Wednesday 8 March 2017
[Joan Ryan in the Chair]
Apprentices: Financial Support
I beg to move,
That this House has considered financial support for apprentices.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan, and to introduce this important debate about apprenticeships and funding for apprentices.
Well-trained and highly skilled workers are vital for our economy, and for too long the apprenticeship route has been neglected. For years—decades even—apprenticeships and apprentices have been underfunded and poorly paid. That must change if we are to provide our economy with the skills that it needs and young workers with the opportunities and rewards that they deserve.
The Government have made some moves to boost apprenticeships, but those are too little and inadequate. Not only are apprenticeships under-resourced, but businesses, those with sector skills, universities and colleges have raised real questions about the potential quality of the new apprenticeships. Young people will be doubly disincentivised if both the incomes that they receive and the quality of their courses and experience are not sufficient.
The Government have set an arbitrary target of 3 million apprenticeship starts by 2020 and have introduced a 0.5% apprenticeship levy for any company with a payroll of more than £3 million a year. There has seemingly been little focus on the quality or content of those apprenticeships, potentially leaving young people without the high-calibre skills that they should be able to expect.
I have personally been concerned about the skills deficit in British industry since the 1980s and wrote much about the problem in those days. Research in the 1980s and 1990s by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, led by Professor Sig Prais and others, drew comparisons with workers in continental Europe, notably Germany, and found Britain wanting. Maths skills were especially poor in Britain, and that remains a problem today.
In more recent times, the proprietor of an engineering company in Bedfordshire—my own county—has complained that he cannot find the employees he needs, despite repeatedly advertising. A motor industry supply chain manufacturer in my constituency could not find a single toolmaker in a town that used to be dominated by manufacturing, which employed many tens of thousands. We need to do better across all fields, not just in manufacturing.
Some comparisons are especially significant. Research by the National Union of Students and The Times Educational Supplement suggests that, in contrast to the benefits and finances available to higher education students, apprentices are being hung out to dry and treated like “second-class citizens”. Some apprentices earn as little as £3.40 an hour. They are also excluded from a number of means of support available to their counterparts studying in further education institutions.
One issue that we face in Northern Ireland on apprenticeships is that 20 young people might start a course, but less than one third will finish it, whether they be electricians, joiners or plumbers. In the hon. Gentleman’s opinion, is that down purely to finances, or do we have to find another way of incentivising young people to finish their courses?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I will touch on the issue of drop-outs later, but he is right that finances are a significant problem.
The research shows that a college student with one child could be eligible for more than £10,000 a year in financial support, and the families of such students could receive thousands more, but apprentices, including those on the minimum wage, earning as little as £7,000 a year, are not entitled to any of that. The Department for Work and Pensions does not class apprenticeships as “approved education and training”, and that affects the benefits that apprentices can receive. Specifically, when a young person takes up an apprenticeship, their family will become ineligible to claim child benefit and child tax credit. Further education students between the ages of 16 and 19 could be eligible for either a £1,200 a year vulnerable student bursary or a discretionary bursary. No bursaries are available for apprentices.
In many areas, students enjoy concessionary or discounted travel to college or university. For apprentices, there are some discounts, but only for the first 12 months of an apprenticeship and only for those apprenticeships leading to a serious qualification.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He will be aware that, in the east of England, many apprentices work in farming or in the land economy and often have to travel long distances to work and to the agricultural colleges that provide some of the additional training for apprenticeships. Does he agree that that group might be deterred by the additional travel costs, because the car is the only option for those apprentices?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention; that is the point I am making. According to the NUS, the average apprentice spends £24 a week on travel.
Parents of students are eligible for child benefit of up to £1,066 a year for the oldest child, but parents of apprentices are not eligible for child benefit. Parents of students are also eligible for child tax credit of £2,750 a year and up to £3,324.90 a year for the first child under universal credit. Parents of apprentices are not eligible for either child tax credit or universal credit for them. Care to learn grants are available to student parents but not apprentice parents. Those amount to £160 per child per week. Students are often offered bank accounts with such benefits as an interest-free overdraft; those are not available to apprentices. Finally, students are entitled to either a full exemption from, or a discounted rate of, council tax. That is available only to some very low-paid apprentices taking a course leading to a recognised qualification.
One effect of the travel costs is that some young people do apprenticeships that involve shorter travelling distances, in preference to the apprenticeships that they really wanted to do. With all the comparative financial disadvantages, it must be the case that some young people for whom an apprenticeship might be appropriate and the best route to qualifications and skilled employment are persuaded to take other courses of study, as students rather than apprentices. There may even be pressure from their families to do so. That is more likely in less affluent families.
Then there is the question of diversity. The Learning and Work Institute points out that people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds are half as likely as other young people to secure access to apprenticeships. Women, too, are more likely to be apprentices in low-paid sectors, entrenching the gender pay gap, and young people eligible for free school meals are up to half as likely to undertake advanced apprenticeships. Those significant equality issues must be addressed. There is also a regional dimension: 40% of the firms that will pay the apprenticeship levy are based in London and the south-east.
Colleges play a major part both in educating young people and in supporting apprentices, but the Association of Colleges is concerned that the Government’s 3 million target could drive quantity over quality, and the Government’s existing approach to financial support means that many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds face barriers to accessing apprenticeships, with a key reason for students dropping out being the lack of financial assistance.
I have laid out some of the significant problems holding back apprenticeships, most of which are financial. I could spend much longer dwelling on some of the other disadvantages, but other hon. Members will wish to add to what I have said, so I shall soon conclude. The Opposition sought to make changes to the Technical and Further Education Bill in Committee and on Report, and I had the pleasure of serving on the Committee and making a contribution there, too. However, it is now in the Government’s hands to address all the problems, to make better financial provision for apprenticeships, to better fund our colleges and to incentivise employers to sustain apprentices and apprenticeships. That is vital for our young people and vital for our economy, and I ask the Minister to respond positively to what I have said.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) on securing the debate.
I want to put a kilt on this debate, as everyone in this room would expect me to do, and in Scotland there is a good story to be told, but before I do that I will talk about my visit yesterday, as part of the Select Committee on Education, to Gateshead College. I was absolutely enthralled. It was like coming home for me, as a former further education lecturer, to see the commitment and enthusiasm in that well known and highly regarded college, and to see what it is doing with apprentices. It was very positive and I saw an example of a new type of apprenticeship—the PlanBEE—where apprentices are taken on at a much higher level and work within different companies in the north-east, gaining absolutely wonderful training that can eventually lead to a degree. The hon. Gentleman talked about funding; those are the types of course that also need to be funded to the maximum.
As some of my late preparation for this debate, I looked at the rates in Scotland and at what the Scottish Government have been doing. Scotland has led the way in many regards, because it has had modern apprentices for years, but the UK Government bringing in the apprenticeship levy and changing the law here has had a subsequent effect in Scotland. The Scottish Government consulted with employers across Scotland to see how they might best deal with the additional funding, so they set up a special skills fund. The distances in Scotland tend not to be so large in some cases, but are extremely hard in others. It is very difficult for some apprentices in the north of Scotland to secure work, but there is a real drive by the Scottish Government to look at how best that can be localised and help be given.
The hon. Lady is on a roll about Scotland. In Northern Ireland, the Government have new incentives for apprenticeships and there is now a closer working relationship between the business and education and apprenticeship sectors to tailor courses to suit industry, and to make sure we get apprentices for the jobs.
To that end, a lot of money from the Scottish Government is going to local colleges that are mandated to work with local employers. As I said, I have previous experience of this area. Now the focus has moved from being on when a large company goes bust and people need retraining, to getting business owners and companies in and saying, “What is it that you need?” and then planning courses around that.
It is not for me to praise the Scottish National party or the Scottish Government, but is it possible that the British Government serving England and Wales could learn something from Scotland?
Of course I agree with that. In this case, there is a lot to be learnt because of the positive way forward and how the Scottish Government understand and realise the necessity of training a highly skilled workforce to move us forward with lots of economic opportunity. We have a different agenda—I will not go into that now—but it is important for economic growth that every country looks at how it best trains and prepares.
As a former further education lecturer, I understand only too well the difficulties young people have when they are in any kind of education, and how important it is that they are properly resourced. It is also true in Scotland that apprentices do not fare quite as well as others. Although the rates are higher, they have the same issues and do not qualify for some things—again, that is a DWP issue to do with child benefit and so on. I would like the Minister to look at that because it is important.
I am the product of an academic route, as are many people in this room. I know the academic route does not suit everyone, and even if someone goes down the academic route, it does not always guarantee them a job. In Scotland we have the graduate apprenticeship scheme, which is proving really useful because it gives people real, hands-on experience and makes them much more employable. The whole idea of apprentices being cheap labour, serving their time and then being paid off has to end.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way again and apologise for interrupting her speech. Like her, I used to teach in further education and one of the problems that occurred was young people being pressurised by parents to stay in inappropriate education courses because it was financially advantageous for them to do so. Such students were not only in the wrong courses, but unhappy in the courses and sometimes disruptive in class because they were not meant to be there. Will the hon. Lady comment on that problem?
I also have experience of that. For funding, the students had to be kept in colleges, but I used to do a lot of student counselling and I would counsel them to finish the course, even if they did not like or enjoy it, so that they could then move on to other employment and say, “Look, I hated this. I absolutely hated it, but I got there.” That shows proof of purpose and the fact that they can learn.
It is vital that across the UK we look at apprenticeships in a totally different light. This goes back to what I said earlier. Apprenticeships should not be cheap labour, but should be seen as a progressive and forward-looking thing for parents to consider. From my experience on the Education Committee, I know that there is often a real dearth of good careers advice for young people in schools; students are channelled into the academic route and schools want to promote that, and there is not enough good careers advice to show that some young people, especially those who are less academic, would benefit from a career starting at 16, 17 or 18.
Some of the young people I spoke to yesterday were highly qualified and had very good A-levels, but their peers and some of their families were horrified that they had not gone to university. They had chosen that route within the building and architecture sectors; it is an interesting and wide-ranging course, and those young people saw it as what they wanted to do. We need more of that across the UK.
When I studied to be a further education lecturer, I did a comparative education course. I looked at Germany, which the hon. Gentleman referred to, where there is true parity of esteem between the academic and non-academic routes, and that is reflected in the funding as well. We really need to promote that view across the entire UK. Apprenticeship is not a second chance or second choice, but is something we should actively encourage our young people to do because it will lead to good, well paying jobs that benefit the economy.
Another issue that is raised from time to time in Northern Ireland is apprentices being sponsored by companies to go into training colleges. With the economic crisis that we have had for a number of years, it has been very difficult for young people to do that. Is there another mechanism we could look at to encourage people to do that, rather than that route being solely based on sponsorship?
That is an absolutely crucial point and we do need some form of Government funding for it. Scotland still has education maintenance allowance for people going into college, but not for apprentices on day release. It still believes in funding, and our students do not pay fees. This is almost a case of chicken and egg—if there is not a thriving economy, it is more difficult. Government have to show business and industry how important it is that we carry forward a skills agenda that benefits everyone, but does not do it on the cheap as far as apprentices are concerned.
The hon. Lady is very generous in giving of her time. When I was the Lord Mayor of Belfast, I recognised that there was a deficit in apprenticeship opportunities. As a council, we went forward with 400 apprenticeship places. The local authorities in Northern Ireland are small, but we led the way. When we asked other anchor institutions in the public sector in Belfast to do the same, the largest came back and offered £500 to the scheme. There is a failure to recognise the opportunity and the benefit for the public sector, Government Departments, local authorities and here in Parliament of offering apprenticeships. Does the hon. Lady have a view on that?
Yes. Some of the things to do with the apprenticeship levy have affected local authorities in Scotland, as funding is not done in the same way any more. My local authority works closely with and gets a large sum of money from the Scottish Government to make sure that young people especially find work, which often happens through apprenticeships.
In Scotland, we have had modern apprenticeships for a number of years. They are linked to the Scottish qualifications framework, and apprentices are put on to all the different levels within that. I have known young modern apprentices who started as admin staff in a college and moved right through it, ending up later on part-time degrees courses. We should look at that.
The synchronicity between college and practical courses, and articulation later to universities, was raised yesterday. I know that I am going slightly off subject, but all that has to be funded. The root of the matter is that apprenticeships have to be seen as of equal value to academic courses. Students and parents can claim a number of benefits at present, and apprentices and their families should also be entitled to the same amount of money. I know that might be controversial, but I think it is the way forward.
I will leave my remarks at that, because this is not necessarily my area of expertise, but it is really important that people move this agenda forward.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan, and to speak in this debate in the middle of National Apprenticeship Week. I begin by paying warm tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) and congratulating him on securing the debate. He has modestly mentioned before, and again today, his experience in this area. Colleagues who served with him on the Public Bill Committee for the Technical and Further Education Bill—new colleagues in particular— will have recognised his breadth, depth and wealth of experience in this area, having been an FE tutor, a governor, and a chair of the all-party group on further education and lifelong learning. Latterly, as the Minister and I know, his contributions in that Bill Committee were excellent.
I am delighted to take part in the debate. This week is an opportunity for all MPs, regardless of party, to celebrate the tens of thousands of individual successes—from young beginners to older workers acquiring new skills, and the successes of the colleges, training providers and employers who inspire them. I was privileged to speak yesterday at the celebration of apprenticeships conference, which was organised by Lindsay McCurdy and her team from Apprenticeships 4 England to pay tribute to the huge number of talented and hard-working apprentices up and down the country.
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. When apprenticeships are successful, many apprentices go on to have highly skilled jobs, overtaking even those who have been to university, including graduates, and they are ahead both in promotions and earnings by the time university students get started.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, which could reverberate usefully around the Chambers of this place thanks to individual MPs and Ministers—I know that the Minister who is here today talks about that frequently. Those who pursue that route of learning while they are earning, to use that phrase, can be enormously successful.
As Members know—including those of us who have sat on Select Committees, where we listen to hours and hours of discussion, debate and evidence—sometimes little things stick with us. I remember well something that happened 10 years ago, although the illustration is still relevant. I worked on a Select Committee inquiry comparing apprenticeships with higher education. We heard from a young man who worked at BAE Systems. He was not my constituent but came from a neighbouring constituency. I will not mention his school—it was outside Preston—but he said, “When I was at my secondary school, most of my mates ended up going to university and I did not feel that I either could or would. They used to say that I was a bit of thicko, but I got this apprenticeship with BAE Systems.” He spoke about where he was in the process, and of course BAE Systems supported him through his degree. He also said, “I will have the last laugh on them, because I will come out with a very skilled job and a degree, and no student debt.”
Today is not the day for me to engage in discussing spiralling student debt, least of all with a Minister who is not responsible for it, but that point is important. The more that the costs of higher education rise, the more important it is to get the message across to people that it is not a question of having apprenticeships or higher education. The two can dovetail extremely well, but to do so, people need the financial support and encouragement that we are debating today.
I was very happy to speak at the celebration of apprenticeships conference. On Monday I also met people from the motor industry, which has been effective and successful in this regard. We talked about the sector skills council that is associated with it—the Institute of the Motor Industry—and the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. The industry has been very successful in supporting Government programmes such as the apprenticeship trailblazers, and in giving apprentices support—sometimes financial support and sometimes information, advice and guidance. There are some very bright sparks in a number of different sectors.
My hon. Friend mentions the motor industry. Vauxhall is a leader in that industry, and I know Vauxhall well, being from Luton. In recent years it has encouraged young people from local schools and colleges to tour the factory to see what life is like in manufacturing, and it has recruited new apprentices. Vauxhall found that its workforce was ageing, but now it is getting younger again, because it is taking in many more young apprentices and is showing the way forward for positive companies. If other companies were as positive as Vauxhall, we might do rather better.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. It is about the process involved, and I will talk later about the barriers to doing that sort of thing that young people experience in schools, for instance. It is important that various sectors act.
I have talked about the importance of the motor industry, but there is also the service industry. That raises questions not only about support but about the many opportunities available. I mentioned Apprenticeships 4 England and Lindsay McCurdy. Last year she brought a great bunch of apprentices, including a talented group of young apprentice hairdressers from Michaeljohn Training in Manchester, to a meeting that I sponsored in one of the Select Committee rooms. As an apprenticeship week present, they presented me with a very lifelike model head—I still have it on my office shelf—to demonstrate their skills in colouring and styling. One of these days, if I am feeling mischievous, I suppose I might ginger up the occasional official or other policy maker who seems to think that the route to successful jobs and apprenticeships is simply through higher-level manufacturing, digital or technical areas. The truth is that if we are to achieve the 3 million target, which the Minister and his colleagues are so keen to hit, and really expand the opportunities for young people, we will need the service sectors just as much as we need manufacturing and other sectors.
Oppositions do not get much opportunity to blow their own trumpet about success stories, so I shall. I am very proud of the fact that the last Labour Government introduced the National Apprenticeship Service and, indeed, National Apprenticeship Week in 2008. They also revived apprenticeships, taking them from 65,000 starts in 1996-97 to 279,700 by 2009-10. Those increases have continued under successive Governments.
The last Labour Government also linked the creation of apprenticeship placements to public sector contracts across a range of Departments and projects, including Crossrail. Such infrastructure projects will remain a crucial conduit for apprenticeship expansion, as I have said. As well as financial support, informal encouragement is extremely important for widening the diversity of the apprentices who take part in those great projects. I was fortunate enough to see that two years ago when I went down the construction tunnel at Farringdon and saw some of the people working on it. They were young Londoners, including a couple of young women and a young man from a BME community who had started off selling ad space and was now proud of his tunnelling qualifications. It is worth remembering that 60% of the construction work on Crossrail is outside London, so there is a lot of scope in the supply chain for many more opportunities for young people. Projects such as Crossrail and its commitment need to become a vital part of our regeneration and productivity across the UK.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Closer to home, I was able to visit the cellars of this very place to see the amount of work that is needed on the restoration and renewal project for Parliament. A great range of people across the country contributed to building this great building. There are immense opportunities for apprentices to be involved in the restoration project across the country and learn new skills that we have lost. That needs to be a key part of the project.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent and highly relevant comment. I remember having the same experience many years ago when I served on the Advisory Committee on Works of Art, looking into the repair of stuff in this place. The project is important because a lot of bespoke skills will be needed, not least those relating to architecture. There are some very challenging issues—logistics, wiring and God knows what else—that will potentially engage a whole gamut of people.
That is what it is all about; it is about economic impact, but it is also about improving the careers and life chances of hundreds of thousands of young people—and, indeed, older people. We talk a lot about apprenticeships, but we have not always talked enough about apprentices and their individual issues and challenges. The need to increase the focus on improving access and social mobility, which I know the Minister feels strongly about, as I do, is a crucial part of the equation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Luton North has already referred to the Government’s continuing failure to address or understand apprenticeships. The fact that the Department for Work and Pensions does not class apprenticeships as approved education or training is leaving many individuals and families thousands of pounds worse off. I pay tribute to a survey that appeared in The Times Educational Supplement on 10 February under the headline “Apprentices ‘treated like second-class citizens’”. It was carried out by the National Union of Students, via the National Society of Apprenticeships, which it sponsors.
My hon. Friend read an important but slightly dispiriting list of the ways in which apprentices are financially disadvantaged in comparison with students. If the Government hope to reduce the growing skills gap in this country with a push to create 3 million apprenticeships, why are apprentices and apprenticeships not included as approved education or training? There has been spirited discussion about that in the House of Lords recently, which I will come on to shortly. The Government need to make progress on this.
The Times Educational Supplement article states:
“Research by the NUS and TES has revealed that…some apprentices earn as little as £3.40 an hour”.
That figure will rise to £3.50 in April. There is a separate issue, which we probably do not have time to discuss in detail today, about how many more employers could go the extra mile, over and above the existing rate. That rate can sometimes be particularly difficult for younger apprentices to exist on, given their personal family circumstances.
I hope my hon. Friend does not mind my interrupting his flow. He talks about companies; one of the problems with companies, particularly small companies, is that they sometimes have short lifespans and then apprentices are lost. The great advantage of big projects such as Crossrail—which I, too, have visited and been impressed by—is that they give long-term certainty to apprentices, who spend a long time doing a job and then come out with a lot of experience and with high skills that set them up for the future. We have to try to focus apprenticeships on those areas in particular, so that apprentices do not lose out and suddenly find themselves unemployed and having to get a job without skills.
I hear what my hon. Friend says. He is absolutely right about the contribution that larger employers and large long-term projects can make. However, we are all products of our individual constituency circumstances and experiences. My experience as a Member of Parliament in Blackpool is that, although a lot of people go and work for large organisations outside Blackpool, such as BAE Systems, there are also a huge number of very small businesses and microbusinesses. In my experience, if we can engage small and medium-sized employers, particularly in areas where there is a close-knit SME community—there are obstacles to doing so, such as hiding the wiring for them and ensuring that there is back-office support, but they are outwith the debate—those SMEs are sometimes the best advocates for other colleagues and small businesses taking them on board. I think it is about both, not either/or, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out the importance of the support that can be given by those organisations and the supply chains that contribute to them.
The article about NUS research states:
“Disadvantaged apprentices are missing out on thousands of pounds in support available to students”.
The National Society of Apprentices took up that point in its written evidence to the Technical and Further Education Bill, which stated that
“upon taking up an apprenticeship, a young person’s family will become ineligible to claim child benefit and child tax credits. This will inevitably have a negative impact on that family’s household budget, which is not covered by the earnings made by an apprentice’s salary given the apprentice minimum wage is barely over £3 per hour”,
as it was at the time.
Shakira Martin, the extremely active and feisty—I say that with approval—NUS vice-president for further education, has elaborated on that point. The article quotes her as saying that
“the idea that apprenticeships were a desirable way to ‘earn while you learn’ was ‘far from the truth’”.
“Apprentices are treated like second-class citizens, as workers and as learners. Financial support like Care to Learn [for apprentice parents], and Child Tax Credits for parents of apprentices, is not available…If apprenticeships are going to be the silver bullet to create a high-skilled economy for the future, the government has to…support apprentices financially to succeed.”
Otherwise, we will fail to capitalise on the benefit of expansion.
In the update that it circulated to Members today before the debate, the NUS elaborated on that point: “Apprentices are not necessarily eligible for council tax exemptions in the same way as other students. While those paid under £195 a week are exempt, many are unaware of this. Often councils do not advertise this discount on their website, and we are increasingly becoming aware of apprentices being wrongly charged council tax. Additionally, one of the implications of the apprenticeship reforms is that fewer apprentices will be eligible for this discount, not because they are being paid more, but rather”—this is a really important point that I would like the Minister to grasp—“because apprenticeships are no longer required to include a qualification which is necessary for the exemption. Apprentices earning over this amount are obliged to pay council tax.”
I referred earlier to the fact I had spoken at an event on Monday organised by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, the Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies, and the Institute of the Motor Industry. That event was preceded by a seminar in which there was discussion of all aspects of the apprenticeship levy, the introduction of the Institute for Apprenticeships and so on. One thing that came out, both in informal conversations and in the speeches that were made at that event, was how worried and concerned a body of employers remain about the issue of qualifications not being properly included, from their perspective, in the new standards that have come out of the skills plan and the Sainsbury review. That is a vexed issue, and I would not expect the Minister to want to dilate in detail on it today, but if he has not heard about it already from people in the industry, I am sure that he will hear about it presently.
I do not want to go on too long about this particular aspect, but it is crucial. I refer again to the debate held in the Lords on 27 February as part of the proceedings in Grand Committee on the Technical and Further Education Bill. My colleague, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, pressed the Government on this issue and tabled an amendment. Baroness Buscombe, the Front-Bench spokesperson who spoke on behalf of the Minister in the other place, said that some of the issues that had been raised were outwith the scope of the Department for Education. She was right; they are, because they are Department for Work and Pensions issues, and indeed the issues around council tax are for the Department for Communities and Local Government. Of course, that does not stop Ministers in either House having discussions with their colleagues in other Departments.
Baroness Buscombe also said that she could not change the definition of apprentices. As one or two Members of the Lords asked, if the Government cannot change it, who can? Perhaps the Minister could change it. If he cannot do so, or does not feel that it is his role to do so, powers could be given to the Institute for Apprenticeships so that it could change the definition, either by an amendment in the Lords, or in the Commons if any amendments come back from the Lords for us to discuss further on the Floor of the House. Or, I would argue, that could be done by delegated legislation. I will leave it at that, but I would like the Minister to consider some of those issues, because they are quite significant.
The Association of Colleges is also concerned about the discrepancy between the current national minimum hourly wage rates of £7.20 for those aged 25 and over and only £3.40 an hour for apprentices. Someone aged 22 in the first year of an apprenticeship is entitled only to that apprenticeship rate, whereas in any other area they would be entitled to the minimum hourly rate of £6.95 for 21 to 24-year-olds. That is a disincentive, which is an issue we really need to take on board. I think the Minister and I share common ground on this, but I believe that attracting more 19 to 24-year-olds into apprenticeships is extremely important, because many of them have life skills that 16 to 19-year-olds do not possess. However, many of them have had difficult circumstances that have meant they have not been potential apprentices. If they come from that sort of background, the financial disincentive—the disparity that I have set out—is really significant.
The National Society of Apprentices has said that the existence of a low apprenticeship national minimum wage is unnecessary and complicated for both apprentice and employer. It says that it is possible for someone to be on three different minimum rates during a four-year apprenticeship. That increases the risk of accidental underpayment of apprentices—that is a concern for employers—and apprentices have said that it demeans the value of the work that they contribute.
The Minister will be relieved to know that I am coming to the end of my section on finance issues. Of course, this is a good day to discuss finance, because we have the Budget coming up later. There may be nothing in the Budget about these issues—I am not expecting a last-minute conversion between now and half-past 1—but in all seriousness, they will continue to concern people, and I hope that he, his colleagues and indeed all of us will continue to press the Treasury hard on them.
As I said, the Government have talked about their apprenticeship programme being as inclusive as possible, which means that we must ensure that the most disadvantaged young people are not put off becoming apprentices. However, a report published by the Learning and Work Institute this week says issues to do with that expansion are not being addressed as strongly as they need to be. Particularly in respect of black and minority ethnic young people and care leavers, we tabled amendments to both the Higher Education Bill—that is outwith this morning’s discussion—and the Technical and Further Education Bill. Those amendments would have ensured that the new Institute for Apprenticeships set targets for improving access to apprenticeships and progression within them. After all, the Office for Students has a mandated responsibility for addressing access issues under the Higher Education Bill, so why does the Institute for Apprenticeships not have a similar responsibility? The Learning and Work Institute has called for the new Institute for Apprenticeships to have that responsibility, and we wholeheartedly agree.
There is also the issue of how people are put off becoming apprentices because of their low-income background. Teach First said in its progress report in 2016 that in every region in England, young people from a low-income background were less likely than their wealthier peers to become apprentices, and it suggested that financial barriers for those from low-income backgrounds were part of that. That is consistent with the finding reported by the Social Mobility Commission that youngsters from poor families took up only 10% of apprenticeships even though they accounted for 13% of those completing GCSEs.
In its briefing for this debate, the AOC said that it fears that the Government’s existing approach to financial support means that many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds face barriers to accessing apprenticeships, which is a disincentive for them in applying for apprenticeships in the first place.
I want to touch on gender issues, which is appropriate on International Women’s Day. The AOC has said that women continue to struggle financially on apprenticeships. A recent report by the Young Women’s Trust showed that women receive an average of £4.82 an hour compared with the male average of £5.85. According to a survey by the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, the proportion of apprentices reporting an increase in pay continues to be dominated by men. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the Young Women’s Trust was concerned by the fact that 16% of women were out of work after their apprenticeship compared with 6% of men. It said that the differences in occupational segregation by gender have hardly changed in more than a decade. For example, the proportion of construction apprentices who are female has only risen from 1% to 2%.
Of course, one of the problems is that some of the apprenticeships leading on to higher-paid work tend to be dominated by men. However, as my hon. Friend may know, there has been a campaign recently, including a meeting last week, to promote the idea of women in engineering. Does he agree that the Government ought to encourage more women to go into such areas, where they can develop skills and earn much more money?
I absolutely agree. To be fair to the Government, I think they have said that on a number of occasions. Nevertheless, if the perception of a pay gap continues, with associated career blockages, into the 2020s, that will play havoc with our aspirations to get far more women into those careers in the first place. That is why in the last apprenticeships debate I asked the Minister about the Government’s equality analysis of the funding changes to apprenticeships last autumn and how we will track improvements in apprenticeships.
People from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds are also under-represented. I know that the recent McGregor-Smith review underlined that point. However, I would like the Minister to say whether it is still the Government’s target to increase BAME apprenticeships by 20%, which was the target set by the previous Government. That is important given the issues we are discussing today.
I do not have time to deal with care leavers in great detail, but when care leavers move into independent living, they often begin to manage their own budget fully for the first time. There are concerns that because of a lack of financial education and financial support, those young care leavers are frequently falling into debt and financial difficulty.
The Minister and I have both talked about the importance of traineeships, but the Government have been silent so far on what we can do to look at the negatives that still exist in the system. We need to know what progress the Department is making on the issue with the Department for Work and Pensions. A major stumbling block for the Minister’s predecessors has been the brokering of a cross-departmental deal that would enable traineeships to be more accessible and inviting for young people and employers. That goes to issues around clawback and jobseeker’s allowance, which I do not intend to talk in detail about today.
Finally, I want briefly to address travel costs. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton North touched on the issue significantly in his speech. The hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) made excellent points about the particular problems in rural areas, and our colleagues from the Democratic Unionist party made some good points on that as well. There are two or three areas where financial support is most at risk. We have heard the statistics about £24 a week being spent on travel, which is about a quarter of the salary of an apprentice, if they are earning the national minimum wage.
In the light of the area review process and the creation of the so-called fewer, more resilient colleges, the National Society of Apprentices is concerned that travel time will be too much for some apprentices, which will impede access to certain roles. That echoes some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman and others have talked about. That is why we tried to make changes to the Technical and Further Education Bill in Committee and on Report to enable the institute to take on board the need to improve travel concessions. We have pledged to restore the principles of the education maintenance allowance, which provided so much support for young people’s travel costs in pursuing their studies. Apprentices remain a significant proportion of those affected, with approximately 360,000 at colleges being in that category.
There are other issues and scenarios to consider. What will happen if colleges become insolvent or training providers go bust? The insolvency issue has been an important part of the Technical and Further Education Bill. Where the challenge of college insolvency occurs—hopefully it will be infrequent—that could pile up extra travel time costs for apprentices who have to change their place of study as a result. More recently, the Minister and I attended the session organised by FE Week, so he will know that there have been concerns about large providers going out of business, leaving apprentices with huge loan debts to pay and no qualifications. How do the Government plan to compensate them? I have raised those issues with the Government and the Minister, and he is aware of them.
Careers advice has been touched on, and it is an important issue. It is not directly important for financial support, but young people who get the best careers advice in college or school are more likely to be able to seek out the better apprenticeships, with better support and everything that goes with it.
The problem with careers advice has been significant for many years. Does my hon. Friend agree that just making young people aware of the possibilities when they are very young—possibly at primary school, but certainly at secondary school—is very important?
I absolutely agree. That is why I warmly welcome Lord Baker’s amendment to the Technical and Further Education Bill, which would ensure that schools have to give access to advice about apprenticeships. I also fully support the ten-minute rule Bill tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin)—he was with us briefly at the start of the debate—which would allow businesses and FE providers to go into schools and let students know about the opportunities. I am encouraged by the fact that the new Ofsted chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, who I have spoken to recently, is sympathetic to Ofsted making a much stronger case in ensuring that apprenticeships rate higher in the information given in schools.
Why does that matter for financial support? It matters because in general, knowledge is power. Advance knowledge enables those who have it to be a step ahead in getting better apprenticeships. There will always be excellent employers and sharp would-be apprentices who will be able to access some of the funding, but if we want to make a step change, we have to have major change across Government in how apprenticeships are treated legally and financially. All of us want to make that progress, but it is time to tackle the shortcomings that put so many off apprenticeships or cause them to be dispirited or in trouble and therefore drop out. That must surely be a good thing to do, not simply for National Apprenticeship Week, but for all the year round.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) on securing this debate. I met him briefly in passing in the corridors of the House last week, and I said I was pleased that he had put in for and got this debate in National Apprenticeship Week. He has an unrivalled knowledge of apprenticeships, skills and further education, and he made a significant contribution to the Technical and Further Education Bill as it went through the House.
I will come on to the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised, but he will know that in his constituency, apprenticeship starts increased by 19% over the course of the previous Parliament, which I am sure he welcomed. Overall, apprenticeships have increased to 900,000, which I think is the highest number on record. He raised a number of issues that I would like to touch on, including resource, equality, the skills deficit, wages, the cost of living—the shadow Minister also touched on that—social mobility and social justice.
Before I start on all those things, the shadow Minister mentioned some of the things he has been doing in National Apprenticeship Week, which is a wonderful week to celebrate apprenticeships. It is very important as one of the rungs on the ladder of opportunity is increasing the prestige of apprenticeships and skills. It goes back to what the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) was saying: unless we increase the prestige of skills, we will have the situations she described.
I met incredible apprentices and young people learning skills at Bridgwater and Taunton College. One was learning to be a luthier to fix violins. EDF apprentices are helping to build Hinkley C. I met older apprentices, including a 47-year-old apprentice who was working for EDF. I met lab technicians doing apprenticeships. I asked to meet the Premier Inn apprentices in the hotel where I was staying in the first two days of my travels around the south and south-west. They were young 23-year-olds doing level 3 or level 4. One was very young and had already become an operations manager. I pay tribute to all those organisations, including the excellent college, the Premier Inn, Sunseeker—I went to visit its apprentices in Poole—EDF Energy and Hinkley Point, and I pay tribute to all the other apprentices I have met so far during National Apprenticeship Week. They show the best of apprenticeships.
The shadow Minister is right that we need to make the distinction between apprenticeships and apprentices. I often get told off for using the word “apprentices” rather than “apprenticeships”. He is looking at the individual, and that is very important. I am glad to see that almost everyone in the Chamber is wearing the new apprentices badge, which we have launched as part of the ladder of opportunity. We believe that apprenticeships offer young people that ladder of opportunity to increase the prestige, to meet our skills needs and to help those with social disadvantage to ensure that we get the jobs, security and prosperity that we need.
[Official Report, 20 March 2017, Vol. 623, c. 9-10MC.]The hon. Member for Luton North said we were not resourcing apprenticeships, but I take issue with him on that. By 2020 apprenticeship spending will have increased to £2.5 billion, almost double what it was in 2010. We have introduced a levy not only to change behaviours but to make sure we have funding for big businesses and small businesses to have apprentices.
I thank the Minister for giving way. It is a pleasure to listen to him speaking. I said in my speech that the Government have made some moves but not enough. The outcome will be successful if we achieve the number of apprenticeships, trained apprentices and skills that we require for our economy. If that works, what has happened will be enough, but I suspect it is not yet really enough.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. One of the rungs on the ladder of opportunity is widespread quality provision, which I will come on to. Although we have a huge amount of work to do—and the work is never done—statistics show that roughly 90% of apprentices get a good job afterwards, often in the place where they did their apprenticeship, or go on to additional education, which they may not otherwise have thought of. That is a pretty good sign of the way things are going, but I do not deny there is a lot of work to do.
Within the funding framework, millions of pounds go to employers—I could list them all here—and providers. Special help ensures we do everything possible to incentivise SMEs to take on 16 to 18-year-olds, and they pay no training costs if they have fewer than 50 employees. Huge amounts of money are spent on trying to encourage businesses, employers and other organisations to take on apprentices with learning difficulties and disabilities. Amazingly, in the construction industry, 10% of apprentices have disabilities. I was astonished when I first saw that statistic, which is a credit to the construction industry and shows that the things we are trying to do in terms of incentives for the trainer, provider and employer are having an effect. Given the funding pressures that the country faces, the money that is going into apprenticeships is a significant amount and it is something I strongly support.
The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw said the Select Committee went to Gateshead College, which is an incredible and outstanding place. I went there a few weeks ago as part of the industrial strategy launch. The college embeds careers advice in every single part of the course. It does huge amounts of work for LDD apprentices and huge amounts of work to encourage people into apprenticeships. It is an outstanding college that does a lot of work on mental health. I am glad the Select Committee visited, and our job is to find out how to replicate what the college does across the country.
My right hon. Friend is right to outline the great successes of the expansion of apprenticeships across the country. I am sure he recognises the challenge of helping people from poorer and less privileged backgrounds into apprenticeships. Can he outline what steps the Government are taking to improve that situation?
I promise to answer my hon. Friend’s question, but I hope he does not mind if I answer it later because I want to deal with the points made by the hon. Member for Luton North, who initiated the debate. My hon. Friend raises an important issue. One of my key motivations in my job is to make sure that people from disadvantaged backgrounds can have the same equality of opportunity as everybody else, but I will come on to that in a minute.
On the question of careers, I met careers advisers and the students who talked to them. I think the Minister should address pre-college and what happens in schools to encourage children and schools to look at alternative academic progression.
The hon. Lady spoke thoughtfully in a previous debate on apprenticeships in this Chamber. She is completely right. I ask every single apprentice I meet—I have met a few thousand since being in post—“Did you get any apprenticeship or skills advice in your school?” and nine times out of 10 they did not. If they say yes it is usually because they have been to a university technical college or a place that specialises in technical work. That is depressing. I have mentioned before the story that Gateshead College told me about its own degree apprentice students and how the college was not allowed to talk to them about apprenticeships in their schools. It was the same with Heathrow airport and other apprentices I have met. That is shocking. We are reviewing our careers strategy and hope to publish a serious careers strategy in the coming months. We want it to be more focused on schools, and we are looking at the best way to incentivise schools to teach students about apprenticeships and skills, as not enough are doing that.
Women apprentices have been mentioned: 53% of apprentices are female. A survey showed that female apprentices earn more than men, so I do not accept the wage disparity point. However, very few do STEM subjects. If I go to a college that teaches healthcare, the room will be filled with mostly females and there might be one or two men, which of course is fantastic. If the subject is engineering or electrical, it is all men, and that has got to change.
There are enlightened employers. Among the Jaguar apprentices at Warwickshire College, 20% are women. There are lots of other examples of good employers and we need to encourage them, but a lot of that comes from careers advice in schools. I was told by one student yesterday that when they were given careers advice they were shown pictures. All the pictures of engineering jobs showed men and the nursing picture had a woman. That is why we face a problem. It is a cultural problem in our country, and schools need to do a huge amount more to promote apprenticeships. We are doing an enormous amount of work on that. We strongly welcome the Baker amendment, which the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden) highlighted, because that will make it law that schools have to accept careers advice from further education and apprenticeship providers.
The hon. Gentleman said we were not doing enough on quality. Again, I take issue with that, although we have had a problem in the past. There were too many qualifications and an apprenticeship could mean anything. I remember speaking to people at a hotel. I said, “Have you got apprentices?” and they said, “Yes, we have got apprentices. In fact, we have a few in the kitchen who are here for a few weeks.” They were perfectly lovely people who genuinely believed they had apprentices. We have changed the situation and changed the legislation on apprenticeships. An apprenticeship has to be for a minimum of a year. Apprentices I met yesterday were doing two, three and four-year apprenticeships. They have to spend 20% of their time in training.
We have moved from frameworks to standards—we have had many discussions about that—because of the spaghetti junction of frameworks and qualifications. We have moved to standards that are primarily employer-led. From the beginning of April, subject to progress on the Bill in the Lords, the new Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education will design the new standards and training for apprentices so that employers will be given what they need, which has not necessarily happened in the past. Degree apprenticeships are not only about prestige, but quality. The Premier Inn apprentice I met yesterday is 23 years old. Having done levels 2 and 3 with the company, they were going on to do a level 4 and level 5 degree apprenticeship. That will transform the quality and prestige because it shows that apprenticeships are really serious and go up to different levels. They will offer students—again, as the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out—an amazing chance to get a degree and earn while they learn. They will have no student debt and will be virtually guaranteed a job at the end of it. That is the future. That is what we need to encourage our young people to do.
When I visited Tyneside, I spoke to Accenture, which has degree apprentices, some of whom do not even have their GCSEs yet, doing coding. I said to Accenture, “How do you choose the people?” and it said, “It is attitude, attitude, attitude.” It offers people from disadvantaged backgrounds a chance to get a serious degree apprenticeship.
The hon. Member for Luton North rightly talked about the skills deficit. I have acknowledged countless times that we are way behind other OECD countries. Our skills deficit is a long-standing problem, and we highlighted it in the industrial strategy we announced a few weeks ago. That is why we put money into STEM apprenticeships and increased the frameworks by between 40% and 80%. We pledged £170 million to create the new institute of technology colleges and £80 million to set up national colleges focusing on nuclear, digital and the creative industries to try to change the skills base. We created an employer-led qualification to ensure that apprentice standards provide the skills that employers need. Through the Sainsbury reforms, which will be rolled out from 2019, every student aged 16 will be able either to continue with a traditional academic education, or to go down a state-of-the-art, prestigious technical and professional educational route. We are doing everything we can to address the skills deficit that the hon. Gentleman rightly highlights.
I agree absolutely with what the Minister says about the importance of raising skills in STEM subjects in particular, but is it not the case that the failures are lower down in the school system, rather than at the further education or apprenticeship level? Is he saying to his colleagues in education that we have to do as much as possible to ensure that when youngsters reach the age of 16, their mathematics skills in particular are sufficiently good to make them useful apprentices and eventually good employees?
The hon. Gentleman is right, and he has highlighted that issue previously. My right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards is resolute on high standards. They are his passion. I work with him and I know he is doing everything possible to ensure that students have the right qualifications in maths and English by the time they leave school. We are looking at things such as improving functional skills post-16. As I say, we are putting our money where our mouth is. We are investing in the new institute of technology and the national colleges. The Sainsbury reforms are being rolled out, and we are investing in STEM apprenticeships. We are trying to undo a 20 or 30-year skills deficit caused by Governments of all persuasions and employers not investing in training and producing the skills that our country needs.
It is important to highlight a few points about wages. The apprentice wage is £3.40 and will go up to £3.50 in April, but 82% of apprentices are paid more than the national minimum wage or the national living wage, according to data from 2016: apprentices earn £6.31 per hour on average. Wherever I go, I ask every apprentice I meet how much they get paid—I do not just look at the surveys—and most of them tell me that they get way above the apprentice minimum wage.
I want to make a wider point about the wage issue. It is important to note that apprentices are earning while they are learning. I want to do everything I can to help disadvantaged apprentices—I am going to come on to that point in a minute—but if those apprentices were in higher education or studying at further education colleges, they would not be earning while they are learning. Apprentices are earning while they are learning, and 82% of them get more than the national minimum wage or the national living wage. When we consider the benefits and that kind of thing, we need to reflect carefully on the fact that apprentices are earning money. Many of my constituents who are not apprentices—no doubt this is also true of other hon. Members’ constituents—earn the national minimum wage, but apprentices get training and education in the knowledge that 90% of them will get jobs at the end. That does not mean that there is not a problem. Some apprentices come from very low-income backgrounds—I think 25% of them come from the poorest fifth of areas in the country. It is important to put that fact on the record. I will come on to child benefit in a minute.
The Minister is making a fair point about apprentices earning a wage, but families—particularly those on modest incomes—are acutely aware of the tipping point where the benefits that those people might get if they were in education outweigh the wage they might get if they were in an apprenticeship. When incomes are tight, such marginal differences make a difference to the choices families make.
I am acutely aware—I see the pressures on my constituents—of the pressures that families face, and I do not want to create disincentives for families who are working but struggling. Often, one member of the family works in the day, one works at night and the son or daughter does an apprenticeship, yet the family are struggling to keep their heads above water. I accept that. We announced that we will be doing a serious, committed review—this relates to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) asked—of how to get more apprentices from disadvantaged backgrounds. We have a £60 million fund to incentivise providers to take apprentices from the most deprived backgrounds, and FE colleges can use some of their bursary money to help apprentices with travel and overcome some of the other obstacles that have been raised.
I hope my hon. Friend the Minister recognises that that is inadequate for many students living in very rural areas. Some colleges cover vast geographical areas and some students have to do 100-mile round trips daily to attend college. They also have to pay for transport or car and petrol money to get to the workplace where they are doing their apprenticeship, which is a real disincentive in some rural areas. Will my hon. Friend the Minister look at the challenges that rural apprentices face?
I accept the premise of my hon. Friend’s question. I have been to rural areas to meet apprentices, and the younger ones in particular say that the cost of transport is a problem. We are looking at that as part of the social mobility review for apprentices. Again, if those apprentices were just going to an FE college they would not be earning any money, and if they were at university they would have to have a loan. At least they are earning, and the vast majority of them are earning more than the apprentice minimum wage. We have to strike a fair balance between the needs of the people my hon. Friend describes, which are very real, and fairness to taxpayers on low incomes, in terms of the overall costs and benefits. It is open to colleges to give apprentices bursary funding to help them with bus travel, and many do so.
On the review—this is the first I have heard of it, but I welcome it—I urge the Minister, in connection with the points I made earlier, to look not only within the Department but at some of the broader issues, such as the 16-hour rule and the relationship with the Department for Work and Pensions.
We announced the review in November last year, with that final announcement on the levy. I am working closely with my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment at the DWP. I cannot say that we will come up with a magic solution, or that there is a magic funding pot, but there are other issues, such as those to do with benefits and so on—for example, if a single parent were working in a coffee shop but wanted to do a teaching assistant apprenticeship and the wage was literally the minimum of £3.40. We are looking at all those, although I hope that when universal credit comes through fully it will deal with some of the problems. As I say, we are committed to that. We also have a £60 million fund.
In addition, the National Union of Students has its Apprentice extra card. I helped to launch it and worked with the scheme in the previous Parliament when I was a Back Bencher. My predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), attended the launch. Apprentices, as young people under 25, are also entitled to some rail discounts and so on.
The hon. Member for Blackpool South talked about traineeships, to which I am very committed. We have spent more than £50 million on them. There were more than 24,000 traineeship starts between August 2015 and July 2016. Fifty per cent. of trainees progress into apprenticeships and 94% of employers consider traineeships an effective way of increasing young people’s chances. Traineeships are part of the £5.4 billion 16-to-19 budget funded by the Skills Funding Agency. It is also important to note that almost 20% of those who do traineeships have learning difficulties or disabilities. I think that is a wonderful figure. We would like to increase it further, but it is pretty high already.
We also still have the target to increase black and minority ethnic take-up of apprenticeships by 20%, and we have said that publicly. We are doing everything possible to increase apprenticeships in the public sector, with a new 2.3% target. I have been asked about apprentices with disabilities and we are working hard to implement the recommendations of the Maynard taskforce, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard). We agreed with everything it suggested and our aim is to have full implementation by April 2018.
I thank the hon. Member for Blackpool South for mentioning council tax. I will discuss those matters with my counterparts in the Department for Communities and Local Government, especially if, as he says, apprentices are not getting rebates to which they are entitled. I will look into what we can do about that.
Before I conclude, I apologise, Ms Ryan. I should have said at the beginning of my speech that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
Yes, we have a lot of work to do. The hon. Member for Luton North has highlighted how we need to continue to work on quality, to ensure that those 3 million apprentices have quality apprenticeships. He is right to highlight that we need to do everything possible to help the socially disadvantaged. I am not saying that we have all the answers, but the statistics show—the numbers show, not just me—that we are helping. The individual stories show that we are helping in human as well as numbers terms. Whenever I go around the country, I speak to as many people as possible. Almost every Thursday I go around colleges and meet apprentices. This week, had it not been for this important debate, I would probably have been in a college early this morning, before the Budget. We are investing in the skills and the quality, and we are creating and doing everything possible to create a ladder of opportunity to ensure that apprentices from all backgrounds may climb it to the jobs, security and prosperity they need.
It has been a great pleasure to lead in this debate. I thank all those who have spoken: the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows); the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) who made some useful interventions; and of course my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden), the shadow Minister, who made a very useful and thorough speech.
I also thank the Minister for his response. We spent some years enjoying each other’s company—I hope—on a Select Committee, and I applaud his genuine enthusiasm for his job and for apprenticeships. I hope that some of the issues that have been raised today can be advanced by him within his Department. There are still problems of finance, expressed by a number of institutions, but we have touched on them, drawing them to the Minister’s attention, and I hope for progress in future. It is very important for our future that we train our young people in the appropriate skills. We live in a highly competitive world and we have to have a properly skilled and educated workforce. I like to think that the Minister will make a contribution to the success of that in future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered financial support for apprentices.
Pandemrix Vaccine: Compensation
Before the next debate begins, I am pleased to say that, on International Women’s Day, we have a woman Member opening her first Westminster Hall debate and a woman Minister to respond, and of course I am in the Chair. On this day, I thought that was worth remarking on. I call Tracy Brabin to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered compensation and the Pandemrix vaccine.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan, on the occasion of my first Westminster Hall debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) for his extensive work on this issue on behalf of his constituent Lucas Carleton. I also thank Mr Speaker for allowing this debate to take place. It is vital that Parliament considers this matter and public awareness is raised.
I will set out the effect that Pandemrix has had on several predominantly child patients and their families and discuss the need for the Government to acknowledge and express regret for what has happened to those patients and provide them with support. I will explain the challenges of accessing the necessary medication for affected people, and I will conclude by making recommendations to the Government.
Before I set out the issue at hand, I wish to be clear that, overwhelmingly, vaccines save lives. Thanks to vaccines, we have seen the eradication and near-eradication of diseases such as smallpox and polio, and I have no intention of discouraging parents from ensuring that their children receive tried and tested vaccinations. Quite the opposite—I want the Government to rebuild and maintain trust in our world-class inoculation programme. However, on occasion, certain vaccines have been shown to have damaged patients, sometimes with life-altering consequences. All precautions should be taken to prevent that from happening, and pharmaceutical companies and the Governments that give those companies indemnity should take immediate and full responsibility when that is shown to have happened and, having accepted responsibility, do all they can to support affected people.
I worked to secure this debate because I believe that Parliament and the Government must listen to and support individuals and families who have been affected by narcolepsy and cataplexy as a result of the Pandemrix vaccine. I became aware of this issue when my constituent Di Forbes came to one of my regular advice surgeries. Di has travelled to Parliament to watch these proceedings, and I hope that she will be able to travel home to Batley and Spen having received some assurances from the Government. Di explained to me the damage that the Pandemrix vaccine has caused her son Sam and the unacceptable battle that she has faced while seeking financial support to secure his long-term care and the appropriate medication for his condition.
By way of background, the Pandemrix vaccine was developed by GlaxoSmithKline and given to 6 million people during the global H1N1—swine flu—pandemic in 2009 and 2010. Owing to the nature of that pandemic, the European Commission, on the advice of the European Medicines Agency, fast-tracked the vaccine’s licensing. The UK Government then undertook a vaccination programme, based on advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. In short, Pandemrix was licensed for use in the EU, including the UK, without the usual clinical trials having been completed.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. My constituent Ben Foy suffers from narcolepsy and cataplexy caused by the Pandemrix vaccine. I raised his case in the House in 2014, 2015 and 2016, and I now do so in 2017. The Department for Work and Pensions accepts the causal link between my constituent’s illness and the Pandemrix vaccine that he received, on NHS advice, in 2010. Does she agree that the Government have a moral obligation to quickly resolve the issue of payments to those who have been so badly affected by Pandemrix, not drag the process out with unsuccessful appeal after unsuccessful appeal, which is what seems to be happening at the moment?
I will come on to that point, but I totally and utterly agree. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Government’s foot-dragging is causing unacceptable and upsetting suffering and distress for the families involved.
Although I acknowledge the difficult balancing act involved in weighing the risk of a pandemic against the risk of fast-tracking a vaccine’s licensing, that does not excuse the fact that some patients were not made aware of the facts, nor does it excuse the Government from subsequently attempting to avoid responsibility for the damage caused. Making the vaccine available at the time of the pandemic clearly came with a degree of risk. GSK was given an indemnity from any liability by the UK Government. My constituent has made it clear to me that she was not informed that the vaccine had not been fully tested or that GSK had obtained an indemnity. Therefore, as the result of advice given to his mother by the NHS, my young constituent Sam received the vaccine on 27 April 2010. He was four and a half years old.
Four months later, concerns were raised in Finland and Sweden about the association between the vaccine and narcolepsy. Following that, a study by the UK Health Protection Agency and others, which was funded by the Department of Health and the HPA, found that around one in every 52,000 to 52,750 Pandemrix jabs led to narcolepsy. The results of that study were published in The BMJ in 2013 and were consistent with the findings of the aforementioned Finnish and Swedish studies. Pandemrix stopped being given to children in the UK in 2011, but that was too late for Sam and dozens of children like him.
Sam has been affected by 14 severe or chronic neurological issues, including narcolepsy and cataplexy. He suffers from night terrors in which he can see and smell dead people. He suffers from a damaged heat regulation system, automatic behaviour, micro-sleeps, temper issues, joint and muscle pain, anxiety and depression. Sam is now 11 years old and has faced unimaginable strain. In addition to being prohibited from enjoying a normal childhood, he lives in a world in which most people know little about his condition and misunderstand his symptoms. Shockingly, on one occasion while Sam was passed out in the street as a result of his condition, a dog walker allowed her dog to urinate on him. No 11-year-old should be expected to face the indignity and pressures that children such as Sam live with as a result of the Pandemrix vaccine.
Tragically, Sam has tried to commit suicide several times. We know from a coroner’s report that one 23-year-old woman took her own life after telling her family that living with narcolepsy after receiving Pandemrix had become unbearable. This is all too desperately sad.
The link between Pandemrix and narcolepsy has had a profound effect on families. My young constituent’s parents have found themselves under immense pressure, and in October 2016 his mum Di had no choice but to call a liquidator into her engineering business. It was impossible for her to work and ensure that her son’s complex care needs were met. Life is unacceptably hard for Di and Sam. They are very grateful to Narcolepsy UK, which receives no assistance from the Government but has been a source of huge support for them.
The Vaccine Damage Payments Act 1979 was intended to help to ease the burden on individuals for whom a specified vaccine had caused severe and permanent disability.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing forward this important case. The Court of Appeal has ruled very clearly on this matter and issued a telling judgment that opens the door to people who have suffered as a result of this so-called vaccine. I believe that its decision enables those people to get the compensation that they need, both physically and morally. Does she feel that the Government must now follow suit and give the go-ahead for compensation to be released?
The hon. Gentleman is right. There have been some one-off payments, but they need to be made across the board. The 1979 Act provides for affected patients to receive one-off tax-free payments of £120,000, which would go some way to securing their long-term care needs.
Prior to September 2013, the Government said there was insufficient evidence to establish a causal link between the Pandemrix vaccination and the development of narcolepsy. However, following the aforementioned study commissioned by the Department of Health that recognised the link between Pandemrix and narcolepsy, the Government have conceded and recognised the link.
In spite of the Government’s acceptance of the link between Pandemrix and narcolepsy, they have delayed the processing of applications by denying them, disputing the severity of the disability. They have even appealed a case in which they were ordered to make a payment to one such affected child. In my view, for the Government to make such appeals through the courts system is a poor use of public money and an insult to those families whose lives have already been turned upside down. I hope that the Minister will disclose how much public money has been spent in the courts to delay making payments to those affected by Pandemrix.
Sam’s parents made an application for a vaccine damage payment, which was unsuccessful on the basis that he is not severely disabled enough. For those vaccinated after 31 August 2010, the reason given for refusal is that the vaccine does not fall within the remit of the Act. All appeals against the decision to decline payments are being held up while the Government battle the family of the aforementioned child through the courts. Most recently, the decision for the child to be awarded the payment was upheld at the Court of Appeal. I sincerely hope that the Government will accept that outcome and take the case no further.
To give some context to the UK Government’s position, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland and France have already compensated those who developed narcolepsy as a result of the Pandemrix vaccine. Sam is in receipt of disability living allowance, meaning that the Government recognise he is disabled. Why, therefore, do they not consider him to be disabled enough to qualify for a payment under the Vaccine Damage Payments Act? I say to Ministers: spend one day shadowing Sam or another constituent who is living with narcolepsy caused by Pandemrix, and I assure them that they will consider the disability severe enough for a long overdue payment from Government.
In addition to financial support through the Vaccine Damage Payments Act, children affected by Pandemrix require assurances over the long-term development and supply of the drugs that will alleviate their symptoms. Currently, my young constituent receives the drug Xyrem, which is expensive and not licensed for use in children. Sam receives it through a scheme funded directly by the UK Government and GSK, which has been a godsend to him and his family. However, there is a postcode lottery when it comes to access to Xyrem. Many trusts refuse to prescribe the drug, and until recently Sam’s prescription had to be collected from Sheffield Children’s hospital—a 60-mile round trip.
I am advised that the scheme that Sam and others like him currently benefit from is due to end in a year’s time. Sam’s mum advises me that he could not function without it, and as such I ask that the Government either commit to continuing the scheme in the long term or ideally provide an alternative that is secure and accessible to all. I also encourage them to consider opportunities to support research into medicines to alleviate the symptoms suffered by those affected. Clinical understanding of the condition is limited and there is definitely room for improvement.
I have a handful points on which I would be grateful for a response from the Minister. First, by virtue of GlaxoSmithKline requiring an indemnity, there was recognition that the vaccine carried a risk. Reliable studies now link the vaccine to narcolepsy. I would therefore welcome recognition from the Government of what has happened to those affected by Pandemrix and an apology to those families affected both by the incident and by subsequent refusals to provide support. It may be useful if the Government publish the terms of the indemnity provided to GSK so that the public are aware of the acknowledgement of the risk carried by the vaccine.
Moreover, in response to my recent written parliamentary question 64695, the Minister said she has no plans to amend the Vaccine Damage Payments Act. I ask her to think again, particularly when considering support for those affected who received the vaccine after August 2011, because it is clear that when the law fails to work for children like my young constituent, it is time for the law to change.
We know that the Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian, Icelandic and French Governments have already made payments to those affected. The Government should therefore support those who have been affected, and they should be concerned about and apologise for the delay in making payments and its effects. They should also put an end to legal action to prevent payments to those who have been damaged by Pandemrix and they should end the delay in processing claims and appeals. They should also recognise that such delays can and will undermine public confidence in vaccinations, which is something that all those with concern for public health will wish to avoid.
I end with some words from Di, describing how Pandemrix has changed her life. Di said to me:
“Life after the vaccine is totally changed. Our son needs 24/7 care, including getting up several times during the night. He is in almost continuous, intolerable pain, had severe headaches every day. He’s not able to go anywhere without careful planning, needs schedule naps, has several specialist meetings every month, so misses school. Sam is scared for his future and we are frightened for his safety.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan, on International Women’s Day. I congratulate the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) on securing this, her first Westminster Hall debate, on an important and sensitive topic. She gave a moving account of her constituent Di and her son Sam’s battles with narcolepsy and cataplexy, as did my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on behalf of his constituent, Ben Foy. The hon. Lady clearly articulated what she would like to see happen as a result of the debate. I am grateful to her for her opening statement in support of the life-saving effects of vaccinations and her recognition of our world-class immunisation programme. It is important that we remember that as we discuss some of the issues at hand today.
As the hon. Lady has focused the debate on the specific vaccine Pandemrix, it is right that I start by explaining why it came to be used in the UK, although she did outline some of that. Pandemrix was developed for use in a flu pandemic. Flu pandemics pose a challenge for any Government, and they occur when a flu virus emerges and spreads around the world and most people do not have immunity.
Each pandemic is different. The nature of the virus, the population groups most likely to be affected and its impact cannot be known in advance. It is impossible to predict the severity of a new virus strain. Large swathes of the population can become infected over a relatively short period of time if transmission spreads rapidly. The potential impact of pandemic flu makes effective measures to limit the spread and morbidity of virus infection a public health priority. Countermeasures are employed in combination, including vaccination when possible.
As the hon. Lady knows, the most recent flu pandemic was H1N1 swine flu in 2009-10. All Governments have a responsibility to protect public health in such a situation. The decision to commence the swine flu vaccination programme, made by previous Ministers in 2009, was based, as she said, on the expert advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. Pandemrix was one of two vaccines used in the UK in that pandemic. Thankfully, the H1N1 strain of swine flu turned out to be relatively mild, but we should not forget that it still caused more than 450 deaths in the UK.
The hon. Lady clearly described the consequences and impact that narcolepsy and cataplexy have on Sam’s life. I assure her that I do not underestimate how distressing narcolepsy and cataplexy can be. As someone who lives with a complex chronic illness that causes me to collapse in the street at times, I know how vulnerable that can make both those who live with the condition and their families feel. It is important that anyone who lives with narcolepsy receives the appropriate care and attention to manage their condition.
The hon. Lady set out her understanding that Pandemrix has caused narcolepsy for some individuals, including her constituent, Sam, as did my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer in the case of his constituent, Ben Foy. Causation is currently one of the issues in dispute in the ongoing legal proceedings in which the Department of Health is involved, alongside the claimants and the vaccine manufacturer. Those legal proceedings are much wider than the issue of causation and cover many other areas. Until those proceedings are resolved one way or the other, it is not appropriate for me to comment on that in detail; it is a process that should be allowed to continue without interference from a politician. However, I assure the hon. Lady that I am deeply concerned about this and will keep a close eye on it as Minister.
The hon. Lady wants to ensure that Sam and people like him are adequately compensated for the development of narcolepsy following Pandemrix vaccination, and has set out the changes she would like to see to the vaccine damage payments scheme to address that. It is important to be clear that the VDPS was not designed to be a compensation scheme; there is no assessment of what losses were actually suffered. Someone who wishes to seek compensation needs to pursue a claim against the vaccine’s manufacturer. There are ongoing personal injury claims in this case, and it is important that those proceed without interference as well.
The VDPS was established in 1979 to help ease the burdens of individuals for whom, on very rare occasions, vaccination has caused severe disablement. The extent of that disablement is assessed on the same basis as for the industrial injuries disablement benefit scheme. The VDPS provides a one-off, tax-free lump sum payment of £120,000 for those who are severely disabled as a result of a vaccination against the diseases listed in the 1979 Act and diseases that have been specified since 1979 by various statutory instruments. Those vaccinations are within the childhood vaccination schemes.
The hon. Lady noted that Sam’s mother applied to the VDPS but her claim was rejected. The hon. Lady claims that was because Sam was not severely disabled enough, but my understanding is that, although the DWP agrees that Pandemrix can cause narcolepsy in theory, it did not do so in this particular case; the DWP did not accept causation in this particular case, rather than its not accepting that Sam was severely disabled enough. I have a different understanding from the hon. Lady, so perhaps she would like to write to the DWP for clarification.
I should also clarify that the Department of Health is responsible for policy and legislation for the VDPS, but the DWP is responsible for assessing claims, making payments against successful claims and handling appeals. To qualify for a VDPS payment, a claimant has to meet two legal tests. The first is to establish, on a balance of probabilities, that the disablement was caused by vaccination against a disease covered by the VDPS, and the second is that the resulting disablement is severe—60% or more—assessed on the same basis as for the industrial injuries disablement benefit scheme.
Decisions take into account advice from medical advisers who are fully registered doctors with a licence to practise and who have also undertaken special training in disability assessment. They review each claimant’s medical records and advise the DWP’s decision maker on causation and disablement. It is therefore important that the hon. Lady clarifies what happened in her constituent’s case, as it is for my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer in the case of his constituent.
Each claim is decided upon its own evidence. If a claimant disagrees with the outcome, they have the right to request a reversal of the Secretary of State’s decision. There is then an opportunity to provide further information to support that request, and the case will be reconsidered. They can also challenge the decision to reject the claim through a first-tier tribunal.
The hon. Lady also raised more general questions about how the VDPS operates and has suggested changes that she thinks are needed. I will address as many of those questions as I can in turn; if I do not get to some of them, I will write to her. She suggested that anyone who has had a Pandemrix vaccination should be eligible for a VDPS payment if they have developed narcolepsy following a vaccination. The Vaccine Damage Payments Act is based on diseases, not specific vaccines, so it is not possible to include Pandemrix in that legislation. However, the list of specified diseases covered by the Act already includes pandemic influenza A—swine flu—for which vaccination was administered from 10 October 2009 to 31 August 2010. That was a temporary addition considered appropriate by the Ministers at the time. Pandemrix-related claims are therefore already eligible under the VDPS, so long as other eligibility criteria are also met. I am aware that some individuals received a Pandemrix vaccination outside the timescale covered by the Act, and that that was the subject of a debate in the House; perhaps the hon. Lady would like to look at that, and if she has any further questions for me, I will be very happy to answer them for her and her constituent.
The hon. Lady also made the case that the level of the VDPS payment is not adequate to meet the needs of someone with narcolepsy. As I mentioned earlier, that is because the VDPS is not a compensation scheme and the sum paid is not based on an assessment of losses; it is a one-off, tax-free lump sum payment to help ease the burden. It must be seen in the context of wider help and support for the severely disabled within our benefits system, but payments through the scheme cannot meet all of their needs. There are no plans at the moment to increase the value of the payment, but as I mentioned earlier, it is open to individuals to pursue personal injury claims for compensation, in addition to applying to the VDPS.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised the recent Court of Appeal judgment on how disablement is assessed. I can confirm that the Government will not appeal that decision. DWP medical advisers will now consider future prognosis in addition to the current level of disablement when assessing claims. Previous cases in which causation has been accepted will be reconsidered in accordance with the Court of Appeal judgment where claimants consent to a further investigation of their medical history.
Will the change at the DWP following the Court of Appeal’s decision start immediately?
It will start as soon as it can be implemented.
I will also follow up on the point that the hon. Member for Batley and Spen made about Xyrem. The scheme for its supply is due to continue until the personal injury claims are settled, at which point it will be reviewed. I hope that reassures her. I will be happy to look into the issue that she raised about a postcode lottery to try to understand how that situation can be eased.
We do not have a huge amount of time left, so I will bring my remarks to a close. I assure the hon. Lady that I have every sympathy for Sam and others affected by narcolepsy; I have a small amount of understanding about quite how distressing that can be. The hon. Lady should not consider the VDPS in isolation as a means of supporting Sam and others like him. It is part of a much wider package of care and support that is available to people with disabilities, including the NHS, social care and the benefits system. It is important not to leave the debate with the impression that vaccines are dangerous. Vaccine safety is of paramount importance, and with modern technology and stringent manufacturing and control processes, vaccines are the safest they have ever been. I hope that, by the end of the debate, hon. Members will know that the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency and the Government’s independent expert advisory Commission on Human Medicines keep the safety of all vaccines under review. Serious side effects are, thankfully, very rare.
While it is important to have a scheme such as the VDPS in place—I am grateful to have had the opportunity to hear the views on it of the hon. Lady and of my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer, who is no longer in his place—it is also important to acknowledge that we have a world-class immunisation programme that is the envy of many other countries that are not able to prevent the diseases we do in the UK. Immunisation is a vital way of protecting individuals and the community as a whole from serious diseases. Uptake for UK immunisation programmes is more than 90% of the target population for most childhood vaccinations. Vaccinations save lives, and I strongly encourage families to take them up when offered. I assure the hon. Lady that I have listened to everything she has said and will consider it going forward as the Pandemrix case continues.
Question put and agreed to.
[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: Fourth Report of the Environmental Audit Committee, Environmental impact of microplastics, HC 179, and the Government Response, HC 802.]
I understand that an important photograph is being taken at 2.30 pm, which means that a number of lady Members will arrive late to the debate. The Chairman of Ways and Means made it quite clear at our last Panel of Chairs meeting that etiquette requires Members to be present at the start of the debate if they want to participate, including through interventions, and they cannot just intervene and then clear off. However, having discussed this matter with the wise Clerk, in these special circumstances I shall show some flexibility.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the proposed ban on microbeads.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. Those Members may decide, because of etiquette, that they will not come to the debate at all, but thank you for your kind words, which are much appreciated.
This morning, hon. Friends and Members will have used a plethora of cosmetics and personal care products in our ablutions, including shower gels, shampoos, face washes, toothpastes and so on. Perhaps unwittingly, we will have washed millions of teeny-weeny plastic microbeads, which are a key ingredient in many of those products, down the drain, and they will eventually find their way through our water systems into the rivers and seas. “How can that be?” I hear you ask, Sir David. The truth is that we have become a plastic society, and unbeknown to us, plastics infiltrate our lives through an enormous range of products that we use every day. It is increasingly coming to light that many of these plastics are in fact causing damage to our environment, in particular our marine environment, which is now heavily polluted with plastics as a direct result of the actions of mankind.
Plastics have become an inextricable part of our lives, with ever increasing quantities being used. In the UK alone, we increased our production of plastics by 38% between 2004 and 2014. No one denies that plastics are extremely useful, but with their increased use has come, sadly, increased pollution of our seas.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. Plastics are ubiquitous, but does she agree that there are alternatives to their use? We have to get manufacturers using alternatives to microbeads, such as sugar and nut derivatives, to ensure that our precious oceans are not polluted at all.
My hon. Friend makes a really good point, which I will address later. He is absolutely right; there are alternatives, and many manufacturers are looking to convert to them. Ground coconut husk and apricot kernels are other examples of things that could replace microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products.
There is lots of visible plastic pollution and rubbish. Plastic bags, bottles and fishing detritus such as discarded ropes and lines are all polluting our oceans and seas, but it is the less obvious tiny particles—microbeads of less than 5 mm—that present a real danger to shellfish and fish, which often ingest them mistaking them for food. It is estimated that a total of 15 trillion to 51 trillion microplastic particles have accumulated in the oceans. This debate is about plastic microbeads, and in particular their use in cosmetic and personal care products.
Recent studies suggest that these minuscule dots of plastic, when washed into the ocean, could represent a threat to humans as a result of eating fish. One study revealed that in 2009, microplastics were found in 36.5% of fish caught by trawlers in the English channel. Sir David, I do not know if you are a fancier of oysters, but for every six oysters consumed, one might consume 50 microbeads.
Microbeads are tiny balls of polyethylene and other plastics derived from petrochemicals, including polypropylene and polystyrene. They are used in a wide range of cosmetic products, including exfoliators, shower gels, whitening toothpaste and face washes, as well as in many abrasive cleaning products. Interestingly, though we are not talking about this today, fleeces also contain plastic microfibers, and when one puts on one’s car brakes, the tyres fray, which is another way that microfibres find their way into the watercourses.
How do microbeads get into the sea? If they could be removed once they had been washed down the drain, there would not be a problem, but in evidence on the environmental impact of microbeads taken by the Environmental Audit Committee, on which I was delighted to sit, it became apparent that removing them is a very tricky process and few water companies have the sophisticated filtration systems needed to do it. As a result, many of these products, complete with their microplastics, are flushed down the drain during our daily ablutions and end up in the watercourses and ultimately the sea.
Scientists have demonstrated that fish exposed to microplastics during their development can show stunted growth and increased mortality rates, as well as changed behaviour that could endanger their survival—especially reduced hatching rates. An article was published in Science relating to that. Estimating the toxicity of microplastics is complex and the full dangers to human health are not fully quantified yet, but studies have revealed that these plastics are entering the food chain, although the full impact is hard to measure. Microplastics can release and adsorb toxic chemicals and may act as a vector for them, transferring contaminants to organisms that ingest microplastics. I am heartened that Government sources have stated that the chief scientific adviser will review the effects on human health in future.
One fifth of microbeads are used in the cosmetics and personal care industry, and some 680 tonnes of plastic microbeads are used in cosmetic products in the UK every year. This is an important industry, worth £10 billion in the UK in 2016, and we have the second largest cosmetics market in Europe. It makes a significant contribution to our economy, not to mention the fact that it keeps us clean and beautiful, and I am the first to say that I enjoy using make-up and all these products. It is very important that we do not damage the industry, but surely the industry does not want to have on its conscience any associated link with damage the environment. With the right science behind it, the industry could turn to alternatives, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) said. Indeed, many companies are doing that.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. Manufacturers get a little worried when there is the possibility of a ban. Does she agree that there is therefore a greater incentive for them to get on with researching and implementing substitutes and replacements quickly, before we implement a ban?
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. The Government have made it quite clear that something is coming in terms of a ban. Many companies are planning ahead, and those that are not certainly ought to be.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on being not the litter hero in this regard but the microbeads heroine and on flying the flag for getting rid of microbeads. Does she agree that it is important we make transitional arrangements on both microbeads and single-use plastic bottles—which I am thrilled to see we are not using in this Chamber—so that companies are able to plan carefully for more environmentally friendly ways of working?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. She is a great campaigner for the clearing of litter, including plastic bottles. I agree that we do not want to damage a valuable industry that employs many people. The timescale for introducing any ban will be very important. I will touch on that later.
With the right science behind it, the industry can turn to alternatives. The Environmental Audit Committee concluded that a microbead ban, as well as benefiting the environment,
“would have advantages for consumers and the industry in terms of consistency of approach, universality and confidence.”
It would also create a level playing field within the industry.
Microplastics from the cosmetics and personal care industry are thought to be responsible for up to 4% of total plastics found in the ocean. That might seem like a drop in the ocean, Sir David, but I assure you that it is not. Every year, 8,600 tonnes of plastic from this industry are poured into European waters alone, so it is significant. Yes, there is lots of other plastic that we should tackle, but I would postulate that this industry and the microbeads it uses provide a manageable place to begin.
There has been a wave of public good will on this issue, demonstrated by the hundreds of people who signed the Greenpeace petition and by the response to my personal campaign to highlight the problems and encourage change. Public support has also been shown through the publicity generated on the back of other campaigns by organisations such as the Marine Conservation Society, representatives of which came to the environment forum that I held in Taunton Deane. That was a cross-party event, but there was much consensus on how we should make progress. [Interruption.] A wave of women Members are coming into the Chamber following the photographs being taken, and I welcome them to the microbeads debate.
Much good work has been done. Many companies have voluntarily stopped using microbeads, or indeed never used them in the first place—companies such as Ecover, family-run Cornish company Spiezia, Liz Earle and Neal’s Yard. It was companies such as those that I was searching out in my own campaign to find microbead-free products. I believe the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who was also on the Environmental Audit Committee and still is, will agree that it is quite difficult to work out whether a product contains microbeads because, first, companies are not obliged to disclose what products contain, and secondly, one needs a magnifying glass to read and a chemistry textbook to understand the complicated terminology. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider introducing clearer labelling on products, so that in the run-up to any ban it will be easier for consumers to opt for microbead-free products. We have had much discussion about this in the Tea Room, with people getting out their products to try to analyse whether they contain microbeads, and it is quite testing. There is still a long way to go, and a ban might speed up the process and create a level playing field for all manufacturers, as there are currently discrepancies between what different manufacturers class as the relevant microbeads for banning.
Let me deal quickly with other countries. The United States of America and Canada have already legislated to prohibit the production or use of microplastics, although they have come in for some criticism. The US Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 was limited to microbeads with exfoliating functions in rinse-off products, meaning that many microplastics were excluded from the legislation. That indicates how much consideration is needed when deciding how and what to ban.
Alternatives have been mentioned. There are both natural and synthetic alternatives, although care must be taken in determining how safe some of them are. Examples are apricot kernels and ground coconut shell. What if millions of those particles also start to get washed into the marine environment? How safe are they? Can they be filtered out? What if too many go in?
Why not simply encourage a voluntary system for getting rid of microbeads, leaving it entirely to consumers to decide whether to use products containing microbeads and leaving manufacturers to go down this road themselves? The cosmetics industry will tell us that 70% of microbeads have already been phased out, but as I mentioned, standards vary and it is difficult to tell quite what has been phased out. Plastic carrier bags are a good example of where change en masse did not really happen until the Government intervened with the 5p charge. The voluntary approach to cutting microbeads has not had the impact that it might have had, but I am pleased to say that the Government are stepping in and the tide is turning.
I welcome the moves that are being made, because the Government are listening. They have listened to public concerns: more than one third of the British public backed a ban on microbeads. They have listened to calls from organisations such as Fauna and Flora International and the Marine Conservation Society, and from colleagues, and they have heeded the various campaigns. I was delighted when, in September 2016, the Government announced an intention to ban the manufacture and sale of cosmetics and personal care products containing microbeads and opened a consultation. I was also pleased that the consultation was broadened out to include evidence on the extent of the environmental impact of microbeads in other products. The consultation closed last week.
I do not know whether you were there, Sir David, but I was heartened that in her response to me last week in Prime Minister’s questions—when I dared to ask Mr Speaker whether he had had a shower that morning—my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister committed to introducing a ban on microplastics in this industry by 1 October. That is a commendable position and chimes well with the Government’s determination to leave the environment
“in a better state than that in which we found it”,
but there are a few points that I would like the Minister to consider in relation to the proposed ban.
The terminology used in the proposed ban is important if loopholes are to be avoided. For example, should it cover only rinse-off products or should it also cover leave-in products? This is where we start to get into the detail. Under the cosmetics directive, “rinse-off” refers to products that should be rinsed off the skin immediately after application for health and safety reasons—exfoliators, for example—but there are many other products that might stay on and be rinsed off later. What about those?
I have been in touch with the UK’s Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association, which is at pains to stress that leave-in products are a much smaller part of the problem. It is keen to limit the ban to rinse-off products. It says that if we include leave-in products, it might take three and a half years to reformulate products. That is where the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) about giving companies enough time comes in. If improving the environment is the key priority, I suggest that those products should be part of the plan, but companies should be given enough time to reformulate their products; they need workable timescales.
Many products other than cosmetics and personal care products contain microplastics that end up going down the drain, including industrial cleaning products and paints. I mentioned car tyre wear and tear. Should all plastics that do not dissolve in water be considered for the ban? Caution needs to be displayed where exemptions might be considered for so-called biodegradable plastics, because none has been conclusively demonstrated to be fully biodegradable in real-world marine conditions. In relation to effects on human health, we need clear evidence to demonstrate what the effects are of microbeads going into the sea and then humans consuming fish or shellfish that have consumed microbeads. I ask the Minister to consider a research strategy to assess and mitigate pollution. That was another Environmental Audit Committee recommendation.
We need to embrace the idea of the circular economy. Many companies are already doing very good recycling work with their plastics. We need all companies to make progress on recycling and reuse.
Finally, let me say a bit more about the wider issue of plastics pollution. As I said at the beginning, we are a plastic society. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury is very concerned about plastic bottles. We recently attended a litter breakfast—a plastic bottle breakfast, where we learned that a shocking 8 billion plastic water bottles are used and thrown away every single year, and 30% of those are used by children during sport. Many of them end up not just on our streets, but floating in the sea, and they gradually break down to form microbeads.
Is my hon. Friend aware that there is now likely to be as many plastic water bottles in the sea as there are fish?
The Minister is shaking her head. I cannot agree or disagree, but if it is true that is an unbelievable statistic. I know that there is a great big lump of plastics floating about in the ocean.
I believe by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation asserts that that may be the case by 2050, but I am not aware that it has any evidence to back that up.
I thank the Minister for that intervention and am only too pleased to hear it, to be quite honest, because that statistic is absolutely shocking.
Coming back to the here and now, there must be opportunities to tackle the wider problems with plastic. I welcome the forthcoming litter strategy; perhaps the Minister will indicate what we might expect in that and in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ 25-year plan to tackle all these issues. I know the Minister is listening and that she cares passionately about the state of our seas. Indeed, this Government have already done excellent work on our marine conservation zones.
In concluding, I return to the proposed ban on microplastics used in the cosmetics and personal care industry. I urge that we put the marine environment centre stage. Let us not sacrifice our precious seas and the creatures that depend on them, and indeed the health of future generations. We must do right by them.
Order. Before proceeding with the debate, I want to repeat that in our last Panel of Chairs meeting, it was emphasised that if Members make interventions, they must stay throughout the debate. They cannot make an intervention and then depart. Those are now the rules.
It is always a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) on securing this debate. I know that she is passionate about this subject, and that came through clearly in her opening speech. I also congratulate the Government on putting aside for once their hard-wired preference for voluntary approaches—a battle that I frequently have with them on these issues—and committing to a ban on microbeads in cosmetic and personal products. As I have said several times, if America can do it, there is absolutely no reason why we cannot; if Obama was persuaded of the need to do it, surely we ought to listen and take the same view.
I congratulate the Environmental Audit Committee on its excellent inquiry, which highlighted the loopholes and inconsistencies in voluntary action taken by the cosmetics industry. As we have heard, some companies have decided to phase out products. I had the pleasure of visiting the Lush factory in Poole a few weeks ago, and I am sure the hon. Lady would be very much welcome there. I got to make bath bombs and see all sorts of other products being made. As a company, Lush accepts that it is not 100% perfect but it has an ambition to be as environmentally friendly as possible. For example, when people buy the big gift boxes with several products in, the Wotsit-like things that are used for packaging are now made of potato starch rather than polystyrene, so the moment water is poured on them, they completely degrade. That is the sort of approach we ought to urge companies to adopt.
As I said, it is welcome that the Government are moving forward with the ban. However, like the hon. Lady, I am concerned that it may not be fully comprehensive and include all products that eventually end up in our water supply. She outlined in detail the difference between rinse-off products and products that stay on the skin a bit longer, and I urge the Minister to be as comprehensive as possible. I hope the Government also see the opportunity to take the lead on this issue internationally. We are so good on marine protected areas and are rightly respected internationally for the action we have taken around our overseas territories. I urge the Government to think of this as a pledge we could make under the United Nations’ clean seas campaign; doing so would be a real contribution and we could urge other countries to do the same.
As the hon. Member for Taunton Deane said, the issue of microbeads is a manageable place to begin. As expected, she did such justice to the topic and covered almost anything that anybody could say on it—I expected that to be the case. With your permission, Sir David, I want to talk about the much larger problem of plastic litter polluting the marine environment. This is not just about the damage larger objects do. When items such as plastic bottles enter the water, they eventually break down into ever smaller pieces and become microplastics in themselves. They cause damage in exactly the same way as microbeads do—they just do not start out as tiny items in the first place.
I had the privilege of attending the UN parliamentary assembly in New York last month. It had a special focus on sustainable development goal 14, which is about protecting the oceans. It was widely recognised by the delegates taking part in that discussion that implementing sustainable development goal 12, which is about sustainable consumption and responsible production, was critical to achieving sustainable development goal 14 on ocean health.
Plastic is a durable material that is made to last forever, but far too much of it is used once and then thrown away. Only a third of plastic packaging used in consumer products is recycled in the UK. The rest is either landfilled or incinerated or, worse still, it is never collected and ends up clogging up our sewers and polluting our marine and land ecosystems where it can remain for literally hundreds of years. Anyone involved in the protect our waves all-party parliamentary group might have seen the items that Surfers Against Sewage brought along that they had found. The divers and surfers have found items such as Golden Wonder crisp packets with “3p” on them, which have only just been retrieved from the seas, and coke cans with different designs on. That shows just how long those things will last in the marine environment.
Something as indestructible as plastic should not be disposable. Plastic bottles and other single-use plastics are commonly found in beach clean-ups. Surfers Against Sewage organise those, as does the Marine Conservation Society, and they report that plastic bottles in particular are frequently found along with items such as cotton bud sticks and bottle caps. About 8 million tonnes of plastic enter oceans every year and, as I said, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces causing real harm to marine life and ecosystems.
The hon. Lady is making a passionate point about wider plastics. Many plastic balls that are bigger than microbeads—I think they are called nurdles—are found washed up on beaches. I know that in Scotland, in particular, lots of collections have been made, and we would be horrified at the quantity of those things that are washing up on beaches.
I very much agree with the hon. Lady’s point, which is an example of what I am saying—plastics become unrecognisable, but they may have been bigger products in the first place, or used as that size of product in various ways.
Plastic entanglement or ingestion can cause choking, intestinal blockages and starvation. One recent study showed that 90% of birds have plastics in their stomachs. On cleanwater.org, Clean Water Action documented the case of a California grey whale that had washed up dead; its stomach contained a pair of pants, a golf ball, more than 20 bags, small towels, duct tape and surgical gloves. Just recently, extraordinary levels of toxic pollutants—industrial chemicals that were banned in the 1970s—were found in the remotest place on the planet: the 10 km deep Mariana trench in the Pacific ocean.
Some Members may have seen the recent documentary “A Plastic Ocean”, which I recommend to them if they have not. It does a phenomenal job of showing what is inside the sea birds and marine animals that they cut open. Sky’s programme “A Plastic Tide” showed truly shocking images of beaches from Mumbai to Scotland, where the daily tide tips up a layer of plastic from around the world. Tourists in Arrochar—have I pronounced that right? I look to my Scottish National party colleagues to tell me—asked why someone had apparently chosen to locate a landfill on a site of such natural beauty.
There is a great deal more that we can all do to reduce plastic litter as consumers taking individual action and as producers; also, critically, there can be action by the Government. Prevention is better than cure. The best way of stopping such litter reaching our rivers and sea is at source—by reducing the amount of waste that is generated in the first place. In 2014 annual global plastic production stood at 311 million tonnes. Shockingly, more than 40% of it was for single-use packing. As much as possible, we need to stop using single-use plastic, from refusing drinking straws to bringing our own bags to the shops. Plastic Ocean has a great check list.
Cities around the world, such as Delhi, have introduced a ban on disposable plastic, and I hope we will soon see an end to the travesty of manufacturers mis-labelling synthetic wet wipes as flushable. I think that will be the next campaign for me and the hon. Member for Taunton Deane. Although the wipes disappear when flushed, that gives the impression they are biodegradable and do not cause harm, but they very much do.
I want to pay particular tribute to the Bristol-based environmental organisation, City to Sea, which campaigns to reduce the amount of plastic flowing from the Avon into the Bristol channel. As well as organising clean-ups, it has encouraged local shops and bars to allow people to refill their drinking water bottles so that they do not have to buy plastic bottles. It has also been brilliant at going round to retailers to try to get them to stop producing plastic cotton bud sticks. It has now got every single one of them to sign up to paper sticks instead, so that shows what can be achieved.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) and I recently met City to Sea to discuss its campaign to make Bristol a single use plastic-free city. We have a Facebook page that I would like to plug here to publicise the work we are doing. It is called “Let’s Stop Plastic Pollution”.
With litter levels hardly budging over a decade, England stubbornly remains a throwaway society. I very much hope we will see in the Government’s forthcoming litter strategy proposals to introduce a deposit return scheme for single-use drinks containers, which could help reduce littering, increase recycling and cut back on illegal dumping. Research by the Bristol-based organisation, Eunomia, has shown the scale of the problem and how plastic bottles are littered disproportionately more than any other items. It has also shown the success of deposit return schemes in massively reducing littering of beverage containers: by as much as 80% in one US study. There is growing support for such a scheme. Even Coca-Cola, having resisted, has now said it is on board, which is great news.
We also need to focus on people’s attitudes to dropping litter. Despite the blustery weather, showers and gales, I spent most of the weekend taking part in the Mayor of Bristol’s clean streets initiative. Community volunteers were given hi-vis and litter pickers, and we were out filling sack upon sack with rubbish, most of it plastic, from crisp packets to bottles and all sorts of things. The initiative is partly about making the streets tidier, but also about trying to send a message to the community that they need to play their part. We will make the litter pickers and hi-vis available in libraries so that anyone can go out for half an hour and pick up if they want to. Hopefully, it will be a three-year campaign. The worst bit of the day was seeing a hedge where it was clear that everyone who walked past thought that that was where to put their Coke can or plastic bottle, rather than putting it in the bin down the road. We need to persuade people that that is not the case.
We have heard about the plastic bag charge and how that can make a difference. The hon. Member for Taunton Deane mentioned the circular economy, and I agree that that is where we need to see action from the Government. There are currently too few incentives for or requirements on producers to make their packaging recyclable, leaving local councils to clear up the mess and local taxpayers to foot the bill. Of the 7 million coffee cups thrown away each day, only 1% are recycled through normal collection systems. The Environmental Audit Committee’s next inquiry will be on coffee cups and plastic bottles. Most local authorities do not have the facilities to separate the plastic membrane from the cardboard.
We even have new products coming onto the market such as Nescafé’s incomprehensible Azera, which encourages consumers to make their “coffee to go” at home in a non-recyclable takeaway cup, which is ridiculous. Black plastic is frequently used in packaging, especially in high-end products, even though most local authorities cannot recycle it.
I hope the Government will look seriously at the role that regulation can play in stimulating markets to recycle or reuse materials, such as the proposals by the Environmental Services Association for a new framework for producer responsibility. It is terrific that Unilever has announced plans to make all its plastic packaging recyclable by 2025, but to support businesses that have decided to do the right thing we have to stop other companies being able to undercut them, otherwise we will see the situation that has been referred to.
Taking the circular economy seriously could be a huge opportunity for us. It has been suggested it could deliver half a million jobs. The future is not in low-cost products using finite resources that are designed to fail after their warranty expires but in products that are designed and manufactured for reuse or recycling. Although I welcome what the Government are doing on microbeads, I hope I have stressed to the Minister that they are literally a tiny part of the problem. We need to see a much more ambitious approach not only to microbeads but across the board.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) on securing this important debate. It is a pleasure to follow such great speakers—we have had two fantastic ones already.
I am pleased to see that DEFRA is consulting on a ban on microbeads in cosmetic products. Microplastics and other plastics in our oceans is the biggest environmental challenge that we face as a nation at the moment. It is absolutely ludicrous that hundreds of thousands of pieces of small plastic are washed down our drains each and every day when we take showers. Microplastics are having an environmental impact. Studies have shown that they are being ingested by micro-organisms and small marine animals, which can lead to physical harm, reproductive problems, toxicity issues and problems with food chains.
The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) mentioned the Sky ocean rescue campaign for marine plastics. As a coastal MP I am pleased that Sky has moved away from the rainforest and is now focusing on the ocean. We do not have to walk far in Cornwall to find plastics on our beaches. I recently did a beach clean in North Cornwall. I went out with a group of about 12 or 15 people, and we collected 18 bags of plastic in an hour and a half. The amount of plastic out there is phenomenal. As other hon. Members have said, much of that is not microplastics used recently, but plastic that has been broken down over a huge number of years. We need to tackle that issue.
I recently attended the Bude wave conference, which was attended by Surfers Against Sewage and various other environmental organisations. I was shown some of the nurdles that we have talked about today—plastics that are sometimes smaller than the sand particles that are already in the ocean. I take the issue very seriously, and as a rural and coastal MP I completely welcome any measure that takes plastic out of our oceans. Such action can be taken. Some people opposed Brexit on environmental grounds, but the Government can introduce environmental policy whether we are inside or outside the European Union, which is a very good thing.
On the subject of plastics entering the marine environment, I want to hear whether the Minister would welcome a fishing for plastic scheme. That has been encouraged in some parts of the country, but not uniformly. A fishing for litter scheme exists in Cornwall, and in some places in Wales. As we extricate ourselves from the European Union, we have an opportunity to emphasise that fishermen need to do their bit for the environment. I know that farmers have done so in the past through the common agricultural policy, but it might be time for us to show that our fishermen can do their bit as well.
The issue obviously concerns marine life, but does my hon. Friend agree that it concerns birds as well? I represent an estuarial constituency. The River Ribble has a lot of birdwatchers, and interesting bird life is affected by the plastics. The Preston Birdwatching and Natural History Society undertakes litter-picks on the Ribble. When I did one with it, I was astonished by the amount of plastics.
My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. Feeding birds not only get plastic caught around their necks, but when they ingest small marine life they take that into the food chain as well, so she is absolutely spot on.
I must say that I was not a big fan of the 5p charge on plastic bags when it was first announced, but I am a complete convert. Not only has it had a positive effect on coastal communities, but when we walk around towns now we do not see the bags that used to fly around in trees. It has made a real impact, so we can create positive change, as my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane said, if the Government are proactive.
If Brexit means that our fishing industry changes, I would ask that we consider a fishing for plastic scheme. It would be a great opportunity for us to show our country’s environmental credentials.
Will my hon. Friend explain a little more about the scheme? I have an image in my head: what does one do—go out with a fishing rod and hope to catch some plastic?
Numerous local authorities currently charge fishermen to land plastic that they find floating around in the ocean. Some local authorities have been quite proactive and have set up recycling plants. I think there is an economic benefit to that, not just an environmental one. There are organisations that could potentially reuse plastics that come out of the ocean. They can be used in carpets—I know they have been before. It would just entail fishermen picking up the stuff that they see floating around in the ocean, bringing it back and then receiving some sort of recompense. It might be through tax breaks, cash incentives, fishing quota, fuel, or a deposit return scheme. It could be a huge incentive.
I am pleased that DEFRA has launched the consultation. The order of priority at the moment should be reuse first, then recycling, and then the bin if those are not an option. Most of our local authorities seem to have got into the recycling process. There is a place for industry to step up, but the Government can intervene as well. I support the initiative and would welcome further exploration of how to encourage more positive behaviour.
I was keen to speak in the debate because this issue is one of those that exercise the mind of the public. I am sure that the hon. Members who are present have had many emails on the topic. When we discuss it, we cannot really understand why it has taken so long to act on it. What I like about such issues is the fact that there is a huge consensus across the House—quite a rare and beautiful thing. I commend the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) for bringing the debate forward.
As we have heard, many cosmetic, personal care and toothpaste products contain microbeads, which are adding to the microplastic pollution made up of the fragmentation of larger pieces of plastic waste. It is estimated that 86 tonnes of microplastics are released into the environment each year in the UK from facial exfoliators alone. As we have heard, some cosmetics companies have voluntarily decided to phase them out, but there is not currently a legal requirement to do so. That is bewildering when we consider the damage that they do and the fact that adding plastic to products such as face washes and body scrubs is wholly unnecessary, as harmless alternatives can be used.
Last year the Environmental Audit Committee called for a ban on plastic microbeads and the UK Government have, thankfully, agreed to put a ban in place this year. The Scottish Government are also setting out a plan for legislation to regulate the use of microbeads in cosmetics, and are committed to working with the UK Government to implement the ban when it is introduced. The political agenda is, as we know, crowded with important issues at the moment, but issues as important as this must not be crowded out and forgotten or slide down the agenda. We must be extremely mindful of it.
As we have heard at length today, plastic microbeads contained in cosmetics damage the marine environment when they are literally washed down the drain and then ingested by marine life. The Environmental Audit Committee estimates that about 680 tonnes of plastic beads are used in the UK every year. Even though microbeads make up a small percentage of the microplastics entering the environment, they still constitute preventable environmental damage, which should not be trivialised. We do not need to cleanse ourselves by rubbing our skin with millions of small plastic particles. There is no societal benefit to doing so, but there is huge, irreversible environmental cost. There is a real fear that the particles are building up in the oceans and potentially entering the food chain, and that there will be irreversible damage to the environment, with billions of indigestible plastic pieces poisoning sea creatures.
Does the hon. Lady agree that just as in the 1980s and 1990s there were public and media campaigns about cosmetic testing on animals, which we all became aware of as young people—young women—there may be a role for the media in highlighting the present issue? A lot of people are just not aware of it.
The hon. Lady makes an excellent point, although—this is anecdotal, not scientific—I think that the public are ahead of some of us in the House in their knowledge of the matter. Certainly my constituents have helped to educate me about it. However, it is right to say that the campaigns in the ’80s on animal testing were effective. Of course, the most important voice is that of the consumer; that is where spending power lies—the power of the pound.
Does the hon. Lady also agree that that campaign on animal testing came at a time when we knew that such things as adzuki beans, rice, salt and bromelain from pineapples were just as good as exfoliators as any microbeads? Even a hard flannel will do a reasonable job, so there is not much need for microbeads.
Again, the hon. Lady makes an excellent point. I think the most important point is that we live in a society in which consumers prefer natural ingredients anyway. That is a selling point for manufacturers to take on board. It is about not just getting rid of the plastics, although that is of course important, but fulfilling customers’ demand for the more natural ingredients they prefer.
Praise should be given to the many companies that are turning in that direction and taking notice of all the public interest. Some companies, such as Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose have their own brands of cosmetics, which do not contain microplastics or microbeads. It is a good message, but I am not sure everyone has heard it yet.
The companies that are leading the way should be commended. It is a unique selling point for them from the point of view of the better-informed consumer, but of course there is still a job to do in making sure that all consumers have the information. I wish companies luck in getting the message out there. However, there is no legal requirement to move away from using microbeads, and that must still be an important part of the change we seek. I wish the companies that have voluntarily made the change all the best.
The wider problem of microplastics is vast. The United Nations joint group of experts on the scientific aspects of marine environmental protection has listed the potential effects of microplastics on marine organisms. As we have already heard—that is one of the disadvantages of being so far down the speaking order—they include physical effects such as obstruction, chemical effects due to the transportation of toxic chemicals, impaired health, and impacts on populations and ecosystems, including many with important roles in food chains and the functioning of marine ecosystems. Microplastic pollution could be more damaging to the environment than larger pieces of plastic, because the size of the particles makes it more likely that they will be eaten by wildlife, and then there is potential for them to enter the food chain. I believe that the hon. Member for Taunton Deane said—and certainly marine scientists have said—that a plate of six oysters can contain up to 50 particles of plastic. That should make us pause for thought. More than 280 marine species have been found to have ingested microplastics, and the Environmental Audit Committee has said that much more research is needed on plastic pollution, because there is huge uncertainty about the ecological risk.
The Government can and should play a role on stopping the preventable use of microplastics in cosmetics. Last year the Scottish Government confirmed that they would legislate to regulate such use, following the announcement by DEFRA of the UK Government’s plans to work with the devolved Parliaments on a ban.
Will the ban that the hon. Lady is setting out largely apply only to cosmetic and personal care manufacturers in the United Kingdom, in a similar way to what is set out in the consultation for England? What worries me is how to monitor manufacturers outside the UK and the broader problem, because obviously we import quite a lot of the items in question.
Yes, and that situation will be further complicated by Brexit, when we are not working in a common area. There is a lot of work to do on where we are now, where we can move forward to and where we want to be, and, as the hon. Lady says, on how our trading relationships with other nations will change and how we monitor what comes into our country. Even though we know that plans are in motion and we know about the warm words and expectations, there is a lot of work for Members, consumers and environmentalists to do.
Work has been undertaken in Scotland to research this issue, raise awareness among consumers and encourage the use of alternatives. The point that the hon. Member for Taunton Deane made about natural alternatives is important, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally), who has done a lot of work on this matter—much more than I have—but who unfortunately cannot attend the debate. He has been a great advocate of raising awareness of the problem and has been calling for action in this sphere.
Eight million tonnes of plastic will be dumped in the ocean this year and will take hundreds of years to degrade. An area of plastic rubbish three times the size of the entire United Kingdom has been floating in the north Pacific for decades. Every year thousands of turtles and other ocean creatures are killed by eating or becoming entangled in plastic debris. As the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) pointed out, when people go on litter-picks on beaches—as I and many others have—the problem of discarded plastic polluting our beaches, shorelines and seas is all too clear.
It makes sense to deal with this issue. Marine litter costs Scotland £16.8 million every year and has an impact on our environment, wildlife, industry and tourism. That understanding lies behind the Scottish Government’s marine litter strategy, which includes almost 40 new actions to minimise coastal and marine litter. Key to that has been, and must be, encouraging alternatives to plastic microbeads in personal care products. We know that the UK Government are committed to banning microbeads, and it is time to get on with that without further delay. This issue is like the ban on smoking in public places or the wearing of seatbelts: its time has come, there is great consensus on it, and once we have done it we will ask, “Why did it take us so long?”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and to take part in this important debate. I thank the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) for securing it and for her comprehensive summary of the situation. It will come as no surprise that I spent an awful long time on my products this morning, although I cannot claim I was applying beauty products. I was trying to read the small print on the shampoo and toothpaste. I am still none the wiser about what is in them, but I am fairly certain that if nothing else, the product packaging can break down into microbeads.
We have had a very consensual, informative debate and have heard from a range of speakers. I will add the viewing recommendations made by the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) to my weekend watch list. I am also interested in the suggestion by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) of a fishing for plastic solution. That needs to be looked into further and could be very useful.
It is fair to say that our debate may not be the biggest political attraction in the House today, but these tiny particles are a major issue—some estimates put the number in the world’s oceans as high as between 15 trillian and 51 trillion—and tackling them is of great importance. There is some debate about just how many there are—we do not really know. There is much that we do not know, if we are being honest. If we are to accurately quantify their impact and effectively monitor their presence in our seas, we need to learn a lot more about them.
There is no doubt that microbeads are doing preventable damage to our marine environment. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) told us, it is estimated that as much as 86 tonnes of microplastics are released into the environment every year in the UK from facial exfoliants alone. We should be grateful that some cosmetic companies have voluntarily decided to phase them out, but there is no legal requirement to do so. I therefore welcome the Government’s steps to bring forward a ban; it is constructive and helpful.
I am grateful for the work of the Environmental Audit Committee, which has called for a ban on microplastics, and for the UK Government accepting that recommendation and taking swift steps to initiate a ban later this year. The Scottish Government have confirmed that they will work with the UK Government and the devolved Administrations to implement the proposed ban on microbeads in personal care products. In Scotland we have already undertaken a fair amount of research, trying to raising awareness among consumers and encouraging the use of alternatives.
As my hon. Friend said, marine litter costs Scotland £16.8 million every year and has wide-ranging environmental impacts. The SNP Scottish Government have prioritised an action plan to protect Scotland’s marine environment, and in August 2014 we launched Scotland’s first ever marine litter strategy. “A Marine Litter Strategy for Scotland” details almost 40 new actions to minimise coastal and marine litter. A key action of the strategy is to encourage alternatives to plastic microbeads around the world, and the proposed ban would greatly facilitate that.
I should like to take this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally). He is unable to be with us today, but he has a great interest in this subject and it was through him that I first learned of microbeads. We have neighbouring constituencies that both suffer from microplastic pollution washed up along the shoreline of the River Forth. My hon. Friend, who also sits on the Environmental Audit Committee, recognises that the problem of microplastics goes beyond plastic scrub beads in cosmetics. He supports the campaign for a ban on microplastic ingredients in consumer products and for better measures to tackle plastic pollution as a whole. I share those views.
Towards those ends, my hon. Friend has been working with a Scottish charity called Fidra, which is working in tandem with Fauna & Flora International to eliminate microplastics from consumer products and prevent the loss of pre-production plastic pellets from the industry. He has helped them to promote a number of initiatives to help consumers to avoid plastic-containing down-the-drain products, as well as a citizen science project called “The Great Nurdle Hunt”, which tracks where plastic pellets lost from the industry end up.
Last year I took part in a nurdle hunt with Fidra on a visit to Kinneil in my constituency. It would be fair to say that I did not have to do much hunting, so rife was the problem. Sadly, that is not uncommon. A thousand pellets per square metre can be found on beaches around the Forth—I realise that I shall probably now not be on VisitScotland’s Christmas card for advertising that fact. I collected enough to fill a small jar very quickly. The hardest part was picking them up, but spotting them was incredibly easy. My new collection of pellets from the beach are clearly in various stages of weathering and have various colours. Many look fairly new or unweathered, which suggests that they have been spilt relatively recently. Not all are as historical as we might wish. All spills are avoidable, but unfortunately they are still happening.
All spills are not necessarily local either; they can occur around the globe and pellets can be transported long distances, highlighting the need for international co-operation to combat marine litter. It is perhaps of little surprise that Kinneil and neighbouring areas are hotspots for such pollution, with the large-scale manufacture of plastics locally and with so much transportation of goods by sea taking place in the vicinity.
Spills are accidental, of course, and are not an inevitable part of manufacture or freight transport. Operation Clean Sweep is a voluntary, industry-led scheme across the supply chain, which has support from a range of firms locally. Thanks to the work of Fidra, working with the local plastics and supply chain firms, around a third of firms in the area have signed up to the pledge. The companies pledge not to spill pellets into the wider environment and participants are provided with a handbook that suggests simple, low-costs measures to avoid doing that.
Welcome though that scheme is, its sign-up rate across the UK more widely is fairly low, with perhaps as little as 1% of companies taking part. It also lacks any external audit or reporting; consequently, the level of success or otherwise is unknown. I suggest that Ministers look at measures to enhance that voluntary approach and to require the industry to prove its effectiveness. I believe that legislation may be required to ensure that best practice is in place across the supply chain.
In conclusion, this is a global problem and it is vital that we all play our part in trying to resolve it. It is also vital, therefore, that the UK Government work with the devolved Administrations to ensure the effective implementation of the ban. We can all agree that this pollution needs to be tackled. To date, international co-ordination and most of the funding for research in the UK has been provided by the EU marine strategy framework directive. It would be good to hear the Minister provide further reassurances that that funding, research and international co-operation will continue after the UK leaves the EU.
In the Environmental Audit Committee’s inquiry into the environmental impact of microplastics, it heard that environmental non-governmental organisations such as Flora & Fauna International have been left to lead efforts to monitor the presence of microbeads in consumer products. No statutory funding for that work is available, but the demand for it is increasing, leading to an unsustainable situation. What assurances can the Minister give us that funding will be available to provide the services required to enforce her proposed ban? Finally, although we welcome the action being taken by the UK Government, I would be grateful if the Minister looked at making the ban better by taking a consistent approach to the elimination of microplastics from all formulations.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) on securing this debate on such an important issue, which she obviously feels strongly about, and introducing it so clearly and passionately. I am sure that other hon. Members have received a lot of emails and letters about this issue, as I have. It is of genuine concern to our constituents, so I am really delighted that we had the opportunity to have this debate and hear so many important contributions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) both spoke about the 8 million tonnes of plastics that enter the oceans each year. My hon. Friend spoke about the wider issue of plastics breaking down into smaller and smaller parts in the water. She also made an interesting suggestion about the UN’s clean seas campaign, and I would be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about it. Is there an opportunity for the Government to work on a global scale? As a coastal MP, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) always speaks passionately about marine issues. He clearly feels strongly about the damage that is being done to the marine environment. He made an excellent speech.
I am concerned that the current Government policy has failed to provide the right framework to stop litter from reaching the sea in the first place, or at least to reduce the amount that gets there. As we have heard today, the huge amount of plastic in the sea is massively damaging to marine animals and the ecosystems in which they live. We heard the shocking statistic that 90% of birds have plastic in their stomach, and we heard from the hon. Member for Taunton Deane that there are serious concerns about microplastics entering the food chain and reaching humans.
We have to think about how we manage our resources, particularly plastics, whose disposal is so problematic. Biodegradable alternatives to microbeads are available, but they can be more expensive to produce, so they are not always so attractive to manufacturers. It is up to us as Members of Parliament to take action. The Labour party has long supported a ban on microbeads in cosmetics, so we warmly welcome the Government’s commitment to legislate for such a ban. I understand that the legislation is expected to come into force in October this year, that the ban on the manufacture of microbeads in cosmetics will apply from the beginning of 2018, and that the ban on sales is expected to apply from the end of June 2018.
The hon. Member for Taunton Deane made the good point that some manufacturers are already doing something about the problem—she listed some supermarkets. I give credit to some of the companies that have already taken voluntary action to take microbeads out of rinse-off products: Colgate-Palmolive, which phased them out all the way back in 2014; Unilever and Boots, which phased them out in 2015; and the L’Oréal group, which is currently phasing them out. Those big companies recognise the issue’s importance to consumers, so the Government really need to grab it with both hands. I must also draw attention to the campaign group Beat the Microbead, which provides details of companies that consumers can go to for products that are free from microbeads.
The Government have said that their plans to ban microbeads in cosmetics will
“create a level playing field for industry, tackle inconsistency and stop new products…from being sold in the UK.”
I firmly agree with that. The Opposition support and welcome the Government’s action so far.
We have heard details of what has happened in America, where President Obama signed an Act to outlaw the sale and distribution of toiletries that contain microbeads. Similar legislation is being planned in Canada. Studies have shown that the majority of the British public believe that we should follow those examples and ban the use of microbeads in toiletries. I hear that view regularly from my constituents.
As we know, the Government have consulted on a ban of microplastics for cosmetics and personal care products. We await the outcome of that consultation eagerly, but organisations such as Greenpeace have expressed concern that it does not cover all products that contain microplastic ingredients. The Government have also said that they will gather further evidence on the environmental impact of microbeads in other products before they go on to consider what can be done to tackle plastics such as microfibres, which also affect our environment, as we have heard.
We need to rethink how we manage our resources, so that we can make genuine progress on waste prevention and guide Britain towards a circular economy. That would be a significant step forward and would mean our having to move to a more resource-efficient economy. Will the Minister set out how the Government intend to meet their ambitious waste targets and therefore unlock the economic opportunities presented by greater resource efficiency? It would also be helpful if she gave an indication of when we are likely to see the 25-year plan.
I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, which has done some excellent work on the issue:
“Fish don’t care where the plastic they are eating comes from, so it’s vital the ban covers all microplastics in all down the drain products”,
which can end up in our oceans. Our marine life depends on our taking action and leading the way on this. A ban must cover all products that contain microplastics; we cannot be selective. Unless the ban is all-encompassing, it will not provide the protections that are needed for wildlife, and we will continue to cause real harm to our marine life and marine animals. I urge the Minister to listen to what hon. Members have said today and act now by introducing a complete ban.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who secured the debate, and all the hon. Members who have contributed to it.
Our decision to ban microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products was clearly signalled by the Minister of State in my Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), when he appeared before the Environmental Audit Committee last year. That decision has been confirmed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and we are making good progress. The consultation on the use of plastic microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products closed last week, and we have already started assessing the responses. We are determined to continue to tackle plastic pollution in our seas and build on the success of the 5p plastic bag charge, particularly when suitable alternatives are already available.
Our understanding of marine litter and its impact is improving all the time. DEFRA funded some of the original research on microplastics and the harm that they can cause to marine organisms. The preliminary results of our latest assessment of marine litter in the UK suggest that although overall levels remain stable, the picture is mixed: the number of items of beach litter has decreased in some cases, such as plastic bags, but increased in others, such as bottle tops and caps and wet wipes.
The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) spoke about flushables; she will be pleased to know that I had a ministerial roundtable in November to facilitate dialogue between manufacturers, retailers and water industry representatives on how to reduce the non-biodegradable products getting into the sewer system. EDANA—the European disposables and non-wovens trade association—has since updated its code of practice on product labelling by moving the “do not flush” symbol to the front of the package for the type of wet wipes that are most at risk of being incorrectly flushed into the sewer. The impact of the plastic content of wet wipes is not known, but evidence is growing all the time and research is being undertaken.
Will the Minister give way?
I am afraid not. You have been very generous in the latitude that you have given to contributions today, Sir David, but since the title of the debate clearly refers to the proposed ban on microbeads, I intend to try to confine my remarks to that topic.
I acknowledge the efforts that the industry has taken to address the problem of microbeads. Several manufacturers and retailers have already stopped using microbeads in their products or have committed to do so, as has been outlined today. As the hon. Member for Bristol East said, the Government often encourage businesses to do the right thing and lead with a voluntary approach, but in this instance, given that alternatives are readily available, we seek a level playing field for industry and certainty for consumers. Specifically, the consultation proposed that we ban rinse-off cosmetics and personal care products containing microbeads, such as shower gels, face scrubs and toothpastes. That is because we know these products are washed down the drain, enter the sewer system and end up in the marine environment.
We did not include proposals about other sources of microbeads because we did not have sufficient evidence to support their inclusion. We do not take action to ban products lightly and any extension of the ban needs to be supported by clear and robust evidence. In particular, we must be certain that the products concerned contain microbeads and that if they do the microbeads end up in the marine environment. To address this issue, as part of our consultation we asked for evidence on other sources of microplastics and their environmental impact. If there is new evidence, we will use it to inform future actions to tackle microplastics.
The hon. Member for Bristol East referred to all sources of microplastics earlier, but we need to be careful in that regard. She may not realise quite how many products contain microplastics, including things such as certain blankets or even fleece jackets, which often involve a significant reuse of plastic bottles in the microfibers that are generated. Some people have already suggested—not here in this debate today, but elsewhere—that even the washing of a fleece jacket can contribute to microplastics going into the sewer system, but we need to be careful in considering the extent of any further ban. I know that it is a particular issue for vegans, who do not like to wear woollen fleece jackets, so we need to consider this issue carefully.
Regarding the international dimension, this is a transboundary problem and international co-operation is essential to address it. That is why we have played a leading role in developing the G7 nations’ action plan, as well as our role through OSPAR—the convention for the protection of the marine environment of the north-east Atlantic—in developing and implementing a regional action plan. We hope that our action to ban microbeads will encourage other countries to take similar measures to ban them. Ireland has announced its own ban and we have already seen positive action from France and Italy. The US ban that has been talked about is yet to come into force, but I am sure that we will be able to learn from the US approach and what has happened there.
The UN’s clean seas campaign was also mentioned. As I said in response to a written parliamentary question recently, we are still considering whether to participate formally in that campaign. Nevertheless, I think we are doing our bit and our actions are contributing to efforts to reduce microbeads in the marine environment.
We are in the process of reviewing the responses to our consultation. One reason why it takes a certain amount of time to get from where we are today to the ban timeline is that we need to notify other EU member states of our proposals under the technical standards directive, and all other countries around the world under the technical barriers to trade agreement, which is part of the World Trade Organisation. In both cases the period of notification is three months, and we plan to run these processes concurrently. Then there will be a short consultation on the actual statutory instrument that we intend to introduce. We will lay the legislation before both Houses by the summer, with the aim of introducing the legislation in the autumn. Our expectation is that we will ban the manufacture of microbeads from the start of 2018 and ban the sale of products containing them from July 2018. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) asked about imported products containing microbeads; the ban will cover such products. As I say, the sale of these products will be banned from July 2018.
It was a pleasure to hear from the hon. Members for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), and for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), who talked about how important this issue is around the United Kingdom, including in Scotland of course. The consultation on proposals to ban microbeads was a joint consultation agreed with the devolved Administrations. As a consequence, we intend to end up with a UK-wide ban, but the hon. Members will be aware that each Administration will have to introduce their own legislation, according to their own processes and timetables, to bring such a ban into effect. I have already outlined the timescale that we propose, but we intend to try to co-ordinate our approach with the devolved Administrations.
I had quite an extensive conversation this morning on this issue of microbeads, as it is an interesting topic. The proposed ban will include other industrial hand-cleaning products, and there was discussion in the debate about cleaning products more generally. The UK Cleaning Products Industry Association has assured us that none of the products made by the UK companies it represents contain microbeads. However, hand-cleaning products—things such as Swarfega, which is well-known around the country—will be included within the scope of this ban.
As to how water companies and the Environment Agency can address the issue of microplastics, there is a bit of a challenge regarding the size of the microbeads and what happens with our current filtration systems. The risk that I have been made aware of is that even if we try to filter more, we will still end up with sewage sludge that has to be disposed of. Nevertheless, as part of the enhanced chemicals programme, the Environment Agency will look further at the contribution of sewage treatment to the spread of microplastics. As with many chemicals, the most effective solution is to reduce the amount of plastic getting in to the sewers in the first place. The ongoing campaigns about what should be flushed and what should be disposed of in other ways will help with that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane talked about potential threats to fish and humans. I assure her that, on the basis of the current information, the Food Standards Agency considers that it is unlikely that the presence of low levels of microplastic particles that have been reported to occur in certain types of seafood would actually cause any harm to consumers. However, the FSA will continue to monitor and assess emerging information regarding that issue.
As for a wider discussion about fishing for plastic and other elements, I have referred to it in the House. Lord Gardiner is the owner of the litter strategy that we hope will be produced soon, and I am sure there will be further items that the House will want to look out for at that point.
I have already said that we have undertaken some research, which was some of the original research done on microplastics. Of course, other organisations will continue to carry out such research in the future. We asked for further evidence from organisations that would like our ban to go further. We will look carefully at what is presented as a result of the consultation and it will inform our future actions to tackle this issue.
Our action on microbeads is a further demonstration of our commitment to tackle microbeads and microplastics in the marine environment. The approach we have taken is based on clear evidence and as a result has the support of a wide range of stakeholders. We believe that Government, industry and communities need to work together to address this issue, based on the evidence. We look forward to working with stakeholders to take further action to protect our marine environment.
I particularly thank you, Sir David, for chairing us so amiably, and for welcoming the ladies who were having their photographs taken earlier and allowing them to intervene during the debate. Thank you for that.
We have come up with a new hobby this afternoon, which I will be going away to practise—fishing for plastics. That is a very good idea.
I thank all the hon. Members who have taken part in a fascinating debate. What is so welcome and heartening is that there has been so much sharing of knowledge and experience; I think you will agree, Sir David, that there has been much consensus.
I thank the Minister for her very honest comments and for sharing a lot of detail with us about how the ban will be handled. That is much appreciated. Indeed, the fact that there will be a ban is much appreciated. That will level out the playing field for manufacturers. I think all colleagues and Members are behind that ban and welcome it.
We would like to be world leaders in this area and to operate on a global stage. It is really important that we fully understand the evidence. We will press forward with the initial ideas for bans in the cosmetics and personal care products industries, but it is very important that we have the right evidence when we consider widening out the ban to cover any other plastics; I fully agree with that. We have wide support for the ban. I thank everyone who has taken part in the debate, and I say to the Minister, who I personally am right behind, “Let’s press on.” There is more that we can do on the wider plastic issue, but I think there is plenty of support for action.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the proposed ban on microbeads.
Right to Buy: Housing Association Tenants (Bedford)
[Albert Owen in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered extension of the right to buy to tenants of housing associations in Bedford.
My constituency of Bedford includes two towns, Bedford and Kempston, and the motion applies to tenants of housing associations in both those constituent towns. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, and to welcome the Minister to his place. I look forward to his response my questions.
If I were to sum up my home town in an overarching theme or description, it would be that Bedford is a town for families. It is the sort of town where mums and dads want to come and bring up their children. It is a place where we want excellent schools, training and education and for good, local jobs to be available. One of the things at the core of that is the availability of housing and the opportunity for people to have the right to buy their own home.
I have been Bedford’s Member of Parliament for nearly seven years, and I would like to share with the Minister some of the statistics on household by type in Bedford. The census captures that information and uses the main headings of “owner-occupied”, “socially rented” and “privately rented” to describe households. In 1991, in England and Wales as a whole, 23% of households were socially rented. By 2011, that had gone down to 17.6%, which was a decline of about 6%. However, in Bedford, the numbers are slightly different. In 1991, the proportion was 20.2%; by 2011 it was 19.4%. So there was a decline, but a much smaller one, in socially rented accommodation. Across England and Wales the total number of households in socially rented accommodation has gone down; in Bedford it has gone up. The main concern in the change in household statistics for my constituency is the decline in owner-occupied households, which have gone down from nearly 70% of homes to 60%. There is therefore a pent-up demand for people to have the opportunity to own their own home.
To give the Minister an indication of that demand, under the last Government, led by Mr Cameron, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme was introduced and the Bedford Borough Council area had one of the highest take-up rates of households who wanted to take advantage of those loans—we were one of the keenest areas. The Prime Minister came to Bedford to look at one of the developments that was enthusiastically offering those loans to the people of Bedford.
The reason why socially rented housing in Bedford has not seen the same change as other regions is that, at the time of those statistics, the council housing stock was moved across from the local authority and into housing associations, so families in Bedford who are renting social housing have never had the opportunity that has been available in other areas of the country. It is time for a change.
I very much welcomed the 2015 Conservative manifesto that I stood on, and proudly supported it when it said:
“We will extend the Right to Buy to tenants in Housing Associations to enable people to buy a home of their own. It is unfair that they should miss out on a right enjoyed by tenants in local authority homes.”
That is a clear, declarative statement, and one that I strongly support. Will the Minister confirm that that manifesto commitment, which he and I both stood on, will be met during this Parliament? Will he let me know whether that right to buy will be extended specifically to tenants of housing associations living in Bedford and Kempston?
As you will know, Mr Owen, and as the Minister certainly knows, the right-to-buy scheme is voluntary. I want to let the Minister know that the largest housing association in Bedford, Bedford Pilgrim Housing Association, is a strong supporter of the voluntary right to buy, because it sees the benefit in encouraging home ownership as well as the financial benefit and, most importantly, the benefit to its ability to build more good-quality, low-cost housing that people can rent or, ultimately, when they can, have the right to buy. Can the Minister guarantee today that the manifesto commitment will be extended to tenants of housing associations living in Bedford and Kempston? Can he give me some idea of when it will be possible for such tenants to be able to purchase their own homes?
It will perhaps be helpful if I put my requests in the context of the Government’s progress, because that shapes how the manifesto commitment is being met. The Housing and Planning Act 2016 included provisions to extend the right to buy on a voluntary basis, in agreement with the National Housing Federation, which represents a large proportion of our social housing landlords.
I hope this is not an obtuse question, but I am interested to hear from the Minister what constitutes volunteering. There is the “Dad’s Army” version, where Pike seemed to be the one who was volunteered. Will housing associations be volunteered, or will it be entirely up to them? Will it be agreed between the housing associations and the federation, or between the housing association and the Government? If the Government are part of the process for approving a voluntary participant in the scheme, will the Minister give some indication of the basis on which local housing associations will be considered? Will the Government make the final and binding decision to accept or deny an extension of right to buy for any specific housing association? Can the Minister advise me about what those rules may be? What regulations will affect the length of time taken for the Government to agree to a housing association’s request to participate in the right to buy? It would be helpful to have some clarity from the Minister, not only for BPHA and the other housing associations operating in my constituency, but more generally so that we know the Government’s thinking about how it will be possible for housing associations to volunteer.
It is fair to say that the initial pilot, which began in January 2016 with five housing associations and was reviewed in January by Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research, was very positive. I will start with the last point I was going to make, because it is the most important. I found it interesting—particularly for a form from the Government—that 93% of the people thought the form was simple and easy to use. I do not know of the phrase “simple and easy to use” achieving a 93% threshold when applied to an application form for anything ever, so clearly people should not be afraid of the process. They are not going to get embroiled in something complicated or difficult. The pilot scheme has shown that if someone is interested, applying for the process is simple and straightforward. It is important that that message goes out.
Less encouraging was that, of the 53,955 properties in the participating pilot housing associations, only 16,000—just 30%—were eligible for the voluntary right to buy. There were a variety of reasons why certain parts of the housing stock were not included, but for a large proportion it was because of covenants relating to section 106. The manifesto commitment—that strong statement upon which the Minister and I both stood—is not consistent with only 30% of housing being eligible for the voluntary right to buy. The figure needs to be much higher if our manifesto commitment is to have any meaning. There is no point in having a simple process if seven out of 10 of the people applying are told, “You can’t move forward.” I shall be grateful if the Minister can advise me either today or, perhaps more reasonably, in writing what the eligibility proportion will be for residents in my constituency, based on his experience of the test. I am sure that if he needs to contact the housing associations in Bedford and Kempston, they would be willing to co-operate with him so that he has a clearer understanding. What conclusions does he draw from the finding that only 30% are eligible, and what measures is he considering to ensure that the proportion increases significantly?
On section 106 agreements, many of which require local authority agreement, has the Minister spoken to Bedford Borough Council to gauge its interest? He probably has not, because it is not involved, but I thought I would just check. Will he commit to doing so?
Having spoken to BPHA, I understand that housing associations have been told that they can establish a “policy” to govern which homes can and cannot be sold through the voluntary right to buy, but the guidelines for such policies are not known at this point. Will the Minister advise me when those guidelines will be published?
Once eligibility for the scheme was determined, expressions of interests were about 26%—one in four—which indicates the level of demand. I assure the Minister that Bedford can meet that demand, but in some instances the option of some aspect of transferability may be permitted or required. I would be interested in any comments he can make about whether that will be permitted and how it will work. In particular, will he comment on whether housing associations will be able to work together to offer transferability for voluntary right to buy rights?
The statistics show that more women than men applied for right to buy: 60% of lead applicants were women. The age range was 45 to 54. The proportion of non-white British people applying was 27%, compared with a non-white British share of the national population that is half that—13%. That may be to do with the areas that were in the pilot, but in my constituency a large proportion of people who moved into housing association accommodation post-1991 are from different parts of Europe and the world—as the Minister knows, Bedford is a very diverse town. I anticipate that in Bedford there will be a very significant benefit for families from other countries of origin.
The new regional pilot is due, as per the 2016 autumn statement. I understand that it will test some aspects of the voluntary right-to-buy scheme that were not tested in the original pilot—in particular, one-for-one replacement and the issue of portability. I would be grateful if the Minister could advise me when he anticipates the regional pilot will commence, and which area or areas of the country might be included.
I am sure the Minister anticipated this question. Given the positive case for Bedford and the positive attitude of our main housing association, can he confirm that he will consider including Bedford in the regional pilot, or potentially alongside other aspects of the roll-out from the initial five areas?
It is important to communicate the fact that the voluntary right-to-buy scheme is about replacing affordable homes for rent. It is not about taking homes out of the social rented sector but about creating new homes in the social rented sector. That is an extremely important part of what we will be looking for from the Government in the next stage of the roll-out. I will be grateful if the Minister can comment on that.
Today, the Chancellor announced his Budget. I say to the Minister and the Treasury that this is a vital initiative. It was a clear manifesto commitment, and I very much hope that the Treasury will look positively on it in the next couple of years as a means not only of extending home ownership but of contributing significantly to the availability of houses for people to rent.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Owen. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) on securing this debate and on the passion he has shown for this Government commitment, which is one of a number of policies that will ensure that ordinary working people who are doing their best and working hard have the opportunity to own their own home.
My hon. Friend started his speech by quoting statistics showing the change in housing tenure patterns across England and Wales, and he reflected on the slight difference in the trend in his constituency. This issue is raised with me regularly as housing Minister. Looking over a longer period, home ownership in this country increased from about the end of the first world war, and then dipped from 2003-04. That is when home ownership in England reached its peak, and it has declined since then. The last year for which we have data is the first year in which that decline halted. I cannot yet say to my hon. Friend that we have reversed the decline, but unlike the previous Government we are concerned about it. We want to ensure that people who work hard and aspire to own their own home have the chance to do so, and we have introduced a number of schemes to address that. They have been successful in arresting the decline, but we still have to reverse it and help more people to fulfil their dream of owning their own property.
Before I answer my hon. Friend’s questions, I want to say a few words about those schemes, because the White Paper that we published recently is germane to this discussion. Government policy since 2010 has focused on the demand side. In other words, we have looked at policies that can help specific groups of people who are struggling to get on to the ladder to make that leap, get on to the bottom rung and hopefully climb up.
My hon. Friend referred to the Help to Buy scheme, which has been extremely successful. It has a number of different components. Initially, there was a mortgage guarantee scheme. People could not secure low-deposit mortgages, so the Government filled a gap in the market. The market has now responded, so that scheme closed at the end of 2016. We are continuing the equity loan scheme, from which many people are benefiting. We also have the help to buy ISA, which helps first-time buyers save for a deposit on their home, and the shared ownership scheme, which is increasingly popular. An increasing number of housing associations are bidding for Government funding to build homes on a shared ownership basis. Shared ownership is particularly useful for those who are struggling to save for a deposit, because it allows them to get a partial share in a home with a very small deposit.
We are also in the process of introducing starter homes—another commitment in the manifesto on which my hon. Friend and I fought the last election. They will be available solely to first-time buyers under the age of 40, and will be sold at a 20% discount to the market price. They will help many more people get into ownership. We are also developing new rent-to-buy products, which allow people go into a sub-market rented home and give them a period in which they can save for a deposit to buy the home.
My hon. Friend is right to say, however, that the reinvigoration of the right to buy for council tenants and the introduction of the voluntary right to buy for housing association tenants are a key part of our strategy. They are a way to ensure that people in social housing have an opportunity to buy the home they are living in. I share his passion for seeing the schemes rolled out.
The White Paper also makes a wider argument that it is important to put on the record. In the long term, if we want to ensure that more and more people in this country who are doing the right thing and working hard have a chance to own their own home, the answer is on the supply side. It is about building enough homes so that housing does not become increasingly unaffordable. That is something that, with respect, Governments of both colours have failed to do over the past 30 or 40 years. The median house price in this country is now eight times median earnings. It is therefore no wonder that, without such schemes, people find it difficult to access the market.
We are trying to solve the problem from two directions: first, to get more house building in this country, so that over time we make housing more affordable; and, secondly, to continue with specific programmes to help groups of people who cannot get on the ladder in the current market to do so. The voluntary right to buy is a key element of that, because it will give housing association tenants the opportunity to purchase a home with a discount equivalent to that which exists for council tenants under the statutory right to buy. I take the opportunity to thank the National Housing Federation, which was crucial in reaching the voluntary agreement. I was pleased to learn that BPHA, the dominant provider in my hon. Friend’s constituency, is such a strong supporter. My hon. Friend was right to quote from our manifesto. The fundamental rationale for why the Government have secured the agreement is that it is unfair for tenants of housing associations to miss out on an opportunity that tenants of local authorities enjoy.
It is worth taking time to explain why the agreement is voluntary. The Government’s belief is that housing associations are private sector organisations. It would therefore not have been right to legislate to force them to have a right to buy. We wished to proceed through a voluntary agreement between the Government and the housing association sector. As I said, I am grateful to the NHF for its support.
One of my hon. Friend’s questions was, when we say “voluntary”, how do people volunteer? The threshold we set the NHF was that we wanted the overwhelming majority of housing association homes to be governed by any agreement. Nationally, 93% of housing association homes are managed by associations that have signed up to the voluntary agreement. I hope that reassures him about the comprehensiveness of the cover as far as housing associations are concerned. I will come on to his point on individual properties and whether they are eligible.
My hon. Friend made another point in his speech that I want to stress powerfully. The right to buy remains controversial party politically in this House and around the country, and he put his finger on the key element of our policy: it is not only about helping people who live in housing association accommodation to have the opportunity to buy the home they live in; it is also a pro-supply policy, because it guarantees that the housing association will provide an additional home with some of the income from the sale of a property. I have said consistently about the right to buy, whether the local authority one or the voluntary housing association one, that in order to make it politically saleable as a policy it is vital that we not only help families to own their own home, but provide replacement accommodation for those in need of rented accommodation. That is a key part of the policy.
My hon. Friend referred to the initial five pilots. I thank London and Quadrant, which piloted the scheme in London, Riverside in the north-east, Saffron in South Norfolk, Sovereign in Oxfordshire, and Thames Valley—we can guess from the name where it covers. Their work has been important in developing the policy and in seeing how it works.
My hon. Friend also referred to the research done by Sheffield Hallam University, which was incredibly useful. Given the shortage of time, I will not run over his points again, but I want to highlight one important finding of that research: the voluntary right to buy is providing the opportunity for home ownership to many tenants who would not otherwise have been able to own their own home. The scheme is helping people who would have had no other means of getting on to the ownership ladder. He made a very powerful point about the large number of women buying homes, and how if the policy were employed in constituencies like his and mine, it would help many people from black and minority ethnic communities to get on the ownership ladder. That is something of which we should be very proud.
As my hon. Friend said, in the autumn statement 2016 my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that the next stage in implementing our manifesto commitment will be a large regional pilot, which we anticipate will allow about 3,000 families to buy their own home. It is important to carry out such pilots to ensure that we get the policy right, because it is much more complicated than the statutory right to buy. It is a voluntary arrangement with many complications, some of which my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford mentioned, so piloting is extremely important. The regional pilot will therefore not only be bigger in scale but allow us to test some of the key features of the policy. He identified the two key ones: portability and one-for-one replacement. The smaller pilots did not cover those two crucial aspects of the policy.
Portability is really the answer to the other key question that my hon. Friend put to me, which was about how many properties would be eligible. It is difficult to answer that question now, but I will say two things. First, housing associations will choose not to sell some properties. An example might be properties in highly rural parts of the country, where the association judges that the chance of finding a site in the area to build a replacement would be very slim. Instead, an association might offer the family a chance to buy a home somewhere locally on the open market, rather than the one in which they live. Another example, with which I am sure he sympathises, would be that of a home with significant sums of money spent on it in adaptations for a disabled person. An association might want to keep that property in its stock and, again, would allow the family living there to buy somewhere else. Portability is important.
Secondly, my hon. Friend also touched on what the initial pilots have suggested about problems with properties not being able to be sold because of certain restrictions placed on them—he talked about section 106 agreements. I hope to make some progress on that through local authorities respecting the agreement that the Government have reached with the housing associations and allowing people who are ultimately their residents and have the dream of owning their own home to do so, in particular because the councils can be confident that replacement homes will be provided for rent. That is something that I will keep a very close eye on and he was right to make that point.
My hon. Friend’s final question was about timing—of the announcement about the regional pilots and of the national roll-out. The Government are working with the National Housing Federation to identify the most effective location or locations for the regional pilots. I hope to announce a decision on that shortly. I cannot prejudge the decision, but he made a powerful case, not only through his passion for the policy and his desire to see it rolled out for his constituents, but in terms of the particular make-up of the community he has the privilege of representing and the enthusiasm of his local housing association to be a part of the scheme. He has spoken to the Secretary of State, but I will report his enthusiasm. We will let him know as soon as we have a decision. I was lucky that, under the L&Q pilot, the first home in the country to be sold was in Croydon, so I have seen the benefit of the pilots in my constituency and I can understand his enthusiasm.
I cannot, however, give my hon. Friend the timing of the national roll-out. I understand the frustration out there, and I am contacted regularly by housing association tenants who are desperate to see the Government get on with implementing our commitment, which we intend to honour. We first need to learn from the regional pilot, but there is a real determination to get on with this, because—like my hon. Friend—the Government believe strongly that people who work hard and do the right thing should have the opportunity to own their own home.
I appreciate the Minister passing on my enthusiasm to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Will he also pass it on to Treasury officials? It is important to ensure that support from the Treasury is in place.
I will happily do that. I should thank the Chancellor for the funding he has given us for the regional pilots. My hon. Friend is quite right: with the Office for National Statistics classifying housing associations in the public sector, there is an additional cost beyond the money we will raise through higher value asset receipts. I thank him for his question, and I will certainly pass that on.
Question put and agreed to.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered broadband speeds and advertising.
This House has considered broadband many times before and will, I am sure, do so again. It is only fair for me to begin by saying that this Government, like the previous coalition Government, have made real efforts to roll out broadband across the country. With their track record, they genuinely lead the class in Europe, and we should all welcome the additional money in today’s Budget for yet more broadband. But this debate is not about the provision of broadband itself; it is about a rather simpler fact—the price that people pay for the speed they think they are buying when they sign up to a service.
I shall draw a brief analogy. If you went to a supermarket to buy a bunch of organic grapes, Mr Owen, and you paid for those organic grapes at the checkout but found out afterwards that, in fact, you had only a tenth of the grapes that you thought you had bought and they were not actually organic, you might be rather grumpy. That is analogous to the situation with broadband advertising.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining this debate. Is it not the case that, in effect, those who advertise in that way obtain by false pretences? They use statistics selectively and in a misleading way to obtain business.
Elsewhere, I have called that practice a fraud on the consumer, and I agree with my right hon. Friend that current practices are simply not fair, reasonable or easily understandable to consumers. Presumably, hon. Members are here because they know that, according to the regulations, just 10% of people who sign up for a service have to receive the advertised speed, so 90% of people do not receive that speed.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Is this debate not also about the need to educate people about their broadband service? It is no use saying that it will be 20% or 30% faster; we need to be specific and ask for specific things to be detailed.
I agree, and I will come on to what those things might be. I think we can all agree that is a pretty well attended Westminster Hall debate. That is because we all agree that things are not working. That is a good place to start.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. In many places where broadband is delivered, people ring up BT or another provider, which says, “You will get x speed,” but when they actually get the service in their home, they find that it is a lot slower. That is one issue. There is also a general issue of areas getting broadband but not enough people signing up for it. The problem is a combination of all those things. I think that if people actually got what they thought they were going to get, they would sign up.
I agree. There is a genuine issue with consumer confidence in headline speeds actually being delivered.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I would love to.
My hon. Friend is being most generous in allowing so many interventions. He mentioned that only 10% of people get the broadband speed they want. Will he reflect on the fact that, if that happened in any other sphere of consumer interaction—financial services, for example—there would be major investigations and fines?
I agree. That is why you would be so angry about the bunch of grapes that I imagined you buying, Mr Owen. We need new guidelines from the Advertising Standards Authority. To be fair to the Government, they are keen on such new guidelines emerging, but we should bear in mind that someone, at some point, thought that 10% of people being able to get the advertised speed was a perfectly decent guideline. We need to move on from that mentality.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
It is only fair that I do.
I am grateful. One of my constituents, who does not receive the advertised broadband speed, consulted a telephone engineer, who said that the cable that carries the signal is incapable of carrying the advertised speed. That cable is provided by BT, which knows that it is not capable of carrying the advertised speed. Surely that is fraud.
I agree. That is the second of the two issues that I hope to be able to raise. The first is that I think we can all agree that 10% is not enough, and we should have different rules for the number of people who are able to receive a certain speed. We should also be clear about whether the technology is able to deliver what people are sold. I would like there to be a more accurate way of describing the number of people who are able to receive a service and much tighter and more accurate descriptions of the kind of technology that is used to deliver that service. That comes back to the right hon. Lady’s point.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument. On that point, is it not the case that a community may get fibre to the cabinet, but speed is lost when the signal goes on to copper, so there can be different speeds right across a rural community?
Or an urban one.
Houses in such communities get completely different speeds right across the board. Is that not an issue that we must tackle?
Exactly. The right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) is right to mention that this is not just a rural issue but an urban one too.
My hon. Friend is being generous; he has given way to 100% of the official Opposition’s Back Benchers who are here and nearly 100% of the Government Back Benchers. This is not just a rural and urban issue; it affects semi-rural areas, too. Will he reflect on the fact that in individual postcodes, speeds differ vastly from those that are advertised, possibly because of different exchanges?
Absolutely. We need to end up in a position where at least half the people to whom a service is advertised—the distribution of advertising, particularly postal advertising, is often based on postcodes—should be able to receive the service that they are invited to pay for.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I should have said no at the beginning, but since I have been so consistent, I shall give way.
I thank my hon. Friend—I am trying to make it up to 100% on the Government Benches. Does he agree that this whole thing is a minefield? We have just had more money for connecting Devon and Somerset. We all thought that everything would be fine and everyone would get the right broadband speed, but a minefield of confusion has transpired. Should not we have much clearer labelling, adverts—everything, really?
Yes. As I understand it, we could have a separate debate about the broadband roll-out in Devon and Somerset, so let us park that.
We need to end up in a situation where at least half of the people who are offered a service can receive it. On the one hand, that would be a fivefold increase on what is currently offered; on the other, the half of people who, by implication, could not receive that service would still be let down. So a starting point for the ASA to consider would be not only that 50% of people can receive the advertised speed but that a certain amount either side of the average can also receive within a certain percentage of that speed. Let us say that 50% receive the advertised speed and 20% either side can receive within 10% of that. That way, customers would basically know what they were getting.
That would be a revolution compared with the shambles we have at the moment. It would restore consumers’ confidence that the service they were paying for was what they were getting. I hope it would also encourage some businesses to adopt the good practice that, to be fair, BT has adopted of trying to provide each individual customer at the point of signing up with a personalised suggestion of what their speed will be. We should not pretend that the industry has not tried to make progress, but we should certainly acknowledge that the ASA guidelines do not compel it to do so, and that is a position that we would like all to get to.
The hon. Gentleman has outlined clearly the difficulties for domestic properties. In my constituency, a large number of people who have become self-employed and work from home were misled by advertising that they would get broadband at the speed they needed—the fact of the matter is that they do not. Does he agree—perhaps the Minister will respond to this—that there is a need for people who were misled by advertising and have not had delivery of what they need to get compensation?
The hon. Gentleman pre-empts my next sentence. Business or consumer, if a person does not fall within the prescribed bounds of the new guidelines, which I hope will be much more stringent, they should be entitled to get out of the contract immediately, whatever terms they signed up to. Getting into the realms of compensation would probably open up a can of worms and not solve the issue for that consumer or business, but people should certainly be able to escape immediately and try to find another solution.
The second part of the discussion is to say that where a service is advertised as fibre, it should be entirely a fibre service. If a service is compromised by the use of copper as it enters a person’s premises, at the very least they should know that when they sign up to that service. If they do not, my fear is that we will encourage the continuation of a network that is not a full-fibre network across the country. That is what our constituents would all like to see, and it is what we and they all know is essential to planning for a new world, whether it is the internet of things or simply keeping up with our cousins abroad who are rolling broadband out even faster than we are.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend and neighbour for giving way. May I say that I am delighted to see so many Lincolnshire MPs in the debate?
And other counties—sorry. As my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) knows, I held a broadband summit in my constituency, and many constituents in rural areas made the point that they get so far and then the copper lets them down. Is it not critical that advertising for services is straight with the consumer and tells it like it is?
Exactly. A fibre service should be fibre from beginning to end. If it is not, providers should not be ashamed of telling the consumer that it is not. At the moment, part of the fraud being perpetrated on consumers is that not only can just one in 10 sometimes get the service they are paying, for but many of them are signing up for a service that is simply not in the ground full stop. Those are two simple issues that I hope the Advertising Standards Authority, in a process that it has already begun, will be able to resolve relatively swiftly.
There are not many things on which we come to the House asking for simple and attainable solutions that do not cost anyone any money. However, I would submit—not only to you, Mr Owen, but even to the Minister—that we could solve this problem relatively quickly if the ASA is listening, which I hope it is. My two requests are simple. They are that at least half of all consumers should be able to receive the service they are paying for, with 20% either side being able to receive within a certain range of that service, and that a service that is fibre should be fibre from beginning to end.
May I suggest that the hon. Gentleman’s ambition is too low? I cannot think of anywhere else I buy something and am guaranteed to get only 50% of what I buy—I expect 100%. It seems to me that, from the beginning of the contract, we have been satisfied with less than 100%, and the consequences are that not just rural areas but urban areas such as Slough—big business areas—are not being treated properly.
I am surprised that it has taken 15 minutes for someone to raise that point, but perhaps I should not have taken so many interventions. I agree with the right hon. Lady that the accusation could be made that I am not being ambitious enough. The fact remains that a large number of our constituents will be signing up to part-fibre services. The only practical way to have large-scale advertising of those services is to stick with an “up to” model, and 50% with a range either side is a heck of a lot more stringent than we have had thus far, but it is attainable. I would like the ASA to come back and say, “Actually, we could be tougher, and we think that is perfectly reasonable,” but I suspect the pressure is on it to stay closer to 10% than 50%. I therefore accept the principle of her point, but given that an awful lot of people will still require copper connections in the near future at the very least, we are lumbered with a situation where we have to try to make a nod towards the problems they will face.
I accept that there is a sort of third way of saying, “If you have a full-fibre connection, you can demand that it is within 90% of the advertised speed,” or something like that. It is important that we preserve the sense of such advertising, which can be clear and relatively straightforward. I think it might be too complicated to say, “If you are on a full-fibre connection you are guaranteed to get within 90%, if you on a part-fibre connection you are guaranteed to get within 50%, and if you are on a satellite connection, it will be a rather different ball game altogether.” We have to be pragmatic when we seek to influence the deliberations of the ASA, but, as I said, the Government and many Members are on the same page in seeking to get the guidelines amended. We all acknowledge that the way broadband is currently advertised to consumers is fundamentally broken. If we do not fix it, we risk compromising consumer faith in the service offered. More fundamentally, if we do not force advertisers to be open about when their services are full-fibre, as our constituents deserve, we risk not just bad advertising but the roll-out of broadband in the country being further delayed and even less perfect than it already is.
This debate is not purely about advertising. If we get the rules on advertising right, that will foster the improved roll-out of broadband across the country and greater take-up of services already available to consumers, and that enhanced take-up will result in further money going back into the system and further roll-out of the broadband service. I hope that we can all support my relatively modest—perhaps too modest—proposals, that the Government can support them and that, further, the ASA will listen to them. With that, I will hand over to all my colleagues who have intervened already.
Before calling Patricia Gibson to speak, I remind hon. Members that I will call the Scottish National party Front-Bench spokesperson at 5.10 pm. The SNP and Labour spokespeople will have five minutes and the Minister will have 10, of which he may want to give some time for a brief conclusion from the sponsor of the debate.
I thank the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) for bringing the debate to the House. Another day, another debate on broadband—the subject never gets old. Even though we seem to debate broadband every day, it still pulls a big crowd. Our postbags are bulging with quite justifiable complaints about broadband; every Member here will be well versed in their constituents’ problems with broadband.
As we have heard, the issue for consumers is that when they purchase a broadband service, they deserve transparent, accurate information on their broadband speeds. I am sure that is why so many of us welcome the review of how broadband speed is advertised and why there really needs to be a change in the advertising guidance. Most broadband packages are advertised with their headline speeds—for example, 20 Mbps—but as many constituents tell us, it is unlikely that a customer will be able to receive that headline speed all of the time, and some customers will not receive it any of the time. That may be because of where that customer lives, electrical interference or the demand on the network at peak times.
There is a problem with how headline broadband speeds are advertised and presented to consumers. The broadband speed claims advertising guidance explains that headline speed claims are permitted to be advertised if they are achievable by at least 10% of the relevant customer base where the qualification “up to” is used when presenting the headline broadband speed. That is not good enough. Hon. Members have asked today what other consumer group for another product would be happy with that level of service and advertising.
In November, the Advertising Standards Authority published independent research into consumers’ understanding of broadband speed claims made in advertisements and found—not surprisingly—that speed is an important factor for a significant proportion of consumers when deciding between providers. While levels of knowledge and understanding of broadband speeds vary, overall knowledge, as hon. Members probably expect, is quite low, with many consumers not knowing what speed they require to carry out daily online tasks. As hon. Members may also expect, most consumers believe that they are likely to receive a speed at or close to the headline speed claim, when in most cases that is not likely.
What does that tell us? It tells us that, in the interests of transparency and accuracy, there simply has to be a change in the way broadband speed claims are advertised to ensure that consumers are not misled, as they clearly are currently. The Advertising Standards Authority has now called for that, and the Committee of Advertising Practice has announced it will review its guidance to advertisers and is expected to report publicly soon. Further to that, Ofcom has asked internet service providers to sign up to a voluntary code of practice for residential broadband speeds that would require internet service providers to provide consumers with clear, accurate information on broadband speeds, including the maximum speeds they can achieve, the estimated speed on their line and factors that may slow down the speed, with a route of redress when speed performance is poor.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech. She mentioned speeds of 100 Mbps; in parts of my constituency, speeds of between 1 and 2 Mbps are not unusual. Will she join the call from my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) for accuracy in advertising about 100% fibre—not just the part-fibre, part-copper solution?
I will absolutely join him in that. The important thing we all agree on is that consumers need to be given all of the information. As somebody said, it does not matter how bad that information might be; if customers are not given all of it, how on earth are they supposed to make an informed choice about their service provider?
I will finish by pointing out that many consumers are bamboozled by the technicalities of broadband speeds, but every consumer wants and deserves the clearest, most accurate and transparent information and experience possible from internet providers. That is expected—indeed, it is not even debated—in other areas in the marketplace, so why should it not apply to internet service providers? Only then can consumers freely and knowingly enter into a contract with an internet service provider and understand what expectations they should have.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) for bringing this important debate on broadband speeds to the House.
Broadband speeds and broadband in general are probably the biggest issue we deal with in my constituency office in North Cornwall. Broadband is increasingly becoming a necessity, and I am pleased with the Government’s announcements around new builds and some of the changes to building regulations that will help many of my constituents to get speeds of 10 Mbps by 2020. That will go down well in some of the villages in my constituency. Cornwall is one of the most superfast-connected areas in Europe, with around 95% of people having access to it, but that does not help the 5% of people who do not have access. I assure hon. Members that they write to me regularly.
A number of villages—Treven near Launceston, Stoke Climsland, Blisland, Tintagel, St Minver—currently receive an inadequate service. Either there is no service at all, or there is a copper-fibre solution that really does not work for them. There are many households that do not have access to a decent broadband speed, and the fibre-to-the-cabinet but copper-to-the-door solution is not beneficial to anyone. I am pleased that Ofcom is looking at how to check speeds on the doorstep, rather than from the cabinet. That will mean customers have much better access to the speed that they have been offered.
My office is compiling a “notspot” map for North Cornwall to plot constituents with poor broadband access and who want access to superfast—or to any connection at all that is faster than they currently have. Unfortunately, many people have been turned down for superfast because they are deemed to be in an area that is not viable. We have a local solution: Cornwall Broadband is filling in the gaps and maintaining speeds where superfast is not being provided by the current provider. Our notspot map is proving to be very useful, because we can plot whole communities and areas that do not have access to superfast—even for some of our small villages and hamlets.
Everyone now relies on broadband as they go about their day-to-day lives. Small businesses in the countryside and some of our farmers who submit returns online have to have access to that information. It is not an effective use of an architect’s time to wait for six hours to download his plans, and the productivity of some of our rural businesses is affected. Reaching a target of 99% superfast connectivity is therefore very important to rural communities.
More generally, we need access to mobile connectivity across Devon and Cornwall. I am pleased to see some of the changes to the electronics code in the Digital Economy Bill that will provide better access to sites and masts. Hon. Members present, including my hon. Friends the Members for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) and for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), will know that there are problems with accessing broadband on trains to the south-west. It is frustrating when trying to work through a journey and be productive and broadband is not available.
I am pleased with the Government’s announcement on 10 Mbps. We need greater transparency on upload and download speeds, and we need Ofcom to ensure that connections can be checked on the doorstep so that people get exactly what they have paid for and what is on the tin. I welcome what the Government have done so far and I look forward to further announcements.
I will expand on the point I made in a rather noisy intervention earlier: this is not just a rural issue. Slough is the third most productive town in the country. We have the largest trading estate in Europe in single ownership and we make more profit per resident than almost anywhere else, but our businesses on Slough trading estate cannot get the broadband speeds that they require. I have a letter here from one of them, who says
“our only option is to install a ‘lease line’. This is basically a fibre optic broadband line which is installed directly to our building for a monthly cost of circa 10x that of a standard fibre…should the issue continue to impact on our growth—”
“would have no hesitation in re-locating us away”
from Slough. That is the situation.
I am very glad that the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) raised the advertising issue, because many people are being conned, but I want us not to add to the confusion by implying that this is only an issue in rural areas. It is horrifying that in such an important industrial centre as Slough, our businesses cannot get the speeds that they need in order to compete.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I wish to add to the cacophony of congratulations for my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on securing this important debate. In many respects, my speech will mirror that of the right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart).
According to the latest figures we have, Solihull enjoyed an economic growth rate of 7.2% in 2015, which is akin to the growth seen in China. It is a go-ahead town. It has many of the modern industries and a trade surplus with the EU. It is a centre of the country and is leading with the combined authority. However, we are hobbled and hamstrung by poor broadband provision and misleading advertising. My constituents have had enough, to such an extent that there is a petition with many hundreds of names on it calling for better broadband provision and honest advertising.
The figure of 10% of customers achieving the advertised speeds is absolute nonsense. A point that other hon. Members have made and I will repeat is that fibre should refer only to actual fibre broadband, not to part-fibre, part-copper or aluminium solutions. I hope the Advertising Standards Authority understands that fundamental point and that that message rings loud and clear today.
Among the cases I have come across in my constituency are businesses telling me that, despite the fact they have a superfast cabinet right outside their building, they are still suffering slow broadband speeds because the cabinet is routed to many miles away.
Some constituents tell me they have given up. We try to have a flexible labour market and a flexible economy. They have heard that and so have stayed at home to look after others and have what we call a portfolio career and lifestyle, yet they are finding when they turn on their computer that they cannot perform the tasks they need to in order to put bread on the table and make that commitment work. That is a great let-down.
I have heard a litany of complaints from a brand-new estate in my constituency, the Berry Maud estate, about its broadband connection. Young professionals cannot work from home because they cannot connect to the internet and therefore cannot stream videos. We ask children now to have iPads and use the internet for their vital schoolwork; they are at a disadvantage because they are so poorly served by their broadband. We need to consider that.
I know that other hon. Members want to speak, so I will finish. It is time for honesty, openness and transparency. It is time we looked at a nationwide solution. I understand the particular concerns about rural broadband, which my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) spoke about, but as the right hon. Member for Slough said, this is a nationwide problem. It is hampering our economy and hurting people’s lives.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) for bringing this subject to the House for discussion.
The importance of having access to reliable and fast broadband should not be underestimated. It increases every day, as more and more of our lives and work rely on access to the internet. As such, empowering consumers and businesses with greater knowledge about the services being offered to them so that they can make better informed choices about which provider suits their needs best is vital.
While I accept the point made by the right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) about this being a national issue, it is particularly prevalent in rural areas, such as my constituency. I will take this opportunity to talk about the importance of broadband to rural areas and lend my voice to the call for greater transparency in advertising regarding broadband speeds. Access to broadband is vital to both individuals and businesses in rural areas, yet they are all too often receiving an inadequate service.
Before Christmas, I campaigned for election on a platform of increasing broadband access to 100% in Sleaford and North Hykeham from the current level of 89%. Access to broadband is not a luxury but a necessity. I have had productive conversations with the Minister for Digital and Culture and am confident that that aim will be realised, but it is not enough to have connectivity. Consumers must also have a suitably fast broadband speed and clear information about which providers can achieve that.
As my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) said, areas of low population density need access to broadband more, to order grocery shopping and manage bank accounts. A local barrister wrote to me to say he is not able to work from home any more because it takes so long to download his court papers that he cannot get them done in time. As local government goes digital by default, many who lack broadband will take twice as long to complete online tax forms and suchlike, with rural businesses suffering unfair economic losses as a result.
The importance of the internet cannot be overstated, and it is wrong that some people are being left behind, creating a situation of haves and have-nots. It is wrong that people who are excited to at last receive a better broadband connection find they are not getting what they think they have paid for. The key issue is the advertising of not only potential maximum speeds and fibre-optic or fibre-copper combinations but the realistic minimum speed that people are likely to achieve.
There have been important steps forward, such as the Government’s plan to build a world-class digital infrastructure as outlined in the UK digital strategy, which is welcome. The Ofcom voluntary code of practice for broadband speeds has been adopted by many of our largest internet service providers, but that code is voluntary and only two thirds of internet service providers used by small and medium-sized enterprises have signed up to it. I hope that the review currently being undertaken by the Committee of Advertising Practice will result in guidelines that create more honesty and transparency, as all hon. Members have said, for consumers and businesses. That is what our constituents need and deserve to keep pace with the digital world.
We will now begin the Front-Bench speeches. Calum Kerr has an extra minute, as does Ms Haigh.
Fantastic. Thank you very much, Mr Owen; you are now my favourite Chair.
I thought I was going to have to write to the ASA about the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman), who was supposed to lead this debate, but only about 10% of the content was him; the other 90% was his colleagues. I am sure he will not be lacking people buying him a beer at the bar. I congratulate him on securing the debate and on having a good evening.
This is a welcome debate, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman is destined for great things. The focus on broadband is appropriate. Today we are homing in on a particular aspect, so this debate has not been the usual venting of frustration about poor broadband speeds. He made some interesting suggestions.
It is important to recognise that in a world where the majority of our broadband is delivered through fibre to the cabinet, broadband speeds will, by definition, vary because of the delivery mechanism. It is hard to nail down a top-line speed that everyone will always receive. Granted, the Minister is leading us on a crusade towards fibre, which we endorse and encourage to happen faster. That will make things simpler, because if everyone is fibre-connected it is much easier to say that people can get a certain level of speed. The hurdle is normally in the last mile. Going forward, with fibre everywhere, the potential bottleneck is in the backhaul, but things will at least become much easier. I thought that the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness gave an excellent introduction, despite his colleagues’ “help”.
On the point that fibre means fibre, that was actually said in proceedings on the Digital Economy Bill. The Minister, who I am sure will remind us of this, was very pleased with himself, because it came shortly after “Brexit means Brexit”. When asked what fibre meant, the Minister said that “fibre means fibre”, and we all thought, “Actually, that’s pretty good.” He should tell the ASA that, because if we look on its website, we find that when challenged on this issue, it has repeatedly said that it is acceptable to call FTTC “fibre broadband”.
The problem is that we have given advertising agencies far too much scope over the years. It is a fact that life does not go better with Coca-Cola and a Mars bar does not help you work, rest and play, and if companies are not giving fibre to the house—that is not the same as giving copper to the house— they should say so. That is what the adverts should be telling us.
I completely agree. I saw a bizarre exchange on Twitter, in which a very senior individual in BT, when challenged on its claims about fibre delivery, said, “Well, we deliver fibre broadband by a different route.” The reply was, “You mean copper, in other words, so it’s not really fibre, is it?” That is something that should be flushed out. The point that the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness made, and others reinforced, was that there needs to be integrity in the offer.
I would like to touch on a couple of aspects of the problem. The issue is not just the speed, but how broadband is packaged. If people go on BT’s site or Virgin’s site, they will find an “up to” package. Part of the frustration is that those buckets are very large. Whether I get 1 Mbps, 2 Mbps or 10 Mbps, if I have signed up to an up to 17 Mbps package, that really rankles. I am paying the same as someone with 17 times the speed that I have. There is not actually an answer to that. Ofcom will tell us that the market has to deliver more choice, but in rural areas more than urban areas, the market does not function. There are challenges there.
I will make a few other quick points, but by the way, the idea of grapes was genius. That was the sort of thing we used to bring the teacher. I do not know whether that was what the hon. Gentleman was hinting at. He will be turning up with seedless grapes for you next time, Mr Owen.
Compensation, which the Digital Economy Bill empowered being put in place, is a welcome addition. At the moment, Ofcom is minded to make it possible only in a loss of service situation, and I accept that that is a reasonable starting point, but our direction of travel should be to say that broadband is far more than just a headline download speed. It is about download, upload and potentially latency, although not if we go with fibre. We should be able to expect a maximum and an average. The idea of a broadband package doing what it says on the tin should be considered, and ultimately compensation should go far further.
I repeat the congratulations to the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness on bringing this debate forward. We clearly need to improve clarity about what broadband packages involve. I am sure that the Minister is keen to ensure that fibre means fibre and that people get broadband that does what it says on the tin.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen—you have always been my favourite Chair.
As the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) outlined excellently, with the Committee of Advertising Practice due to report imminently, this is a good moment for the House to influence the debate about advertising speeds—I am sure the committee will have been taking note of the debate. As all hon. Members who have spoken have outlined, businesses and people in homes up and down this country are sick and tired of being sold broadband only to realise that the advertised speed was only a headline and that, in many cases, consumers will never be likely to receive it.
The Federation of Small Businesses has said that
“dissatisfaction with broadband providers appears to be widespread and deeply felt.”
In part, that is a reflection of the fact that for more than 400,000 small businesses, the market has failed to deliver superfast broadband fit for the future. Many people in business parks in places such as Slough have been badly let down, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) mentioned. However, it is also because of the utterly absurd existing advertising standards, which allow providers to claim speeds that are achievable by only 10% of the relevant consumer base. That undoubtedly leaves people duped or, as the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness said, perpetrates a fraud on the consumer.
Research by independent testing groups has found that up to three quarters of households are paying for advertised broadband speeds that they have never received. Obviously, that is completely unacceptable. It is incomparable to the situation with similar advertising claims across industries, which reveals just how desperately weak those advertising standards are. The hon. Gentleman mentioned grapes, but if a consumer is sold a burger that is advertised as 80% to 90% meat, the producer is legally bound to ensure that that meat is of the advertised quality. There is absolutely no leeway. Thanks to the strict regulation that governs that industry, consumers can be confident in what they are buying. That is why the Opposition support the calls from hon. Members for much more stringent guidelines based on what a majority—figures of 50% and 100% have been mentioned—can receive. We need to ensure that advertised broadband speeds are upheld.
That would be a good start, but the upcoming report and recommendations are also an opportunity to insist that broadband providers be honest with their consumers—honest about the technology that connects them, as well as about the speed that they are actually receiving. I therefore hope that consideration is given to another way of measuring speed—measuring the average for each individual user. That would reflect recommendations made by the National Infrastructure Commission on mobile coverage. It raised concerns, which I share, about the need to develop a meaningful set of metrics that represent the coverage that people actually receive.
As we have heard, the FTTC roll-out means that once the connection has made its way along the copper from the cabinet to the home, speeds are highly unlikely to be at superfast level and are much more likely to be in the region of 17 Mbps. Advertising an average speed for each user is clearly far preferable. That would put power back in the hands of the consumer and small businesses and demonstrate to them the reality of the claims made by providers. That in turn might induce a certain amount of consumer activism, with consumers pushing for a much more ambitious roll-out of fibre-to-the-premises and viewing superfast broadband as the bare minimum as they come to recognise that the speeds they receive are simply not fast enough. It would potentially give consumers the tools to encourage the Government and industry to get them up to speed. It might even be the final nail in the coffin for the Government’s plan to deliver only a 10 Mbps universal service obligation. As the other House has now found, that is simply not fit for purpose.
I urge the Government once again to accept a superfast designation. The industry itself is potentially coming round to that. I want to give the Minister time to respond, so I will finish by saying that the recommendations by the Committee of Advertising Practice mark a significant moment, and I hope that the Government will take this opportunity to ensure that consumers can have the confidence they deserve.
Mr Owen, you are also my favourite Chair. Responding to the debate is a great opportunity, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) for securing it. It is an unusual debate, because on the broad principles that have been set out, everyone—across parties and across rural and urban areas; the Government, the Opposition and Back Benchers—is in agreement.
Hon. Members have spoken passionately today. In some cases, they gave precise details of problems with broadband roll-out. We are making progress there, but clearly there is more to do. In fact, thinkbroadband, which measures these things independently, announced today that the figure for superfast broadband availability is now up to 92.5% of UK premises. We are on track for our target of 95% by the end of this year. That is good news on the roll-out. That is superfast broadband measured at 24 Mbps, which brings us to the meat of the debate—the clarity with which these things are recorded and measured.
I take on board the points about frustration with specific parts of the roll-out, but I will concentrate on the subject of the debate, which is clarity on how these things are measured. We agree that the current rules permit adverts that are likely to mislead, as a headline advertised broadband speed needs to be achievable only by 10% of customers. It is unfortunate that those who advertise broadband currently neglect the famous maxim of David Ogilvy:
“The more informative your advertising, the more persuasive it will be.”
As in any market for broadband, customers need clear, concise and accurate information to make an informed choice. We are therefore including measures in the Digital Economy Bill to strengthen Ofcom’s powers to provide information to consumers, including data on the accuracy of broadband speed predictions. In the digital strategy that we launched last week we said:
“We are working with regulators and industry to ensure that advertising for broadband more accurately reflects the actual speeds consumers can expect to receive, rather than a headline ‘up to’ speed available only to a few, and accurately describes the technology used, using terms like ‘fibre’ only when full fibre solutions are used. There should not be a gap between what is promised by providers and what is experienced by the consumer.”
I stand by that, not least because we launched the strategy last week. I hope that Members will forgive me for the length of that direct quotation, but it is important. I also hope that I can accurately put some advertising in place myself; for those who have not read the digital strategy, it is well worth a full read.
On the mechanics of this, as many Members have said, the broadband speed claims that can be made in adverts are regulated by the independent Advertising Standards Authority. It is a good thing that the Government do not directly regulate advertising. However, I am sure the ASA will want to listen to the strength of feeling that has been expressed unanimously during this debate by Members representing hundreds of thousands of people and many businesses.
Will the Minister commit to writing to the Advertising Standards Authority to ensure that it follows through on this issue?
Yes—I might include a copy of the Hansard, although I know that the Advertising Standards Authority will be listening because I spoke to its chief exec yesterday to explain that this debate was going to take place. I explained that it is not only the Government’s view that we need to have more accurate advertising, but a widely held view in Parliament.
To give the ASA credit, it has made serious progress in one area. Last year it changed the rules on prices for landlines and line rental being advertised separately from the price for just the broadband element. Previously, an advert might have had the broadband cost and then said in the small print at the bottom, “You also need line rental of £19.99 a month.” Now it has changed those rules, so the costs are amalgamated. That has been a success and, in a way, shows what an effective body the ASA is when it insists on accurate advertising.
That is a really important point, because we have seen that there is real competition in the line rental part of the sector. It is a bit like the case of low-cost airlines—once the whole price is considered, competitors compete across every part of it. By making that change the ASA has driven far greater competition, and it should be encouraged by that.
Yes, it should. Its sister body, the Committee of Advertising Practice, which is responsible for writing the UK advertising codes, is now in the midst of reviewing its guidance on broadband speed claims and is on course to publish the findings of that review this spring—I am sure that it will listen carefully to this debate.
The ASA has made progress this year and is in the middle of consulting on and reviewing the issue of “up to” speeds, but there is an area where it has not yet made any progress: the description of the technology. In my view, and having talked to many people about broadband, some people look at numbers when making a decision and some look at descriptions. It is natural that we look at different things. Describing technology as “fibre” when it is not in fact entirely fibre is misleading. If anything, that view was compounded by a briefing note given to me by BT for this debate, which says that
“customers overwhelmingly have no preference for the technology used to provide broadband.”
That may be true, but it does not mean that people want an inaccurate description of the technology. It goes on to say:
“While BT does provide the most FTTP (‘full fibre’) lines across the UK, the average FTTC line is around 93% fibre…The ASA has looked at this situation and agrees that services using almost entirely fibre-based technology can be described as ‘fibre’.”
I very much hope not for long. BT then demonstrates why that is deeply misleading, because the next sentence says:
“A higher proportion of UK premises can access fibre broadband than in any of the other four major European economies (Germany, France, Spain, and Italy)”.
That is not true. It is true only if “fibre” is defined as being part fibre and part something else, whether copper or aluminium. If fibre is defined as being fibre—I believe that fibre means fibre—in fact we are not the best of the five major European economies, but the worst. Accuracy would help BT to provide more accurate briefing notes, and its use of the term “fibre” should be updated. I am sure that the ASA will be able to take that forward in due course.
I want to touch on a couple of the other comments that were made. My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) and the right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), in a commendably crisp speech, made points about business connections. If anything, this issue is more important for business customers, because businesses of different sizes may need services of different scales. Whereas a superfast connection is more than most households would need at the moment, if businesses have several people working on data-heavy projects they might need a highly scalable product, and for that, the technology really matters.
I am sure that everyone is delighted that in the Budget this afternoon, the Chancellor announced significant progress on having a full-fibre business voucher. I am delighted that that will now be rolled out. We proposed it first in the autumn statement and consulted on it in the last couple of months. I am delighted that it was part of the Budget; it will be an important step forward. However, we have had to describe that as “full fibre” to get away from the completely unnecessary ambiguity over the term “fibre”. I am confident that that will change soon.
The second point I want to touch on—again, this was raised by the right hon. Member for Slough—is the appropriate proportion of customers who should be able to get a particular speed. That is technically difficult, especially because speeds vary when more people get on to the network, so it is important to ensure that we get the technical specifications right. I have full confidence that the ASA, in listening to this debate and to customers around the country, and in considering the technical challenges, will come to a reasonable conclusion. I look forward to working with it to get there and to engaging with Members on both sides of the House to make sure that we have a fully functioning, competitive, well-informed and accurate broadband market, and that people no longer feel the frustration of being misled by thinking that they are buying one service when, in fact, they are delivered another.
I thank the Minister for that response and echo what he said. We are clearly all on the same side of this argument, and it would be good if the ASA took note of that. I would be surprised if the ASA was not looking at a majority rule of some sort. I am sure we would all agree not only that that is the right thing to do but that implementing an improved standard of advertising cannot come soon enough. As we have discussed, it should ensure that more than 50% of people receive the speed that they pay for and that fibre means fibre.
I thank all Members who have taken part in this debate. Mr Owen, you are, of course, my favourite Chair as well—I look forward to serving under your chairmanship in the next broadband debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered broadband speeds and advertising.