Tuesday 10 October 2017
[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]
Aggressive Antisocial Behaviour
I beg to move,
That this House has considered tackling aggressive antisocial behaviour.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Bailey. For seven years, the standard response of Ministers to any question or doubt about crime and antisocial behaviour has been an assurance that crime is falling. Those of us who ventured that police budgets were being cut too deep and too fast, exposing areas such as the west midlands to severe grant reductions, have been brushed aside. I have lost track of the number of Ministers who think that all is solved by the stock answer that crime is falling.
It is certainly true that the crime survey for England and Wales provides a valuable picture of long-term trends for certain types of offences, but it does not necessarily capture the picture on the ground for other types of crime, so it is wrong for Ministers to rely on those statistics to the exclusion of all else. The fear that dominates the daily lives of real people and their families is not addressed when Ministers issue such a stock reply.
Estimates are especially unreliable when it comes to particular types of offences and, as a consequence, we frequently underestimate certain crimes. Sexual offences and child sexual exploitation, about which we are beginning to learn much more, are good examples of underestimated crimes. Antisocial behaviour almost certainly also falls into that category. Until 2015, the headline figures also excluded fraud and computer misuse. When those figures are added, the number of crimes rises from around 5.9 million to around 11 million, which suggests that there is even less room for complacency.
Not that long ago there were major debates about the need to improve the quality of police recording of crime. When recording is done properly, we have a more reliable measure to assess recent or current trends. In the last year alone, police recorded crime increased by 10%—the biggest year-on-year rise in a decade—which includes a 20% surge in knife and gun crime. That rise is actually accelerating; a 3% increase in the year to March 2015 was followed by an 8% rise in 2016.
Turning to antisocial behaviour, most people think of their home as their sanctuary, their castle, and the place where the troubles of the external world can be set aside, if only for a short time. But what if home is not like that? What if, because of aggressive antisocial behaviour, intimidation, threats and harassment, a person’s home becomes just another place of risk and fear—a place where they can be subjected to deliberate and intolerable levels of noise, and where dangerous and uncontrolled dogs are allowed to run free, threatening children? What if walking a few hundred yards to or from their own front door risks a confrontation and potential assault? What if the immediate vicinity of their home is plagued by thugs with motorcycles, who constantly congregate outside or nearby?
According to some reports, there has been a 1% decrease in antisocial behaviour incidents. I find that impossible to believe. Try telling my constituents that antisocial behaviour is declining. As far back as 2012, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary reported concerns about the wide variation in the quality of decision making associated with the recording of antisocial behaviour by police forces. That resulted in a review, but as budgets are increasingly stretched, I find it hard to believe that there has been a vastly improved focus on tackling antisocial behaviour. We are talking about offences including vehicle and bike-related crime, vandalism, criminal damage, graffiti, nuisance neighbours and extensive intimidation, involving threats, verbal abuse and domination of whole neighbourhoods.
Not only do Ministers say that crime is falling but they regularly tell us that they have protected police funding. That is simply not the case. The reality is that the central Government grant remains largely the same, and the shortfall in police budgets has been transferred to the council tax precept. Analysis by the Library tells us that since 2010, police expenditure from tax and grants has fallen by 5% in cash terms and 13% in real terms.
The National Audit Office has pointed out the effect of that sleight of hand: the force areas most affected by funding reductions are those that are most reliant on the police grant. Four of the five forces that are most dependent on the central Government grant—all, incidentally, in the midlands and the north—are those experiencing the worst overall budget reductions. I am sure that the Government understand perfectly well that economically depressed areas with a relatively low council tax base are not capable of making up for the loss of central grant, even if they raise the council tax precept to the maximum permitted level.
In the west midlands, which is one of the hardest hit areas, we have faced cuts of £130 million since 2010—the highest proportion in the whole country. In 2017-18, we have suffered a further £6 million budget cut. The chief constable has recently been forced to point out that policing will “break” unless forces are given “real terms protection”. In Northumbria, the chief constable has said that his force is close to no longer being able to provide a professional service. The chief constable of Avon and Somerset police said:
“We now face a tipping point. We cannot sustain further funding cuts without extremely serious consequences.”
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case on behalf of his constituents and the city of Birmingham. The West Midlands police service has suffered a real-terms cut of £18 million this year. The chief constable has warned that the force is stretched to the limit. The police and crime commissioner has said that call-out times are getting longer; they are now up to 24 hours for 999 calls about domestic violence, and the police often do not turn out at all to deal with antisocial behaviour, although it is said to be very serious. Does my hon. Friend agree that the first duty of any Government is to ensure the safety and security of their citizens, and that it is absolutely wrong that the Government have cut 2,000 police officers from the West Midlands police service, putting the public at risk?
I agree totally. Those reckless cuts and the Government’s refusal to recognise the consequences are the reason why we are experiencing such problems.
As well as giving us a hopelessly complacent message about crime falling, Ministers for far too long have tried to tell us that this is all about back-office savings—that the police are top heavy in administration and there is plenty of fat. As my hon. Friend says, the figures tell a different story. The number of police officers in the country has fallen for seven consecutive years, despite all those promises to protect the frontline. Since 2010, more than 20,000 police officers and 6,000 community support officers have been axed.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the falling numbers of police officers, and especially community police officers—in my region of Yorkshire, more than 400 have been lost—has a huge impact on antisocial behaviour, such as crimes committed on off-road bikes and mopeds, which plague communities like mine in Barnsley? Does he agree that more needs to be done to tackle it?
I do agree. It seems to me that one feature of policing, particularly in relation to antisocial behaviour, must be deterrence. If people feel that they will not be caught and there will be no consequences, there is nothing to inhibit their behaviour, and that is exactly what we see in communities right across the country at the present time.
Policing has now reached a historic low, with forces at their lowest strength per 100,000 of the population since records began back in 1979. In the west midlands, as we have heard, we have 2,000 fewer officers compared with 2010 and there are 50% fewer community support officers. Conversely, better-funded forces such as Surrey, which benefit from the perverse nature of police funding decisions, have managed to increase their numbers of police officers for their low-crime communities over that same period. That says something about priorities and attitudes to crime and antisocial behaviour.
All of this is having a profound effect on police morale. The Police Federation report for 2017 shows that 58% of officers have reported not having time to do the job to the standard they would be proud of; 57% report being single-crewed, which increases operational risk, and 39% report high job stress.
I was recently told of an incident by someone who works in community safety. There was a local neighbourhood disturbance, with about 40 youths with weapons roaming the area, threatening each other and carrying out attacks. After several members of the public made repeated calls, a police car eventually turned up, sirens blaring. The youths scattered, and naturally there were no arrests. It turned out that the occupant of the police car was the duty inspector for the area, who was the only officer available. He freely confessed that he had had no choice but to turn up sirens blaring in the hope that he might scatter the youths. Is that really the level of policing we should expect in this day and age when our neighbourhoods are under attack? Force-wide voluntary resignations increased by 11% last year, and long-term absence is at record levels. Our police are stretched to breaking point.
It is hard to see how any Minister could come to the House with a straight face and continue to argue that the impact of their cuts is not affecting operational performance. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary’s police effectiveness, efficiency and legitimacy report for 2016 talks of the risk that forces are struggling to meet demand and are resorting to artificial means of suppressing that demand. The report suggests that that might be done by downgrading the severity category of a call or by setting a quota for the number of cases that get referred for special assistance. For example, a number of forces are increasingly dealing with calls for service over the phone rather than deploying officers to visit the victim. That can be very inappropriate in certain types of cases—for example, assault or sexually related offences—and there can be no guarantee that the person charged with conducting the phone call has the correct skills to carry out such an interview.
Particular areas of concern are the large number of incidents in control rooms that do not receive an appropriate response, as referred to earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey). An immediate response should be within 15 to 20 minutes and a prompt response is usually within an hour. In either event, that is likely to be too long to prevent a crime or, in most cases, catch a perpetrator red-handed. However, in far too many cases, calls are not allocated for several days. That is consistent with the many examples of which Members will be aware from their constituents, saying that they phoned the police but did not hear back or that officers attended several days later but made no attempt to take finger prints or record any other significant details that might help identify the culprit. In too many circumstances, the response to a crime is a perfunctory police appearance, well after the event—that is if they turn up at all.
Across the United Kingdom, the number of abandoned 999 calls more than doubled in the 12 months from June 2016, rising from 8,000 to nearly 16,500 across 32 forces. The number of 101 calls abandoned over the same period also rose—by 116%. In total 230,000 calls were abandoned; 101 is the number that the police prefer the public to use to report antisocial behaviour. That is the reality of much police response in this day and age.
As I have said, we have to be careful about relying on ministerial fantasies that crime is falling. Half of police forces inspected since August 2016 have been rated as “inadequate” for failing to record hundreds of thousands of crimes reported to them—approximately 219,000 crimes a year. Only three forces were rated as “good”. West Midlands police were found to have failed to record an estimated 38,800 crimes. In 2015-16, no further action was taken in 74% of recorded offences and by 2016-17 that had increased to 76%. By far the largest category of “no further action” cases resulted from a failure even to identify a suspect. It is not hard to see why crime is rising if the fear of being caught is rapidly diminishing.
Perhaps I may take this opportunity to remind the Minister of the importance of those findings and the store the Government place on HMIC inspections. The former policing Minister, the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), told us that
“HMIC’s rolling programme of crime data integrity inspections will keep the spotlight on forces to improve the accuracy of their crime recording.”
That is exactly what HMIC is doing, and it is reporting an increasing number of forces unable to cope and, in many cases, opting to downgrade the reality of the crime people are experiencing.
There is little evidence of a robust Government response to those HMIC warnings. Ironically, even HMIC is seeing its budget cut, with a 14% reduction in cash terms since 2012. First the Government cut the police, and then they cut the agency charged with keeping track of police effectiveness. Is it really that surprising that there has not been an HMIC report on force handling of antisocial behaviour since 2012?
The Government have embarked on a dangerous road. It is important to remember that, as part of the incoming coalition Government’s efforts to diminish the Labour legacy, they put arguments about civil liberties ahead of issues of public safety. In everything from control orders, designed to protect us from would-be terrorists, to antisocial behaviour measures, Ministers set out to loosen existing legislation and controls. To some extent, the changes were cosmetic, but they had an impact, as can be seen from the reduction in the use of stop-and-search powers, and the corresponding increase in knife crime.
The then Home Secretary branded Labour’s antisocial behaviour measures “bureaucratic, expensive and ineffective”. She embarked on a series of changes that led to a loss of focus on bearing down on antisocial behaviour, as practitioners had to take time to learn new language and procedures for tackling existing issues for which powers were already proving quite effective. However, it was more than a rebrand. Abolishing ASBOs and introducing injunctions to prevent nuisance and annoyance was a weakening of the stance on antisocial behaviour. Breach of an ASBO was a criminal offence; breach of a civil injunction was a civil contempt, carrying a much lower maximum penalty. Significantly, under-18s can be dealt with only by the youth courts, where the penalties are lower.
Also, collapsing ASBOs and related measures into a civil injunction effectively removed the graduated response that Labour’s measures were designed to achieve. It is true that there was a fairly high breach rate for ASBOs, but acceptable behaviour contracts and antisocial behaviour injunctions were stepping stones prior to an ASBO. There were stages to be gone through, and warnings could be issued if the initial response failed to quell the unacceptable behaviour. The Government’s changes swept all that away, along with all efforts to monitor the effectiveness of the legislation.
The Home Office and the Ministry of Justice regularly respond to questions about the effectiveness of their policies with the standard defence that it would not be cost-effective to collect the information requested. Indeed, the Government have contrived to make it virtually impossible to measure the effectiveness of their response to antisocial behaviour. Not only do they fail to collect information centrally; county courts do not do it either. Consequently, the only way to obtain information on the Government’s injunction strategy would be to examine individual case files. In fact, the Government have no capacity to link arrests, recorded crime, and prosecution and conviction data. They have no idea of the effect their policies have on crime and antisocial behaviour.
Labour’s approach was not just about court orders. Family intervention projects were established to provide focused work on those families considered most likely to generate antisocial behaviour problems. In 2007, the Department for Communities and Local Government produced a report that found that both criminal and antisocial behaviour had declined markedly at the point when those families exited the programme. The risk that they would face eviction because of their behaviour had also considerably reduced. Once again, the incoming Government sought to change things, and introduced a decentralised troubled families programme, with a significantly broader focus and, of course, fewer resources. It coincided with huge cuts in local authority youth programmes and other social services spending.
Despite early positive claims about the troubled families programme, an independent evaluation found that there was no significant impact across its key objectives and that it was not possible to evaluate estimates of savings, despite Government attempts to argue that the policy had resulted in savings of £1.2 billion. That, of course, was at a time when Ministers were keen on arguing for payment by results. However, the independent evaluation noted:
“The financial framework could have been significantly improved if it had followed the model of other programmes, which included a requirement to demonstrate that results were attributable to the programme.”
It is my contention that those changes in legislation, and the loss of focus, have damaged our ability to tackle antisocial behaviour. I attended a recent meeting of a community safety panel covering my constituency. I was impressed by the commitment of those present—about 23 people, including a fire station commander, who chaired the meeting, a police inspector, two councillors, a community representative and several council officers. It was a two-and-a-half-hour meeting; they are bi-monthly. It was full of presentations, which I must say I found interesting. However, what I did not get was that CompStat feeling: where were the raw data and the demand to do better? Where, indeed, were the results, and demands for action? I fear that, without greater direction from the senior echelons of the various agencies, community safety panels will become another part of the local bureaucratic apparatus. They are well intentioned, but what issues will they resolve?
It was interesting to hear that the panel had noted an increase in gang activity in south Birmingham and was concerned about an emerging picture suggesting that children are getting involved in gangs at a much earlier age, and that membership is no longer confined to those from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds but embraces those from what we might regard as quite middle-class homes. It seems to me that that information supports my view that we are losing control of our neighbourhoods, and that we need Government-directed activity and local intelligence to come together to provide clear action plans to tackle the threat posed by that emerging gang culture.
Neither the Home Secretary nor the Prime Minister made a single reference in their conference speeches to antisocial behaviour. It is clearly not on their radar. Nor did they mention police resources. It is all very well the Home Secretary saying that she plans to keep the police safe, but how safe are they if there are not enough of them to do the job and they are exposed to risk every time there is a local incident? There was a passing reference in her speech to a review of moped crime—I hope that will also cover motorcycle crime. I welcome that, although my constituents would like a timescale and a promise of clear action. Perhaps the Minister can update us on what the Government intend. Also, where is the evidence that under-18s are the greatest offenders in acid attacks? If there is not such evidence, what exactly will be achieved by the Home Secretary’s announcement on the matter?
I reassure the Minister that I do not raise these issues for the sake of it. A recent analysis that received more than 1,000 responses in my constituency highlighted the priority that my constituents accord to such matters. More than 70% reported being very concerned about the rise in crime. With respect to the visibility of, and access to, police and community support officers, almost 90% reported experiencing a decrease; 92% regard it as a false economy that the Government have pursued a policy of reducing police numbers, especially when so much money can be found for other items. Nearly 40% of those I asked about the 101 non-emergency police number had never heard of it. Of those who had used it, nearly 30% reported that it was unsatisfactory. The chief complaint, which will be no surprise, is the time that it takes to get through. Too many people are left hanging on, and are forced to give up. Those who do get through often find the response unsatisfactory.
Bearing in mind that I am a Birmingham MP and that what happens in London does not reflect the whole country, the Minister may want to note the fact that nearly 75% of those responding to the survey thought that we might need to look again at the rules on stop-and-search. I remind you, Mr Bailey, that it was the present Prime Minister who championed curtailment of the use of stop-and-search. I wonder whether the increase in acid and knife attacks, gun crime and gang activity suggests we may need to listen to the majority of our constituents, who are asking about their civil rights.
Often in crime surveys it is argued that people’s fear of crime is a much bigger issue than their actual experience, so I asked how many of those responding had been a victim of crime or had someone close to them experience a crime in the past 12 months. Over 50% said that they had; that is not exactly a picture of crime falling or a situation that is under control. One of the few aspects of antisocial behaviour the Home Secretary acknowledged in her conference speech was the problem of moped and motorcycle crime and associated offences—94% of respondents said that it is time to come up with new ways of tackling that menace, as current methods are simply not working.
What should we do? Clearly, we need a greater uniform presence, and to that end I support Labour’s sensible and costed proposals for an extra 10,000 officers. I recognise that it takes time to recruit and train such numbers, so in the interim we can perhaps look at making better use of other personnel, such as transport police, council security staff and even some traffic wardens. I draw the line at suggestions that employees of private security organisations such as G4S should be given the power of arrest, and I hope that the Minister will knock that on the head today.
I advocate that we need to examine stop-and-search once more, particularly where there is evidence of a high risk of weapons being carried and increases in knife and gun crime and other violent assaults. Members will recall that the Prime Minister claimed in her 2014 conference speech that the number of black people being stopped and searched had fallen by two thirds as a result of her intervention. However, the figures show that although overall stop-and-search is down, the number of black people being stopped and searched as a percentage of the total has actually risen. It is a failed policy. Discrimination needs to be tackled, but not with red tape that ties the police in knots and puts the safety of whole communities at risk.
I do not understand why, in an age of high-quality cameras that are so small and relatively cheap, it is so difficult to mount more successful surveillance operations in areas where particular types of street crime such as theft, assault and carjacking are prevalent. When it comes to the pursuit of those on mopeds and motorcycles, why is more attention not given to drone technology, and where local communities are clearly being intimidated, why not make more use of professional witnesses to identify and prosecute prolific offenders?
We need to see a new energy in tackling aggressive antisocial behaviour, with guidance from the Home Office to chief constables, police and crime commissioners and local authority chief executives making it clear that it is a priority and must be tackled. That should be coupled with a reinvigoration of community safety panels, with a clear emphasis: their job is to collect and analyse data, so that they can demonstrate how they are getting on top of rising neighbourhood crime and aggressive antisocial behaviour. If the Government are determined to hide behind the cloak of localism, they must issue guidance on how data are collected and shared on the success of measures such as criminal behaviour orders and civil injunctions. We must be able to see reliable comparisons, so that there is proper evidence about the scale of the problem and the success and failure of existing strategies and policies.
I support the development of a national transformation fund to tackle some of the worst areas of deprivation, but we should also entertain the idea that such an approach should be coupled with a new family intervention programme, so that those who create the most problems are not simply left to enjoy state benefits without any obligations on their behaviour. We need to revisit their entitlement to enjoy rented tenancies in areas where they cause untold trouble.
In circumstances where the perpetrators are homeowners or responsible for those living at their abode, we need to be bold. Where the culprit or someone regularly living under the roof of that person is guilty of persistent aggressive antisocial behaviour, we need to change the law so that eviction is the end point. Local authorities should be given new powers with the police, so that those who persistently practise aggressive antisocial behaviour, or permit its practice from their dwelling, can have their property made subject to a compulsory purchase order—effectively forcing them to leave the area and preventing them from continuing to practise the evil that they have inflicted on innocent victims for too long.
The simple truth is that the last Labour Government picked up the challenge of aggressive antisocial behaviour in our neighbourhoods and did something about it after years of neglect. The present Prime Minister has failed us on that vital area of crime by cutting our police, ignoring the predicament of our constituents and allowing crime and antisocial behaviour to grow. It is time for a substantial change.
I wish to bring in the Front-Bench spokespersons at 10.30 am. That gives Back-Bench speakers about four to five minutes each.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I will be considerate of your advice and the fact that there are other people who wish to speak, rather than just go on for a considerable time.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) on securing this debate. I know he will share my pleasure that he will be able to work with Andy Street, the new Mayor of the combined authority, to tackle many of the issues he raised in his speech. As he rightly pointed out towards the end of his quite long address, it is not only about the police arresting people, but about tackling a range of issues. It will be interesting, if we follow the pattern in the west midlands of the Mayor becoming the police and crime commissioner, to bring that work together to make a real difference on the issues that the hon. Gentleman has just outlined. I am sure that his constituents will appreciate that.
It was interesting to hear about drone usage. Devon and Cornwall police now have the first drone squad in the country. I am sure officers in Devon and Cornwall would be only too happy to share with West Midlands police their experience of the opportunities afforded by drones. In cases in which a force helicopter could not be used, a drone offers an aerial presence that is far safer than one on the ground.
My main reason for contributing to this debate is to discuss the issues that we have experienced over the summer in Torquay town centre and what can be done to tackle them. Things came to a head one day when six people had collapsed by lunchtime on the floor in Castle Circus as a result of using Spice. That put pressure on the police, as did the overspill from some aspects of antisocial behaviour that are inherent in the use of those substances and from the disputes about who can sell them in particular locations. People were putting their lives at risk, and that had an impact on businesses in the area.
Being homeless in itself is not criminal. However, too often, the two were conflated in reporting of the issues over the summer—the idea being that homeless people and antisocial behaviour went together. In fact, some people at the local homeless hostel were the very people targeted by the suppliers the police are now seeking to deal with. Although we have some great organisations making a difference, such as Humanity Torbay and Shekina, along with the Torbay End Street Homelessness campaign, which received £400,000 of Government funding, it is clear that some people were pretending to be homeless and are still doing so with fake begging operations. Lumping everyone together was not appropriate. Some of the most vulnerable people in our communities should have had the chance to be helped and should not just be lumped in with those who are causing problems.
It is worth complimenting Torquay police and its inspector, Si Jenkinson, who has been working to react to the situation after I said that enough was enough and we needed a crackdown. We have had action days where a number of people have been arrested and the law has been enforced. A number of people have been jailed for offences. Two people who recently pleaded guilty to the supply of new psychoactive substances will, I hope, join them, but I am conscious that that matter is still in the courts and I should not say too much more about it. A number of arrests have been made. Police drug dogs have been out in the night-time economy, tackling the problem. We are beginning to use proactively the criminal behaviour orders system, to ensure that those who are a constant nuisance can be dealt with.
However, this is not just about police enforcement. As I touched on in response to the speech of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, it is about tackling a range of issues. That is why I am pleased that traders are coming together to make a difference and to begin looking at how we can take our town centre forward. They are meeting this Friday to do so. What can the Government do? The purpose of this debate is to discuss that, rather than just reeling off statistics. For me, part of it is about looking at the rules in relation to the usage of new psychoactive substances. It is a great credit to the Government that they introduced the Bill—with cross-party support, to be fair—that finally made those substances illegal and closed down two shops in my area that, bluntly, were drug-dealing outfits that sold stuff that avoided the law. We need to look not so much at possession as at usage in public. It would be interesting to hear the Minister’s thoughts on whether the law could be taken slightly further. I can understand why we did not seek to criminalise users, as opposed to dealers, given the history of other legislation, but could some consideration be given to this point? Alcohol is not illegal, but being drunk and disorderly in a public place is an offence. Perhaps we could look at how the legislation could be tweaked to cover those who have used new psychoactive substances.
Likewise, on tackling fake beggars, we need to review the provisions of the Vagrancy Act 1824, which have clearly had their day. I am not seeking to target those who are vulnerable—there are charities doing that—but there is clear evidence of a group of people in Torbay who are exploiting the good will of others to get money, even though sometimes those people are sitting there in quite expensive designer gear.
This is also about the regeneration of our town centres. It is not just about using the law, but about ensuring that Torquay town centre is a pleasant place to be and about providing positive activities for young people. That is why I shall close by saying that I hope Paignton rugby club can soon use once more the park that its eight and nine-year-olds were playing in, as it seems absolutely bizarre that Torbay Council has decided to ban that.
It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) on a comprehensive analysis of the problems confronting many of our constituents.
I shall confine my remarks to the criminal, dangerous and antisocial use of motorcycles. Many Members of the House have raised concerns about that; indeed, the Prime Minister herself has acknowledged that it is a problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), on the Front Bench, has been campaigning alongside me and others on the issue.
It is a real problem in my constituency. The young people who ride the motorcycles often wear crash helmets, although they are unlicensed, or use some sort of head covering—a balaclava or scarf—to make it very difficult to recognise them. That poses challenges for the police. There is recognition on the part of Merseyside Police, to whom I am indebted for my briefing for this debate, that these scrambler bikes, as they are commonly called, although they are not necessarily scrambler bikes, are used in the pursuit of crime. We have heard examples of their being used in acid attacks and in ram-raids on shops, but more commonly in my constituency they are used to distribute drugs and, in some cases, firearms. Merseyside Police tell us that although there has been a sharp increase, in some parts of the Liverpool city region, in the discharge of firearms, the numbers of firearms have not necessarily gone up. The same firearms are being used repeatedly, and in some cases they are being ferried around by young people connected to so-called drug barons. They are almost like firearms for hire: the young people drive around, and whoever wants to hire a firearm for the day, that is how it is delivered to them.
There is real concern about this matter and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak said, at the same time as the problem is growing, police numbers have been reduced. On Merseyside, we have 1,000 fewer police officers than we had in 2010, and which creates challenges. This matter is covered by section 59 of the Police Reform Act 2002, which gives the police the power to seize vehicles, including motorbikes, if they are used in a “careless and inconsiderate” manner. In most circumstances, a warning is required, but in exceptional circumstances one need not be used. The legislation is suitable for dealing with very low-level antisocial behaviour—for example, people using a scrambler bike in a field or on wasteland who will engage with the police when stopped and spoken to—but not for dealing with riders who are intent on riding along public roads in a dangerous manner and have no intention of stopping for the police. We therefore need to revisit the legislation, and I would like to refer to a couple of case studies that illustrate why that is important.
The first case study involves an incident on Merseyside in 2015 in which police officers came across a scrambler bike rider travelling at excessive speed in the city of Liverpool. Eventually, after a lot of problems, an officer managed to detain the rider of the bike, because he considered that he was a real danger to the public. The rider was arrested and charged with dangerous driving, and was eventually sentenced to six months in prison, but that was not the end of the story. The incident was referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, and thirteen months later the police officer involved ended up in court, and was acquitted, for the actions that he had taken to detain the young person. Dealing with the matter took 18 months, during which time that police officer was under a lot of pressure and, indeed, the threat of losing his job and his liberty.
I have other case studies, but I realise that we are short of time, so I shall skip them and just say that the Police Federation has concerns about this matter. It believes that the law needs to be clarified so that police officers in the situation described have some kind of exemption from prosecution. Obviously, their need to protect the public should override the civil libertarian concerns about people who are using what are often unlicensed and uninsured vehicles for criminal purposes. I hope that the Minister, who nodded when I made that point, will acknowledge, when she winds up the debate, that that is a problem and it needs to be addressed urgently.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) on presenting a very comprehensive case. This issue affects us all, regardless of constituency or region of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland; it is a shared concern. We are all very aware of antisocial behaviour issues, such as drunkenness, noise pollution, vandalism, shoplifting and joyriding. In the past week alone, I have read about displays of antisocial behaviour among young people during freshers week in Belfast, and on Saturday a substantial number of fireworks and counterfeit goods were seized in Newtownabbey, a town just north of Belfast. Again, those were to be used for antisocial behaviour.
A quick Google search confirms that such behaviour is not confined to Northern Ireland. In the past week, police have launched an operation in Skegness to deal with antisocial behaviour. New orders have come into force in King’s Lynn, Downham Market and Hunstanton. In the broads, a new plan to tackle antisocial behaviour has come into force, and a zero-tolerance order has been passed in Walsall. That is a very quick synopsis of some of the issues. Across Northern Ireland, the incidence of antisocial behaviour incidents has decreased, although there has been a slight increase in the last three years. The Police Service of Northern Ireland releases monthly and annual figures, and while antisocial behaviour incidents seem to be falling they are still too high. We have to address that. Antisocial behaviour rates in Northern Ireland are consistently higher in July, August and October, while they fall between November and February or March. It could be said that that suggests the weather plays a role in how people behave. Anyone who has been to Northern Ireland can attest to the fact that we do cold weather better than most, but the fact is that the figures decrease in the colder months, whereas when the weather is good and the nights are longer, people tend to stay out for longer and consume an amount of alcohol. We all know those people who consume more alcohol and become very friendly, but most people who consume alcohol to excess become louder, rowdier and are prone to getting into arguments and even physical fights.
Like many of my colleagues, I have a fantastic relationship with the local police force of Northern Ireland. They continue to work alongside relevant organisations to address antisocial behaviour, particularly when it relates to the misuse of drugs or alcohol. We should give credit to the organisations that do fantastic work in Northern Ireland and across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. For example, the SOS Bus operates in Belfast to ensure that people get home safely and receive any help that they require, whether that is medical or simply taking a seat and having a coffee to reduce the effects of alcohol. In 2015, street pastors, who are very active in my constituency—I am pleased to be their president—aimed to ensure that people got home safely; however, they also give out flip-flops, pick up bottles, and listen to people’s stories, helping those in distress and pointing people to further help if required. That is their role and what they do. They have a growing organisation in Newtownards that is now in Ballygowan and Comber, right down the Ards peninsula. The overall aim is to ensure that people remain safe when they are out socialising, and where possible to prevent people from getting into situations in which antisocial behaviour might arise. I would like to put on record my thanks to those organisations, which do such fantastic work for people throughout the United Kingdom.
One way to address antisocial behaviour is to encourage local authorities to introduce a zero-tolerance order for antisocial behaviour and perhaps more CBOs. Is that something that the Minister is considering? Some people see antisocial behaviour orders as a badge of honour. They should never be a badge of honour; they should be a discredit to the person who has one. We need to be strong on that. The stats for England and Wales show that some 1.8 million incidents of antisocial behaviour took place, but it has been a while since Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary did an inspection on antisocial behaviour. If she has the chance, would the Minister give us her thoughts on where we are with that? The crime survey for England and Wales showed an increase of respondents on the issue of antisocial behaviour in the last year.
I want to reiterate what the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) referred to: a growing problem with those on mopeds. Riders regularly mount pavements, swiping mobile phones, and they also use mopeds in acid attacks, and we need to look at that. We also need to look at the pursuit of criminals on mopeds. The death of Henry Hicks in London, who crashed his moped while being pursued by police officers, changed the way police officers have to work. Four officers are going to have hearings this month. It means that the police are unable to pursue citizens, but we must allow police officers to do their job, including pursuing and stopping criminals in a safe and responsible manner. In the last year, crimes involving vehicles have risen by 600%.
I will conclude, Mr Bailey, as I am conscious of time—I apologise. We must do more to tackle new types of antisocial behaviour, particularly crimes involving vehicles. Can the Minister say whether she is working with the police to identify the problem areas that we have outlined, and the times of year at which antisocial behaviour increases, with a view to improving police presence and in turn reducing the extent of such behaviour?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) on an excellent contribution and summary of some of the concerns relating to aggressive antisocial behaviour.
I want to start by saying very firmly that the police are trying to do a good job and want to reduce antisocial behaviour as much as my hon. Friend and other Members who have spoken do. However, the key issue boils down to policing numbers and the police’s ability to respond on a local level to concerns raised. There are many powers in place. Previous Labour Governments, the current Conservative Government, and previously the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Government, introduced a number of measures to give powers to local councils and the police to tackle antisocial behaviour, but ultimately it is about having local, visible policing on the ground, engaged with the community, being seen, giving reassurance and dealing with issues at the first instance, before they escalate into what my hon. Friend described.
I mention that because just yesterday I received an email from a constituent, which puts the case more eloquently than I ever could. The constituent wrote to me regarding policing in one of the towns in my constituency, and she said:
“Can we ever expect to see the police walking again or PCSOs? Is this ever going to happen again. Their presence is immeasurable on so many levels i.e. reassurance, deterrents, role models, help when needed… the list is endless.”
It is important that we look at that summary of a real problem.
In my area, the North Wales force is small compared with that of the West Midlands, but it covers a geographical area from the borders of Chester through to Holyhead, a distance of nearly 100 miles as the crow flies. In my area, since I was Police Minister in 2010—we had 1,590 police officers in March 2010—we have seen a reduction to 1,441. That is 149 police officers lost, nearly 10% of the police force. In Wales as a whole, we have lost 682 officers over a similar period. That is at a time, particularly in the last 18 months to two years, when we have had increased demands on the police in terms of armed response units, prevention of terrorism and radicalisation on a range of fronts, from right-wing radicalisation through to potential terrorist threats elsewhere. The police are responding dramatically to those areas at a time when they are facing difficult cuts, and have lost thousands of staff and over 20,000 police frontline officers as a whole. If we add to that the 36% reduction in police and community support officers, who deal with the visible, frontline, intelligence gathering and reassurance issues, which my constituent referred to in her email yesterday, we find that the ability to respond to low-level aggressive antisocial behaviour is not as good as it was, despite the best efforts of the police.
My hon. Friend mentioned the partnership in relation to local councils. Local councils are facing severe cuts in their funding. Just looking this very morning at this month’s reports, we see that Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council in south Wales has said that it may have to turn off its CCTV cameras, because of a potential lack of funding. Denbighshire County Council, in the next authority to my own, has had the same problem. Councils are facing a squeeze on their resources and are having to take on statutory responsibilities more and more, making it difficult to do things that are important in helping to support the police on low-level antisocial behaviour.
There will always be pleas for more money—we know that. With the police draft grant coming up in November to December, and the police grant being formalised by this House in February next year, the Minister has an opportunity to recognise that policing is under pressure. It is under pressure for the reasons that my hon. Friend mentioned, but also because the increasing demands of this very dangerous world that we live in are dragging police resources away from the neighbourhood policing model. The challenges of mental health, antisocial behaviour, reductions in council budgets and reductions in CCTV are causing real difficulties at local level. The Minister and her colleagues, the Police Minister and the Home Secretary, have an opportunity to look at the police budget and not to palm it off, as my hon. Friend said, to those local ratepayers, who in many areas are facing difficulties anyway and whose rateable value base was not sufficient to generate the income. The Minister should use that opportunity and look at how she can uplift police funding to help to meet the challenges that we have described today, and in doing so help to reduce antisocial behaviour, protect communities, take stress off individuals and prevent the criminals of tomorrow from gaining confidence, growing in their potential and committing more serious crimes at a later age.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I commend the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) for securing this debate. I am pleased to see him in the Chamber leading on this issue after the incident that happened to him this summer; I am sure that all colleagues wish him well.
The debate so far has been good. We have heard contributions from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson), giving us a UK-wide picture. I am conscious that this matter is devolved in Scotland, but I will offer a couple of thoughts through a Scottish prism, as well as from a constituency point of view.
The backdrop to this debate is police cuts in England; when I saw it on the Order Paper, I thought it an excellent opportunity to talk about some of the things that we are doing north of the border, particularly on policing. The Scottish Government went into the 2007 elections with the commitment to put 1,000 extra police officers on Scotland’s streets. I am glad that 10 years on, we have managed to maintain that; the number of police officers in Scotland has gone from about 16,000 to 17,249 in June. As a result of ensuring that there are police officers on the streets, we now have the lowest levels of recorded crime since 1974, which was 42 years ago. That is welcome, but it is important that we do not rest on our laurels. Although there has been a reduction in the number of many crimes, I am disappointed to say that there has been an increase in the number of sex-related crimes, as there has across the board.
From my casework in surgeries and from going out door-knocking, I know that antisocial behaviour involves many issues. I will refer particularly to some antisocial behaviour issues in the Cranhill area, where I come from originally. Antisocial behaviour there comes from a group of young boys who think that it is absolutely acceptable to throw stones at both windows and people. I was disappointed to see a couple of weeks ago that a young girl in my constituency was injured when they threw a brick at a passing car. That is totally unacceptable, and we need to nip it in the bud straight away. There are also antisocial behaviour issues in the Baillieston and Garrowhill areas in my constituency, and I am working hard with Police Scotland and Community Safety Glasgow to address them. I pay tribute to Community Safety Glasgow, a joint initiative of Glasgow City Council and Police Scotland, led by Eileen Marshall, to tackle antisocial behaviour and crime. Since it was set up in 2006, there has been a remarkable transformation in our communities.
I also want to mention some of the local voluntary groups working to provide diversionary activities for young people. The first is Urban Fox, led by Michael McCourt and Debbie McGowan. It is a voluntary project based in Lilybank in my constituency that delivers a range of educational and diversionary activities including supervised sport, leisure programmes and health and social guidance. It promotes self-development and provides young people with skills, confidence and opportunities to develop self-esteem. I commend the work of Urban Fox to the House.
Andy Gilbert is a passionate community activist in my constituency who does a lot of work in the Glenburn centre. One issue that I plan to raise with the Employment Minister on Thursday involves the proposal to close three out of four of our local jobcentres, which is ridiculous given that territorialism and gang culture are still issues in my area. One example that I mention here regularly is Wellhouse and Easthall, which are literally separated by a road into two communities, both of which are small but have their own community centres and housing associations. The work that Andy Gilbert is doing in Easthall is to be commended; he is reaching out to attract young people to the Glenburn centre who might otherwise be at risk of offending.
I was delighted last week to meet Young Movers, also based in Easthall. The organisation does a lot of work on youth empowerment, and I was pleased to hear about its recent efforts in the park at Sandyhills, where about 20 young folk had been hanging about causing trouble and engaging in antisocial behaviour. Through youth empowerment, Young Movers has managed to get them to set up a youth club, which has removed the antisocial behaviour in that part of Sandyhills.
Another organisation is Street League, which is UK-wide; it has operations in 14 cities around the UK and is led in my constituency by Brian Lennox. It has had good outcomes in terms of reducing antisocial behaviour in Glasgow, particularly in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss). It ran a programme that cut antisocial behaviour in the Carlton area by 80% through street football, which is to be commended. Another organisation, which the hon. Member for Strangford already discussed, is Street Pastors. It does excellent work, particularly in Glasgow city centre at chucking-out time for the nightclubs; he mentioned initiatives to hand out flip-flops and similar things. I commend Stuart Crawford, a good personal friend of mine, who leads that organisation.
To return to the point about police budgets, we in Scotland have committed to protecting revenue budgets in real terms for the entirety of the next Parliament, delivering £100 million in investment over the next five years. I would like to ask the Minister about VAT. Police Scotland is the only force in the UK subject to VAT; it has cost the Scottish Government £140 million since 2013. I hope that in the Budget next month, the UK Government will do the right thing and ensure that Police Scotland is not subject to VAT. Once we can release that money back into the police force, we can reduce antisocial behaviour in our constituencies.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) on his tour de force describing the growing issue of antisocial behaviour in our communities, particularly the consequences of reckless and brutal police cuts.
It is common sense that we cannot tackle antisocial behaviour and crime without a well-resourced neighbourhood policing presence. It is an irreplaceable component of the battle to keep our communities safe, and it has been steadily undermined and eroded over the past seven years. The hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) discussed the use of police dogs to tackle drug abuse. That was excellent to hear, but there has also been a massive reduction in the number of dog handlers throughout the country. Ten years ago, South Yorkshire had 54; we now have 12. Furthermore, his own police force, Devon and Cornwall, is being forced to merge with Dorset amid significant funding challenges. We welcome collaboration and efficiencies, but it is alarming to see forces taking decisions that might be harmful to police accountability on the basis of funding challenges.
The shadow Minister says that the two forces are being forced to merge; they are not. They have had a strategic alliance for quite some time, and it now makes sense to bring the two forces together. She would have found that out if she had spoken to any of the Members for Devon or Cornwall.
The chief constables, in their press release, said that the merger was brought about amid significant funding challenges and was the only way forward for the police forces involved. It was disappointing not to hear the hon. Gentleman talk about those funding challenges in his speech.
Over the past seven years, 20,000 police officers and more than 30,000 police staff have been cut. The crimes that concern the public most—knife crime, gun crime, violent crime and acquisitive crime—are all on the rise. Demand across the board, especially on non-crime issues such as mental health, is soaring. At a time of unprecedented terrorist threats, the number of armed officers is down. Yet among all those competing demands, my hon. Friend the member for Birmingham, Selly Oak painted a compelling picture of why it is so important to take antisocial behaviour seriously. Time and again, it is an issue raised by our constituents. It blights lives and can make people prisoners in their own homes.
Undoubtedly, the reduction in neighbourhood policing has left our communities at risk. Alongside the incredible quotes read by my hon. Friend from a variety of chief constables, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary said earlier this year that the model of neighbourhood policing is being eroded. In calling for urgent action, HMIC warned that
“the position on crime prevention and local policing continues to deteriorate.”
The blame lies clearly and squarely with the Government.
The voices raising concerns do not stop there. Over the summer, one of the most senior police leaders in the country—Sara Thornton, who weighs her words carefully—said:
“We’re particularly concerned about the resilience of local neighbourhood policing...Withdrawal from communities risks undermining their trust in us, at a time when we need people to have the confidence to share information with us.”
The Government have been told time and again that police forces are increasingly unable to provide the service that the public expect. They are rationing their time, which is pushing reports of antisocial behaviour, among a host of other demands, to the back of the queue. At the Budget, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson) said, the Government must get a grip. Forces urgently need a real-terms funding increase that matches their needs and that recognises the record demand they face, having lost 20,000 officers and £2.6 billion since 2010. The status quo is not an option.
If we are to tackle ASB effectively, the Government must get to grips not only with resources but with some crucial practical issues. As we have heard, people are incredibly frustrated with the performance of 101 across the country. They can wait for more than half an hour to report ASB or crime and they feel that the police will not act on the report and that it will fall into an intelligence black hole. The police can have all the evidence and intelligence they like, but that is useless without the analysts and officers to act on them. Will the Minister consider conducting an assessment of the performance of 101 and of which forces are demonstrating best practice in the area? Some forces have excellent online reporting mechanisms, but that is far from consistent across all forces.
On data analysis, I direct the Minister to the recent report by the Royal United Services Institute, “Big Data and Policing”. I recommend its suggestion for a national data strategy and policy for the police. It is deeply frustrating that expertise and practice have to be replicated across 43 forces, especially when they are struggling even to provide core response services.
On legislation, we have heard about the problems associated with the downgrading of ASBOs to civil injunctions. With CBOs, the same challenges persist that existed with ASBOs for police on the ground. A considerable amount of police work goes into preparing a CBO case but, from speaking to those on the frontline, it seems that CBOs are not respected in the round by the judiciary. I have heard many examples of the police working with councils and other services to provide individuals with interventions that have repeatedly failed. They have turned to a CBO as a last resort, only to have it thrown out of court almost immediately. Under the previous legislation under Labour, the judge or magistrates were required to explain why they would not grant an ASBO, but that is not the case for a CBO.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak pointed out, we have no measure of the effectiveness of the Government’s ASB strategy. We certainly do not measure or hold to account the wider criminal justice system’s use and implementation of ASB legislation. Will the Minister consider raising with her Ministry of Justice colleagues the need for better training and awareness of ASB measures and for putting in place a review of how and when CBOs are granted by the courts to establish whether they are being used properly?
One of the positive things about CBOs is that they require some positive action from the offender. That is fantastic in theory, but in practice the third-sector and public providers either no longer exist or do not have the funding to work with and support offenders with CBOs. Will the Minister consider commissioning research to establish how that is working in practice? For example, Durham Constabulary is doing some excellent work through the programme Checkpoint, which I recommend to her. The problem, however, is that, although the cost savings from reducing reoffending and diverting from court are felt across the criminal justice system, the police are currently footing the entire bill. That is simply unsustainable.
We have heard about moped and bike-enabled crime from several hon. Members, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth), who has conducted an excellent campaign on it. It is menacing communities nationwide. Bikes are used not just to plague residents with ASB, but for much more serious crime associated with drugs and violence. A significant part of the issue is the decimation of youth services, but an effective police response is a crucial part of the solution.
We have been calling for the Government to get a grip, not least through a review of police pursuit policy. In recent months, both the Minister and the Independent Police Complaints Commission were adamant that the current Crown Prosecution Service guidance was adequate for protecting the police. It was good to hear the Government think again and announce a review recently. Pursuit and response drivers across the country will be watching with interest. Many tell me that effectively they are forced to operate under a no-pursuit policy, as they do not have the confidence that if—God forbid—someone got hurt during that pursuit, they would not be prosecuted, even if they had followed their force pursuit policy to the letter.
There have been incidents across the United Kingdom in which people on mopeds have removed their helmets so that police following them feel they must pull back. There are so many conditions and restrictions on the police. As the hon. Lady says, it is important for the Minister to address that.
That is exactly the problem. The message is out there that the police are not able to pursue, and offenders are freely removing their helmets or carrying on under that impression.
The lack of protection for the police was amply demonstrated last week by the case of PC Simon Folwell, who was involved in February last year in the pursuit of a vehicle. The car crashed into a lamp post and, tragically, the driver died. The CPS ruled no further action on the case on two separate occasions, yet the IPCC still pressed for a gross misconduct hearing. The officer was finally cleared last week after an 18-month investigation.
No one is suggesting for a second that the police be given blanket licence to pursue, but if officers have followed their training, their force policy and the law, they should not be treated as suspects. Will the Minister confirm what the review’s terms of reference will be and when she expects it to report?
In conclusion, I beg the Minister to put our case to the Treasury in the strongest possible terms ahead of the Budget. Policing simply cannot continue in its current form with this level of demand and with no additional resource. Does she acknowledge the importance of neighbourhood policing and recognise that the rise in crime and antisocial behaviour is at least partly due to cuts to that important function? I reiterate our ask that the Government properly measure their ASB strategy and review the pursuit policy, to give the police the confidence to do their job and our constituents the confidence that their safety and fears are taken seriously.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) on securing this debate. Addressing antisocial behaviour is important not only to all Members present, but to so many Members across the House, because it is important to all the communities we represent.
I want to underline, as I was asked to confirm, that it is the first responsibility of Government to keep people safe. In doing so, we want to ensure that the police have the resources to deliver good neighbourhood community policing. That is the cornerstone of our policing, which makes it distinctive compared with police forces around the world. It plays a significant role in the public confidence that people have in our police force, which is actually increasing. There has been liberal use of statistics in this debate, but one thing that we cannot be in doubt of is the crime survey, a robust data set that is acclaimed throughout the world for its integrity. It looks at how people feel and their experiences of crime. It shows growing support for the police—up to 78%—and public perception that traditional crimes are falling.
We welcome the rise in police-recorded crime because, as the Office for National Statistics says, that is the result of better work by the police. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak recognised that as an improvement. We have also introduced lots of new offences for hidden crimes—sexual offences, domestic abuse and violence, stalking offences, revenge porn—that were not measured in the past because they were not crimes. I am proud of our record in government of facing up to these hidden crimes and encouraging victims to come forward who would have previously been too frightened.
I have listened carefully to the wide range of very good points made today. As hon. Members can see, I have very few minutes left to address such wide-ranging and detailed questions, but I will write back in detail responding to each request for further action or information.
I stress from the outset the importance I attach to how the Government and public services respond to antisocial behaviour. Noisy, inconsiderate neighbours, drunken and unruly behaviour on our streets, and nuisance in our public spaces undermine the pro-social values of the law-abiding majority. They can have a debilitating effect on the people subject to them, particularly when they happen day in, day out. I recognise that people can feel like prisoners in their own homes.
I also want to say how sorry I am that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak was recently the victim of a very nasty attack. That must have been a very frightening experience and I hope that he is feeling much better. I will do everything I can to support him and the work he is doing in his community to tackle what is clearly a spate of totally unacceptable antisocial behaviour that may be related to an increase in gang activity around drug use and county lines.
I have put a lot of effort into tackling that issue, and I have had a huge amount of support from police chiefs across the country. We have put extra investment into area-based reviews. As many people have said today, we need better intelligence, better data and more sharing of information among local agencies if we are going to bring together not only the police but all the other agencies that can make a difference in safeguarding vulnerable individuals and keeping communities safe. Following this debate, I will be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to look at the particular circumstances he has mentioned and see what further resources and further support we can deliver in his community to help him to keep it safe.
Crime is antisocial by its very nature but one thing concerns me—it has been referred to in this debate. At one end of the spectrum, we have daily incidents of misbehaviour and nuisance. Unpleasant as they may be, they require a particular response and we have an effective regime to tackle them. However, a lot of what we have heard about today is actually criminal behaviour. Where Parliament has created offences and given police officers and the criminal justice system the powers to go after the perpetrators of those crimes, I expect the full force of the law to be used. Many of the examples of antisocial behaviour that we have heard about today are serious criminal offences. Parliament has created a range of new and flexible powers—six in total—that are designed to enable not only the police but local authorities to respond to antisocial behaviour, to nip the concerns in the bud and to prevent their escalation into more serious offences.
We recognise that antisocial behaviour happens in different communities and different parts of the country, and that it has several different features. We have heard lots of examples today. We need to empower professionals on the frontline to make decisions about what powers they want to take that will really keep their communities safe. Of course, they are responsible for how they use those powers. I reassure Members that those powers are kept under review. Part of HMIC’s PEEL inspections—the police effectiveness, efficiency and legitimacy inspections—is to examine how police are using those powers locally. However, we do not want to tie the hands of police officers or tie them down with the red tape of daily reporting and reporting in great detail what is going on. We have set up a national advisory panel, which is made up of police officers, members of the local authority and, most importantly, victims and the Victims’ Commissioner. At the centre of all our work to tackle antisocial behaviour is the victim. The panel meets regularly. It gives us really good advice, which enables us to monitor how those powers are being used and to update any guidance or recommendations—
It is reassuring that all that work is going on, but at the end of the day it does not alter the fact that, even where powers already exist, if the police do not have the resources—they say that they often do not have the resources—to exercise those powers, the problem cannot be tackled.
I have carefully listened to the point that the right hon. Gentleman and all other colleagues have made about the capacity of the police to respond effectively to antisocial behaviour. Of course, the Government and I recognise that it is crucial that police have the right resources and capabilities and the powers that they need to keep the public safe. That is why we ensured that in the 2015 spending review the overall funding for the police was protected in real terms.
In addition to that funding, of course, there is the police transformation funding. We have heard today about the way in which the nature of crime is changing and it is important that we invest in new skills and new tools to enable the police to recognise those changes, take them into account and to go after the criminals effectively. There is £175 million in the police transformation funding alone.
Let us look at the west midlands. Following a public consultation, the police and crime commissioner put forward a budget for 2017-18, which was approved by the police and crime panel in early February. That budget is enabling the recruitment of 800 new police officers, 150 more police community support officers and 200 specialist police staff; those are all being recruited as we speak. Across England and Wales, in the last six months, the overall number of police officers has risen, and the number of officers joining is up by 60%, compared with this time last year. So more police officers are being recruited.
On that point about protecting the budget, can the Minister say how much of that is central Government funding and how much of it is allowing local precepts to be raised?
The vast majority of funding for the police comes from central Government, but the precept has always been an important part of funding policing. It ties police officers to their local communities in a very strong way. Police and crime commissioners, working with the public and the police, are responsible for deciding the local priorities and how they should be policed.
Everyone here has given examples from their own constituency of good partnership working. We know that there are complex challenges facing police officers, and they require the support of schools, social services and health services in their community. Like other colleagues here, I have the great privilege to go up and down the country to see excellent examples of partnership working, which enables smarter working and more people to be kept safe in our communities.
This debate has been important in many ways. We have not only talked about antisocial behaviour; we have also touched on some of the emerging crime areas. We have heard about the issues of moped and motorcycle-enabled crime; the use of acid as a weapon; the increases in knife crime; psychoactive substances and their effect, particularly on homeless communities around our country; and the increase in gangs in certain areas.
In the remaining few minutes that I have, I want to assure hon. Members that we are working with great pace, urgency and determination to tackle those threats. We know that, although crime in those areas, compared with 2010, has fallen, in the last 12 months or so, there have been real rises. Some of this is about better police recording, but I accept that we are seeing increases in violent crime.
That is why we have set up a series of taskforces to bring in industry, academics, the police themselves, NGOs and victims’ organisations to ensure that we leave no stone unturned and that we are considering how powers are exercised. We have talked about the pursuit power review and about the work that we are doing to ensure that police officers feel empowered to stop and search people in an appropriate way. We are looking at new offences of possession of acid. We are looking at what more we can do to prevent young people from getting hold of offensive weapons. However, what is probably more important than anything else is the work that we are doing to ensure that young people are resilient and receive a good education and support, so that they can make good choices that keep them away from gangs and the violence that not only blights their lives but blights their community.
Therefore, we are investing more new money into community-led area-based reviews and into providing support for grass-roots organisations that work with young people who are tempted into crime and who are being criminally exploited. We work with organisations that have a good track record of helping people to exit gangs. There is also work in schools to raise awareness of the harms of being drawn into violent crime and carrying knives. That is new funding; only recently £400,000 has been added to the funding for that locally.
In the final few moments that I have, I reassure the Members present that we absolutely understand that we must have a well-resourced police force, and we will continue to do everything we can to support the police in the incredibly good job they do to keep us safe, in challenging times, day in and day out.
Do you want 20 seconds to wind up?
I thought not.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered tackling aggressive anti-social behaviour.
Catalan Independence Referendum
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of the Catalan independence referendum on the EU.
I speak today as the new chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Catalonia and as someone who observed the referendum in Catalonia last Sunday. I was part of a parliamentary delegation from the European countries and beyond, which included my hon. Friends the Members for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) and for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) and Lord Rennard from the other place.
This debate is about the effect of the independence referendum on the European Union. It is also our first brief opportunity, while staying in order I hope, Mr Bailey, to examine the referendum itself, the run-up to it, the events surrounding it and the consequent fallout, which continues. It is, indeed, a fast-changing situation. This evening the Catalan Parliament will debate the referendum, and it may declare independence, unilaterally, or some other status, postpone such a declaration or propose some other course—we just do not know. The Spanish Government may invoke article 155 of the Spanish constitution, taking power in Catalonia to themselves. Those are the events with which we may have to contend.
This debate is on the effect of the Catalan referendum on the EU. I should say that I applied for it some weeks ago, when I foresaw that the referendum could be contentious and was aware that the consequences for the EU had hardly broken the surface of political discourse here in the UK, and in most EU member states. That was well before the actions of the Central Government in Madrid and before the likely consequences had become clear.
Recently, we have only once been really close to a so-called internal enlargement of the EU, with the Scottish referendum. The debate then, in respect of the consequences for the EU, was passionate but, for many, inconclusive and unresolved. However, the issue will not go away. Thinking about the parts of Spain—Galicia, the Basque country perhaps—Belgium, and Scotland again perhaps, as far as I can see the EU is as queasy as ever about facing up to the reality.
We have a Minister here, so this is also an opportunity for the UK Government to make any comments they wish to MPs. As far as I know, the Government have chosen not to do so up to now, other than the reference by the Prime Minister yesterday, when questioned during her statement on the EU by the chair of the British-Spanish all-party parliamentary group, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). The Foreign Secretary has, I think, at some point tweeted that the referendum is a matter for Spain, that its constitution should be respected and that Spain is a close ally and a good friend. He also said that he was worried about the violence, but he made no condemnation of it.
In our experiences in Catalonia just last week, it struck all of us who attended, I think, that if that level of violence had been carried out by state police at a football match or a pop concert, the European Union and the Commission would have made a strong statement of condemnation, as would the British Government if a British team been involved in a game at which such violence had taken place.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. He makes a fair point. In fact, someone remarked to me that had events such as those in Catalonia occurred further away—perhaps not in an EU member state, perhaps in a poorer country—politicians throughout Europe would have been on their feet preaching democratic values. The silence from so many EU leaders is extremely concerning.
In the European Parliament, the European Commission’s First Vice-President, Frans Timmermans, condemned the efforts to hold an independence referendum as a violation of the Spanish constitution and therefore, significantly, as a threat to the rule of law in all EU countries. He said:
“violence does not solve anything in politics”,
and I agree. He continued:
“However, it is of course a duty of any government to uphold the rule of law and this does sometimes require the proportionate use of force”.
Those of us who witnessed the actions of the police on 1 October, could scarcely believe that he used the word “proportionate”. What we saw was far from proportionate.
President Juncker said that the vote in Catalonia was not legal and that the matter was an internal one for Spain, and he called on all the relevant players to move to dialogue. Those statements are just not good enough. They do not address the political reality, which is that 90% of those who voted were for independence. This is, essentially, a political question, and the fact that the Spanish Government resort to the law—which is, in many ways, feasible—but do not address the political issue other than, of course, their seeming move towards taking control in Catalonia again, is extremely concerning. The echoes from Spain’s history are very troubling.
Belatedly, Enric Millo, the Spanish Government’s representative in Catalonia, said in a television interview:
“When I see these images, and more so when I know people have been hit, pushed and even one person hospitalised, I can’t help but regret it and apologise on behalf of the officers that intervened.”
There is a great deal in that statement with which I could take issue, including the word “intervened”, because it was much more than an intervention. I welcome the fact that the Spanish Government’s representative said that, but it is belated, because we have waited many days for that sort of response. The Spanish Prime Minister initially said a great number of things, such as that there was no referendum in Catalonia on Sunday—a denial of reality that took my breath away. He also asserted—I paraphrase—that the actions of the Spanish police were a model to be admired throughout the world. There is a huge reluctance on his part and the part of his minority Government to face up to the political reality of what is happening in Catalonia.
The hon. Gentleman was genuinely prescient in applying for the debate when he did. Does he agree that the job of politicians is to talk to people they disagree with, to try to find ways of agreeing without resorting to violence? Given that Catalonia has submitted 19 formal requests to the Spanish state for talks on the constitution and to date 19 of them have been rejected, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the honourable and courageous thing for the Spanish state to do now would be to offer to talk to Catalonia, to find a solution that respects the will of the people of Catalonia but also respects the desire of the rest of Spain to maintain its constitutional integrity?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. The impression has been given, not least in the UK press, that Catalonia has moved to this position almost on a whim; that it is being deliberately obstructive and destructive. There is no time to go into the constitutional history of the matter, and I would probably not be in order if I did so, but suffice it to say that the status of Catalonia appeared to have been settled in 2006 with an agreement between Barcelona and Madrid. However, that agreement was overturned and then significantly eroded by the judgments of the constitutional court in 2010. A series of events led the Catalonian Government, almost in desperation, to move to a referendum.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. I am going to speak very briefly. The events we have seen over recent days and weeks are essentially state-sanctioned police brutality and abuse. There cannot be any tolerance or space for that in Europe—or any other part of the world, for that matter. We saw young people, women, older people—innocent, well-mannered Spaniards—abused, bloodied and attacked for having their say and expressing their views. I welcome the exercise of democracy, and I will always defend people’s right to vote and play their part in the democratic process.
Order. The hon. Gentleman can make an intervention, but not a speech.
I fully support this debate. I personally do not believe in independence, but I believe in democracy. Last week, we saw disgraceful scenes, and we should have condemned them earlier than we did. I will finish on this point. I have tabled early-day motion 333, and I hope hon. Members will support it.
Order. That was a mini-speech. The hon. Gentleman has the right to make an intervention if the speaker is prepared to give way, but he does not have the right to make a speech.
I concur with the points that the hon. Gentleman made and those that he intended to make, which I suspect are similar to mine. He moves me on to my next point.
Mr Millo said:
“people have been hit, pushed and even one person…was hospitalised”.
In fact, 900 ordinary people trying to vote were injured, clubbed, stamped upon, pulled by the hair, shot at with rubber bullets and tear gassed. In addition—we must say this—about 30 police officers were injured. “Hit and pushed” does not begin to describe what was seen.
The European Union’s position on this political and, some might say, moral and democratic vacuum is wholly unsatisfactory. A symbol of that is the fact that one country has offered to mediate—Switzerland.
Nobody can condone any breaches of the rule of law, and we ask both sides to uphold it, but in this Parliament we must be very careful about taking sides. This is essentially a matter for the Spanish Government to resolve with the Catalans. It looks like there is a bit of good will on both sides, and we must urge them to come to a peaceful settlement.
I agree entirely with what the hon. Gentleman said at the end of his remarks.
Having witnessed what I saw in Catalonia on Sunday, I think it is incumbent on anyone who believes in the fundamental values of democracy to stand up, explain their views and act as honourable and honest witnesses, which is what I am trying to do.
I hope my hon. Friend will agree that if legislators are not allowed to legislate, democracy is hobbled.
Indeed. There is a philosophical argument, which we cannot go into today, about the competing legitimacies of the democratic mandate. The Catalan Government have a majority, which was properly established at an election. The Government in Madrid have a different view and, although they are a minority Government, are also elected. We could pursue that at length, but I will not do so now.
The fact that Switzerland has offered to mediate is indicative of the European Union’s failure to act, which is very troubling indeed, given that these events affect a very large EU partner—the eurozone’s fourth largest economy. Catalonia itself hosts large multinational companies and provides a large proportion of Spain’s tax take.
I believe that a line has been crossed in terms of how an EU member state believes it is proper to treat its citizens. That attitude may be dangerously contagious at the other end of the European Union, where there are growing concerns about right-wing authoritarianism. It is also disappointing, given that the UK has direct experience of an independence referendum in Scotland, which was held peacefully and largely within an agenda of respect. I am not going to ask the Minister a large number of questions, but did the Spanish Government solicit any views or advice from the UK Government about the Scottish experience? Was any such advice offered of the UK Government’s own volition? Clearly, we have relevant experience.
It would be impossible for me to close without referring directly to last week’s events and the background to them—I will do my best to stay in order. We were in Catalonia for five days as part of the international delegation. By now, people across the world will have seen pictures on television—or more likely on their computer screens—of the long queues of people standing for hours in the rain; of people trying to vote and being beaten back by the police; of ballot boxes being confiscated; of the police shooting rubber bullets and tear gas at the crowds; and of women and old people staggering, their heads streaming with blood. They will have also seen the counter-demonstrations—this relates to the point that the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) made—made up not just of the old supporters of Franco’s fascist party singing their anthem and giving straight-arm salutes, but of ordinary Spanish people in Madrid and other cities. In Barcelona, they included some of the people who did not turn out to vote, who are split between people who want no change, people who want change but not independence, and people who just want all concerned to sit down and talk, which is a commendable view.
Let me conclude by talking about what the delegation saw on the ground and what our report says. We concluded that on the day, the referendum was carried out as fairly as possible. Officials worked hard to enable people to vote. The police had taken down the Catalan Government’s website, so in many cases officials could not access the electoral roll. Despite all that, the vote was, as far as we could see, as fair and scrupulous as possible.
The police’s behaviour was, in many cases, violent, oppressive and wholly disproportionate. I witnessed the police breaking into a polling station in the face of wholly non-violent opposition by hundreds of ordinary local people—men, women and even youths and children—who streamed to the polling station when they heard that the Guardia Civil were on their way. The ballot boxes containing many cast votes were carried out and away in heavy police vehicles. The crowd shouted, “Votarem!”—“We want to vote!”—and that was it: there was no violence.
Many people slept in polling stations overnight to ensure they could be opened in the morning. People showed astonishing patience, queuing in the rain for hours and meeting the police batons with determined and unshakeable non-violence, but nearly 900 people and 30 police were injured. That so many turned out is significant—2.26 million voters on a turnout of 42.3%—in the face of huge hostility from the central Government, reflected in the media beforehand, disruption of the process and widely reported police violence from the start.
I do not know what will become of all this. Given the Spanish Government’s attitude, many have said that they had already lost the argument before the referendum was held and would still have lost the argument had there been a majority against independence, which there was not, because minds have been changed. It was clear to me that for many Catalans, this had become a vote not just on independence but on a sticking point—on the democratic right to have a say and on the core European values of democracy, openness and self-determination. It was impeded and, in places, thwarted violently by a central Government whom they saw as being of little or no relevance to them, at best. That has profound significance for all parts of Europe, and the response from Governments and the EU itself has been wholly wanting.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) on securing this important debate and on all his work as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Catalonia. The Minister for Europe and the Americas is travelling on ministerial duties, which I am afraid is why I am responding on behalf of the Government. I am delighted to do so for a number of reasons. I have a holiday home in Majorca, in the Balearic Islands, where some of the issues are also playing out, so I am not entirely unaware of them.
Hon. Members, in the course of speechettes or interventions, have made several points and there is understandably strong feeling across various shades of opinion about what is happening in Catalonia. It is entirely right and understandable that this place should have a keen interest in Spain, which is after all one of our closest and strongest European friends and allies. As many hon. Members know, we have a significant expatriate population living in Spain, including a significant number in the Catalonian region.
To be clear, while we must defend important principles brought into question by developments in Catalonia, we should remember that Spain is a sovereign nation and that ultimately—as my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) rightly pointed out—the situation in Catalonia is a matter for Spain to resolve, in accordance with Spanish law and democratic principles.
Tonight at 5 o’clock, the Catalan Government will make a statement on how they see their future and whether they are to go for independence or another way. That is a decision for them. Given that to date Spain has been unwilling to talk or to accept mediation, and indeed is still issuing threats to Catalan parliamentarians, how does the Minister think that the British Government will react this evening? What kind of discussions do the Government hope to have with the EU and the Spanish Government, to use our influence in the region to ensure that mediation takes place and that there is a peaceful settlement rather than anyone resorting to the recent levels of violence that were totally unacceptable?
It is important to recognise that this is a fast evolving situation, as everyone has said. Let me confirm, in answer to the direct question from the hon. Member for Arfon, that over the past year the Spanish Government have made no attempt to ask our advice, nor have we solicited to offer any advice, about the conduct of the referendum or anything else. The one thing we can do, as a member of the European Union and as a sovereign nation and friend of Spain, is to make the relevant point that we want to dampen down some of the high spirits and passions that are understandably being experienced on the issue.
In reality, as many will recognise, there is a risk that the Spanish Government will trigger article 155 of the 1978 constitution, to take away elements of Catalonian self-government. At the moment, that would not be a desirable state of affairs, so we all await the events of this evening. There is clear strength of feeling on both sides of the argument, as the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out.
Will the Minister give way?
I have a set text and am aware of the potential for running out of time, but if I can come back to the hon. Gentleman I will do so.
The Catalan regional Government are meeting today and, as has been pointed out, the possibility of some unilateral declaration of independence hangs in the air, despite the low turnout in last week’s vote and recent broader polling—if one believes opinion polling in politics these days—to suggest that a majority of Catalans would oppose independence. The decisions that the Catalan regional authorities take today and their consequences will affect the wellbeing and prosperity of not only all the people they represent, but all those throughout Spain. I hope, therefore, that they will consider very carefully the decisions that they take tonight, and the implications for the future.
As the hon. Member for Arfon rightly pointed out, the debate was initially to be about the effect of the Catalonia referendum on the EU, but events have moved on. President Juncker, in common with many European partners, shares the analysis that Catalonia is an internal matter for Spain. He has made clear the EU’s legal position that Catalonia would have to leave the EU if it became legally independent, which would have consequences for the people of the region, including visitors and businesses, some of whom are already considering their future, given the actions of the Catalan regional Government over the past couple of weeks.
Legal independence, however, is a hypothetical scenario not related to recent events, but where the hon. Gentleman is right—he recognises this—the sensitivities around the issue are profound in many European states, not only here in the UK but throughout Europe. That is one of the many reasons why it is probably sensible to look at the Swiss playing a mediating role, given the temptation for a number of separatist groups to draw a direct parallel with the situation in Catalonia that may not necessarily exist for their own part of Europe.
I know the Minister is running out of time, but may I caution him and anyone else about Swiss mediation, because we would not want them to mediate in the matter of Gibraltar?
That would obviously be an approved mediation in so far as both sides were keen and accepted that that should happen. Otherwise, as I said, it is an internal matter.
We should be clear that the purported referendum held on 1 October was illegal. On 7 September, almost a month before the vote took place, the Spanish constitutional court suspended the legislation calling for a referendum, making it clear that such an act would be illegal. None of the Opposition parties in the Catalan Parliament, which represent 51% of the Catalan electorate, considers that referendum to be valid. The vote was knowingly held in breach of the Spanish constitution and was therefore an attempt to undermine the rule of law. Not only that, it was a breach of the law of Catalonia itself, which is something that has been largely overlooked, but its importance must not be understated. The reason that that must not be understated is that the rule of law is the essential foundation of any democratic society. The issue is not hypothetical but of tremendous importance to the EU and to us all.
Will the Minister give way?
Forgive me, I will not, because I am running out of time.
The rule of law underpins all the values, rights and freedoms that are fundamental to our way of life. The UK Government feel strongly that it is in the interests of the UK and of the EU to defend that principle robustly. Failure to do so would diminish us all. What example would we be setting if we encouraged Governments around the world to embrace the rule of law, but did not uphold or defend it close to home?
For the people of Spain—there is a lot of history in this, as we all know about that country—the 1978 constitution has a particular significance. It was a key moment in the country’s peaceful transition to democracy after decades of dictatorship. The constitution was approved by the whole of Spain, including Catalonia, and it does not permit the Government to authorise the secession of any region of the country. That is the very basis on which the Spanish constitutional court deemed the referendum illegal. When supporters of the referendum speak of the democratic rights of or self-determination for the people of Catalonia, we should remember that the Spanish constitution has protected the rights of Catalans and all Spaniards for several decades in Spain’s modern democracy. Those are the very rights that the Catalan regional Government seek to flout.
I have said that developments in Catalonia are a matter for Spain and Spanish constitutional law and democracy. Nevertheless, it is incumbent on the UK, European partners and like-minded democracies—I accept this—to stand up for the principles on which our own liberty depends. That is why the UK Government will continue to make it clear that we support the rule of law and respect for the Spanish constitution. Failure to do so risks undermining the cornerstone of any functioning democracy and European values.
I very much appreciate the concern expressed by many hon. Members about the actions of the Spanish authorities and the alleged excessive use of force. All of us who watched the television coverage were shocked by the events. No one wants to see violence on the streets. The role of the police is to uphold the rule of law, which must be respected by us all. The Spanish Government have apologised for what took place, which I hope will be helpful in finding a constructive way forward.
Aside from matters of principle, it is important to say that Spain is a great friend and ally of the United Kingdom and a key player in the EU. Its strength and unity matter to all of us. In July this year, Her Majesty the Queen hosted King Felipe and Queen Letizia on the first state visit to the UK by a Spanish monarch in 30 years. That visit was a great success and showed off our deep economic, political, cultural and academic ties.
Democracy is about more than just voting. Every democracy has its own rules, laws and procedures, setting out both rights and responsibilities. The ability of the UK and the EU to promote fair and free societies elsewhere in the world would be significantly affected if we compromised our commitment to those principles here in Europe. This Government continue to support a strong and unified Spain as a key partner for the UK and an influential actor in the EU now and in the future.
Question put and agreed to.
Leaving the EU: Consumer Protection
[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of the UK leaving the EU on consumers and consumer protection.
It is an honour to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I thank the Minister for coming this afternoon, and the many consumer organisations, businesses and others with an interest in consumer affairs that have written to me in preparation for today’s debate.
Consumers are key to the country’s prosperity. Consumer spending is more than £100 billion every month. Consumer confidence is vital for our stability and growth, so consumers must be a central part of the Government’s plans as we negotiate our future relationship with Europe. Leaving the EU without an agreement on many consumer issues would risk causing real problems for many people in the UK and elsewhere in Europe.
I am glad that the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union have spoken about putting businesses and consumers at the heart of the Brexit negotiations. We have not yet seen detailed policy papers from either side, so this is a welcome opportunity to look at some of the details. It is essential that the Government work with consumer organisations as well as businesses. I understand that the Minister has invited consumer organisations to join her in stakeholder meetings to consider the issues, and I am grateful for that.
Recent research by the consumer organisation Which? showed that consumers’ top priorities for Brexit negotiations relate to maintaining lower prices, especially in key sectors such as energy, food, fuel and consumer goods. Our consumers are used to shopping across borders, and nearly half of British trade is with Europe, so it is absolutely right that the Government seek a deal with Europe that maintains as much stability as possible, avoids unnecessary financial shocks and keeps trade as friction-free as possible, otherwise costs will increase.
Consumer protection is also vital for maintaining consumer confidence. The UK has more than 40 years’ experience of working with the EU on consumer protection. European directives and regulations give consumers protection on issues such as unfair terms, aggressive selling, and poor quality and unsafe products. Those bits of European legislation not only protect British consumers when we shop in our domestic market and in other EU markets but, importantly, give EU citizens rights when they come here to buy from British organisations. It is important that there is no regulatory cliff edge and that the relevant EU legislation is brought on to the British statute books using the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, so I was pleased to support that Bill in the recent vote. The Bill will mean that there is no change to the body of EU consumer protection law when Britain leaves the EU.
However, consumer protection is not provided by legislation alone; it is underpinned by product standards and market surveillance networks. In Europe, CE marking means that a product meets the safety standards required by law. It covers technical products, products used by children, electricals, building machinery, medical equipment and many other products. It has been suggested that the CE mark could be replaced by a more global standard, but global standard setting in many areas is still limited and lacking in detail. Given that nearly half of British trade is with the EU, any large-scale divergence on standards could lead to technical barriers for British businesses trading in Europe, which is why the vast majority of British manufactures want to keep a common marking scheme for standards, to avoid unnecessary costs.
However, we know that standards can be a tool for protectionism, to lock others out of a market, and it is important that British manufacturers retain a seat at the table where decisions are made. I hope that the Minister can update the House on the state of discussions regarding the future relationship between the British standards bodies and the European standard-setting bodies. Will we be able to retain our seat at those tables?
Changing the standard-setting regime would also raise questions about consumer safety. When I was a child, I lost my father in an accident that was caused by an electrical good. That would not happen today. The fire at Grenfell tower was started by an electrical good. This is not a time to drop safety standards. Consumers must be protected by strong safety standards, on our exit from the EU and afterwards. I am delighted that Ministers have said that we will not be responsible for lowering standards as a result of Brexit and have committed Britain to continuing to be a global leader on safety standards.
As well as those standards, we have the networks and authorities that are necessary for ensuring that the standards work and are enforced. The UK is part of the Rapex network—the rapid alert system for dangerous non-food products—which means that other countries are notified when dangerous toys and goods are found on the market. That makes it easy for trading standards across the country, in Essex and elsewhere, to take dangerous goods off the market quickly and keeps consumers safe. There is a similar system in the medical world; the pharmacovigilance network ensures that medical authorities and drugs companies across Britain are notified if a patient has an unexpected response to a drug, which helps to keep patients safe.
As part of Europe, we take part in the consumer protection co-operation network, which allows a British authority to ask an authority in another country to begin an investigation if it thinks that standards have been abused or consumer protection law has been broken. That is being used to help hundreds of British consumers involved in the French leaseback scandal, many of whom may have lost their life savings, and it helps to keep our financial products safe.
It is in the interests of consumers on both sides of the channel that we not only retain the European legislation but continue to be part of the co-operation networks that support it. It would be helpful if the Minister confirmed that the deep, special and bespoke partnership that the Prime Minister has mentioned will lead to exactly that type of co-operation.
I am not saying that EU consumer protection laws are perfect; in many areas, they are not, and Brexit will provide us with an opportunity to look again at burdensome areas. Anyone who listens to commercial radio stations will be used to the incredibly long terms and conditions that are read very quickly at the end of every radio advertisement for a mortgage or a financial services package. Apparently, less than 4% of consumers actually remember any of those details. That is all laid down in the consumer rights directive, and we may choose to diverge on such details. That is precisely why it is important that we have an ongoing mechanism for talking about future legislation and for enabling divergences.
The hon. Lady is making an incredibly powerful speech that I think everyone in the Chamber is glad to be able to hear. She made the point that high product safety standards and consumer protection are good for customers, and obviously they are. Does she agree that they are also good for British businesses? When our businesses go to those high standards, that makes them competitive globally because of their reputation for providing goods of high quality.
I agree, and I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. Interestingly, when the consumer organisation Which? surveyed British businesses, it found that those businesses, too, want to ensure that consumer interests are properly considered and maintained as part of the Brexit negotiation. That is precisely why British manufacturers say, “We want to continue to be part of the product-setting networks. We must have a seat at the table when they are agreed.” There are non-EU countries where manufacturers and standard-setting bodies are involved in the negotiations on the standards. It should be perfectly possible to maintain that in a deep and special relationship. It is in the interests of both parties.
It is also important to remember that consumer legislation continues to evolve. We need to ensure that legislation keeps up with the digital age. The digital world is increasingly borderless: our consumers are buying products not just from local retailers but, increasingly, from large global retailers, so it is important that we have international agreement on consumer issues. As I have said, the global forums for setting standards, particularly on digital consumer issues, often lack detail. Therefore, co-operation with Europe is necessary.
A key part of digital trade relates to the use of data. The ability of consumers to use comparison sites and to get consumer feedback means that they are increasingly empowered and informed. Our consumers need data.
As has already been said, my hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. She talks about consumers making informed decisions. Does she see an opportunity with Brexit to take things further? One of my campaigns is for the opportunity to expand country of origin food labelling to allow consumers to make a more informed choice. We could expand the products that country of origin food labelling could be applied to.
Consumer choice is key, and I will discuss food standards, especially when I talk about trade relationships with other parts of the world. Being able to make a consumer decision increasingly relies on being able to access data, to go on to a database and to work out where to make a purchase in a digital world. The free flow of data also underpins digital streaming services, retail loyalty cards and use of cloud computing services. Without the free flow of data, businesses—but also consumers—would find themselves at a disadvantage.
Later this week, we will debate the future of data post-Brexit in the main Chamber. I contend that it is extraordinarily important for British and European consumers that we continue to have a free flow of data post-Brexit. Without that, British consumers will find that they cannot access information or comparison sites in anything like the detail they can at the moment, and many European companies will find significant barriers to their own business. There is no world trade agreement on digital data flows, so it is important that a decision is made on that area.
Another area I want to speak about in detail is the travel sector, because unless agreements are made in favour of consumers on travel, they will face significant impacts. For many consumers, the main impact of Brexit will be what happens on their holidays. The rest of Europe remains the most popular destination for British travellers. In 2015, British citizens made 32 million trips to the rest of the EU on holiday; EU citizens made 9 million trips to Britain. Two hundred million passengers fly through British airports every year.
As we all know, unless negotiated, the UK will lose access to the EU common aviation area, which risks affecting both flights from Europe into Britain and flights in the UK. There are also the many aviation agreements—more than 50—that the EU has with the rest of the world on airspace issues. It is imperative that access to airspace and landing rights is negotiated. Last week, we saw 100,000 people having problems with flights when Monarch collapsed. If there is no agreement or action on flights, tens of millions of consumers will be affected. That is why it is so good that the Government have started work on the areas that will be most affected if there is not a deal.
Aviation safety is also really important. The UK is currently covered by the European Aviation Safety Authority and, unless we continue to be a member of that, the Civil Aviation Authority will have to set up an equivalent, which would take time. That is precisely the sort of issue that needs a decent, long, thought-through transition period so that safety is not risked due to a cliff edge of uncertainty. Furthermore, today under EU law when flights are delayed or cancelled, passengers have a right to reimbursement or repatriation. It is important that we know soon whether those rights will continue. Airline tickets go on sale about 10 months before the first flights, so from next summer the airline companies will be trying to offer flights in a post-Brexit world and they need to know what rights go with their tickets.
Furthermore, non-air transport issues need to be considered. Today, British drivers are covered by the motor insurance green card, which means that we can drive from our homes across to the continent using our own motor insurance and that, if we have an accident with someone from elsewhere in the EU, the insurance will cover claims and compensation. If the green card arrangements are no longer in place, drivers may need additional insurance cover, which is especially important not just to individual consumers but to the freight transport sector.
I was glad to hear in the Chamber yesterday that another issue for travellers seems to have been resolved: the European health insurance card. There are about 27 million EHICs in the UK and last year those cards would have been used by more than 200,000 British travellers. Both sides—Europe and the UK—have said that they wish that to remain. It needs to be agreed in detail, but that does show that progress is being made on these key issues.
The final issue for travellers I want to mention is mobile roaming. This summer, my children certainly cheered when they got on the plane and found out that they would be able to use their phones without additional costs. Abolishing roaming charges has been especially popular with younger people. I know how extraordinarily tricky it was to negotiate that, having played a part in the negotiations myself. A deal on roaming and other digital issues needs to be a key part of our future trade agreement with the EU—and indeed of all future trade agreements.
Brexit gives us the opportunity to create new consumer-focused trade policy. That brings many benefits. Trade agreements bring consumer choice, variety, lower prices and the right to be able to buy products from many different countries of origin, including our own, as my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) correctly pointed out. However, we know that consumer confidence cannot be taken for granted. There have been many recent reactions and protests by consumers against trade agreements, particularly the proposed EU-US trade agreement, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. As a member of the European Parliament, I remember receiving more than 10,000 emails over one weekend, nearly all of them different, about TTIP.
Consumers recognised the benefits of cheaper goods and services, but they also said firmly that this should not come at any cost. In particular, the public would be concerned about any drop in standards on food or animal welfare products. That is why the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) and my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer are both right to point out that it is in the interest of businesses to maintain standards, but also important that people know where their food especially is coming from.
The TTIP experience shows the problem of a disconnect between the public and the negotiators on trade issues and points to the need for transparency. It shows that the public and consumer organisations need to be involved in trade negotiations. It is important that those of us who want to continue to have a free market economy and free trade with the rest of the world prioritise the opportunities from the consumer’s perspective.
That is why it is important that we focus on issues such as mobile roaming and the real barriers that travellers face, so that they can see we are focused on the issues that consumers focus on. Brexit offers an opportunity for both the UK and EU to rethink and reset our approach to how we trade with each other and those across the world, but it will only retain the support of the public if consumers and consumer protection are put at the heart of the policy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) on securing the debate and on her obvious passion for consumer issues.
There is often a good deal of complacency in this country when it comes to consumer protection. We often take it for granted; we only really think about our rights when we need to enforce them or seek compensation, and we expect it to be there. This country has quite a good record when it comes to consumer protection law. After all, did we not invent it in the 1970s, at the same time that we established the Office of Fair Trading? That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but we are highly regarded internationally for our consumer protection initiatives and—most pertinently in this debate—we have had an important influence on the scope of EU consumer protection legislation over the decades of our membership.
On many occasions, we have gone even further than the EU has required, as with the right to reject a product. As the consumer body Which? has pointed out, the limit is 30 days here, while the EU directive requires only 14 days. That is all very good, but as investment advisers like to warn, “Past performance is not an indicator of future results.” Many people are worried that the post-Brexit era will give us less to crow about. Certainly, many consumer bodies are worried that we could see a real watering down of consumer rights. It is not just consumer bodies that are worried: the Lords EU Justice Sub-Committee, in its ongoing inquiry on the subject, has observed that there is now a shadow hanging over consumer rights, with the Government’s approach to negotiation serving to
“cast doubt over the continued application of this significant body of EU law that protects the consumer rights of millions of people in the UK.”
Some observers have taken comfort from the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which will transfer all directly applicable EU law on to the UK’s statute books. But what does this guarantee? The Government’s stated intention is that there will be no loss of protection while we remain in the EU, but that only gives us until March 2019, or a little longer if transitional arrangements are made, and what happens afterwards is uncertain. Will the various protections be unpicked over the coming years, perhaps to secure favourable bilateral trade agreements with countries that value consumer protection less highly than the EU? Or will they be reduced in a misguided belief that business simply regards consumer rights as barriers to trade and red tape? We must avoid that race to the bottom at all costs.
Ministers have not made enough effort to reassure us about their long-term aims. While a business forum has been established with the likes of the British Chambers of Commerce, the Confederation of British Industry, the Institute of Directors and others, there is no such equivalent when it comes to consumers. There are many expert consumer bodies out there, including Which?, Citizens Advice and MoneySavingExpert, but they do not feel that they are being properly consulted on what is needed after Brexit. Will the Government now commit to establishing a working group with these bodies and with legal services groups such as the Law Society?
We need a real commitment to putting the consumer at the heart of the Brexit negotiations. That commitment is all the more necessary because it is a question not just of domestic rights, but of international ones, as we have heard. The critical issue for many consumers is how they will be protected when they buy goods from the EU, as they often do when they use internet sites such as Amazon—the 1974 protection is outdated on the credit card rule for internet purchases—or when they are travelling or holidaying abroad and want to hire a car or rent a hotel room.
What are the Government doing to ensure those reciprocal and cross-border rights? There is much discussion in the EU negotiations about people’s right to live and work in the EU and the right for EU residents to live and work here, but precious little about cross-border consumer rights. We have heard about mobile phone roaming fees, which were recently capped, and the EHIC. We have to secure these rights post-Brexit. They have been hard won. We cannot lose them.
The issue of reciprocity and cross-border rights must be an absolute priority, because this is the area where there is most uncertainty. At the moment, UK citizens are protected by various EU legislative measures when buying goods and services, such as the consumer rights and ecommerce directives, but after March 2019 that protection will not be automatic. I agree that we should look at these rights. We need to ensure they are updated to face the modern world. Unless agreements are reached with the EU, there is a real risk that consumers might not be able to enforce their rights in other member states. I hope we will not return to the days when the streets of Spain were more like the wild west, peopled by timeshare cowboys. When I was at the citizens advice bureau, I had a client who had bought three timeshares, one after the other, because the sellers of the first two had assured him that the agreements were cancellable. He ended up with three timeshares, having to negotiate Spanish law.
Some of these cross-border protections will depend on the UK’s continued co-operation with Europe-wide agencies, such as the European Food Safety Authority, the European Aviation Safety Authority, as well as the CPC, which is vital in detecting and stopping illegal commercial practices. We have collaborated well in the past: problems have been highlighted and enforcement has been co-ordinated. We must ensure that UK consumers continue to benefit from, and have confidence in, the high standards guaranteed by working with them. It would be good to know what the Government are doing to ensure that such collaborative work continues and whether they are working towards establishing a mutual recognition agreement on standards.
Enforcement is the watchword. Rights are of little use unless they can be enforced. Local trading standards officers are the foot soldiers when it comes to ensuring that unsafe counterfeit goods are stopped at the point of entry, but their vital work has been greatly undermined by funding cuts, as pinpointed in last year’s National Audit Office report. EU withdrawal will naturally add even greater complexity to their work. If they have to inspect every truck coming from the EU as well as those coming from outside, there will be a complete blockade of our ports. The Government must ensure that trading standards work is properly funded and that officers can continue to work closely with their international counterparts. For example, questions remain over the future of cross-border safety alerts via Rapex, which covers dangerous non-food products, and access to the CPC, which has already been mentioned. If nothing is done, we could be facing a genuine crisis as vital surveillance and enforcement are pared back.
As I said earlier, this country has a proud record on consumer protection law, but there is real danger that it could be weakened as we leave the EU. None of us would want to see those hard-won rights negotiated away. As the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) said, it is not just about ethics; it is also good economics. Consumers spend £100 billion in the UK. They are the vital ingredient of business success. If they are not confident that the contracts will be fulfilled or that they can get redress if things go wrong, they will be far less willing to enter the market in the first place. After all, who are the end beneficiaries of trade agreements and fundamental to their success? Consumers. Unless they have the confidence to buy goods and services knowing that they are protected, any trade agreement is not worth the paper it is written on.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) on securing this debate. I will keep my comments brief, but as this is the Brexit Parliament, I welcome this opportunity to debate this important issue.
It is entirely right that as we go through the process of exiting the EU we should legislate to protect UK consumers and consumer rights. Indeed, the UK already goes beyond the minimum standard required by the EU in a number of areas. For example, UK consumers can reject goods that do not conform to the contracted sale within 30 days and receive a refund, whereas in the EU a refund is available only after replacement or repair. That is just one example, but the principle that we hear espoused to support it is already enshrined in UK law, so we need to use that example to make sure that we continue to protect UK consumer rights.
I recognise some of the comments from my colleagues in opposition, but I think that we should try to focus on Brexit as a real opportunity to strengthen consumer rights in many areas where the UK leads the EU and leads internationally, rather than raising red flags and—I do not want to use the word “scaremongering”—always focusing on the negative things that could happen, rather than the positives that the UK could put forward by operating internationally.
A prime example is the Consumer Rights Act 2015, which I referenced earlier. Introduced by the Conservative-led Government, it resulted in a marked strengthening of consumer rights in legislation, and it provides the precedent Members may seek when looking for reassurances from Conservative-led Governments on consumer rights. Among the safeguards provided, some of which I mentioned earlier, is the increase from seven days to 14 days in which consumers can return any item bought in a shop, online or over the phone. More crucially, the Act ensured for the first time that consumers were protected on the purchase of digital content, such as online films, games and books, with the clear right to replacement or repair, which is important in an increasingly digital world. I am assured that the Government are focusing on the right policy, securing the right direction of travel and legislating accordingly to make sure that we are leading the EU, not following it.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I would like a few more minutes to develop my point.
The other legislative bulwark to consider is the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. The Bill will convert all EU law into UK law wherever practicable when the UK leaves the EU. In practice, that means that wherever UK law does not already legislate beyond the existing EU minimum requirement, that minimum requirement will become UK law the moment we leave the EU. I think I speak for most of my colleagues when I say that there is little appetite for lowering standards once we leave the EU. The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, in its current composition, is designed to provide consumers and businesses with continuity and to provide guarantees of consumer protections that are based on EU law and, as I mentioned earlier, UK law.
The UK leads not only in consumer rights and consumer protections, but in several international agreements where we are not in an official union. One example is the base erosion and profit shifting initiative that is being pursued through the OECD, where the UK has played a leading role in helping to strengthen tax avoidance measures around the globe. That proves to Opposition Members that we do not have to be in a formal union to do the right thing and promote consumer and institutional interests around the world.
I welcomed the hon. Gentleman’s praise for the Consumer Rights Act, which he rightly says was introduced during the 2010 to 15 Parliament. As the Liberal Democrat Minister who introduced that measure, in a Department led by a Liberal Democrat Secretary of State, I gently say to him that it was not just a Conservative achievement.
I did say Conservative-led, but quite right—the coalition did a number of good things.
I just want to point out that it is this Government who have been leading work on digital consumer rights, so we need to give some credit to the Conservative leadership during the 2015 to 17 Parliament.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention; I always support giving praise where it is due.
I would like to end by highlighting the position of the Prime Minister and the Government. Only last week that was highlighted at the Conservative party conference, when the Prime Minister said that
“while we are in favour of free markets, we will always take action to fix them when they’re broken. We will always take on monopolies and vested interests when they are holding people back.”
Furthermore, in the Conservative manifesto a specific commitment was given to make sure that markets will
“work for consumers, as well as producers—with competition keeping prices low and encouraging new product development”,
while tackling issues such as
“poor information, complex pricing and exploitative behaviour”,
which prevent all markets from
“operating efficiently for the benefit of all.”
We realise that that is far from complete. To achieve that, we have set out a range of steps that we intend to take to further strengthen our consumer protection, in addition to the progress that has already been made and which I outlined earlier. I hope to work with Ministers and colleagues across the House to ensure that, as we debate the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, and then the substantive Bills that will follow on customs and trade, we prioritise strengthening the hands of regulators and online consumers, making terms and conditions clearer—an issue that is recognised by consumers and institutions across the United Kingdom—and strengthening the powers of consumer enforcement bodies to include fines against companies breaking consumer law, and delivering redress for wronged parties. The desire and intent to protect consumer rights is clear and we must ensure that we carry on in that manner as we go through and complete the process of leaving the EU.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) on securing this debate and on her excellent opening remarks. I declare my interests, as in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: previously I was a legal counsel at BT responsible for, among other things, consumer law compliance.
The UK is a leader in consumer rights, exemplified, as the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) said, by the Consumer Rights Act 2015, in which we went above and beyond European requirements, but that direction of travel has been, in my view, driven by the European Union. As we prepare for Brexit, whatever that might mean, it is vital that we protect both our current legal framework and our future policy commitments to maintain strong consumer protections in the UK. If we maintain access to the European single market, as is my preference, ensuring equivalence in consumer law in the future will be vital.
In my previous role, I attended the annual consumer law conference in Brussels, hosted by the European Commission. I was there on behalf of not only business but consumer groups and other stakeholders. It was agreed, among a very large group of stakeholders, that the consumer law framework provided by the European Union and legislated for here in the UK was pretty good. The key issue, however, was enforcement of those consumer rights. It is vital that we keep that in mind in this Parliament too, not only through the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, but in what we do next, after the date of Brexit.
I have had the pleasure, or misfortune depending on one’s viewpoint, of rewriting and simplifying consumer terms and conditions for TV, broadband, mobile services and such like, hence my declaration at the top. Having to take out liability clauses, disclaimers and warranties and trying to reach, as I did in that example, for Plain English Crystal Marks and simplifications for consumers brings us lawyers out in a bit of a cold sweat. We must call on businesses in a regulatory-friendly manner to innovate in the way they communicate with customers. We know that customers tend not to read even a short number of pages on terms and conditions, so how can we ensure that, where the law already provides, they are made aware of particularly onerous terms? I, for example, commissioned a short video explaining that in two minutes. Whether anybody watched the video, let alone read the terms and conditions, time will tell.
From my own experience, we must have two aims—first, that customers understand what it is they are signing up to, which is the law today, and secondly, that they know how to enforce their rights and that they choose to do so. Although this is an issue across many sectors, I will make some remarks today about the airline industry, which is topical because of the issues with Ryanair in recent weeks. As the hon. Member for Chelmsford said, millions of constituents across the country fly to the European Union every year. Although we must protect important safeguards on cancellations and flight delays through Brexit, we must also remember the enforcement of domestic consumer rights.
Many of our constituents suffer the annual annoyance of additional charges for printing boarding passes, booking seats, or getting a bag on to a flight when they thought those things were included. Many airlines market through comparison websites, which may require further regulation in future. They show the single fare-only price without the additional charges. So when customers think about getting the best deal for their flights, sometimes they are unaware that the airlines may be bulking out their revenues by stinging customers with additional charges at the point of service.
Additional charges in themselves are not unfair or a problem, but when many customers do not know about them until it is too late or have no idea how to enforce their rights when they have been subjected to unfair treatment, such charges become a problem. I myself have experienced that problem. On a recent flight to Iceland with WOW airlines, my wife and I were forced to pay £75 to get our on-board luggage through the departure gate. That was more than the price of the ticket itself. As a consumer rights lawyer, I said, “Don’t worry; let’s pay the fee. I’ll complain and get a refund. I know this consumer law business.” However, I faced a bit of a problem.
It transpired that the acceptable size for on-board baggage on WOW airlines is significantly smaller than for other budget airlines, but the online order journey did not make that clear. I have a penchant for terms and conditions and compliance with online order journeys and am particularly astute at watching out for such things, but I was unaware of that difference. I challenged WOW airlines when I returned from a lovely trip to Iceland, but the customer service was awful. I had copy and paste responses to my question. Clearly, other customers had challenged it because the company gave copy and paste answers. When I challenged the detail of the answer, I was told that the company would no longer speak to me.
I therefore complained to the ombudsman. The consumer ombudsman, which is a voluntary organisation for certain sectors and businesses, approached the airline, but it refused to take part in the voluntary scheme. I then drafted a letter before claim setting out in detail, on a lovely Sunday afternoon, how the airline had breached consumer law in the UK, and I sent it to the chief executive officer in Reykjavik. Normally at this point I get a response, but on this occasion I got no response. I still hold that the additional charges point on baggage, where WOW airlines does not make it clear that its size restrictions are smaller than for other budget airlines, is a breach of consumer law. I feel that I and my constituents and others are due a refund for an unenforceable charge. Having raised the issue with the airline’s customer services team, the ombudsman, the chief executive and now Parliament, I look forward to a response.
The issue is not just about my story. In advance of this debate I posted a survey online to ask my constituents to tell me their stories, which were broadly similar. Most of the affected customers who completed my survey were annoyed about the additional baggage charges and also about seat reservations. Of those charged for their baggage, 75% had used the bag that they used for on-board storage with other airlines, and they did not know they could not use that bag on the airline that imposed the additional charge. Some 60% did not know about the charges at the point of booking, or they might have measured the suitcase. Again, these are unenforceable additional charges under consumer law.
To make matters worse, nearly 60% of complainants paid the fee, but then did not complain. A clear majority had no idea that they could go to the Civil Aviation Authority or others for support. Of all the customers in my survey who did complain, only one received a refund. Everybody else was either fobbed off or ignored.
Behind the statistics are families going on their holidays. Many of my constituents who use budget airlines and rely on other similar services save up throughout the year for a special time with their families during the summer holidays. It is a major expense in the annual budget of those consumers. The way in which the families are being treated is unacceptable.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his passionate story about his holidays, but does he agree that it is in the consumer’s interest to have choice and opportunity? Although there may have been drawbacks in some of the budget airline experiences, to be able to fly at a cost they can afford is a huge benefit to consumers. We need good consumer protection and information, but not if the cost becomes unaffordable and consumers simply cannot afford the flights.
But the issue with unaffordability comes at the departure gate when customers who use comparison websites and book flights they can afford based on the ticket price alone have no choice but to take the flight and go on their summer holiday with their children or go home. That is why additional charges need to be highlighted effectively and why families need the ability to enforce their rights.
One family told me a story about when they turned up at the airport in Bristol. They had not printed their boarding passes and were told they needed to pay £70 for them to be made available. If that was not bad enough, they then realised that they needed to pay an additional £75 for their children to sit next to them because they had not paid for the seat reservations. Why should families have to pay to make sure that their children can sit next to them and pay for the printed boarding pass when it is perhaps available on their phone? Again, those customers knew nothing about the charges and were stung as a consequence of the lack of compliance with consumer law.
Some sectors are better than others in their compliance with consumer law. The best brands, as we have heard this afternoon, understand that building consumer trust is good for businesses and that putting the customer first is therefore a sensible strategy. Under the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013 and the Consumer Rights Act 2015, with the introduction of the concept of digital goods and services, we are making strides forward, but we must recognise that the law is already becoming out of date in the way in which the new digital economies are working.
To go to my original point, as we prepare for whatever Brexit means for the UK, it is vital that we not only protect our current framework of consumer law but that we work with our European colleagues to enhance the enforcement of consumer rights. We must continue to lead the debate as markets rapidly change and ensure that we protect our constituents not only under current law and in current markets but in future. I look to the Government to help us deliver that.
I thank you, Mr Streeter, and the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) for giving me the opportunity to contribute to the debate.
When it comes to Brexit, discussions here and in the media have tended to focus on high-level questions on trade deals, investment or diplomatic treaties. Important as the Brexit questions are, and the consequences will of course ultimately be significant, they are questions that can sometimes seem a little removed from the day-to-day life of many of our constituents. Today’s debate matters because it concerns something that has an immediate and constant relationship with almost everything that individuals, families and businesses do in my constituency of Weaver Vale and elsewhere. There is little more important in day-to-day life than having confidence in the quality of the food we eat, the effectiveness of the medicines we rely on, or the safety of the toys our children play with.
I want to pay particular tribute to the work that one of our north-west MEPs, Theresa Griffin, has been doing on this issue. Theresa and colleagues work every day on the detail that matters—in stark contrast to what we heard only yesterday from the Prime Minister, who made it clear that, 15 months on, the Government are no further forward in dealing with the detail that every hon. Member requires. Indeed, I should acknowledge the work that the hon. Member for Chelmsford did on these matters as a Member of the European Parliament.
Of course this debate is vital not just for consumers, but for businesses. One of the many fantastic features of my constituency is the range of its economy and industry—things that affect everyone. The logistics and distribution companies in Weaver Vale need certainty about what Brexit means for cross-border transport of the parcels and goods that they deliver. Household names in the pharmaceutical industry rely on the research and innovation work at Daresbury, and their success and prosperity is dependent on consumers having confidence in their products. I have every confidence that the famous Roberts Bakery will continue to produce some of the best bread anyone will taste, but to continue to be successful it will, like every food manufacturer, need certainty about the frameworks that it is working with.
As to one of the biggest challenges—the safety and value of data in the digital age—my constituency is affected at almost every level. At one end of the spectrum, many individual householders in Weaver Vale are currently locked in dispute with broadband providers about the quality of their service—or in some cases the complete lack of it. The EU is committed to achieving speeds of 1 gigabit per second by 2025. By contrast, the UK’s ambition is a mere 10 megabits per second—a hundredth of that speed. We are told by some members of the Government that we need to be “ambitious” about Brexit, but my constituents are being given 1% of what they might otherwise have been entitled to.
On the point about inadequate broadband—and, indeed, the mis-selling of broadband—perhaps I may bring to the hon. Gentleman’s attention the fact that during negotiations on the telecoms directive the Brits pushed for stronger regulation, to make it against the law for anyone to mis-sell broadband and promise higher speeds than they could get. The Europeans refused to introduce that measure. Brexit gives us an opportunity to take new measures on behalf of consumers, especially on issues such as broadband.
Order. Interventions should be brief.
Of course, my point was about speed; I sincerely hope that we will go beyond the current Government’s snail’s pace ambition and not only match but, in time, exceed the ambition of the EU. On that point the hon. Lady and I probably agree.
I was talking about my constituents getting only 1% of what they were entitled to, but at the other end of the spectrum my constituency is also at the digital forefront. For example, Sci-Tech Daresbury is the home of the Hartree Centre, an initiative leading on the application of high-performance computing and big data. It also houses many leading digital and tech companies. Its ambition is to expand the data storage/archive capability at Hartree. Those organisations have made it clear to me that the UK cannot significantly differ from the EU in terms of future data protection laws while maintaining any kind of working relationship. It is welcome that the Government appear committed to incorporating the general data protection regulation into UK law. The lesson must be how that important aspect of EU law can be expanded into other protections. However, the risks to the UK’s position as the digital hub of Europe, from leaving the EU, remain profound. I will work closely with Daresbury and the many tech organisations based there to make sure that any adverse effects of Brexit on the services developed and provided there will be minimised.
My party is supportive of a Brexit that puts jobs first and protects the rights of workers and consumers. It is therefore vital that the Government take the issue seriously, every step of the way. It is comforting that the hon. Lady obtained the debate, as that shows that some members of the governing party realise how crucial the issue is. I commend her on doing so, and hope that her colleagues in government will respond appropriately. The safety and quality of the services and products consumed by my constituents in Weaver Vale depend on it.
I want to echo the thanks that the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) expressed to the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) for obtaining the debate. We must not underestimate, among the various aspects of Brexit, the importance of consumer protection. That vital matter is so wound around and ingrained into our daily lives that there is a danger that we may take the protections for granted but, as the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) has pointed out, that must not happen.
Currently, the rights of consumers are enshrined in EU law, so naturally there is bound to be concern and uncertainty about what will become of those rights and the responsibilities of businesses post-Brexit. We need clarity. At the moment, the UK has to comply with EU consumer policy and law, which is estimated to affect about 90 pieces of legislation, making a body of EU law designed to protect consumers. However, the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill currently progressing through Parliament would repeal the European Communities Act 1972 and copy all EU legislation into UK law. The concern is that repeals, amendments and revisions could then be made to consumer law by any Government as they saw fit.
The lack of clarity and the uncertainty about Brexit is a cause of great concern, since we simply do not know what leaving the EU will mean for consumers or businesses. Will the UK stay in the single market? It looks as if that will not happen, so the rights of consumers in the UK will not be enhanced or keep pace with the rights of consumers in the EU. That could leave them exposed and lacking protection. Consumers are already feeling the Brexit pinch even though we have not yet left the EU. The devalued pound is pushing up inflation, and that alone has reduced purchasing power. Most consumers do not think too much about consumer protection until they need it. We need only look at the recent cancellation of Ryanair flights to find a good example of why consumers benefit from being part of the EU single market, and from sharing rights and protections across the EU. The personal example given by the hon. Member for Chelmsford brought that point home strongly. The hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) also touched on the issue, and outlined various sharp practices indulged in by some airlines.
Fundamentally, a lot of minds would be put at rest by an end to the uncertainty—by the knowledge on the part of consumers that the UK Government are willing absolutely to guarantee that consumer rights and protections will not be watered down post-Brexit, and to provide specific assurances of that in the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. We need a cast-iron guarantee that current protections derived from EU legislation will remain in force. I fully understand the Government’s position that they do not want a
“black hole in our statute book”
and that they will convert EU laws into UK laws. However, no one can predict the longer-term impact of Brexit on consumers, since we do not know what the UK’s future relationship with the EU will look like, or even whether the UK will retain any access to the single market.
What can be said is that following our withdrawal from the European Union, EU consumer protection legislation and that of the UK are likely to drift apart over time. I fully concur with the hon. Member for Bristol North West and the hon. Member for Chelmsford, who discussed the evolution of consumer law. Even if the UK adopts autonomously all EU legislation in the field of consumer protection, the interpretation of such legislation will vary, as UK courts will not be subordinate to the European Court of Justice, despite what the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) said. We do not know what kind of divergence will take place.
Does the hon. Lady recognise that the example that I used showed the UK going above and beyond what the EU was putting forward? If she would like to be “Stronger for Scotland”, perhaps she would begin by engaging positively with those details and looking at the opportunities we have, rather than always looking at the negative and trying to do the UK down.
I listened very carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said, because I had this point in my head. He cannot negate the legitimate concerns that I have raised by simply saying, “We’ll always go one better.” I will give him a concrete example. There are fears in some quarters of a race to the bottom—for example, on food safety. The Secretary of State for International Trade has said that he is completely relaxed about a diminution in food safety. People cannot simply hide all the time behind the notion that the UK will always do something better than anything that is offered by the EU. That is asking us to take too much on trust.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will press on if the hon. Gentleman will permit me.
Consumers in the UK spend £1,160 billion each year on goods and services, and about £14.8 billion is the estimated value of consumer detriment that needs to be tackled by consumer protection bodies. That is with the current protections; diminution of any of those protections can only increase consumer detriment and undermine consumer confidence.
With increasingly complex and wide-ranging threats—in particular, a rise in e-commerce and scams—consumer protection needs to be as robust and match-fit for the modern world as it possibly can. The UK consumer cannot be left behind post-Brexit. I contend that remaining a member of the single market would guarantee that UK consumer protection law moved in line with that of the rest of the EU and would certainly reassure consumers and businesses that the current framework would continue to keep pace.
Regardless of what the future relations between the UK and the EU finally look like, the laws governing relations between consumers and businesses are vital to the future success of the UK as a whole. Consumers must have confidence in the purchases that they make, be confident about safety, and be confident of redress if anything goes wrong with the goods that they purchase; they must be confident that their rights as consumers are enforceable. My concern in relation to the uncertainty surrounding those rights, which will be subject to the whim of the Government of the day, is that the rights may be diluted or eroded over time as the EU moves ahead in this area, leaving the UK consumer rights agenda behind the curve, looking outdated and not fit for purpose in the modern world.
I hope that the Minister can provide cast-iron assurances that protecting and maintaining consumer rights is firmly on the Government’s agenda as Brexit unfolds, because consumers have a right to expect nothing less.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) on securing this important debate and particularly her eloquence and passion in introducing it. I also thank hon. Members present for their thoughtful and constructive contributions, which have vividly highlighted the importance of consumers to the UK economy, but also raised serious questions about what Brexit means for consumers and consumer protections.
Each month, consumers in the UK spend £100 billion in the economy, supporting local businesses, our manufacturing services and employees. Many of the consumer rights that we enjoy are embedded in EU legislation and institutional arrangements. I am disappointed by the Government’s approach to consumer concerns and by their refusal to set out the foundations of consumer protections post-Brexit.
The Government failed to mention consumer protection in their Brexit White Paper in February. They did not dedicate one of their 12 negotiating principles to consumers and consumer rights, and that barely had a mention in the Prime Minister’s 5,357-word speech in Florence. In addition, the Government continue to threaten that “no deal is better than a bad deal”, which could mean the UK crashing out of the EU and being forced to accept World Trade Organisation rules, which dictate tariffs on food of up to 62%—that is for beef—and on other goods such as cars. It will come as no shock that one third of consumers think that they will not be represented in the Brexit negotiations.
The Minister will say that the UK has played an important role in consumer protections, and I agree. The UK has often been a beacon for consumer protections in the EU and also globally, with countries across the world looking to us for our consumer protection laws, and we should be proud of that. However, consumers have been left with little assurance about whether, beyond Brexit, they will continue to enjoy the same rights and protections, or what the Government’s Brexit agenda will mean in this regard. Constituents across the country are asking, “Will it result in the UK being forced to accept chlorinated chicken from the US? What will be the overall impact on food and safety standards? What enforcement structures will be in place to support consumer protections?” There is much more they are asking about, as they do not have any clarity on those critical issues.
To begin with, there is deep concern about the current drafting of the Government’s key legislation, the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. That Bill—in particular, clause 7—goes beyond the ability of Ministers to make technical changes and enters the murky waters of giving Ministers carte blanche powers to “prevent, remedy or mitigate” any “deficiency” in EU law, with no clear criteria about what that means. In effect, they can make whatever changes they see fit behind closed doors without proper parliamentary scrutiny. If left unchanged, that could have a devastating impact on consumer protections, with Ministers effectively able to bring about wide-ranging change on consumer issues such as food, product safety standards, approval systems and oversight of financial services. The uncertainty about the direction of consumer protections after Brexit leaves consumers in limbo about their rights and protections. This is not a question of simply copying and pasting the legislation from the EU into UK law; it is far more complicated with regard to how we apply the law.
Once we leave the EU, the Government maintain, we will be leaving all the EU bodies, so from the point of our departure, the consumer protection legislation of the EU and that of the UK are likely to drift apart, as interpretations of such legislation will differ. As a result, there is little clarity about questions of jurisdiction, conflict of laws and enforceability after Brexit, with the Government making no effort to clarify those issues.
For example, it is crucial that we maintain cross-border consumer protection so that consumers have the confidence and security that the products they are purchasing are safe. Consumers no longer operate within geographical boundaries, so a key tenet of the Brexit negotiations should be to maintain current protections but also to maintain co-operation agreements to maintain the existing rights when people are dealing with companies based in other EU member states.
As the head of consumer policy at Citizens Advice said in evidence to the Justice Sub-Committee of the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Union,
“It is one thing to say that the rule of law applies, but if there is no right to compensation when travelling abroad, or purchasing from an EU trader, if the cross-border agreements are not there to back it up it is not worth as much as it would suggest.”
We have still not heard anything from the Government about what cross-border co-operation post-Brexit will look like. Will the Minister lay out the Government’s position? Furthermore, the current UK consumer protection regime is under severe strain after seven years of Tory budget cuts to local councils. For example, the current domestic products safety regime is not fit for purpose and needs urgent reform, yet at every opportunity the Government have dismissed calls for such changes. The Government’s working group report into product safety, published on 20 July, was disappointing and refused to acknowledge that real change was needed in the product safety regime. It offered no serious proposal to ensure that proper enforcement mechanisms were in place to remove faulty goods from the market. That raises serious questions about the robustness of current enforcement regimes and their ability to withstand the pressures from the weight of EU consumer rights laws, which would be transferred into UK law. We have had no clarity from the Government about what agencies they intend to establish, how much funding that will require, or what their roles and powers will be when breaches of consumer law are found.
Warm words will not cut it. We cannot trust this Government’s vague assurances that consumer protections will be safeguarded when they will not even properly engage with consumer groups. When I asked the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union how many times he had invited and met consumer groups to discuss negotiations on the UK leaving the EU and their implications for the consumer in the UK, his response was that Ministers and officials have met with consumer organisations such as Which?, MoneySavingExpert and Citizens Advice, and that they have plans to host a roundtable with consumer groups. All of those organisations have expressed frustration to me about the difference between engagement with businesses and with the consumer side, with the latter receiving very little attention from senior Government figures. Lip service has been paid to consumers, but there have not been any tangible outcomes in action from the Government, as no consumer and Secretary of State level roundtable or working group has been established. Finally, 16 months after the EU referendum we have yet to see a detailed plan about when this consumer roundtable, which the Secretary of State mentioned in his reply to my parliamentary question, will be held. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
Order. I call the Minister to respond. If she could leave two to three minutes for the initiator of the debate to wind up, that would be great.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I am pleased to have the opportunity to discuss the impact of the UK’s exit from the European Union on consumers.
First of all, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) on tabling a debate on this very important issue. As the Prime Minister has made clear, most recently in her speech in Florence last month, the UK’s vote to leave the EU was not a vote to abandon our relationship with the EU. We want to maintain our deep and special partnership with it. We are leaving its institutions, but we remain a close ally, and we are committed to working with it to secure the best outcomes and to maintain strong consumer protections.
As hon. Members have made clear, consumers are crucial for UK prosperity. Household expenditure accounts for around 60% of our economy. In 2016, 83% of UK consumers used the internet to order goods or services, and 23% used it to order goods or services from another EU country. Engaged, confident consumers stimulate competition in markets and drive responsible business practices, benefiting businesses and consumers alike. This is crucial to ensuring that our economy works for everyone, which is a key objective of our industrial strategy, which will put the UK in a strong position for the future.
British people do not want shoddy goods or services and we will ensure consumers are protected from dangerous products and unfair trading practices. Making sure consumers are protected, wherever and however they purchase goods and services, is a top priority. As the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) pointed out, the UK has a strong history in its own right of protecting consumers. The Consumer Rights Act 2015 updated the laws governing every business selling directly to consumers and gave consumers clear rights. UK consumers have also relied on domestic laws in advance of EU legislation; for example, laws outlawed unreasonable contract terms almost 20 years before the EU legislated to ban them.
We have demonstrated our commitment to high standards for consumers by going beyond EU minimum standards in a number of other areas. For example, the UK led the way in protecting consumers purchasing digital content in the 2015 Act, before the Commission brought forward its proposals on digital content later that year. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford, who played a key role in the development of that consumer protection framework as chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on Internal Market and Consumer Protection. Her scrutiny of EU proposals has been crucial to ensuring the law works for citizens and businesses alike. As she knows, the UK has worked closely with the European Commission, and in the Council, to develop a robust regime.
While we remain an EU member, we are continuing to fulfil our obligations fully and in good faith. We are setting the agenda where we can, to ensure that our legislation remains fit for purpose in the digital age. For example, the Digital Economy Act 2017 includes important measures to protect consumers and the UK’s position as a world leader in the digital economy. It includes protections against spam mail, and against children easily accessing online pornography, just as protections exist offline.
At EU level, we have secured general approaches in the Council on two pieces of consumer legislation this year: the digital content directive and the consumer protection co-operation regulation. Both files will increase consumers’ protection when buying online and set clear obligations for traders and businesses. Those are just two examples of how we have achieved robust protections. We will seek to continue working closely with the European Union on issues such as information sharing and enforcement co-operation.
We have a proud history of protecting consumers, but I agree with hon. Members that that should not make us complacent, following our exit from the European Union. I turn to our plans to protect UK consumers through the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. The Bill will ensure that we exit the EU with maximum stability and provide certainty for businesses and consumers. It will ensure that UK consumer protections based on EU legislation are clearly retained, and that when a consumer buys from a trader based in the UK after exit, they can rely on the same rights that they currently enjoy. The way consumer protections apply internationally in the future is a matter for negotiations. However, our starting point is that we must continue to have effective protection for consumers, particularly those buying across borders, and we will work with the EU to secure the best possible deal for consumers in that respect.
Hon. Members have raised the question of how well we are working with stakeholders. I am disappointed to hear that, according to the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss), stakeholders have been frustrated in their desire for ministerial attention, and I can assure her that I will do my best to put that right. It is essential that we work with stakeholders to understand the impacts on consumers of the UK’s exit from the EU. As the hon. Lady pointed out, Minsters and officials have met a range of stakeholders, including Money Saving Expert, Citizens Advice and Which?, and in April 2017, when he was in post, Lord Bridges of Headley opened the National Consumer Federation’s consumer congress, which explored how we can secure the best outcomes for consumers after Brexit. I am pleased that Which? has been conducting an in-depth analysis of the range of impacts that EU exit will have on citizens.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford mentioned some important areas for consumers, showing what a wide-ranging and integral issue this is. Flights, data roaming, insurance: it is vital that we have the complete picture of consumer concerns. That is why I agree that talking to consumer groups and businesses is vital. I have invited consumer groups and the devolved Administrations to meet me and the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, so that we can hear their views and discuss key EU-exit issues. I look forward to continuing that engagement.
A number of other issues were raised concerning travel protections. Consumer protection for flights based on EU law will be retained in the EU withdrawal Bill, meaning that British consumers will be able to rely on the same rights after we leave the EU as they have now. On advance booking, it is a high priority to identify new arrangements at least 12 months before we formally leave the EU, to ensure legal certainty for consumers.
More broadly, maintaining liberal access to EU markets is a high priority for the Government. We recognise the importance of air services to the health of the economy. The hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) spoke with great knowledge about that subject and others relevant to this debate, reminding us that we must ensure that our post-Brexit consumer protection is fit for the future. I hope that his justifiable complaint against WOW Air is resolved.
The hon. Member for Makerfield raised a valid point about the future of our connection with the Rapex rapid alert system for dangerous non-food products. Intelligence sharing will remain vital post-Brexit, and we are working already with the EU to explore options for maintaining information sharing across borders. I agree with her that it is vital.
Various hon. Members mentioned product safety. Maintaining high standards for product safety is a high priority for the Government. I was asked specifically about the state of discussions on whether the British Standards Institution will continue to be involved in European standards setting. The BSI, the UK’s national standards body, is independent of Government, but we are working with it to ensure that our future relationship with the European standard-setting bodies continues to support a productive and open competitive business environment in the UK. They are assisting us as we roll out improvements to the product safety and withdrawal regime. The European standard-setting bodies, such as the European Committee for Standardisation, are not EU bodies, although they have a special status in the EU.
We remain committed to securing the best deal for UK citizens during the Brexit negotiations. That is as true for citizens as consumers as it is of any other aspect of their lives. As I said, the UK’s framework already sets high standards, and the EU withdrawal Bill will ensure that EU-derived protections are enshrined in existing UK law. Our aim is no reduction in protections for UK consumers after EU exit. It behoves us all, and certainly me while I am responsible for consumer protection, to work hard after EU exit to ensure that our consumer protection regime continues to be an example to the rest of the world. That will be a responsibility for future parliamentarians, but I certainly sense from the remarks made in this debate that we are all concerned not only to put in place a regime that is as good as it has been throughout our membership of the European Union, but to work to continue to improve it and ensure that it is fit for the future environment.
We recognise that for protections that rely on co-operation with, or action by, EU member states, negotiation is needed, and we enter those negotiations with ambition and some optimism. We start from a strong position of trust in one other’s institutions, and a spirit of co-operation stretching back many decades. Through open and honest dialogue with our European partners, we remain committed to achieving strong outcomes for consumers through the Brexit negotiations, and to continued co-operation with EU consumer protection sources of information, and to sharing, post-Brexit. With that, I hand over to my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford.
I thank all colleagues who have taken part in this debate, and especially the Minister for answering it. The UK has a strong history of consumer protection, and I am delighted that she has committed to its continuation with no reduction in consumer protection. I am also delighted to hear that we will continue to share intelligence with our neighbours to ensure that consumers are protected, and that we are committed to very high standards.
In this debate, food and animal welfare standards in particular were raised numerous times. Those are, of course, competencies of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The first time this Parliament when the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs took questions from the House, I was honoured to be drawn to ask the first question. My question was whether we would maintain high standards for food and animal welfare post-Brexit; he said yes. It is a key part of consumer protection that we do not mislead our consumers. We should not mislead our voters. This Government are committed to maintaining high standards for consumer protection, animal welfare and food. I thank the Minister again for saying that those would remain priorities.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the effect of the UK leaving the EU on consumers and consumer protection.
We now move on to our next debate, as I see that the protagonists are here. Would Members leaving please do so quietly? This is a half-hour debate, which seems to be extremely popular; fortunately, I am not chairing it. If colleagues will take their positions, we will move swiftly on.
Supported Housing Funding
I beg to move,
That this House has considered future funding of supported housing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I am pleased to have secured this debate, which comes at an appropriate time, ahead of the Government’s publication of their response to the consultation that finished in February. I am aware that many colleagues want to take part in this debate. I shall do my best to accommodate them by taking interventions, but the pressure of time may mean that I have to disappoint some people, for which I apologise. Their presence, even if they do not get an opportunity to speak, says it all and sends out the right message. I confirm that I will support any application to the Backbench Business Committee for a longer debate.
[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
This debate provides an opportunity to re-emphasise the vital importance of putting funding for the sector on a sustainable long-term footing and of the Minister providing a progress report on how the Government are getting on in formulating their plans. That is essential if we are not to let down a vulnerable group of people, whether they are elderly, young, physically disabled, fleeing domestic violence or facing mental health challenges. It is appropriate that this debate is taking place on World Mental Health Day. Housing is essential to securing parity of esteem with physical health treatment.
The case for supported housing is compelling. Demand is rising for care and support as a result of an ageing population and increased levels of mental illness and learning disabilities. Supported housing enables older people to retain their independence, allows young people to live securely and get their lives back on track and ensures that victims of domestic violence can find emergency refuge and stabilise their lives. It helps homeless people with complex and multiple needs make the transition from living on the street to having a settled home and providing education and training to prepare them for work. It ensures that those with mental health needs can stabilise their lives and live more independently. Supported housing assists ex-servicemen and women who are experiencing difficulties in readjusting to civilian life. It ensures that people with learning disabilities can maximise their independence and exercise choice and control over their lives. Investment in supported housing provides an alternative to more expensive residential care settings such as care and nursing homes. In that respect, it provides good value for money.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. In April, the Communities and Local Government Committee and the Work and Pensions Committee published the report of our joint inquiry into the future of supported housing. It detailed the evidence—some of which he has mentioned—of the value of supported housing to those who live in it. It also sets out the devastating impact that uncertainty about Government funding for supported housing is having on the sector. Subsequent research has confirmed that 85% of new supported housing schemes have been put on hold. We are now more than 18 months on from the Government’s announcement that they would review funding arrangements for supported housing, but there is still no clarity or certainty. Does he join me—
Order. This is only a half-hour debate. Speeches may be made only by permission of the mover and the Minister, and interventions should be as short as possible.
The hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) refers to the joint Select Committee report, which I will address in some length. It is part of the valuable work that Parliament has done.
I will be brief. I strongly support my hon. Friend’s leadership in this area. Does he agree that many faith-based organisations such as the YMCA, the Salvation Army and Emmaus need to know from the Minister that the system will be flexible enough to accommodate not just the need for shelter but the personal support that those organisations provide?
The three charities that my hon. Friend mentions have made that point to me. It is well made.
The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way. He made the point that if supported housing becomes unsustainable—as many people say it already is—the cost of people going into residential care will be exponentially higher?
I agree. I hope to get to that point later.
I will take one more intervention.
The hon. Gentleman has secured this debate at a timely moment. Does he agree that the lack of clarity from the Government is leading to a lack of investment in supported housing? The longer that goes on, the bigger the crisis will be in the future.
There is a need for the Government to come forward with their proposals and plans. My point is that Government, Parliament and the sector, working together, all have a role in addressing this problem.
Let me move on. The vital role that supported housing plays is recognised by all, as is the need for a sustainable long-term solution, not a short-term sticking plaster. This is not a straightforward challenge; it is vital for Government, Parliament and all those involved in the sector to work together to put in place the right funding framework. There are encouraging signs that that is happening, but there is still a great deal of work to do.
The Government made the correct first move by carrying out the first evidence review for 20 years. Its findings were published on 21 November last year—the same day the Government launched their consultation on their preliminary proposals, setting up four task and finish groups to address specific challenges. The preliminary proposals were announced on 15 September 2016 by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), the then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. In brief, they provide for people living in supported accommodation to have their core rent and service charges funded through housing benefit or universal credit up to the local housing allowance rate, and for costs above that rate to be distributed by local authorities from ring-fenced top-up funding provided by the Government.
The hon. Gentleman mentions the top-up on the local supported housing allowance. In Hull, that would be only £69.73—well below the needs of the organisations that the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk) mentioned, such as Emmaus and the Salvation Army. My fear is that the money coming from the local authority will not be ring-fenced, sustained or available beyond a certain period. Those organisations are seriously at risk of falling dramatically below the level of funding that they need to keep going and stay open.
I hope I can answer the hon. Lady’s question straight away. Two concerns have been expressed to me about these proposals. First, is a one-size-fits-all LHA rate an appropriate starting point for a new funding mechanism? Secondly, providers are concerned that discretionary local top-ups do not provide the long-term stability needed for investment in new facilities.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Is it his understanding, as it is mine, that there is no correlation between LHA rates and the cost of providing supported housing across the country?
The right hon. Gentleman is spot on. There is a real worry that if we do not get this right, we will be creating a postcode lottery. The Communities and Local Government Committee and the Work and Pensions Committee published a unanimous joint report on 1 May in which they made three recommendations to complement the Government’s proposals. For the sake of timeliness, I will not outline them. I sense from the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), who chairs the Communities and Local Government Committee, that we know the answer.
The work by Government and by Parliament’s Select Committees provides the foundation stone for a new long-term funding framework in which housing associations, charities and social enterprises can invest and take up the significant amount of funding that the Government have made available over the past five years.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the funding that was incorporated in the revenue support grant in 2011—taken away from a specific grant—has decreased by 53% in just one part of my constituency?
I was not aware of that, but it illustrates the concern that if we do not get this right, we could have a postcode lottery.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments about the joint report by the two Select Committees, which were chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) and the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham). Since then, five housing associations, in a meeting chaired by Lord Richard Best, have come forward with a proposal for small regional variations in a specific grant with small top-ups that would meet the Select Committees’ proposals and cost the Government no more money. Should not the Government carefully consider that?
The hon. Gentleman is stealing my thunder, because I will come to that point in my recommendations, but I accept that he has done the hard graft and I am just a mouthpiece.
In the month before this debate, I received many representations that confirmed not only a willingness to engage with Government and Parliament but a worry that the proposals in their current form do not achieve their objective. I am happy to share all those representations with the Minister. The National Housing Federation, which represents English housing associations, has expressed concerns. The Chartered Institute of Housing has emphasised that the stakes are very high and that if we get this wrong, the implications for the public purse—not to mention life chances—are frightening.
From my experience of the supported housing provided for constituents with autism and learning difficulties, I know that the LHA rent cap will mean that they simply will not be able to afford the support that they get in their current setting. They will end up in institutions or hospitals, which will actually cost the taxpayer far more money.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point.
One Housing, a major provider of affordable housing in London and the south-east, is extremely concerned about the plan for a cap on the housing benefit to the level of the local housing allowance. It believes that it will have a dramatic impact on older people’s housing with care schemes and could reduce new supply. The Home Group, which is active in the north-east, Cornwall and East Anglia, including in Lowestoft in my constituency, is concerned that reliance on LHA rates could lead to a postcode lottery. It has put on hold the development of 1,842 units across the country while it awaits clarification on the proposed system.
In my own constituency, one housing provider—Riverside—has informed me that all but one of its residents will be affected by these proposals, with the average resident’s rent at one project more than £100 per week above the proposed cap. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the proposed arbitrary cap will cause undue stress and anxiety to residents who may be forced to rely on the top-up funds?
I thank the hon. Member for that intervention. It is quite clear from the feedback from organisations around the country such as Riverside—I have met Riverside staff—that there are serious problems.
The report that my hon. Friend referred to, which the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) and I co-chaired, made recommendations that would deal with two or three of the comments that have been made by Members so far, particularly by having a new supported housing allowance with four relatively modestly differentiated regional bands, which would deal with the point about not needing local authority top-ups. Does he agree that, if the Government were to go ahead and accept those recommendations, it is also important that they hold to account housing associations and others to ensure that the provision is of a consistent quality throughout the country?
I agree with that point and I also thank my hon. Friend, because I am aware that he played a key role in the report from the joint Select Committees.
The Associated Retired Community Operators, which is the main trade body representing the retirement community sector, has also expressed concerns.
Will the hon. Gentleman also acknowledge the concerns of Community Housing Cymru, on behalf of housing associations in Wales, about the level of funding to be devolved under the new arrangements and the length of time that it is taking for the Green Paper to be published?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. A lot of my emphasis has been on what is happening in England, but it is important that we remember the requirements of the devolved national Administrations; his point is well made in that respect.
Leonard Cheshire Disability has also expressed a concern to me. Rethink Mental Illness and Mencap have similar concerns. They highlight the important role played by supported housing in helping people affected by mental illness to recover, move on and live independently. They stress the need to think outside departmental silos and to engage with NHS England. It is worth bearing it in mind that a 30-day delayed discharge from a secure ward costs £16,890 and the same delay from an acute setting equates to £13,170. That compares with the cost of the most expensive forms of mental health supported housing, with added support costs, of around £2,000 per month.
One of the providers in my constituency says that the shortfall in local health authority funding will be around £3.3 million, leaving the most vulnerable people without a roof over their heads. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is an intolerable situation for people to be in?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. It is quite clear from the research I have done that there are significant funding gaps. In fact, the YMCA, which is the largest charitable provider of supported housing for younger people, estimates that under the current arrangements there will be only 65% of the total funding that currently goes towards providing its 10,000 beds, which would leave the YMCA with an estimated £27 million funding gap.
Supported housing also has a vital role to play in ending rough sleeping, as St Mungo’s has highlighted in its “Save Hostels Rebuild Lives” report, which was also published last month. The Salvation Army has expressed concern that its 60 Lighthouses across the UK could be put at risk and it is calling on the Government to delay the introduction of any new funding system until 2022.
Bolton at Home supports 600 households, as well as providing 2,500 sheltered places. It says that the extra money it receives is used to provide support, assistance and advice to many elderly people who have a lot to deal with, such as mental health issues. In the long term, providing such housing saves loads of money as well. So, when money is being considered, Bolton at Home would like those things to be taken into account, too.
I thank the hon. Member for that intervention; she is illustrating that this is a nationwide problem.
I am conscious that my colleague to my right, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), wishes to intervene. I will allow him to intervene and then I will give way again to the hon. Gentleman.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I wanted to make a narrow point about Estuary Housing Association, as my constituency is affected by it. However, is he aware that, since he started his speech and said that half an hour for this debate was inadequate, about 60 or 70 Members have arrived, chairs have had to be brought in at the back and here on the Conservative Benches I am joined by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), the leader of the Liberal Democrats, or Labour as we now call them—[Interruption.]
Clearly, this issue has brought us all together. Can we say in the strongest possible terms to the Minister that we really need to sort this out, and if it is not sorted out we need to come back to the House and go into a lot more detail in another debate, in which I would like to make a speech in favour of Estuary Housing Association?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention; his points are well made.
Order. I have to say that the hon. Member has now been speaking for more than 15 minutes, so we now have less than 15 minutes left. These Adjournment debates are supposed to be a dialogue between the mover and the Minister, and not just a monologue interrupted by other Back Benchers. I know that the hon. Member will leave plenty of time for the Minister, because it is important that he replies on behalf of the Government.
I am grateful, Sir Edward, for that timely advice. I will now move on to my three suggestions for ways forward.
My first proposal is that the Government should give full and serious consideration to adopting the recommendations made by the Communities and Local Government and the Work and Pensions joint Select Committee; it has made its case well. Under the auspices of Lord Best, Housing and Care 21, Riverside, the Home Group and Hanover Housing have analysed data from approximately 43,000 supported housing and older people’s tenancies across the UK, and concluded that a supported housing allowance proposal represents a viable and workable approach. Although I recognise that the Government have to study that analysis closely, this proposal could be a sensible way forward.
Secondly, it is important that the Government examine very closely the impact of universal credit on the supported housing sector, particularly as the rollout is due to be ramped up in the next few weeks. Universal credit in its current form is in many respects incompatible with supported housing. The local housing allowance rate was designed for the private rental sector and bears no relation to costs in the supported housing sector. It also introduces levels of variation in funding through the benefits system across the country, which are greater than the variation in costs of delivering supported housing. This could leave parts of the country particularly exposed and it could skew development towards areas with higher funding rather than highest need.
Thirdly, there is a need for the Government to provide a revised timetable for working up the new funding framework with providers, road-testing it, carrying out an impact assessment and then introducing it. The general election has thrown the previous timetable somewhat off course. I anticipate that the Minister will advise us as to when the Government will respond to the consultation that closed in February, and whether they are still intending to introduce the new system on 1 April 2019. An early statement is required to address the concerns I have outlined, which have been echoed all across the Chamber, and to set out a clear direction of travel. It would be helpful to receive some indication as to whether a pilot or a shadow year—as the Under-Secretary of State for the Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), suggested when she was Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions—might also be considered.
In conclusion, Sir Edward, I am grateful to you for bearing with me. It is important that we get this matter right, as the lives of many vulnerable members of society depend on it. I acknowledge that this is not a straightforward task, but I sense that, by working together, a partnership of Government, Parliament and the supported housing sector can put in place a long-lasting framework that will provide dignity, peace of mind and hope to residents. They deserve no less.
I am grateful, Sir Edward, for the opportunity to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I will begin my response to the debate by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for securing this important debate and for granting me the opportunity to outline the significance that the Government attach to supported housing. I know that he has been following the issue extremely closely and has been a great advocate for the sector and the people it supports. The importance of supported housing to right hon. and hon. Members is demonstrated by the number of them here in the Chamber today.
Supported housing plays an invaluable role in our society, helping some of our country’s most vulnerable people to live as independently as possible. Supported housing serves as an important lifeline for vulnerable older people, individuals with learning disabilities and physical impairments, those at risk of domestic abuse and many other vulnerable people. It is also an investment—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney—that brings savings to other parts of the public sector, such as health and social care. It is essential, therefore, that we introduce the funding model for supported housing and make sure that it is on a sustainable footing, ensuring that it works for providers, commissioners and vulnerable tenants, as well as for the taxpayer.
Will the Minister give way?
I will make some more progress and then, bearing in mind that I do not have long to respond, I will see how many interventions I can take.
We recognise the value of local strategic planning, partnership working, commissioning and oversight, and we are keen to encourage local government, providers of supported housing and the wider public sector to continue to develop a joined-up, strategic, holistic approach with a greater local focus very much on outcomes, oversight and value for money.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney knows, our consultation on supported housing concluded earlier this year. We welcomed all the responses, of which there was a significant number—592—and we have been careful in taking stock of the views from the sector, local government, other stakeholders and Members of this House. We also welcomed the joint Committee inquiry, and its subsequent report, into the future funding of supported housing, and we have been considering its recommendations. I thank Members who served on that Committee for their work and their input into the process.
Let me assure the House that we have been taking all of this thoughtful and reflective input into account as we continue to develop our plans. This matter is a priority for the Government, and we will announce the next steps shortly—later this autumn. I believe that when those proposals are introduced, they will show that we have listened and have understood the important issues at hand and the important situation. What is at stake is helping and supporting some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
I am extremely grateful to the Minister for giving way. I want to place on record how first-rate the opening speech, by the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), was. The Minister mentioned sustainable funding. If such funding is set at a very low level, does he not accept what the YMCA, whose supported housing I have visited in my constituency, believes? That organisation believes that reform could lead to a two-thirds reduction in its funding, and that, although it might be secure, it would be completely unsustainable and would lead to destitution for the people who need this kind of supported living the most.
I entirely agree that we need to ensure that this is a sustainable source of funding, on which the YMCA and many other organisations that provide support and assistance to the most vulnerable in our society can rely to deliver their services. My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney mentioned short-term accommodation, and I will address that very point in a moment.
We want the design of the reformed funding model to be flexible. We also want it to be responsive enough to meet the various demands placed on it by a diverse sector and client base. We have therefore been working closely across Government to understand and consider the needs of individuals who require long-term supported accommodation, such as people with learning disabilities, physical and sensory disabilities and mental health problems, and disabled older people. That is why we want to commit to supporting the most vulnerable in our society with £400 million of capital funding to deliver new specialist affordable homes, particularly for the elderly and people with learning disabilities.
I will take just two more interventions so that I can then respond to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney.
I am grateful to the Minister. I have counted 53 Members in the Chamber today, not including the Minister and his Parliamentary Private Secretary. That number is unprecedented, in my experience, for a half-hour debate. The Minister talks about the “we” in Government. Will he press that fact, and the concern here in this room, to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Chancellor? Will he also press the point that the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) made, that there is a real job for Parliament, the sector and the Government to find—together—a good solution for the long term? Will he now get the Government to step up to do just that?
I do not disagree with the right hon. Gentleman’s sentiment, but I can assure him that we are working across government, across the Departments that he mentions, because we want a sustainable funding solution to support the extremely vulnerable groups we all want to see supported in our society.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney on securing the debate and on his excellent opening remarks. Will the Minister confirm that he has read the report from Riverside, which was mentioned earlier, which builds on the Select Committees’ recommendations about a banded scheme and seems to solve the problem without it costing the Government extra money?
Indeed I have, and I have met Riverside and a whole host of providers in the sector, including last week at the Conservative party conference, where I was involved in a roundtable event held by Reform. Although there were not as many seats around the table as we have here, there was a waiting list, which demonstrates the importance of the issue and of the Government’s getting it right.
I would now like to pick up the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney made. Both he and other Members mentioned the work done by Lord Best and my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), and I have had sight of their proposal, which is about developing a bespoke supported housing allowance. I am most grateful for their recommendations and for the suggestion about maintaining funding from the welfare system and testing and developing a banding system to provide cost controls that reflect the costs of provision in a particular area and for a particular type of supported housing. That is something we are considering very carefully.
Will the Minister say something about the timing of the Government response?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question from a sedentary position. In relation to our response to the consultation, the issue of timing is not lost on us and we expect to come forward with further proposals during the autumn.
I can assure the Chairman of the Select Committee of that.
In relation to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney made about piloting and further consultations, we will work closely with the sector and listen to what is being said during consultation. There may well be a case for testing proposals in some way, and we expect to set out further details about how we will go about introducing our proposals. What I underline, again, is that we are listening to the sector.
Sir Edward, I think you are going to pull me up very soon for running out of time, so I would just like to reassure right hon. and hon. Members that the Government have considered the consultation very carefully and have considered the proposals—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Education Funding (South Liverpool)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered education funding in south Liverpool.
I am grateful to have obtained this debate about education funding in south Liverpool. I intend to discuss a situation in my part of the Liverpool City Council area and in Halewood, which is in the Garston and Halewood constituency but falls within the Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council area. Some of my Liverpool and Knowsley colleagues will talk a little about the experience of schools in their bits of south Liverpool, and I welcome the fact that they are here to do so.
In February, I began receiving correspondence from headteachers in my constituency about the dire financial situation they face. I sought to get a broader picture by contacting headteachers to see whether the complaints I was receiving were representative of all or most schools, and it soon became clear to me that the budgetary crunch of which those headteachers complained was a widespread concern for headteachers across my constituency. I have been seeking a meeting with Education Ministers to discuss this since the beginning of March, and I am grateful to say that I was finally granted my half-hour meeting with the Minister earlier today—well over seven months later. It took his Department 10 weeks even to reply to my request for a meeting, which I think is rather too long for an MP to have to wait to see a Minister about an urgent problem, although I am glad to see that he has decided to respond to this debate himself. I welcome him to his place.
Following the Conservative election victory in 2015, the then Chancellor decided to cut the schools budget as part of the never-ending policy of austerity and public expenditure cuts, which he was left with as a result of his failure to meet the Lib Dem-Tory coalition Government’s deficit reduction targets, and he duly did so. Despite assurances that core school budgets would be protected, figures showed a planned 8% real-terms reduction in per-pupil spending between 2015 and 2020, and the National Audit Office found that school budgets have been cut by more than £2.7 billion since then. The cost pressures that schools face in addition to those cuts were and are considerable. They include the removal of the education support grant, the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, increases to employer national insurance and pension contributions, the requirement to fund pay awards to staff without additional funds, and the prospect of having to pay for shared services and support services, which local authorities previously provided for free.
Cuts to local authority funding have hit particularly disadvantaged areas such as south Liverpool hard when it comes to shared services and support services for schools, because they have been much larger than those in more affluent parts of the country. Furthermore, the number of pupils who need such services is much higher in areas such as mine. Between 2010 and 2020, Liverpool City Council will have had to face a 68% cut to its available resource, and it still has to find a further £90 million from its already denuded budget over the current spending review period. That is a considerable challenge. Meanwhile, Knowsley’s budget will be slashed by 56% between 2010 and 2020, and it has to find a further £17 million in cuts over the current spending review period. That means that both authorities have been forced either to cut back completely or to charge schools for services and support that used to be provided for free. Unsurprisingly, schools have generally not budgeted for those charges in advance.
On top of those challenges, which were already causing headteachers to worry, there are the Government’s changes to the national funding formula. Although they have the stated aim of making funding fairer—I am sure the Minister will explain how they do that when he gets his chance to speak—they seem to disadvantage the vast majority of schools in my constituency.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. As she is outlining, this is a funding attack on schools not just in south Liverpool, but across our city and beyond. The education unions have calculated that, after the last revision of the funding formula and the extra money announced before recess, my constituency alone will lose £4 million, or £300 per pupil, by 2020. I hope she will push the Minister for a response to that.
I will indeed—and I think my hon. Friend has himself just pushed the Minister for a response. I am sure the Minister will want to make some points in reply and set out his understanding of the impact of the national funding formula, which seems not to advantage schools in our area as much as I would like.
Liverpool City Council told me that, according to its calculations, the Garston and Halewood constituency will lose £390 per pupil—a cut of more than £4.5 million between 2015 and 2020—which is not dissimilar to what my hon. Friend said is happening in his area. That is the equivalent of a cut of 125 teaching jobs. The local authority told me that across Liverpool as a whole the loss is £487 per pupil, or a 9% cut overall, and a cut of almost £28.5 million between 2015 and 2020, equivalent to 778 teaching jobs.
The Minister may well say that the revisions that were made to the national funding formula in July and September, with the finding of savings from his Department and the raiding of various capital budgets for £1.3 billion, will make a difference to that, but many of the schools in my constituency have reported to me that they have or are planning to cut teaching and support staff posts. One headteacher of a local primary school, which the Minister’s letter tells me will see an increase of 0.9%, told me that
“the current staffing levels are unsustainable due to the differentials between school income and school expenditure on staff… The Governors are currently planning a staffing review to identify how we can reduce staffing costs by making teachers and teaching assistants redundant. We need to lose three teachers by 2019 if we are to manage our school budget without going into deficit. This will mean we will not have a qualified teacher in each class, which by law we must have. We are looking ahead at troubled times in schools.”
That is not the only school to have told me it is planning staffing reductions. One school, which has already seen a significant cut in teaching and support staff and a narrowing of the breadth of its curriculum as a result, is now contemplating further reductions to the curriculum, to pastoral staffing and to the length of the school day and the school week.
Some of my schools have been hit particularly hard, according to Liverpool City Council figures. Springwood Heath Primary School in Allerton is a unique school. It is a mainstream primary with enhanced provision places, which integrates children with significant physical and medical needs into its community. The city council projects that it will lose more than £719 per pupil—a 14% cut. Although that may be ameliorated by the changes to the national funding formula, which the Minister will no doubt tell us about later, it is already losing teachers and support staff, and to lose support staff at Springwood Heath is to put at risk the ability of some pupils to continue to attend because they depend on those support staff, who enable them to attend that mainstream school. That would be a particular concern to me. It might be said, “Well, so you lose a few support staff,” but if those staff are ensuring that severely disabled children can attend a mainstream school, that is more than simply losing support staff; it is losing a richness and quality of education that no other school offers. If the Minister comes to Liverpool, which I invite him to do, I hope he visits Springwood Heath Primary School. Then he could tell me whether in his experience there is another school like it. I am not sure that there is.
A few moments ago my hon. Friend made the point that the evidence is that the funding formula adjustments announced in the summer have not really resolved the problems in south Liverpool. As she is aware, my information is that all bar three of the schools in Knowsley—so this affects her constituency as well—will have either no change or further reduction to their funding. The sort of situations that she described in that one important school will then be played out across Knowsley, to the detriment of the education of the children concerned.
My right hon. Friend is correct. He and I, as representatives of the borough, know that there is an issue of attainment in Knowsley schools. It is a long-standing one, which we continue to try to tackle, as Governments of all stripes have tried to do. It is certainly not ameliorated and improved by taking money away from schools. That will just deepen and worsen the attainment gap that is already there. If that were to happen, it would be a very great worry.
Liverpool City Council figures also tell me that Stockton Wood Primary School in Speke, one of the most deprived wards in the country, will lose £659 per pupil, which is a 13% cut; Garston Church of England Primary School will lose £616 per pupil, a 12% cut; and Childwall Valley Primary School, in Belle Vale, will lose 12% or £671 per pupil.
Lest the Minister believe that only schools in the most deprived wards are being hit, I can tell him that St Julie’s Catholic High School in Woolton is facing a £555 per pupil cut, which is a 10% cut, and St Francis Xavier’s College—the school that first contacted me to express worries and about which I wrote to his Department in February—is facing a cut of £508 per pupil, or 10%. Given that the school told me at the time that its financial situation was unsustainable and that it has made 13 staff redundant, with a further six posts unfilled, I wonder what the Minister thinks will be the impact on it of the revision to the national funding formula. The revised figures from the National Education Union suggest that SFX will still lose 5% per pupil. His letter tells me that the school will have an increase, but since the new figures were produced no one has told me—certainly not the headteacher, to whom I have spoken—that it will be able to avoid painful decisions about what to do in respect of its provision.
I note that the Minister sent me a letter—as I am sure he did to many other Members—dated 14 September about the impact of his revisions to the national funding formula on schools in my constituency. For the life of me, I cannot work out how he has come to the conclusion that he came to, which is that every school on the list will have an increase in its funding. The Minister’s letter refers to “illustrative figures”, stressing that they are “not actual allocations”, which might provide some clue as to what is going on. There is also an assumption that the new formula is being implemented in full this financial year, without any transition. The baseline figure is from a year subsequent to the one in which the £2.7 billion cuts were implemented, so it is not clear how realistic the figures produced are. All that sounds like a way of saying that the table the Minister has produced contains fantasy figures that bear no relation to what is happening, and that those figures are all mysteriously going up, even though schools and headteachers still tell me that they are facing budget shortfalls that necessitate their cutting teachers and having to consider other painful decisions in order to balance their budgets.
The National Education Union has revised its own list of the impact of the new funding formula to take into account the extra, recycled £1.3 billion of Department for Education money that the Secretary of State announced in July she had found and expanded upon in her statement in September. The NEU figures at least have the merit of setting out their methodology in full: based on the core schools budget, which represents 75% of school spending, and using block funding allocations for 2015-16 as the baseline, the NEU figures compare the 2019-20 amounts for schools in the Government’s NFF document, apply the Office for Budget Responsibility estimate for inflation, and take pupil numbers from the most up-to-date school census. On that basis, 29 of the 31 schools in my constituency lose out, some seeing a cut of up to 12% and many of those with the highest number of pupils receiving free school meals losing the most.
To my mind, that is one of the most pernicious effects of the Government’s new way of funding schools. How can it be right that Middlefield Community Primary School, where 68% of pupils are entitled to free school meals, is set to lose £558 per pupil, a cut of 10%, and that even Enterprise South Liverpool Academy, where 81% of pupils are entitled to free school meals, is losing £61 per pupil, a cut of 1%? I do not call that fair funding; I call that hitting the most deprived communities the hardest.
Providing a good and rounded education for all citizens is one of our society’s greatest benefits and achievements. It also has the merit of being a great leveller, enabling people to make their way in life, to succeed and to make the most effective contribution they possibly can to our society, no matter what the circumstances of their birth. I want all my constituents to be able to benefit from an excellent education. That must start, however, by enabling those born with disadvantages to overcome them and to flourish.
In many of the schools I visit in my constituency, I see teachers and staff striving to deliver those life chances to children and young people who face significant barriers to learning. However, I increasingly see disadvantage being reinforced rather than eliminated. That is being exacerbated by the policies being implemented by this Government. In the Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council area no academic A-level provision is now available—none. That has happened because of funding arrangements that effectively require the same density of pupils who want to study academic A-levels in the most deprived areas as in the most affluent, when in reality there are likely to be fewer, at least until the attainment gap is closed, which in practice has proven stubbornly difficult to achieve.
Last year the last sixth form providing academic A-levels in the borough—Halewood Academy in my constituency—was closed because the school could not attract enough pupils to make it pay at a time when the forced academisation of the school meant that it had to balance its budget. I do not blame the headteacher or the governors for what happened, and I am glad that the academic achievements of the school improved this year—including, ironically, at A-level—but it is not right to make it harder for pupils from deprived areas to get easy access, in their local communities, to the opportunities that studying A-level subjects provide.
The barriers to success are already formidable, without making pupils travel out of area when they are less able to do so because of their families’ financial circumstances. In addition, I do not think it right that multi-academy trusts, all based and run from outside Knowsley MBC’s area, should be able in effect to choose which local pupils they wish to offer opportunities to with no accountability to local communities.
My hon. Friend is generous in giving way again. She, my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) and I have been pressing the Government to provide support for sixth-form A-level provision in the borough. Does she agree that if we do not get that, the effect on other secondary schools will also be detrimental?
I believe it will be—my right hon. Friend is correct. That is essential. I hope that we can make a difference and that the Government will come through to help us get academic A-level provision back in the borough, because if that does not happen, in due course—this will not take long—young families will not locate themselves in Knowsley. They will not think it is a place to bring up their kids unless there is a good chance of their staying in a school all the way through to do their A-levels and to go on to university from there.
Where is the accountability to local parents and communities in the existing arrangement? Knowsley no longer has any community secondary schools and all the academies are controlled by different MATs, all based outside the borough. The local council still has the obligation to provide for education in its area, but it has no levers whatever to pull to affect the provision, except for persuasion. The multi-academy trusts are all controlled elsewhere and will make decisions based on factors that may or may not matter to Knowsley communities but will certainly relate to the financial circumstances of their own organisations. In addition, when the council controlled schools, local people could vote out their councillors if they did not like developments. Now, there is no way for them to affect provision. The MATs have no accountability to the communities whose future they influence so greatly.
I worry that the school provision and funding structure developed by the Government can soon go wrong in areas where there is an attainment issue and can be hard to put right. I worry that provision is now being determined by financial considerations above all else. Communities such as those in my constituency need greater local provision to enable everyone to reach their potential, but that provision is in retreat. I worry that the phenomenon of the loss of sixth forms and academic A-level provision in Knowsley could continue to spread, and that young people soon will have less chance to go down that route if they do not live in a more affluent area that can easily meet the increasingly high numbers of pupils needed to provide academic A-levels.
I would like the Minister to assure me that he is aware of those problems and is determined to reverse those trends, so that young people from the communities of south Liverpool have no fewer chances to reach their potential than those who come from more advantaged areas. If he cannot do so, our education system will have lost one of its great features: the ability to facilitate social mobility and life chances for those whose family circumstances may not give them such opportunities. We will all be poorer for that.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) on her excellent and powerful speech and on bringing this important issue to the House. I echo what she said about the risks to schools in Liverpool. On Saturday, we had a demonstration against school cuts in Liverpool, organised by Liverpool City Council cabinet member Nick Small, at which the shadow Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), spoke. The support there demonstrated the powerful sense in Liverpool that education is a priority for communities and families and that there is real concern about the impact of the proposed funding formula on Liverpool schools.
Let me talk about some of the schools in my constituency. According to schoolcuts.org, Croxteth Community Primary School stands to lose more than £100,000—£381 per pupil. Monksdown Primary School in Norris Green stands to lose £354 per pupil. St Edward’s College, the alma mater of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden), stands to lose more than £200,000. St John Bosco, a fantastic school in Croxteth, which the Minister visited with me a few years ago, stands to lose more than £200,000. It is vital that factors such as deprivation, pupil mobility and prior attainment are given due weight when a national funding formula is devised. If they are not, schools in communities such as the one that my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood and I serve in Liverpool risk losing out, which may set back the work that those schools do to improve standards.
Let me raise a separate issue, which has been raised before in this Chamber: the future of our nursery schools. Nursery schools play a critical role in early years. I am proud to have two nursery schools in constituency: East Prescot Road and Ellergreen. They are both rated outstanding by Ofsted, as are the majority of nursery schools across the country. Last month, a Sutton Trust report stated that the Government were too focused on providing quantity over quality in early years, and that social mobility will not improve because things are being implemented at the expense of quality early years education for the most disadvantaged. Nursery schools are the very best of that quality early years education. I hope that the Minister will update us on the Government’s plans for the funding of nursery schools, because that is an important part of the picture, alongside the issues that my hon. Friend rightly raised about the impact of the national funding formula.
Finally, funding is crucial, but high levels of funding—although necessary—are not sufficient to deliver improvement. That is why schools, the local authority and others in Liverpool have come together to launch the Liverpool promise, which is about how we can collaborate to raise standards. An ambition of the Liverpool promise is to provide world-class education and to improve rapidly against national performance indicators. We know, Liverpool schools know and the local authority knows that we need further improvement. A lot of work needs to be done. If we are to deliver that improvement, we need to share best practice and collaborate, and we need to understand why some schools do better than others in the basics of literacy and numeracy. That shared learning and collaboration is at the heart of why we launched the Liverpool promise.
None of us would ever argue that funding is the only solution to the challenges in our education system, but I absolutely concur with my hon. Friend’s powerful point that we need reliability of funding to ensure that schools across Liverpool and, indeed, other core cities are equipped to meet future challenges. I ask the Minister to give some reassurance that the factors that I have described—deprivation, pupil mobility and prior attainment—will feature in the finally agreed funding formula. If they are given due weight, the funding formula may not have the impact on Liverpool schools that we fear it will if it remains as proposed.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) on securing this debate, and on her excellent speech. There is such a widespread onslaught on public services that it is often difficult to know which area to focus on, but it is very important that we look at education, because it is about giving young people opportunities. It matters particularly in areas of high deprivation, some of which are in my constituency.
The picture that my hon. Friend painted is reflected in my constituency, where the whole sector—nurseries, primary schools, secondary schools and the City of Liverpool College—is suffering in the same way. It is a great reflection of the ability and commitment of Liverpool City Council that, despite a 68% cut in its overall funding, it has managed to protect some of the education sector. For example, all the nursery schools have been protected, the council is running an extensive and important reading programme, and when the Government cut their building programme, the council raised its own funds to build and expand schools. Indeed, only last week, I was in an extension to Bellerive FCJ Catholic College, where excellent work is being done.
I would like to add my concerns about the impact of the national funding formula on schools in my constituency. The Government claimed originally that the formula meant that areas such as Liverpool would not lose out, and that it was all about giving more help to more deprived areas. That fallacy was exposed, and the Government had to look again at the situation. Although the new formula that they have brought forward is certainly not as bad as the previous one, it does not solve the problems. Indeed, at this very moment, Liverpool City Council is analysing what it really means.
The figures that have been put forward will mean cuts in many schools, and the extent of those cuts are still being looked at. The figures that were advocated and that are now proposed are in fact for only two years; we simply do not know what will happen beyond those two years. Money will be sent away from Liverpool to more prosperous areas of the country, and the money to deal with that will come from existing budgets, including the capital budget and others that have not yet been defined. We simply do not know what impact the formula will have on Liverpool’s schools, but we suspect that it will mean even more cuts.
We have had enough cuts in education; we do not want more. Education is about giving people the best chance for the future. I call on the Minister to spell out clearly what the national funding formula will mean for Liverpool’s schools, including those in my constituency, and to give a commitment that there will be no real-terms funding cuts to essential education services. We owe that to the young people in our areas.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) on securing this important debate and setting out all the issues that our constituents face. I do not believe there is any issue more vital to the future of children in south Liverpool and constituencies such as mine than the quality of their education.
I hope we all understand that a good education, delivered by professional teachers and support staff in a safe, nurturing environment, is the key to future success and fulfilment. Education builds the ladder out of poverty and disadvantage. It provides the doorway to job opportunities, further education and training, and it is the window to a world of opportunities. The Prime Minister talks about a British dream in which each generation does better than the last; surely a decent education is vital to that, so why in our constituencies in south Liverpool is the ladder being pulled up?
In preparing for the debate, I spoke to all my primary and secondary schools about their experiences, and it is fair to say that I was deluged by responses. I visit all my schools weekly, but I was keen to get a snapshot of their current experience. The picture painted for me was alarming and distressing. I want to reflect on the responses I received from the leaders, the headteachers in my constituency. One primary school head wrote:
“My overriding concern talking to colleagues is that the education system is at breaking point. On an increasing number of occasions, it feels like we are the ‘last man standing’ when it comes to dealing with ever more complex social issues. I worry greatly that the whole system is in danger of collapse in the near future.”
Another primary head said:
“We are continually having additional services placed as the responsibility of the school with no extra funding or staff to oversee this…The teaching profession is at an all-time low.”
A third headteacher—this time of a secondary school—said:
“My school has been through two restructurings in recent years as a direct result of real-term budget cuts: in 2015 when 12 posts were cut and in 2017 when three posts were cut. We have had to cut both teaching posts and pastoral posts. We have one part-time counsellor in school whereas previously we had two. It is fair to say that we have no further capacity for reducing the number of teachers or the number of support staff without significantly compromising the education of the young people.”
Reflecting on all those contributions—I have many more—I find them to be incredibly stark representations, particularly on World Mental Health Day.
Our schools are contending with increased numbers of children who are suffering from mental health conditions. We heard from the Children’s Commissioner only yesterday about the experience of our young people. Our schools are really struggling. Many of us here attended a meeting of the Liverpool Association of Secondary Headteachers to hear at first hand their collective experience of trying to do the best by their students, but struggling to ensure that they are cared for and looked after. That is surely the point: the cuts are harming our children’s education in real and significant ways.
I will reflect briefly on points raised by two of my schools, one primary and one secondary, about the impact of the cuts so far—I am not touching on the cuts to come—on both the breadth of curriculum and the experience of our young people. One of my primary schools has had to cut support staff hours to basic levels, which has impacted on the availability of after-school clubs and is having a significant impact on the variety of opportunities and the curriculum for our young people. Music lessons have been cut for years 5 and 6. We often talk in the House about the value of creative education and music, but in my primary schools, that provision is being cut altogether. A native French speaker who supported children in years 3 to 6 with weekly lessons has also been cut. It is all very well teaching French, but we all benefit from hearing from someone who speaks it as their native language.
One of my secondary schools has cut four A-levels, one of which is computing. As a woman who is a keen advocate for improving access to science, technology, engineering and maths, I find that disheartening. I do not have the other subjects in front of me; I am sure they are equally important, but I am particularly concerned about computing. Equally, there has been a cut in posts at that school, which is one of the best secondary schools in the country. I will not name it—I gave my schools the opportunity to speak openly, but they were concerned that their representations might affect them in the future if they were named—but it has had to cut 4.5 teachers since 2015, impacting on young people’s education.
We have heard many representations about the impact of the Government’s plans and the proposed cuts to education, which in Liverpool will equate to £28 million. That is £488 per student. I will not run through the cuts to each of my schools, but they are significant and very, very worrying. As my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood outlined, those figures do not include the cuts to our local authority, which have been significant and had a massive impact on the additional services that we know make a difference, particularly in supporting schools in our area. In total, just under 4,000 primary schoolchildren in Liverpool are being taught in large classes of over 30, which is a rise of 60% since 2011. I could refer to many other elements.
That is the real picture of education in Britain today. We are seeing growing class sizes, fewer teachers, and fewer subjects on offer at A-level. Also, we are not seeing the right equipment in schools. Unbelievably, one school essentially had to sell all its sensory room equipment because it needed to raise funds. We are seeing more children taught by unqualified teachers, often—I pointed to the figures—in packed classrooms. That is what has happened to date; going forward, the national funding formula will take even more money away from the schools that need it the most—our schools are in constituencies with some of the highest levels of deprivation in the country. That is the essence of the debate.
We have seen the human cost of other Government policies in our constituencies. The bedroom tax comes to mind, and we are discussing universal credit at the moment. The national funding formula has the potential to be the latest addition to that list. We have only one chance to educate our children. My message to the Minister is: it is not too late to listen to the teachers, parents and children in our constituencies, and think again to ensure that all children in our area—and across the country—have the opportunities that will serve them well into the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) on securing this timely debate and standing up for schools in Liverpool. If the Minister feels uncomfortable about the number of Labour MPs facing him, he should remember that I am a Mancunian and so just as uncomfortable.
My hon. Friend spoke eloquently about the problems facing not just south Liverpool but all schools. I also want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) on his excellent speech. Sir Michael Wilshaw, the former chief inspector, talked about politicians standing up for schools in their area and raising standards, and my hon. Friend has admirably led the “Liverpool challenge” over the past couple of years by chairing that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) spoke passionately about education being children’s best chance in life. Those of us who represent working-class constituencies like we do know that it is the only silver bullet for advancement there is. If we deny children that, we are all worse off for it. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) talked about testimony after testimony from school after school and the impact that cuts are having. She has led in the House admirably on issues around mental health; nobody has done more on that.
There was an intervention from my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth), who stood up for schools in Knowsley and its A-level provision, which is a long-running sore that was also mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood. We want to see that addressed. There was also an intervention from the Member for Anfield—sorry, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden). I will be keeping half an eye on the game on Saturday, even though I come from the blue half of Manchester. I welcome him to his place and also welcome his intervention.
There has been a huge, high-profile campaign by parents, trade unions, teachers and support staff to ensure that our schools are properly funded, yet the Secretary of State has made another concession on the Government’s school funding policy and found £1.3 billion over the next two years from other parts of the Department’s education budget, because unfortunately she lost her fight with the Chancellor. However, schools, teachers, parents and pupils have yet to crack open the champagne. With the Secretary of State having sneaked out her backtrack the day before recess, we have now had the opportunity to examine the detail of her announcement. The £1.3 billion that she announced is nowhere near enough to reverse the £2.8 billion of cuts that schools have suffered since 2015, and the cuts that they are having to implement now because the Government keep pushing back the funding formula and the announcement on the new budget. We also know that none of the money announced so far is actually new money for education. Will the Minister therefore confirm today, in the interests of transparency and accountability, where he plans to cut funding from other areas to fill the black hole that the Secretary of State created just before the recess?
The overall level of education funding is totally inadequate, as has been marvellously and articulately explained by Opposition Members. The devastating cuts to our schools, sixth forms and colleges just carry on and on, and the impact of the real-terms cuts to funding are there for all to see. Schools are having to cut subjects. Children are being taught in super-sized classes. Schools are cutting staff at a time when they are facing a teacher recruitment crisis, with more than 24,000 unqualified teachers working in our state sector since the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), the former Education Secretary, stopped the rule that school teachers must be qualified. We now require qualified teachers only across the local education authority system, not in free schools and the multi-academy trusts. Schools also have to support vulnerable children, as pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, and there is not enough special educational needs provision. The strain is there to see.
There are two issues I will push on: the teacher recruitment and retention crisis, and the impact of the cuts on class sizes. It is widely accepted that falling pay levels and increased workload pressures for teachers have been causing problems in teacher recruitment and retention, and school cuts are making matters worse. The National Audit Office, for instance, has found that teacher recruitment is not keeping up. Teacher shortages are reaching crisis point, and the subjects that are vital to our country’s future, such as science and computing, are hardest hit.
What is interesting about the statistics—I will speak more about this on behalf of the shadow education team over the autumn—is that the Government have taken 10,000 to 15,000 teaching posts out of the system since 2010, yet we are still failing to recruit enough teachers. What does that say for the management of the system? As a former teacher, I know that there is no greater investment that Government can make in education than investment in the quality of the teaching. Up to 14,000 classrooms could be without a permanent teacher in this academic year, affecting around 300,000 pupils nationally. Let me get the statistics right: vacant teaching posts have increased by 24% over the past two years, with 9% more teaching vacancies this September than in the same month in 2016. Two thirds of teachers are looking to leave their current role within the next three years. Since 2011—on this Government’s watch—one quarter to one third of all teachers have left the profession since training.
Behind every good teacher is a network of teaching assistants, support staff, assistants, lunchtime organisers and more. They make the school run smoothly, giving teachers space and time for their pupils and lessons. However, the cuts that are ravaging education budgets have seen vital school support posts axed. The Minister might not value these jobs, but we know that parents and teachers do. How can schools provide a safe and secure environment for their children, prevent truancy and deal with pupil behaviour challenges with reduced staff numbers?
We have also seen the impact on class sizes. The first real-terms cuts to school budgets in a generation and reductions in teaching staff mean that pupils are being taught in super-sized classes. Analysis of overcrowding in English primary schools has revealed that more than half a million pupils are being taught in super-sized classes. The mounting pressure on school places is now starting to hit secondary schools, with figures showing an increase in the number of pupils in very large classes in the last year. The Local Government Association has shown that half of councils in England are at risk of being unable to meet the increasing demand for secondary school places within the next five years, and the Government are doing precious little about it.
The south-east and the north-west are two of the worst-hit areas, with the latest figures showing more than 90,000 primary school pupils in classes of more than 30. The number of infant schoolchildren between five and seven years of age in classes of more than 30 has almost trebled since 2010. This situation is unsustainable. If the Minister really wants to give every child the education they deserve, he needs to ensure that children are not being crammed into super-sized classes.
Our key education unions have done a magnificent job in highlighting the cuts to every school up and down the country—that has been credited with causing 750,000 people to switch their votes at the last general election. They have set out five tests for what is required for a fair funding settlement. The fact is that the Minister has failed on every one of them. School cuts have not been reversed; some 88% of schools still face real-terms budget cuts. There is no new money in the education budget, and we are yet to discover where the shortfalls will occur within the Department. High needs, early years and post-16 education will not, as promised, be fairly funded under the new proposals. The Minister has made no long-term funding commitments, so schools are still in limbo. What happens beyond 2020? When can our schools expect the information they need about longer-term funding, so that they can plan their budgets effectively? Yet again, historic underfunding for our schools is not being addressed.
Attainment has been pointed out already. If we draw a line from the Humber estuary to the Mersey estuary, the number of kids living above it on free schools meal achieving five good GCSEs is 34%. If we look at where Labour invested—right here in the capital city, with the London Challenge—50% of kids on free school meals achieve five good GCSEs. The budget cuts are damning everybody with the same outcomes. There are more than half a million children crammed in super-sized classes and more than 24,000 unqualified teachers in schools, up 52% from 2012. While I of course support the principle that schools should receive fair funding, the answer is not to take money away from existing schools and redistribute it when budgets in other areas are being cut. There should be fairness in the funding formula, but there is nothing fair about a proposal under which funding will be cut from high-performing schools in deprived areas. The solution is to invest in education, to help every child receive an excellent education.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) on securing this important debate. As she said, we recently met to discuss in detail the funding position of schools in her constituency, and I welcome this opportunity to continue that discussion.
Debating this issue is welcome at a time when the Government have recently announced an increase in school funding, as well as the details of the historic new national funding formula. The Government want to ensure that all children, regardless of where they live, receive a world-class education. Over the past seven years, we have made significant progress: more schools than ever before are rated by Ofsted as good or outstanding, and the attainment gap between those from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds is beginning to close.
That progress has been made despite an unfair national funding system that has failed to take account of significant changes in the challenges faced by schools in different parts of the country. For too long, the unfair distribution of funding between schools has acted, I believe, as a brake on the progress they have been able to make. That is why it is so important that we are delivering on our promise to reform the unfair, opaque and outdated school and high-needs funding systems and introduce a national funding formula.
I think it is agreed on both sides that the existing funding formula is unfair. Part of the case that my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) and I have made is that the recent adjustments somehow succeeded in making it even more unfair for some schools. That does not seem to be a sensible way to deal with this.
Under the recent adjustments, according to the national funding formula, all schools will gain funding: no school will lose money or face a cut in funding, despite what has been claimed by the National Education Union, and despite what hon. Members have said during the debate. In fact, funding for schools across Knowsley will increase on average by 7.1%. I did not hear the right hon. Gentleman mention that in either of his interventions.
Will the Minister give way?
I will not give way because there is a very short amount of time left, but I will come to the hon. Lady’s comments shortly.
It cannot be right that local authorities with similar needs and characteristics receive very different levels of funding from central Government. Across the country, schools teaching children with the same needs get markedly different amounts of money for no good reason. At the heart of the problem is the fact that the data used to allocate funding to local authorities are over a decade out of date, leading to manifest unfairness in how funding is distributed. This year, Nottingham, for example, will receive £555 more per pupil than Halton, despite having equal proportions of pupils eligible for free school meals.
Funding for each area has been determined by simply rolling forward the previous year’s allocation, adjusting only for changes in the total number of pupils in each area and ignoring everything else. The proportion of secondary pupils eligible for free school meals in London, for example, fell from 22.4% in 2007 to 17% in 2017, compared with a decline nationally from 13.1% to 12.9%, but the funding system has paid no attention to that significant shift. That is not a rational, fair or efficient system for distributing money to our schools.
That is why the Government are reforming the existing system with the introduction of a national funding formula for schools and high needs. Informed by the consultation that we undertook, with 26,000 responses, we will introduce a national funding formula from April 2018, ending the current unfair postcode lottery system. For the first time, the funding system will deliver resources on a consistent and transparent basis, right across the country, reflecting local needs.
Last month, we published full details of both the school and high-needs national funding formulae and the impact they will have for every local authority. We have also published notional school-level allocations showing what each school would attract through the formula. It means that everyone can see what the national funding formula will mean for them and understand why. It is notional because we are taking the national funding formula as though it had been fully implemented in this financial year, 2017 to 2018, so that people and schools can see what the effects of that formula would be on their schools with those particular pupils this year. It is a very effective way of describing what will happen under the formula. The actual funding will depend on the actual pupils at that school next year, and we will make announcements nearer the time in the usual way.
To provide stability for schools through the transition to the national funding formula, for the next two years local authorities will continue to set their own local formulae in consultation with local schools and the schools forum. That element of flexibility will allow them to respond to changes as they come through and take account of local issues.
As well as a fairer distribution of funding, the total quantum available is also important. We want schools to have the resources they need to deliver a world-class education for their pupils. We understand that, just like other public services, schools are facing cost pressures. In recognition of those facts, the Secretary of State announced in July an additional £1.3 billion for schools and high needs across 2018-19 and 2019-20, in addition to the funding confirmed at the 2015 spending review.
The additional funding will be distributed across the next two years as we implement the national funding formula. Core funding for schools and high needs will rise from nearly £41 billion this financial year—itself a record high in school funding—to £42.4 billion in 2018-19 and to £43.5 billion in 2019-20. Overall, that means that the total schools budget will increase by over 6% between this year and 2019-20. That will mean that funding per pupil for schools and high needs will now be maintained in real terms for the remaining two years of the spending review.
The additional funding that we have announced means that we can provide a cash increase in respect of every school and every local authority area from April 2018. In the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood’s constituency, once the new formula is implemented in full, there will be an extra £1.3 million for block funding—an increase of 2.4%. Belle Vale Community Primary School will not face a cut in funding; it will have a 3% increase. Enterprise South Liverpool Academy will not face a cut in spending; it will have a 5.2% increase of £179,000. Gateacre School will not face a cut; it will have a 3.5% increase. Halewood Academy will not face a cut; it will have an 8.2% increase. Middlefield Community Primary School will have a 1.2% increase. St Francis Xavier’s College will have a 1% increase and Yew Tree Community Primary School will have a 5% increase in funding. None of the schools that I have not mentioned in the hon. Lady’s constituency will lose money; they will all gain about 1% or more.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) said that there will be cuts of £390 per pupil. In fact, in his constituency there will be a £1.1 million increase in funding, equal to 1.6%.
Will the Minister give way?
I will not give way, because we are very short of time now. As I said, across the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood’s constituency there will be a £3 million increase in funding. The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) talked about cuts to funding in his schools. Croxteth Community Primary School will gain a 0.9% increase; Monksdown Primary, a 0.9% increase; St Edward’s College, a 1% increase; and St John Bosco Arts College—I enjoyed visiting that school—a 0.9% increase.
I can confirm that deprivation, mobility and low prior attainment are very significant factors in the funding formula. That is something that the Secretary of State was determined to have in the formula that we consulted on. Funding will increase by £0.6 million in schools in the constituency of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman)—some 1.2% according to the national funding formula.
The extra £1.3 billion that we are investing means we will be able to go over and above our manifesto commitment that no school should lose funding as a result of the introduction of the national funding formula. Now, every school will attract at least 0.5% more per pupil in 2018-19 and 1% more in 2019-20. That change will have a particularly positive impact in Garston and Halewood: 23 of the 32 schools will gain through the formula as a result of the decision to raise the funding floor. I trust that the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood will welcome those changes when she has a chance to consider them more reflectively.
Following the strong representations that we received during the consultation, the formula will also provide all secondary schools with minimum per-pupil funding of £4,800 in 2019-20 and all primary schools with £3,500. In 2018-19, as a step towards those minimum funding levels, secondary schools will attract at least £4,600 and primary schools will attract £3,300. That new minimum level will recognise the challenges of the very lowest funded schools, including 14 schools across Liverpool. The changes delivered by the national funding formula will mean both Liverpool and Knowsley will be among the 10 highest-funded local authorities per pupil outside London.
We are particularly focused on supporting children who face the greatest barriers to success. That is why we are also committed to reforming the funding for children and young people with high and special needs. We are finally moving towards a more rational basis for distributing funding for children and young people with high needs, taking into account an up-to-date assessment of the level of need in each area.
The additional investment we are putting in means that every local authority will see a minimum increase in high needs funding of 0.5% in 2018-19 and 1% in 2019-20, but for south Liverpool, a fair allocation of resources means an even more significant increase in funding. Once our formula is implemented in full, Liverpool will see an increase of 17.1%, compared with their planned high needs spending in 2017-18, with Knowsley gaining 4.5%.
Moving towards this full formula allocation, local authorities will receive up to 3% per head gains a year for the next two years. As important as the fair allocation of funding is how that funding is used in practice. We are committed to helping schools improve outcomes for pupils and to promote social mobility by ensuring that they get the best value from all their resources.
In conclusion, I thank the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood and other Members from the Liverpool area for taking part in this important debate. The Government will continue to support England’s schools by providing more funding than ever before, by making sure that that funding is distributed fairly and to where it is needed most and by helping schools to achieve more with that funding. That will help schools to sustain and improve the rapid progress our children and young people are making under this Government.
Introducing fair funding is an historic and necessary reform—one that previous Governments have avoided for too long. Thanks to the commitment of this Government to addressing issues of unfairness in our society, for the first time we have a clear and transparent system that matches funding to children’s needs and the needs of the schools that they attend. It will help all schools to deliver the high-quality education that their pupils deserve and it will ensure that all pupils are able to fulfil their potential.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered education funding in south Liverpool.