Tuesday 9 January 2018
[James Gray in the Chair]
Universal Credit: Private Rented Sector
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of universal credit on the private rented sector.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. It was good to obtain this debate, and I am delighted that a range of colleagues have come to speak on such an important issue.
This is indeed an important debate. We all know and read about the challenges with the lack of housing across the UK. Some 1.2 million to 1.3 million people on housing benefit or local housing allowance are in the private rented sector. Most of us will know from our constituency casework that many private sector landlords are reluctant to let to people on housing benefit. My supposition, which is clearly proved by the evidence, is that the universal credit roll-out, up until the recent changes in the Budget, would not acknowledge the issues and the challenges and frustrations for private sector landlords not wishing to rent to people on benefit and certainly not to those on universal credit, and that without a default payment direct from the Department for Work and Pensions to the landlord, even more people in the private sector will pull out of the whole area. That has proved to be the case.
How did we get to this situation? I remember that when I was last a Member of this place, I served on the Select Committee on Work and Pensions and I repeated ad nauseam to the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), that one fundamental flaw of universal credit was the insistence that the tenant should receive the full housing benefit and pay it on to the landlord. I understood the argument; I understood that that was about encouraging responsibility. My frustration—I argued this very assertively in numerous Select Committee sittings—was that the problem with ideologues is that they fit the facts to their ideology, rather than recognising that facts are facts. I was sure, from my own experience as an MP and from talking to colleagues, that sadly many tenants on universal credit would not pass the money over to their landlords, for one reason or another, and that that would make the private rented sector even more nervous about letting to people on housing benefit.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech on a very important issue, and I apologise because I will have to attend the Finance (No. 2) Bill Committee shortly. A landlord who came to my surgery had 20 tenants on universal credit, of whom 18 were in arrears and nine had to be evicted. That is at this very early stage of the roll-out, when full service has not yet come to my area. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those are the sort of facts that do not fit into the theory of universal credit?
I appreciate the intervention. It is good to see the hon. Lady here, and I entirely agree with her. She gives a strong example, which any Member of Parliament, from any party and anywhere in the country, who supports people on universal credit and works with people in the private rented sector will know to be true.
At that time, there was a coalition Government and a Conservative Secretary of State. People can check the record: I said again and again, “This is going to be a car crash,” but that was ignored. We move on to 2015—I am giving a bit of context. The Government carried on rolling out universal credit, and we had numerous examples, such as that which the hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) has just given—others in the Chamber will have had experience of such things over the past two years—of the fact that without that default, fewer and fewer private landlords are letting to people on universal credit, and that those who are see tenants falling into arrears. Section 21 evictions are going through the roof. It is just utter madness. We now move to 2017.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this timely debate. I am sure that he will agree that through a lack of social housing, more and more people are being forced into the private sector, but rents are going through the roof. I agree with him about private landlords. We have only to watch television documentaries on this issue to see what the situation is. We see two or three blocks of people being moved out because the private landlord can get more money as a result. It is also a public scandal that in London and other places, there will be four or five people sharing the same house because they cannot afford the rent singly. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that we should have stronger regulation in that respect.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the intervention. He raises an important point about the public sector, because housing associations and councils have also been badly affected. It is just that broadly speaking—again, everyone in this Chamber knows this, because we are experienced politicians—the public sector will be more patient and understanding as it waits for payments from universal credit. Usually, private landlords simply cannot wait, not because they are mean or what have you, but because their business model does not allow them not to be paid for month after month. As a result, there is a spike in section 21 evictions.
We now get to the Budget. Finally—although I would like to think that this was partly due to my lobbying I know that it will be thanks to many other people in this Chamber and outside—the Chancellor of the Exchequer took on board some of the fundamental criticisms that I have been making of universal credit, for years frankly, about default payments to landlords, and some changes were made. At last! It was five or six years since I had been arguing for that and advocating it, but better late than never. It will make a difference, and that I approve of. However, it is only the first part of the journey in relation to automatic default rental payments to landlords. It is the beginning, but it does not include people who are not already on automatic payments. As I understand it—the Minister may provide clarification—it also does not include all those people to whom universal credit has already been rolled out over the past few years. And it does not start until the spring. It is a step in the right direction and an acknowledgement from the Government that they made a mistake and they finally want to try to put it right, so I approve of it, but there is still much further to go.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that this is one of the fundamental flaws? Local authorities have decades of experience of dealing with housing benefit, both in the public sector and, more particularly, in the private sector. We have thrown all that expertise away, which is so counterproductive. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
I appreciate the intervention. Not only do I wholly agree, but the decisions are completely irrational. One thing that I am finding out from the Residential Landlords Association and others is that there is not adequate communication between the DWP, local authorities and landlords, so even though, in theory, it seems from the changes in the Budget that there is the beginning of an understanding from the Government that default payments will be necessary to prevent a complete car crash, there is still a long way to go towards understanding that they have made the system so complicated that things will still be very hard for residential landlords. What does that mean? It means that they will pull out in droves.
Currently, 1.2 million people are on housing benefit or LHA in the private rented sector. There is a housing crisis in this country. This is not the debate to discuss that, but we have a housing crisis; we all know that from our constituency surgeries. The Government could convert that 1.2 million to 2.4 million; it could double the number of tenants moving into the private rented sector, because the capacity is there. However, that will happen only if the Government make it easy—very straightforward—for private landlords to take on someone who is on universal credit and give them a roof over their head, and if there is that automatic default payment that is, as it says on the tin, automatic.
If I am a landlord and I take someone, or am willing to take someone, on universal credit, and give them a flat or a house, a roof over their head, the automatic situation—by mutual agreement with the tenant, I accept that that is important—would be for his or her payment on universal credit automatically to go straight into my account, the landlord’s. I was in business for years before I went into politics, and I can absolutely guarantee that despite the challenges with some tenants on universal credit, in the eyes of landlords, ultimately, a business is a business, and if a landlord is getting their payment directly into their business bank account every month—or every two weeks, as I would like, but that is another issue—then, as a business, they will look favourably on that particular group. That is something that I really urge the Minister to consider.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. On the issue of the automaticity, as he might term it, of the payments going to the landlord, does he agree that in parts of the United Kingdom, such as Northern Ireland, where we have negotiated that, it has not led to an increase in rent arrears? There are other problems, but rent arrears are not a big one. We have also negotiated the twice-per-month payment, which helps both landlords and tenants to know that the rent is being paid and the tenant to know that he or she is not going into arrears.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention; I was going to come to that point in a moment, but I will come to it straightaway. In Northern Ireland—I think five or six years ago, way before we reached the crisis that we have had over the past couple of years—the politicians negotiated default direct payments to landlords. They also negotiated that the payment should be every two weeks. I am reliably informed by colleagues from Northern Ireland that at the time the DWP—again it was under the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green, if my memory serves me—did not want to budge and insisted that that would collapse the entire thing. However, as Government Members have discovered, when my friends in the Democratic Unionist party dig their heels in, they dig their heels in. I pay tribute to them on this one, because the DUP, and I think the Social Democratic and Labour party as well, said, “No, we are not budging. It must be a default payment.” Do you know what? It was. It worked. It is the same computer system, folks. The previous Secretary of State—the one who has just gone—kept saying, “It is much more complicated, you can’t just change it.” Do they use a different computer in Northern Ireland? I do not think so, because as we all know, they are part of the United Kingdom.
The other thing that the Stormont Government negotiated was payments every two weeks. The percentage of rent arrears in Northern Ireland for people on universal credit is almost zero. In England, as we all know from our constituency surgeries, we have section 21s in the private sector going through the roof, or private landlords coming into our offices and saying, “That’s it, we are pulling out of universal credit. We’re not going to touch it.” Meanwhile the local authorities, housing associations and councils, which are under horrendous stresses and strains at the moment, are asking where all these additional people are going to go.
The hon. Gentleman is making a good speech with some considered suggestions for the Government. On the point he has just made, does he also agree that landlords who are fearful about delays in people accessing universal credit might actually have a wider problem with renting not just to people on benefits but to people on lower incomes who they fear might need to receive benefits in the future? That will not be very helpful when, in most constituencies, one in five houses is in the private rented sector.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and welcome him back. I agree entirely, because universal credit is just one area. It is one side of the impact of what has been an ill-thought-through policy.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. Is it not important that the Government take away the freeze on the housing allowance cap, in order to make sure that housing benefit reflects market values, because otherwise the benefit does not keep up with the market value of the private sector?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I think that is something that needs to be considered, particularly as regards the further caps that have come in over the past couple of years. I think those are unsustainable.
Has the hon. Gentleman given any consideration to the issue of 18 to 21-year-olds who are on universal credit and have no recourse to any funding for the housing element? Very often they will be on a lower wage, as obviously the minimum wage for younger people is lower than that for people over 25. There are big issues for the sector and I think it will ultimately end in a rise in homelessness among that group. Does he agree?
I agree. As regards that particular age group—unless they have some sort of bank of mum and dad—in our surgeries we are already seeing that young people are tremendously adversely affected, both by the lack of housing benefit at that age, and, frankly, some of the issues around universal credit.
Another issue that has not been properly addressed, and I would welcome hearing about this from the Minister, is that there is a portal for public sector housing and councils and housing associations to access as regards people in their area, or their tenants, going on to universal credit, but there is not one for the private sector. I urge the Minister not to tell me that there is, if she has been told that by her civil servants, because I have been told by all the residential trade associations that there is not, or it is not working.
At the risk of misquoting Tony Blair, who kept saying, “Education, education, education,” I want to talk about evidence, evidence, evidence. All those years ago, when I and others first challenged the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green, in the Work and Pensions Committee, saying, “You must understand, if you retain the original plan, which is that all the money goes to the tenant and the tenant pays the landlord, it will be an absolute disaster,” I did not have evidence. I just had a hunch, based on years of experience dealing with thousands of people. I just knew that, as did many others. Where are we now? We are five or six years down the line, and I want to provide some evidence.
In the past 12 months, the RLA reports, one in three landlords has attempted to evict a tenant; 60% were due to rent arrears, and the majority of those were on universal credit. This not only means unnecessary suffering for tens of thousands of housing benefit recipients, but poses a threat to the future of benefits claimants ever succeeding to rent in the private sector, because once a tenant has a bad record, it is extremely difficult to unwind.
Secondly, a recent study carried out by the RLA shows that almost 87% of landlords would not be willing to let their properties to claimants of universal credit, while 38% have already experienced universal credit tenants going into arrears. Where are we going with this madness? I remind everyone of the percentage of rent arrears among those on universal credit in Northern Ireland. A recent study commissioned by Crisis—a homelessness charity—and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that 90% of local authorities were concerned that universal credit would increase homelessness, which it has, because of section 21s. The list of evidence goes on and on.
The RLA has found that 73%—Minister, these are the facts, the stats and the evidence—of its thousands of members,
“lack confidence in renting to tenants on the Credit due to uncertainty that they will be able to recover rent arrears.”
Another major landlords’ trade association, the National Landlords Association, found that only one in five of its members would let their properties to tenants on universal credit. I have already talked about Crisis. The trade association for letting agencies, the Association of Residential Letting Agents, which many hon. Members deal with, found that
“34% of ARLA Propertymark letting agents who we surveyed told us that they had seen a reduction in landlords renting to Universal Credit claimants.”
The list goes on and on, so it is time to fix it.
This is what I propose to the Government. I am delighted that the Chancellor of the Exchequer listened to me, the MP for Eastbourne, and made those amends in the Budget. I suspect that a few others probably had a little more influence than me; but, heck, like all politicians, I have been banging on about it for years so I will take the credit. So there have been some adjustments, but where do we go next? I ask the Minister to report back to the new Secretary of State, with whom I worked in coalition and who I congratulate on her position, and persuade her to go to the Chancellor and do what it takes to make defaults to landlords, by mutual tenant-landlord agreement, automatic; and to go over to Northern Ireland, see their minority Government colleagues in the DUP, find out exactly what their computer programme does that allows colleagues in Northern Ireland to do automatic default payments, follow their two-week advice—I would do the same on that—and implement it across the country.
I believe that what would happen is that the housing stock capacity in the private sector would go up exponentially—even potentially double—because of what I mentioned earlier. Despite the challenges with tenants sometimes being on benefit, the prejudices that landlords sometimes have against them are often founded on the reality that landlords do not feel secure that they will receive the money. I am absolutely certain that if landlords know that they will get a default payment, over a couple of years there will be a substantial increase in the amount of private rented stock available to people on universal credit, and that could make a significant difference in reducing homelessness.
There is an opportunity for the Government. Despite the ideological and fundamental errors that underpin some elements of universal credit, finally, after years and years of banging on the door, they are beginning to change. Thank heaven! Now that door is open, the Minister and her Government have an opportunity to be game changers and to convert universal credit into what I believe it always should have been: a decent benefit. One of the key things they need to do is around the default payment, which I have debated this morning. Along with that—this is my other favourite—I would go to the current Secretary of the State at the DWP and ask her to have a word with the previous MP for her constituency, the former Chancellor George Osborne, and ask for the £3 billion back. He took that out after 2015, when the Liberals were defenestrated at the election; he slashed £3 billion a year out of universal credit, which was supposed to be about the work allowance.
If we get that money back and properly convert what should be a default payment to landlords, we can produce what universal credit should have been, and was originally designed to be: a progressive, positive benefit that gives people transformative opportunities. After five years of it being a complete car crash in so many ways, I believe that the Government finally understand that. I urge the Government to make my day and, possibly, that of the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green, and to make automatic payments as a default to landlords. I ask that they to do it instantly, they do it in both the private and public sectors and they do it now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) on securing the debate and the Backbench Business Committee on granting it.
The full roll-out of universal credit in Lowestoft in my constituency commenced in May 2016. Significant problems were encountered from the outset, although from early 2017 the Department for Work and Pensions has worked more closely with local organisations to address them. The situation has improved and the proposals announced in the November Budget are very welcome. One area in which work is still required is the co-ordination of universal credit with housing in both the social and the private rented sectors. Good housing is a vital pre-requisite if universal credit is to be a success, and it is important that the role of private providers is properly recognised.
The main problem that was encountered was that the delays in the paying of universal credit led to rent arrears building up. This triggered a downward spiral of events, with landlords often serving eviction notices, albeit reluctantly, leading to an increase in homelessness, added pressure on local authorities and housing associations to house those who had been evicted and subsequently a reduction in housing as private landlords decided not to let to universal credit claimants.
On that point, I had one couple who received no benefits for six months and were very nearly evicted. At the end of it all they were told that they would receive only four weeks’ backdated payment, and it was only when we intervened in the case that we managed to get the full amount back to them. This absolutely has to be looked into.
The hon. Lady highlights an example of the problems with implementing universal credit that many of us have experience of from our constituency casework.
In October, the housing association Shoreline in my constituency had 182 residents who were already on universal credit, and 80% of them were in rent arrears. Such examples create a stigma against people who are on universal credit, because of those issues. Fundamentally, we have to iron out some of those problems to prevent people from getting into arrears and to give private landlords confidence that those people will not be defaulters or bad debtors when paying their rent.
Yes. It is quite clear that private sector landlords’ confidence in the system has been very severely dented. I sense, from my own perspective, that the situation has improved, but I acknowledge that there is still a great more work to be done. Local letting agents advise me that the majority of their landlord clients are still reluctant to let to universal credit claimants. It is also necessary to bear in mind that many landlords own only one or two properties and the rents that they receive are a very important part of their annual income.
The Eastern Landlords Association, which has 1,400 members, highlights the lack of a level playing field, with council and housing association landlords able to secure direct payments after eight weeks’ arrears, while private landlords need specific tenants’ approval to do so. This is still proving a disincentive to private landlords to let to universal credit claimants; as we have seen, many of them have lost confidence in the system. It highlights the need for better communication with the DWP and describes the system of claiming alternative payment arrangements online as “hit and miss”. It advises that while some claims do get processed, in its experience at least 50% do not get looked at.
The roll-out of universal credit is a mammoth task. There is a lot of heavy lifting to be done, which the DWP cannot do on its own. There is a need for a partnership approach, which should involve private landlords as well as councils, the 1ocal voluntary sector, such as citizens advice bureaux, and housing associations. To give credit to the DWP, under the guidance of my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds)—perhaps I should say my right hon. Friend; I wish him all the best in his new role—it has begun to adopt such an approach in recent months, and I anticipate that the Minister will continue in the same way. It is important that full consideration is given to the Residential Landlords Association’s recommendations and to the innovative proposals from Crisis to adapt the Newcastle trailblazer for reducing homelessness to ensure that those in receipt of universal credit do not fall in to rent arrears.
In Lowestoft, three suggestions have been made. First, in each DWP office, the Government should have a landlord liaison officer for landlords to contact to discuss issues with their tenants’ housing claims, when the landlord has applied for an alternative payment arrangement. Secondly, housing moneys should not be released to a tenant when they are being sanctioned, as they often choose to use the money to support the sanction shortfall. In effect, that means the landlord is penalised. Finally, when a sanction does happen, the housing money should automatically be paid through an alternative payment arrangement to the landlord.
A lot of people wish to speak in this debate, so I will conclude by saying that if universal credit is to be a success and to do what it says on the tin, it is important that the DWP listens to the proposals that I have outlined, as colleagues will too, so that we fully regain the confidence of private landlords, because they have a very important role to play.
If hon. Members wish to speak, they ought to stand up. If they do not stand up, I will not call them—but I call Tracy Brabin.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) for securing this important debate.
As a young child, my father was out of work for quite a long period and we could not pay the mortgage. My mum handed the house keys in to the building society and for several hours we were physically homeless until the council found us a flat. That experience has stayed with me all my life. I will always be grateful to the council for saving us, because being homeless is not about being physically on the street. It is about people not having a permanent roof over their head, and that is something that all children should be entitled to.
Although the Labour party supports the idea of universal credit, sadly—as we have seen in our constituencies—the Government’s wilful determination to roll it out, glitches and all, means that some of the most vulnerable people living in the private rental sector are at risk of building up rent arrears to such a point that they are evicted and made homeless. That is something that, in particular, no child should have to experience.
Northern Ireland has been mentioned. When we were negotiating with the Government, we were concerned about people living with mental illness, people living with disabilities and single parents. That was a major issue in helping us to come to the conclusion and agreement we have in Northern Ireland.
I totally support what the hon. Gentleman says: this is about not just families, but people with extra needs. Single parents in particular are most vulnerable to bullying landlords.
Gingerbread states that two thirds of single parents rent privately, and from my casework, I know that that group of people and the children that they support is particularly hard hit.
Gingerbread is a fantastic charity. In my constituency, a young woman came to me who was being bullied by her landlord in all sorts of ways because of her inability to pay her rent. Single women living with children are incredibly vulnerable to that.
The ending of an assured shorthold tenancy agreement with a private landlord is now the primary reason for families presenting themselves as homeless to the local authority. The pressures on local authority housing could not be more severe. In Kirklees, for example, there currently 9,700 applications for only 171 properties. It is a priority for all of us to support the private rental sector as universal credit is rolled out, if we want to lessen the burden on local councils. But this problem will not go away any time soon. The number of working households claiming housing benefit in the private sector has more than doubled since 2009, whereas the wages of some of the lowest paid in our society have stagnated. DWP figures confirm that only 7% of private renters are actually unemployed and seeking work. Sadly, although the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that the private rental sector has grown by a third over the past 12 months, the number of those being evicted has also grown, with 7,200 more private tenants losing their homes in 2015 than in 2003.
My hon. Friend’s point is incredibly important. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has been working with the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research, and they showed that in 2015, 80% of private sector evictions were no fault evictions. That resulted in individuals going to local authorities, but perhaps being considered as people who had made themselves intentionally homeless. Does she agree that that creates a huge difficulty in the system?
The idea of people making themselves intentionally homeless is a huge problem for a number of my constituents. It affects their credit rating and rolls on into the rest of their lives in a really unacceptable manner.
The greatest concern for landlords is the move away from direct payments. Many worry that tenants will not have the capability to budget effectively and will end up spending the housing element of universal credit on other essentials. In the debate last year on UC, the Government argued that delaying payment for rent was the same as those in work being paid at the end of the month, so the delay was a good lesson in budgeting and responsibility. Well, maybe for middle-class families with savings or relatives with cash to see them through a tricky financial patch, but when—as the English housing survey discovered—66% of private renters have no savings, the ability to budget is not so straightforward.
After the Budget, the Residential Landlords Association did a snap survey, which found that 36% of landlords would have more confidence in letting to tenants on universal credit. Sadly, 64% said they would not. I suppose their caution is not surprising, given that the RLA reported a high rise in rent arrears where universal credit has been introduced. The National Landlords Association chair agreed, saying that they expected to see
“a steady decline in landlords being willing to rent to benefit claimants in the next 18 months to two years.”
Only 18% to 20% of private landlords accept tenants who pay their rent with local housing allowance. That is down from 46% in 2010-11. Why? Because universal credit encourages tenants to fall into arrears, and 38% of landlords have seen tenants in receipt of UC entering rent arrears. In Kirklees Council—my constituency council—437 claimants are on universal credit, with further roll-outs scheduled for later in the year. Some 82% of those are in arrears, to the tune of seven weeks rent on average, whereas before going onto UC, the figure was 5.1 weeks in arrears.
Landlords do not want to evict tenants, because it costs £1,800 to end one tenancy and start another. They want the security of knowing that they will have their rent paid regularly, in a timely fashion. Although bad and greedy landlords have given the sector a bad press, a substantial amount of landlords in the private sector are hard-working and understanding. They often have only one property to let out as a contribution to their pension, or as a way of saving for the future. In fact, two thirds of landlords are basic rate taxpayers and are not on high incomes. However, although they are sympathetic to tenants, they know that they too would fall into debt if the rent was not paid.
In conclusion, it is vital that we pause and fix universal credit, ensuring that families are not made homeless due to delays in the system. More widely, we must also increase the number of affordable homes that are available. Only by increasing the numbers of affordable homes being built will we reduce waiting lists, keep rents low and keep families in private rental housing to ease the burden on councils, supporting them to provide excellent social housing for the most vulnerable in our communities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) on securing today’s debate. What we are debating this morning is a serious component of the debate around universal credit, and it is right that we dedicate appropriate time to its consideration.
Colleagues from all parties and of all positions on universal credit will have been as concerned as I was to read research conducted by the National Landlords Association in the second quarter of last year that found that only 20% of UK landlords surveyed say that they are
“willing to let to tenants in receipt of housing benefit or universal credit”.
That comes on top of evidence received in September last year by the Work and Pensions Committee, on which I serve, from the Residential Landlords Association, which stated that 38% of the landlords surveyed said that they were having issues with tenants receiving universal credit going into rent arrears. The same survey found that almost a third of landlords had, in the past year, evicted a tenant in receipt of housing benefit, and that more than two thirds of the evictions had taken place due to rent arrears. That is obviously very worrying and undoubtedly gives Members of Parliament cause for concern.
It is important to recognise that these are not in every case new problems created by universal credit. Many tenants in receipt of housing benefit have been paid housing costs directly for a very long time. Around 70% of housing benefit claimants in the private rental sector have had their housing benefit paid directly rather than to a landlord. The housing element of universal credit is paid in exactly the same way. If people need extra support, their rent can be paid directly to landlords through alternative payment arrangements, and budgeting support can be made available. Claimants whose housing benefit was previously paid directly to a landlord will be offered that option automatically. However, as we have heard in the debate, there are issues with the system. Improvements can be made, and I believe that they should be.
Since the beginning of the universal credit roll-out, the DWP has proven that it is taking a “test and learn” approach, slowly and steadily rolling out the system while fixing and replacing problematic elements. That is why the Government have scrapped the seven-day wait, extended the deadline for repayment of advances, made advances easier to obtain and ensured that all DWP headlines are freephone numbers. For tenants, the DWP has taken numerous steps to prevent claimants from falling into arrears, including improving the processes for verifying housing costs and improving the support given to work coaches in jobcentres so that they can resolve housing issues as they arise.
The Government continue to work closely with landlords, local authorities and other organisations to ensure that claimants are supported. Crucially, it must be noted that when a private sector landlord asks for managed payment of rent to be arranged, it can be done on the provision of documentation evidencing two months of rent arrears. That should prevent unnecessary evictions on grounds of rent arrears, and I hope it does.
It is right that we should debate these issues today; they are incredibly important for our constituents. However, it is also right that we should recognise how cautiously and sensibly the DWP has moved throughout the entire roll-out of universal credit.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not, because there are many speakers to come and we are short on time.
The Government have listened to concerns brought by Members and the Work and Pensions Committee, and have acted on them, where necessary, in a calm and considered fashion. I have full confidence that that will continue as we debate the issues surrounding the private rented sector.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. Normally, I would talk about the differences in my constituency—I might go on about it being vast, remote and so on—but my constituency faces absolutely the same issue as the rest of the UK. For example, I had a conversation with a private landlord just the other day who owns quite a lot of property. I suggested to him that he might like to give accommodation to people caught in this trap, and he said, “Oh, no, Jamie. I’m running a business. I’m not a charity. I can’t take these risks. I wouldn’t get the rent paid. That’s for the council to deal with.” That puts in a nutshell the problem that we face of private landlords not wishing to engage. It is true, and it is out there.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) mentioned, there is a lot of housing out there that we could access. It is absolutely true. Members for any constituency can think of property currently lying empty above shops in town centres. If the right inducements were offered to private landlords, that property could be brought back into the housing market.
For example, one thing that used to work in Scotland was the specific targeting of improvement grants at below-standard or empty properties, which encouraged landlords to invest using the grants and then make the property available. That worked in the past, and could indeed work in future. As Members have said, it is about encouraging private landlords to engage and offering inducements to make it worth their while, so that they do not see it as the difference between running a charity and running a business.
The man to whom I spoke said, “It’s for the council to deal with,” but as we have heard from other Members, councils are completely stretched. If we consider the amount of housing debt that councils must service and the huge chunk that it takes out of the rents coming in, we can see the trap that they are caught in. It is a point for another place and another debate, but the existence of housing debt among local authorities across the UK is a big problem and a millstone around their necks. As we have heard, the six counties of Northern Ireland are addressing the situation, and it works over there. That seems to be a good example to us all. If we are smart, we will look at how they are doing it, carbon copy it and do the same thing ourselves.
Somebody who is no longer with us either in this place or in this world cast some doubt on what society was. It seems to me that we believe that society as a concept has a role. The idea of direct payments to private landlords for the most vulnerable people is absolutely in keeping with the idea of responsible society. My hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), who has left us now, mentioned that part of the Northern Irish deal was looking after those with disabilities, mental health problems and so on. That seems to me to be exactly what society is about: looking after the most vulnerable, because it is part of our collective responsibility as good human beings.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) for securing this debate on a crucial subject. The two words “universal credit” are becoming feared and disliked in equal measure across this country. In my constituency, we are not due to experience the full effect of universal credit until June, yet already it is having an impact on the private rented sector. The problems that my hon. Friend and many others have warned about now threaten to put further pressure on a housing sector that is already in trouble, and to push vulnerable families into rent arrears and homelessness.
Just yesterday I heard from a constituent who has been given notice to quit their private rented accommodation. They are not in arrears and never have been, but their landlord has decided to sell his properties, influenced by fears of universal credit and the difficulties that collecting rent from people who are not yet receiving money from the benefit system will cause him. I hear daily tales of other private landlords either increasingly excluding those on benefits or simply opting to sell up. As we have heard, 87% of landlords asked said that they would not accept tenants on universal credit.
As my hon. Friend said, we already face a housing crisis in this country: there is a shortage of social housing while tens of thousands of properties lie empty. In Edinburgh alone, there are more than 20,000 people on the waiting list for a house. The figures quoted for Eastbourne and across the country show us that the situation will only get worse. In the six months for which I have had the privilege of serving Edinburgh West in this place, I have already taken part in numerous debates in which the Government have been urged to stop universal credit and rethink how it works. I make no apologies for urging them to do so again. It is simply not working in the way intended. Instead of making the system simpler, it is making it less helpful and supportive and increasing the threat of debt and homelessness. As my hon. Friends have said, there were warnings, and now we have the concrete evidence in the form of the mounting rent arrears of which every hon. Member has spoken. Private sector landlords have little or no faith that they will continue to receive payment.
I suggest that it is time to act. It is a problem for which a solution is already in place: default payments. Why can we not simply pause and get the Government to re-examine the issue to allow payments to go directly to landlords to reassure them, and to ensure that our constituents continue to have roofs above their heads?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) and congratulate him on securing this debate. I was happy to co-sign his request to the Backbench Business Committee, and I am aware of the issues.
I will make some generic comments at the beginning, and then I will refer to Northern Ireland, as other Members have, and what we are doing there. We in Northern Ireland face the issue of how people can pay regularly for their rent in private accommodation. Every day, every week and every month, it is an issue in my office. Where there is a dearth of Housing Executive properties and housing association properties, people must go to private rented landlords for accommodation. There are approximately 4,000 people on the housing list in my constituency. They are in different categories, but around 1,000 of them are priority, which gives an idea of the housing need. The population is growing continuously, so we need to build above and beyond need to catch up. That is some of the background to the problems. As a result, there are not enough houses for the people who apply for housing, so they look elsewhere.
Rents in housing sector properties in Northern Ireland are between approximately £375 and £400—housing association rents are a bit higher again. In private accommodation outside the Housing Executive, people can pay anywhere between £500 and £600. Who pays that difference? The tenant. In some cases, the tenant is unable to pay and can apply for a discretionary payment that helps to meet some of the deficit. That lasts for a year and then they have to apply again. If they are successful, they have another year of a discretionary payment that enables them to pay their rent. I understand that such comments may be helpful to the debate.
A large proportion of people who live in the private rented sector are single parents under financial stress. We must be ever mindful of those people and how we address this issue. For them, finding the balance from minimal financial resources is an increasingly large problem. That is why this debate is so important. I spoke to the Minister beforehand and I am sure that she will be responsive to the concerns that we have all expressed. I want to be helpful to her in referring to some of the things that we are doing in Northern Ireland.
Landlords are faced with real problems. How do they continue to serve people who want private accommodation and work within the Government’s system at the same time? The Government have set moneys aside to increase targeted affordability funding by £40 million in 2018-19 and £85 million in 2019-20. Does that address the issue? From what hon. Members from the mainland have said in this debate, I would gently suggest that it does not. We look to the Minister to see how we can address the problem on the mainland.
The National Landlords Association has furnished me with some correspondence. The result of those problems is that landlords sell their property, and we have more people in poverty and more people seeking accommodation. We have heard about larger numbers of families living together in cramped accommodation. Debt continues to be the problem. In Northern Ireland, we have carried out legislative change. I suggest that the Minister looks at that as a marker of how we could do it better.
The fact is that 4.8 million people or 1.9 million privately renting households are entitled to less housing benefit than before the 2011 reforms. The average decrease is £19 per household per week. The figures show that people in the low-income bracket are suffering most. We need to do something in relation to that.
The National Landlords Association quarterly landlord panel states:
“Just two in 10 landlords…are willing to let to tenants in receipt of housing benefit or universal credit”.
That leaves eight landlords who are not prepared to. It is now less than 20%, which is down from 34% in 2013. I am sure the Minister has the background information that came from the Residential Landlords Association, which makes 16 recommendations. I suggest that those recommendations indicate a way and a methodology to address the issues.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) made a succinct and important intervention. His comment was very salient—I leaned across and said, “Well, that’s my speech nearly over now”. He is a very modest person, but he was on our party’s committee in Northern Ireland that brought forward legislation in Northern Ireland to make a difference. He can take some credit for the changes there, as can our party. It is only fair that we put that on the record and give him the credit that he deserves.
We have legislation in Northern Ireland that clearly encapsulates what we are trying to achieve for everyone in the United Kingdom. Respectfully, if the Minister wanted to put in place something that would be suitable for the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, she could do no better than replicate the legislation and the terminology that we have in Northern Ireland. That will address many of the issues that the hon. Member for Eastbourne raised and that other hon. Members and I have tried to address in our small contributions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) on securing this important debate. It is vital that universal credit failures and the opportunities to fix them are highlighted to the Government at every opportunity, in the hope that they might listen.
The hon. Gentleman spoke eloquently about the problems with payments to claimants, which we raised with the UK Government when the Highland Council was a pilot area in 2013. [Interruption.] I hear my former council colleague, the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone), agreeing from a sedentary position. This is a cross-party issue, which I will come back to later. The hon. Member for Eastbourne also spoke about the problem with ideologues. I agree that there has been a continued failure to listen. I hope that that will change and that we will get a more positive response from the Minister about actions that could be taken. I will give some examples later on.
I return to my vast and remote mode. One of the warnings that the hon. Gentleman and I and others put to the Government was that the sheer rurality, distance and sparsity of population would present a special challenge when trying to get private landlords to let property.
The hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) spoke eloquently about the issues that she has witnessed. She talked about universal credit being rolled out, glitches and all. I would go further—we are seeing more than glitches in the roll-out of universal credit. I have witnessed it for nearly five years. These are systemic issues. She mentioned that no child should have to experience these effects, which is absolutely right. This is about the people and their families who are affected in their homes. That hits home the hardest when people come to us with the personal stories of suffering they are enduring. That is when we understand why the Government have to listen and do something about it.
The hon. Lady also talked about the pressures on housing stock and the need to support the private rented sector, saying that 66% of private renters have no savings. That is true and is reflected in my experience, albeit anecdotally. People do not have the ability to inject their own cash into the system because they do not have any cash—it does not exist.
The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) mentioned that there are problems that need to be fixed. I welcome the fact that we are hearing that around the Chamber. There is a consensus that these serious issues are hurting people.
The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross talked about rent arrears for councils. Again, I refer to what happened in the Highland Council as a result of this problem.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) has not yet seen the roll-out in her constituency but is aware that a cold wind is coming. Those of us who have experienced it in our constituencies have seen the devastation that it leaves in its wake.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made an important point about the price differential between council housing association and private lettings. He asked who pays the difference. If, as we heard earlier, most people do not have private income to fall back on, who does pay the difference? He also made a telling point about the decrease in the already low number of private landlords willing to rent to universal credit claimants, which is backed up in many other pieces of evidence from around the nations of the UK.
Since Inverness was chosen in 2013 as a pilot area for universal credit, we have lived with the problems of a highly dysfunctional system. Originally, Highland Council engaged with great hope. There was and remains support for simplifying the social security regime. There were too many benefits in the past and it was too confusing. In local and national politics of all colours, people got behind the idea of a system with a lot less bureaucracy and hassle for claimants. If only that had been the outcome. Instead, universal credit in its current form has gradually shown itself to be a failure. Worse, its continued roll-out has had a devastating impact on claimants—not just the unemployed, but working people, single parents, the disabled and even the dying—particularly through the toxic legacy of debt and rent arrears.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne described universal credit as a car crash. It is, and its corrosive effect is not restricted to claimants. Landlords in both the public and the private sector feel a knock-on effect, which squeezes incomes, reduces the supply of rented properties for claimants and chokes investment in new building. We in the Scottish National party have called continuously for the roll-out to be halted and fixed. Like those in Northern Ireland, we will use the very limited powers we have to try to mitigate the impact, as we have done with other matters over the past few years, and inject a little fairness and dignity into the system. However, it remains almost entirely a UK-reserved issue and needs to be dealt with.
I have been a noisy witness in the nearly five years since the pilot, when I was leader of the Highland Council. We have tried every approach to get the Tory Government to listen. I was joined by the political voices on the council—regardless of political colour, if any—to highlight the misery that was gradually unfolding before our eyes. We set out the alternatives, asked for changes and relayed the experiences, the frustrations and the inevitable wider impact that the roll-out would have if it was continued without fixing the problems, yet our voices were not listened to, and now we are seeing the pattern repeating itself wherever universal credit is deployed.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne mentioned the public sector. As a result of universal credit, the Highland Council has seen rent arrears rocketing to around £2 million —a signal of the misery, but also a noose around the neck of investment in housing. Vital resources are being drained from the council as it picks up the cost of the universal credit failure.
According to a recent report by the Residential Landlords Association, universal credit is now the main reason for private sector landlords seeking to evict tenants. We have heard a lot of statistics this morning, but 29% of landlords have evicted a tenant for universal credit rent arrears and now only 13% of landlords say that they are willing to rent to universal credit claimants at all. According to the RLA, more than 73% of landlords are unlikely to rent homes to someone claiming universal credit, because they are worried that they will not be able to pay.
The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations says that those problems are putting more pressure on public housing; that the administration of universal credit falls short of what its own service standard should be; and that the schedules that associations receive are beset with errors. The federation’s survey found that the standard of communications between the DWP and landlords was erratic, and made worse by the absence of implicit consent in the universal credit full service roll-out. Arrears are much higher among people on universal credit. The federation says that the shortcomings need to be fixed and that a pause is therefore required.
The DWP has not allowed implicit consent, except through MPs. That hamstrings organisations such as citizens advice bureaux and housing associations, meaning that they cannot effectively help claimants to get their entitlements to retain tenancies. The reliance on explicit consent is impractical, especially in rural areas.
There is a growing worry that the design and the benefits of universal credit are not fit for purpose. It should be the objective of any good enterprise, especially a Government, to listen to the experiences of people affected, especially those delivering a service and those who have been asked to partner and make the required adjustments, but neither I nor anybody else in the highlands have witnessed such a willingness to adapt. The problem has spread to other areas. Landlord after landlord, housing association after housing association, council after council, support group after support group and charity after charity have echoed the calls we have made. Every day, new and more troubling examples of hardship and suffering are exposed. Debt and rent arrears mean long-term damage and lasting harm to communities.
Universal credit, in its current form, is designed to create debt by default—it is constructed that way. What kind of Government create the situation where people and families are turned into debtors, with no hope of escape other than eviction, bankruptcy or both? As the hon. Member for Eastbourne pointed out, some welcome changes were made by the Chancellor in his Budget. However, the Chancellor said in his November Budget speech that he wanted to avoid debt for the Government
“not for some ideological reason but because excessive debt undermines our economic security, leaving us vulnerable”—[Official Report, 22 November 2017; Vol. 631, c. 1048.]
He went on to talk about vulnerability to financial shocks. Well, people are facing financial shocks now because of the shambolic handling of universal credit. It should be halted; the messages should be taken on board; and it should be fixed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) on securing this really important debate. Many valuable contributions have been made, from which it is really clear that people are experiencing real hardship as a result of the impact of universal credit on ability to pay rent. The example provided by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) clearly demonstrates the effect of delayed payments, and my hon. Friends the Members for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) and for Newport East (Jessica Morden) spoke about the specific difficulties that single parents face in having a secure home.
It really is important that the Government take action to address the problems with universal credit in the private rented sector. Approximately 5 million households —just over 20% of the total—are in private rented accommodation, and a quarter of those are families with children. That figure is predicted to rise to just under a quarter of all households over the next five years. Some 1.2 million households currently receive housing benefit in the private rented sector, one third of which are in low-paid work and require support to help top up their rent. Prolonged delays in receiving an initial payment of universal credit have led to many claimants being in rent arrears and at risk of eviction.
The Residential Landlords Association has reported that landlords have become increasingly reluctant to rent to universal credit claimants. Two thirds of private landlords are basic rate taxpayers not on high incomes, so they need rents to be paid on time in order to pay their own bills. That puts increased pressure on the social housing sector and local authorities. Councils hit by cuts in funding from central Government are having to set aside large amounts of money to support people affected by the impact of universal credit. Newcastle City Council is spending more than £390,000 of its own resources to support UC claimants, including £88,000 to cover rent arrears; there is more than £1.2 million in uncollected rent across a tenancy base of just 27,000, purely as a result of universal credit. Nearly three quarters of the spending on discretionary housing payments by Conservative-controlled Bath and North East Somerset Council in this financial year has likewise gone to supporting universal credit claimants.
The Government announced a number of changes in the Budget that were designed to address the problems with universal credit. We welcome them as far as they go, but they do not go anywhere near far enough. For example, from February, the Government are to remove the initial seven-day waiting period, so that the wait built into universal credit at the start of a claim will be five weeks rather than six. That is still too long for people on low incomes, who in many cases are unlikely to have savings to tide them over for that period. According to the English housing survey, 66% of private renters have no savings. We need up-to-date statistics on the timeliness of payments, so that we know exactly how long people in each local authority are waiting and whether the five-week target is being met. Will the Minister make a commitment to publish regular statistics on this matter, rather than ad hoc releases when it suits the Government?
From this month, it will be possible for someone to obtain 100% of their estimated universal credit as an advance payment, which will then have to be paid back over a maximum of 12 months. However, the maximum advance for people who made an initial universal credit claim in the run-up to Christmas was only 50%, which will undoubtedly have meant hardship for many families.
If it is possible to estimate someone’s universal credit for the purpose of giving them an advance and to pay that advance within five working days, or on the same day when someone is in immediate need, why do universal credit claimants still have to wait five weeks for an initial payment to be made? Again, will the Minister make a commitment to publish regular statistics on how many people ask for advance payments, how many people receive them and the default rates on repayments? Ministers have stated repeatedly that universal credit is designed to mirror the world of work, but with 58% of new claimants who are moving on to universal credit being paid either fortnightly or weekly prior to claiming, it is time for all claimants to be offered fortnightly universal credit payments.
The Government announced that from April they will introduce a two-week run-on between a housing benefit claim and a new universal credit claim. Again, that is welcome, although it will only help people who have already been claiming housing benefit. The Government have also said that they will make it easier for direct payments to be made to landlords. However, it appears that that is principally aimed at ensuring continuity where a tenant whose housing benefit is already being paid directly to their landlord moves over to claiming universal credit. That is positive, but my Opposition colleagues and I would like to see all tenants offered the option of direct payments. For vulnerable people, who need payments to be made quickly, the need to negotiate with the Department for Work and Pensions for direct payment of housing support to a landlord can take time and effort.
Surely all tenants should have the right for payments to be paid directly to the landlord, and not just those who are vulnerable and have difficulty managing their money. Direct payments provide security for landlords renting to people who are claiming universal credit, providing them with the confidence that they will be paid. Direct payments are especially helpful in the case of people who have formerly been homeless. Private landlords may be much more wary of renting to them, and people who have been homeless may not have had recent experience of managing large bills, such as rent.
The DWP has been working with Crisis on a pilot project in Newcastle whereby people who have been homeless or who are at risk of homelessness because of arrears can have their claimant commitment relaxed while they focus on their housing situation, and they are also offered the opportunity to have their housing support paid directly. Will the Minister, as a matter of urgency, consider issuing guidance to work coaches to identify people who may be in rent arrears and proactively offer them direct payment of housing support? Claimants often appear to be unaware that it is possible for this to be done.
Landlords themselves do not appear to think that the changes announced in the Budget are enough. In a survey carried out by the Residential Landlords Association into the reaction of private landlords to the changes to universal credit, 64% of private landlords said the changes did not give them more confidence to let properties to tenants in receipt of universal credit.
Overall, one of the key reasons for arrears is the level of local housing allowance. LHA rates simply have not kept up with sharply rising rents. They were first cut by the coalition in 2011, and then increases were capped at 1% in both 2014-15 and 2015-16. A freeze was introduced in April 2016, which will last until 2020. According to research by the Chartered Institute of Housing, private sector rents in England grew by an average of 14.6% from May 2011 to May 2017, while wages increased by only 10% in the same period.
That inadequate housing support continues in universal credit. In fact, there is no housing support at all in universal credit for people aged between 18 and 21, unless they are in one of the groups of people who are protected, such as care leavers. Also, the national living wage is set at a lower rate for people under the age of 25, and the chief executive of the Financial Conduct Authority has recently warned about the high levels of debt being incurred by young people just to cover basic household bills such as rent.
Will my hon. Friend give way briefly on that point?
I am sorry, but I am really short of time and so cannot give way.
We are all shocked by the sight of people sleeping in the streets. Will the Government think again and restore housing support in universal credit for people aged between 18 and 21?
Overall, the number of working households claiming housing benefit in the private rented sector has more than doubled since 2009. We know that many people, especially many young people, have not just been priced out of home ownership but are finding that their income does not even cover their rent. The DWP’s own data shows that only 7% of private renters claiming housing benefit are unemployed and seeking work. The rest are either already working on low incomes or are currently unable to work.
Just last week, it was reported that the Stop Start Go charity in Manchester has opened new bedsit accommodation for working people who are homeless because they cannot afford the cost of accommodation in the city. On one night in December, a third of people sleeping at the Booth Centre for the homeless in Manchester were actually employed. The DWP’s own data shows that the number of people in work who are being placed in temporary or short-term accommodation rose from 15,500 in August 2013 to more than 22,000 by 2015. Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that the private rented sector has grown by a third over the last 12 years, but the number of tenants being evicted has also grown; 7,200 more tenants lost their homes in 2015 than in 2003.
Labour is committed to increasing the national living wage to £10 an hour across the age range; to building at least 100,000 council and housing association homes for genuinely affordable rent or sale; and to reforming universal credit so that it meets its original principles of making sure that work pays and reducing poverty. Labour will also end insecurity for private renters by introducing controls on rent rises, as well as introducing more secure tenancies, landlord licensing and new consumer rights for renters. That is the real way to make work a route out of poverty and to reduce the need for people to claim housing support.
The Government simply refuse to recognise the scale of the shortage of truly affordable housing that exists. At the same time, they are failing to provide housing support at a level that will at least enable people to cope with the consequences of Government inaction and to meet rising rents. In the Budget, the Chancellor conceded that
“House prices are increasingly out of reach for many”.—[Official Report, 22 November 2017; Vol. 631, c. 1057.]
Yet he offered more of the same on housing. There was no new Government investment in affordable homes and nothing for private renters. The need for someone to have a roof over their head—a home where they can bring up their family—is a basic human need. By 2021, it is estimated that some 7 million people will be claiming universal credit, more than half of whom will be in work. Where will they live if their wages do not cover their rent and housing support does not make up the shortfall? It is time for the Government to heed the warnings from landlords, the voluntary sector and Opposition Members, and to pause and fix universal credit.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) on securing this important debate on the effect of universal credit on the private rented sector. He is a very committed campaigner and I thank him for his work to help us to improve the delivery of universal credit. Universal credit is an important reform and I am pleased to have this opportunity to talk about it, and hopefully to address the issues that have been raised by Members and some of the misconceptions.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have been using a test-and-learn approach to universal credit since the beginning. The roll-out of universal credit is a very long one, which is why we have taken that approach—we want to develop the universal credit system based on the evidence we gather as we go along. I thank Members from across the House for their contributions.
The Government are committed to making work pay and universal credit is transforming the welfare system to ensure that it does so. With universal credit, work always pays and, compared with the old system, people spend more time looking for work and find work faster. Universal credit supports people who can work and cares for those who cannot. For the first time, universal credit supports people who are in work, and encourages and incentivises them to progress and earn more.
Members have raised a number of concerns about the impact of universal credit on private rental sector landlords, which I will seek to address. However, we must remember that universal credit is the largest and most significant welfare reform since the second world war. The Government are listening to stakeholders both in Parliament and externally, and we are well aware of the concerns that have been raised. I will try to address some of those concerns today, and to put Members’ minds at rest where I can do so.
First, I will clarify for the House some of the things that universal credit has not changed, in particular for landlords in the private rental sector. Since 2008, housing benefit has been paid directly to claimants by default, and not directly to landlords. That remains the case with universal credit. In fact, currently only 25% to 30% of housing benefit payments are made directly to landlords in the private rented sector. If private landlords want housing benefit to be paid directly to them, they need to ensure that the relevant criteria are met, which are broadly the same as those for a request for direct payment under universal credit.
What has changed is that universal credit is assessed and paid monthly, to replicate the world of work, as we have already heard. Our ambition is to create a welfare system that encourages people to take greater responsibility for their finances, so that they are ready and prepared to move into the world of work. It means that, where possible, we want to encourage and support people to take responsibility themselves for paying their landlord, but of course we want to ensure that the necessary protections and support are in place to allow them to do that.
We know that the majority of people are comfortable managing their own money. However, for claimants for whom that is not the case, we have put in place support to help them. That is why we have the facility, as I have mentioned, for universal credit to be paid directly to the landlord where appropriate.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne asked for changes further to support private sector landlords and tenants—for example to make it easier for private landlords to have rent paid directly to them by the Department for Work and Pensions. We have always been clear that we will roll out universal credit in a way that allows us to continue to make improvements, as Members will have seen in the Budget before Christmas. We have already made a number of changes to universal credit as part of our engagement with the sector, and we will continue to develop our approach based on the feedback and evidence we collect as we go along. It is important to remember that, by Christmas, only 8% of universal credit had been rolled out, and by the end of January it will still be only 10%.
We have made practical improvements. For example, we have simplified and sped up the process for private rented sector managed payment requests, which can now be done by email and on a single form, with no additional information required, and work is under way further to improve that process in the universal credit full service.
We have also improved and updated the landlord information and have made it easier to find on gov.uk. We have another meeting this month with private rented sector representatives—such meetings happen regularly—and we will check whether they can access the information they need. Members have raised that matter today.
On making it easier for people to get information, there is a long-standing call to reintroduce implicit consent, to allow agencies to assist people with their claims. Will the Minister consider such a reintroduction for universal credit?
We have removed the need for explicit consent. A universal credit claim is the responsibility of the claimant, and implicit consent puts the development of the system at risk. However, it is something that we keep under review.
Some Members may not be aware that we issue a bi-monthly landlord newsletter. Such regular communications and incremental process changes are necessary if we are successfully to introduce this radical and innovative reform, and we will continue to build on them.
We have also made more fundamental changes to make a difference for private sector tenants and landlords. We have recognised that managed payments to landlords in the private rented sector are running at a lower level than expected. We understand that landlords are often small businesses with one or two properties, and that they cannot afford to have rent arrears. That is why we have made three important policy changes for this sector in recent months.
First, in December, as part of the Budget measures, we announced changes to universal credit guidance to ensure that when private sector housing benefit claimants come on to universal credit, we know whether and why they had their rent paid directly to their landlord previously. That will allow our work coaches to determine whether a managed payment to the landlord for universal credit may need to be applied, and will prompt a conversation with the claimant. That change will provide an important safeguard and help to ensure that those who need the support get it from the outset. It will also help to ensure that claimants receive appropriate budgeting support, by providing a further prompt for the work coach to have a discussion with them.
Secondly, we have changed our policy to ensure that when a private rented sector landlord asks for a managed payment to be set up and supplies evidence of two months’ rent arrears, we will implement the managed payment without requiring the claimant’s consent, just as in the old system. That change has already been welcomed by the Residential Landlords Association and shows our commitment to working with landlords to keep improving the system.
Both those changes are designed to ensure that vulnerable claimants who cannot manage a monthly universal credit payment are fully supported, and that landlords receive the rent they are owed.
Thirdly, as set out in the Budget, we will tackle rent arrears by providing claimants with an extra benefit payment equivalent to two weeks’ housing benefit while they transition on to universal credit. We have abolished the seven-day waiting period in universal credit and we have increased the maximum advance payment to up to 100% of a claimant’s indicative award.
A number of Members across the House have spoken about the universal credit monthly payment structure affecting rent being paid to landlords and, therefore, landlords’ willingness to rent to claimants. However, as I have explained, we have systems in place for those who cannot pay the rent directly. It is important that we are fully able to empower those who can be trusted with their own financial affairs. In fact, it would be wrong and insulting to assume that universal credit claimants cannot be trusted to manage their finances.
Members have mentioned reports that some landlords claim they would be unwilling to rent to universal credit claimants, including a recent one from the Residential Landlords Association. Such claims have been made by landlord groups since 2008, when we first started paying housing benefit directly to claimants, but it never seems to have materialised. The evidence shows that the proportion of tenants who are on housing benefit or universal credit has remained broadly consistent for the past 10 years—about 30% of the private rented sector and about 65% of the social rented sector. It would not make financial sense for a business to give up such a large proportion of the market. The way in which universal credit is designed means that landlords would not normally know that a prospective tenant was receiving universal credit. We know that there is anxiety about arrears, which I have addressed, but the fact remains that universal credit is a stable, secure, reliable form of income for claimants and their landlords.
The Department for Work and Pensions regularly engages with private landlords and their representatives. The universal credit team holds quarterly strategic engagement meetings with sector stakeholders, in which it shares the latest updates on universal credit, responds to questions and listens to concerns. Insight from that engagement has already helped us to make numerous process changes to improve interactions with stakeholders. Two examples are the recent changes made to the process for ensuring that managed payments to landlords are put in place where appropriate: treatment under housing benefit and the removal of the need for explicit consent from the claimant.
Department for Work and Pensions staff will continue to work with claimants who have managed payments in place to ensure that they have appropriate budgeting support, and they will remove the arrangements when a claimant is ready. To those private sector landlords who have expressed concerns about renting to universal credit claimants, I say that with the safeguards we have in place, the improved work outcomes that universal credit brings and the personal budgeting support available, such concerns should be groundless.
More attention should be paid to the evidence of universal credit outcomes than to the unhelpful scaremongering of Opposition Members. I can only give in evidence the fact that, in Prime Minister’s questions, the Leader of the Opposition claimed that Gloucester City Homes evicted one in eight tenants—12% of tenants—due to universal credit. That would have been 650 tenants. In fact, it was eight tenants, all of whom had arrears before universal credit was introduced. None of the evictions was as a result of universal credit, and one was because a gentleman had been living in Australia for 18 months.
Universal credit represents a generation-changing culture shift in how welfare is delivered and how people are helped, creating a system that allows people to break free from dependency, take control of their lives, and work. Universal credit picks up from a deeply flawed system and strives to solve problems that were previously thought intractable. In that old system, complexity and bureaucracy so often served to stifle claimants’ independence, limit their choices and constrain their outlook. We have shown with our actions, and have demonstrated here today, that we are listening and learning and are making the changes necessary to implement this historic reform safely, securely and with careful regard to our stakeholders.
I appreciate the Minister’s response. She is absolutely right that the changes announced at the Budget show that the Government were listening. Some Opposition Members are slightly frustrated though, because we had been making our criticisms for a long time and an awful lot of people had to go through a very difficult period, even possibly losing their homes, before the changes were made. However, this is a step in the right direction and I urge the Minister to continue to press with her colleagues to keep going.
We all know that there is a severe housing crisis across the country. Regarding universal credit and the changes in the default payment, if the Government were prepared to go that one step further, working with the Residential Landlords Association and others, there would be an opportunity to open up significantly the private sector to universal credit claimants. That would significantly reduce the homelessness challenges we face, and I urge the Government to keep pushing.
I am grateful for the support in today’s debate. We all understand that there are good things about universal credit, but a lot of the roll-out has been a car crash. However, it is getting better. I urge the Government to keep listening to us and, most importantly—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Luton Airport Expansion
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Luton airport expansion.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and to speak in my first Westminster Hall debate on a subject of great interest to my constituents and of importance to the whole region. I thank the Minister for being here to respond to the debate. I wish him all the luck in the world in whatever may transpire in No. 10 later on.
First, let me establish some facts. Luton airport is a rapidly growing airport that currently handles more than 15 million passengers a year. Its passenger numbers have increased by 70% in the past seven years alone. It is owned by London Luton Airport Ltd on behalf of Luton Borough Council, which is also the planning authority responsible for approving any increases in allowed passenger numbers. Luton Borough Council set the limit at 18 million passengers in 2014. In mid-December last year, Luton Borough Council, as owners of the airport, set out a highly ambitious plan to more than double Luton airport’s passenger traffic by 2050, bringing it to roughly 38 million passengers. To give some context, that represents an ambition for Luton airport to manage as many passengers as Gatwick airport did as recently as a couple of years ago, when it was, as it is now, the second busiest airport in the UK.
My constituency, Hitchin and Harpenden, lies in rural Hertfordshire but abuts Luton to the west. The flight path of Luton airport for inbound and outbound planes runs directly over thousands of my constituents—particularly in Harpenden, Wheathampstead, Sandridge and Jersey Farm—causing a great deal of noise and air pollution over the area. In addition, although Luton sits on the M1 motorway, a great deal of the traffic that naturally accompanies an airport handling more than 40,000 passengers a day currently runs through the very rural roads of my constituency to the north and east of the airport. That is near such villages as Breachwood Green, Mangrove Green, Lilley, Hexton and Pirton. Much of that area is in the Chiltern hills and is designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I am sure he is aware that the flights blight not only the lives of his constituents, particularly in rural areas, but the rural parts of my constituency, particularly the Markyate and Flamstead area. The people who live there are the experts on the issue because they have planes flying over them all the time. They were given categorical promises that as the growth took place, noise mitigation would also take place, and that has not happened. Would that not be a good reason to curb the speed of the increase in flights until the airport has done what it promised to do in the first place?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. To add to his point, which I agree with entirely, it is my case that the proposed expansion of Luton airport to the level of 38 million passengers is first unsustainable and unsuitable for the local area that includes not just my constituency but his and that of my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main), and secondly—this is a particularly serious point—could undermine trust in government for tens of thousands of Hertfordshire residents because Luton Borough Council owns the airport, receives income from it and yet also acts as the planning authority.
If it is not entirely clear from my comments so far, I am not against airports or Luton airport. I understand the need for and the necessity of a thriving aviation sector, and I recognise—I am sure the Minister will talk about this—the jobs and economic growth that Luton airport brings to the United Kingdom and to Luton. My case, which is supported by the vast majority of my constituents in Hertfordshire, is that the proposed expansion to more than double Luton’s passenger numbers is unsuitable for the local area and unsustainable in the context of the constraints that exist in rural Hertfordshire in particular.
Luton is just not the right place for an airport with a proposed size of 38 million passengers. Topographically, its location on a plateau means that it is closed by fog and bad weather much more frequently than the other airports in the south-east. It has a very constrained footprint compared with Gatwick and Stansted, and the dense polycentric pattern of the surrounding settlements, such as Hemel Hempstead, Harpenden and others, means that many towns and villages are affected by noise and pollution. It is right next door to extremely rural Hertfordshire countryside which has, as we would expect, many small narrow lanes. They are often used as rat runs through to Luton airport. Many of them can take only one car at a time and are already seeing vast increases in traffic as passenger numbers rise year on year. In addition, unlike Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, Luton does not have a direct rail link to the terminal, although I recognise there are plans for that.
Furthermore, Luton already has the greatest concentration of air traffic movement in its airspace in the UK, and it is one of the most congested airspaces in Europe. Noise complaints from Hertfordshire residents are already extremely high with the existing traffic of more than 15 million passengers. To give some context, those complaints have increased twenty-two-fold in two years. Night flights also hugely blight the lives of many of my constituents. Over the past two years, the number of flights between the hours of 11 pm and 7 am has gone up 25%, from 12,867 to 16,031.
I believe in giving credit where it is due, so I must thank the Government and the Department for Transport for their recent efforts on noise mitigation, as shown by their commitment to an independent noise regulator to be called the independent commission on civil aviation noise. Once established, I hope that body will help provide much more objective independent guidance on how aircraft noise should be assessed and managed and how that should be used to inform airspace decisions.
The Government’s consultation document states that
“it is clear that tensions are likely to arise when airport operations change in a way which affects how local communities experience noise impacts. We want to ensure that there is not a breakdown of trust between airports and their communities.”
I submit that the extremely rapid rise in complaints about aircraft noise in Hertfordshire shows that as things stand, trust between Luton airport and residents of rural areas in Hertfordshire is in danger of breaking down. I believe it will break down completely if colossal expansion plans are rammed through without appropriate consultation with Hertfordshire residents.
I would go further than my hon. Friend. He, his predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) and I have been campaigning on the issue for many years. I can only speak for my constituents, but I am afraid the trust has gone already. Promises have been made so many times in the past, and they have never been fulfilled. Instead of trying to work with the communities, the airport makes noise about doing tests and this and that, but when it comes to the crunch, it never fulfils its promises. This is another classic example where there is growth before the mitigation is put in.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that. Perhaps it is because I am new—perhaps I am optimistic and generous—but I do agree with him that trust is crucial. Trust between the citizen and Government, both local and national, is one of the most fundamental underpinnings of our or any democracy. Many of my constituents have lost trust in recent borough council management of the expansion of Luton airport over recent years, as my right hon. Friend describes, and one reason for that is the highly unusual situation whereby Luton Borough Council owns Luton airport and at the same time is the planning authority currently responsible for approving its expansion. I must make it clear for the record that I am not accusing Luton Borough Council of any legal or procedural impropriety. However, there is a significant conflict of interest.
In 2015 the highly esteemed National Audit Office—esteemed not only by the Government and the House; as a member of the Public Accounts Committee I work with its civil servants frequently and they are incredibly capable people—published a report on managing conflicts of interest in the public sector. The report states:
“A failure to recognise a conflict of interest can give the impression that the organisation...is not acting in the public interest and can damage...confidence in government.”
Luton Borough Council’s ownership of Luton airport, which generated a net profit of roughly £47 million in the last financial year, coupled with the huge increase in flight noise for many thousands of my constituents and across Hertfordshire, as I have already demonstrated, as well as with the huge increase in passenger numbers, leaves many of my constituents feeling that Luton Borough Council has one real interest: growing passenger numbers and therefore revenue for its airport. That interest has been pursued without any real consideration for the significant negative impacts on the people of Hertfordshire that I have outlined here today. As one of my constituents put it to me, Bedfordshire gets the gain, and Hertfordshire gets the pain.
So, what shall be done? I propose that the Minister responds to the following points in his response. First, bearing in mind the huge growth proposed at the airport, will the Government confirm that the plans for any future expansion must be approved as a nationally significant infrastructure project submission to the Planning Inspectorate, with the decision therefore no longer being made by Luton Borough Council? Secondly, will the Government act not to allow any further expansion of passenger numbers beyond 18 million without the imposition of much greater conditions around noise concerns, flight route changes, and a much tougher limit on night flights, so that Luton is finally treated like other London airports? Thirdly, will the Government call on Luton Borough Council to provide detailed plans for the necessary infrastructural improvements, particularly on local roads, that will be necessary in Hertfordshire even based on existing passenger numbers, as well as in Bedfordshire, and explain how they propose to fund it?
Finally, will the Government call on Luton Borough Council and Luton airport to work much harder to gain the trust and partnership of Hertfordshire residents, as mentioned earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning), not only for any expansion of passenger numbers in future, and actively keep future growth in step with mitigation measures and constrain that future growth if necessary?
I thank the House for being so patient with me in my first Westminster Hall debate. I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main).
You are not giving way. You have completed your remarks.
I was about to say that by agreement with the hon. Gentleman and the Minister, both of whom have been informed, I call—the hon. Gentleman does not—Mrs Anne Main.
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I pay a huge tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) for securing this debate so early in his career. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) has said, the issue has been rumbling on for a very long time. I will be brief because we need answers from the Minister.
First, I want to pay tribute to STAQS—St Albans Quieter Skies—which does terrific work on noise pollution, and to LADACAN, the Luton and District Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise. When I was first elected in 2005 my postbag was largely untroubled by complaints about aircraft noise, but that is not the case now. I accept, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden, the ongoing benefits to business and leisure users of having a good local airport with routes that are efficient and least disruptive to residents. My constituents understand the need for air traffic, but feel that the noise burden is not shared fairly or equally.
There has been a 150% increase in complaints since the RNAV—area navigation—route was introduced in August 2015. The RNAV route dictates that easterly departures are directed in a narrow corridor over north St Albans and Sandridge. That change alone, although well-intentioned, has concentrated the pain of noise felt by residents across the affected district. As my hon. Friend has said, Luton airport is owned by London Luton Airport Ltd on behalf of Luton Borough Council. As my residents would point out, that makes it its own judge and jury.
In 2013, Luton council’s development committee voted to permit capacity expansion to double to 18 million passengers, along with a package of planning conditions designed to mitigate environmental impact. The decision was based on promises that quieter aircraft would be gradually introduced. Everything has happened far faster than projected, and the noise mitigation has not made any difference.
I shall cut my remarks short and simply say that I have visited my constituents’ homes and gardens at different times of the day. There is a calculated noise decibel level by Luton airport’s own noise monitoring, which was taken over a 16-hour day and apparently equates to something between a quiet office and a bedroom. Standing in my constituents’ gardens, that is not the experience of the residents. An average over a 16-hour day was given when noise can be felt in different ways. At 6 o’clock in the morning I am aware of the noise far more than at 10 o’clock in the morning when my washing machine and dishwasher are going. So the average masks the true life experience of residents and it is bogus.
My constituents need to know that something will be done as soon as possible. Expansion cannot go ahead if strong protections against further noise pollution are not deliverable and guaranteed. Luton airport cannot keep on being its own judge and jury.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I am sorry; my right hon. Friend has made two interventions and I am already cutting my remarks short.
I want the Government to step in and take a keen and active interest in the future development of this airport. Residents who have had the noise monitoring kit cannot accept that 47 decibels is a true reflection of the interruption in their lives, their sleep patterns, and enjoyment of their own gardens. I therefore ask the Minister to take a real interest in this issue and listen to what residents say.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) on securing his first Westminster Hall debate. We can safely assume that he could afford a 90-minute debate, given the local interest. I welcome the chance to respond to the points he has made. I sympathise with his concerns and will do my best to answer his points in the time available.
My crash course in Luton airport this morning and learning all about it has revealed that it has seen its 44th consecutive month of growth, with passenger numbers in 2016 16% higher than in 2015. Such growth is clearly continuing. The airport has 13 airlines operating regular scheduled and charter flights and six operating cargo routes. It is a busy major airport that flies to more than 30 countries with 70 destinations and 128 routes. It is the only London airport offering a scheduled service on 24 of those routes. It is a key employer in the local area, supporting around 30,000 jobs, putting £1.5 billion into the economy and around £500 million into the local economy surrounding the airport. All of that indicates that, as all Members have said this morning, it is an important and worthwhile contributor to the local economy. However, that does not obviate the points that Members make about the impact on local people’s lives.
We have started the process of developing a new aviation strategy, setting out the long-term direction for aviation policy to 2050 and beyond. The strategy will focus on consumers and cover the whole country. It will look at where Government could and should make a difference. Last year, we published a call for evidence that asked for views on a number of issues based around six objectives, which will be further consulted on in the coming year. The objectives will include ensuring that any new strategy addresses the impacts of aviation on local communities and the environment.
As part of the call for evidence consultation, the Government proposed that airports throughout the UK, including Luton airport, make the best use of their existing runways subject to environmental issues being addressed. We received a vast number of responses, as I am sure hon. Members can imagine, which we are currently analysing and to which we will respond shortly.
We warmly welcome the ambition of airports to respond to local and regional demand, and to invest in infrastructure to enable services to more destinations, with better facilities and more choice for passengers. That is particularly the case at Luton airport, where passengers are beginning to see the benefits of a £150 million investment programme, transforming the airport and passenger experience by expanding the terminal and passenger lounge, and building a new multi-storey car park.
My constituents describe this as the stiletto effect: the area navigation route concentrates the pain in a very sharp area. I know that that is the Government’s policy. Can it be looked at? A large amount of pain in a small group is not fair.
I welcome that intervention. I was about to stop describing the positives of Luton airport and move on to the more controversial aspects, one of which is how the Government’s new approach to airspaces will hopefully address some of the concerns that my hon. Friend has expressed. I will come on to that shortly, if I may.
First, I would like to deal with the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden about who will take decisions on the expansion. I understand the concern that Luton Borough Council may take those decisions at the same time as being the airport’s owner. I am more than happy to confirm that, as a nationally significant infrastructure project, it will be a decision taken by the Planning Inspectorate, with reference back to the Secretary of State. Under section 23 of the Planning Act 2008, all airport expansion decisions that seek to increase their planning cap by more than 10 million passengers per year are required to follow the development consent order process and are considered nationally significant infrastructure projects. Such projects are subject to Government approvals as part of that process.
My hon. Friends the Members for Hitchin and Harpenden and for St Albans (Mrs Main) both asked what the Government’s position will be regarding any further expansion of passenger numbers beyond 18 million without the imposition of much greater conditions regarding noise concerns, flight route changes, and the use of airspace overall. We strongly recognise that noise disturbance from aircraft is of concern to local communities, and can be more pronounced at a time when an airport is experiencing growth. I know that the airport is already looking at trying to implement a higher performance-based standard on its westerly departure route heading to the English south coast. The main purpose of that measure is to reduce the overall noise impact of the route, including near the village of Sandridge—a particular hotspot for noise complaints. I understand that it may be consulted on later in the year. I urge hon. Members to engage with the airport to ensure that that occurs.
The Government’s role is to ensure that the right balance is struck between the environmental impacts and the economic and consumer benefits that aviation growth can deliver. All three Members who have spoken recognised that there are both benefits and negatives to having an airport in close proximity. We believe that noise is best managed at a local level and that Government involvement should be limited to strategic decisions. It is worth bearing in mind that Luton airport’s existing noise restrictions, set at a local level, are on the whole stricter than those set by the Government for the three designated London airports.
In line with the Government’s airspace policy published in October last year, any proposed flight path changes as a result of expansion will have to go through an options analysis. That will enable communities to engage with a transparent airspace change process and ensure that options such as multiple routes are considered for noise mitigation. That is a fundamental change in how we approach the concerns Members have expressed today. For example, there will be new metrics for assessing those impacts, including impacts on health and quality of life. There will be a new call-in power for the Secretary of State, applicable in airspace changes of strategic national importance, which provides, in my view, a democratic backstop for which communities have been calling. There will also be changes to compensation to ensure that impacts are properly reflected in what local people receive.
In addition, the Government have committed to establishing an independent commission on civil aviation noise to ensure that the noise impacts of airspace changes are properly considered, and to give communities a greater stake in noise management. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) pointed out, the people who live under the flight path are the experts. I always believe that we should listen to the experts when formulating policy. As somebody who grew up under the flight path from Manchester, I am more than aware of what it can be like to have planes overhead continually. The policies that we have introduced address the impacts of noise for those living underneath flight paths; will enable airspace modernisation; will give the opportunity to make the most of quiet and modern aircraft; will provide more predictable periods of relief from noise; and—critically in the south-east—will reduce the need for stacking.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden made a point about asking for further information from Luton Borough Council on its plans to help to fund and support local infrastructure. The Government have set out the framework through which airports can plan for and lead improvement, growth and expansion, critically including surface access. Central to that is the fact that the airport is best placed to lead on surface access issues, including proposed infrastructure developments for the airport, in partnership with local enterprise partnerships, local authorities, business groups, passenger groups, and critically local communities. The current aviation policy framework recommends that each airport develops its own surface access strategy in collaboration with those stakeholders, and sets them out in an airport master plan and associated surface access strategy. The new aviation strategy on which the Department is consulting will ask how the Government can support the planning and delivery of improved surface access to meet passengers’ needs.
Passengers travelling to Luton airport by rail will benefit from the brand new light rail system, due for completion in 2020. That new £225 million rail link will replace the existing shuttle bus service and provide a direct link from Luton Airport Parkway station to the airport terminal. At Luton airport, the Government have also funded improvements connecting the M1 spur to the wider motorway network at the £30 million new junction 10a, helping to reduce congestion. Furthermore, and perhaps most pertinent to the points that my hon. Friend made, the south-east midlands local enterprise partnership has also secured more than £21 million of funding to improve local road access for passengers and for planned development around Luton airport.
My hon. Friend’s final point was one raised by all hon. Members: the importance of rebuilding trust between airports and local communities, not just regarding the expansion of passenger numbers, but more generally, addressing historical issues. I understand that the publication of the vision document by the airport owner—that is, Luton Borough Council—is the first step in quite a lengthy process. The council will have to undertake further consultations with local communities in both Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire, and with other stakeholders this year. That will include the airport operators as well. The plan is not theirs, but the council’s—the airport owner, as opposed to the operators.
We recognise that those who live closest to airports bear a burden of the costs. The Government’s current policy objective is to encourage the aviation industry and local stakeholders to strengthen and streamline the way in which they work together, particularly at local level. The airport is already actively engaging with its local community, both directly and through the statutory London Luton Airport Consultative Committee. Furthermore, I assure my hon. Friend that projects subject to the development consent order process as well as local planning processes have to go through multiple consultation stages, during which his constituents and other stakeholders will be welcome to interact and have their say. That will be a new process for Luton airport, which has not had to go through that before.
In conclusion, we are committed to building a successful aviation industry, which is why our strategy is designed to look forward as far as 2050. We have to put the passenger at the heart of that, but also to ensure that we address the needs of the wider industry as well as the communities around the airports. I hope my comments today reassure my hon. Friend on some of the key points, and will perhaps give him some further avenues to pursue in working with the airport to improve the lives of people in his community, and those of other hon. Members. I thank everyone for their attendance and attention.
Question put and agreed to.
Independent Living Fund
[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered changes to the Independent Living Fund.
It is a real pleasure to have you chair the debate this afternoon, Mrs Main, on the extremely important subject of the independent living fund. The subject is perhaps not discussed as much as it ought to be. It is a very complex area, relating to a fund where there have been profound changes in recent years, affecting some of the most vulnerable members of our community. Fundamental changes have occurred that we need to assess, as one of the things that this House does least well is to revisit changes that have taken place to see whether they are having a positive or negative impact on those affected.
I am grateful to the House of Commons Library for its excellent debate pack and for helping to clarify some of the complex issues in this policy area. At the outset, I would also like to say thank you to my constituent, Nathan Davies, an independent living fund recipient whose circumstances I will talk about during the context of the debate. I have great admiration for him. He is very concerned about the current state of the independent living fund in Wales and its future development.
It is important at the beginning to set the scene and to set out the background to the recent changes to the independent living fund. The fund was first set up in 1988 with the express and very worthy purpose of helping disabled people to continue to live out in the community and to contribute to society generally.
My hon. Friend is quite right to talk about the importance of the independent living fund to his constituent. My constituent Richard, who is also a recipient, told me, “Words cannot really do justice to what the ILF means to me. It is like oxygen. It allows me to get out and about and not to be isolated—to live the best life I can.” Does my hon. Friend agree that gets to the crux—
Order. Interventions should be very brief, please; this is getting rather long.
Does my hon. Friend agree that that gets to the crux of just how important this debate is?
My hon. Friend and her constituent eloquently set out the importance of the fund. It gives freedom to individuals in receipt of funds to carry out what they want to do in their lives and to contribute broadly to their community.
The fund stayed open to new applicants until 2010 and was then closed. It operated across the UK until June 2015, when it was formally closed. Funding was devolved to English local councils and to the Scottish, Northern Ireland and Welsh Governments. The devolved Governments have pursued different policies on the fund. The Scottish Government set up Independent Living Fund Scotland, and my understanding is that the Northern Irish Government’s funds are also administered through that Scottish body.
Would the hon. Gentleman agree with me, and many disability rights groups, that when the decision was made in 2010 to close the fund to new applicants and restrict it to people working 16 hours or more, that signalled the signing of its death-warrant?
What it did was create a situation that was not sustainable in the long term. Clearly, individuals who ought to have been entitled to support from the fund were not able to access it simply because of when they were applying. So we needed to put in place a different set of circumstances after 2010.
This is a difficult issue, particularly in cash-straitened times. For that reason, the can was kicked down the road from 2010 through to 2015. The decision made in 2015 was, in my view, a hospital pass from the UK Government to other institutions, whether they were devolved Governments or local councils. Budgets were transferred, but they were closed budgets, which had been restricted since 2010. A group of people who became entitled after 2010 were not gaining access to funds. That was not sustainable and had to be addressed by those bodies now responsible—the devolved Governments and the local authorities. Those difficult issues were not dealt with by the UK Government. They were passed on to local councils and to devolved Governments at a time of difficult, straitened and reducing budgets. The very difficult decisions being made on the funding were having to be made by local councils, Members of the Scottish Parliament, Assembly Members, Welsh Government Ministers and Members in the devolved Assembly in Northern Ireland. It is a very difficult issue and we need to be frank in saying that the complexity does not lend itself to easy solutions.
My constituency is in Wales, where the devolved ILF funding was used to set up the Welsh independent living grant. The Welsh Government have said that in 2018 they intend to devolve funding to Welsh local authorities to administer the fund. In that context, it is helpful to consider the experience in England, where funding was devolved to local authorities back in 2015, and very helpful in that regard is the recent qualitative analysis of the closure of the independent living fund in England and the post-closure review carried out by the Government. I make it clear that that is very helpful, but it does not go far enough, and that is an important point on behalf of all recipients of the independent living fund. In order to understand the real impact of the closure of the fund and the devolution of funding, we need to know the quantitative aspects of the results of the Government’s actions. We need to know how much individuals who were previously receiving funding from the independent living fund are now receiving.
In one sense, that is self-evident. Individuals who were in receipt of funding before 2015 used that money to do the things that they wanted to do with their lives, for example, for care support, or to work or to get to work—all those things that those of us who do not have disabilities take for granted. The great value of the fund was that it helped people who had disabilities to do the things that those of us who do not have disabilities can do every day. When some of that money was taken away from them, that caused real anguish; the prospect of dealing with whether that money is going to be taken away also causes a great deal of worry.
In Wales, that is what happening at the moment. It is proposed that later this year, the funding will be devolved to local government bodies within Wales without ring-fencing. There is a great element of uncertainty in the minds of individuals currently in receipt of the independent living fund grant about whether they will have sufficient money to continue to do what they want to do.
Given in particular the competing priorities of local authorities, does he agree that there is potential for the lack of ring-fencing to result in a very negative impact on those most vulnerable in our society?
That is absolutely the case. I will be pointing out that that is exactly what has happened in some cases.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, which is very timely in considering some of the hardships involved. The problem with devolving such funds to local authorities is, as the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) mentioned, the background of a lack of resources. Local authorities are placed in the situation of having to prioritise things, and that could inflict further hardship on people who rely on the fund. I have heard about many such cases.
Absolutely. It is about those difficult decisions that local authorities have to make to balance their budgets. If they are given a budget, the temptation is to do the best they can with their money but to trim, which can have a real and adverse impact on the individuals concerned.
My own efforts to get to the bottom of the financial position of disabled people who previously received money from the independent living fund have, I am afraid, met with little success to date. I tabled some parliamentary questions and the Department for Work and Pensions blandly said in response that there was no central record of the amounts received by individuals following the closure of the fund in England. If one was cynical, one could say that that was convenient but anyway, frankly, it is just not good enough.
My concern, to pick up on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), is that we are in an era of declining local government budgets and are dealing with some of the most vulnerable people in our society, who were previously in receipt of funding from the independent living fund that enabled them to live their lives in the community. In many cases, however, they now receive less money than they did previously.
Does my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour agree that two debates are happening? One is about devolution, localism and the like—a lot of which is very creative—and the other about everything happening in the background with an agenda for cuts. That is where the problem lies and that is how people with grave disabilities could be greatly affected.
That is absolutely the case, and I want to talk about one of the people affected: the constituent I mentioned earlier, Nathan Davies.
Nathan is a proud resident of Wrexham and 40 years old. Aged 15, he was diagnosed with a degenerative condition, Friedreich’s ataxia, which I had never heard of until Nathan told me about it. In broad terms, it is a rare, progressive genetic condition and, in most cases, a person with the disease will be confined to a wheelchair, as Nathan is, within 10 to 20 years of diagnosis. It causes people to tire easily.
Despite his diagnosis, Nathan worked as a journalist for many years until his medical condition meant that he could no longer continue to do so, although that did not mean he stopped being active. Since 2010 he has received funding from the independent living fund, enabling him to live independently with the help of his family and carers. He continues to write and has published an authoritative study of football grounds in Wales—available from all good book stores—and he now campaigns on disability issues. He is not a man to be trifled with, he campaigns hard in elections and he is known as an important local character in the Wrexham area. He is also a big supporter of Wrexham association football club, which will of course return to its rightful place in the Football League next year—promotion permitting.
Last year Nathan’s contribution was recognised by his local Wrexham Glyndŵr University with the award of a richly deserved honorary degree. Today, pretty typically, Nathan is on the front page of The Leader local newspaper in Wrexham, campaigning against a council proposal to charge disabled people for car parking. His resilience and determination are admirable qualities, in particular in the face of the condition he suffers from. We should be helping, not hindering, people like Nathan.
Nathan has pointed out to me that in the past he received specialist advice from the independent living fund, the staff of which he found very helpful in discussion and for assessments. That is something I have heard from other recipients when I have attended recent consultation events on the ILF. As a result of support from the fund, Nathan has been able not only to live in the community but, as the independent living fund intended, to contribute in a really positive way to the community in which he lives, notwithstanding his disability and the challenges that he faces.
The difficulty is that doubt about the future of the fund in Wales is now causing Nathan great worry. Devolution of funding to local councils when their budgets are under great pressure means that there is no guarantee that the levels of funding will be maintained, even if an individual recipient’s condition deteriorates—for example, I mentioned Wrexham County Borough Council’s proposal to introduce car parking charges, which will be an additional expense for someone such as Nathan. The limited research available from England indicates that, as a result of the changes following 2015, more recipients have seen their income fall than increase and 22% of recipients have said that their income has “decreased a lot”; 19% of recipients have said that their day-to-day support has got “a lot worse”; and, in addition, local councils have informed 34% of the recipients of extra restrictions on how they may use their money for support.
In October 2016 the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities reported on the fund:
“The Committee finds that former Fund claimants have seen the support they received from local authorities substantially reduced, to the extent that their essential needs in areas such as daily personal care are not sufficiently covered.”
My own experience is that local authorities are under great financial pressure, and their staff are subject to increasing stress as they make the budgeting decisions.
The UK-wide consistency that characterised the independent living fund funding is no more. Different national systems, as well as devolved budgets within some of those systems, mean that there is likely to be an increasing disparity in provision for individuals in different parts of the country. I struggle to understand the rationale for that approach. It seems to diminish the support given by the previous administration of the independent living fund and to create great uncertainty in the minds of recipients of the fund.
In our constituency surgeries, we all see the great complexity of payments made to disabled people—direct payments, the independent living fund and personal independence payments—and it is difficult for professional advisers to find their way around the system, let alone individual claimants. My key plea to the Minister, who I am very pleased to hear was confirmed in her post earlier this afternoon—that is hot news for everyone—is that, at the very least, the Government should be collecting the detail of the impact of the ILF changes on previous recipients.
We should know and be obtaining from local authorities details of the financial impact of the closure of the fund on individuals. The suspicion is that the transfer of the funds to local authorities is a way of shifting difficult decisions on assessments to councils with diminishing funds, and that the failure to ring-fence budgets will reduce payments. This is the worry in the minds of disabled recipients. If the Government want to assuage those worries, they need to produce real evidence that that is not happening.
In Wales, there is real concern about the Welsh Government’s intention to devolve ILF budgets to local councils. Nathan Davies has arranged an exhibition, characteristically at Theatr Clwyd in Mold, to highlight his concerns and to put his campaign out there. I will raise those concerns directly with the Welsh Government and I will rely on the evidence from the all too limited research in England to show the adverse impact of the changes in ILF on the income of previous recipients. The lives and experiences of some of those vulnerable individuals have been adversely affected by the changes in recent years. In order to address those concerns, we need more information from all the local authorities in England, to find out the real impact on the individuals concerned, and to take action to improve the situation for those people.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) on making such a cognisant speech and describing the issues very well. He mentioned Northern Ireland and, obviously, I will take the chance to refer to that. My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) intervened to give some thoughts on what might come. We may be a wee bit disappointed not to have many people participating in the debate, because those who have an interest in the independent living fund will know the good it brings. Perhaps Members’ interests are on a much more taxing issue in the main Chamber.
The independent living fund is a national resource dedicated to and specifically tasked with delivering financial support for disabled people. Every one of us deals with all sorts of people in our constituency offices, and a large number of those are disabled. I have always been encouraged by the fact that the independent living fund enables people with clear disabilities to have some sort of a normal life, like we all have. Who in their right mind would not say that it is right to do that? Why should someone who is visually disabled, has behavioural problems or problems controlled by medication not have the opportunity for some independence? Just because people are disabled does not mean that they cannot look after themselves and that they should not be encouraged to do things. The fund enables those disabled people to live normal lives in the community, rather than live in residential care. There must be a great pride and enjoyment in independent living, with people being on their own and not needing residential care. Although the fund is not available in the way that it has been in England and Wales, we retain that in Northern Ireland—it is also retained in Scotland. We continue to support former independent living fund recipients.
Obviously, it is a pleasure to see the Minister in her place. We are here not to give her a hard time—that is not what it is about—but to suggest that, although it is a devolved matter, we recognise its good. Perhaps the Minister will respond to that in a positive way, and to the very salient points made by the hon. Member for Wrexham. Why should those who have disabilities not have recourse to an independent living fund? Why should they not be able to live a normal life? I believe they should, and I say to the Minister gently that it is discriminatory to do otherwise. The hon. Gentleman referred to that in his introduction, and I will focus on that in my contribution.
I refer the Minister to the inquiry carried out by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was conducted under article 6 of the optional protocol to the convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, to which the UK has been a signatory since 2007. I understand that a number of UK groups and organisations have contacted the committee with fears that Government reforms were having a negative impact on the basic but critical right of disabled people under articles 19, 27 and 28 of the convention. It is important that we do not ignore that. I am my party’s spokesperson on human rights, so it is an issue close to my heart, and I want to focus on it in the short time we have.
Articles 19, 27 and 28 of the convention are concerned with living independently, employment and social protection—all three are critical things that we have every day in this Chamber as able-bodied people, but that other people may not have in some parts of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The Library briefing states:
“The Independent Living Fund in the State party has been closed to new claimants since 2010 and was definitively closed in June 2015. The funds transferred from the central administration to local authorities under the scheme of localization were not ring-fenced in England”—
the hon. Member for Wrexham referred to that in his speech—
“affecting the majority of former Fund users.”
Therefore, the ones who are most impacted are those who were recipients of it and now are not. The impact on them is greater than ever. The briefing states:
“The Committee finds that former Fund claimants have seen the support they received from local authorities substantially reduced, to the extent that their essential needs in areas such as daily personal care are not sufficiently covered.”
We encouraged them to be involved in the scheme and then we took away that scheme. We took away the independence that they once had. That concerns me. It continues:
“The Committee takes note of the decision made by the devolved administrations in Scotland and Northern Ireland for the maintenance of schemes equivalent to the former Independent Living Fund”.
The briefing also cites an article titled “Government’s failure to ring-fence ILF funding ‘is leading to postcode lottery’” across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
One issue—I am sure the hon. Gentleman has come across this as well—is young people with mental illnesses, which very often imposes a burden on the families concerned.
I have come across that issue—many of my constituents are affected. Often, for those people with mental problems, the medication and their families monitoring, assisting and supporting them is all part of it. They want to have that independence as much as they can within the restrictions of their lifestyle and medications, with the support of their families.
We cannot forget the press headlines of the last few years—I will quote some of them to have them on record. I am not a Welsh MP, and none of us here is a member of the Welsh Government, but one headline in relation to the Welsh independent living grant states that the Welsh Government have “sold disabled people down the river”. Another headline reads: “Disabled activist ‘is fighting for his life’ as he hands petition to Welsh government”. I know and understand that it is a devolved matter for which the Minister is not responsible, but these are indications of where we need to do things. Another headline, dated 13 July 2017, reads: “Disabled people call for return of UK-wide Independent Living Fund”, to which everyone should subscribe. The last of the recent headlines is: “Years of austerity have left personal assistance in ‘very fragile state’”.
Hon. Members have a duty, to which I think we all subscribe, to reach out to ordinary people who just happen to have a disability that restricts their ability to have a normal life, to protect them and to enable them at least to aim for a much better lifestyle. It is the duty of elected Members of the House from all parties to ensure that we offer support to those who, unfortunately, do not have the ability to look after themselves. Let us do that in a suitable way. I look to the Minister, with great respect, for a response that enables us all to do that. I know that we have it in Northern Ireland, but parts of the mainland do not. Let us get it all together.
I thank the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) for bringing forward this debate and for his considered and thoughtful approach.
A number of Members expressed concerns about changes to the independent living fund. The hon. Gentleman set out clearly and poignantly the case of his constituent, Nathan Davies, and reminded us why the fund is so important. The fund is worthy of our attention because it is vital to people who live with disabilities. It is specifically designed to help people with a disability to live independently in our communities, and provides additional financial assistance to those already in receipt of support from social services to enable them to access essential support. We should all be able to support that without equivocation. Threats to the fund, or threats to reduce it, make it harder for people with disabilities to live independent lives. Who on earth would support that?
By the DWP’s own admission, the UK Government’s closure and transfer of the scheme to local authorities in 2015 caused many recipients severe hardship. We have heard repeated examples of that happening in constituencies throughout the United Kingdom. I say to the Minister with utter sincerity that that feeds into the perception held by a number of people that this Government are cruel and callous when it comes to supporting the sick and the disabled. I know that the Minister will reject that analysis—I would expect her to—but that perception exists, and that is a problem for the UK Government. I hope she is mindful of that and does her best to address it. The closure of the independent living fund does not help to counter that perception but feeds it. I am sure the Minister wants to seek to address that, and I know that she will take the point on board carefully.
Many Members mentioned the UK Government’s short-sighted and hugely concerning decision not to ring-fence the fund when devolving it to local authorities. Lord Freud, who was then Under-Secretary of State for the DWP, told the House of Lords in 2014 that
“local authorities need to be allowed to meet their statutory responsibilities in a flexible and responsive way and the ring-fencing of funding prevents this.”
I am sure that the intentions were honourable, but we have heard repeatedly that there can be no doubt that that created, by accident or design—it does not really matter to people suffering from the policy—a postcode lottery. We heard that from the hon. Members for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Wrexham. That is because local authorities now determine their own eligibility criteria, and they often do not provide the same funding as the independent living fund did. Considering that the fund is about vital support, that cannot be acceptable, and that decision needs in all good conscience to be revisited. I urge the Minister to do so, and I hope that she is minded to.
I very much take the hon. Lady’s point. Is that not made worse by the fact that budgets are broadly decreasing at the same time? Local government bodies have the unenviable task of somehow maintaining funding to individuals at a time when their income is falling.
I very much agree. Local authorities across the United Kingdom face difficult choices, but many people, particularly in England, believe that they face unprecedented funding crises. In Scotland, we have tried hard to protect local funding as far as possible—it is not always possible—under budgetary constraints, but Welsh and particularly English local authorities have faced deep, biting cuts. Thankfully, we are working hard to avoid the worst excesses of those cuts in Scotland, but devolving something and not ring-fencing it when there are so many budgetary pressures creates a difficulty with regard to what is prioritised and what it is possible to do.
On the hon. Lady’s point about local authority budgets, to take the west midlands as an example, Birmingham, the largest local authority, has to make cuts of just under £1 billion. In Coventry, that figure is more than £100 million. That is the type of pressure there is on budgets. My view, frankly, is that central Government should never have devolved—
Order. The hon. Gentleman is making a speech rather than an intervention. I call Patricia Gibson.
I take on board what the hon. Gentleman says. We have heard that there is a sense that devolving vital support to local authorities without either ring-fencing it or properly funding it is a way of dodging responsibility. I know that the Minister will seek to address that. Considering how important that support is for people living with disabilities, the situation is not sustainable.
It was deeply disappointing that, in 2010, the Labour Government tightened the fund so that it would accept applications only from people who were working 16 hours or more a week. That was done essentially with no consultation, and it was one of the last acts of the outgoing Labour Government. That was greatly disappointing to many people, particularly given how important the fund is and how many disabled people throughout the United Kingdom looked to the Labour Government at that time to champion their rights and support them. Many would argue—disability organisations certainly have—that tightening the eligibility criteria was the first step towards signing the death warrant of the fund itself, which is deeply unfortunate.
We in Scotland have chosen a different path. The devolution of powers permits various constituent parts of the UK to do things differently if they see fit. That is what devolution is all about. I say in just about every debate that I participate in that I do not really care where a good idea comes from: if it is a good idea, we should all seek to emulate it. I urge the Minister to look carefully at the independent living fund in Scotland. This issue should not be party political. It should be about seeking to do what is best for those who rely on this essential support. Party politics should not come into it. I urge the Minister to look carefully at what is going on in Scotland and to learn whatever lessons she thinks are of use to help to give people in England essential support.
The hon. Member for Wrexham is absolutely right that these are not easy decisions—thinking about how to spend taxpayers’ money is never easy—but most people in society would agree that supporting people with a disability to live independently in their communities and contribute in the best way they can to those communities, which is what they want to do, is worth looking at seriously. This is not easy, but some things are too important for us always to be guided by pounds, shillings and pence.
Can the hon. Lady tell me whether the Scottish fund is open to new applicants?
I can: it opened at the end of 2017, and I will make a few remarks about it. In 2015, the Scottish National party Government created the public body, the Independent Living Fund Scotland, on the back of the UK Government closing the UK scheme. There was £47.2 million of the former independent living fund to be administered to support 2,600 people in Scotland, with 99% of recipients stating that the fund helped them to live their lives more independently. In addition, the Scottish Government injected an additional £5 million to support those aged between 16 and 21—a transitional fund to help them into adulthood. From the end of last year, it is open to new applications.
We must not lose sight of what the fund is for: to help recipients of all ages to contribute to and participate in their communities, which we can all support and get behind. We want all people—people living with a disability or not—to live as independently and productively as they possibly can. The Scottish Government have worked with those living with a disability to develop the fund to ensure they have choices and are treated with dignity, respect and fairness.
The Scottish Transitions Forum, a national network of more than 850 professionals, young people, parents and carers, funded by the Scottish Government, has helped to inform the progress of policies. It is essential and should go without saying that the voices of the people directly affected by the policy should help to shape it from the bottom up. I urge the Minister to ensure that, across the United Kingdom, policies and initiatives, particularly with regard to those living with a disability, heed their voices and put them at the heart of the process to help improve the situation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) on securing this important debate and I thank everybody for their valid contributions and interventions this afternoon. My hon. Friend makes a really good point in that this issue has probably not been discussed. Given it has been nearly two and a half years since the fund was closed, it is worth our revisiting it today. He points out that this is a technical issue. Also, he made the really important point that we need to know the quantitative impact of the devolving of funds on existing claimants. He rightly set out the importance of the fund and the part it has played in many disabled people’s lives to enable them to live an independent life and able to fully participate in society.
My hon. Friend set out how the fund made a contribution and how it was devolved to local authorities, particularly in England. That is a good example of the impact it could have when the scheme is changed in Wales. As it stands, it will potentially be devolved to local Welsh authorities, as has happened here in England. He made the point that local authorities’ budgets have been put under great strain, given the funding cuts they have had to endure over the past seven years. We need to take a fresh look at the way funding is given to support disabled people.
I pay tribute to Nathan Davies, a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham and a recipient of the fund. He is a disability rights campaigner and I thank him for all that he does. We need to hear the voices of disabled people so that we fully understand the impact that decisions made here have on disabled people outside.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the fears that my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham, I and others have is that, because there are such pressures on council budgets, there will be great campaigns on locally based issues—the closure of a library or the like—but individuals with disabilities will not have that same sort of voice and could therefore be left unheard and with financial problems as a result of the changes?
My hon. Friend makes a really valid point. She is right. We need to ensure that the voices of disabled people are heard. I can refer back to my own experience here in London in a particular local authority when the campaign on the closure of the independent living fund began. A lot of campaigning took place. It is important that we encourage and empower disabled people to ensure their voices are heard. I totally take her point that we need to ensure disabled people’s voices are not lost in any of the debates. As a disabled woman myself, my role is to ensure disabled people are empowered and their voices always heard.
From the outset it is fundamental that any support for severely disabled people is adequately funded so that we can ensure people with disabilities can live independently. We know that disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty compared with non-disabled people, in part due to the extra costs associated with living with a disability. I cannot carry on further without talking about the Government’s past record in terms of the disproportionate impact that their cuts have had on disabled people. There are 4.2 million disabled people living in poverty and over the past seven years many disabled people feel they have been scapegoated by the Government. A 2016 inquiry by the UN’s Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities found that since 2010 the UK Government have been responsible for “grave or systematic violations”.
The independent living fund—I will refer to it as the ILF—closed in June 2015. The funding was devolved to English local authorities and the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Governments. Devolved Governments adopted their own different policies. We have already heard about the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish policies. The ILF was originally set up in 1988 to help cover the extra costs of being severely disabled. It was also to ensure that disabled people could lead a full and active independent life in their community, rather than living in institutions or in residential care. At the time of the fund’s closure, more than 16,000 disabled people in Britain were receiving an average of around £350 a week towards the costs of living independently.
The ILF was a vital financial resource for many severely disabled people that enabled them to live independently. It helped to cover the everyday tasks that many of us take for granted such as cleaning, washing, cooking, going out and being able to participate fully. At the time of the closure the coalition Government stated that all existing recipients would continue to be funded by their local authorities. In reality, that has not always been the case. It was suggested that many local authorities would not ring-fence funding and the grant would simply be absorbed into a general pot.
For example, Disability Rights UK research suggested that only 29 councils in England would ensure non-ring-fenced funding would be allocated. Indeed, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities,
“observed that social care packages have been reduced in the context of...budgetary constraints at the local level.”
As I have alluded to, we know that since 2010 local authorities have come under extreme pressures and have seen their budgets cut. They will continue to have to make cuts and it is unsure how much support disabled people will receive. For example, when an individual who received 27 hours of support a week through the ILF was reassessed under the local authority arrangement, he was to be given just nine hours’ support. Potentially he would have to make contributions as well, and naturally that would have been unaffordable.
The extensive cuts to local government funding have ensured that in many cases some disabled people have been restricted or limited in the lives they could lead. As has been pointed out, there were local campaigns; I was not in this place at the time but I am led to believe that there was a protest here, by disabled people who wanted to change Government’s decision to end the independent living fund in its current form without devolving it to a local level. Despite assurances from the Government of the day, support has been removed from some disabled people, and reduced for those with the highest support needs. In England in particular, there is pretty much a postcode lottery; the level of support that people get is almost dependent on the local authority area they live in. We would all agree that it is fundamental that disabled people’s independence should not be dependent on the level of funding or eligibility criteria set by an individual local authority. Distribution of funding should also be based on need; therefore there should be some sort of universal policy for how that is done.
I want to speak briefly about eligibility. That is determined by the local authority, and we do not see, in many cases, whether recipients’ support has decreased or increased. A decrease would undoubtedly have an impact on someone’s ability to live independently. I share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham and hope that the Minister can respond on the important issue of what the impact of the changes to the independent living fund has been. How many recipients’ support packages have been reduced, and how many have remained the same? Are there any instances, among so many disabled people, of the support being enhanced? It is also important that we should know that disabled people’s voices will be included in the future when decisions are made about them. That is something that I believe and take a stand on, as does the Labour party. Since 2013 disabled people have experienced £27 billion in welfare cuts, affecting social security and social care support.
As I said at the start of my speech, we believe that it is fundamental that adequate funding is provided to enable severely disabled people to live independently. The Government must ensure that local authorities and devolved Governments are adequately funded. I urge the Minister to touch in her response on how we will deal with working-age disabled people.
I remind the Minister that Mr Lucas has the right of response, so perhaps she will leave a couple of minutes at the end of her remarks.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, and I appreciate that reminder.
I welcome the debate secured this afternoon by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas). It is important, and I agree with him: although I have been in the House seven years, and obviously we legislate for a lot of changes, we do not spend enough time going back over them to see whether they delivered on our good intentions. It is important to scrutinise, debate and revisit what we have done. There are of course always lessons to be learned, and we should do that—learn the lessons as we go forward. I welcome the contributions made by the hon. Members for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I can clearly see that they and other Members who intervened in the debate deeply share my commitment to disabled people, and that they want to ensure they can play as full as possible a part in society. They spoke passionately about their constituents and people who have benefitted from the independent living fund.
From the outset I want to assure everyone present for the debate that the Government are absolutely committing to provide the right support for disabled people so that they can live independently. I want to address the detailed points that were raised, but it is important to take up the challenge set by the hon. Member for Wrexham to look back and explain the reasons for deciding to close the fund in the first place. It is clear to me, looking back at what my predecessors aimed to do, that the decision was driven by a clear case for reform, rather than any desire to cut costs. The way disabled people are supported to live independent lives has changed significantly in the past 20 years, so the ILF model was becoming increasingly outdated. There have been significant changes to the social care landscape over the period, which have meant that mainstream provision now offers the type of control and choice that we have heard about this afternoon. That is far more available in mainstream provision than it was at the time when people thought we needed an independent living fund because those services, and that support, were not available.
I do not think it was right that the ILF was a discretionary fund. As with any discretionary fund, that inevitably led to quite a lot of inequity; people with similar disabilities did not get equal access to services. I was proud to be a member of the Bill Committee on the Care Act 2014, which I remind hon. Members secured all-party support. It was recognised as a huge, significant reform to social care—probably the most significant for 60 years. It was clear that the Act was intended to promote greater independence as well as to increase disabled people’s control over their care and support. It incorporated and built on many of the features of the ILF. Of course, importantly, the Act introduced national eligibility criteria for access to adult social care. That was no longer discretionary, with people having to apply to a fund and others deciding how it should be spent. Criteria were nationally set. Local authorities have a statutory responsibility to deliver on it, but of course they have discretion to do more. We have heard examples from Scotland. Wales takes a different approach, and local authorities throughout the country can innovate. They can join up with other services, such as supported housing, and there are huge opportunities to innovate and join up services.
The Care Act 2014 established not only eligibility criteria but standards. Like any hon. Member present this afternoon, when I work with my constituents we are interested in the quality of care. It is important to focus on that, and not always just on the amount of money, although funding is of course important. The Act brought in consistency in eligibility and in quality of care, and that was a huge step in the right direction.
When responsibility for the ILF was transferred to local authorities and devolved Administrations, of course it was very much part of the Government’s thinking on supporting the principles of localism. Local bodies are accountable to local people in their areas, and are best placed to make the decisions about how to support people. Just like other Members, I get frustrated and even angry with the local authority in my area when it does not prioritise the most vulnerable people. I do not shrink from the fact that because of the financial situation that we inherited in 2010 there have had to be cuts to local authority budgets, but they still have substantial amounts of money. They have to make choices, and when anyone asks me I am clear that they should prioritise the most vulnerable.
We have heard comments this afternoon about the legality of what the Government are doing, and that in some way we are in breach of our obligations under the Equalities Act 2010. I wish to respond to that and emphasise that the Government’s decision to close the independent living fund was challenged in a judicial review, and throughout the process the DWP won on all points. It was judged that the consultation was fair and that it had paid due regard and proper attention to the public sector equality duty. At appeal we were directed to prepare a new equality analysis, which we did, and that informed the decision to transfer funding and responsibility to local authorities in England and the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales. That was announced in March 2014, and it was all put in place at the time of the transfer.
At that time, a huge amount of support was given to local authorities and the devolved Administrations, which people very much welcomed. The ILF was fully funded when it was transferred to local authorities, and the Government guaranteed funding for former ILF users until at least 2020. The funding forecasts used to calculate local authority grants were based on the ILF’s own models. That was an independent body—a charity—and the forecasts were based on its models. The budget for the final year of the ILF was £262 million, and in England £363 million was transferred in two years following the closure of the scheme. A further £498 million will be transferred to local authorities between now and 2020, to cover ongoing local authority payments to former ILF recipients. Funding per person has been maintained, and that is what matters to individuals.
As has been said, the funding was not ring-fenced, because I firmly believe that local councils are better placed than central Government to take decisions about their own area, including how they spend their budget. Any attempt to dictate the terms of the transfer would have frustrated the aim of enabling local authorities to join up services that they often already provide to disabled people in their communities.
The Minister said that funding to individuals has been maintained. How does she know that when she does not keep records of the amounts paid by local authorities to individual recipients?
The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. We transferred the money for that purpose—I was going to come to this point later in my speech, but I will say it now. The hon. Gentleman gave various numbers for losses, cuts, and people not receiving money that came from the research that he has done, including work with third-party organisations. Before this debate I asked him to come and see me so that we could talk the issue through, because the fund was certainly transferred in the full expectation that its recipients would have their funding maintained. If there is evidence to the contrary I would like to sit down with him and go through that.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s welcome for the independent review of the impact of the fund. That was carried out by leading social scientists and showed that the majority of people interviewed during the research were seeing the same level of expenditure, or more, and that the level and quality of support were going up. However, there was variability in that research, and I would be delighted to sit down with the hon. Gentleman and make sure that the money is being spent in the way that was intended.
Through the devolution of the fund, the vast majority of recipients of ILF—94%—were also recipients of care and financial support from local authorities. There was a lot of duplication, and that has enabled local authorities to have the person-centred approach that the Care Act 2014 was always about. We need to join up services around the individual because no two people are the same. No two families have the same circumstances, so we must ensure that support meets the needs of the individual and enables them to live as independently as possible. As the hon. Gentleman recognised, these are devolved matters, and it is for the Welsh Assembly to make these decisions. The Welsh Minister for Social Services and Public Health said that funding of the ILF will continue in Wales, as that will equalise support and “make it more sustainable”. That is certainly a point that the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues in Wales recognise.
We have a clear commitment to ensure that disabled people have the support to lead independent lives, and that is demonstrated in the fact that the Department spends well over £50 billion a year. This year, £52 billion will be spent on benefits to support disabled people and those with health conditions. That is around 2.5% of our GDP, and more than 6% of Government spending, and it is up by £7 billion in real terms since 2010. It is simply wrong when colleagues stand up in the House and say that the Government are cutting benefits for people with disabilities. These are indisputable facts, and when hon. Members stand up in the Chamber, and elsewhere, and wonder why there is a perception that the Government are being cruel and heartless to disabled people, I think they should look at themselves in the mirror. When Members constantly misrepresent the facts, of course people will be worried and scared. Like any other constituency MP I hold weekly surgeries, and I am frankly dismayed when people come along holding their Labour leaflets and showing me what they are being told. They are scared about cuts that are not happening.
It is not right to say that we are not being truthful because there have been severe cuts to support for disabled people. The introduction of the personal independence payment and the abolition of disability living allowance means that fewer people will receive additional support to help meet the extra costs of living with a disability. The time limiting of contributory employment and support allowance has also led to a reduction in the number of recipients who are eligible for support—
Order. This is an intervention, not a speech. The Minister is replying to the debate.
As I said, we are spending more than £7 billion more than in 2010, and the changes we have made to the personal independence payment mean that more people are now eligible for support. People with conditions such as multiple sclerosis and those with variable conditions are now eligible, as are people with mental health problems. We have widened the range of people with health conditions and disabilities who can apply for the personal independence payment.
Does the Minister agree that there is a stark difference between perception and reality, and that while some may use that perception for partisan reasons and to play politics, the reality on the ground is that the Government are supporting those who are disabled to live fulfilled and full lives, and helping them to gain choice and control over how their support is delivered?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing that out. The numbers clearly show a significant contribution to helping people live independently, but these things are not the only things we are doing. He is completely right to talk about enabling people to play their full part in society, including in work, and I am delighted that so many more disabled people are in work. The vast majority of disabled people want to play their full part in society and to be able to work, and we have set up very ambitious plans to ensure that more people have more support.
Let us look at some of that support. Not only do we have ESA and the personal independence payment, but enhanced and tailor-made support is available through the work coaches in Jobcentre Plus—that is more than £330 million. The marvellous Access to Work programme enables people to receive support of up to and over £40,000 a year so that they can go to work and stay in work. The subject of the newly launched Work and Health programme brings me on to the point raised by the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran about working collaboratively with Scotland. I am delighted that in Scotland people are working so constructively on some of that innovation, and testing new ways that we can support people to get into and stay in work. We have a constructive working relationship with Scotland, and Scotland is benefiting from some of the considerable investment we are putting into that programme. Just this year we have two funds, one of nearly £80 million and another of about £35 million. I will, of course, always look to work with colleagues in any part of the country where we can work collaboratively and constructively to learn from each other, so that we can enable more people to play as full a part in society as they possibly can.
We have also talked about other parts of the funding. Adult social care is incredibly important for disabled people, and we have committed to publishing a Green Paper by the summer, setting out how we will reform the system and have a longer-term settlement on social care. An inter-ministerial group has been set up to do that, because it is an essential reform that we need to achieve. It is also important to have a cross-party, whole nation approach to doing that, because various Governments have tried to get it right, but we have yet to come up with a settled view we can all support. I think that is long overdue, and I will work hard to support that inter-ministerial group in coming up with a set of proposals that will aim to command the support of the whole House. Any hon. Members here who would like to join would be welcome.
I am really pleased that there will be a cross-ministerial group. Can the Minister confirm that working-age disabled people will also be considered in the Green Paper and in the reform of adult social care?
We definitely have two pieces of work under way. One is part of adult social care and is about the care of elderly people, and one is for working-age disabled people. That is incredibly important. We are always looking to see what more we can do to support disabled people to live as independent a life as possible, and I also want to ensure that, as we look ahead, we draw on the lessons we will learn through the considerable investment in innovation that we are putting in through the Work and Health programme. I want to ensure that we have an evidence base for the reforms we want to put in place.
In the meantime, we know we need to put more money into the system. We have put in an additional £2 billion over the next three years. That money was committed in March last year, and will mean that local authorities have the funds they need to support disabled people in living as independent a life as they can and to meet their social care needs. Councils have access to £9.25 billion more in dedicated funding for social care over the next three years. I think that, with this additional funding, local authorities have the ability to meet the needs that have been clearly set out there and to meet the responsibilities set out in the Care Act. It is important to analyse the impact of the closure of the independent living fund and I am happy to meet the hon. Member for Wrexham, because what I really want to do is focus on what more we can do in the future.
I hope that hon. Members who have been present for today’s debate will see that we have a big ambition, through a whole range of programmes, to enable disabled people to live independently and play their full part in society, helping them into work. I believe that the challenge we face as a nation is above party politics; it should be above party politics. Those colleagues who want to work with me to improve, learn and move forward to realise that bold ambition are very welcome to join me in a meeting and in that great challenge.
I thank the Minister for her response. The first step I would like to see is for the Government to begin collecting the information from local authorities on the real impact of the closure of the fund on individuals within each local authority area in England, so that we are informed about that situation and can hopefully put at rest the minds of those individuals who face the closure of the fund, such as my constituent Nathan Davies. As a matter of policy, it should always be the case that the Government collect information arising from their own policy decisions. I am amazed that that has not happened to date.
On the issue of the impact of cuts to individuals in receipt of disability benefits, the reality is that, as constituency MPs, we see individual people whose income has been reduced because of political decisions made by the Government. Whether or not the Government have paid an extra £7 billion into the Department for Work and Pensions fund, those individuals have had a reduction in their income. That is what we are campaigning on, and why we are arguing in favour of supporting those people and making political cases.
The Minister is a politician, as I am. We take different views, but I do not doubt her integrity and she should not doubt ours. We campaign because we are representing those individuals who have had their incomes reduced as a result of the political choices the Government have made. We will continue to make that political point, because we see a different vision from the one she sees. That is what our democracy is about. For the most part, this has been a non-partisan debate, and I am rather surprised that the most partisan element was introduced by the Minister, because it is a hugely important issue. We all want to support disabled people. I would be happy to meet the Minister to discuss matters. I will have discussions with members of my own party about the future of the fund in Wales, because I am not convinced that the evidence from what has happened in England supports devolution to local authorities as a good way forward. If the Minister can convince me otherwise, so be it. I will meet Welsh Ministers to discuss the issue with them too.
I am grateful for the debate, which has been helpful and has clarified a number of issues, and I am grateful for the manner in which you have chaired it, Mrs Main.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered changes to the Independent Living Fund.
Shoreham Air Show Crash: Access to Justice
[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Shoreham air show crash and access to justice by families of the victims.
I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), as the last man standing in the Ministry of Justice. I will be easy in my comments and certainly not apportion any blame to him for the inadequacy of any answers he may be able to provide.
This is an important matter. On 22 August 2015, a vintage Hawker Hunter jet plane crashed at the Shoreham air show in my constituency. Eleven men tragically lost their lives, and many stories of the personal tragedies that accompanied that loss touched a chord across the nation. It represented at the time the largest civilian loss of life in the United Kingdom since 7/7, and the first fatalities on the ground at any UK air show since 1952. Those statistics will give little comfort to the victims’ families, and I am sure that I echo the feelings of the whole House when I say that our thoughts and prayers go out to them, and that the first priority remains to give them the support that they will need in these difficult times.
Those were the words that I used when opening a debate in this Chamber on 15 September 2015, just three weeks after that tragic accident. Twenty eight months on, the coroner’s inquest has still not happened and is not scheduled until November 2018 at the earliest, and no decision has been taken by the Crown Prosecution Service about whether any charges will be brought against anyone or any body. The lack of any decisions about prosecutions has already led to delay in the coroner’s inquest. Indeed, the West Sussex coroner, Penny Schofield, has written again just this week to families of the victims to postpone the third pre-inquest review hearing, due on 24 January, to 26 March. There is growing concern that the inquest may well not happen in 2018 at all, given its dependence on getting prospective criminal proceedings out of the way, despite the huge efforts being made by the coroner, which I know are greatly appreciated by the families of the victims. I want to pay tribute to the sensitive and sympathetic way in which the coroner for West Sussex, Penny Schofield, has dealt with the families in this tragic case.
I raised this issue directly with the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s Question Time on 1 November 2017, and specifically the extraordinary decision by the Legal Aid Agency not to extend funding from the exceptional cases fund to the families of the victims at the coroner’s inquest when it eventually takes place.
I am sorry to learn about the difficulties that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents have experienced in trying to secure legal representation and legal aid. Legal aid is an issue that I take great interest in, and I previously tabled early-day motion 498 in relation to legal aid for inquests. Does he agree that the Government should review legal aid for inquests and ensure that legal aid is granted in all cases for bereaved families where the state is funding one or more of the other parties?
I do agree, and indeed the Government are doing that. I will come to that point later on.
I originally raised that decision in a letter to the PM in August jointly with other Sussex Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), but, alas, had not received a response directly from the Prime Minister at the time. The Prime Minister replied at PMQs that she fully understood the concerns of the families and assured me she was committed to ensuring that
“where there is a public disaster, people are able to have proper representation.”—[Official Report, 1 November 2017; Vol. 630, c. 814.]
Those were her words. The Lord Chancellor was asked to look at the problem, which is connected to the point that the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) made. I appreciate that the Prime Minister takes a close interest in this tragedy. Indeed, in contrast with the apparent indifference of No. 10 under the previous Prime Minister to the magnitude of this tragedy, the now Prime Minister championed the outstanding role played by the police, especially in the traumatic days that followed the crash, and added her tribute and flowers for the victims.
It is deeply disappointing that since 1 November, all that has happened effectively is a confirmation from the Ministry of Justice that the Legal Aid Agency made its decision properly, that the application and subsequent appeal were considered in line with relevant guidance and that Ministers cannot intervene. The Prime Minister simply pointed out that, before I raised this issue, the Lord Chancellor had announced a post-implementation review of the legal changes made by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, and I might consider making a submission to that review. That is the point that the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge made, and I will certainly be using the transcript of this debate to put that case.
The air accidents investigation branch produced a very thorough and comprehensive report on 3 March 2017, but it was not its job to apportion blame and instigate legal proceedings—that is not the way it is set up. A number of questions were raised by that report. The law firm Stewarts Law, which has been representing pro bono some of the families, has made a number of comments about that report. The AAIB report says that the investigation found that
“the parties involved in the planning, conduct and regulatory oversight of the flying display did not have formal safety management systems in place to identify and manage the hazards and risks. There was a lack of clarity about who owned which risk and who was responsible for the safety of the flying display, the aircraft, and the public outside the display site who were not under the control of the show organisers.”
It goes on:
the Civil Aviation Authority—
“believed the organisers of flying displays owned the risk. Conversely, the organiser believed that the regulator would not have issued a Permission for the display if it had not been satisfied with the safety of the event…No organisation or individual considered all the hazards associated with the aircraft’s display, what could go wrong, who might be affected and what could be done to mitigate the risks to a level that was both tolerable and as low as reasonably practicable. Controls intended to protect the public from the hazards of displaying aircraft were ineffective.”
Stewarts Law notes:
“Further, there is a valid, proper and serious legal argument that the CAA failed as a regulator in properly implementing a safety recommendation made over six years ago by the AAIB from a previous fatal Hawker crash at Shoreham in 2007.”
As it stands, at the official coroner’s inquest, there will be 19 interested parties involved. All non-family properly interested persons will be legally represented. Only the families of the victims—surely those with the closest and strongest interest in the proceedings—will not have legal representation.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. As a neighbouring MP and someone who also lost a constituent in this air show crash, may I thank him for the open-hearted and spirited way in which he worked in collaboration with me during that gruesome period? Many of the victims of this air crash were the highest earners of the families from which they were taken, which means that in a hugely complex investigatory and legal landscape funded by Government agencies, these grieving families, who are very vulnerable and most unable to tackle these big issues, need the help of Government more than anybody else. Does he agree?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I pay tribute to him and other neighbouring MPs who had constituents who were victims, as I extraordinarily did not. We have been able to act together to give some support and comfort to the families involved. Indeed, there was a public appeal that raised some £200,000, which has been distributed through the Sussex Community Foundation, and I have been on the board of that. I have seen at first hand the huge impact that this has had on families for whom the victims were the breadwinners. As well as going through the trauma of grieving, they have had to reinvent their lives. We need to be as supportive of these people as possible so that they can get through the formal processes, get their lives back on track and get some sort of closure. That is just not happening, which is why I have come back today to raise this matter again in the House.
As I have said, it is not assured that the inquest will go ahead this year, delaying yet further the opportunity for the families to get to the bottom of exactly what happened and achieve some degree of closure.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will, and then I want to make some progress before I run out of time.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, for leading all of us who have bereaved constituents and for the work he has done, particularly for my constituents in Heathfield. I think he is building on this case already, but I put it to him that with an inquest where all the others appearing will be represented and may have a certain drive to ensure that the inquest goes in one particular direction, and where there will be no prosecution as there would be in a court, it is even more imperative that the families get legal aid, to ensure that there is some semblance of balance for the coroner and guidance.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, to which I will come shortly. I again thank him for co-signing the letter to the Prime Minister and for joining us in this whole enterprise.
The families still have no idea whether anyone will be charged and held responsible for the deaths of their loved ones. That is disgraceful. There has been ping-pong between the police and the CPS as to whether files and complete information have been presented to the CPS. It was confirmed only at the beginning of December that all the files required were with the CPS. Of course we want a thorough investigation of what happened, but does it really need to take this long? The CPS needs to make a decision one way or the other as to whether a prosecution can go ahead, and if one cannot, it needs to explain fully to the families why there are not grounds for a prosecution. We are in a state of limbo that is holding up the entire process, which is completely unacceptable. Frankly, I would have hoped that the Law Officers would have played some part in nudging, at least, the CPS to expedite this matter.
Twenty-seven months on from the debate in which I urged that the first priority must be to give the families the support that they need in these difficult times, it is hard to see how that has been achieved as it should and could have been. I am afraid that the Prime Minister’s words when she stated that the families of the victims of a public disaster should be able to have proper representation ring rather hollow.
Why is the decision by the Legal Aid Agency not to permit funding under the exceptional case funding provisions introduced by LASPO in 2013 so patently wrong and unjust? Exceptional case funding is currently available for categories of law that are not in scope for legal aid and where failure to provide legal services would be in breach of an individual’s rights, within the meaning of the Human Rights Act 1998, or other enforceable EU rights relating to provision of legal services. Inquests have never fallen within the main body of legal aid provision. Currently, legal aid for inquests is available only at the discretion of the Legal Aid Agency under the exceptional case funding provisions, so this case is just the sort of eventuality that was envisaged when the fund was set up in the original LASPO Act. It has nothing to do with cuts in legal aid funding, as some have tried to claim.
The Law Society has supported this application and strongly believes that bereaved families should have access to legal representation where possible. As it has put it:
“The current definition of exceptional case funding does not provide an adequate ‘safety net’ for inquests. Applications for exceptional funding are highly complex and time consuming, requiring applicants to have an understanding of human rights law, and in the case of inquests, be able to show that there is an Article 2 (right of life) issue or a wider ‘public interest’”.
The application has also been supported by the West Sussex coroner, Penny Schofield, who specifically points to problems with the families uniquely being deprived of legal representation, which could lead to a more time-consuming inquest, costing more and denying justice to all on a level playing field. She has said:
“This is a highly complicated case. It involves areas of aviation law which are complex and technical in nature. Families will struggle to participate in the Inquest in any meaningful way without the assistance of legal representation.
The Inquest will engage a number of complex legal issues including article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It is further complicated by the fact that I will be sitting with a Jury.
If the families are not represented it is likely that the Inquest, which is already likely to last up to 8 weeks, will take considerably longer…The outcome of this Inquest will have a wider public interest. The Inquest will allow for the identification of dangerous practices and/or systemic failings that could potentially be a significant risk to life, health or safety to others for those attending airshows or working in this environment in the future.”
She finishes her letter by saying:
“I would fully support any application for funding and would emphasise that in my view it is essential not only for the families but for the wider public at large.”
One cannot put it more clearly than that. Furthermore, other, non-family interested parties that are public bodies, and for which legal representation will come from public funds, include Sussex Police, the Civil Aviation Authority, the air accidents investigation branch and the Health and Safety Executive. They will get legal representation paid for out of public funds, but the family of a victim does not qualify.
I pay tribute to Stewarts Law, the solicitors who have represented most of the families pro bono and who have made the formal application for legal funding. They made a case for legal representation to involve an aviation specialist Queen’s counsel, supported by a junior counsel and solicitors from the five firms involved with the families across the board. They make the case that
“without the support of effective legal representation, it will be impossible for the families to participate in the inquest.”
They also make the case that funding should be required by article 2 of the ECHR, the right to life. As has already been said, the AAIB report raised serious questions about the protection of that right by certain public agencies—the systemic failure by the state and its agents in the safe regulation of public flying displays. That should constitute qualification under article 2.
The inquest will undertake an investigation into the cause of the accident. It will give the 11 families an understanding of the events that led to the deaths of their loved ones and enable them to participate in the fact-finding inquisitorial process. Unlike in the criminal investigation, the families have an opportunity to be involved in the inquest process and require legal assistance to do so—my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle made that point. The police have referred to the thousands of documents that will be provided to the coroner, and to which the families will have access, that will include technical evidence, lay evidence and witness testimony. Surely the families are entitled to proper legal scrutiny of those. Detailed specialised knowledge is necessary to understand the AAIB report and the supplementary oral evidence from the AAIB, and challenge it accordingly. Additionally, the volume of case documents in the inquest will be such that the families will further require legal expertise to assist in managing the documents and explaining their relevance to the proceedings. Therefore, a strong case was made in the application. It just defies logic that, in this exceptional case, the families have not qualified for exceptional case funding.
This inequality of arms is inequitable and could undermine the inquest’s ability to serve the public interest through a failure to protect rights under article 2 of the ECHR, with the families in effect being left to represent themselves with one hand tied behind their backs. There clearly is a wider public interest, although it is refuted by the Legal Aid Agency. There is a wider public interest not least for the more than 300 civilian air shows that take place up and down the country. They have already been affected by the changes that the CAA introduced in the light of the AAIB investigation report, meaning that some have not been able to stay viable—insurance premiums have gone up in many cases. What is that if not a wider public interest? At the conclusion of the inquest, the coroner is able, under regulation 28 of and schedule 5 to the coroners rules, to make recommendations for changes to ensure improvements to air safety and to prevent future accidents. That is each family’s main aim: they wish to prevent similar deaths and to ensure that others do not have to endure this huge trauma and bereavement. That is a wider public interest.
Clearly, therefore, the Legal Aid Agency judgment is flawed. I have requested a meeting with the chief executive, Shaun McNally, which he has agreed to, after it has looked at things further. I gather that the board is still assessing the judgment. I urge it to apply the principles for which the exceptional case fund was established in the first place. In addition, I urge the Government to look at the Law Society recommendations about what the review of LASPO should change, including researching the reasons for the low level of exceptional case funding—the point made by the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge.
There is also a wider issue about the inadequate way we fund legal representation for families of victims of multiple-death events. The issue is highlighted most starkly by the appalling delay in achieving justice for the victims of the Hillsborough disaster, which we have heard so much about in this place. In the report commissioned by the Home Office, “‘The patronising disposition of unaccountable power’”, the Right Reverend James Jones, the former Bishop of Liverpool and chair of the Hillsborough independent panel, said that there is a “pressing need” for bereaved families to have publicly funded legal representation at inquests at which public bodies are legally represented. I entirely agree. I have had discussions with the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), who has championed their cause, about achieving a level playing field in these fortunately rare but devastating cases. I have co-signed the letter to the Prime Minister to that effect and hope that the new Secretary of State for Justice and the new team will meet us to discuss that.
This is my ask of the Government and the Minister. First, despite the rules, the Government should find some way to step in and underwrite funding for legal representation of the families urgently, and well before the review of LASPO. Secondly, Law Officers need to put pressure on the CPS to make a decision one way or the other and fully explain it as a matter of urgency. In the longer term, they need to look at the how we ensure that families affected by such tragedies have full recourse to proper legal representation on a level playing field.
This was an exceptional tragedy. It was a tragedy not only for the families, but for the local community, which still bears the scars of what happened, and for the country as a whole, when the spotlight and the cameras were on the small town in my constituency for those days back in August. It was an exceptional tragedy, and it needs an exceptional response from Ministers and the Government. I hope the Minister will give some assurances that that might now happen.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I begin by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for his tireless and tenacious efforts and for securing this debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to respond on behalf of the Ministry of Justice.
The Shoreham air disaster was an appalling tragedy. My heart goes out to all those affected. My hon. Friend has spoken movingly about that tragedy, both today and in the past in the House. The inquest is a distinct judicial process. It can be a traumatic ordeal for the bereaved, both in hearing how their loved ones died and through the frustration in the search for answers. That search for the truth, the answers to the unknown questions, is important in helping the bereaved to understand and make sense of tragedies such as this. It is also important for ensuring we have proper accountability for what happened, and thereby enable the families affected to move on with their lives, even though, of course, it can never compensate for their loss.
The inquest process comes on top of the independent review that was commissioned by the Department for Transport, working with the air accidents investigation branch, which reported last year. I note that the Civil Aviation Authority has accepted all the air accidents investigation branch’s recommendations. I mention this because of its importance in the search for all of the answers that the families quite understandably want.
The inquest itself is meant to be an inquisitorial process. It should not be an adversarial court proceeding. Participants are not required to present legal arguments, and they can ask coroners to question witnesses on their behalf. Inquests are about fact finding. They seek to establish the truth. Most inquest hearings are conducted without the need for publicly funded representation. That must be right to ensure they are as accessible as possible to both the bereaved and the wider public.
The specific process for the coroner will be unfamiliar to most people and it is important that the bereaved are properly supported, as they navigate an unfamiliar judicial procedure at such a heart-rending time for them. That is why the coroner reforms we implemented in 2013 were designed to put bereaved people at the very heart of the process. For example, families now have the right to request most of the documents in the case, and they can expect the coroner’s office to update them at regular intervals, and explain each stage of the process. The bereaved should be treated with compassion and respect, and their needs should be central to the coroner’s investigation and inquest.
The crucial point is that inquests should be more sensitive and more accessible to the citizens they are there to serve. Of course, early legal advice may sometimes be needed and helpful. That is why we have protected early legal advice to support the bereaved in preparing inquests, ensuring that it remains within the scope of legal aid. It may also be that publicly-funded representation at the inquest hearing itself is necessary in certain exceptional circumstances, and if that is the case it should be provided. This was the position prior to the introduction of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, and it remains the position today.
I know criticisms have been made of the exceptional case funding scheme, and how it operates in respect of inquests, but it is important to note that, in the last two years, 328 applications for publicly funded representation at an inquest were granted. That is 62% of all applications, so the scheme does work. It does support families. I appreciate that this will be scant solace in my hon. Friend’s case, or in any other case where legal aid was not granted, but my hon. Friend also knows that Ministers cannot intervene in the decision-making process in individual cases, nor should that be possible. Individual decisions are made independently by the Legal Aid Agency, and it is important that these decisions are, and are seen to be, free from political interference.
At a human level, of course I appreciate the frustration in this case, but it was an independent decision made by the LAA. If an applicant disagrees with a funding decision taken by the agency, they have a right to an internal review, and to make further representations. I understand that the application for review in this case was not accepted, but that does not preclude further representations being submitted. My understanding is that so far none have been made.
More broadly, last year the Ministry of Justice spent £1.6 billion on legal aid in England and Wales, which accounts for more than one fifth of the Department’s budget. The Government have a responsibility to ensure that those in the greatest hardship, those in greatest need, can secure access to justice. Our job is to make sure that the most vulnerable have the support they need, and that precious and finite resources are made available to that end. That is a responsibility that we take very seriously.
Our approach is not set in stone. We keep it under constant review. For example, Dame Elish Angiolini’s important report on deaths in custody highlighted that there are issues in the system relating to public participation in the inquest process. The report was reviewed in the Department and we are updating the former Lord Chancellor’s guidance, so that it is clear that the starting presumption is that legal aid should be awarded for representation of the families at an inquest that follows the non-natural death or suicide of a person detained in custody.
We have a wider review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 and the legal aid reforms introduced then, which is under way and will report by the summer recess. The former Lord Chancellor has made it clear that we will look at the legal aid provision in inquests alongside the LASPO review. But I have to say that we must grapple with a more fundamental point about the accessibility of inquests. It is absolutely crucial that we consider the experiences of the bereaved during the entire process, and explore ways in which we can make inquests more sensitive at such a traumatic time. It is important to consider carefully when legal representation is necessary in what is intended to be an inquisitorial, fact-finding hearing.
The Department basically accepts my hon. Friend’s fundamental contention, which he made at Prime Minister’s questions back in November, around the equality of arms at inquests. In recent years, more and more interested persons, including public organisations, are deploying lawyers at inquests and this can create an unfair imbalance for ordinary families. But the Department does not believe the right public policy response is to engage in a legal arms race. The Department believes that we must make sure the inquest process retains its inquisitorial rather than an adversarial character and quality. I do not mind saying that overall we need to try to reduce the number of lawyers involved, where it can be responsibly done, if our aim is to make inquests more accessible, and meet the needs of the bereaved, without compromising fairness to anyone involved.
We will look at that in detail over the coming months, including the scope for reducing the number of lawyers on all sides, making the procedure more accessible, and improving the guidance available to support the bereaved. At the same time, we are already investing over £1 billion to transform our courts and tribunals, building on the worldwide reputation of our justice system, so that it is more sensitive to victims, more modern, more efficient, and more accessible. This will provide swifter and simpler justice for everyone, especially those at their time of greatest need. The justice system, and the inquest process in particular, must have due process, but it also needs to be sensitive to the needs of bereaved people at times of their greatest anxiety and indeed even suffering. Legal aid is, no doubt, one piece in that jigsaw, but we must look more widely at the system if we are going to deliver even better access to justice in the 21st century.
I conclude by congratulating my hon. Friend again on his comprehensive and, perhaps more importantly, passionate presentation on behalf of his constituency and constituents. I welcome the other thoughtful contributions, and I will ensure that the new ministerial team at the Ministry of Justice reflects further on them, as we take forward the Ministry of Justice’s vital reform agenda.
Question put and agreed to.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Yorkshire devolution.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, and it is a pleasure to see the Minister still in his post—not that there was any doubt of that, I am sure. This debate comes at a critical moment for our region. I was struck by the words of Archbishop John Sentamu, who said this morning:
“Today, our elected leaders have an unprecedented opportunity to repay the trust vested in them by the people and to forge an exciting new future for this great county.”
He went on to say:
“I pray that we will live this out recognising that we have more in common spiritually, culturally, socially, economically, and politically than which divides us…Together we are Yorkshire.”
What eloquent and wise words they are. In delivering them, Archbishop John has set both the standard and the tone for this debate.
All of us here have a responsibility to work co-operatively together to best serve the interests of our region. In that spirit, today I will propose what I hope is a constructive way forward for a future devolved settlement for Yorkshire and the Humber. Before I do, let me say a word about how we got to where we are.
May I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very timely debate? I also want to congratulate him on making sure that we are talking about Yorkshire and the Humber. The Humber is essential if we are going to make devolution in Yorkshire and the Humber work, because of the energy estuary and the fact that the north and south banks provide the second largest port complex in the UK—they are vital to this deal.
My hon. Friend makes an important point: the Humber is absolutely vital to this devolved settlement. Whenever I discuss this, I always have her in mind and am always careful to make sure that I speak the words “Yorkshire and the Humber,” but I am grateful to her for reminding us.
I was in the process of reflecting on how we got to where we are. All hon. Members will know that last year, as other parts of the country moved ahead with their devolution deals, we reached an impasse in Yorkshire. In response, the councils of Barnsley and Doncaster held a community poll on devolution.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that the very clear result of the community poll sends a strong message to the Government that the people of Barnsley would like a wider devolution deal? With that result in mind, the Government should work with Sir Steve Houghton and Barnsley Council to produce a deal that reflects the overwhelming will of the people of Barnsley. A fresh approach could end the inequality between north and south that has existed for too long.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and neighbour, with whom I agree. The people of Barnsley and Doncaster were given a very clear choice of whether they wanted their local authority to pursue a Sheffield city region deal or a wider Yorkshire deal. I am very pleased that the people of Barnsley and Doncaster made their voices heard. Some 85% voted in favour of a wider Yorkshire deal, and in doing so endorsed the approach that their council leaders had taken. They showed those of us who proudly represent the people of Yorkshire and the Humber the scale of their ambition for devolution. For those of us who represent Barnsley and Doncaster, our marching orders are clear.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will give way in just one moment, once I have given the marching orders as they have been sent to those of us representing Barnsley and Doncaster. The marching orders are thus: go back to the Government and get the deal the people want.
Would it not have been more helpful if the community poll had been held before Doncaster and Barnsley signed up to a South Yorkshire deal? In fact, it seems to me that the community poll showed that they had been so badly led by the Labour leaders in Barnsley and Doncaster that they had signed up to something that they clearly did not want. Surely the community poll should have been held before they signed up to the deal, not afterwards.
If I might say so, I think that is a very strange interpretation of the result. The result was a decisive mandate for the leadership of Barnsley and Doncaster councils and a clear endorsement of the wider Yorkshire deal. It is absolutely right that we listen to what the people have told us. If we do not, we will be failing not only to listen but to understand that, right now, for parts of the country and particularly in the north of England, as I hope the hon. Gentleman would acknowledge, the status quo is not delivering. People are disillusioned, and they have a right to feel that way. Just over 18 months ago, the people of Barnsley and Doncaster overwhelmingly voted for Brexit, in part because they felt powerless and in part because they felt tired—tired of being left behind and powerless to do anything about it. It is not hard to see why. Not only do the people of Yorkshire receive an income that is 80% of the national average, but they also receive £300 per head less in terms of public spending, which results in education and health outcomes lagging well behind those of more prosperous regions.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he share my frustration at the recent Budget, in which areas that had secured a regional deal received large amounts of money, whereas the Yorkshire and Humber area seemed to be left behind?
I absolutely share the frustration that my hon. Friend expresses. I am seeking today to engage in the most constructive fashion with the northern powerhouse Minister, and I think this represents a very important opportunity for him and for the Secretary of the State to send the strongest signal of intent to the north of England that they are listening to what people are saying, and are prepared to make decisions that best serve those people’s interests.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very important debate. Does he agree that, if Government get behind the coalition of the willing, a deal for Yorkshire will be possible? The Secretary of State needs to deal with this issue with the utmost importance and get a date in his diary to meet with Yorkshire leaders as a matter of urgency. To do otherwise would be a terrible indictment of his commitment to securing a deal for Yorkshire.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. She knows that this Friday in York, the coalition of the willing—leaders from across our area—will meet to reaffirm their support for the wider Yorkshire proposal. I very much hope that when the Minister sums up, he is able to confirm that either he or the Secretary of State will arrange a meeting to sit down with those local government leaders and discuss the way forward.
I was explaining the fact that results in education and health outcomes mean that in our area we lag behind other more affluent parts of the country. I do not begrudge any other part of the country its affluence, but I do understand why people in our region are disillusioned and angry. That desire for Brexit, and the need for devolution, are symptoms of the same malaise. I believe that if we are to make Britain healthy again and heal its divisions, we need a new economic and political settlement that involves genuine devolution of political and economic power that will spread prosperity and opportunity to towns and counties of all regions.
In short, if we are serious about closing the north-south divide, piecemeal changes simply are not good enough. The solution must be as ambitious as the challenge is profound. That is why I believe that a wider Yorkshire deal is the way forward. By working together across the whole of our county and, like in the west midlands, not being confined to just one city, we would have the collective clout and the brand reputation to co-operate and compete not only with other parts of the UK, but with other parts of the world.
The hon. Gentleman talks about “wider Yorkshire” and “one Yorkshire”. Are his constituents who voted in the recent referendum aware that it will not encompass all of Yorkshire because Sheffield does not want to be part of that settlement? Are they aware of that?
If the hon. Gentleman bears with me, he will hear me refer to that later in my speech. The purpose of this debate and of my remarks is to try to move us from where we are now to a place that delivers the best opportunities collectively for our region. My constituents were very clear about what they were voting for—a wider Yorkshire deal—because they believed that that would be in their economic interests.
The economic case for the wider deal is profound. That is why it is supported not just by the Confederation of British Industry, but by the Federation of Small Businesses and the Trades Union Congress. When Carolyn Fairbairn, the director general of the CBI, told The Yorkshire Post that wider devolution would be
“good for jobs, good for growth”,
and for unlocking investment and building confidence, I could not have agreed more. When Bill Adams, regional secretary of the Yorkshire TUC, told The Yorkshire Post that we can
“combine the advanced manufacturing of South Yorkshire with the energy hub and ports of Humberside, the tourism and agriculture of the North with the financial and manufacturing centres of West Yorkshire”,
I could not have agreed more. Both nationally and internationally, a single Mayor would provide the single voice required to unlock the much-needed new investment. That is critically required in areas such as our transport system.
The inequality in transport spending between north and south has been well documented, but it is worth repeating just how bad the situation has become. London is set to receive 10 times more transport investment than Yorkshire. Because of that, Yorkshire’s transport system is out of date, unreliable and expensive. The separation of transport executives, each with its own precept and fares structure, makes short journeys, such as the 20-minute trip from York to Doncaster, prohibitively expensive. Twenty pounds for an anytime day return is too expensive for working people, and far too expensive to promote the growth that our region needs. A wider Yorkshire combined authority directing investment decisions and using its purchasing power to negotiate with transport providers would address that lack of integration, improve bus and rail services, promote growth and leverage further investment.
Devolution is about more than just transport infrastructure. It is about accessing funding for skills and training, building affordable homes, and preserving our unique culture, countryside and heritage by working together, harnessing our talents, combining our energies and maximising our influence, all of which is in reach.
The people of Barnsley and Doncaster identify with being part of Yorkshire, as do people across our region. The sense of place, community and belonging that comes from identifying with Yorkshire is, in many ways, our greatest asset. As such, we need to make use of it, but I accept that all that is easier said than done, because first we need a consensus between the Government and local authorities in our region. For that to happen, we need a new plan that is carefully considered and painstakingly developed and comes from listening to and understanding all the different views. That will take more time, so first we need an interim solution not only to preserve the goal of a wider Yorkshire deal, but to allow the Sheffield city region to begin to see the benefits of devolution and give everyone concerned the time and space needed to work on a deal.
With the right political will, I believe that holding a wider Yorkshire mayoral election in 2020 is entirely reasonable and achievable, but as things stand we are on course to elect a Mayor of the Sheffield city region in May. The newly elected Mayor would have so few powers that spending up to £2 million on this election would undermine not just his or her position, but the credibility of the whole devolution project. People in Barnsley and Doncaster would rightly feel further disenfranchised and ignored. Indeed, if we are prepared to ignore an 85% majority, what does that say about the state of our democracy?
Today, the leaders of Barnsley and Doncaster councils have written to the Secretary of State setting out a clear plan proposing that an interim Mayor of a Sheffield city region should be appointed for two years while negotiations for a wider Yorkshire deal proceed. That follows the precedent set by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), who at the time was the police and crime commissioner for Greater Manchester and was appointed the interim Mayor of Greater Manchester in 2015, with an election being held two years later.
That would mean that the Sheffield city region could access the money and powers sooner rather than later, and that the four councils could consult on a scheme in respect of the additional powers contained in the existing Sheffield city region deal. It would also leave those councils that wish to proceed with a wider Yorkshire deal—the so-called coalition of the willing—free to continue their negotiations and potentially to form a shadow combined authority in which they could work for a wider Yorkshire deal. Barnsley and Doncaster would then be free to join that wider deal as and when it is agreed. Sheffield and Rotherham would also be free to join it, or they could continue with their own city region deal and hold an election at the same time in 2020. That framework embodies both compromise and progress. It is a good offer.
In conclusion, I ask only that the Minister listens to the people of Barnsley and Doncaster. They were very clear in what they said, and it would be wrong for them to be ignored, not least because the Secretary of State was right when he told the Local Government Association that the driving force behind devolution is the desire to bring decision making to a more local level. Now that the people of Barnsley and Doncaster have made their decision—all we want is the very best for Yorkshire and the Humber—we need to put that decision into practice.
Does the hon. Gentleman’s plan mean that other areas of Yorkshire would not be able to push ahead with a deal before 2020, even if they wanted to? Does it stop anyone else moving forward with their own deal?
The hon. Gentleman would accept—or I hope he would—that the majority of local councils, including North Yorkshire, West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire, have indicated their support for a wider Yorkshire deal. That is what they will be discussing in York. This is not a political argument, in the sense that there is cross-party support. As I am sure he acknowledges, there are some incredibly decent and talented members of his own party, leaders of local government, who strongly share the view that it is in our collective interest to have that wider deal.
We now need a process of negotiation, which is why I very much welcomed the fact that the Secretary of State sent a letter to the leaders of Barnsley and Doncaster councils just before Christmas. It was a very good letter, which initiated a process of negotiation that we are developing further today. It is important that we do that while being mindful that we are working to achieve what is in the best interests of the people we are elected to serve.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Would the discussions he envisages involve the north Lincolnshire authorities? As he said, it is important that the whole of the Humber, as well as Yorkshire, is involved in this process.
I absolutely would envisage that. I hope my hon. Friend is able to put that point to the Minister, because I would be interested to hear the Government’s view. My view, as I reflected a moment ago, is that it is incredibly important that the deal is for Yorkshire and the Humber—both banks. Therefore, as part of the coalition of the willing, it is very important that the partnership relationship exists.
I have listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and I seek clarification on his comments; I am happy to be corrected if I am wrong in my understanding. Is he saying that at the end of the process, if Sheffield and Rotherham councils do not want to break away from the Sheffield deal and carry on, only Barnsley and Doncaster councils will come into the Yorkshire deal, and Sheffield and Rotherham will stay separate and on their own? That is not the Yorkshire deal. Is this just a mechanism for Barnsley and Doncaster to remove themselves from the deal agreed on and come into another deal? That would undermine the whole “one Yorkshire” argument that he is making. I seek clarification on those points.
The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point. It is designed to be a mechanism that provides the best possible deal for our region. I think that everybody here would accept that we have fallen behind. Other parts of the country, such as the west midlands, Greater Manchester and the city of Liverpool, are now moving forward with the devolution deals that they have agreed.
What we are looking to achieve is an arrangement that would give Barnsley and Doncaster the flexibility to move into a wider Yorkshire deal in 2020 if that were an option, but would also not bind the hands of our good colleagues and neighbours in South Yorkshire, Sheffield and Rotherham. It would be for them, in consultation with the Government and other members of the combined authority, to take a view on whether they see their future as part of a Yorkshire deal or wish to proceed with their own Sheffield city region deal, which could include neighbouring parts of the country as well.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for being generous with his time. To develop that point, is it suggested that the East-West-North Yorkshire deal would be developed, and that Barnsley and Doncaster could then choose to join it, or is that what would happen at the start? If councils in West, East or North Yorkshire did not want to join in with South Yorkshire, would they be able to stay out of it?
The hon. Gentleman rightly presses me on points of detail. Those are precisely the points that will be discussed by the coalition of the willing when it meets in York on Friday, and they are precisely the important points that should be discussed in any subsequent meeting with those leaders and either the Minister or the Secretary of State. However, the purpose of this debate is to provide a response to the constructive letter received by the leaders of Barnsley and Doncaster from the Secretary of State just before Christmas, and to continue that process of negotiation, so that we can work towards a deal that best serves the interests of the people across our region.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. I feel comfortable with a lot of what he has said; it is based on the Secretary of State’s letter before Christmas saying that if districts want to leave the Sheffield combined authority city region at some stage for another arrangement, they should be free to do so, but equally, if districts want to remain there, particularly Sheffield and Rotherham, they should be free to have a devolution deal.
My one concern about his proposal—I have spoken to him about this—is whether it sends the right signal, given that devolution is ultimately about transferring powers to people. The first thing that we are saying to people is, “You can have a Mayor and an arranged devolution deal from May, but by the way, you can’t be involved in electing this Mayor; the political leaders will choose them.” I am not sure that that sends the right signals to people about what devolution is all about.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I was grateful for the opportunity to discuss this with him earlier. I appreciate that there is much in what I have said that he feels he can agree with. He raises an important point, but it must be set against the fact that an overwhelmingly decisive mandate has just been delivered to the leaders of Doncaster and Barnsley councils not to pursue the Sheffield city region deal. I accept that these are perhaps imperfect solutions, and I accept that we are not in the place where any of us would have liked to be when we embarked on this journey some time ago, but the most recent democratic mandate is the one delivered emphatically by the people of Barnsley and Doncaster just a couple of weeks ago.
I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman is saying; he is making an articulate argument. I agree that we need a solution for Yorkshire, and that that solution must be ambitious, as he said. However, I want to pick up on one point that he made. He mentioned a wider Yorkshire deal by 2020. I know that he is making the case for Barnsley and Doncaster, but as an MP for York and North Yorkshire, the idea that we might not have devolution until 2020 worries me. Will he consider bringing forward devolution in other areas across the county as well, such as in the greater Yorkshire deal, and then considering amalgamating it all, perhaps by 2020, into a wider Yorkshire deal, so that all areas of our great county start to get the benefits of devolution?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is interesting, in the run-up to this debate, that some people have said to me that we should press for a wider Yorkshire settlement earlier than 2020, and other people have said that it is unrealistic to expect that a deal could be done within that time frame. His basic point is absolutely right: we need to work constructively with the Minister and the Department to strain every sinew to ensure that our part of the world has, at the very least, an equal playing field on which to compete with other parts of the world.
I will make one further point, which is the essence of the case that I am trying to make. I do not say for one moment that Yorkshire and the Humber should be a special case, but I do believe—I make no apologies for stating it in these terms—that it is a special place. There is something special about what John Sentamu described this morning as God’s own county. There is a huge strength in our diversity. If we could create an arrangement that brought together 5.3 million people into an economy bigger than 11 EU nations, we would truly be a force to be reckoned with, not just in this country but around the world. In the far east—China, Japan or wherever—people know about Yorkshire. It means something to them, and it means something to us. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to put in place an arrangement that could be really meaningful for the people we represent, and I very much hope that we will not miss out.
In conclusion, I reflect back on the decisive results delivered across the north of South Yorkshire just before Christmas. We need to put into practice the decision taken by those people. We need to find a solution and to seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity that we have been given to drive forward the northern powerhouse and give the Yorkshire region the chance to transform its economic and political future. I say to the Minister in all good faith that not many Ministers are given the opportunity to do what he has the opportunity to do now. I hope that he will take it up.
We have at least nine Members standing, and nine or 10 minutes to spare. I can call nine people for one minute, or fewer people for longer. Following Mr Speaker’s example of trying to empower Back Benchers, I call Kevin Hollinrake.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing this important debate, and on the constructive way in which he has dealt with the issue. It feels as if we are making some progress, although perhaps we are not in a perfect position yet.
To respond to some of his points, I think that there is a clear feeling across Yorkshire that we are being left behind. On the status quo, nobody whom I have spoken to in Yorkshire who is interested in the economy or politics feels that the status quo is what we want. We know that we need to move forward as quickly as possible. It is about money and powers. It is also about attracting the right person to come forward to lead a Yorkshire devolution deal.
The hon. Gentleman talked about two options—well, one option, really: one Yorkshire or wider Yorkshire. We know that that deal is not on the table at the moment, because of the deal that has already been agreed, yet he proposes that we set conditions on the deal to tie it to another deal that might be agreed. Why do we not just move ahead with the other deal? The South Yorkshire deal can move ahead today, and we can move ahead with a greater Yorkshire deal—a Yorkshire-wide deal. Then we would have two devolution deals in place, and all the money can come in behind that—that is what people are interested in. They are interested in the money, the powers and attracting the right person, but the hon. Gentleman is putting roadblocks in the way of that. I am not saying he is doing so deliberately, but the reality is that we can move ahead today—
I support the case made by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis). On behalf of all Doncaster MPs, I congratulate him on securing this debate.
I want to make one very brief point. Devolution is about listening to local people, and the feeling in Doncaster could not be clearer. There was a unanimous view in the council—Labour, Conservative, Mexborough First and independent—in favour of the wider Yorkshire deal. The business community, through the chamber of commerce, said it wants a wider Yorkshire deal, and so did 85% of the public on a turnout higher than that for the police and crime commissioner elections. I appeal to the Minister not to impose on the people of Doncaster an election they do not want. Work with us, my hon. Friend and the coalition of the willing to create the deal we want, and go for my hon. Friend’s solution.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing this debate. I feel slightly like an imposter at the party, because I come from the best county in the country—Derbyshire—so I am looking across the border at this issue.
I want to make one very brief point. The Sheffield city region proposal, which has been part of this discussion for a number of years, has at times included elements of Derbyshire. Quite a number of us over the border in Derbyshire have had significant reservations about the proposal for many years. We were pleased when Chesterfield Borough Council finally withdrew from the Sheffield city region a number of months ago.
I will not take up more time than the minute that I have, given the obvious importance of this issue to all colleagues across the ridings of Yorkshire and their real passion. I just want to say that Derbyshire is and has always been different from Yorkshire, and it does not want to participate in a Sheffield city region if that continues.
I am looking at the occupants of the two Front Benches, and never have two proud sons of Lancashire had more opportunity to do something for God’s own county.
I have three very quick points. The letter from the Secretary of State before Christmas was very significant, because for the first time the phrase “one Yorkshire devolution” was used in a ministerial letter. I have some questions about that concept. First, the letter talked about all other councils in Yorkshire agreeing an all-Yorkshire settlement. Does that mean that every council, including Wakefield, has to agree to it?
Secondly, why cannot talks on those proposals start now? In December, the press spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said that so long as there is an agreed proposal, talks can begin. Will the Minister confirm, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) suggested, that talks can begin immediately in January so we can have a settlement long before the Tour de Yorkshire in May?
Finally, will the Minister confirm that it is policy to schedule all mayoral elections across the country in 2020? If so, an all-Yorkshire election in 2020 would fit in very nicely with that.
It is not a conspiracy, but I am a Lancastrian too.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis). With the time against me, I want to make one short point. You may be aware of my interest in the cultural industries, Mr Pritchard. I believe that this is an opportunity for branding big style. Yorkshire has more than played its part in contributing to British culture. Just look at the success of Hull as the city of culture and Sheffield as a leader in animation and digital content. Screen Yorkshire in Leeds is the biggest investment fund of its kind in the UK, with £15 million for film and TV filmed regionally. We have brilliant shows—“Peaky Blinders” “Dad’s Army”, “A Month in the Country”, “Catch Me Daddy”, and “The Damned United” to name but a few. With our skilled workforce, world-class locations, history, space and value for money, Yorkshire could be a filming attraction the world over.
Thinking big about the north was supposed to be the role of the northern powerhouse, and devolution was a central plank. We have not moved nearly fast enough towards Yorkshire devolution for too long now. It is the new year, so I implore the Minister to make a resolution to make 2018 the year that the whole of Yorkshire sees devolution.
This is a major opportunity to break the stranglehold of centralisation and to liberate Yorkshire to fulfil its potential, because while these arguments go back and forth we are missing out on getting the means that we require to make the most of the potential of the more than 5 million people of Yorkshire. We have heard about the inequality in transport investment. We are not making the most of our economic potential. At a time of Brexit, it is absolutely vital that we do so. We must invest in infrastructure and skills, attract people and provide homes for them, but we lack the means to fulfil that potential at the moment. I welcome the progress that has been made, but I hope that Ministers will hear that we are making a simple plea: if they give Yorkshire the tools, we will do the job.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for the pragmatic way he set out the issue. It is a process not an event, and therefore we need to look at what has happened over the past few years. In my city, York, our council was in a very different place, and wanted a deal with North Yorkshire to start with. Thankfully, it moved on, and is now urging the Minister to put in place a wider Yorkshire deal.
As different authorities have moved forward in this process, it is important to assess where we are now and move forward in the way my hon. Friend set out. We desperately need investment. We will be leaving the European Union in just 14 months’ time, so we need the leverage of Yorkshire’s size. If it comes together, it can bring in the trade and inward investment we desperately need so we do not end up with not just a north-south divide but an east-west divide as we start to become the poor relative of the rest of the nation.
Yorkshire is a self-confident, prosperous and culturally coherent UK region. In 2017, it contributed about 7% of UK GDP. Yorkshire’s greatest institutions, businesses and citizens have profoundly shaped our national story. Yorkshire people are proud of being part of Yorkshire, and it is time that policy makers acknowledged our unique identity.
Yorkshire is demonstrably not a place with one metropolis around which the rest of the historic county revolves. It is simply not suited to the Government’s policy for devolution in the form of metro Mayors or city regions. My constituency is a case in point: it ties together the university, urban areas, rural areas, market towns and villages. A broad, county-wide deal that recognises the reality of our region’s identity, variety and strengths would be better for directing investment and spreading opportunity fairly. I cannot conceive that anything other than a single Yorkshire authority could have the muscle to deliver on such monumental challenges.
Aligning a single Yorkshire election with those for other devolved authorities in 2020 makes sense. Following the letter from Barnsley and Doncaster, we can see the Yorkshire Mayor taking their post in 2018 as a strength, and can look at how to retain the views of South, West, North and East Yorkshire and the Humber within a “one Yorkshire” model. Let us get a road map and move towards that model.
Before I call the Chair of the Select Committee, may I say the first shall be last and the last shall be first? The Minister, in his generosity, has allowed an extra couple of minutes, so Mr Betts, you have two minutes, rather than one.
Thank you very much, Mr Pritchard. I thank the Minister for that as well. He is assuming that what I have to say might agree with what he thinks, but there is a slightly discordant note about the longer term. I have real reservations about having one elected Mayor for Yorkshire. I see it as a centralising rather than a devolutionary move. Decisions that are currently worked out at a city region level on transport would be transferred to a Mayor, presumably based in Leeds. I have real concerns about trying to pull together the transport interests of Whitby and Sheffield. Actually, Sheffield has got a real interest in working with the Mayor of Manchester to get proper trans-Pennine routes. That is really important, and we do not have to have the same Mayor for those areas to achieve that.
Advanced manufacturing is doing very well in Sheffield and Rotherham at present. We did not achieve that by going around the far east waving a banner saying, “Come to Yorkshire.” We did it by hard graft, with a local industrial strategy that is working and delivering on the ground. I am not sure that having a Mayor for Yorkshire will add value to that process at all.
I respect the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) has brought some interesting ideas forward, based on the Secretary of State’s helpful letter about how to find a way forward for the four South Yorkshire districts, as part of the Sheffield city region, that want to move into a wider deal if one becomes available, and allowing them to do that without anyone being able to block that. That is helpful. It is also helpful that if Sheffield and Rotherham want to stay in their own deal, they will be able to do so.
It seems to be accepted that we will have some arrangement for two years, with a proper deal, properly funded, and with proper powers. The one issue of concern now is: how will that Mayor be elected or appointed? I do not think it conflicts in any way with the referendum that Barnsley and Doncaster have had to say, “Those districts still want to work towards a wider deal, in line with the referendum result, but, in the meantime, if we have a Mayor and have a deal, should the Mayor be elected or appointed?”
I have real reservations about saying to the public, “You are going to have a Mayor, and the political leadership is going to choose them.” I find it really difficult to square that part of the proposal with the whole issue of accountability and enfranchisement and the powerlessness that people feel.
I wonder whether we can have a discussion. Perhaps there is a way of saying that, if there is an election, it should be for just two years, to bring it in line with the 2020 deadline. That shorter period would give districts the opportunity to reappraise at that point whether they want to move on to another deal, if available, or stay with the existing deal. I hope that is a helpful suggestion about having an election, but doing it in that timeframe.
In fact, the hon. Gentleman had an extra 30 seconds because of Mr Sheppard’s generosity in giving up 30 seconds. The Scottish National party now have four and a half minutes, the shadow Minister will have five and the Minister, eight, with two minutes for Mr Jarvis’s wind-up.
Thank you very much, Mr Pritchard. I rise to speak on behalf of the SNP in the debate, and I have to say that I feel like I have gatecrashed someone else’s party to some extent. However, Standing Orders dictate that I say something, so I very much wish to. We do not have a dog in this fight—of course, if it came to a vote, we would probably be prohibited from exercising our judgment under the current Standing Orders anyway. None the less, we do watch the debates in Yorkshire and elsewhere in England with great interest.
To some extent, there is a similarity between the campaign we had to achieve a devolved national Parliament in Scotland—and our campaign to go further and have devolution so complete that we have independent control of that Parliament—and the campaign for English devolution, inasmuch as they are about changing the constitutional basis of the governance of these islands. In terms of the political ambition that drives this debate, there is much that we share and very much support.
People often talk about devolution and the English regions in the same breath, but they are not the same thing. I want to make one important point of difference. The campaign for the establishment and extension of the Scottish Parliament is not about the decentralisation of public administration within a common political framework. It is about allowing the creation and evolution of a different political framework, which will allow a different set of choices to be made, whether that be within the United Kingdom or without the United Kingdom. That is slightly different from the campaign for English regional government.
However, we very much support the idea of devolution and decentralisation within England. We only have to look at a motorway map of the United Kingdom or the inter-city rail network map to see that, for far too long, strategic thinking and planning in the United Kingdom has been dominated by a desire to make the periphery connect to the centre, rather than the creation of sustainable regions of the country that can interconnect and achieve a much greater benefit. The debate is part of breaking that down, and we very much welcome it.
There ought to be some sort of national English plan. For far too long, central Government has ducked this question and, just because it is too difficult or there is not support in some areas, they have been unable to come up with a strategic plan into which these things could locate. I hope the Minister will say that that is somewhere on the horizon, because in the absence of that plan, the city deal, city region and city Mayor proposal is about pushing something ahead in an area where little resistance is expected. What seems to have happened in this instance is that resistance has come about both within the proposed city region area and in neighbouring areas.
Without wishing to take sides or make any particular prescription, it seems to me that surely the only thing Government can now do, given the level of dissent registered to their plan, is to press the pause button, bring people together and have a proper consultation about how decentralisation can go forward in Yorkshire on a basis on which all participants can agree. If it is pushed through without that consent and agreement, it will be ill-fated and will not work.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on bringing this timely and important debate on English devolution. What this Parliament has not done sufficiently is hear what the public were saying during the EU referendum campaign. We are going through the transactional debate with the European Union about trade terms and our future relationship in a way that most people feel completely disconnected from. What people were saying during the campaign was that they are sick and tired of accepting that the way things have been done for generations is going to be continued in the future.
The real, lived experience for many people in this country is that their communities and families have been left behind. The industries that used to support our towns and that many of our towns and cities were built on do not exist anymore, and the well-paid, decent working-class jobs are not there for future generations as they were for the generations before them. People growing up and raising families in those areas have a right to say that they will not accept that settlement.
Government cannot continue to command and control from this place, misguidedly believing that that will change the way the country works in every community across our diverse and complex land. The problem with devolution as it stands is, first, that there is an absence of a clear national framework, which means it is anybody’s guess as to how these devolution deals have been constructed, how component authorities have been included and how they will be resourced in the future.
There have been contradictory approaches from the Government in terms of where power sits. In some areas, we see skills being devolved but educational powers taken away and centralised in this place. Local authorities’ involvement in local schools is completely taken away, but then they are told to sort out the schools’ problems and fix a broken system for young people who have been let down.
I am not one for regional assemblies and regional government. There is a tendency in the new structure for power to be taken from the ground upwards, rather than given away from the centre. That is not in the spirit of devolution. I was resistant to regional assemblies because I saw that taking place. Yorkshire is the exception to that rule. What is devolution meant to be about? Devolution ought to be about people and place. Before we construct any governance arrangement, we ought to pay proper consideration to the sense of belonging that people feel to their community.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not, because I am conscious of the limited time we have.
Members will know from the areas they represent that many of our communities have not got over the 1974 reorganisation that created metropolitan boroughs. They will hark back to the days when their local district council used to exist and their sense of belonging. The one thing that would survive all that reorganisation in Yorkshire is the sense of being Yorkshire. We ought to take into account that very strong and powerful sense of belonging.
The other thing is that the foundations of devolution are extremely weak. The cuts that have been made to many local authorities across Yorkshire mean that their basic everyday survival is at risk. Adult social care and children’s safeguarding pressures are significant, and councils are looking to the future and wondering how they are going to make ends meet.
The deal that has been on the table so far has been crumbs off the table. The Government are saying, “If you’re willing to come round, there are a few million pounds for housing and for transport.” The regional imbalances will continue—London gets the lion’s share and our regions get left behind—but that cannot be the future.
From the Opposition Front Bench, I want to put an offer on the table. This is our position. We have heard from some parts of Yorkshire about an interest in looking at a “one Yorkshire” deal, but we have not yet tested the appetite across Yorkshire for what could be a comprehensive deal covering the whole region. My offer to the Minister is this: why do the Government not look, in a proactive way, at a Yorkshire-wide referendum to ask people what they want? If devolution means anything, it would be the community, from the grassroots, deciding for themselves. That will be a different devolution —I am not proposing the same devolution we see in Greater Manchester, Merseyside, the West Midlands and other areas.
That cannot be at the cost of local authorities. We need to properly work out what the role of those component local authorities is. I would strongly argue that the existing infrastructure of local government is more ready to receive greater powers, greater freedoms and greater funding to deliver local services than central Government, but that can happen only if the Government are committed. What is wrong with asking people what they want?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing this important debate. He spoke passionately on behalf of his constituents and set out what he believes is a potential solution to the current impasse with the South Yorkshire devolution deal. In fact, an hour or so before this debate, I received a letter from Barnsley and Doncaster councils that set out a proposed solution in a very similar form to his.
Before we talk about what can be done to unblock Yorkshire devolution—it is clear that there is a stalemate—it is important to point out that we are not starting from a green field. The negotiations on the South Yorkshire devolution deal started in 2015. The hon. Gentleman and many of his colleagues were in this House and had an opportunity to engage with their local authority and ask what devolution should look like in South Yorkshire. I accept that he would probably say that times have changed and that the poll with its massive 20% turnout—although the result was emphatic from that 20%—changes things.
I am grateful to get it on record that, as the hon. Gentleman correctly said, the Government set out a compromise solution before Christmas that could enable us to break the stalemate in South Yorkshire. The difference between his proposed solution and ours is that we believe that the best way to ensure that further devolution can take place anywhere else in Yorkshire is to fully implement the devolution deal for South Yorkshire first, including having an election. Back in 2015 and on two further occasions, the four South Yorkshire authorities came to Government and requested that that deal, together with the gain share, was legislated for in this House. It was voted through the House of Commons.
Given the poll in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, that might not be the ideal solution, but we would face certain challenges in relation to his proposed solution. First, it remains the law of the land that the election for the South Yorkshire Mayor will take place in May. The process for delaying the date of that election would be to ensure that all the councils in South Yorkshire agreed to the election being delayed. As of today, I am not aware that all of them have.
Secondly, the Government would need to agree to a new proposed date for the election. We would need to have a draft order prepared, cleared through the Government’s legal advisor and laid before Parliament. We would then need time to approve it through motions in the House of Commons and the House of Lords and time for the order to come into force. To do that between now and May, given the parliamentary business that we have, looks extremely tight. That is why I hope that all the authorities of South Yorkshire will give proper consideration to the proposed compromise solution that was set out by my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government.
I want to set out the terms of that compromise on the record. It is proposed that the four South Yorkshire councils agree to do all that is necessary for the Sheffield city region deal to be implemented as soon as practicable after the mayoral election. That would require them to first undertake the consultation on the functions that should be devolved to the combined authority and to the Mayor and to give their consent to any order effecting that devolution.
The Government would then agree with Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield councils that if a “one Yorkshire” solution were to come forward or a deal were developed, and the Government and councils concerned were able to consent to it, the constituent parts of the existing South Yorkshire deal would be free to leave that deal at the end of the initial mayoral term, on the proviso that the transport arrangements covering South Yorkshire had been considered.
I understand from the hon. Member for Barnsley Central that that is not an ideal solution, but it may be a practical one. We have proposed the compromise to all the South Yorkshire authorities and it is ultimately for them, with the compelling result of the referendum in Barnsley and Doncaster in mind, to negotiate between themselves to see if a compromise can be reached. We have had a response from Barnsley, Doncaster and Sheffield; we have not yet had a response from Rotherham.
I make an open offer to the hon. Gentleman that I will work with him and his colleagues to see if such a compromise can be reached. I reiterate that the Government do not intend to undo the legislation of this House to change the date of the election for the South Yorkshire mayoral combined authority election, and even if we intended to do so, I do not believe that it would be possible in parliamentary terms to pass the necessary orders from where we are today.
It sounds as if the proposal that has been laid out by the Opposition has not found favour with the Minister as yet. I hope that that does not preclude any conversations that other authorities across the whole of Yorkshire may wish to have. Would he encourage local authorities to have such conversations—if they continue, which I hope they will—with other authorities in the whole of the Yorkshire and Humber region including northern Lincolnshire?
I encourage conversations to continue across Yorkshire. One of the key point of the compromise proposed by the Government before Christmas to the four local authorities currently in the South Yorkshire deal was that it did not preclude in any way Yorkshire authorities coming together and discussing what a future Yorkshire devolution deal might look like.
I want to deal with the comments of the hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan), so if I take his intervention now, I will not have time to deal with them. He asked whether the “one Yorkshire” deal means one Yorkshire. The proposal set out by the Secretary of State clearly states that a “one Yorkshire” deal would include all Yorkshire authorities. It is ultimately for the authorities in Yorkshire to go away, negotiate and to try to seek a consensus across Yorkshire about whether that deal can be done. All devolution settlements are made on a ground up basis. If the Yorkshire authorities can reach a consensus, “one Yorkshire” will mean one Yorkshire.
The hon. Gentleman also asked when talks can begin. It is not for the Government to dictate when talks can take place between any authorities in Yorkshire. It is up to those authorities.
Will the Minister give way?
I am sorry; I do not have time. Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked whether it is the Government’s intention that all elections for mayoral combined authorities take place in 2020. The answer to that is no.
I am grateful to all hon. Members for their constructive contributions to the debate. This is a hugely important issue at a hugely important time. The Minister is right that the process goes back several years, but since 2015 a number of very significant things have happened that he did not reflect on. There was not then, as there is now, a coherent body of local authorities working constructively to achieve a wider Yorkshire deal. A lot has changed since 2015, not least that Britain has taken a massively strategically important decision to leave the European Union, or that we do not have the footprint that was originally envisaged for the Sheffield city region.
I absolutely welcome the letter from the Secretary of State before Christmas; its tone was very constructive and helpful. However, when the Minister raised concerns about the ability to legislate for any change, I thought he was being a little under-ambitious. Where there is political will to make changes, it should be entirely possible to do so.
I very much hope that the Government will look carefully at the detail of the letter. I accept that the Minister has received it only relatively recently, but it is a good offer that provides a sound basis for a further process of negotiation. That process must begin today and continue throughout the rest of the week, because the clock is ticking and it is in all our interests to work together to secure the best possible deal. That is what I am prepared to do, as I am sure everybody else here is.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).