Tuesday 30 January 2018
[Mr Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]
Marriage in Government Policy
I beg to move,
That this House has considered marriage and Government policy.
I am pleased to have secured this debate and grateful for the opportunity to speak to this important subject. I am also pleased to see a good number of Members here; I hope that is a sign of support for the promotion of the importance of marriage in Government policy. I welcome the Minister and wish him well in his new role.
In a week’s time, we will celebrate the 21st national Marriage Week. It will be 20 years ago this summer that I married my wife Tamsin Thomas. She tells the tale that when she met me, she was Christmas shopping and I was standing on a street corner with a bottle of methylated spirits. That is true, but it does not exactly explain the situation.
I would be wrong if I said that we had been happily married for 20 years—that it had been idyllic and that there had been no challenges. There have been considerable challenges; when she moved into my home, I found her moving the cutlery in the cutlery drawer frustrating enough. But I recognise that over those 20 years I have had a wife who has raised my children and been a tremendous support to me. I have been no help at all: I spent years working on the marriage and then left her to come to this place. I give credit to my wife and all the wives and husbands of Members across the House who are so supportive in the work that we do. I recognise the challenge of having strong and healthy marriages and couple relationships in which we raise our children.
It is now seven years since a Government Minister took the opportunity to set out the Government’s approach to promoting marriage in a speech during Marriage Week. When we last debated this issue in 2017, the Minister’s predecessor but one tried to reassure Members that
“the Department intends to continue to work very hard to ensure that marriage gets the support it needs to continue being a strong bedrock for the families and the children for whom we want to secure the best possible outcomes in the future.”—[Official Report, 1 February 2017; Vol. 620, c. 389WH.]
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman will come to this in his speech, but my constituents raise with me on repeated occasions at my Friday surgeries the difficulties that the Home Office places on their marriages. They cannot see their spouses because they live abroad and cannot get into the country. Does he agree that by not allowing people to live out their marriages, the Home Office is undermining people’s relationships?
I intend to demonstrate that the Government need to look clearly, across Government policy and Departments, at their role in promoting and protecting marriages and families. I will not be particularly interested in the issue that the hon. Lady mentioned in her intervention, but I am sure that there will be an opportunity to tackle that subject as we go on.
The Minister said that the Department intended to continue to work very hard to support marriage, but some weeks later it omitted the word altogether in its plans to support the poorest families in our country. Many Members will join me in making what I think is a simple request: for the Minister to ensure that no serious policy document is published by his Department without some reference to improving the stability of families through marriage. I hope the Minister might make that commitment today.
Research shows that unmarried parents are six times more likely to break up before their first child’s fifth birthday. By the time a British teenager is studying for their GCSEs, they are three times more likely to live with both their birth parents if those parents are married. Three in five children born to unmarried parents experience family breakdown before they reach their teenage years. In fact, by the time children take their GCSEs, nearly all parents—93%—who stay together are married. Put simply, family stability is found in marriage. Why do we continue to ignore that? We know that family breakdown causes poverty.
More alarming still is the gap in marriage between those families living in poverty and their middle-class neighbours. Marriage is disappearing from our poorest communities as it is disappearing from Government policy. Almost 90% of middle earners get married, compared with only a quarter of couples on low incomes. If we had that sort of gap between rich and poor in health, education or probably any other policy area, there would be immediate outcry followed by determined action. On that basis, and remembering the maxim “what gets measured gets done”, I suggest that the Minister does something within his power. Will he ask his Department to look into the marriage gap, publish official figures for rates of marriage by family income, and make that a departmental metric for measuring stability in families?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I warmly welcome the Minister to his place; we all look forward to his response. Was my hon. Friend as struck as I was by the Centre for Social Justice and the Family Stability Network’s research showing that nearly 80% of young people aged 14 to 17 aspire to a lasting relationship and find that as important to them as a long-term career?
I welcome that comment. It is encouraging to know that there is still a commitment by the public, including among young people, and a natural, in-built desire to have a long and lasting stable relationship.
In recent years, the Government’s evidence on what causes poverty now and in the future has identified family instability as a root cause. Children in families that break apart are two and a half times as likely to experience long-term poverty and have almost double the risk of living in relative poverty than couple families.
I know the Government would wish to tell a positive story about their efforts to encourage work as the best route out of poverty. Despite significant progress, lone parents still have double the unemployment and more than three times the underemployment than couple families. Last year, the Department for Work and Pensions published data that showed that the children of parents who have separated are eight times more likely to live in a workless family than those whose parents have stayed together.
None of what I have said is ever meant to stigmatise lone parents, who face some of the most serious challenges, but it should make the Minister, his Department and Government across the board consider how we can reduce those figures by supporting families to stay together. Those statistics alone should alarm us. The break-up of families more than doubles the chances of experiencing poverty—two and half times the poverty risk and eight times the risk of worklessness. Not all couples are married, but we should reflect on where stability is found because the statistics are compelling.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) mentioned that the Government have no reason to shy away from this subject. There is public support for marriage. There is some good news to be found in public attitudes and there is new evidence that the Government should not be afraid to talk about marriage. Last year, the Centre for Social Justice published opinion research that showed that almost half the public feel that marriage has become less important over the last few decades and agree that that is a bad thing, including 47% of adults in social grades C2, D and E, where breakdown is most acute. When people were prompted to consider the role of Government in supporting marriage, more than seven out of 10 agreed that marriage is important and that Government should support married couples, including more than two thirds of adults in social grades C2, D and E. We should all remember that the public support a Government talking about marriage.
I was privileged to be able to put my name to the strengthening families manifesto launched last year. The manifesto sets out some entirely sensible recommendations designed to strengthen the family unit and address many of the difficulties that I have briefly touched on. Among many sensible suggestions, the manifesto calls on Government to appoint a Cabinet-level Minister to ensure that family polices are prioritised and co-ordinated. It simply asks that in each Department there is a senior Minister responsible for delivering policies to strengthen families and for carrying out family impact assessments—something the Conservative Government had previously committed to.
Since arriving in this place, I have often heard that the Government aspire to Britain’s being a world leader on a whole raft of subjects that include innovation and research. The sad truth is that we seem to be a world leader on family breakdown, with half of all young people no longer living with both parents by the time they sit their GCSEs. There are obvious reasons why the Government would want to address this very important issue.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I am sympathetic to many of his points, but he raises a broader point about cohabiting couples and the benefits of a solid family base for supporting children and young people. What additional measures does he suggest should be put in place to support people who do not want to get married to live together and raise a family?
I believe that measures to support marriage, whether through taxation or by supporting and encouraging people who are considering marrying or moving in together, would actually support all people who are living together in families like those my hon. Friend describes.
I do not believe that promoting marriage or putting in place measures to support married couples would discriminate against any other type of family unit; it would help to strengthen them and give them access to support. I recognise—I hinted at this earlier—that moving into a family home together is a challenge for people and that unexpected difficulties often arise, so it is right that we should do what we can to help.
My hon. Friend is right that promoting and supporting marriage is not about saying that every other choice is bad, but it is worth recognising that marriage and cohabitation are fundamentally different relationships. Too often they are elided together as though there is just a marginal difference. There is not: there are fundamental reasons why people choose to cohabit, which are hugely due to their level of commitment. A good example of that is that when a child is born to a married couple, the likelihood of that couple breaking up falls dramatically, but when a child is born to a cohabiting couple, the likelihood of that couple breaking up accelerates dramatically. That shows there is a fundamental difference between the two, so it is important to look at them separately.
As I said, by the time they do their GCSEs, 93% of teenagers whose parents are still together have married parents, so I support what my right hon. Friend says.
There are obvious reasons why the Government should want to address this important issue. We all want our children and young people to have the very best life chances, we want our communities and schools to thrive, and we want our working age population to enjoy fulfilled lives. As the Prime Minister said, we want a country that works for everyone. That said, no Government can solve such a complex and sensitive problem single-handedly, so the Government urgently need to provide a lead and play their part alongside local partners—councils, charities and businesses—to prioritise strengthening families, which are the bedrock of a healthy society.
In conclusion, will the Minister’s Department renew its commitment in this area? If it does, we will need to consider policies to support marriage, and I am aware of many colleagues—many of whom are in the Chamber—and policy organisations, such as the Centre for Social Justice, who would help in that endeavour. I invite the Minister to convene a ministerial working group on marriage in the coming weeks, to coincide with the 21st national Marriage Week, to thrash out a way forward and some sensible policy recommendations.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way during his concluding remarks. It is really important for us, especially as Conservatives, to think about how we can support individuals. Marriage can be good, but a lot of marriages fail.
We need to be careful that Government policy does not hold up a paradigm of perfection for what marriage could be when, for many people, it does not necessarily work out. Of course we want stability, but as Conservatives we should support individuals to lead strong and fulfilled lives. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that Government policy should focus on supporting individuals rather than on enforcing a paradigm.
I would, of course, expect any Government—particularly a Conservative Government—to support individuals to have fulfilled lives, but no one enters a marriage expecting it to fall apart. The Government have a role in supporting people and giving them the best possible chance to make marriage work, for the various reasons I have outlined.
I would welcome action from the Minister, whom I welcome again to his new role. I hope that marriage is a happy and rewarding subject for him and is at the forefront of his mind as he begins his work at the Department.
I apologise in advance that I will not be able to stay for the whole debate; I am a member of the Select Committee on Health, which is sitting at the moment, and I need to attend that, too.
We need to tread gently in this area. Marriage is often an issue of great cultural controversy, but it does not need to be. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) said, we represent every single one of our constituents, whatever their family situation, but that does not mean that we should not strongly support healthy, respectful and mutually encouraging marriages. We can do both those things without creating unnecessary cultural controversy.
Of course I recognise that some marriages need to end. My parents sadly divorced, and—my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) said something similar—my wife would say that I have often been very much less than a perfect husband. However, I am strongly pro-marriage as a public institution, for three reasons. First, we know that it reduces poverty. I came into the House to reduce poverty. I spoke about it in my maiden speech; for me, it is at the heart of what the Conservative party is about.
Secondly, marriage increases wellbeing across an enormous range of indicators—perhaps a wider range than we realise. On any measure—overall physical and mental health, income, savings, employment, educational success, general life contentment and happiness, sexual satisfaction, and even recovery from serious disease and healthy diet and exercise—married people rate markedly and consistently better. We should want the best possible wellbeing for all our constituents.
Thirdly, I believe that sustainable public finances are the only future for this country, and strong families and marriages are essential to helping the Government live within their means. Given his portfolio in the Department for Work and Pensions, the Minister will be well aware of that.
There are lots of reasons to be positive about marriage. We sometimes approach the subject slightly gloomily, as if it is all going irreversibly downhill and there is nothing we can do about it, but I am grateful to the Marriage Foundation and Paul Coleridge for giving us reasons to be cheerful at the start of 2018. It is a fact that most marriages—around 62%, according to the Marriage Foundation—still last for life. Most parents who marry before having children stay together, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) said. Most marriages are happy, and the divorce rate is at its lowest since 1973. The trend away from marriage has stopped; its popularity is stabilising. Marriage has remained consistently strong among certain income groups. Finally, this is a royal wedding year. Will and Kate’s wedding in 2011 was followed by the biggest increase in marriage since the war—weddings increased by 23% in the first quarter of 2012 and by 11% in the second quarter—so we might well see something similar after May.
I am concerned by the social divide in marriage. The better-off have always married in large numbers, and they continue to do so, but in our poorest communities, which have the most challenging circumstances, the marriage rate is plummeting. It is my strong contention that a respectful, healthy, mutually enabling marriage is a bulwark against poverty and all the difficulties that life throws at us from time to time.
I have four policy requests of the Minister. First, will he ensure that registrars, who conduct about 70% of weddings, signpost people to good-quality marriage preparation in their area? That is not difficult to do, and we are not talking about forcing people to do anything. However, there is generally good feedback from people who do marriage preparation, and they often want to follow it up with marriage MOTs later on to keep the marriage strong, which is also a sensible idea. Can we therefore please do something to spread good-quality marriage preparation, followed by marriage enrichment later on?
Secondly, can we do something in antenatal education for all families? At that time, mums and dads turn up in huge numbers before a child is born, so let us do something to strengthen relationships then.
Thirdly, the Government are about to launch guidance on relationships and sex education. We need to talk about marriage there, while recognising that families come in many different shapes. It is crucial that marriage is not absent from that document, and those of us on the Government Benches will expect to see it.
Finally, I reiterate the point made eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives. We need to measure this issue. We value what we measure, and we measure what we value. We need to get marriage back in the statistics. We need to know what is happening, to track it and to ensure there is an upward trend.
I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing the debate. I was happy to go to the Backbench Business Committee and support him in his request, and I am happy to see the culmination of that request. I am well known as a supporter of marriage, especially in Government policy. I have been happily married for 30-plus years—believe it or not, 30-odd years ago I had thick, curly black hair. Then, I needed a brush; now I just need a chamois.
The fact of the matter is that I have supported married life over a long period, I am totally committed to it and I want to see Government policy on it. Since I came to the House in 2010, I and the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who is in her place—she will not mind me saying this, because it is true—have shared in many issues of common concern, and this is one of them. In the past, she has worked consciously in the Conservative party, as I have done in the Democratic Unionist party, to try to formulate Government policy. By working together across parties—not just in the confidence and supply agreement that we have now, but long before that—we have had some success with the marriage allowance. We were instrumental in making that Government policy. I want to put that on the record early on.
I and my party worked extremely hard to bring in marriage tax allowance transfers as a recognition of the stabilising effect that marriage provides to our community. The public policy benefits of marriage are significant. The hon. Member for St Ives outlined some of them, and I will add these facts and figures: three quarters of breakdowns of families with children under five come from the separation of non-married parents; children are 60% more likely to have contact with separated fathers if the parents were married; the prevalence of mental health issues among children of cohabiting parents is more than 75% greater than among children of married parents; and children from broken homes are nine times more likely to become young offenders—they account for 70% of all young offenders.
Those are some key figures. However, I want to be clear: in no way whatsoever am I am attempting to say that the only unit that works is the married family unit. I see this in my office every week, and just now my staff will be dealing with many people who are single parents. I see hundreds of wonderful women who singlehandedly run their homes, and their children are well adjusted and thriving. I increasingly see single men taking on the two-parent role and doing a great job. As the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) said, society is changing, and we have got to look at that. The intervention from the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) reaffirmed that. We must adjust our focus and way of thinking to how things are today.
I understand as much as the next person that marriage is hard and relationships are hard. Sometimes, no matter how much one person may try, it simply will not work. In our relationship, my wife has been understanding. The hon. Member for St Ives referred to time away, and most of my life has been away from home. My wife reared the children and now has the role of rearing the grandchildren as well. Simply, people have to try hard, otherwise it will not work.
I have also seen too many women widowed in the troubles. I relate very much to that, back home in Northern Ireland, where women have to be both mother and father to their child in the midst of tremendous grief and ensure that their child has not simply a house to live in, but a home to grow in. The role of those tasked with the responsibility of looking after children is so important. I make no judgment on anyone’s ability to provide a great home for their child being intrinsically linked with marriage, but statistics show why I believe that marriage is key and why it should be key in any Government policy. I wish the Minister well in his new role.
One massive issue to recognise is that the commitment of marriage is a driver for stability, quite apart from wealth. Crucially, even the poorest 20% of married couples are more stable than all but the richest 20% of cohabiting couples. In that context, it is entirely appropriate that our tax system now recognises marriage. That is something we pushed for and the Government recognised in the previous Parliament. It is good to have that.
The hon. Gentleman is making a good point about income and marriage. The Government seem to recognise that in the tax system, but not in the immigration system. I have a constituent who had tried to bring his wife here since 2007. Gladly, she has now arrived, but he was short by £7 over the whole year in his salary and the Government refused to operate any discretion to allow her to come from Iran.
I agree; I have faced many similar cases in my constituency office. I look to the Immigration Minister and her Department to be fair and allow for some flexibility in the process. To be just a few pounds short is frustrating. We have a system to work within, but we make our cases on behalf of our constituents and their wives and spouses in other parts of Europe, the United States, Africa and even further afield in the far east. The difficulties are around financial contributions, so we need a flexible Government and flexible policy. That is not this Minister’s responsibility, but it is another’s.
As I have said before, the case for change is compounded by the fact that the Government spend more money on supporting marriage through the much more generous married couples allowance than they do through the new marriage allowance. The married couples allowance applies to married couples in which one or both spouses were born before 6 April 1935, while the new marriage allowance applies to one-earner married couples on basic income tax. While £245 million was spent on the married couples allowance, just £210 million was spent on the marriage allowance during 2015-16. The former can reduce a tax bill by between £326 and £844.50 a year, but the latter does so by only up to £230 a year. That is a help, but it does not fulfil the aim. It is important to have those facts and figures on the record in Hansard so that we can see where the differences are and where we need change. I hope that others agree.
It is absolutely right that we recognise the public policy benefits of marriage for adult wellbeing at all ages. However, given the special benefits in relation to child development, it seems strange that we should afford the marriages of couples in their 80s and 90s, whose children left home long ago, greater recognition than those in which the public policy benefits could reach both adults and children.
We need a system that addresses families and children rather than those who are long past that stage. In that context, the Government should introduce a fully transferable allowance and pay for it by reducing its scope to married couples with young children. That would do away with the problem of low take-up by ensuring that the allowance is really meaningful for those who are eligible. At the very least, the marriage allowance for those with pre-school children should be increased so that no marriage of a couple in their 80s or 90s is recognised more—and not, indeed, by £844.50—than that of a couple with young children. Rather than just spending the same sum on a reduced pool of married couples, we need some change in the system.
I briefly referred in the Chamber, during the Budget debate, to the ComRes polling from last November; this is for those who follow ComRes and perhaps fill in their forms whenever they come. The poll demonstrated that increasing the marriage allowance is much more popular, with 58% support, than bringing in yet further increases in the personal allowance, which got 21% support. If we are looking for something that is more acceptable to the general public—we need to be conscious and cognisant of that—here is a simple system.
The cost of the further projected increases in the personal allowance to £12,500 is £4 billion, the majority of which will go, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has demonstrated, to those in the top half of the income distribution. By contrast, any increase in the marriage allowance would disproportionately benefit those in the bottom half of the income distribution.
If we take away housing benefit from couples who get married, and reduce working tax credit for families who marry and move in together, we make it less appealing for people to make that final commitment. We have outlined the social benefits of marriage, and the Government should feed something into that and make it more attractive for people who love each other and are in a committed relationship to marry. That is what my heart as well as my voice says, and what would benefit families and communities throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I ask the Minister seriously to consider the issue of the marriage allowance and how to achieve what we set out to do in putting that in place. Many in the House, including many of those present for the debate, think the same.
I welcome the Minister to his place. I have worked with him over a long time, and having run the Department I have a fair idea of the challenges that lie ahead of him. I am going to add to them. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on obtaining the debate, particularly this week, of all weeks.
Under the previous Prime Minister I was nominated to construct the family test against which everything was going to be measured. When I finally left—of my own volition, by the way—at no stage had I managed to get agreement from any of the key players about what it would consist of. While there was a principle, which was that the Prime Minister wanted a test that all decisions would be set against, the reality was that the Treasury in particular was not keen on any of it. I urge the Minister to press for a definition of the family test, by which all the effects of policy decisions could be looked at to see whether they would damage the family or make things more difficult. That would make logical sense.
I want to be brief, as I just want to make a start on a couple of issues, beginning by asking what the debate is not about. The trouble is that we all tiptoe around and get amazingly worried about the word. We think: “If I mention marriage, does that automatically mean worrying about whether marriages break up or other people do not choose to get married, and so on?” I know of nothing else in the purview of government where such a fear reigns in quite that way. We do not talk about business policy on the basis that some businesses will fail. We do not immediately say, “We must not talk about business or try to set policy to help businesses survive.” We do those things, because it is logical. Of course, in society as in economic life there will always be things that do not work out, but that does not mean people should set their life around what does not work out. If we all did that, frankly we would look a lot like North Korea. The point is we do not do it, so let us now make policy around what works and what is clear.
Marriage, frankly—this is not an arrogant statement—is probably the most fundamental institution that society has ever managed to construct to make society better, give children a better chance and improve the incomes and wellbeing of those within the process, as has been said. That is not to say that when, sadly, a marriage breaks up we should not do our level best to help people, and try to find them a better way and support them. That is critical. However, it means there is a need to recognise a couple of features. I am chairman of the Centre for Social Justice, which has been making this argument for some time, and we did a poll. What we found was the thing that always most intrigues me: when young people between about 18 and 28 were asked without reference to marriage what one thing they aspired to more than anything else, more than 70% aspired to be married, with stable families and a happy life. They did not aspire to be brilliantly successful at business; that was not their No. 1 aspiration. They did not aspire to have a fast car or a smart house. Their aspiration was for a social arrangement that would deliver them a happy outcome for the rest of their lives.
In any other area of life we would worry about such aspirations never being met by the reality. What, then, given that young people start with that aspiration, are we doing to make it less likely that they will achieve it? If that happened with respect to any other process, in school or in society, and we said “That is not a problem,” then of course we would be causing damage, but in this case we walk away from the issue. My arguments about policies on marriage are not to do with favouring marriage. I do not think it needs to be favoured in any way. People’s basic instinct and sense of direction will take them towards the thing that benefits them and their families most. I am certain that that is the nature of the situation. The question we really need to ask is what we do that stops people who have that aspiration getting to where they aspire to be.
I have a couple of points to make about that, beginning with the OECD’s view of what it costs for two people to live together, in comparison to the cost of living for one person. It makes a base calculation and comes up with a figure. It is not the same as two people together—the calculation includes how savings can be made within a couple. We understand and accept that. The UK, peculiarly—this emanates from the Treasury and every other Department—somehow takes the view that we need to go further. Financial policy here makes it more difficult than it is in almost any other country for a couple—particularly if they are married—to stay together. The cost of getting married is higher here than in any other country, because taxation is set against doing it.
I have been told by a number of my colleagues, “No one gets married for money.” Only someone from a reasonably well-off middle-class background will endlessly take that view. People in a low-income family where every pound really matters will calculate how best to manage their affairs. If one situation makes them better off, there is enormous pressure to decide on that as their direction of travel. I should love us to look carefully at why the UK persists in making it financially more difficult for people to come together to marry, and to stay together. Those are really big issues, and the figures are there.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, because universal credit is set up so that there will be a single recipient in a household, many women are subject to financial control, which makes it far more difficult for those who face domestic violence to leave a relationship, because they cannot afford to?
Not really. I do not accept that at all. Universal credit operates by looking at the household, which makes it more likely that couples are supported to stay together. The hon. Lady knows that the vast majority of married people—and, by the way, even cohabiting people—have joint accounts. The figure is way over 80%, and I think it is close to 90%. For those in an exceptional position, it is clear that the money will follow the person with the duty of care. Those rules are written into universal credit, so I simply do not agree with the hon. Lady. I think that universal credit will help enormously to get rid of what I and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) referred to as the couple penalty.
The cost of weddings is another issue that we need to consider. There is an idea that people cannot get married now unless they have a fantastic celebrity wedding. The average cost of a wedding is now more than £20,000, whereas what people actually need is a marriage licence. There should be pre-wedding education to tell people: “You do not need to make such a big fuss about it. What you want to do is get married.” One big reason for so many marriages breaking up—probably more than anything else—is debt. If people start married life in debt because of making such a big issue of it, that puts enormous pressure on couples.
A pastor in my constituency told me something that struck me, which was that up to the early 1980s many couples who married were happy to live in rented accommodation, perhaps with other people’s crockery and cutlery. They did not need everything to be perfect, but later on that changed and people felt they needed all new white goods, and so on. That may have been a disincentive to marriage. Does my right hon. Friend recognise that picture?
I think that with the whole Hello! culture around the idea that people have to have a perfect fairy-tale wedding, no one is preparing them for the fact that once they are married, they will make compromises and face huge difficulties and stresses, and it is about how they cope with those. That would be far better than telling them some fantastic fairy tale: “Nothing will ever be a problem, and you’ll live happily ever after.” No relationship I have ever seen has ever been like that. The question is how to manage it, and preparing people properly for that is an enormously important feature of what we do.
The other area I will talk about is counselling. Earlier on, when I was in Government, we drove through more money to help support marriage guidance and counselling. The one thing we know, and some of them will say this, is that with the proper counselling and support probably close to half the families that are heading for break-up can change, re-stabilise and stay together. That is a critical point. We are now investing £30 million in that, yet the price of the after-effects of break-up is numbered at closer to £50 billion.
Even though I have argued for more money to go in, and I thank the Government for putting more money in, it seems like a pretty mealy-mouthed concept that we invest so little money, when that money really reaps a dividend in stabilising families and helping them stay together. If it were anything else in life, we would consider it a major benefit that that amount of money returned such a phenomenal cost saving. That cost of £50 billion would fall quite dramatically. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) mentioned the stability on divorce; one of the reasons for that is that we started investing in marriage guidance and counselling. Imagine what we could do if we spent even more money on getting people immediately into counselling. That would have a huge effect, and I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to view that straight away.
The last point is marriage prep. I stand with all those who say that the key thing is to educate people to understand what it really means to start out on arguably the most important agreement they will ever make. People get terribly fussed about being members of things like golf clubs, where there are all sorts of peculiar and stupid rules around what they can and cannot wear, and everyone is very strict about it. If we mention that there are things people can and cannot do in marriage, however, everyone immediately says, “This is not something we need to lecture people about. We should not talk about it.” The answer is that the most important thing we will ever do is to form that relationship and ultimately, if we are lucky, to bring up children, and we want to make it as stable as possible.
If any Government sit there and worry about what people will say when they say they support marriage, because some will break up and there will be problems, we will never get anywhere. We now need to make the case for stability and strength, and help those who are unable to make that process.
It is a pleasure to follow the powerful contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), which highlights the gravity of the issue.
I will begin by thanking the several Ministers who have recently stated in this place their desire to see policies developed that support and strengthen family life. They have done so in response to the publication in September of “A Manifesto to Strengthen Families”, which my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) referred to. I congratulate him on securing this timely debate in the run-up to Marriage Week this year. The manifesto contained 18 policies, which are the fruit of many years’ work; many colleagues here today have spent several years speaking and working on the issue. After its publication in September, it garnered the support of more than 60 Back-Bench Conservative MPs.
The new Minister, whom I welcome to his place, need not worry if he has not seen the manifesto, because I will give him a copy at the end of the debate. After its publication, a number of Ministers spoke in support of it. Both the Leader of the House and the Health Secretary stated their interest in how the policies in that paper might feed into Government policy. The Prime Minister told the House in October that the Government are.
“looking into what more we can do to ensure that we see those stable families”.—[Official Report, 18 October 2017; Vol. 629, c. 846.]
She recognised the wide range of benefits that committed family relationships can bring, as we have heard today, such as improving wellbeing, reducing poverty and reducing Government spending.
On the wider beneficial aspects of marriage, the former Education Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening), said in this House that it was “exceptionally important” to include marriage in relationships education because:
“At the heart of this is the fact that we are trying to help young people to understand how commitments and relationships are very much at the core of a balanced life that enables people to be successful more generally.”—[Official Report, 6 November 2017; Vol. 630, c. 1189.]
As I have said, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives on securing the debate. It is so timely, because marriage has a key role in helping people to promote the stable relationships that support life chances for them and their children, their children’s educational attainment and future employment, boosting mental health and reducing the risk of addiction in later life. It can help combat loneliness in old age, help reduce the pressure on GP visits due to depression and reduce absenteeism at work. It can positively influence so many areas of life and, of course, beneficially influence the public purse.
I want to put it on record, as I always do in these debates, that there are difficult cases in which it is better for a child not to be in the same home as one of their parents. I always say that there are many single parents who work valiantly, and successfully, to ensure that their children flourish and have a positive future to look forward to, but we have to remember that the statistics speak for themselves. The Marriage Foundation, as we have heard, has recorded that 76% of married couples are still together when their child has their GCSE exams, but only 31% of unmarried couples are still together.
I am particularly concerned about the statistics showing that only 24% of those in lower income groups marry, compared with 87% of those in higher income groups. Marriage is such an important issue that we cannot afford to ignore it in public policy. I believe that, because family breakdown affects the poorest most, it is a social justice issue. In fact, it is one of those burning injustices that the Prime Minister spoke of so movingly on the steps of Downing Street when she took office. We need to address it, because if we do not, we will not only fail a generation of children who aspire to marriage, as we have heard, but let down the poorest of those children. That is why it is such an important issue of social justice.
Children from low-income households with an active father are 25% more likely to escape the poverty they grow up in. I will look at a number of policies, touching on some of those in “A Manifesto to Strengthen Families”. Research from the Social Trends Institute into families with children under 12 showed that Britain has the highest level of family instability in the entire developed world. We languish at the bottom of that table and successive surveys have shown that children in this country are among the unhappiest.
I have several points to make about policy, as I say. Will the Minister restate the Government’s commitment to the family impact assessment or family test, which was introduced by the last Prime Minister, David Cameron, to ensure that the Government never have a blind spot in this area? I recently tabled a number of parliamentary questions, asking what every Department of State is doing to ensure that this is appropriately applied. Will the Minister look at those responses, because they are extremely disappointing? The family test is not being applied in the comprehensive way that I believe the former Prime Minister intended.
New research from the Marriage Foundation confirms that family breakdown, which ultimately affects nearly half of all teenagers, is a clear cause of many children’s and teenagers’ emotional and behavioural problems. That should not really be news to us, but I encourage the Government to properly address family breakdown as part of its comprehensive review of mental health strategy. We need to ensure that we are not just helping the young people—the children themselves.
My hon. Friend is making a very good speech, and I agree with many of the points that she has made. I would caution about statistics and the difference between causation and association. She is pointing out an association between mental health and some of the points that she is raising, but actually young people’s mental health is far more complex than that and there are many confounding factors that may call into question that association. I caution that marriage should not be put at the centre of mental health policy for young children.
I disagree. I am a patron of a mental health charity that specialises in counselling young people in my constituency called Visyon. It now counsels children as young as four with mental health problems. It is overloaded—inundated—with counselling requests. Not long ago, I asked the chief executive officer, “How many of the children and young people you help to counsel have problems as a result of dysfunctional family relationships at home?”, and he looked at me and said, “Fiona, virtually all of them.” That is why it is so important, when we are counselling young people, that wherever possible we look at how we can also support their parents in their relationship. It is also why I am such a supporter of the “Emotionally healthy schools” programme, which is being pioneered by Middlewich High School in my constituency. When children in that school have problems, the headteacher, wherever possible, will ask the parents to come into the school, will meet them and will help them to ensure that the children’s home relationships are as healthy as possible to ensure that they have the best chance of flourishing, both educationally and in the future. We need more counsellors to be trained, to ensure that they are not just counselling young people but, wherever possible, working with their families to combat the epidemic of mental health problems in this country among young people.
I agree with my hon. Friend, but the same argument about causation and association is applied directly to marriage itself. The argument is made that were all the cohabiting couples to marry, the statistics for break-up would not change. How do we refute that argument?
Let us have a look at that, because my right hon. Friend, as always, raises a very pertinent point. From the outside, couples living together look the same whether they are cohabiting or married. Two people might be in love; they live together; they have a baby. What is the difference? I believe that the difference is commitment and, indeed, public commitment. The public promise made during the marriage ceremony sends a powerful message to the parties and to their friends and family round about, which can engender support from those friends and family when rocky patches occur. The message is, “We are committing ourselves to each other through thick and thin,” and that, after all, is the determination when people marry. A dialogue often precedes it that does not happen when people cohabit.
When people cohabit, there has often been what is called sliding rather than deciding to have a relationship; it happens without that preceding dialogue and mutual understanding of what it entails. That is why I so support the proposal that there be more pre-marriage counselling. In fact, I would go further and say that we should promote—this has been suggested by a number of groups and organisations—high-quality marriage preparation. That should be available to anyone who goes into a registry office and wants to get married. And we should waive marriage registration fees for couples who take part in an accredited marriage preparation course.
All that is what makes the difference between cohabitation and marriage. I am talking about giving young people the extra ability to work out whether they really want to be together and to stay together. There are statistics—yes, they are from the United States—showing that many couples going through marriage preparation courses decide not to marry, and that is a success in itself. They have made that decision in a contemplative and considered way.
Our problem today is actually not divorce but the trend away from marriage, although I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who is no longer in his place, say that the reduction in the number of people marrying has stalled. That is very helpful, but we need to combat the widespread assumption that cohabitation is living together as if married, because unless couples decide and do not slide, unless moving in together is part of a clear plan for the future, it is not. Unless they have discussed their approaches towards having children, finances and working when a family comes along, it is not the same.
Before closing, I will touch on one or two other policies, mentioned in the “Manifesto to Strengthen Families”, which I hope the Minister will consider. First, as we have heard, the Government have to ensure that the concepts of commitment, respect and safety are at the heart of the newly developed curriculum for relationships and sex education from an early age. That should include talking about marriage. I realise that that will need to be done exceptionally sensitively, but the Government need to make good on the comments of the former Secretary of State for Education that it is exceptionally important that marriage and its benefits be emphasised if we really care about the life chances and wellbeing of the children who will be the next generation of adults. We must not be embarrassed to mention that sensitively in schools. The next generation will not thank us for failing to teach them what a committed relationship means. If we do not do so, they will pay the price, and as I have said, the poorest will pay the highest price of all.
Secondly, I reiterate the importance of the Government continuing to look at removing the financial disincentives for those on low incomes to marry. This is in the manifesto. We want the Government to enable those who are on universal credit and entitled to the marriage allowance to receive the tax break automatically as part of their claim, and to ensure that it does not taper away. Will the Government also look at increasing the marriage tax allowance to a more significant level, which I believe would in turn boost uptake? In all the areas to which I have referred, it is possible for the Government to make small but impactful, positive changes to support marriage and family stability and therefore life chances.
This should not be a party political matter; it is too important. I welcome the contributions that we have heard today and particularly that from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), of the Democratic Unionist party, but I want to place this point on the record. I did not do so in last year’s debate in the run-up to Marriage Week, but I will do so now. As I believe was also the case last year, there is not one Labour Member in the Chamber today, other than the requisite Opposition spokesman, and this issue, which is about a burning injustice, deserves better than that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend, and fellow Cornishman, the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this very important debate. I wholeheartedly agree with virtually everything that has been said by hon. Members who have contributed; I shall just add a few points of my own.
As we have heard, virtually every indicator demonstrates clearly that marriage is a good thing. It is good for the people who are married and for the children who are raised in a family that is based on a married couple, and it has very significant benefits for wider society and our economy. By virtually every measure—whether we are talking about physical health, mental health, educational outcomes or economic measures—marriage is a good and positive thing, and that seems to be clear to everyone. So I am sometimes more than slightly baffled about why the Government often appear so shy about saying that. The Government are not shy about saying that other things are good for us. They often tell us that we should all take more exercise. They are not shy about telling us that we should eat a healthy diet, and they often tell us how much alcohol is safe to drink. They are even taking measures these days to reduce the amount of sugar that we have.
It seems strange that, on something so fundamentally important that has such huge benefits, the Government are so shy to speak up—to say what a great thing marriage is for everyone concerned. If there is one message that I would like to put to the Government via the Minister, who I am delighted to see in his place today, it is that they should not be bashful in saying what a great thing marriage is.
As other hon. Members have said, we all accept that not everyone chooses to be married and that marriage is not always a positive thing for some people. We absolutely accept and respect that, but it should not mean that we shy away from saying what a positive thing marriage is. It does feel at times as though marriage has become the M-word in Government policy that is missing. I add my voice to those who have called on the Minister to play his part in his new role and ensure that marriage and the benefits of it are highlighted in Government policy, statements and documents, so that there is an unequivocal message from Government that we believe marriage is good.
The Government should take confidence from the fact that there is clear data showing that the popularity of marriage is increasing. Some 80% of under 18-year-olds surveyed said that they desired to be married and saw it as an important part of their life, on a par with having a successful career. The Government should be confident in speaking up for marriage. It is popular, and because of that we should also ensure that marriage and its benefits are promoted to young people through our education policy. Just as we give them career advice and help them in choosing their careers, right at that young age we should get the benefits of marriage across to them and help them to understand that.
I am aware that there is not much time left, but I want to make one further point: it is about civil partnerships, which have not really been covered by any other contributions. I am aware that a private Member’s Bill calling for civil partnerships to be extended to all people will come before the House shortly. When I saw that that private Member’s Bill was coming, I seriously considered how we should address this issue. It is clear to me that civil partnerships were a stepping stone towards same-sex marriage. We are where we are on that, but it seems to me that the current position, where there is one option for formalising a couple’s relationship that is open to some but not to everyone, is unsustainable.
One way of addressing the situation would be to extend civil partnerships to all. I have come to a different view. I actually think that civil partnerships are now unnecessary. Marriage is open to all, including same-sex couples, and we should give a clear message that we believe marriage is the best option. We should not confuse the matter by seeking to provide an alternative. We simply do not need the distraction of finding new ways of doing what has been around for thousands of years.
My hon. Friend is making some very positive points about marriage. Given that there is now a record number—about 33.9%—of single people in the United Kingdom, should we not be encouraging any form of partnership, including heterosexual civil partnerships, to encourage people to go into stable relationships with each other? That seems to be what gives the greatest benefit to the individuals and any children involved. When it comes to Government policy we should be providing equality in law for everyone who wants to engage in meaningful relationships. As Conservatives, we would hopefully help to promote that rather than promoting one choice over another.
Some people will make that argument, and I absolutely respect it. Having considered the matter, however, I have come to a different view: that providing a competitor to marriage would dilute and undermine the positive place that marriage has in our society. That is my concern: that extending civil partnerships to heterosexual couples would provide competition for marriage. There should be a clear, positive, single message that marriage is a good thing to encourage in our society. That is my position, having thought about it. I respect my hon. Friend’s view, but it is not the view that I have come to. Civil partnerships are now unnecessary in our country. Stopping them and putting the focus on marriage would be the right step to take.
I have been married for 32 years this year. Lots of people say that I do not look old enough to have been married that long, but hopefully I am a demonstration that marriage is a good thing. I am very grateful to the very long-suffering Mrs Double, who has done more than her fair share to make sure that our marriage has stuck together and been successful over that time.
Like all of us who have been married, I know that, like anything in life worth having, it is sometimes through hard work, blood, sweat and tears that marriages are successful. I believe that it is important that the Government do all they can to help, support and encourage married couples to make a success of their marriages, that we remove all the barriers and disincentives in Government policy to marriage and to couples staying together, and that we give a very clear message and are not at all bashful in saying what a good and positive thing marriage is for everyone involved.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this debate and on his efforts to ensure that Marriage Week is celebrated in Parliament.
Marriage is a changing institution, and within our lifetimes it has changed dramatically. In fact, when the institution of marriage was originally created, the average life expectancy was 30 years. If we look at the statistics for marriage rates, we see that the number of people getting married each year is falling. At the same time, the age at which people are getting married is increasing: people of my generation are marrying on average 10 years later than their parents. On top of that, marriage rates are on the increase among over-65s, having increased by half between 2009 and 2014, which also says a lot about people living longer. So in my opinion, while marriage trends are changing and adapting to people’s wishes and needs, the institution of marriage does not appear to be under threat.
However, I am somewhat astounded, if no less grateful to the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), that equal marriage was finally mentioned one hour into the debate, although much of his attention focused on civil partnerships. I find it astounding that the Government did not take this opportunity to recognise all forms of marriage, and instead focused on nuclear and “2.4” families. I am sure that the Minister will address that in his response, but I just expected more from the Floor of the House.
While I welcome recent changes that allow same-sex couples across Scotland, England and Wales to marry, it is a great disappointment that that is still not possible in Northern Ireland. I hope that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) shares that concern. This is a great freedom for many couples who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, and as we approach LGBT History Month it has never been more important for the Government to put on record their support for same-sex marriage, recognising that everyone should be equal in the law and under the protections therein.
Giving same-sex couples the right to marry allows them to validate their relationship in a way that was previously denied. It is a move forward, closer to a more equal society, and allows those people to choose whether to get married, just like their peers. For many others, it is just as relevant not to marry. We have talked about cohabitation and suggested that it is not on an equal par with marriage, but I suspect that many families would disagree. I do not think that it is this House’s place to determine the sanctity of anyone’s relationship, whether they are cohabiting, married or otherwise. It is a choice, and we should simply enable that choice to be made by all individuals equally.
On many occasions, long-term cohabiting couples have just as successful relationships. So while I recognise the comments of the hon. Member for St Ives and the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on the statistics—which, yes, are alarming—I would echo the sentiments of the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), who cautioned us about the correlation of statistics in relation to marriage and mental health. The simple fact is that there are many successful families and they come in many shapes and forms, and marriage is not the sole indicator. While the hon. Member for St Ives outlined those statistics and suggested that children are more successful where there is marriage, I would caution that it is neither our role nor responsibility to lecture those who do not choose to marry.
As the term “marriage equality” suggests, the sanctity of marriage should be available to all, but we should also respect those who choose not to marry.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
No, I will continue.
Finally, many people’s marriages and relationships end. When they do, it is Government’s responsibility to create policy to support and protect those people, not to penalise them, especially not vulnerable parents with children to raise. If tackling child poverty is this Government’s aim, using this debate to lecture others on the sanctity of marriage is not the best use of time, especially when there are other aspects of Government policy that do not support families as they should.
I therefore take this opportunity to focus once more on Government policy, which is, of course, part of the subject of this debate, and to call on the Government to address the charges for the Child Maintenance Service. Where a relationship breaks down, many parents do not choose to live separately or rely on the Child Maintenance Service, so it is unfair and unacceptable to penalise parents or levy charges on one or both parents trying to support their children despite the breakdown of a marriage or relationship. Many parents rely on the Child Maintenance Service. The levy imposed is unfair and penalises children, who need the service most.
Marriage is and always should be a choice available to everyone. I hope that the House will recognise that.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this debate, and I welcome his inclusion of the importance of protecting families and his focus on providing stability for children. However, I take exception to his claim that family instability is the root cause of poverty, when we know that this Government’s cuts to social security are creating problems for families.
Social security support for low-income families has been cut severely. Most working-age benefits, including child benefit, have been frozen until 2020, and universal credit has been shown to be failing those on low incomes, causing debt and rent arrears. When universal credit was introduced in 2011, the coalition claimed that it would lift 350,000 children out of poverty. By 2013, that estimate had been reduced to 150,000, and by 2016 the Government refused to offer any re-evaluation at all. Can the Minister tell us how many children he believes universal credit will lift out of poverty?
Child Poverty Action Group published an analysis last November estimating that cuts to universal credit would push 1 million more children into poverty by 2020, along with an extra 900,000 adults. When we consider the situation for disabled children, we see that four in 10 are living in poverty, yet the basic level of support for disabled children in universal credit is less than half that available in tax credits.
We have had some interesting contributions; it has been good to hear people talk about how much they have enjoyed their own marriages. I welcome the call from the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) to tread gently, as marriage is often an issue of cultural sensitivity, and the comments of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who spoke of the hundreds of wonderful women he has met who are bringing up families alone. It is important to recognise that many people choose to bring up children on their own, and some people find themselves in that situation due to relationship breakdown or bereavement.
Since 2010, successive Governments have sought to reduce the role of the state wherever possible, especially in social security, yet when it comes to whether or not two people should marry—surely the most private of decisions—the coalition Government sought to influence behaviour in relation to that decision by introducing the marriage allowance in April 2015. Details of how the new transferable allowance would work, given in a note published alongside the 2014 Budget, stated:
“Couples where both partners are basic-rate taxpayers will in almost all cases see no gain or loss…Couples will benefit as a unit, but the majority (84 per cent) of individual gainers will be male.”
One must question the introduction of an allowance that the Government knew would disproportionately benefit men; I would be interested to hear the Minister’s rationale for it.
Take-up of the marriage allowance has been poor. Up to October, 2.4 million couples had claimed it, out of an estimated 4 million who were eligible. According to Government figures, the cost in 2015-16 is expected to be £385 million when backdated claims are ultimately included, and £425 million in 2016-17. It prompts the question whether that is really the best use of taxpayers’ money at a time when child poverty is soaring and the Government are cutting support for disabled people under universal credit and the employment and support allowance work-related activity group.
On pension equality, the question is whether some marriages are more equal than others in the Government’s eyes. The Government have spent a great deal of time and, no doubt, a sizable sum of taxpayers’ money opposing pension equality for same-sex couples. When the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 was debated in Parliament, the Opposition called on the Government to close a loophole in the law meaning that married same-sex couples and civil partners were treated differently when it comes to pension entitlement in the event of one partner’s death.
In July, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of equality in a landmark case brought by John Walker, a gay man who found that after 20 years of service to his company, it would provide £1,000 a year in pension to his surviving husband were he to die, whereas if he were married to a woman, she would receive £47,500 a year. Indeed, were he to divorce his male partner and then marry a woman, she would still receive the larger amount. When do the Government intend to respond to the Supreme Court ruling? Will the Minister ensure that the ruling will not be affected by the UK leaving the EU, as it was based in EU law, and will he assure us that the Government will end the disparities in public sector pension schemes?
The Government’s claim that they want to support marriage is also at odds with how cuts in social security since 2010 have put additional pressure on families and parents. Families on low incomes have faced long waits for initial payments of universal credit; figures last week from the Department for Work and Pensions show that one fifth of claimants are still not being paid in full on time, and more than one in 10 are not even receiving partial payment on time. Then there are the cuts to work allowances on universal credit, and the new, lower household benefit cap introduced in November 2016. At the same time, food prices in December were more than 4% higher than the year before. Families on low incomes tend to spend a higher proportion of their wages on basic items such as food and rent.
The Government have recently announced that they intend to create a new cliff edge for eligibility for free school meals, so that families with household earnings of more than £7,400 a year will no longer qualify. The Resolution Foundation has estimated that allowing all children whose parents claim universal credit to receive free school meals would cost £600 million a year. The chief executive of the Financial Conduct Authority warned in the autumn of the scale of the problem of household debt, and a recent study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies showed that one in four of Britain’s poorest households are falling behind with debt payments or spending more than a quarter of their monthly income on repayments.
Relate has highlighted how debt problems can easily lead to conflict and relationship breakdown, whether or not partners are married. That can have a serious impact on children, as research suggests that conflict, rather than family structure, has a negative impact on children’s development. The household benefit cap is forcing families to move away from sources of support such as family and friends. People on a low income may not be able to afford to travel back to see them frequently, either. More than 500 Sure Start centres have closed since 2010. They are another important support for more vulnerable parents in particular. If the Government value family, marriage and stability, why are they closing them? Again, I am keen to hear the Minister’s rationale.
Since last April, parents have been required to start looking for work as soon as their youngest child reaches the age of three, rather than five as was previously the case. A new report published by Save the Children last week found that many mothers would like to return to work or increase their hours, but find childcare simply unaffordable and Government help with the costs complex and difficult to access. Under tax credits, childcare costs are paid in advance, whereas under universal credit they will have to be paid up front and then claimed back, which is always likely to be problematic for parents on low incomes.
Of course, parents in many families are not married, and there are many lone-parent families. Government must recognise and value all family types. The alternative is to risk stigmatising families to no good purpose. Lone-parent families are particularly affected by access to childcare, and have been hit hard by cuts to social security since 2010. An independent study by the Equality and Human Rights Commission of the long-term impact of tax and welfare changes between 2010 and 2017 found that lone parents were set to lose an average of about 15% of their net income. That is almost £1 in every £6.
Lone-parent families make up one in four families with children, and have done for more than a decade. They are part of the mainstream of UK family life, and social policy needs to take that into account. Where a separated or divorced couple shares care of the children, the parent who is not the main carer cannot claim for an extra room for those children under the rules of the bedroom tax, for example. That can cause extreme difficulty for a family who must cope with the break-up of a relationship, and can cause parents, often fathers, to struggle to spend quality time with their children. A Labour Government would scrap the bedroom tax altogether. Will the Minister reconsider the rules of the bedroom tax as they currently affect separated couples to ensure that children do not suffer?
Where relationships unfortunately break down, changes to the child maintenance system have clearly not succeeded in supporting care for children or enabling parents to reach agreements themselves.
In 2012, the Government introduced a new system for child maintenance that aimed to nudge couples to reach agreement without the need for Government intervention. However, it does that by charging both parents—including the parent with care of the child or children, known as the “receiving parent”—if they fail to reach agreement independently.
The Department published a survey in December 2016 that found that around a third of receiving parents who paid the Child Maintenance Service application fee reported that it was difficult to afford. Of parents who did not have a maintenance arrangement at three months, 29% said that the £20 application fee was a factor. Of receiving parents with a direct payment arrangement, 42% cited a desire to avoid collect-and-pay charges as a reason for choosing direct pay and half said that the charges were a factor in their decision.
Will the Government take action to widen access—
Order. I ask the hon. Lady to wind up, so that the Minister has a chance to respond.
In conclusion, a stable, loving family is undoubtedly what we would want for all children, but there are many types of family in the 21st century. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) once said:
“Families come in all shapes and sizes. We don’t favour one way of family life over another. We want to support and back up all families...Government dictating family structures doesn‘t work.”
She is right. This is a question of respect.
The Government should commit to stable families by putting an end to austerity, by giving our schools, police and health services the funding they need, by banning zero-hours contracts, by ensuring that refuges are available for people fleeing domestic violence and by ensuring that the social security system is there for people in their time of need.
It is a pleasure to begin my Front-Bench career under your beady eye, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this debate and pay tribute to the work that he has done over the years on this issue, which is deeply important to him. I also thank hon. Members for a sensitive and thoughtful debate.
The Government are committed to supporting families, and it is right to draw attention to an issue that affects a wide range of Departments as well as mine. This debate was called in connection with Marriage Week, which takes place between 5 and 14 February. That provides a good opportunity to celebrate the commitment and connectedness that a stable relationship brings to a family.
The Government’s view is that families are fundamental in shaping individuals and that they have an overwhelmingly positive effect on wider society. Growing up in families where parents are collaborative and communicate well gives children the environment they need to develop into happy and successful adults. The vital institution of marriage is a strong symbol of wider society’s desire to celebrate commitment between partners.
The institution of marriage can be the basis of a successful family life and many people make this important commitment every year. Marriage can lay the foundations for parenthood and is emblematic of the love and security that parents need to raise a child. The Government will continue to champion and encourage stable families that provide nurturing environments for children. That is why we are focused on helping families and children, to enhance the educational and employment opportunities available to the young and to reinforce the benefits that parental collaboration will undoubtedly have.
Although the Government support the positive impact that the stability of marriage can bring to family life, this debate is also an opportunity to celebrate the fact that relationships that provide the foundation for a stable and supportive family life across the United Kingdom come in different shapes and sizes. The Government recognise that a supportive family can take many different forms. Marriage plays an important role in our society, but we are committed to supporting different, and equally important, types of families, too.
How many different forms? Is a family any collection of people who happen to share a fridge?
No, but it is clear that the key issue for a family unit is long-term commitment to each other, whether that is a religious, legal or emotional commitment.
It is an unfortunate fact of life that marriages, like other relationships, can and do break down, but the Government have been clear that even when a family has separated, both parents still have a positive role to play in the lives of their children. Evidence shows that parental collaboration has a direct and positive impact on children’s outcomes. They tend to have better health and emotional wellbeing and higher academic attainment if they grow up with parents who have a good relationship and manage conflict well. That is why we are committed to supporting healthy relationships between parents, whether married or cohabiting, together or separated, in the best interests of children.
We have already made good progress. Between April 2015 and March 2017, we invested £17.5 million in relationship support services, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) pointed out. More than 48,000 couples have participated in counselling and more than 17,000 practitioners have been trained to help families in difficulty. We could not have achieved that without our delivery partners in the Relationship Alliance—part of a broad range of stakeholders who contribute valuable insight and expertise.
In the light of the strength of the evidence about the damaging impact of parental conflict on children, my Department is working with local areas to implement a new reducing parental conflict programme, which will increase access to face-to-face, evidence-based interventions to reduce parental conflict. As announced in “Improving lives: Helping Workless Families”, our new programme will focus on vulnerable families, including those who are workless, because they are three times more likely to experience relationship distress.
Given the time remaining, I will turn to the four broad themes raised by hon. Members. First, several hon. Members mentioned the suspicion that there was an element of cultural cringe at the mere mention of marriage. I reassure them that that will not be the case from my point of view. The Department is working hard to embed the family test across Government, as my right hon. Friend mentioned, and to offer advice to other Departments that are instituting it. It has been developed with our partners in the Relationship Alliance, and we will continue to push that forward.
On the relationships and sex education consultation that is coming out later this year, I understand that that will or should mention the importance of commitment, with a specific mention of marriage as an element of that.
Secondly, the Government’s support for stability in relationships will be an enormous departmental focus for us, not least because of the connection between relationship instability and worklessness. In last year’s Budget, we announced that we would spend an extra £39 million on that programme over the next few years. I welcome hon. Members’ contributions to its development. We are also developing a quality of relationship tracker—a relationship distress indicator—against which we will hopefully be able to measure performance.
Thirdly, my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives and others mentioned a ministerial working group. I would be more than happy to address that with ministerial colleagues. I think the Cabinet Office is the most effective Department for looking across Government at where we can put something together. I will write to my opposite number there to look at that.
Finally, several hon. Members raised the issue of financial support for marriage and whether it is enough, whether it is targeted properly and whether it should be exclusive to marriage or for commitment more widely. Although it would be dangerous to stray into Treasury matters at this early stage of my career, I am happy to write to Treasury Ministers to point out that although uptake of the marriage allowance has been successful to some extent—something like 2.6 million families now take part—hon. Members present feel that more could be done.
My door will always be open to hon. Members who are behind the strengthening families manifesto. Before becoming a Minister, I had a useful meeting with the all-party group about our crossover of interests around children’s interests, on which we are all focused.
In the preparation for my marriage, I was given a piece of advice. The chap who was preparing us said, “Kit, you have to remember that the day you get married is the day that courtship really starts.” That lesson has stuck with me for the rest of my life.
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue. I thank all hon. Members who have taken part, and I thank the Minister for his open and positive response. I look forward to further discussions in the near future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Marriage and Government policy.
NHS Negligence Cases
I beg to move,
That this House has considered NHS negligence cases.
As always, Mr Rosindell, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair. I know that it is highly unusual for a member of the shadow Cabinet to speak from the Back Benches, so I am grateful to the Opposition Whips and to Mr Speaker for allowing me to do so as a final opportunity to seek some form of closure for my constituent in this very serious matter. I am especially grateful to Mr Speaker for granting this debate.
Sadly, I have to publicly outline how my constituent, Mr Hawkins, has been let down by public authorities. The law and NHS rules have been abused to avoid giving him the justice that is rightfully his. His attempts to seek that justice, along with some semblance of honesty and humility, have already passed the decade mark, so I shall be grateful for the Minister’s reply after I set out the case.
Mr Hawkins was admitted to Tameside General Hospital on 28 June 2006 to undergo surgery to repair a ruptured left Achilles tendon. Rupturing an Achilles tendon can tear it partially or completely, making walking difficult and the ankle feel weak. The surgery was listed for theatre in the afternoon under the care of an orthopaedic consultant surgeon, Mr Ebizie, but then postponed to the evening. My constituent believes that the most simple and sensible solution would have been to postpone it until the next day, allowing him to remain under the care of the same surgeon. He believes that that did not happen, however, because it would have meant the hospital missing its five-day Government target for a patient to receive treatment or surgery after attending accident and emergency. Records indicate that the surgery was instead carried out by Dr Manikanti, assisted by Mr Kumar. Mr Hawkins states that the change of surgeon was made without his knowledge or consent. Subsequently, both clinicians have left the hospital and the country, and the names and titles of those who carried out the surgery have been disputed.
Mr Hawkins states that the surgeon made a critical clinical error. He believes that the surgeon misunderstood the positioning of the two diagonal sutures forming part of the modified Kessler suture. They were brought to the surface and closed, which permanently fixed the repaired Achilles tendon to the rear of his leg. On 7 July 2006, nine days after the surgery, the plaster cast was removed, revealing an open wound between the two sutures. Steri-strips were applied in an attempt to close the wound, but the duty consultant wrote in his records that the wound had healed very well after surgery. Mr Hawkins states that despite being aware of the error, the hospital failed to correct it by releasing the repaired tendon from the rear of his leg as soon as was medically possible. This allowed serious adhesion and tethering to form as the sutures disintegrated.
On 12 January 2007, Mr Hawkins was discharged from the care of Tameside Hospital. Throughout the previous months, the repaired Achilles tendon had been continually swollen because of the aggravation of the fixation. Mr Hawkins raised concerns, which were ignored. Weekly and monthly appointments at the hospital were required thereafter. Mr Hawkins believes that he was discharged by Tameside Hospital before he was clinically prepared and regardless of his condition. He feels that that was done to conform to Government targets.
Mr Hawkins immediately made a complaint through the hospital trust’s internal complaints procedures. He believes that on receipt of his letter of complaint, the trust should have called him in for an examination and a scan. It should have admitted that a serious problem had occurred and carried out a further operation to release the Achilles tendon from the rear of his leg. In Mr Hawkins’s mind, the matter would then have been resolved. However, the trust decided to take a different route: it instantly instructed Hempsons solicitors.
Although, obviously, Mr Hawkins is concerned about the clinical errors that have caused him lasting damage, he is rather more appalled by the actions of a variety of organisations afterwards. He believes that those actions were deliberately designed to cover up the fact that a clinical mistake had been made, caused primarily by the replacement of a consultant surgeon with a junior doctor.
In 2008, Mr Hawkins instructed a solicitor, who requested disclosure of all full medical records. The trust passed his request on to Hempsons. However, in the immediate period after his request he received only a very selective number of his own medical files from Hempsons. Mr Hawkins’s solicitor failed to ensure that all full medical evidence was disclosed within statutory time limits and failed to apply for a court controlled disclosure, while knowing that the records he had listed were missing. Mr Hawkins’s solicitor instructed a clinical litigation medical expert, who produced a case-closing report that failed the objectivity test and was therefore invalid. The trust and Hempsons initially failed to disclose relevant medical records, doing so only after continued and considerable pressure from Mr Hawkins.
The hon. Gentleman is a strong advocate for his constituent and makes a compelling case about the difficulties that his constituent has faced. Does he agree that the case flags up a wider problem? He mentioned solicitors being involved at a very early stage in the process. The current system for dealing with medical negligence in hospitals pushes defensive medicine and defensive approaches from hospitals. That fundamentally needs to change, because it is not good for doctors and it is not good for patients. Does he think that no-fault compensation may be a good way forward?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. As Mr Hawkins himself acknowledges, if the hospital trust had taken his complaint down a different route by accepting that it had made a clinical error and deciding to put it right, I would not be standing in Westminster Hall today raising his case.
Mr Hawkins continued with his complaint. In 2013, the trust eventually conceded and his remaining medical records were fully disclosed. On analysis of the records, it was plain to see that there were omissions and that pre-action protocol time limits had been exceeded. In response, Hempsons sought the opinion of a medical litigation expert. A report was produced, but it was based on the selected medical records that I mentioned earlier, as well as on the falsified information. Mr Hawkins believes that that report would fail any objectivity test and is therefore invalid.
Mr Hawkins had involved the Information Commissioner’s Office on two occasions: in 2009 and in 2013. In both instances, it judged that the Data Protection Act 1998 had been breached by the trust’s failure to disclose relevant medical records on several occasions. After much time and effort from Mr Hawkins, on 11 December 2013 the new management team at the trust finally admitted to maladministration and awarded remuneration for it. In a move that Mr Hawkins believes was an attempt to close his complaint and prevent the case from going back to the Information Commissioner, or to the court for disclosure, the new management team disclosed that it would no longer discuss actions taken by the old management team. Mr Hawkins also believes that the Limitation Act 1980 was breached from 2008 and that rules 31 and 35 of the Civil Procedure Rules 1998 were breached in compiling medical reports, because the medical experts failed in their duty to the court to be objective.
The delays in disclosure of information meant that Mr Hawkins’s complaint to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman was ruled out of time. My constituent believes that that makes a mockery of the trust’s failure to disclose his medical records within statutory time limits, which he believes the ombudsman ignored while upholding the strict time criteria regarding his making a complaint to the ombudsman.
Mr Hawkins appealed the decision on several occasions when the evidence was retrieved through the Information Commissioner. However, he was unsuccessful in overturning their original view that a letter from the trust indicated that the complaint was closed in 2007, which he utterly refutes. Hempsons later apologised and admitted that that letter did not clearly state that the local complaints procedure was closed. However, the ombudsman still refused to investigate the complaint and, in doing so, Mr Hawkins feels that the ombudsman has assisted the trust to conceal the cause and effects of a clinical error.
In 2013, Mr Hawkins wrote to the NHS Litigation Authority, as the trust was not reporting clinical mistakes. Initially, the NHS Litigation Authority would not get involved and requested my involvement, as Mr Hawkins’s Member of Parliament, which I duly offered. Two replies were received that indicated that the NHS Litigation Authority was involved in the case, despite previous assertions and written evidence that it was not involved. Mr Hawkins was notified in writing that the trust, on receipt of his letter of complaint, had instructed Hempsons in January 2007, with the NHS Litigation Authority directly instructing Hempsons and the trust from November 2007 to February 2009.
Hempsons was aware of a breach of the Limitation Act 1980 and the Data Protection Act 1998 when it disclosed to Mr Hawkins his missing medical records in October 2009. This means that the trust and Hempsons had illegally avoided disclosing all full medical records within statutory time limits and successfully passed the three-year limit for litigation. Mr Hawkins believes that indicates that the NHS Litigation Authority was aware that rules had been broken, yet failed to take retrospective action based on the strength of the evidence that he had disclosed to it in 2013.
The actions taken by the trust, assisted by Hempsons and the NHS Litigation Authority from January 2007 to December 2013, clearly indicate that the trust was covering up a clinical incident and its cause. With so much time having passed since my constituent first exited the operating theatre in the summer of 2006, I hope that today the Minister of State will be able to afford Mr Hawkins guidance and support in this matter, and finally bring to some closure what has been a dreadful episode for my constituent.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell.
I begin by commending the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) for securing this debate. Although he opened it by saying that it is perhaps unusual for a member of the shadow Cabinet to secure a debate such as this one, it is absolutely right that he is doing so on behalf of his constituent and bringing these matters before the House. I am very sorry to hear about Mr Hawkins’s experiences, which have clearly caused him distress.
As you are well aware, Mr Rosindell, the NHS complaints process operates independently of Government, to prevent political bias in the handling of individual complaints. However, a number of points arise from the hon. Gentleman’s remarks, in respect of his contention that Mr Hawkins was let down by a number of individuals and organisations within the NHS. Specifically, it is alleged by Mr Hawkins that the hospital failed him by prioritising then Government targets, which delayed his operation; that the clinician failed him through clinical error; that the duty surgeon failed him by falsely reporting that his wound had healed; that the hospital failed him by not correcting the alleged mistake and by instructing lawyers; that Hempsons solicitors failed to disclose full records; that his own solicitors failed him by not obtaining his records; that his own clinical medical expert failed him; that the hospital failed him, regarding his report; that the ombudsman failed him; and that the NHS Litigation Authority failed him.
Although the Department of Health does not comment on individual cases, and it is not for me to adjudicate whether all of those claims by Mr Hawkins are valid, it is worth noting that a very wide range of both individuals and organisations are alleged by Mr Hawkins either to have conspired against him or, indeed, to have failed him in this matter.
It is also worth placing on the record that NHS Resolution, which was formerly the NHS Litigation Authority, informs me that in January 2016 it first became aware of an independent medical report commissioned by Thompsons, Mr Hawkins’s own solicitors, which had not been previously disclosed to NHS Resolution in the course of Mr Hawkins making his claim. That medical report concluded that there was nothing to suggest that the operation in question had been performed anything but competently. Although I very much recognise that the hon. Gentleman’s constituent is of a different view, and he is perfectly entitled to be of a different view, it is worth placing on the record that his own medical expert, who reviewed this case, did not feel that the operation had been performed in the way that Mr Hawkins has claimed.
I note that Mr Hawkins referred this matter to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, which is independent of both the NHS and Government, but the ombudsman ruled that the claim was out of time. Ombudsman decisions are final and there is no automatic right for them to be reviewed. However, the law provides for the ombudsman to consider whether to review a decision if it was demonstrated that the ombudsman made their decision based on inaccurate facts, or that there was new and relevant information that was not previously available, or that they had overlooked or misunderstood parts of the complaint or relevant information.
If a complainant believes that there has been maladministration in the handling of their complaint, they can apply to the courts for a judicial review. However, that must be done within three months of the conclusion of the complaints process.
The Minister hits the nail on the head there, and it is where the system has let Mr Hawkins down; Mr Hawkins will have been listening very attentively to the case that I set out. Mr Hawkins was denied that ability to apply for a judicial review because of the way that the hospital itself had delayed the process by not informing him that the case had been formally closed, so that by the time he was advised that the case was closed, the time limit by which he was able to take a legal route had passed.
I very much recognise the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. Obviously, I do not want to get drawn into the specifics of this individual case, for the reasons that I have already set out, but within this case and within the claim made by Mr Hawkins a number of factors have been outlined, and I recognise that the hon. Gentleman’s point is one limb of the claim that Mr Hawkins has made.
What brings the various issues together is a question that I think applies to all of us, from all parties in the House: in the future, how do we collectively avoid cases such as Mr Hawkins’s case, and how do we improve the complaints process? That is an area where the Government have been particularly active, not least following “Hard Truths”, the report into Mid Staffordshire and the issues that arose there. The Department of Health has established the complaints improvement board to take forward a series of projects to improve the complaints process. So I hope that—irrespective of the specifics that we are discussing today—as part of the “closure” that the hon. Gentleman referred to, the improvements in the complaints process in the future will be a source of some comfort to Mr Hawkins.
As part of that process, the complaints improvement partnership was established by the Department and system partners, including NHS England, NHS Improvement, the Care Quality Commission, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, and NHS Resolution. That partnership is currently examining options for delivering a more effective complaints management system, and better use of all forms of feedback to improve NHS services. That includes expanding the role of the “freedom to speak up” guardians, to give them powers to initiate whistleblower complaints processes where possible. My predecessor, the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), particularly championed that when he was a Minister, and he did a huge amount to progress it.
The complaints improvement partnership also engages with non-executive directors to explore options for them to have responsibility for monitoring the progress of complaints and serious incidents within trusts, and with Healthwatch England, to empower local healthwatch organisations. As constituency Members, I think we all work with and see the value of that body. Working with the ombudsman, the partnership also promotes best practice in the handling of complaints by providing information, advice and training. In addition, NHS Resolution has recently launched a service to increase the use of mediation in the NHS, to resolve issues at an earlier stage without the need for protracted litigation. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) has previously championed reducing the impact of lawyers when disputes arise.
It is important that patients receive the safest care possible from the NHS and that when things go wrong clinicians are open and honest, and able to learn from their mistakes. It is equally important that patients and their families are listened to and their concerns taken seriously and addressed.
That brings us back to the point made by the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter). When Mr Hawkins complained that his Achilles tendon had adhered to the back of his foot again, it surely would have been better for Tameside General Hospital’s old management—the hospital has come a long way since it was in special measures—to investigate and put it right at that point, rather than immediately going down the legal route.
The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the events took place more than 11 years ago and that it is, therefore, not for me to comment on what the trust knew at that time or their actions accordingly. I think we all, across the House, recognise that resolving issues without recourse to litigation is preferable, where possible, to lawyers being involved at an early stage—and I say that as a former lawyer. That is why the Government seek to improve how complaints are handled, including improving the regulation. The Care Quality Commission now rigorously inspects all trusts and primary and adult care providers, and a duty of candour—a new protection for whistleblowers—encourages staff to speak up for safety and hence fosters greater transparency. There is also the development of a culture of learning, through patient safety collaboratives and the national Sign up to Safety campaign, and last April the healthcare safety investigation branch became a fully operational and independent branch of NHS Improvement, to investigate serious incidents in the NHS with a strong focus on system-wide learning.
I do not wish to distract from the main purpose of the debate, but my hon. Friend makes an important point about a culture of openness and transparency in dealing with complaints. How does he feel that the recent High Court judgment about a doctor being struck off by the General Medical Council might play into doctors’ and other healthcare professionals’ willingness to engage with such a culture? Might it be inhibitory, in that they would be concerned about the impact on their future careers of being open and willing to own up to mistakes?
As a former Minister, my hon. Friend knows that there are conventions regarding Ministers of the Crown commenting on court judgments. The Secretary of State has already made clear his position on that matter, and this debate on a specific constituency issue is not the forum for moving beyond that scope.
It is important for us all that we improve the handling of complaints. In a system as large as the NHS, we all recognise that, with the best will in the world, things will go wrong and mistakes will be made. The latest Care Quality Commission annual “State of Care” report, published in October 2017, recognises that the vast majority of patients get good care and that many parts of the NHS have improved thanks to the hard work of the staff. The key issue that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish has rightly brought before us today is how we learn from things going wrong and how, when a patient thinks something has gone wrong, the issues are aired and resolved.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate, notwithstanding his elevated position in the shadow Cabinet, and for ensuring that his constituent’s issues have been aired before the House. The Government are committed to building a learning culture within the NHS that listens to patients and relatives and learns from mistakes, so that patients do not suffer avoidable harm. The Secretary of State deserves great credit for his championing of patient safety as a specific issue within his portfolio. We are also working to improve the complaints handling system so that it is more responsive and joined-up between organisations. I hope that the improvements that are in place will help Mr Hawkins to get some closure on the matters we have debated today.
I thank the Minister for his kind words and his outlining of how things are changing to give patients better systems through which confidently to seek redress when things go badly wrong. Unfortunately, though, that does not fix the problem for my constituent, Mr Hawkins. He is not looking for a solution. He has exhausted every avenue, as the Minister has set out, and has been badly let down and failed at every stage by a variety of public and private bodies.
My aim today was to set out Mr Hawkins’s case so that Ministers could learn from it in taking forward improvements to the NHS complaints procedures, to ensure that hospital trusts do not play the system to avoid being held properly to account by the ombudsman and other statutory bodies such as the Information Commissioner. My aim was also for Mr Hawkins to feel that the world knew what had happened to him, and to receive assurances that the Government are fully aware of and understand the pain, hurt and concern caused to him for more than a decade, and are intent on putting that right.
Question put and agreed to.
Criminal Justice System: Adults with Autism
[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the treatment of adults with autism by the criminal justice system.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I am pleased to have secured this debate on a crucial topic that affects the lives of many adults with autism and the families who support them. The debate is about adults with autism and what happens when they come into contact with the criminal justice system.
It is understandable that a lot of focus in this place and elsewhere is given to children with autism—that is right given the need for educational and other support for them, their parents and their families—but autism does not cease to be an issue when someone turns 18 and becomes an adult. Many of the services that might be available for children with autism fall away when they become adults. Parents get older and it is often more difficult for them to cope. Adults with autism face a complex world outside of full-time education where the behaviours and traits associated with autism are often poorly understood, misinterpreted or even sometimes mistaken for criminality. I will say some more about that in due course.
First, I acknowledge the work of the all-party parliamentary group on autism, which has been supported by the National Autistic Society and many other campaigners. That work has resulted in recent positive developments in the criminal justice system for adults with autism. I congratulate the APPG on successfully securing the support of the former prisons Minister, the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). He wrote to all prisons in England and Wales encouraging them to undertake autism accreditation. Pleasingly, one prison has already been accredited. According to the APPG website, seven more are undergoing that process, but, with well over 100 prisons in England and Wales, there is a long way to go in making further progress.
Recent cases featured in the press, such as that of a young man called Marcus Potter, show that the use of the prison system can exacerbate the condition of those with autism, rather than act in the public interest. The system can cause deep distress and problems. In this case, a young man with an autism diagnosis from the age of three got into trouble for his compulsive filming of the local police. The judge decided to release him from prison, opting for a care plan and probation instead. The judge concluded:
“The worst place for you is where you are”.
There is a lot of work to be done in relation to adults with autism and prisons. There may be Members who want to say something about that in this debate.
Just on that point, I have the privilege of chairing the Westminster Commission on Autism. I do not know whether my hon. Friend saw its recent report on the barriers to healthcare. All these institutions, whether they are in criminal justice, health or whatever, have to give special consideration to people on the autism spectrum. Those environments can be very hostile because of the nature of that challenge.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work he is doing on that commission and the work he has done around health. One of the complexities with such a debate on autism relates to the Department that should be answering. I do not think I am giving away any state secrets by saying that I received a phone call from the Government asking, “Which Department do you think should reply to your debate?” I do not blame the Government for that—having been a Minister, I understand how Government works—but one of the key problems is the difficulty in ensuring that services are joined up across the Department of Health and Social Care, the Ministry of Justice, the Attorney General’s Office, the Home Office, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education. All those things play into each other. Even though today’s debate is specifically about the criminal justice system, it is inevitable that other issues play into it.
Does the hon. Gentleman think it might be worth the Government considering, with Cabinet Office oversight, the creation of something like the covenant and veterans board? That would ensure that every Department had someone absolutely focused on the issue. Autism affects every Department and how we make reforms. Such a board could drive the agenda much more comprehensively through the system.
I think that is an excellent suggestion. In my experience in government, to get Departments working together and to make progress we have to bring Ministers together, not just officials. Those Ministers have to understand and be passionately committed to making the change. It is possible to make significant change simply by ensuring that Ministers are brought together. When I was a Minister, I attempted a joint project with another Minister, and the only way we could get it done was by ensuring that we met regularly. We told our officials, “You will do this, even though it is not currently in the Department’s culture. We are both telling you to do it, and you will work together to do it.” The hon. Lady’s suggestion is excellent, and I hope that the Minister will take it on board. Even if he cannot commit to doing it this afternoon, I hope he will commit to taking it away and discussing it with his colleagues.
Is it not the case that all the institutions have to provide training on people on the autism spectrum? I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman heard reference in the debate last week to Alex Henry. He is an autistic young man. A boy who was with him stabbed someone, and Alex Henry is now in prison for 19 years. He was an easily led young man on the autism spectrum. People on the autism spectrum tend to be quite easily led and are very impressionable. The criminal justice system should be sensitive to the needs of autistic people.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I will come on to talk a little about ensuring that joined-up understanding. The criminal justice system needs to be able to identify and understand the vulnerabilities of people with autism when they come into contact with the criminal justice system.
I was talking about a young man who had been sent to prison. I pointed out that there is a lot of work to be done on adults with autism and prisons. I will not talk further about that today—other Members may want to speak about it—because I want to focus on the earlier stages of the criminal justice system and in particular issues relating to safeguarding and arrest. People with autism can often exhibit specific behaviours that others categorise as unusual, such as stimming, which is a repetitive physical movement that helps reinstate a sense of calm. It is a particular trait of people with autism, and it is rarely understood by others. Indeed, most people I speak to have never even heard of stimming and do not know what it is.
Behaviours that are seen to be unusual can sometimes be misinterpreted as antisocial or, even worse, criminal. Indeed, it has been suggested that those who are the highest functioning on the autism spectrum can often bear the brunt of such misinterpretations as their condition is not otherwise obviously visible. They are not always extended the benefit of the doubt. I hope the Minister will outline his views and what is being done to try to prevent people with autism from being mistakenly criminalised by that misinterpretation of that particular trait. What steps are being taken to ensure that the behaviour of those on the autistic spectrum is not misinterpreted by police and the judiciary?
When adults on the autistic spectrum come under suspicion of criminal behaviour, safeguarding becomes crucial. I want to refer to the case of a constituent of mine, who wishes to remain anonymous for obvious reasons. The safeguards in the criminal justice system did not protect him as they should have under current policy and practice. Owing to his understandable desire not to be named publicly, I will not go too far into the detailed circumstances that led to the arrest of my constituent on two different occasions. I know that Ministers are aware of the details of the case through previous meetings and correspondence. Suffice it to say that his stimming was misinterpreted while travelling in crowded conditions on public transport, and that is what led to his arrest.
My constituent declared his autism before he was arrested, which should have triggered a different pathway from a normal arrest, but he was not diverted or safeguarded at the point of contact as he should have been. On the first occasion, no appropriate adult was called, his parents were not contacted as they should have been, and he was not assessed as fit for interview. A caution was issued against him, which was later quashed due to those lapses in procedure. Unfortunately, he was arrested again three years later, and his vulnerability and protected characteristics were not properly recognised by the police or the health professional who assessed him. In other words, the reasonable adjustments that are required by law were not made during detention or subsequently, and that case was dropped without charge.
In January 2009, Lord Bradley, who is of course a former Member of this House and pays very close attention to these kinds of proceedings, published his review of people with mental health problems or learning disabilities in the criminal justice system. His report set out a policy of liaison and diversion for people with these kinds of issues away from police custody, for assessment by clinicians prior to arrest and custody. I want to be perfectly clear that diversion does not mean not having to answer the allegations; it means that behaviours associated with autism are properly contextualised, that both the accused and the evidence are properly protected, and that an appropriate adult is present. Lord Bradley specified in his report:
“Studies into the use of Appropriate Adults have concluded that provision of the Appropriate Adult is very inconsistent. Firstly, the needs of a defendant have to be identified, which are often missed. Even when a need for an Appropriate Adult is identified there is currently a shortage of individuals who can perform the role effectively.”
My contention is that if Lord Bradley’s recommendations had been properly followed when my constituent was arrested in 2011 and 2014, the trauma that he and his family suffered could have been avoided. My constituents are not the only ones who have had such misunderstandings with the police. The National Autistic Society has said:
“our charity still hears regularly from autistic people and families who say that responding police did not understand autism and did not respond appropriately. This causes unnecessary distress to the individual and to police attending.”
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will in one second. In driving home my point—before my hon. Friend helps me to do so—I want to ask the Minister to go back and look at Lord Bradley’s proposals and ensure that they are being fully implemented across the system. I will now, with great pleasure, give way to my hon. Friend.
My hon. Friend is making such a good speech, which has stimulated me to remind him that the court system very often derides professional opinion about the facts of autism. Professor Baron-Cohen of the University of Cambridge is probably the best-known expert on autism in the country. In the recent case of Lauri Love, who is in danger of being sent to the United States where he will almost certainly be in danger of committing suicide, the professor’s evidence was dismissed out of hand. In fact, he was attacked as an expert when he was in court. Does my hon. Friend agree that professionals who know about autism have been disregarded in a number of cases?
My hon. Friend describes a very distressing phenomenon. Professor Baron-Cohen is one of the world’s experts in this area, and the idea that his evidence would not be taken seriously in an instance such as the one that he describes is obviously highly concerning. I hope that the Minister will consider that, and whether legislation might be required to ensure that the Lord Bradley’s recommendations are followed across the system.
The issues that I am raising today were borne out in a study by the University of Bath, published in 2016. A survey of almost 400 police officers found that only 42% of officers—so a minority of officers—were satisfied with how they had worked with individuals on the autism spectrum. Some 37% of officers had received specific training on how to work with individuals on the autism spectrum, but many found that even that training was not tailored to their specific roles within the police force. In addition, organisation and time constraints were cited as specific barriers, so what assessment has the Minister made of the effects of the continuing cuts to police budgets on the training that is offered to police officers and staff working with adults on the autistic spectrum, and what will he do following the debate to ensure that safeguarding policies are properly put into action across the board?
The National Autistic Society has a free resource aimed at police officers and staff, which offers a guide to working with people on the autistic spectrum. I hope that the Minister will be able to join me in publicly encouraging police services in Wales to use that resource, which is appropriate for Scotland and Northern Ireland as well, and to seriously consider its guidance.
As I said, the allegations against my constituent resulted in a caution that was quashed and in the second instance they were dropped. However, to his great distress, those erroneous allegations remain on police databases. At the time of his arrest, my constituent was living and working across the border in England, not in Cardiff, but the discovery that the allegations against him were kept on police databases, despite the police having acknowledged that they were inaccurate, caused him very severe psychiatric harm, as was confirmed by two separate psychiatric reports. As a result, my constituent ended up giving up his job, flat and independence to return home and live with his parents in Cardiff. We cannot want to see such an outcome for an adult with autism who has established independence and a productive role in society in the workplace. It shows the life-changing effects that a lack of safeguarding can end up having.
The allegations remain on police records. The chief executive of the relevant NHS trust invited both the police and the Independent Police Complaints Commission to send representatives to two meetings to discuss how they could help to protect my constituent from further psychiatric harm. I am sad to say that they did not attend either meeting. Even though extensive and complex complaints have been made to the relevant agencies, those made to the police and the Independent Police Complaints Commission remain unresolved. My constituent and his family have grave concerns about the governance and compliance with required standards demonstrated in the handling of their complaints.
There is no evidence that the police service involved recognised my constituent’s continuing vulnerability, or put in place plans to respond appropriately and safely in the event of further contact with him. In my view, therefore, they neglected to protect him from future risk of harm. Before the first incident, and subsequently, he was studying for a degree and travelling daily on public transport. Before the second incident, he was working full time, but his experiences and, in particular, the failure to remove or amend the allegations resulted, as was predicted by the senior medical consultants who assessed him, in serious impairment of his health and development, with a significant increase in his anxiety and impact on his functioning. As a result, he lost his employment, moved back home and is no longer able to travel independently on public transport.
In pursuing his case, my constituent and his parents have unearthed many worrying inconsistencies. For example, he was originally told by the police that the case against him was not pursued on public interest grounds, whereas the Solicitor General later confirmed that it had been dropped through a lack of evidence. Those are two very different reasons not to prosecute.
Hon. Members will recall the Commons debate on 30 November last year on mental health and suicide in the autism community, in which reference was made to recent research findings that autistic people are nine times more likely to kill themselves than the average population. For people on the autistic spectrum, contact with the criminal justice system can often come at moments of heightened anxiety. As such, it is crucial that all parties are fully informed and trained to find a solution that does not cause undue distress or, in the case of my constituent, severe psychiatric harm.
I urge the Minister to listen to today’s debate and the suggestions from hon. Members. I urge him to speak with his colleagues in the Government to find a way to work in a more joined-up fashion in a ministerial-led initiative, to make sure that what happened to my constituent does not happen to him again, or to others, and to ensure that this country has a reputation across the world for the highest standards in dealing with the issues faced by adults with autism.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) on bringing this important issue to Parliament’s attention. I also take the opportunity to congratulate the UK Government and the National Autistic Society on their work in establishing the first autism-accredited prison in the world at Her Majesty’s young offenders institution Feltham, which I understand some hon. Members here today have had the opportunity to visit. I am very proud that the United Kingdom is leading the world on this issue. Facilities such as those at Feltham will be important in rehabilitating offenders, but, more importantly, I hope they will ensure that young people with autism do not have to endure overly distressing sentences that will cause damage to their mental and perhaps even physical health.
I would welcome any moves by the Ministry of Justice and the relevant devolved Governments to increase the number of autism-accredited prisons across the entirety of the United Kingdom. Given that prisoners are more likely than the general population to be autistic, it seems clear to me that we must do all we can to improve autism awareness and support in our prison estate.
Autistic people are more likely to be victims or witnesses of crimes than they are to be perpetrators. I welcome the National Autistic Society’s guidelines to help professionals in such situations, and I hope it will continue to support the hard-working men and women in our police force, prisons and courts systems.
Hon. Members may be aware that the Scottish Government have just finished a consultation on refreshing the Scottish strategy for autism, which will look to address issues across many areas of autism and focus, at least in part, on the criminal justice system. A freedom of information request highlighted by the great research team in the House of Commons showed that, in the National Autistic Society’s opinion, the way the Scottish criminal system looks after autistic people is far from satisfactory—it said that the Scottish criminal justice system is “failing autistic people”. I look forward to reading the findings of the consultation and I hope the Scottish Government will act to ensure that that failure does not continue.
Will the hon. Gentleman join me in congratulating Police Scotland and Jackton police training school in my constituency? I had the good fortune to visit that facility on Friday last week to hear that mental health training, including autism awareness, has been rolled out to all officers right across Police Scotland.
The hon. Lady highlights an important point. The discussions I have had with my local police force clearly demonstrate that the police and other emergency workers have a much greater understanding of how to deal with the people with autism whom they come across during their work.
It is estimated that there are 58,000 people living with an autism spectrum condition in Scotland. It is vital that they receive fair and inclusive treatment by the criminal justice system, not only when they are suspected of a crime, but when they have witnessed or been a victim of crime. People with autism have an equal part to play in a fair and just society, and it is our job to ensure that they are treated appropriately.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) on securing this important debate.
Adults with autism experience the criminal justice system in a unique way, which is reflective of the unique and complex way they experience the world and the social, physical and psychological symptoms of their condition, which exist on a broad spectrum. Recent studies have shown that we are all somewhere on that spectrum.
Adults with autism and their individual needs are often not immediately identified on their first contact with the criminal justice system. That has significant consequences for autistic people, both as offenders and victims. The Autism Act 2009 was the first condition-specific legislation of its type in England, and I am proud to say that it was brought in under a Labour Government. The coalition Government’s 2014 “Think Autism” strategy set out two key priorities relating to criminal justice as identified by those with autism and their carers. Those priorities are, in their own words:
“I want the everyday services that I come into contact with to know how to make reasonable adjustments to include me and accept me as I am. I want the staff who work in them to be aware and accepting of autism”
“If I break the law, I want the criminal justice system to think about autism and to know how to work well with other services.”
I cannot emphasise enough that adults with autism are much more likely to be victims of crime—seven times more likely—than to be offenders. The National Autistic Society tells of horrific crimes perpetrated against adults with autism, including one autistic man who, aged 21, was harassed, raped and murdered, in part because of his condition. His mother said that
“he was vulnerable and became a target because of his condition, but we weren’t given any help”.
Some 49% of adults with autism in a 2014 survey said they had been abused by someone they thought of as a friend. Autism brings with it an inherent vulnerability to bullying and social exclusion, and we must urgently work to entrench awareness of and respect for it within our society, starting in our schools.
Statistics published by the Office for National Statistics between 2013 and 2016 showed that autistic people were four times more likely to experience disability hate crime than were those with disabilities that affected their stamina, mobility or vision. In other words, there is no empathy for autism. Will the Minister commit to looking at the rise in disability hate crime—it rose 53% between 2015-16 and 2016-17—and exploring how we can tackle this national shame?
Intrinsic to the condition is, generally speaking, a desire to keep to the letter of the law—very much so—but, as in the community as a whole, some adults with autism do commit crime. It is widely accepted that, in the case of autistic people, a significant proportion of crime committed is caused by circumstances that provoke discomfort, fear, or misunderstanding.
The right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb)—the Minister with responsibility for care and support at the time of the “Think Autism” strategy’s publication—said in December last year that we should invest more in keeping people with mental health conditions, learning disabilities and autism out of our prisons altogether. I absolutely agree.
The National Autistic Society also agrees with that assessment, and it stated that
“for many autistic people, prison has meant that the system has already failed”.
This is not always possible, but will the Minister commit to exploring the equivalent of autism accreditation for the criminal justice system in its entirety, from the point of exposure to exit? That means looking at what reasonable adjustments can be made throughout the system from the moment the police are called—including the quick-fire questions at interview—and people’s appearance in court, detention in prison and rehabilitation.
The most prevalent problem appears to be in policing, which is most people’s first point of contact with the criminal justice system. A 2016 study showed that seven out of 10 adults with autism were dissatisfied by their experience with the police and reported discrimination, a lack of clarity and a feeling that their needs were not met. The “Think Autism” strategy tasks the College of Policing with developing autism awareness training for new recruits. I welcome that move, but responding police across the board must be trained so they understand that when they identify someone who may have autism, they must respect that person’s needs.
Wailing sirens, loud noises, being touched and being shouted at are experiences that, combined, lead to sensory overload for most adults with autism. In those circumstances, the behaviour of people with autism, such as stimming, can easily be misinterpreted as aggression. Ensuring that the police are uniformly educated about autism is without doubt the key to preventing excessive distress and unnecessary violence. I urge the Minister to take steps to ensure that all police, no matter their length of service, have the autism understanding that they need.
People with autism may also be seen as unreliable witnesses, because stress may alter their behaviour in the courtroom, and the often literal nature of their responses may not be conducive to effective self-advocacy or to providing an account of events that happened to others. Since 1999, it has been legally possible, at the court’s discretion, to identify people as vulnerable and to adapt proceedings accordingly, but I understand that that is done infrequently and does not reflect the number of vulnerable people who pass through our courts.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on raising that matter. This is not just about prison officers, the court service and the prison service; it is about recognising issues early in the process. If we do that, we can address the issues further down the line, and if people with autism are distressed by what they are going through, we can put their minds at rest.
I accept that point. It should start with policing and go right through the system with the individual.
I welcome the recent progress that has enabled witnesses on the autistic spectrum to request a registered intermediary to help judges and lawyers to phrase their questions more appropriately. Will the Minister consider enforcing the universal implementation of those measures to make our courts more accessible for vulnerable people? Much more can be done to educate legal experts about the complexities of autism to reduce the possibility of miscarriages of justice and to avoid putting autistic witnesses under undue stress.
Social attitudes research shows that some jurors still hold stigmatising beliefs about autistic individuals, which could negatively impact their decisions regarding such people at trial. Given that only 16% of autistic people and their families believe that the wider community understand their disability, it is likely that that is a systemic issue in criminal justice.
I want to focus on the “Think Autism” objective of effective joint working. In the Government’s 2016 progress report on “Think Autism”, only 11% of local authorities gave themselves a green rating for their work on autism with the criminal justice system. That rating was based on the inclusion of people with autism in developing local criminal justice diversion schemes, involvement in the autism partnership board and evidence of joint working. I am deeply concerned about those figures. I understand that the Government are reviewing the strategy next year, and I will be pleased to hear about any progress.
The all-party group on autism hosted a meeting on criminal justice in 2014 with the then prisons Minister, from which the pioneering autism accreditation scheme arose. The first prison to be autism accredited was Her Majesty’s prison and young offenders institution Feltham in 2016. The standards for accreditation apply to prisons’ education, health and mental health services, and they cover autism understanding, training for staff, adjustments to the prison building—such as reducing the stimulation of posters and notices—changes to prison routines and individual risk assessments. They were developed by the National Autistic Society, which is now working with other prisons in the country to help them to achieve accreditation.
I was pleased to hear that, as of April 2017, accreditation programme pilots have been trialled in the probation service. That is undoubtedly progress. It will lead not only to the implementation of the practical steps needed to become accredited, but to an accompanying cultural change that will generate a greater awareness of autistic people’s needs and improve the perception of autistic people. That will lead to a greater understanding and acceptance of who they are.
In the meantime, adequate autism-specific training must be made available for all prison staff and police. Much more research needs to be carried out in this field. Awareness needs to be raised across the board about the fact that adults with autism experience things differently and, crucially, that those differences are not experienced uniformly.
It is clear that inroads are being made, but the progress is not quick enough for the adults with autism who have been let down by our criminal justice system. I urge the Minister to bring about change. Prison is an inhuman setting, but for adults with autism it is far more severe, and their route to prison often leads to severe distress. We need to bring about a societal change in attitudes, through awareness-raising and a concerted effort by the justice system. I believe that that is the key to generating a lasting improvement in autistic adults’ experience of criminal justice.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Sir Edward.
I came to the subject of autism rather late in life; I will share with hon. Members the tale of my visit to a remote primary school in Caithness a number of years ago. There was a boy, probably aged about 12, who was deeply engrossed in making an Airfix Halifax bomber. Anxious to impress him, I said, “That bomber’s a Halifax. It has Merlin engines”—the subtext was, “Aren’t I clever to know that?” The boy looked at me and said, “Yes, it’s a Merlin XX with Stanley Hooker superchargers and a brake horsepower of 1,240.” As my jaw sagged, the teacher murmured in my ear—you know what I am going to say, Sir Edward—“Asperger’s.”
Even though I was then in my 40s, that was the first time I had come across the condition. Part of the reason why I am here for this debate is that this is a learning process. I am sure hon. Members will recall the book—published in 2004, I think—called “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time”. Medical professionals and experts in autism might say that it is not an accurate depiction of autism, but as a view from the inside of the person, it was very instructive to all of us, and I was glad that it became a big seller.
The debate is about awareness of the issue. I did not know what “stimming” meant until I got into the subject, but I now know. I can remember being irritated by somebody on a bus doing exactly that. When I look back I feel ashamed because I should have understood. The Marcus Potter story was scary, although it turned out right in the end. It shows how close we are sometimes to things going wrong, but the judge did a very good thing.
The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan), who is no longer in her place, made a good point when she suggested the idea of a link person in Government Departments. It would not cost particularly anything, but it would go a long way to—this is a hackneyed expression—a joined-up approach to sorting things out.
The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) correctly intervened to point out that Police Scotland are up to speed on this matter. I am not always known for heaping praise on the Scottish Government, but I cannot fault them on this at all. The issue is difficult for some people, but they have not ducked it. I am not saying that the UK Government are ducking it. That is not my intention. I would not try to paint them into such a corner.
The hon. Gentleman is making some pertinent points. Following the Autism Act (Northern Ireland) 2011, the Northern Ireland Assembly has been taking great strides in implementing an autism strategy, including the production of a guide for criminal justice professionals and the piloting of a registered intermediary scheme. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the good practice—the Minister is listening—that we have in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales could be used for the benefit of all in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland? The Minister should look to the Northern Ireland Assembly and its autism strategy as one example of how we could all do things better.
I have no problem with that intervention whatever.
On the school that I visited in Caithness, the care lavished on the pupil was inspirational. The teachers looked after him properly in a splendid example of best practice.
I am slipping out of the habit, or no longer getting away with saying, “As a new Member”, because I have been here for seven months and it is wearing a bit thin. I realise that. The fact that a Member can go to, listen to and learn things from debates is a great strength of this place. I will leave this debate a wiser person. That is good for me and, in terms of representation of the people, good for constituents. I absolutely applaud the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) for bringing us this debate today. Well done! Well said!
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Edward. I thank the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) for securing this debate and I thank the Members who have brought to the attention of the House the issues that their constituents with autism face within the criminal justice system.
Autism covers a wide and variable spectrum, so it is important not to over-generalise. The experience of each individual is different within the criminal justice system, and those with autism are no exception. However, it is true that autistic people are more likely to be victims and witnesses of crime than offenders. They experience difficulties with social communication, social interaction and social imagination, and may have sensory difficulties and some co-ordination problems. Their behaviour may present differently and sometimes draw unnecessary attention, but in general autism is a hidden disability and it may not be immediately obvious to other people that the person has a disability. Dealing with the criminal justice system in any capacity is therefore much harder for a person with autism.
I will sum up some of the contributions made today. The hon. Member for Cardiff West has outdone himself, and I commend him for giving a voice to his constituent’s experience and advocating much-needed changes to the criminal justice system. The hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) identified the rise in hate crime, particularly of those who have a disability, and the need to train and support people differently. The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) identified failures in process across the criminal justice system, both in Scotland and in the UK. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), as always, raised a valuable point about the need to share best practice and to look to the autism strategies in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The early recognition, identification and training of professionals who work in such sectors can only enhance the experience of those who suffer from autism and have to undergo the treatment of the criminal justice system.
As mentioned earlier, the Scottish Government published the Scottish strategy for autism in 2011. It contained 26 recommendations, including four under the overarching theme of developing multi-agency working. A consultation ran from 18 October 2017 to 29 November 2017 to refresh the 2011 strategy, which was much needed. It proposed the inclusion of a provision to consult with bodies, including in the criminal justice system, to improve how people with autism are met within the services. That is something that can be learned across all parts of the UK. I hope the Minister will take that on board.
The pace of change within the criminal justice system, as I am sure the Minister will agree, is not fast enough given the medical understanding and the variability of the understanding of autism. The National Autistic Society goes as far as to say that the criminal justice system is failing those with autism, and it calls for that to be urgently addressed. Many aspects of the criminal justice system are worthy of review. I hope that the treatment of adults with autism will be given the same consideration in this debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) on securing this important debate.
Let us be clear. Autistic people are discriminated against in society as a whole, but especially in the criminal justice system. They can face discrimination when their autism is not readily apparent, or no help is offered. Where it is apparent, they are often treated differently or suspiciously. Autistic people without a learning disability are nine times more likely to die by suicide than the rest of the population. That figure is considerably high and shows the lack of understanding and awareness of the needs of people with autism.
On occasions when an autistic person comes to the attention of the police and other services, it is normally because their social and communication difficulties are misunderstood or they have not been given appropriate support. Autistic people can become extremely distressed in situations that they do not understand or when they are surrounded by noise and confusion. In such circumstances, their actions and behaviour can easily be misinterpreted and subsequent actions may escalate a situation.
The criminal justice system needs to reform and adapt in order to meet its fundamental human rights obligations to treat people fairly and equitably. The National Autistic Society developed its autism accreditation scheme for prison settings. Accreditation covers autism understanding training for prison staff such as guards, but is also more widely helping to make the prison environment more autism friendly. Accreditation should be extended to all prisons, all detention centres, all courts and all police stations, as well as to the probation service. The duty must be on the prisons and courts and their individual officers to ensure the fair treatment of those in contact with the criminal justice system. Individual officers could also be accredited. There should be a requirement for at least one key individual in central functions to be accredited: for example, duty sergeants or clerks of the court.
Accreditation recognises good practice, which helps ensure that people on the autistic spectrum get the extra support needed to adjust to life in prison, and extra support while they serve a sentence, or as they prepare for leaving prison. Without that support, autistic people may develop additional needs such as mental health problems or risky behaviour, and rehabilitation will be harder. Greater awareness and support will benefit autistic people as well as prison staff, police officers and managers in that area of work. Expert opinion is clear that autism sufferers need special and sensitive treatment, especially in a stressful criminal justice environment.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the way she is responding to the debate. What she just said has triggered a thought, and I want to quote a comment made by someone in the professional standards department of the police service about the complaint by my constituent. It begins:
“I’ve read this several times and they just don’t get it do they”
and notes that my constituents “continue to maintain” that their son
“should have been ‘diverted’ prior to arrest. What utter rubbish!”
If that is the continuing attitude in the police, does my hon. Friend agree that we have a long way to go to get things right?
We certainly do have a long way to go, and what my hon. Friends have said emphasises what we all know: we need to look at autism as a special consideration.
For many autistic people, prison means the system has failed. Work must be done with probation services and police forces to create a specification for autism accreditation in those settings. That will help to prevent autistic adults from entering the criminal justice system in the first place and it will certainly help with rehabilitation. More training and support must be given to initial responders to crime, including those working with witnesses and victims. Initial contact with the police will often come at a time of heightened anxiety, so it is important that the police know how to approach such a situation and how not to allow it to escalate.
Does my hon. Friend agree that training for police officers in that situation would help them to prevent reoffending or revictimisation? I think that our colleagues in the police share the aim of reducing those things.
It is certainly my experience, from talking to police officers, that they would appreciate training so that they could better understand the condition, and how to deal with autistic offenders. That understanding is vital for the criminal justice system. If we are to regard people with autism in a fair and equal way we must look at how we provide for their needs. I am sure that the Minister has listened to the wise words spoken by many colleagues today, and that he will offer us some hope that the Government will consider the issue and treat it with some urgency.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Sir Edward. I offer my sincere congratulations to the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan)—not just on securing the debate but on how he presented the subject. I had the great pleasure of shadowing him when he adorned the last Labour Government as Minister for the Third Sector, and the sincerity and thoughtfulness of his approach to this sensitive subject today is entirely characteristic of him. I also congratulate other hon. Members who contributed to the debate.
I am entirely with the relatively new hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone): I have sat through enough rubbish debates in this place to know a good one. The good debates are the ones we leave having learned something. I shall be frank: the subject on which I am asked to speak today is not one of which I have a deeply rooted, strong understanding. I shall leave the Chamber better informed. A good debate should also be a catalyst for action by Ministers, and further probing. Ministers are trained to try to exude an aura of all-knowingness, which the hon. Member for Cardiff West knows to be a total fallacy.
I shall try to reassure the hon. Gentleman, and other hon. Members who spoke, that there is recognition of one big central point. Since I became an MP in 2005, this country, society and Parliament have made undeniable progress in our understanding and awareness—the central word—of autism, autistic people’s needs, and the consequences of what the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) described as an often hostile environment. Despite that progress, however, the clear message from the debate, through individual anecdotes and voices from all parts of the United Kingdom, is that there is still insufficient awareness and understanding.
My hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) made clear his view that there is still much to be done in Scotland, as there is elsewhere, but we have heard from all parts of the UK in the debate, which creates a powerful message. The fact that there is insufficient awareness and understanding can sometimes lead to unreasonable judgments and decisions, which in turn can lead to trauma. That can mean extremely traumatic experiences for not just the individual involved but their family. The hon. Member for Cardiff West respected the desire for anonymity in the case he raised, but the debate springs from his experience of trying to serve a constituent, so I begin with the acknowledgement, with which I think everyone agrees, that there is clearly some way to go.
The hon. Gentleman, drawing on his experience as a Minister, clearly understood that there are a number of Ministers who could have represented the Government in the debate. It was his fate to get the Home Office, so inevitably what I shall say will focus primarily on the first point of contact in the criminal justice system. However, I give him and other hon. Members an undertaking that, based on what I have heard, I will speak directly to the new Prisons Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), to test his understanding and his appetite to follow up on specific requests—not least the desire to encourage other prisons to follow the example of the one in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, and to continue down the path of accreditation.
We need to recognise that autism is believed to affect about 1% of the population, which makes it highly likely that police officers will encounter people with autism in the course of their duties. It would not be appropriate for me to comment on the specifics of the case that the hon. Member for Cardiff West raised, but it is quite clear from his account, and the fact that charges were dropped, that mistakes were made in that process, and that the experience has had a profound effect on the individual and the family. I am sure that the House would want to associate itself with the regret expressed for that outcome.
However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge as a general point that police officers are often called on to make decisions in difficult circumstances. They have a difficult job and often have to act swiftly to protect individuals or the public more generally. He knows that: we all do. They also have a duty to investigate alleged offences, especially where there are alleged victims. Given the nature of autism, brilliantly articulated in the debate, it is also possible that at times the actions of some individuals with the condition may be mistaken for unco-operative or even aggressive behaviour. Again, I do not infer that that was necessarily the case in the specific instance that the hon. Gentleman referred to, but it is clearly a risk, and it happens.
We are all on a learning curve today. Back in the mists of time, I was Roy Hattersley’s deputy as a shadow Police and Prisons Minister, so we all have our learning curve. Does the Minister agree that the real change that has happened recently, for all sorts of reasons, has been a great improvement in the joining up of children’s services, running across all services? As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West said, we have got much better when it comes to children. It is with adults that we seem to have difficulty.
The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point. We have made considerable progress and the hon. Member for Cardiff West was at pains to point out at the beginning of his remarks that he wanted to focus on adults, because clearly that is where some stubborn and significant problems continue to reside in terms of awareness, understanding, decisions, judgments and treatment. We cannot be complacent. I hope that I can reassure the House that we will take all possible steps to improve the general understanding and responses appropriate within the criminal justice agencies.
The hon. Member for Cardiff West pressed me on training, and I will speak a little to that. He is no doubt aware that the Government have published a national strategy on autism—I think he referred to the “Think Autism” strategy; that was refreshed in January 2016. It sets out a programme of work across Government sectors to improve preventive action and support to those living with autism, to assist them to lead fulfilling and independent lives wherever possible. It included recommendations for further improvements in the services and support available across the health, education employment and criminal justice sectors.
The hon. Gentleman cited cuts to the police, but the budget of the College of Policing has not been cut, because of our strong commitment to the training and development of police officers. As part of the strategy, the college has committed to developing a new module of the authorised professional practice for the police service. That was included in the revised guidance on mental health and vulnerability, published in October 2016.
The guidance is the primary reference source for police on legal obligations and the appropriate response to incidents involving people with mental ill health, autism, learning disabilities and other vulnerabilities. It provides indicators for police staff about when there may be health or mental health issues underlying apparent behaviour. That can and should lead to better and more appropriate decision making. Guidance is backed by training modules for all staff who may come into contact with vulnerable people. In addition, the National Autistic Society—I join others in congratulating it, the APPG and the Westminster Commission on Autism on their work—has published a national guide for police officers and staff, which has been distributed to all forces. In many areas there is close liaison between police forces and local autism support groups.
I give this undertaking to the hon. Member for Cardiff West. The College of Policing, which is the agency we rely on for the development of police standards and training, is under the new leadership of Mike Cunningham. I undertake to write to Mike following this debate to set out some of the concerns expressed here and to seek reassurance from the college that those are understood and absorbed and that it attributes sufficient weight and importance to this issue.
I am pleased to hear the commitment to encourage the national College of Policing about its training. Will the Minister make the clear point to the college and to police officers that we respect what they do and we know how hard their job is? This is not about special pleading for a particular group but about ensuring genuine access to justice, which means that some people will need different treatment to achieve an equal outcome. If people with autism are to be treated equally and fairly in the criminal justice system, that might sometimes—not always—mean different treatment, which has to come from better awareness. Better awareness can only improve police responses and, as I said, I genuinely believe that the police want to reduce unnecessary reoffending and re-victimisation. Will he make that commitment?
I agree with the hon. Lady. My experience of talking to police officers—this is the universal theme—is that they want to do the job properly. They do a very difficult job and need the tools to help them in that job.
Our fundamental challenge is the one expressed in this debate: that levels of awareness and understanding are too low. Our responsibility is to help police officers do what is natural to them—to do their job properly and safeguard the vulnerable where they can, but to play their part in executing swift justice as well. Clearly, the process of education, understanding and awareness building has to continue and does not end. I undertake to seek reassurances from the new leadership of the college that they understand that.
The police and other agencies continue to explore innovative solutions to help support those in the community with autism with daily interactions or official contact. In some areas, autism alert cards are available to be carried by those who are autistic. Locally developed systems may include additional information about the person and contact details of family members or other carers. In other areas, similar results are achieved through autism apps held on mobile telephones. Apps can include information such as carer details and the user’s coping mechanisms, as well as useful links to external support sites. So technology can be our friend, but there is no substitute for the training and guidance we talked about.
I will say a word about police detention, because that has been a difficult and emotive subject. If the police encounter a person who appears to be mentally disordered and in immediate need of care and control, it is open to them to exercise powers under section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983 to take such a person to a place of safety for a mental health assessment. Use of such powers might be appropriate in the case of a person with autism, depending on individual circumstances, and might be preferred over an arrest, again depending on precise circumstances. New legislative provisions, however, provide that police officers should consult a mental health professional before exercising such powers, where that is practicable. That is intended to ensure that the most appropriate decisions are made in each case, in particular where the person may already be in contact with local health or social support services.
If an offence is alleged to have been committed, however, or the person needs to be dealt with through the criminal justice system, notwithstanding any underlying health factors, an arrest may be necessary and appropriate. Under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, codes set out the safeguards that need to be in place for any individual in custody, with particular provisions in respect of the most vulnerable.
Forces are expected to have available easy-read documents using simple language and pictures to show what will happen while those people are in custody. The hon. Member for Cardiff West talked about the need for appropriate adults in situations where such provision might not have been in place. We are clear that an appropriate adult is required to be present in cases involving children or vulnerable adults, including those with autism, during procedures such as being given information on rights, detention reviews, interviews and taking of any evidence. He rightly pressed me about the Government’s response to Lord Bradley’s report—I assure the hon. Gentleman that we have taken the report very seriously, and there is a programme of action on the various recommendations.
The hon. Gentleman may be aware that liaison and diversion schemes now operate in police stations and courts across some 80% of England. Work continues on how best to ensure that appropriate adults are available when required. A working group of the PACE strategy board has been developing an approach to improving provision throughout the country. That involved partnership work between police and crime commissioners and local authorities. The work is expected to be completed and published soon.
We are coming to a very sensitive part of the Minister’s speech. I am sure he will turn to the international dimension. Has he any update for us on the Lauri Love case? Many of us in Parliament are fighting to save that young man from being taken to the United States, to a hostile environment, where he might well commit suicide.
The short answer is no, I am not in a position to give an update to the House on that, but of course I completely understand its sensitivity. An announcement will be made in due course.
I was trying to give reassurance to the hon. Member for Cardiff West, who prompted this debate, about measures taken to ensure greater provision of appropriate adults. I was saying that liaison and diversion schemes operate in police stations and courts in about 80% of England. Such schemes help to assess individual vulnerabilities and any underlying mental health, autism or learning disabilities issues. They can further assist with referring the person to an appropriate health or welfare assessment if necessary, as well as helping to inform the most appropriate charging decision or sentencing outcome.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned that the family in his constituency case were frustrated with the complaints procedure. Let me say something briefly about that. If individuals are unhappy about their treatment by the police, there are avenues of complaint. Individuals may complain directly to the relevant police force, or they can raise a matter with their local police and crime commissioner. Complaints that include serious and sensitive matters such as assault or serious corruption must be referred directly by the police to the Independent Office for Police Conduct. Police and crime commissioners maintain an overview of complaints about the police and they are democratically elected to hold the chief constable to account for the performance of the force, on behalf of the public.
There is a further right to appeal against how a complaint has been handled by the police. Depending on the nature of the complaint, it will be made either to the chief constable or to the Independent Office for Police Conduct, formerly the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
I know that this is not directly the Minister’s responsibility at the Home Office, but it seems that there is a gap in the accountability chain in relation to the British Transport police, because it is paid for by the train operating companies and does not have an elected police and crime commissioner. Will the Minister talk with his ministerial colleagues about whether there are ways in which we can improve the accountability of the British Transport police?
The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point. I will certainly assume that undertaking and I will communicate back to him the consequences.
The police complaints process is a very sensitive area for the public and for the police. The IOPC is under a new chief executive, Michael Lockwood, whom I will write to after the debate to register some of the concerns expressed so that they are on his radar screen as he assumes leadership of that organisation.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate, which has allowed me to raise my own awareness of some of the underlying difficulties and experiences of our fellow citizens. The treatment that they receive in our public service, whether in the criminal justice system or the health system, is quite unacceptable. That remains a challenge for us as a society and for Governments of all colours. I have tried to reassure colleagues that we have done much in recent years to improve awareness of and understanding about people who have what initially may be invisible vulnerabilities, such as autism, but doubtless much more can be done. The Government have demonstrated their commitment to improving protections for the wellbeing of the potentially vulnerable, including in the criminal justice system.
I made various undertakings in the debate, which I will honour despite whatever advice I receive after the debate. I congratulate everyone who has contributed; debates such as this will ensure that the issue remains high on the agenda. I have seen it rise since I have been in Parliament, but it is only through the persistence of the APPG, Members and various criticisms from the National Autistic Society that this point continues to be pressed, meaning that more Members come out of these debates with increased awareness of the importance of the issue.
I am grateful to have a brief opportunity to respond. I thank everyone who has participated in the debate. More than one Member pointed out that it has been a learning curve for everyone present; I include myself among them. It is a subject on which we all can learn more and we would benefit from learning more about autism. In particular, I thank all colleagues who contributed with a speech or an intervention.
I hope that as many as possible attend tomorrow’s debate brought by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) on another aspect of autism, which reinforces the point that I made at the outset: this is a subject that permeates across different parts of Government. That highlights the need for Ministers to do what the Minister has promised—to work with each other and perhaps to consider some of the suggestions made in the debate in a more formal way, in order to tackle the issue of autism across all Government Departments. If he chooses to do that along with his colleagues, he will certainly have my support and I am sure that of my hon. Friends as well.
I thank the Minister for his response. He referred to the brief period when I was radiant with lawful power all those years ago, and when he was my shadow—I am now a shadow of my former self. During his remarks at the end of the debate, I saw his officials’ ears prick up when he said that he was going to carry out what he had promised to do, whatever advice he received. I say to his officials that he is a free-range, organic Minister, rather than a battery-farmed one. He is never satisfied to just read out his brief from his civil servants, but will listen and try to act. Having had praise lavished on him, he now has to fulfil all the things he pledged to do in the debate: to follow up with other Ministers, to ensure that he gets the College of Policing on the case, and to take on board my point about the British Transport police and the IOPC. I am glad that he will engage with the new leadership at the IOPC.
I absolutely concur with the Minister about some of the great work that our police officers do in very difficult circumstances, but there are occasions when, either through lack of training or in some cases through poor practice, things go wrong. We are here to hold them to account while acknowledging the incredible work they do under the most difficult circumstances.
I thank the Minister for the sincerity with which he has responded to the debate and his promises that he will take things further and learn more about all this. Finally, I thank all the people with autism and their families across the country for their tremendous forbearance under very difficult circumstances, and for how they cope with what can be a very difficult situation in their lives. I hope that the debate will genuinely help to move things forward and to make a difference.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the treatment of adults with autism by the criminal justice system.
Erasmus Plus Programme: Youth and Sport
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered youth activities and sport within the Erasmus Plus programme.
I applied for the debate, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on youth affairs and former vice-president of the European youth forum, for two main reasons. The first is the big issue hanging over us in almost every decision we make in this place at the moment: Brexit. How will we continue to co-operate with EU programmes after departure day? The Minister for Universities has stated that the Government intend to negotiate some sort of continued access with Erasmus Plus and its successor. However, the Government’s intentions remain unclear on the youth elements of the programme that are part of Erasmus now but may be separated post-2020 in the next EU multiannual financial framework, which is being negotiated.
I note that it will be much easier to continue co-operation in higher education—most exchanges there are bilateral in nature—than it will be in youth and sport, where exchange and co-operation are primarily based on multilateral partnerships, making the arrangements all the more complicated. I remain concerned that when people talk about Erasmus, they are generally speaking about the university sector. When I tried to secure this debate, I was asked multiple times whether the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was the correct Department to respond. The Universities Minister has given assurances about the Erasmus programme but not wider assurances about its youth and sport sections, and particularly how our policy on youth and sport will feed into an Erasmus successor programme. That is why I am here.
As my hon. Friend said, the Erasmus sport programme is not just for universities. One of the Barking Abbey sports academy programmes is a basketball programme. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on basketball, I am proud that 35 basketball apprentices undertook an exchange with the Basketball Federation of Madrid. Sixty-five per cent of Barking Abbey students are from black and minority ethnic communities. Does he agree that the loss of such a programme would be detrimental not just to sport, but to BME communities in the UK?
Totally. I will talk later about how the youth and sport programmes are far more diverse than some of the university parts of the Erasmus Plus programme. The continued participation of black, Asian and minority ethnic communities and other harder-to-reach or economically deprived communities in parts of those programmes is really important. We need to think about not just our continued participation in the Erasmus programme but, generally, how we will continue to co-operate with our European partners on youth policy and sport policy.
Erasmus has secured a place in people’s minds as a university programme—600,000 people from the UK have gone abroad to study in the past 30 years—but there are similar numbers in the youth programme. It is vital to highlight the importance of youth and sport in Erasmus Plus. What are the policy views of DCMS about how that programme should look? Additionally, how will our current domestic programmes intertwine and co-operate with a future Erasmus programme? How will the International Citizen Service and National Citizen Service work in harmony with any future European programmes? How will UK Sport’s international development through excellence and leadership in sport programme continue to work with the sport section of Erasmus Plus?
The sport part of the programme is a good example. More than 10,000 people have taken part in the youth and sport section alone in the past year, while the IDEALS programme has an average uptake of 46 young people. Those are different programmes, but the scale of Erasmus’s youth and sport section outweighs any of our domestic programmes. That is why it is so important that our involvement continues. The current programme runs from 2014 to 2020, so it is in its final half. We await the independent mid-term evaluation report, which was completed in August 2017 and is sitting on desks in the Commission in Brussels. We all want to see what the official report—rather than the drafts—will say.
I have spoken at length to several national agencies and to the evaluation team who wrote the report on EU youth and sport policy. What role is the UK playing to ensure that we lead those discussions? If we are to buy into Erasmus Plus and its successor programmes, we want to ensure that they meet our needs, so we need to roll our sleeves up and get involved in the nitty-gritty of the debate and discussions. If we are to remain in Erasmus, we must ensure that it is in line with our youth policy. That would be much easier to do if we had had the youth strategy that the Government promised before the election. I understand that there will now be a youth chapter in the civil society policy. It is important that we are clear about our policies so that we can influence our European colleagues.
From conversations with colleagues in Ukraine last night, I understand that the Ukrainian authorities tried to opt into only part of the Erasmus programme—interestingly, the youth and sport part, not the university part—but they were rebuffed by the Commission, who said that it is all or nothing; they could not start to take programmes apart. That makes it clear that if we took part, we would be in not just the university section, but the youth and sport section. It is, therefore, even more important that we inform the design of the youth section based on our policies.
What vision do the Minister and the Government have for the content? Erasmus Plus has policy themes based particularly around economic policy, because the current programme was designed in the wake of the economic crash to get young people back into economic activity. Issues of social inclusion and radicalisation have now come to the fore. How will those issues, which I assume the Government will want to tackle, be reflected in a new programme? What are the Government’s priorities?
Additionally, in the latest Commission proposal, it looks as though the European Voluntary Service for Europe and neighbouring countries—in a crude way, I guess it is our equivalent of ICS—will be taken out of Erasmus. The EVS has existed for 20 years, so it is not a new programme, and we have participated in it for all that time. It will be merged into a new European solidarity corps—or, as most of my European colleagues rather unfortunately pronounce it, “corpse”—and how that corps complements NCS and ICS will be really important. Do the Government intend to opt into the new European solidary corps? We have had reassurances about opting into the Erasmus programme, and the European solidarity corps will be a successor, but it will not be part of Erasmus. Do the Government intend to commit to continuing in all successor components of Erasmus Plus, or will we continue only with the core of Erasmus, with everything else still up for question?
Erasmus is the name of the programme we have at the moment, but it was not always thus. Before 2014, there was a separate youth programme, Youth in Action, and before that the EU Youth Programme. There were Comenius, Grundtvig and Leonardo—I could go on with the other European philosophers. Erasmus was chosen in conversations we had with the Commission. I was not in favour of it at the time; in fact, I argued heavily against it when I was in Brussels.
The idea was that everyone knew Erasmus, so we might as well try to make everything Erasmus. In my view, doing so just waters down the other bits of the programme that are not really known about, but that is the direction that the Commission went in. Now it looks as though the Commission is moving towards separating parts of those programmes back out into a solidarity corps, and it would be interesting to know the position of the UK Government and the Minister. Are we supportive of those plans to split out again? How are we having those discussions in Europe?
The higher education sector has a high success rate in achieving Erasmus funding; 90% plus of Erasmus funding is successful in that sector. In the youth sector, it is around the 30%-plus mark. I sat on the European programming committee in a previous life, and the evaluators often state that the youth programmes are just as well written, but they are written by volunteers. It is the same with the sports programme; we are often talking about voluntary sports clubs rather than big, professional HE institutions. How will our influence be brought to bear on the Commission and the discussions in the Council to ensure that the future programmes, and particularly the solidarity corps, are flexible, light-touch programmes to which voluntary groups and small organisations can apply?
One of the outcomes, as I understand it, of the mid-term evaluation is that smaller organisations have been pushed out by the bigger merger. There are other advantages to merging everything into one, and I do not particularly want to get into them all, but it is important to recognise that smaller organisations, which we want to encourage and foster, are at a disadvantage in an integrated programme. I hope that we will welcome the European Commission’s direction.
The only reasons we managed to secure a separate section for youth in the Erasmus programme were the heavy lobbying work from youth organisations, which I helped to co-ordinate, and detailed discussions with Commissioner Vassiliou, who was the commissioner at the time. I wonder whether the Minister has considered, in her discussions with youth organisations, the importance of including the voices of youth and youth organisations in the programme.
Equally, it would be interesting to include the voices of stakeholders such as Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland colleagues. The matter is generally devolved, but we represent the whole UK in the discussions. I am aware that the Belgian authorities take their counterparts with them to Council meetings. The Belgian authorities have no problem with having all their regional Ministers sitting behind them. Are we considering something similar, particularly on these important devolved matters—on sports and youth—to ensure that those voices are included?
I will give some numbers quickly before I finish. I have asked several questions that I hope to hear back on. Erasmus, of course, is a good programme. Some 16,000 higher education students took part last year, and 10,000 youth and sports groups, but only 11% of the money is distributed to youth and sport programmes—1% for sport and 10% for youth. That surely shows the efficiency of the youth and sports programme. The cost per head of a participant in the youth part of the Erasmus programme is €900 or thereabouts. The cost of participating in the Erasmus higher education programme is €2,500 within Europe; if participants take the Erasmus option of going to a neighbouring non-EU country such as Norway or the Russian Federation, it is €5,000 per participant.
There is nothing wrong with investing in students who go into higher education, but the majority of students who take part in the Erasmus higher education programme are from more privileged backgrounds, by the nature of the fact that they have gone to university and then chosen to opt out. As I have mentioned, more than 50% of those on the youth programme come from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. It is important that we continue to opt in and have a voice. A stack of case studies is available on the websites of the British Council and the UK national agency about how the programme—particularly EVS—has turned young people’s lives around, and I implore hon. Members to look at them.
When I was chair of Woodcraft Folk, a national voluntary youth organisation, I applied for those grants and saw this at first hand. I remember a young person from County Durham who came to the programme with very anti-immigrant views. By the end of it, after doing exchanges and working with other young people from across Europe, his views were totally transformed because he was able to see the value of humanity in all of us. That is what I hope this Government will do, by continuing to engage in the programme and by giving a strong commitment that we will continue not only in Erasmus, but in the solidarity corps and the European Voluntary Service substitute.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I will start by thanking the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) for calling this debate on such an important issue. It is the first time I have had the pleasure of being in a debate with him and seeing him in action and, if I may say so, his enthusiasm is infectious. I will take the opportunity to suggest that we continue the conversation beyond this Chamber. He has raised a number of questions that I fear I will not be able to answer entirely in this debate, but we will certainly write to him afterwards, and it would be helpful to have a continuing conversation within the Department.
I understand that the hon. Gentleman has previously participated, as he suggested in his speech, in Youth Voice and Erasmus activities, and therefore brings personal experience and knowledge to the debate. His story is exactly what the Government’s support of the UK Youth Parliament and investment in our youth and sports programme are striving to achieve. We want to encourage young people to take part from an early age and continue making their voices heard and their impact felt throughout their lives. The Erasmus offer is an important part of that process.
Hon. Members may well be aware of Erasmus, possibly through a similar personal experience of the highly popular university year abroad, but the remit of Erasmus, as we have just heard, goes beyond the traditional university language experiences into youth and sport-related opportunities. The Department for Education is the national authority for the whole Erasmus programme, while the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is responsible for policy on wider youth and sport opportunities. It gives me great pleasure to be the Minister responding to the hon. Gentleman’s debate today.
Erasmus is a European funding programme for education, youth, training and sport, funded from the EU core budget to the tune of €15 billion over its seven-year duration through to 2020. Organisations delivering Erasmus offer activities in a number of areas. First, it enables individuals to undertake work experience, job shadowing and volunteering. Secondly, the programme allows organisations to form strategic partnerships with EU organisations, and thirdly, it provides opportunities for individuals to influence policy reform through dialogue with EU decision-makers.
The sport element of Erasmus is administered centrally in Brussels and is much smaller than the youth element—it pains me to say that—but it is nevertheless important, with organisations able to bid for projects to improve grassroots sports provision, tackle cross-border threats such as doping and match-fixing, and increase inclusion and promote sport for all, which is the issue that the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) referred to in connection with funding in basketball.
According to the European Commission’s impact report, Erasmus youth projects bring measurable benefits for young people, in terms of self-esteem, self-confidence and a sense of purpose. Participants also identify improved access to employment as a result of their experience.
Scottish universities have benefited greatly from the Erasmus Plus scheme; Edinburgh University sends several hundred students a year, Aberdeen University sends 200 and receives 250 and Robert Gordon University concentrates on technology. The programme is not exclusive to EU countries. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the UK will continue to participate in the programme after Brexit?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the programme is not exclusive to EU countries. As I will go on to point out, we have made a commitment to Erasmus for up to 2020. However, on the key point of the question raised by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown, which I will answer later, no decisions have yet been taken on post-2020. That is all part of phase 2 of the negotiations.
The UK has a good track record of benefiting from Erasmus funding. From the start of the current programme in 2014 until 2017, there have been successful applicants from 928 youth projects, funded to a total of €41.6 million. Those figures will rise, as they do not include the final round of youth funding for 2017. Roughly 12,000 young people and 4,000 youth workers participate each year, with the latter benefiting from job attachments, training and other professional development activities. In 2016, the UK received grant funding of more than €2 million awarded to 51 organisations for collaborative sport partnerships.
However, Erasmus youth and sport is so much more than those statistics. To bring that to life, I will share some examples of projects funded by the programme. Erasmus funding allowed the UK to participate in structured dialogue activities, which give young people a voice on issues that matter to them, such as combating discrimination and equalising opportunity. The UK already has a powerful track record of Youth Voice activities through the annual Make Your Mark process—the largest ballot of youth views in the UK—and the Youth Parliament, which I think the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown and I both managed to contribute to at the end of last year.
Structured dialogue builds on that theme and encourages young people from across the UK to influence the future direction of EU youth policy through dialogue with EU decision makers. The British Youth Council co-ordinates young ambassadors’ roles in the presidency-run EU youth conference and EU youth strategy. Finally, the UK was awarded a grant from the sport fund by the European Commission for the delivery of the European Week of Sport in the UK in 2017. The programme was co-ordinated by the not-for-profit health body, ukactive, and took place in September. More than 5.2 million young people got active, either at one of the official events or after being inspired by the week—especially on its flagship National Fitness Day on 26 September, which I was proud to participate in myself.
Beyond Erasmus, the Government continue to support young people to realise their potential outside school; Members will be familiar with programmes such as the National Citizen Service and our support for the #iwill campaign to encourage young people to build their skills for life and give back to their communities through social action. The Government are also committed to ensuring that all children and young people, particularly those who are currently least active or from under-represented groups, have the best opportunities to engage in sport and physical activity. I have spoken many times on the sports strategy, published in December 2015, which sets out how important it is for children to make sport and physical activity a habit for life.
I will turn to some of the key issues raised by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown. We have heard questions about the future of UK participation in Erasmus after we exit the European Union. The Government have already stated publicly that the UK is committed to continuing full participation in the Erasmus programme up until we leave the European Union. We have now agreed a fair financial settlement with the EU, enabling us to move to the next stage of negotiations.
The Prime Minister said in Brussels in December that she was pleased to confirm that, under the agreement made on 8 December, the UK would participate in Erasmus until the end of the programme—up until 2020. She also welcomed the opportunity to provide clarity to young people and the youth and education sectors, and to reaffirm the UK’s commitment to the deep and special relationship we want to build with the EU. However, no decisions have yet been made about post-2020 programme participation, since the scope of that programme has not been agreed. Options for that will be discussed as part of phase 2 of the negotiations.
The young people hoping to participate in these programmes are making their plans now and are choosing universities or organisations, depending on how they want to participate. Does the Minister therefore agree that there is some urgency in getting the issue resolved?
I understand that proposals will be published later this year—in May, I think—that will allow us to take the next decisions on that. However, as the programme has yet to be designed, it is difficult to decide what our participation in that will be. We look forward to the Commission publishing its proposals, based on which we can make that decision.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown asked about the European solidarity corps, which is the new European Voluntary Service for young people. It expands the existing EVS to include an occupational element of a job placement or a traineeship. Discussions on the solidarity corps legal base remain ongoing and are expected to conclude later this year. As I am sure he will completely understand, we cannot commit to participating in the scheme until the final version of the regulation has been shared and we have assessed the extent to which it is in line with UK policies. However, we remain supportive of international initiatives for young people—especially those focused on encouraging social action and collaboration between young people from different backgrounds.
I am absolutely delighted to have been given the opportunity to respond to the debate and to reassure the hon. Gentleman about our commitment to wider sporting and social action programmes for young people. We wish to bring the Erasmus programme further to life, and I draw hon. Members’ attention to the Shaping Futures exhibition that will run in the House of Commons exhibition space from 26 February to 1 March. The exhibition will share the impact of the Erasmus programme in the UK and stories from individuals whose lives have been changed by their participation. I urge colleagues to take some time to view the exhibition and find out even more about the programme. I thank all the individuals and organisations that have supported young people to take part in Erasmus for their commitment and dedication to the programme.
Question put and agreed to.
Town and Village Plans
I beg to move,
That this House has considered town and village plans.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for being here and for his support in the past few days as we prepared for the debate, and I thank colleagues for turning up in numbers to intervene and contribute.
I am here today to highlight a problem that we are experiencing in my constituency of Mid Norfolk and that I am aware colleagues are also experiencing. The problem is essentially that the promise of the Localism Act 2011—supported, I think, by all Government Members and probably by the whole House—is, on the ground in Mid Norfolk, being failed by what I suggest is an either accidental or deliberate, but none the less clear, exploitation of the well-intended five-year land supply rules; those were meant to ensure that councils could not put out a plan and then ignore it.
The rules are being exploited, through a legal loophole, by big out-of-town volume house builders, which are banking permissions that are clearly there in areas where the councils and communities sensibly want to build, in order to take the opportunity to force through developments in areas where one would not sensibly want to build.
Does my hon. Friend share my delight and enthusiasm about the recent decision of the High Court to accept the reduction of the five-year housing land supply to a three-year housing land supply, where there is a neighbourhood plan and where sites are allocated?
I absolutely welcome that and will in due course list some of the very good things that the Government have been doing to try to help. I am here today to flag a problem and offer the Minister some suggestions to try to help find a solution.
At its heart, this is about the difference between rural and urban planning; in government, in Parliament, we tend to legislate as if the two are the same. In my patch, Mid Norfolk, we could build many more houses if we were able to get the essence of the localism promise right—build where we want, build how we want, build for local people as well as those moving into the area, and build in a way that supports the grassroots. I am talking about development being seen to be done by and for communities, not to communities by those far away.
There is real frustration in Mid Norfolk; I would be lying if I said that this was not the No. 1 issue in the recent election. In fact, in that election campaign, I promised to come to Parliament, talk to colleagues and Ministers, and see whether we could find a way to deal with it.
If I may, I will briefly set the scene by setting out my very strong support for the Localism Act and for what the Government have been trying to do in promoting a much more bottom-up model of local planning; by signalling where I think the national planning policy framework has helped but is also hindering in relation to the five-year land supply; and by describing some of what is going on in Mid Norfolk at the moment and some ideas about how we might deal with it.
When the Localism Act was introduced, the then coalition Government were stunned by the level of support for it. The Minister, like me, welcomed it strongly, because in essence it says that development is something that should be owned and valued by local communities. Despite the previous Government’s well intended desire to get houses built, we took the view that it was a flawed approach to sit in London and allocate numbers by region, by county, by district, and that numbers allocated from London were unlikely to motivate the towns, villages and communities that we wanted to embrace development. Instead, we said, “No, the better way is to ensure that every area has to put together a local plan.”
There is no number for Mid Norfolk in some filing cabinet in Whitehall, which I am delighted about. My area and colleagues’ areas have to put together their own local plans, taking into account their own population dynamics and economy, and put out a 20-year plan. To prevent councils from simply doing the plan but not actually building, the five-year land supply was introduced to ensure that houses were actually built, in accordance with the plan.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that the value of the local plan is that it also has regard to local infrastructure needs, potentially at village level? The current loopholes that are being exploited see developers coming forward with plans for wholescale, 300 or 400-house developments without that infrastructure, which are against the interests of many of our villages in Suffolk and Norfolk.
My hon. Friend makes the very point that I will be making. This is about infrastructure and public services. A proper plan is not just about houses, but about the community, its needs, the public services, the infrastructure, the drainage and so on. Like many colleagues, I welcomed the Localism Act. I could understand when the former Chancellor of the Exchequer introduced the national planning policy framework, with its presumption in favour of sustainable development, to shift the balance, particularly at a time when the housing market was on its knees, and to encourage the building of the necessary houses and the development that we needed. The five-year land supply makes logical sense. We do not want a nimby’s charter, which allows councils to plan and then ignore their own plan.
However, what is happening in Mid Norfolk is giving the lie to that promise. For those of us who backed and supported localism, it is beginning to undermine public trust, and not just trust in the local planning system and support for development. It is beginning to foster the very nimbyism that was not there before and, even worse, is beginning to foster, complicate and compound a distrust in political promises. That is damaging to the planning system at a time when we really need proper strategic planning and local support.
If you will indulge me for a moment, Mr Hollobone, I would like to paint a picture of where Mid Norfolk sits. I know that that has worried colleagues since I arrived in the House eight years ago—it has worried quite a lot of my constituents. As it was a new constituency, most of my constituents were for several years asking, “Where is Mid Norfolk?” It sits right in the heart of God’s county. People who are used to going to the coast will drive past and around my beautiful patch, and those who drive up the newly dualled A11 to Norwich will leave my patch to port of their journey. People need to be in search of the real, the authentic, the heart, the glinting jewel in the crown to come and find Mid Norfolk; it sits right in the middle, at the heart of our county. It is not a place that someone would need to go to unless they were looking for it.
In Mid Norfolk, we have four magnificent towns: Dereham, Wymondham, Attleborough and Watton. Attleborough and Wymondham are both on the A11, just south of Norwich. Norwich is growing very fast. The Norwich research park is booming. All credit to the Government for their fantastic support through the industrial strategy and the support for small businesses. In many ways, Norwich is becoming a mini Cambridge, which is only 40 miles down the newly dualled A11. Indeed, when the Government have opened up the Ely junction and made half-hourly the rail service, Norwich will become part of a Greater Cambridge cluster. That is why there is such housing demand along that corridor. There are 15,000-odd houses going in at Ely, 5,000 at Brandon, 5,000 at Thetford, 4,000 at Attleborough and 2,000 at Wymondham. It is a corridor of growth.
For that reason, my local council wisely suggested that the bulk of its housing target should be placed on that A11 corridor, where the rail and road links support the cluster of development. Unfortunately, however, the developers, cognisant that they have those permissions and that allocation there, have taken the opportunity of the five-year land supply to begin to do what they would not normally be able to do: dump very substantial, large-scale commuter housing estates on a number of the villages close to Norwich in my constituency, without, as my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) mentioned, the necessary investment in services and infrastructure.
Dereham, which I like to think of as the gateway to the Norwich research triangle—it has not yet gripped that strategic role for itself, but over the next 10 to 20 years it will become that—is now becoming in the morning a traffic jam, almost as visible from space as the Cambridge traffic jam. The developers are now piling into south Dereham, along the main roads. It is the classic model of putting the big housing on the road, where it is easy, without any infrastructure. A string of villages between Dereham and Norwich—Yaxham, Mattishall and Swanton Morley—have all found themselves the subject of aggressive, large-scale, out-of-town developments.
In each case, the villages have been working on putting together their own village plans, taking the powers that we gave them in the Localism Act; the idea was that local neighbourhood plans would be put together and that the local plan adopted by the council would be an amalgamation of those and work around them. In fact, what has happened is that the local communities have put together plans—I want to talk in a moment about the Swanton Morley plan in particular—and then that process of going through a neighbourhood plan has, as we might have predicted, led to a strong conversation locally about the community’s needs, such as jobs and services. In every case, that has led to more houses being suggested by the local council than were originally thought of.
Therein lies the beautiful truth at the heart of the Localism Act: if we empower communities to think about their own futures, most will end up planning development where they want it, in the style they want it, for their own vision of their own community. People are not naturally nimbys, but they are resistant to growth being dumped on them by a remote bureaucracy, whether it is in Brussels or London.
I am very encouraged by what the hon. Gentleman says. Back home in my constituency, the local Ards and North Down Borough Council has initiated a new idea—the very thing that he refers to—of village regeneration. It is village regenerating with village, with town, with village; it is a domino effect where we all get together. Out of those plans have come some very forward-thinking ideas for economic expansion, house building and how villages can interact with each other. If we do it right with consultation, we get agreement and we are always better off.
Not for the first time the hon. Gentleman makes my point better than I. He is absolutely right that if we get this right, and if we trust people in communities and empower them, which is what the Localism Act was about, we will be surprised by what communities can do. There are wonderful examples of that around the country, including in Northern Ireland. That is why I am optimistic. I know the Minister is keen to stretch every sinew to ensure that we are able to unlock this and get the houses that we want built.
I appreciate that colleagues represent different areas with different circumstances, but if the Minister said to me, “Can you find a way in which we could build the houses that we need in East Anglia?” the answer from my part of the world would be, “Absolutely!” Let us build a really serious new town—a proper new town—and design something that we could be really proud of. We might even have a couple. Given the housing demand in the south-east of England, one might even say that every county could probably find somewhere to build a stunning new town. We could even make it a competition and see who comes up with the most beautiful one. We could build a new town with proper energy-efficient houses and modern transport. We could make our new towns the test beds of the modern-living technologies that we are developing in this country.
I will give a location for a new town in my patch. On the Cambridge-Norwich railway, where RAF Lakenheath and RAF Mildenhall sit adjacent, Lakenheath is a tiny town, with a lot of poverty and deprivation, on former peat that has gone to grade 3 clay. It is a town aching for investment. It is on that railway and would not be 25 minutes from Cambridge. We could build the most stunning town there, possibly on the former airfield, and ease a lot of the pressure on our villages.
I am not saying that because I do not want development. In my patch we could build, and I am pushing a project to build, a garden village on the old Beeching railway line from Wymondham to Dereham. I am working with local developers to see whether we might come up with a model where we can plough the profit from the development back in, in conjunction with the railway company, to create a new model development company, with housing and rail linked in the way that it was by the Victorians. The Government are pushing that model forward in East West Rail.
I pay tribute to the work of the Secretary of State for Transport, who is clear that he wants that Oxford to Cambridge east-west railway not to be a traditional model of slow, bureaucratic franchising and competing interests, but a development company that lays the track, builds the houses and captures the value of housing gain to recycle into public transport.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and apologise for interrupting his flow. The Scottish Conservatives would like to see between six and eight new towns built in Scotland. Is not the heart of the issue about bringing people with us? As well as following the ambition of the post-war generation in building new towns, we must learn from their mistakes in design and infrastructure. We must make sure that these new towns fit with their environments, so that the communities surrounding the developments can support them and feel that they have been listened to.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. We should look at the lessons from those garden towns. Many years ago, I fought the constituency of Stevenage—as colleagues know, it fought back—but Letchworth, the first garden town, is still regarded in that part of the world as a great tribute to proper planning. It is a place of great pride for the people who live in and around it. That is unusual for new developments, so there are real lessons to be learned.
I know the Government are supportive of this model of new town development and of garden village development, but the problem is that it is not happening. Seven years after we passed the Localism Act, when I say “localism” in Mid Norfolk I am greeted with groans and occasionally with jeers—although my constituents are very well-behaved and extremely polite. There was the promise of localism, where we said to people, “You will be empowered. The community will be able to plan. We will support your plans and back you.” But people are seeing their plans ignored.
I want to mention Swanton Morley as a case study. Swanton Morley is the home of the Queen’s Dragoon Guards, and formerly of the Light Dragoons. It has an old RAF base. It is one of my small market towns with a 2,000-odd population, and it has put together a magnificent plan. I want to pay tribute to Roger Atterwill, the chair of the parish council, and Faye, his assistant, who have worked assiduously on the plan over the past two or three years. It is a model of local planning. There were village hall meetings, consultations, surveys—real engagement—and they have produced a real vision for the future of the village.
But unfortunately, on examination, the examiner appointed by the district council struck out all of their sensible, local conditions, such as that there should be an allocation of houses for people who come from the Swanton Morley area and around the percentage of affordable housing, all of which were provided for in the spirit of the Localism Act and in legislation. One cannot help but see that they were struck out because the main planning authority, Breckland Council, has both hands tied behind its back. It is up against the wall with a five-year land supply and it has no leg to stand on: it is terrified of being taken to court by big out-of-town developers.
I want to make it clear that I am not having a go at all developers. There are some magnificent developers in this country and in Norfolk. I would cite Tony Abel, for example. Abel Homes is a really good local business, building high-quality local developments. However, when it comes to the likes of Gladman, which has come into our patch, we never meet the people behind the developments.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend’s point, which he is making so well. In my constituency, the local builders are immaculately behaved, do a very good job and try very hard. But some of the big builders’ behaviour is frankly atrocious. They game the system, cheat the people who they are meant to be working for and bully the district council. Their behaviour is often absolutely reprehensible.
I am grateful to my venerable and right hon. Friend for putting that so robustly. I would not be here if I did not share that view. We all understand that we need houses built, and we all know that we need developers to do it, but there is a contract. When we provide developers with the powers and the balance of probability on the sustainable development framework, and we say that there is a presumption in favour of sustainable development, we mean sustainable development. We do not mean that as an excuse for them to dump a housing estate on our villages and towns and then sugar off. They have an obligation, as local builders and local landowners understand.
For that reason, I recently called a rural housing summit with Hastoe Housing Association—I see the Minister nodding—which is a leading, if not the leading, rural housing specialist. All around the country it has put together schemes with the support of local communities. It is doing more than anyone in rural housing to defeat nimbyism, because the quality of its developments is so high. At this rural housing summit we showcased best practice from all round the country: people putting together affordable housing schemes, shared equity schemes, covenanted land, parish councils. There is a wonderful cornucopia of good rural housing models, but we are not seeing it in Norfolk because our councils have both hands tied behind their backs.
When I say to my councillors, “Why aren’t you using the design codes that we gave you? Why aren’t you using the powers that we have given you in these Acts?” the answer comes back, “We are desperate to get our five-year land supply in order. We are terrified of legal challenge. We are trying to keep our council tax down. We are bearing the brunt of very necessary public spending constraints, and frankly every penny we make goes back into the deficit.” Our councils have their hands tied behind their backs, and are therefore unable to implement the spirit of the Localism Act.
Is my hon. Friend not concerned that the whole thrust, which is understandable from the local councillor’s point of view, is towards economic growth, as otherwise they do not get the funding? So they are all being encouraged to go at a speed that perhaps they would do well not to go at.
My right hon. Friend makes the perfect point. He is absolutely right, and that is happening in my patch as well as in his.
I am conscious that others want to speak. I want to give them a chance to do so and the Minister a chance to respond. To sum up my opening speech, we all know that we need to build houses, but as with so many problems that is a challenge in London. I have been a Minister pulling the ministerial levers, and I know that there is a big problem to be solved in the corridors of Whitehall.
However, in our constituencies, the problem is smaller, more manageable and easier to deal with. In Mid Norfolk, I see the answer to a problem that is very big in the Minister’s in-tray. If we can revisit the spirit of localism, re-empower local communities and re-incentivise councils to retain and harness the benefits of growth and put them into local infrastructure, we will restore faith in the planning system and deliver more growth, not less.
Order. I must call the Front-Bench speakers at 8 minutes past 5. The guideline limits are five minutes for the Scottish National party, five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition, 10 minutes for the Minister and then a couple of minutes at the end for our Member in charge to sum up. There are six Members seeking to speak, so I am afraid that in order to get you all in, speeches will be limited to two minutes 45 seconds. If there are any interventions, some of you will not make it.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman). I will try to keep to my three minutes or less. I take a particular interest in this issue; I was a parish and town councillor for 28 years. I have taken through village appraisals and village plans, and I almost took through a neighbourhood plan. It is quite an awesome thing to be asked to participate in.
I make no apologies for being a long-standing member of the Campaign to Protect Rural England; I declare that interest. I will largely ask the Minister about points that CPRE has brought to the debate. CPRE wants to critique four issues relating to neighbourhood plans. First, where do they sit in relation to strategic planning, if there is such a thing nowadays? Secondly, there is a lack of resources for taking plans through. Thirdly, there is unnecessary complexity; I personally share that concern. Fourthly, there are issues with conformity and precedents.
The CPRE asks clearly for the Government to at least reconsider the idea of the neighbourhood right to be heard. It is frustrating, when a plan has been developed, for a development to undermine it completely or for the plan to be ignored because the development has gone through without any real ability to influence it. It is important that we consider that.
I have always been a critic of referendums. I know that 89% of referendums have been successful, but I believe in democracy. I was a parish councillor, and as my old friend the late Stephen Wright said to me, that is the first level of democracy. Why should it have referendums foisted upon it? I think that we have all learned the lesson that referendums are not terribly good for our system of democracy, so I am a critic of that idea.
We need to tease out where neighbourhood plans sit and what influence they have. There are some glaring examples of things not working very well. In terms of the Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017, we should look again at where the plans are and give them some robustness, so that they mean something when they go into the planning system and so that the people who spent a lot of time getting them through can feel confident that they will be listened to.
First, I say to the Minister that this is not about opposition to housing. In West Sussex as a whole, when I was first elected, the draft south-east plan proposed an amount of housing far below what is now being built under the new system. The objectively assessed need for West Sussex produces 66% more houses than the draft south-east plan, and the new formula will produce nearly double the draft south-east plan. It is placing massive pressure on local infrastructure.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) said so well, neighbourhood plans produce more houses by consent. If we allow neighbourhood plans to be bust, then we undermine the principle of consent, and in the end, fewer houses will be built by consent. That leads us to only one policy—the imposition of housing, which will be massively unpopular.
The Minister must understand that developers are gaming the system. They are ensuring that five-year land supplies are not adequate. Consequently, neighbourhood plans—either in draft form or, worse, when they are made and approved by large referendums—are being broken through. Some of the solution lies in his hands. The Government produced a helpful improvement to the situation last year, but his predecessor refused to entertain call-ins or appeals. When the Minister comes to take any decisions that might be in the balance, he must be mindful of the importance of supporting the neighbourhood planning process.
In the end, the Government face a fundamental choice. They can hold to the Localism Act 2011, a flagship policy that empowered local communities and gave them responsibility, including for decisions about where to locate housing. We are now in a difficult position; public faith in the policy of localism is being gravely undermined by people’s feeling that developers are simply overriding neighbourhood plans or that the Government apply rules that are too tight and do not recognise the power of giving local communities the control that they should have.
I helped invent neighbourhood plans, and I am the Government’s neighbourhood planning champion. It is exciting to see neighbourhood plans, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) said, produce more housing than they were asked to produce. If we look at it in contractual terms, they have gone beyond the contract set up.
What happens when a village decides to produce a neighbourhood plan? First, it needs to see whether the district council has a five-year land supply. This morning, I happened to be with a number of people considering development in the Thames valley. They produced a map of district councils that do and do not have a five-year housing land supply. It is unfortunate that so many district councils do not. That leaves them open, the moment they put down their name to make a neighbourhood plan, to developers moving in ahead of the plan to take advantage. I have asked in an Adjournment debate that when someone seriously puts their name down to start a neighbourhood plan, no more housing should be built until it has come to fruition, so that it can be taken fully into account.
I agree totally with what colleagues have said about certain firms of developers, such as Gladman, which aggressively game the system, as it has been described. It was partly to overcome that that a Planning Minister two Ministers before this one, Gavin Barwell, decided to reduce the land supply figure from five years, because people did not have a five-year land supply, to three years, for a two-year period from the end of the neighbourhood plan where sites were allocated. That was challenged in the High Court and, as I said in an intervention, the recent decision, in a very detailed judgment, has confirmed it. We are still waiting to see whether it goes to appeal, but the chances are that it will not.
The Government are tightening up the national planning policy framework, and it is about time. All I would say is that the presumption in favour of sustainable development is not itself new; it has been there since the beginning of planning. The only thing that is new is the word “sustainable”.
Neighbourhood planning is a hugely important reform. In my constituency, I have seen the way that it brings people together. We have neighbourhood plans in five parishes: Foxton, Great Glen, Kibworth, Lubenham and North Kilworth. I congratulate all the people who have selflessly given their time to make them happen and who have taken part in those referendums.
To make neighbourhood planning work, we now need a new approach. First, we need much greater legal force for plans shortly before their adoption. It was extremely frustrating for people in Great Glen to do all the work of putting together a neighbourhood plan, only to find that just before it came into force, the developer put a new development on exactly the site that they did not want it to go on.
Secondly, we need far less interference from the planning inspector. I have no problem with planning inspectors casting their eye over neighbourhood plans, but they must not interfere with matters that are, frankly, none of their business.
Thirdly, we need a simpler, clearer and quicker process so that developers cannot get their foot in the door. Often, neighbourhood plans have a lot of things in them that they do not need, but not the one thing that they do need: a simple map of where the community does and does not want development.
In the long term, I would like communities to have much stronger powers. Other hon. Members have already made reference to the virtues of planned and coherent new development over piecemeal bits tacked on to the ends of villages. I agree with that sentiment. I would like neighbourhood plans to be able to call in compulsory purchase powers from their local authority. Too often, villages such as Great Bowden would like to develop a site that a developer is simply sitting on, so developments have to be tacked on to the village in all directions instead, which people hate.
Neighbourhood planning is incredibly important. People can behave responsibly: they come forward with sites and they back more housing in their community. We must not let this important reform die or be gradually picked apart by rapacious developers such as Gladman.
The Minister is a man on the rise—one can only be amazed at his great trajectory—and he will want to make his mark on the Department before he moves on to higher office. In the nicest and most collegiate way, I suggest that he listens carefully to what hon. Members say. I echo every word uttered by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), who instigated this timely debate.
I urge one note of caution to my hon. Friend, who wants a new town. Just as he said, I wanted Cranbrook to be an exemplar of towns around the world, but soon the developers moved in. I am afraid that the council is now having to move in to put in the town centre because the developers are behaving in a shameful way; they say that not enough people live there to put it in. It is a classic example of big developers gaming the system.
It is not brain surgery. My hon. Friend made the point that if someone builds good housing, which we all need, in the vernacular to enhance local communities, they will be amazed by the silence that follows—by the congratulations that follow in the pub. People want their communities to be enhanced. They want to support the village school, the post office and other local services. They do not want huge blocks of developments.
The big developers have worked out how to make profit down to the square inch, so they do not care if they are not nodding to the local vernacular or if a house looks the same in the north of England, the middle of England and Wales. They just want to make a profit. I hope that the Minister will be as good as the Government’s word and tell us how we can encourage local house builders, who often produce a far better product than larger house builders.
I draw the Minister’s attention to what other hon. Members have said about neighbourhood plans. Budleigh Salterton and East Budleigh with Bicton have produced wonderful neighbourhood plans, which can be expensive and time-consuming. Lympstone also produced one. The Minister’s predecessor received a letter from me in October about a constituent who said that, despite Lympstone identifying the type and design of housing that the community wished to see, it had singularly failed to achieve them in the two years since the plan was made. That letter also singularly failed to be acknowledged, although I prompted the Minister on 15 January. I ask him to look at that.
The neighbourhood plan is a contract with our constituents. We persuaded them that if they were going to be more local, they would have a say. At the moment, they feel that they have wasted their time and they are being ignored.
Unlike my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire), I am not in the least bit surprised about the Minister’s trajectory. I know that he will be paying careful attention to what is said today. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) on his speech and I agree with every word. Indeed, I agree with all my hon. Friends. I will make four brief points.
First, I endorse what my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) said. Neighbourhood plans will produce more houses by consent than anyone believes is possible, hence the importance of sticking to the system.
Secondly, the integrity of the system is vital. Local people spend hundreds and hundreds of hours of their own free will making a great effort to produce these plans, and it is vital that they are honoured. I am encouraged by the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) that the national planning policy framework needs to be strengthened. I would welcome that.
Thirdly, I say again—it cannot be said too often—that the behaviour of some major developers is appalling. It traduces our constituents and our constituencies, our elected councillors and our district councils. It is the kind of behaviour up with which the Government should not put.
Finally, if people are prepared to spend all that time and effort on producing something very important to them, those efforts should be respected in all honour. My right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs and I have difficulties in that regard, but as he said, it is important that those efforts are honoured and that the Government play a straight bat with local communities.
There are five minutes for the Scottish National party spokesperson and five minutes for the official Opposition spokesperson.
It is a pleasure to sum up for the Scottish National party in this debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) for introducing it. From a Scottish perspective, it has been very interesting for me to see how things work slightly differently in England.
The SNP is looking at reforming the planning system in Scotland to pick up on some of the things that do not work as intended. We have ambitions to build 50,000 affordable homes by 2021. We have brought in the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, which gives local communities a community right to buy so that they can influence what gets built and how land is used in their community. That is important in rural and urban settings.
We have 20 proposals for revamping the planning system in Scotland. Many things that the hon. Member for Mid Norfolk spoke about, such as action by and for communities and putting infrastructure in place, are reflected in those plans. The consultation process on the planning system is called “Places, People and Planning”, and it is all those things—people are at the heart of making places work.
We also have ambitions to align our system of community planning, which has been going for some years, with spatial planning. That reflects what the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) and the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) said about the need for integrity—people’s views should be respected as part of the planning process.
There is a real need in Scotland to remove some of the complexity. In 2007, not long after I became a councillor, Glasgow was looking at city plan 2, which was one huge folder with another huge folder of supplementary items. It was very complex, and it was difficult for people to get their heads around it and understand the land use. Almost as soon as it was produced, things had moved on and changed. The 2008 crash then changed many people’s views about how land should be used in communities.
In the Scottish system, we think that people should have the opportunity to plan their own place and that people should be involved in planning. The community aspect is important, as is improving public trust. In Scotland, we are approaching that through pre-application consultations. Before a planning application is submitted to a local authority, the developer has to go and speak to the local community, sound people out and figure out whether its proposal will be acceptable. That is very important and has been quite successful in changing some aspects of that process. My council colleague Norman MacLeod was at one of those events in a part of the constituency that we share, where the developers were presenting all these two-bedroom flats in Pollokshields. Councillor MacLeod said, “There are large families in the area, who will want larger family homes.” That had not crossed the developers’ minds. Having that negotiation before developments are built is a better way to get them right.
The hon. Member for Mid Norfolk mentioned his ambitions for new towns in his constituency. That is an interesting prospect, but issues arise about how those new towns would be paid for. Would they be paid for by the developer? If the developer decided not to pay, would the local authority end up picking up the tab, as the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) warned? When a new town is planned in Scotland, a new town development corporation has to be set up. These issues have to be thought about carefully before embarking on a new town, and I imagine the hon. Member for Mid Norfolk is thinking about how it can best be done. We also need to get the right mix of private and public input, as well as schools and everything else that a community needs to flourish.
New towns have sometimes failed for lack of proper planning. BBC Scotland has produced an excellent documentary called “The Storm That Saved a City” about the 1968 Glasgow storm. It described the housing situation in the city of Glasgow, including slum clearances. The council planned to demolish absolutely everything and rebuild from the roots. It moved lots of people out to Easterhouse, Drumchapel and other parts of the city, but it did not put in facilities such as shops, pubs and social gathering places. Those communities still feel that they do not have all the facilities they need. We still have not learned the right lessons, because the Commonwealth games village was built in Glasgow without a school, a nursery or a row of shops. We need to learn from new towns. What has made them successful? What has made them thrive?
It would be useful if the Minister said a little about how the Government will legislate on new towns, and what guidance will be provided. When we build a new town, we build it to be a home—not just a set of houses, or somewhere to wake up in the morning and go to bed at night, but a community to live in for the long term.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) for securing this incredibly important debate. There is a lot of cross-party agreement on the issue, and I agree with almost everything that hon. Members have said in the debate. My only disagreement with the hon. Gentleman is that I think the issue affects both rural and urban areas.
If we want positive planning in this country, the best place to start is with local neighbourhoods and communities. The reason is obvious: local people know their area best, and they know best how to develop it. They understand not only issues such as local heritage, but infrastructure needs, which are often overlooked in planning but are necessary to make a development successful. I was really pleased that hon. Members raised that today.
I was also extremely pleased that the hon. Member for Mid Norfolk mentioned new towns. I am very keen to hear what the Minister has to say about new towns, because the Government have been a bit tardy, to say the least, in bringing forward new towns or garden cities. I think we probably all agree that garden cities have worked better than new towns, but it would be good to hear an update from the Minister.
There were some weaknesses in the conception of neighbourhood planning. A neighbourhood plan is not a free-standing document; it has to be developed in line with a local plan and strategic objectives. Neighbourhood plans have often been mis-sold to local neighbourhoods, who think that a plan can do something that it cannot. They run into particular problems when no up-to-date local plan is in place. We have all seen neighbourhood plans being developed, voted on and passed in areas where no local plan is in place or there is an issue with the five-year housing supply. Even if the council rejects a development because it is not in line with the local plan, its rejection is often overturned on appeal, using the national planning policy framework and the general presumption in favour of development. If the Minister wishes to give neighbourhood planning more teeth, he needs to look at that.
The Minister also needs to look at resources and at the whole local community effort necessary to developing a neighbourhood plan. I know that the Government have put some resources aside for developing neighbourhood plans, but in my experience such resources are often not enough, particularly in areas of special complexity. Neighbourhood plans are being developed while massive cuts are reducing the ability of planning departments to support parish councils and neighbourhood planning forums to implement them.
We all want neighbourhood plans to be more effective, but there are some issues with them. I was pleased to see, as a sign of cross-party consensus, that “ConservativeHome” has stated that the Government need to look more closely at neighbourhood planning because there are wrinkles to be ironed out. We all want our communities to be given the tools to plan effectively for their area, but we also want neighbourhood plans to be more effectively integrated into our overall planning system. Perhaps they need to be given greater weight—that seems to be one of the crucial issues that the Government still have to address. I appreciate that the Minister is new to his job, but we have great expectations about what he will deliver.
If the Minister finishes his remarks no later than 5.28 pm, the Member in charge will have time to sum up.
As ever, Mr Hollobone, it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) on securing the debate. He spoke forensically about the issue and eloquently about his constituency. He highlighted the importance of neighbourhood planning, which has been giving people real power to shape the development of their communities since its introduction in 2011.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond to points raised in the debate and take up the generous offer from my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) to listen carefully to concerns. Hon. Members will know that, given the Department’s role in determining certain planning issues, I cannot comment on the detail of individual plans or planning cases. However, I can talk about the practice, the framework and the parameters that create the principles guiding the relationship between neighbourhood plans, local authorities and central Government strategy. I hope also to address the interesting points made by the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew).
I know that many hon. Members have been directly involved in encouraging and supporting communities in their constituencies to take up neighbourhood planning; I recognise the role that MPs play in the process. I assure all hon. Members that we continue to support the principle of neighbourhood planning and that we are already looking at teething issues and wrinkles to be ironed out. In September, we announced our largest ever support package for neighbourhood planning: a £22.8 million programme that will start in April and provide communities with the help and resources that they need to develop plans up to 2022.
Before I address the important points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk, it is worth reminding ourselves of the wider national context and the big picture on housing. In order to meet demand, we have to deliver 300,000 homes every year by the mid-2020s. We have to provide the homes that Britain needs, but we also have to make them affordable for real people on low and middle incomes. As hon. Members have said, we have to build a lot more of the right homes in the right places. I take that point. There were 217,000 net additions to the housing supply last year. That was the highest level in a decade—an increase of approximately 70% on what was achieved in 2009-10—so there are positive signs, but there is still a long way to go.
We need to be mindful of how we tailor the vehicle, both in the context of local democratic affairs—points were raised today about carrying communities with us—and with respect to the overarching national demand and our mission to build the homes that the next generation needs.
It is absolutely crucial that local authorities play their role by producing up-to-date local plans and identifying a five-year supply of deliverable housing sites. Local plans and a five-year supply of housing sites can provide clarity for communities and for developers who want to do things the right way regarding where new homes should be built. That means that development is planned and is not the result of speculative applications. I have taken on board the points made by my right hon. Friends the Members for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) and for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) about some developers. I emphasise “some” developers; let us not tar all developers with the same brush, because, as I think hon. Members have said, there is good practice, but there is some bad practice as well.
As of today, 26 authorities are still to publish a local plan and 131 local authorities have a local plan that is older than five years. So, the big picture is that overall we are doing quite well, but there are certainly areas and pockets where we need to do better. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government has written to 15 authorities, giving them until the end of this month to justify why they do not have a plan in place and why the Government should not intervene. He has put other authorities on notice, explaining that a consistent failure to make sufficient progress in that regard cannot be tolerated indefinitely.
I turn to neighbourhood plans. They are, of course, voluntary. They rely on the enthusiasm and the hard work of local people, and, in the round, local communities. They are a powerful set of tools for communities to say where development—such as homes, shops and offices—should go, what it should look like, and what facilities should be provided. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), who, as neighbourhood planning champion, has championed the cause of the right kind of local plans.
Neighbourhood plans undergo consultation, independent examination and the community referendum before coming into force as part of the development plan for their area. I take the point that was made by the hon. Member for Stroud about referendums, even though I was probably on a different side from him in our recent, bigger referendum. In this context, however, referendums are important, because they ensure that neighbourhood plans have genuine support and, as a result, some clout and some force. Their status as part of the development plan is very important, because planning applications must be determined in accordance with the development plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise.
Since the introduction of neighbourhood planning by the Localism Act 2011, 2,300 communities have begun the process of shaping the future of their area. I think that about 17 of those are within the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk, and I recognise the local initiative that goes into such local plans. I also understand the point that he made about encouraging and not stifling that initiative, which is crucial.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the undermining of a referendum by failing to observe what the referendum has decided is, in its own way, just as damaging at a local level, in relation to a neighbourhood plan, as it would be at a national level if a decision made in a national referendum was not observed by the authority concerned?
My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point, and he is tempting me to muddy the waters of this debate in a typically mischievous way. I will accept that if we argue for the principle of democracy through a referendum and say that the result of the referendum needs to be delivered, and we then put in place a system of local referendums—often, people care even more about the issues in such referendums than they do about those in national referendums, because the issues relate to people’s local environment or their quality of life—it is important to make sure that they are respected.
We endeavour to continue to make the neighbourhood planning process stronger and simpler, to ensure that it is attractive to even more communities. This week, for example, we are implementing powers in the Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017. Those reforms make it easier for communities to keep their neighbourhood plans up to date as local circumstances change—they will change from time to time—and ensure that neighbourhood planning groups are made aware of local planning applications.
Other important reforms set out in the Act came into force last July. Those reforms require decision takers to respect neighbourhood plans earlier in the process, following a successful referendum. There will be further reforms this July, requiring local authorities to set out their policies on supporting neighbourhood planning groups.
I take this opportunity to welcome another neighbourhood planning success. The 500th successful neighbourhood planning referendum has just taken place; they are clearly catching on, notwithstanding the point that the hon. Member for Stroud made. That is quite an important milestone, which was reached by communities in Leeds, Suffolk and Lincolnshire. Those three communities are very different from each other, to touch on the point that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods), made. However, they all went to the polls on the same day, and between them they allocated land for employment, homes and local green spaces; those things can come together. Those plans are now the starting point for determining planning decisions.
Our planning policy is clear that where a planning application conflicts with a neighbourhood plan that has been brought into force, planning permission should not normally be granted. However, we recognised in 2016 that, in some cases, neighbourhood plans were being undermined because the local planning authority could not demonstrate a five-year land supply of deliverable housing sites, which is one of the key issues. That meant that even recently adopted neighbourhood planning policies were not being given enough weight in determining planning applications. I know that that is the crux of the experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk, and the point that he wanted to make in this debate.
Communities who had worked hard to put their neighbourhood plan in place were left frustrated as decisions went against the plan, despite their having done everything that was asked of them. As hon. Members have argued, that can only undermine confidence in the referendum process and the localism agenda. Seeking to remedy that, we issued a written ministerial statement in December 2016 to ensure that national planning policy provided additional protection to precisely those communities. The change that was made protects neighbourhood plans that are less than two years old and that allocate sites for housing, as long as the local planning authority has more than three years’ supply of deliverable housing sites.
We will take forward that protection in the updated national planning policy framework, which will be published for consultation before Easter—I think there was a question earlier about its publication. I suspect that that will be the beginning of the dialogue and the debate, not the end of them.
The national planning policy framework will be amended to give local authorities the opportunity to have their housing land supply agreed on an annual basis, and fixed for a one-year period. I hope that that gives some reassurance. Through these new policies, alongside the tough action to get local plans in place, we hope to ensure that we get the right homes in the right places. That is the delicate line that we seek to tread here.
I should just say a few words about neighbourhood plan examinations, because of the significant legal weight afforded to neighbourhood plans. The plans need to be carefully examined in a fair and transparent way. If we had longer today, I would go into the matter in more detail. Effectively, the examinations are the check that, once passed, allows the referendum to proceed, which gives real force to the localism agenda in this sector.
I am conscious of the time that I must give my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk to allow him to wind up this debate. I appreciate that important issues have been raised today, whether they are in rural, urban or suburban constituencies, and I understand how deeply felt are the concerns about them. We will continue to protect neighbourhood plans in national policy, and decision takers—whether that is the local authority, the planning inspector or the Secretary of State himself—must respect that national policy.
Will my hon. Friend give way on that point before he sits down?
I am conscious that I have only eight seconds left and I really ought to give my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk the opportunity to wind up the debate, but I will give way briefly to my right hon. Friend.
Have the Government considered, or are they considering, limiting the amount of time for which builders can hold on to land before building on it?
As a new Minister, lots of helpful suggestions come my way. That is something that we will consider, in the context of both the Letwin review and some of the interesting policy submissions that have already been put to me. I undertake to have a look at that point.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for calling me to speak again and for the chance to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon.
I thank colleagues who have come to Westminster Hall to support this debate and the points that I have been making. We find out who our friends are when we put our heads above the parapet, and I could not wish for a better platoon of support. I should also say—both to you, Mr Hollobone, and to the Minister—that several colleagues who support the points that I have been making could not be here today.
I am grateful to the Minister for his typically assiduous, detailed and honourable answers and reassurances. There was some important and good news in there, in that the Government recognise the importance of the issue and in the steps that are being taken. However, having been a Minister myself, I know that officials often think that the issuing of a written ministerial statement or the granting of a new power might solve a problem. One has to remember that on the ground, our councils are up against real pressures, and new powers and written ministerial statements do not always cut through or solve the problem that exists here and now.
It is really important, not only for this issue of building houses but more broadly, that we recognise how free markets work. The Minister is a great advocate of free markets, as am I, but they operate in the context of the incentives and regulations that we set here in Parliament. If we are going to build the housing that we need and an economy that works for everyone, we really have to get this matter right. I ask the Minister—I am sure the answer is yes, as he has indicated so—whether he will agree to meet me, Councillor Gordon Bambridge, who is my local head of planning, and colleagues to discuss how we can take the matter forward.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).