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House of Commons Hansard

Westminster Hall

01 March 2017
Volume 622

    Westminster Hall

    Wednesday 1 March 2017

    [Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair]

  • The hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord), who is due to introduce the debate, has made communication with the authorities to inform us that he is a victim of disruption on the Northern line. At the time of his phone call, he was seeking alternative means of transport—a taxi—and I do not know whether he will appear here before 9.31 am. Unfortunately, unless he does, we will not be able to proceed with the debate and I will have to suspend the sitting, because the right to initiate a debate is individually balloted and not transferrable. If he is not present, I have no alternative but to suspend the sitting until the start of the next debate at 11 o’clock. In his absence, I do indeed—

  • On a point of order, Mr Chope. I can testify to the problems with the transportation system; I was stuck on the tube for 20 minutes myself. The Northern line is in a state of chaos. Given that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) is significantly delayed, I ask hon. Members to listen to this point of order for a few moments. We are gathered in great numbers to debate a significant and timely issue, particularly as we approach the celebration of Nowruz, when there will be pleas from many for clemency for prisoners of conscience. It is important that we recognise, while we await my hon. Friend, that this is a very important time. I do not know whether any colleagues want to add to that point of order.

  • Several hon. Members rose—

  • Order. I call the Minister.

  • Further to that point of order, Mr Chope. We seek your guidance. Would it be in order for there to be another 15 points of order, each elaborating in different ways on the importance of our holding this debate, to allow my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) extra time to arrive, or would that be out of order?

  • It would be out of order. The Minister puts a straight question, and the answer is a straight one: it would be out of order to try to abuse the process. The rules are quite clear. If the hon. Member for Hendon, who was due to be here at the beginning of the debate at 9.30 am, is not here, I have no alternative but to suspend the sitting.

  • Several hon. Members rose—

  • Order. I will take one more point of order, from the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick).

  • On a point of order, Mr Chope. I am grateful for the opportunity to make an additional point of order. You explained your interpretation of the rules in response to the Minister, and you are obviously in sole charge. You said that it would be an abuse for other colleagues to raise points of order, but the fact that the Speaker’s Office allowed a 90-minute debate indicates quite clearly that this matter is not of interest to just a single Member. Other colleagues bid for a similar subject to be debated. For the Speaker’s Office to determine that this issue is exclusively an interest of the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord), because he was the lucky one who was drawn in the ballot and secured time for the debate, seems to be a very narrow interpretation of the rules, in that—

  • Order. I will interrupt the hon. Gentleman, because he seems to be challenging my interpretation of the rules. If he wishes to have the rules changed, I suggest that he refers the matter to the Procedure Committee. The rules are quite clear. There have been occasions on which a Member has arrived a minute or two late and I have suspended the sitting. The rules are quite clear, and it would be wrong to try to rewrite them. If we were going to rewrite the rules, I would be tempted to allow an emergency debate on the state of the Northern line, but I will not do that. The sitting is suspended until 11 am.

  • Sitting suspended.

    Suicide and Self-harm in Prison (England)

  • I beg to move,

    That this House has considered rates of suicide and self-harm in prisons in England.

    It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Chope. I am pleased to have the opportunity to discuss the record levels of suicide and self-harm in our prisons in this timely debate.

    Yesterday, it was announced that prison officers planned to strike today. The reasons they cited were:

    “More and more members…being assaulted every day”

    and

    “the increase in self-inflicted deaths and daily security breaches…as a result of staff shortfalls and budget cuts.”

    The industrial action has been blocked by the Secretary of State for Justice, who won an injunction in the High Court, but the serious concerns raised by the Prison Officers Association cannot be ignored. Yesterday, a report from the Institute for Government declared that spending decisions have pushed prisons “beyond breaking point”.

    Our criminal justice system rests on the idea that a person who has committed a crime should be punished if necessary and, as a last resort, by the removal of their liberty. By removing a criminal’s freedom, we seek to protect the public from the criminal’s activities for the duration of their time in prison. We also aspire to provide meaningful opportunities for rehabilitation so that on release, the prisoner can rejoin society as a law-abiding citizen.

    What we do not do in the United Kingdom, and have not done since 1964, is use the removal of a criminal’s life as a punishment, yet within our modern-day prison system an all-time record number of prisoners are paying for their crimes with their lives. Official data published by the Ministry of Justice on 26 January showed that 119 prisoners died by suicide during 2016—the highest number in a calendar year since current recording practices began in 1978.

    Inquest, a charity that monitors deaths in prisons, has reported that already there have been eight recorded self-inflicted deaths in 2017, with a further seven deaths awaiting classification. On average, a prisoner dies by suicide every three days, and 12 women lost their lives through suicide in 2016. The Minister might be tempted to say that the increase in deaths by suicide is a reflection of the increase in the prison population as a whole, but that argument does not stack up when we look at the figures. The number of deaths by suicide has doubled in just five years, yet the size of the prison population, currently standing at a little over 85,000, has plainly not doubled since 2010.

    The Minister might be further tempted to suggest that a prisoner who takes their own life in prison might have done the same on the outside, but a self-inflicted death is 8.6 times more likely in prison than in the general population, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform.

  • I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. She has made some excellent points, to which I hope to hear the reply later. Does she agree that a suicide in a hospital would be a very serious issue and that a suicide in prison should be taken no less seriously? Urgent action is needed to reduce suicides that take place on prison premises.

  • I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and for his commitment to the issue of mental health. Deaths in prison should be treated no differently from those in any other setting. Issues such as ligature points are contended with very differently in inpatient settings and in prisons. We could point to many things that should be treated in the same way as in any other element of life outside prison.

    The number of self-harm incidents has also reached a record high of 37,784, which is up nearly 7,000 on the previous year.

    One group that has been uniquely failed by the prison system is transgendered prisoners. There have been four deaths by suicide of transgendered people while in prison over a mere matter of months. That is from an estimated prison population of just 85.

    We know that the prevalence of mental health conditions is much higher among the prison population. Prisoners are over three times more likely to suffer from depression, 12 times more likely to suffer from a personality disorder and 16 times more likely to suffer from psychosis.

    For prisoners who need to be treated in a mental health inpatient unit, departmental guidance states that transfers under the Mental Health Act 1983 should take place within 14 days. I was appalled to learn from the answer to my written parliamentary question that in 2015-16, 1,141 prisoners—three in four—waited longer than that two-week window. Such ubiquitous failure would never be tolerated in the outside world.

    With regard to data on mental health in prisons, it feels like a minefield trying to get hold of figures that give a true representation of the scale of the problems. I cannot help but feel that the Minister and his Department are trying to pull the wool over our eyes. When I resubmitted my question to get the most up-to-date figures, I was told that, in the space of just a few months, the data are now

    “not held in the requested format”,

    despite the wording of my question being identical. I hope the Minister will tell me why the collection of the data has changed.

    When I finished drafting my speech shortly before we began this morning, the Department’s answers to four of my named-day questions were long overdue. The answers would have played a key part in my contribution, but, regretfully, I cannot hold the Government to account fully for them today. Just one example is a question I asked about what proportion of people who died by suicide in prisons were not on the assessment, care in custody and teamwork pathway for people who have been identified as being at risk. In 2015, only 35 of 89 people who died by suicide were on the ACCT pathway, suggesting that too many vulnerable inmates are not being identified early enough. I asked the question again on 31 January—over a month ago—and the Minister’s Department has still not come back to me with that vital information.

    Prison should offer a unique opportunity to provide mental health treatment in a secure environment, but the Government are betraying the vulnerable people our criminal justice system is supposed to protect. I met representatives of the Prison Officers Association who told me that, despite having worked in the Prison Service for decades, they had never received any mental health training. A recent Royal College of Psychiatrists forensic faculty survey found that service cuts mean most prison psychiatrists do not feel able to deliver a basic level of care. It is clear that the mental health services in our prisons are buckling. On a recent visit to a local prison, I saw at first hand the lack of care and services available to inmates. A recent consultation by the Centre for Mental Health found that a decrease in prison staff meant inmates often missed psychiatric appointments because there was no one available to escort them, and consequently they could not get the treatment they needed.

    This is the stark reality that has been created by decimating staffing levels in prisons. There are 7,000 fewer prison officers than when the coalition Government came to power in 2010. The impacts of such drastic cuts are not trivial. Our prison services are out of control. Assaults in prisons rose by a third in the 12 months to September 2016 and are the highest on record. There was a wave of prison riots in the final weeks of last year, including at Birmingham, Bedford, Swaleside and Lewes. The inconvenient truth for the Minister is that, as things stand, he cannot guarantee the security of anyone who sets foot in our prisons.

    Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons has found that an increasing number of prisoners report feeling unsafe in prison. Yesterday, we heard the conclusions drawn from an unannounced inspection of HMP Featherstone. We heard that some prisoners felt so unsafe in the prison that they resorted to self-isolation, asking to be locked up for nearly 24 hours a day. In some instances, this had lasted for months.

    Nationally, there has been a significant increase in the ratio of prisoners to prison staff. It is not only prisoners who do not feel safe, but hard-working staff who brave the frontline every day, aware that there might simply not be anyone there to back them up if an incident becomes unmanageable.

    A couple of weeks ago, BBC’s “Panorama” aired an undercover investigation that was filmed inside HMP Northumberland. I am sure anyone who watched it was, like me, appalled to see the truth about prison life laid bare: pervasive violence; widespread drug use; security systems not fit for purpose—put simply, chaos.

    During this debate, it is important to remember that part of the reason this dire situation has arisen is that far too many people have been inappropriately put in prison, when they should be receiving mental health treatment in a secure inpatient unit. There is a need to address how the courts treat people with mental health problems, particularly in respect of community sentences and the inclusion of mental health treatment requirements within those.

    I have been raising questions about suicide and self-harm in our prisons for many years, but I was compelled to request this debate because of one particular case, the tragic case of Dean Saunders. He was just 25 years old when he died by his own hand at Chelmsford prison in Essex last year. I had the privilege of meeting Dean’s parents, Mark and Donna, to hear about this tragic case in their own words. Dean was suffering from severe mental illness and had harmed himself and his brother and father as they tried to help him during a paranoid episode. He was charged with attempted murder and sent to prison. His family were told that there he would be safe.

    The inquest jury unanimously concluded that Care UK, the private company that ran healthcare at the prison, treated “financial considerations” as a significant reason behind the decision to downgrade him from constant watch to half-hourly observations, despite several warnings that he might harm himself. It said that there were “multiple failings”, including a “complacent” approach to Dean’s mental health. The jury found an assessment of his mental health needs was “not adequately conducted” and concluded that the cause of death was “contributed to by neglect”.

    The system failed because of financial cuts in the prison budget, and Mr Saunders paid for it with his life. Despite that damning verdict, Care UK continues to provide healthcare, including mental health services, to more than 22,000 prisoners in many prisons across the UK.

    I note that the Justice Secretary has met Mr Saunders’ family, and I welcome that, but Mr Saunders presented a high risk of suicide—he should never have been in a prison in the first place. He needed specialist treatment in a secure mental health facility to protect him, but none was made available.

  • Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the problems may well be that people are siloed into being under either the care of forensic psychiatry or that of the prison system? There is very little and very poor interaction between the general mental health system and what goes on in prison, particularly in terms of helping people to receive the adequate care in the community that they need when they leave prison on discharge.

  • There have been many reports, inquiries and recommendations that highlight the very point the hon. Gentleman made—reports dating back to 10 years ago. I hope the Minister will reflect in his response on the reports, inquiries and recommendations that have already been put forward and outline what he will do to ensure that that current separation is adequately addressed to prevent situations like this case. What are Ministers going to do to ensure that similar situations to what happened to Dean never happen again?

    The shocking and shameful rise in suicide and self-harm is happening on this Government’s watch and the Minister must outline his plan of action today. These are not statistics; they are real human beings—somebody’s father, somebody’s mother, somebody’s daughter or somebody’s son. The Government cannot get away with sweeping this issue under the carpet for a second longer. I note that the Joint Committee on Human Rights is also conducting an inquiry on this issue and I hope that today’s debate might be a precursor to the outcomes of that inquiry.

    Last month, in Justice questions, I raised Mr Saunders’ case. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) told me that he was

    “seeking the details of all those cases to see whether there is a pattern in why they are happening. I hope to come forward later in the year with suggestions for policy change relating to mental health assessments in prisons.”—[Official Report, 24 January 2017; Vol. 620, c. 156.]

    An assessment is not, in and of itself, enough. However, when I sought more details in a written parliamentary question, the Secretary of State’s answer exposed a U-turn on any plans for such an investigation. Although another exploration of data would have been wholly inadequate, it would at least have been something. Now it seems that the Government have no plans in place to confront this crisis.

    If the Minister thinks that a further review of the evidence is needed, I am here to disabuse him. If he thinks we need more consultation, I am afraid he is mistaken. Countless inquiries and reports have been conducted, which have a plethora of very practical recommendations to their name. There was the review carried out by Baroness Corston on women and, significantly, the Harris review on self-inflicted deaths of young people, which was the most comprehensive review of suicide in prison and heard directly from bereaved families. Many important recommendations on learning and accountability were put forward, which so far have been rejected.

    Families tell us time and again that what they want after a tragedy like this is for no one else to go through a similar experience and for concrete changes to be made. Ultimately, we are seeing the same failings repeated time and again in this pattern of preventable deaths. There is currently a significant accountability gap. Deeds, not words, are what is needed now; a concrete plan of action is necessary, not yet another ministerial speech. I say that in memory of all those who have died by suicide in our prisons. It is unacceptable. We abolished the death penalty half a century ago for very good reason. Now we must ensure that in 2017, no prisoner pays the penalty of their life because of the failure in our prison system. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

  • It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) on securing today’s debate, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) for his insightful interventions.

    I extend my particular thanks and welcome to Mark Saunders, the father of Dean Saunders who tragically died by his own hand in Chelmsford prison, for joining us for the debate. I reiterate the point that the Secretary of State and I made to him when we met: I very much look forward to working with him to bring in some real solutions to the challenge of suicides in our prisons.

    Like the hon. Lady, I am concerned that the rates of suicide and self-harm in our prisons are too high. It is an issue that transcends political parties, despite our obviously different perspectives on the reforms needed in our prisons. My priority as prisons Minister is to provide leadership and to drive improvement across the system to bring those rates down.

    As hon. Members will recognise, some of the problems in our prisons have long roots. It will take time to refocus the system on rehabilitation and reform but, as the last set of statistics for levels of suicide and self-harm reaffirm, we must also take urgent and decisive action to make prisons places of safety for those prisoners who are at risk.

    The challenge of record levels of suicide and self-harm in prisons is a complex one and there is no simple solution. We know that prisoners are a high-risk population and that many of them come into the prison system with drug or alcohol problems, isolation, social disadvantage, experience of sexual or physical abuse, or mental health problems. All those factors increase the risk of self-harm or suicide among prisoners. We acknowledge that the nature of a custodial experience can further increase those risks, but that should not serve as an excuse.

  • I am encouraged by the Minister’s comments. Is he aware of figures from De Montfort University that show that 46% of women in custody have previously attempted suicide and that women in the criminal justice system on average die 16 years younger than their counterparts? Will he acknowledge that that issue should be part of the ongoing dialogue that is needed between the mental health and the criminal justice systems?

  • Order. I did say to the hon. Lady earlier that interventions from Opposition spokespersons are not allowed in a short Westminster Hall debate. I have re-confirmed that that is the ruling, so I am not going to allow the Minister to respond to that intervention. I apologise to the mover of the debate for the interruption.

  • Any loss of life, whether male or female, is tragic. I would hope that my comments will address the issues in female as well as male prisons.

    Deaths in the early days and weeks of custody are highest after reception, sentencing, transfer or recall. There are also significant numbers of deaths among lifers and other prisoners late into long sentences. We are developing a package of reforms as part of the prison safety and reform programme, and we will consult with a range of external stakeholders to seek their views on the action that will be taken to address the complex issue of suicide and self-harm in prisons.

    In a written question, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree asked about the internal review. I assure her that there is an inquiry under way to look at all deaths in custody in the past year and to further our understanding of why those events are happening. She will know what the results of that inquiry are as soon as they are available.

    The early days and weeks in custody are particularly critical, and we are taking steps to ensure that when somebody enters a prison they are given the support they need at that important time. We are rolling out new training courses across the estate to help our staff to identify risks and triggers of suicide and self-harm and to understand what they can do to support prisoners at risk. That involves awareness training for prison staff on supporting prisoners with mental health issues. The new package consists of six sections that can be delivered to both new and existing staff either in succession or in a modular form.

  • I thank the Minister for his answers. To clarify, will that training for prison officers be compulsory or voluntary, and will it be carried out according to the amount of funding available?

  • We are making the training available to all prisons, and we expect prison governors to ensure that as many of their staff as possible can take it—particularly those who are operating on wings and have direct contact with prisoners. The full training package takes about 1.5 days to complete.

  • Will the Minister give way?

  • I would like to make some progress and develop these points. I will perhaps take an intervention later.

    We are also making improvements to the assessment, care in custody and teamwork process—the case management process in place in our prisons to support and manage prisoners at risk—and identifying opportunities to make it more effective. That includes changes to relevant training and developing a new self-harm diagnostic tool for use by prison governors and staff, which brings together information for each prison about numbers and types of incident, and where and when in the prison they are happening.

    We are also improving infrastructure and partnerships. To support governors and prison staff across the estate, we have put in place specialist roles—regional safer custody leads—in every region to provide advice to prisons and to spread good practice on identifying and supporting prisoners at risk. We are also committed to developing partnerships with others who can help us. In addition to the funding already provided to support the prisoner listener scheme, we will be providing extra funding for the Samaritans to provide targeted support for prison staff and to prisoners directly, including by piloting emotional resilience training for new prisoners, delivered by released ex-listeners.

    In the immediate term, a national learning day will be held on 14 March for prison staff on suicide and self-harm. We also strive to continue to learn from others and from completed and ongoing reviews. It is critical that we respond to the independent advisory panel’s ongoing review of women’s self-inflicted deaths. We continue to benefit from individual reviews into deaths in custody by the prisons and probation ombudsman. As hon. Members will have seen, we have introduced the Prisons and Courts Bill, which contains measures to put the ombudsman on to a statutory footing, with powers of entry and requirements on the Secretary of State to publish responses to the ombudsman’s reports. It will give those reports real teeth and will introduce an imperative in the system to follow through the recommendations and ensure that they are implemented. The Bill gives effect to long-standing commitments by successive Governments to give the ombudsman permanent status. I hope that hon. Members will welcome and support the Bill as it progresses through the House.

    We will also redouble our efforts to support protective and environmental factors, which evidence tells us reduce risk. We know that strengthening family ties and peer support can support prisoners’ wellbeing and make custody safer. Governors will be held to account for the family services in their prison, and from autumn 2017 the family service budgets will be devolved to governors so that they have flexibility over how they resource family services to best meet the needs of their prisoners. We are also supporting digital developments in prisons, including the roll-out of in-cell telephony, to enable prisoners to call their families more easily and at cheaper rates. We will learn from Lord Farmer’s review to investigate how helping prisoners to engage with their families can support their rehabilitation and provide encouragement.

  • The hon. Lady is itching to make an intervention, so I will give way.

  • I thank the Minister for very kindly giving way. I can see he is about to conclude, and we still have a few minutes left in the debate. Can I bring him back to two points? First, on the training that may or may not be available to prison staff, I urge him to reflect on the fact that there are people who have served in our Prison Service for decades but have never received any mental health training. It is important that every single one of them receives such training. Secondly, is the Minister’s Department looking at how to reduce risk in prisons, in the same way as we reduce the risks from ligature points in mental health settings?

  • On the hon. Lady’s second question, absolutely yes, we are reducing risk in prisons, in terms of the fabric in cells and so on. In addition to the training and opportunities for prison officers to become better skilled and better able to identify suicide risk and to deal with mental health issues, last week, as she will be aware, we announced a promotion for all band 3 officers—they can get promoted to band 4 and get an additional salary at band 4 if they specialise in certain roles in prison. One of them is specifically to do with safer custody. Therefore, a prison officer today can choose to specialise as a safer custody officer and get paid more to do so. Some 2,000 prison officers across the country could benefit from that increase in pay and from the training that I have outlined.

    In the light of the disproportionate number of self-harm incidents among female prisoners, we are exploring ways of improving family links, including overnight visits, family days, child-centred visits, homework clubs and the delivery of relationship and parenting programmes. We are also taking account of evidence that shows that prison environments have a direct impact on prisoners’ wellbeing and rehabilitation, as the hon. Lady rightly pointed out. Our plans for estate transformation include ensuring that prison sites are configured to support prisoners’ access to fresh air, exercise and meaningful activity.

    Fundamental to supporting that activity and improving the safety of all those living and working in our prisons will be the recruitment of the additional 2,500 frontline staff we are funding. Extra staff will enable prison officers to conduct new ways of working and transform the culture in our prisons, so that every prison officer is responsible for the supervision and support of about six prisoners. The 1:6 model is in part based on the work of Lord Toby Harris on self-inflicted deaths, which particularly focused on the youth estate. That is why we are introducing the important key worker role.

  • I thank the Minister for very kindly giving way again. Does he accept that those are not additional staff, but merely a replacement of the staff that have already been cut? We have lost more than 7,000 prison officers since 2010. We have only to look at the outcome of the inspection at Northumberland prison to see that there is a very significant issue of prisoners feeling so unsafe that they do not feel able to leave their cells.

  • The 2,500 staff are additional to what we have, so at the end of 2018 we will have 2,500 additional officers. The baseline—the comparison with 2010—is not accurate because, although we lost 7,000 prison officers, we closed down 18 prisons. We are looking at a completely new baseline. However, the most important thing is the one-to-one support from a dedicated officer, which is at the heart of our prison reforms, ensuring that prisoners first and foremost are safe to benefit from the help they need to quit drugs, participate in education and skills programmes and acquire the skills to prepare for life after release.

    The hon. Lady asked about the 75% of prisoners—she alleged—who face delays in being transferred to NHS hospitals beyond the 14-day deadline. That is obviously a serious concern, and I will work closely with Department of Health partners to look into it. Health partners are obviously important in supporting prisoners and meeting their physical and mental health needs. In 2015, just to put the statistic out there, there were 1,010 transfer admissions to secure hospitals from prison, but I admit that a lot more needs to be done.

    I read the inquest report into the incredibly tragic death of Dean Saunders. Like the hon. Lady, I agree that we are a long way short of where we should be in terms of preventing such self-inflicted deaths. The points I have enumerated today show what we are doing now, and we will come forward with even more detail and further reforms to ensure that we bring down the number of these deaths as much as we possibly can. I look forward to working with the hon. Lady—I will be willing to discuss these issues in detail with her—and with the Saunders family and a number of other families who have lost loved ones in this way.

    Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

  • Sitting suspended.

    Liverpool City Region (Poverty)

    [Mr George Howarth in the Chair]

  • I beg to move,

    That this House has considered poverty in the Liverpool city region.

    It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I welcome right hon. and hon. Friends from across the city region to this important debate; we speak with one voice on poverty in our area.

    Poverty is not an ephemeral concept. For far too many people in our city region, it is part of their daily grind. During the debate I will celebrate the fantastic achievements of charities, voluntary organisations and community groups that work tirelessly to tackle poverty in our area; highlight some of the challenges individuals and families face; and identify what we can do collectively to try to tackle the issue across the Liverpool city region.

    During her coronation in July last year, the Prime Minister spoke on the steps of Downing Street of

    “fighting against the burning injustice that, if you’re born poor, you will die on average 9 years earlier than others.”

    However, since her parody of Mrs Thatcher’s 1979 St Francis of Assisi speech, it has been hard to find one policy in which the Prime Minister provides solutions to address the issue.

  • Does my hon. Friend accept that the pattern is particularly stark in the Wirral? If a line is drawn down the M53, the difference in life expectancy between the west side and the poorest parts of the east side is 10 years.

  • I absolutely accept that. If lines are drawn right across maps of the city region, there are similar disparities and instances in which life expectancy rates are completely at odds with the attempt to improve everybody’s life chances, as the Prime Minister said she would on the steps of Downing Street.

    Will the Minister address the fact that the 55% of working families in poverty—a record high—need hope that things will improve? We need to ensure that there is aspiration for children caught in the cycle of deprivation, and innovation in Government thinking to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping. I think we all remember how things turned out for our area last time there was a Conservative Government. By the time the Tories were ousted from power, our country was far more divided than when Thatcher came to power and promised to heal discord, so Government Members will forgive my cynicism about the veracity of the current Prime Minister’s words and her resolve to tackle poverty.

    To get a better understanding of the current situation in the Liverpool city region, it is important to start by charting the economic vicissitudes we have seen in our recent history. Before the financial crash in 2008, the Liverpool city region experienced reasonable levels of economic improvement and was growing faster than the rest of the north-west economy. We benefited from European objective 1 funding and billions of pounds-worth of private sector investment that catalysed our area’s regeneration. The tangible manifestation of our renaissance was the changing cityscape, with projects such as the arena and convention centre and the Liverpool ONE shopping complex generating thousands of full and part-time jobs, helping to boost economic growth and raising visitor numbers. In 2008, we were able to showcase to the rest of the UK what we are capable of when given a fair crack at the whip.

    The basic tenet of a decent society, on which I will focus my comments, is fairness. The last Labour Government had taken nearly 1 million children out of poverty by the time we left office in 2010. We helped to alleviate the suffering of many trapped in poverty through the creation of Sure Start centres, which gave our children the best start in life to break the cycle of dispossession. We also introduced tax credits, which helped to make work pay for many low-income families. However, despite improvements, there were still significant problems to tackle in some communities across the six districts.

  • Does my hon. Friend also recall that, for the first time in history, the last Labour Government removed the link that there had always been between older age and poverty, and took almost 1 million older people out of poverty?

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of our great achievements, removing that link was certainly important in taking huge swathes of older people out of the cycle of poverty.

    The indicators and indices of multiple deprivation have gone backwards under the current Government. It is estimated that 91,000 children in the city region are growing up in poverty. Analysis by the Children’s Society estimates that, in the city of Liverpool area alone, 34% of children live in poverty, while 26,800 children live in 15,500 families in problem debt. Debt is a growing issue for many families simply trying to make ends meet. As StepChange highlights, problem debt costs the UK £8.3 billion a year through the damage it causes to family life, mental and physical health, productivity and employment prospects, and costs to the welfare state, the NHS, local government and other agencies.

  • My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. There have been many improvements in my constituency, particularly under the last Labour Government, but he has hit on an important point: working people are suffering poverty because they are on very low wages or can find only part-time jobs. One of the greatest challenges is surely how we ensure that people get a better income, because working people are suffering.

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right that in-work poverty is increasing. That can be tackled by giving people a proper living wage. That is something that we have said a future Labour Government will do. According to the Office for National Statistics, 46% of individuals living in households in the lowest total wealth quintile are in financial debt, which is twice as high as households in the highest wealth quintile, on 23%.

    At a G8 summit in 2011, David Cameron promised:

    “Britain will not balance its books on the backs of the poorest.”

    However, a recent report by the Resolution Foundation found that this Government’s tenure will be the worst for living standards for the poorest half of households since comparable records began in the mid-1960s. Compared with other developed countries, the UK now has the worst household income inequality in the world, and it is at its most iniquitous since the early years of Thatcherism.

    Local authorities are often the first port of call for families suffering from poverty. Liverpool City Council is facing an enormous funding headache. The Government slashed its grant by 58%, yet somehow still believe that the city council should provide the same vital services it once did. I challenge the Minister, or any hon. Member, to have their income reduced by significantly more than half and to still be able to afford to do the same things they did before. That is what the Government expect councils across the city region to do. How can local authorities in the areas of greatest need be expected to help families suffering the effects of poverty with such scarce resources?

    A study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that child poverty costs the public sector between £12 billion and £22 billion a year, which evidences the need for a co-ordinated and collaborative approach to tackle the issue. However, there is a wide range of complex contributory factors that can leave people facing severe hardship. Unsurprisingly, despite the last Labour Government’s rhetoric about eradicating child poverty in the UK by 2020 with the Child Poverty Act 2010, the Tories are making life even tougher for families in our areas that have the highest levels of deprivation. Living costs have risen, welfare reductions are exacerbating child and family poverty, and pernicious policies have had devastating consequences.

    The Prime Minister has extolled the vision of a “shared society” although, as with the mantra of the “long-term economic plan”, I have not heard her say much about it recently. Bewilderingly, she has tried to claim the crown of social justice for her party, but when was the last time she or her Government spoke about poverty? Under the Tories, life is increasingly difficult for the most vulnerable, and low levels of social mobility are magnified in areas outside London and the south-east.

    Policy has included the bedroom tax, which penalises people for living in a property where the Government consider bedrooms are not being utilised. The problem in areas such as ours, however, is that those living in under-occupied homes had nowhere to go, due to the shortage of suitable properties for them to move into. The Government’s one-size-fits-all approach failed to solve the problem it was allegedly designed to tackle and instead forced people out of their family homes, exacerbating the breakdown of social cohesion in many of our communities. In Merseyside and Halton, we do not have the right housing mix to accommodate demand, which is creating problems in the private rented sector in particular. Increasingly, we have instances of rent poverty, with unscrupulous landlords charging rent rates that renters simply cannot afford. Direct payments have hindered and not helped, too.

    People are having to make unenviable decisions about whether to heat, eat or pay rent, so it is no wonder that some get into arrears. In a number of cases, they end up being evicted and are forced on to the streets to sleep rough. Ministers have to take action to clamp down on that growing injustice, instead of spouting erroneous statistics to justify failing policies. I would be happy to accompany the Minister on any night he chooses to walk around any part of our wonderful city region to see the desperation of rough sleepers for himself and to speak to them to find out the reasons behind it.

    Year after year, rip-off energy suppliers are racking up the cost of consumers’ gas and electricity bills. The latest hike in prices will cause particular concern to the 4 million UK households who live in fuel poverty. The suffering caused by cold-related ill health costs the national health service £1.36 billion a year, and for many the high cost of energy is exacerbated by substandard accommodation. During our time in government, we invested £18 billion into the decent homes standard. Only this week, the UK Green Building Council reported that 25 million homes would need refurbishing to the highest standard by 2050, at a rate of 1.4 homes every minute.

  • In the Wirral, before the previous Labour Government took office, 65% of social housing was below the acceptable standard. Owing to the money that was invested under that Labour Government, when we left office less than 5% of the social stock was below the acceptable standard. Does my hon. Friend recognise how that helped to deal with the problems of poverty, and health related ones in particular? What can be done to take that process further if he is elected Mayor of the city region?

  • I will concentrate on the first bit, rather than the second bit, if that is okay. On the progress made under the Labour Government to tackle what has to be described as the scourge of people living in substandard accommodation, we did an awful lot of good, and we were hoping to do even more. People have to understand that when they are heating a home without double glazing, for example, the heat is easily lost. Simple things such as double glazing or cavity wall insulation help to retain heat, and so reduce bills. That is what we did for hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people throughout the country, and certainly our area benefited.

    I hope that the Government will do something simple to tackle the problem of 1.4 homes per minute needing to be brought up to standard until 2050. My party has pledged to get to grips properly with the poor quality of homes. We have made that an infrastructure priority, which would allow us to combat the problem effectively and efficiently. Lamentably, the Government would not join us in the voting Lobby to ensure that homes were fit for human habitation.

    Regrettably, my constituency has been ranked No. 1 in the whole country for disability and health deprivation. Life expectancy in Liverpool, Walton is many years shorter than for the residents of Walton-on-Thames, for example. As we heard during Prime Minister’s questions today, the Government have encouraged those with minor ailments to visit pharmacies, so as to alleviate the pressure on GP surgeries and on accident and emergency services. It is therefore outrageous that pharmacies in my constituency will not receive a single penny from the pharmacy access scheme, forcing on some the prospect of having to close. Out of the 394 chemists in the whole of Merseyside, only 18 will be funded, while the constituencies of the Prime Minister and of the Secretary of State for Health will each have seven funded. How does that address poverty of health, as the Prime Minister promised she would do? How does that prevent the knock-on effect for our NHS? How can people help themselves out of poverty when the Government do everything they can to make the basics of life even harder for them?

    Recent statistics published by anti-poverty charity the Trussell Trust highlighted the worrying rise in the use of food banks in our area. Between April and September 2016 in my constituency, the North Liverpool food bank supplied 2,638 three-day emergency food parcels to families, of which nearly 1,000 were for children. It is a national disgrace that in the fifth richest economy in the world, almost 1.1 million people rely on food banks.

    On this Government’s watch, however, things are getting even worse. Only recently I received a letter from the Minister at the Department for Work and Pensions informing me of two proposed jobcentre closures in my constituency. There are similar problems throughout the city region. The Government do not seem to understand that closing a jobcentre and relocating it miles away creates further barriers for local people trying their best to find work. Perhaps the Minister will explain when he sums up why the Government consistently put obstacles in the way of people who are trying their best to find work. As an alternative proposal, will the Minister agree to run a pilot scheme in the Liverpool city region in which we use our libraries, one-stop shops and community centres to provide a neighbourhood service to help people back into employment?

    Education provides the essential building blocks to achieve the economic success that we so desperately need, and yet too many children in Merseyside and Halton are going to school hungry. That has a devastating effect on their educational prospects. Teachers and governors are doing all they can to help, such as with the provision of breakfast clubs for children. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) has been a great champion of free breakfast clubs, as research suggests that if children have a decent breakfast, they are more likely to concentrate better, learn more and achieve improved results at school.

    The Government are devolving only limited powers to metro Mayors—this is where I should declare an interest—while at the same time fragmenting delivery and centralising accountability in the school system. The Liverpool devolution deal provides the metro Mayor with only limited powers over learning, such as on post-16 skills. Further devolution could present the opportunity for each part of the Liverpool city region to work better together to challenge poor educational performance and spread best practice, rather than for each local authority to operate in splendid isolation. We have the ludicrous circumstance of local education authorities continuing to have statutory responsibility for schools, under legislation such as the Education Act 1996, while being deprived of any levers to pull in order to fulfil those duties and influence outcomes.

    When one college reports that 81% of students arrive with English and maths inadequate even to commence studying their courses, we need to address the issues, rather than perpetuate the existing fragmentation. It goes without saying that protecting per-pupil funding rather than proceeding with the Government’s 6.5% real-terms reduction in education spending is a priority for our areas. There is a poverty of aspiration among far too many young people across the city region, so if I am elected in May, I want to be able to convince the next generation that they can be the doctors, nurses or lawyers of the future and start to develop strategies to tackle the root causes of poverty, such as poor educational attainment. I hope that the Minister will explain why the Government are so hesitant about further devolution of education powers.

    I also want the Government to give metro Mayors the power to reallocate residual apprenticeship levy funding, which could be ring-fenced for innovative apprenticeship programmes. That would not cost the Government a penny, but would afford areas the opportunity to develop apprenticeship programmes to respond to local need. The Government signed up to local commissioning in the devolution agreement, but can the Minister explain why the Liverpool city region is not allocated its own contract package for the work and health programme? The current deal overlooks our local expertise, which we should harness to support people into employment, and would mean that Manchester could develop innovative approaches unilaterally but we could not. Will he address that? Such levers would enable metro Mayors to make a real difference, so I hope that the Minister will address those issues.

    Before concluding, I must pay tribute to the voluntary and community sector and the fantastic charities in our city region that do so much to make the lives of others that much more bearable.

  • May I take my hon. Friend back to apprenticeships? Riverside College in my constituency, which he is due to visit, provides excellent opportunities for apprentices, but further education colleges have had massive cuts to their budgets. The Government need to address that if they want to expand apprenticeships and have good quality apprenticeships that link in well with local businesses, because local colleges will be key in doing that. I wonder what my hon. Friend’s view is about that.

  • Like many people here, I was at the debate about FE funding and the need to reduce the Government’s proposed cuts. We partially succeeded in doing that, but the proposed cuts to the budgets of FE institutions across the city region are still significant and will prevent them from doing some of the things that the Government want them to do.

    The Government want 3 million apprenticeships in this Parliament. That will not happen if budgets are constantly slashed. I have suggested an alternative. Companies with a turnover of £3 million or more will have to pay a 0.5% apprenticeship levy. I do not believe that all that money will be used for apprenticeships—not all organisations will draw down their entitlement—so there will be a residual fund. With the Government’s help, we could develop an innovative programme so that that ring-fenced money could be used for apprenticeships and we could respond to what is coming down the pipeline and develop skills for the next three, four or five years. I hope that the Minister will address that.

    The real issue is that we do not need meaningless slogans from the Prime Minister such as “shared society”. From pioneers such as Kitty Wilkinson, Eleanor Rathbone, Dr Duncan and Father Nugent to the organisations that may go unnoticed but will provide vital support today and tonight to people who are less fortunate, our area has been at the forefront of great social advances for many centuries. If the Government are serious about reducing inequality and devolving powers to start to tackle poverty in all its manifestations, the Minister must give proper consideration to my suggestions. I look forward to his response.

  • It seems somehow appropriate that we are here under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, given that you represent a constituency in the Liverpool city region.

    Nothing defines poverty more starkly than someone being unable to feed themselves and their family because there is no food in the house and no money to buy it. In my experience, that is not a position that anyone wishes to be in. We still live in one of the richest countries in the world, but that kind of poverty is widespread and increasing. It is a key part of the worst of the poverty that I see increasingly in south Liverpool and Halewood.

    Since the global financial crisis hit in 2007-08 and the Lib Dem-Tory coalition Government decided in 2010 that never-ending austerity and public spending cuts were the answer to it, there has been an explosion in the number of our citizens placed in the painful, invidious, unhealthy and humiliating position of having to go to a food bank to feed themselves and their families. Since the election of a Tory Government in 2015, we have also seen a doubling down on cuts in social security support. Scapegoating and a blame culture have become characteristic of the callous and sneering tenure of the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) and his successors in the DWP. It seems that we are to expect more of the same from our new Chancellor of the Exchequer in next week’s Budget as he desperately tries to offset the spiralling pressures and economic uncertainties caused by the extreme way in which his Government are intent on us leaving the EU.

    The numbers on food bank use are stark. Some 2,894 people accessed a food bank in 2005-06, but just 10 years later, in 2015-16, 1.11 million people had to access Trussell Trust food banks alone. Figures for the first six months of this financial year up to September 2016 show that that number is on course to increase again. However, we do not know the true number of people affected, because the Government, disgracefully and callously, still refuse to collect the statistics. We know that the available figures understate the extent of the problem, because there are hundreds of food banks not included in the Trussell Trust scheme that do not use the vouchers on which its statistics are based, and many people cannot use food banks because they cannot eat the dried, tinned and processed food that is given out in food parcels, for medical, practical or cultural reasons. They sometimes cannot do so because their financial problems mean that they have no gas or electricity and cannot cook what they are given to eat. In my experience, that is an increasing problem.

    In December 2014, the all-party parliamentary inquiry into hunger in the UK, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), who is in his place, tried to fill the gap in statistics created by Government indifference. In its report, “Feeding Britain”, it stated that 4 million people were at risk of going hungry, 3.5 million adults could not afford to eat properly and half a million children were affected.

    Thanks to the work of the “Share Your Lunch” campaign run by the social business Can Cook, which is based in my constituency, I can say that in Liverpool we calculate that our food bank and other food help outlets have had about 60,000 visits in the last year. Some of those will have been repeat visits, but “Share Your Lunch” thinks that the real number of people without food is double that. Indeed, visits to Bridge Chapel, the Trussell Trust food bank in my constituency, increased by 10% last year to 3,890 after a two-year plateau, with 43.5% of visitors coming from Speke-Garston. Some 10% of the households who access help at Bridge Chapel have at least one person in work. That indicates the extent of very low pay and zero-hours contracts that do not guarantee any minimum income. Under-employment is a real problem in our region.

    According to “Share Your Lunch”, 45% of Liverpool families live below the poverty line and risk falling into food crisis. The number of children who start school under- weight has risen by 16% since 2012, up to one in five children in the UK arrive at school hungry, and one in three teachers surveyed by YouGov have brought in food for children in response to finding hunger in their classroom.

    Why do we have this problem in Liverpool when we live in the sixth richest country in the world, and what can be done about it? The Trussell Trust says that the most common reasons for referrals are benefit delays, low income and benefit changes, which account for 27%, 25% and 16% of referrals respectively. That means that a full 43% of people who use food banks have to do so because of the DWP’s inadequacies and poor actions. No wonder the Government will not even collect statistics on why people are forced to go to food banks—they would be embarrassed by the findings.

  • Does my hon. Friend realise that there is also a similar pattern in the Wirral? I suspect the numbers are not quite as high, but the reasons for the existence, running and use of food banks on the Wirral are similar. There are now seven food banks in Wallasey, and according to the Trussell Trust, benefit sanctions, the inadequacy of benefits and delays in paying benefits are why almost half of the people affected find they have to resort to a food bank to feed their families.

  • Indeed. In fact, “Feeding Britain”, the report by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead, had an even higher figure: it said in December 2014 that almost two thirds go to food banks because of benefit issues. That accords with my experience in my advice surgeries in Liverpool and Halewood, where I find that those who most need help have been let down completely by the social security benefit system and that, more often than not, the crisis precipitated by DWP behaviour has left them without money and without food.

    Typical scenarios include illness leading to job loss; redundancy leading to an application for jobseeker’s allowance or other benefit, which is then delayed for months while the family has no income; or sudden Kafkaesque checks on entitlement at the behest of Government, like the recent behaviour of Concentrix in cancelling people’s tax credit on the basis of entirely groundless supposition. It was unavailable to be contacted and delayed putting things right for months. That company had been financially incentivised by the Government to cancel claims, and it did so unjustifiably and at random.

    I had many constituents coming to my advice surgery who were in work and had suddenly had their tax credits stopped, which meant that they could not afford their childcare, which in turn meant that they could not go to work. All kinds of problems followed, often leading to visits to our local food banks. Even the current Government were forced to act, thanks to the pressure put on them by colleagues across the House, yet a number of my constituents have been left with no money and no food by that behaviour of Concentrix. Fortunately, some of them are now getting compensation —perhaps up to £100, but more usually £50—from the Government for what has been done to them.

    Sometimes, benefit changes precipitate food crisis, such as when people move from JSA to employment and support allowance or from disability living allowance to personal independence payment. Believe me, such a change can, and often does, cause a cascade of catastrophe when things go wrong. People have to manage for months with no money before the system is put right and the backdated payments are made. That is how people end up with no money and no food.

    I am seeing benefit sanctions happen increasingly—it is an accelerating problem. Sometimes—this is deplorable —the sanction is open-ended, and my constituents are not told about that. It is often unfairly applied to vulnerable people who have done nothing to deserve having all their money stopped indefinitely.

    It is clear that the best way of making inroads into the cause of this problem and cutting food poverty is by turning the DWP back into what it should be—a provider of social security for those who need it—and by ending the punishment of poor and disabled citizens just because of the misfortune of their circumstances, which seems to be the DWP’s raison d’être these days. That, however, will require a Labour Government.

    I want to say a little about what can be done and is being done about the problem. In my constituency, I have a range of organisations trying to help. They include the Trussell Trust, with its food bank in Bridge Chapel; non-Trussell Trust food banks and more ad hoc arrangements in a number of places in Halewood, Speke and Garston; a FareShare distribution centre in Speke; and Can Cook, a social business that helps run “Share Your Lunch”, an ambitious initiative that aims to eradicate food poverty and provide fresh, nutritious food for those who are hungry rather than food parcels of dried and tinned processed food. There is no shortage of people trying to help. I thank the volunteers and organisers who have been willing to step in to help their fellow citizens when the Government are abrogating their responsibility and are happy to leave people with nothing.

    I also thank the public, who make donations. In Liverpool, we are particularly blessed by the solidarity and generosity that people show each other, in particular those less fortunate than themselves. That is true across the city region—it is a defining characteristic of Merseyside and Halton. That generosity is exemplified by the “Share Your Lunch” campaign, run by Can Cook in my constituency but well and ably supported by the Liverpool Echo, which I commend for the work it has done in highlighting this issue and tackling it in practical ways, and by many business supporters and other individual donors. It has raised £51,600, generating a total of 28,800 fresh, nutritious meals that it has supplied to people who need food. More than 19,000 kg of fresh vegetables and 18,000 kg of fresh meat have been provided through its efforts. Indeed, in the campaign’s first week it raised £35,000, all because of the generosity of our fellow citizens in the city region. I hope the Minister accepts that that shows people’s concern about the fact that their fellow citizens are having to suffer the humiliation of not being able to feed themselves and their families.

    That huge response has been welcome. It has enabled “Share Your Lunch” to carry out initiatives such as providing everything for Christmas lunch for people who could not afford Christmas and helping families in food poverty get through the school holidays, which are a big problem. When no school dinners are available, it can be almost impossible for certain families to feed their children. The current food bank model is not perfect—it is not the last word—but it does give emergency help to thousands of families when they need it.

    There are different ways of tackling this problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) set out the long history we have in the city region of charitable assistance and innovative social support, which long predates any of us being Members of this House. He was right to highlight that. That entrepreneurship is continuing in organisations such as Can Cook, with its “Share Your Lunch” campaign in my constituency.

    In a typical food bank parcel for a family, there are 22 tins of processed food, all extremely high in salt and sugar. If the food does not go together to make a good meal, some of it may remain difficult for families and recipients to utilise. Food bank parcels do not cater for vegetarians, vegans or those with special dietary needs, so how do those people get help? Perhaps FareShare can help. It has a distribution centre in my constituency and does good work delivering surplus food from supermarkets, which would otherwise go to waste, to third sector organisations. Of course, food banks and other organisations do have to pay to be members and to receive the available food. They also have to take what is available; they cannot order what they would like or what is needed. I know anecdotally that much of what is passed on remains unused or ends up sent to landfill by the third sector organisations rather than by the supermarkets, because it cannot be used for one reason or another. Therefore, while the food bank model operated by the Trussell Trust and the work done by FareShare helps many people—it has been a lifeline for many—there is room for other approaches to be tried as well.

    That is where Can Cook and its “Share Your Lunch” comes in. It believes that good fresh food is a human right and that everybody should have access to fresh food by choice, regardless of their circumstances. Given that many people who find themselves with no food and no money are in that positon not because of anything they have done but because of circumstances, I agree completely that those people ought to have choice if that is possible. That is an ideal worth pursuing. Why should those in food poverty have no choice but to eat dried and processed tinned food, full of sugar and fat, which is not healthy or nutritious and may not go together to make balanced meals? Why should they not have a choice of fresh, healthy, nutritious food?

    “Share Your Lunch” has developed a good food model with the aim of using some of the profits from its catering operation—it is a social business providing good, fresh to schools and care homes—to generate free, fresh, nutritious meals for those who need them. It has partnerships across the city region—across Liverpool and Knowsley—with councils and with businesses. It aims to develop good food areas where it can feed hungry residents in a designated area with the free meals generated by its commercial activity. That model is interesting and has something to offer. It is a win-win if it works and will give residents an extra choice when they face a food crisis, so that they can access fresh and nutritious food if they prefer or if it suits them, rather than a food bank parcel.

    I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about how the problem is to be tackled across the whole UK. What does he have to say about “Share Your Lunch” and Can Cook’s model? I wish “Share Your Lunch”, the campaign, and Can Cook, the organisation, all the best in their endeavour. If they succeed, even the poorest of my constituents, at the worst time of their lives when they have no food and no money for food, will be able to eat healthily and properly should they choose to do so.

  • It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Howarth. It is fantastic to have you in the Chair for this timely debate. I congratulate my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram), on securing this debate.

    All of us here today see in our weekly constituency surgeries low pay, precarious work, zero-hours contracts, energy price rises and benefit delays leaving thousands of our constituents living on the edge of poverty, if not submerged by it. In such circumstances it takes only an unexpected bill, a family illness or an accident to leave people without the means to properly house, clothe or feed themselves and their families.

    The number of such cases increased dramatically last year when the full impact of the Concentrix tax credits debacle became felt. We heard a moment ago how that impacted on the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) as well. The most extreme examples of hardship as a result of that fiasco were felt by people such as my constituent, Michelle, who faced repossession as her tax credits were stopped simply because a previous tenant’s mobile phone bill was still registered at her address.

    In Liverpool, as in so many places around the country, such personal financial precariousness is compounded by the Government’s long assault on local community services and networks that have traditionally supported people to get back on their feet.

    As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton alluded to in his remarks, we have seen from central Government a cut of 58% to our budget since 2010, and Liverpool City Council is faced with making a further £90 million of cuts over the next three years, bringing the total amount of central Government spending cuts since 2010 to a staggering £420 million. I will say more about the cumulative impact of the cuts in a moment. It is simply not possible—I am sure that no Minister in their heart of hearts really believes it to be possible—to make such deep cuts over such a sustained period of time without damaging the social fabric that protects people in need from the worst effects of poverty.

    The all-party group on fuel poverty and energy efficiency has praised Liverpool City Council’s healthy homes programme, which brings together help and advice with practical support on keeping our constituents’ homes warmer to tackle fuel poverty. That is particularly relevant in this debate. According to the Government’s new definition of fuel poverty, my constituency is in the top five in the country to be affected by this issue. Liverpool is one of the few councils around the country that sees the value in this activity and it does its very best to continue funding a team of environmental health officers who can use enforcement powers to make unwilling landlords improve properties if there are health and safety risks to their tenants.

    The healthy homes programme has supported about 46,000 initial assessments, resulting in 22,000 referrals for additional support over the past seven years. The programme estimates that it has saved our NHS about £55 million over a 10-year period, while the enforcement work has made private landlords invest an additional £5.5 million in their properties. It is proof that a relatively small investment in long-term support and preventive work, carried out by local councils in partnership with local agencies, can make a huge difference and actually save money in the long term, as well as improve the health and wellbeing of local people. As a local MP, I have referred many of my constituents to the service. They have gone on to see improvements in their homes and can now afford to heat them properly, particularly during the cold winter months.

    However, Government cuts threaten our council’s ability to continue to deliver this vital service for our constituents. Of course, our council is doing all it can to protect the most vulnerable. For instance, in children’s services, money has been set aside to maintain our network of children’s centres for the next 12 months, because we see the value in providing that vital service, with the aim of devising a viable option for the future of the services. However, the council still has to find savings of £4.1 million, which it intends to make by reducing the cost of care placements and packages, and increasing the number of in-house foster carers.

    There is a reason why the previous Labour Government invested in creating more than 3,000 children’s centres across our country and invested in the early years of a child’s life. It was to break a cycle that we know still persists in our country and is getting worse: where a child is born determines their life chances and outcomes. That is why children’s centres can and should be making a difference. The council cannot deal with the extent of child poverty in Liverpool with a Government in Westminster that are not interested in contending with this vital issue.

    Under this Government, one in three children in my constituency—more than 6,000—are living in relative poverty, and almost half of them are in families where at least one parent is in work. The subject on the Order Paper today is poverty in the Liverpool city region, but of course our children are not alone in experiencing the pain of Tory policies. Across the country, we have seen an increase of 200,000 children living in poverty, up to 3.9 million, in a single year. That is the price children across our country are paying for the Tory Government’s failure to tackle inequality adequately.

    In one ward in my constituency, Picton, more than half the children—52%—are living in poverty, after housing costs are taken into account. In Kensington and Fairfield ward it is 43%, in Old Swan it is 34%, and so it goes on, in ward after ward, right across our city region, year after year. Children’s life chances are being stymied because Government policies have created an economy built on casualised, low-paid, temporary and precarious work for their parents, and removed the safety net that previously ensured children were supported.

    For comparison, in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), 13% of children are, after housing costs, living in poverty. In the constituency of the right hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond), the figure is 16%. Frankly, whether the percentage is 13%, 16% or, as in my constituency overall, 33%, children, after housing costs, are living in poverty. Those figures bring shame on the Government, and we must all recognise that poverty is not spread evenly around our country. Some parts, such as our Liverpool city region, carry a heavier burden.

    I fear that too many Government Members carry with them a view of some places in the north, such as Liverpool city region, as home to people deserving not of a chance, but of contempt. I do not make that point lightly. I ask Members to ponder this single statistic produced by the Children’s Society: more than 3,000 of the children living in poverty in my constituency of Liverpool, Wavertree are from families where at least one adult is in work. Such people are doing the right thing: heading out the door every morning, working hard and returning home, only to see their children still living in poverty.

  • My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Will she attempt to explain what the Government’s thinking might be, given the disparity in poverty between certain areas that she has just explained? In the Wirral, we have lost 57% of local authority funding, Liverpool has lost 58%, and yet there are some areas, normally represented by Conservative MPs, that have seen nowhere near those levels of cuts, and the average is 37%.

  • I thank my hon. Friend for making that important contribution. It is a point that I was going to make later in my speech. The coalition Government decided to remove the weighting for deprivation. Every Member who has contributed or is about to contribute has made that very point to Ministers sitting on the Government Benches. If we had had the average cut in Liverpool, we would have an additional £84 million a year, which would make a significant difference to the life chances and outcomes of the people we are elected to represent.

    The Government talk a lot about increasing aspiration, but some people aspire every day to have enough money at the end of the week to put food on the table and clothes on their children’s backs and to secure a roof over their heads, and not to have to choose between those three at any moment.

    I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton said about the Government’s proposed jobcentre closure plans. Liverpool will be hit hardest of all England’s cities by the proposal, which will affect 40% of our jobcentres. I presented a petition last night, on behalf of hundreds of my constituents, against the two proposed jobcentre closures in our area. The issue is very significant, and if the Government are serious about dealing with inequality it does not make sense to treat Liverpool city region in that way.

    We should not forget that in 2015, the Tory Government scrapped child poverty targets that were brought in by the previous Labour Government. Ministers no longer have a legal duty to tackle the number of children in poverty. They believe themselves to be essentially unaccountable for their policies, but we will hold them accountable because we meet our constituents and their children in our surgeries every week. We see the faces of people such as my constituent Frank, who, on obtaining custody of his child last year, faced months of delays and administrative errors in trying to have his child benefit and child tax credits paid. That left him financially unable to provide properly for the child placed in his care and plunged his newly reunited family into extreme and abject poverty.

    Conservative Members may say, “Well, of course, the poverty target was measuring the wrong thing,” or “Poverty ain’t what it used to be in my day. Children going hungry—now that’s real poverty.” If that is what they say, I would reiterate the significant comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood.

    I am conscious that another hon. Member wants to speak, so I shall reflect only briefly on the issue of food poverty, which affects too many people not only in the Liverpool city region but across the country. The Central Liverpool food bank, which unfortunately is one of many in my constituency, has fed a total of more than 43,000 people, including 15,000 children. The number of people having to use the service has increased, because of an increase in the number of people being sanctioned. Many are children. Many people are not only using the food bank in a crisis, but have become chronic users because they cannot put enough food on the table for a sustained period of time.

    I have raised the issue of food poverty before. In fact, I obtained the first debate on food banks in this House, in 2012. I also made a film about it called “Breadline Britain”. At that time, only a few hundred thousand people had to obtain emergency food aid. It is worth reiterating the point made earlier: the fact that more than 1 million people have had to get emergency food aid in the past year, in the sixth richest nation in the world. That is a stain on the national consciousness and I am ashamed to live in a country where that is the case. I am frankly appalled and disappointed that the figures are getting larger every year.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton mentioned that I have been a long-term supporter of organisations such as Magic Breakfast, which helps schools provide children with breakfast. There are too many reports from teachers—and the number is increasing —of children sitting in school not having had breakfast. If it were not for those breakfast clubs, they would not be able to concentrate and learn properly.

    The cuts that have been made are significant. It is not just a question of how much is in the pot; it is also a question of how it is distributed. We have been disproportionately affected because of the removal of the weighting for deprivation. I believe that the Government have washed their hands of the tough choices and passed them on to councils, as in the case of our city region and its people. Our early intervention grant was cut by 44% between 2010-11 and 2015-16. It is worth reminding the House that that grant is intended to support children and those most in need. It is no surprise, given that it has been savaged in that way, that people are struggling to get by.

    As I said, it takes only one unforeseen event to push people over the edge into debt. That is why, according to the Children’s Society, nearly 2,500 children in my constituency are living in families that have problem debt. About a third of families with problem debt say that they have cut back on food in the past month. A third have cut back on heating and a third on clothing. Those are the basics of a decent life, and that is what is happening in this country in 2017. The tough choices being made in Britain today are whether to choose food over heating or heating over clothes, or to run deeper into debt. Children in poverty are more likely to fall behind in school, less likely to secure a job and more likely to experience mental and physical illnesses.

    It does not have to be like that. We have heard from other hon. Members about the incredible charitable and voluntary sector efforts being made in the city region, but on their own, those valiant efforts are not enough. On behalf of all my constituents, young and old, and the people of the Liverpool city region, I urge the Minister to consider the issue of poverty seriously, and to outline exactly what the Government and his Department will do to address it properly.

  • Order. Before I call the next speaker, it may be helpful if I point out that I shall call the Front-Bench speakers at 3.35 pm.

  • I hope to finish long before then, Mr Howarth. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship—a sign of Merseyside’s ingenuity at keeping topics within the family. I am also immensely grateful that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) managed to secure the debate.

    I want to report two facts from the frontline of people in my constituency fighting against hunger, then I will to address four brief questions to the Minister about actions that the Government could begin today to abate that hunger. If I had reported the things that I am about to say when I first joined the House in 1979, most people would have thought I was heralding the post-truth era of politics, but they are ordinary, plain, shocking facts.

    Feeding Birkenhead is a wonderful coalition of organisations that feed children in the school holidays, as well as feeding many families. It gave me some information for the debate, including the example of a little girl who arrived at one of the school feeding projects, which was full up. The projects insist that just because children are poor it does not mean they should not have fun in their holidays, and be fed as well; the little girl said, “Could I come in if I miss the fun? But I want the food, because I am so hungry.”

    The other example was, rather appropriately, from around Christmas. A mother was lowering her child into one of the waste bins of one of our great supermarkets, to scavenge for food and then be brought out. That mother is suffering from cancer. Feeding Birkenhead now feeds her, but the awful indictment is not only that a child was put in danger, risking all sorts of injury from pulling things around in the bottom of a waste bin; it is the fact that the mother now reports that the food she gets, which would otherwise have gone to waste, is providing her with the best diet she has ever had.

    My four questions for the Minister are about ways in which we in Merseyside could immediately be helped to fight back against the extent of hunger, particularly among schoolchildren. First, given that the Digital Economy Bill is going through the House, will the Minister require the three Merseyside boroughs that do not use housing benefit data automatically to register children as eligible for free school meals, and therefore the pupil premium, to do so? That approach was pioneered by Liverpool and taken up by Wirral and Knowsley. In my constituency it resulted in £725,000 a year extra coming into Wirral both to feed the children who had not been getting free school dinners and in pupil premium.

    Secondly, in what ways will the Government consider helping all six boroughs to run school holiday meal and fun programmes similar to those in your constituency, Mr Howarth, and in Birkenhead? Thirdly, will the Minister choose Merseyside to be one of the first pilot areas for the revolutionary new set of indicators measuring children’s school-readiness, devised by Wirral teachers and the University of Cambridge? We would like that to be part of the roll-out of the Government’s programme on increasing life chances. We would measure whether life chances were equalised before children came to school, during those crucial first years.

    Lastly, will the Minister give us the small resources that we need so that all our six boroughs can follow the example of Greenwich, which has managed to set up job creation schemes—not training schemes—so that all families hit by the benefit cap can gain work and therefore get the cap lifted? That makes a huge difference to their income, their wellbeing and the incidence of children being hungry. Those would be four real advances for Merseyside.

    I wanted to try to sit down by 3.30 pm, and I will do so now.

  • It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) on securing this really important debate.

    I would like to comment on how strong all the contributions have been this afternoon. My hon. Friend’s speech was wide ranging. He focused on fairness and the fact that we have had a strong economic renaissance in very recent years in the Liverpool city region, which he would like to see re-stimulated. He also focused on the bedroom tax and child poverty, which many Members picked up on, as well as the closure of jobcentres, which my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) mentioned.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) made a good contribution on the impact of the cuts to FE colleges and what they mean for apprenticeships. My hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) made an excellent speech, looking in particular at the Government’s delivery of social security support and the failures in that regard. She gave a visceral description of what it means to so many of her constituents not to have food or money for food.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree also spoke powerfully about the impact of poverty, citing the shocking statistic that one in three children in her constituency live in poverty, and about the shame that we live in the sixth richest country in the world and yet last year saw an increase of 200,000 in the number of children living in poverty. She focused on the cuts to local authority spending, which have had a real impact on support services and the local economy as a whole. My hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) also spoke about the impact of those cuts to local authority spending and the 10-year disparity in life expectancy between the east and west of Wirral.

    My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) made really strong points about the need to feed children. The example he gave of a mother with cancer lowering her child into a waste bin was Dickensian; we really do not expect to have to picture that kind of scene in this day and age. He also gave an example of a little girl asking for food, saying she could manage without fun but not without food. That has to shame us all. I hope the Minister will respond to the specific requests that my right hon. Friend made.

    The Merseyside area, which equates to a large part of the Liverpool city region, has some of the most deprived communities in all of the UK. The latest statistics from the Church Urban Fund suggest that within its boundaries, Liverpool city region has three of the 10 most deprived parts of the UK: Anfield, Walton Breck and Everton. Five of the 20 most deprived constituencies in the country are in the Liverpool city region: Liverpool, Walton; Knowsley; Liverpool, West Derby; Birkenhead; and Bootle. It is clear that the Government’s obsession with austerity, their cuts to local authority spending—which have hit Liverpool and Wirral particularly hard, with cuts of 58% and 57%—and their failure to promote growth and opportunity, coupled with the impact of their social security changes since 2010, have hit the people of the region hard.

    My hon. Friends the Members for Garston and Halewood, for Liverpool, Wavertree and for Liverpool, Walton all spoke compellingly about the increase in food bank use. In Merseyside, the number of adults and children receiving help from food banks run by the Trussell Trust leapt from just over 56,000 in 2014 to nearly 61,000 the following year. The figure remained around the 60,000 mark for 2016.

    There are many reasons that force a family to visit a food bank, such as delays in being paid, particularly when someone is in insecure work and does irregular hours or is on a zero-hours contract, which we sadly see only too frequently in the current working environment. According to the latest ONS figures for April to June 2016, the number of people employed on zero-hours contracts in their main job was more than 900,000—nearly 1 million people, or nearly 3% of all people in employment. That figure was 156,000 higher than for the same period in 2015.

    The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s 2016 study of poverty and exclusion found that 46% of residents in poverty in the north-west belonged to households containing at least one person in work. The Government repeat as a mantra that work is the best route out of poverty. Yes, work should be a route out of poverty, but for many families it leaves them struggling to cope with basic bills. We have heard plenty of examples this afternoon to back that up. Will the Government take urgent action to ensure that work pays, by reversing the cuts to work allowances under universal credit, which was first rolled out in the north-west?

    Some 31% of families in the north-west are private renters, and the reduction in the household benefit cap outside London to £20,000 from November last year means that for the first time, the cap is having a real impact outside London. In 2014, 12% of families on Merseyside were in fuel poverty, which my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree spoke about with real passion. With inflation expected to rise over the coming year, the number of families who are in poverty despite being in work looks likely to rise even further.

    Delays in receiving universal credit or other forms of social security are causing many people real hardship. The Trussell Trust has stated that 44% of all referrals in 2016 were due to changes and delays in social security payments. Of course, that has been reflected in the testimonies of several Members this afternoon about the cases they see coming to their surgeries on a weekly basis. The 2014 independent review by Matthew Oakley of sanctions for JSA claimants on the Work programme recommended that the DWP should pilot the use of warnings and non-financial sanctions, as did the Work and Pensions Committee in 2015.

    The last available DWP figures for sanctions, for 2014-15 to 2015-16, show a fall, but their use in particular areas such as Bootle and Liverpool, Riverside remains consistently higher than in other areas. I know those areas well, because I taught in Bootle and in Liverpool, Riverside, and had first-hand experience of the kind of hardship that people have to deal with. I understand that the DWP has not yet carried out a pilot of using warnings in place of sanctions for first sanctionable offences in England or Wales. Will the Government commit to extending the pilot to other areas outside Scotland?

    It recently became clear how the delay of at least six weeks at the start of a claim for universal credit is leading to people falling into rent arrears or being forced to look to food banks for help. What will the Minister do to address that? Does he consider it right that families should be forced to turn to food banks for help or fall into rent arrears due to the basic design of the Government’s flagship social security policy, designed to lift people out of poverty?

    I recently went to a cross-party event on the issue of poverty. There was a girl called Kelly there who spoke of what it felt like when her mum was not able to pay the rent and they had to move into a hostel. That little girl did not want to let people know how ashamed she felt and how upset she was, so she used to pinch herself to stop herself crying. That should not be happening in a country as rich as ours.

    The first pledge the Prime Minister made was that she would lead a Government driven by the interests of families struggling to manage, not the interests of the “privileged few”. She referred to the

    “burning injustice that if you’re born poor, you will die on average 9 years earlier than others.”

    Within the Liverpool city region, the difference in life expectancy is as much as 12 years for men and 14 for women, as several colleagues mentioned. Life expectancy is highest for men in parts of Childwall, at 83 years, and for women in Ainsdale, at 90. It is lowest for both sexes in Bootle, at 71 for men and 76 for women. Both Ainsdale and Childwall are a 20 to 30-minute drive away from Bootle, but the difference in people’s life chances is stark.

    As my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey remarked, at the other end of the age scale, the figures for child poverty are also sobering. Some 29% of children in the UK as a whole live in households on relative low income after housing costs—in other words, they live in poverty. The figure for Knowsley is 30% and for Liverpool it is nearly 34%. In the Picton and Princes Park wards of Liverpool, over 50% of children are growing up in poverty after the housing costs of their families are taken into account.

    The Government have abandoned targets set in the Child Poverty Act 2010 to reduce child poverty based on household income. Are they still seriously committed to tackling child poverty? It is a concern when the goalposts are moved in such a manner. Perhaps the Government just do not want to see the figures for what they are.

    In my own constituency of Wirral West, there is a great deal of hidden poverty, despite some areas being among the most affluent. For example, volunteers at the community shop in Royden Road, Upton, provide food parcels to families from right across Wirral, and they talk of things such as people being on statutory sick pay and not having enough money to make ends meet. Wirral Free Uniform for Secondary School distributes recycled school uniforms free of charge. It told me of one woman who had walked all the way from Birkenhead to Hoylake to pick up a uniform for her child. That is a distance of more than 8 miles, but she walked it because she did not have enough money to pay for a bus.

    The Liverpool city region contains areas of deeply entrenched poverty, and the policies pursued by the coalition and the current Government have hit communities on Merseyside hard. Two of the early pioneers in identifying and combating poverty, Charles Booth and Eleanor Rathbone, were born in Liverpool. Eleanor Rathbone fought for the introduction of family allowances—the forerunner of child benefit—in the inter-war period. Charles Booth produced groundbreaking maps of London, based on poverty, to identify the areas of most need. I think that both would be really shocked and greatly disappointed to find that families in work, in the city of their birth, in the 21st century are still forced to turn to food banks for help. It is time the Government took action to alleviate the suffering of those experiencing poverty, not just in Liverpool but across the whole of the UK.

  • It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair again, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) on securing a debate on this most important issue, and congratulate everyone who has contributed to it. These are very serious matters. They are not new, I am sad to say. There have been income disparities and health inequalities in our country for a very long time. The alleviation of poverty and the spreading of opportunity are key aims that have brought hon. Members on both sides of the House into this line of work and into public policy. We may have different approaches to some of the issues, but they are no less important to Members, which political party they represent.

    I particularly want to join the hon. Members for Liverpool, Walton, for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) and for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) in commending the great work of the voluntary sector in this area. Again, that is not new. Over many decades—centuries, in the case of some organisations—great support has been given to the neediest people in our communities.

    I want to set out, in the time that I have, some of what the Government are doing or seeking to do to make further progress, what has already been achieved and what more we believe can be. As a number of hon. Members said, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it clear that the Government are committed to building a country that works for everyone, not just a privileged few. That includes building strong economies in every part of the country, ensuring that everyone can benefit from our strong record on the economy.

    There is clear evidence that the best route out of poverty is through work. We know that because working-age adults in non-working families are almost four times more likely to be on a low income. According to the “Child poverty transitions” report published in June 2015, 74% of poor children in workless families who moved into full employment exited poverty. I would therefore like to draw hon. Members’ attention to our record on employment and set out what we are doing to help to get even more people into work.

    The latest employment figures, as you will know, Mr Howarth, show that the employment rate is at the record high of 74.6%. The number of people in employment is also at a record high—31.84 million. Those trends are being seen broadly across our country. Since 2010, more than 60% of the rise in private sector employment has taken place outside London and the south-east. The employment rate for the Liverpool city region, at 67.7%, is 2.7 percentage points up on 2010. The unemployment rate in the region is now 5.4%, down from 10.4% in 2010.

    The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton suggested that there were particular issues, with people being able to find only part-time work. Of course I acknowledge that there are people working part time who would prefer to be working full time. I am pleased that that number has come down and that less than 14% of part-time workers are now in that position and would prefer to be working more hours. In the last year, more than 70% of the growth in employment has been in full-time work.

    Pay is also up, by 6.2% on the year. The people right at the bottom of the income scale—the bottom 5%—have just seen, according to the latest annual figures, the highest rise in their average income since that data series began, in 1997. Income inequality is down.

    Our welfare reforms are at the heart of our approach to increasing employment.

  • Given the rosy picture that the Minister is painting of employment and opportunity, can he explain why the number of people having to resort to food banks in my constituency is going up?

  • I do not seek to put any tint or rosiness on the situation. I was merely going through the facts, both at national level and at the level of the Liverpool city region. It is the case that more people are in work and we are now seeing incomes rising. Of course there is more to do; I never dispute that. My colleagues in jobcentres are working night and day on exactly that, and of course the overall stewardship of the economy remains central to people’s prospects.

    We are delivering a modern and effective welfare system that ensures that work, and progressing in work, will always pay. Alongside that, we are taking action against child poverty and disadvantage, addressing the complex barriers that face some families and hold them back. Of course, we continue to protect and support those for whom work is not and cannot be an option. We have had to make difficult decisions on welfare spending, but we have never lost sight of that mission. Universal credit lies at the heart of it, transforming the welfare system to ensure that it always pays to work and to progress. That is in contrast to the pre-2010 system, under which in-work poverty increased by 20% between 1998 and 2010, despite, as is well known and as was discussed, welfare spending on those in work increasing by £28 billion.

    We are building a fairer system that will mirror the world of work, we are eradicating the complexities and disincentives of the old system, and it is working. There are 828,000 fewer workless families now than in 2010, putting the workless household rate at its lowest since records began. Unemployment is down 894,000 since 2010 as the economy has grown. The employment rate, as I mentioned, is at a record high. In the last year, we have seen nearly 300,000 more people with disabilities, over 200,000 more women and over 150,000 more people from ethnic minority communities moving into work. Almost 1 million households have made a claim for universal credit, and there are nearly half a million current claimants. We began rolling out the full universal credit service on Merseyside in July and will have completed the full service roll-out to all Jobcentre Plus offices on Merseyside by September 2017.

  • I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again; he is being very generous. Given that he is still painting a rosy picture and that the number of people who are hungry and having to resort to food banks and food assistance in my constituency is going up, will he undertake now to go back and persuade the Government to start collecting statistics about food bank use and why people use food banks, so that we can get a better picture, using official statistics, of what is causing that increasing and distressing problem?

  • The reasons that people use food banks are complex and overlapping, as the hon. Lady knows. Assistance provided by voluntary sector organisations can take a number of different forms. She will know that the Trussell Trust, an umbrella group for food banks, does in fact produce statistics on a regular basis.

    Once universal credit is fully rolled out, we estimate that it will generate around £7 billion in economic benefit every year and boost employment by up to 300,000. We believe that making work pay and opening up opportunity for people to realise their potential are central to building an economy that works for all. By reducing the universal credit taper rate to 63%, we will further improve the incentive to progress in work, helping up to 3 million households to earn their way out of requiring welfare support.

    Jobcentres across the city region were mentioned. Our jobcentres have an absolutely key role to play in supporting people out of poverty across the country, and I am proud of what our staff—our work coaches and others—do. Day in, day out, they help people to access both the financial and practical support they need to move into employment. As society has changed, so have our jobcentres; the offer in a jobcentre today is unrecognisable compared with what people would have seen in the 1970s. Reforms such as universal credit are revolutionising the relationship between our clients—our claimants—and work coaches, ensuring that the support we offer is more personalised and better suited to their needs. That includes enabling claimants to access our services in different ways that suit them.

    It is right that the future of the estate reflects not only those fundamental changes, but the record levels in employment across the country, while always allowing a margin of flexibility for potentially unforeseen circumstances. In 2006, DWP employed 113,000 staff. Today that figure is 79,000, but on the same estate—because we have been locked into a 20-year private finance initiative contract that was signed in 1998. That means money is being spent on space that is not being fully utilised. That contract comes to its end, after 20 years, at the end of March 2018, which is an opportunity to review which offices we need in the future across the country, saving the taxpayer money while ensuring our customers are able to access the support they need.

  • On PFI contracts, and personal to my constituency, could the Minister look at the Hoylake jobcentre? I understand that there is a different arrangement there. This is not just about the ending of a PFI contract; I think there is something else going on here. Could he give us a picture as to what percentage of the jobcentres are about PFI and what are about something else?

  • I am happy to, although I also want to make sure I respond to points raised by colleagues. It is the fact of the end of the PFI contract, which covers most of the estate, that gives the opportunity and indeed creates the imperative to review the entire estate because we see the estate all as one. The Telereal Trillium contract does cover most buildings, but of course there is a knock-on effect both ways through buildings that are not covered by that contract.

    In Liverpool, we currently use just 66% of the space that we are paying rent for. Even if we go ahead with the changes we propose, Liverpool will still have one of the highest concentrations of jobcentres relative to other conurbations. When considering this question, our overriding priority has been the future service that we will offer our claimants. In every case in Liverpool, as elsewhere, we have sought to minimise disruption, moving existing jobcentres into nearby sites and co-locating with other services wherever possible.

  • Does the Minister not accept the point I made about Liverpool being disproportionately hit compared with any other city in England, with 40% of our jobcentres now earmarked for closure according to his plan? A not insignificant number of people are affected. In my constituency alone, 3,000 people will have to go to a new centre at least every two weeks. Thousands more have to access those two jobcentres. At least 3,000 people will have to do that. On that basis, does he accept that there is a disproportionate impact on the people of Liverpool? People not only in my constituency, but in others will be affected, as Members have said in this debate?

  • There are, of course, public consultations being run for both Edge Hill and Wavertree. As I was saying, even with the effect of these changes, there will still be a significant concentration of jobcentres in Liverpool compared with other major cities.

  • As the Minister is turning his notes over, might he give way?

  • I am short of time, but of course.

  • Given that I sprung my questions on the Minister, might he write to us so that he does not have to turn so many pages over?

  • I will be delighted to write to the right hon. Gentleman.

    Looking at our benefit reforms alone fails to appreciate the wider work on support for those on low incomes. I mentioned the increases that we have recently seen in pay. I do not have time to list all the other advances, but they include the national living wage, the changes in the personal tax allowance and the triple lock on pensions—the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton brought up the link with pensions, but it was in 2010 that the triple lock came in. We have frozen fuel duty, helped to keep mortgage rates low and are cutting stamp duty—all of those are things to help people with their incomes.

    Like many other areas, as the hon. Gentleman knows, Liverpool is benefiting from radical devolution. The city region devolution deal involves £900 million going to the city region, and that is just part of the picture. The regional growth deals involve £333 million from the local growth fund between 2015-21, bringing forward at least £249 million of additional investment from local partners and the private sector. We do think that devolution has an important role to play in helping to promote and push forward economic prosperity. Since 2010, we have seen income inequality and the proportion of people on relative low-incomes falling to nearly their lowest levels since the 1980s. Official statistics show that, in Liverpool, the rate of relative low-income has fallen since 2010, and there has been a similar reduction nationally.

    I want to turn quickly to some of the points raised in the debate. The rate of sanctions in Liverpool is down by 50% in the year to 2016. We are looking at the results from the Scottish pilot that the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) referred to. We have taken on the recommendations of the Oakley review and, indeed, a number of recommendations from the Work and Pensions Committee. Debt was mentioned a number of times. I am proud of this Government’s commitment to the credit union sector, the action that has been taken on payday loans, the introduction of the help to save programme and that budgeting support is at the heart of universal credit.

    The hon. Gentleman asked, “Why not more devolution?” He talked about schools. I would argue that free schools and the academies programme are the ultimate in devolution, giving power and accountability right down to individual schools. In terms of all these matters, we are always open to further proposals. The Government will of course be keen to work with whoever is elected as Mayor of Liverpool on employability and other things. The hon. Gentleman asked specifically about work in community locations. Edge Hill jobcentre—somewhere I visited recently—does exactly that, for example in its programme with refugees. Mr Howarth, I am out of time and I know that the hon. Gentleman would like to speak.

  • I could simply use the time allocated—just over a minute—to enter into a stats war with the Minister. There are certainly more people on zero-hours contracts, more in insecure work and more working families in poverty. However, I will use the time to concentrate on some of the questions I asked. Obviously, there are different methodologies by which we collate statistics, but as local MPs we see the result of Government policies on a daily basis—we do not need stats to prove that.

    We have a particular problem with the five constituencies in our city region being in the top 20 for child poverty, but this debate was about poverty in its widest context: poverty of opportunity, poverty of aspiration, poverty of esteem, fuel poverty, rent poverty, child poverty and older people poverty. I started by saying that it is about fairness—that is all we want. I have made a number of innovative suggestions to tackle some of those issues and I am happy to have further discussions with the Minister on health inequalities, decent homes, energy problems, rough sleeping, the apprenticeship levy, the work and health programme, school collaboration and jobcentres.

    Just as a last comment, the Minister talked about there being £900 million for the Liverpool city region. I will be 85 years of age by the time we draw down our last instalment—I will be happy to meet the Minister to celebrate that.

    Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

  • Emily’s Code: Pleasure Vessel Safety

    [Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]

  • I beg to move,

    That this House has considered Emily’s Code and safety on pleasure vessels.

    It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, and to debate Emily’s code. Today’s debate is the story of a personal and family tragedy and of how to turn something that knots together an extended family, school and other friends, and a community—a whole small world—into something positive that can reach a much wider world. It is about how the image of a young girl can make all recreational boating more responsible and maybe, just maybe, help to save lives.

    This debate is particularly poignant given that Emily’s parents Clive and Debbie Gardner, her sister, Katie, her brother, Todd, and her grandparents are all in the Chamber with us today. The family scars are still raw, and emotions are never far from the surface. I hope you would agree, Mrs Main, that the sympathy of the whole House is with the Gardner family. Colleagues will be struck by the family’s determination—like that of other Gloucester families, such as the Gazzards, the Powells and the Evanses, who have recently been through the agony of a child’s death and then inquiries or even trials—that this will not overcome them and that they can do something both to honour the memory of a much-loved child and to make a difference.

    Let me first explain what happened on Saturday 2 May 2015 and then what the family and the world of boating, with my support throughout, are doing with Emily’s code. Fourteen-year-old Emily Gardner went to Brixham harbour that day with friends to go out on a boat. The Gardners had been on boating and canoe trips before and Emily was not frightened either of boats or of the water. As the marine accident investigation branch stated in its report that was published in October 2015:

    “At approximately 1142…an unnamed Fletcher speedboat with one adult and three teenage children on board capsized after encountering a large wave. Three of the occupants managed to swim clear of the upturned hull but one of the children”—

    Emily—

    “became trapped. Despite valiant attempts to free her, she was only recovered following attendance of the RNLI2 lifeboat 25 minutes later. Although medical treatment then started immediately, she never recovered consciousness.”

    The investigation found that the strap of Emily’s buoyancy aid had become snagged on the speedboat’s cleat, which trapped her underneath it. Other potentially contributing factors to the accident were outlined. First, the speedboat capsized after it hit a large wave at approximately 11.42 am and a new propeller, which had recently been installed, generated more torque, causing the boat to twist to port in opposition to the propeller’s direction of rotation. It then capsized. The thrust of the boat had been exacerbated by the new propeller, by the fact that there was just a small amount of fuel in the engine and by the driver accelerating almost to full speed.

    Secondly, despite some 25 years of experience and a water skiing qualification gained several years beforehand, the driver was unable to combat the contributing factors that led to the boat capsizing. Emily’s buoyancy aid was also too big, increasing the risk of it getting caught.

    The report noted, thirdly, that it had been

    “fortunate the accident was seen by members of the public ashore, who were able to raise the alarm. Had one of the drivers carried a waterproof VHF radio, which is recommended good practice,”

    he could have contacted the coastguard directly with the most accurate information available. The report also stated:

    “Even if embarking on a short trip, it is better to be fully prepared, as minor emergencies can quickly escalate.”

    Fourthly, the speedboat driver had not been wearing the kill cord. Although that had not been needed in this incident, the report highlighted that it showed the need to continue raising awareness of the issue in the speedboat community.

  • My hon. Friend is recounting a clearly tragic case. However, even in the absence of a wave, which appeared to trigger this accident, does he agree that when the sun is out and the waters are calm, there is a tendency for someone on a boat to be lulled into a false sense of security, and that there is therefore a case for making anyone who embarks on a boat go through a thorough process of safety procedures beforehand, rather as people who are on a plane have to? Passengers on a plane are encouraged to read a checklist; does he agree that something similar might help in cases such as this?

  • My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. In fact, he brilliantly anticipates exactly what I will say about Emily’s code, and I am grateful to him.

    Emily never regained consciousness, and it was determined that she died from drowning. I should mention one other point. The report pointed out that the speedboat was older than the recreational craft directive of 1996, which set out new guidelines for boats that could have helped the boat to float and not to sink by the stern, which was where Emily was trapped. The report concluded:

    “Buyers should be cautious and aware of the potential shortcomings of leisure craft constructed before…1996, or those that might have been substantially modified.”

    I cannot help wondering how many of us who have been on the sea in a recreational vessel are aware of that small but important difference in boat design, and whether all boat owners know how their boat will float in an extraordinary accident such as this.

    Let me come on to the second part of this debate. When Emily’s family had absorbed the accident report, they led a call for something to be done. They started fundraising; they ran a relay from Brixham to Gloucester for Winston’s Wish and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution; and they organised Emily’s diamond charity ball in October last year. They have raised an amazing £21,000—it may be more than that now, but that is the latest figure that I have—and they wanted to use those funds in the best possible way.

    I met Clive and Debbie in Gloucester and heard their urge to do something to honour their daughter Emily. I then talked to the Royal Yachting Association and the chief executive of Her Majesty’s Coastguard, Sir Alan Massey, who was extremely helpful and sympathetic. After a subsequent meeting between the Gardners and the RYA, Emily’s code began to take shape and will now be launched in two days’ time, on Saturday, with the full support of the RYA at its Suzuki dinghy show. I have copies here of what Emily’s code will look like; they are available for any colleagues who would like them.

    The RYA is recognised as the national body for all forms of recreational and competitive boating. It represents all the different elements involved, and it sets and maintains an international standard for recreational and small commercial boat training. Its ethos is one of proficiency and self-sufficiency, learned through its world-class training, and its purpose is to promote and protect safe, successful and rewarding British boating. It issues an annual advisory notice and safety notices throughout the year through the boating press, members’ newsletters and social media, yet inevitably there are some people it has not reached whose safety awareness could be stronger. I hope that the very human appeal behind Emily Gardner and the code named in her honour will help the messages of the code to reach more widely.

  • My hon. Friend is making an impassioned speech. I hope that there will be something in Emily’s code about kill cords. He might be aware that in the Camel estuary a couple of years ago, there was a tragic incident when a kill cord was not used. I wonder whether there is any mention of kill cords in the code—for example, the mandatory use of them by people on the water.

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right; I know that he has experience in his constituency of a death that received a lot of publicity at the time. It was a sad incident indeed, which I know he cared very much about. He is right, and I will come on to kill cords.

    I hope that the very human appeal of Emily’s code will help its message to reach a wider audience. In this House, as hon. Members know, publicity can be a double-edged sword, but in this case I would be grateful if every newspaper, online forum and TV and radio station gave Emily’s code maximum coverage. I say to all members of the media that they, too, can help to make a difference.

    The key, so far and in the future, is a spirit of partnership, bringing together designers, experts and parents, who know the real impact that safety notices have when they are put into practice well. The code has the support of all the major players—the coastguard, British Water Ski and Wakeboard, and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

    What is the code? Let me go through it in some detail. Each element of it contains a letter that spells “Emily’s code”. The first is:

    “Wear a suitable lifejacket or buoyancy aid”.

    The lifejacket should be a comfortably snug fit and should be fastened fully—are the straps tightened up, or is there too much room underneath? The second is “Service equipment”—is there fuel, and is the engine working? The third is “Get trained”—have I had any training courses? The RYA offers courses that can save lives. The fourth is “Make a plan”—where do I plan to go? Will I be inland, onshore or offshore? What will I do if the worst happens? Have I planned my passage? The fifth is “Know your limits”—have I ever been out on the sea before? What is a safe speed?

    The sixth element is “Carry distress signals”—it is fine not to have those until suddenly it is not, and no one knows when that will be. Understanding the benefits of marine VHF—very high frequency—radios, and how to use them, is critical. The seventh is “Use the kill cord”—as my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) mentioned, it should always, without fail, be attached both to the ignition and to the person’s body before they operate the engine. The eighth is “Know your boat”—there may have been upgrades to it recently. Do I know what they are and what the impact of them could be? Do I know whether it was made before ’96 and is therefore not built to the standard of the recreational craft directive? The ninth is “Have a radio”, which is so simple to do.

    Last, but by no means least, is “Check the weather”, which is a point that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) made. People should check it the day before, again in the morning and again when they go out. We know how changeable weather can be. Most of us now have weather apps on our phones, and a simple tap can tell us what to expect. Thinking about the weather is crucial to the safety of a boating expedition.

    The purpose of this debate is to highlight what happened to my constituents and what they have done to try to prevent it from happening again, but it also shows how Government agencies, the voluntary sector, a family and their MP can work together to try to make something good out of something ghastly. I am very grateful to all involved.

    I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister cares deeply about young people and their opportunities; all the work he did on apprenticeships shows that clearly. I hope that he agrees that the cause of preventing fun days on the sea from turning into nightmares is a very good one, and that he will agree to support Emily’s code and the message that it sends about boating safety. We have to recognise that a voluntary code like this is only as good as its take-up, its publicity and its ability to make us all think more carefully.

    Will the Minister also agree to look at the recreational craft directive, which is an EU directive? Will he see whether we can ensure that it is carried over into UK law and that if it is ever abolished, it is replaced by an equivalent UK minimum technical and safety standard for boats sold here, including requirements for stability, freeboard, buoyancy and flotation? In this case, the boat sunk by the stern, but the RCD harmonised standards for speedboats that were made after 1996, as that one was, direct that they should float horizontally when swamped—that sounds technical, but it is crucial. The directive has clearly improved boat user safety; we do not want to move backwards when EU laws are converted into British law.

    Finally, let me address what Emily’s code is about and what it is not about. The code may have lessons for different activities that are equally fun, but that need careful supervision—not in order to stop, prevent or restrict them, but to make sure that risk management is a natural part of having fun. People setting off up mountains on beautiful days need a map, a compass, a mobile with battery, emergency rations, water and a waterproof, just as much as if they were going out on the sea.

  • I very much commend the hon. Gentleman and his constituents for the efforts that they have made. Looking beyond the leisure boating sector, does he agree that there is also an opportunity for lessons about planning, training and servicing equipment to be learned in the commercial sector? Fifty-four commercial fishermen were killed at sea between 2010 and 2014. Does not that show that the same lessons have a wider application?

  • The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I did not know that figure; it is surprising and shocking. All these tragedies, whether in Cornwall, Scotland or Devon, have implications for how we improve things.

    The important thing is not to prevent people from having fun, but to make that fun more risk-aware. Emily’s code is for boating in the sea, but I wonder in whose honour other codes may be needed on the land one day, because we are always learning lessons from accidents.

    I hope that this debate in honour of Emily Gardner and her family will be the warm-up act for the launch of Emily’s code on Saturday. It recognises all the help from the organisations that I listed and the input from my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), whose constituency includes Brixham harbour. It salutes the determination of Debbie and Clive Gardner and the whole family, who have stuck together through this, as well as the generosity of those who have raised funds for them, with runs at Wall’s Club, bike rides, Debbie’s own runs and much more besides, to create this enduring legacy of love for a girl and awareness for everybody in the boating world.

    After the launch on Saturday, emilyscode.org will also launch. I encourage everyone to look at the materials on offer, to get in touch with Clive and Debbie and ask them to come and speak in their constituency about safety, and to make sure that the next time a child goes out on a boat, they check their lifejacket, check the weather and check everything. Next time anyone goes out to sea in a boat, please will they stop and think first about Emily’s code?

  • It is a pleasure to respond to this short debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) for securing it and bringing these matters to the House’s attention.

    I have been a Member of Parliament for 20 years, a Front-Bench spokesman for my party for 18 years and a Minister since 2010. Over that time, I have spoken in Parliament hundreds of times, sometimes about significant things, often about insignificant things and usually, I hope, with good humour, but I have rarely spoken on an occasion that combines solemnity and importance as much as this one. This is a sad occasion, but a hopeful one too.

    It is important that I emphasise how valuable this debate is. It provides the opportunity for me not only to join my hon. Friend in offering personal condolences, and those of Her Majesty’s Government, to Emily’s family and friends—I note that her parents, Clive and Debbie, her sister Katie, her brother Todd and her grandparents are here today; I welcome them and offer those condolences to them—but to join him in my admiration for their campaign, their effort, their spirit and the difference that they are making.

    I do not understand death—I barely understand life, actually—but what I do know is that each life has a purpose. That purpose is not entirely a matter of the span of a life; it is really about the fact that, throughout the time we spend here, each of us touches and affects many other people. Through the development of this work and this code, little Emily, who died in this tragedy, is not only touching the lives of those who were close to her, but the lives of hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of others. Her impact will be much greater than the span of her short life. It will change all those lives for the better. It is therefore a real pleasure for me not only to welcome, but to endorse Emily’s code. It will be a lasting legacy and memorial to the daughter who was so loved and to the sister and the granddaughter who is so missed by the family, who are here today.

    We in politics are in this business because we want to make a difference. That is why we are what we are and why we do what we do. We try to make a difference for good, don’t we, but other people can make as much of a difference—perhaps more of a difference—than most of us do, however long we spend here and however much we succeed. What I am so impressed by is the seriousness and care that has been taken in the development of this code.

    It is true, as John Masefield said in his poem, “Sea Fever”, that

    “the call of the running tide”

    is a feature of our lives and these islands. It has been for all the time that men and women have lived here. We cherish our seagoing heritage and all that it means. It can, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester said, bring immense joy, excitement and thrills, but it also brings risk and danger, and that is precisely why it is important that we establish good practice and underpin it with regulation in the way that he suggested. An important principle at the heart of what he said today and what the code embodies is that learning through education and the establishment of what he described in his short speech as a set of rather simple, rather straightforward principles can make such a difference in guaranteeing the wellbeing of those who are called down to the running tide.

    I have a long and detailed speech prepared for me by my excellent officials, but I will not give it, because I do not feel I should give it. Instead, I want to respond to this debate as a father of two young sons. I feel this, like everyone listening to this debate will, in that spirit. I looked at the code, and thought, “This is exactly as good as it could be. It is just perfect, isn’t it?” The code is in line with RNLI practice and has its support. The code is very much in the spirit of our wonderful Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which does such valuable work in providing the assurance of safety that I mentioned a moment or two ago. I met the MCA just today to discuss the code and this debate.

    The code is in tune and chimes with the work we do through our regular inspections and through the intelligence provided about ships, the weather, our coast and the dangers that those circumstances can bring. More than that, through its straightforwardness, persuasiveness and its relationship with Emily, it will make an immense difference in changing people’s perceptions of the joy and the risks associated with the sea.

    The code is, as I have said, straightforward. It states:

    “Wear a suitable lifejacket or buoyancy aid

    Service equipment

    Get trained

    Make a plan

    Know your limits

    Carry distress signals

    Use the kill cord”—

    that is a way of turning off the engine in a boat—

    “Know your boat

    Have a radio

    Check the weather”.

    Those may sound like rather routine things, but my goodness, if the code is applied with rigour and enthusiasm and people know how much it matters, it will make an immense difference. So many accidents and tragedies are associated with one or more of those straightforward, but timeless principles.

    It is a delight to speak in this debate, but it is also a responsibility. It is critical that education, training and voluntary initiatives associated with the leisure sector emerge from the work that has been done by Emily’s family. With the guiding hand of the Royal Yachting Association, the pleasure boats sector has aspired to and achieved very good safety standards, and we need to say that Emily’s loss was an exception. It is not the rule; our seas are safe and they are well policed. All the agencies I have described do sterling work to ensure that that continues to be the case.

    Having said all that—I have also been in contact with the RYA, and I know that its training is of the highest standards—it is still important that we know there will be those who, for one reason or another, get involved in boats and do not take for granted those straightforward, resonant messages. There will be those who will not necessarily know the sea as well as they might. There will be those who are therefore at risk. The Government’s commitment is such that not only do I give an assurance that we will do all that is necessary to make the code as widely established and as well-known as it can be, but we will formally launch the code at the Royal Yachting Association’s dinghy show at Alexandra Palace and we are sending a senior coastguard commander to do so. We will continue to promote the national drowning prevention strategy, which aims to halve the 400 or so accidental drownings in all forms of water by 2026. Even where accident levels are thankfully low, we must do more. It is our purpose, but more still, it is our mission.

    I started by paying tribute to Emily’s family, and I do so again. The difference they are making is profound and appreciated. As I have said, the code will change many, many lives for the better. Marcel Proust said:

    “Happiness is beneficial for the body, but it is grief that develops the powers of the mind.”

    That is not an easy lesson to learn. When one is obliged to learn it by circumstance and then turn the power of the mind to a noble purpose, it deserves to be recognised in the way that my hon. Friend has allowed us to do today. I thank him for that and once again offer the thanks of the whole House of Commons and the Government to Emily’s family for the difference they are making.

    Question put and agreed to.

  • Fathers in the Family

  • Before I call Neil Gray to move the motion, I point out that eight hon. Members have put their names down to speak in this debate. We also have the wind-ups, which will start at 10 past five. Depending on how long Mr Gray chooses to speak—it is his debate—there will be a time limit on speeches. If people are here to make interventions, I ask that they are kept brief and that Members are mindful of colleagues who may wish to speak later in the debate. I call Neil Gray to move the motion.

  • I beg to move,

    That this House has considered the role of fathers in the family unit.

    I am delighted to be leading this debate with you in the Chair, Mrs Main.

    One of my proudest moments, not only as a father, but as a parliamentarian, was taking my young daughter and son through the voting Lobby with me on Friday to see the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) pass its final stages in the Commons. I hope that by ratifying the Istanbul convention on gender-based violence we are taking another step to eradicate domestic violence and violence against women and girls.

    It is thanks to Nick Thorpe of Fathers Network Scotland and Frank Young from the Centre for Social Justice that I applied for this debate. I was involved in a very small way in helping to promote Scotland’s Year of the Dad in 2016, but at a relatively recent meeting with Nick, I agreed to do what I could to help promote reflection on last year and to encourage something similar elsewhere in the UK.

    Dad, father, stand-in dad, daddy, step-dad, foster father, adoptive dad, daddies who have to be mummies too—there are so many ways to describe the male role in the family, but its meaning is slowly starting to change. In 2016, Scotland celebrated the Year of the Dad to help promote the contribution fathers or those in a fatherly role make to child development, families and society, and to provide greater understanding of the benefits reaped from organisations acknowledging the family roles of men.

    The Year of the Dad was established by Fathers Network Scotland and supported by the Scottish Government because we are at a tipping point in our cultural evolution. The project’s review paper states:

    “The old stereotypes of dad as breadwinner and mum as carer no longer serve us in an age of increasing diversity and gender equality at home, work and throughout society.”

    Some 95 events reached nearly 15,000 people, more than half a million people were reached through media coverage, and there were tens of thousands of visits to the website, where more than 40 resource documents for families, services and employers were available. Some 5,800 individuals and 1,300 organisations signed up to the campaign in 2016, highlighting the positive message about fatherhood and the importance of dads in child development and parenting.

    It should be obvious that recognising the role fathers play or should play does not in any way diminish the role mothers play—quite the opposite. I am clear, and the research shows, that society as a whole benefits from the positive involvement of fathers. As I see it, the increased wellbeing, confidence and educational attainment of children is the biggest benefit. So getting it right for fathers is about getting it right for every child.

    The Scottish Government were clear that supporting the Year of the Dad was a central part of their gender equality policy. Male parental leave is key to narrowing the pay gap that disgracefully still exists for women. Clearly, it is all about having choices and giving parents the ability to choose what is best for them, but from a public policy perspective, we need to change societal norms to give parents a better opportunity to choose what is right for them. The current vicious circle of expensive childcare, low pay and societal pressures on women and men keeps many women in the primary caregiver role instead of allowing them to return to the workplace if that is what they want to do.

    Last week, after patiently waiting almost a year for the UK Government to respond to its recommendations on tackling the gender pay gap, the Women and Equalities Committee set out its three priorities for the Government, including a more effective policy on shared parental leave. Unless the UK Government recognise the value of men and women sharing care responsibilities equally, and encourage men to take parental leave, we will not see any changes to current behaviour. Recent research from PwC found that, on current trends, it would take another 24 years to close the gender pay gap between men and women, which is clearly unacceptable.

    If a woman faces discrimination when she returns to the workplace after having a child, such as not receiving a promotion in line with her male counterparts or being dismissed for requesting flexible working hours, that does not incentivise men to do more at home to care for their children. Of course, some men do not need incentives—they want to be at home more—but workplace norms make that request awkward to make. Why should a man be at home when his wife could be there? Research from Plymouth University from earlier this year stated that dads face a “fatherhood forfeit” when applying for part-time employment in the workplace—dads who want to work reduced hours or on a flexible basis are perceived as suspicious or deviant and questions are raised about their commitment.

    The SNP Scottish Government are working hard to promote and reward flexible working and childcare in Scotland, using our devolved powers. They have supported the “Happy to talk flexible working” job advert strapline, which I added to my own recent job adverts. Working in partnership with Family Friendly Working Scotland, they have supported the top employers for working families awards. This year’s award ceremony is taking place next week, and I look forward to attending.

    The Scottish Government are also committed to almost doubling free early learning and childcare to 1,140 hours a year by 2020. The UK Government need to ensure that advice and support is available to fathers so that they are aware of their rights to paternity and parental leave.

  • The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech, and I congratulate him on securing this important debate. I wonder whether he has seen the helpful Barnardo’s briefing, which points out that without appropriate support, young and vulnerable fathers in particular can end up feeling isolated and marginalised by services and agencies. It goes on to recommend that local authorities should have an identified lead professional responsible for co-ordinating work.

  • Order. I ask that interventions are brief, otherwise I shall overrule them.

  • I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. That is sage advice from Barnardo’s, as is normally the case from that organisation.

    Shared parental leave was introduced by the last UK Government, but there was a widespread admission, including from its architect Jo Swinson, that the current policy does not go far enough. We need to ensure that employers are supported in offering all employees the opportunity to take a period of leave to care for their child, so that the responsibility does not fall de facto on women’s shoulders. We need an effective shared parental leave policy that will help men at home and also women at work. It would also help the economy, because a 2014 Centre for Economics and Business Research study suggests that a “work from anywhere” culture would add an extra £11.5 billion a year to the UK economy.

    Some mums want to stay at home for as long as possible and would not choose to share parental leave with their partner—I can perfectly understand that—but we are failing to help the mums who want to return to work and the dads who want to spend more time at home. In a similar vein, employees now have a right to request flexible working, but there is no definition of what that means, nor any compulsion on employers to do anything other than just consider it. As a society we are starting, rightly, to move away from the definition of fathers as the breadwinning disciplinarians, but we have not yet caught up in the workplace. The shift in fathers’ desire to be more involved at home does not match the predicted uptake of parental leave by men of between 2% and 8%. There is still a reticence among men to ask to be at home more and a market expectation on them to continue in the traditional role as working breadwinners.

    The only way to shift societal norms is to support or incentivise behaviour through policy, but employment law is currently decided here at Westminster. The UK Government must acknowledge the reality that gender-based discrimination against both men and women is not only hugely detrimental to individuals and our society but is harming our continued economic growth.

    There was no prouder or more important moment of my life than when I became a father—on either occasion, in case my daughter or son look back on this and suggest any favouritism—but fatherhood and parenthood is clearly not a single event; it is a lifelong adventure and responsibility. My experiences as a dad are already different from my father’s, as society moves on. The Year of the Dad highlighted why being a dad is so important. I have raised this issue today to suggest to the UK Government that they need to do more to help in that regard. We need to support the changing societal ideas about what being a dad is about and support employers so that dads can live up to the new expectations and aspirations of fathers. I make an offer to the Minister today to help constructively to ensure that the UK Government’s employment law is directed towards supporting all mums and dads to be able make the choices that are right for them and their children.

  • Several hon. Members rose—

  • Order. Before I call the next speaker, I must tell hon. Members that we are operating on a four-minute time limit.

  • It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I am pleased to speak in this debate and to follow the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray). I, too, am a father—I have two little daughters, one who is barely a month old and one who is two. I agree that fatherhood is a lifelong commitment. Fathers are part of the family unit and mothers matter too, so we should consider the role that fathers and mothers play together as families.

    Families sometimes need help, and I believe the Government have a role in ensuring that families get the help they need when they need it most, which is why I am concerned that the tax burden on families is much higher in the UK than it is elsewhere in the world. At the OECD average wage for the UK of £36,017, the tax burden is 20% greater than the OECD average for single parents with two children and 26% greater for one-earner married couples with two children. That unfavourable position for single-parent or single-earner households mainly results from the fact that UK income tax does not sufficiently take account of marriage or family responsibility, which puts a burden on both fathers and mothers. We need to be mindful of that.

    Let me put that in context. The UK has low taxes overall. In contrast with the position of single-earner families, single people without family responsibilities pay 8% less than the OECD average, 21% less than the EU15 average and 19% less than the EU21 average. I believe that the Government should consider the support they can provide families through the tax system. They should recognise that although for plenty of families, including many in my constituency, it is totally the norm for both spouses to work, there are also many families for whom it is not, whether because one spouse cannot work or because they want to be at home. I do not think the Government should tell families what they must do. They should not tell families that both parents have to go to work and that childcare will be provided for them. It should be for families to decide those things. It should be for mothers and fathers to make those decisions for their children.

    In that vein, the Government should be more neutral on these matters. They should say, “Yes, great—we are going to more to provide childcare for those who want it.” They have a great agenda on that, but they should also ensure that people who want to look after their own children are not forgotten.

    Each year, £1 trillion-worth of unpaid work is done in this country. That phenomenal amount of work goes on under the radar and is uncaptured by most statistics. It is important that we do not allow people up and down this land to be forgotten. There is good that the Government can do, and they can do it for married-couple families too.

  • I congratulate the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) on securing this important debate. I want to make a brief contribution as the chair of the all-party group on fatherhood. I welcome the work of the Women and Equalities Committee, which looked at this important issue in solidarity with all fathers across the country.

    This is a cross-party issue that really ought to command the attention of all political parties, but unfortunately the political class in this country is behind the general public. All political parties are sometimes hijacked by other agendas. In my party, the attention on rights—particularly on women’s and children’s rights, although they are important and I stand by them—has sometimes drowned out the ability to talk about fatherhood. I also think that my political tradition’s emphasis on the state and state support, particularly for poorer families and poorer fathers, has meant that we have sometimes tended to think that the state should do everything, and we have found it hard to talk about children and the role of fathers. For colleagues on the right of the political spectrum, sometimes, just sometimes, the emphasis solely on marriage and the way the state and tax breaks can be used to deal with marriage has made it difficult to talk about other sorts of arrangements in our country, and specifically about fathers. Sometimes the language can slip into talking about feckless fathers.

    Perhaps those are the reasons why we stand so far behind many of our continental European brothers and sisters in other countries, who are much further forward on this agenda. It is deeply worrying that the figures for parental leave are so low for fathers, and that we do not recognise, as the public do, that couples make these decisions every day of the week. If we give them a year or so off to care for their children, they will decide between them who is going to do what bit.

    We know that fathers want to spend time with their children. They want to be engaged right from the get-go. How can we as a state facilitate that? I was worried when I was mooting changes to child benefits, because there is a very strong group that believes that we cannot give dad the child benefit or put it in his name because he is going to run off down the pub with the money. That seems a very old-fashioned view, and is not my experience of the fathers I meet up and down the country.

    I am very worried about how we support young fathers. We cannot deal with teenage pregnancy unless we support young fathers and think about their housing and how they are going to be connected to their children. We need to think about the fact that our public services really do not respond to young fathers, particularly those from a working-class background, whether white or black. Some children’s centres have not even got a male toilet—such is their low expectation of those fathers. There is much to do, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts on securing this important debate.

  • It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, and to follow the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy). I congratulate the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) on securing this important debate.

    As far as I am concerned, being a dad is the best thing in the world. It is the most important job I will ever do. I often say to people that, even if our nation were unfortunate enough to have me as its Prime Minister, I would still consider being dad to my boys to be far more important than that role.

    Sadly, there is a growing crisis of absent fathers in our country. It is a sad fact that 3 million children in the UK live in lone-parent families, 86% of which are headed by the child’s mother. When we talk about family breakdown, more often than not we are actually talking about dad leaving the family home. There are 1 million children in our country today who have no meaningful contact with their father at all, and a 15-year-old boy today is far more likely to have a smartphone than a father at home. That surely must be a wake-up call for our country. Fatherhood should be seen as a social justice priority. Unless we tackle the issue of absent fathers and provide more support for fathers to be better dads, we will not effectively address the issues of social justice and social mobility in our nation.

    Children from low-income households who have an active father figure at home are 25% more likely to escape the relative poverty they are growing up in. At the most extreme, 76% of all male prisoners come from households without a father figure in the home. Boys with little or no involvement with their fathers are twice as likely to become offenders as boys with highly involved dads.

    Research commissioned and collated by Care for the Family found that children with dads involved in their lives had better attitudes towards school, better behaviour at school, higher educational expectations, greater school progress, higher qualifications and greater enjoyment from being at school. Surely those are all things that we should want for every one of our children.

    I stress at this point that I am not putting down households of single mothers. I know from my experience of helping lone parents—the vast majority of them are single mothers—that they provide a loving, caring and positive environment for their children. They are often the unsung heroes of excellent parenting, even in challenging circumstances. However, we cannot ignore the fact that we do have a crisis of fatherhood going on. The right hon. Member for Tottenham alluded to the fact that there are changing attitudes in our country today, with a far greater desire particularly among millennial fathers to be more involved in their children’s lives, whatever their situation with regards to a family. We should welcome that and support it.

    I put it to the Minister that the Government should be doing more to support fathers. Will the Government consider following the example of Scotland, which last year had a Year of the Dad—it is not often that I congratulate the Scottish National party, but on this occasion I am more than happy to—and call for a UK-wide Year of the Dad, where we can celebrate, support and promote the important role of fathers in our country? Will the Government also consider putting together a working group of colleagues with an interest and experience in this issue, in conjunction with their forthcoming social justice Green Paper, to work to identify policies that are effective in supporting fathers?

    This issue is far too important to leave to chance. We need the Government to take a lead and to put policies in place to support dads.

  • It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. Let me thank the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) for securing this important debate. I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), who made an outstanding contribution, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), who made a passionate and smart speech on these important issues.

    I share the view of the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay on the Year of the Dad. I was not aware of it until earlier in the week, when I started researching it, but I agree that we could see it rolled out not just in Scotland but across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. That would be welcome.

    What I have studied of the campaign has been overwhelmingly positive. That businesses, charities and public sector organisations are all coming out to promote and celebrate the role of fathers is to be appreciated. I read the comments by the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts on the PoliticsHome site with regard to the shockingly low number of men who take up parental leave. We have a lot to do to change the culture so that men feel more comfortable in approaching their employers to be able to take time off to support the children and mothers.

    The other issue I would like to raise is dads’ lack of fair access to their children after separation from their partner—if we are honest, it is often the dad, as the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay made clear. Perhaps we have to look at changes in legislation to make access for fathers easier and simpler when a separation has occurred. Another particularly important point that has not been mentioned yet is parental alienation, where, following a separation, one or indeed both parents psychologically harm the child—it is effectively child abuse—by convincing the child that the other parent is not doing a good job, does not love them or something like that. That really warrants further debate and examination in this place and in wider society.

    Even in the best of circumstances, separation can cause and exacerbate problems for the individuals involved. Matt O’Connor, the founder of Fathers 4 Justice, has spoken about several tragic cases where fathers who have lost contact with their children have thrown themselves under trains or off bridges. He has also highlighted Department for Work and Pensions data showing that parents who leave their children are almost three times more likely to die earlier than the average. Those statistics clearly need attention.

    In summary, I welcome the success of Scotland’s Year of the Dad campaign, which should be rolled out across the country. It would particularly help fathers who are separated from their children, and we should build on its successes.

  • I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) on bringing this important debate before the House and the tone with which he introduced it. I am also grateful to the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) for saying that he wants to take party politics out of the issue. This should be a no-brainer for us all and something on which people from different political traditions can come together.

    It is right that we need to be careful about language. We all support the fantastic work that single mums do—indeed, many of us are passionate about this issue because we want single mums to have more help with the very tough job of being a parent. When Gordon Brown left Downing Street for the last time, he said that he was going on to do an even more important job and devote himself fully to being a father to his children, which he viewed as more important than being Prime Minister of our country.

    I am encouraged by Early Intervention Foundation research, which the Government are taking very seriously as they work on their social reform White Paper—we all look forward to seeing that shortly—showing that the role of fathers is increasingly recognised as an important influence on child development. I am grateful to Tavistock Relationships for pointing that out. That has not always been recognised, and it is important that we do so.

    It should be hugely concerning to us that there are what are sometimes called “dad deserts” up and down the country. The Centre for Social Justice, which also provided a very good briefing, identified 236 hotspots across the country, which should concern us from a social justice and inequality standpoint. When the number of fathers in a community diminishes, it gets harder for the fathers who are there to take their role seriously and to be good role models.

    We must also think about how we can ensure that both young women and young men make wise choices about who they partner with. Young women need to look to men to be the fathers of their children who will be there for the long haul and take their important responsibilities seriously. We need to have frank conversations with young men about the incredible joy but also the responsibility of bringing a child into the world. One of the animal charities says that a dog is for life, not just for Christmas. How much more should that be true of having a child?

    I am impressed by quite a lot of what happens in this area in north America. The National Fatherhood Initiative has existed in the United States for some time, and there is bipartisan support from Democrats and Republicans. President Obama made incredible father’s day speeches, which were really moving and powerful, not least because he did not see a lot of his own father when he was young. He said that we can pass all the laws in the world, but it takes parents at home to do the long, hard work of bringing up children, and we want more dads to be present to help mums to do that important work.

    I know that the Government take this matter seriously and I am encouraged by the Early Intervention Foundation research. I know that the Minister absolutely gets this issue, and I look forward to hearing what she has to say about it.

  • Thank you, Mrs Main, for your chairmanship of this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) for calling the debate, in which I am pleased to take part.

    Strong families, stable relationships and fulfilling familial ties between children and their parents, grandparents and extended families are the bedrock of our society, but for too long, regardless of which party has been in power, a narrative of deadbeat dads, mothers knowing best and hapless fathers has prevailed and a damaging culture has become entrenched in some of our institutions.

    To be clear, I am not condoning irresponsible fathers who do not pay their child support upon a divorce or family breakdown or, even worse, as I encounter frequently in my surgeries, fathers who deliberately change their employment status from salaried to self-employed in order to escape the radar of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Child Support Agency. That is irresponsible. Nor am I condoning perpetrators of domestic abuse. As a barrister who represented victims of domestic abuse, I saw up front the tragedy that that causes. I am talking about the treatment of fathers in the family justice system when a marriage sadly breaks down.

    The truth is that there are 114,000 divorces per year, half of which involve children. There are 1 million children growing up without a father in their lives at all, and 35% of children of non-resident parents do not see that parent at all. That is a tragedy, and it is unfair. The truth is that our justice system treats fathers unfairly. Good dads are systematically shut out of their children’s lives by the system, and 50:50 access is rare. A father is doing well if he gets a couple of weekends and a weekday per month. If he wants greater access, he needs to perform feats or miracles involving the courts, expensive applications, re-litigation of facts and an extended and drawn-out procedure.

    The debilitating legal framework presumes that the father’s equal access is a privilege, not a right. That is unjust. The Children and Families Act 2014 went some way to addressing that issue, requiring involvement of both parents to be instilled in child arrangement orders. However, that parental involvement can be direct or indirect, and there is no minimum access of 50:50. In some of the worst cases, the maximum can be a Christmas card or a birthday card every year. How can that be a meaningful relationship between a father and his child?

    Another problem is the lack of enforcement against resident parents—who are, in large part, the mothers—who breach those child arrangement orders and stop non-resident parents seeing their children. They can get away with it without any consequence or enforcement. Will the Minister consider some ways of reforming that?

    Lastly, we need to encourage more mediation as an alternative to litigation. Many divorces start off amicably and reasonably and end up high-conflict and very expensive, ruining the father and mother both emotionally and financially. That can be avoided, and there are many examples around the world of how. Children need both parents. I hope the Government will take action to remedy this burning injustice.

  • I congratulate the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) on securing this debate. I declare an interest, as not only a father but a criminal defence solicitor. I refer to the latter because I certainly can amplify the stats given by my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double). When I reflect on the consistent themes in my filing cabinet, there were issues of addiction and mental health, but the predominant theme was an absence of involvement of fathers in the lives of those young people—predominantly men. It is clearly an issue of social justice. We must take the role of fathers seriously.

    Some 36% of male prisoners come from households without a father’s involvement. Of those male prisoners, 50% have a child, and we need to take their responsibilities as fathers seriously. We cannot just cast them out from the justice system. Those responsibilities have an important role to play in their future rehabilitation. When I think of those prolific offenders, the light switched on not only when they took responsibility for themselves and for their habits—getting the next fix or the next stolen item—but when they suddenly realised they were a father.

  • I appreciate the hon. Gentleman making that point. The Year of the Dad campaign specifically went into prisons to talk to fathers. Will he commend that work and encourage the Minister to pick up where Scotland has been leading on that?

  • I will. There is also good work in—

  • My hon. Friend reminds me about the Farmer review, which is looking in particular at the relationship with fathers and at making that link. It is about that responsibility for another. The opportunity for rehabilitation is so important in the long term.

    Involving fathers is a route out of poverty, as has been mentioned. Therefore, we must recognise that it makes social and economic sense to take the role of fathers seriously. In dealing with family relationships and crucial moments such as the birth, the early days, weeks and months, maternity services should involve paternity services. Barnardo’s makes that point clearly. The relationship with midwives and health services must involve fathers. Children’s centres, which the Government are looking at, and family hubs must take seriously how to involve fathers. There are some good examples in my constituency and elsewhere of involving fathers in such work. Fathers can play a crucial antenatal and postnatal role . Sadly, that has become too much a middle-class preserve, with the national childbirth trusts and others involving fathers. All of us may have been involved in that, but sadly fathers from more disadvantaged backgrounds are not involved. We must look practically at how to get fathers involved from the early stages before birth and afterwards.

    Preventive work in terms of education is also important. As I should have said at the beginning of my speech, I pay tribute to the Centre for Social Justice for championing the role of fathers, along with other organisations, such as the Relationships Alliance—reference has been made to it. We must recognise the preventive role. Education can play an important role in that. Today, the Government rightly responded to cross-party calls to require relationship education in primary schools, providing a foundation for sex education. That is crucial in terms of the role of fathers and understanding that from a very young age.

    The Minister has a cross-cutting role in this area. There is an issue of equality here. She has responsibility for equality. We have made a cross-party call on a practical issue of equality—the joint registration of births. That has been on the table since 2009—schedule 6 to the Welfare Reform Act 2009 provides for the joint registration of births. That happens automatically for mums, but why not for unmarried fathers?

  • Is the hon. Gentleman as concerned as I am that 500,000 fathers are not on birth certificates every decade because of a failure of the political establishment to sort that easy problem out?

  • Yes. The measure must be implemented, rather than having the elongated process to get on the birth certificate. There are already exceptions in law to deal with violent fathers who should not be anywhere near the mothers, and we recognise that. However, that is not an excuse. We must implement that as soon as possible. It is a very practical measure. We talk here about the role of fathers. There are lots of ways to do this, but this is a matter of law. We all battle for a change in the law. That happened in 2009. Implement it, so that we can say loud and clear on the registration certificate that there is a joint enterprise of mothers and fathers and that we are taking it seriously. It is there from birth—it should be in the registration. We are saying loud and clear that of course mothers matter, and fathers matter too.

  • Before I call the SNP spokesman to wind up, I point out that I would like to offer Neil Gray a minute or so at the end of the debate.

  • I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) on securing the debate. We have had a number of speakers, including the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), who invited us to imagine him as Prime Minister. I can only point out that the unexpected can often happen in politics. There is clearly an appetite to debate this issue, and perhaps we can revisit it in a longer format in future. It is also good to hear so many MPs from south of the border looking to copy Scottish Government initiatives—it is always a welcome thing to hear, as an SNP Member.

    Thankfully, the days of dads being passive players in the raising of their children are increasingly rare. Nowadays most dads want to get involved in every part of their child’s life. The modern-day father comes in various forms, and today’s family unit thankfully no longer has to conform to the traditional parenting paradigm of the man being the traditional breadwinner and disciplinarian in the family. He can be single or married, an employed or stay-at-home dad, gay or straight, an adoptive parent or step-parent, and a more than capable caregiver to children facing physical or psychological challenges.

    The purpose of the debate is not to downplay the critical role that mothers play in families, but simply to celebrate the father’s role, and to debate what can be done through Government and workplace policy to enhance that role. From my experience of helping to raise two beautiful daughters aged 10 and six—Eilidh is seven in two weeks and four days, as she is keen to remind us—I know that the modern day father wants to be there for their child at every stage. We want to help feed the baby, change their nappies, read them their bedtime stories, drive them to after-school activities and actively discourage any interest from any potential suitor until at least their mid-20s. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I feel your pain.

    However, our society still makes it difficult for fathers to be actively involved in raising their children. Some 53% of millennial dads want to downshift into a less stressful job because they cannot balance the demands of work and family life. If I thought it was difficult to achieve a good work-life balance in my old job, it has pretty much gone out of the window with this one. However, after two years in this role, I know that I must try to do better in striking some sort of balance, for the sake of not just my children but my wife, who is a full-time student, a part-time worker and, for half of the week, has to juggle those roles with being a full-time parent with no assistance whatever from me.

    Our economy also retains bias about the role of fathers in the family unit. According to University of Plymouth research, fathers face a “negative bias” from managers when seeking time off work to take care of their children. I know from speaking to other dads that workplaces tend to question their commitment to the job should they request a period of flexible working in order to look after their children. That complements University of Edinburgh research that showed that many dads would prefer to lie and say that they had a dentist appointment, rather than admit that they were leaving work to look after their children.

  • My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. Does he agree that the problem of fathers not seeking parental time off is more pronounced among young fathers at the outset of their careers? In fact, their being able to be more flexible on that would actually improve outcomes for children and families.

  • I could not agree more with my hon. Friend; he makes a powerful point. I think we have all seen circumstances in which that is definitely the case.

  • Does my hon. Friend agree that all the evidence from the work of the Women and Equalities Committee—including the gender pay gap report, the pregnancy and maternity discrimination report and the current fathers and the workplace inquiry—outlines that there is an economic benefit to fathers playing an active role in their children’s lives?

  • I could not agree more with my hon. Friend; if she had waited a few seconds I would have come on to that. Those factors help to create a situation in which men in the UK still spend only 24 minutes caring for their children for every hour that women do. Policies to create an economy that empowers and promotes the positive role of fathers in the family would help to achieve equality for women. In Sweden, it was found that for every additional month of leave dads took, mums’ career earnings increased by 6.7%.

    However, despite some progress—such as the Scottish Government’s Year of the Dad initiative, which highlights the positives of active dads and which my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts spoke of in detail earlier—there is still a lot of work to do in creating an economy that allows dads to achieve an appropriate work-life balance. Attitudes towards the role of the father have changed somewhat, and for the better, but our economy has not adapted to the changing role of the modern dad. I think we all want to see any dad be able to achieve an appropriate, family-friendly work-life balance. That would benefit not only families but our economy.

    In closing, it would be remiss of me not to speak of families in which the parents’ relationship has not survived, and there is either no father figure, or one whose influence is via scheduled weekly access. Like an increasing number of children, I experienced growing up in a traditional family unit, but following my parents’ separation when I was around eight, I was brought up, in the main, by my mother through my formative years. Although we talked earlier about promoting parental equality and enhancing the role of fathers, we must ensure that those who bring up children on their own—be they male or female—are fully supported, and we must try to end the stigma that the Daily Mail and other such publications attach to such parents.

    Let us be clear: in the vast majority of single-parent families, it is women who bring up the children. They are often vilified in said press, whereas a single father will often be depicted as brave and an all-around good egg. That inherent bias aids no one and must end now. The truth is that although we would all like to see relationships succeed and children growing up in stable and loving families, that has become more an exception than the rule. Equally, there can be no doubt that children brought up lovingly in single-parent families have a better environment in which to grow up than children whose parents constantly argue and are trying to stay together for the sake of the child. That rarely works.

  • Order. Can the hon. Gentleman be brief? I thought he said “in conclusion” quite a long time ago.

  • I do not often say this—in fact, I may have never said it—but I would like to thank my own mother for doing a fantastic job in raising my sister and me following my parents’ separation. I would like to reiterate that there is no one perfect model for perfect parenting—

  • Order. The hon. Gentleman is eating into other Members’ time. I have to call the Opposition spokesperson.

  • It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) on securing this interesting debate.

    We know that families come in many shapes and sizes. Regardless of the gender of the parent, children need a safe, loving and stable environment in which to thrive and develop into healthy and happy adults. We also know that many fathers wish to spend significantly more time with their children then they are currently able to, in order to create that loving environment. However, many fathers find themselves unable to avoid working long hours or are subject to an inflexible working environment that prevents them from sharing parenting duties more equally.

    Many of the underlying causes of those issues are inextricably linked to the same deep and corrosive structural barriers that hold women back in the workplace and contribute to a persistent gender pay gap of 18.9%, which, at the current rate of progress, could take 60 years to close. Occupational segregation, for example, sees women stuck in low-paid and undervalued sectors of the economy. Women make up more than 60% of those earning less than the living wage set by the Living Wage Foundation. Meanwhile, men continue to dominate the best-paid positions. Women make up 67% of the management workforce in entry-level roles, but only 43% of senior managers and 29% of directors. Those factors, taken together, often give families little choice as to whose wage they rely on.

    Women continue to play a greater role in caring for children and sick or elderly relatives. According to Office for National Statistics analysis of time use data, women put in more than double their proportion of unpaid work in cooking, childcare and housework. As a result, more women—42%, compared with 11% of men— work part time, and those jobs are typically lower paid, with fewer opportunities for progression. The issue therefore becomes cyclical.

    The impact of women being stuck in low-paid or non-paid caring roles has implications for fathers in the workplace too. Research undertaken by the TUC last year shows that as many as two in five new fathers are ineligible for shared parental leave, as their partners are not in paid work or they fail to meet the qualifying conditions. That prevents fathers from spending time with their newborn children. Will the Minister tell us what steps she is taking to ensure that all new fathers who want to take shared parental leave are able to?

    Another solution to enable greater flexibility for parents is to provide high-quality, universal, affordable childcare, as Labour has promised to do. We believe that childcare can play a vital role in promoting gender equality, particularly by making it easier for parents to balance the competing demands of work and family life. The Government’s promise of 30 hours of free childcare a week for three and four-year-old children of working parents is looking more and more likely to collapse as each day passes. Research by the Family and Childcare Trust shows that providers and local authorities feel that the 30 hours requirement will mean either that they are forced to reduce the total number of places on offer or that they will simply no longer remain financially viable.

    The Government have also admitted that the majority of children who are eligible for the current universal 15 hours of childcare per week will not be eligible for the expanded entitlement, leaving hundreds of thousands of children from working families—particularly those with parents on low or insecure incomes—shut out of the 30-hour-a-week offer. Will the Minister tell us what the Government are going to do to ensure that providers and local authorities can afford to provide 30 hours of free childcare? Does she have plans to expand the current entitlement?

    Finally, the Women and Equalities Committee report on the gender pay gap recommends increasing paternity rights, particularly those around leave, to ensure that men can spend more time with a new child. Increased paternity rights for men, on top of existing maternity rights, would make both men and women’s lives better. We know that fathers want to play an active role in their children’s lives and families want to spend more time together with a new baby, which is why Labour would increase both paternity leave and paternity pay.

    One of the most pervasive underlying causes of the imbalance between men’s and women’s roles in the family is workplace discrimination. Government research with the Equality and Human Rights Commission estimates that 54,000 women a year are being forced out of their jobs due to maternity discrimination. Does the Minister agree that extending paternity leave and consequently increasing workplace flexibility would be one way of addressing that appalling discrimination? Does she also agree that women suffering maternity discrimination must be able to uphold their rights, yet—

  • Order. Will the hon. Lady finish her sentence and then conclude?

  • Okay, sure. If we are to support men in taking a greater role in the family unit and, as a consequence, tackle the barriers facing women, we need to support men and women in having a real and meaningful choice when it comes to accessing well-paid and family-friendly employment.

  • It is a great pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mrs Main. I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) on securing this really important debate. I also congratulate both him and other hon. Members on doing such a great job of articulating clearly how involving dads in their children’s lives is good for the emotional health and wellbeing of both parents, great for childhood development and really good for society.

    As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, this debate is timely, as the Women and Equalities Committee recently launched its important inquiry into fathers in the workplace. We welcome that inquiry and will look with great interest at what the Committee comes up with. The role that fathers play in family life is a subject of great importance for me in my role as Minister for Women and Equalities and for the Government more broadly, and it is intrinsically connected to the work that the Government Equalities Office is doing to close the gender pay gap.

    I thank the hon. Gentleman for drawing the House’s attention to this year’s successful Year of the Dad campaign in Scotland. Highlighting fathers’ really important role in child development was key to that campaign, and I wholeheartedly support that sentiment. Nothing is more important than childhood development. The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), among others, asked whether we could have a UK-wide Year of the Dad, and I will certainly consider that. It is vital that we support fathers and encourage businesses, employers and society more broadly to do the same.

    We know that dads want to be more involved in their children’s lives, and we are committed to supporting them to do that. The role of dads in family life is already changing. Increasingly, men are choosing to work part time. Although mothers continue to do the majority of childcare, dads do ever more. Dads these days are much more actively involved in their children’s lives—they are not afraid to change a dirty nappy or spoon-feed some pureed carrot into an unwilling mouth—and that is great. The Year of the Dad campaign has rightly sought to advance father-friendly practices among employers and others.

    Tackling the gender pay gap is a central part of what the Government are trying to do to ensure that there is a balance between work and family. The gap is now 18.1%, which is the lowest on record, but there is still more to do. Its causes are broad, but one is the time that women spend out of the labour market caring for children. Helping fathers and mums to share that responsibility will not only help us to reduce the gender pay gap but, crucially, allow fathers to better balance work and family. It will also build stronger relationships between fathers and their kids, and help us to build a stronger and more productive economy. That is why we will introduce legislation next month requiring large employers to publish their gender pay gap. That will shine a light on the inequality in business and encourage employers to do more to ensure that they have family-friendly policies and actively promote and encourage their staff to take advantage of those policies.

    One such policy is shared parental leave, which this Government introduced in April 2015. It enables working parents to share up to 50 weeks of leave and up to 37 weeks of pay in the first year of a child’s life, if they so wish. That is designed to give parents more flexibility in who cares for their child in that first year and to give fathers a bigger role. Shared parental leave also helps to strengthen working parents’ connection to the labour market, giving them more flexibility to combine work with family responsibilities. It gives mothers and fathers the opportunity to equalise care and work responsibilities, and it is crucial in helping mothers to retain a link with the labour market. Neither parent should have to make a binary choice between having children and having a career, so we hope that shared parental leave will address long-standing gender stereotypes. There is nothing more important in a child’s development than the role of parents, and it is essential that we support them both in playing a full part in their children’s life.

  • Will the Minister give way?

  • I think the hon. Gentleman will have time to sum up at the end, so he can speak then.

    The Government have extended the right to request flexible working to help men and women maintain a better work-life balance. Since June 2014, all employees with 26 weeks’ continuous service have had the right to request flexible working, and that extension has doubled the number of employees who are able to make that request to more than 20 million people.

    We already have one of the most diverse ranges of working arrangements in Europe. The OECD rates us as the fourth most flexible place to operate a business. Flexible working is steadily becoming more popular. Some 60% of employees surveyed in 2011 had done some form of flexible working; that was up from 56% in 2006 and continues to rise. It is great news for business and the economy that employers have access to the widest pool of talent, but it is also good for individuals.

  • Does my hon. Friend agree that it should be the parents’ decision whether they work or not if they can afford it?

  • Absolutely; that is fundamental. Parents should make their own decisions about whether they want to work or stay at home and look after their children, and about which of them decides to do that role.

    Flexible working can allow fathers to spend more valuable time with their children and achieve a better work-life balance. Some Members and the Women and Equalities Committee have called for shared parental leave and flexible working to be made compulsory, or for the regulation to be extended. All I will say is that these are relatively new regulations. It is going to require a culture shift in order for these things to take off properly, and that will take time.

  • Will the Minister give way briefly?

  • I have very little time. If my hon. Friend does not mind, I want to make a bit of progress.

    I am determined to keep further action on this in my back pocket to see how these policies bed in for just a little bit longer, especially when we bring in the gender pay gap regulations next month, before imposing any further changes that would impose significant costs on business and the public purse. I do not want to do that unnecessarily.

    We know that for families with young children childcare is not an issue, but the issue, and is hugely important for both mothers and fathers. That is why we are increasing our spending to a record £6 billion per year by 2020—more than any Government ever. That means we are doubling the childcare entitlement to working parents of three and four-year-olds from 15 hours to 30 hours. That will start in September 2017, saving parents who get the full entitlement about £5,000 per year.

    The hon. Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) is wrong—we have eight early implementer areas that are already delivering that. I have met most of them, and the policy is going really well and making a measurable difference to parents up and down this country. More than 80% of local authorities will see their money go up. We are spending a record amount of money on this, so it is unfortunate scaremongering to say that it is not going to be a success. It comes in addition to the 15 hours a week we give to the 40% most disadvantaged two-year-olds. She asked about parents who are not in work; we are also helping with 70% of childcare costs for people on low incomes through working tax credits, and 85% for parents on universal credit.

    We will shortly publish an early years workforce strategy, which aims to support and attract the best people into the early years workforce. Crucially, it will include how we can get more men into early years work. If we are going to focus on how we get more girls into science, technology, engineering and maths, it is only right that we get more boys into caring roles, and it will do something to break down gender stereotypes and ensure that more men work in caring professions.

    The hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) and my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Suella Fernandes) mentioned family law. As my hon. Friend mentioned, the law changed in 2014, bringing in a statutory presumption that both parents should be involved in their children’s lives. I will certainly pass on their comments to my colleagues in the Ministry of Justice, along with those of my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) on the issue of joint registration.

    My hon. Friends the Members for St Austell and Newquay and for Enfield, Southgate talked about offenders who grew up in fatherless households. Positive family relationships have also been identified as a factor in preventing reoffending. For example, research has found that prisoners who reported improved family relationships while in prison were less likely to reoffend after release.

  • Order. May I ask the Minister to wind up to give one minute to the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts?

  • Absolutely. We are entirely committed to achieving gender parity in the workplace. I conclude by paying tribute to the dads, the stepdads, the foster dads, the grandads and the other remarkable father figures up and down the country, including my own, who are making a positive difference to young lives and old lives on an hourly and daily basis.

  • First, I thank all Members who have contributed today. We have had a fantastic turnout and a very positive debate, which is what I hoped it would be. I am pleased that the Minister has committed to considering a UK-wide Year of the Dad. I hope that that takes off, and I know other Members who have spoken today will put pressure on to ensure that it takes place. I am slightly disappointed that she said she would not utilise further powers to push shared parental leave and incentivise it better, but most of all, I am clear that this debate has been about being positive about the role of dads. It is an equality issue. I am clear that enhancing and promoting the role of fathers at home helps women at work.

  • Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).