million—an increase of 0.4%. Some 213 schools in Devon—62% of all Devon schools—will gain funding. I recognise that the proposals would result in budget reductions for some schools in the constituencies of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon and other hon. Members, but I believe that the formula strikes the correct balance between the core funding that every child attracts and the extra funding that is targeted at those with additional needs—both children in areas of deprivation and schools that serve rural communities.
Our proposed protections will mean that schools in Devon that do not gain funding can manage these significant reforms while continuing to raise standards. All schools need to make the best use of the resources they have and ensure that every pound is used effectively to improve standards. To help schools, we have put in place and continue to develop a comprehensive package of support to enable them to make efficiency savings and manage cost pressures while continuing to improve the quality of education for their pupils.
Although Devon will not receive any additional high-needs funding as a result of the new formulae, I hope that my hon. Friends understand that the funding floor will allow underfunded local authorities to gain funding and go a long way to protect the local authorities that spend the most, in recognition of the fact that their spending levels are the result of decisions on placements taken in consultation with parents. We are also providing £23 million of additional funding this year to support all local authorities to undertake strategic reviews of their high-needs provision.
As a member of the f40, Devon has played a significant role in campaigning for fair schools funding, as have my right hon. and hon. Friends. The Government’s proposed formula is based on our assessment of needs across the whole country; it is not designed around the interests of any one area or group in isolation. None the less, and reflecting the underfunding that several f40 members have suffered for many years, most of the areas represented by the f40, including Devon, will gain: overall, funding for their schools will increase by £210 million. I understand that some f40 members are disappointed with the formula’s effect on their area. Funding reform is always difficult—many competing demands have to be balanced—and it is particularly difficult in an area as complex as education. That is why we are holding such a long consultation to gather views.
I am aware of the concern that my hon. Friends and others have raised that fairer funding for schools in Devon and other parts of the country is overdue. We agree that these reforms are vital, but they are an historic change, which is why we have taken time to consider the options and implications carefully. The new system will be in place from April 2018, but in the meantime we have confirmed funding for 2017-18 so that local authorities and schools have the information and certainty that they need to plan their budgets for the coming year.
I will give way in one moment. I was just coming to my hon. Friend’s point about funding levels in 2017-18, the year before the new national funding formula comes into effect. We have confirmed that no area will see a reduction in their schools or high-needs funding in 2017-18, and areas such as Devon that benefited from the £390 million that we added to the schools budget in the last Parliament will have that extra funding protected in their baseline in 2017-18, as they did in 2016-17.
That is helpful, but it does not address the cost issue that I raised. For any institution, what comes in and what goes out need to balance. I respectfully ask the Minister whether he will undertake to consult his fellow Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy about these costs and how they fall on schools—particularly the apprenticeship levy. Clearly, it is not for him to slash that on a whim, but it is incumbent on him to discuss it.
We recognise that schools face cost pressures, including salary increases, the introduction of the national living wage, increases to employers’ national insurance and pension scheme contributions, and general inflation, as well as the introduction of the apprenticeship levy. The current, unfair funding system makes those pressures harder to manage. The new national funding formula will not only direct funding where it is most needed but give schools greater certainty about funding and allow them to plan ahead effectively. The Government are also providing a wide range of tools and other support to schools to improve their efficiency, and we will soon launch a school buying strategy to support schools to save more than £1 billion a year by 2019 on non-staff expenditure.
I appreciate what my hon. Friend says; in addition to those pressures, schools will pay the apprenticeship levy. The apprenticeship levy has real benefits for schools. It will support them to train and develop new and existing staff. It is an integral part of the Government’s wider plans to improve productivity and to provide opportunities for people of all backgrounds and all ages to enter the workplace. That is why we encourage all schools to employ or designate apprenticeships, whether or not they pay the apprenticeship levy.
Does the Minister recognise that—as I understand it—there is no such thing as an apprentice teacher? Does he agree that the most important thing to spend money on, for any school facing the pressures they are facing, is teachers, not administrative staff?
There is an employers’ group that is preparing and working on the introduction of a graduate-entry apprenticeship scheme for teachers, so there will be opportunities for schools to use that funding and indeed spend more than the money from the apprenticeship levy on training teachers and also support staff and other technical staff that help schools operate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) described his constituency as in part inner city, where there are significant areas of deprivation. The Government are seeking to tackle that, not least through improving education. Social mobility lies at the core of the Government’s objectives, and that is one reason why schools in his constituency are seeing an overall increase of some 4.4% in funding, which he was magnanimous enough to acknowledge.
We are using a broad definition of disadvantage to target additional funding to the schools most likely to use it, comprising pupil and area-level deprivation data, prior attainment data and English as an additional language data. No individual measure is enough on its own; each addresses different challenges that schools face. When a child qualifies under more than one of those factors, the school receives funding for each qualifying factor. For example, if a child comes from a more disadvantaged household and they live in an area of socioeconomic deprivation, their school will attract funding through both the free school meals factor and the area-level deprivation factor. That helps us to target funding most accurately to the schools that face the most acute challenges.
The Minister has said that this is a genuine consultation exercise, but I am not hearing too much in terms of a willingness to amend the national funding formula. I understand that that will be tricky, but will he confirm that if a sufficiently strong case is made he is prepared to look again and that changes might be made?
I am seeking to explain the reasoning behind why we place such emphasis on deprivation and low prior attainment—that is something that will affect the grammar schools in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport—and why we place such emphasis on helping children with English as an additional language. This is a Government driven to improve social mobility.
This is a genuine consultation. I have set out the explanation as to why we produced the formula for consultation that we did. We are listening to the responses—we will be going through and reading the written responses and we will listen to debates such as this one in the consultation process—and where we can make changes that address unfairnesses revealed through that process of course we will make changes to the approach we are taking. The decisions we are taking are driven principally by social mobility and ensuring that children from the most deprived parts of our country are properly funded at their schools to ensure that they make progress and fulfil their potential.
I acknowledge the concerns about the schools block ring fence and the level of flexibility between schools and high needs raised in the debate, given that Devon has in the past moved funding from the schools block to the high-needs block to support its high-needs pressures. We recognise that some continuing flexibility between the schools and high-needs blocks will be important in ensuring that the funding system is responsive to changes in the balance of mainstream and specialist provision.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon for the important work he and the WESC Foundation do for children and young people with visual impairment. The reforms of high-needs funding and the additional funding we are providing this year and next year support the most vulnerable children in the country who are supported by high-needs funding.
In order to give my right hon. Friend time to respond, I will conclude. I am enormously grateful to him for raising this issue and to other hon. Friends and right hon. and hon. Members for airing their concerns and issues about funding of schools. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends are reassured that the Government are committed to reforming school funding and delivering a fair funding system for children in Devon and throughout the country.
I will be delighted to meet the grammar school headteachers from his constituency either in the constituency or at the Department. To be fair to the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane), this debate is about funding, but we as a Government want to create more good school places, whether those are more good grammar school places or more good school places in non-selective schools, helped by the independent sector and universities, and by having more faith schools. We want more good school places, and that is what drives our continuing education reforms.
I hope that hon. Members will be reassured about the Government’s commitment to reforming school funding. It is a system where funding reflects the real level of need and where every pupil has the same opportunities.
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I would like to give time for my right hon. Friend to respond.
A fair national funding formula for schools and high needs underpins our ambition for social mobility and social justice. It will mean that every pupil is supported to achieve to the best of their potential, wherever they are in the country. I hope that while recognising the challenges that lie ahead, my hon. Friends will give their support to working with us to achieve that vital aim.
The first thing on which we can all be agreed is that we are delighted to see the Minister back in his job. At one point he had an enforced holiday from the Front Bench; his proper place is on the Front Bench, doing what he is doing for education. It may not seem like it, but he can be assured that he is largely among friends this morning.
The Opposition spokesman referred back to the halcyon days of the Governments of Mr Blair and Mr Brown. I gently point out to him—he was not in the House at that time—that Devon certainly did not prosper in terms of schools funding in those days. He talked about how a Labour Government stopped water coming through the roof. Unfortunately, they did not stop the economy going through the floor. We are picking up the pieces, and, as I said at the beginning, we must be realistic as to what we can afford, given the appalling legacy we inherited.
I think the debate has been constructive, thoughtful and indeed insightful. I agree with the Minister that we all have the same eventual aim. This is an extraordinarily challenging time for the United Kingdom, given the great educational achievements of Asia, for instance, especially in mathematics and science. If we are to turn out a generation of British people who can compete in a highly competitive world, we will have to do that better. That is informing the Government’s thinking, but we must ensure that that is fair as well as ambitious.
I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that west country Members of Parliament have a history of being fairly independent-minded, and I think he will have learned from this morning that that tradition continues. Indeed, there are those of us who will be looking carefully at the Government’s proposals to see whether we can back them in terms of representing the best interests of our teachers and constituents.
This is one of the rare occasions in Parliament on which we want to hear more of the C-word—that is, of course, consultation. If the consultation is genuine, the Minister would do well to meet the Devon Association of Primary Headteachers—we would like him to come to Devon, or we can bring them all here—to hear at first hand how the changes will affect us in the county of Devon. With that in mind, I will end a few seconds early to give the Minister extra time to go back to his Department, consult his officials and come up with a deal that is fairer for the people of Devon.
We have about 30 seconds until the next debate and I hope that the Minister for that debate will arrive shortly. May I say it has been a pleasure to listen to the debate? As a former resident of Plymouth and an employee of Plymouth and South Devon Co-op many years ago, I found it interesting to hear the debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered education funding in Devon.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered future arrangements for S4C.
I am grateful to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson, and pleased to see the Minister taking his place for this important debate. Perhaps predictably, I want to set out the importance of S4C to Wales, talk about some of its aspirations and plans for the future, show how it hopes to continue playing an important role in the life and culture of Wales, and then talk specifically about funding needs and the announced review of its remit.
S4C is the only Welsh-language TV channel in the world and has made a huge contribution to the culture of Wales and the Welsh language. Indeed, it has been pivotal in helping to maintain spoken Welsh throughout Wales and develop its use in a positive and forward-looking way. Usually, in debates such as this—perhaps lengthier ones—there will be some on the Government side who remind us that the creation of S4C in 1982 was a Conservative achievement. I do not dispute the date but I will say at the outset that of course many people from all political parties were involved in the creation of S4C. A more critical point is that since 1982 the channel has enjoyed strong cross-party support, as we can partly see from attendance in the Chamber today. S4C is critical to Wales’s 562,000 Welsh speakers—and the UK’s estimated 700,000; to learners such as me; and to those interested more generally in the nation of Wales.
Although S4C has had a fundamental and primary role in helping to preserve the language, it has focused on new and innovative ways to spread Welsh-language broadcasting, which has helped its programming to extend beyond Welsh speakers and learners. Since 2015 there has been a 107% increase in S4C’s viewers from outside the UK, through its S4C/Gwylio online platform. A fantastic example of the type of content that has spread beyond Welsh-speaking communities is S4C’s innovation in drama, such as the now internationally renowned “Y Gwyll”, or “Hinterland”, which was filmed in my constituency. I should perhaps declare an interest: my 10-year-old twins came home from school one day at the end of last year and announced that they were “on ‘Hinterland’”. They are extras in one of the recently filmed editions; we shall see what happens. They have not been paid a penny, but I declare it. “Y Gwyll” has won numerous awards including the main award at last year’s New York international film and television awards.
There have been other high-quality Welsh language productions, such as the political drama “Byw Celwydd”, focusing on a dramatised version of the Welsh Assembly. The mind boggles. The production of “Y Gwyll”, which has now been sold internationally, has had a huge impact on my constituency, but also more generally in Wales. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) often reminds me, when I talk about that great advertisement for Ceredigion, that usually the plots are dark, with clouds building up, and a murder. Quite how that promotes Ceredigion I do not know, but it has done, and I celebrate that.
The programme’s impact, and that of much of S4C’s innovative content, should not be underestimated. Investment in S4C has been shown to have a huge multiplier effect on the Welsh economy. Independent research has shown that during 2014-15, every £1 that was invested by S4C in the creative industries in Wales was worth more than £2 to the economy—double the value. Using the example of the first series of “Hinterland”, its impact on the economy alone was more than £1 million in my locality; S4C’s total impact across the UK in the period was estimated at a staggering £170 million.
That has to be seen in the context of a television channel that is increasingly lean. Some members of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs went last year to the headquarters of S4C in Cardiff and saw how lean the operation is, and what is achieved on limited resources: overheads of just 4.2% compared with 11.3% across the public sector, fewer than 150 staff, and a 35% reduction in the cost of commissioned content since 2009. It is indeed value for money. With the change in how many people consume content, S4C has also been successful in moving away from traditional scheduled television programming to catch-up services and social media.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. He and many in the Chamber have campaigned for S4C for many years. The Minister is in charge of the digital economy; the new media that the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) has mentioned are difficult to obtain in many areas of Wales, for infrastructure reasons. I welcome the Digital Economy Bill but there is a need for greater emphasis not just on rural but peripheral and Welsh-speaking areas, so that they can enjoy S4C content.
I very much agree; the hon. Gentleman is right. I represent a peripheral and Welsh-speaking area, and he has hit the nail on the head. I am sure that the Minister will respond to the point.
I was talking about catch-up services and social media and want to make the point that S4C has been hugely responsive in catering for demand. In just a few months, the viewing figure for S4C video content on social media alone, notwithstanding what the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) has said, has more than doubled—almost trebled—from 737,000 views in September 2016 to more than 2.235 million by December 2016. It is vital, more generally, that public service broadcasters respond to the change in demand, and S4C has been doing just that. It is with that in mind that I welcome the Government’s commitment to an independent review of S4C’s remit, funding and accountability arrangements. It is something that many hon. Members of all parties have called for. The industry has called for it, and it is important that we achieve it.
In recent years substantial cuts have been made to the funding that S4C receives through the BBC licence fee and the direct funding that it receives through the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Through the licence fee, it receives £74.5 million annually, and will do until 2021-22, although that is likely to represent a 10% cut by the end of the period. The Government’s 2015 Budget made an attempt to cut the direct funding to S4C from DCMS from £6.7 million to £5 million. In view of what I have said about the lean operation, that is a substantial sum and would have had a heavy impact on S4C.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. DCMS funding is now only 8% of S4C’s funding; does he agree that people in Wales, Welsh-speaking or not, pay taxes too and that any further cut would be totally unacceptable to us?
I very much agree and will develop a more extensive answer to that comment in the rest of my speech. I think that that view is widely shared, including, I am pleased to say, on the Conservative side. The hon. Lady will remember, as I do, the 2 am debate in the Chamber last January, initiated by the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart). I was grateful for the opportunity of that debate, despite its being at 2 in the morning. Notwithstanding bleary eyes, we saw strong opposition from Members across the House to an attempt to make a severe cut to S4C’s funding from DCMS. We were relieved that staying up was worth while, because spending was frozen at the original level for 2016-17, pending a review into S4C’s remit. According to the then Digital Minister, the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), that would:
“ensure financial stability—”
“through the review process.”
Although it represents a real-terms cut, I greatly welcome, with the caveats I mentioned, the decision to give S4C stability over its funding through the licence fee for the next few years. I also welcome the freezing of the cut to the DCMS portion of its funding last year.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government could immediately grant S4C borrowing powers, which it has asked for and which would not have a detrimental effect on budgets? None of us can see any reason why that should be rejected. Perhaps the Minister will respond to that during the debate.
I am not averse to that suggestion at all; it would be a positive step forward. However, I will develop how I intend to achieve for the coming year what the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) achieved last year.
There is little doubt in my mind or, I think, in the minds of Members from other parties, that cuts to S4C have been almost to the bone, not only making it extremely difficult for the broadcaster to meet the obligations of its remit, but making it particularly challenging to be innovative and to cater to the changing demands of the Welsh public. However, S4C has to date, with increasing difficulty, continued to meet its obligations and the changing demands.
With the difficulties facing the broadcaster as a result of those cuts, it is absolutely right that a review takes place to ensure that it has the necessary funding to fulfil its remit and strategy over the longer term. A comprehensive review into S4C announced in February of last year by the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), along with a reversal of the cuts prior to the outcome of the review, was welcome. However, we are now in 2017, and we still waiting for that promised review. There is cross-party concern about the delay, as well as concern in the creative industries that rely so heavily on a strong Welsh broadcasting sector.
I hope the Minister will enlighten us as to the reason for the delay. Why is a statement from February 2016, made in the early hours of the morning during the debate called by the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, only now being actioned? Critically, can he also give us details about when the review is likely to take place, its timetable and when it is anticipated to conclude? With that in mind, and with the former Secretary of State’s commitment, I would also appreciate the Minister’s assurance that cuts to Government funding of S4C that were frozen under the previous Secretary of State will continue to be frozen at least until the review gives its recommendations.
One big issue that requires Government assurance is on the specifics of the review. Many hon. Members, and many people outside the Chamber, hope for confirmation from the Minister that the review will be chaired by an independent individual with a thorough understanding of Wales, the Welsh language and broadcasting. It is also important that the remit of the review considers the need to update S4C’s remit, to reflect changes in the broadcasting industry and to ensure that the channel meets the needs of its audience, both in the short and long term.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have always regarded Sir Paul Silk’s work as a political bible—not only for members of his party but mine. As he suggested, devolution of that funding would be a good thing. It is something that should be considered as part of the review, which is why we asked the question about its remit. My concern about broadcasting being devolved to the National Assembly in its entirety—it is a different issue, but I will raise it—is whether our friends working in the Assembly would guarantee the required level of funding for S4C. However, there is merit in what the hon. Gentleman says in his question.
I am sure the Minister understands that S4C’s future funding is certainly one of its big concerns. As such, I would appreciate if he would set out whether the review will make recommendations on the process by which the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport decides on the sufficiency of funding for S4C, as required by the Public Bodies Act 2011, to ensure that S4C remains competitive in the public service broadcasting market and is able to continue to meet audience expectations over the long term. The hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams), because he was on the Public Bodies Bill Committee with me, will remember the concern expressed at the time when the funding formula for S4C was abandoned and replaced by a clause stating that the Secretary of State would decide on the sufficiency of funding. That is why this fits in neatly with the DCMS element of the budget.
Will the review consider the most appropriate mechanisms by which S4C should be funded? It is important that that includes the UK Government’s direct contribution to S4C. Security and visibility of funding for S4C over a reasonable period to prevent unnecessary uncertainty and to allow it to plan for the future is vital. Will the Minister ensure that that is reviewed, both in the context of the funding it receives directly and any potential governance and accountability changes to the BBC that could have an impact on S4C’s funding through the licence fee?
I have had many concerns, as has, I think, almost every Member here, about cuts to S4C’s funding over the years. However, that is not the subject of the debate. On a positive note, I still—as I did in the early hours during that debate in February 2016—welcome the review and the budget being frozen. However, we need answers to those questions. Many questions have yet to be answered, and I know that it will help to clarify the situation if the Minister is able to provide those answers to Members today. S4C is too important a working, practical, achieving institution to have any more delays in these matters.
It is a great pleasure to respond to this debate on the importance of S4C and its future. Although I grew up on the Welsh borders, I am still in the early stages of learning Welsh. My vocabulary runs to only a few words, most of which were learned from road signs—“Araf” is something I will never forget. This is something that is close to my heart and to the Government’s heart as well. Mae’r iaith Gymraeg ac S4C yn bwysig iawn i’r Deyrnas Unedig. I hope the record will show that I said that the Welsh language and S4C are very important to the United Kingdom.
I will respond to the questions from the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) and from elsewhere. On his comments about S4C’s origins, it was of course a Conservative Government who brought in S4C. I acknowledge that success has many fathers, and there was a lot of support at the time for S4C’s introduction, but that its introduction was a Conservative achievement shows the heritage of the Government’s support for the Welsh language and for S4C.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned borrowing powers and asked when the review would take place. It will take place shortly. We are aware of the issues around borrowing powers and we are looking at options. The TV licence fee funding for S4C is being protected in cash terms. That means it will be flat over the spending review period. The advantage of that is, first, that it is not being cut and, secondly, that there is certainty over a long period to allow for planning. I hope that that helps.
I have read the transcripts of the debates on this issue before I came into this post. I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart), who has really led the charge. While awaiting the review, the funding was frozen rather than cut last year, essentially after the lobbying of a large group of people, led by my hon. Friend, who stands up for his constituency so powerfully.
We will be announcing the review shortly. We will certainly take into account the comments that my hon. Friend and others have made as to what the review should consider. I can commit to the reviewer having a thorough understanding of Wales and an interest in the Welsh language. Of course, the review needs to look into how S4C can succeed in the short term and long term. The licence fee now contributes the vast majority of funding—more than £74 million. The direct funding from DCMS is currently just over £6 million, which, as the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) said, is a relatively small element of the overall funding. We are aware of the commitments given by a predecessor on timing, and the Secretary of State is currently considering that issue.
I thank the Minister for his kind comments, but in his letter to me on 14 December he said:
“this year the Government gave over £6 million and we will be giving over £6 million next year.”
Can he be a bit more precise? That could mean £6.9 million in 2016 and £6.1 million in 2017. If he could tighten that up, we would be much relieved.
Or, as my hon. Friend says, the same.
In terms of timing, we always said that the review of S4C would follow the BBC charter renewal, which is now complete. In fact, the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport today announced its support for the new chair of the BBC unitary board. That decision now needs to go to the Privy Council. It would be unusual and constitutionally interesting should the Privy Council not approve that decision. We are now in a position to push on with the S4C review shortly.
Yes, of course. The figures set out in the spending review 2015 are £6.762 million for this financial year and £6.058 million for the next financial year. It is thanks to the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire and others—not least those who called this debate today—that the Secretary of State is looking at that issue.
We are considering the question of borrowing powers. The Silk commission said that we should consider the devolution of S4C. Of course, all broadcasting is a reserved matter, rather than a devolved one. That is the basis on which we have been operating, but we accepted that Silk review recommendation, so that consideration will happen.
On the overall question of the link to the licence fee, moving the funding from direct taxpayer support to licence fee funding was controversial at the time. However, since the S4C-BBC link started after 2010, it has been a huge success, not least because S4C can use some of the BBC’s digital technology. For instance, its content is now on iPlayer, and I understand that viewing figures have increased by over 3,000%.
As was mentioned, the impact of digital technology is incredibly important in this area, not least so that we can get broadcast material to people who live outside Wales where S4C is broadcast, in the rest of the UK and the rest of the world. For lovers of the Welsh language, that link-up and the fact that S4C can partner with the BBC in getting its content out are very positive. It is reasonable to say that the decision to move the majority of S4C funding over to the licence fee has generated further partnerships and been a success.
The S4C’s economic impact was a big part of the case made by hon. Members. The contribution made by S4C to the Welsh economy is not only through the direct impact of the broadcasting but through its work with the TV production industry. The success of Welsh TV production has been impressive in the past few years, in both the English and Welsh languages. We heard a few examples. Welsh-made TV shows and formats are now sold worldwide. As well as being the home of dynamic independent producers, Wales has become a hub of creativity and a desirable place to make programmes. For instance, Wales is the production centre for “Dr Who” —an iconic British success, aired in 200 countries around the world. Children’s programmes such as “Ludus” are shown on CBBC, with the spin-off app winning a BAFTA Cymru award. S4C’s “Fferm Ffactor” is now licensed and produced in Denmark, Sweden and China. “Y Gwyll”, or “Hinterland”, is screened in both Welsh and English, showing the innovations and economies of scale by using both languages.
When I was in Los Angeles the week before last, some of the film producers there were at pains to point out to me what an innovative, powerful and increasingly impressive TV and film production system there is in Wales and how they are looking to Wales to expand into some of the new areas of production—so Hollywood goes to the Welsh valleys. We have seen some of that theme in the past few years, and I hope that we will see much more of it. S4C plays its role in developing that TV production centre. Wales is home to more than 50 TV and animation companies that collectively generate around £1 billion for the Welsh economy, of which S4C alone directly contributed £114 million in 2015-16.
As well as the impact on the Welsh language and economy, the other reason to support S4C is its importance in Wales’s media plurality, which ensures that the public have access to a wide range of views, news and information about the world in which we live, while specifically focusing on what is happening in Wales. While the media landscape and technology change, our support for S4C remains resolute and will continue as we hold it in its place in Wales’s broad landscape of media and TV production and in the hearts of the Welsh people. I hope that we can continue this dialogue and can continue across the House to support S4C.
Question put and agreed to.
[Nadine Dorries in the Chair]
Given that Margaret Ferrier may speak for 20 minutes, the Minister may wind up for 10 minutes and there are eight speakers, each speaker will have about eight minutes. If any Member goes over that time, I will have to impose a time limit, which will reduce the time for everyone else, so perhaps Members will bear that in mind as a matter of respect and consideration. If time restrictions are introduced, I will let Members know.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of the DWP estate.
It is an honour to serve under your Chairmanship, Ms Dorries, and a pleasure to see so many Members here to discuss this important issue. I am sure there will be plenty of excellent contributions and that the Minister will be given plenty of food for thought.
The Minister will be aware that this is a major issue in the Glasgow area, particularly at the moment owing to the announcement by the Department for Work and Pensions of the closure next year of half the jobcentres in the city, which is a morally outrageous plan. I hope that today’s debate is an opportunity for Members not only to discuss this serious matter, but to engage in a frank discussion about the DWP estate across the UK. I also hope the Department will listen intently to what is said here today.
This debate is not about cost considerations, spreadsheet figures or departmental proposals drawn up by people who are likely never to have visited the centres earmarked for closure. In essence, it is about how changes to the DWP estate will impact on lives, not in some abstract way but in a real sense. What might seem entirely rational and reasonable on a sheet of paper will have a profound impact on people’s lives, including those of my constituents in Cambuslang who use the jobcentre there, which unfortunately is one of the eight set to close.
My immediate concern is Cambuslang and the seven other jobcentres in Glasgow that are set to shut their doors. However, it is clear that the city is being used as a guinea pig for the reduction of DWP offices elsewhere. This matter is not just for me and my hon. Friends who represent Glasgow constituencies to worry about: all Members should be concerned. The closure of half of Glasgow’s jobcentres will be a troubling precursor to a brutal round of cuts in jobcentres across the UK. The Government will implement them without any consideration of the far-reaching and in some cases devastating implications for low-income families. In Glasgow alone, about 68,000 people who are in receipt of jobseeker’s allowance, employment support allowance and universal credit will be impacted by the closures. The cuts are so harsh and so brutal that they have achieved something that does not happen as often as it should: political consensus and almost cross-party condemnation.
At the weekend, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) co-ordinated a letter to the Secretary of State for Scotland calling on him to take action on the jobcentre closures. I signed that letter with every other Glasgow MP; Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon; Scottish National party Members of the Scottish Parliament; Scottish Labour Members and Scottish Green party Members, as well as Labour and SNP leaders on Glasgow City Council. Despite voicing concerns on social media when the closures were first announced, Glasgow’s two Tory MSPs decided not to sign the letter.
I congratulate my hon Friend on securing this debate and apologise for not being able to stay owing to commitments in the Procedure Committee. Will she join me in hoping that tomorrow Glasgow’s Conservative MSPs will have an opportunity to put on the record their opposition to the closures, especially that of Maryhill jobcentre, which is not far from their office and is in my constituency, when our colleague Bob Doris MSP leads a debate on the issue in the Scottish Parliament?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We hope that there is consensus across all parties, including the Tory party in Scotland. I congratulate our colleague in the Scottish Parliament on again bringing forward this important debate in the Holyrood Chamber tomorrow. The decision is for Tory MSPs to make, but it is regrettable that they seem to have chosen to adopt an ideological party line rather than to lend their voice and support to the people they were elected to represent.
The Public and Commercial Services Union has also condemned the closure proposals, saying they represent a slash and burn policy by DWP. I want to put on the record my appreciation for the Evening Times, which has diligently reported the jobcentre closure story from the start and deserves recognition for its “Hands off our jobcentres” campaign. The cuts are so worrying that the Church of Scotland has intervened, condemning the effect they will have on people as fundamentally wrong and unjust, while our Catholic Archbishop, Philip Tartaglia, has expressed his concern and called on the Department to reconsider the proposals in a way that respects the dignity of claimants and meets their needs.
The concern of Members, which is demonstrably shared by civic society, is not political bluster or point scoring; it is born of genuine and legitimate concern for some of our most vulnerable constituents. I hope the Minister will listen properly today. It is unfortunate that the Secretary of State for Scotland is not here. His absence from today’s debate reflects his handling of the issue so far. I have asked him a series of written questions about when he learned of the proposed cuts to Glasgow’s jobcentres. Yesterday, in response to one of them, he was forced to admit that the DWP did not discuss the specific plans with him in advance of its announcement. This was no doubt an embarrassing confession by the Secretary of State for Scotland, but it raises an important question: why did the DWP keep the Scotland Office in the dark about the plans?
The Scottish Secretary has admitted that he met DWP representatives in July, but they provided only an overview of the Department’s estates process in general without detailing specific plans. The Minister must address this matter in her response today. Why were proposals of such huge significance kept secret from the Scotland Office, and why was a decision made to keep a Cabinet colleague uninformed, particularly given the embarrassment that would cause him when the truth came out? I can empathise with the Scottish Secretary because it seems that none of us was deemed important enough to be consulted or even informed by the DWP prior to the story breaking in the press. Indeed, it took the Department another seven hours thereafter to get round to sending affected MPs correspondence about the plans.
It is completely outrageous that the Scottish Government were not consulted on the proposals. That point specifically raises serious concerns about the UK Government’s commitment to paragraph 58 of the Smith commission’s report, which recognised that Jobcentre Plus will remain reserved, but called on the UK and Scottish 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.”
The Scottish Minister for Employability and Training has written to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions asking how the change will reduce access to services and perhaps increase the risk of sanctions that may be applied in relation to the need to attend such facilities.
The Scottish Minister has also asked for urgent advice on the future of Jobcentre Plus facilities across the rest of the country. I want to ask the same question today. Tens of thousands of people in the Glasgow area will, unacceptably, have to travel further and incur additional costs to access their social security entitlement and support. They deserve full and frank answers to these questions.
The PCS has said the closures will have an adverse impact, particularly on women, vulnerable children and people with disabilities, who are already hardest hit by Government cuts. The Government must be mindful that people travelling to jobcentres are seeking work or employment support and are doing so on very low incomes. One in three children in Glasgow last year were living in poverty—that is consistently the highest rate in Scotland according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Making it more difficult for people to reach jobcentres will surely further exacerbate the problem. Indeed, the Tory Government continue to peddle the line that they want to help people into work, but continued cuts to benefits, and now these planned closures, only serve to push people further into hardship.
The Poverty Alliance has raised concerns that this reduction in face-to-face support could put people off claiming support that they need. The current sanctions regime has made accessing social security almost impossible for many people, particularly the young, and this move is likely to put people off claiming the support that they are actually entitled to. The Minister must realise that the jobcentre closures are seen as yet another callous attack on the disadvantaged and the vulnerable. They will create more hoops to jump through and increase the risk of sanctioning as a result.
I appreciate that the Minister’s response will probably seek to justify the rationale behind the closures, and I would therefore be obliged if she could also address my next points. We have been told that fewer jobcentres are needed because more people are in employment. The Fraser of Allander Institute has estimated that a hard Brexit could cost as many as 80,000 Scottish jobs. Following the Prime Minister’s speech yesterday, it now appears that we are facing not only a hard Brexit but, indeed, the hardest Brexit. Given that fact, and the significant potential for economic volatility ahead of us, what sense does it make to close the doors of jobcentres, let alone half of all the Glasgow jobcentres? Surely we should be cautious in our approach. The approach that the DWP is taking is like leaving the house in the morning wearing shorts and a T-shirt when snow is forecast later in the day. There is a shocking lack of foresight here, and I ask that the potential impact of Brexit be given proper consideration as a reason to halt these plans.
The other point that I would like to make regarding the rationale for closing the centres concerns savings. We are told that the financial benefit to the taxpayer is sufficient reason to close these centres. What we have not seen is any proof that other avenues were explored. Closure seems to have been the desired and only option on the table, rather than the one of last resort. Is the Minister able to tell us today what other options were considered for each of the eight centres marked for closure? Were alternative premises sought? Was the option of co-location fully explored for each of them?
The Minister must understand the lack of faith that we have in this process. This is particularly the case because of the shambolic manner in which another Government Department recently handled the closure of offices in Scotland. In total, 137 Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs offices across the UK are closing, with potentially thousands of job losses in Scotland. The Government say they are prioritising closing the tax gap and getting people back into work, but the closure of HMRC offices and jobcentres could seriously compromise both. The National Audit Office recently released a report on HMRC’s estate changes, showing that up to 38,000 staff will be expected to move large distances as part of a reorganisation, with some having to relocate by up to 174 miles if they want to keep their jobs. Now, although the Government have said that no jobcentre staff are expected to lose their jobs as a result of DWP estate changes, the HMRC changes have set a worrying precedent. We need to be clear about how many staff will be affected, and whether there will be a guarantee of no redundancies—I repeat, no redundancies.
We in the SNP are concerned that this is a slippery slope—a move to downsize with a view to making savings that will ultimately lead to job losses as well as having a negative impact on service delivery. We are calling for progress on plans to close the sites to be halted immediately until a full equality impact assessment is carried out. We remain concerned that the proposed exercise will not consider the vast impact that these closures will have across Glasgow. Only three of the eight proposed closures are going to consultation, while the others will not be consulted on. That is completely inadequate; the consultation must look at the entire package of closures. Will the Minister, in her response, undertake to widen the scope of the consultation to look at the broader picture right across Glasgow? We are disappointed and worried that only carrying out an equality analysis post the consultation period will fail to identify the devastating hardships that these closures could cause our communities in Glasgow. We must have a proper guarantee that the results of any equality analysis will be considered in the eventual decision, and assurance that the Government will amend their plans accordingly. It is vital that a full equality impact assessment is conducted by the DWP urgently; I seek assurance from the Minister today that she will give that very serious consideration.
In summary, I would like the Minister to tell me why the Secretary of State for Scotland was kept in the dark about the planned closures in Glasgow. How might these changes reduce access to services and possibly increase the risk of sanctions, which are applied around the need to attend these facilities? What future changes are being discussed within the DWP for Jobcentre Plus facilities across the rest of the country? I would like the Minister to address the points that I made regarding our uncertain economic future due to Brexit, and the wisdom of closing the centres at this time. Also, what other options were considered for each of the eight centres that are marked for closure? Finally, will the Minister commit to widening the scope of the consultation and carrying out a full equality impact assessment?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Ms Dorries. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) for securing this debate on the future of the DWP estate and the opportunities that it presents us across the UK. Although I cannot pretend that I agree with everything she said, it was absolutely clear throughout—it was thoughtful, detailed and she had her residents’ best interests at heart. I hope that she gets suitable responses at the end of the debate from the Minister.
We are in a time of record employment in all areas and we are now very close to full structural employment. The reality is that those still seeking work are often the ones who need the most help. In that context, the announcement of the health and work Green Paper gives us a real opportunity to shape the future of the DWP estate so that it delivers on the core principle of a personalised and tailored approach. That is supported by employers, charities, organisations and Work programme providers. Therefore, this is a timely debate on the thrust of seizing those opportunities across the UK.
As a former Minister, I saw this at first hand when I visited the Shaw Trust Hackney community hub. It tries to do things differently. It is a one-stop-shop—a community hub—where jobseekers receive a bespoke service that is tailored to their specific needs to help them to overcome the barriers that are holding them back from finding employment. People can access not only direct support in looking for work, but counselling sessions and support from healthcare professionals. There has been a significant increase in performance, an increase in staff and customer satisfaction levels and better Work programme participant engagement.
We have to deliver the best opportunities for all people who are looking for work. I am setting out what I believe to be the best way to equip those people who are trying to seize the opportunity of the growing economy. The Shaw Trust has provided me with a number of examples, including that of Kazeem, a 23-year-old, who arrived with very low confidence, experiencing depression and anxiety. With the bespoke support that he was given in that community hub, he was able to secure jobs at both Amazon and his local cinema. It was not just the Work programme providers, but employers such as ITV, Barclays and Michael Page that worked within that hub, which brought together those healthcare professionals and external employers as well as the Work programme providers. They made a huge difference, and there are many other examples.
This was at the Hackney community hub run by the Shaw Trust, so it would have been at Amazon there. This debate is on the future of the DWP estate, which covers the whole of the UK, but I wish any Kazeem in the hon. Lady’s constituency the best of luck with finding work, whether at Amazon or somewhere else.
Understandably, a lot of people who arrive at a jobcentre lack confidence and are nervous. I have seen that at first hand when I have supported my own constituents. All too often, I am afraid, people are greeted by a security guard, who is probably the last person that somebody wishes to see when they are nervous. Some jobcentres are drab buildings from the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s. They do not celebrate success stories. There are no posters or videos that show people who have gone through the same challenges, faced and overcome them, come through at the other end and benefited from work. The staff are too often fixed to the facility. I suspect most other hon. Members who speak in this debate will highlight the challenge of getting to jobcentres; sometimes the solution is taking the jobcentre directly to people.
One of the most important parts of the universal credit roll-out is that, for the first time ever, people entering work will continue to get support. I hope that support will extend to those coming into the workplace. A lot of those people will be entering work on the national living wage, at the beginning of a career path. They will need support in work to secure additional hours and to get promotion when they lack the confidence to push themselves forward. We are all confident here—we all push ourselves forward and we all wish to seek to improve ourselves—but not everybody has that ability. That is an example of why we need to take people out of jobcentres.
When I visited an award-winning job coach, who was doing a great job, I saw another example of why a fixed location should not always be the solution. There was a young lad who was incredibly enthusiastic and desperate to do bar work, which we have a chronic shortage of people for in this country. I used to work in the industry; I remember thinking that, if I still worked in it, I would have snapped him up. His issue was that he was so confident that he would sometimes talk for too long in an interview and talk himself out of a job. Each time, the jobcentre staff would say, “Go off and apply for some more jobs”, but he would come back two weeks later and he had talked himself out of another job. All it needed was a job coach to go with him to an interview to explain to the employer, “When you have had enough of him talking, just say stop”. He would have secured work straight away. Yet the system meant that he kept returning at his inconvenience every two weeks on a continuous loop, when it just needed somebody to go with him to the interview.
Rightly, we have started piloting a small business employment scheme. Too many employers do not want to engage with their local jobcentre—I was the same when I ran a business for 10 years. We need to get jobcentre people going out to small and medium-sized businesses and saying, “What skills gaps do you have? Can we identify them?” The DWP has been running a small business pilot, in which staff go around retail, industrial and business parks and find people. It was so successful that the DWP ran out of people, either at the jobcentre or in the Work programme, to fill all those roles. That is exactly the sort of challenge that we need to take on. Again, it saves time for the claimant. We also need to organise job fairs.
In an ideal world, the jobcentre would be a hub. It would be a co-location, so that we are not sending claimants from building to building. We need health support. My point about being close to full structural employment is that the vast majority of people are now looking for work. More than 50% of people on employment and support allowance have a health condition or a disability; having instant health support on site will make a huge difference.
For some bizarre reason, rather than letting Work programme providers use our space, we send them off to find their own facilities, for which they secure a contract for a number of years. They spend a huge amount of time finding facilities, settling into them and getting to know them before having to renew the contract. It also gives claimants the inconvenience of having to go from the jobcentre to the Work programme provider and to health support, spending all their time travelling rather than looking for work. That is something that we need to address.
A jobcentre should be a hive of activity. It should have job fairs in the evenings and it should get in external employers, charities and mentors. That should all happen in a brightly coloured, constructive hub that supports people.
Absolutely not. Experienced organisations such as the Shaw Trust have dealt with that issue. Their security staff are also meeters and greeters. They have blurred those roles so that, instead of somebody in a uniform who will make people even more nervous, there is somebody who can act as a security person if they need to, which I am afraid they sometimes do, but who also make people welcome when they arrive. That is so important for people who have a number of barriers to overcome.
We need to be mindful of those with disabilities. Representatives of Action on Hearing Loss came to Parliament today to meet a number of MPs; it reminded me that it is often the hidden impairments that people do not take account of. I urge the Minister to consult with disabled people whenever we consider future facilities. We need to ensure not only that staff are trained but that, when we build facilities, we make them fully accessible. We can embrace technology such as the video relay service that DWP has trialled, the pilots for which were so successful that it will continue for evermore. We need to ensure that that technology is used in the rest of Government facilities and by those who provide contracts to them. I know from visiting SSE that the private sector has embraced that. It allows those who rely on British sign language to get instant access to facilities, rather than having to wait for an interpreter. It is an absolute must for all Government facilities to have hearing loops and for staff to be trained to use them. I could say much more on disabilities, but I am conscious of the time.
What I have said applies not just to jobcentres but to assessment centres for benefits such as the personal independence payment, which are often soulless places. There should be videos in the waiting areas to advertise other support offered to people who have a disability or a long-term health condition. The Government often do pilots, but people often do not know about them, so let us advertise them. Mental health is a really good example: there is cross-party support for improving support to people with mental health conditions and considerable additional money is being spent, but, all too often, those who most need that help simply do not know about it.
I know that the Minister is extremely constructive and engages regularly with Work programme providers, charities and people with experience. We have a real opportunity to build on the Green Paper. I look forward to her response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I thoroughly congratulate the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) on her fantastic speech and on securing the debate.
The Government must feel as if they are in a film. I certainly feel as if I am in “Groundhog Day”, because we keep repeating the same arguments. We will be back again and again until the Minister and the DWP stop, listen and recognise the error of their decision. In the last debate before Christmas, the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) said, like a modern-day Arnold Schwarzenegger, “We will be back.” Here we are again, and we will not tire of making the same arguments, because we are right and the Government and the DWP are wrong. We know our areas, we know the people and the geography, and we know the challenges they face.
Glasgow East is not a dot on Google Maps; it is multiple communities with amazing characteristics but many unique challenges. The Government’s plans to rip jobcentres from the people who need them most, in some of the most deprived areas of the country, are bereft of logic, bereft of evidence and completely bereft of compassion. If the jobcentre closures go ahead in Glasgow, 50% of our jobcentres will close—half of them! That is in spite of the DWP’s plan to reduce its estate by only 20% across the country. Proportionally, Glasgow is being hit hardest. I am at peril of repeating myself here—groundhog day again—because, like many of my hon. Friends, I raised precisely that point in a previous Westminster Hall debate and in a number of meetings with the Minister before Christmas. No adequate answer has been forthcoming on why Glasgow is being singled out for such swingeing and disproportionate cuts. The only thing close to an answer was the statement that the DWP believes that Glasgow
“is in a unique position within the DWP…Estate”.
I cannot but feel that the Government believe that Glasgow is in a unique position to be useful in an ideologically driven cost-cutting exercise—a test subject, so to speak. Well, they have picked the wrong fight with the right people, because, as I am sure they are fast learning, we are not the strong silent types.
For entirely different reasons, I agree that Glasgow is, for want of a better phrase, in a unique position. Almost half of Glasgow’s residents live in areas that are among the 20% most deprived in Scotland. The city has been labelled the jobless capital of Europe. That is not a title that I claim with any satisfaction, but unfortunately it is the reality. Just today, we have all received the most recent figures on unemployment. In my constituency, it is at 4.9%, which is more than double the national average and is the 36th highest of the 650 constituencies in the UK. 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 my constituents, not less. Instead, if the proposals go ahead, they will affect over 74,000 people across Glasgow and will create more barriers to employment and support for people seeking work, rather than breaking them down.
In the previous debate, I raised the issue of territorialism and the historical gang culture as unique issues in the east end of Glasgow. The Minister and the DWP flippantly dismissed those serious concerns by pointing out that Shettleston served as a youth hub jobcentre for four years. They ignored the extensive preparation and engagement work that was done with the police, stakeholders and the jobcentre. I said that the same work had 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.
The hon. Lady is right to point out that Ministers trumpeted the youth hub as a success, but I have had discussions with local organisations on the ground and they pulled away from participation in the hub because they were not prepared to submit to using conditionality and clients making young people travel every day for something they were not obliged to do.
That is a fantastic point, which I no longer need to make. The response from the Government that, in extreme cases, remote sign-ons would work will not satisfy me or the people I represent. Like the hon. Lady, I have gone further and spoken to former senior members of Shettleston jobcentre, who were there at the time. They told me that not only impact assessments, but multiple risk assessments were carried out to prepare for that. That experiment has failed. It is not here now for the reasons that the hon. Lady mentioned, and also because, I am told, the resources at Shettleston were not adequate for the demand, yet Shettleston will now replace three jobcentres. It beggars belief. I will not be papped off or shooed away on this. I want answers and I demand that that is properly considered as part of the consultation.
Another barrier is additional transport and the costs and logistics of it for the people we represent in Glasgow. If the plans go ahead, many of our constituents who are already on meagre incomes will incur additional costs and extra travel with no confirmed support from the DWP. With all due respect, the Government’s response has been woeful thus far and many questions remain unanswered. Does the Minister honestly and wholeheartedly believe that this situation is fair? Given that two thirds of households in deprived areas of Glasgow do not have access to a car, what assessment has she made of the impact this decision will have on jobseekers reliant on public transport?
If the plans go ahead, will the Minister ensure our constituents are reimbursed for extra travel costs? Will she give us a commitment today that no jobseeker will be sanctioned for delays caused by public transport? What assessment has been made of the impact the closures will have on additional travelling for people with caring responsibilities and those with a claimant commitment? What provisions will be made to assist people with mobility problems and people with caring responsibilities? Why did the Government fail to conduct and publish an equality impact assessment before the consultation period began? Such an assessment is surely key to informing those who participate in the consultation. Does the Minister not agree that the closures would undermine the Government’s commitment to halving the disability employment gap by 2020, and what assessment has been made of that?
Another issue that the Government must seriously address, but have thus far failed to, is the increase in demand for the reduced number of jobcentres in Glasgow. The jobcentre in Shettleston currently serves 1,025 people. However, when we add in the caseloads of Parkhead, Bridgeton and Easterhouse, that figure more than triples to 3,210. Shettleston would become one of the largest jobcentres in the entire UK in one of the areas with the highest levels of deprivation and unemployment. As I have said before, it would add insult to injury if the Government forced people in Glasgow to travel further at additional cost only to be inconvenienced in longer queues to receive a poorer service. What assessment has the Minister made of the potential delays for service users? What provisions would be put in place to ensure the quality of service did not deteriorate under the plans for closure?
The harm resulting from the Government’s plans to close the jobcentre in Easterhouse is potentially eye-watering. The communities of Easterhouse are strong and resilient, but that does not mitigate the impact that the closures would have on them. Isolated on the edge of the city, suffering from poor public transport and feeling the effects of high unemployment, Easterhouse cannot afford to lose its jobcentre. The plans destroy any kind of joined-up logic. Moreover, the journey from the jobcentre in Easterhouse to the jobcentre in Shettleston, if one of my constituents takes the 60 or 60A bus, which are the only buses available for that journey, is just over 3 miles. Yet Easterhouse has not been included in the consultation—perhaps Google did not identify it.
That is an excellent point. I believe the Minister for Employment, who took part in the previous debate, is visiting Scotland. We have invited him to travel to Glasgow, but so far he has not taken us up on that offer. I am happy to ride a bus from some of the areas in my constituency, but will have to take two buses at additional cost to get to the new jobcentre.
I will conclude soon because I am aware I am slightly over time. Easterhouse has not been included in this consultation. That appears to contradict the DWP’s own guidelines. It undermines the Department’s consultation and absolutely fails to serve the interests of my constituents. The plans to close half of Glasgow’s jobcentres are cack-handed and are being done in the most cavalier way. The case for closures is cruel and contradictory. The Government cannot spout the rhetoric of,
“all in this together...for hardworking people”
“not just for the privileged few”
if they then pursue such ideologically-driven, ill-thought-out decisions. I implore the Minister and the Government to listen to local people and organisations across Glasgow and to hear the warnings from me and hon. Members. We are consulting our constituents and they will feed into the consultation process. I hope that the Minister will listen to the people who know Glasgow best.
Thank you very much, Ms Dorries. This will test me.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) on bringing this subject to this place again. As the MP who represents Glasgow North East, which has the 16th highest unemployment rate in the UK—at 5.9%, it is 2.5 times the UK average—I couldn’t not be here, but I will cut out huge swathes of my speech.
I have used my personal experience in this place on previous occasions. I have spoken about my own experience of being unemployed and how I was treated and how I responded. When I have spoken about it, it has elicited empathy from Members of all parties, with everyone agreeing that I did not deserve to be treated in that way, but I am aware that many here will think that what I speak of is my experience alone and that I am different, but I am not. When I have talked about the pain of being unable to find work and desperately wanting it, people have said to me, “But you are probably the exception to the rule”, but I am not. When I talked about being treated like a child by some—though not all—jobcentre staff and about that having the reverse effect in terms of getting me into employment, I was told that that was a one-off, but it was not. I am no different from any of my constituents. I have family, friends and constituents who all wanted to work, worked hard to find work and needed help, not punishment. I am saying this because I am coming to a suggestion as to what we can do with these jobcentres.
The small minority who do not put effort into finding work are those who need the most support. It is more often than not a deep lack of self-confidence that stops them, as has been said previously. We need to support, encourage and empower them, not criticise, ridicule and punish them by cruel sanctions and by making it far harder to get to the jobcentre. Here is my suggestion for using the excess space that we have heard about within the earmarked jobcentres. The DWP work services director for Scotland, Denise Horsfall, said earlier this week:
“In Glasgow the buildings are between 20% and 40% under occupied. When you go in you will see a floor fully occupied but there are floors above which are empty”,
so why not use that space to provide room where people can utilise services that will actually assist them to gain employment? I am thinking of the difficulty I once had when I had no printer and I was required to print 20, sometimes more, CVs: a total of 60 pages at a cost of 10p a photocopy every week. That was £6 that I honestly could not afford, so I asked the jobcentre staff if they would print them for me. The answer I got was—I paraphrase, but this is the sense of it: “Don’t be ridiculous. We can’t do that sort of thing here.” I am thinking of the times when I could not afford credit for my phone, but I needed to make phone calls about employment opportunities. I wanted to be proactive. Why not use the space that is said to be leading to jobcentre closures, and provide office equipment and anything that people need for support in their search for work? Why not provide space for people to come together and support each other, build their confidence and get advice when they want and need it? The Minister will say that that happens already, but it honestly does not. There are areas of good practice, and we have heard about some of them today, but on the whole the DWP’s approach is completely wrong.
Many years ago as a young graduate I was offered the opportunity to attend a group that was for some reason called the executive job club. It was not compulsory, so I did not feel like a naughty schoolchild in detention. It was respectful: the group co-ordinators made it clear that they believed everyone would work, given the opportunity, so none of us felt as if we were being judged. Peer support was encouraged, which meant that we spent time with people who were also struggling to find work, and felt useful because we could advise each other. One-to-one coaching, group sessions, pair work and drop-in were available; and it was all voluntary. It was therefore well attended, and the atmosphere was supportive and respectful. The turnover was high, because most of us got jobs. For me it removed a huge blockage. I was there only a few weeks, but it had a big impact on me. It changed the way I viewed myself and my professional skills. It gave me confidence and got me into a well-paid, challenging job, which put me on the path to a fairly successful career. The Government could learn from that and from other groups, including the numerous unemployed workers centres around the country.
I am suggesting that there is something missing in the experience of a person who is unemployed. Without any facetiousness I want to say that I would be happy to meet the Minister to talk some more about what I have outlined. Now that we have the space in the jobcentres in Glasgow, why, instead of closing them down, do we not consider using that space to provide the sort of services I have described? It would require more resources, but if it works it is surely worth it.
It is always a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Dorries. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) on securing the second but, I am confident, not the last Westminster Hall debate on the jobcentre estate, with a focus on Glasgow.
On 28 October 1977, that great chronicler of local news the Barnet Press published an article following a visit to a local jobcentre by the then Member of Parliament for Finchley. It was of course the late Mrs Thatcher. At the time, the jobcentre was serving 1,066 people in the constituency, and even Mrs Thatcher remarked at that point how overrun and busy it seemed to be. We have heard from the hon. Member for Glasgow East (Natalie McGarry) that one of her jobcentres will be expected to serve 3,000 people—three times the number that shocked even the late Mrs Thatcher. It is often said that the present Government are positively wet, by comparison with her ideology, but they have gone where even she would not.
It was excellent to hear from the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) and from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) about all the excellent things that there can be in jobcentres to support vulnerable people—particularly, as the hon. Gentleman noted, those with mental health challenges. It is a wonderful idea, which is why we should not close Glasgow jobcentres, or reduce their number from 16 to eight—halving it, when there is supposed to be a 20% reduction elsewhere in the country.
I and my colleagues have submitted a range of written questions to Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions, and I want to run through some of the answers. I am sure that if a jobcentre in your constituency was closing, Ms Dorries, you would, as would any Member, look for some basic, elementary information about how the Government had reached the conclusion that it was a good idea. You would want to know how many disabled people used the jobcentre. That was what I asked about both Castlemilk and Langside jobcentres in my constituency, which the Minister wants closed. The answer was that the Department does not have that information and it would be too expensive to find out. I asked how many people from both those jobcentres had successfully found part-time work: the Department does not have that information, and to find out would incur a disproportionate cost. I asked the same question about full-time work and got the exact same answer.
The Government have a plan that is so upside down and ill-thought-out that it is starting to make the Trump transition look positively orderly. There is no equality impact assessment, so the Minister cannot tell Members of Parliament at the end of the debate that she is confident her Department will not break her public sector equality obligations under the Equality Act 2010. That is because it has not bothered to work it out. You will not believe it, Ms Dorries, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West mentioned, the Department works with travel distances and refers to bus services that Google Maps has told it about. In some cases those bus services and routes no longer exist. The result, I promise, will be that people will be late to the jobcentre and will be sanctioned. That is the decision that the Government have taken.
There are two jobcentres in my constituency that the Government want to close. Castlemilk, a community in my constituency, is geographically the largest in Glasgow, and it used to be bigger than Perth. There are almost 20,000 people in just that area, and the Minister will force them to take an eight-mile round trip. The Langside jobcentre serves the second most densely populated council ward in Scotland. It is across the road from a college. I cannot think of a better place for a jobcentre than the second most densely populated ward, across the road from a college. The Minister needs to think again. The Government picked the fight, and until we get the right answer and the closures are scrapped, we shall keep fighting.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) for securing today’s debate. We have had a number of debates on this issue, as my colleagues have mentioned. During the Westminster Hall debate on 20 December, I raised concerns about the planning application with respect to Anniesland jobcentre in my constituency, whose closure is planned. It turns out that the planning application was made in February 2016, which came as a surprise to the Minister for Employment, when I informed him. The go-ahead has been given to convert the building to private flats, so the DWP has had a long-term plan. The decision did not happen just before Christmas.
Like my colleagues, I submitted some written questions after that debate, including one about
“how many jobcentre offices in the UK are subject to live planning applications”.
The answer was:
“It is not known precisely how many Jobcentres are subject to planning applications across our entire estate at this time. This is because any party can make a planning application for a change of use for a building without the involvement of either the landlord or current tenants.
DWP will identify this information as part of conveyancing activity on buildings it is planning to retain or acquire.”
So the DWP has no idea which jobcentres or even which buildings will be affected. That has implications for constituencies throughout the UK, as I have said, and it is quite disappointing that other areas are not as well represented in this debate as Scotland. I did a simple check to find out the plans for Anniesland; surely the same could be done with respect to the other jobcentres that are part of the DWP estate.
Increasingly, therefore, it looks as though the planned closure of Anniesland jobcentre is not to provide “value for money” for the taxpayer, as we have been told, but because the DWP does not own any of the properties that it occupies and in fact has no say over what the future use of those properties will be. More worryingly, the DWP does not seek any sort of resolution when its current offices are threatened. It should be trying its utmost—as we Glasgow MPs are, here today—to work with landlords, to ensure that there can be continuity with these offices, but that is just not happening.
The DWP simply expects that claimants will go elsewhere, transferring to another jobcentre. As some of my hon. Friends have already said, a distance of three miles seems reasonable, but of course these jobcentres have much wider catchment areas. We have repeatedly asked for those catchment areas but we have repeatedly not been given that information, so we actually have no idea just how wide-reaching these jobcentres are, and, frankly, that is information we need to know.
My colleagues and I have done what no Government Minister has done—we have visited the jobcentres and spoken to those affected by these proposals. I visited Anniesland jobcentre, just as my colleagues have visited their local jobcentres. I spoke to service users there, and it is clear how important Anniesland jobcentre is and how wide its catchment area is. I spoke to one person who is travelling nearly 10 miles to attend that jobcentre, so it is crucial that the UK Government understand the implications for claimants in the communities that will be affected before any changes are made.
Finally, I will mention the consultation. It has been promoted by us through social media, leafleting and local campaigns, and not by a letter that could have been sent out to claimants at these jobcentres. There are many important questions to be answered and my colleagues and I will continue to ask them.
It is a pleasure to serve under you today, Madam Chair.
First of all, I congratulate the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) on presenting her case so very well. When I saw the title of this debate, I felt that I had to come along and make a comment, primarily because the future changes to the Department for Work and Pensions estate will affect my constituency. The changes are a devolved matter and I will explain some of the issues for us in relation to it. Perhaps the Minister will find herself with a direct role in this if things do not go according to plan in the elections.
I remember my time as a councillor and as a Member of the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland, when the idea of a private finance initiative was first brought to my attention, with regard to building a new hospital at the Ulster hospital site. It must be the Ulster Scots in me, but I just could not bring myself to see how that could be value for money and I opposed it on that ground, and on the ground that it was putting local people out of work. I have a great problem with PFI. The fact is that we are scrambling to find people now that the contract has finished, and we cannot do anything because we do not own anything. Of course, as you will point out, Madam Chair, PFI is not directly the issue that we are considering today, but it is one that we cannot ignore and I wanted to make a point about it on the record.
I know that, on paper, the people to office ratio may allow for an office to close, but we do not live on paper; we live in the real world, where transport systems, and rural and urban issues, come into play. Let me give a Northern Ireland perspective. I say again that the Minister’s responsibility is clearly to the mainland of the United Kingdom, but if the elections in Northern Ireland in two to six weeks do not deliver the democratic process that we wish to have, direct rule will become a reality. If that is the case, responsibility for this issue will fall upon the Minister’s shoulders.
Ballynahinch social security office is out to consultation, with a view to the closure of the premises. The office is long overdue an upgrade, to both its interior and exterior, but it seems that the Department responsible simply cannot afford it, or at least that is what it is telling us. It is impractical to expect or insist that all claimants who use the Ballynahinch office should instead use the Lisburn office or the Downpatrick office, which on paper are less than 20 miles away. That does not seem far, but in reality it is a journey that many find difficult to make. In addition, both those offices are already oversubscribed and fully utilised.
The public transport links to Downpatrick or Lisburn already have problems, and for many people on benefits making such a journey would be another cost and another outgoing that they do not need. Some of those who attend Ballynahinch have severe mobility and access issues, and it would be harmful to their needs if the Ballynahinch office closed.
Let us look at some of the finer detail of the Ballynahinch SSO. Last year, it had 6,172 referrals for jobseeker’s allowance not including phone call inquiries, which could easily double that number. There were also 7,406 jobcentre referrals, and it is imperative that that figure is highlighted in the consultation process. Very often people say that a jobcentre only provides benefits, but it does more than that: it is training people for jobs, as a number of hon. Members have already said.
All those who have an interest in this service must take the time to do their part, in order to see the retention of this office in Ballynahinch. In the four months prior to the start of the consultation, JSA inquiries were as follows: in May 2016, there were nearly 500; in June 2016, 596; in July 2016, 448; and in August 2016, 550. All those cases were dealt with by the Ballynahinch jobseeker’s allowance staff alone.
The jobcentres in my area also have close contact with three local high schools. The point about schools is an important one; it has already been made by others and I make it in relation to my area. Those schools will be affected by any potential closures of jobcentres.
The new personal independence payment system is coming in. Staff need to be trained to use that system, and the increase in workload is quite phenomenal. I cannot speak for others, but I can speak for my own office and its staff—the number of PIP referrals that the office is getting is incredible. The staff’s workload has probably doubled as a result, and I cannot say any more than that. People applying for PIP need to speak to staff who understand their problems, and who have both compassion and a good knowledge of the system. We also have to address the issue of those people who may not have educational achievements or the ability who come to the office. There is also the issue of the reduction in footfall for local businesses; there is a knock-on effect for them as well.
The hon. Member for Glasgow East (Natalie McGarry) referred to the equality impact assessment and I will, too. Thought must be given to the equality impact assessment, as the rural town of Ballynahinch cannot afford to have the local jobcentre moved. That cannot be considered as “rural proofing”.
On paper, this decision about my jobcentre may be a no-brainer, but in reality we will leave hundreds of people without the support they need to find a job or to access other help, or to get advice about benefits. I am sure that this case is replicated in many ways in other hon. Members’ constituencies, which shows that, while we must cut outgoings, in doing so we cannot and must not cut people off from the help and support they need.
Again, I thank the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West for raising this issue, and I ask the Minister for a reasoned opinion on what is being proposed for the DWP estate, and to ensure that, when it comes to making these decisions, we are there for the people who need us most.
Thank you, Madam Chair. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) for a barnstorming speech in protection of jobcentres.
Perhaps to continue the theme of the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), I have also researched not only my own written questions and the answers that I received but the written questions put by my hon. Friends. The answers we have received put me in mind of the infamous press conference by Donald Rumsfeld, the former US Defence Secretary, when he used that memorable term:
“There are things we don’t know”.
That phrase reminds me of the answers that we have received from the Government. When asked about the actual travel time for an individual to get to a jobcentre, they “don’t know”; as for the number of benefit claimants using each jobcentre, they “don’t know”; regarding the catchment area for each jobcentre, they “don’t know”; when asked about the bus routes to jobcentres, they “don’t know”; regarding the planning application that has been made in relation to Anniesland jobcentre, they did not know about it; that the landlord of the property housing Castlemilk jobcentre had offered to reduce the rent on the site, they did not know; and as for the impact of these changes on disabled people and women, they “don’t know”.
All these points are important, because if the Government do not know all those things, why are they so certain that jobcentres should close in Glasgow? And why is it that no other announcements have been made by the Department for Work and Pensions in relation to the closures of jobcentres? Is it because of the public backlash that the DWP has already seen in Glasgow, or is it because the DWP now knows, through the Glasgow experiment, that there is a lack of evidence to close other jobcentres across the UK? Or is it because the information that the DWP does not have for Glasgow is required elsewhere?
Yesterday, we were told in the main Chamber that work is the way out of poverty, but what consolation is that to the people in Glasgow who will find that the very places to find work are no longer there to support them?
If the Government do not have the information that I referred to at the beginning of my remarks, why are they only consulting publicly on three of the eight jobcentres earmarked for closure? If the closure of a package of eight jobcentres is announced, the whole package should be consulted on. What consolation is that consultation for those working in other Government Departments who are being made redundant? Is the Government’s vision to reduce the workforce in other Departments and for that workforce to then find that they cannot find a jobcentre, because they have been closed? That seems to be a perverse vision of ensuring that work is a way out of poverty.
The plan to close 50% of the jobcentres in Glasgow is a moral outrage. Some 68% of the people in Glasgow in receipt of jobseeker’s allowance, employment and support allowance and universal credit will be impacted by the closures. These closures will result in more people having to pay the telephone tax—the premium rate charges to call Departments. There is support among Members on the Government Benches and the SNP Benches for ensuring that the telephone tax is ended.
The cost of the jobcentre closures will be borne by the people the Government should be assisting. I recommend the submission from Parkhead Housing Association, which makes the very point that travel will impose extra costs
“on people living off of the minimum the government states is required for day to day survival.”
It is the people on low incomes who will be affected. It is unacceptable that tens of thousands of people will now travel further and incur additional costs to access social security. These individuals are seeking work or employment support. As the civil service trade union, the PCS, has said, the impact will be
“on women, vulnerable children and people with disabilities already hit hardest by government cuts.”
There must be an equality impact assessment. We must have a guarantee from the Government that the results of any equality analysis will be considered in the eventual decision. The Government have behaved in a disgraceful manner. They did not consult the Scottish Government before the announcement, nor did they consult the local authority. There have been inadequate responses to written questions, with that familiar answer “Information can only be provided at disproportionate cost” often being given. What is disproportionate is to close 50% of the jobcentres in Glasgow when the expectation is that that figure will be 20% elsewhere.
Okay, I will.
As well as impressing the comments of Parkhead Housing Association on the Minister, I want to raise the comments of the Glasgow citizens advice bureau. It said:
“The increased numbers will put pressure on staff who have no leeway if someone is five or ten minutes late. They will be recorded as missing an appointment and sanctions will be applied. Some people have to sign on weekly and in some cases people can be called in daily. Even at once a week the bus fare is almost 10% of a young person’s Jobseeker’s Allowance.”
That is a true cost of closing the jobcentres in Glasgow for those who seek the support of the state.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. This is yet another debate on this important matter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) on bringing the debate to the House and on the real clarity and focus that she showed in the course of her remarks. I commend everyone who has taken part. We have had particularly interesting contributions. The hon. Lady referred to the comments made by PCS condemning the closures. The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) talked about the “moral outrage” of the proposals. That view was shared by many people in the Chamber today. Numerous other important contributions have been made.
The debate is on the future of the DWP estate, but the focus has clearly been on Glasgow, which is facing the closure of half of its jobcentres. In today’s debate and in preceding debates, Members have rightly focused on the huge range of issues that impact on claimants, including increased journey times; the complexity of the journeys and the impact that will have, particularly for those with mobility problems, those with young children and older people who might find it more difficult to travel on public transport; the cost of those journeys, which can be considerable for people on benefits; the increased likelihood of claimants being late as a result of public transport failure; and the increased risk of claimants being sanctioned, with the attendant risk that that will push people further into poverty.
From one single error, we can see such a process having devastating effects. That is most clearly exemplified in Ken Loach’s film, “I, Daniel Blake”, which tells one such story with immense power. The film has picked up five BAFTA nominations this year. I feel sure that that is not just because it is such a powerful film, but because the story that it tells is so highly relevant for today. [Interruption.] I am not quite sure what the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) is saying from a sedentary position. It is such a powerful film.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. The comments from the hon. Member for North Swindon were totally relevant, then.
It is immensely important that the DWP estate is managed with due respect for the impact that any changes might have on claimants, their families, their communities and those who work there. For those who work there, the concerns are about job losses, the down- grading of posts and increased case loads. Will the Government comment on how they will manage the estate for the future? What are their plans for future technology, the changing roles of DWP staff and the introduction of in-work conditionality, which will require that those in work demonstrate that they are searching for more work? How will that will impact on the people in Glasgow who are having their jobcentres removed?
The changes are important for the people of Glasgow, but they are also important for the rest of the country, as has been clearly stated. I am short of time.
Thank you. There have been several comments on the level of unemployment in the area. The latest claimant count shows that 5,810 people are registered as unemployed at the eight jobcentres threatened with closure. I would be interested to hear what will happen when those centres close. I understand that the remaining jobcentres in Glasgow will have to deal with twice the volume of claimants as a result. That is especially a concern for the Shettleston jobcentre, which will take on the case load from three of the jobcentres that will close. Can the Minister provide us with a breakdown of the expected increase in case loads for those jobcentres that will remain open? What will be done to help the DWP staff who have to deal with that increased workload?
Does the hon. Lady appreciate that the jobcentres at Easterhouse, Parkhead and Bridgeton all have citizens advice bureaux nearby and other support services wrapped around those jobcentres? The Shettleston jobcentre does not, and that will make it even more difficult for clients to seek help when they need it.
That is an important point. Several Members have spoken about the difficulties people face when they approach a jobcentre. I have spoken to people in my constituency who feel frightened and intimidated about going to the jobcentre, so having that kind of support is invaluable. It is particular invaluable given that for universal credit people are being asked to make and manage claims online. Many find that very challenging.
In that regard, can the Minister update us on the work she has done to identify the number of people who struggle to fill in those online applications and maintain their claims online? I know the 2011 skills for life survey found that 14.5% of people have below entry-level skills for word processing, 30% had below entry-level skills for email, and 38% had below entry-level skills for spreadsheets. I have taught on a programme to get women back to work, and I have worked alongside adult learners who have difficulty reading and writing and even handling things about their name and address. What is the Minister doing to support those people, particularly with the move to the digital environment?
The hon. Lady is making a very interesting point and I wonder if she shares my concern. Many people in my constituency suffer from digital exclusion, which means that they use additional services that are near jobcentres, such as libraries, putting those services under additional pressure. I hold my surgeries in libraries and have heard from library staff how much pressure they are under to assist people with digital and online application systems.
That is a very important point. There are also issues of confidentiality and people being put in a position of presenting deeply personal information in a public environment, which I feel is inappropriate and makes vulnerable people more vulnerable.
There has been plenty of comment on the increase in time it will take people to travel and the cost of that. As we know, the DWP used Google Maps to determine travel times and we have been told that they will be increased by 2 or 3 miles or 15 to 20 minutes of public transport time. Will the Minister specify the mode of transport that they are talking about? Is it buses or trains, which are a lot more expensive, or cars? These things make quite a difference to claimants.
Concerns about the impact that the closures will have on employment support services have already been mentioned. Any reduction in employment support in Glasgow will deepen hardship in many areas of the city. As the hon. Member for Glasgow East (Natalie McGarry) pointed out, some of these areas are the most deprived areas. Will the Government explain how they will maintain levels of employment support for those people?
The DWP’s plans for the estate seem to be based on the expectation that unemployment will remain low. I hope that that is the case and that the roll-out of universal credit, with claims increasingly being made and managed online, will reduce the need for jobcentres in the long run. However, that is a very ambitious approach. I would reflect the comment made earlier about the uncertainty of the future we face. We do not know whether the unemployment level will remain this low. What contingency arrangements have the Government made in the event that we see an increase in unemployment in the Glasgow area?
It is vital that full regard is given to the impact on claimants, jobcentre staff and local communities before the closures take effect. The Government say that they want to halve the disability employment gap—I cannot see how closing jobcentres will help them to do that. Will the Government publish the impact assessment of the proposals on equality issues, with particular reference to the impact on women, children and disabled people? Will they also tell us what the impact will be on jobcentre staff? I would like some detail on that. Our communities need an employment support service and a social security system that we can all be proud of and that people can have confidence in. I believe that the people of Glasgow deserve better than to be treated in this manner.
It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) on securing this debate and to all hon. Members who have contributed to it. We have had quite a geographic spread—obviously, the majority of hon. Members who have spoken are from Scotland, but the south-west, the north-west and of course Northern Ireland have been represented. I thank those hon. Members for their comments.
Our network of jobcentres is absolutely at the heart of Department for Work and Pensions services. Across the country, jobcentre staff work hard to help people to access the support and assistance they need to move into employment and into better and more employment—and it is working. The claimant count has dropped from almost 1.5 million in 2010 to around 800,000 now. Unemployment is down by more than 900,000 since 2010, as the economy has grown. We are at near record levels of employment across the country.
As the needs of our claimants have changed, so have our jobcentres, and rightly so. The way that the Department is delivering its services is changing in response to significant societal trends. The Department continues to make the most of the opportunity technology brings and more services are moving online, reflecting that increase in digital capability and accessibility. Eight out of 10 claims for jobseeker’s allowance are made using digital channels and almost 90% of universal credit claims are currently made online.
There are several examples where the Department is working in shared Government facilities or with local authorities and other local partners. The hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) both mentioned co-location and talked about hubs where we can bring services together and make local arrangements that bring—
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Of course the DWP works hard with the Scottish Government and other local authorities to ensure that we investigate opportunities. I am conscious that, in Glasgow, outreach and co-location services are already provided at Anniesland College. I want to see more of that. Outreach provides one of the solutions to helping jobseekers where they are, rather than expecting them to travel to centres. The working environments are good, more of the services that customers use when there is co-location are in one place and it can cost considerably less to run services. We are building on partnerships with local organisations to expand that range. As I mentioned, in Glasgow, we work closely with Anniesland College to offer services, including helping claimants with their job searches and offering benefit advice.
I thank the hon. Lady for pointing that out to me.
A key ambition of the DWP is to enable claimants to access our services in ways that suit them. At the heart of our reforms is a digitally-focused approach, which is more secure, more accessible and more efficient. We need to have a modern welfare system that is fair while providing good value to the taxpayer—a welfare system that ensures we are not under-utilising space in our buildings. That is the best way of making sure that the Department is delivering value for money, both for those using its services and the taxpayer.
We need a modern welfare system that is not only fair but simple to use and takes full advantage of the opportunities modern technology and communication channels afford us. Universal credit is absolutely at the heart of that, allowing claimants to manage their claims online. It is the key that unlocks the flexibility and the modern support that we want for people, not just to help them into jobs but to help them progress in work, too. They can manage claims online and receive the personalised support they need in order to find more work and better paid work.
Since coming into this role, I have seen the positive impact of personalised work coach support for myself. I have been struck by how work coaches are committed to helping the individual claimants they work with to find more hours of work and better paid work. At the heart of that is the principle of ensuring easy online access, which allows households to make claims and report changes securely, without necessarily having to travel to a jobcentre. It is right that the future of the DWP estate reflects not only the fundamental changes in the welfare system but the near record levels of employment across the country.
I may be pre-empting what the Minister is going to say. She has talked about online access several times. I would appreciate it if she could answer my question about the assessment that she has made of the difficulties that people who are not IT-literate have in accessing things online and the kind of support that is provided for them.
I am sorry; I am not going to give way.
After 20 years, the private finance initiative contract that covers many DWP offices is nearing an end—it expires on 31 March next year—which provides us with the opportunity to review which offices we will need in the future and to save the taxpayer money, while ensuring all our claimants are able to access the support they need.
There was a question earlier about planning permission. Under a PFI contract, we are not the leaseholder. Planning issues are entirely separate to the contract that we hold on the buildings. In every case, we are seeking to minimise disruption, moving existing jobcentres into nearby sites and co-locating wherever possible. The UK labour market is in the strongest position it has been in for years, but we cannot predict the future. The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West was right to mention Brexit. That is one of the reasons that we continue to ensure that we retain sufficient flexibility and spare capacity in the system. Our aim is to reduce floor space, not the workforce, who are so important in supporting claimants back into work. Indeed, there are now 11,000 work coaches across the country, and we are planning to hire 3,000 more staff.
When a jobcentre closes, the Department will consider what outreach services we can expand and what facilities may be suitable to provide those services. Outreach is about ensuring services are flexible and accessible for the people who need them. For claimants who are unable to attend a jobcentre owing to their vulnerability or who have difficulty completing the process required by the Department to claim a particular benefit, we have robust procedures in place. DWP Visiting undertakes home visits or occasionally visits to an alternative agreed address if that is more appropriate. Travel expenses are refundable under certain circumstances, including where claimants are required to attend a jobcentre more frequently than every two weeks. Under some conditions claimants are able to maintain their claim by post, including where they have caring responsibilities for a child and it is not possible to make arrangements for short-term childcare. The hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) mentioned catchment areas. Claimants can also choose to attend an alternative jobcentre to the one allocated to them if it is more convenient, easier and less costly to travel to.
A number of Members mentioned the equality analysis, which is part of the detailed planning for service reconfiguration. That will include the feedback from the public consultation process, which is still ongoing. We are committed to complying with our public sector equality duty, and we take account of the feedback from our public consultations. The equality analysis will help to establish any impacts that additional travel will have on customers and inform decisions about additional provision, such as outreach services.
I am sorry, I will not.
Equality analysis involves us considering the likely or actual effects of proposals on people with protected characteristics as part of our decision-making processes. Employment is, of course, the joint responsibility of the UK and Scottish Governments. As hon. Members mentioned today, my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment is travelling to Scotland, where he is meeting members of the Scottish Government. We welcome the chance to work with them. Indeed, DWP officials have been working closely with them on this process.
We are building contingency into the system, building on lessons learned in 2008. More flexible arrangements and new contracts are being brought forward. Last night, we debated DWP policies in the main Chamber. It was a wide-ranging debate, which included the question of Glasgow jobcentres. My hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) stated, and I cannot disagree with her,
“There is too much clinging on to bricks and mortar when the real questions should be what works and what will get more people into work.”—[Official Report, 17 January 2017; Vol. 619, c. 888.]
Hon. Members would do well to reflect on that. It is about the service we deliver—[Interruption.]
The claimants must come first in the service we deliver to them. We must also deliver value to taxpayers in Scotland and across the rest of the UK.
The Department’s services always have and always will adapt to social trends, and it is right that we reflect the digital revolution. These proposals are the result of careful analysis and planning. I appreciate the concerns of the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West about the proposed closures, and I thank her again for securing the debate. I think the rationale for the proposals is clear. The overall number of people claiming the main out-of-work benefits has fallen by more than 1.1 million. The changes are about reducing floor space, not the number of dedicated frontline staff helping claimants back into work.
Talking about not getting answers to questions, I did not get the opportunity to put my question. I was going to ask the Minister whether she would guarantee that the closures in Glasgow are not the opening salvo in a widespread closure of jobcentres across the United Kingdom, including in my constituency. It would have been nice to have had the opportunity to put that question.
I think my hon. Friend has just put that question very succinctly. He has two jobcentres in his area, and there is a rumour that one of them may close. They are not close to one another—they are in Port Glasgow and Greenock—so there will be a lot of travel for claimants.
The Minister made much of co-location, which was not considered before the announcement of the closure of these jobcentres. On the point about digital, Glasgow is one of the highest areas of digital exclusion. I urge everyone to sign the change.org petition to save the eight Glasgow jobcentres. As the shadow Minister said, this debate has focused primarily on the Glasgow jobcentre closures, but next week or next month it could be North Swindon, Cardiff, Sheffield or Belfast—in fact, any town or city up and down the country. This fight is not over. As the hon. Member for Glasgow East (Natalie McGarry) said, we will be back to speak up for all our constituents.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the future of the DWP estate.
East Suffolk Railway Line
[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered future investment in the East Suffolk railway line.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey.
I am pleased to have secured this debate, which provides a timely opportunity to highlight the important role that the East Suffolk railway plays in the local transport network. It is the line that runs north to south and links Lowestoft in my constituency to Ipswich via 10 intervening stations. The line has a fascinating and in many ways illustrious history, including many great moments, some sad times and a fight for survival. At present, things are going well. With the right investment we can do even better and provide local people with a high-quality railway service to play a key role in bringing jobs and growth to the area.
The East Suffolk opened on 1 June 1859. At the time it ran from Ipswich to Yarmouth South Town, in Great Yarmouth, with branches to Framlingham, Snape, Leiston and Lowestoft. Further branches were subsequently built to Southwold and Felixstowe; the former has long since closed, but is remembered with affection, while the latter remains and is a key national freight route from the port of Felixstowe to the east and west coast main lines. Today, the East Suffolk runs for 44 miles from Ipswich to Lowestoft through four parliamentary constituencies: Ipswich, Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, Suffolk Coastal and my own, Waveney. Much of what I say will highlight the importance of the railway to my constituency, but it would be remiss of me not to think strategically and to consider the whole line and the opportunities that it brings to the wider east Suffolk area.
The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer), and the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), are not able to be here because of their ministerial duties and commitments, but I am pleased to be joined in the Chamber by my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter). He will no doubt highlight those issues to which I do not give sufficient weight and will pick me up if I get anything wrong or wander too far off track.
The East Suffolk faced its darkest hour in the 1960s when Dr Beeching earmarked it for closure. A strong local rearguard action was mounted and, ultimately, the East Suffolk dodged the Beeching bullet, with Barbara Castle reprieving the line in autumn 1966. Much of the credit for that victory must go to ESTA, the East Suffolk Travellers Association, which formed in 1965 and continues to campaign today for improvements to the line and the bus services that link to it. I am a member, and I commend it for its work. ESTA campaigns are properly researched and evidence-based.
It is appropriate to consider the role that the East Suffolk line plays in linking the county’s two largest towns, with stations along its route in market towns and villages. John Brodribb commented in his 2003 book, “An Illustrated History of the East Suffolk Railway”:
“The East Suffolk had never been promoted simply for private advantage or pecuniary profit: it was a public utility serving a rich cultivated district.”
The East Suffolk is still very much a public utility, and although I do not wish to be downbeat and say that the area is no longer rich and cultivated, things were very different in the mid-19th century. Agriculture dominated the local economy, and Lowestoft, owing to the entrepreneurial flair of Sir Samuel Morton Peto, was a flourishing resort and port with a new harbour. Today things are different. Agriculture is still important but not as significant, and Lowestoft has, like many coastal communities, been hit hard by the decline of the fishing industry and the challenges faced by much of British manufacturing at the end of the 20th century.
Good communications are one of the keys to secure an economic renaissance and to bring prosperity back to an area. Along with improved roads and superfast broadband, the railways have an important role to play. Improving the East Suffolk line would benefit the industries and economic centres so important to the area’s future: ports and logistics, with sidings into Felixstowe and Lowestoft ports; the energy sector, with freight access to Sizewell via the former Leiston branch, where planning is stepping up for the construction of the Sizewell C nuclear power station, and to Lowestoft which is a fast-emerging hub for the offshore renewables sector; and tourism, with stations providing gateways to Suffolk’s historic towns or the potential of bus connections to a wide variety of attractions such as the broads, Framlingham Castle or the Latitude festival.
The past few years have been good for the East Suffolk line. That renaissance is under way, but we need to nurture, sustain and encourage it. As a result of the reintroduction of an hourly service following the construction of the £4 million Beccles loop, in 2011-12 to 2015-16 passenger movements at East Suffolk line stations averaged growth of 29%, compared with average growth of 13% across the rest of Suffolk. The growth figure varies from station to station: at Beccles it is 38%; Brampton 43%; Wickham Market 34%; and, way out on its own, Oulton Broad South 134%. The one blot on the landscape is Westerfield, where passenger numbers have declined by 42%, although that can almost certainly be attributed to the previous half-hour service for the station, at the junction with the Felixstowe branch line, being reduced to an hourly one. That highlights the need for specific work at Westerfield, to which I shall return.
It is also appropriate to mention improvements carried out by local community groups. For many years the Halesworth and District Museum has been located in the station. Last year an inspiring and highly imaginative redevelopment of Beccles station was completed. Previously the station was an eyesore; now it is an inviting and attractive gateway to the town. The East Suffolk also has the advantage of a proactive and visionary Community Rail Partnership, which has worked up a wide variety of schemes to increase and broaden the line’s appeal to passengers.
Last October a new franchise was granted to Abellio Greater Anglia. Many of the new arrangements rightly focus on improving the main line, the Great Eastern from Liverpool Street to Norwich, but many elements of the package will have direct benefits for the East Suffolk, such as brand new trains on the line from 2019-20. The new trains will have air-conditioning, wi-fi and plug points, and they are particularly welcome because for too long East Anglia has been the elephants’ graveyard for old trains. Also from 2019, there will be four trains a day between Lowestoft and London, which is important and highly symbolic. One of the disadvantages that Lowestoft faces is its perceived remote location. For me, personally, with a heavy suitcase in tow, to stagger up the steps from the underground to the main concourse at Liverpool Street and to look up at the display board to see there in lights through trains to Lowestoft is so very important.
Those improvements are welcome but must be the beginning and not the end of investment in the East Suffolk line. We must not rest on our laurels. The work that has been carried out so far and the positive outcomes that have resulted show the great potential for further investment to promote economic growth. The Great Eastern line is the spine of the East Anglia rail network. The need now is to focus on the feeder lines, of which the East Suffolk is one of the most important. There are pressing reasons and a strong case for pressing ahead for further improvements to the East Suffolk line.
The first reason is Sizewell C. EDF is consulting on its plans for a new nuclear power station at Sizewell near Leiston, with a view to submitting a planning application next year. The railway could play an important role in delivering aggregates for an enormous construction project to the site in a way that causes minimal disruption to local communities. EDF is working with Network Rail to carry out a governance for railway investment projects, or GRIP 2, study of the alternatives. Additional line capacity would need to be provided between Saxmundham and Woodbridge, and the various options must be carefully analysed. Those options include a passing loop at Campsea Ashe, a longer section of double track to the south, or complete redoubling of the track between Woodbridge and Saxmundham. Any improvements must take place well in advance of construction starting at Sizewell, which is scheduled for three years’ time, and the case to get on with the work as quickly as possible is very compelling. Welcome funding was provided in the autumn statement for a business case to be worked up for upgrading the A12, with specific reference to the four-villages bypass, and a similar appraisal for the railway should be twin-tracked at the same time.
The second reason for further upgrading the East Suffolk line is the port of Felixstowe. The branch line from Westerfield to Felixstowe plays an important role in enabling people to commute to work and get to and from what is a popular seaside resort, as well as facilitating the working of the port by getting more freight on to the railways, thereby relieving pressure on the A14 to the midlands. As I have mentioned, there is a capacity bottleneck at the junction at Westerfield that constrains such plans, and we must address now how best to resolve that problem, which would bring significant benefits to the area and allow Felixstowe to maintain its position as a leading global container port. That is so important as the country seeks to build new trading arrangements around the world. Additional capacity should be provided on the Felixstowe branch, which should be part of an electrified bespoke freight line between Felixstowe and Peterborough.
The third reason for further investment is Lowestoft station. In 1961, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner commented:
“The railway reached Lowestoft in 1847 and the station was built close to the harbour. It is Italianate, of yellow brick, asymmetrical and picturesque”.
I am afraid that I have to report that Lowestoft Central station is at present not picturesque. The building and its surrounds are in a sorry, dilapidated state. The good news is that the Lowestoft station partners, with whom I am working closely, have come together with a visionary set of proposals to refurbish the station and revitalise the surrounding area. They presented those plans to the Minister at a meeting in his office in November, and he has kindly given his support to them and agreed to visit the station to view the situation for himself.
Lowestoft Central is Britain’s most easterly railway station, occupying a unique location in the town centre within walking distance of the blue flag south beach. It was built by Lucas Brothers, which also built the Royal Albert Hall, Alexandra Palace and York station. Its refurbishment can act as a catalyst for the regeneration of the surrounding station square. That will be facilitated by the third crossing of Lake Lothing, which will divert through traffic away from the town centre.
The fourth factor behind my request for further investment is the need to promote growth and, linked to that, improve journey times. An improved service on the East Suffolk line can play an important role in helping to attract more business, new jobs and more visitors along the entire length of the line and its surrounds. That is recognised and is being promoted by the Suffolk chamber of commerce, the Lowestoft and Waveney chamber of commerce, Suffolk County Council in its rail prospectus, Waveney District Council and Suffolk Coastal District Council.
At present, the journey time from Lowestoft to Ipswich—a 44-mile journey—is more than 90 minutes. For a lot of people, that is a major disincentive to let the train take the strain. When the through service to Liverpool Street is reintroduced, it is likely to have a journey time of more than 160 minutes. That is longer than it took in 1904 to make the same journey on one of the seaside specials that ran on Saturdays in the summer. Speeding up that journey will also help to get traffic off the A12, and it will be achieved in four ways: through the faster trains that are on their way, more dual tracking, track replacement and a review of which of the numerous crossings of the line, many of which are private and pedestrian, are absolutely necessary. That work, particularly on the last issue, will require thorough consideration and wide-ranging consultation, but we need to get on with it straightaway.
My fifth point is that there is a need for better bus connections at stations. The new interchange facilities at Lowestoft station are welcome, and good arrangements are in place at Halesworth, where buses to Southwold meet the trains, but these need to be extended to other stations. We need a network of virtual railways along the entire line, whereby trains and buses seamlessly serve the market towns and coastal resorts that do not have stations. I have in mind such places as Bungay, Aldeburgh and Orford.
In conclusion, I see a great future for the East Suffolk line, which can help to bring a better quality of life, jobs and prosperity to the whole east Suffolk region. However, that will not happen on its own; we need to kick-start it. We need to plan for it and have a business plan in place. Time is of the essence, particularly with Sizewell C and the need for better freight facilities serving the port of Felixstowe. We must start that work now. I would be grateful if the Minister outlined how best we can secure the funds for a study. Once the plan has been completed, we can set about delivering the improvements that I have outlined. That said, we should start work straightaway on the refurbishment of Lowestoft station and improving bus connections, and I would be most grateful for the Minister’s support for those schemes.
If it is acceptable, Mr Bailey, I think my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) would like to say a few words.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for securing the debate. He rightly highlighted the importance of the East Suffolk line in bringing jobs and growth to the east of England, but particularly the east Suffolk coast, which is the energy coast and has a growing tourism industry of which we are very proud.
I will not speak for long, but I want to reiterate and emphasise a couple of points that my hon. Friend made. He rightly talked about the importance of the Felixstowe to Nuneaton freight rail link and Westerfield junction, which is in my constituency, and the improvements that are needed there to support that freight rail link. I am sure that the Minister is aware that 46% of the UK’s container traffic goes through Felixstowe port. It is important that we support that port, particularly as we look to our position in the world post Brexit.
My hon. Friend eloquently covered those points, so I intend to talk briefly about the importance of improving capacity and service frequency on the East Suffolk line. We are struggling to some extent with what is a single-track railway for the majority of its length. The ongoing discussions with EDF are a welcome opportunity. We must ensure that we get the best possible deal from those negotiations for improvements in infrastructure—both the building of the power station and, more broadly, improvements to support the energy coast and the tourism industry in Suffolk.
There are few passing points on the track. As my hon. Friend outlined, the ideal solution would be to improve the track through greater dualling—I would welcome additional investment to dual the stretch between Woodbridge and Saxmundham—but we need at the very least improved capacity on the line, and in order to have that, we need more passing points. A passing point at Wickham Market or Campsea Ashe must be a minimum requirement for what comes out of those negotiations. As the Minister is a Transport Minister, that is not to say that those measures should be pursued to the detriment of some of the road improvements that we need from our engagement with EDF, but it is vital that we see improvements to the East Suffolk line as a result of those negotiations. I hope that the Minister can be relied upon to help to hold EDF’s feet to the fire and ensure that it provides the money that is required to build that infrastructure on the East Suffolk line.
The final point I will make in the time available to me is about the importance of having a proper through service from Lowestoft to London—
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I have deleted five minutes’ worth of material, so I think I can just about fit my speech in. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) not just on securing the debate but on eloquently putting forward the case for his constituency, as he always does. I join with him in congratulating the East Suffolk Travellers Association and the local community rail partnership on all the work they do to sustain this important line. I well recall his visit to my office to show me the delights of Lowestoft Central station, not least because that was only last November—my memory is not that bad. I recall a more favourable impression of Lowestoft station than the one he portrayed in the debate. If the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), were here, he would cite it as an example of the beauty he wishes to see in all our stations for the work he does on the physical appearance of the network. I think my hon. Friend was a little harsh about his station.
My hon. Friend will not need me to tell him that the East Anglia region is a major economic engine. That is reflected in the amount of investment we have put into infrastructure across the whole of East Anglia, not least the £151 million for river crossings at Ipswich and Lowestoft, which I know he has been a champion of for a long while, and £1.1 billion going into road improvements, including to the A47 and A12. It is however right and proper that we focus on the East Suffolk rail line to which he referred. I understand how important it is to balance the needs of all passengers in the region with the opportunities that he rightly mentioned are coming up in the future.
There are many lessons from the past about how to balance affordability and deliverability when prioritising what we do across the region as a whole. My hon. Friend will know that a useful and important document has been produced in recent months in terms of the Anglia route utilisation strategy that has come from Network Rail. That was put together with the help of many stakeholders including Suffolk County Council and the New Anglia local enterprise partnership. While it found no immediate case on demand alone for the improvements he seeks on the line, it pointed out—as he rightly did—that the immense amount of work that will be ongoing at Sizewell C changes the parameters of the debate. He was right to raise that issue.
We must also remember that the East Suffolk line is part of the much wider Abellio Greater Anglia franchise, on which we are seeing almost a revolution. As my hon. Friend pointed out, it used to be the graveyard for old carriages, but that is certainly not the case any longer, given the amount of investment that will go in. He rightly listed many of those improvements.
I for one entirely understand the importance of arriving at a terminus station and seeing one’s constituency or town in lights on the destination board. I get that thrill on the one occasion a day that Blackpool North appears at Euston station—it is only once a day; he will have far more services than me. I recognise why that matters to a town’s sense of place and purpose and where it sits in the wider world. In addition, we will see increased services from Cambridge and Norwich to Stansted as well as to Ipswich, so there are all positive things going on there.
That does not mean that there are not small, local improvements that we can make on the line that will help to improve journey times and line speeds, as well as the many other points my hon. Friend raised. Take what we have done at the level crossing at Halesworth: that is an example of a relatively small-scale investment that can make a meaningful contribution by speeding up the line, removing temporary speed restrictions and enhancing the service for local residents. That is a good thing.
We also have to take the longer term view. There have been many calls by local stakeholders, not least both of my hon. Friends in the debate, for improved transport links in east Suffolk ahead of the proposed development at Sizewell C. In particular, such improvements could help to accommodate the considerable increase in heavy goods vehicle movements expected once construction of that major infrastructure project commences. The focus of such movements to date has been on the road network, and I certainly acknowledge that local partners see the A12 as a key local route within Suffolk and vital for the planned growth within that corridor.
The A12 will see a substantial increase in traffic if the proposed power station gets the go-ahead. That is why, as my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney rightly pointed out, we recently awarded £1 million of funding for further development work on the business case for the project. Improving rail links has to be part of that project. It is entirely in line with Government policy on freight to encourage use of more environmentally friendly means of transport wherever feasible, not least—as both my hon. Friends pointed out—because of the proximity of the major port of Felixstowe on which so much of our wider maritime strategy is crucially dependent. Any steps to move heavy vehicles off the roads of Suffolk are likely to improve road safety radically as well, which is also important as we consider how to move forward. I am personally keen to ensure that future development at Sizewell also supports rail development.
I must be clear that my Department would not be involved in any rail proposals being put forward in advance of construction at Sizewell C. Planning consent has not yet been granted, and we would expect that rail costs directly linked to construction would be included as part of those construction costs. I urge the promoter, EDF, to enter into dialogue with the rail industry on future plans for rail freight movements: for example, to discuss expected loads and frequency, and how the network can manage any increase in freight during the construction of Sizewell C, if it goes ahead. I would be more than happy for my Department to help to facilitate such discussions if my hon. Friend would like us to play a role in that.
The existing spur off the East Suffolk line to Sizewell B is currently used for freight, but opportunities may also arise for new passenger services. In addition, any wider upgrades associated with Sizewell C may deliver benefits that could also be used by passenger services. Once the promoter’s plans are clear in that regard, I will be happy to commit that my Department will work with it and the rail industry to consider what enhancements to passenger services can be delivered in parallel with the freight plans.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the issue of bus services and their interaction with the local rail network. The ultimate goal is the integrated transport network that transport planners always talk of and we always wish to see. He will be aware that the Bus Services Bill will shortly come before the House. It will give local authorities new partnership powers that could enhance services at stations. In many areas, local authorities and operators have created such partnerships, which have led to improved bus services. The Bill will build on the success of those partnerships by allowing local authorities and operators to develop specific sets of measures to improve bus services in their areas. That should include better connections to rail stations.
My hon. Friend also raised the issue of improvements to Lowestoft station as well as improving journey times along the line. As we discussed at our meeting last year, no funding is currently identified for the level of improvement he seeks. Indeed, given that the line serves a local, regional market, it is unlikely at this stage that we would be able to agree any funding from the national rail enhancements budget. However, local authorities and the New Anglia local enterprise partnership are funded and well placed to assist with that work and facilitate funding on the basis of potential wider economic impacts. I urge my hon. Friend to engage with them, as I know he has done, and the wider rail industry to develop a case for those improvements.
My hon. Friend is right that we have to both nurture and sustain the existing line, to use his words. I hope he agrees that the many improvements already committed to in the new franchise will deliver significant benefits across his constituency. I look forward to hearing from him in the near future on how plans at Sizewell C can act as a further catalyst for new developments on this important railway line.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered future investment in the East Suffolk railway line.
Leaving the EU
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the process for the UK to leave the EU.
I am pleased that you are chairing the debate, Mr Bailey. I drafted the wording of the motion with a purpose. We have come to use Brexit as shorthand for our country’s extricating itself from the EU, but Brexit does our friends and neighbours in Northern Ireland a grave disservice. It is not Britain that will be leaving the EU, but the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Technically, if we are to use a shorthand at all it should be “UKexit”.
I applied for the debate before the Prime Minister’s excellent speech yesterday, in which she set out her objectives for the negotiations that will take place with the EU during the next couple of years. I wanted a debate because some of my constituents are confused. Like me, they are simple souls who believed that they knew exactly what they were doing when they voted to leave the EU in June 2016. The more knowledgeable among them even knew the process for achieving our withdrawal.
However, they are now confused, because they see certain hon. Members who apparently do not understand what is meant by democracy, such as the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), who seems to think that a referendum result is only democratic if he is on the winning side. My constituents do not understand why, having voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU, their wishes are dismissed as only “advisory” by many remainers. They also do not understand why some MPs do not themselves seem to understand the process for leaving the EU, so I called the debate to allow the Minister to clarify that process. Let be me clear: that does not mean I want him to reveal any of the Government’s negotiating plans. I will explain more on my reasoning for that later.
My understanding of the process of leaving the EU is probably an oversimplification of the situation, although, as I said before, I am a simple soul. I believe that the first step is to notify other EU members that we intend to leave, by invoking article 50, and that nothing can be done until that happens, including negotiating with our EU partners. Article 50 is also bandied about as shorthand for setting the ball rolling, but I wonder how many people have actually read what it entails. I will enlighten those who do not know by reading it out:
“1. Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.
2. A Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intention. In the light of the guidelines provided by the European Council, the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union. That agreement shall be negotiated in accordance with Article 218(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. It shall be concluded on behalf of the Union by the Council, acting by a qualified majority, after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament.
this is important—
“The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.
4. For the purposes of paragraphs 2 and 3, the member of the European Council or of the Council representing the withdrawing Member State shall not participate in the discussions of the European Council or Council or in decisions concerning it.”
That seems pretty clear to me: the United Kingdom will leave the EU two years after invoking article 50, whether or not an agreement has been reached. That is my understanding of the process. I would like confirmation that I am right, and that article 50 of the Lisbon treaty will be triggered by the end of March.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree with my interpretation of the triggering of article 50: once triggered, it is an irrevocable process that nothing—not even Parliament—can stop either that being completed or Britain’s leaving the European Union?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, because it allows me to emphasise again that not only is that his interpretation and mine, but it is the EU’s interpretation. What he says is quite true: once we have invoked article 50, that is the end of the matter —we will be leaving the EU. That is my understanding of the process, and I would like confirmation that I am right.
I would also like the Minister to clarify what will happen should the Supreme Court uphold the High Court’s ruling that Parliament should have a vote on any decision. As the Prime Minister made clear yesterday, leaving the EU will entail divorcing ourselves from all of the EU’s institutions, rules and regulations, including the single market, the customs union and the free movement of people—except under terms negotiated between the UK and the remaining member states. That is what my constituents understood, and it is what they voted for by a large majority in last year’s referendum.
Nationally, the United Kingdom voted by a margin of 52% to 48% to leave the EU. Some Members have said that that result is indecisive and should be ignored, but most of those Members were elected to this place with a lower percentage of the vote than 52%. Does that mean that we can ignore their opinion? I should add that, in my constituency of Sittingbourne and Sheppey, the margin in favour of leave was 62% to 38%.
I also add that my constituents who voted to leave are absolutely livid that some professor at Cambridge University called Nicholas Boyle is reported to have said:
“The referendum vote does not deserve to be respected…Like resentful ruffians uprooting the new trees in the park and trashing the new play area, 17 million English, the lager louts of Europe, voted for Brexit in an act of geopolitical vandalism.”
That is a disgraceful slur on my constituents and the rest of the 17 million decent people who voted to leave the EU—many of whom were Irish, Welsh and, indeed, Scottish.
The hon. Gentleman may have anticipated my point. I was going to say that, although he correctly pointed to the respective statuses of the United Kingdom and Great Britain earlier, there is clearly a massive flaw in the quote he read out. It was not 17 million people only from England; sadly, there were some in Scotland who voted to leave as well—although not very many.
It was not my quote; it was by a professor of German from Cambridge University. He is a far more intelligent person than I am, but I understood that it was not only English people who voted to leave. I should add—the hon. Gentleman will probably realise this from my name—that my father comes from Glasgow. He is a proud Scot, but has lived in this country for 69 years. He is first and foremost British and considers himself so. Not only are those people called lager louts and vandals by this two-bit academic, but they are accused by other remainers, including Members of this place, of not understanding what they were voting for last June and of not being aware of the implications of an out vote. In addition to being insultingly patronising, that accusation simply does not stand up to even the flimsiest scrutiny.
Before the EU referendum campaign even started, the then Government sent every household an expensive leaflet, funded by taxpayers, setting out why people should vote to remain in the EU. Let me quote verbatim from that leaflet. It said that voting to remain would
“protect jobs, provide security, and strengthen the UK’s economy for every family in this country—a clear path into the future, in contrast to the uncertainty of leaving.”
That was a pretty clear warning, but still 17 million people voted to leave the EU.
The remainers also tell us that although a majority voted to leave the EU, they did not vote to leave the single market. Let me quote from the Government leaflet again:
“Remaining inside the EU guarantees our full access to its Single Market. By contrast, leaving creates uncertainty and risk.”
That, too, was pretty clear: a vote to leave the EU was also a vote to leave the single market. But still 17 million people voted to leave.
Having lost the referendum, some remainers are attempting to change the rules of the game. They are now saying that the referendum was only advisory. That is twaddle. Let me read another couple of quotes from the Government leaflet. The first is this:
“This is your chance to decide your own future and the future of the United Kingdom. It is important that you vote.”
That is reinforced by a second quote:
“This is your decision. The Government will implement what you decide.”
Voters in the United Kingdom as a whole decided to leave the EU. It is now for the Government to deliver what was promised and get the process started by invoking article 50. They should not be preventing from doing so by those remainers who are unable to come to grips with the result of the referendum.
Some remainers argue that article 50 should not and cannot be triggered without first obtaining the approval of Parliament. I do not remember those people pointing out during the referendum campaign that the Government’s promise to implement any decision taken by voters was illegal. Instead, it is only now that they are trying to subvert the will of the people.
On a point of order, Mr Bailey. I do not think I have ever raised a point of order since becoming a Member of Parliament. Is it in order for us to comment on the merits of a case that is sub judice before the Supreme Court? Should we not wait for the Supreme Court to decide before we comment on whether or not article 50 needs parliamentary approval?
Thank you, Mr Bailey. My comments were in no way designed to influence whatever the Supreme Court decides, but it is fairly common knowledge that it will give its ruling. My views are irrelevant to it.
The people I was talking about dress up their subversion with weasel words that would do credit to a used car salesman. They claim not to oppose UK exit, but their actions belie those words. I have no respect for those who say they want to abide by the referendum result but are desperately trying to find ways to somehow delay triggering article 50, in the hope that a way can be found to have a second referendum or a general election. As it happens, I think they are clutching at straws if they believe that voters would change their minds. In my view, if there was another referendum, the result would be an even more resounding vote to leave, because the “Project Fear” fox has been well and truly shot. In addition to realising that they were lied to by some remainers, the voting public do not like cheats and whingers, as those with a long political memory will know.
There is a point of view—I think a legitimate one—that as it took us passing an Act of Parliament to enter the European Union, Parliament will also legally be required to pass an Act of Parliament to take us out. That does not mean those of us who take that position in any way want to override the desire expressed by the British people to leave.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s intervention, but he will not be surprised to know that I do not agree. I believe that when the Government hold a referendum in which they make it clear, as the then Government did, that the will of the people will be listened to, and when this Parliament—of which he and I were both Members at the time—decides to allow a referendum and for the British people’s view to be heard, we should hear it.
I talked earlier about those of us with a long political memory, and I want to remind people what happened in Winchester at the 1997 general election. The Conservative candidate lost by two votes to the Liberal Democrats, but after a successful petition, there was a rerun of the election, at which the Lib Dems won by a majority of more than 21,000. It is ironic that it is the Lib Dems leading the charge for another referendum. They appear not to have learned anything.
I mentioned the Government’s negotiating position. There are repeated calls from all sides of the House for Ministers to allow Members to scrutinise their plans in advance and vote on them. In my view, that would be quite ludicrous and could only be suggested by people who have little experience of business or absolutely no experience of negotiating. I have experience of both.
I left school at 16 and worked in the real world of business and commerce for almost 50 years before being elected to this House. For some of that time, I worked as a senior contracts officer for GEC-Marconi Avionics, which was then bought by British Aerospace. In that role, I negotiated with various customers, including the UK Ministry of Defence and McDonnell Douglas in America. There are no circumstances on earth that would have enticed me to reveal to those with whom I was negotiating information in advance about my negotiating stance. To have done so would have been akin to committing commercial suicide, so why should Ministers let our European neighbours know in advance what the Government’s strategy is? That would be stupid.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I am listening carefully to the great detail he is going into and, indeed, to his business experience. Could he tell us whether, in making any business decisions that would mean going through a significant period of change, the companies he worked for consulted the board or its employees? How would he compare that to how the UK Government consulted people on the detail of their plans in the run-up to the Brexit vote?
I welcome the hon. Lady’s intervention, and I have a very easy answer for her. My experience in business is that shareholders elect a board of directors. The board of directors then employs people to manage the business, including negotiators, and does not expect to be kept informed of what is going to happen. If a negotiator messes up on a deal, they get the bullet. It is exactly the same thing here: if the Government mess up on this deal, they will not get re-elected at the 2020 election. That is the deal.
One thing I learned as a contracts officer was never to enter into any negotiation without a line beyond which I was not prepared to go, and to be prepared to walk away rather than cross that line. The Prime Minister said yesterday that in her view, no deal is better than a bad deal. I hope our negotiators remember her words and are prepared to walk away rather than accept a bad deal.
We often hear remainers talking about hard Brexit and soft Brexit. No one has explained to me exactly what those terms mean. I am assuming that by “soft exit” the remainers mean we should remain in a single market, even if that means we have to accept the free movement of labour in exchange. I also assume that they are happy for us to continue paying the EU billions of pounds a year for the privilege of having full access to the single market and accepting all the obligations that come with being a full member. If that is the case, soft exit means no exit and they should be honest enough to admit it. As for me, exit means exit. Full stop.
Before I call the next speaker, I want to inform hon. Members that I have sought legal opinion on the point of order raised by Peter Grant. The situation is that even if the House sub judice resolution did apply to the case before the Supreme Court, I judge that the risk of any prejudice from this debate be so small that I would waive the sub judice resolution. Members should, of course, refer respectfully to the judges involved in the case.
Two Back Benchers have indicated that they wish to contribute to the debate. Ordinarily, the Front-Bench spokesperson would have five minutes and the Minister would have 10 minutes. If the Back Benchers are so generous as to give a little more time to the Front-Bench spokesperson, I will enable them to have more time.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate on what is a hugely important issue—the issue of our generation.
It is fair to say that, as the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) said, we should put the various political platitudes and soundbites of hard Brexit, soft Brexit and red, white and blue Brexit to one side and realise they are pretty meaningless to voters and the people who elected us. We must stop patronising the people of the UK and letting this Tory Government off the hook by trivialising or minimising this complex issue to pitiful political platitudes. It is hugely important to have debates such as this as we go through the process and to remind ourselves that exiting the EU will be hugely complex and time-consuming; in fact, to quote the now Chancellor of the Exchequer, it could take
“longer than the Second World War.”
That is why it still seems to me—and, I am sure, to many people across these islands of the UK—incredible that ahead of the EU referendum vote the Tory Government had no plans and nothing written down about the options and plans.
For a number of years before coming to Parliament, like the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, I worked in the oil and gas sector, particularly in areas of business change. Like any business, when we embarked on large-scale change we drew up a road map of where we wanted to go. We started with where we were, what we wanted to do and how we would do it. Along with that were extensive details of what departments of the business would be affected, who might lose their jobs and how we could mitigate and protect any threats to our business. I can almost see the coloured Post-it notes and the mind maps.
I am pretty certain that every business person, organisation and individual across the UK looked at the proceedings and the details that came out in the press in the run-up to the Brexit vote—or, it would be fair to say, lack of detail—and assumed that at the very least the Tory Government had a basic analysis of the impact of exiting the EU and what the processes would be. However, it seems that the nation was mistaken. The press reported:
“Civil servants will be secretly working on ‘Brexit’ plans but not writing them down”.
Can anyone imagine a CEO going to the board of a company and saying, “Don’t worry. Our company won’t fail. I have been doing lots of thinking and it’s all in my head. Success means success, it will be red, white and blue and you can all now vote on whether you are with me or against me”? They would be laughed out of the boardroom.
Even the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, thought the former Prime Minister was pulling her leg when he said that he did not have a plan for the UK if it should vote to leave the EU. However, he was not kidding, and we now know what happens to Prime Ministers who do not have a plan.
By contrast, when we held a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, we did have a plan. We consulted people the length and breadth of the country. We even wrote things down. We may not have had all the answers, but we engaged and prepared, and presented a pretty extensive White Paper that people could read, digest and consider before they were taken to the polls on such an important issue. We felt that we had set the gold standard for referendums. When the then Prime Minister bumbled into Brexit without any proper forethought, he put the economy of the United Kingdom, people’s livelihoods and our international reputation on the line. I hope that as the Government enter into the process of exit from the EU they will reflect long and hard on how badly they have failed the people of the UK with respect to a proper planning process.
There are questions that are important to people and businesses across the nations of the UK, about the working of the process but also about what it means for their lives and livelihoods. We so often get caught up in technical jargon and doublespeak. Brexit has been the ultimate case in point. People and businesses need to be able to plan for the future, and the Tory Government need to be open and transparent about what they are doing and how they are doing it, and to ensure that, as they promised, they will consult all the nations of the United Kingdom.
To use my own constituency as an example, Livingston was a new town, built in the 1950s and designated in 1962. It attracted significant EU structural funding. I have heard from people in my constituency who came from other parts of Europe to set up homes and businesses in Livingston, where business relies particularly on workers from the EU. The town is Scotland’s third major retail hub, with the McArthurGlen outlet drawing in thousands of shoppers every week. The retail sector employs no fewer than 2 million workers in the UK, many of them in my constituency; and many of them are worried about their status.
My constituents and local businesses are not the only ones with concerns. The report published by the Exiting the European Union Committee earlier this month, entitled “The process for exiting the European Union and the Government’s negotiating objectives”, warns of an urgent need to
“provide certainty and reassurance to the individuals, their families and the businesses and services that rely on them.”
JP Morgan commented yesterday, after the Prime Minister’s Brexit speech, that not to have clear details, particularly for trade, was “very dangerous”.
The Prime Minister said yesterday:
“Brexit must mean control of the number of people who come to Britain from Europe.”
In Scotland, EU membership supports more than 300,000 jobs directly and indirectly. The Fraser of Allander Institute has predicted that Scotland could lose up to 80,000 jobs.
I know from the cases that come through my constituency office that the Home Office has rules and new regulations coming out of its ears; they change every week. It is so disorganised that there are no proper, efficient systems for dealing with immigration. As the UK sets out the process for exit from the EU, I want to ask the Minister specifically, will the Government review the current processes? It is apparent that those processes are not working and therefore, instead of looking to review and improve them, they are going to close the door and not let in anyone else from the EU. The Minister shakes his head, but the fact is that people do not know what their status is going to be.
Just before we returned from the recess, both the CBI and the Federation of Small Businesses expressed serious concern about the lack of clarity as to EU workers, their status, and the impact on business. As we look forward, it is essential that the Prime Minister should stick to the commitment that she gave today in Prime Minister’s questions to work with the devolved nations. She made specific reference to the Scotland plan and gave a commitment to working with the Scottish Government on the way forward. That is welcome news but the process is complex and Scotland’s position and the result of the EU vote in Scotland must be respected.
The Scottish National party strongly believes that the best way to build a more prosperous and equal Scotland is to be a full member of the EU, and certainly advocates staying within the single market, even if the rest of the UK leaves. According to the UK Government’s own analysis, leaving the single market could lower Scotland’s GDP by more than £10 billion. Furthermore, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research suggests that Scotland’s exports could be cut by more than £5 billion if we lose access to the single market. The EU is the main destination for Scottish exports; it receives 42% of Scotland’s international exports. As the negotiations take place, it is vital that there is a more transparent process than we have seen today and that there is greater detail.
Triggering article 50 will directly affect devolved interests and rights in Scotland. The UK’s current constitutional arrangements are underpinned by membership of the EU. Leaving the EU therefore requires reconsideration of the devolution settlement. Critically, the Exiting the European Union Committee report commented on the work that the Government still need to do before triggering article 50. It stated that
“it is essential that all the devolved governments, and the different regions of England, are duly involved in the process and have their views taken into account.”
Separately, there is a need to devolve more powers to Scotland, in order to safeguard current EU rights and social protections in areas such as employment and to allow the Scottish Parliament to protect Scotland’s wider interests, including any differential relationship with Europe.
The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union told me directly in the Chamber yesterday that he wanted to ensure that there was no detriment to workers in Scotland from other parts of the EU. Yet the Tory Government have pursued pernicious and damaging policies such as those set out in the Trade Union Act 2016. Many of us wonder what they will do when the powers are transferred from Europe.
Of course any proposal to remove Scotland from the EU will need legislation from Westminster, but the First Minister of Scotland has made it crystal clear that any such legislation would require the consent of the Scottish Parliament. The people of Scotland voted, by a majority, to remain in the EU. As we go through the process of exiting the EU, the UK Government must take account of what the people of Scotland voted for. They must not take us off a cliff edge into a hard Tory Brexit. They must do everything they can to accept the will of the people of the devolved nations by considering the plans that have been put forward.
It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on setting the scene very well. He and I are of a similar mind, as are other hon. Members in this Chamber, but it is always good to give a balance to the debate, which is on a major issue for us all.
I have been vocal in my desire to see our sovereignty restored. I was overjoyed to learn that the Vote Leave campaign had been successful and that the will of the people, as demonstrated in the democratic vote, was to be followed. I have been disheartened by those, most often in the media, who have perpetuated the belief that there is still some way in which that may not happen, as the hon. Gentleman said. All the challenges that have arisen in the law courts are a vain attempt to circumnavigate the will of the people.
The same thing is happening in Northern Ireland at the moment, as Members following events over there will be aware. The will of the people was to elect a strong Democratic Unionist party team, and because the strength of that team was too overwhelming for Sinn Féin, it collapsed the institution, to take power back and change that outcome. I do not believe that that should be allowed to happen on the European question: we must stand fast on it. Our leave process must begin. Article 50 should be triggered. I congratulate the Prime Minister on her statement yesterday and on her clear and firm control of the steering wheel, which is in good hands as we move out of Europe.
I am not so simple-minded that I do not understand the massive intrinsic complexities that these steps bring with them. We need to be certain of what is achievable and how we achieve it. The bitter grapes of wrath against people who dared to exercise their democratic right by voting to leave must be put away. We must all work together to secure the best possible outcome for each and every constituent, regardless of how they voted. I have spoken at length to those who are preparing our strategies and policies for Brexit and I have been incredibly vocal about the need to ensure that the needs of Northern Ireland are taken into account, especially in the light of the events of the last week in Northern Ireland that have prevented those in our Assembly from being able to do their job and have input.
I am grateful for our party’s team here in Westminster. My right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) continues to work closely with the Government and with Ministers in a very positive and direct fashion. He recently met Michel Barnier, the EU chief Brexit negotiator, privately in Strasbourg, to ensure that he, too, was informed of the distinctive challenges faced and the special arrangements required by Northern Ireland.
There is a need for flexibility to ensure minimal disruption to existing border arrangements under the common travel area, which predates the EU continuation of trade, with the Republic of Ireland. As my right hon. Friend has said, stability around those arrangements will be key in helping to secure the continuation of good relations and the peace that the EU has assisted in fostering. Article 8 of the Lisbon treaty outlines the European Union’s desire to
“develop a special relationship with neighbouring countries”
in the interests of
“prosperity and good neighbourliness…and characterised by close and peaceful relations based on cooperation.”
Being positive about how we are moving forward and taking people with us must be the character of the Brexit process. It must be in the best interests of all the people of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
A withdrawal agreement will set out detailed transition provisions that should state the future relationship with the EU. Despite that, there are particular concerns about the UK’s trading relationship with the EU. My concerns lie in such areas as the agri-food industry. EU exporters have been known to price competitively. Those who depend on imports from the EU face higher costs for some things. Our process and negotiations must ensure that fair costs in the import and export of goods from different countries are maintained. There are negotiations in place to allow New Zealand to supply lamb with zero duty. Those arrangements are in place. They are possible and they must be made available to us. Interestingly, in the news today, we heard the Government’s statement that many countries are queueing up to sign trade contracts with us outside of Europe. That is an indication of the confidence that the rest of the world has, and it shows why we should be confident in what we are doing, too. That was good news.
Fishermen are not able to fish or work in their own waters, but Brexit will enable them to reclaim their rights to fish sensibly under sensible guidelines, with a sound business plan that will increase viability, create jobs and lead to a better future. The fishermen in Portavogie in my constituency and across Northern Ireland and the whole United Kingdom, including Scotland, want to have control. We have to have that.
There has been talk of changes to workers’ rights due to a change in regulations, but I believe that the small and large businesses in our counties often go further than the European rights, such as by making enhanced and longer periods of maternity leave available. We are doing many things better than Europe intended. I am positive about workers’ rights. I had the opportunity to meet the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland. That was not by my invitation alone, but I was one of those who invited her. We had the opportunity to meet some companies to talk about workers’ rights, some of the problems they have and how the Secretary of State sees the cross-border trade working.
After hearing what the Secretary of State said, I am confident that our agri-food industry will be able to co-operate and do business in the Republic of Ireland. I am also confident about the workers we have in our factories and their futures. Many have married, integrated, bought houses and are living in our areas. I have had parents express concerns to me about university places in Europe and the availability of placements, but I point to the reciprocal arrangements that countries such as Switzerland and Norway have in place. We are already doing it. People should not get alarmed about what is happening. Arrangements are already in place that we can take advantage of.
I have raised many issues. I put it on record yesterday, and I will do so again today: I have faith and confidence in the Brexit team, in our Prime Minister and in those negotiating to deliver Brexit for us. We must trigger article 50 when our confidence in how we are achieving our goals is strong. I believe that the Secretary of State and the Brexit team are aware of that, and I have faith and confidence in their timing.
The onus on each Member in this House is to respect the democratic will of the people, to get involved in the process and to help to secure the best advantages for this country. They should stop creating roadblocks and putting up legal challenges that go against the will of the people as expressed in the referendum. We need to deliver on what the people said, and they want out. They want a constructive relationship with Europe, and that is as it should be. There are advantages to having trading partners, but there are more advantages to being out of Europe, and I look forward to that. We need the knowledge to foresee the bumps in the road and to help smooth the obstacles. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve the economy and expand our trading relationships with other countries. I am very confident about the future, and all those who voted out are also confident. Many of those who voted remain are also looking forward to those opportunities. Let us get it right and let us do it together.
I am pleased to sum up on behalf of the Scottish National party in this debate, and I commend the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) for securing it.
In his opening speech, the hon. Gentleman reminded us that the requirement of the UK Government is to deliver and implement article 50 in accordance with the United Kingdom’s own constitutional requirements. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for reminding us, among other things, of the very special—indeed, unique—place that Northern Ireland has in the constitutional requirements of the United Kingdom. I hope that, whatever else happens, nothing in the implementation of article 50 will jeopardise in any way the very fragile and tenuous peace process that is still, thankfully, just about in place in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey quoted some figures and made some assumptions about the percentage of the vote that various MPs received from the electorate. I must say that my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) actually bucked the trend that he referred to, because she got just under 57% of the vote in her election. Modesty forbids me from telling the House that I got just under 60%. Members will have worked out immediately that both those numbers are higher than 52%; indeed, they are also both higher than 55%, which is a number that is quite significant for some of us. Admittedly, though, they are far short of 62%, which is the percentage that matters most to me in this debate, because 62% is how many of my people said they wanted to stay in the European Union.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for his great persuasive powers in achieving that result. I delicately remind him that I did not say 62% in my constituency; I said 62% in my country. There is an important difference.
The final comment that I will make in relation to the hon. Gentleman is that I share his distaste and despair at the tone of some of the debate before, during and after the referendum, and I certainly completely distance myself from the description that he referred to, which was used against all of the 17 million people who voted to leave the EU. I respect the right of people to take their own decisions. I may sometimes be horrified, dismayed, appalled or disappointed by the decisions that they take, but I will respect the decision that the people of England have taken and I also respect the decision that the people of Wales have taken. I ask Members to respect the views that have been expressed by the people of Scotland.
However, I gently have to remind the hon. Gentleman that it is not the first time in the last few years that opponents of change have told packs of lies to the population during a referendum, and I also have to say that I do not remember him protesting as loudly the last time it happened, which was in Scotland.
The debate is about the process for leaving the European Union, but it would be foolish to try to talk about the process without talking about where we want to be at the end of it, because knowing where we want to be can have a huge impact on the process that we choose to follow, and the way that we implement the process can significantly affect our chances of getting the results that we want.
What are the objectives and how have they been arrived at? Well, we have got some clarity on the first question, but not a great deal of clarity on the second. We now know something about the objectives. We now know that the Prime Minister’s objective is not to have free movement of people, but we do not know exactly what she wants instead. We now know that the Prime Minister does not want to be part of the single market; we just do not know what she wants to be part of instead. And we now know—well, we knew already—that when we negotiate this avalanche of new trade deals with everybody and their dog, who, according to the Foreign Secretary, are queuing to do deals with this wee pocket of land in the north Atlantic, those deals will not be subject to adjudication by the Court of Justice of the European Union; we just do not know whose jurisdiction they will come under. In other words, we know a great deal about what the Prime Minister does not want, but we are not an awful lot further forward in knowing what she does want.
Shortly after the referendum, the Liberal Democrats—yes, they do sometimes have their uses—came up with the phrase that the referendum result told us that people wanted to leave but we did not really have any idea about where they wanted to go, and I am not convinced that things have changed very much since then.
We cannot even get reliable and consistent answers from the Government about how they will decide on their objectives. Yesterday, in answer to my question about the Scottish Government’s paper, “Scotland’s Place in Europe”, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union told the House:
“I gave him”—
That is, Mike Russell MSP—
“an undertaking that we would debate that paper at the next JMC (EN), as it is known in Whitehall jargon, and that is what we will do. I have been very careful not to comment publicly on it”.—[Official Report, 17 January 2017; Vol. 619, c. 798.]
He was referring to the Scottish Government’s paper—
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing this important and timely debate, as well as the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) on their powerful contributions. The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey was forceful and direct in making his argument, and I will try to be the same.
I will start by saying that Labour accepts and respects the outcome of the referendum. It was the largest exercise of direct democracy in our country’s history and more than 33 million votes were cast. It was a lengthy, wide-ranging campaign that culminated in a high public turnout and a close, but clear, outcome. Throughout, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the public were led to expect that the result would be honoured and implemented, and it should be. Labour accepts that we are exiting the EU and we therefore have no intention, should the Supreme Court uphold the High Court’s November ruling on 24 January, of frustrating the start of that process by voting against the triggering of article 50 out of hand.
However, Labour believes that the Government have approached the matter in the wrong way by arguing, as they have done and continue to do, that Parliament should have no say in the matter. All the effort and cost that will have been incurred by 24 January could have been avoided if Ministers had simply assured the House at an early stage that a plan setting out the Government’s basic negotiating terms would be forthcoming, and had proceeded with a vote on the triggering of article 50 on that basis. That is an approach that we would have welcomed.
Once article 50 has been served there will—I agree with the hon. Gentleman—be a hard two-year deadline within which to conclude a divorce settlement. However, the question of how long reaching that settlement and agreeing a new relationship with the EU 27 will take will be determined by the complexity of the negotiations to come. I agree, in this respect, with the hon. Member for Livingston—I am staggered that the Government did not do even the most rudimentary planning prior to 23 June.
From the speech that the Prime Minister delivered yesterday we do, at last, have some much-needed clarity on how the Government intend to approach the negotiations. I have to say to the Minister, however, that I find it extraordinary that it has taken this long, and that the Prime Minister chose to make her announcement in a speech rather than in a statement to the House. Nor does Labour view that speech as a substitute for a detailed published plan of the kind that would allow parliamentary bodies and devolved Administrations to conduct effective scrutiny. With regard to the substance of the speech, it was disappointing to learn that the Government have walked away from the single market, whatever the cost to our economy, jobs and trade, before the negotiations have even begun and, in doing so, have put at risk our barrier-free trading relationship with the EU. It was also irresponsible and counterproductive of the PM to threaten the EU 27 with the prospect of turning Britain into a deregulated offshore tax haven if she falls short in her negotiations.
However, we acknowledge that the Government have accepted many of the demands that we have been making for months, and will now seek full access to the single market, free of tariffs and unencumbered by impediments, and something short of complete withdrawal from the customs union. They are also working towards a co-operative and collaborative relationship with the EU 27 on a range of issues including security, defence, foreign affairs and science and research. However, let us be clear that in aiming for each of those objectives—the ones that we have been pressing for, as well as her own red lines on immigration and leaving the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice—the Prime Minister has set her Government and the Brexit team a herculean task. It will certainly be far tougher and more complex than the more cavalier Members on the Government Benches would have us believe.
What is more, for all the clarity that the speech did provide, it also had significant gaps. We have no idea, for example, what the basis is for the Government’s conviction that there is a middle way on the customs union that will not fall foul of World Trade Organisation rules. I do not hold out much hope, but perhaps the Minister might like to enlighten us this afternoon. Nor are we any the wiser as to where the Government will come down when confronted with the difficult choices that will inevitably arise in the negotiations. We do not know, for example, whether they will prioritise the reduction of immigration over the economy and jobs, should the EU 27 not agree to give the Prime Minister the type of single market access that she seeks and we on this side believe is essential for our economic prosperity.
We have made some progress in that Ministers now clearly recognise how complex the negotiations will be and have therefore conceded, contrary to what the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union argued for many months, that an agreement on a new relationship is not likely to be completed before the end of March 2019. As such, as we have long argued, some form of transitional arrangement now looks likely, but we are still none the wiser about precisely how long the Government expect that transitional arrangement to continue. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing this debate and on his excellent speech. He said that he was a simple soul, but he went on to demonstrate a grip of the facts and an erudition that rather belied that comment. He did a good job of not only representing his constituents but sharing the benefit of his commercial and negotiating expertise, which we welcome.
After the Prime Minister’s speech and the Secretary of State’s statement yesterday, I agree with the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) that it is a good thing that we debate these matters and the process of exiting the European Union. This is not the first time that I have stood in this Chamber in a debate while another debate on this process is going on in the main Chamber. That demonstrates the degree of parliamentary attention and scrutiny that the process is receiving.
On a point of clarification, I am pleased that we are now debating the detail, but I hope that the Minister shares the view—I am sure it is held by many people across the country—that it would have been great if we had had that detail in the run-up to the vote so that people had the full information about what this Tory Government are taking us into through this process.
The hon. Lady expresses an opinion about the past and the arguments that we had during the referendum. I think it is important to focus on the future and the process.
In the time that I have, I will make some brief remarks about the Government’s key objectives. First, in answer to the direct question that my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey asked, I want to clarify that the Government are committed to respecting the will of the British people and delivering on the referendum result. That is why I welcome this debate and the opportunity to focus on the process and how we can get the best deal for the UK. As the Prime Minister has said, we will trigger article 50 and begin the process of leaving the EU by the end of March. That timetable has given us a bit of time to prepare the negotiating strategy and engage constructively with stakeholders. Yesterday’s announcements about our aims were informed by that consultation, which is ongoing.
We want a smooth departure from the EU and a new, positive, constructive and equal partnership for Britain and the EU—a partnership that will be good for Britain and good for the rest of Europe. That is why in her speech yesterday the Prime Minister set out a serious and ambitious vision of a new partnership with the EU for a global Britain, including a comprehensive plan covering our 12 negotiating objectives. I will not repeat them all, because all hon. Members will have followed that speech closely, but it is important that I reiterate their importance and, with the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) in the room, say that one of the key principles is to maintain the common travel area with Ireland. In answer to the hon. Member for Livingston’s point—[Interruption.] I will not give way, because I have limited time to deliver quite a lot of detail, but in answer to one of the points that the Scottish National party has made regularly, the Prime Minister put an emphasis on protecting the rights of EU nationals in Britain and British nationals in the EU.
To deliver those objectives, officials in my Department and Ministers have carried out a programme of sectoral regulatory analysis and engaged with every devolved Administration and regions across the whole UK to identify the key factors for businesses, communities and the labour force that will affect our negotiations. We are also building a detailed understanding of how withdrawing from the EU will affect our domestic policies to seize the opportunities and ensure a smooth exit process.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey said clearly, the way to start a negotiation is not to tell the people we are negotiating with exactly what we plan to do. Indeed, the House agreed without a Division on 12 October last year that nothing we do or say should undermine the UK’s negotiating position. That was supported by a majority of more than five to one in a Division on 7 December. I welcome the support of my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Strangford, and indeed that of the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook), who sits on the Opposition Front Bench, for the article 50 process. My hon. Friend is right that we must leave the EU in accordance with the process set out in article 50 of the treaty on European Union, which he read out. That is the only lawful route for withdrawal from the EU under the treaties.
We expect the process to follow three stages: notification, negotiation and conclusion. First, we will notify the European Council of our intention to leave the EU under article 50. The Prime Minister has been clear that we will trigger article 50 by the end of March, and the House backed that timetable by a large margin in December. Triggering article 50 is the first step in making the United Kingdom a fully independent, sovereign country, free to make our own decisions. Our position remains that triggering article 50 is a matter for the Government, but as the House knows, we await the Supreme Court’s judgment, which I note is expected to be handed down next Tuesday. I do not want to comment on possible scenarios until that judgment has been made, but let me be clear: whatever the outcome, the Government remain committed to triggering article 50 by the end of March.
Secondly, once article 50 has been triggered, we will then negotiate a withdrawal agreement with the EU. Article 50 makes it clear that there are two years to negotiate such a withdrawal agreement. The Prime Minister has been clear that by the time the two-year period ends we also aim to have reached an agreement about our future partnership. Article 50 itself, as my hon. Friend pointed out, talks about taking account of that relationship in the withdrawal agreement. From that point onwards, we believe a phased process of implementation in which Britain and the EU institutions and member states prepare for the new arrangements will exist between us.
The Government’s priority is to ensure that we get the best deal for the UK. The UK is leaving the EU, but we are not turning our backs on Europe. If we approach the negotiations in a constructive spirit, as we intend to, we can build a partnership for a strong UK and a strong EU. Although we are confident that a fair deal along these lines can be achieved, we are clear that, for the UK, no deal with the EU is better than a bad deal. My hon. Friend has made his support for that approach very clear.
Thirdly, the precise timing, terms and means by which we conclude the process will be determined by the negotiations. However, the Prime Minister has confirmed that the final deal that is agreed between the UK and the EU will be subject to a vote in both Houses of Parliament before it comes into force.
The Prime Minister has made it clear that Parliament will have a vote. There will be plenty of opportunities during the process for Parliament to exert its views and to influence the process. I want to come on to some of those.
As I have already described, we have had a huge amount of parliamentary scrutiny. I do not have the time to run through all of it, but it is important to reiterate the commitment that the Secretary of State has made to keeping this Parliament at least as well informed as the European Parliament as negotiations progress. He has set out that he will provide as much information as possible, subject to that not undermining the national interest. It is clear that negotiations will be fast moving and will cover sensitive material, so we will need to find ways of engaging with Parliament throughout the process. We are working through the practicalities of that and will say more when the work is complete.
Parliament’s role will not be restricted to scrutiny and making recommendations. Leaving the EU will require legislation. In particular, the Government will be bringing forward legislation in the next Session that, when enacted, will repeal the European Communities Act 1972 and ensure a functioning statute book on the day that we leave the EU. In considering that great repeal Bill, Parliament will have a crucial role to play in determining the future legal framework of our country.
My hon. Friend made a very good point about the slang of Brexit and the fact that it should be “UKexit”, and the Prime Minister was very clear in her speech yesterday that we must deliver for the whole United Kingdom. The Government will continue to engage fully with the Scottish Government, Welsh Government and Northern Ireland Executive to get the best possible deal for all parts of our United Kingdom as we leave the EU. We will give the devolved Administrations every appropriate opportunity to have their say, and we will look at any suggestions that they put forward. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union confirmed yesterday, and as the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) said, the Joint Ministerial Committee will be discussing Scotland’s plans and proposals when it meets tomorrow.
The UK Government have made it clear that we intend to fully involve Gibraltar, Crown dependencies and overseas territories as we prepare for exit, to ensure that their interests are properly taken into account. As such, the first meeting of the UK-Gibraltar Ministerial Forum took place on 7 December. My very first debate in this Chamber was on Gibraltar. I have committed to quarterly meetings with the Chief Ministers of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man, and we meet again next week. UK Ministers and leaders of the overseas territories have committed to taking forward future engagement through the creation of a new joint ministerial council. Having those processes in place will ensure that we take into account the views of all parts of the UK and the territories whose interests we represent in the negotiations to come.
It is clear from today’s debate that there remain a wide range of views about the Government’s plans for leaving the EU. However, the process for leaving the EU is clearly set out in article 50. The Government are determined to respect the will of the people by invoking article 50 and beginning the process by March, and we must do that in a way that delivers for 100% of the people of this United Kingdom.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the process for the UK to leave the EU.