Wednesday 15 March 2017
[Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: First Report from the Women and Equalities Committee, Pregnancy and maternity discrimination, HC 90, and the Government response, CM 9401.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of maternity discrimination.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I am very pleased to have secured this debate on an important topic for many women and a key campaigning area for the Labour party: maternity discrimination. I thank all hon. Members who have turned out this morning to contribute to it.
Maternity discrimination is an issue that cannot be ignored. It is only right that action be taken to ensure that this persistent issue in our society is ended once and for all. It is a welcome point of reflection for us all that this debate comes exactly a week after we celebrated International Women’s Day and just over a week before mothers’ day. I felt it was important to secure the debate between those two dates, to press the Government to do more, but also to raise awareness of the many women beyond these walls who are met with blatant and unnecessary discrimination.
Many people—some of whom may even be in this Chamber today, although I hope not—think that maternity discrimination is not a concern that we should focus on, possibly because it does not feature on their radar at all. But it is real, it is happening and it is becoming ever present in our society. Action is needed. That is clearly documented in the Women and Equalities Committee report from last August, which highlighted the fact that pregnant women and mothers are now reporting more discrimination and worse treatment in the workplace than 10 years ago. By some estimates, that discrimination is double what it used to be. According to the Government’s own figures, one in nine women—54,000 in total—is forced out of their jobs each year because of being a mother or becoming pregnant. If that statistic applied to the women elected to this place, it would mean 21 of our fellow female MPs being forced out of this House. If that happened, we would be up in arms and raising merry hell on the Floor of the House. Well, if it is not acceptable for women in this place, it is not acceptable for women in any workplace.
A hundred years ago, women got the vote for the very first time, as part of a campaign to see women become part of public life so that they did not have to abide by the whim of a man and could be fully integrated into society, taking their rightful place as both actors and influencers in how our country should look and act. However, a century on, women still face many hurdles, and all because of their gender.
I will touch on three key themes in my speech. First, I want to set the scene by expanding on the ramifications, both economic and social, of maternity discrimination in our society. I will then move on to the work of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Women and Equalities Committee. Finally, I will look at what the Government are doing—or not doing—to end maternity discrimination.
As I said, this place would be a lot worse off if the statistics on maternity discrimination were replicated in this, the mother of Parliaments. However, maternity discrimination has a far broader impact on our society than some may first expect. The financial costs identified affect not only society, but businesses, the Government and the women themselves. A report last year by the EHRC found:
“The cost to employers of women being forced to leave their job as a result of…discrimination…was estimated to be around £278.8 million over the course of a year.”
Much of that cost was incurred owing to recruitment and training to replace the woman who was forced out of her job, lost productivity from being down a member of staff and statutory maternity payments if the woman was on leave when she left work. For the Government, maternity discrimination means not only lost tax revenue from women not working, but increased benefit payments when they seek support because they have been forced out of work. The cost to the Government is between £14 million and £16.7 million a year.
The financial losses that women themselves face have been estimated to range from between £28.9 million and £34.2 million. Some 20% of women reported significant financial losses as a result of failing to get a promotion, receiving lower pay increases or bonuses than they would have secured were they not pregnant, or even demotion for becoming pregnant. Pregnancy and children are costly—there is no doubt about it—but the costs incurred by women are unjust, unfair and discriminatory. The gift of pregnancy should never be a cost to a woman’s potential or her economic worth.
It is not only the economic costs of women being forced out of the workplace or facing discrimination for becoming pregnant that are a problem, but the social and equality issues that arise. Women’s position in society has come on in leaps and bounds from the time when they were not able to vote, could not work once they were married, had to stay at home or had to defer to a man for every major decision made in their life—as late as the 1970s, women had to have a male guarantor for a mortgage. However, the specific issue of maternity discrimination highlights the fact that the position of women in our society is still tentative. There is still a long way to go.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate and on her excellent speech. Does she agree that such discrimination also happens later on in life? We should recognise that women also face discrimination during the menopause. That point was very well made to me on Saturday by the Wales TUC women’s committee, which is doing a survey on that very subject.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that period in women’s lives. I will not be able to touch on it in my speech, but it is very important. There is a real lack of knowledge about what women have to go through during the menopause. I am probably not long off that period myself. People have no idea what women may have to go through, but we hear all the horror stories. A little understanding from employers would make all the difference. I know that I would probably be a better employer after I have gone through it; unfortunately, men do not have that luxury, so they rely upon us to tell them. That is definitely an important aspect of the matter, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising it.
Some may argue otherwise, but for me and many other women—especially on this side of the House, but across the House, too—equality is a cause worth fighting for, because it creates not only a fairer society, but a stronger and more resilient one. Maternity discrimination holds us back from achieving that goal of an equal society. We need renewed vigour to tackle the problem, so that we can fully realise our country’s potential, with everyone having a fair chance in life and not having to face discrimination for being who they are. It was therefore welcome that this time last year the EHRC and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills published their findings on the prevalence and nature of maternity discrimination in our society, so that we could fully understand the scale of the problem, which was indeed damning. The research showed that, of the women surveyed,
“77%...had a negative or possibly discriminatory experience during pregnancy; maternity leave; and on their return from maternity leave.”
Such experiences included facing harassment or negative comments related to their pregnancy, struggling to secure flexible working from their employer to manage the demands of pregnancy and subsequent childcare, or, for 9% of women, feeling that they had to leave their job because they were being treated poorly or unfairly.
What women are documented as facing because of pregnancy and impending motherhood is worrying and deeply shocking. Even case studies from Maternity Action’s helpline have documented these shameful occurrences. One woman became so stressed with her working environment, where she was being singled out by her manager and treated appallingly, that she was signed off sick with stress before her maternity leave had even begun. As we all know, when someone is pregnant, stress is the last thing she needs. She is told to have a calm and radiant time, which was hardly the case for that mother. It goes without saying that no woman should face such hurdles in life or feel pressured into choosing between having children or having a career that progresses at the same rate as the careers of their male counterparts.
Following the forensic light shone on the issue by the EHRC, the Women and Equalities Committee, under the excellent leadership of the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who I am thrilled to see in the Chamber today—I look forward to her contribution —undertook to investigate maternity discrimination further. In August last year, that inquiry produced some excellent recommendations for the Government to look at and act upon. Sadly, however, it took until January of this year for the Government to respond to the inquiry’s findings.
Included in the recommendations in the Select Committee’s report were further calls for action around the health and safety of pregnant women in the workplace, such as placing a duty on employers to conduct an individual risk assessment for new and expectant mothers, all the way to identifying issues around casual, agency and zero-hours workers, who do not have the same pregnancy and maternity entitlements as women classed as employees.
In an economy that increasingly relies on temporary contracts, more and more women are unable to access any kind of statutory maternity leave, because they have no right to it. That is because they are classed as workers rather than employees. Does my hon. Friend agree that much more needs to be done to provide those women with better access to maternity rights?
I totally agree. On the issue of workers and employees, there is clearly a need to tidy up the law so that women who work in these areas of the labour market are protected and guaranteed the same rights as those women who are classed as employees, so I am very pleased that my hon. Friend has raised that issue. Indeed, Maternity Action has pushed for action on it and recently made a submission to the Matthew Taylor review, which aims to look at working practices in the modern economy, and to the Select Committee on Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy inquiry, “Future World of Work”. I hope that the Minister will be able to shed some light on progress on this issue.
It is safe to say that when the Government eventually responded to the Women and Equalities Committee report, the response was far from pleasing. Although the Government’s commitment to zero tolerance of discrimination against expectant or new mothers in the workplace is to be welcomed, as is the announcement of a consultation on protecting pregnant women against redundancy, sadly the wider response failed to see words leading to action. The Government’s response can easily be seen as a mixture of defending the unacceptable status quo and kicking the issue into the long grass, as if it was something that should be thought about on another day. The Government are failing to realise that this is happening right now.
I am not just making a party political point. The likes of Maternity Action have analysed the Government’s response and reaction to each of the recommendations and have come to the same conclusion: that the Government see this as an issue for another day. I have a lot of time and respect for the Minister who is responding to this debate—she knows that—but I find the Government’s response disappointing to say the least. That is why I hope she can offer me some reassurances when she responds to this debate.
I would like the Minister to consider two things ahead of her response. First, when will we see the details of the consultation on protecting pregnant women from redundancy? Two months on from the Government’s commitment to consult on this issue, we are yet to see publication of the scale or time frame. I hope that information will be forthcoming following this debate, and sooner rather than later. Even better, the Minister could announce further details in her speech today.
My second ask is that the Government take another look at the excellent recommendations in the Select Committee’s report and heed the words of the right hon. Member for Basingstoke, who said that the Government’s response was
“a missed opportunity for the Government to demonstrate the urgency and bite on this issue that we found lacking”.
I could not have put it better myself. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will commit to re-evaluating the Government’s response to the Select Committee report and their own wider actions when it comes to maternity discrimination.
To conclude, we have come a long way in the march for women’s equality. I know that this point will not be lost on the Minister, but it bears reiterating: as the current standard bearers, we in this House have a duty to uphold the work done by the women who came before us. Failing to end maternity discrimination would betray our crusading predecessors, who campaigned to improve the position of women in society. As women here today, we have the power to make the changes possible for women who face discrimination in the workplace for being pregnant or being a new mother. However, we must also stand up for the women who will come after those facing these challenges now, and ensure that in the future no woman faces discrimination in the workplace for doing what is only natural—having a child.
I hope that the Minister will heed this call to arms and take it back to her officials, knowing that we in this House and many more women beyond this Chamber are willing her on to make the changes needed and improve the standing of women in the workplace. She alone has the power to do that. I hope she realises that and does not squander this incredible position she has to enact change.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope.
I shall begin by apologising to Members for the fact that I need to leave shortly before the end of the debate, as I have to chair a Select Committee. I hope that they will accept my apologies.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing such an important debate. We have record numbers of women in work in this country, but we still have a workplace that is not sufficiently modernised to deal with those record numbers. The hon. Lady took an intervention from the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), who was absolutely right to say that all too often now we have different classes of women in the workplace, who are not being dealt with in the way that all of us, as constituency MPs, would want them to be dealt with.
We need to modernise the workplace and make sure that it can deal fairly with both mothers and fathers who have caring responsibilities. In particular, and in keeping with the subject of this debate, we need to ensure that the critical issues that the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West identified, which have also been identified by both the Select Committee report that she referred to and by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in its work on discrimination, are outlawed and stopped. We cannot allow those things to continue.
As the hon. Lady mentioned, the Government’s own research has indicated that around three quarters of the women involved in that research have experienced a negative or potentially discriminatory experience as a result of their pregnancy. We would not expect that in a country that prides itself on introducing the Equality Act 2010 and on the fact that we have record numbers of women in work.
Not for a moment do I question the commitment of my hon. Friend the Minister in this area; as someone who has extensive knowledge of and experience in business, she will know first-hand the importance of supporting women and fathers through the experience of having a new addition to their family. At the moment, however, the law is not working in the way that we intend it to, which is what I want to focus on.
I shall discuss three recommendations in the Select Committee report, to which the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West kindly referred to in her speech. First, not all people who are in work are treated the same, and a difference has started to emerge between workers and employees. In particular, the fact that many women are not able to access paid time off work to attend antenatal appointments should be deeply worrying to us all, because there is clear evidence that attending antenatal appointments and receiving regular support through pregnancy is critical to the health of both the unborn child and the mother. If we are not to accrue costs beyond the pregnancy, because of conditions such as postnatal depression or because of issues around the health of children, we need to address this matter, and rapidly.
I do not think that there was ever really any intention for us to get to a position where quite large groups of women were not covered to have paid time off. However, when the Select Committee visited to Portsmouth with my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond) to take evidence from individuals in the community as part of our deliberations, we met women who had not had access to paid time off for antenatal appointments, which caused them deep distress and great worry.
The Government need to look at that issue and address it quickly. Perhaps during the Brexit deliberations and the passage of the great repeal Bill, and given the clear commitment from the Prime Minister to protect and, I hope, enhance workers’ rights, this issue can be dealt with swiftly.
The hon. Lady makes a really important point, which I would take one stage further: it is not just about women and mothers; it is about men, too. If we are to tackle the issues around shared parental leave and its low take-up, we need to ensure that the information is there for mums and dads—and, indeed, all individuals involved in new parenthood. The research we did for our Select Committee report uncovered the fact that many dads find it difficult to access information and perhaps even more difficult to ask for information from their employer. A number of the recommendations in our report cover access to information, and I know the Government will have looked at them carefully.
My second point is about how we can learn from other countries—near neighbours and countries that are very like us. Many Members get a little fed up about the fact that we always refer to Scandinavia when we look for models for how we should run our country, so this time let us look at Germany. It has a very strong economy and is well run. It has an interesting way of providing the additional protection for pregnant women that I would like to see in our country. It has protection from redundancy for new and expectant mothers up to six months after the birth of a child. That has worked well and made it clear to employers that redundancy is not an option or way forward.
Anecdotally, I have spoken to constituents and people I know who have been pregnant, and they have been offered redundancy while on maternity leave. My goodness, that is a difficult choice, is it not? New mums are coping with an incredibly stressful and possibly quite vulnerable situation. For their employer to offer them redundancy could well be attractive at that point, and they may well take it up and sign a piece of paper saying that they will not disclose that they have taken that offer. That makes it difficult to see that such things are going on. They then come out on the other side of the pregnancy and maternity leave and find it incredibly difficult to get back into the workplace: that is hard, particularly if, as the research tells us, someone has taken more than six months of maternity leave. It would be useful to look at the German system and perhaps interpret it for our country. I do not think anyone could say that Germany is not a competitive economy. Its productivity levels are far higher than the UK’s, and I urge the Government to consider that measure as part of their work.
The final point that I want to draw everyone’s attention to is the probable underestimation of the scale of the problem. I referred earlier to women who might be on maternity leave who take up the offer of redundancy. That is not recorded. Cases may be happening, and we might simply not be grappling with the scale of the problem. That demonstrates the need to ensure that the enforcement action available in this country has teeth. I welcome the thoughtful work that the Government have already done on tribunal fees. I know they are thinking about how we can make tribunals more accessible for more people.
I welcome that, but another problem for pregnant women is the time limit that precludes their taking action where there has been discrimination; action cannot be taken more than three months after the incident. I cannot recall how old your children are, Mr Chope, but I am sure you can cast your mind back to the position three months after the birth of a child or three months after your wife might have taken maternity leave. It is a hectic time when it is difficult to think about bringing a discrimination case. There are better things to do.
I was therefore slightly disappointed that the Government said that at this point they will not consider extending that time limit for pregnant women to six months. It would be entirely appropriate to do that. I do not think there would be a cost to the Government in doing so, and a great deal of fairness would come into play. I hope that they can do that, as well as encouraging the Equality and Human Rights Commission to demonstrate the strength of the law by bringing more cases more publicly. That would show that there are consequences to the ill-treatment of women who are pregnant or on maternity leave and that this is not something that companies should be treating in an apparently cavalier fashion.
The Minister has looked at the matter in detail, and I give her my personal thanks. The response to my Committee’s report demonstrated her careful attention, and I thank her for that. I also reiterate my thanks to the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West for calling this debate, which has given me an opportunity to contribute and underline the report that the Committee wrote. A number of members of the Committee are here today.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Chope. I thank the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for securing this debate. It is not the first time we have debated this issue in Westminster Hall or other parts of this building. In July last year, we had a debate on this issue. In January, I spoke at an event with the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) hosted by Maternity Action.
It is with some frustration that we are here today, having seen so little progress on the excellent recommendations by the Women and Equalities Committee and so many other campaigning groups. At the event in January, Maternity Action previewed some excellent videos that it had produced to highlight to women the actions they can take. The videos put it very well. It was ordinary women in ordinary jobs facing up to the issues that every pregnant woman must face about what will happen with their job and what will happen when they become pregnant in the first place and when they have their baby. I encourage all women and, indeed, men watching this debate to take a look at those videos and to share them widely, so that women know what their rights are and that they can come forward. It seems clear that women are not aware of their rights and are not being encouraged to exercise them.
It should not be down to charities such as Maternity Action and grassroots campaigns such as Pregnant Then Screwed to highlight to women their rights. The Government should be letting women know what their rights are and encouraging them to take them up. They should be cracking down on employers who inhibit women from doing so, and they clearly have a role in that.
The Alliance for Maternity Rights has a 32-point action plan to put an end to pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. It makes a great number of excellent recommendations, one of which is about access to information. When women come into contact with officials, that should be used as an opportunity to get information and reinforce what their rights are and where they can seek advice and seek help. Some of those things are being done in Scotland. Point 10 of the action plan is:
“Reintroduction of the ‘Pregnancy’ and ‘Birth to Five’ books…in translation and accessible formats…for new and expectant parents”.
In Scotland, we have the “Ready Steady Baby” books and a great deal of information is available about women’s rights within pregnancy and once they have had the baby. It is important that women have every opportunity possible to get that information.
The action plan also has good recommendations about improving employer practice. Point 3 is:
“Commit to working with employers to encourage them to evaluate the retention rates for women one year after returning to work following maternity leave, as part of their gender pay gap analysis.”
When they go back to work, some women find it just too difficult to juggle all the things they have to juggle, whether it is childcare or trying to get to work on time or to leave on time to pick children up from whoever is looking after them. It is incredibly difficult and stressful, and some women find that far too difficult and that flexibility is not built in.
Point 4 is:
“Work with employers and third party organisations including recruiters to encourage a ‘flexible by default’ approach to all roles (working hours are flexible unless there is a genuine business case against).”
As the right hon. Member for Basingstoke mentioned, that is good for men, too. My hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) encouraged me to point out that only 2% to 8% of men take up their right to shared parental leave. That is tiny. If maternity leave and paternity leave are made more accessible, more normal and more mainstream—something that everybody has a right to take up—that has to be good for men, as it is for women. Employers are obliged to consider requests for flexible working, but they are under no compulsion to act on that. Sometimes getting up the courage even to ask for flexible working can be incredibly difficult.
The issue around stress in pregnancy is also significant. I had a briefing from the Personal Social Services Research Unit at the London School of Economics, which highlights the costs to society of perinatal mental health problems. That is a serious issue made worse by the stress of pregnancy when it comes to dealing with employers. The briefing states:
“Taken together, perinatal depression, anxiety and psychosis carry a...long-term cost to society of about £8.1 billion for each one-year cohort of births in the UK. This is equivalent to a cost of just under £10,000 for every single birth in the country.”
How much of that is down to the stress of dealing with unsympathetic employers who do not help and support women in those circumstances? If we can do something to reduce that stress and the impact it has on those women and their unborn children, we should definitely do it.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and I apologise for being late. Ironically, I was dropping my daughter off at nursery, which is why I came in a bit late. The hon. Lady is making a passionate speech.
I want to raise a point about Parliament when I was pregnant last year. It may surprise some Members to know that there is no maternity leave here in Parliament. I raised the issue several times and was met with hostility across the board from people of all political parties. The right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) was one of the few who listened and said she would try to make some changes. Does the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) agree that if we are preaching about maternity discrimination, perhaps we should think about the fact that Members such as myself have had to come back to Parliament almost immediately after having an emergency C-section.
I absolutely agree. I know the hon. Lady has tried very hard and has been in the Chamber with her baby at times. I am glad to see babies in the Chamber, but that speaks to the fact that there is no other provision in this building. There is no alternative for people to look after their babies other than perhaps leaving them with a member of staff. The nursery across the road is not a crèche. We need to think better about how we encourage women into this building in the first place and how we keep them here. There is not enough support.
The hon. Lady’s point about maternity leave for women in the House is right. It is also true for councillors across the country as well. There is no provision under the Local Government Act 1972 for councillors to have maternity leave, and lots of councils do not have any provision, either. I know because I breastfed both of my small children when I was at Glasgow City Council, and I just had to make the best of that. The council was very supportive at the time, but I know that it is difficult and a challenge for women in politics, and we need to think about how we support women in that field.
Access to justice is a serious issue as well. The EHRC, an organisation at serious risk right now, has been mentioned. It does not have enough funding and cannot support all the women it would like to support. The Government need to give serious consideration to making their role in this real, because if they cut funding as well as having tribunal fees, they really are denying women access to the justice that they deserve.
Pregnant Then Screwed has a campaign called “Give Me Six” to highlight an issue that the right hon. Member for Basingstoke raised about having six months to make a claim. There is a petition with 50,000 signatures. I encourage people to sign it, because it is incredibly important that the Government recognise that three months is a barrier. There are so many things going on that people cannot access their rights under employment tribunals, and six months would give them a little more breathing space.
It would be remiss of me not to mention breastfeeding in this debate, as I always tend to do. As Maternity Action has highlighted, one in five women who stopped breastfeeding say that returning to work influenced that decision, and more than half would like to have breastfed for longer. That is a difficulty. Employers need to be aware of what they can put in for breastfeeding mums. The Alliance for Maternity Rights recommends that the Government
“Ensure...breastfeeding is covered in....HSE template risk assessments”,
and calls on them to
“Introduce a statutory right to time off and facilities for breastfeeding”.
Such facilities do not need to be complex. We simply need a private room with access to a plug point for a breast pump, so that there is time and space for that, and fridge facilities for putting the milk in. Those are not difficult asks for employers, but women have to have confidence that they can ask and not be misunderstood, dismissed or laughed at, and that employers are able to provide such facilities as easily and as quickly as possible.
I will close by giving some examples from constituents of mine who got in touch with my Facebook page after the event in January. I was shocked at how quickly these examples of people’s experiences came in and how commonplace they were. The women told their stories almost casually. The first woman said:
“I was made redundant at 3 months pg. I was one of 5 HR Managers doing exactly the same jobs. (Not) surprisingly none of the others were even in the consultation process.”
The right hon. Member for Basingstoke mentioned Germany as an example. Such examples might stop such practices. The second woman said:
“I worked for a company that got around laws by describing its workers as freelance. They told me to go on benefits when I was pregnant, a few months later they were made to make their freelancers paid employees, but I was just left pregnant on benefits. Very stressful all round, I was told I had no legal come back on them as I had had to leave whilst still freelance.”
The third woman said:
“My gran’s neighbour was two weeks away from leaving on maternity leave meaning she would get maternity pay when they said to her they didn't need her any longer and let her go.”
The fourth woman said:
“This happened to me. I got a job and when I told them I was pregnant they withdrew the...offer claiming I wasn't suitable for the post and that I'd only ever been a candidate. I took them to tribunal and lost, but I wanted to hold them to account. It’s awful that companies can and do get away with treating expectant and new mums like that and if you want to take them to court you need to pay for it.”
That woman was actually applying for a job in a nursery, so we might expect them to have some appreciation of babies and childbirth and suchlike. Another woman said:
“I had to quit my job. They gave me less hours as I had hyperemesis gravidarum but not less duties or even breaks when I was on shift.”
That speaks to the understanding of pregnancy. Some employers, male and female, go with their own experience on this. If they did not have morning sickness or particular experiences in pregnancy, they will often think that is true for all women—“If I was able to get up and go to work while I was pregnant, you should be able to, too.” Employers need clear advice on such issues.
When I was coming here across from the main building, I noticed a buggy sitting outside the Labour Whips Office. I assumed it belonged to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner). That speaks to the point that we need to make sure that babies are visible. The lives of ordinary people involve having children and the different compromises that we need to make in life. So many babies are born every single day and each person has an individual story to tell. We need to make pregnancy, childbirth and parenthood visible. We need to think about how we support people and how Government can take a leading role in making sure that the rights of women and families are respected and taken forward by all employers across this country. Those who do not adhere to such laws should be cracked down on.
Thank you for calling me to speak in this important debate, Mr Chope; it is a privilege to speak under your chairmanship on the issue of maternity rights.
In my contribution, I will mention my personal experiences and what I gleaned from my former industry, and look to the future at what can be done to improve the outlook for expectant women and mothers. As we have heard, many credible and sound proposals have been put forward by the Women and Equalities Select committee, of which I am a member and which is brilliantly chaired by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller). However, my contribution will focus on women in casual work.
First, as many may know, before my election to this place I was an actor and a writer. In those industries, the work is almost exclusively freelance or short-term casual. After my first daughter was born—she was only a few months old—I was offered a six-month contract on “Coronation Street”. Those six months turned into three years. I absolutely loved the job and the character I played, but I cannot deny that being a mother and working on screen presented difficulties.
My baby and husband were in London while I worked often six days a week in Manchester. During that time, my partner and I tried everything. My partner moved to Manchester to be with me, but, with no support network, that did not work. We had no nursery at work. We tried employing a nanny, but that did not work. I tried to be both a mother and an actor, spinning the plates, but that did not work.
The No. 1 priority of an actor on TV’s favourite soap must obviously be the work over and above family commitments. After looking around the green room and realising that other women had made such choices, I had to make a choice for myself: my career in “Coronation Street” and my future there, or my family. I handed in my notice and planned baby No. 2, leaving when I was six months pregnant. Luckily, in soap opera, they use the big handbag to hide a woman’s pregnancy, so that was employed for a number of months. However, freelance workers such as actors, writers and filmmakers, and so many others in today’s world of work, do not have the luxury of company maternity pay, so when I became pregnant, my contribution to the family finances was state maternity allowance.
The wider issue is more serious. On the whole, pregnant women are invisible in film and television, unless the star is already attached, as seen previously with—I’ve forgotten the actress’s name. Her surname is Colman—somebody give me a clue.
Olivia Colman—I thank my hon. Friend—in “The Night Manager”, and the actor in “Fargo”. The reason why they got those jobs was that the producers and directors absolutely wanted those actors, so they overlooked the fact that they were pregnant and wrote that into the story. They were chosen despite pregnancy, because they are bankable. In writing this speech, I found it difficult to think of many other characters on our TV screens who just so happen to be pregnant. In film, it is even less common. When have we ever seen a waitress or lawyer who is pregnant and it just happens to be incidental, not part of the story?
That invisibility influences the public’s perception of what pregnant women are capable of. I assume that that has an impact on employers. If employers do not see ordinary women getting on with their lives, having breaks for their antenatal appointments and—irrespective of the pregnancy—just doing their job, that impacts on decision-making in the workplace. I would say that there is no small link between the fact that we do not see pregnant women on TV who are just getting on with their jobs and women in Sports Direct, for example, giving birth in the toilet. There is a profound link. If we do not see it, we cannot be it; if we do not see it, we cannot deal with it.
Regrettably, in the world of work, no progress has been made since my personal experience. As an actor, when a woman starts to show, she absolutely stops working—she falls off a fiscal cliff. What would normally be for most women a moment of joy and delight is replaced by panic: how on earth am I going to earn any money in my chosen profession once I start to show? I will confide in hon. Members: when I was offered the part of Sarah Ferguson in a film for ABC TV, I hid the fact I was pregnant because I knew they would fire me. I was so far down the line then that they had to accommodate my circumstances. An actor is a worker and should not be put in the position of having to lie to their employer.
As we have seen from the Women and Equalities Committee report, pregnant women and mothers report more discrimination and poor treatment at work now than they did a decade ago. The situation is even worse. Going backwards is not acceptable, so it is high time we looked at the positive proposals in front of us seriously and carefully, and acted with urgency, because more women today are being made redundant or feeling forced to leave their jobs than in 2005. More than three quarters of women surveyed in recent research have experienced a negative or potentially discriminatory experience as a result of their pregnancy or maternity.
The report gives us further reason for concern, including the fact that mothers who left their employer as a result of risks not being resolved were more likely than average to be on an agency, casual or zero-hours contract—9% compared with 4% on a permanent contract. The casual employee is more vulnerable to such discrimination. Some 50% of those on agency, casual or zero-hours contracts reported a risk or impact to their health and welfare when pregnant. It is really important we make progress, as agency and casual work is not going away—it is on the rise. Citizens Advice tells us there has been a 58% increase in the past decade in the number of people in temporary jobs because they are unable to find permanent work. That is an important rise and it is incredibly important that women in those jobs are treated fairly and equally.
There are some common-sense options on the table. I hope to hear the Minister’s views on extending the right to paid time off for antenatal appointments to those in casual work, after a short qualifying period, which would allow women to access the medical care they need without losing out financially, and on whether the Government will commit to taking steps to offer greater parity of rights between casual workers and employees. As casual work becomes more common, our rights at work should not disappear.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I thank the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for securing this important debate and thank all hon. Members for their excellent speeches.
Maternity discrimination is an extremely complex issue: it is not just about having a job to go back to after having a baby. I would like to speak briefly about my own experience. People who know me will be aware that I have two children, so I have some experience.
During one of my pregnancies, at around seven months I experienced anaemia and the GP said I could not work full days at that point. I gave that advice to my manager, but unfortunately she said, “Oh, well—you are going to have to take hours off your annual leave at the end of the day, or you are going to have to go off on your maternity leave early.” People who have been through the process of having a baby while at work will know that going off early or using annual leave means that that leave cannot be used at the other end of the maternity period, with the baby, so it puts a woman at a disadvantage straightaway. Given that my manager was a woman, I had expected a bit more empathy, and given that I worked in the NHS, I had expected that the GP’s advice would be taken on board. I was quite appalled by the situation and how it was handled.
I do not think that taking annual leave or starting maternity leave at an earlier stage is a “reasonable adjustment”, when other things could be done—my job description, for instance, meant that I could do research at home, or, as I worked as a union rep a day a week, I could have used some of the hours to do union work. So there was absolutely no necessity for me to do either of those things. Unfortunately, given the uncompromising nature of the management system that I was in, I went off on maternity leave early—I felt forced to do that—and so lost time with my baby at the other end. It would be helpful to clarify, for both women and employers, the term “reasonable adjustments”. All too often, I feel that employers use it as a way of engaging in surreptitious discrimination and getting round their obligations.
The next issue I experienced was when I was off on maternity leave. There were job and training opportunities afforded to colleagues that I was never informed about. As many employees do, I had “keeping in touch” days—it is certainly something that the NHS advocates—so there was no reason why I should not have been able to come in and take up training opportunities alongside colleagues, using those days—but I was absolutely never contacted about the opportunities.
The rationale given by the manager when I challenged that on my return was that, because we had had a conversation during my pregnancy about my wanting to spend quality time with my baby, she did not think I would want to do any of those things. I felt that was a decision I should have been able to make. Someone should not just assume, because a woman has had a baby, that they know best and do not need to contact her and give her any opportunity to inform with her own views. Again, I found that extremely unacceptable.
Will the Minister give some clarification on the three-month period? Obviously, when someone is off on maternity leave—they might be off for a whole year—some of those things can happen when they are off. Does the three-month period when a woman is able to raise a concern with the tribunal occur from when the incident that she might not have known about happened or from when she becomes aware of it? That is really important. A lot of things could happen, and until a woman returns and speaks with colleagues or finds out that people have moved to other jobs, she can have no knowledge of what opportunities there were.
I thank the hon. Lady for those words. That is an extremely important issue, and I will come to it. I was lucky: because I was a union rep, I had my union’s support and I could afford the tribunal fees. Although my case never went to a tribunal, I have absolutely no doubt that if I had not gone down that road and had not had that support, the issue would have been swept under the carpet and not dealt with.
I have real concerns that women without such support—perhaps they are in workplaces that are not unionised—do not have adequate representation and cannot afford tribunal fees, given that a baby is expensive enough. Women are not going to prioritise tribunal fees over their baby or their family’s needs.
I had been working as a consultant in the NHS for many years, so I was not in a junior position, but when I came back to work a male colleague was given management responsibility for a new member of staff who had joined the department. They were originally to work under both of us—50% with each manager—but the management opportunity was taken away from me, although I had been a consultant for far longer than my colleague.
I did not know about the decision until the new member of staff arrived and said, “You’re not my manager. The other individual is my manager. Did no one tell you about it?” I said, “No one told me about it. I didn’t even know you were arriving today.” When women go back to work and are juggling everything, people often do not give them any choice or any information. They are not even given the courtesy of being updated about what was happening.
I felt that my managerial duties were being removed. When I challenged that decision, I was told that the rationale was that I was part-time, and that it had been decided during my maternity leave that I might not be able to deal with the managerial responsibilities. Once again, because I had come back from maternity leave and was trying to manage my family time and my job—the number of hours had been agreed—my role was demeaned, which meant that I was subservient to my male colleague. That is certainly what I felt. I was aggrieved about not being consulted about a decision that affected my job.
Shortly after I returned to work, it became apparent that very little of my patient workload had been undertaken in the year I had been off. That really concerned me, given that I had a number of patients in a forensic setting who required updated risk assessments annually. No one raised that issue with me on my return, but approximately 70% of the patients whose risk assessments I had been involved in doing prior to going on maternity leave had not had any updates during that time. I had to contact my professional body and take advice about clinical risk, and then I had to raise that issue with management. That is difficult, particularly for individuals who work in the NHS, because whistleblowing is not easy. People do not want to find themselves in that situation, particularly if they have come back from maternity leave. However, we have to take our professional and clinical duties extremely seriously, and that is the situation I found myself in.
I raise these issues not for sympathy or because I want people to say, “That’s terrible. It shouldn’t have happened to you,” but because I feel that my story is only one among the thousands that happen in this country every year. The impact and extent of maternity discrimination is not always obvious. It is not always about having a job to return to; it is about all the issues surrounding that. We have to address those issues. The NHS has quite robust policies in place, but lots of organisations do not, so other women find themselves in much more difficult situations.
I had support from my union, Unite, which I would like to thank. I applied to the tribunal and paid the fee, but many women cannot afford that and do not have support. That issue has to be addressed. In the Scottish Parliament, the plan is to scrap tribunal fees. The Minister should look at doing the same, or at least ensuring that the fees are based on the ability to pay or are smaller. Tribunal fees put so many people off. Given the stages I went through with my grievance, I have no doubt that, had I not had the potential to go to a tribunal at the end of the process, my concerns and the issues I raised would have been disregarded. A “reasonable adjustment” would have been made or an explanation would have been given, and they would not have been taken seriously.
Women should not be discriminated against for something that is so natural—having a family—particularly when they are pregnant or have just had a baby, because that is when they are most vulnerable. It is our duty to take these issues forward and give women as much protection as we can. There are already statutory obligations, but they need to be strengthened because there are far too many ways around them.
Women do not experience equality in the workplace and are unlikely to unless we take action and make employers’ obligations very clear. I would like the protections to be extended and clarified; it should be made obvious to employers that they apply during the period of pregnancy and the maternity leave period, and also for a period on return, because those are all periods in which women are vulnerable.
We need to make it explicit that women have the right to training opportunities, job opportunities and management opportunities. They must not come back to a workload that has not been done while they were off. The advice of their GP or medical practitioner should be taken on board. At the very least, those things should be happening. This is a huge problem for many, so let us acknowledge it and ensure that the Government work across the United Kingdom for women and equality.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I congratulate the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this debate. We have debated this issue before, but it is welcome that we are doing so again. As she highlighted, the Government’s failure to take action and level the playing field for the many women who experience maternity discrimination leads to a huge economic loss.
The House debated this issue last July, and since then the Government have responded to the Women and Equalities Committee’s report, but I am only too disappointed that they have not taken up the many recommendations in it. Issues such as access to childcare, flexible working and shared parental leave are commonplace in this debate. We have heard so many stories of women who experience maternity and pregnancy discrimination daily. As a member of the Women and Equalities Committee, I am passionate about this issue, and I believe the Government can do more. I know that the Minister believes, like I do, that this is unjust, and that she wants to take action if it is possible to do so.
The Committee’s report challenged the insurmountable fees and the negative impact that they have on such women. I know there are issues to do with “floodgate” scenarios and costs and so on, but in this instance we can do more.
My hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) have been champions for the role of fathers in the workplace and the emphasis on flexible working and shared parenting. However, that does nothing to tackle discrimination. I pay credit to the Alliance for Maternity Rights and Pregnant Then Screwed for being vociferous in their approach.
I am sad to say that the Government have failed to take serious action. Fifty-four thousand mothers experience discrimination and unfair dismissal every year and one third have a negative experience, despite having the right, according to the law, to 52 weeks of leave, including 39 weeks of statutory paid leave, and the right to return to work. Sadly, however, too many women feel unable to access those rights. My colleague the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), Chair of a Committee that does such a fantastic job on bringing forward such issues, has highlighted how often pregnant women are coerced into waiving their rights and unfair dismissals simply go unchallenged.
With a large percentage of the workforce likely to face maternity discrimination during their lifetime and in their experience of pregnancy, the law needs to exist not only in writing but in practice. It is time for us to tackle entrenched and outdated problems in society and the workplace. I recognise that that is not simply the job of Government, and we have to work with businesses large and small to bring about the best practice possible.
I pay tribute and give recognition to the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) and my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) for speaking about their personal experiences, raising issues to do with insecure contracts and their treatment when they returned to work. Too many women are employed on zero-hours contracts and in unstable employment, and too many such women receive a raw deal.
The fact is that women face significant barriers. The introduction of tribunal fees can undeniably be seen to have had a negative impact on women who are pregnant or experiencing that discrimination, which places an additional barrier in an already stressful part of life. The Government have failed to provide an adequate response to that negative impact.
As we have heard, the Scottish Government have committed to scrapping tribunal fees when they have the extra powers to do so. I would ask this Government to consider some sort of remedy to achieve the same for women throughout the UK. The time limit of three months is often insufficient, as we have heard, and at the very least I hope that the Government will consider extending that to six months, to give women the appropriate time to find recourse for any actions. It is a stressful enough time for many women and their families who are experiencing discrimination in the workplace.
Many women want to return to work; they simply want to enjoy their family life first and foremost. Let us do more to support those women. We have the powers to do so, and I hope that this House and this Parliament will do so.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I look forward to the time when the Chair is not the only man in the Chamber when we have a debate such as this, which is symptomatic of the uphill struggle we still face. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this hugely necessary and timely debate. I also thank her for all the work she has done over the years on maternity rights and on early years. I am grateful for everything that she has done.
As hon. Members have outlined today, maternity and pregnancy discrimination is an issue that affects hundreds of thousands of women every year. It goes to the very core of what this House should be striving to ensure, which is that all women can engage as full citizens in society. We must ensure that women can participate fully in the workplace and, if they choose, have children and work.
The last Labour Government recognised just how important that was. They extended the right to statutory maternity leave to a full year for all employed women, regardless of length of service, and they doubled maternity pay. Those changes made the UK an international leader in maternity rights. At the time, we had the most generous allowance internationally for the length of maternity leave. This Government, however, are not leading. They are not active in tackling maternity discrimination. They appear to be content with the status quo, despite having the evidence—their own evidence—for how bad the problem is. As has been mentioned, research published in March 2016 by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the then Department for Business, Innovation and Skills shed light on the sheer scale of maternity discrimination.
The facts need repeating. Seventy-seven per cent. of pregnant women and new mothers experience discrimination or negative treatment during pregnancy and maternity, and on their return from maternity leave, which equates to 390,000 women each year. In 2005, the proportion of women who reported maternity discrimination was 45%, or 32% lower than today. The figures are stark, but we must remember that they represent real women: women who have been made to feel that they need to stop breastfeeding, as the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) said; women whose health and safety are put at risk by managers who do not understand or, worse, do not care about the impact of work on the woman or the pregnancy; and women who are denied statutory maternity pay or flexible working, or are demoted, downgraded and devalued, as the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) discussed.
The consequences of maternity discrimination are severe. Eleven per cent. of mothers, or 54,000 women, lose their jobs as a result of such discrimination each year. That includes 9% of women who were treated so badly that they felt they had no choice but to leave. The Government’s failure to tackle the issue or take seriously any of the suggestions set out by the Women and Equalities Committee, and their presiding over a working landscape where maternity discrimination is getting considerably worse, are shameful. Not only are they failing women and their families, but it makes no economic sense to lose 11% of the workforce each year.
My hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West also mentioned the 2016 BIS and Equality and Human Rights Commission report. It estimated the financial cost to employers of women being forced to leave their jobs as a result of pregnancy and maternity-related discrimination at about £278.8 million over the course of only one year, the cost to the state being between £14 million and £16.7 million.
I thank my hon. Friend for her passionate speech and would like to take this opportunity to thank her for all the work that she, too, has done in this field.
Last night when I put this debate on the Facebook page of the local mothers’ group of which I am a member, one of the women, Anat, wrote back about how statutory maternity pay is lost if someone changes jobs while pregnant. She works in the technology industry, where it is normal to change jobs every two to three years, so she has a choice between dropping out of her industry, which would be a huge loss for women in the tech industry, and avoiding career progression, if she goes down that route. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to look at how statutory maternity pay can be kept for women in certain jobs in which they have to switch employer every few years? One policy cannot fit all.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I am interested that she used the word “choice”, because we are not giving women any choice. We are not reflecting the current employment situation or representing the needs of women. The Minister is passionate about the issue, and I hope that she is taking everything on board.
That brings me beautifully on to the next part of my speech. I am concerned about how we as a society regard women, women’s work and women’s place in that society. Maternity discrimination is another structural block that prevents women from reaching their economic potential. Eighty-six per cent. of the Government gains in the most recent Budget impacted negatively on women, yet they still refuse to gender-audit their policies, so we have to question their commitment to tackling the growing inequality. In addition, the use of insecure contracts has ballooned over the last 10 years, with more than 900,000 workers in the UK on a zero-hours contract, 55% of them women.
I commend the work of the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) as Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, which pointed to the inherent problems for casual, agency and zero-hours workers, whose rights for women are less assured than for women who are considered to be employees. For example, a woman might be forced to choose between working and earning, and attending an antenatal appointment that is vital to the health of both mother and baby. The Committee recommended that expectant mothers who are casual, agency or zero-hours workers should be entitled to paid time off for antenatal appointments. It recommended that the Government review the pregnancy and maternity-related rights available to workers, and legislate to give greater parity between them and those women considered employees.
The Government announced in their Budget plans a review of the rights of self-employed workers. Will the Government extend that to include the rights of women on insecure contracts, casual and agency staff and zero-hours workers? Does the Minister agree that it is unacceptable for women on such contracts, already likely to be earning less, to be burdened with the choice between earning and looking after their health and that of their unborn child?
Another theme reported on by the BIS and EHRC research, the Women and Equalities Committee, and women’s rights groups such as Maternity Action is the link between pregnancy and poor health and safety. Women reported being forced to lift heavy objects and stand on their feet for hours, being unable to take toilet breaks, and so on. Unsurprisingly, there is a clear link between insecure work and women being forced to leave their employer as a result of health and safety risks not being resolved. The Government must do more now, not only to help employers to understand how to identify and mitigate risks relating to pregnant women, but to compel employers to conduct risk assessments for new, expectant or breastfeeding mothers. Will the Minister tell us why the Government did not accept that recommendation from the Women and Equalities Committee? After all, an employer would undertake a specific risk assessment for an employee who had returned to work with a medical issue that meant their role needed to be adapted, so why should it not do so for a pregnant woman or a new mother who is breastfeeding?
The introduction of employment tribunal fees is a real burden of shame for this Government, who have priced women out of upholding their rights in the workplace. According to TUC analysis, the number of working people challenging discrimination or unfair treatment at work has fallen by 9,000 a month since charges of up to £1,200 came in. Since the introduction of fees, the number of sex discrimination complaints that include a tribunal claim has dropped by 76%, and pregnancy-related cases have fallen by 50%. Only 1% of maternity discrimination cases end up in an employment tribunal. That is a disgrace, and the Government know it, yet the only promise they have made is that they will tinker with the “help with fees” scheme to extend the support available to people on lower incomes. Can the Minister see that linking justice to the ability to pay flouts fundamental democratic principles?
Furthermore, people with £3,000 of savings remain at a disadvantage, as the Government say that they can “rein in” spending on non-essential items to meet the £1,200 cost of bringing a claim. The Government clearly have not considered the circumstances of women who anticipate a major drop in their income due to childbirth and have prudently saved for essential day-to-day living costs or obvious essential items for their new baby, such as a buggy, clothing, a car seat or a cot. Those are not luxury items. Fees should be scrapped. If the Government will not do so, will the Minister discount savings for the purpose of claims alleging maternity or pregnancy-related discrimination? Will she also take seriously Members’ recommendations about extending the three-month term for maternity discrimination cases to six months?
I will deal briefly with the Government’s consultation on protections against redundancy for working mothers, which was announced in January. No details of the consultation, such as its scope or timeframe, have been published, but we already know that its reach is too small. The consultation will look only at redundancies as a result of maternity discrimination, which impact approximately 5,000 women each year. It will do nothing for the almost 50,000 women each year who are dismissed or forced to resign from their jobs because of having a baby. Why are the Government not looking to review the rights afforded to women with worker status compared with those who are employees? Why are the Government refusing to address health and safety issues? Why are the Government continuing to ignore the devastating impact of employment tribunal fees?
There are related issues that we could progress if only the Government gave this matter the priority it deserves—issues such as discrimination and lack of support for women who miscarry or those experiencing menopause. The Government urgently need to treat such discrimination. Women in the workplace and those who have been forced out cannot afford for the Government to continue to close their eyes to these issues.
Finally, in the context of Brexit, will the Minister give clear assurances about how the Government will ensure that we do not roll back maternity and pregnancy rights? The EU has been the source of much of the UK’s legal protection for pregnant women and new mothers. We will not stand by and allow this Government to undermine those rights. We will not allow this Government to accept the flawed status quo. Women and their families deserve so much more. I know that the Minister is committed to this area, so I really hope that she listens to some of the recommendations made today and acts.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I congratulate the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this debate in such a timely manner—as she pointed out, we are between International Women’s Day and mothering Sunday, which is apt.
I thank all Members for their excellent and thought-provoking contributions. We heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), whom I heard speak for the first time and who gave an excellent speech. We also heard from the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron)—I hope I pronounced that right—the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), who reminded us all of the unacceptable extent of pregnancy discrimination, which was unearthed by the EHRC’s good work.
This is the first time we have considered maternity discrimination since the Government responded to the Women and Equalities Committee’s recommendations, and I very much welcome the opportunity to discuss what we are doing. I have made careful note of some of the things that were raised that point to the need for further action.
I shall begin by making it clear that pregnancy and maternity-related discrimination has absolutely no place in today’s workplace or a progressive society. It is illegal, and the Government are committed to tackling it. Women make up 47% of the labour force, and more than 15 million women are active in the labour force at any time. Female talent and experience make a huge contribution to the productivity of individual businesses and the economy generally. I have spent more of my career in business than in politics, and I add that mothers bring a huge amount of experience from their responsibilities in that role. I very much agree with hon. Members who made the important point that pregnancy is not visible enough. There was a time when women almost had to hide the fact that they had children to progress in their careers. We have moved on from those days, but not enough.
In her excellent speech, the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West talked about the effect of pregnancy discrimination on the wider economy in lost tax revenues and increased benefit costs, to say nothing of the personal financial loss to the women concerned and their families. We are committed to building an economy that works for everyone, and supporting all women, including mothers, so that they can participate in the labour market to their full potential if they choose to do so is an important part of that work.
I am grateful to the Women and Equalities Committee for its thorough review of this issue, and I echo the many complimentary remarks that hon. Members made about the excellent chairing of that Committee by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke. We responded to each of the recommendations in the Committee’s report, setting out additional steps to protect pregnant women and new mothers, but as I said, I accept from what I have heard this morning that we still have more to do.
We have committed to review redundancy protection. Our thinking is at an early stage, but it is clear that new and expectant mothers need to be supported and treated fairly by their employers, and that does not always happen. The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West asked me to update the House on where we are with the review. It would be bit premature for me to do so, but I will be able to shortly. I will write to her when I am in a position to update her properly.
The findings of the research into pregnancy and maternity-related discrimination and disadvantage that was commissioned jointly by my Department and the EHRC paint a picture of some workplaces that is quite at odds with expectations in today’s society. We have a legal framework that gives pregnant women and new mothers rights and protections, and women have a means of legal redress if they are discriminated against because they are pregnant or take time away from work to care for their baby.
We have heard from several Members about the practical challenge for new mothers of bringing cases to tribunal, where that is necessary, within the statutory three-month limit. As we set out in our response to the Committee, tribunals have discretion to allow claims after more than three months have elapsed, where that is just and equitable, but I accept that that is in the gift of the tribunal and is not the same as people having the right to a longer period. We will consider what further guidance could better clarify the position.
There is another issue I wanted to raise. When I originally contacted ACAS regarding the situation I found myself in, rather than informing me that there was a critical three-month window in which to apply for a tribunal, I was told to go through a grievance procedure in the NHS, which takes much longer than three months. Does the Minister agree that it is important that women are given advice as to the timing of the tribunal and the need for an application to be in place before using the grievance procedure?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I hope the situation has improved since she used the service but, in case it has not, I will write to the chairman of ACAS to convey her concerns.
The hon. Lady also asked about the time limit and how it is interpreted. The three-month time limit applies from the date the discrimination happened but, when there is a series of events, the time limit runs from the end of that series. There are flexibilities, and time limits can be extended where it is equitable to do so, such as if it is not reasonable to expect a woman on maternity leave to have been aware of events while she was away.
We are keen to help mothers return to jobs that make full use of their qualifications and experience, and to enable them to progress. Part of that is about removing specific barriers. We know that from the EHRC research, and we have brought in the working forward campaign, which intends to improve advice and share best practice, calling on employers to make workplaces the best they can be for pregnant women and new mothers. We have some way to go on that.
However, more than 100 employers, representing 1.2 million employees across the UK, have signed up to the initiative, which is an important milestone. Many of the employers pledging action such as Barclays, Nationwide, Royal Mail and Ford are putting in place returners programmes and means of staying in touch with pregnant women and new mothers on maternity leave, which is another point that was made.[Official Report, 23 March 2017, Vol. 623, c. 11-12MC.] I am pleased to say that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has joined the campaign and I hope that more employers will be inspired to sign up.
I said I would return to the ways in which we are helping to address the barriers. Couples can take advantage of shared parental leave and pay, and the extension of the right to request flexible working to all employees with 26 weeks’ service can help mothers among others to combine work with caring responsibilities. I accept that people sometimes feel inhibited about requesting flexible working arrangements, but as that becomes more commonplace and as we put more behind campaigns to raise awareness of how easy it can be and how it can improve productivity and make companies more competitive, I hope that people will feel less inhibited and the situation will improve.
We are now introducing the entitlement to 30 hours’ free childcare for working parents of three and four-year-olds as well as tax-free childcare, enabling more children than ever to benefit from Government-funded childcare. To help monitor progress, we require large organisations to publish their gender pay gap and bonus pay gap data. We are committed to supporting mothers and fathers to balance work with family life in a way that works for them and their circumstances. I echo the remarks made by the shadow Minister that it is disappointing that the only man who has participated in the debate—from a sedentary position—is indeed the Chairman. We need to get male colleagues involved in these debates and discussions, because mothers’ issues are not just the preserve of mothers.
Several hon. Members raised the issues for self-employed women. In fact, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) talked about her position as an MP, which brought that home to me. Of course, she is not alone. The reason she found herself in that unacceptable position when she was pregnant last year was because MPs are not employees. We are workers, and in this area we have fewer rights than we would if we were employees.
That brings me to Matthew Taylor’s review—several hon. Members asked for an update. The review is fully under way and one of the issues on its agenda is to consider the different employment rights afforded to workers and employees. That very much includes rights to maternity benefits—and indeed paternity benefits. The review is consulting around the country. There will be a series of town hall meetings—I will attend one in Glasgow next month—and he will report back to the Government in July.
There are many factors to consider when it comes to enhancing rights funded by the public purse. Having carefully considered the issue, we have concluded that it is right to look at the case for having greater parity in parental benefits between the employed and self-employed. The Chancellor announced last week that we will consult on that specifically, independently of the Matthew Taylor review, during the summer.
A number of other questions were asked, and I am sorry if I cannot do justice to all of them in the time remaining. At the beginning of the debate, we heard a recommendation for employers to be required to undertake an individual health and safety risk assessment for pregnant women. Employers must already safeguard the health of women who are pregnant, so I was disturbed to hear about instances where that was patently not the case. Legally, employers should safeguard the health of women who are pregnant. The Health and Safety Executive has at least updated and strengthened its guidance in that respect. We dealt with the redundancy matter, at least as it stands at the moment.
The hon. Member for Glasgow Central talked about incentivising employers to take on part-time workers and consider flexible working. That is an extremely important issue, which I have dealt with, as I have dealt with existing flexibilities for maternity. I will turn to the issue—
I am grateful to the Minister for leaving me time to respond. I thank all Members for coming along this morning and for their excellent contributions. I especially thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), the shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, who is leading for the Opposition in this policy area with immense energy and dedication. She is truly making her mark and has some notable successes under her belt, which is not easy for anyone in opposition. I welcome the commitments by the Minister and I look forward to receiving the letter she spoke of.
As we have heard, we have had many debates on this issue, and I think this will go down as one of the best. I hope it may be the last—at least for a while. Mark my words: we will all be following this issue closely and, if we are not happy with progress, one—or perhaps all—of us will be back here before too long, doing this all over again. As we heard in great detail from everyone present, this issue is too important to ignore. I thank everyone again for their attendance, including you, Mr Chope, and the Minister. I look forward to receiving her letter.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the effect of maternity discrimination.
Police Widows’ Pensions
I beg to move,
That this House has considered police widows’ pensions.
This important issue was brought to my attention by a constituent of mine, Diane, who sadly lost her husband in the line of duty when he was serving as a police officer. Years down the line, Diane met another man and fell in love. The couple decided they wanted to be together. They found that the position was that Diane had to choose between their future happiness and maintaining her eligibility for her late husband’s pension. She is not alone in her predicament; hundreds of other widows and widowers are left to make the same decision.
Fortunately, in 2014 Cathryn Hall, who is here today, started a petition entitled “Grant Police Widows Pensions for Life—Don’t Make Them Choose Between Future Happiness and Pensions”, which says it all. Cathryn has bravely shared her story so I am not breaching any confidentiality in recounting it. She became a widow at 24 years old following the death of her husband Colin, who served in the West Midlands police force for 21 years. Some years later, Cathryn was left with a difficult decision: should she maintain her eligibility for the pension, into which her late husband had contributed 11% of his salary, or move in with a new partner and lose it?
The petition gathered more than 115,000 signatures, so I am here to ask yet again why so many women such as Diane and Cathryn are forced to choose. The reason is that individuals widowed between 1980 and the early 2000s are covered by the Police Pensions Regulations 1987 and lose access to their spouse’s pension if they remarry or cohabit.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. I, too, have constituents who feel strongly about the matter. Does she agree that campaigners also feel that there is injustice in the lack of parity of approach across the United Kingdom?
The hon. Gentleman is moving me forward in my speech, but yes, that is a major issue. The people who serve in United Kingdom police forces expect that should they lose their lives in the line of duty, all their families will be cared for in exactly the same way. The hon. Gentleman has pointed out a major cause of injustice, which we have come here today to rectify.
There was a welcome breakthrough in 2015, when reforms were introduced. I acknowledge that. The widows, widowers and civil partners of police killed in the line of duty and covered by the 1987 regulations now receive a pension for life if they were in receipt of a special augmented pension, remained unmarried and were not living with a new partner by 1 April 2015. That is a large number of caveats: what of those not covered? The inequality comes over loud and clear.
The recommendation of the 2011 Hutton report—the report of the independent public service pensions commission—related to all armed services. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is a matter of implementing equality across generations, in all the armed services, as the report recommended?
I can say only that the Welsh think alike no matter their political party, because that is another thing that I intend to cover in my speech.
When we ask individuals to put their lives on the line, we should expect that exactly the same care and responsibility will be shown towards all their families, should they make the ultimate sacrifice. Why, then, should a widow or widower lose the financial support from their late husband or wife when they decide to remarry or cohabit?
I should like the Minister to explain where the money is going. If the widow or widower is ineligible to receive it, who has it? What of their children? No father or mother wants their children to be impoverished; nor do they want the money that they set aside to protect their children in the event of their death, and to prepare for their future, to go somewhere else. So what are the Government doing with the money? Why are the widows, widowers and children penalised? Campaigners rightly argue that no Government should seek to profit from the withdrawal of a small and immaterial number of police widows’ pensions, and the condemning, in the process, of 22,000 widows to a life of loneliness and isolation. That is what is happening at the moment.
We are not asking for extra money. The Treasury is not being asked to find new money. The families just want what they are entitled to. I shall set out the figures. The police officers pay 11% of their wages into the pensions. Generally speaking, the widows or widowers receive 50% of the pension. In 2012 there were 22,000 widows in receipt of a police pension. Between 2008 and 2012 in England and Wales, there were a mere 131 cessations because of remarriage or cohabitation. That is a large number of people who are being forced to face a life of isolation and loneliness to maintain their financial security.
On the figures, approximately 0.5% of police widows are being unfairly denied financial support that would have been available to them from the pensions. It is hard to put an exact figure on how much individuals are losing, because that is personal and depends on the husband’s or wife’s age at death. My constituent estimates that she has lost about £135,000—a not inconsiderable sum. The numbers are small: to grant all police widows a pension for life, regardless of their status, would, according to the response to a freedom of information request, cost £50 million. As I have said, that is not new money; it is money already in the system.
I want to tell the Minister about a couple, aged 75 and 80, whom I will not name as they want to remain anonymous. One is the widow of a police officer. They are forced to live 100 miles apart because the loss of the widow’s income should they cohabit would be impossible to bear. That means that they are not there to support each other every day through the inevitable illness that old age brings. They want to spend their twilight years together without financial penalty. Why are they denied that right?
Announcing the changes in 2015, the then Home Secretary, now the Prime Minister, told the House:
“We will reform the scheme to ensure that the widows, widowers and civil partners of police officers who have died on duty do not have to choose between solitude and financial security.—[Official Report, 12 October 2015; Vol. 600, c. 18.]
However, that is happening. The average age of a police widow is 74. The petty injustice that I am describing could cost the taxpayer more: as the group gets older without the income from their deceased spouses’ pensions they are more likely to have recourse to the state. Does the Minister think that a sensible use of public money?
This injustice forces widows and widowers to choose between love and money. Many feel that the financial cost is too great, particularly when their children are affected. If they choose personal happiness, they face financial insecurity through no fault of their own. They will also be asking their new partner to take on full financial responsibility for their children, who will lose the money that their father or mother had put aside for them. I cannot understand that.
Just over two years ago, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) raised this issue, and he and I debated it in this Chamber. We are no further forward now; the situation has been made more baffling. I am particularly pleased to see hon. Members here from Northern Ireland and Scotland.
That was set up, Mr Chope; you probably realised that. I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing the debate. It is not only the Welsh who think alike; it is the people of Northern Ireland as well.
The Royal Ulster Constabulary faced a very different kind of day-to-day work from that of colleagues on the mainland. The grief of loss is the same for families no matter where they live, and the pension rules must therefore also be the same. Does the hon. Lady agree with the widows in my constituency who feel aggrieved and demand and expect this injustice to be rectified—their pension rights to be secured? I look forward to the Minister’s response; I hope it is a good one.
Everyone expects to be treated the same. People might face different stresses and strains within the police force, but the risk, ultimately, is that every day someone will be determined to take the life of a police officer. If an officer is lost to their family, and if they have made appropriate plans to protect their family, it is right that the state honours that commitment. We pay great tribute to families when they take on these roles and responsibilities, and we should maintain that commitment.
Changes have been made in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and I commend those Administrations. In Scotland, the Government announced the same amendment to the pensions paid to the survivors of police officers and firefighters killed in the line of duty. I think those pensions have been reinstated and backdated to 1 October 2015.
I thank the hon. Lady for securing the debate. One of my constituents was affected by this issue, but the Scottish Government’s decision to reinstate the pensions has resolved that injustice for him. This is one area on which we are happy to express solidarity across the UK. Governments across the United Kingdom should be aiming for the highest possible standards, to pay respect to our officers killed in the line of duty.
As I have said, police officers face the same risks every day. They deserve the same pension rights, and their families deserve the same financial protection. Comparisons have already been made between police officers’ widows and widowers and their armed forces counterparts, with Ministers often seeking to differentiate between the two as a way of justifying the cessation of pension rights for police officers. However, as has already been commented on, the 2011 Hutton Report made it clear that
“there is a need to recognise the unique nature of the work the uniformed services (the armed forces, police and firefighters) undertake.”
They put themselves in harm’s way to protect us. Is it not now time for England and Wales to join the rest of the United Kingdom in ending this injustice? Will the Minister undertake to meet the campaign group? Many of them are here today and will be happy to discuss a way forward with the Minister.
I ask the Minister to end this incomprehensible, unfair and, quite honestly, blatant inequality. Let us give the families back the money they are due. All these men and women are asking for is a level playing field instead of a harsh financial penalty. For me, this boils down to a simple issue: we have to stop putting a price on love. The Government have to make sure that widows, widowers and their children have access to the pension rights that were put there to protect them in the future. By right and by legitimacy, they should have them.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) on securing the debate. As she rightly outlined, it is an issue that has been discussed and raised on the Floor of the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham). He came to see me quite recently and made a passionate case.
I want to make it clear that I have huge sympathy—as we all should—and admiration for those who have faced the loss of a loved one through their work and as a result of their being on police duty. It is unfortunate, and as the hon. Lady rightly outlined, it is a tragic reality—thankfully rare—that some police officers pay the ultimate sacrifice when fighting crime and keeping us safe. They deserve our huge respect and thanks, so it is right that, whenever we have the opportunity to do so in this place, we are able to pay our respects to those officers and the families they leave behind, and to all police officers and staff, who run towards danger—pretty much every day in one form or another, as the hon. Lady said—in the name of public service.
The Government continue to recognise the risks faced by officers as part of their everyday job. As the hon. Lady outlined, that is why the previous Home Secretary changed police pension provisions to allow widows, widowers and surviving civil partners of police officers who die on duty in England and Wales to receive a survivor pension for life; the definition of “on duty” includes when death occurs during a journey to or from work. The changes also include circumstances in which an officer died from injuries resulting from their being targeted as a member of the police, including circumstances in which the relevant police pension authority believes that the death should be considered a result of the execution of duty.
Those changes were brought by the Police Pensions and Police (Injury Benefit) (Amendment) Regulations 2015, which came into force on 18 January last year. Those amendments were backdated to 1 April 2015, which aligned with the timing for changes made to armed forces survivors’ pensions. In keeping with the policy applied to the armed forces’ pensions, any pensions already surrendered before April 2015 were not reinstated as a result of the change; that was the same across both schemes. However, it is important to note that the regulations will continue to allow the police pension authority the discretion to reinstate adult survivor benefits if a remarriage, civil partnership, or cohabitation subsequently ends.
The hon. Lady referenced the fact that the changes would not require new money, as the money is already in the scheme. If I may correct her, it would require new money. The scheme is not structured to cover those funds; it is an employee and employer contributory scheme, but anything that tops that up or goes beyond what is already covered by the scheme will be new money funded by the taxpayer, so she is wrong.
The hon. Lady also touched on the difference between this and changes to armed forces widows’ pensions. The Government believe that there is difference, and that there are particular factors that apply to the armed forces. Not only do the families of armed forces personnel have to cope with long and uncertain separations while their spouse or civil partner has deployed on operations directly, the mobile nature of service life often prevents those partners from earning their own occupational pension. We recognise that that puts them in a difficult position when trying to provide for their own financial future.
The same combination of risk to life and disruption to family life cannot be said to apply to other public service workforces. The Government do not believe that it would be justifiable to make the same changes for all survivors of police officers. Nevertheless, we believe it is right to recognise the risks faced by police officers every day as part of their job. I believe that, when police officers, and also firefighters, die on duty, their surviving spouses and civil partners should not face a decision between a new relationship and retaining their entitlement to their survivor benefits.
I appreciate the hon. Lady’s reference to other parts of the United Kingdom. However, policing in Scotland, for example, is a devolved matter. Those other Administrations are entitled to make their own decisions, but that does not, in itself, create a precedent that will necessarily be followed in the whole of the United Kingdom.
We have made clear our commitment to ensure that public service pensions are affordable, sustainable and fair. We keep these things under review at all times. As I promised my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester, we will continue to review all these matters. These pension schemes need to be fair and affordable for members, but also fair and affordable for the taxpayer who subsidises them through contributions.
The situation at the moment, as I understand it, is that the Ministry of Defence is reviewing what the provisions are retrospectively for armed forces widows. Does the Minister accept that were the Ministry of Defence to make changes, it would be very hard for the Government to maintain a difference in what those widows are granted and what police widows are granted?
My hon. Friend makes, as always, a very good point. As I have just outlined, there is no current plan for us to change the scheme beyond the changes made only last year. However, we always keep these things under review. As I said to him when we met, I will continue to keep this under review, as the Treasury does on all these matters, to ensure that we have a scheme that is not only fair for the taxpayer but ultimately, as he rightly says, fair to the families of those people who go out every day and put themselves at risk. We will continue to do that.
Question put and agreed to.
GP Indemnity Costs: England
[Mr Andrew Turner in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the cost of GP indemnity in England.
May I say at the outset what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner? I thank hon. Members for attending the debate. It is disappointing that it clashes with an important speech by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but I know that several hon. Members from across the House will be interested in the matters discussed here.
General practitioners are the foundation stone of strong primary care and, in turn, strong primary care underpins a strong NHS. To put it another way, if GPs sneeze, the entire NHS catches a cold. That is because, first, GPs keep the community healthier, with early interventions to prevent conditions from getting out of control and requiring resource-intensive hospitalisation, and, secondly, they divert patients who might otherwise present at an accident and emergency department towards pathways more suitable for them and, indeed, the NHS.
GPs are doing an enormous amount to adjust to the changing health needs of our country. I accept that these are now familiar statistics, but they bear repetition. In our country of just 64 million people, there are now 1 million more people aged over 65 compared with 2010, and there are more than 300,000 people aged over 80. Those are stark statistics. It is fantastic news, of course, but it presents great challenges, and many of those challenges fall on GPs.
I pay tribute to the GPs in my constituency from Yorkleigh surgery, Overton Park surgery, Berkeley Place surgery, St Paul’s medical centre and so many others, who do a brilliant job. Most GPs I meet enjoy their job—indeed, the overwhelming majority do—despite its great demands, but I do feel, and I suspect many of them do, too, that they can be unfairly criticised. I trust that we can all take this opportunity to express our gratitude and admiration for the vital work that GPs do. To put it bluntly, they keep the show on the road. Without their professionalism and good will, the system as a whole would fall over. They are vital.
When I was elected to this place, I was concerned that the proportion of the overall health spend going on primary care appeared to have shrunk. All the evidence suggested to me that that needed to change, so I warmly welcome the 14% increase that the Government have announced in funding for general practice. It is rising from £9.5 billion in 2015-16 to £12 billion by 2020-21, as announced in the “General Practice Forward View”. Of course we all want there to be more money, but that additional funding and the additional £2 billion for social care announced by the Chancellor in the Budget are manifestly steps in the right direction.
Given that background, what is this specific debate all about? I have called the debate because I am concerned about an issue that has the potential to restrict the vital pipeline of new GPs. I am referring to GP indemnity—the insurance premiums that GPs are obliged to pay, from their own pockets, before they are permitted to practise. The bottom line is that those premiums are rising at such a rate that they are discouraging GPs from taking on certain forms of work, including out-of-hours care, and are even discouraging some medical students from entering primary care in the first place.
It is important to understand that GPs are in a special category of medical professionals in this respect, because doctors working for NHS bodies, such as hospital trusts, are covered by the clinical negligence scheme for trusts, which is administered by the NHS Litigation Authority; there are equivalent organisations in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.
This issue does not emerge from a vacuum; it has been brewing for a while. In its 2014 annual report, the Medical Defence Union published data suggesting that indemnity inflation is about 10% per annum. More recently, a survey carried out by NHS England last year as part of the GP indemnity review showed that between 2010 and 2016 there was an increase in the average indemnity payment for in-hours or scheduled care of more than 50%. What does that mean in real terms—in pounds, shillings and pence? The average payment for in-hours or scheduled care cover in 2010 was £5,200. That had risen to £7,900 by 2016—an increase of more than 50%. Ninety-five per cent. of GPs surveyed have experienced a rise in indemnity costs, and 88% pay them from their own pockets.
The inflation for out-of-hours sessions is, according to the review, likely to be higher still. It is thought to be about 20% per annum, although the position on out-of-hours care is harder to establish because of data availability. Of the several thousand GPs surveyed, 72% claimed that the rise in their indemnity costs had deterred them from taking on out-of-hours sessions. Only 21% agreed with the statement
“Indemnity has not deterred me from taking on additional sessions”.
Those are concerning figures.
The review concluded that the rise is expected to continue. We have an historical average rise of about 10% per annum for scheduled care, and the rise is likely to continue. Of course, the review did not take into account the change in the discount rate. Just to remind everyone, the discount rate is used in a calculation to determine lump-sum compensation for claimants who have suffered life-changing injuries. It is being reduced to -0.75% from 2.5%; that will take effect, I think, on 20 March. This is the first time that it has been changed since 2001. It seems inevitable that that will inflate premiums further. We may have thought that we had solved the problem or that most of the problem was behind us, with the historical 10% average price increase, but the chances are that we ain’t seen nothing yet.
What is the impact on the ground? According to a practice manager at St Catherine’s surgery, a busy practice in the centre of Cheltenham, the problem is acute and having an effect on GP recruitment. When that practice wanted to appoint a new salaried GP, it was unable to attract anyone—notwithstanding the fact that Cheltenham is an extremely desirable place to practise, as I am sure everyone here would acknowledge and appreciate—without including paid indemnity as part of the salary package. That has added £7,500 to the cost of the doctor’s employment, and the surgery has to bear that, but this is plainly an unsustainable model.
I should add for completeness that this is not just about GPs in primary care. Modern surgeries are very sophisticated in the types of practitioner they employ. They employ advanced nurse practitioners and nurse practitioners with prescribing rights, but their indemnity payments are rising, too. An advanced nurse practitioner must pay about £3,000 per annum and a nurse practitioner about £1,200, and those figures are also increasing.
Why is all this happening? We need to slay two myths right from the start. First, it has nothing to do with GP performance dipping. Statistics show that the medical defence organisations have increased the proportion of cases closed with no payment made to the claimant from 70% to 80%. The quality and safety of care have never been higher. GPs continue to be very professional and very precise in the treatment that they administer. Secondly, the current situation is not down to profiteering by the medical defence organisations. The three main ones, which include the Medical Protection Society and the Medical Defence Union, are mutual organisations and not profit making. The 2016 review did not find evidence that market inefficiency is a cause of rising indemnity premiums.
The reason for the rises appears to be a blend of two principal factors. The first is workload. GPs are seeing more patients than ever before; I refer back to my remarks about the number of people in our country aged over 65 and 80. The second factor is compensation inflation. It is not unusual nowadays for insurers to pay a claim for more than £5 million. The review also alluded to a more litigious culture. There is a concern that patients are not simply being informed of avenues of redress, but are actually being encouraged to bring cases. It is a delicate issue, and there is a balance to be struck, but that does seem to me to be a concerning observation. That culture exists alongside an increasing number of claims companies. The number is said to be proportionally higher in England than elsewhere in Europe.
How do we respond? I have studied this issue in some detail: it is clear to me that Ministers and the Government in general are alive to it and working hard to react to it. As I said, back in May 2016 NHS England and the Department of Health established a GP indemnity review group to address the matter. That reported back in July last year and led to two important measures. The first was a winter scheme, originally scheduled to end on 31 March this year, to reimburse doctors who were willing to work more out-of-hours sessions to deal with winter pressures—I should remind Members that there is that 20% per annum rise in out-of-hours premiums. The second element was a new GP indemnity support scheme, which would run for two years.
The first of those—the winter scheme—has now been extended and will run until the end of April, which is welcome. As for the GP indemnity support scheme, it is excellent; it is direct financial support—hard cash—in the region of approximately £33 million per annum. The first payment will be in April 2017 to address inflation experienced in 2016-17, and a corresponding payment will be made in April 2018. I am grateful to the Government for those important steps, which will make a big difference.
However, we need a long-term solution, and I urge the Government that in considering the long-term options they leave nothing off the table. This does have to be handled carefully, but some options that I respectfully suggest merit further consideration are as follows. First, on legal reform, there is an argument for specifically fixing the amounts that can be recovered in costs by legal firms in certain cases. I am a lawyer by background, and should probably declare an interest—I even practised in clinical negligence law for a while. Clinical negligence claims can be highly complex. It is important that access to justice for wronged claimants is preserved, but that should not preclude any examination of the costs issue.
Secondly, even if it would be unaffordable for the NHS LA to cover all GP costs, we should look again at whether indemnity fees for certain areas of work, such as out-of-hours or minor surgery work, could be covered centrally. That would go a considerable way to easing the burdens on GPs and improving the attractiveness of the profession. I understand that the DOH is committed to exploring the potential of national clinical negligence schemes.
Thirdly, the Government could consider altering the mechanism through which awards are made, and base them on NHS costs rather than private costs. At the moment, payouts are quantified on the basis that care will be provided in the independent sector. Ought we to look at whether the law should be changed so that medical defence organisations and the NHS LA could purchase NHS and local authority care packages for those who have suffered from medical negligence?
I would be grateful for an update on the Government’s thinking on this important issue. Specifically, the review last year reported that further work would be carried out in 2016 to establish the best method for providing additional support in respect of out-of-hours care, so can we have an update on that?
I will end by saying that this may seem like a dry subject to anyone who is watching on TV or reading the report of this debate, but unless this problem is tackled in a fundamental way it risks undermining the excellent work that is otherwise being done to bolster primary care. It risks narrowing the pipeline of GPs—a pipeline we need to widen. The sums that GPs are now paying risk demoralising existing GPs and disincentivising the next generation. A long-term solution must be found.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) on his excellent speech and on securing this debate, and very much concur with what he said.
Before I go any further I should say that my wife is a general practitioner, a former Royal Air Force senior medical officer who now works as a locum for the Ministry of Defence. I should also say that any errors or omissions in my remarks are entirely my own; I only spotted this debate this morning so I have not had a chance to discuss the issues with my wife. The scale of indemnity fees and the rate of price inflation in them has been an occasional—possibly frequent—topic of dinner table conversation. It is quite clear that something is going on when we see such steep rises to such high levels.
I want to pick up on a few of my hon. Friend’s points. He made the point about GPs being the foundation; we cannot overstate that, particularly in the context of ever-increasing specialisation in secondary care. The point I wish to make to my hon. Friend the Minister is that it seems that, as secondary care becomes more specialist, the burden of diagnosis will increasingly fall on general practitioners. I have heard accounts, which I may relay imperfectly, of a thoracic problem, for example, being referred to secondary care; the consultant might exclude a heart problem, but then it has to be referred again to exclude a lung problem, and again for whatever it may be. My sense from listening to my wife and other GPs is that increasing specialisation in secondary care sometimes shifts the burden of diagnosis on to primary care.
It seems to me, if I may say so from the perspective of an aerospace engineer, that diagnosing people is a slightly less exact science than diagnosing machinery. That is partly because it relies on what people say about their own condition, and partly because it relies on their coming forward at the right moment in the development of their illness or condition. I wonder whether specialisation has led to a transfer of risk, which is material to premiums. I put that point to the Government; I appreciate that they might not be able to answer it today.
My other point is about the status of partnerships, which is both relevant to the future of general practice and tied into this subject. I have recently had occasion to discuss with a senior partner how it has become financially less attractive over recent years to be a senior partner. I have mixed feelings about that. One of the little discussed realities of the NHS is that general practice was never nationalised, so partnerships have always had this special status where they are private businesses tightly coupled to a state-funded and run NHS.
It seems that the problem of steeply rising indemnities is material to problems that partners face in continuing in business, often in ageing premises that they are locked into through mortgage conditions. If the Government intend for the partnership model to continue indefinitely, and if there is cross-party agreement on that, the cost of indemnity needs to be considered, along with a range of other factors in relation to that model.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham mentioned that he sees GPs as having a special status, and I think he is absolutely right on a number of levels. They are special in the sense of the GP’s place in the hearts of the public; special in the sense that, as specialism increases, so does the burden of diagnosis on them; and special in terms of the status they have as businesses operating within the NHS. More than that, as clinical commissioners, general practitioners now have the great burden of determining what care will be deployed where in the NHS.
It is proper that I restate that I have an interest in this, but I observe that the support being given in relation to GP indemnities is not being extended to the MOD’s locums at this stage. Armed forces personnel need healthcare too, and because of how armed forces medicine operates, the armed forces often need locums. I ask the Minister to consider the general point that the MOD might need the same support in relation to indemnity fees that general practice would enjoy everywhere else.
Finally, I do not think that this is a confrontational debate. We live in times when medicine has changed, people’s attitudes to risk have changed and the role of the GP is changing. We are all united—at least on this side of the Chamber, but I hope across it—in recognising that the Government are seeking to rise to all those challenges, and I look forward to hearing what my hon. Friend the Minister has to say.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I thank the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) for securing this debate on this really important subject, and join him in paying tribute to GPs—including those in my constituency and across the country, many of whom I have had the pleasure of meeting recently. I pay tribute to the excellent work that they do. They are at the cutting-edge of the NHS; in many ways, they are the gatekeepers, taking tough—often the hardest—decisions. They deserve our respect and support at every corner.
It is important to begin by setting this debate in the context of the pressures that GPs face. Undoubtedly, as has been mentioned, the demand for GP services has increased massively. Much of that has been attributed to the ageing population. Many patients suffering from mental health issues find that those are not addressed elsewhere, because specialist services are not as abundant as they might be. The lack of social care provision and funding cuts for social care mean that many unsupported elderly people have to call on their GP to work above and beyond, and on far more occasions, for the vital support that they are denied elsewhere.
We rightly heard about the recruitment and retention of GPs and support staff in practices. That issue is particularly important, because anything that is damaging or makes the situation worse is cause for concern. Recently, the Capita chaos relating to patient records and the national performance list did not help, placing more pressure on our GPs. The criticism relating to this winter’s A&E crisis, including the implication that GPs should somehow be doing more to lift the pressure, did not help either.
The hon. Member for Cheltenham rightly referred to the extra responsibility that GPs have taken on with commissioning. That important role has put extra demand on them. I agree totally with his very good point about the pressures that are coming back upstream because of increasing specialisms in hospitals. I met GPs and some of their staff recently and was concerned to hear them say, “Of all the health professionals, we feel that nobody speaks up for us,” so I welcome this debate. It is right and proper that we in this House recognise and put on the record the value of GPs.
The rising cost of professional indemnity is an added burden, and frankly, doctors do not need anything else to deal with, nor do other medical specialists within GP surgeries. As has been outlined, 95% of doctors report phenomenal increases in indemnity costs. I will not repeat the figures, but the rises have been unacceptably high. I underline that the increases in costs are in no way due to a deterioration of professional standards—absolutely the reverse is true. Standards are at least as high as they have ever been, and in most cases, they are higher. The current situation is, in fact, due to the sheer volume of work done by general practice. When that grows to such an extent, the amount of complaints against the service are bound to go up too.
We live in a different society and a different, increasingly litigious world. People are encouraged to take action for sometimes minor issues, hence the need for doctors to have professional indemnity covering them up to about £20 million, which I think is the figure that people widely acknowledge they need to be covered for. That is why there has been the massive increase in the premiums.
This is an English problem. Although proper analysis has not been done on GP practices elsewhere in the UK, evidence shows that it is less expensive to practise over the border in Scotland and in Wales, where I understand the new contract provides for the out-of-hours work that GPs do, as well as support for the costs of their regular work.
The impact is serious, and the fact that no long-term solution has been found for the problem is having an effect. The Royal College of General Practitioners reported that 80% of GPs say that the time that they are prepared to devote to general practice is affected, whereas 56% said that it would be more likely to deter them from doing out-of-hours work. If the problem is unaddressed, it will undoubtedly affect the long-term recruitment and retention of dedicated people in general practice.
I think we all agree that action is needed. The review group set up in May 2016 introduced short-term interventions, which were really welcome, as has been mentioned. Those will help this year and next towards the costs. The extension of the winter indemnity scheme is also welcome. I understand that the continuation of that led to 500 GPs committing to out-of-hours care, above and beyond the existing number. That surely indicates what the effect of supporting GPs in that way will be.
What action is needed? The Government must begin by demonstrating that they value GPs and recognise the considerable pressure under which most GPs and their staff work. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber agree about that—nor would we find many dissenters among hon. Members who cannot be present today. We must ensure that the Government honour the commitments in the “Five Year Forward View”, including the £2.4 billion extra each year for general practice—we must make sure that is delivered in a timely fashion.
I was concerned to hear the royal college express dissatisfaction that up to Christmas, only £2.4 million of the £16 million designated for resilience for GP practices had been committed. We must do better on that. As a matter of urgency, the Government need to carry out a comprehensive review to find a long-term solution. The hon. Member for Cheltenham made sensible suggestions on legal reform. Perhaps a centralised payment for out-of-hours care would support all that. It seems vital that any costs are in line with NHS treatment and not that in the private sector.
The previous Minister, the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), said in March 2016 that the Department of Health would begin to consult GPs, patients, lawyers, medical defence organisations and commercial insurance to look for a long-term solution. That was a year ago, so I look forward to the Minister telling us what progress has been made. Although Chaand Nagpaul, the chair of the British Medical Association GP committee, welcomed the short-term help, he went on to say:
“There is a need for a definitive solution to rocketing indemnity costs”.
Will the Minister tell us what progress has been made? What action has he taken in all those areas to ensure that GPs feel fully valued, and to show that we feel for them when it comes to this extra burden and have taken action to deal with it?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) on bringing this really important subject to Westminster Hall this afternoon. The NHS spends between £1.5 billion and £2 billion a year on legal and indemnity costs. If we could find a way to spend that massive slug of money better, that would be better for patients and our constituents, and all that goes with that.
I will start where my hon. Friend started in his really lucid speech. We need to emphasise how much we value GPs, as all Members did who have spoken today. In a speech that I gave recently to GPs, I used a sentence from the foreword by Simon Stevens to the “General Practice Forward View”, and I will use it again now:
“There is no more important job”
in the country
“than that of the family doctor.”
I think that is very good—everybody is nodding, so I think we all agree. There is no harm in our reminding any family doctor who may be listening to this debate of the esteem in which they are held.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham made some interesting points about the potential for legal reform. We are consulting on that and I will say a bit more about what we are doing. I will give the House one statistic that stuck in my mind as I was preparing for this debate: for legal cases with awards of £10,000 or less, the average costs are three to four times higher than the actual amount paid to the patient. That is indicative of a broken system that we need to fix. He made a point about using the central scheme, which applies to hospital doctors, for GPs. That is an option, but as he also said, the three insurance organisations are non-profit-making, so it is not absolutely clear how it would help.
Another thing I was surprised about was an interesting point that my hon. Friend and, I think, the hon. Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper) made about the way in which costs are estimated for difficult and complex cases. We would all concede that it is right that we properly recompense people who have been damaged through negligence and so on, but one of the things that that is based on is private health insurance rates, not the NHS doing the work. I have discovered the reason for that: it is what was set out in the National Health Service Act 1948, which set up the NHS. We are looking at options around that, but the history of how that evolved and why it became the case is interesting.
I am grateful for the opportunity to recommend an excellent book: “Working-Class Patients and the Medical Establishment”, by David G. Green, who now runs Civitas. It tells that history, and there are a great many similar examples where we might look at how we can reconnect the whole system with the patient.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and for the interesting comments he made. He talked about the transfer of risk due to specialisation, which is an interesting concept. I will push back a little on that, however. Of the £50 billion of reserve that the NHS needs to hold for legal cases and compensation payments into the future, the vast majority is around maternity, because the money tends to be focused on babies who are injured and have to be supported throughout their life. I am not absolutely sure he is right about that concept.
My hon. Friend made a point about the status of partners in GP practices. Partners have unlimited liability unless they have indemnity, which potentially makes it less attractive to be a partner than a salaried GP. We are seeing that trend. There is a double edge to that, and I will not go into other aspects of how GP practices are structured, but increasingly—I do not know whether this applies to my hon. Friend’s wife—we are finding that things are working better with GP practices being put into hubs of 35,000 to 40,000 people. They are able to employ pharmacists and physios and do more things at scale than they could as a single GP practice or as a practice of two or three GPs, which has historically been the norm.
We are migrating over time from a position where we have 7,500 GP practices to one with something more like 1,500 super-hubs, but it is true to say that the contract position has not caught up with that, and it is a long road. Tomorrow, I am going to visit a hub in Dudley. Super-practices are emerging, which have tens and possibly hundreds of GPs who can provide services across much wider areas. That is a different model, and there is some evidence that such hubs can provide more career structure for GPs and the opportunity to specialise in a way that they have not been able to in the past.
I must admit that I missed the Government’s plans to move to super-hubs. It sounds quite suitable for Wycombe. Without wishing to make this debate about my wife, she is with the Ministry of Defence. At the moment, the MOD is providing healthcare to units or stations, or whatever bases they may be. How would the super-hub proposal work with the armed forces?
I had forgotten to talk about MOD locums. My hon. Friend raised that issue, and I do not know the answer, but I will write to him and give him the information he needs, and he can talk to his wife about that. I was surprised by that example. I am sure that between the various parts of the Government, we can get an answer.
In the hour available to me, I will discuss in more detail the environment in which the NHS finds itself, the impact and the Government actions we are taking, but I will start with this: we all want access to justice. That is a fundamental of our country, and we should do or say nothing that causes people who have been badly treated to lose out. Lawyers have to be part of how they get access to justice, and that is right, but we also need to protect the viability of our NHS.
We are spending towards £2 billion a year in this area. That is £2 billion a year that we are not spending on nurses, doctors and the improvements we would all like to see. We often have debates about the level of NHS spend compared with other countries in Europe and different parts of the world, but one area in which we can say we are a leader in Europe is the amount of money we spend on litigation and all that goes with that. That is not because our NHS is less safe than other systems; it is to do with some of the points that were made earlier about the litigation culture that has built up. To an extent, that has been encouraged to build up because of our treatment of costs and some of those things. That spend of £1.5 billion to £2 billion has been increasing by something like 20% a year in the past three or four years. We cannot afford to continue to spend money in that way.
GPs are not the most expensive part of the system, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham said, GPs typically have to spend £7,900 out of their own pocket on indemnity. That figure is increasing by 10% a year. Indemnity costs for GPs who do out-of-hours work are increasing by 20% a year, which has knock-on effects for the attractiveness of that work. As we discussed earlier, it also impacts on people in other ways, such as propensity not to become partners in GP practices.
What has made the acceleration in legal costs evident is not so much the major claims that everyone would agree need to be sorted out and dealt with—for example, babies who are damaged at birth and need to be looked after for their entire life—but the significant increase in the number of minor claims, which tend to have a higher proportion of associated legal costs. As I said, claims of around £10,000 would typically have legal costs in excess of three times the amount that the patient would receive. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham said that many claims are successfully defended, and the fact is that 99% of all claims are settled out of court. There can be a tendency to settle minor claims for relatively small amounts—claims under £100,000—just because of the volume that are coming in and because it is cheaper to settle than fight to the end. All of that takes money out of our NHS.
We have talked a little bit about why this is happening. The life expectancy of people with complex needs is increasing, so if someone is damaged at birth, typically the awards they need go on for much longer than in the past. That is a good thing in terms of life expectancy, but it drives cost. There is a view that the best-quality care becomes more expensive. Technology is a part of that. We also have an environment in which, for whatever reason, there has been an explosion in small claims against the NHS, which particularly affects GPs, and there is a legal environment in which even unsuccessful claims or claims without merit can sometimes be rewarded. All of that is made worse, as we have heard, by the change to the discount rate made by the Lord Chancellor, which will come into effect next week on 20 March.
The time value of money essentially was 2.5% and is now going to be -0.75%. That will have a significant impact on all insurers in the private and public sectors. It particularly affects the health sector. The £59 billion reserve that the NHS has for central litigation costs will increase because of the change that has been made by something in excess of £5 billion or £6 billion. Those are significant and serious sums of money in the public purse. The Government’s position is that doctors will not have to pay as a consequence of the technical change in discount rate. We are working through how that will work in the central litigation authority and the three insurance companies that my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham mentioned. Nevertheless, the cost is significant in the context of all the other pressures on the health system.
A couple of Members talked about the fact that the issue affects not only doctors in primary care but pharmacists. Increasingly, clinical or prescribing pharmacists are working in primary care and they need indemnity, as do nurse practitioners. We need to remember that that is all part of the picture.
I will not be dragged into the issue of community pharmacists other than to say they are extremely valued and have a major part to play as we integrate them with the clinical pharmacists working in GP practices. I will simply say, since the hon. Lady has raised it, the Government are committed to getting community pharmacists to move into a much more service-oriented way of working. We will not do that by overpaying for prescribing or by acknowledging or encouraging clustering, which is what the reforms we have talked about will address.
So what are the Government doing? First and foremost, we need to continue the drive to improve standards and quality in the NHS. I made the point earlier that accidents happen and negligence takes place. When it happens, we need to learn from it and ensure that there is a duty of candour within the service. Doctors and nurses need to do what they can to make sure that the systems failure or breakdown that occurred does not happen again. To use a rather trite management consultancy-type phrase, the NHS needs to become a learning culture. It is true, however, that people need to learn from errors and continually try to improve standards. We need to avoid errors as much as possible, but at the same time we cannot have the medical profession being overly defensive, because that is not the right answer either.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham discussed what we have done so far in the “General Practice Forward View” to protect GPs from the rising costs of indemnity. Some £30 million a year is being paid out for the year just gone. There is a clear commitment in the forward view. The increases in indemnity costs, which are not a consequence of GP actions or failures or whatever, will be indemnified by the Government. I repeat that again today. I have already made the point about specialist nurses and pharmacists.
We are trying to make progress on the law and address the level of costs awarded in some cases. The 12-week consultation on fixed recoverable costs began on 30 January this year. In the case of smaller claims, proposals include a cap on solicitors’ fees and on the hourly rate for expert witnesses and locums. It is also proposed that both sides share a single joint expert witness, because it is not always sensible to have two expert witnesses arguing with each other: it is possible to do that in a more effective way. The direct aim of the consultation is to reduce the ratio of the amount of money that the patient gets to the amount of money that the lawyer gets, particularly in the lower-value cases. The Government look forward to the results of the consultation and we hope we can move forward.
Another aim—this applies less to GPs, but is also very important—is to do what we can to keep cases out of court altogether by means of the rapid resolution and redress scheme. I have talked a little about maternity cases, but because of the level of the costs and the complexity of the case it can take many years for payments to start being made. That is not right because, from a justice point of view, the baby or the baby’s family needs the money more quickly. It can sometimes takes nine, 10 or 11 years until the legal side is sorted out, and that is not just.
We began a consultation on the rapid resolution and redress scheme in October last year. The scheme tries to keep the whole thing out of court by attempting through mediation and working together to come up with a sensible and fair solution much quicker so that the 11 and 10-year court cases are avoided. We will try and make progress on that. We have not talked about tort reform. The Government are not currently working on that in respect of indemnity, although that was implied in some of the remarks that my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham made.
I will finish where I began. Indemnity is a very important area for the NHS. We are spending towards £2 billion a year. That cost is accelerating and will potentially undermine the level of care that we can give. We need to do what we can to moderate costs.
The two consultations will take 12 weeks. In a sense, my hon. Friend’s question is false. I do not think there will ever be a final solution because we are trying to reconcile two powerful forces: the need for access to justice and equity for people damaged through negligence and the need to be fair to our NHS. There will always be issues that evolve. The discount rate, for example, which we have talked about during the debate, will vary depending on where interest rates move in the months ahead.
We are talking about something that will always have to be kept under review. There will not be a final solution, but the two consultations that I mentioned will make a material difference and I am keen that we should make progress on them as soon as we are able to.
I appreciate the Minister’s giving way, particularly as I was late arriving for the debate, and so may have missed some key points. Building on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), of course I welcome the Government’s interventions, the consultation, the winter scheme and extra money for GPs to cope with inflationary pressures. The problem is that the costs are already so high.
Addenbrooke’s hospital in my constituency is losing trainee doctors, who are put off by the cost. Older doctors are retiring early. Doctors are thinking twice about going into specialisms because there is perhaps a higher associated risk. Is there nothing else that we can do? Hospitals have Crown indemnity. Could we consider that for GPs? Could we extend it to them, as an alternative idea?
Those are all fair points, but in the GP forward view we have said that GPs will not bear the cost of increased indemnity—the Government will; and that is a commitment that we are holding to. The increased costs incurred last year are being paid through the GP contract, following the discussions that we have had with the BMA, and the cost of that to the Government for this year is £33 million. That is a commitment that will go into the future.
However, my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen) makes a fair point that in a country with a shortage of GPs, where we are trying to recruit a further 5,000 doctors to work in general practice by 2020, we need to make the profession attractive. We are trying to do that, and there are different ways to do it. Indemnity is just part of it. To answer her point, I would say that this year the number of medical students going into GP training is the highest ever achieved. Something over 3,000 are going into the training, and we need them all. I responded to a debate here yesterday about a shortage of GPs in Essex. Frankly there are shortages everywhere; we understand that.
In a sense, I share the frustration of my hon. Friends the Members for South Cambridgeshire and for Cheltenham and the feeling “Why can’t we just fix this?” The answer is that there are legal rights that we cannot just take away; we cannot say that it will just not be possible to sue the NHS in future. That is not the system in the country that we live in. However, we need to do moderate, sensible things to bear down on costs, so that we spend a greater proportion of NHS money on doctors than on lawyers. All of us in the Chamber would agree on that.
I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. I think that four things have emerged. First, there is an overwhelming and unified view that GPs are an enormously valuable part of the health service; it is important to underscore that point at every opportunity. To be blunt, I think that GPs sometimes feel got at—in the media and even in this place, I dare say. The message that needs to ring out from this Parliament is that we see GPs as the foundation stone of the NHS. What is good for them is good for patients, and what is good for patients is, of course, good for the country.
Secondly, there was a frank acknowledgement of the scale of the problem. My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen) made the point that, notwithstanding the increases that we face, the present burden is itself demoralising GPs, and acting as a disincentive to becoming a GP. I take on board, however, the Minister’s point about the record number of applicants.
Thirdly, I am grateful that the Government are clearly taking the issue seriously, with the winter scheme, which has been referred to several times, and the £33 million per annum being invested to cover the cost of the increased indemnity. That is extremely welcome.
I shall close on the fourth point. GPs need to hear that the short-term solutions will translate into a long-term one. I was encouraged by the Minister’s comment that the commitment being made at the moment with respect to the increased indemnity, of £30 million a year, will go into the future. In the not-too-distant future, we need the message to go out that the matter is being addressed, whether through that scheme or another one. It needs to be addressed coherently, sustainably and clearly, sending GPs—whether locums or permanent—the most straightforward message possible: that they are welcome and valued, that their finances are understood, and that we want a system that works for them as well as for patients.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the cost of GP indemnity in England.
Local Banking Facilities: Ampthill
[Mr James Gray in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the provision of local banking facilities in Ampthill.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I am usually in that Chair myself; I had forgotten what it is like to be on this side.
In December, my office received an embargoed early notice from NatWest saying that it would shortly be announcing the closure of several of its branches in Bedfordshire, including two in my constituency. Although I have reservations about that programme of branch closures, I completely understand NatWest’s need to release and realise the funding behind some of its major assets. However, I am particularly concerned about the effect on the town of Ampthill. I have received a huge number of representations from local residents, who will be left with no bank or building society when NatWest finally closes its doors in June.
Despite the fact that online banking transactions with NatWest increased by 400% between 2010 and 2015, since 2011 transactions at the Ampthill branch have declined by only 20%, in contrast with other banks and branches across the country, according to NatWest’s own figures. Given that Ampthill’s population is growing and will continue to grow in the future, the branch’s customer base will get larger, not smaller. Although 65% of NatWest customers are now using online options, 35% will not or cannot, and a large part of the 65% who do will still need to use the branch at some point. Those general trends are even stronger in Ampthill, because it has a larger than average proportion of elderly people.
The switch to online banking most affects those who simply cannot navigate their way around cyberspace. The largest part of that group is the elderly and the vulnerable. If the Ampthill branch closes, the nearest NatWest will be almost 8 miles away, so people without cars face a long round trip on an infrequent local bus service to access banking services in Bedford. Ampthill is a market town based in the middle of a rural constituency, which unfortunately has—despite the fact that I have argued this case over many years—poor local public transport connections.
Jane Vass, the director of policy and research at the charity Age UK, said:
“If a branch closure happens in an area where bus services are poor”,
as is the case in Ampthill,
“or there is patchy internet service and mobile black spots, it can make banking life extremely difficult for the elderly.”
Despite being told that the closure will affect its customers in that way, NatWest is pressing on regardless.
Ampthill is a busy market town, and traders need access to banking services. I have received concerned representations from local businesses. NatWest currently provides a service to many smaller independent businesses, not just local traders; those businesses may not be able to undertake more complex business finance transactions after the branch closes. The local town council and Central Bedfordshire Council have both expressed deep concern that, as well as stifling existing business in Ampthill, the proposed closure will have a limiting effect on the start-up and growth of small and medium-sized enterprises.
I pay tribute to Ampthill town council and the lady mayor, who has run a campaign to raise public awareness of what NatWest is doing in the town and has gathered many signatures. Despite the best efforts of the town council and Central Bedfordshire Council—I believe another meeting is taking place tomorrow night—NatWest has remained absolutely intransigent in its position. Its behaviour, which impacts local businesses in that way, appears contrary to its wider commitment to support business growth, particularly given its initiatives such as the Entrepreneurial Spark.
NatWest’s publicity material about the proposed closure of the Ampthill branch suggests that customers can use the nearby post office as an alternative to banking in-branch. I cannot believe that anyone from NatWest has ever set foot inside the post office in Ampthill, which, according to local residents, is struggling for space as it is. At busy peak times there are long queues. I was told today that it is difficult to get staff to work in the post office.
The idea that the already busy, quite small rural local post office should do the heavy lifting for NatWest when it decides to leave is almost preposterous. Only the simplest of transactions can be done in the post office. The deal between the Post Office and the banks is specifically designed to embrace basic—that is the key word—banking services. In a small village or town that had other branches available, that would be an acceptable compromise, but Ampthill’s banking needs are more complex and cannot be served by the post office branch alone.
Ampthill town council has run a valiant campaign to stop the closure. It told me that the post office branch into which NatWest wants to send its elderly customers and local businesses has poor accessibility for the disabled or infirm. The nearby town of Flitwick is slightly larger than Ampthill and has a smaller proportion of elderly people, yet Barclays bank is absolutely committed to its presence there. In fact, my office is in the process of arranging for me to visit that branch to have a briefing on what it is undertaking to ensure it can continue to serve the local community by harnessing, not bowing to, current banking trends.
The residents and civil leaders of Ampthill are very clear that they do not want to lose their last bank branch. The town council’s petition has so far gathered 2,432 signatures, and there is an active Facebook group calling on NatWest to reverse its decision. I am concerned that NatWest has shown little willingness to work with the community. The one theme running through this is NatWest’s disturbing brick wall impact on the local community. There should not be a binary choice between the branch either staying open in its current form or closing its doors for good. My preferred option is for NatWest to share premises with another business to reduce overheads but maintain its presence and services in the town.
As quoted in the money section of a national newspaper, the Royal Bank of Scotland—NatWest—
“says branches will continue to play a ‘vital role’ for customers, providing a ‘failsafe when things go wrong and customers need a hand sorting it out’.”
NatWest customers in Ampthill will find little comfort in those warm words when their local branch closes in June.
Many of us have seen across the UK, not only in our own constituencies but when visiting other constituencies, that when a major bank decides to close its doors, it often leaves behind some form of presence—often a cash machine or night bank safe facilities for local businesses. I visited a bank recently that had moved from its main branch and taken a small shop on the high street. It had one cashier and a lobby area with cash machines and bank safes that could be accessed at night.
I understand that the property in Ampthill is fairly huge, and it obviously has a high market value, but I do not understand why NatWest has this “all or nothing” attitude and why it cannot say to the residents of Ampthill, “We are leaving your town, but we are leaving this behind. We are not deserting you. We are leaving some facilities behind for local businesses and local people.”
To leave Ampthill with absolutely zero in the way of banking facilities seems almost irresponsible, and shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the local community, yet through schemes such as Entrepreneurial Spark and others, NatWest makes much in its marketing of understanding the needs and concerns of local people. Its behaviour in Ampthill, however, shows the opposite—it does not understand the needs of the local people or of local business. NatWest has its hands over its ears when requests are made to leave behind some form of banking facility, and there is no fail-safe. My constituents will face a round trip of 15 or 16 miles to banking facilities in Bedford.
NatWest is a business and it is beyond the remit of the Treasury to instruct a bank to behave in a certain way. There is, however, a strong working relationship between the Government and the banking sector. We know that because when the banking sector fails the Government and local people pick up the tab—Ampthill residents, through their taxes, have helped to pick up the bill for failed banks, only to be repaid by NatWest, a recipient bank, walking away and turning its back on local people. Recently, I think I heard a figure of 72% in connection with one bank paying back its debt to the people—that was not NatWest.
I know that the Minister has to be brief in his response and there is not a great deal he can say, but beyond the remit of the debate I ask him to use his good offices to press NatWest to be slightly more aware of the needs of local people, in particular when those people are picking up the debts of banks or the costs of bank mismanagement and inappropriate behaviour. NatWest should bear that in mind when it decides to walk away, and it should consider leaving at the very least a cash machine and night-banking facilities for the people of Ampthill. Only 11% of all cash machines are in rural areas, which Ampthill counts as, although those areas would seem to need cash machines more than anywhere else.
I congratulate Barclays for not behaving in the same way as NatWest in a neighbouring town and for being far more diverse in looking at ways in which it can continue to serve the local community. It is time for NatWest to step up to the plate and to do the same in Ampthill.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Gray. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) for securing this important debate on behalf of her constituents. She is clearly a very loud voice for her area, and I am sure that NatWest will be listening carefully not only to what she has said, but to what I am about to say.
What is clear to me from the points made today, which were all very good, and from the many letters that I receive regularly from other hon. Members on this subject, is that we all agree on the vital role that banks and building societies play in our local communities, particularly rural communities. As Economic Secretary, I am committed to a financial services system that delivers for all its customers throughout the UK. It does not matter who people are, where they live, what they do or how old they are; it is important to deliver to everyone. We all need the industry to help us to manage our money and to achieve our life goals. Banks and building societies should be there to help everyone, at every stage of life.
I will talk about adapting to change. Banks have made a lot of progress to adjust to the wider changes to the way in which we are banking in the modern era. The banking industry estimates that the number of people going into branches to do their banking has fallen by roughly a third since 2011. RBS reports that, between 2010 and 2015, its customers’ online and mobile transactions increased by 400%. The British Bankers Association reports more than 7,000 banking app logins a minute in 2015, which was a 50% rise on the previous year. Many of us in this place, too, have reduced our use of high street bank branches as it has become easier to do more online.
Such changes are leading to tough decisions for the banking industry. Some banks are investing in branch networks, some are consolidating their networks and some are establishing themselves as digital only. It is not for Government to intervene in those commercial decisions, although it is right for us to support access to the banking services that people need. Bank branches remain important to many customers. The Government want to ensure that the industry responds to changes in the way in which we bank while ensuring that it caters for customers who still need access to a branch.
My hon. Friend mentioned post offices. The post office network of more than 11,500 branches enables customers to have access to their bank accounts, withdraw money, deposit cash and cheques, and check balances. She might be pleased to know that in January this year the Post Office announced that it had reached an agreement with all the banks to allow more banking customers to access a wider range of services at the post offices than ever before.
I understand that point, which may be applicable to post office facilities housed in buildings that are appropriate for the extra business. In Ampthill, however, that is not the case. As I said, this lunchtime I was told by someone in Ampthill that the post office there struggles to find staff and is in small premises, which are very cramped—just try buying a stamp there at any busy time in the year. Although the Post Office has agreed to take over for those banks, we know that post office closures have been a problem throughout the UK for quite some time now. A local post office is neither predictable nor assured, and in Ampthill its facilities are certainly not appropriate.
My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point. In the wider context, it is important to say that 99% of personal and 75% of business customers will be able to carry out their day-to-day banking at post offices up and down the country as a result of the new agreement.
The post office in Ampthill is opposite the NatWest bank, in McColl’s store and next to the Woodhead Horns repair shop. Next to the bank and opposite the post office is Cambridge Wine Merchants, so I understand that Ampthill is a flourishing, attractive place for people to visit to shop. The banking facilities are an important part of that, but it is worth saying that post offices enjoy longer opening hours than banks, with many open on a Sunday. Furthermore, the changes in the new agreement will help with our frequent worry, as MPs, about our post offices closing down. The additional services and responsibilities will ensure that they are more likely to continue successfully.
The Post Office is also carrying out investment in and modernisation of 7,000 post offices throughout the country, to make the network more sustainable in the long term. In Ampthill, I hope that means that the cloud has a silver lining. It is worth adding that the Post Office is the largest retailer open on Sundays, it has a bigger network even than Tesco, and I am keen to see financial services on our high streets throughout the country. The access to banking protocol means that when a bank decides to close a branch it must think very carefully about the consequences of doing so. It must engage with its customers, it must consider their needs and it must identify ways for its customers to continue banking after the branch has closed. That analysis must be made public.
I am pleased to say that all the major high street banks have signed up to the protocol. The British Bankers Association appointed Professor Russel Griggs to carry out an independent “one year on” review of the protocol. He published that review last November and made several recommendations to improve how the protocol operates. The Government welcome that review, and we are pleased to see the industry commit to further improvements to protect people affected by closures. There is already evidence of improved industry behaviour in places such as Ampthill. RBS, the parent of NatWest, has committed to providing customers with six months’ notice of planned closures rather than the 12 weeks stipulated in the protocol, and it did so in Ampthill. That is good news for my hon. Friend’s residents, who will have more time to plan for change.
I should also say that customers could vote with their feet and switch their accounts to a bank with a branch nearer to them. My hon. Friend mentioned Flitwick, which is 3 miles away, where Barclays is clearly doing a good job. Perhaps people will consider that option. I can confirm that I have heard that NatWest has committed to retaining an ATM in Ampthill when the branch closes. That is good news and another example of positive industry behaviour.
I thank the Minister for his forbearance. I have had a similar promise in writing from NatWest, but when it is asked to give that promise at public meetings, it gives no such assurance to the local community. It is good that he said that on the record. I, too, have said it, but NatWest is not doing that in local meetings.
I am not really in a position to tell NatWest how to run its business, but here we are in a public forum that is being recorded and is available for all to see. Having heard that an ATM is promised, I would be disappointed if one were not delivered. I can be quite clear about that. I should say that I am sure that that promise is a result of my hon. Friend’s work and campaigning with local residents, who clearly see this as an important issue.
I will continue to keep a close eye on this matter. My hon. Friend will be aware that hundreds of towns, villages and even cities up and down the country are seeing changes in financial services. I try to take an interest in them all, but as she succeeded in securing this debate, I will take an even closer look and keep an eye on her area in particular.
I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns and the concerns of many other Members, who do a good job of standing up for their local communities. I encourage the industry to think creatively about how banks continue to serve their customers and how the impact of branch closures can be minimised. Banks and building societies need to balance customer interests, market competition and other commercial factors when considering their strategies. Although the Government do not intervene in such commercial decisions, we will continue to push to ensure that everyone can access the banking services that they need. I thank my hon. Friend for raising these important issues. This has been a good debate, and I look forward to visiting her part of the world in the near future to use the cashpoint, the wonderful wine merchants and the horn repairers.
Question put and agreed to.
Scottish Devolution and Article 50
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the implications for the Scottish devolution settlement of triggering Article 50.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Gray. I have to say that this debate has taken on a bit of a different taste in the past few days. On Monday morning, I was quite clear about what we would have to discuss, but by lunchtime my party leader, as well as the Prime Minister, had rather knocked me off my stride. She does that sometimes—she is pretty good. I find myself coming back to the basics of the debate and considering what it is we really need to know: what is in store for Scotland?
If Members will allow me, I will keep things a bit sober and restrained so that we can have a sensible discussion of the issues, which I consider to be extremely important. Over the past few months we have asked questions about the Government’s approach to, hopes for and starting position in the negotiations over the UK’s leaving the EU. I am afraid we have received no substantive answers, which has led some people less charitable than me to suggest that the Government do not know the answers to those questions. I would never suggest such a thing—not yet, anyway.
The point of fracture for me came at the Scottish Tory conference in Perth, where the Prime Minister did two things in her speech. The first was to claim that Scotland has the most powerful devolved legislature in the world and the second was to suggest that competencies repatriated—if that is the correct word—from the EU will be exercised in Whitehall rather than in Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast.
Let me first address the idea that Scotland has the most powerful devolved legislature in the world. I have seen no evidence to support that claim, although it has been made repeatedly over a number of years. I have seen no comparison made that supports such a suggestion, nor any indication of the definition of a devolved legislature being used. I cannot but think that there are more powerful examples of sub-state bodies, such as the German Länder and the Australian states and territories, which would better fit that description. Anyway, it strikes me that we should not care whether Scotland is the most powerful devolved legislature in the world; we should be asking whether the arrangements—current and proposed—are what best suit Scotland’s needs.
I will argue that Scotland should be independent, because I believe we have a different outlook on public life from that of the fine people south of the border. Our public discourse is different and our values and societies are different. I understand that people on the other side of the debate will see it in a different light: they look at the issue from a UK point of view and decide that Scotland is better where it is. They are entitled to do that. In my view they are entirely wrong, but they are entitled to be wrong and to support the continuation of the UK rather than the re-emergence of its constituent nations.
The idea of the most powerful devolved legislature in the world brings us to the point about where power should rest. In the early days of devolution, some believed that they had squared the circle and that the separation of policy areas that should be reserved and those left devolved was finalised. We discovered fairly quickly, however, that that was not the case and that the issue had to be revisited. The prediction of Ron Davies, the one-time Welsh Secretary, came to pass. Devolution is a process, not an event.
The extension of devolution, by the way, was described by the previous leader of the Scottish Conservatives as the most important debate in the Scottish Parliament. Interestingly, she said that at a time when a Labour Scottish Secretary, Des Browne, was busy trying to strip powers from Holyrood—presumably because the Scottish National party had won the Scottish election in 2007. The upshot was an extension rather than a constriction of the competencies of the Scottish Parliament, and the debate continued. In policy area after policy area, power and competency has been ceded to Holyrood as it becomes clear—even to those opposed to any further devolution—that those powers and competencies are best exercised in Scotland. It is a process, not an event.
The hon. Lady has secured an important debate. When the UK devolution settlements were designed in 1998, there was no thought of Brexit and, at that time, the single market was the European single market. After Brexit, the single market will be the UK single market—at the moment, because Scotland is not independent. How does she believe that will work in agriculture, fisheries and other policy areas?
The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that I will address that later in my speech.
Now we find ourselves about to leave the European Union, the Prime Minister is making the threat of removing competencies from Holyrood as they come back from Brussels; other than that, we do not really have any idea of what she is planning. Leaving the European Union means that the Scotland Act 1998 must be revisited, because it compels Scotland to comply with EU law. The clawing back of powers and competencies from Holyrood to Whitehall, as suggested by the Prime Minister, would also require amendments to that Act.
If Members want to understand exactly how much disentanglement there will be, they should ask the Commons Library, as I did. They will be told that there is a huge number of directives and regulations to look through and that to come up with a definitive figure, list or even idea of what is reserved and what remains devolved is, to all intents and purposes, a fool’s errand.
To give an example, there are 527 regulations under the environment, consumer and health sections alone, and there are a whole host of environmental regulations under other headings such as “energy”. I do not know whether the Scotland Office has been working to draw up a list—or the Wales Office or the Northern Ireland Office for that matter. It would be good to be told, but it is clear that there is an enormous amount of work to be done and an enormous amount of legislation to comb through. Sifting that, considering it, deciding where to lay it and working it out will need a new Scotland Act.
It is true that the Government could use section 30 of the 1998 Act further to reserve powers over those areas currently under EU control, but that would seem frankly perverse if the Act has to be amended in any case. That seems simple, but when I asked the Prime Minister last week whether she would consult the people of Scotland properly and seek the consent of the Scottish Parliament before making changes to the legislation that frames devolution, she seemed perplexed. Her answer to me was that she undertakes
“full discussions with the Scottish Government on…reserved matters and…where we are negotiating on behalf of the whole of the United Kingdom.”—[Official Report, 8 March 2017; Vol. 622, c. 808.]
However, we discovered on Monday that that is simply not true. Scotland’s First Minister was clear that none of the devolved Administrations had heard a peep from the UK Government before the announcement that we are all being dragged out of the single market, in spite of that being the major part of the Scottish Government’s compromise proposal on Brexit.
There is a sweetheart deal for Nissan, but no discussion of Scotland’s needs—far less any movement to accommodate those needs. Membership of the single market is vital for Scotland’s exports, and essential to the exercise of the economic competencies of the Scottish Parliament and to the future of many Scottish businesses. An immigration system that offers EU citizens the right to come to Scotland to live, work, study and settle down is essential to our continuing to grow a population that is economically active and demographically sustainable, as was discussed in the recent Scottish Affairs Committee debate. Academic research and the excellent record of Scotland’s universities is under threat, because Brexit will cut them off from an enormous research funder and from the universities they co-operate with on the continent, not to mention the academics who come to Scotland from elsewhere in the EU.
The implications for Scotland of triggering article 50 are enormous and deep-seated and, whichever way things go, they will have a long half-life. We have heard the glib “Brexit means Brexit”, that it will be red, white and blue and that there will be no running commentary, but I am beginning to suspect that there is no running anything behind Whitehall’s firmly closed doors. It is time that the Government started to lay out what Brexit actually means in terms of implications for the people who live on these islands, rather than continuing use of tautology.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent case. Does she agree that those people—the minority—in Scotland who voted to leave the European Union did so hoping that they would see a transfer of powers back from Brussels to Edinburgh and that they will be dismayed that they are getting a transfer of powers from Brussels to Westminster? Does that not do a disservice to those no voters in Scotland as well as disrespecting the entire country, which took a different view?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point that I completely agree with. The National Farmers Union of Scotland shares many of his views. It has told me that Brexit is the biggest challenge to Scottish food producers in generations. Farmers, food processing companies and hauliers need migrant workers, access to European markets and guarantees on future financial support. Many of Scotland’s farmers depend on that financial support to remain solvent.
The NFUS is clear that the issue should be in the purview of the Scottish Government, and that the cash should follow that competency. That would be around £600 million a year, or £3.5 billion over the current seven-year cycle. More than 20,000 businesses in Scotland receive common agricultural policy payments, and more than 3,000 of those receive less than £1,000 each; that is subsistence, not luxury. We have no idea what the Government intend to happen—whether the cash will be ponied up for our farmers or what other support is in the pipeline.
We all know that the Government are sick and fed up of having to think about the fate of European citizens here and want it tied to UK citizens abroad—the very definition of bargaining chips. We know that because the Prime Minister keeps telling us. Scotland needs those citizens. Half of Scotland’s population growth in the past 15 years has come from EU citizens, who have come and made a huge contribution to the country. Four fifths of them are of working age, and four fifths of those are employed. They drive Scotland’s economy and contribute taxes, which are of course to be collected for the Scottish Government from April. Scotland cannot hang on and hope that we get something for those people. We need it now because they need it now, so that they can plan ahead rather than planning to leave.
We do not need warm words and vague hopes that a deal can be done, but straightforward action, and now. Scotland needs the UK Government to make the necessary changes now to give EU nationals continuing legal rights—of residence, movement, economic activity and study—that would need legislation to be removed, not a promise to look at it sometime in the future. That is what Scotland needs, what the Scottish economy needs, what Scotland’s public sector workforce needs and what the devolution settlement needs.
If the UK Government want to make a decent fist of Brexit, they have to start being honest. The Prime Minister has to stop telling us that she is consulting with the devolved Administrations when she clearly is not.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Does she share my concerns that, during the passage of the Scotland Act 2016, any amendment proposed by our party, the Scottish National party—which, after all, represents 56 out of 59 Scottish constituencies—was voted down by the UK Government? That does not augur well for the future when it comes to whether the UK Government are prepared to listen to the arguments coming from Scotland.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point; what he mentioned sets a very poor precedent. When we see no action, that makes all of us doubt very much the warm words we continually hear from the Government.
We need a clear indication of what is ahead and what direction the UK Government intend to take. Further to that, we need guarantees that the Scottish people will be properly consulted and that the Scottish Parliament will be asked for its consent, just as the First Minister will ask for its consent next week when seeking a section 30 agreement. If the Prime Minister and her Government do not want to come to the negotiating table with the devolved Administration, we should be told, so that we can prepare for the coming independence referendum. It would be foolish of anyone to assume that that is an empty bluff, or that there is anything other than a hard edge to Nicola Sturgeon’s statement on Monday. The Scottish Government entered into Brexit negotiations in good faith and were met with a brick wall of intransigence. That is simply not good enough. Scotland’s interests need to be defended, and Scotland needs a future we can look to with hope.
There is time for the UK Government to salvage the situation. They can pick up the phone, speak to the Scottish Government and make a compromise deal. However, if they want to keep the UK together, they had better move soon. The Scottish Government will not hang about. Nicola Sturgeon has laid out the case clearly and eloquently: give Scotland due and proper consideration and negotiate in our best interests, or the UK will find it is leaving the EU without us.
No constitutional change is not an option for Scotland now, but we still have the choice about what kind of constitutional change we want for Scotland. The UK is leaving the EU, which at the moment would take Scotland out, but we have the option of opting out of that lemming plunge and choosing instead to be an independent European nation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, especially given your well-known Glasgow roots and your love for Scotland. I am sure you will be among the first to claim citizenship of a newly independent Scotland—or dual citizenship, perhaps.
My apologies, Mr Gray; nevertheless, the pleasure remains. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) said, the circumstances in which we are having the debate have changed somewhat, following the First Minister’s announcement on Monday about the Scottish Government’s decision to seek a section 30 order. I pay tribute to the ever-ready House of Commons Library, which nevertheless managed to capture that announcement in its briefing note just before it went to press.
I will look briefly at the principles behind the debate and some of the practical implications for us in the House and beyond. For me, there are two key principles behind the devolution settlement. The first is the claim of right for Scotland, which we have discussed in this Chamber before. It is the concept of popular sovereignty. The 1989 claim of right was the basis of the constitutional convention and the current devolution settlement. It said:
“We, gathered as the Scottish Constitutional Convention, do hereby acknowledge the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs”.
That claim still stands today, and it was asserted on 23 June 2016, when the people of Scotland said that they wanted to remain in the European Union. That claim was passed by the constitutional convention in 1989 and was again agreed by the Scottish Parliament in 2012, but is the principle of the claim now under threat from the Conservative Government? The Tories have never been clear about whether they endorsed that principle in the first place, and it appears even more under threat now, especially if the Prime Minister tries to block or delay the requested potential independence referendum in Scotland.
The second key principle, enshrined in the Scotland Act 1998, is that whatever is not reserved is devolved. As we all know, schedule 5 to the Act is clear about what is reserved: defence, foreign affairs, social security and aspects of trade and energy. There have been some derogations in those areas over the years, but anything that is not mentioned in schedule 5 to the 1998 Act is therefore devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Climate change is a very good precedent for that. When the UK Parliament decided it wanted to legislate on climate change emissions, responsibility fell to the Scottish Parliament to make legislative provision in Scotland. The Scottish Parliament took it upon itself in 2009 to pass some world-leading climate change legislation, which was some of the most ambitious anywhere in the world. It seems now that the principle of what is not reserved being therefore devolved is also under threat. We have certainly had ambiguous answers from Ministers to date.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is absolutely crucial that the UK Government provide clarity of their intent regarding the transfer of powers? The Scottish Government can then plan ahead and ensure that they have sufficient capacity and resource to take on any additional responsibilities.
Planning is of absolute importance, and I have to say, I probably have more confidence in the Scottish Government’s ability to plan ahead, irrespective of what the UK Government is doing. The First Minister has demonstrated at every turn, before, during and since the EU referendum, that the Scottish Government are actually thinking ahead about the consequences of various decisions might be. We have seen that demonstrated again this week.
My hon. Friend leads me on to the important practicalities of how the implications of triggering article 50 will be felt in Scotland and their implications for devolution. The first—I hope we will have an opportunity to find out a little bit more about this—will be when we finally get to see and hear more about the Government’s thinking on the great repeal Bill, or, as it is increasingly known in some circles, the great power grab. It is a serious concern for Members from all parties, not least the hardcore Brexiteers who wanted to restore sovereignty to the House of Commons, that what will in fact happen is a power transfer—a power grab—by the Executive in the United Kingdom.
We read in The Times the other day that it will perhaps not just be a great repeal Bill, but that up to seven or more pieces of individual legislation will be needed just to deal with the complexities of taking us out of the European Union. The Government have to start answering questions, precisely as my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) said, so that we can make plans.
The consequences for devolution are profound. Which will come first, the chicken or the egg? Are we going to see an amendment to the Scotland Act to reserve powers as a result of Brexit, or will individual pieces of legislation come forward that reserve different powers? What exactly is going to happen?
I speak as someone who was not a hardcore Brexiteer but voted to remain. Agriculture is an area that affects my constituency in Suffolk, as it does many of the constituencies in Scotland. Given that many agricultural tariffs are currently set at a European level, if Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom and we have a UK single market, it would be appropriate for the UK Government to be involved in dealing with those agricultural tariffs, on a point of principle. Does he agree?
The principle that is very clear is that if something is not reserved to the UK Government, it is therefore devolved to the Scottish Parliament. I have not read the words “reservation of agriculture” in schedule 5 to the Scotland Act. Some of my hon. Friends might want to clarify or expand on the practicalities of that.
Let us take fisheries as an example, which was one of the potential Bills listed in The Times the other day. There are potential consequences for that. If the Government bring forward a fisheries Bill and have not clarified whether that is devolved or reserved, it seems to me that, under the English votes for English laws Standing Orders, it will fall to the Speaker of the House of Commons to decide whether or not that hugely profound, massive area of policy needs to be certified under the EVEL procedures. That could therefore deny a say to Members from Scotland on something that the Scottish Parliament equally has no power over, because we have been left in a legislative limbo. The Government have to start making clear exactly what their thoughts are on these issues.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, in the case of fisheries, the most appropriate people to administer are the Scottish Government? We have witnessed in the past inexperienced members of the UK Cabinet representing the UK at EU talks, with much more knowledgeable and seasoned Scottish Ministers being snubbed.
Indeed. That goes right back to the very process of the UK joining the European Community in the first place, when the fishing communities of Scotland were sold down the river as a bargaining chip in those original negotiations. There is a fear that that will happen again.
The final area that needs to be clarified is the Sewel convention, particularly as it relates to secondary legislation. One fear about the power grab that will come in the great repeal Bill is that the Government will take much power for themselves, through Henry VIII powers, to deal with European regulations by secondary legislation. However, secondary or delegated legislation is not subject to the Sewel convention. Concerns about that were raised by the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament in written evidence to the Procedure Committee, which was published this afternoon. He says:
“Looking beyond the Great Repeal Bill, I would also observe that the current deadlines under which subordinate legislation is introduced in the UK Parliament would already constrict the timescale for any consequent scrutiny at the Scottish Parliament. There is a worry that any suggestion of foreshortening those deadlines may not be conducive to allowing proper oversight of any instruments that may include devolved matters.”
The consequences are profound, let alone the fact that the Supreme Court has already said that the Sewel convention is a political decision and therefore not worth the vellum it is inscribed upon.
The implications of triggering article 50 for devolution are profound. The Prime Minister said at Prime Minister’s questions today that she is listening and discussing, but now is the time for agreement and action. Perhaps the Minister could start by answering some of the questions we are raising today.
Order. It may be helpful for Members to know that I intend to call the first of the three party spokespeople at 5.10 pm, and therefore we have about 15 minutes left for three speakers. If my arithmetic serves me right, that means about five minutes each. I call Ian Murray.
It must be in the post; I hope it is, because it would be thoroughly deserved. I apologise to you for elevating you to a knighthood, Mr Gray, and also to the House for being slightly late. A major constituency issue delayed me, so I only heard the end of the speech by the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock).
This issue will be a key element of the discussions over the next few years in this House. I am not sure how many thousands or tens of thousands of statutory instruments and pieces of legislation we will see when the great repeal Bill is announced, but I hope we will have some kind of process that takes into account three things. First, English votes for English laws should be suspended with the great repeal Bill, given its severity. Secondly, there must be a streamlined process, so that we do not all end up having to sit and consider 10,000 statutory instruments. I am sure that the House, and certainly the Clerks of the House, would very much welcome that.
Thirdly, I hope that the Minister and the Government—I say this with all respect and in the interests of trying to find a way through—take into account the political difficulties and sensitivities of the Scottish Parliament’s responsibilities and schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998. Schedule 5 is incredibly simple to read now because it has got so small, given the number of powers that have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament, but the key one in there is the relationship with the European Union and foreign affairs. That should not be an excuse for the Government to say that the devolved Administrations should not be heavily involved in this process.
None of us wanted to be here—I certainly did not—in terms of Brexit, but we are, and this process has to be followed through. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith for securing this debate. It will probably be one of many we have on Brexit and Scotland over the next few years.
I said this to the Prime Minister yesterday in the House and will emphasise it again now. The general principle should be that where a power is not in schedule 5 to the 1998 Act and where a power has been devolved—whether to Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales or the metro mayors we are about to elect in May—the power should be devolved. The reason I put it as a principle, rather than saying everything should be devolved in a blanket way, is that some things will take some thought when it comes to the framework. While things such as fisheries, agriculture, the environment, regional development and policy from the European Union are devolved to the Scottish Parliament, it is under the EU framework. That EU framework gives the minimum standards and framework in which member states have to operate.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very good speech. This is a difficult area, as he has outlined. Agriculture, for example, is devolved to different parts of the United Kingdom, and there is disagreement on areas such as genetically modified crops. However, when the Secretary of State for International Trade needs to make a trade deal, that is surely something that the UK Government across the UK single market are best placed to do.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman made that point, although my response will not necessarily be on the complicated nature of what he determined in his intervention; rather, it will be on how crucial it is for both Governments to work together. Unless both Governments work together, all the negotiations that are happening on trade deals or otherwise will be incredibly difficult to resolve. Given that Scotland and other regions and nations of the UK have some significant products that are of a singular nature to those particular geographical areas, we will have to work together.
Agriculture is one of three or four big areas where we need some kind of working together to ensure that this works properly. Take, for example, cattle movement across borders, which is a hugely complicated and difficult thing. It is about not only the cattle themselves and their welfare but the spread of disease and other issues. We will need some kind of working together and a framework to allow that to happen. While repatriation and devolution should be the principle, we should do this in a systematic way, not only for the benefit of the country and ensuring that this works properly, but for the benefit of the practitioners in all those areas—whether it be the environment, agriculture or fisheries—that will be repatriated and devolved.
Finally, it is not only about devolution; a cheque has to go with it. It cannot just be devolution of power without the devolution of the money. If we take agriculture as an example, again, Scotland gets 16% or 17% of UK agricultural spending in the round. That would have to travel with the devolved powers, which is why I think we need to be quite careful that the frameworks in place for each of those big items are dealt with properly.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, Mr Gray. I must admit that I did not originally intend to, but I was impelled to do so by the excellent lead given by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock). In my brief contribution I want to drive home the message about the importance of doing things right, particularly for big areas such as agriculture and fishing. I shall focus on agriculture.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) reinforced the principle: if it is not reserved, it is by definition devolved. Let us consider the distinct nature of Scottish agriculture: 85% of our land has less favoured area status; as a nation Scotland is approximately 8.4% of the population; we received 16.5% of CAP and we are approximately 32% of the land mass. We have to have a policy that reflects that profile and the different challenges in Scotland. I am the Scottish National party Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokesperson and have yet to meet a Scottish farmer who is happy for this place to be responsible for Scottish agriculture—and, by the way, a lot of those farmers are not traditional SNP supporters.
At the moment we have no confidence. To be honest, English farmers do not have confidence in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. At the Oxford conference in January, when I stood in for the Scottish Farming Minister, the audience was asked who had confidence in DEFRA to deliver in a Brexit world, and no hand went up until, belatedly, the Farming Minister, sitting in the front row, put his hand up, thinking “At least I should have confidence in my own Department.” The industry across the UK, but especially in Scotland, lacks confidence in this place’s capability to design a UK framework—particularly one that takes into account the distinct nature of Scottish farming.
The hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) made an interesting contribution. There is a bigger picture and the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) reinforced aspects of that. We are not saying that there should not be a level of negotiation within the UK; absolutely there should. There is a need for common frameworks in certain places. Within the common agricultural policy there is a common framework, but there is a level of devolution and Scotland and England have different CAP deployments. However, we are absolutely clear that we must negotiate that as partners—as equals at the table, looking for the common framework and agreeing it. At the moment, all the mood music and the signs suggest a power grab. The message is “Don’t you worry. We are the head of the family. We’ll look after you.” I am afraid that that will not wash with the rural communities in Scotland.
Before I close, perhaps I might reinforce the explanation of why there is a lack of trust and why the Government should actively seek to be as transparent and open as possible about their intention. The fact that they do not do so sends out the wrong signals. It worries people. That is because of our experience. We have heard what happened to fishing; it was “expendable”. Even today, as Brexit negotiations go on, a certain individual from the UK Independence party who leads the charge on many such things is going around TV studios saying “I’m hearing fishing is expendable again.” There is no trust that a UK Government will stand up for Scottish fishing. Let us remember, more fish were caught in Orkney and Shetland than in the whole of England and Wales put together last year. It is overwhelmingly a Scottish industry.
The second area I want to mention is the convergence uplift. It is EU money—€230 million—almost all of which should have gone to Scottish farming. It was distributed across the UK and we got 16%. Scottish farmers see that and think “If they will take money out of my pocket, will they look after me when they design a UK farming system?” I do not think so. The Government must step up and be clear, and if they do not pass on responsibilities the judgment will be at the ballot box.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and take part in this debate, which was ably introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock). She laid out the position very well. The tone of the debate has been very good; I hope the Minister will continue in the same vein.
Let me mention a few issues that my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) raised. One of the main reasons for the situation we are in—and why we are having these debates—is the huge uncertainty we face. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) said, there has been no clarity from the UK Government about how the processes or the timescales will work. Will there be a fresh Scotland Bill or just amendments to the Scotland Act 1998? Exactly how will the processes work? As for the timeline, we do not want to fall into a legislative trap or get stuck in legislative limbo. I am sure that the UK Government have plans, but it would be nice if they told us what they were, so that we could be aware of the timescales. If we are going to try to work together in a future settlement, it would be best if we got off on a good footing, with as much information as possible.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North and I have discussed the great repeal Bill at length; no doubt we will continue to discuss it in the coming months, because we are particularly interested in the process. The great repeal Bill has the potential to become a great power grab for the UK Government, giving them a lot of powers that they do not currently have. I do not imagine that that is what most people who supported the leave campaign had in mind. [Interruption.]
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I think we can assume that the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) is not returning to the Chamber, or perhaps he will return in a moment. Because of the Division, the debate will finish at 5.45 pm. Therefore, if my arithmetic is right, the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) has another three minutes to go, the Labour spokesman will have five minutes and after that, the Minister will have 10 minutes.
Thank you, Mr Gray. I am always a bit discombobulated if there is a vote in the middle of my speech, but I will do my best. I was asking for clarity over the process of the great repeal Bill. We very much make the case to the UK Government that as soon as they have clarity, we would like that to be passed on to us, so we can make informed decisions.
On agriculture and fisheries, there is a lack of trust from a huge number of people in those industries because of how they have been treated. Part of that is genuinely a lack of understanding from the UK Government about the differences in fishing in Scotland compared with fishing in the south of England, for example. On that note, I understand that the Prime Minister will undertake a tour of the UK to talk to us about how wonderful Brexit will be. When she comes to Scotland, I would appreciate it if she spent her time listening—rather than talking—to people from industries, and particularly those that are over-represented in Scotland but under-represented in England. She may know less about them, so that would be good.
I will briefly mention trade deals and protection for communities. We have a lot of communities in Scotland—as in Wales—that are heavily reliant on one industry. Aberdeen is very reliant on the oil industry. Areas such as the one that represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Calum Kerr) are heavily involved in the farming and agriculture industries. If things are not right for those industries, those communities are likely to be decimated, so the UK Government should think about prioritising industries that will have a dramatic impact on certain communities rather than those that are the most lucrative for the UK as a whole. They should think about that and reframe the position.
Finally, Brexit is not a situation of our making. The Scottish Government have done their very best to propose a compromise, which we put forward in December, but we have struggled to get any sort of coherent response. It is really important that the UK Government start to work with and talk to us. If we are going to work together, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh South suggested, we need actual, real dialogue, rather than the Prime Minister just standing up and saying that she is talking to us. If she actually talks to us, it will make the process a whole lot easier and a whole lot better tempered.
It is a pleasure to wind up for the Opposition with you in the Chair, Mr Gray.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) on securing this debate, on focusing our attention on a really important issue and on setting the tone for the debate in a way that has been reflected in a number of serious, thoughtful and challenging contributions for the Minister to consider.
The hon. Lady was right to ask questions about the Government’s plan for Brexit; I have to say that it is not just Scotland that is being kept in the dark. She is probably right when she says the Government do not really know. It is not necessarily that they are hiding their secret plan; it is so secret that they themselves are not aware of it. Indeed, there were reports this morning in the papers that a battle is going on inside No. 10 about how much the Government will tell the EU about their plans for Brexit when they start the negotiations, and that battle has yet to be resolved.
In the winding-up speech by the Scottish National party spokesperson, the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), the point was made that we really do not want to be here; none of us do, but clearly we are. Over the past few weeks, we have been talking very much about process and it is important that a debate such as this one takes place, because it begins to shift our attention back to substance. There are some very real issues on which we need to hold the Government to account in—let us not forget—what are the most important negotiations this country has faced since the second world war.
All our attention needs to be on that task, without distraction, because the Government’s approach so far really cannot fill us with much confidence. I do not know whether other Members have caught up with this story, but apparently this morning the Brexit Secretary told the Exiting the European Union Committee that the Government have not carried out an assessment of the economic impact of leaving the EU without a deal. I am not sure, therefore, on what basis the Foreign Secretary said that would be a good thing for Britain, when even the International Trade Secretary, who is a bit cavalier about these things, has warned about the risk of crashing out without a deal.
Those sorts of conflicting statements, as well as the lack of certainty and the lack of the type of information that hon. Members have been seeking, is causing huge uncertainty, which the Government must be aware of. We hear all the time from people who are wondering whether to build their lives here, what their future is for their businesses, and so on.
A lot of these issues could have received a positive response in many of the amendments that were tabled to the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill, but the Government’s obsession with having a clean and unamended Bill has added to the lack of clarity, not just on the issues we have faced this week on the final vote and on EU nationals but on the attempt by the Labour Front Bench to require the Government to consult regularly the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and to put the Joint Ministerial Committee on a statutory footing, and to consult it at least every two months.
I hope that the Minister will make up for that uncertainty by responding to requests from hon. Members and explain exactly how the Government will not talk but listen to, as the hon. Member for Aberdeen North said, the people—not only people in Scotland but around the country. Can he say how he and the Government will ensure that there is a strong voice for the nations and regions of our country in these negotiations? That matters, because although people voted to come out of the EU, they did not vote to be shut out of decisions, and there are a range of related issues that many Members have commented on and about which we need clarity.
Above all, it would be useful for the Minister to confirm whether there will be a presumption that any powers in the devolved areas that are repatriated to the UK following Brexit will be devolved to the Scottish Parliament and other devolved Assemblies. What is the starting point for the Government’s thinking? Other Members have mentioned funding, which is important not only for agriculture but for structural funds and university funds. What sort of clarity can the Government give about their intentions? Will they seriously consider Scottish Labour’s suggestion about bringing all the peoples of the UK together in a constitutional convention, so that at this profound moment of change for our country we can bring in a new settlement on all these issues for the benefit of all the regions and nations of the UK?
It is a pleasure to appear before you, Mr Gray.
Well, that has not quite happened yet. Nevertheless, it is a great pleasure to be here and to represent the House in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) on securing this debate; I am sure it is one of the many debates on this subject that will continue to take place.
As a Government, we are keen to ensure that the process of leaving the European Union receives the maximum scrutiny and parliamentary debate possible, and this discussion has been an important contribution to that dialogue. In fact, Ministers from the Department for Exiting the European Union have already responded to more than 600 parliamentary written questions, appeared at 13 Select Committee hearings and given six oral statements in eight months, and there will, of course, be many votes on primary legislation to come, as I am sure hon. Members recognise.
The European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill is a straightforward Bill. It is intended to implement the outcome of the referendum. That trusts the decision of the British people, and respects the judgment of the Supreme Court. In June last year, the United Kingdom voted as a whole to leave the European Union. By invoking article 50, using the authority given by Parliament when it passed the Bill on Monday, the Prime Minister will simply be getting on with the process of taking forward that result.
When they invoke article 50, the United Kingdom Government are committed to ensuring that the interests of all parts of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are represented as we enter negotiations to leave the European Union. Since the referendum, we have ensured that the devolved Administrations are fully engaged in our preparations to leave the European Union. We established the Joint Ministerial Committee on European Negotiations, chaired by the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, which has met four times since its inception in November. The Joint Ministerial plenary, chaired by the Prime Minister personally, has also met twice—in October and January—and there has also been substantial bilateral engagement between Ministers.
I would like to make some progress.
In December, the Scottish Government published their proposals for a differentiated settlement in their paper “Scotland’s Place in Europe”. Contrary to much of the narrative on this topic, the United Kingdom Government have repeatedly recognised that paper as a serious contribution to the debate. Michael Russell, the Scottish Government Minister for UK Negotiations on Scotland’s Place in Europe, presented the paper for discussion at the Joint Ministerial Committee on European Negotiations in January, and lots of officials across both Governments have been working intensively and well, both to deepen our understanding and to forge a constructive dialogue between Scotland’s two Governments.
There is common ground between the two Governments, for example on workers’ rights, the rights of European Union nationals and the important issues of criminal justice and counter-terrorism. Those were all key elements in the Prime Minister’s keynote speech at Lancaster House and the subsequent White Paper, and I suggest that they demonstrate that there is much we agree on. We are committed to continuing to work closely with the Scottish Government and other devolved Administrations after article 50 has been triggered.
There have been several meetings, as I have enunciated, and no doubt there will be more meetings to come. There is close working between the United Kingdom Government and the devolved Administrations, and ensuring that we take into account the interests of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is vital for securing a future partnership with the European Union that works for the whole of the United Kingdom. It was only a little over two years ago that people in Scotland voted decisively to remain part of the United Kingdom, in a referendum that the Scottish Government called a “once in a generation” vote. The evidence clearly shows that a majority of people in Scotland do not want a second independence referendum.
As the Prime Minister and others across the political spectrum commented following the First Minister’s speech on Monday, another referendum would be divisive and would cause huge economic uncertainty at the worst possible time. The tunnel vision that the First Minister demonstrated in her speech is deeply regrettable. Instead of playing politics with the future of our country, the Scottish Government should focus on the state of education, hospitals, the police service, jobs and the economy. The Scottish Government have significant powers at their disposal, including those under the Scotland Act 2016. We need to hear how they intend to use those powers.
As for the practical business of leaving the EU, there will be much work ahead to ensure legal certainty from the day we leave. Looking forward, the great repeal Bill will be included in the Queen’s Speech. That important piece of legislation will provide legal certainty by ensuring that wherever practical and appropriate, the same rules and laws will apply the day after we leave the European Union as did before. The Government will introduce a White Paper providing more detail in due course. The Government are conscious of the importance of that work for economic and policy operations in Scotland and the significant interest that the business and legal community and civil society generally will have in the continued smooth operation of domestic legislation.
The Scottish devolution settlement was created in the context of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union. As we leave the EU, we will use that opportunity to determine the best place to make new laws and policies on these issues, ensuring that power sits closer to the people of the United Kingdom than ever before. As set out in the White Paper, our guiding principle will be ensuring that no new barriers to living and doing business are created within our own Union. On that basis, we will work with the Scottish Government, along with other devolved Administrations, on an approach for returning powers that works for the whole United Kingdom and reflects the interests of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Government have made it clear on numerous occasions that no decisions currently taken by the devolved Administrations will be removed from them. Moreover, we will use the opportunity of powers returning from the EU to ensure that more decisions are devolved.
The process of leaving the European Union has aroused a passionate debate about our future partnership with Europe. As a Government, we will continue to listen to all voices in that debate while weighing the evidence appropriately. We have engaged extensively with stakeholders in Scotland about EU exit, and we are committed to continuing to do so. The Government continue to believe that we will get the best deal for Scotland and the whole United Kingdom if we have a united front.
I thank all my hon. Friends and Members for their incisive, thoughtful and, in some cases, very passionate contributions. I am a little disappointed that there are not as many people from the other side here today as we might have expected, given the subject matter and the fortuitous timing of the debate this week.
The Minister spoke about the Government being keen to receive maximum scrutiny of Brexit plans. He referred to 600 written questions, many statements in Parliament and so on. I hesitate to speak for colleagues, but in my experience, questions are stonewalled, not answered, and the rising levels of frustration across the House and from devolved Governments and Assemblies are almost palpable.
We are all asking, not unreasonably, for some clarity—clarity on how we exit the EU, what it will mean for devolution across the UK, and specifically, given that I am a Scottish MP, what it means for Scotland. If the UK Government continue their stonewalling of our reasonable requests for information on behalf of our constituents and the people of Scotland, many of whom are extremely concerned about what a future out of the EU will mean for them, I am afraid we will simply take matters into our own hands.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the implications for the Scottish devolution settlement of triggering Article 50.