Tuesday 31 January 2017
[Joan Ryan in the Chair]
Immigration Rules: Spouses and Partners
I beg to move,
That this House has considered immigration rules for spouses and partners.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Ryan, as we debate what I believe is a vital issue to revisit and reconsider. It affects the family lives of many thousands of our constituents in a most intrusive way, and it calls on us to consider where our priorities really lie: in pursuing utterly misguided targets at all costs, or in protecting people’s human rights and the best interests of children? I understand that this is the first time Parliament has considered the matter since a few months after the draconian new rules were introduced in July 2012, so the debate is overdue.
I want to thank those colleagues who helped me secure the debate, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan), who accompanied me to the Backbench Business Committee. I also thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), the hon. Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), for Bradford West (Naz Shah), for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), for South Down (Ms Ritchie) and for Bedford (Richard Fuller), and my hon. Friends the Members for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless), for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) and for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) for their support. That is MPs from six different parties and representing everywhere from Shetland to Brighton and from Bedford to South Down, and it is great to see other MPs here today. This issue affects and concerns all corners of the UK and those from all walks of life. Few MPs will not have had at least one tragic constituency case; most will have had several.
Right now, the judges of the Supreme Court are busy again deciding whether the rules are in fact illegal and in breach of human rights. They might force the Government to think again. Regardless of what they do, Parliament should be making the Government think again and rewriting the rules. Many different aspects of the rules deserve criticism and require reform, from costs and complexity to ridiculously restrictive evidential requirements.
I want to focus on two of the rules that work together in an extraordinarily unfair, and I would say inhumane, manner. The first is the financial threshold, which is among the most draconian and restrictive in the world, whether measured in relative or absolute terms. The second is the rule excluding evidence about other forms of income, such as third-party support from family or friends or—even more ludicrously—the potential earnings of the non-EU spouse or partner. That gets to the crux of the matter. Those rules are cruelly and unnecessarily restrictive and draconian, and the consequences for families have been utterly brutal.
The rules mean that we no longer have a fairly light-touch financial maintenance test broadly equating to income support levels of £5,500. Non-EU applicants wishing to join their spouse or partner here are now required to show that their UK-settled sponsor earns at least £18,600, and thousands of pounds extra if there is a child or children involved.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. I will come to the disproportionate impact of the threshold in just a moment.
When those two rules are combined, astonishingly almost half the UK population would be excluded from ever being able to sponsor the person they love to come and join them, if that person happened to be from outside the EU. As the hon. Gentleman just said, there are disproportionate impacts on some segments of the population, for fairly obvious reasons related to average incomes, so even higher proportions of young people, women and some ethnic minorities, and essentially all those who live outside London and the south-east, are affected.
Tens of thousands of adults have been forced by the Government to choose between the country that is their home and that they love and the people who they want to share their home with and who they love even more. That is a horrible and cruel choice. What is the Government’s justification for that? The official Government position is that it serves to protect the public purse and encourage integration. The first of those is of dubious accuracy and questionable relevance. The second I fail completely to understand at all, so I will listen with interest to what the Minister has to say if he wants to maintain that argument. I simply note that it was comprehensively rebutted in a report for the Children’s Commissioner that I will consider shortly.
On the public purse issue, the Government claimed that the requirement would save £660 million over 10 years —it would be good to know if they are doing up-to-date research on that—but Middlesex University has persuasively argued that the coalition Government, who introduced the rules, did not take into account the loss of the wider economic benefits of migrant partners’ economic activity. In fact, its model suggested a cost to the taxpayer over that period of £850 million.
Needless to say, the Government did not accept that analysis and pressed ahead, fixing a threshold at the level that the Migration Advisory Committee said would be the annual gross pay required for a couple at which they would not receive income-related benefits, assuming weekly rent of £100. I am not criticising the MAC, which functions like a finely tuned, high-spec computer performing some amazing analysis. However, as with such a computer, the principle of “garbage in, garbage out” applies: if a half-baked question is asked, a half-baked answer is given.
As the MAC pointed out, its deliberations were based purely on economic considerations and did not take into account wider legal, social or moral issues related to family migration. That was absolutely correct. Of course, in implementing its recommendation, the Government did not think to factor in that even if £18,600 was the right threshold, both halves of the marriage or partnership should be allowed to contribute to meeting it, not just the UK sponsor. A talented non-EU national could have a job offer—they might even have worked in the UK in the past under a different visa—yet they cannot join their spouse or partner here if their UK spouse or partner is, agonisingly, just a few hundred pounds short of the income threshold. That makes absolutely no sense.
I, too, pay tribute to the MAC for its work. Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the MAC recommended a range between £18,600 and £25,700 and that, given that range, the Government chose the lowest figure they could?
It is true the Government chose the lesser of two evils, but I go back to the point I made before: it all depended on the question that the Government asked of MAC, which dictated the answer that came back. They could have looked at a million different alternatives. For example, in some litigation before the courts, reference has been made to the minimum wage, which is considerably less than £18,600. In my view, there was nothing wrong with the threshold previously in place, which was broadly £5,500—a rate that equated to income support at that time. There is even a case for removing the financial threshold altogether. So, yes, the Government chose the lesser of two evils, but that was from the question they asked in the first place.
The all-party parliamentary group on migration rightly pointed out that there will be many cases where the separation of parents leads to increased reliance on social security benefits. All of that is largely hypothetical anyway, since as we all know the non-EU spouse is prohibited from accessing social security benefits in any event for five years.
Ultimately, we should not engage in a balance-sheet debate that excludes from consideration family life and the best interests of children. We are talking about people—husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters—whose lives are being absolutely ruined. I have no doubt that colleagues will raise many constituency cases today, and each of them is absolutely deserving of our attention.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to look at issues such as caring responsibilities? A number of constituents have come to my surgeries whose spouse would be able to care for and look after them, but they have been prevented from getting into the country, which has had a hugely detrimental impact on the constituents’ physical and mental health.
I agree, and that is a perfect illustration of what the all-party parliamentary group was saying about how the rules can lead to an increased reliance on social security benefits. It also puts a big question mark over any Government argument that the rules somehow benefit integration. They certainly do not benefit the integration into society of the UK sponsor left here picking up the pieces.
All of that suffering is well documented in various reports and pieces of research, and I thank everyone who has been involved in documenting the effects of this mean-spirited and cruel Government policy. Utterly compelling is the report prepared in September 2015 for the Children’s Commissioner for England about the effect on at least 15,000 children—by now the figure is probably pushing on 20,000—living in “Skype families” across the UK. It detailed how the Government’s policy was causing those children separation anxiety, increased levels of anger and disobedience, greater levels of aggression, signs of depression, disrupted sleep, eating problems, social isolation and withdrawal, and feelings of guilt. Ultimately, what matters is that those children are being kept apart from one parent by the Government’s nasty immigration policies. In short, the Children’s Commissioner was clear that the Government’s legal obligations to children are not properly recognised in the rules and that too many decisions completely fail to take into account the best interests principle.
Last week, Phoebe Griffith of the Institute for Public Policy Research told members of the Home Affairs Committee that the net migration target had
“created a whole set of quite perverse incentives”.
She used policies on international students as an example, but I think that an even clearer example is the drastic changes to the immigration rules for non-EU spouses and partners that were introduced in July 2012. The real reason for the rules is the Prime Minister’s near-pathological obsession with her bogus net migration target, and it seems that it does not matter to her who is hurt as a result. Too many UK citizens with non-EU spouses and UK children with non-EU parents know that better than any of us. How many more families do the Government want to plunge into the nightmare in pursuit of the target? Will they apply the same rules to EU spouses after Brexit, for example?
For the reasons I have explained, and many more that I am sure hon. Members will touch on, the Government should go back to the drawing board and put families and children first.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us to have this debate today. It has been more than three years since spousal visa rules have been debated in Parliament, so I am sure that Members will agree that the debate is long overdue. Although my constituency has a declining population and a low number of migrants, my inbox is still regularly punctuated by spousal visa cases. The people who come to me for assistance generally assume that it is a straightforward process for a UK citizen to bring a spouse from outside the European economic area into their own country. It is a reasonable assumption to make, but the sad reality is that UK spousal visa rules are not straightforward or logical; they are arbitrary, unfair and discriminatory, and they constitute disproportionate interference in genuine spousal relationships.
The policy has led to the rise of so-called Skype families, where children can maintain contact with one of their parents only by using the online messaging system Skype, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) explained. The policy has had many negative consequences and it should make us reflect on the social contract that should exist between the UK Government and citizens. If citizens pay their taxes and act within the law, the Government have an obligation to protect their rights, including the right to a family life.
However, it is clear that the Government are failing in that obligation by standing in the way of UK citizens who have married partners from outside the EEA. The rationale for that policy is that the Government want to prevent migrants from becoming a burden on the state—the value of the person being determined only by how much money they have. My understanding was that the Tory party believed in small, limited government that gives citizens the maximum freedom to pursue their lives. Yet the Government are obstructing citizens’ most fundamental relationships: those between spouses and between parents and children.
Ryan Shorthouse, the founder and director of the Conservative think-tank Bright Blue, went so far as to say that the rules are not conservative and that they damage society by splitting up the key ingredient of a compassionate society, the family. The system does not work and does not deliver positive results for the UK or its citizens. I do not expect the Minister suddenly to deviate from the Government’s irrational commitment to reducing net migration, but at the very least I would like to see changes to the spousal visa application process.
First, the minimum salary requirement has to be reduced so that it more accurately reflects the wages of all UK citizens, not just the richest. Research conducted by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford shows that the financial requirement disproportionately affects women, ethnic minorities and those outside London. It is estimated that 41% of people in Scotland would be ineligible to sponsor a non-EEA family member, compared with 27% in London. Paradoxically, that means that the UK Government have created an immigration system where getting access to the areas with the highest population pressures is easier than getting access to Scotland, which has lower average wages than London but is in desperate need of more people.
The Home Office might feel generous in stating that any deficiency in income can be topped up with savings. If a sponsor has a shortfall in income of £2,000, the Home Office formula would require them to have £21,000 in savings to meet the financial requirement. That is an absurd amount, considering that more than 16 million people in the UK and almost half the people of Scotland have less than £100 in savings. The Government can hide behind the income threshold analysis outlined by the Migration Advisory Committee, but that would simply be an exercise in dehumanising my constituents and trying to put a monetary value on the family relationships of UK citizens.
Secondly, the Government must reduce the application fees, which are large and increasing. From March 2016 they rose by an unjustifiable 25%. To apply for a spousal visa in person now costs £1,311, while phoning the international helpline costs £1.37 a minute. When the £500-per-person NHS levy is taken into consideration, families can easily spend between £5,000 and £10,000 on fees over a five-year period, and possibly more, depending on how many children they have. Far from being a burden on the state, spouses of UK citizens are paying exceptional amounts of money just to have their applications considered.
Thirdly, it is time to simplify the application process. By that I do not mean simply making it an online process. A typical document that applicants are expected to complete is the FLR(M) application form, which is 81 pages. It covers every aspect of a person’s life—where they have lived, their relationships, their housing situation and their personal finances. Aside from the unnecessary and intrusive questioning, applicants are asked if they have been involved in genocide, war crimes or terrorist activities. It would be helpful for the Minister to outline how many war criminals have been apprehended thanks to question 10.8 in the spousal visa application.
In conjunction with a more streamlined application process, I would like the Minister to consider relaxing the rules on evidence requirements. For instance, applicants are required to provide original hard copies of documents in support of their application. We live in an age when payslips, bank statements and bills are increasingly moving online. Little guidance is available through official channels and applicants are forced towards often unreliable and out-of-date sources on the internet to learn what documents they need to provide.
The infamous inflexibility of visa assessors makes the process even more difficult, as applicants know that one small and even insignificant mistake can lead to a refusal with life-changing ramifications. The Minister will be pleased to know that I have brought a copy of the 81-page application form with me today. I invite him to take it with him, complete it and prepare the evidence that he would need to submit a successful application for himself and a partner and children. As a highly paid Minister, he cannot understand the years of uncertainty and financial pressure that the process creates for UK citizens and their families. Completing the application will, however, give him a limited understanding of how his laborious system works in practice.
Time constrains me from touching on the many other issues associated with spousal visa rules. I regret that I cannot highlight even some of the absurd situations that my constituents have experienced because of the inflexibility that is at the heart of the policy. A drastic change of attitude is required at the Home Office. It should stop treating UK citizens and their families as if they have done something wrong and need to justify their existence, and as if they are unwelcome in the UK. UK citizens deserve the Department’s support, no matter whom they marry. Freedom to marry and live with a loved one should not be reserved for those who have the money. If the Minister is content to divide families then let him keep the rules. If not, let him reform them as a matter of urgency. Families in the UK have suffered enough.
I want finally to thank my researcher, Colin MacDonald. He was born in the USA to a Scottish mother, was raised in Australia and now lives in Scotland with his wonderful Chinese Singaporean wife. If Colin says that the system is overly complicated, expensive and discriminatory, the Government should listen, because he knows it inside out. His tireless commitment to helping others has gone a long way to reuniting wives with their husbands and children with their parents.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Ryan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on securing this morning’s important debate. Immigration visa matters are among the most common constituency casework for MPs. Putting the complexity of the UK immigration system to one side, I struggle to put into words my frustration with a system that lacks any common sense. It is incredibly complacent and riddled with mistakes and inconsistencies, and its approach to dealing with clients wanting to extend a stay in this country or come to join partners and families is amateur.
I put no blame on the hard-working staff at immigration centres. They work in stressful circumstances in a system that makes an already difficult job harder. Despite the stress of their work, my experience of contacting the Home Office has mostly been positive. Staff have always done their best to find answers to questions that I have raised with them.
The Scottish National party has long opposed the UK Government’s approach to immigration. My feelings have only been strengthened during my time in this place—particularly during my time serving on the Public Bill Committee for the Immigration Act 2016. SNP Members view the immigration system as inflexible, treating applicants with suspicion and not catering to the needs of all parts of the UK. We have witnessed cases in the highlands of Scotland in which hard-working families have been threatened with deportation because they do not meet all the requirements of the UK Government’s rigid and unfair system. That is despite the massive contribution they make to their local communities, where the problem is not immigration but emigration.
I may not represent a highland community, but I have experienced a system that is counterproductive to the economic needs of my constituency. I am currently assisting one of my constituents, who is from Houston; given that we are dealing with an American spouse, I should stress we are talking about Houston, Renfrewshire, not the Texas hamlet that pales into insignificance when compared with the original and best. My constituent, Beth, is having a fairly torrid time in trying to get a spousal visa for her American husband. Beth and her husband, Willie, met at Glasgow University and spent a few years in California working as highly skilled and specialised vets.
As a result of Beth’s mother falling seriously ill, they made plans to return to Scotland. They both gained employment as vets, thereby meeting and exceeding the necessary wage threshold in a skilled job, and were expecting a straightforward, successful application. However, the Home Office refused Willie’s application on the grounds that it had doubts over the legitimacy of the relationship—despite the US Government having already awarded Beth a spousal visa and indefinite right to remain in California. Despite their meeting at Glasgow University in 2007, being together since 2012 and marrying in 2014, regularly coming back to Scotland on holiday, securing employment and meeting the wage threshold, and despite the emotional circumstances surrounding Beth’s mum, the Home Office still refused the application.
The case would be laughable if the process had not caused an overwhelming amount of stress and pain for Beth, Willie and their families. After they applied relentless pressure and jumped through the burdensome hoops, and after I made the Immigration Minister aware of the case—I am grateful for his assistance—the Home Office has now accepted that a real relationship exists between Beth and Willie. However, anyone who thinks that is the end of the story is probably inexperienced in dealing with the immigration system.
The Home Office—after first emailing an incorrect address—has requested that Willie makes the final international health surcharge payment on his application and sends over his American passport. However, Willie has already made that payment a long time ago, and UK Visas and Immigration already has his passport. My office has been trying for weeks to get the situation resolved but, frustratingly, UKVI is all over the place with the case and does not realise that Willie has completed everything that has been asked of him and more.
Hopefully that case will be resolved soon enough. It should have been a clearcut case for UKVI, but needless problems and delays have caused much stress and misery for the family, cost a significant amount of taxpayers’ money and caused real logistical problems for the employer, who deserves great credit for holding the job open in good faith despite the Home Office’s delays.
The previous Immigration Minister, the now Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said last year:
“The Government certainly do recognise the contribution that skilled and talented people from outside this country can make to our economy, and I have been very explicit about the way in which our immigration rules are designed to facilitate that.”—[Official Report, 26 May 2016; Vol. 611, c. 689WH.]
We have heard that refrain time and again, despite the barriers erected and fortified by the same Government. My question to the current Minister is whether he will apologise for the stress caused to Beth, Willie and the entire family. They have done everything asked of them and met every criterion that the Government set, at great expense. All they want is to help to take care of Beth’s mother, live together in the UK and contribute to wider society.
That case highlights the deep flaws rooted in the immigration system. Despite Beth earning more than the £18,600 minimum annual income that was put in place in 2012, Willie experienced a number of issues when trying to secure the appropriate visa to join her. When the coalition Government introduced the minimum income threshold, it was widely criticised and challenged in the courts. Civil society at large, including the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, the Migrants’ Rights Network, BritCits and the Family Immigration Alliance campaigned against the minimum income requirement, claiming that it would divide families and make it harder for the overseas spouses of UK citizens to join them. In my experience of helping people go through the visa process, the initial fears raised back in 2012 have proven entirely correct.
I will touch on some common criticisms of the minimum income requirement. First, notwithstanding the Minister’s earlier intervention, the threshold was set too high, with hard-working and genuine applicants losing out as a result. I do not doubt that we all value the positive contribution that our international friends make to life in the UK. They enrich our communities, and we offer some the opportunity to better themselves. However, the threshold prevents many people from being able to live a life in the UK, especially when we consider that as many as 45% of people in the UK earn less than the required threshold, particularly in areas outside London and the south-east.
Secondly, research conducted by the University of Oxford confirms that the policy disproportionately affects particular groups. It found that the minimum income requirement has
“important indirect effects across gender, ethnicity, education, age and place of residence.”
Female workers hoping to act as sponsors for their male partners are particularly disadvantaged, with 57% not earning enough to sponsor a non-EEA spouse.
The financial threshold has been called unfair, disproportionate and counterproductive, and it is for that reason that the UK is now considered to have the least family-friendly immigration policies in the developed world. For a party that preaches the importance of family, it seems strange that the Conservative party would design a system that breaks families apart; as a result of the Government’s policies, families have been separated and children are growing up without a parent.
It seems entirely nonsensical and almost beyond comprehension that no account is taken of foreign spouses’ prospective earnings. Because of the financial threshold, many skilled workers may be discouraged from returning to, or choosing to settle in, Scotland, and will instead go elsewhere. Instead of the savings originally predicted, the minimum income requirement could end up costing the UK more, with the loss of tax revenue from migrants who have been unable to come to the UK, and with some families unnecessarily having to rely on benefits because the migrant partner is unable to join them.
The Government must review this unfair policy, which is hurting families all over the UK. We need a reasonable immigration system that does not separate children from their parents or wives and husbands from each other, and does not prevent migrants from making a positive contribution to the UK. We need a fair, robust and secure immigration system that takes account of the varied social and economic needs of different areas of the country and does not discriminate against half the population. Perhaps even more importantly, we need to allow UKVI officers and the Home Office in general to exercise common sense, which in many cases would save taxpayers money and end the continuing stress of so many people like Beth and Willie.
First, I apologise for not being here in time; I have already done that through the Speaker’s Office. The Heathrow Express was late, and as a result I had to run; Mo Farah and Usain Bolt have nothing to fear, no matter how hard I run. That is how I got here. I apologise to the proposer of the debate, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), and I congratulate him on his presentation. Unfortunately I missed it, but I am sure the gist of what he said will be exactly the same as what I will say and what other hon. Members have said.
It is a pleasure to see the Minister in his place. I know he works hard on these issues; we bring issues to him and he responds to us faithfully, and we very much appreciate that relationship as elected representatives. I thank him for that. I also thank the UK Border Agency staff, who I speak to regularly and who always give me advice and assistance within the rules that have been laid down. I have to say that I am not happy with some of those rules.
It will be no shock that I take a more humanistic understanding of the issues regarding immigration rules for spouses and partners in the UK. The rules introduced on 9 July 2012 by the Home Office mean that, to bring a foreign spouse into Britain, somebody would have to maintain employment that provides a minimum income of £18,600. That has left some 33,000 people unable to remain with their spouse, as many do not earn the required amount to satisfy that visa requirement. In Northern Ireland, and I suspect in Scotland, many people are not in that income bracket, which is an issue of concern.
We know how the system works and we understand it very well. For families with one child, the income requirement rises to £22,400, rising a further £2,400 for each extra child. By its very nature, the income needed almost debars many people from qualifying. For me, that is an extortionate amount for genuine couples who are marrying for love, not for benefits from the UK Government or the system we have. It seems that the rules introduced have affected the more vulnerable and the less wealthy.
Recent studies show that around 47% of British people do not earn enough to fall in love with a foreign national; it is as simple as that. What is worse, under the rules a migrant applicant’s overseas income does not count towards the threshold. Will the Minister consider looking at that as one way to address the issue? That would go a long way to getting an arrangement that works. How can it be fair that a migrant’s income is not taken into account at all? With great respect to people who live in London, the rules appear to suit only those who live in London, graduates and those in well-paid jobs. Some 73%—nearly three quarters—of people living in the capital meet the threshold in the immigration rules for spouses and partners and are more likely than the rest of the country to sponsor a spouse from outside Europe. Surely many people outside London would love the opportunity to live with their spouse.
The law also discriminates against women, with research showing that some 55% of British women and 53% of those under 30 are excluded from bringing a spouse into Britain. If we are unfairly discriminating against women, that is an issue we have to consider. I understand that there are rules in place for a reason—for our protection—and I do not for one second believe that there should be an onus on the Government to take care of people who are not British. However, it is clear that the level of income needed is not what it takes to run a household in the United Kingdom. The Government set a minimum income for a standard of living that is much less than that, and we must consider that.
We should welcome those who wish to make a life in the United Kingdom with their families, work hard and contribute to our society. One argument heard when the legislation was introduced was that the Government would save some £650 million. That is not a sum to be sneered at; we have to be realistic. The Government stated that the minimum income rule was to prevent unqualified spouses from coming to the UK and becoming dependent on the state. However, further research done by Middlesex University found that if most spouses turned away at the borders had found employment, they would have made a contribution of more than £850 million to the UK economy. To me, the figures are simple. Let them in.
As a married man, I believe in marriage between one man as husband and one woman as wife. I consider it the most intimate of human relationships and a gift from God. In the Bible, Hebrews 13:4 tells us:
“Let marriage be held in honour among all”.
Why is a marriage between a UK citizen and a foreign national not held in the same honour or deemed less? No Government, no party and no institution should deny any man the right to be married to his wife or any woman the right to be married to her husband. Marriage should not be established in the UK by the taxman or Government penalties.
I have been involved in a number of immigration battles. As I was just saying to my colleague, the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), I deal with these issues every week in my office, and they are terribly important. I feel frustration on behalf of my constituents who happen to be married to someone from another country. This issue comes up all the time. One immigration battle involved a two-and-a-half year fight by a husband and wife, costing in excess of £7,000 for the solicitor’s fees and other fees—that is £7,000 for a person who does not have £18,500. Right away, that imposes a strain on newly wedded couples. Is that how we would like to start our married lives, given the strains and adjustments that are already on a new marriage?
We also need to think of the possible effects on the children of these marriages. The rules have been criticised by the Children’s Commissioner. More than 15,000 children are separated from one of their parents because of our broken system. I find that fact utterly heartbreaking. A Filipino lady who had married a fellow from Newtownards came to see me. They had a child. We played by the immigration rules, but because of those rules, she had to leave her baby at home with the dad, go back to the Philippines and then start again through the system. It took her almost nine months. During those nine months, she could see her child through Skype but could not hold them in her hands, cuddle them or love them. That is an example of what I have been involved in.
Imagine parents being separated from their children, who are living in another country, all because they do not earn the recommended minimum income for our country. Is that how we would want our child to be raised? Is that how we would have wanted to be raised, as children? Those are the questions we need to ask ourselves. Can we not do more to make provisions for couples who have children? Again, I ask the Minister what we can do to assist. I have seen the devastation at first hand in my own constituency.
I want to give another example. A number of people from the Philippines and lots of people from across the eastern bloc work in my constituency. A young Filipino came to Northern Ireland with a visa more than six months ago but unfortunately could not get one for her 12-year-old son. He was sent home because she did not have the required minimum income to sustain him; that was the consequence of the Government’s scheme. We can imagine how hard that was. The case was won on appeal—there is an appeal system, and it works—but that child has still not been given his visa months later. His mother rings my office every week asking when her son will be able to start a life with her. I see the heartbreak in that young woman’s eyes and hear the pain in her voice every week. Cases such as that make me say we must do better, and I implore the Minister to do that. I know he is a compassionate man who is always responsive when we ask him to do things; we can never, nor will ever, fault him for that.
The agri-food industry has brought workers over to my constituency, where we have a number of agri-food businesses. In one company, 40% of the workforce is from eastern Europe and in another the figure is 60%, so we can understand the importance of that workforce to those companies. Some of the workers have met and married local girls and guys. With Brexit on the horizon, their visa situation must be made clear. They ask me about it all the time. I spoke to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs when she visited Northern Ireland, and she was very keen to ensure that the people working in the factories will have security and tenure.
The Minister and I have talked about this before, but we have an opportunity for an overhaul that protects us but allows for marriages that are not determined by someone’s ability to earn a high wage. Let us protect the people who are here and ensure they can continue to offer something and work hard. The local caretaker has as much right to love as a doctor. The song “Love Don’t Cost a Thing” certainly does not apply in the UK Visas and Immigration department, and we need to revamp and look again truthfully and sincerely at our criteria. I believe we can ensure that people cannot claim off the state without splitting up marriages and families. It can be done, so let us do it.
I want to start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald)—or Kirky East, as we like to call it—on securing this extremely important debate and on his knowledgeable speech. He has a background in this area. Everybody who has spoken today has demonstrated how much they care about the people they represent. It is important to do that, even when we feel like we are banging our heads against a brick wall, and even when we feel that the Government are possibly not listening and that nothing will change. People need to know that there are Members in this place who care about them and will keep speaking up for them; that makes a difference to them. I congratulate everyone who has spoken today on demonstrating how much we care.
When the topic of spousal visas comes up, as it does from time to time, people generally react with shock to the news that UK citizens are not automatically entitled to bring their partner to live with them in the UK, as my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) —land of my birth—said. When I detail the hurdles and hoops that most couples have to jump through, the response is always one of disbelief. People think I have got it wrong. They say, “Surely it is an infringement of civil liberties to be denied the right to live with your spouse,” or, “Is there a price on love?” Well, according to the Home Office, there is a price for marrying someone from another country, and it is a high one.
Applying for a spousal visa is an expensive process that should, in itself, indicate the commitment to the relationship. In addition to the application fee, which is now more than £1,300—as my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde said, that is an increase of 25%—lawyers’ costs can be not inconsiderable, as applications often drag on for years through the appeal or reapplication process, putting not only a financial strain but debilitating emotional stress on couples and families.
If people can find the money to make an application, the three main barriers preventing many of them from living with their non-British or non-EU partners are the minimum income threshold, as we have heard; the complicated application process; and, perhaps most importantly from what I have experienced through my constituents, the culture of disbelief at the heart of the Home Office. We have heard examples, notably from my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), who talked about Beth and Willie in Houston—the Houston. He told us that even when an MP gets involved, that often makes very little difference. The MP must then battle for months on end to get mistakes rectified. One mistake in that case was the Home Office calling for a passport that had already been sent in. Then we heard the horrifying story from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) of a baby being separated from its mother for nine months. It is not necessary to be a psychologist to know the damage that that could do to the baby’s development.
I want to share a few examples of my own. It was difficult to decide which of my constituents in this position to talk about, because there are so many and all are struggling, but I will start with Jane. She was a young Scottish woman who emigrated to New York in the 1960s; she was just 18 years old. She met and fell head over heels for Ben, a native New Yorker. They married, raised two children, saw their grandchildren born and, like all couples, faced the many trials and tribulations that life threw at them in their 50-plus years together. When the trials seemed more prominent, they sadly divorced. However, that did not feel right and they were soon back together.
As Jane and Ben reached what should have been their golden years, they decided, having spent their married life in the United States, to spend their retirement in Jane’s home country of Scotland. They owned a house in Glasgow and set plans in motion to come home, but those plans were scuppered by the Home Office, which did not believe that they were a couple. That couple had been together for more than 50 years, throughout the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s and into the new millennium, but they were subjected to the insult and embarrassment of having the validity of their relationship questioned.
I am pleased to say that the situation is now resolved and Jane and Ben are finally living, I hope, happily ever after in Milton in my constituency, but that took more than 18 months from the day their original application was rejected. The costs were high, involving considerably more not just in application fees and legal costs, but in terms of the deterioration in Jane’s failing health, which was exacerbated by the regular separations from her husband and the complete uncertainty about their future together.
If the Home Office can cast doubt on a 50-year relationship, what chance do a young couple have? Will the Minister be good enough to tell me why Jane was advised that if she wanted to be with her husband, she should go and live in the United States? How can we expect other countries to take in a British citizen if we refuse to take in theirs because we do not believe they have a relationship? I just wonder what the British Government’s friend, Mr Trump, would make of the advice that Jane was given.
Another constituent, Sasha, met the man who was to become her husband, Jay, on a family holiday in Pakistan when she was just four years old. They became the best of friends as they continued to meet over the years during regular family holidays. As they grew into adulthood, friendship blossomed into love. Sasha and Jay got married in 2011 and are now the proud parents of two beautiful children. People might expect that to be the “happily ever after” ending to the story, but no: the Home Office was ready to rain on their parade, and rain it did. It took decision makers at the Home Office a shocking five years to accept that that was a real relationship. In fact, Sasha’s husband was able to join his wife and children in Glasgow only last week. The Home Office did not believe that they were in a relationship. It was a sham, the Home Office alleged. That Sasha had not visited her husband very often since the wedding was one excuse used. Well, that was correct: Sasha did not visit her husband as much as she would have liked, because she had to work every hour she could to maintain the minimum income requirement and to take care of their two children. That is what the Home Office told her she had to do. As my hon. Friends the Members for Inverclyde and for Paisley and Renfrewshire North said, if someone is female and lives north of London, they are far less likely to be able to reach the minimum income requirement.
The result was that the two children, born in 2012 and 2014, got to know their father, during their most formative years, as a face on a laptop. In whose view is that fair? Six years on from their wedding day, that young couple and their children are no longer a Skype family and are finally able to live together as a family, but why should that have taken so long? Why is there so much distrust? Who benefits from it? Is it the Home Office? Is it immigration lawyers? It is certainly not the British citizen, and definitely not their children. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East told us, the Children’s Commissioner said that the Government were not meeting their legal requirement to children. I argue that they are not meeting their moral requirement to them, either.
As we have heard from other hon. Members, no one is disputing that there has to be a system. There must be procedures and checks, and documents and statements must be verified. We know that that has to be done, but it can be done without hostility, and so it should be. It can be done without insensitivity, and so it should be. It can be done without the Home Office contradicting another Department under the same Government—I am talking about the Department for Work and Pensions. The Minister’s colleagues in that Department tell us that a couple require £5,972.20 per annum to live on; that is the current rate of jobseeker’s allowance for a couple. Let us add in an amount for housing benefit, using average rents in Glasgow, which are about £250 a month in social housing and £500 a month for a private let. That adds on between £3,000 and £5,000 a year, so the DWP thinks that a couple can get by pretty well on anything between £9,000 and £12,000 per annum, and the Home Office reckons that a couple need £18,600. Well, which is it? If the DWP is correct, the Home Office needs to reduce that threshold. If the Home Office is right, surely those on jobseeker’s allowance are in for a bumper pay rise. Considering that those under the age of 24 apparently require so much less on which to live, the injustice is even greater for those under the age of 24 who want their spouse to come and live here.
Who else needs very little to live on, according to this Government? The answer is carers. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) talked about people being unable to bring their partner over to care for them. I want to talk about a constituent who has been deemed to be too poor to support herself and her husband, because she is a carer.
Christine was not always a carer. She worked freelance, so it was not easy to demonstrate that she earned enough every year to meet the minimum income requirement to be allowed to bring her husband to live in Scotland. She was getting there, however. She was building up her portfolio and excitedly looking forward to being permanently reunited with her husband. Then both her parents became ill, one of them very seriously with leukaemia. She did what she believed to be the right thing and moved in with them to care for them, but that decision to return the love and care that her parents had shown her as a child, and save the taxpayer thousands of pounds at the same time, means that she has had to reduce the amount of paid work that she does. In fact, yesterday she told my office that her mum had become very ill and in recent weeks she has earned nothing and relies on her husband to send money from Nigeria.
As the hon. Member for Strangford asked, can the income of the man currently supporting a British family not be counted towards the minimum income threshold? I ask that because the decision that Christine took to care for her parents in effect means that she may never be able to bring her husband here. I know that she is watching, so I am saying “may never”, because I hope that she will—and she could do with him right now. She could do with a helping hand with her parents and with someone looking after her from time to time. She could do with a hug from the man whom she loves and who loves her, but she is being denied that because she chose to care for her parents. Perhaps the Minister will offer to look into that case for me and consider making an exception in Christine’s case.
Do I have another few minutes, Ms Ryan?
Great. I have an endless supply of these stories, as have other hon. Members, but I will not refer to them all. The people we talk of are not exceptions. The Government, as on many things, hide behind the idea that “Yes, that’s terrible, but it’s an exception to the rule; that sort of thing does not happen very often.” These people are not exceptions, because we hear about this all the time, and what is happening to them is definitely not acceptable.
When this debate came up, my office and media manager, Annette, went off and wrote much of this speech. I did not ask her to do that; she did it without asking. Why? Because she has recently divorced her husband after years of trying to get him here for even a visit—he did not want to come and live here, but wanted to visit and eventually she was going to go and live there. She could not even get him here for a visit, and it would have been years before she was able to go and live there. Failing that, they had no way of continuing their marriage. She knew that this country would never welcome her husband at any stage if it would not even allow him to come in for a visit. I remember well that he was rejected at one point because he had a job and then rejected at another time because he did not have a job.
Annette has a simple ask, which I share, and I am sure we all have the same ask. It is that we treat people as we expect to be treated ourselves. Most of us believe that being treated with respect, fairness and compassion is not too much to expect; it is not, but the fact that we seem unable to bring any of those basics to the process leaves me feeling embarrassed and, to be frank, utterly ashamed.
Let me say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. We all commend you for the dedication you have shown, despite the challenges you faced this morning, in being here promptly to preside over this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on bringing forward this debate on an important subject. Any MP with any minority communities in their constituency will have experienced the unfairness of these rules.
We are here to discuss the fairness, practicality and justice of the maintenance funds requirements for spouse and partner visas. Sometimes people talk about these issues, in particular in the tabloid press, as though fairness and justice in relation to migrants is not a concern of the British people. However, I was outside No. 10 last night at the biggest demonstration on Whitehall that I have seen in 30 years as a Member of Parliament. Those people were concerned precisely about the fairness and justice of the way the new American President is treating migrants, such as the complete suspension of refugees entering the country and barring people from an arbitrarily chosen list of majority Muslim countries. Sudan is on the barred list but Saudi Arabia is not, where all the 9/11 terrorists came from but, by coincidence, President Trump still has business interests. The remarkable thing about that huge and, for the most part, good-natured demonstration was that the vast majority of people who had come to demonstrate at very short notice were not from the communities affected; they were British people concerned about fairness and justice in relation to migration.
I know the hon. Lady shares my annoyance and concern over the way the situation was handled. People on planes landing at airports in the States were turned away because of a decision by the President. That is an example of the harshness from President Trump and is why people protested last night and we are having this debate today.
Exactly. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for showing how the demonstration corresponds with this morning’s debate. The issue is not just that they are seeking to tighten immigration rules in the United States, but the harshness, the unfairness and the arbitrary way of how it has been done. These maintenance funds requirements are another example of harshness and unfairness, and of not thinking through how the changes would operate in practice. I have no hesitation in saying that this policy and these maintenance funds requirements are impractical, unjust and counterproductive.
As other Members have reminded us, this issue is still before the courts. This is not just a question of Opposition MPs making all sorts of aspersions on Government policy. In July 2013 the High Court did not actually strike down the rules as unlawful in general, but did find that the way they are applied amounts to a disproportionate interference with family life in certain cases. Several Members have raised the issue of the interference of these rules in family life. In July 2014 the Court of Appeal allowed the Government’s appeal against the High Court decision. In May 2015 the Supreme Court granted permission to appeal against the Court of Appeal’s decision; it heard the appeal last year and is yet to hand down judgment.
We might think that, faced with court rulings saying that these maintenance funds requirements have a disproportionate effect on family life, any Government concerned about supporting family life might step back and review their operation. When all is said and done, however we define a husband and wife and however we define a family, strong families are one of the building blocks of our society. Whatever their concern about what the tabloid press says about immigrants on any given day, no Government should wilfully pursue policies that have the detrimental effect on family life that these maintenance requirements do.
Like many Members who have spoken, I deal with the practical consequences of these rules every week in my advice sessions. As we all appreciate, I have the difficult task of trying to explain to distraught husbands or wives that these rules exist and that because of someone’s country of origin, they face this arbitrary hindrance on family reunion. In June 2013, as other Members have mentioned, a report by the all-party group on migration called for an independent review of the requirement and its impact. The Government have yet to respond to that demand.
As we know, the policy requires non-European economic area visa applicants to have available funds equivalent to a minimum gross annual income of £18,600. It is inherently discriminatory because it requires a higher income threshold in cases that include non-EEA children. It is also discriminatory because in many cases only the British and settled visa sponsors’ employment income can be considered. It discriminates against women because their incomes tend to be lower, and effectively encourages family and partnership break up. As other Members have said, the Migration Observatory found that 28% of non-EEA men and 57% of non-EEA women did not meet the threshold. Consequently, the policy hits some ethnic groups harder than others, notably Pakistani and Bangladeshi applicants.
The policy also discriminates against young people who have relatively low incomes. As has become clear in this debate, as a result of the impact on partnerships and families, these provisions may be in breach of fundamental human rights—the right to a family life—as they effectively split up families. The Minister asks, “What would a Labour Government do?” We certainly would not bring forward regulations that could put the Government in breach of the European convention on human rights.
As we have heard from Members from all parts of the United Kingdom, the policy discriminates regionally. Some 30% of British employees in London do not earn enough to sponsor a non-EEA spouse, and that rises to 49% for those in Yorkshire and Humberside while 51% do not earn enough in Northern Ireland—of course in Scotland it is even worse. I will say, as a London Member, that although it is relatively easier for London migrants to hit that income threshold, it is not easy in communities such as Hackney.
This policy is nakedly discriminatory against poorer people. What sort of migration rules say that the poor do not have the same right to family life as the wealthy? That seems contrary to British values, as I think both parties could agree.
It is relatively easier for London migrants to meet the income thresholds, but meeting them is not at all easy in the poorer parts of London. The rules cause a lot of misery and unhappiness and result in unnecessary splits in families, as hon. Members have described. I have always been in favour of an open and frank debate on migration, but I worry about a growing callousness in how we debate the issue. It tends to the conclusion that migrants are not people like us and that they do not have feelings for their family like we do, so the importance of their family to them can then be disregarded. How can it be right that people are separated from their husbands, wives and children by the Government’s regulations?
The Home Office impact assessment estimated that more than £660 million would be saved over 10 years. Anyone who is concerned about the taxpayer has to step back when confronted with that, but that assessment has been disputed by research from Middlesex University, which says that the Government assessment takes no account of the reduced level of employment and therefore the reduced taxes as a result of discouraging both sponsors and their spouses from staying. Middlesex University estimates that the policy could cost the UK £850 million over 10 years.
In conclusion, it is long past time that we moved away from a deficit analysis of immigration that always focuses on the harms and the cost to the public purse. That has happened to such an extent that we have to make a set of rules that are contrary in principle, if not in practice, to the idea of the importance of family life. We all want, as do all our constituents—even those from migrant backgrounds—fair rules and the reasonable management of migration. Nobody doubts that, but we seem to be moving step by step into a realm of callousness, unfairness and injustice, which is counter-productive to building a good society. As many other institutions have done, I urge the Government to review how the rules work and to replace them with a set of fair regulations on income that reflect the overall impact of migration on society, which is actually a positive one. Doing so would mean that we would not have to hear any more of the tragic stories that we have heard this morning of families who are arbitrarily separated by a set of unfair and ill-thought-out rules.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), and indeed the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan), on securing the debate. I intend to leave some time for the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East to conclude.
I will seek to respond to the points that hon. Members have made. We welcome people who wish to make a life in the UK with their family, to work hard and to make a contribution. However, family life should not be established here at the taxpayer’s expense and all migrants, including those who are joining family, must be able to integrate into our communities.
The immigration rules for spouses and other partners were strengthened in the last Parliament. They have three aims. First, they tackle abuse. The minimum probationary period before partners can apply for settlement is now five years rather than two, which is a better test of the genuineness of the relationship. It deters applications based on sham marriages and the criminals who seek to profit from them.
Secondly, the rules promote integration. The minimum income threshold for sponsoring a partner ensures that they can take part in everyday life to facilitate their integration into British society. Being able to speak English is also essential and helps migrants to participate in the community and find work. That is why the rules require a partner to be able to speak basic English, at level A1, before they can come here, and to speak intermediate English, at level B1, and to pass the “Life in the UK” test before they can qualify for settlement.
We all share the Government’s concern that people should be able to speak English. However, if the Government are really concerned, why have they cut funding for English as a second language? Why have they cut the funding available to local authorities that were helping to provide that English training, often in the context of schools or other institutions?
People have to get an English qualification at level A1 in their country before they come here. I represented Yorkshire in the European Parliament, and having represented many of the communities there, I know the disadvantage that many children face when they start school—perhaps second or third-generation English-born children—if they do not speak English as their first language. Having that ability in English is absolutely vital not only for the integration of spouses, but for enabling children to progress in life. That is why we set these levels and why, from 1 May 2017, we are introducing a new English language requirement for partners applying for further leave after two and a half years in the UK on a five-year route to settlement. That will require them to progress to A2 level from the A1 level required on entry.
Thirdly, the rules seek to prevent burdens on the taxpayer. That is achieved through the minimum income threshold of £18,600 a year to be met by those wishing to sponsor a partner to come or remain here, with higher thresholds for also sponsoring dependent, non-EEA national children. It is right that those wishing to establish their family life here must be able to stand on their own feet financially. That is the basis for sustainable family immigration and for good integration outcomes.
That point was raised in the debate, including by the hon. Gentleman’s Front-Bench colleague, the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin). Employment income from the migrant partner will not count towards a minimum income threshold. We will not take into account the previous, current or prospective earnings, or any job offer of the migrant partner, when they apply for entry clearance to come to the UK. Employment overseas is no guarantee of finding work in the UK. Partners coming to the UK with an appropriate job offer can apply under tier 2 of the points-based system. Those using the family route to come to the UK must be capable of being independently supported by their sponsor or by their joint savings or non-employment income. When a migrant partner is in the UK with permission to work, we will take their earnings from employment here into account.
As I was saying about the rules relating to the £18,600 threshold, it is right that those wishing to establish their life here can stand on their own feet financially. The previous requirement for “adequate” maintenance meant that any sponsor earning, after tax and housing costs had been deducted, more than the equivalent of income support for a couple—around £5,700 a year—was deemed to have sufficient funds to sponsor a partner. That was not an adequate basis for sustainable family integration and provided little assurance that couples could support themselves over the long term. That is why the minimum income threshold for sponsoring family migrants was introduced as part of the reforms of the family immigration rules implemented in July 2012.
I am coming to precisely that point. We have heard the Migration Advisory Committee described in glowing terms in this debate, and I pay tribute to the work it does and the analysis it undertakes before reaching its conclusions. Its report, published in November 2011, recommended that the threshold for a couple should be set between £18,600, the level at which a couple settled in the UK generally ceases to be able to access income-related benefits, and £25,700, the level at which the sponsor becomes a net contributor to the public finances by paying more in tax than they consume in public services. The lower figure of £18,600 was chosen, partly because of the points made about incomes being lower in other parts of the country.
I suggest respectfully and gently to the Minister that we need to consider regional variations in relation to that figure. In my contribution I referred to myself and those I know in Scotland. The threshold should fall to £15,000. I think that that is the figure we should consider for regional variations; it would adequately enable people to live in my constituency and across Northern Ireland.
I appreciate the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. The provisional annual survey of hours and earnings data shows that gross median earnings among all employees in 2016 were £23,099 for the UK as a whole, but they exceeded £18,600 in every country and region of the UK—in Scotland the figure was £22,918, and in Ulster it was £20,953. Incidentally, for Yorkshire and the Humber, my own region, the figure was £21,235.
That income threshold, and the higher thresholds if children are sponsored, means that the family will generally be unable to access income-related benefits once the partner and any children qualify for settlement and thereby gain full access to the welfare system. That is a fair basis for family immigration that is right for migrants, local communities and the UK as a whole.
The Migration Advisory Committee also considered the case for setting a different level of income threshold by country and region of the UK. It noted, for example, that a requirement that varied by region could lead to sponsors moving to a lower threshold area in order to meet the requirement before returning after a visa was granted, and that a family living in a wealthy part of a relatively poor region could be subject to a lower income requirement than a family living in a deprived area of a relatively wealthy region. The MAC could therefore see no clear case for differentiation in the level of the minimum income threshold between UK countries and regions, and the Government agree. A single national threshold also provides clarity and simplicity for applicants, sponsors and caseworkers.
Surely the Minister understands that, regardless of what average earnings are, we get to the average by having lots of people who earn more and lots of people who earn less. What about the people who earn less and will never be in a position to reach £18,600? Why should their husband or wife not be able to come and live with them here, in the country of which they are a citizen?
Basically, the argument behind it, to which the Migration Advisory Committee also subscribed, was that there should not be a burden on the taxpayer. The levels have been set so that people will not be liable to claim benefits. The hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), speaking from the Labour Front Bench, discussed challenges in court, as did other Members. The Government’s position on this issue has been supported all the way through the courts, which is why we are now at the Supreme Court, the last point of appeal.
I will touch on one or two points made during the debate. The hon. Member for Inverclyde mentioned third-party support. Promises of financial support from family and other third parties cannot be counted against the minimum income threshold. We want the couple to demonstrate that they can stand on their own feet financially, with adequate resources that are under their own control and not somebody else’s. Promises of support from a third party are vulnerable to a change in another person’s circumstances or in the sponsor or applicant’s relationship with them.
The hon. Member for Inverclyde also raised the issue of fees. Income from application fees helps provide the resources necessary to operate the immigration system, with the remainder currently provided through general taxation. In the recent spending review, the Home Office set out its objective to work towards a border, immigration and citizenship system that is fully user-funded by 2019-20. The recent fee increase reflects this objective. Fees are set above cost recovery to reflect the administrative cost of processing an application and the benefits arising to those granted leave. It is right that fees are charged directly to users of the immigration system who benefit directly from the services provided.
The Minister is doing an exceptionally good job of reading out the policy, but does he accept from all the examples given by various Members of Parliament and many others who deal with such applications that the system does not work and continually falls over for individual constituents?
I am certainly more than happy to become personally involved if there are cases where we have not applied the rules correctly. Sometimes we make mistakes—sometimes documents are lost in transmission, for example. I know that the civil servants working in the Home Office who provide support to MPs are assiduous in ensuring that any mistakes that we make are quickly rectified and that the people involved are not put at a disadvantage.
I mentioned Christine, my constituent, who is now unable to meet the minimum income threshold because both of her elderly parents are sick and she is their carer. She is saving this country thousands of pounds. Probably the correct rules were applied, so I am asking the Minister not to do what he has offered to do—intervene when the rules have been applied incorrectly—but to consider making an exception in the case of Christine, who could do with her husband being here and who has selflessly given up the potential to earn enough money in order to look after her parents. Will he consider looking into her case and making an exception?
I will certainly consider the case, and I would welcome a meeting with the hon. Lady so that she can explain it in more detail.
Under the rules, the income from employment of the UK-based sponsor can be counted in one of two ways. The person must show either that they have received the level of annual income relied on from employment held for at least six months at the date of application, or that they are currently in employment earning that level of annual income and have earned that amount from all employment undertaken in the previous 12 months. That provides some flexibility for those who change employment. It also gives us some assurance that the person is qualified for and can hold down employment at the level of income relied on. We otherwise risk being presented with applications based on earnings that do not accurately reflect the employment capacity of the person concerned. In order to maintain the integrity of the system for all applicants and sponsors, we need rules in place to prevent that.
The rules also take into account a wide range of other sources of income for the couple and their cash savings. Since July 2012, many changes have been made to the rules to enable more sources of income and savings to be counted and to introduce more flexibility on the required evidence. For example, cash savings, which otherwise must be held for at least six months prior to the date of application to help show that they are under the couple’s control, can now include proceeds from the sale, within that six-month period, of a property or investments owned by them.
The rules do not take into account the employment prospects of the migrant partner or a job offer to them, as I mentioned; employment overseas is no guarantee of finding work in the UK. However, when they get here, they can contribute to the family income and meet the rules in that way. The couple can rely on accommodation provided by a third party. The minimum income threshold reflects average rent, so that the couple can be expected to make their own arrangements later if need be. The immigration rules for spouses and partners have been upheld as lawful by the courts.
I was looking forward to hearing what the Labour Front-Bench spokesperson would have to say on behalf of the official Opposition. I had rather hoped that she would fill some of the vacuum that seems to be Labour’s immigration policy at the moment. She talked a lot about US immigration policy and criticised our policy, but she failed miserably to propose concrete alternatives that would be operable and maintain our wish to counter those who seek to exploit the UK with sham marriages. Hopefully things will become clear at some point between now and the next election.
In my contribution, I asked the Minister a question, which I think I saw him take note of, about those who are applying to come to the United Kingdom. Can their income in the countries they work in be part of the equation? I ask him to look at that and, if necessary, come back to me and to all hon. Members present with an answer in writing.
I am happy to have another look at that rule but, as I have already mentioned, the fact that a person has a job abroad is no guarantee of employment here in the UK. However, if that person arrives in the UK and works, their income contributes to the family income and will be taken into account.
We continue to keep the immigration rules for spouses and partners and their impact under review. There were 28,443 partner visas granted in the year ending September 2016—a decrease of 26% from the 38,355 partner visas granted in the year ending September 2010. Our overall assessment is that the current rules are having the right impact and are helping to restore public confidence in the immigration system. I am grateful to have had the chance to hear the views of hon. Members on these issues.
I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. They have made some incredibly powerful and heartfelt contributions on a whole range of troubling issues, including the ridiculous income threshold, the crazy evidential requirements that too many applicants have to meet, the cost of applications and the processes involved—we could even throw in the ridiculous appeal times that too many people face. There is also a chicken and egg situation with visit visas: people are refused a spouse visa because they are a few hundred pounds short of the financial threshold, and when they apply instead for a visit a month later, they are denied it because the Home Office does not think that they will leave again. It really is a horrible situation, and too many people are left in it.
The Minister is a very engaging chap; he is always open to meetings, and I absolutely respect him for that. He inherited these rules—that is his unfortunate position—and he has done his best to defend them, but the Government’s arguments are indefensible. Once again, they are operating at the extreme—other Governments are not doing this. What is more, the Government are completely out of tune with public opinion on the issue. If you went out into the street right now, Ms Ryan, you would struggle to find anyone who thought that an £18,600 threshold was a reasonable way to calculate who should be allowed to come and join their family here. Most people would find it totally outrageous that somebody’s job offer or potential earnings could not be taken into account towards the target.
These rules are, essentially, the Prime Minister’s; she introduced them and she made these migrants subject to the net migration target. What does it say about the Government that they have an official target that encourages the Home Office to pursue and implement policies that reduce the number of husbands, wives, children and parents able to come into this country? That is little short of appalling and shocking. I hope that the Minister or the Home Secretary will take away the powerful critique made by hon. Members today and will tell the Prime Minister that it is time to stop hurting families and children.
Like other hon. Members here today, I think that the rules need to be fundamentally rewritten. I will make one final ask of the Minister: will he think again about the refusal to take applicants’ prospective earnings into account? A commitment was made in Parliament, not by the Minister’s immediate predecessor but by the incumbent before that, to look at that again. It is the most ridiculous of all the rules, and I hope that it, at least, can be looked at anew.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered immigration rules for spouses and partners.
Bus Services: Solihull
I beg to move,
That this House has considered bus services in Solihull.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan.
Reliable and accessible public transport is vital for many of the most vulnerable people in our communities. Older and less mobile residents in particular often depend on buses to get out and about, and everybody benefits when shops and social clubs are within easy reach of as many residents as possible. That is why it is so important that bus operators ensure that they take proper account of the needs of those who need their services most, and not just of profit or general convenience, when designing their routes and timetables.
Those of us who are fit and well or who usually drive to work or the shops sometimes do not realise what a lifeline public transport is for older and less mobile residents. Even an apparently minor change in a route or in the location of a stop can cause real difficulties for the people who need a service the most, but too often the rest of us do not realise that. Unfortunately, in my experience, neither do some of the bus operators.
I am campaigning for residents who have been let down by bus operators on two routes in my constituency. The number 37 bus runs from Solihull station into Birmingham. Last summer, National Express rerouted it away from Olton station in the north of my constituency, in response to concerns about congestion. Although the new stop at Warwick Road is not terribly far away on a map, it has made the connecting bus and rail journey disproportionately more difficult for those who are least able to find other ways of getting into Birmingham. I have written regularly on the subject, both in the local press and directly to National Express. I have met Peter Coates, its chief executive for the west midlands, and have attended public meetings to hear residents’ concerns at first hand. I can tell the Minister that those public meetings were full to the rafters, such are people’s concerns.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate, because this is a huge issue. He mentioned public meetings. Several routes have been pulled in our constituency; our meetings about them have been the most widely attended of all the public meetings I have held.
The routes are being pulled because they are not viable. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to look at some kind of cross-borough co-operation, to give assistance to people from rural areas who are looking to go shopping in our towns and cities or trying to get to work?
I am very aware of the difficulties that my hon. Friend describes. They mirror the experiences that we have had in Solihull, including a lack of transparency from some operators and a lack of engagement from others. I absolutely agree that a cross-borough approach between north Warwickshire and Solihull, where our boroughs meet, is important. I know that there are west midlands programmes, but our reaction to them is often a little borough-specific rather than cross-borough.
My office has organised a petition, which I will present to the House shortly and which will indicate the strength of feeling in my constituency about the reroutings. As a result of our efforts, some temporary bus stops have been installed closer to the station, but while that eases the inconvenience for people who can easily walk the rest of the way, it does not solve the problem for elderly and disabled people.
The route shift started as a trial, apparently because congestion around the station was causing regular delays, but I have since been told that it will be staying in place. Obviously nobody likes it when a bus is delayed, but surely operators should try to find more realistic timetables for accessible routes, rather than making their services more difficult to use for those who need them most. I have had representations about that from many people in my constituency who have disabilities.
Another service in my constituency, the S11, has also been redesigned in the name of efficiency without proper care having been taken to protect the interests of its users. The S11 and a couple of connecting services have been shortened to save money and make them more reliable, but they now bypass several residential areas: Hampton Lane, School Lane and Grove Road, which now have no direct connection to the wider public transport network. Once again, that is not the end of the world for someone who can easily walk to the new stops, but it creates much more serious problems for less mobile residents. I myself have had a difficult experience of late; an unfortunate accident meant that I was unable to cover any real distance by walking. It gave me a real insight into the difficulties that come from just trying to cover short distances. Unfortunately, Transport for West Midlands has told me that it cannot act, as the route is privately run.
The S11 situation highlights how much privately run services depend on a good and responsible operator. Unlike National Express, the company running the S11 route, Diamond, has been very difficult to engage with. That is a key point. At least National Express has been willing to talk to and engage with a parliamentarian—myself—and with local councillors and the wider community. However, I have genuine concerns about Diamond. I have been lucky to get a single response out of the company, despite having written to it about residents’ concerns at least 10 times. I am also sorry to say that when Diamond ran a consultation—a fact-find, if you like—on this issue, it chose to do so on a Saturday morning, a time when the elderly residents to whom the bus service is so important use it much less than they do during the week.
All of that suggests that Diamond is more interested in ticking the boxes than in engaging seriously with users’ concerns. I will clearly name Diamond and say that at this moment in time it is effectively failing the people of Solihull, in the provision of services and—more crucially—in these key consultations and fact-finds.
My team and I are still taking action. I have written about this issue several times in the local press and we are distributing hundreds of leaflets about petitions, to make sure that people have an opportunity to make their views known. If Diamond will not do this consultation, I will try to do it for Diamond, and I will present the results to Diamond at every given opportunity. When the operator refuses to engage and is not accountable to any public authority for its decisions, it is really an uphill battle for local communities to put across their views and concerns.
That such small changes to just two routes could have these effects highlights how important local bus services are to some of the less mobile, and often less visible, members of our community. I have no reason to doubt that every bus route in my constituency goes through neighbourhoods where people depend on it to provide a vital link to the rest of the town. When neighbourhoods lose their link to the wider community, it is not just those neighbourhoods that lose out; local businesses lose customers or potential employees, while sports teams, social clubs and charities have fewer members and volunteers.
That is another important point. In Solihull, we rely on a sea of volunteering. I was at a dinner the other night where I was told that up to 800 charities are based in Solihull. I run a scheme—a “points of light” scheme—to recognise those groups. If someone is volunteering, by definition they are doing so for free, but they need to get to their place of volunteering, and it is much more difficult for them to do so if the buses and the wider transport links are not in place.
A better connected community is better for everybody in it, and we all have a stake in making sure that our town is as accessible as possible. That is why it is so important that bus services are run well, and that those who run them are accountable to the people who use them.
I am not one to get misty-eyed about the prospect of the Government running services directly, or one to hark back in time. A good operator can often move more quickly than other bodies to put things right when there is a problem. I mentioned National Express earlier, showing the company in a poor light, but one area where it has engaged with people is in redesigning the timetable of the No. 31 bus after I wrote to say how schoolchildren were being left to wait at the school gates for 45 minutes for a bus home, which I believe was also a very serious safety issue. National Express took that on board and actually made the correct changes to the timetable.
We must always make sure that operators live up to high standards, are responsible, and are responsive to local concerns when they make decisions about routes and timetables. The networks that they run bind our communities together, and their profits— and, yes, the convenience of sprightlier bus users—cannot be their only considerations. Basically, we need to work from a base of considering those who are least mobile and who need bus services the most in order to get around.
Thank you very much, Ms Ryan, for calling me to speak. I think that this is the first time I have served under your chairmanship.
I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) on securing this debate about bus services in Solihull. I can assure him that I am very keen to support his aim of improving those services.
My hon. Friend eloquently described just how important buses are to communities. They are indeed a “lifeline” and without them it would be impossible for many people to get to work, to access public services, including health or education services, or simply to go shopping or socialising. I was particularly struck by his points about the amount of volunteering that takes place within Solihull, that volunteers need transport to do their volunteering and that our communities all benefit from the work of volunteers.
It is important to note that more than half of those people who rely on bus services outside London do not have access to a car. Buses play a vital role in our economy; with 4.4 billion passenger journeys last year, buses are by far the most popular form of public transport. They are way ahead of rail in terms of passenger journeys.
Customer satisfaction with bus journeys is very high, with 86% of passengers satisfied with their service. That picture is consistent across the country and it has been so for many years. Under-21s make up about a third of bus passengers and bus use among older people is increasing as a result of the national concessionary fares scheme. So buses are critical across the country, as my hon. Friend articulated when speaking about Solihull.
It is because of their importance that we are committed to improving bus services, and expenditure on buses reflects that. I will make a couple of comments about support for buses as a whole and then I will make some suggestions, specifically to respond to the points raised by my hon. Friend. I just want to put the comments that have been made into some perspective.
This year, the Government will spend more than £1 billion on the concessionary travel entitlement, and my Department provides more than £240 million in direct subsidy to bus operators and local authorities in England, to help them to deliver local services. Bus services in England outside London are deregulated and it is indeed for commercial operators to determine how, where and when their services operate. About 80% of the bus services in our country operate in this way. Local authorities have powers to subsidise services that are not commercially viable but which they consider socially necessary. Again, however, that is a local decision and it is up to local authorities to decide which services they will fund.
Local bus services must also be registered with the traffic commissioner who has responsibility for such services. The commissioner can take enforcement action against an operator if its service does not run reliably.
I agree that communication must be two-way; it if is not two-way, then it really is not communication. So my hon. Friend is correct about that and I will say a little more about engagement in a moment.
A traffic commissioner can take enforcement action if an operator does not operate its service reliably. Nevertheless, whoever provides bus services, it is important that operators and local authorities ensure that the interests of passengers, and consequently the interests of the wider community, are taken into account when any changes to bus services are being considered.
I also agree with my hon. Friend that good customer service includes proper consultation. He mentioned that a consultation event took place on a Saturday morning. That would have suited some people, who might be at work during the week, but it will not have suited everybody. A company must ensure that it engages everybody—all those who will be affected by any changes—in a proper consultation, and then take any concerns into account.
Passenger Focus has produced best practice guidance on how a company should consult when it makes changes to local bus services. It includes four key principles: collate, which basically means that the company should formulate its proposals; consult, which means the company must consider when to consult, what to consult on, who to ask and how to carry the consultation out, making sure that it captures all the local information; consideration, which means the company must go through and assess all the responses properly; and communicate, which means the company must communicate its decision to all those who are affected. So collate, consult, consider and communicate—happily alliterative, which I am sure is no coincidence. The basic principles are clear and the bus companies should be operating them, up and down our country. I urge all bus companies and anyone making or considering making a change to bus services to follow that excellent guidance and adopt those principles.
I take on board the Minister’s point, but those are best practice principles and in many cases that is not what is happening. Does he accept that? For example, the 116 route in Kingsbury was pulled with the minimum amount of notice, which left my constituents unable to get to work because there was no alternative service.
I indeed accept my hon. Friend’s good point. He has raised this issue as a vigorous champion for his area on several occasions. When we do not see that best practice happening we are right to hold bus companies to account, in representation of our communities. That is our job here. We must stand up for people who need bus services and who, although they do not necessarily have the sharpest elbows, must have their voices listened to.
My Department, and through it the Government as a whole, is taking action to support transport within communities in many other areas, and I would like to mention a couple of them that will, I think, be of interest. At present, each year about £2 billion of public funding for transport services is provided by a number of agencies. For example, we have the £250 million a year that is spent on the bus service operators grant, which the Department for Transport provides to bus operators, local authorities and community transport organisations on the basis of the amount of fuel consumed—a pence per litre rebate. The Department for Communities and Local Government provides £317 million a year to local authorities to support socially necessary bus services. The £1 billion a year spent on home-to-school transport is provided to local authorities by DCLG. The £150 million a year spent on non-emergency patient transport is provided by the NHS to individual local clinical commissioning groups.
That significant amount of funding comes from different sources but it needs to be spent in a joined-up way. Historically, it has not been spent in that way and that provides us with an opportunity. We have, therefore, launched a concept called “total transport” and provided a budget of £7.6 million to fund pilot schemes across England to explore how our public services can work together to provide a better transport service—how councils, the NHS and other agencies can jointly commission transport services with greater efficiency. The idea involves: avoiding the duplication of commissioned services; allowing networks to be designed so that they complement each other; reducing administrative costs, potentially by centralising commissioning; enabling the skills of professional staff, such as those who are scheduling the networks, to be deployed across all the services; and, most importantly of course, achieving overall cost efficiencies, and through that ensuring that services are more viable and that a better footprint of travel and transport is available to our constituents. We have been running 37 pilots on the idea for almost two years. I have met with some of the operators around the country and it is heartening to see the enthusiasm with which they are participating and taking on the opportunities. That is happening across the country and will be of much interest to colleagues.
A further area that always attracts interest from colleagues is the community transport sector. Providing transport solutions also requires the effective use of all options, and this could be relevant to the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Solihull and for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey). It could be a traditional fixed-route bus service, a community bus, a dial-a-ride or another type of demand-responsive transport, such as taxis. The role played by community transport operators is vital in linking individuals and communities to existing transport networks, work, education, shops and services. In recognition of that contribution and important role, the Government launched a £25 million community minibus scheme to help to buy new vehicles for local community transport operators, with a bit of a bias towards more rural areas, where transport can be thinly stretched. The funding will help, among others, elderly residents and people with learning and physical disabilities.
The point about community transport is very important but it is not about just rural areas; it is also about areas of likely demographic demand. For example, in Solihull’s Silhill ward, from which the town gets its name, 40% of residents are aged 65 and over. When I first started campaigning to be elected as an MP, we had a real battle on our hands to keep the dial-a-ride services. It is fantastic to think of rurality, but demography should also play a major part in the process.
This is another occasion on which my hon. Friend and I are in full agreement, and I have just learned the origin of the word Solihull. He is clearly correct. I mentioned rural services simply because transport can be a bit more stretched in rural areas, but there is a requirement for transport everywhere—those who need it are all over our country and in every constituency.
I am delighted to say that more than 300 local charities and community groups across England will receive new minibuses in round one of the community minibus scheme—we have had delivery of more than 200 already. We have been able to secure funding for a further round, applications to which closed in December. The Community Transport Association UK is administering the scheme for us. That is an additional £2 million to provide a further set of vehicles for these impressive organisations.
The bus market is a deregulated one, and it has not changed much in its regulatory form for many years. However, the Bus Services Bill has completed its journey through the upper House and will shortly enter our Chamber. The deregulated market for buses has worked very well for much of our country, but we must recognise that in some areas it has not always responded effectively to the changing needs of the population or taken passenger needs properly into account. That has resulted in insufficient service co-ordination and sometimes poor ticket integration and ineffective on-road competition.
I want to build on the success of the bus market and the strong companies that are out there working to deliver buses, but I want to encourage more people to use them. The Bus Services Bill is designed to put more passengers on to buses. When we set about drafting the Bill that was the aim we had in mind—to improve services and increase passenger numbers. The Bill provides tools that will help local authorities to achieve that aim. It is an enabling Bill that will create a suite of powers to allow local authorities and combined authorities to choose what is right for their area. The powers include new and enhanced partnership provisions, which will allow local authorities to work with bus companies to agree their own standards for services in an area. That is the model that is most likely to be adopted.
When I have talked to councils and combined authorities around the country, they have been very tuned in to the Bill and to the opportunities it presents. Nearly all of them have focused strongly on how partnership will be able to improve their services. That is pretty likely, because when we look at the bus market and at which bits of it are growing strongly, it tends to be those areas where we have good effective partnership between the entrepreneurial spirit and determination regarding customer service that we see from so many bus operators, and the effective planning and co-ordination that can come from local authorities.
I recognise that partnerships will not necessarily be the best solution everywhere. In some cases, the market will be working well and nothing will need to change. If it is not broken, it does not need to be fixed, and there is an opportunity for the status quo to continue in the Bill. In some areas, we intend to allow local authorities, particularly combined authorities, to use new powers to franchise bus services in their areas—like the system in London. Franchising will enable authorities to specify the services that passengers want and to deliver an integrated network of services. Private operators will compete for contracts and deliver those services. It is not a suspension of the market, because competition would move from the kerbside to the tender. That will be a feature of the bus market in a couple of areas.
My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull detailed how he has communicated with his local bus company, Diamond, but not had the response he desired. That is not acceptable. As he has built a reputation here as a vigorous champion for his area in general and for buses in particular, it is more than fair to say that he should get an adequate response from important local providers. I will write to Diamond’s parent company, to say that we have discussed the issue in the House, that we regret the level of engagement locally and that we ask it to sort it out.
I have been to Birmingham to meet the West Midlands Bus Alliance. I attended the launch of the Swift card, and I have my Swift card here. I have no doubt that local authorities in the area see buses as a key part of public transport provision. They are champions for buses. I have been most encouraged, hearing about their transport plans and how they want to work together. The outlook is positive, I hope—I have been encouraged by their work so far—but I will highlight my hon. Friend’s concerns to them to ensure that they are sighted on the issue, too.
In summary, I hope I have been able to demonstrate that the Government are committed to maintaining and improving bus services in all areas. We are taking an imaginative approach to the co-ordination of public services. We are supporting services through extra Government grants and working to bring forward a regulatory regime that will enable greater planning and greater co-ordination, all of which will put the bus customer at the heart of the marketplace. We want to see bus services thrive, whether in the largest cities or the most rural villages. The point is that buses matter, and we want to see more people using them to ensure we get all the benefits that my hon. Friends have so clearly articulated.
Question put and agreed to.
[Geraint Davies in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered future operation of the Severn Bridges.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I welcome the select band of hon. Friends who are here today, while other business is on in the main Chamber.
On 13 January the Government announced their consultation on the future management of the Severn bridges. We were promised it in the autumn, with the Government saying it would be about a year to go until the handover, but better late than never. I have called this debate in part to recognise that the Government have moved some way towards recognising how hard hit we in south Wales have been by the level of tolls, although they have not gone far enough—I will move on to that later—but also, crucially, to get more clarity from the Minister on what the Government are planning when, at long last, the Severn bridges concession ends. We need that clarity because there is not long to go now; Severn River Crossing could reach its revenue target in October this year and the Government consultation ends on 10 March. Now that the concession is drawing to a close, this is the first opportunity that Members have had in 25 years to shape the new regime for the benefit of our constituents and businesses.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this is the moment to have a strategic plan? Action on the inequity of the tolls is long overdue, but we also need to look at the future of the jobs for those who work in the toll booths and at the general management of traffic, bearing in mind the proximity of the Brynglas tunnels. There has to be a strategic approach.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is a critical stage to get this right for the future. Given the inflexibility of the 1992 legislation, it is important that we scrutinise the plans now and future-proof them so that we will not need to unpick things in years to come, for example because we had not thought about vehicle categories. That is a very important point. We must be able to shape the new regime for the benefit of our constituents and businesses. I agree that we will want to get that right.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate again; she has had many debates on the topic and I have made the same observation, but I want to say it again. Does she agree that the need to get this right for the business community extends way beyond south Wales to the west of Wales, mid-Wales and the north as well? It is critical that we get this right for businesses right across the country.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; this issue has ramifications for the whole economy of Wales, in south Wales and beyond, including his constituency. I thank him for being here today and for making that point.
Getting more clarity about the direction of travel is important for my constituents who commute, the businesses that do business across the bridges and those who work on the bridges. In recent years those people have had to suffer the highest toll in the UK, and commuters have just had to absorb the annual increases, however unfair they are. Constituents have had to turn down job offers because the toll is equivalent to nearly an hour on the minimum wage. Just this morning I received an email from a constituent, who said:
“The tolls add a considerable amount to the cost of travel to Bristol, where a lot of attractive jobs for young graduates like myself exist. Many of my friends who have graduated from university recently and are looking for a job fail to look at Bristol because in my opinion, the toll gives…the impression that Bristol is out of reach, even though in actual fact, travel time is not much more than to Cardiff.”
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for securing this debate and for the campaigning she has done on the issue, along with so many of us. She is absolutely right to mention Bristol. I have heard again and again from businesses and individuals in my constituency who trade across the Severnside area, particularly in the creative industries. We have people working in the BBC drama village in Cardiff Bay and the BBC natural history unit in Bristol. Does my hon. Friend agree that sorting out the tolls is absolutely crucial to growing and strengthening that creative economy?
My hon. Friend is right. House prices in Bristol mean that more and more people are choosing to live in Severnside, Monmouthshire and Newport and to commute. Our local economy is interlinked with Cardiff, but also with Bristol. It is incredibly important that we do all we can to support that growth.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and making a powerful argument for reducing the tolls across the Severn to Bristol. Does she agree that we must also improve train services between east Wales, Bristol and the west country? That would also help jobs in our area.
I thank my hon. Friend. He anticipates a point that I was going to make later in my speech about cross-border travel and the capacity of our rail services for those who commute to Bristol and beyond, which is clearly inadequate. When we are looking at tolls, we need to consider the wider picture and take a more holistic view of our transport networks.
Businesses, especially those in logistics and the provision of services, are trying to compete with firms in the south-west that do not have to factor in the toll, and they are losing out. Some businesses in my constituency are hit by up to half a million pounds a year, which just has to come off the bottom line. At present there are no effective discounts or incentives for off-peak travel. The arguments have been well rehearsed over many years, but it is worth reiterating just how hard people have been hit and therefore how strongly they feel about the issue.
The Severn crossings are a key link in our transport and economic infrastructure as part of the M4 corridor—the gateway to Wales—which allows access to markets in the UK, but also as part of the E30 route. As has been said many times before, the Severn tolls have been a tax on Welsh business and commuters. I recognise that the Government have gone some way towards acknowledging that. They announced in January that tolls could be reduced to £3 for cars and vans and £10 for lorries when the concession ends, but the message from many of my constituents and businesses is that the Government are not going far enough.
I want to thank the many constituents, businesses and groups, such as the Freight Transport Association, that have worked with me, other hon. Members and the Welsh Affairs Committee over the years on this campaign. I also thank the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), who attended the Severn bridges summit that I organised with the FTA here last year, so that the people affected could put their views to him directly.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) mentioned, we should also pay tribute to the maintenance and toll staff, who are incredibly hard-working and knowledgeable about the Severn bridges. I hope that the Minister will ensure that they have a key voice in future decisions, because they have the expertise that we need and that we must keep. I urge him to ensure that there are regular meetings with management and staff so that they are fully informed of announcements and discussions. We should acknowledge that it is a sensitive time.
On tolling, the Government have announced that they will seek to reduce the tolls and that they will use the toll revenue for operations, maintenance and debt repayment. The Minister will be aware that there is a strong consensus in the Welsh Assembly, the Welsh Government and among many users of the bridges that the tolls should be scrapped altogether, not least because removing them would boost productivity in Wales by up to £100 million, as a recent Welsh Government study has shown. Tolls represent an unfair tax. In an ideal world the UK Government would pay for the maintenance, not the people and businesses of Wales, particularly after such a lengthy period with such eye-watering tolls.
Scrapping the tolls would be a symbolic move, especially with the uncertainty around Brexit. It would be helpful to hear from the Government why they have not included that option in the consultation. I am sure that many people would like to back it. I hope that the consultation is a true one, not just a paper exercise, and that the Government have an open mind on it.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which I will come to later when I talk about the debt that the Government say they have to recoup. That is interesting, given the money they have recouped in the past from other sources.
The Minister will say that halving the tolls will allow an assessment of the impact on traffic. The traffic using the bridges has increased and, as recent media coverage shows, many people are choosing to relocate from Bristol and the south-west to Newport and Monmouthshire as a lifestyle choice—a very good choice, as it is an absolutely wonderful place to live. In response, the UK and Welsh Governments need to work on a holistic transport plan that includes the metro, and the Government must help to make up the shortfall from the loss of EU funds. While I am being parochial, the Government should support a new station bid for Magor and provide greater rail capacity, especially on the commuter services from Newport and the Severn tunnel junction, which have been dubbed the “sardine express”—I have had debates on that in the past—and the Welsh Government should look at the matters that are devolved.
My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. I agree with her point about rail. I and others have been campaigning for a new station at St Mellons Parkway—I hope the Minister will be listening closely, because the decision is going to be taken—and for funding for the south Wales metro. Does she agree that the tolls are not only a tax but a time penalty for Welsh residents, because unlike the Dartford crossing and the M6 toll, which have much faster technology—Dartford has got free flow—we do not have free flow or the faster toll technology on the bridge?
I absolutely agree, and I will come to the issue of free flow later. The fastest transaction at the moment is the TAG, which takes six seconds, but there is further scope for helping with congestion.
Will the Minister tell us where the figure quoted in the public consultation of a 17% traffic increase over 10 years has come from? How much of that will be in the first year? In fact, it would be particularly helpful if he could publish all the research that the Government have commissioned on traffic modelling in relation to the end of the concessions and the traffic flows. I know that all hon. Members would be grateful for that.
If, as the consultation indicates, the Government decide to continue tolling, the toll level should not exceed the cost of operating the two bridges. Severn River Crossing collects about £90 million-plus each year, and that is going up. Maintenance and operation costs are between £13 million and £15 million. Based on a rough, back-of-the-envelope calculation, that requires a toll of about £1, which means the Government will still be charging three times more for cars and 10 times more for lorries. The Government argue that they will have to recoup a £60 million debt for fixing defects but, as the Welsh Affairs Committee has documented, they have done very well out of the bridges so far: the Treasury has received £154 million-plus since 2003 in unexpected VAT—more than enough to cover the debt and undertake the resurfacing work, which the Government value at £12 million, with a lot left over.
On the point made by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), why do we have to pay for resurfacing on this stretch of road out of bridge tolls, when for any other stretch of road the cost is taken out of general taxation?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. On that point, if one of the many other bridges in the UK failed—God forbid—it would be repaired by the Department for Transport. Does she agree that the Government should be responsible for repairing both Severn bridges?
I agree with my hon. Friend—I agree with everyone. That is clearly something the Government should take on board. Given that they have absorbed the VAT charges into the general Treasury coffers, surely we should be dipping into the Treasury’s coffers to pay for the resurfacing work.
The Government have recouped a substantial pot of money. We should not forget that they wiped £150 million of debt from the Humber bridge. Wales deserves the same. Has the Minister estimated the date by which the outstanding Government debt will be paid off? I understand that, under their current plans, it could take 18 months. Is their intention to reduce tolls at that point to reflect that?
Will the Minister tell us how the Government calculated the £3 figure? There is no rationale for how it was reached, and it would be really helpful to have a breakdown to know how the tolls will be spent. Will the Minister confirm what ongoing method will be used to calculate the tolls in future? The consultation does not make that clear, and we need to know how the Department for Transport will assess the tolls annually, because we have suffered years of annual increases.
It is also crucial that we know from the Government when the new tolling regime will come into force. We are currently no clearer about the expected timing of the handover of the crossings. It is anticipated that the revenue target will be met in October, and that the actual transfer of services will occur at some stage after that. What is the current plan? It is important that we get clarity about the handover period and know when the bridges are formally to be run by the Department for Transport. If there is a gap, and VAT comes off the bridges but the tolls remain at the current level, there will potentially be a period when businesses that claim back their VAT will, in effect, have to pay more. Have the Government given any thought to that?
The Department for Transport said that it is a year to go until handover. When does it expect that date to be? Does that mean, for instance, that if the formal handover has not taken place by January 2018, we will have to endure yet another retail prices index increase next year?
The mention of free flow is welcome, but many will be disappointed that it may not be seen for some years. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) said, the main benefit is the reduction in journey times and congestion. Although free flow is clearly a future consideration, I ask for two things: first, that under free flow the tolls will not go up for a return journey; and secondly, that all back-office functions for dealing with evasion and administration should be sited locally. It would be an advantage for free flow if those who carry out the back-office functions know the local area and the local issues. Will the Minister give us some clarity about the Government’s current estimate of the costs of free flow?
Free flow will be looked at in future, but what thought has been given to improving the TAG? It is the fastest current form of payment—it takes about six seconds—but it is important to improve it if we are to tackle congestion. Severn River Crossing has made strenuous efforts to promote the TAG, and nearly 30% of users now use that method of payment, but only an improved season TAG discount and a first-time trip TAG discount beyond a halving of the toll will materially affect TAG take-up. With that in mind, will the Government consider a more ambitious future for the TAG to speed up traffic in the short term?
I am pleased that the long-awaited consultation has been published. I will certainly encourage all those with an interest to contribute their thoughts to it.
Probably every Welsh MP has some sympathy with the points that the hon. Lady is making—not necessarily with all of them, but certainly with some. As she is drawing to the end of her speech, may I ask her about a point of principle? Is she against the whole idea of using a tolling mechanism for constructing new bridges and roadworks? Is the Opposition’s view that there should not be tolls and that we should always fund new road improvements from the Exchequer?
I think that, after many years of pretty eye-watering tolls on this bridge, it is time we looked for a much fairer regime for people who live in south-east Wales. The tolls have hit my constituents and businesses especially hard. As I have said, there is a strong call, supported by the Welsh Assembly and the Welsh Government, to scrap the tolls altogether, and I have huge sympathy with that. If this Government are not willing to go that far, as indicated in the consultation, we should surely have a £1 maintenance-only toll.
It seems to me that we need some transparency from the Government about the finances, because at the moment they seem very opaque. We have got to find out what is happening with the treatment of VAT, with the future debt costs, and with the resurfacing and maintenance costs. We need the Government to be absolutely clear about what the costs are so that the public can take a view about whether it provides value for money.
My hon. Friend is completely right. More clarity would be most welcome so that, when statutory instruments are introduced on the matter, we are far clearer about what the effects will be. The consultation contains more detail about the options that are not being considered than about those that are on the table. It says that Highways England will have the responsibility in future, but will it contract out any elements of the operation or maintenance of the bridges? What maintenance charges, other than for the resurfacing, do the Department for Transport anticipate for the bridges in the first 18 months?
The consultation mentions the option of removing tolls between 10 pm and 6 am—off-peak travel—but does not seek views. Will the Government speak to businesses and others to gauge their views? Business representatives I met in my constituency on Friday said they thought it would be extremely attractive to companies based in south Wales, particularly in the logistics industry, so more work should be done to pursue that option.
To conclude, the Severn Bridges Act was written almost 30 years ago. As we have said many times, it was an inflexible piece of legislation that was not future-proofed. I have one plea for the Minister: whatever legislation we have to pass—the consultation made mention of statutory instruments—we as local Members should be consulted properly. We and our constituents need to be able to take part, because in the months to come we will have many more detailed questions, although I hope that the Minister can answer some today. I appreciate other hon. Members supporting the debate and I look forward to their contributions.
Thank you very much, Mr Davies. I think this is the first time I have served under your chairmanship. I am sure it will be a pleasure.
Many congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden). For the entire parliamentary career of her predecessor, who was first elected in 1965, this was the dominant issue. If we look back over the years to see how we got into this position, as early as 1936, there was a Bill to build a bridge across the Severn, but to our great shame it was opposed by Newport Council, which did not want one built.
There was, however, the misery of the Beachley-Aust ferry, which I can vividly remember crossing on in the late ’50s in my Mini. I do not know whether anyone else can remember it, but it was a terrifying, nightmare experience—we were packed in such that we could not open the car doors once stuck on the ferry, which followed a zig-zag course across the turbulent waters of the Severn that were rushing past. It was an incredibly hazardous journey, but with huge queues to get on the ferry, so the people of Wales were prepared to take anything to get a bridge there and see the disappearance of the ferry.
A deal was therefore struck, but in later years it became clear that the fragility of a single crossing made a second one necessary. I do not think any Members present were in Parliament at the time, but in 1992 another deal was done. What was put in law, however, was clear. A formula was agreed and the Severn Bridges Act 1992 stated that, once the obligation was paid to the company, bridge tolls would cease. That obligation will end either this year or early next year. The bridges will come into public ownership and will be in exactly the same position as any other part of the motorway system. They should be treated accordingly, as my hon. Friend said. The Humber bridge had £150 million of debt written off, but the Severn ones need a much smaller amount, and it should be written off, making the bridges part of the national, multi-billion-pound bill for all highways. The bridges are in no way different from any other stretch of motorway.
I find the Conservative party’s treatment of the reduction in tolls distasteful. It had to come—it is in the 1992 Act that the tolls have to stop, and it would be illegal not to do so. If the Government do not stop the tolls, there will be a legal challenge, as has been suggested in the Welsh Assembly. That is the legal position. A wonderful picture in the South Wales Argus had a trinity of Tories, all grinning widely, lined up against a background of the bridges. The local MP and the Secretaries of State for Wales and for Transport were all trying to get across this confidence trick: “We’re going to lower tolls for you. We generous Tories are going to get the tolls down—they won’t be £6.70, £5.70 or even £4.70; they will be £3.70.” That was what the Government said.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) on securing this important debate. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) agree that rail electrification to Swansea not yet materialising and Government reluctance to reduce greatly or scrap the tolls indicate a reluctance by the Westminster Government to support the economy and its vibrancy in south Wales?
Absolutely, because both those things would have a major effect. It is a matter of great regret that the Government have not been inclined to spread the very welcome electrification of the railway that far. Certainly, economic vibrancy means everything. The cost of the toll is not huge given other motoring costs that we pay—buying a car, insuring it, fuelling it—but it is a psychological barrier for Wales. It seems to be in the way, and people see it as a great disincentive to business and leisure traffic.
To get back to the trinity of Tories posed by the Severn bridge, £3.70 was the figure they were quoting. I challenged the Secretary of State for Wales about that, because he described £3.70 as a 50% cut. A well-known conclusion about opinion polls is that 50% of the population do not understand what 50% means, and we can include the Secretary of State among those people because in no brand of mathematics is £3.70 half of £6.70. The next week the new rate was announced, with the huckster, the snake-oil salesman, saying, “No, not £3.70, it’s going to be £3”—but no reason why—“or, better than that, £1.50, but, sadly, both ways.” That is how this confidence trick is being sold to the people of Wales and the west of England.
There is no case for continuing with the tolls. If the Government are going to charge £3, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East asked, how is that figure reached? In no way can all the costs be put together and multiplied, even with extra costs added here and there, to get to a figure of £3. The Welsh Affairs Committee investigated, and its figure was an absolute maximum of £1.50, which was very generous in allowing for how things would be run and all kinds of new arrangements for the TAG system. Will the Minister tell us what makes up the £3? I believe that most of the costs are for running the bridge itself—costs that would disappear if the Government abided by the Severn Bridges Act and got rid of the tolls altogether.
For 50 years, the people of south Wales and the west of England have been double taxed. As the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) said, we are all paying our taxes—we pay for roads throughout the country in the same way as everyone else does—so why on earth should we have to pay twice for our local road? The toll is almost unique now, with few others left. The Government should sweep away any debt and take the bridges into the roads spending budget.
You will remember, Mr Davies, from your reading of Welsh history and your deep knowledge of religion, this passage from Genesis, at chapter 24, verse 60:
“And they blessed Rebekah, and said unto her, Thou art our sister, be thou the mother of thousands of millions, and let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them.”
That verse, in an interesting part of Welsh history, is the reason why the Rebecca riots started. For those less well versed in Welsh history, what happened was that between 1839 and 1843 the Hosts of Rebecca were formed, when men dressed up as Rebecca—a bit of cross-dressing, which was rather unusual at that time in that part of Wales—to charge against the toll gates and destroy them. The toll gates, owned by alien landlords, were barriers to the free movement of goods and people, so the Rebeccas destroyed them. It is time for the Hosts of Rebecca to be revived. We remember their cause, because we now have a similar situation: a Tory Government are out to disguise a rip-off as an act of generosity.
My hon. Friend speaks with the greatest eloquence, as ever, and his example is one for readers of Hansard to enjoy. Does he agree that given that we have had to wait for electrification, that we do not have clarity about new stations and that there is still this chokehold over the Severn bridges, which is coming off a little but not nearly enough, many people in Wales—particularly south Wales—look at the Government’s support for High Speed 2 and think, “We’re being treated differently from the rest of the UK”?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to interject in his colourful presentation. I read an article by Lee Waters, a Labour Assembly Member who is concerned about reducing the tolls. I do not think he voted against doing so in the Assembly, but he certainly made a lot of public comments acknowledging that one consequence of cutting the tolls completely would be far less spending on other considerations that he thinks are important. Does the hon. Gentleman have any sympathy at all with Mr Waters’ views?
Mr Waters takes a view that is very much on the side of the environment and so on, but the vote in the Assembly to get rid of the tolls was unanimous. I do not know what Mr Waters has said, but it is the unanimous view of the Welsh Assembly that the tolls should disappear altogether. We want to hear from the Minister how the £3 figure is made up. How much of it is the cost of running the tolls? How much of it would disappear? We need the answers today. We have been far too tolerant for so many years in putting up with double taxation in south Wales.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his quick canter through the history of the Rebecca riots, which are a fascinating part of our proud Welsh history. He is talking eloquently, as usual, about the impact on people—our constituents—but there is also a massive impact on business. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) talked about businesses in the city that they both represent. In my constituency, there are large-scale companies such as Rockwool and Northwood & WEPA Ltd. The latter produces toilet roll—we are a proud toilet roll-producing constituency—and travels right across the United Kingdom. The toll is a double tax on business. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West agree that that has a negative impact on bringing new start-up businesses to Wales?
Absolutely. It is a mega-disincentive to all forms of activity and commercial life. It is seen as a problem at the docks in Newport and in every other industry. Take the leisure trade: do people go on holiday in Cornwall or face the obstacle of the bridge and possible hold-ups there? I am sure that it is a disincentive to all commercial activity in Wales.
I was part of agreeing the deal in ’92, and I think the only person who objected to it was a Member who wanted to bring the toll up from £4.90 to an even fiver. Other than that, there was unanimity in Parliament at the time that we had to face the issue, we needed another bridge and we would put up with the misery of paying tolls for it until a specified time. That time will be up this year. The debt that we owed to the Severn bridges company will be discharged. It has made its money. The bridges are ours. Let us treat them in the same way as every other piece of road in the motorway system.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) on securing the debate. She has pursued this issue rigorously for years, and her contribution was once again principled and enlightening. I am sure that the people of Newport East and indeed Wales as a whole will have been pleased to hear their views so well represented. As we have heard, the Severn bridges tolls have a significant impact on their lives, their businesses and the wider economy of Wales.
I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) on a characteristically colourful contribution, which I am sure will echo down the airwaves. I have a vivid picture of him in his Mini trying to address the challenges of the Severn. My first car was a Riley Elf, which was a similar kind of vehicle. I am glad that we live in the 21st century. I enjoyed his account of the Rebecca riots, which I have not recalled since I was a history undergraduate. It all came back to me, and I am sure we will be able to use that in future debates, too.
Other hon. Members made powerful interventions. We heard important contributions about double taxation, the importance of listening to the staff who work on the bridge, which my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) raised, and the sense of disadvantage that is felt in Wales.
This debate is timely. As has been explained, it is projected that Severn River Crossing plc will have generated the revenue that was originally agreed—£1.029 billion in July 1989 prices—by late 2017 or early 2018. The concession period is drawing to a close, the crossings will soon revert to public ownership, and now is exactly the right time to look again at the tolling regime, challenge it and change it.
As my hon. Friends have made clear today and on other occasions, many businesses in Wales believe that the Severn crossings tolls impede business activity across the bridges by deterring inward investment in Wales. The tolls, which are among the most expensive per distance travelled in the world, are a deterrent for small businesses hoping to operate in the south-west of England, for example. Hon. Friends have made the point about potential links with Bristol.
The Department for Transport is currently consulting on reducing the Severn crossings tolls and related issues. It proposes in its consultation document that tolls on all vehicles will be at least halved, while tolls on buses and small vans will be reduced by more than 75%. We would welcome a reduction in tolls, which would particularly benefit small business owners using small vans, and we would also welcome VAT no longer applying. The Department also proposes to replace the existing legislation with a charging order and replace tolls with charges, which would make them easier to reduce. Other options under consideration include the introduction of a free-flow electronic charging system, the levying of charges in both directions rather than a charge being applied to only westbound traffic, and the removal of charges at night.
The Department for Transport has said that the crossings cost approximately £15 million per annum to operate and maintain. The Government have also stated that they need to recover costs of £63 million from work that they funded to address the original bridge’s latent defects, such as corrosion of the suspension cables. But as has been pointed out, similar debt was written off for the Humber crossing, so why not for this one? That work has already been paid for through general taxation, and people entering Wales should not be forced to pay for prior expenditure associated with the Severn bridges. The Welsh Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Infrastructure pointed that out, and also said that
“the tolls should be removed at the earliest opportunity, alleviating the burden on the economy and removing the significant threat they represent to trade in a post-Brexit world.”
Indeed, the National Assembly for Wales last year voted for the Severn tolls to be abolished, but the power to do so is not in the Welsh Government’s remit. In 2010, the Welsh Affairs Committee recommended that the charge be reduced to a maintenance-only toll, which, as we have heard, would stand at around £1.50. Neither option is being consulted on.
The Department for Transport says:
“The Severn Crossings are a key link in the economies of South Wales and the South West of England, and continue to foster the economic and cultural landscape of their surrounding areas.”
That is quite true, but why does the Department not therefore look at the research commissioned by the Welsh Government that suggests that removing the tolls could boost the south Wales economy by more than £100 million a year? Although it is encouraging that the Department proposes reducing the charges and keeping them under review to see whether they can be reduced further, we believe that all options should be considered and be part of the consultation.
We are pleased that the Government are consulting on the introduction of free-flow toll technology on the Severn crossings—that could help to reduce congestion, which is projected to grow—but that needs to be introduced at the earliest opportunity. We saw how long it took even to implement card payments at the crossings. It is also worth pointing out that congestion management problems should not be dealt with simply by maintaining charges that will deter people from using the crossings. The Government also said in their consultation that charges would be used only for maintenance and operation of the bridges. Will the Minister confirm that no profit will be made from the new charges and that they will not be used for general revenue generation for the Treasury?
The Severn bridges are of strategic significance to Wales. At a time when the UK faces economic uncertainty in the light of the vote to leave the European Union, I am sure the Minister has listened intently to the hon. Members here today. They have made their points well and they know best what should be done to promote the Welsh economy both at home and abroad when the crossings return to public ownership.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.
“An idea, like a ghost...must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself.”
The hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) has certainly spoken to and about this idea on many occasions, including today, and I congratulate her on taking the opportunity to make the case that she has made before once again. Relatively recently, in July 2015 in this Chamber, she raised these issues and asked the Government to do many things. I will address as many of those issues as I can in the time that I have available. As is inevitable on these occasions, I have a pre-prepared script written for me by my officials, which will inform me, but I will not be constrained by it. As I have said before, I feel it is important in Westminster Hall debates to answer the points made by hon. and right hon. Members and not simply to parrot what I could have said regardless of their contributions.
I was hinting at that already and I have done so many times previously. Although I would not claim to be the shiniest of stars, I am starlike—at least, that is how I would describe it. In that spirit, I will deal with some of the—I will not say inaccuracies because that would be too unkind—exaggerations in the hon. Gentleman’s grasp of history. Let us start with when the tolls began. He brings—I do not blame him for this for a second—a certain tribal prejudice to these things and he ascribed the tolls to those he characterised as Tories. He knows, however, that the tolls were first introduced in 1966.
I wonder whether any Member present in the Chamber could remind me of who was in government in 1966. I recall that it was a Labour Government who, when the bridge was first opened, cemented tolls as a means of partly funding the cost of the development. In fairness to the hon. Member for Newport West, he said the Welsh would have accepted any deal at all, but he did not say that they would have accepted any deal from the then Labour Government, and tolls began at the inception and have continued since. The Chamber will recall that it was a Conservative Government that pegged the tolls in 1992. You will remember the 1992 Act, Mr Davies, which says the tolls can rise only in line with the retail prices index. Indeed, they have risen since then by only that amount.
Before I move on to the main substance of my remarks—I do not want to short-change any hon. Member by not dealing with the specific questions that they raised—I have one other historical matter to deal with. The Rebecca riots, which began in 1839 as the hon. Member for Newport West said, concluded in 1844, as he will also know, for several reasons. It is true that extra troops were deployed to dissuade those who were rioting from taking action against the tolls; it is true, too, that many of those who were causing disturbances resisted the violence that some of their compatriots recommended; but it is also true—the hon. Gentleman will want me to fill the gap and add to the quality of his account—that criminal gangs became involved in the riots. They used the disguise of the original complaint of the rioters to engage in all kinds of malevolent activities. That is the full account of the Rebecca riots for those who are interested in the history of such things and want an unabridged, uncorrupted and balanced account of those events.
It depends how we look at history. I once read a book that asserted that only the future is certain, but the past is always changing. We have just seen an example of that and of somebody rewriting his own history. However, it is a matter of great honour and pride to us in Newport that in 1839 the last Chartist riot took place in order to set up a republic. We have week-long celebrations every year. That is our view of history and the Chartist riot was contemporaneous with the Rebecca riots. It was a glorious start to socialism in this country and throughout Europe, and something of which we are very proud. Of course, there is a black history interpretation whereby people with a Conservative mood of mind try to fictionalise those great events, but they were heroic and it is time to bring them back.
I did not want any historical inaccuracy—I have used the word now—to stand on the record uncorrected. I know you would not have wanted that either, Mr Davies.
I want to turn now to the specific matters relating to the Severn crossing. The hon. Member for Newport East generously acknowledged at the outset that we have begun the consultation that was promised previously. In the debate that I referred to in 2015, she referred to
“the need to offer some light at the end of the tunnel for my constituents.”—[Official Report, 21 July 2015; Vol. 598, c. 436WH.]
That is part of the reason why she secured that debate then when she sought further progress on the character of tolls, which I will try to address today. She will know that the current consultation invites contributions on a range of issues, many of which have been raised here. It is a real consultation, and we are genuinely open-minded about how we move forward. The Government have made some proposals, as was also said. None the less, to be meaningful, the consultation has to respond to consultees’ ideas and thoughts. We have not come to any predestined conclusion, and I will take into account the various comments that have been made.
I want to deal with five matters. First, on the amount of the toll, the hon. Lady and other hon. Members will know that we have proposed effectively to halve the toll by reducing it to £3. She will also know that that will be welcomed widely by regular users of the route, for any reduction of that scale and size is bound to be welcome. However, the hon. Lady asked for more detail on traffic flows. That is a perfectly reasonable request and I will make more information available following today’s debate. It is important that we gauge the effect on traffic flows of any changes we make both in the toll and in the way it is collected.
There were changes to traffic flows—I discussed this before the debate—when we changed the tolling system at the Dartford crossing in Kent. We believed that if we could automate the process it would improve the flow of traffic and ease congestion and so on. If we were to make that change at the Severn crossing—we are consulting on that and people will offer views—it is important that we gauge the likely effect on the convenience of travellers. The hon. Lady is right to ask about that and details will be provided.
The hon. Lady also asked us to break down costs in greater detail, and that is also a reasonable request. There are a variety of costs. My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), who always speaks with great authority on all matters to do with Wales—indeed, on all other matters as well—said that a balance has to be struck. A perennial debate on river crossings—bridges and other structures—is how much the Exchequer and the user should each contribute. That debate continues almost wherever some fee or charge is made. It is easy to describe it as double taxation of those concerned but, my goodness, we could say that of any charge that is made for any public service. I do not think that we should want to characterise every charge made to every taxpayer as double taxation. That would be crude and even—dare I say—a little crass.
Does the Minister accept that many, like me, will be concerned about the issue? A huge number of road schemes in Britain are in need of development, for the benefit of the relevant parts of the country and the economy. That is hugely important—it is vital. However, if we cut off the possibility of part-funding through user contributions, we will not be able to provide all those schemes. I use one in the west midlands every time I go home. It will be damaging to the British economy if we take a view that there must be no tolls at all.
That was the point that I was making—less concisely and persuasively than my hon. Friend. As I said, the debate is perennial; we have such a debate about nearly every kind of fee or charge, for every public service. I suspect that the answer—and I hate to sound tediously consensual—is that a balance has to be struck.
Tolling at £3, in part, to pay back the £63 million cost to the Government of the latent defects on some of the bridges, when the Government have in fact recouped more than double that in an unexpected tax windfall, seems especially unfair—particularly when the Government stepped in and wiped £150 million off the Humber debt. Does the Minister appreciate how strongly people feel about that?
The reason I said I wanted to break down the costs is that, as the hon. Lady will understand, as well as a capital cost to be recouped in the form of a debt, maintenance costs are associated with any crossing of this kind. She will be familiar with the details of the Severn Bridges Act 1992, which makes it clear that those costs can be included in any tolling system through to 2027. The operational, maintenance and servicing costs are real, and are borne by those who pay for the crossing through tax and tolls. As I have described, a balance has to be struck, and that is why the Government are engaged in consultation in response to calls from the hon. Lady, among others.
Having been slightly unkind to the hon. Member for Newport West, I will mention that he has longer and more profound experience in this context even than that of the hon. Member for Newport East—certainly than mine; I pay tribute to the fact that both hon. Members have been consistent in advocating their constituents’ interests in making their case about the crossing. I hope that they, in similar good faith, will recognise that I will do my best to bring about a reasonable and fair outcome to the consultation, which will guarantee the interests of all concerned into the future.
How was the £3 figure arrived at? What are its components? Past examinations have suggested that there is no way that future costs would make it anything like that. Is not it true that the Wales Office has lost out to the Exchequer? The Treasury has said, “We want to continue to use the bridges as cash cows for as long as we can.”
The £3 cost brings the charge much more closely into line with the Humber estuary, the Dartford crossing, and so on; but none of those figures is magical or derived from a mystical process. They are designed to reflect the real costs of running the crossing—the operational and maintenance costs and the capital costs over time. I have already conceded in the third of my five points—you will remember, Mr Davies, as you follow such things assiduously, that I said I would make five points—that I would break down the costs further. I am happy to do so, in the interest of being straightforward in this debate and in the consultation.
It is true that businesses on both sides of the Severn have long called for reductions in tolls—thus our response, in the form of the consultation. The crossings will of course return to public ownership early in 2018, so this is the right time for what we are doing. The main proposal is to abolish the toll category for vans and small buses and halve the tolls for all vehicles. That 50% reduction should not be disregarded and I know that the hon. Member for Newport East would not want it to be.
The Minister just referred to the handover in January 2018. Can he be specific about the date? The consultation ends on 10 March. Presumably in October a car will drive through the Severn bridge toll plaza and the revenue target will be hit; what happens then? Potentially, with a handover period, businesses that can now reclaim VAT might be unable to do so. If the handover is not until January 2018 will there be an increase then, as there has been every year?
The hon. Lady is right to say that we need to set out the process, and that responsibility will pass to Highways England. The fourth of my five points is that it is important to be clear about how Highways England will manage the process. She asked particularly whether others will be involved and Highways England will contract the responsibility. That will of course partly depend on the results of the consultation. If we move to a free-flow system, like the one at the Dartford crossing, it will have implications for organisation and management. Fewer people will be involved at the crossing and more behind the scenes, and there will be advance booking as happens at Dartford, with an account-based system that will hopefully help traffic flow. That will require us to set out, following the consultation, the further steps necessary for the handover. I am happy to do that, but I do not want to pre-judge the consultation.
There are arguments for maintaining cash payment; I will be blunt about that. When we debated Dartford, the first time I was in the Department for Transport, we considered that closely because a cash system is simple and straightforward; but there are disadvantages—particularly the delays. Evidence from places in this country and abroad shows that automated systems can be highly effective, can be properly managed, and can offer considerable benefits, particularly to regular and business users. We will set out the transition process and it will to some degree depend on what we do about future toll collection.
The fifth point that I want to make is to express thanks to those involved over time in managing and maintaining the crossing. It is right that in any changes that take place we recognise the contribution that people have made to running this important crossing, which is a vital piece of UK infrastructure. It has benefited road users from England and Wales for 50 years, it is used by more than 25 million vehicles each year and it has provided road users and businesses in England and Wales with exceptional savings in time and money since the first crossing helped to connect the economies of both countries in 1966.
I enjoyed the story about the ferry, although I am not sure I was meant to enjoy it. It sounded like a hazardous—indeed tortuous—business, and I imagine that those who can look back on that will recognise just what a difference the crossing has made. As we now consider the next steps, it is important that we take account of the effects they might have on all of those involved in the process, and I wanted to do so publicly.
Let me summarise my response. I repeat that we have no preordained view about how this matter should unfold. It is important that these debates inform thinking, and they certainly do in my case. There is a strong argument for making as much information available as possible to Members of this House and more widely along the lines requested throughout the debate across the Chamber, and we will do so.
If the debate does no more than all of that, it will have achieved a great deal, because it has persuaded this Minister—if he needed persuading—not only of the importance of the matter but that we need to move ahead with as wide agreement as possible about the kind of tolls charged, the effect they have on people, the methodology that we employ and the steps we will take to manage that process. All of that will happen, and the hon. Member for Newport East can be proud of yet again representing her constituents and others so admirably.
As a postscript, the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Newport West can be pretty sure that my references to the pre-written script were as slight as the hon. Gentleman had hoped.
Thank you for ably chairing the debate, Mr Davies. My thanks to all hon. Friends who took part and in particular my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn). May I thank the Minister for his response and in particular the points about the staff who work on the Severn bridges, whom I mentioned?
I thank my hon. Friend for pointing out forcibly that we do not feel that the Government are being generous in their offer. For years, excessive tolls have been charged to people making essential journeys and we feel strongly that it is time to right that wrong. I worked out that this is about the 87th time I have spoken about the Severn bridges in my time here in questions and at other times. As the concession is nearing its end, the impression is that the Government have been dragging their feet. For instance, we expected the public consultation last autumn and it has taken its time.
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady. I have spoken already, but I omitted to pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones). Were it not for him and his role in this matter—I mention him because he answered the debate last time round—I do not think we would have moved as quickly as we have. He has been determined to ensure that we responded properly to the hon. Lady’s concerns. It is not I but he who deserves the credit for any progress that has been made.
I appreciate the Minister’s intervention. I thank him for his comments, but I am not sure whether we are that much clearer about the breakdown of the £3 toll. I will hold him to his promise to break that down for us in more detail.
I am also not sure whether we are that much closer to understanding the handover plan. The Department for Transport clearly cannot take over the bridges the minute the last car pays up and the revenue target is reached, so it would be useful to know about that, not least because I would not want constituents to face another annual increase in January 2018. I would also like more detail from the Minister on what can be done about the TAG reduction.
I hope that this time we end up with a lasting solution that means we can future-proof the legislation. Will the Minister respond in writing to anything else we have raised in the debate? That would be particularly helpful. As in all our efforts in talking about the Severn bridge tolls, we do so for our constituents, our businesses and the wider economy of south Wales, which have been hit hard by the tolls over the years.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered future operation of the Severn Bridges.
[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered access to Duodopa.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank the Minister for sparing the time to respond to this limited debate this afternoon. The subject is a serious one, especially for those people who contend with advanced Parkinson’s disease and have so few effective medications on which they can rely to give them some control over their symptoms.
For the benefit of anyone who might not be familiar with the condition, I will briefly explain what Parkinson’s is. Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative neurological disorder. It affects all aspects of daily living, including talking, swallowing and writing. People with the condition often find it hard to move freely, but there are also other issues, such as pain, depression, dementia, hallucinations and continence problems. The severity of symptoms can fluctuate from day to day, and people can experience rapid changes in functionality in the course of a day.
There is no cure, but there is a small selection of treatments suitable for a few people in the advanced stages of the condition. Those treatments include the drug Duodopa. I was involved in the campaign to allow routine prescribing of Duodopa without recourse to special, case-by-case requests by clinicians. Since 2015, the treatment has been available to those people in England who are deemed suitable.
I called today’s debate to discuss the new proposal by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence to advise clinicians not to offer Duodopa at any stage. That recommendation is being made despite the scarcity of treatment options and the proven effectiveness of Duodopa. I accept that the Minister has no control over NICE recommendations, but I wish to highlight some anomalies.
First, in clinical practice, Duodopa is used only when all other interventions have been shown to be ineffective, or clinically unsuitable options. Despite that, evidence presented in the draft guideline compares Duodopa to deep brain stimulation, which is another treatment for advanced Parkinson’s, and to the best medical treatment, which for advanced Parkinson’s is often apomorphine.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this matter to Westminster Hall for consideration. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond positively. As a result of the background information that I got in relation to this issue, I would like to ask this question: does he agree that the evidence from clinicians and experts that NICE made a pivotal mistake in comparing Duodopa to treatments such as deep brain stimulation means that the institute needs to step back now and withdraw the proposal before even more anxiety and turmoil is caused to people with Parkinson’s?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I will come to that point later and respond to it.
That incorrectly assumes that the populations given the treatments are the same, which is not the case, as UK clinicians recommend Duodopa only if their patient cannot have deep brain stimulation or apomorphine. It is therefore illogical to say that deep brain stimulation or apomorphine is better value for money, as they are not suitable for direct comparison. As one person with Parkinson’s explained,
“I was at the end of the road before I had the Duodopa. I was literally wheeled into hospital to have the pump fitted and the Duodopa titrated, and about a week later I came out walking. I responded very quickly and noticed a huge improvement in my quality of life, and I always live in dread that it will be taken away.”
In these circumstances, I very much hope that something can be done to bring NICE to the mainstream view on the subject.
I have been involved for 15 or 20 years in supporting Parkinson’s disease patients or those living with Parkinson’s disease, and I think it is terrific that Members of Parliament initiate debates that raise its profile, raise awareness and ask the Minister to come before us and share views on where we are. I therefore congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing and introducing the debate.
I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for his kind words and support.
This issue is of great importance to a relatively small number of people, but given that the treatment is currently available through NHS England, to withdraw it on the basis of an apparently flawed assessment would cause concern among a much wider community, as it might be seen as setting a precedent for decisions on other treatments in future. I would welcome the Minister’s comments on that.
Secondly, although it is well known that Duodopa is more expensive than some other therapies, it is not offered to everyone, and we believe that some of the economic modelling does not take into account the discounts that the manufacturer offers NHS England.
Duodopa was classified by the EU as an orphan treatment, meaning that the number of people for whom it is a suitable treatment is fewer than five in 10,000. There are known issues with using standard health technology assessment methodology to evaluate the efficacy of orphan medications—issues that are thought to place orphan medicines at a disadvantage compared with treatments in more widespread use.
In Scotland, Duodopa was considered by the Scottish Medicines Consortium and approved on the basis of its processes for evaluating orphan treatments. NICE concluded that for Duodopa the cost per quality-adjusted life year—the generic measure of the value for money of medical interventions, based on quality and quantity of life lived—was more than £500,000, but the SMC concluded that the cost was less than £80,000 when using a calculation appropriate for an orphan drug. Indeed, a recent parliamentary question revealed that, from July 2015 to December 2016, just 75 people in England had been given Duodopa.
Thirdly, if Duodopa treatment is denied, that means there will be increased costs from social care and other things on which the person with Parkinson’s will become dependent, to say nothing of the quality of life or dignity of that person, which cannot be so easily reduced to a monetary figure. As Professor David Burn, the national clinical director for the UK Parkinson’s Excellence Network, has commented:
“To not offer Duodopa as a treatment option is putting people with Parkinson’s in England at a disadvantage compared with other developed countries.”
I acknowledge that the Department of Health has no direct control over NICE, and I recognise that NICE needs to be independent of political considerations. However, since NHS England has in recent years determined that Duodopa can be routinely used for patients where appropriate, and both NHS Scotland and the SMC consider the treatment to be appropriate, NICE appears to be out of step with the prevailing opinion. Specifically, I look forward to the Minister’s guidance on what options are open to the Government when the basis of a proposal made by NICE is so flawed. The consequences of these proposals going ahead would be catastrophic for the dozens of people for whom this drug was their last resort, and would add pressure to an already buckling social care system.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Sir Edward. I add my congratulations to those of my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) to the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on securing the debate. It is right that we use the opportunity to discuss matters such as this one in Parliament and to ensure that we, whether that be NICE or the Department, get this right.
May I start by agreeing with the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall? He made the point that it would be completely wrong for NICE to make an evaluation based on flawed data, flawed information and a flawed methodology. If that were the case—we will talk about that during the next few minutes—it would require action. He also made the point that it is right that we have a body such as NICE that attempts to validate the treatments that are available in a coherent and consistent way.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the quality-adjusted life year issue. There has to be a method of comparing drugs that are available, for example, for Parkinson’s with those available for cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy, and we have to be fair to the community as a whole. That is what the NICE process is intended to do. It is also important to make the point that at the moment, the drug is available in NHS England. It has been commissioned since 2015 by the specialised commissioning team. That will continue—the updated NICE guidance will not change it—until NHS England’s specialised commissioning group makes a different decision, if that is what happens.
I will make a few points about Parkinson’s first of all. We know that it is a terrible, progressive disease and that there is no real understanding of what causes it. The occurrences of it are rising. Some 130,000 people in England have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which is caused by the death of a type of cell—those containing dopamine—in our brains. As the hon. Gentleman said, the disease causes tremors, stillness, slow movement, speech impediment and so on. Of those 130,000 people who are suffering from Parkinson’s disease, something like one in 1,500 are given Duodopa. There are currently 75 people in England who receive it, and the cost is roughly £28,000 for each of them.
The process is that when a diagnosis of Parkinson’s is made, NHS England typically refers the patient to a specialist centre for neurological care and an evaluation. A set of processes are carried out by the neurosurgeons in an attempt to remedy the dopamine issue that will have caused the Parkinson’s. The typical and main treatment is a drug called levodopa, but for a number of people there are side effects and it eventually stops working. As a follow-up remedy, as the hon. Gentleman said, either apomorphine, brain stimulation or Duodopa is prescribed, or a combination of those three things. How they interact with one another is quite complex, but those are the typical prescriptions if the main treatment is not successful.
As I said, the cost of Duodopa is something like £28,000 per patient per year, and 75 people are receiving it, so that is around £2 million a year, which is not massive in the great context of NHS spend. Nevertheless, it is important that we compare it with other treatments and make sure that it is the most effective for patients. That is what NICE has done. It had previous guidance on the treatment of Parkinson’s from 2006 and over the past year or so has produced draft guidelines, which the hon. Gentleman referred to, on the use of the drug. Those guidelines were put out to consultation, which closed in November. It is true, as the hon. Gentleman said, that those draft guidelines said that in NICE’s view, at no stage in the treatment is Duodopa to be recommended. The reason given was that, under NICE’s evaluation criteria, the cost of the drug is too high.
I have the NICE report in front of me, and the actual analysis is quite complex. The hon. Gentleman said that the report talks about the figure of £500,000—or alternatively £80,000, as I think I heard him say—per quality-assisted life year. I think it also comes up with lower numbers, but the truth is that it does not come up with a number that is anything close to the normal threshold at which a drug is approved for use, which is typically £20,000 to £25,000 per quality-assisted life year. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the methodology that was used. The consultation process drew in points from members of the public, from the profession and indeed from the company that markets the drug, which did say that there were methodology issues—I think it used the phrase “issues with the mathematics”. Those points will all be referred to the NICE committee and will be taken into account if and when the final analysis is confirmed or changed.
However, I will say that a quality-assisted life year figure in the order of £80,000 is quite a long way away from where it needs to be. There are various remedies for that. In similar debates I have made the point that one option is for the drugs companies involved to review their pricing. These things are not necessarily set in concrete. When they price a drug they are doing two things, and the cost of actually manufacturing the drug is often quite small compared with the invested intellectual capital that they are trying to recover. There is a choice, because if the drug is not prescribed they are not recovering either of those costs. I simply make the point that there is an opportunity for the company to do that.
As the hon. Gentleman said, it is true that NICE’s recommendation is that a combination of apomorphine and deep brain stimulation is more effective as a treatment and in terms of cost. We are having this debate on the draft guidance, and even if that guidance is confirmed, it will then have to go to the NHS England specialised commissioning group, which will have another opportunity to look at it in the round. As he said, Duodopa is a little unusual in that it is currently being prescribed. It is not as though it is a new treatment—it was prescribed in advance of the NICE recommendation.
I will say a little bit about NICE. It is very easy to knock it and say, “These guys don’t know what they’re doing. They don’t understand what is going on. It is obvious that if they were a bit more diligent or a bit better trained they would not have given this answer.” I looked at who was on the committee for the Parkinson’s guidelines. There were 18 people; it comprised consultant neurosurgeons, neurology pharmacists, people from patient groups and physiotherapists, so there were a number of people with a great deal of experience in managing Parkinson’s disease. It is important that the decisions on how we make drugs available are made by scientists, based on rigorous criteria and an attempt to look at the science rigorously, and not by Members of Parliament, as I think everybody in the Chamber would agree.
I intervene only to reinforce the Minister’s point. I remember being involved in campaigning against NICE and calling it out for everything I could when bowel cancer drugs were not available. That was driven by my personal interest, but in time I have come to realise—partly because my son who works for a drug company lectures me about this—that the principles behind NICE are absolutely vital. If we ever move away from that, we will finish up in a complete free-for-all, with all sorts of pressure and inducements from Members of Parliament not to follow proper procedure.
I can only concur that many of us benefit from lectures from our children, and it is nice to know that my hon. Friend does. I agree with the point made by the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall. If NICE has made a mistake, if something has been wrong in its analysis—this is why draft guidelines are published—and if things are brought to its attention that are not adequately reflected in its work, it has the opportunity to change that and will do so. Given the points that we have just heard, that is the right process.
When the finalised position is established, NHS England will consider whether to accept the NICE guidance. It will make a decision on what it does regarding the cohort that receive the drug and new patients, for whom there is potentially a difference in treatment. That process is many months away, frankly. It will not occur until NICE has finalised its guidance and published the complete position.
I finish by agreeing with the intervention made by my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire. These decisions are very difficult. Only 75 people receive the drug, but for them it is potentially life-changing, as it would be for the people who will need it in future, and I do not want to underestimate that. I can only repeat the points made in the NICE guidance; it believes that there are other equally effective treatments, such as a combination of apomorphine and brain stimulation. I am not a clinician, so it is not possible—and not right—for me to have a view on that, other than to say that until we are able to show that NICE has somehow been wrong in what it has done, it is right that we as a Parliament and as a group of MPs accept and respect that process, because we know that diligent scientists and clinicians have tried to get it right.
I thank the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall for raising this important subject; it is good that we have had the chance to talk about it today.
Question put and agreed to.
Statutory Sex and Relationships Education
I beg to move,
That this House has considered statutory sex and relationships education in all Government-funded schools.
I am very pleased to have secured this debate, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. As hon. Members on both sides of the House may know, this issue has been close to my heart for some time. I have been campaigning for improvements in sex and relationships education for several years. Actually, I think we should call it relationships and sex education, because I believe that the focus should be on equipping children and young people to establish healthy relationships and to build their self-esteem and self-worth.
One of the best examples that I have seen of great relationships and sex education was in a Catholic primary school, where children were learning about the body and about the clothing that people wear and why. The lesson looked at modesty and why certain parts of the body are special, private areas. It was done with parents being fully included in the lesson’s design, using the correct names for the parts of the body but in a safe and age-appropriate way. That is the type of age-appropriate, quality relationships education that I would like to see in all our schools and not just—sadly—in the few where a headteacher understands its importance and devotes time to it being taught well.
Under the last Labour Government, I had the honour of serving as Schools Minister during the passage of the Children, Schools and Families Act 2010. That happened in the final months before the 2010 general election and I regret that the Labour Government had left it so long to make important changes to sex and relationships education. By that time, it had become apparent that sex and relationships education in our schools urgently needed to be improved. The vast majority of parents—88%—told us that they agreed, and so too did the vast majority of children and young people. A wealth of educational specialists—the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, Brook, the Sex Education Forum and the Terrence Higgins Trust—all recommended at that time that the legal requirements on SRE should be strengthened.
Under the Education Act 1996, only maintained secondary schools were required by law to teach SRE and even they could get away with providing it only in science lessons. Three quarters of young people told us then that consent was not being taught even once during those lessons. One in seven pupils could not recall receiving any SRE at all. The guidance on the teaching of the topic, dating from 2000, clearly needed to be updated.
To address that, we planned to teach students much broader lessons covering a lot more than just the narrow biology of sex and what fits where. We felt that students needed to learn about healthy relationships in the broadest context, about being kind and valuing themselves and the other person, about self-worth and building up self-esteem, and about how they talk to and negotiate with one another. We felt that the issue of consent particularly needed to be addressed, that it needed to be spelt out clearly that physical and mental threats were not acceptable in any relationship and that no one should have to do anything that makes them uncomfortable or frightened. We also believed that young people needed to understand about keeping safe, which is especially important for younger children at primary school, and as children got older and became teenagers, to learn about sexual assault, rape and sexual harassment, and to understand what that meant. Should the worst happen, they needed to know whom they should approach and what they could do.
We argued that all that should be taught under the umbrella of a broader subject: personal, social, health and economic education. The Education Act 1996 needed to be amended so that all taxpayer-funded schools, including primary schools and academies, should be required to teach it. We wanted it to be statutory to ensure that teachers would then be required to have the proper training that they needed to deliver the subject well.
We agreed that although parents would still be able to opt their children out of most of the lessons if they wished—it is certainly worth noting that, as the law stands, a parent can withdraw a child from sex education up to the age of 18, even though the age of consent is 16—we negotiated with religious faiths such as the Catholic Church, so that we would guarantee that every child got at least one year’s teaching in SRE before they turned 16.
Does the hon. Lady concede that schools are currently obliged to follow section 78 of the Education Act 2002? That is about promoting
“the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society”.
Of course, some schools do that very well, but I want to ensure that all schools—whether academies, free schools or primary schools—provide that level of education to equip our children and young people for what life will throw at them. We need to strengthen provision. That is my issue.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate and raising these issues. In respect of the previous intervention, it is not inconsistent with anything that she has outlined in her remarks to teach all young people about sex and relationships. Whether people are having sexual intercourse in a marriage or outside marriage, they need to know about how to interact properly in a relationship, with all that that might entail. That is a valuable point; it does not contradict previous legislation.
I accept that. It does not contradict it; it builds on it. That is where I want things to go. All the evidence shows that when taught properly, age-appropriate sex and relationship education and PSHE work. Research by UNESCO highlights that it can, importantly, delay sexual activity and increase the likelihood of contraceptive use. It is a vital tool in the fight to address unacceptable attitudes to women, combat child abuse and tackle homophobia.
I was describing what happened in 2010, just before the general election. Unfortunately, the Conservative party, faced with all the evidence, decided that it was not willing to support the clauses to introduce PSHE into the Children, Schools and Families Act 2010, so it was passed without those vital clauses. The argument used with me at that time by Conservative MPs was that the issue was one on which families, not schools, should take the lead. At the time, it often struck me that although of course families play a huge part in equipping young people for growing up and what happens in life, they often do not feel able to talk about such sensitive issues and want professionals to help. I also thought at the time that the children and young people who are most in need of relationship and sex education are, sadly, often from families where there might be domestic abuse or poor communication. They are the very children whom we want to ensure can access good-quality PSHE and SRE.
In the seven years since, more and more MPs from both sides of the House have fought to make the Government see sense. We keep being told that it is being considered—“There’s a review. We’re having a look at it. We agree things need to be improved”—but there is no action. Over the same period of seven years, the obligations on schools have only become weaker. As more and more schools become academies and more free schools open that do not have to follow the national curriculum, the proportion of schools required to teach SRE has decreased; now only 40% of schools need to do so.
I called this debate because now, more than ever, the Government need to revisit the issue. The Children and Social Work Bill, which is about to enter Report stage in the Commons, now offers them the opportunity finally to amend the law to bring about the changes that should have been incorporated into law in 2010. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us today that the Government will accept the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy).
It is an understatement to say that since 2010, the arguments for improving sex and relationships education have only become stronger. When Labour tried to change the law seven years ago, we already knew that the case for doing so was overwhelming, but none of us predicted the shocking revelations that have emerged since, making the case even more overwhelming.
I am talking about things such as the revelations after the death of Jimmy Savile and Operation Yewtree. We have learned the scale of the exploitation of children and young people that has taken place over many years. Professor Alexis Jay estimates that in Rotherham alone, 1,400 children were abused in the sixteen years to 2013. Her report highlighted that in the minds of many children and young people, SRE in their schools was taught to an extremely poor standard and left them ill-equipped to understand that they were being groomed. We simply do not know the full scale of abuse across the rest of the country. It is thought that at any one time, approximately 5,000 young people are being sexually exploited. Online exploitation is now the fastest growing area of concern.
We also know even more than we did before about the shocking views that many hold about consent in relationships and women in general. A Fawcett Society survey released on 20 January asked:
“If a woman goes out late at night wearing a short skirt, gets drunk and is then the victim of a sexual assault, is she totally or partly to blame?”
Four in 10 men and a similar proportion of women said that she was. On the same day that that survey was released, the world bore witness to the inauguration of President Donald Trump, a man who has boasted of harassing women and who stands accused of abusing numerous female contestants on the American “The Apprentice”.
Half of all female students say that they are sexually harassed every single time they go out to a nightclub, half of all women in the workplace say that they have been harassed and one quarter of the female population has experienced domestic abuse, many on more than one occasion. By the time they start secondary school, the majority of children will already have been exposed to online pornography, often of the most violent nature. Eight in 10 teenagers get most of their teaching on sex and relationships from unreliable sources outside school.
It is no wonder that since Labour first recommended changing the law in 2010, even more organisations have joined the call for a change in the law. The Select Committees on Education and on Women and Equalities have also recommended changes, as has the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners. Our education system should be at the forefront of efforts to tackle those problems. I am the first to acknowledge that it is not the whole solution, but it has a big part to play and, sadly, we simply are not doing enough. A vacuum is being left that is being filled with unacceptable messages to our young people.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. One particularly important issue is that having such conversations in school, with age-appropriate information delivered by trusted adults that the children know well, provides a safe space. If any of those young people are experiencing difficulties or challenges, they know that they can speak without fear or embarrassment about anything that might be wrong in their lives. They can have an open and free discussion, which is incredibly important. Does she agree?
My hon. Friend makes the point well, and I absolutely agree with what she says about safe space.
I am coming to the end of my speech, but I have four asks for the Education Minister. First, will the Government accept new clause 1 of the Children and Social Work Bill on Report? Does she support making age-appropriate SRE—or, even better, the more encompassing PSHE—a statutory requirement in all academies, free schools, primary schools, and new grammar schools?
Secondly, will any amendment require schools to teach more than just the biology of sex in science lessons? Will schools be required to teach a broader form of SRE that covers consent and relationships? Will she commit to Labour’s original proposals by requiring PSHE to be taught in all schools? Thirdly, will the Government update the 17-year-old guidance on the teaching of SRE to cover same-sex relationships, child abuse, the dangers of online predators and internet pornography, transsexuality and violence against women and girls? Fourthly, what will the Government do to support our professionals to teach the subject in the best possible way? Four in five teachers feel that they are not sufficiently trained to teach SRE. What measures will the Government take to ensure that our teaching workforce get the training that they need?
In last week’s Adjournment debate, the Minister highlighted that we should take a comprehensive approach to the issue and take the time to review the options to ensure that we get it right. However, I say to her with the greatest of respect that that has already happened. We spent a great deal of time and consulted widely among the relevant people to ensure that our proposals were balanced and effective. I set out clearly in my introduction what steps Labour had put in place under the Children, Schools and Families Bill.
As recent events in the United States show, we cannot assume that the most unacceptable attitudes to women and others will go away on their own. Educationalists, law enforcement experts and campaign groups all agree that the fight must start in our schools. Now, more than ever, we need to improve SRE in our schools. I hope that in the coming debates on the Children and Social Work Bill, the Government will do exactly that, good sense will prevail and young people will finally get the relationship and sex education that they deserve to equip them far better for life than the current outdated provisions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward—for the first time, I think—and to take part in this important debate. I regret that I was unable to speak in the debate a couple of Fridays ago on the Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (Statutory Requirement) Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). It is as well to put on record that, contrary to misinformation that circulated on social media, I did not participate in a wilful attempt to filibuster that Bill. In fact, I was a victim of the filibuster, because I did not get a chance to speak on the Bill in the four and a half minutes that were left after the previous debate, which was on the rather obscure issue of homosexual activity in the merchant navy. Anyway, I am here now.
I have a great deal of respect for the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), who is always very sincere in her beliefs, but I think she is wrong on this issue. The correct way to introduce these proposals would be via stand-alone, bespoke primary legislation, because this is a very significant issue. I rather regret that she brought up a whole range of other issues, including the proclivities of the newly elected President of the United States. There are major societal issues lying behind some of the very regrettable attitudes to women and girls, but I do not think that we should move outside the bailiwick of what we are here to discuss, which is PSHE in schools. The hon. Lady is asking us to disregard the professional duties and conduct of teachers, governors and headteachers—interestingly, she made no mention of parents.
I think we are on the same page, then. I ask the hon. Lady to forgive me for what I hope will be my only error in this debate.
Personal, social and health education is already a non-statutory subject on the school curriculum. Government guidance from September 2013 states that it should be taught in all schools as
“an important and necessary part of all pupils’ education… Schools should seek to use PSHE education to build, where appropriate, on the statutory content already outlined in the national curriculum, the basic school curriculum and in statutory guidance on…drug education, financial education, sex and relationship education…and the importance of physical activity and diet for a healthy lifestyle.”
I agree that so much of what we want to happen should, in theory, already be happening, but I am aware that it is not.
The hon. Lady has put a strong case, but there are questions to ask about her proposal. How does she see the provisions in new clause 1, which has been tabled to the Children and Social Work Bill, sitting with the current legislation on sex and relationships education? We frequently hear calls for compulsory sex education, as if there were not already statutory requirements for schools to teach sex education. However, as I am sure hon. Members are aware, under sections 80 and 101 of the Education Act 2002, maintained schools in England and Wales respectively have a basic curriculum, which for secondary schools includes sex education. Section 403 of the Education Act 1996 sets out the detail of the sex education that governors and headteachers are required to provide and states that they
“must have regard to the Secretary of State’s guidance”
on how it should be taught. Primary schools may teach sex education if the governors think it appropriate.
The Bill that was promoted on 20 January by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion made no specific mention of the existing legislative provisions or of how her proposals would fit in with them. That lack of engagement with the current legislation meant that her Bill would have created significant confusion—and so, I believe, would proposed new clause 1 of the Children and Social Work Bill.
I am aware that there is some concern that sex education is not required in academies in the same way as in maintained schools, since academies are not required to provide a basic curriculum. They are, however, required to teach a broad and balanced curriculum within the requirements of section 78 of the Education Act 2002, to which I referred in my intervention earlier.
For a number of years we were told that SRE was needed to combat teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, but it is now argued that SRE is needed to ensure that young people can unravel the messages of pornography. People are rightly concerned that young people are getting the wrong messages on relationships—I agree with what the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North said about some of those messages.
I would argue that what is particularly concerning is not the issue of pornography but the spread of overtly sexualised images that young people are exposed to daily in the form of magazines, newspapers or online adverts that pop up on gaming systems, which young people are incredibly plugged into. That exposure means that young people’s awareness, understanding and maturity are being challenged far more than ever before. Does the hon. Gentleman think that that should also be considered?
Yes, I do. The hon. Lady makes a very valid point and an astute observation. What we require, however, is a coherent social and moral framework that involves all parties and stakeholders, rather than what appears to be potentially quite a draconian top-down approach that would insert into separate primary legislation a provision seeking change on a long-term endemic societal issue. The objectification of young people, particularly women, and the inappropriate way in which they are treated can lead to grooming, violence against women, trafficking and all the other issues that we know of, but, in fairness, that is some distance from the specific issue of PSHE—although, of course, they are linked.
What can the Government do? We need to look at the level and explicitness of pornography and how to protect children from it, rather than merely treating the symptoms of all the material that is circulating. The Government have taken that duty seriously with the Digital Economy Bill, part 3 of which will soon be implemented. The requirement of robust age verification is not the whole answer, by any means, but it is very important, and I take this opportunity to put on record my great support for the leadership that the Prime Minister and Ministers in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport have shown on it.
A better way of addressing our concerns would be to ensure that they are properly covered in the new sex education guidance that the Minister will no doubt tell us about later. I would also be interested to hear the views of the Minister and of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North, perhaps in future debates, on how parents fit into the model that the hon. Lady proposes for PSHE. Under the current sex education law, parents can ask for their child to be withdrawn from PSHE lessons, but proposals such as the recent private Member’s Bill do not seem to give them that opportunity.
Order. Three more Back Benchers wish to speak; I know that the hon. Gentleman is very courteous and will want to give them all a chance to get in. If he stops speaking soon, they will each have five minutes, so I am sure he will want to bring his remarks to a conclusion.
I am always mindful of your charming and gracious admonitions, Sir Edward, so I will draw my remarks to a close. I would not want to prevent the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) from sharing his views with the world.
I will just conclude by saying that under these proposals—these potentially draconian measures—parents would potentially be less inclined to take responsibility for their children, teachers may be overburdened, and primary schools would be deprived of choice in the matter, which might be culturally sensitive. Sex education is a sensitive subject that requires close consultation. There is a thinly veiled attempt by some people—not the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North—to impose an ostensibly liberal agenda on the curriculum.
For all those reasons, the Government should listen to key stakeholders—not just to people who have a vested interest, but to constituents, charities, schools, governors, Members of Parliament and councillors. All their responses should be fed into the new guidance. However, we should think very carefully before disregarding the professional skills, knowledge and expertise of people at the lowest level of schools, the importance of a social and moral framework, or the centrality of parents.
Thank you very much, Sir Edward, for calling me to speak.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) on securing this important debate and on her excellent speech calling for statutory sex and relationships education, for which she has campaigned in Parliament with dogged determination for many years.
Across Greater Manchester, there are many excellent projects organised by children and young people to raise awareness in schools and workplaces. They are particularly valuable, as young people listen to each other. There are some great examples of children creating videos and other materials, including a YouTube video about being groomed via text, which was made by Stockport Young Partnership. There has also been a good response to materials such as “Real Love Rocks” by Barnardo’s and GW Theatre Company’s “Somebody’s Sister, Somebody’s Daughter”.
My hon. Friend is also right about the need to inform children starting at primary school. This week, we learned that almost 100,000 eight-year-olds have a mobile phone, and that more than 20,000 were given a handset from the age of six. We need to be concerned about the potential access that allows predators to our children. As Simon Bailey, the National Police Chiefs Council’s lead for child protection, has said, once the police become aware that a child has been abused, “it is too late”. They have already been harmed. Prevention is the key to protecting children.
Talking to children for my 2014 report, “Real Voices: Child Sexual Exploitation in Greater Manchester”, and again this year for some new research, I was struck by how just many children said they thought sex and relationship education must start in primary schools. They felt it was too late to leave it until secondary school to talk about healthy relationships. They also talked about the difficult transition from primary to secondary school and how vulnerable children in particular needed more support. One girl said that teaching about relationships in primary school
“would help people who are younger and naive not to get into dangerous situations”.
She also said:
“In primary schools, they do not teach much about relationships. When you move to secondary school you do not know the rules or how the other years will act above you and so your actions can be altered because you just want to fit in with what the other kids who are older than you are doing.”
That shows the importance of information being given to primary schoolchildren, because it is important that they start secondary school armed with that knowledge.
We are getting much better at recognising children who are vulnerable to exploitation because of difficult relationships at home. However, what we are not so good at doing is recognising children who do not come from those backgrounds but who for whatever reason are isolated or outside their peer groups at the very time in their development when they are looking for the approval of their peers. Those problems can be exacerbated as a child moves from primary to secondary school.
Some children carry huge burdens of life’s worries. That struck me again when I attended a consultation day on a possible children’s advocacy house in Greater Manchester recently. In one group, children estimated that about 15 out of 40 children in their school class had problems at home or other problems. An indication of the sadness in some of their lives came in the comments they wrote on post-it notes and put on a tree, including: “Hope my sister gets better soon and my mum stops being in pain”; “I wish my Nana would get better”; and “I worry about my mum because she can’t go anywhere but she can go on crutches but she struggles”.
We also need to understand that children who exhibit antisocial and aggressive behaviour often do so because of problems at home. Those children are often supported in primary school, but at the transition to secondary school they find themselves excluded, either for short periods or permanently. That increases their vulnerability, not only to child sexual exploitation but to other forms of exploitation by criminal gangs, such as drug running.
In Stockport last year, the number of children excluded from schools for a fixed period trebled in number from year 6, the last year in primary school, to year 7, the first year in high school. There has also been a rise in peer-on-peer exploitation, fed by websites that promote sex as a violent activity and blur the lines between someone consenting and not consenting.
Although much needed, compulsory sex and relationships education is not enough on its own. We need an environment that encourages children to take responsibility for other children and a culture of respect for each other that informs every day at school. That has been done effectively in some schools to deal with bullying. In Stockport schools, a restorative approach is being developed, through which children help other children to resolve their conflicts and reach resolution. They reach out to children who are not part of a peer group.
Another thing that young people told me again and again was how much they valued talking to their peers. We have many successful peer mentoring programmes in Greater Manchester. One school I visited had a big team of peer mentors, and children had to apply to become a mentor as if they were applying for a job; for example, they needed to have references.
We need to understand that children are a resource in themselves. They understand social media in a way that we cannot. They understand exactly the pressures that they are subject to, and they need to be part of designing projects to inform other young people.
Thank you, Sir Edward, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to speak in this debate.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) on presenting her case, and doing so quite well. I will adopt a similar attitude to my colleague, the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson). Education is an essential part of the life of a child. Education must be a priority, but we must acknowledge that in the educational life of a child priority must also be given to things that are not simply academic. A holistic education is important. There must be space for personal development and I am completely supportive of that.
In fairness to the hon. Lady, she set out her case fairly well, but I need to put on the record my concerns and those of many others. Things of a personal nature, such as matters of morality, are better left to parents than to others. That is why I stand today to stress that any change in standards of teaching must contain the ability for parents to withdraw their children from classes. As the father of three boys, I was happy that the school took the role of teaching the mechanics of the “birds and the bees”, but I was also happy—indeed, very happy—that the role of teaching morality and the ramifications of choices was left to us to determine and discuss as a family. It is important to put that on the record.
Currently, primary schools do not have to teach pupils beyond the basic biological aspects of sex education that are required by the national curriculum. Secondary schools are required to teach 14 to 16-year-olds about sexually transmitted diseases, and they should do so. All schools must have an up-to-date policy that describes the content and organisation of sex and relationship education that is taught outside of the science curriculum. This policy must be made available for parents, including information on parents’ rights to withdraw their child from lessons if they feel that is important to them. I think the hon. Lady herself said that; I believe that was what she was saying.
If that is what the hon. Lady was saying, that is good news—I think we are probably on the same wavelength. To me, this is essential for any family: the right to teach their child the morality and the standards they hope their child will stick to, and the right to withdraw their child from a lesson that they feel will not complement how they teach their child. Again, that is an absolute must for me and the people I represent.
I read a very interesting article by Andrea Williams, chief executive of Christian Concern, which warned that making SRE compulsory would remove the freedom of parents to decide how and when their child is educated on this subject. She wrote:
“For many years, sex and relationship education has not provided a godly stance on sexuality or sexual relationships. Instead, it reflects our society’s increasingly liberal sexual norms.”
It is important that we make the distinction—draw the line—between those two. She continued:
“Making SRE mandatory would limit parents’ freedom to withdraw their children from these lessons if so desired and usurp their responsibility in deciding what they should and should not be taught at what age.”
That is a very important comment from a lady who is greatly respected.
I do not believe that making SRE mandatory can or should happen. As parents, the buck stops with us. We do the best we can with our children and we must be allowed to do so in moral teaching. With the spread of social media, more and more of our young people are taking and sending inappropriate photos, and that can lead to unsafe situations. This is something that parents must take on board and discuss with their children; those who do not wish to do so can allow the school to do so. The choice must be available for parents and I stand firmly by that view.
That is okay.
The other thing I wish to mention briefly is the fact that we must also allow teachers who are uncomfortable discussing and promoting British moral values that might undermine their own dearly held personal faith to withdraw from teaching those values, with no penalty and no fear of losing their job. We have many examples of that. There is the example of Ashers in Northern Ireland. We have the case of the bed and breakfast owners and that of the Christian registrar. It is not enough for our Prime Minister to talk about freedom to live one’s faith; we must now have the support of the law to do that. Any legislation must protect the right of teachers to withdraw from promoting values that undermine their faith.
I will leave it at this. I understand that we cannot press our faith on others, but by the same token we should not be expected to directly oppose the teachings of our faith on the say-so of others. Teachers do not want their teaching to promote the latest Government definition of morality; they want it to help a child to have a fully rounded life and to make a difference. Allow them to do that in an appropriate way and legislate to protect them with any proposed changes. We must learn lessons, just as children learn. I, for one, have learned a lot from the Ashers case about the need for protection, and I hope that the Government, and particularly the Minister, can take that on board.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) for securing this important debate and for all the work she has done on the topic. We have heard some excellent arguments about the need for sex and relationship education, not least from my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey). I want to focus my remarks on my experience of uncovering allegations of historical child sexual abuse and also of representing Rochdale, a town that has been the victim of child grooming gangs.
Over the past few years we have seen a huge number of survivors of historical child sexual exploitation come forward, and I am sure that they have done this only now in part because of the lack of sex and relationships education back then. A review by the Cochrane Library of school-based education programmes for the prevention of child sexual abuse confirms what is obvious, which is that primary-aged children who are taught about the issues are three times more likely to report abuse.
My ex-wife, Karen Danczuk, successfully prosecuted her abuser late last year, after suffering in silence throughout her childhood and adolescence. She is now a patron of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood. She readily admits that she would have been more likely to disclose to the authorities that she was being abused if she had received relationships education. The fact that the abuse she suffered took place at home stresses the importance of that sort of education in schools. Likewise, kids in care and others who lack the typical family support structures may benefit from schools providing information about relationships.
Karen’s case also highlights that 11 is too late to start offering relationships advice in schools; her abuse started when she was about six years old. It is therefore imperative that children are made aware of the power within relationships much earlier in their education. I spoke to Karen earlier today, and these are her own words: “The thing to remember with cases like mine is that I didn’t know any other life. I didn’t know that this shouldn’t be happening. There was nobody saying, ‘It shouldn’t be this way.’ If there had been, maybe I would have recognised sooner that what I was going through was wrong.” What she is saying is that relationships education could be exceptionally helpful.
We also know, however, that the problem is not just historical cases. There are also the cases in Rochdale and Rotherham, towns that have been blighted through the sexual exploitation of vulnerable children. We need to see sex and relationships education improved right across the board. We should not have a postcode lottery. The status quo puts children who might not attend council-controlled secondary schools at risk. More academies and more free schools means that more and more children might be put at risk, and that is simply not acceptable.
All of that is why I support the attempts of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North to make sex and relationships education a statutory requirement in all state-funded schools.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Sir Edward. I thank the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) for bringing forward this important, interesting and informative debate.
We all have a role to play in raising awareness of the challenges and potential dangers our young people face and in ensuring that they are equipped to cope. Sex and relationships education plays a vital part in that but so does society, and debates such as this are really important in bringing the issues to the fore. As a teacher in Scotland I taught—along with physics—what is called personal, social and health education, and it was an element I really enjoyed. Through it, teachers are able to form great relationships with their pupils in ways they cannot always do in a subject class. Relationships, sexual health and parenthood education is an integral part of the health and wellbeing area of the school curriculum in Scotland. Schools equip young people with information on a range of issues, depending on their age and stage. Several Members have highlighted the importance of starting sex education young, and that is right. It is important that our young people are able to identify body parts and use their correct names, as the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North mentioned, at an early stage. It should not be when we get to teenage giggling that we have to start using the correct names; it has to be normalised very early on.
The curriculum in Scotland includes information on puberty, sexually transmitted infections, contraception, how to access sexual health services and issues such as looking after a baby when you are on your own. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North also highlighted the importance of having parents involved, and a really important aspect of the curriculum in Scotland is that children have to bring the stuff home to get it signed off, so discussion is instigated by schools, forcing parents to be involved. That is such a simple thing to do. Parents are also brought in to schools when a particular element is about to start and those who have concerns, such as those that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) highlighted, are able to discuss them with the school in an open and collaborative way. That is very important. There are schools, such as those that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North mentioned, doing that great work across the UK.
Sticking with parents, the hon. Member for Strangford also mentioned the requirement of allowing parents to withdraw from SRE if they feel that that is appropriate for their children. If parents who are involved and are interested in every aspect of their child’s education want to give their particular flavour to something, that is up to them. They can teach the morality beyond the mechanics of sexual reproduction. That is important, but we must remember that many parents do not want to have the discussions with their children and the proposal we are debating attempts to address that.
A number of Members mentioned young people having respect for themselves, which is important, as is the consideration of different types of relationship. I want quickly to mention the Time for Inclusive Education—TIE—campaign and the great work it has done on the understanding that sexuality is not necessarily heterosexual. Great work is being done in schools just now and the Scottish SNP Government have made a commitment in their manifesto to work with the TIE campaign
“to promote an inclusive approach to sex and relationships education”.
[Interruption.] I understand, Sir Edward. I will just keep going.
I spoke to my son this morning. He is 18 and has just left school, and I asked him whether he had had information about online predators and other online dangers. He said that they had done a lot of work on that, talking about social media—
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) for securing this important and timely debate. I know that the Government and the Opposition share the common goal of ensuring that our children can approach the world around them with the skills and resilience they need to thrive. Children need to understand what healthy, meaningful friendships look and feel like. They need to know that it is important to respect themselves and others and to be kind and thoughtful about other people’s feelings. Our common goal is underpinned by a desire not only to see children thrive, but to see them having the knowledge to contextualise some of the more harmful things they see in the world. They need to know explicitly that men and women are equal, to understand body autonomy and integrity and to know that pinching, groping or any form of sexual harassment is never okay.
Children need to be taught that if someone touches them without their permission, they can and should tell someone, and that no one—child or adult—should ever make them feel scared, frightened or exploited. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) made representations on safe spaces, and I am confident that all Members in the Chamber would agree with her.
The Sex Education Forum survey of 2,000 young people found that more than half of them did not recognise the signs of grooming for sexual exploitation. We heard some powerful testimony from my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) this afternoon, and I applaud all his efforts on sexual exploitation in his constituency and across the country. More than four in 10 of those surveyed had not learned about healthy or abusive relationships. Half of the young people surveyed did not learn how to get help if they had been abused.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North suggested, children have to be taught in an age-appropriate and sensitive way how to build and maintain healthy friendships and relationships. The fact is that the lack of statutory sex and relationships education in primary schools and high schools is leaving our children vulnerable.
The Minister may claim today that many children are receiving good-quality SRE, but I challenge her ability to make that claim. We heard this afternoon that four in five teachers are not adequately trained to provide SRE. SRE is introduced at key stage 3, when a child is 11 years old, and is only statutory in state-maintained schools. At the time of the school census in January 2016, only 35% of high schools were still state-maintained. Furthermore, the only compulsory element of SRE that those schools must teach and a child must be present at is the biology of sex, which is provided as part of the science national curriculum.
The guidance that schools, whether state-maintained or academy, rely on to teach the non-compulsory elements of SRE is 17 years out of date. It was written well before the advent of social media and universal access to the internet. Ofsted has found that SRE required improvement in more than a third of schools, with primary pupils ill-prepared for the physical and emotional changes of puberty. It found that secondary education placed too much emphasis on the mechanics of reproduction. I was struck by the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) about conversations between young people that exposed their level of vulnerability.
A British Humanist Association report looking at how PSHE and SRE are inspected in English schools was published this month. It found that SRE was mentioned by inspectors in less than 1% of the 2,000 Ofsted reports it analysed. Many schools may be providing good-quality SRE, but we need certainty that every school, regardless of their governance and how they are funded, is giving children the knowledge and confidence they need to thrive. I know that the Government recognise those problems. Ministers have been honest with the House that SRE requires considerable improvement, and I welcome their desire to ensure that that is done well, rather than being rushed.
I hope, however, that the Minister will recognise that the Government are running out of time to amend the Children and Social Work Bill. Can she reconfirm, as she said at last Monday’s Adjournment debate, that the Minister of State for Vulnerable Children and Families will definitely bring measures on SRE forward as part of the Bill? I want her to know that if those amendments pave the way for good-quality, age-appropriate, statutory SRE, the Opposition will be minded to support those amendments and seek consensus across the House. Can she tell us more about the Government’s plans to ensure that all children, not just those who attend a state-maintained high school, have access to high-quality, age-appropriate SRE? I hope she can understand why Members from all parts of the House are so passionate about the issue.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Sir Edward. I thank the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) for securing this important debate and for her constant and consistent engagement on the important issue of sex and relationships education and personal, social, health and economic education. I also congratulate her constituency and the whole city of Kingston upon Hull on its acclaim as the UK city of culture for 2017.
I very much welcome the opportunity to debate these important issues again. As various Members have mentioned, we spoke about them in last week’s Adjournment debate, but it is always valuable to gather and hear more views from more Members from all parts of the House on these areas of concern. I entirely share the hon. Lady’s view about the value of children and young people having access to effective, factually accurate and age-appropriate sex and relationships education. I agree with her and the Opposition spokesperson that it has to be about more than that; it has to be about healthy relationships, consent and respect for oneself and others. Those things are so important if our children are to face the challenges of the modern world. It has been helpful to hear views from Members from all parts of the House, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson), whose birthday it is today.
My hon. Friend the Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families has already committed to come back to the House during the consideration of the Children and Social Work Bill with an update on how he intends to proceed. I have to be careful not to steal his thunder, particularly because he is as we speak on paternity leave, which is evidence, if needed, that he was definitely there for that class on which bit went where.
I reassure Members that the Government take the matter seriously. We welcome the extremely helpful input from the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North, many other Members and the Women and Equalities Committee, and the ongoing scrutiny of the Bill. The issue is a priority for the Government.
The paternity leave of my hon. Friend the Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families will no doubt be interrupted by the Whips tomorrow evening for the vote on article 50. May I press the Minister specifically on the issue of continuing to allow parents to withdraw their children from some classes under any new guidance issued by the Department? Hitherto, that has been a central tenet of Government policy on this sensitive issue.
The input of parents on this subject is fundamentally important, as is the input of teachers and other professionals. The Government are fully committed to exploring all the options to improve the delivery of sex and relationships education and PSHE. We want to ensure the quality of delivery and the accessibility of teaching so that all children can be supported to develop and thrive in modern Britain.
On that point, I am sure the Minister is aware that many young people find it difficult to talk to their parents about these issues. There is good evidence to suggest that young people sometimes find it difficult to talk to austere parents with a strong religious background about such issues as homosexuality, particularly if they are coming out about their own homosexuality. I hope she will factor those issues in and feed them back to her colleague when he comes back from paternity leave.
That is why it is fundamentally important that we get it right. We have to proceed taking all views into consideration. The existing legislation requires that sex education be compulsory in all maintained secondary schools. Academies and free schools are also required by their funding agreement to teach a “broad and balanced curriculum”, and we encourage them to teach sex and relationships education within that. The Government believe that transparency and consultation between parents, teachers and pupils are vital in the effective delivery of SRE. When developing their SRE policy, all schools should consult pupils’ parents and make the policy available to parents on request and at no charge.
Parents have the right to withdraw their children from any parts of sex and relationships education except the aspects included in the statutory science curriculum at each of the key stages. Many schools choose to cover issues of consent within SRE, and schools are both able and encouraged to draw on guidance and specialist materials from external expert agencies. For example, Ofsted publishes case studies on its website that efficiently highlight effective practice in schools, including examples of SRE as taught within PSHE. We are actively encouraging schools to use the Ofsted case studies as a resource when they are tailoring their own programmes to meet the specific needs of their pupils. Members have spoken about the support available for teachers, and that is the support. In addition, in 2014 the PSHE Association, Brook and the Sex Education Forum produced a supplementary guidance document on sex and relationships education for the 21st century, which provides specific advice on what are unfortunately increasingly common risks to children in the modern world, such as online pornography, sexting and staying safe online. That very useful guidance provides teachers with the tools to support pupils on these challenging matters, developing their resilience and their ability to manage risk.
We are actively considering calls to update the guidance on SRE, which was issued back in 2000. Feedback we have received indicates that the guidance is clear, but we understand the argument that it is now 17 years old and needs to be updated, and we are exploring options for doing so. We are fully committed to improving the quality and accessibility of SRE and PSHE. Our intention is to follow a responsible and dynamic approach that engages a wide range of views, including those of parents, teachers and young people. We know that SRE is a developing and vital area of education and we need to do all that we can to ensure that our guidance is fit for purpose and can equip our children with the skills they need to be safe in modern British society.
More broadly, the Government have already shown an understanding of and initiative on the issues that are affecting children and young people today. The advent of social media and other online services has provided great opportunities for young people, but we are very aware that they can also compromise young people’s safety and expose them to a number of risks. The Government expect online industries to ensure that they have appropriate safeguards and processes in place, including access restrictions, for children and young people who use their services.
We have published a guide for parents and carers, which includes practical tips about the use of safety and privacy features on apps and platforms, as well as conversation prompts to help start conversations about online safety. We have also funded the UK Safer Internet Centre to develop new resources for schools, including guidance on understanding, preventing and responding to cyberbullying, and an online safety toolkit, to help schools deliver sessions about cyber-bullying, peer pressure and sexting.
The hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) spoke powerfully about his ex-wife’s experience of abuse in childhood. He might be interested to know that the Government Equalities Office and the Home Office jointly funded a £3.85 million campaign, which was the second phase of the “This is Abuse” campaign, called “Disrespect NoBody”. That ran until May last year and asked young people to rethink their understanding of abuse within relationships. It addressed all forms of relationship abuse, including controlling and coercive behaviour and situations, including in same-sex relationships. Some of it contained gender-neutral messaging; other elements depicted male victims and female perpetrators. It also had an online toolkit that provided advice, guidance and real case studies on issues around pornography, controlling behaviour, consent and rape. It was targeted at 12 to 18-year-old boys and girls, with the aim of preventing them from becoming either perpetrators or victims of abuse.
We welcomed the comprehensive report by the Women and Equalities Committee on sexual health and sexual violence in schools. I was privileged to be able to give evidence to the Committee. The report was published on 13 September last year and contained a number of recommendations, including proposals relating to SRE and PSHE.
I emphasise that we are unanimously in full agreement that sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools, in any form, is absolutely unacceptable and should not be tolerated. The Government’s aim is to ensure that our schools have the tools they need to deliver outstanding sex and relationships education that meets the needs of all pupils in our education system. As I have said, my hon. Friend the Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families has committed to update Parliament further during the passage of the Children and Social Work Bill. This is an important issue, and we are serious about the need to use any and all effective means to remove sexual harassment and sexual violence from the lives of young people, to equip them with the confidence to know what healthy relationships look like and to have respect for themselves and others, and to prepare them for the various challenges they might face in modern Britain.
I am very grateful for all the contributions made today. I understand that this is a very sensitive issue and that people have strong views about the role of parents and what should be taught in schools, and it is a positive move that we are able to have this debate.
However, as I tried to set out in my speech, seven years down the line from when we tried to bring in this measure in 2010, we still seem to be having the same conversations about reviewing things and looking at best practice. For many of us, the time has come—we need to act now for the benefit of children and young people.
I do not think the Minister was able to say directly what is going to happen to the new clause in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), which is to be considered on Report, and whether the Government are minded to accept it. That would be the most sensible course of action.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered statutory sex and relationships education in all Government-funded schools.