Wednesday 21 March 2018
[Mike Gapes in the Chair]
Welfare Reform and Work Act
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. This debate marks two years since the passage of the Welfare Reform and Work Act, which received Royal Assent on 16 March 2016. It brought in several key changes: the four-year benefit freeze, a further reduction in the benefit cap, a cut to the family element of tax credits and the introduction of the two-child limit, and removal of the work-related activity group component from employment and support allowance. It also saw changes in the work allowance within universal credit, leading to a 63% taper, and further housing benefit cuts. Those cuts had hit people in the private rented sector previously, but were now brought in to hit the social rented sector.
The problem is that we cannot look at the 2016 Act in isolation, because it comes on top of the cuts in the Welfare Reform Act 2012 and, in fact, Budget changes going right back to 2010. We have seen eight years of relentless attacks on the most vulnerable in our society. Two groups particularly hit were the disabled and children. In 2008 incapacity benefit was changed to employment and support allowance; and, as the National Audit Office has highlighted today, 70,000 people were underpaid because their right to income-related employment and support allowance was not recognised. The Government are undertaking to pay back all that money by next year, but people have spent nine years without money that they were owed. Interestingly, the Government will pay back only to October 2014 and not any earlier arrears. That is a bit funny, because when we have to pay the Government, somehow there is never a statute of limitations.
In 2013 there was the move from disability living allowance to personal independent payments. Those are meant to cover the additional costs relating specifically to disability; they are not meant to be work related. They are also meant to allow someone with a disability to study or work and achieve the best that they can.
Both employment and support allowance and personal independence payment require a fair assessment of someone’s disability, or indeed ability. Instead, people got work capability assessments. Those are really the key problem for people who are disabled. The process was outsourced initially to Atos and is now outsourced also to Capita. The Government aspire to depend predominantly on face-to-face assessments. A key issue is the gradual reduction in sourcing other evidence, despite the claimant assuming that the Department for Work and Pensions will source other evidence regarding their underlying condition.
I can accept that we would want to look at someone’s capability and not pigeonhole them, but knowing what underlying condition they have can tell us whether that is something that will change, improve or never improve. There have been repeated assessments of people with chronic conditions and deteriorating conditions, congenital abnormalities and permanent injuries, such as amputations or spinal injuries. People with terminal diseases have been recalled for repeated assessments.
There is a particular problem regarding the assessment of people with mental illness or learning disability. I am sure that every MP will have had cases in which there has been poor recognition of how a mental illness affects someone’s abilities. I had to raise in this place the case of a constituent who had complex post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in the Gulf war—to the point where he struggled ever to leave the house. He was on DLA at the highest rate. He was moved over to PIP at the highest rate and then called for reassessment, at which point he was moved to the lower rate. He appealed, which of course many people do because of the high rate of change of assessment when people appeal. That shows how poor the original assessments were.
However, following my constituent’s appeal, all his points were taken away, and what my caseworker heard back when inquiring was, “PIP is really for people who can’t carry out the basic tasks of daily life. People with mental illness can of course wash themselves, cook, clean and shop.” Well, that is said by someone who has never seen profound depression, which looks like the batteries have simply been taken out of someone. That issue appears again and again in all our casework inboxes. The other conditions we are talking about are those that wax and wane. Someone may attend for assessment on a good day and they are often bullied into saying what they can achieve on their best day. That is not a realistic assessment of what their life is like.
As Scotland takes over some of the benefits, we are aiming to treat people with greater dignity. We will ensure that we have sourced the medical information and try to ensure that the assessor is equipped with the clinical skills to assess the person they are viewing, because that process has become really traumatic for people who are suffering from disability.
Under PIP, more than half of people have lost some or all of their benefits, particularly the mobility element. Many of us have been involved in trying to hold on to mobility cars for some of our constituents. We have seen the distance that people need to be able to walk reduced to 20 metres. Frankly, that is the distance from the car park into the supermarket; it is not a distance that would allow someone to walk to their nearest bus stop, or to walk from the bus stop at the other end to wherever they are trying to go. Then people’s unpaid carers lose carer’s allowance. That means that the impact on a disabled family can be huge.
Is my hon. Friend aware of a recent report commissioned by the Equality and Human Rights Commission called “The cumulative impact of tax and welfare reforms”? It showed that, overall, the changes to taxes, benefits, tax credits and universal credit meant that households with at least one disabled adult and one disabled child would lose more than £6,500 a year, which is more than 13% of their annual income.
I am, and I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The problem with all the changes, going right back to 2010, is that there never was a proper cumulative impact assessment to look at what changes on top of changes have done and what happens to people who are in more than one group. We know that lone parents are impacted by changes, but what if a lone parent is also disabled?
Does the hon. Lady agree that all the changes in the welfare legislation should be seen in the broader context of other policies, such as the rise in the national living wage, which is lifting some of the lowest paid people in this country out of poverty?
I will come to that point later in my speech, if the hon. Lady is happy to wait.
In addition, carers are now subject to conditionality and treated as jobseekers, regardless of what their caring commitments are. That means that they may be open to sanctions. In 2013 we had the infamous bedroom tax, which thankfully in Scotland we have been mitigating, but which has impacted on people with disability, who will lose 14% of their housing benefit if they are deemed to have a spare room. Many disabled people require additional space, whether that is for complex equipment or because they need to sleep separately from their partner, or because they routinely or occasionally require someone to stay over when they are not well.
With the Welfare Reform and Work Act we also saw the removal of the work-related activity group component from employment and support allowance. We spoke out against that repeatedly. Taking £30 a week away from someone who has been defined by DWP assessors as not fit to work will most certainly not get them back into work. That impacts particularly on people recovering from major illness. As a cancer surgeon, I have seen for myself the impact on people who have gone through a year of intense surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy and the time it takes to get back to work. We are talking about extra heating, because they are at home. In England, we are talking about prescription charges and car parking charges at hospitals, both of which, thankfully, patients in Scotland do not have to pay. Is it any wonder that this Government have been criticised by the United Nations for breaking the convention on the rights of persons with disabilities? It has been a relentless attack.
The stress has increased the mental health issues suffered by people with disability. A survey has shown that over 40% have at some time considered suicide. What kind of society are we, if we are not willing to look after those who are vulnerable? We can judge a society by how it looks after its most vulnerable. As these disability benefits come to Scotland, it is our aim to use a human rights approach and ensure that dignity is at the centre of how we treat people.
Carers should also be supported and valued. They save the state millions of pounds by providing virtually free care. In Scotland, one of the first Acts that will come in next year will increase the carer’s allowance to at least the level of jobseeker’s allowance. It is little enough, but it is at least a declaration of intent. It is envisaged that employment support allowance is to support those who, due to their disability, are simply unable to work. PIP is meant to allow those with disability to reach their full potential. We should not be sticking people in their houses, because we take away their mobility, and then saying, “We are trying to get them into work.” People with disability who are working have extra costs, and that is the whole point of PIP, so the Government should put their money where their mouth is.
We also know that child poverty is rising and is expected to rise further. We have seen it climb by about 5%. The poorest areas in the UK now have child poverty rates of around 50%. How can that be right, when we know the impact that will have on children? But while we talk often about child poverty, we should recognise that it is actually family poverty, and that children cannot be separated from the experience of their family. Their income has been hollowed out since 2010. We saw the benefit cap in 2013 set for families at £26,000 a year. That affected about 20,000 families. The Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 cut that to £23,000 in London and to £20,000 elsewhere in the UK. That affected 88,000 families, who lost either £3,000 or £6,000 from their income.
In 2011 we saw the local housing allowance brought in to cut what was paid for those living in the private sector. It reduced housing allowance from the median in their area to 30%. But in 2016 that was frozen and in a third of areas it does not even come close to 30%. In London, housing benefit for those in the private rental sector will cover only 16% of their housing costs, meaning that they fall about £1,000 a month short. That is significant for anybody’s wallet, but for those at the lower end of income earnings it is a severe hit. That has led to over 4.5 million people in the private rented sector struggling as rents have soared.
In 2016 the Government cut the family premium that was allowed with a new claim or a new birth, leading to a loss of £907. The bedroom tax also affects families, particularly in situations of separation or divorce, because the parent with minor caring responsibilities is not recognised. For example, a man—most likely—now living on his own in a small flat is not allowed a bedroom that would enable his children to stay over when he has them for the weekend. What does it say about us that we are not trying to strengthen families, but actually trying to undermine them?
Tax credits, which had such a big impact on child poverty, have faced attrition since 2011, when the first thing to go was the baby element, removing over £500. The 2012 changes saw families over £700 worse off. We all remember the haggling in the Chamber about changes to tax credits and the Chancellor stepped back from doing it after the Lords objected, but that was because he knew that those tax credit changes were simply hidden within universal credit and that, therefore, eventually they would hit everyone. The Government have removed the family element for the first child, again over £500, and now tax credits are claimable for only the first two children. The third child in a family loses out £2,780 a year. That has a huge impact on such families.
Universal credit has also reduced the work allowance. That means that it will often not be worth the while of the partner in a family—the second earner—going out to work, because they would lose so much and, particularly when childcare is taken into account, could end up worse off than if they did not take the extra work. The Government always talk about making work pay, but they do not always follow through.
The policy from the 2016 Act that has had the biggest and widest net, dragging more people into poverty, is the benefit freeze. Again, that comes on top of a 1% cap that was in place from 2013. The holding down of all working-age benefits has been in place for a number of years.
We are already looking to raise more money to mitigate some of the cuts from here but, frankly, with our budget dropping over 8% between 2010 and 2020, it is simply not possible for a Government to mitigate everything that comes from here. This place has to take responsibility. We are already spending £450 million on mitigating changes that came from here. So all the hon. Gentleman is asking is that the Scottish Government should keep sending their budget back to Westminster.
If the benefits freeze was to be unfrozen in Scotland, people in Scotland would be receiving additional benefits that people in the rest of Britain would not receive. Consequently, it would seem fair if that came out of Scottish tax take. The Scottish Parliament has the ability to raise taxes, but the hon. Lady is declining to do so. Why is that?
That is what I am saying; we are already mitigating £450 million in benefit cuts from this place. We are not here to talk only about Scotland; we are actually talking about the suffering right across the UK. Some hon. Members in this place like to imply that Scottish National party MPs do not care about people in the rest of the UK, but I have friends and family here, as many of us do. The source of the benefit freeze is the Department for Work and Pensions—this place—and it has to be fixed at source.
I commend my hon. Friend for her meticulous and erudite speech. Does she agree that the benefit freeze, even by its own measure, is going beyond what was predicted? That is suggested by the DWP’s own figures and the figures that the SNP has obtained from the House of Commons Library, which suggest that the increase in inflation means that £3 billion extra will be saved by the DWP from the benefit freeze.
Yes. That is exactly what I will move on to. Obviously, the former Chancellor, George Osborne, justified the benefit freeze because at the time inflation was 0.3%, but inflation now, due to Brexit and the fall in the value of the pound, is officially 3%, as measured last September. By 2020, low-income families will be over £830 worse off, just due to the benefit freeze. If we look at the cumulative cuts, an average family will be £1,300 worse off. But if we drill down into families that have three or more children, that builds up and becomes eye-watering.
The hon. Lady is being extremely generous in giving way. I want to ask about the principle behind what she is saying. I was not an MP when the benefit freeze was introduced, but I believe the logic was that at that point benefit spending was rising much faster than average earning. Does she think it is right that spending on benefits should go up faster than the average earnings of people in the country? Does she think that should be the case, and is she advocating for that to continue now?
I am advocating that inflation is now ten times what it was when the policy was brought in, and that therefore this policy should be re-thought. It was never imagined to have such a punitive impact. As my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) said, the return to the Treasury has been much greater than planned, so the Government could easily afford to unfreeze benefits. That measure is having a particular impact on the poorest.
Like the point raised by the hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), the Government and the Conservative party claim all the time that they are helping the poorest through other actions. The number one thing that is always quoted is the national living wage: not the real living wage, which is 95p an hour higher, but the pretendy living wage. The Office for Budget Responsibility, however, points out that this does not offset the benefit cuts. The increased earnings owing to the national living wage will be £4 billion a year by 2020. The benefit cuts are three times that: they will be between £12 billion and £13 billion a year. I am sorry, but the Government and the Conservative party cannot hide behind that claim. They are still taking £8 billion from the poorest families.
The other thing that is always quoted is the raising of the personal tax allowance. That obviously has a bigger impact if someone pays tax, but only £1 out of £6 spent by the Treasury on raising the personal tax allowance will end up being for people in the lower half of the income distribution curve. Unfreezing benefits would be much more targeted—even excluding child benefit from that and focusing on all the other benefits would have the biggest impact on helping poor families.
Other benefit cuts have specifically impacted on children and families with children. The health in pregnancy and Sure Start maternity grants were both cut, even though we know the importance of the first 1,001 days after conception. That is about the health and nutrition of the mother and the early years of the child. We know that the impact of poverty affects children life-long; it reduces their educational attainment and tends to limit their job prospects. They are much more likely to end up on benefits in the future. It also affects their health. They have higher rates of physical and mental health issues than those in affluent families. They are at greater risk of addiction, of ending up in the criminal justice system, of committing suicide and of being in a road traffic accident or a house fire.
All that costs money. Mitigating in later life the issues that come from child poverty is estimated to cost the Treasury almost £6.5 billion a year. If there is no change in direction from the Government, we expect 200,000 more children to be growing up in poverty by 2020. I suggest to the Minister and the Government that they do not spend £6.5 billion mitigating suffering in later life, but invest in early years now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) on securing this important debate. It is a pleasure to follow her speech, which raised some very important issues. As Members of Parliament, we all want to ensure that the welfare system operates correctly. I am a strong believer in what the Government are doing on welfare and find myself, once again, in a debate about welfare reform. I am glad to be here, because one of the Government’s most important jobs is looking after those who are unable to look after themselves. I am proud of what this Government have done during the time I have been in Parliament, and of the record since the 2010 coalition Government and the Conservative Government that followed.
The hon. Lady talks about how proud she is of this Government’s actions, but by the time this debate concludes, at 11 o’ clock, St Stephen’s church café in Redditch will open as a food bank. Does she not understand that there is a clear correlation between this Government’s actions on welfare reform and the food banks in her constituency?
I visited the food bank and have spoken to the people there, but time does not permit me to talk in depth about those issues. I have an ongoing dialogue with both the people who run the food bank and the people who use it. I understand very well what is happening in my constituency of Redditch and, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for moving on, I will speak about some of my experiences with universal credit and the jobcentre there.
I will focus my remarks on universal credit because it is a key plank of the Government’s reforms. Since my election, I have made it a priority to understand what services exist for my constituents who face challenges, whether those are unemployment, poverty or physical and mental health problems. As a constituency MP, I understand very well what is going on. There are areas of deprivation in Redditch, as there are in every constituency up and down the country. It is up to the Government to ensure that the help is on the ground, where it is needed.
It is important to revisit the principles behind the drive to reform the system that we inherited from the last Labour Government. In that system, people had little or no incentive to get back into work. When they did, they found themselves worse off and liable to lose money if they took on more hours or a better paid job. How could that be right?
The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire talked about tax credits. It is my understanding from DWP statistics that tax credit spending ballooned from £1.1 billion at its introduction to £30 billion a year by 2015. I do not think it is right to spend such a rapidly escalating amount of GDP on benefits. That indicates there is something fundamentally wrong at the heart of the system.
There is widespread public support for the principle that welfare should be not a life sentence, but a lifeline as someone transitions through difficult circumstances or the loss of a job. The old welfare system had become labyrinthine in its complexity, with a number of different benefits adding to the confusion over what someone was entitled to. It was not a system that gave people a ladder to a better life, but rather one that trapped them in worklessness and poverty.
I do not agree with that, because the evidence does not bear it out. Universal credit is an agile system that is designed not only to get people who are out of work into work, but to support them as they look for better-paying jobs. I will come to that in my speech.
I accept that reforming welfare is difficult, as the hon. Lady said. There can be no MP in this House who has not come across heart-breaking cases where the system has failed. Those are wrong, and we all stand up for our constituents, but they are not evidence of a failing system—rather, they are the inevitable consequences of a large and challenging public sector reform process. Since I have been in this House, I have seen Ministers listen to problems and make changes to fix the system. Recently, we have seen adjustments reflecting concerns raised on both sides of the House, which are welcome. We hear much criticism from the Opposition, both the SNP and the Labour party, on this. It is extremely easy to criticise from the Opposition Benches, but no real constructive alternative is offered.
I have made it my priority to visit the jobcentre and speak to local people on the ground in Redditch. These are just a few of the experiences that I have heard. My local jobcentre manager has worked there for 30 years. She described the system as “working very well” for her clients. She said that it is “the best system” she has seen in her 30 years as a jobcentre manager and that it helps people “who really need help”.
The first example is a customer who was seen by a work coach when universal credit first went live. The customer had a very difficult personal background. She was totally disengaged when she saw the work coach and she was quite difficult to work with. The work coach encouraged the customer to gain upskilling in maths and English. With the work coach’s help, she found work. The customer is now working in a role where she wants to help others to find work. She even shares knowledge of vacancies with her former work coach to encourage other people to find work.
Another example is a customer who had been on and off benefits since 2012 and was working with a work coach. This customer struggles to make eye contact and lacks confidence. Over time, the work coach established a rapport and helped him to gain confidence. They referred him to work experience with a local retail outlet. When he attended, the work coach asked if there had been any changes. The customer looked them in the eye and said, with a smile on his face, “Would that include the fact that I’ve got a job?” The coach said that they are “delighted” and “so glad” that they referred him to the retailer in the first place, and:
“Seeing the customer smiling about his success really made my day.”
Will the hon. Lady give way?
Many. I can write to the hon. Gentleman with the precise numbers, if he would like me to.
I will touch on another example. A qualified hairdresser had been a carer and was a single parent to her disabled children. She found it difficult to find work to fit around her responsibilities. Her work coach suggested that she consider self-employment and she was referred to the new enterprise allowance in February 2016. She commenced self-employment, hairdressing in care homes, from April 2016.
By April 2017, she had expanded her business by 200% and was nominated for entrepreneur of the year by learndirect. At the ceremony on 4 July, she won the award. She was delighted and said it was all down to the initial push and referral from her work coach, followed by support.
After the meeting, she sent an email to the work coach, which said:
“Thank you for meeting with me yesterday, I felt very positive after our appointment. This is the first time I have ever been out of work and in this situation so was dreading the whole ‘Job Centre’ scenario. I don’t know what people complain about, so far everyone I have encountered has been really helpful and proactive.”
Is it not time that we had more such stories in the media, instead of the negativity we are always hearing from this place?
At the heart of the system are the work coaches, who offer tailored, individualised support to help people. Last week, I was privileged to open Redditch Nightstop, a centre for young people living in family-supported housing, where I did indeed meet claimants of the system, which the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) asked about.
I talked in depth with the local jobcentre manager. Her feedback was that she was able to join up the local courses offered by Redditch Nightstop with some of her clients, who would otherwise struggle to cope with basic life skills. That type of system is a positive step forward that enables people on the ground, who know the local sources of support, to access them and to gain confidence. Universal credit works with those clients, not against them.
I am aware that other hon. Members wish to speak, so I will keep my remarks about older workers brief. I have often spoken in Parliament about the discrimination faced by older workers in our society. I am an older worker myself, but age should not be a barrier to entering a new career or occupation, retraining or upskilling, provided that it is a positive choice.
In addition, because skills shortages affect many businesses now that we have virtually full employment—thanks to the work of this Government—many businesses are realising that youth is not everything when it comes to employing staff. B&Q has long been a champion of that policy, and it has reaped many accolades in the process, but other household names are now championing it too.
The Government have introduced many measures, including the fuller working lives strategy, to provide real support for the objective of achieving human potential at any age. The strategy states that ageist stereotypes should be challenged and older people should be allowed to contribute, as many want to. I believe, as do the Government, that work is not just an economic proposition. It allows people to have a purpose in life, to improve their mental health and wellbeing, and to retain their independence and autonomy.
To support that with practical measures, the Department has expanded the older claimant champion network in all 34 Jobcentre Plus districts. The champions work collaboratively with more than 11,000 work coaches and employer-facing staff to raise the profile of older workers, highlight the benefits of employing older jobseekers and share best practice. Recent research indicates that older claimants found that support useful. Further analysis of the provision for older claimants is ongoing. When the Minister sums up, will he tell us when the Department will publish the impact assessment, which was promised for spring 2018?
Anne Willmot was recently appointed as Business in the Community’s “Age” campaign director. She speaks of the challenges that an older population faces. Ageism is rife; a 50-year-old is 4.2 times less likely to be invited to interview than a 28-year-old. We need to support those with health issues and caring responsibilities to prevent them from leaving their jobs, and to deal with the discrimination and bias in recruitment that have made it so hard for the over-50s to secure employment.
I welcome any update from the Minister about what more the Government can do on that issue. Taken together, those policies, and many others, will help to achieve the aims of a welfare system that works for everybody, at all stages of life.
I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) on securing this important and timely debate. I have come to the debate to offer my views from a practical, not an ideological, point of view. I pride myself on being a constituency MP. When I go to my surgeries in Parkhead, Baillieston, Easterhouse or Cranhill, people do not tell me how wonderful the system is. When I go to the jobcentres that are left in my constituency, because the UK—
I am also a constituency MP and I take my casework very seriously. Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that it is not the nature of casework that people come and tell us when things are working? People come and tell us when things are not working. Naturally, we see an unrepresentative portion of the population.
As well as being a constituency MP who does surgeries, I spend two hours every week door-knocking in my constituency. I do not regularly find people opening their door and saying to me, “This welfare system is absolutely fandabbydozy.”
This week marks two years since the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 implemented some of the most punitive cuts from this Government. Some of those were a fresh round of cuts, and some built on the cuts made in the Welfare Reform Act 2012. This debate allows us the opportunity to shine a bright light on the damage caused by those punitive welfare reforms, which have had a direct impact on some of the most vulnerable people in my constituency. I will address two policy areas in my remarks: first, the punitive benefit freeze, which leaves people out in the cold, quite literally, while the cost of living soars, and secondly, the medieval two-child policy and abhorrent rape clause.
Figures commissioned by the SNP and put together by the Library show that, based on the spring statement 2018, between 2018-19 and 2020-21, the benefit freeze will save an additional £3 billion compared with what was forecast for those years in the summer Budget 2015. In November 2017, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said that the benefit freeze means that between 2010 and 2020, a couple with two kids will be £832 a year worse off. It has also said:
“The freeze is the single biggest policy driver behind rising poverty by the end of the Parliament.”
The impact of the poverty premium means that people on low incomes face higher costs as a proportion of their income than those on higher incomes, due to the nature of products and services. People on low incomes often cannot pay for goods or services by fixed direct debit, but for many things, such as mobile phone bills, energy bills and bank cards, companies only offer discounts based on people signing up for a direct debit.
Economic shocks such as the breakdown of a car or a washing machine are far more significant for people on a low income. I know that from direct experience, having spent two years working at Glasgow Credit Union. One of the most heart-breaking things about being in that job was people coming to me for loans to pay for a washing machine that had broken down or for school uniforms.
Sadly, that is the reality we are now in. I am disappointed that that lived experience did not come into the previous speech. We see it week in, week out when we do our constituency surgeries. With all those factors, the benefit freeze is an additional financial burden on disadvantaged people. The Government must urgently restore the real value of benefits by scrapping the freeze.
The second issue I will raise is the Government’s medieval two-child policy that would frankly make China blush. The idea that in 2018, we are saying to families, “Two children in your family—that’s it. The state won’t pay for any more than that,” sends a strong signal from this place. [Interruption.] If the Minister is unhappy with that, I am more than happy to take an intervention—absolutely not.
Absolutely. The Government have often spoken about their family test for policy. I do not think that turning round to a family and saying that they can have only two children is appropriate, given that family test.
The Women’s Budget Group has said the cut to child tax credits will disproportionately hit black, Asian and minority ethnic women, who tend to have larger families. The idea that we put victims through the trauma of having to prove to the Department that their child was born as a result of rape sends a strong signal from the other side of the House. It is not something we would do in Scotland.
That is precisely the point, because this legislation, which has been on the statute book for two years, genuinely has an impact on the “just about managing” families that the Prime Minister spoke about when she took office. It is not too late for the Government to think again and implement a social security system that delivers social justice, fairness and, above all, dignity for the most vulnerable in our society.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) on securing this debate on a very important subject. Although I disagree with her on several points, I fully respect the tone in which she delivered her remarks.
Something that has not yet been spoken about today is the context in which many of the welfare reforms since 2010 were introduced. In 2010, as we all remember, we faced a broken economy and a broken welfare system. We had a deficit that was spiralling out of control. There was a very real threat to public finances and a danger that if Britain did not control its spending, the international bond markets would take action against us, further undermining our ability to pay for our essential public services. That was acknowledged across the House at the time and still holds true.
At the same time, but for entirely different reasons, the welfare system that we inherited was not fit for purpose. Over many years, through no grand design, it had grown into a system of great complexity that was confusing for users and expensive to administer. It had to be reformed. Peculiar, perverse disincentives had arisen, not because anyone had wished for them but because different benefits clashed at different points in the system. The most obvious and regularly cited example is that people were disincentivised from taking more than 16 hours of work, but many people were also disincentivised from moving into the initial stages of work at all. Unfortunately, the system often trapped people out of work or in low wages. That was completely unacceptable, because we all know the importance of work.
Is the hon. Gentleman seriously still attempting to use the banking crash to justify the cuts to welfare? That is what they are: reform would be one thing, but these are cuts to social security. Are the bankers seriously still to blame for the projected 7% rise in child poverty over the next few years?
As the hon. Gentleman will have heard from my opening remarks, there are two issues at play. The first was the broken economy. As I have said, if the Government had not taken action to dramatically reduce public spending—[Interruption.] Our deficit has been cut. The hon. Gentleman suggests from a sedentary position that that was in 2008 and the situation is different now. Our deficit has been much reduced by the actions of this Government and the coalition Government over the past eight years, but it has not yet been fully eliminated.
Once the deficit is fully eliminated, we will be able to do the most important thing, which is to start to reduce debt as a proportion of GDP. That is essential, because at the moment we are spending more on servicing our debt than on defence, on education or on our police forces. None of us wants that. Effectively, we have created a new “Department of Debt” that sits in Whitehall and gobbles up money. I want to see the budget for that Department cut year by year, but only the steps that this Government are taking will achieve that.
Let me return to my point about the broken welfare system. Regardless of what happened in 2008, it was essential that the welfare system be reformed to encourage more people to take more work and benefit from all the associate factors surrounding it. We all know that there is great dignity in work and that it provides pride, purpose and a great example to children. It is what we want for ourselves and for our constituents.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does he recognise that well over half a million fewer children are living in workless households now than in 2010? Children are five times more likely to be in a low-income household if they are in a workless household than if they are in a household in which all adults work. There is a knock-on effect for the next generation.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for stealing my thunder and taking away my next paragraph. Yes, I am fully aware of that fact and she is right to emphasise it. One of the great things that has happened since 2010, which must be acknowledged in a balanced debate on the subject, is that we have achieved record employment in this country. Unemployment has fallen substantially—in all constituencies, I believe—but it is unfortunate that so far my hon. Friend has been the only hon. Member to welcome that in this debate.
It is right to talk about the full package. Yes, there have been cuts and freezes to welfare payments but, as my hon. Friend mentioned, they must be seen alongside increases to the national living wage, increases to the tax threshold, a new offer on childcare and the creation of universal credit, which enables people to progress in work without the disincentives that existed before. Alongside all that, the most important thing that has happened is that far fewer people are in out-of-work benefits. When we talk about assessments that people may have lost money under the welfare changes, we must always acknowledge that this is a dynamic system. The whole point is that people move into work and progress in work so that they earn more money. I fear that that has not been acknowledged in this debate.
The Welfare Reform and Work Act introduced several changes, as hon. Members have already mentioned, but they must be seen in the context of fairness. The welfare cap limited the amount of money that some families receive, because it was deemed by Parliament that it was unfair for families out of work to receive more than families in work. It was not just a parliamentary majority of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats who agreed with that; regular polling has found that 77% of the population do, too.
I am delighted to draw attention to a new report by Policy in Practice, “Low Income Londoners and Welfare Reform”, which has examined the effect of the welfare cap on 600,000 low-income people in London. It shows that there has been a positive impact on employment outcomes for those families and no measurable impact on homelessness in comparison with a control group of similar households. The welfare cap is working in London, and the most serious piece of analysis so far conducted upholds that. It is a good example of how adjusting the welfare system carefully can create work incentives to help people to make positive choices to improve their lives and those of their families.
The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire mentioned the four-year benefit freeze. I acknowledge that inflation is now higher than it was when the freeze was set. I also acknowledge that it is now falling. As my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) pointed out, the value of benefits increased by 21% between 2008 and the 2016 Act, while the value of wages increased by only 11%. The freeze is therefore not quite as stark a corrective as the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire makes out.
On the two-child limit in universal credit, it is only right that we have a welfare system in which people who are out of work have to make similar decisions to people in work. However, it is extremely important that people in the welfare system understand the potential consequences. I have become concerned that there may be people who are thinking of having a third child but are not aware that they will not be entitled to further benefits under universal credit. The system cannot work as intended if people are not aware of how it works.
The hon. Member seems to have a basic misunderstanding of the impact of this measure. Does he not appreciate that many people start planning their families from a very different perspective from where they end up? We cannot continue to punish people who have fallen on hard times, as he is suggesting should happen.
I think the word “punish” is entirely wrong in this context. I think we have to say that if people are aware of the consequences of their actions—that there are benefits available for certain decisions they make but not for others—they can make their own decisions. It is up to the state to decide where the balance of benefit lies.
Order. I am conscious of time. At least two other Members wish to speak. They will not be able to speak if there are any more interventions and if the hon. Gentleman does not conclude his remarks soon. I intend to start calling the Front-Bench spokespeople at 10.30 am.
No, but they will have additional support to get back into work and they will have the benefit of universal credit to progress in work when they do.
I will go back very quickly to the Scottish perspective, because something that is obviously completely unacceptable in the position of the Scottish National party is that they want to fix the problem but they do not want to do it themselves. I find that very peculiar from a party that seeks independence, because of course if Scotland was independent the only way that it could get rid of the freeze would be by paying for it out of Scottish coffers, which would require an increase in tax, and that is something they have declined to do.
I was very surprised when I questioned Jeane Freeman, the Scottish Minister for Social Security, about this issue in a Select Committee. She failed to answer the challenge, just as SNP Members have done today. The SNP can raise taxes now to pay for this, but it chooses not to. It has therefore decided not to prioritise this policy.
Obviously there are always steps we can take to improve the welfare system. Universal credit, which is coming online, will help people to overcome major barriers to employment. It will help people overcome addiction or mental health problems and move back into work. On disability, we have an admirable aim to halve the disability employment gap, and I believe that assistive technology will help us do that. I would like to see us increase work incentives by adjusting the taper as and when the budget allows.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I want to allow time for my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) to speak, so I will be extraordinarily brief. I hope that, following this very good debate that my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) has secured, we will get the answers to some questions.
One question that I would like the Minister to answer today relates to something that would cost virtually nothing to implement. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire for raising the issue when she said that we judge society on how it treats its most vulnerable. She raised the issue of people who are terminally ill having to go for reassessments. Will the Minister say today that the Government will deal with that and remove that requirement? It is unnecessary and cruel.
Two years on from the introduction of the 2016 Act, the UK Government must end their obsession with their punitive policies in the name of austerity. The backdrop for people in their own houses is absolutely horrendous, in terms of their struggling on benefits. The average household has lost £7.74 per week because of higher prices for goods. These are real things—bread, milk, cheese. Meat prices are up 3.9%; vegetable prices are up 5.7%; and coffee, tea and cocoa prices are up 8.5%. When someone has very little money, these things have a dramatic impact on their household budget.
The continued freeze of benefits, in the context of sky-high consumer prices index figures at 3%, is trapping thousands of families and children in poverty, and all they have to look forward to at the moment, in terms of this benefit cap, is that financial noose tightening year after year.
I came to Westminster Hall today to speak about the effects on my constituency, where since 2013 we have seen the roll-out of universal credit and the direct impact on people. However, I also wanted to speak about Scotland. I find it absolutely bizarre that none of those Scots Tory MPs or Scots Labour MPs who were so exercised on the issue of the welfare situation in Scotland is here today. Where are they? They are nowhere to be seen. Once again, it is going to be left to the Scottish National party to fight the corner for people in Scotland.
Government Members have said that things are not happening in Scotland. If I had the time—I will have to sit down at the end of this sentence—I would read the list that I have prepared of actions that the Scottish Government are putting in place today, through Jeane Freeman, our Minister.
Thank you very much for fitting me in, Mr Gapes. I have pulled myself out of my sickbed to be here today, partly because the Minister who is here today is one who I have not yet challenged on the two-child limit and the rape clause; he deserves a fair go on those things as well, as a new Minister.
Earlier, Members mentioned the sort of false premise that people on benefits should face the same choices as those supporting themselves through work. However, that completely fails to recognise that 70% of families on tax credits are working and that the cuts that have been made are making them poorer and putting them into poverty, even though they are in work. They just cannot earn enough to make ends meet, and that is absolutely despicable. They are trapped and they cannot do anything about it, and it is driving children into poverty. The Child Poverty Action Group estimates that 10% more children will go into poverty as a result of the two-child limit alone, which is absolutely despicable.
Through my own constituency work, I have found that the two-child limit has also had an adverse impact on the uptake of Healthy Start, because that entitlement is claimed through the child tax credit system and third children are not getting it. Food is literally being taken out of the mouths of children because of this Government’s incompetent policy.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission report that was published last week has evidenced properly that the two-child limit is having a disproportionate effect on those from ethnic minorities, which the Government have failed to acknowledge all the way down the line with this measure. Three quarters of Pakistani families are losing out as a result of the changes and the two-child limit. Bangladeshi families will lose out by around £2,150, and Pakistani families will lose out by £1,900. That is absolutely unacceptable.
I will talk today particularly about the rape clause, because it is an issue that I have been campaigning on since 2015. We all know that the Government are embarrassed by this policy, because they have refused scrutiny of it on every single occasion. They were forced into having a consultation on it. People submitted their responses to the consultation, stating how unacceptable the policy is, and because the Government knew that and knew that they could not avoid it, they snuck out the results on the day of Trump’s inauguration, because they knew that the eyes of the world would be elsewhere. They are thoroughly embarrassed by this policy and they have not accounted for it. They have ducked scrutiny of it on every single occasion.
The Government have also failed to acknowledge the particular situation for women in Northern Ireland, because if women in Northern Ireland make a claim under the non-consensual sex exemption—or the rape clause, as I prefer to call it, because that is what it is—they face being criminalised under the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967 if they even make a claim. That is evidenced in the form they have to fill in, which states:
“Please be aware, that in Northern Ireland, if the third party knows or believes that a relevant offence (such as rape) has been committed, the third party”—
the person who verifies the claim—
“will normally have a duty to inform the police of any information that is likely to secure, or to be of material assistance in securing, the apprehension, prosecution or conviction of someone for that offence”.
No woman in Northern Ireland wants to put herself through that; it is absolutely appalling and the Government have failed on every occasion to account for it.
It is unacceptable that women have to fill in a form that states:
“I believe the non-consensual conception exception applies to my child”,
and that they have to fill in their child’s name on a form to say that that child was born as the result of rape. The Minister should be thoroughly embarrassed about this.
I have cross-party support against this policy, as well as support from the Scottish Government, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nurses, and a whole wheen of women’s groups, charities and trade unions. The Government still have time to do something about this policy. It has gone to judicial review. If the judicial review finds in favour of the people who have brought it, will the Government accept that? Will the Government not appeal it, because I think they are embarrassed and they should do something about it?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) on securing this debate and her magnificent speech, which set out perfectly the issues before us. I also thank Emily Cunningham from the SNP research office. She has helped to drive this week of campaigning on the pernicious Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016. I also thank our press office, led by Catriona Matheson, which has helped to highlight our campaign.
This is rather pertinent to some of the issues being discussed this morning, but today is World Down Syndrome Day. They are out of sight, but I am wearing colourful odd socks to help celebrate difference, and I hope others are, too.
I remember well the great frustration and anger—some of that has been brought back to me by some Conservative contributions today—I felt when speaking at the various stages of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill. I remember the anger I felt when we put across the evidence from the expert charities and those arguments were ignored. I remember the meticulousness with which the former Member for Banff and Buchan, Dr Eilidh Whiteford, dismantled the Government’s basis for introducing the Bill and the erudite way she evidenced what the impact would be.
We warned then that the four-year freeze to social security would mean a rise in child poverty, but we were ignored; the Government marched on. We warned then that cutting disability employment support would hurt those who need the support most, but we were ignored; the Government marched on. We warned then that introducing a two-child limit to tax credits would push low-income families on the edge into poverty, but we were ignored; the Government marched on. We warned that lowering the benefit cap would arbitrarily hit low-income families, women and children the hardest, but we were ignored; the Government marched on. Sadly, on all those areas the Government knew what was coming. It was not just the SNP telling them; all the expert charities lobbied hard against the Bill, but they were ignored, too.
Two years on, we can start to see the impact of the arbitrary, austerity-driven cuts to the DWP that have forced arbitrary austerity-driven cuts to social security. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire covered that well. She also gave a very good, if sad and desperate, history lesson on the cuts from 2010. In addition to the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016, cuts have hammered the incomes of the sick, the disabled and those living on low incomes. She also gave constituency examples of people who have been affected by this Government’s policies and said there was no cumulative impact assessment of the Government’s cuts to various elements of social security.
The hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) did not have time to talk about the correlation between this Tory Government’s cuts and increased food bank use, including at St Stephen’s church in her constituency—that was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden)—but I do. The Trussell Trust has highlighted a clear correlation between cuts or delays to benefits, low incomes and those using its food banks. Mary Anne MacLeod’s report, “Making the Connections: A study of emergency food aid in Scotland”, made the very same connections. I encourage the hon. Member for Redditch to read those reports before coming to another debate like this.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East made another good speech based on his lived experience and what he sees in his constituency. The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) said he appreciated the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire, but did not agree with much of it. My hon. Friend quoted many facts, so the hon. Gentleman can disagree on policy,
“But facts are chiels that winna ding”.
The facts show clearly how low-income families, children, women, the sick and disabled are paying the price of this Government’s cuts. At the end of his speech, he made a number of inaccurate statements not only about the social security system we are building in Scotland, but his Government’s policies. The UK Government sadly no longer wish to halve the disability employment gap. That policy was removed in the manifesto he stood on.
I am looking to the Minister to intervene, but he is looking down at his notes sheepishly. As of the Conservative party’s last manifesto, it is clearly no longer an aspiration to halve the disability gap; it merely wishes to reduce it. Rather embarrassingly for the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar, that commitment was removed at the time of the last election.
My hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) focused on universal credit, as he has done so diligently for years. He also called out the empty Tory and Labour Benches. That is most stark when compared with the debate last night, when Scots Tories and Scots Labour MPs teamed up to try—they failed—to attack the Scottish Government’s policies.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) has been a diligent and award-winning campaigner on the two-child policy and the rape clause. Perhaps this Minister will be the one who finally listens on that pernicious policy.
We know that in Scotland things could have been much worse had it not been for the Scottish Government’s intervention and early action. We have already stopped anyone paying the bedroom tax, and we have ensured the continuation of council tax benefit, which has been stopped by the UK Government in England. The Social Security (Scotland) Bill has just completed its Committee stage. With that, we have seen some of the actions we will take to help build a new and fairer social security system with the limited powers at our disposal in Scotland. We will develop a new benefit to overcome the removal by this Government of housing benefit for most 18 to 21-year-olds. We will make assessments fairer, with no private companies involved and a reduced need for face-to-face assessments. We will set up an independent scrutiny body to ensure that this Scottish Government and future Scottish Governments adhere to human rights and scrutinise social security actions.
More will come out on what we have planned in the areas we control, but it will be a stark departure from the UK Government’s approach to social security. Sadly we cannot clear up all the mess that the UK Government have left for Scotland, and that is why we want social security devolved to Holyrood in its entirety. Until that happens we will keep fighting from Westminster for fairness for people across the UK who need that safety net.
This has been a perfectly timed debate brought to the Chamber by my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire. It has highlighted the desperate need for the Government to revisit their punitive and indiscriminate social security cuts. The Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 led to international condemnation of the UK Government, led by the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities, which highlighted grave and systematic violations of the convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. The Government have lost court battles on their social security cuts, and just today the National Audit Office said that the DWP has underpaid an estimated 70,000 people on employment and support allowance by an average of £5,000 a person. That is yet more evidence of how this Government are letting people with disabilities and long-term health conditions down. It is time they acted. It is time they helped low-income families. It is time they properly supported people with disabilities. It is time they looked again at the Welfare Reform and Work Act. If the Prime Minister is still serious about tackling burning injustices, this is the place to start.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) on her measured and comprehensive speech and her focus on the devastating impact of the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 on sick and disabled people and the importance of the work done by carers.
The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) made some extraordinary claims about the track record of the SNP in Scotland, which voted against Labour’s measure that would have lifted thousands of children out of poverty in Scotland.
I will not give way, because I am short of time. I refer the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey and others to the excellent speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) that showed clearly and in detail how Labour has led the fight for a social security system that supports people in their time of need.
Where is he?
The Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 is having a profound impact on the lives of many of the most vulnerable in our society—the disabled, single parents, pensioners and children growing up in poverty—through a range of policies, accompanied by severe reductions in social security introduced in the 2015 Budget and what we are seeing with the roll-out of universal credit. There is the cut to employment and support allowance for disabled people, which is falling by £30 a week to the same level as JSA, leaving them with just more than £70 a week. There is the abolition of the family element of child tax credit and the equivalent in universal credit, which is worth up to £540 a year for new claimants.
We have a cut in the level of the benefit cap; the four-year benefits freeze; the abolition of targets to tackle child poverty, which Labour had introduced; the two-child limit on new claims for child tax credit and the child element of universal credit; the change in support for mortgage interest from a benefit to a loan that will be particularly hard on pensioners and disabled people; and the cuts to work allowances in universal credit in the summer Budget of 2015, which we call on the Government to reverse. So we see that the claims that the Act rewards hard work and is fair to working households simply do not bear scrutiny.
No, I am going to make some progress.
In-work poverty has risen to record levels: 8 million people, including 2.7 million children, are in poverty, despite being in a working family, and 67% of working-age adults and children in poverty in the UK are in working households. Many people are stuck in a low pay, no pay cycle, where they may pass from employed to unemployed and back again several times in the course of a year.
A study of in-work poverty published by researchers at Cardiff University found that
“those in working poverty are three times more likely to become workless than people living in non-poor working households.”
It also found that not everyone who finds work progresses to better paid employment. The reports states that
“one quarter of those families where somebody finds work, exit worklessness only to enter in-work poverty. Lone parents are over-represented in this group, as are families with three or more children.”'.
I recommend the report to the hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean).
The cumulative impact assessment by the Equality and Human Rights Commission published last week, which several Members have rightly referenced, states that the measure that has the most impact on households on low income is the four-year benefits freeze introduced in April 2016. When the benefits freeze began in April 2016, inflation was 0.3%. Despite a fall in inflation last month, it is still at 2.7%, and food prices went up by well over 3% in February compared with the year before. So it is little wonder that the chief executive of the Financial Conduct Authority has warned of increasing household debt built up simply by trying to cover basic household bills.
The Resolution Foundation estimates that by 2019 a lone parent in work with one child will lose £420 a year as a direct result of the freeze alone, and a couple with a single earner and two children will lose £570 a year. If the Chancellor was justified in his claims in his spring statement for improvements in the public finances, will the Government abandon the benefits freeze that is pushing households into poverty?
Housing benefit was first cut in 2011 and is also one of the benefits now frozen by the Act, but private sector rents have continued to rise rapidly. Between 2011 and 2018, private rents in the UK increased by more than 15%—and by more than 12% even if London is excluded. The Act also severely cut the levels of the benefit cap so that it is now hitting the whole of the country, and the cap in practice operates through a cut in housing benefit. The benefit cap is supposedly designed to incentivise work by exempting people who start claiming working tax credits. However, 45,000 households that had their housing benefit capped in November 2017 were single-parent families, and 35,000—
No, I am really short of time.
Thirty-five thousand of the single-parent capped households had at least one child aged under five, including 15,000 with a child aged under two.
The Act also requires the main carer of a child to look for work once their youngest child turns three, rather than five as previously. Many parents of very young children would actually like to work, but it can be almost impossible for them to find affordable childcare or work that fits around caring for young children. That brings me to one of the most contentious parts of the Act: the abolition of the targets to tackle child poverty set by the previous Labour Government in the Child Poverty Act 2010.
The previous Labour Government lifted 1.1 million children out of poverty through a cross-Government strategy that included Sure Start centres and year-on- year increases in social security, which went hand in hand with employment support targeted at specific groups such as lone parents. There was no thought that people should be left trapped on welfare, as the then Work and Pensions Secretary termed it when the Welfare Reform and Work Bill was being debated.
Labour’s policies achieved results. Between 1997 and 2010, the employment rate for lone parents with dependent children in the UK increased from 45% to 57%. That cross-Government approach has long since been discarded by the Government. The Child Poverty Unit set up to oversee it has been dismantled, and renaming the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission “the Social Mobility Commission” in the Act, thus excluding child poverty, says much about the purpose of that Act.
All four members of the board of the Social Mobility Commission stood down in December in protest at the lack of progress in creating a fairer Britain, including Baroness Shephard, deputy chair of the commission and a former Conservative Education Secretary under John Major. Will the Minister tell us his Department’s assessment of what contribution the Act has made to social mobility?
In February, the End Child Poverty coalition published new figures that showed that more than 50% of children in some constituencies are growing up in poverty and that 4 million children are in poverty after housing costs are taken into account. The Government claim their figures show that child poverty is actually decreasing, but they do not have up-to-date figures. The End Child Poverty coalition figures compiled by Loughborough University are for 2017-18, yet the Government’s official figures, to be published tomorrow, will cover only the year before, 2016-17. That time lag is important because, although the benefits freeze came into effect in April 2016, other parts of the Act that are likely to lead to an increase in child poverty, such as the two-child policy, were introduced only in April 2017, and so we have yet to see the full impact of them.
The main provider of food banks in the UK, the Trussell Trust, has highlighted that food bank referrals have risen by 30% in areas after the full service has been introduced. The EHRC report published last week estimated that 1.5 million children will be living in poverty by 2021-22 as a result of tax and benefit changes, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies predicted in November that the proportion of children growing up in poverty is expected to rise from 30% in 2015-16 to 37% in 2021-2022. It really is time the Government listened to the informed opinion that is available out there.
The two-child limit on new claims for child tax credit and the child element in universal credit is one of the most controversial and, to my mind, one of the most offensive parts of the Act. The idea behind it seems to be that people claiming social security should have to think twice before having larger families, but in the real world unplanned pregnancies happen to people, and people might be unexpectedly made redundant having planned a larger family. Moreover, we should value children and not see them as a burden.
Faith communities are especially concerned about the two-child policy because, for many people of faith, reproduction, use of contraception and family size are determined by beliefs. The policy would originally have also covered children born as a result of rape. The Government were forced to back down, but the exemption still requires a woman to disclose sexual violence, which we know many women understandably find extremely difficult because of, for example, the trauma that they have experienced, a need to protect themselves and perhaps their children, and a fear of the perpetrator.
Someone claiming the exemption must also not be living with the person responsible for the sexual violence. Again, we know that women can be at severe risk at the point when they leave an abusive relationship. It should be the woman who has suffered abuse who decides when that should be. She should not be pushed into doing so at the wrong time by the DWP. The Government have not told us how many people have been affected by the two-child policy or how many have claimed exemptions, even though the policy has been in operation for almost a year now. Will the Government publish those figures and abolish the rape clause, which requires women who want to claim the exemption to prove that they have been a victim of sexual violence? Will the Government abandon the disgraceful policy that treats one child as though they were somehow worth less than another?
In a little over a fortnight, support for mortgage interest will be turned from a benefit into a loan. The Government have left it so late to contact people claiming SMI that at the beginning of March more than half of claimants—53,500 out of 110,000—had still not received a follow-up phone call to the initial letter sent out by the DWP. The delay echoes the fiasco of the pension changes affecting women born in the 1950s, where again people were not given enough time to prepare. Forty-one per cent. of people claiming SMI are pensioners. Turning it into a loan risks pushing them into poverty.
Even the impact assessments for each part of the Act are out of date. Civil society organisations such as the IFS, the Resolution Foundation and the Equality and Human Rights Commission have done the hard work and the evidence is damning. If the Government do not like the figures that other organisations publish, they should make sure they publish their own and that they are up to date. The Act uses language such as fairness to working households, a sustainable welfare system and life chances, but it is punitive, not progressive. The groups hit time and again by the Act are those most at risk of poverty: lone parents, larger families and disabled people.
It is a great pleasure to be in your capable hands this morning, Mr Gapes. I thank the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) for securing the debate, and all Members who have participated this morning and continue to take an interest in the issues of welfare reform and work.
When the Welfare Reform and Work Act was first debated, in the summer of 2015, Ministers spoke of three principles that underpinned the legislation: first, work is the best route out of poverty, enabling people to take control of their lives and achieve their full potential; secondly, spending on welfare should be sustainable and fair to the taxpayer, while protecting the most vulnerable; and thirdly, people who receive benefits should face the same life choices as those who do not get the same support from the state. We remain committed to those three principles. Indeed, in the two years that have passed since the legislation became law, we have been putting them into practice.
Many of the measures in the Welfare Reform and Work Act that hon. Members across the Chamber have highlighted this morning form part of a package of policies through which we have been increasing incentives and support for people to find work, stay in work, build a career and progress.
Not at the moment.
With the national living wage we have been helping people to earn more. From April 2018 the Government will raise the national living wage by 4.4% to £7.83 an hour. At that point, the annual earnings of a full-time minimum wage worker will have increased by more than £2,000 a year since we introduced the national living wage in April 2016. Since April 2015, the lowest paid have seen their wages grow by almost 7% above inflation.
With increases to the income tax personal allowance, we have been helping people to keep more of what they earn. Next month we will raise the personal allowance in line with inflation to £11,850. A typical basic rate taxpayer will pay £1,075 less income tax in 2018-19 than they did in 2010-11. Compared with 2015-16, there are now 1.2 million people who, as a result of our changes to the personal allowance, will no longer have to pay any income tax at all.
I am not going to give way, because I want to address some of the specific questions, and give the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire a chance to respond.
With universal credit, as my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) touched on during the debate, we are providing claimants with a simpler system that ensures that work always pays. It offers families more generous childcare, and gives parents access to tailored support from personal work coaches to find, and then progress in, work. Three separate research studies have shown that universal credit is having a positive impact on employment outcomes. Compared with jobseeker’s allowance, our evidence shows that people on universal credit are 4% more likely to be in work after six months, put more effort into finding work, apply for more jobs, and do more to increase their hours and earnings. Universal credit is being introduced in a careful and co-ordinated way, allowing us to make improvements along the way. We are listening to the concerns of our stakeholders and making changes where necessary.
The topic for today’s debate invited us all to reflect on what impact this Government’s policies are having. As the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire rose to give her opening speech, the Office for National Statistics published its latest release on the state of the labour market in the UK. That release presents a striking picture, with 32.25 million people in employment as of this morning—a record high. The employment rate for women stands at 70.9%, which is also a record high. Unemployment is down to the joint lowest level since 1975, and 876,000 vacancies are open to people in search of employment, which is also close to a record high.[Official Report, 28 March 2018, Vol. 638, c. 4MC.]
The figures are particular significant when it comes to children—many hon. Members have spoken about children today. The evidence is clear: children living in households where no one is in work are five times more likely to be in poverty than those where all adults work. The chances of a child being in poverty where one parent works full-time and the other part-time is one in 20.
In 2014-15, 75% of children in families where no one is in work failed to reach the expected standard at GCSE compared with 39% for all working families, and 52% for low-income working families. We are supporting parents to find and stay in work with record spending on childcare, which will reach £6 billion in 2019-20. In England, working parents of three and four-year-olds can now get 30 hours of free childcare a week, saving those using the full 30 hours around £5,000 per year in total.
We are making good progress. Nationally, there are now about 880,000 fewer households where no one is in work, and around 600,000 fewer children living in such households compared with 2010. The number of children living in absolute poverty on a before-housing-costs basis is down 200,000 since 2010, and the UK is now the highest spending of all OECD countries as a percentage of GDP on family benefits, standing at 3.5% against an average across the OECD of 2%.
I have lots to get through. I want the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire to reply, and the Scottish National party has had a lot to say today.
The hon. Lady majored fairly heavily on disability benefits in her speech. We are committed to ensuring that more of the money goes to the people who need it most. We have continued to increase benefits for people with disabilities and health conditions, and we will spend £800 million extra in 2018-19 to do that once again. For people in the employment and support allowance support group, that means £720 more per year than in 2010. For recipients of the monthly rate of disability living allowance, paid to the most disabled children, it is more than £1,200 a year more.
At the same time, we are determined to break down the barriers to employment faced by disabled people. The hon. Lady spoke about the removal of the work-related activity component under ESA. The old system, as we all remember, was failing to help disabled people and those with health conditions into work. Only one in 100 ESA work-related activity group claimants leave the benefit each month. We believe that disabled people and people with health conditions deserve better than that.
We believe that the changes, working in tandem with a £330 million support package over the next four years, will provide the right incentives and support to help new claimants with limited capability for work. Taken as a whole, our policies to help people with disabilities to find employment have been making good progress. More than half a million more disabled people are now in work than four years ago, and on a before-housing-costs basis the absolute poverty rate among people living in a family where somebody is disabled is now down to a record low.
On the underpayment of ESA, the hon. Lady asked about paying back further than 2014. We are actually legally restricted from recalculating payments back beyond 2014. Statute governs that position, which we are not allowed to exceed. The hon. Lady also raised the success rate of personal independence payment claimants who go through the appeals process. It is worth remembering that the vast majority of PIP decisions do not go to appeal. Some 2.9 million PIP claims were decided on between April 2013 and September 2017, of which only 8% of initial PIP decisions were appealed against, and only 4% were overturned at appeal. A decision being overturned does not necessarily mean that the original decision was incorrect; often it is because the claimant has provided more cogent oral evidence or other new evidence that has allowed a more accurate assessment.
In a forensic speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) dissected the case against welfare reform very ably. In particular, he pointed towards the benefits cap, which a number of Members have criticised. Of course, the numbers show that the benefits cap has been extraordinarily successful as an incentive to get into work. Over the last couple of years, tens of thousands of people have come out from under the benefits cap, because of course it does not apply once someone moves into work. The amount at which they are capped has dropped significantly too.
My hon. Friend the Member for Redditch asked about older claimants and when an impact assessment was likely to be approved. I am informed that we will publish the evaluation of the two Jobcentre Plus interventions for older claimants in the spring of 2018—I assume before the summer recess. Those will look at the impacts of sector-based work, academy and work experience interventions.
The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) raised the issue of reassessments for those who are terminally ill. He will know that in both PIP and ESA we have a fast-track process for any claimants who have fewer than six months to live. In ESA we introduced a severe conditions criteria last autumn, which means that people with the most severe degenerative conditions will not need to be reassessed. It is more complex in the case of disease, but if those individuals qualify for the highest level of ESA under the support group, and there is no possibility of improvement, they do not need to return for reassessment. I am more than happy to keep that under review and have another look at it in future.
Finally, the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) raised the rape clause, which is an issue on which she has campaigned. Obviously, it is a very difficult and sensitive issue, which we are more than happy to keep under review. As she knows, a third-party model has been put in place, but if particular issues are being experienced by women accessing that model, I am more than happy to look at it again. As she also knows, there are particular circumstances in Northern Ireland. My undertaking to her this morning is that I am happy to meet her, if she wishes to discuss it with me, to try to find a way through this issue.
It has been an interesting debate, although it has put the House into two polar opposite groups: those who thought that welfare reform was required, and those who did not. One of the things that I have found most disheartening about such debates since I was appointed to my job is the implicit defence by those who are opposed to welfare reform of an old benefits system that was frankly fraudulent. It was trapping people in poverty, and insisting that it was trying to help them when, in fact, it was holding them back.
We believe in treating everybody with dignity, and giving them the power to take control of their lives and find their own way forward, for them and their families, in work. We believe in giving them all the tools that we can to do that, whether they are disabled, single parents, families, or older people who wish to access work. The way to a dignified future for everybody is to give them control, not to make them vassals of a welfare state.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the provision of children's playgrounds.
Looking at the weather outside, I am sure hon. Members will have noticed that spring has now arrived, or is at least a little closer. Parents across the country are now hoping that they can finally get their children outdoors to run around and go to parks with friends, and to burn off some energy on the weekends and in the fantastic lighter evenings, in their local playgrounds, which is the topic of this debate. I am very grateful to have the opportunity to talk about this subject today.
Times are quite tough, as we know, and resources are squeezed. I want to raise in the debate today the pressures on the availability of local outdoor spaces and playground areas, which are declining at an alarming rate.
On that point, I want to raise the issue of the playground near Strand Street School in the East Marsh area of my constituency. It has fallen into significant disrepair, and a group of local mums, the East Marsh mums, is now pulling together and trying to raise the funds to establish a brand new playground. Seeking those funds is incredibly difficult; they are looking to lots of different community funding pots to try to raise that money. It will take a significant amount of money. Does my hon. Friend agree that the loss of the playground is an enormous loss to the children of the East Marsh area?
Yes. I know that my hon. Friend is a real campaigner for grassroots neighbourhood issues, and she will know the programme in question more than I do. I will come on to talk about what parents can do when faced with the retreat of the traditions of municipal provision, when they have little choice but to somehow find a voluntary alternative. It is very difficult and resources are quite scarce.
Indeed I am. One of the great things that we are all very nostalgic about from our own childhoods is communal open spaces, and facilities that are largely taken for granted and rarely discussed. Not just children gain enormously from the opportunity for outdoor exercise and socialisation; new parents get to meet other parents, and playgrounds help reduce isolation. They build new friendship networks for new mums and dads. It is a great watering hole for people to come together, meet and form new bonds in the community, particularly at a big life-changing moment.
Playgrounds are a great British tradition, mostly developed in the 20th century. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Charles Wicksteed’s playground equipment company near Kettering. When I mentioned to my eight-year-old daughter that I was leading this debate today, she encouraged me to call for more bars, because she is such a gymnastics enthusiastic who would go round and round on them all day long if she could, but playgrounds are also about sandboxes, swings, slides, climbing frames and roundabouts, and there are many other fantastic municipal facilities with even more exciting innovations—trampolines, paddling pools and all sorts of fantastic amenities.
Will my hon. Friend congratulate North East Lincolnshire’s Labour council on introducing a parkour facility at the Duke of York playground area, which introduced playgrounds to a whole new generation of young people? Unfortunately, we have seen that falling into disrepair, even though it was brought in only about four years ago. It was a really exciting initiative and my ten-year-old son absolutely loves playing there.
There are different fashions and trends in play, particularly in the younger teenage years. Skateboard parks were a particular thing a decade ago and trends change. In Nottingham, in my constituency, a new play area has just been installed in Shipstone Street, and Nottingham is trying its best to roll out more facilities. It has improved 75 play areas, with three more set for improvement works shortly, and the city has 54 Green Flag Awards, the greatest number in the country.
Resources are still an underlying problem. Since 2009, Nottingham has had to cut its parks and open spaces budget by £3 million, with a further £300,000 to be cut in the next financial year. Like a lot of local authorities, it has had to start looking elsewhere to plug that gap, looking for grants from other charities and funding bodies over the past 10 years. That is a story repeated across the country. For example, Knowsley Borough Council has had to make a decision to sell off some parks and green spaces, which is a real shame, as childhood obesity levels are very high in that part of the world. Other local authorities are being forced into similar choices—half of the councils in north-west England, according to a BBC report, are considering selling off parks or finding other organisations to maintain them over the next three years.
Nationally, we are just not replacing playgrounds at the same rate as they are disappearing. Some 92% of park managers report cuts to their budgets over the last three years, and research undertaken by the Association of Play Industries has uncovered a sharp decline in playgrounds across England: 214 playgrounds have been closed, with a further 234 playgrounds earmarked for closure by local authorities. That is 448 playgrounds closed or closing, which is an alarming downward trend in play provision. There is no longer dedicated funding for playgrounds from central Government, or grants from the third sector, so playground provision falls to local authorities, whose budgets are of course squeezed.
Play really does matter and it is worth underlining what to many of us might seem obvious. Playgrounds are one of the best ways of encouraging children to do physical activity. Childhood obesity is at epidemic levels. More than one fifth of reception children are overweight or obese; by year 6 that rises to over a third. Children living in deprived areas are more than twice as likely to be obese than those in more affluent areas. For many children, playgrounds represent the only chance to play outdoors. Children living within 1 km of a playground are five times more likely to be of a healthy weight than children who are not near a playground.
Play is fundamental to the wider wellbeing of children. If play is restricted, that is likely to have a profound effect on physical and mental health, now and into the future. There is a crisis in children’s mental health, with some reports saying that as many as 20% of children have some degree of mental illness and that problem might be rising. Without adequate access to play, children cannot develop the important emotional skills needed to protect them from anxiety and depression. Research from the charity Fields in Trust shows, for the first time at national level, a direct and statistically significant link between the availability of public parks and green spaces and health and wellbeing.
That is why I called this debate today. We must not take playgrounds and play facilities for granted. We have to talk about them. This is an area of policy that could fall between the gaps. It was difficult even to decide whether I should target this debate at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Department for Education, or the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, so this is not owned as much as it should be.
I have four requests of the Minister, and I will be as specific as I can. The first is about resources. I do not like to bang on about money constantly because I know the situation is tight, but we should invest to save. Investing a pound in good play facilities now will yield better returns and savings for the health service and the education system in the long run. We cannot rely on developers’ section 106 contributions for new play facilities. They make a bit of a difference, but only in areas in which development is taking place.
I think that is absolutely vital. A lot of local authorities and councillors care about these issues and do exactly that. We gain from having open spaces for free-style play, but having structure in playground provision costs money, and we need to think about investing in such facilities.
If I were to ask for a sum of money from the Department, I would urge the Minister to think about what a mere £100 million could achieve. It would deliver 1,600 playgrounds and play spaces. That is the sort of level we are talking about to counter the downward trend in the statistics I mentioned earlier.
Secondly, children’s voices should be better represented as policies are developed. The parks and green spaces sector has not had a dedicated national voice or leadership in Government since the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment was merged with the Design Council back in 2011, and the closure of the charity GreenSpace in 2013 was a great loss. The lack of a dedicated national leadership agency on this issue is holding back the development of children’s playgrounds, parks and open spaces. The Department set up the parks action group, but it does not focus specifically on children and the importance of play. I ask the Minister to think about how we can increase the representation of this issue in that forum.
The other day, the Minister and the Secretary of State launched the integrated communities strategy, which relates to how we can help communities to come together. We talked earlier about the social cohesion gains that could come from that. Although the “Integrated Communities Strategy” Green Paper mentioned bringing neighbourhoods together, it could have focused much more on play. I ask the Minister for parks to think about adding play to his portfolio to address the real threats that exists. Taking action to open up the mental and physical health benefits of outdoor play to the widest possible range of children from all backgrounds will make a real difference.
Thirdly, I ask the Minister to help us get more allies for the play sector. That is similar to my second ask of the Government. The Heritage Lottery Fund recently removed its “Parks for People” programme. It is one of the greatest ironies that, after the financial crisis, the lottery provided some of the most stable funding for community development, and we have relied on it for the past decade. That was the only dedicated parks restoration fund, and without it there is less opportunity to bid for grants.
Fourthly, I want to ask the Minister about the evidence and research he will need to arm him in his discussions with the rest of Government, with his Secretary of State and around the Cabinet table. We need to prove that every pound spent on children’s playgrounds will lead to great returns. Next month, the charity Fields in Trust will publish a report that shows that the value that lower socioeconomic groups place on parks and green spaces is higher than the national average. A reduction in the quantity and quality of those spaces may disproportionately affect those who need them most. This is not just about money. We need to gather that evidence together. The alarming statistics in the Association of Play Industries’ report, which I mentioned earlier, combined with the continued increase in child obesity, lead me to ask whether we can commission a deeper and more thorough report into the state of play facilities and open spaces across the entire United Kingdom. Research with a particular emphasis on the prevalence of obesity and other health issues in certain geographical areas will allow us to examine the correlations and help us to make more appropriate decisions about play policy.
I believe there is a strong correlation between higher instances of obesity and mental health issues in childhood, and the deprivation experienced by areas where free-play opportunities are limited or lacking. That is a significant challenge for public policy makers. A well-maintained and loved community play and recreation area fosters social cohesion, as hon. Members said, encourages children to be active and lifts the spirit and mood of the whole community. I hope the Minister agrees and helps to drive forward a renaissance in children’s play across the country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Mr Leslie) on securing this important debate. I enjoyed listening to him and thought he made a thoughtful contribution, as did the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) and my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell).
The breadth of my portfolio at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government means that I have the privilege of discussing a wide range of areas that affect people’s daily lives. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Nottingham East for raising the important issue of playgrounds. He spoke passionately about how such areas bring communities together and promote health, fitness and an appreciation of the outdoors. Like him, I am a father—I have two daughters—and I enjoy sports, so I recognise the value of having safe, welcoming, open public spaces.
Ensuring that playgrounds, parks and other open spaces are available and accessible is, in the first instance, the responsibly of individual local authorities, as the hon. Gentleman recognises. I want to say a few words about how my Department is supporting the sector in that area. I will touch on resources, which he rightly talked about, so I hope that will be of interest to him, and then I will draw on the work that is being done across Government. As he acknowledged, other Departments have a stake in this. I will bring their good work to the fore today.
On the issue of resources for local government, I would be the first to say that local authorities have done a commendable job over the past few years in delivering high-quality services, including adult social care and children’s services, and improving our roads, public spaces and playgrounds, in what has no doubt been a difficult financial climate. They should be commended for that.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Mr Leslie) on securing this really worthwhile debate. Will the Minister join me in commending South Gloucestershire Council, which announced in the past couple of weeks that it will invest £460,000 in green spaces, including a number of parks and playgrounds around Yate and Chipping Sodbury, which will make a huge difference to the community? I want to put on the record my thanks to two local campaigners, Sonia Williams and Matt Lewis, who have constantly raised the issue.
I would be delighted to congratulate my hon. Friend’s council. That is an example of communities working with their local authority, despite the difficult overall climate, to find creative solutions that will benefit the community. There are examples of that happening all over the country. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that example, and I congratulate all those involved in that positive outcome.
On resources for the sector overall, the recent local government finance settlement ensures that the sector will have £45.6 billion in the next financial year, rising from £44.3 billion in the financial year we are just finishing. Nottingham will have more than £500 million in core spending power over that spending review period, the last two years of which we are about to enter, and it will be for the council—whether in Nottingham or elsewhere—to decide how best to prioritise its resources among all the competing claims.
The settlement is the third year of a four-year deal, as I mentioned, and it was accepted by 97% of councils, including that of the hon. Member for Nottingham East. I am glad that they have benefited from the certainty and stability brought by knowledge of income over the medium term. That is something that local authorities have asked for. It allows them to think strategically. Indeed, in the hon. Gentleman’s area the Nottingham Open Space Forum, of which I know he is aware, is one such example of that longer term strategic thinking, and it highlights the point that local areas are best placed to decide how to use resources to promote the causes that their constituents care most about.
Is the Minister aware of the inquiry by the previous Communities and Local Government Committee, which I was part of? The public response in that inquiry was overwhelming—one of the biggest the Committee received for any inquiry it had undertaken. Is that a sign that parks should be much higher up the Government’s agenda?
I thank the hon. Lady for her work on that Committee. I read that report when I first got this job a few weeks ago. It was a very good report, and I hope that she is pleased to see that the Government responded very positively to its recommendations, through my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones). I shall come on to those shortly, especially with regard to the parks action group and how we take forward the work recommended in the report.
The hon. Member for Nottingham East spoke a lot about children’s needs, and he is absolutely right to do so. There is more to do on tackling rising obesity levels and mental illness among our young people, but I am pleased that a great deal of activity is going on across Government in this area. We all want our children to be healthy and active, no matter their background, which is why it is important that we focus as a priority on what is happening in schools.
Having spoken to colleagues in the Department for Education, I am delighted to tell the Chamber that funding for the primary school PE and sport premium has doubled to £320 million a year from 2017. That will be a huge help in enabling schools to drive further improvements to sport provision. Furthermore, an extra £100 million has been promised to schools through the healthy pupils capital fund, which is a one-off fund provided from the soft drinks industry levy. That money will go to improving playgrounds and sports facilities across the school estate. Last week the Department for Education also announced the allocation of almost £1.5 billion in the forthcoming financial year to maintain and improve the condition of the education estate, including outdoor spaces.
As the hon. Gentleman noted, however, this is about much more than just funding. By making physical education a compulsory subject at all four key stages in the new national curriculum, the Government are helping to prioritise exercise and wellbeing. The positive experience of sport at a young age can create a lifelong habit of participation. It is important to foster that in young children. It is also important for our children to have role models whom they can look up to and who can inspire them to get fit and keep active. Darcy Bussell has spoken about that recently, and my constituent Sir Ian Botham has been a long-time advocate of children’s exercise, health and fitness.
The hon. Gentleman made the important point that there should be a voice for the parks and green spaces sector, a dedicated national voice to champion and advocate for it. He is aware of the parks action group established by my predecessor last year, and I would like to think that it is exactly that voice that the hon. Gentleman has called for. One of the points that I will take away from today is that we might need to shout a little louder about the important work of the parks action group. As the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) knows, that is one of the Select Committee recommendations that the Government acted on swiftly.
The action group draws on the expertise of a range of partners from the parks sector and a range of Departments. I will list some of those involved: the Association for Public Service Excellence, the Parks Alliance, Fields in Trust, the National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces, Keep Britain Tidy, Natural England, Groundwork, the National Trust, the Heritage Lottery Fund and bodies representing local and parish councils. I list them because I am especially pleased that such a wide range of organisations have committed their time and energy to work in partnership with the Government to raise the profile of the parks agenda.
I say to hon. Members present that I do not intend for the parks action group just to be a talking shop. It aims not only to take forward the recommendations of the Communities and Local Government Committee report from last year but to deal with wider issues facing the parks sector. The members represent the views of the local communities with whom they work and, through their contribution, we will ensure that all the issues that have surfaced today and many others are properly raised, represented and actioned.
The group will in the first instance identify effective and deliverable activities that can be undertaken to secure a better future for our green spaces for generations to come. It will focus on six immediate priorities for parks: standards, funding, vision and value of parks, empowering communities, knowledge and skills, and increasing usage. Those priorities pick up a number of the very pertinent points made by the hon. Gentleman.
I am very interested to hear about the action group, which is an important organisation, but I must emphasise again play and playgrounds—the need for structured physical facilities within the parks. If the Minister can ensure that that is part and parcel of one of those six objectives, I would feel a lot happier.
I can absolutely give the hon. Gentleman that reassurance. I was about to come on to that, but he is right to raise it. I will ensure that a transcript of the debate, including his particular point about playgrounds and play, is given to all the members of the parks action group so that that is uppermost in their minds as they develop their work.
The action group will also explore how to improve equality of access across all ages and social groups. We all recognise that parks can play an important role in strengthening community cohesion, combating loneliness —my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) made an important point there—and promoting integration between diverse groups. The hon. Member for Nottingham East made reference to the integrated communities strategy published last week, and that highlights how the use of shared areas, especially by young people, helps to bring communities and neighbourhoods together. As a Department, we will welcome views on the proposals in that Green Paper and we will engage with individuals, communities, businesses and faith groups to help deliver those specific proposals.
With regard to loneliness, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley, I am a member of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, which was set up in memory of Jo. The Prime Minister has championed this as a priority for her—there was a meeting only last week, in which we talked about the value of green spaces in combatting loneliness and about ensuring that open spaces feature heavily in the commission’s strategy.
The parks action group will also consider the various funding models that exist to support parks and green spaces, and it will share that information with the sector to support future sustainability. There are examples of innovation, particularly up in Newcastle and the north-east, which I am keen to visit reasonably soon to explore what is being done. I look forward to presenting an update to Parliament on the progress of the parks action group in due course. I encourage all Members to support its work.
The parks action group has met recently, this year, and I am due to attend the next meeting. I cannot give the hon. Lady a specific timeline, but the Government have committed to report regularly to Parliament with updates. I hope we will give an update before the summer recess, but I have not yet had my first meeting so I am loth to make a firm commitment until I know about the work streams and plans of the action group. The Government have funded the group with £500,000, which I hope will leverage in extra funding from the various partners involved to promote the agenda that the group is keen to embrace.
The hon. Member for Nottingham East made another point about social deprivation. He is aware of the pocket parks programme, which the Department has run in the past, where £1 million helped in cases such as the one the hon. Member for Great Grimsby mentioned. The programme helped to fund 87 small green spaces, including two in the constituency of the hon. Member for Nottingham East, such as Frinton pocket park. That was a fantastic programme and I am looking to see what lessons we can learn from it, such as whether there is the possibility of replicating something similar in the future. It was brilliant at targeting money on areas with high social deprivation, removing those barriers to access.
I am conscious of time, but I hope that in the debate I have been able to demonstrate to the Chamber that the Government—not least me—are taking the subject seriously. With the parks action group, work is happening. The hon. Gentleman was absolutely right to put the issues front and forward on the agenda. I look forward to working with him and other Members to develop the green spaces that we all want our children to enjoy, not just today but for years to come.
Question put and agreed to.
Future of the Commonwealth
[Philip Davies in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of the Commonwealth.
It is a particular pleasure to hold this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and as a child of the Commonwealth and as the founder chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for the Commonwealth. The fact that so many Members are here—at least on the Government side of the Chamber—is testament to the enduring importance of the Commonwealth. Today is a good day to have this debate, because it is only a few weeks before the first Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting held in this country for 30 years.
Much has been written about the Commonwealth, and it has been written off many times, but we can be confident that a recent article in The Guardian entitled “Empire strikes back: why former colonies don’t need Britain after Brexit” was suitably disobliging. A 69-year-old multilateral body that spans all continents and has 54 nations, from the very large to the minute, some 2.4 billion people, great forests of diversity, billions of pounds of intra-trade, a headquarters in a royal palace and a logo that appears to be a globe swallowed up by a hedgehog does not need to worry too much about The Guardian. What the Commonwealth needs to do is ensure that it is looking firmly forward, surprising us with its constant reinvention, giving the younger generation responsibility and, above all, looking confidently towards a bigger, better future—one that the American poet Aberjhani called
“reinvigorated substance, a fresh flow of ideas, and splendidly revitalised colour.”
Let me share a few thoughts about what that might look like in practice and what Britain might contribute. I cannot today namecheck the more than 100 Commonwealth organisations based in London, or pay tribute to their individual contributions to this great brand that we all want to see shine ever more brightly, but I can start by welcoming the fact that Prime Minister Modi—he is the Head of Government in India, which is the Commonwealth’s most populous nation—will be at this CHOGM. It is the first time that the Prime Minister of India has been for 13 years. That is important.
In that context, I strongly support the Royal Commonwealth Society’s call for a new visa partnership with India, modelled on what a number of us worked hard to achieve with China only a few years ago. That partnership would recognise that we are such an important investor in and visitor to each other’s countries. Let us build stronger links with India and encourage her to take a bigger leadership role in the Commonwealth. At the same time, let us use our huge development reach through the Department for International Development to realise two big development goals across not only India, but all the nations of the Commonwealth.
First, we should have a vision to increase vision, using the technology of apps and the success there has been, primarily with cataract operations. That concept was brilliantly outlined by Peek Vision during the Commonwealth service in Westminster Abbey, and it has realised huge success in east Africa and further south, especially in Botswana, whose Minster of Health was there beside our Prime Minister during the service. On that occasion, some Members will have heard the charity’s co-founder explain how the apps that have been developed can be used by teachers to diagnose what an impaired sight or blind person is suffering from and how they can be cured. There are more than 100 million people with bad or no eyesight in the Commonwealth and together, as a unified entity, the Commonwealth can help many of them, if not all, to have better vision.
Secondly, we could affirm the determination to eliminate malaria, not least through the charity Malaria No More. Across our Commonwealth and throughout the continent of Africa, malaria prevents so many people—especially the young—from reaching their potential or even enjoying a life beyond childhood. As someone who had malaria on his wedding day in east Africa, I feel I owe the mosquitos one. I hope that the Secretary of State for International Development and the Minister will say more about Malaria No More.
By combining development funds with national programmes, international charities and the power of giving across so many countries, I believe the two dreams of giving almost everyone in the Commonwealth sight and ridding the Commonwealth—and ultimately the world, but let us start with the Commonwealth—of malaria could be achieved. That would unite the people of the Commonwealth in a shared understanding of what we can achieve together. By eliminating malaria, we can make real advances on an issue that I know the Foreign Secretary cares hugely about and loses few opportunities to advocate: delivering 12 years of education for the 130 million girls in the Commonwealth currently not in school. I hope that the Minister will say more about what we can achieve to ensure that every girl in the Commonwealth gets the chance to go to school.
Nor is what the Commonwealth can achieve limited to change that directly affects humans. We can make the Blue Charter project come alive in islands in the Caribbean and the Indian and Pacific oceans. On land, we can protect more forests through the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy scheme. I hope that the Commonwealth will commit to that during CHOGM and bring that Blue Charter project alive.
These visions, projects and development causes will strike a light with many young people in different nations, and I agree with those who want to bring alive the values of the Commonwealth by doing more to promote gender equality through, for example, the Commonwealth Youth Gender and Equality Network. Of course that will sometimes prove controversial and uncomfortable in parts of the Commonwealth, as have other similar causes, but I hope we will not be shy in promoting the values that all nations have signed up to in the Commonwealth charter. Perhaps the Minister will say more about that.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He is making a brilliant speech, as usual. All the values that he speaks of—aid, co-operation, travel and so on—are fantastic, but is there not a case to explore military co-operation and intelligence sharing, given the threats we all face? The Commonwealth can perform a role in its own right.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If I did not know him better, I would assume that he must have cyber-attacked my speech, because he has brilliantly anticipated what I was about to say.
Development on its own—this is where my hon. Friend’s point comes in—however noble, is not enough of a cause to realise the full potential of the Commonwealth. One of the key things is to tackle civic society changes as part of an embracing of all talent and good business practice. That boosts economies, security and standards of living for all. On the business side, I do not think that a future Commonwealth-wide free trade agreement is practical—I am sorry to disappoint those who believe it is. We might be able to make a start with a small coalition of the willing, but I doubt it would expand across the full panoply of the Commonwealth in the way that many of us would like.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He set out some of the reasons why today is a good day to have this debate. As vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the Commonwealth and chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Africa, I want to add that today Cyril Ramaphosa is signing an Africa free trade agreement. Does the hon. Gentleman not think that the potential for free trade within Africa, combined with forward-looking trade agreements with the UK that put economic development at the heart, are real opportunities for the Commonwealth?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right; today is an exciting day. I think it is called the continental free trade area. It brings together 21 African nations, so by no means everybody in Africa, but it is a huge leap forward. In a sense, I am leading on to that.
Does my hon. Friend agree that another reason to be optimistic is that the incoming President of South Africa was a major figure within the Commonwealth family? He believes in the Commonwealth, he gets it, he is coming to London and hopefully he will make South Africa a far bigger player in the Commonwealth family than has hitherto been the case.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right; he will be very welcome here. The changes in southern Africa, both in Zimbabwe and South Africa itself, give us all hope that the direction of southern Africa is on a positive trend, in the sense that in both cases the changes have been done bloodlessly. I very much hope that South Africa will be a keen part of the Commonwealth again, and that perhaps next year we will be able to welcome Zimbabwe back into the Commonwealth family, which I am sure my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) would welcome, too.
Although the Department for International Trade wants to see, precisely as both hon. Members have mentioned, the benefits of intra-Commonwealth trade spreading more widely across the Commonwealth and reaching forward to a world where free trade agreements could be more possible and practical, the biggest challenge to the ease of doing business is in the non-tariff barriers. At some point we must try to do more about the practical challenges to benefiting from cross-border trade in the way that Malaysia and Singapore, two far east Commonwealth countries, trade together over each other’s borders.
It is amazing that we have not yet made more progress—by “we”, I mean the Commonwealth in this context. I first started working on these issues with the then Minister for the Commonwealth, Lord Howe, a great champion of the Commonwealth since its birth. With Lord Marland leading the charge at the reinvigorated Commonwealth and Enterprise Investment Council—my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) is part of that team—we have the opportunity to help steer the Commonwealth in a more business-friendly direction that will advocate free trade.
The potential for our own free trade agreements in the United Kingdom means that during our period of leadership of the Commonwealth over the next four years, there is no excuse for not seeing a sea change in the number of free trade agreements and direct bilateral business being done throughout the Commonwealth.
I thank my hon. Friend for his interesting and timely speech. I fully agree that the Commonwealth is unlikely to form some kind of new trading bloc, but does he agree that it is an important framework for intergovernmental co-operation in improving the investment environment? That is the way that it will help to aid trade: by working together on things such as infrastructure, the business environment, the rule of law and governance. All those things will help to improve our trading relationships in the long term.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I know that her experience in the International Trade Committee bears on that. Those non-tariff barriers: the ease of doing business, infrastructure issues, blockages at ports, and bureaucracy and paperwork involved are all things on which we and the Commonwealth as a whole can make huge progress. She is quite right; it would make a big difference.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for being generous with his time. Does he agree that improving the regulatory capacity in Commonwealth countries is an important factor in supporting and increasing trade in services? Although most businesses want to make a positive impact, some are looking to exploit the lower regulatory barriers in some developing countries. The Commonwealth can make a real difference in ensuring that the legal and regulatory frameworks in Commonwealth countries enable a free and frank negotiation of regulatory agreements.
The hon. Lady makes an interesting point. The question of standards and regulatory resource capacity and implementation, which ultimately boils down to the rule of law, is critical. If we say, as we often do, that among the shared values of the Commonwealth are those of democracy, language, the rule of law, accounting standards and so on, we should not be complacent about assuming that they are all the same in every Commonwealth country and that they are equally well implemented. That comes back to one of the issues from the report by the Eminent Persons Group in 2013, which the Minister will remember well because he was in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at the time. A commissioner was going to be appointed to look at the quality and the implementation of democracy in its widest sense, including—in my interpretation anyway—the rule of law. The business of standards is absolutely critical. The Minister may want to comment on that when he speaks.
We are hearing from across the Chamber an enthusiasm for more business, and not just for business’s sake but as a catalyst for improving living standards for millions of people across all continents. We in the United Kingdom may want to look at what more we can do with our resources. It was mooted in a recent House of Lords debate that perhaps we should have more trade envoys with Commonwealth member responsibilities. I think there are seven of us at the moment who are trade envoys for the Prime Minister with Commonwealth countries, but there may be a case for increasing that number, to see whether the team would benefit from further recruits, especially from those with close links to the Commonwealth countries to which they might be appointed.
There could also be a real effort by the United Kingdom to open doors and opportunities through our large, thriving financial sector. For example, we have great fund managers such as Standard Life Aberdeen or Schroders, but I am not aware of any investment opportunity into a Commonwealth-branded fund. That would be an obvious potential opportunity. Perhaps it should be done by one of our smaller and nimbler venture capital or private equity outfits, but a Commonwealth fund could have real emotional appeal and could attract a large amount of funding that, if focused on venture capital, could encourage a resurgence of Commonwealth entrepreneurs.
At the same time, with our new and invigorated UK export finance, where we have announced huge sums of money available, particularly for the region of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, where I have trade envoy responsibilities, surely there is an opportunity at this CHOGM to make an announcement that UK export finance will provide a large fund of perhaps £2 billion to £5 billion of finance available as insurance credit for business partnerships around the Commonwealth. That would be a good start and would demonstrate our commitment to promoting greater intra-Commonwealth trade.
Behind that, there are what I might call the two step-brothers that are critical to every country across the Commonwealth: cyber and FinTech. In these sectors, the UK can offer a huge lead for, and partnership with, other Commonwealth countries. We already do so, particularly with Singapore in the far east, but there must be greater opportunities for doing so with Commonwealth partners, particularly in Africa.
I recommend that the Foreign Office—the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, rather; let us not forget the C—proposes to the Commonwealth secretary-general, my former fellow trade envoy, Baroness Scotland, that she considers setting up a new Commonwealth cyber body as soon as possible to bring together expertise from the UK and other member states, and considers ways of increasing capacity for the protection of all digital facilities, Government and non-Government, in member states.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I am sure that he already knows this, given that he is trailing heavily with his tailcoat, but I understand that the cyber proposal he mentioned has already received considerable support, and that a large number of our fellow Commonwealth members will take it up during CHOGM.
In fact I did not know that, but it makes logical sense. If that work is already under way, I am delighted. Perhaps the Minister can say more about it, because that is exactly the sort of initiative we need. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his intervention.
The next stage, which brings me back to what my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) said, is the whole business of training and skills. For everything I have mentioned—standards, fund management, export credit, cyber and FinTech, and promotion of development causes—we will need more skills, and not just in this country but throughout the Commonwealth. Training courses and the handover of skills through higher education and vocational qualifications are critical to the way the Commonwealth moves forward. The UK has a huge amount to offer in that context through organisations such as TVET, but specific sectoral skills also need to be passed on, and there is arguably no sector more important than the armed forces and the police. Widening our security links with Commonwealth countries and improving their security will be crucial to the success of those sovereign states and to ensuring that there is less volatility in governance than there has been in some of them in the past few years.
My hon. Friend is making important points, and I commend him for bringing forward the debate. I was astonished to learn in preparation for the debate that more than half the population of the Commonwealth is under 25. One can hardly begin to imagine the potential of the creative energy of all those wonderful young people and what that could do not just for the countries of the Commonwealth but for the whole world.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, although with that goes the challenge of ensuring that those people have opportunities, and the skills and qualifications to take up those opportunities. I add another caveat: if countries such as China are going to play a greater role in the development of infrastructure in the Commonwealth, particularly in Africa, I very much hope that the resultant job opportunities are not purely for large ships full of Chinese who come over to develop that infrastructure, but for the people who live in those countries.
There we are. I have touched on prosperity and security, partly because, alongside fairness and sustainability, they are two themes of CHOGM, but also because, in the absence of security and the ability to become more prosperous, the future of individuals, families and nations is always set back. This is an important time and these are important themes.
Let me quote:
“By pledging to serve the common good in new ways, we can ensure that the Commonwealth continues to grow in scope and stature, to have an even greater impact on people’s lives, today, and for future generations.”
That was said by she who will shortly host the greatest number of Heads of State and Government seen in this country since the 2012 Olympics: our own Queen. I believe that this CHOGM is partly to recognise, and perhaps to celebrate, Her Majesty’s incredible service to the Commonwealth and to ensure that the baton is passed on. I very much hope that the Prince of Wales and his sons and their wives play an increasing role in serving the Commonwealth, as our Queen has for so long.
Ours is a nation with much to give the world. I hope that the Government, business, charities and other organisations rise to the occasion of our hosting this year’s CHOGM, welcome India’s enhanced engagement and Gambia’s rejoining the Commonwealth, and consider all the ways we can ensure that that incredibly important and precious organisation goes from strength to strength.
Order. I need to begin calling the Front Benchers as close as possible to 3.30 pm, so I will impose a time limit of four minutes. That will take us a little beyond that time, so I emphasise that the limit might have to be cut if Members make interventions—I hope that they will refrain from doing so wherever possible.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I will do the best I can in the four minutes available.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing the debate. In the last Parliament, I was a vice-chair of the all-party group on the Commonwealth. Unfortunately, I missed its annual general meeting this year, but it does good work, and he can be assured of my support for it. I also served on the executive of the UK branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which is one example of the many organisations he spoke about that are brought together by the Commonwealth and help to facilitate its various aims.
I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about the Commonwealth’s good work on tackling malaria and about sight and vision. We had the Commonwealth Development Corporation at the all-party group on Malawi not that long ago. The opportunity for co-operation there is very important.
At the same time, it is important not to get misty-eyed. CHOGM gives us the opportunity to look at whether the Commonwealth’s options for the future are challenges, opportunities or both. The concept of the Commonwealth is not unrelated to the old Scots concept of the common weal. Of course, it is the Scottish National party’s ambition for Scotland one day to become an independent member of the Commonwealth in its own right. The very definition of an independent country is how it relates to and co-operates with other independent states. I note that 31 members of the Commonwealth have a population of 1.5 million or less, and no one seems to argue that they are too small or poor to be independent, or that they need to come back to the bosom of mother Britannia.
Scotland already enjoys special status in the Commonwealth. We participate in the Commonwealth games, and we have hosted them—in Edinburgh in 1970 and 1986, and in Glasgow in 2014—and I am proudly wearing the demure and sober 2014 Commonwealth games tartan. The legacy of the Commonwealth games in host cities is another advantage of the organisation. It is notable that venues are refurbished and brought back to life, which contrasts with the grandiose venues that are sometimes constructed for Olympic games.
Scotland also has a relationship with Malawi, and today I welcomed the honourable Juliana Lunguzi, MP for Dedza East, to the House. I thoroughly agree with the idea of improved visas for India, but that should be extended across the Commonwealth. Far too often, people from Commonwealth countries, including politicians, do not have their visas granted in time. That happens time and again with Malawi.
CHOGM presents a number of questions and opportunities. If the Commonwealth is to continue to be a force for good, members must be willing to be frank with one another. That means there are opportunities to press for action on human rights—particularly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights—remembering that some of the oppressive laws in Commonwealth countries are a legacy of empire.
The question of the head of the Commonwealth is clearly under discussion, too. Even if the ceremonial head remains the monarch, perhaps there is a way of democratising the choice of the secretary-general and involving the Parliaments of member countries in that decision. On future membership—I was going to say that I joked about Scotland, but I did not; I am very serious about Scotland—there is a question about whether Ireland might come back in. We have welcomed Irish observers at recent CPA events—although, given Ireland’s record in the rugby, I am not sure whether we want its participation in the Commonwealth games.
Trade is vital. We must remember that 52 of 54 Commonwealth countries make up only 9% of our exports. As the hon. Member for Gloucester said, the Commonwealth is not a trading bloc per se, and Canada already has a deal with the EU, so we must be careful about how that is taken forward.
There is an opportunity not for misty-eyed, rose-tinted harking back to the past but for building a 21st-century organisation looking at human rights and democracy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on bringing this important debate to the Chamber. I also pay tribute to him for his obvious passion for eradicating malaria and for the education of young girls across the Commonwealth.
In the Commonwealth’s near 70-year history, it has been an incredibly difficult organisation to define. That is understandable. It is not, as some might have us believe, a remnant of empire. It is not simply an organisation that organises brilliant sporting events every four years. It is not a military organisation like NATO, it is not a free trade organisation like the North American Free Trade Agreement, and it is not a political, economic and monetary union like the EU. Instead, it is a free association of member states including some 54 nations, with more than 30 republics, five separate monarchies and 16 Commonwealth realms lucky enough to have Her Majesty the Queen as Head of State. It is scattered around the globe on all inhabited continents. It is 11,566,870 square miles—20% of the world’s land area. It has an estimated population of 2.4 billion people—and growing—which is nearly a third of the world’s population, and in 2014 it produced a nominal GDP of $10.45 trillion, representing 14% of gross world product.
In researching for the debate, I stumbled upon this quote from Wisma Putra, Malaysia’s Foreign Affairs Minister. He said:
“The Commonwealth has played a catalytic role in strengthening society’s capacity to manage disparity and diversity through its emphasis on the shared values and principles as enshrined in the Commonwealth charter, its good offices role, various programmes and activities as well as assistance in building democratic institutions, good governance, credible and transparent elections.”
Mr Putra has summed up in one sentence what the Commonwealth is and stands for: shared values and principles; managing disparity and diversity; and encouraging sound democratic institutions and good governance. Above all, the Commonwealth fosters dialogue and discussion where otherwise, in many cases, there would be none. For the last 70 years, that has been the case. These disparate states, bound by a common history and shared endeavours, encouraged, supported and—most importantly—talked to one another.
That is the present and the past, and today we are talking about the future. Britain today is at the beginning of a new chapter of its island story. As we leave the European Union and look to foster alliances around the world with allies old and new, we look to strike trade deals and partnerships in Africa, Asia, South America, North America and Australasia. I put it to hon. Members that no country has ever been in so fortunate a position—or had a better starting point at such a juncture—as the United Kingdom today. We are a member of an organisation that spans every corner of the globe and encompasses some of the fastest growing economies in the world; that comprises 54 nations that share our values—we believe in free and fair trade as a means to grow prosperity and eradicate poverty—and our desire to build a better world for our children and our children’s children. For far too long—for understandable if regrettable reasons—this country has paid far too little attention to the organisation. I am glad that, through the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting and beyond, we will begin to right that wrong.
It will not be a smooth ride—nor should it be. We do not and never should engage with Commonwealth member states as some sort of imperial master. They are bound to us by nothing but good will, a shared history and common values. We go to them as equals, but we do so from a terrific starting point. In the next few years together, the Commonwealth, with common cause and purpose, and with Britain—for the first time for far too long—at its true heart, can be the forum where, through trade, common endeavour and dialogue, we build a better future for all our peoples and make the 21st century truly the Commonwealth’s century.
Order. Before we go to the next speaker, may I ask the Front Benchers if I could cut them down to eight minutes each so that we can hear more from the Back Benchers? Is that agreed? Given that we have not had any interventions yet, and the hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) has agreed to withdraw, I can extend speaking time to five minutes for everyone else.
Thank you for your patient chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on introducing the debate. This is a timely discussion about the role of the Commonwealth in relation to the United Kingdom as we look to the future.
My most endearing memory of involvement with the Commonwealth was as a volunteer at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth games, where I participated in the medal ceremonies. That was a fantastic experience. Aside from getting a free kilt out of it, I had the chance to work closely with Prince Tunku Imran, who was involved with the Commonwealth Games Federation and the presentation of medals to numerous teams. It was wonderful to see the diversity of participants, from world-class athletes such as Usain Bolt to people who were participating in formal competition in their sport for the first time. It was marvellous to see that diversity imbued in the Commonwealth. That is what gives it its unique flavour: it is not just a series of diplomatic member states in a secretariat but a huge synthesis of human relationships that go much deeper and build a great degree of influence and good will across the world.
That is vital in today’s globalised world, where we face major challenges and huge global inequalities. The Commonwealth’s structure transcends that remarkably and provides a great forum and mechanism through which Britain can contribute to improving the condition of mankind across the world. That is why it is so relevant and critical today.
I hope that at the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting we will see a reaffirmed, firm commitment to achieve the UN sustainable development goals through Commonwealth action by the target date of 2030. Recently, I was pleased to meet the high commissioner from Malawi who came to the House of Commons to discuss Malawi matters and how vital Scotland’s contribution has been to promoting development in Malawi. That was a great, heartening discussion. We had a debate on that topic in Westminster Hall recently, too. The depth of good will in the Commonwealth and the huge commercial trading and developmental opportunities that exist are clear. That is critical, and we must reaffirm our efforts to improve them and their resilience in the years ahead.
It is wonderful that as of last month Gambia has rejoined the Commonwealth. I offer my congratulations. I also hope that Zimbabwe will rejoin in due course; I believe discussions are ongoing to that effect. It is great to see the restoration of members within the Commonwealth, and that countries such as Mozambique, which were never part of the British empire and did not have a previous imperial relationship with the United Kingdom, saw the benefits of the Commonwealth and have joined it. That is a wonderful demonstration of what the Commonwealth now represents. It is not a hangover from empire but a relevant organisation. It is important that it continues to adapt and prove its relevance.
One of the key ways in which it can do that is by looking at how we deal with the challenge of AIDS and HIV across the world. We must be robust with other countries in the Commonwealth—particularly around anti-LGBT laws and how they adversely affect access to the prevention and treatment of HIV and AIDS across the world—and use Commonwealth mechanisms to make headway against that epidemic. I hope the Minister will raise those issues with his counterparts in the Commonwealth as part of our effort to deliver on the global goal of a world free from AIDS.
Many Members and previous leaders such as Gordon Brown have made the point about the relevance of the Commonwealth, particularly in dealing with huge global inequalities. Natural disasters contribute to $8 billion of economic losses per year in the Commonwealth, and the combination of many of the smallest nation states in the world with many of the largest and fastest-growing nation states gives us a huge opportunity to use the Commonwealth to redistribute wealth and power globally in favour of the most marginalised people in the world. That is where our focus should be: how we use forums such as the Commonwealth games, diplomatic networks and development networks to see a redistribution of opportunity, wealth and power in favour of the weakest people in the world today. With 2.4 billion people—a third of the global population—and the fastest growing cities in the world, there is a huge opportunity to be grasped.
Engagement with the Commonwealth is vital for Britain. We must look at how we can redouble our efforts. We see opportunities for close relationships between states such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand—the more developed nations of the Commonwealth with which we share a common language and other cultural links—and we must use that wealth to redistribute across other nations of the Commonwealth and ensure global redistribution of wealth and power. That is where the Commonwealth can re-establish and reaffirm its relevance in the 21st century.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing the debate. We are on the eve not only of CHOGM—for the first time in 30 years it will be held in this country—but of the Commonwealth games. As a recently appointed non-executive director of Commonwealth Games England, I want to dwell a little on that aspect and the importance of the games in bringing interaction between very different nations that are part of the Commonwealth family.
There are key strategic objectives over and above winning a lot of medals, which we hope our sportsmen and women will do. We need to deliver that success not just at the Commonwealth games, but at the Youth games that follow, which often give smaller nations an opportunity to host and benefit from everything that the Commonwealth games have to offer.
One of our key objectives is to create an English Commonwealth movement to promote personal achievement and our core values of equality, diversity and inclusion. Precisely because so many Commonwealth members are of such a young age, it is a very important opportunity to promote those values with successive new generations of citizens throughout the Commonwealth. Another objective is to be one of the most effective, respected, best-governed and well-managed sports associations in England and the Commonwealth.
As a west midlands Member of Parliament, it is a particular delight to note that Birmingham has stepped up to take the baton, which unfortunately had been dropped in the preparation for the 2022 games. The whole of the west midlands region will benefit from the opportunity to host the games and to bring many Commonwealth citizens to that part of our country. I am confident that we can do a good job.
It is significant that sport gives the opportunity to promote the benefits of Commonwealth membership. The sheer sight of two countries, North Korea and South Korea, taking part in a sporting event together under a single flag is the most recent demonstration of the opportunity that sport affords of bringing people together, which can be replicated at future Commonwealth games. It gives me the opportunity to touch on one important example of the way in which, coming together as sportsmen and women, we can also explore quite difficult subject areas together on such occasions.
The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which does such a splendid job in this place, is currently delivering a modern-day slavery project: a two-year multilateral project funded by the Home Office. Through seminars and workshops, the project is designed to support Commonwealth parliamentary colleagues in developing and strengthening modern slavery legislation in their own countries. I chaired a seminar on that very subject and I found it informative to hear from MPs from other Commonwealth countries what they are doing to tackle the very difficult problem of modern-day slavery. It was significant that a Nigerian MP who took part in the seminar went back to his own country and in February introduced legislation in the Nigerian House of Representatives to start to tackle the problem of slavery both at home and abroad.
There are also challenging messages that we have to be prepared to hear from other Commonwealth members. The Ghanaian Member of Parliament said that in his view the Italian Government were doing a better job of trying to tackle trafficking at source from his country than our own Government were prepared to do. We have to be willing to listen—it is a two-way conversation in the Commonwealth—and to explore where there is best practice in terms of tackling such a difficult problem as modern-day slavery. We may have been the first country to introduce legislation, but the problem is by no means sorted. Working together across the Commonwealth, which contains some of the most populous countries in the world, where, sadly, trafficking is a problem, we have a chance of dealing with it.
I hope that hosting the Commonwealth games will give us an opportunity to promote the best of British values across the Commonwealth and that at the same time we will tackle some of the difficult issues that beset all Commonwealth members at whatever stage of their development. Together we can produce a better outcome for all the countries involved.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing this important debate and making an excellent speech. This is a timely debate at a moment of importance in the affairs of our country, as we face a crossroads following our decision to leave the European Union. Britain is in a state of flux as we work out how we are to play effectively our global role in a new world. This is therefore an extraordinarily good moment to have this debate and to look forward to CHOGM and all that it will mean for the future of the Commonwealth and for its presence in this country.
We maintain a truly excellent but rather reduced diplomatic service, which, incidentally, must be properly resourced for its new duties, and a still highly effective military—I endorse entirely the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester—on whom we will need to spend more money in the years to come to cope with the myriad threats. But one of our most important positions is to be at the very heart of the Commonwealth with our Queen at its head. The organisation has tremendous possibilities for its members and as an institution in the years to come. It comprises 53 nations and there are more than 100 Commonwealth institutions in London alone.
The bonds of history, language and political and other institutions shared by Commonwealth members are matters of celebration and could indeed represent great opportunities for Britain in a post-Brexit world, but they should never be taken for granted. Britain should be aware that in the 45 years since we joined the European Union, the world and the Commonwealth have both changed markedly in their perception and action towards the others. Finding areas of common interest in free trade across highly sophisticated and developed economies such as the UK, Canada and Australia will be a serious challenge.
I congratulate my noble friend Lord Marland, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) and others who have driven forward the visionary work of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council. I very much look forward to working with them over CHOGM.
Above all, in respect of the Commonwealth or any other trading organisation, we need to put flesh on the bones of global Britain, which at the moment is a slogan in pursuit of a strategy. It remains the case that there is a Commonwealth advantage. With its shared values, regulatory systems and language, there is no doubt that it has the potential to greatly increase intra-Commonwealth trade by possibly up to 20%, and could substantially cut the cost of doing business between member states. However, we need to keep a proper sense of proportion.
In 2015, 44% of our total UK exports of goods and services went to the European Union, while 9.5% went to the Commonwealth. This is a very big ask and a very important one. The biggest trade challenge for post-Brexit UK is not to get better trade deals with the rest of the world, although that would be good, but to get deals that are as good as those that now exist, most of which are multilateral and regional. We must remember that geography trumps history. This will be fiendishly difficult. Trade agreements are not something that happen at the drop of a hat; they take a lot of time and are complicated and deeply transactional.
I endorse very strongly the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester about India, which is interested in doing more trade with the United Kingdom. We have a long-standing and important relationship, but India will have its own demands on how many migrants are able to come here and the ease of getting visas to work. Surely to God we can work that out.
I wish to conclude and not take up my full time, but I wish to endorse again what my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester said in an outstanding speech about the great debt that the Commonwealth and this country owe the Sovereign for her work in keeping together the Commonwealth through thick and thin and some very difficult times indeed. I hope that the gathering of the Commonwealth family will recognise that astonishing work and will see to it that, as my hon. Friend said, the succession is passed in good order. Finally, I hope—may all of us hope—that at a correct and goodly time Zimbabwe will return to the family of the Commonwealth.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing this debate and on his excellent speech, particularly his focus on the United Nations sustainable development goals.
The UK’s trading future on the international stage is promising, and nowhere more so than within the Commonwealth. As a group of 54 nations, we are part of a collective comprised of 2.4 billion people—a third of the global population—and occupying about a quarter of the world’s land mass. By building on our relationships within the Commonwealth, we will further the goal, set out by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, of becoming a truly global Britain.
The Commonwealth has strong foundations rooted in seven decades of collaboration. It has helped support smaller nations develop, strengthening economies and democratic institutions. Our collective economic strength is significant: a shared gross national income of more than $10 trillion, and internal Commonwealth trade is expected to grow to $1 trillion by 2020. As we seek to develop new opportunities further, we do so from a platform of shared histories. In many cases we have a common language and a common legal structure. We should therefore in theory have fewer barriers to overcome in reaching agreements. Already, 80% of Commonwealth countries benefit from preferential access to the UK’s market. Furthermore, the Royal Commonwealth Society has highlighted the fact that there are already significant trade advantages within the bloc. In a recent study it found that transaction costs between two Commonwealth partners are 19% less than they are between non-Commonwealth nations: that is driven largely by language and legal systems.
When we consider bolstering our trading relations internationally, we need to do it strategically. I am pleased that the Department for International Trade is working with many of our partners to lay down the basis for future trade agreements. However, we are limited by our capacity to broker deals. Free trade agreements are clearly an ambition, and rightly. However, they do not always meet expectations. In most cases deals are designed around goods, but if we are to capitalise on our competitive advantages they will need to include service markets. The reality is that for businesses that trade internationally there are several non-tariff barriers that free trade agreements often do not address, such as licensing agreements, capital controls and ownership rules. The British Chambers of Commerce identified non-tariff barriers as the most important area of concern for business in non-EU third-party agreements.
One of the difficulties that businesses have faced in recent years, particularly in trading with such places as Australia and New Zealand, is the movement of personnel. Because we have had such free and easy migration arrangements with Europe, it has been a problem to try to get movement from those other countries. Does my hon. Friend agree that an interesting idea to consider is something like a realm visa, which would give easy access to people from countries where the Queen is the Head of State, such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada?
Yes, I do agree. As we design an immigration system to meet the needs of the country, we will not have either artificial numbers or systems that do not meet the needs of businesses or our skills agenda.
Today the EU has, or is negotiating, trade deals with more than 80% of Commonwealth countries, in part thanks to the efforts of UK Governments, so we must ensure that we develop bilateral agreements to replace them. Bespoke deals could do just that. Singapore, for example, is a tech business hub for its region and could be a potential gateway to other Asian countries for British businesses. Like finance, technology consolidates in hubs, around talent and investment. We already enjoy a prominent position in the sector, with 18% of global data flows passing through the UK, so there is opportunity to grow. Singapore is currently finalising a deal with the EU.
We therefore hopefully have a foundation from which to work, with the potential for it to be more tailored to our national interests. Canada, too, has a basis from which to work, with the EU-Canada comprehensive economic and trade agreement. Furthermore, we are Canada’s largest export market within the EU, and therefore there is a great mutual benefit to striking a deal.
In 2015 UK Commonwealth exports were £47.4 billion, with five larger economies—Australia, Canada, India, Singapore and South Africa—accounting for 70% of our Commonwealth exports and 65% of imports. There is therefore scope to expand our working relationships with the smaller developing Commonwealth nations. Technology, regulation, standards and skills training can act as a gateway to greater investment and openness in developing economies and provide career opportunities for large numbers of young people.
The Commonwealth provides the UK with a great opportunity for the further development of economic, diplomatic and cultural ties with nations that already have much in common with us. As the Prime Minister said last year, we face new and unprecedented joint challenges, and we all have a responsibility to work together as partners to ensure that the Commonwealth has the institutional strength to face them. Our trading relationships, if executed strategically, will drive prosperity both here and throughout the Commonwealth.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on obtaining the debate and on an excellent and thought-provoking speech.
This is an important time for our future as members of the Commonwealth. There is little doubt that the United Kingdom is at something of a turning point in its relations with the world, as several hon. Members have mentioned. It is at times of strife and change that we look to our steadfast and historic Commonwealth allies to provide some sort of security. Those nations represent peoples around the world with whom we have an affinity and share a history, and whose values are similar. Our shared history makes our shared future, through our dealings with the Commonwealth in the years to come, uncontroversial. We have a bright future in which to work with new and old alliances around the world, to secure our future place in it. I contend that we must be careful that we do not look to the Commonwealth only in extremis. We must not become known as a friend who calls only when they want something. It is not in crisis or strife that we want to build our future together; it is on the basis of a conscious decision to change our view of the world from a European perspective to a more global identity.
The potential for the UK to forge ahead in global terms offers significant advantages to the economy in the shape of new emerging markets in the Commonwealth, to sell our products to and to buy from. It offers investment opportunities in economies of all shapes and sizes, in which we can place investments, and where we can seek investors in our economy. House of Commons Library research states that the Commonwealth is already a significant and important part of our economy, representing £21.6 billion of exports in 2017. In Scotland, where we have strong affection for the Commonwealth, the figure is £2.7 billion. That is not a small part of our economic mix.
However, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester did not miss the mark when he pointed out the challenge of creating a mix between mature consumer economies such as Canada and Australia and developing economies, and other Members also commented on that. There is huge benefit for all concerned to be gained by working together. Beyond that, there is also immense potential for us to develop cultural and social links. As I mentioned in an intervention on my hon. Friend, more than half of the Commonwealth population of more than 2 billion is under the age of 25.
I want to end by returning to the words of Her Majesty the Queen that were quoted earlier, which I find inspirational. She recently said in Westminster Abbey:
“By pledging to serve the common good in new ways, we can ensure that the Commonwealth continues to grow in scope and stature, to have an even greater impact on people’s lives, today, and for future generations.”
In the spirit of that idea of the common good, I want to ask the Minister two questions about the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. How do the Government intend to use CHOGM to raise the profile of the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative, which they have championed? Also, how shall we raise the principle of freedom of religion and belief through CHOGM? Sadly, it is not universally observed in the Commonwealth in accordance with article 18 of the United Nations declaration of human rights.
I hope that in the spirit of Her Majesty’s remarks we shall now turn as a faithful friend to our friends in the Commonwealth, nurture friendship and family connection with the Commonwealth, and reverse the neglect that we have shown for decades. In doing so, we can fulfil Her Majesty’s stated hopes and aspirations for the Commonwealth and further enhance her wonderful and lasting legacy.
I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as deputy chairman of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council.
I want to join in the congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham). My old friend is a stalwart proponent of all things Commonwealth. It is very good that we have Commonwealth debates from time to time. When I was the Commonwealth Minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, it became difficult, at times, to persuade officials and others of what an important opportunity the Commonwealth was, although people are finally waking up to that. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames): the Commonwealth cannot replicate the EU, but it is certainly a vital bolt-on part of Britain’s future, in terms of our economic and trading development.
The debate is timely, coming on the eve of the Commonwealth games, which will start in Brisbane shortly. I was the Minister when the games were hosted by the British Government and the city of Glasgow—the Labour city of Glasgow—which hosted them so well on behalf of us all.
As we look forward to CHOGM in just under a month’s time, I am sure there will be a huge turnout from Heads of State, not least because Her Majesty is entertaining at home. Indeed, I would not be at all surprised—this is all I will say—if there is an extremely high level of participation by all members of the royal family.
In the time remaining, let me give an unashamed plug for the work of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council and the stalwart job our small team is doing. We will have 800 senior businesses in London, and we will hold a series of sessions, including on accessing modern financial services, easing the pathway for business and growth, harnessing Commonwealth technology and innovation, creating a new attitude to sustainable business, mobilising an export economy, and attracting inward investment. Those things are important not only to the United Kingdom, but right across the Commonwealth.
The combined GDP of the Commonwealth will reach $14 trillion by 2020. Intra-Commonwealth trade was $525 billion in 2015, and that is set to rise to $1 trillion by 2020. We have heard a lot of statistics today about what the Commonwealth stands for, but I believe they are worth repeating. The Commonwealth is currently a group of 53 countries. I echo the desire for Zimbabwe to return to the Commonwealth fold one day soon, after having been thrown out because of Mr Mugabe. In a rather different way, the Maldives exited itself from the Commonwealth, and I very much hope that it, too, will return to the Commonwealth family, where it surely belongs. There is a road to redemption, as evidenced by Fiji, which was out of the Commonwealth for a while but now plays an increasing role within it. I suspect it will play an even bigger role in the years ahead.
It is worth bearing in mind when we talk about the Commonwealth that we are talking about a quarter of the world’s GDP and a third of the world’s population, 60% of whom, as we have heard, are under 30. At 1 billion people, the middle class of India alone exceeds the population of Europe. These are huge numbers.
I think that the Commonwealth has a rosy future. We are looking forward to the business forum that will take place over three days from 16 to 18 April, just before CHOGM. I think that will set the pace for a good Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. When it is all over, hopefully we will all congratulate ourselves, but that is when the real work begins. I hope that we can persuade colleagues in the Government to give the same attention to the Commonwealth after the Heads of Government meeting as they have suddenly been giving it in the last few weeks, in the run-up to that meeting.
I am pleased to be able to begin the summing-up. I commend the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) for securing the debate and for his knowledgeable and informative introduction to it.
I am pleased to see so many people from Scotland here, because that accentuates the place that the Commonwealth has, and will continue to have, in the hearts of the people of Scotland. It also explains why, for the first time since I have been in Parliament, and possibly for the first time in recorded history, the Chair actually increased the time limit for a speech. However, I noticed, Mr Davies, that you waited until two of the Scots had spoken before you did so. I will try to leave time for them to get an extra minute each before the debate concludes.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) made a well-informed speech, as would be expected given his long and dedicated track record of service to Commonwealth countries. A number of Members have mentioned the fantastic experience that was the Commonwealth games in Glasgow. When the world’s friendliest sporting event pitches up in the world’s friendliest city, we can be sure there’s going to be one heck of a party. I was pleased to attend, although unlike some Members, I did not get a uniform and I had to pay for my own ticket, but I enjoyed myself just the same.
I do not have time to mention the contributions from all the Members who have spoken, but I will pick up one or two points. I commend the dedication of the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) in taking on another commitment and promoting the success of the Commonwealth games, but I must take issue with the idea that winning medals matters a jot at the games. The Commonwealth games are a much greater spectacle and common humanity event than the Olympic games because, although the vast majority of spectators want to see the best, there is no jingoistic determination to get more medals than the next person. It would be a tragedy if we allowed the Commonwealth games to be soured by that mentality. We expect everybody who turns up to do the best they can.
Some of the most excited people I saw in Glasgow were the bowls team from Niue. It has a population of 2,000, but it managed to find a bowls team that gave Scotland a heck of a hard game. They and their compatriots went home without a medal between them, but they had a brilliant time and made a lot of friends. That is what the Commonwealth is about. Once that was what the Olympic games were about, and we are all poorer for the fact that that does not happen.
My deep worry is that there seems to be a thread running through the debate that the purpose of the Commonwealth after we leave the European Union might be about restoring our trading links. The Commonwealth is not there just for us to trade with to enrich investors and business owners in the United Kingdom. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North pointed out, this should be about “common wealth”, and the big problem with the Commonwealth is that, despite the benefit of hundreds of years of benign colonial intervention from the mother of all democracies, the vast majority of it is still a desperately impoverished place.
Half the GDP of the Commonwealth comes from the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia—they have barely 5% of the population, but half the GDP. Two thirds of Commonwealth citizens live in countries whose GDP per head of population is less than a 10th of the world average. If we were to use one description to characterise the lives of the vast majority of citizens of the Commonwealth, it would be “desperate, desperate poverty”. Surely, in the name of God, if we are looking to achieve something with new trade links and by expanding world trade links, lifting those 2 billion people out of poverty must be more important than further enriching investors who hide their money in tax havens elsewhere.
That is absolutely correct and a very valid point. We must ask ourselves where this new trade will come from. The list of countries with which the European Union—and therefore the UK—has a trade deal or will have one by the time we leave, already includes a lot of the Commonwealth’s economic powerhouses, such as South Africa, Canada, Singapore and the large but unequal economy of India. We are effectively looking for trade deals with poor countries full of poor people. Are we saying that we will start having trade deals that benefit those people, rather than ourselves? I hope so.
I do not have time to take too many interventions—I apologise.
I have a deep interest in the Commonwealth. My mum was from a very large family, and a lot of her younger sisters took the £10 single ticket to Australia. As happened in those days, they all changed their name when they got married, so none of them bears my grandad’s name. However, I am delighted that the descendants of the “Mighty Quinn”, a humble plumber from Newarthill in Lanarkshire, now run into the hundreds and contribute to the economic and social wealth of the great country of Australia. When I was putting my notes together, I actually forgot that my wife is the daughter of an Asian Commonwealth immigrant—perhaps that is what happens when we think of people as who they are, rather than where they came from and what colour their skin is.
As I said, Commonwealth countries collectively comprise some of the poorest citizens in the world. If we want to keep our entitlement to talk about the Commonwealth, we must do something to make it a bit more common to all. Some of the suggestions about the way that trade can be used are beneficial, but we should be careful about some of the others. One thing that most Commonwealth countries have in common is that their people were once exploited for the benefit of Great Britain. We cannot and must not allow that to happen again. If we want to contribute to the future of the Commonwealth, we must talk honestly and openly about its history. Some parts of that history do not make Britain or its constituent nations look particularly good, and I include Scotland in that, because the role that it played in the oppression and exploitation of citizens in other countries is something that none of us can be too proud of.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North mentioned the close links with Malawi—an example of how the new relationships can be made more positive. I am happy to place on record the extraordinary contribution to that link that was made by Jack McConnell, the then Labour First Minister of Scotland. His drive and determination created what is now probably the closest and best-developed bilateral link between any two nations on the planet. An astonishing 46% of people in Scotland know somebody with direct personal involvement in Malawi. Much of that is due to the fact that Malawians are eternally grateful for the part played by David Livingstone in abolishing the slave trade in their part of Africa and in helping to lead to its abolition elsewhere.
I cannot mention Malawi without singing the praises of the astonishing Mary’s Meals organisation. If hon. Members have not heard of it, they should hear about it. From literally nothing a few short years ago, it is now feeding over 1 million starving children every day—an extraordinary achievement by some extraordinary people. I hope that is the kind of spirit that can lead to the Commonwealth going from strength to strength.
The Commonwealth is not particularly a trading organisation, and I do not think it ever should be. It is not just about the Commonwealth games, but if the only thing the Commonwealth did was the Commonwealth games, it would still be worth celebrating. As I have mentioned, I was delighted when the games came to visit the city of my birth.
Leaving aside seeing the team from Niue, one of the things that we sometimes forget about the Commonwealth games is that it is not just 53 countries that take part, but 71. The Commonwealth Games Federation recognises the status of countries that are not officially countries according to the United Nations or the International Olympic Federation. For example, Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man can compete in their own colours. The Commonwealth games are the only major competition in the calendar where world-class track or field athletes from England can compete in the colours of England. I think that is great.
The spirit of the Commonwealth games was best demonstrated by the lad from England who finished 10th in the marathon—didn’t he get a medal? His doctor said to him 18 months earlier, “You’re 6 stone overweight. Exercise or die.” So he exercised and exercised and exercised, and finished up the best-placed competitor for his country in the marathon in that great city. If the Commonwealth and our membership of it can inspire us all to put that amount of dedication into contributing something, whether to the Commonwealth games, the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit or Commonwealth-based organisations, the Commonwealth very much has a future ahead of it. I am proud to stand here as a citizen of the Commonwealth, and I hope to remain a citizen of the Commonwealth for the rest of my days.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and to follow the Scottish National party spokesman, the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant). I am grateful to the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) for securing this debate. We have heard many excellent speeches today; it has been an interesting debate.
Like the hon. Member for Glenrothes, I think there have been too many contributions for me to acknowledge every single one, but I was particularly struck by the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) and her words about the importance of the Commonwealth games. I know the benefits they brought to my home city, Manchester; I look forward to the upcoming games in Australia and wish Birmingham all the best for 2022.
There were many important points made. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) also spoke about the importance of the Commonwealth games and the pleasure he took in participating and obtaining his free kilt, which maybe we will see him wearing one day. He also spoke clearly about the serious challenge of AIDS and HIV and how that is influenced by anti-LGBT laws. That is an area we need to look at in our relationships with the Commonwealth.
Many hon. Members have spoken about the benefits of trade arrangements with the Commonwealth. While I appreciate that in this post-Brexit world we are looking toward increasing our trading relationships with our Commonwealth partners, at the heart of the Commonwealth, as so many have said, is good will and co-operation, shared values and shared legal systems. We must remember that, and we must keep the sustainable development goals at the heart of everything we do. That does not preclude trade arrangements—sustainable development goal 9 talks about industry, innovation and infrastructure—but we must balance those things with reducing inequality, eradicating poverty, zero hunger and the important goal of ensuring that girls have access to 12 years of education by the year 2030, which the hon. Member for Gloucester referred to in his speech.
The question of who should be the next Head of the Commonwealth has arisen; I was interested to see that referred to in the House of Commons Library research paper, because I was not aware that it was in dispute. According to the House of Commons Library, it is not a foregone conclusion that Prince Charles will become the next Head of the Commonwealth, and that will feature in the CHOGM discussions in April. It will be interesting to keep an eye on developments there; I was not aware of the matter, and I had assumed it was a natural succession, but it seems some Commonwealth countries are saying they would like to elect a different Head. That will be an interesting one to keep an eye on.
It is particularly apt, as many hon. Members have said, that we are having this discussion prior to the CHOGM meeting in April. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association hosted the Commonwealth Parliamentarians Forum here in Westminster at the end of February, which gave parliamentarians an opportunity to engage with the overarching CHOGM theme, “Towards a common future”, with its key objectives of a more sustainable future, a fairer future, a more secure future and a more prosperous future, and its cross-cutting themes of youth, gender and inclusion.
The Commonwealth abides by the Latimer House principles, which guide governance, Parliament, the judiciary and the law-making process. It is also guided by its own charter, which commits to democracy, human rights, international peace and security, as well as recognising equality, the role of civil society, sustainable development and the importance of young people, who, as already mentioned, make up 60% of the 2.4 billion people in the Commonwealth.
To summarise, in an era of uncertainty, changing economic circumstances, new trade and economic patterns, unprecedented threats to peace and security, and a surge in popular demands for democracy, human rights and broadened economic opportunities, the potential of, and need for, the Commonwealth as a compelling force for good and an effective network for promoting development and co-operation has never been greater.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and a particular pleasure to respond to such a debate, where there has been a common thread among colleagues and where the speeches have all emphasised different aspects of a remarkable institution to which this House and all its Members are deeply committed. It is a joy to be able to respond. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) for securing this debate at such an important time for the Commonwealth, and for a charming and erudite speech in promotion of its values and everything else.
As my colleagues from the respective Front Benches said, there was too much in the speeches to cover everything, but I will try to pick out individual points. I must say that my sense that the Commonwealth is in good hands, as far as colleagues in the House are concerned, is very much enhanced by what all have said in picking out the different aspects of this extraordinary relationship that we all wish to enhance. That task within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office falls to Lord Ahmad; I speak here on his behalf. I praise the work he has been engaged on over the last few months. He was worked tirelessly in relation to CHOGM and continues to do so.
Many colleagues have spoken warmly of the connections we all share with other members of the Commonwealth, and of the organisation’s enormous potential for good. My family is no different from any other. Three cousins in Dundee looked at their futures in the early 1920s. One went to South Africa, one went to Canada and one stayed in Scotland. That is not an unfamiliar family pattern, particularly for my family north of the border. Families and other close ties cover so many different aspects of the Commonwealth relationship. As I will make clear, there is no sense that the only particular focus is on the trading relationship. It covers so much more, as almost all the speeches made clear.
The belief in the organisation’s potential as a force for good is shared by the Government. I will set out how we would like next month’s CHOGM meeting to agree ways in which together we can drive progress in realising the full potential of the Commonwealth. Next month promises to be a wonderful celebration of the modern Commonwealth, starting with two weeks of friendly athletic endeavour at the Commonwealth games in Australia’s Gold Coast.
The hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) may like to explain his concept of a medal-less games to the Australians. I wish him joy in that. However, his point was well made; it is indeed “the friendly games” and always has been. However, there is importance in winning. When I was a 15-year-old cross-country runner and Ian Stewart won the 5,000 metres in Edinburgh in 1970, that made us all incredibly proud. Winning matters, but the spirit of the Commonwealth games clearly matters far more, as the hon. Gentleman was right to put it.
I wish my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) very well for the games coming up in Birmingham. She was right to flag how important that is and how important it will be for the city, just as it was for Manchester and all that was contributed there. That sense of athleticism and of joy that is created around Commonwealth games and Paralympic sport is something we all value hugely.
The week after the Commonwealth games, there will be a summit here in the UK, and the month will conclude with celebrations marking the 92nd birthday of Her Majesty the Queen. I put on the record, on behalf of the Government, our admiration of the extraordinary contribution made by Her Majesty over the years. The Westminster Abbey quote used by several colleagues emphasises how much the Commonwealth means to her. Indeed, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, whose commitment to the Commonwealth, and the passion with which he speaks about it throughout all his charitable work and other endeavours, speaks for itself. We should be very proud of the contribution made by both Her Majesty and His Royal Highness to the Commonwealth.
For the summit we will have the privilege of welcoming to the United Kingdom national leaders, Foreign Ministers, business and civil society representatives and, perhaps most importantly, young people from every corner of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth is a unique global network. Its member countries together cover more than a quarter of the world’s land mass, are home to a third of the world’s population and account for a fifth of the world’s trade. Perhaps most importantly for the future of this great institution and the wider world is that more than two thirds of the Commonwealth’s people—around a billion people; one in seven of the world’s population—are under 30 years of age, as has been mentioned. Those figures show the Commonwealth’s immense potential to be an influential player on the global stage in the years ahead.
We have seen the tremendous impact that the Commonwealth can have when it acts as one, as it did in helping South Africa to transition from the injustice of apartheid to the free and democratic society it is today. At the last summit in Malta in 2015, we saw how Heads of Government came together to press for the ambitious climate change agreement forged in Paris just one month later, and we witnessed the valuable work of the Secretary-General and Commonwealth secretariat in helping to broker a political agreement in Zambia.
However, if the Commonwealth is to continue this important work and remain strong, relevant and fit to face the challenges of the 21st century, it must have a clear purpose that is supported by all 53 member states. My hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie), in his excellent speech, which set out what the Commonwealth is not, managed to indicate what it is: this coming together of states, nations and peoples for no other purpose than their wanting to be together, which is so important.
All member states have agreed to focus on four clear priorities at the summit next month—to reassure hon. Members, each priority is as important as the other—and they will all be focuses on which the leaders will agree action. The first aim is to build a more prosperous future by making the compelling case for free trade as the best way to promote higher living standards around the world. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire)—a former Minister for the Commonwealth—made clear, when talking about the Commonwealth business forum, what needs to be done. He spoke of the real work that will follow the summit, and he is absolutely right.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames), in talking about global Britain and the opportunities of that, made the point that global Britain is fine as a slogan, but that we have to deliver. The Commonwealth provides an opportunity, in conjunction with other work we will do, to do just that. Again, the commitment to the Commonwealth shown by both my right hon. Friends over the years has been extraordinary. We are in their debt.
The second priority is to build a safer future by addressing new security challenges, such as cyber-terrorism and online extremism. A cyber agreement is being discussed as we speak. The third aim is to build a sustainable future by helping small island and vulnerable states to mitigate the effects of climate change and by helping the Commonwealth to face other crises. In that context, we can look at some things mentioned by colleagues as they look at other crises. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester talked about malaria, which is a serious health concern for many Commonwealth countries. No decision has been taken on what will be raised at the summit, but we are pleased to note that Malaria No More will hold a malaria summit. It is a matter of great concern.
The final aim to be talked through is to create a fairer, freer and more inclusive future by promoting the values, enshrined in the Commonwealth charter, of democracy and good governance. So many things were mentioned about that. My right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden spoke of the importance of addressing migration and modern slavery. That will absolutely be right up there. The summit is also certainly an opportunity to demonstrate leadership on the education of women and girls, which my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester mentioned. It will certainly be raised.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) raised two questions: freedom of religion and belief, and the preventing sexual violence initiative. Both subjects will very much be raised at the summit and we anticipate discussions on both. We will use the summit to uphold the values of the charter, which are so important to many here. My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) raised the sustainable development goals— I am glad to see her wearing the badge—and the CHOGM summit will be important to that. I know that this also matters to the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney), who raised the importance of LGBT issues. Those are other issues of real value. Although some of the subjects are difficult, he can be assured that the values are clear and that the determination will be strong.
The summit is a priority for the Government, and our ambition is encapsulated in the theme, “Towards a Common Future”: to reinvigorate the Commonwealth and to help to make it an even more active and influential global network. We want the summit to be an important milestone for the Commonwealth—a point in its history where it shows it is fit and able to take on the challenges of the 21st century. If the speeches today are anything to go by, I am sure it will be.
This debate has shown the House at its best, coming together in support of a great cause and great organisation and having a great discussion about what the future contribution of our country and the House can be towards helping the Commonwealth on its journey towards a really exciting future. I am grateful to all those who joined the debate, to the Minister for his response, which was helpful in both tone and content, and to you, Mr Davies, for chairing the debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the future of the Commonwealth.
Houses in Multiple Occupation: Combined Planning Applications
[David Hanson in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered houses in multiple occupation and combined planning applications.
I am sure that I will not be the last person to say what a pleasure and delight it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I apologise to Westminster Hall for bringing a planning matter before it. I realise that many of us who have served in local government dread planning issues: there seems to be no good news; we seem always to be trying to balance the perfectly reasonable requirements of the developers with the protection of our constituents. However, in relation to the concern about the cumulative impact of applications for houses in multiple occupation, I am entirely confident that this is a matter of such significance that it should be brought to the attention of the House, for two particular reasons. One is that a consultation is currently under way on the national planning policy framework—I was delighted to see on the Government website that the consultation period ends at 11.45 pm on 10 May 2018. I profoundly hope that the Minister will be able to carry some of the comments made in this debate forward into that consultation process.
I realise that the Government issued in July last year a briefing paper entitled “Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs) England and Wales”, and the Welsh Government produced an extremely good document in May 2015. However, those documents refer to houses in multiple occupation from the point of view of structure, safety and planning enforcement. I am here because of a group of residents in my constituency, in Perivale—a part of the world that many people will breeze by effortlessly as they glide along Western Avenue, along the A40. They probably do not even know it is there, but it matters to us and to the people of Perivale.
My constituents, in Ribchester Avenue and Wyresdale Crescent, suddenly discovered a couple of months ago that a group of linked companies—some of them seem to be based in two continents other than our own—are buying up properties in those quiet suburban streets. Just to put you in the picture, Mr Hanson, they are 1930s buildings—the typical stucco-fronted 1930s suburban buildings that are so close to my heart. They are semi-detached, by and large. Suddenly they were being bought up—in some cases with cash—and converted into houses in multiple occupation.
Under present planning law, houses in multiple occupation are classified as class C4 if there are between three and six unrelated individuals living there. The Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1987 is pretty clear on the subject, and I do not argue with it, but what the legislation does not do is consider the cumulative impact of a large number of these developments springing up on the same street. The Minister will doubtless refer to article 4 directions. I can come on to article 4 directions in a moment and show why that is an utter waste of time—it is a mere sop. It is a total and utter irrelevance when it comes to addressing the issue because—
May I implore the hon. Gentleman to hold his patience for a moment? If he does, he will hear exactly what I propose. I propose entirely new legislation—an amendment to article 4 directions. I know that the Minister will seize it and rush from this building with it clutched in her hand to change the law immediately, because she is on the side of the angels on this issue.
One of my constituents found that the house next door—the semi-detached property—had been bought by a series of linked companies, and they proceeded to convert it into an HMO. I have to say that the place burnt down during the works, which is unfortunate but it has happened. There was no party wall agreement, which is extremely unfortunate. More sinisterly, when my constituent went to see the planning officer, she discovered, as did I, that every single HMO application in that tight little suburban backwater is considered individually. There is no consideration under planning law of the cumulative impact—what I would call the saturation—in these cases.
My hon. Friend could be describing a situation far from Ealing, on Birches Head Road in Stoke-on-Trent. The frustrating thing with all this is that they are considered as individual applications. Does he agree that when companies make it known at the outset that they intend to buy up one, two, three, four or even five properties in small residential areas, that ought to be taken into consideration?
I have never knowingly disagreed with my hon. Friend ever since I took part in his by-election campaign, which was a success—that probably had nothing to do with my involvement. I absolutely agree with him. Let us get one thing straight: the Mayor of London and most strategic planning authorities recognise that there is a place and a role for HMOs, and London councils are quite keen on the idea. There is a recognition that HMOs can provide low-cost housing for people, particularly as starter homes. I have no problem with that. The issue is the fact that there is no lateral linkage. At the very least, the law should require companies that are linked—circuitously or laterally—to declare that they are the same company, and we should consider the cumulative impact of applications.
Mr Hanson, if you were building a block that would accommodate 40 or 50 people, you would have to go through an entirely different planning regime. There would have to be section 106 provision, a community infrastructure levy, an impact assessment and consideration of sewerage, light, water, education, health—all the surrounding issues—and rightly so, because they would have an impact on the local community. You would have to look at the local school provision and health provision. But with multiple HMOs that is not the case. They can spring up like toadstools after a spring rain. They can come up all over Perivale and there is no consideration of what will happen to Selborne Primary School, Perivale Primary School or St John Fisher Primary School. There is no consideration of what will happen to the Hillview surgery, the medical centre. That cannot be right—
I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene. The relocation of the University of Northampton has caused a surge in planning applications for HMOs and a lot of unease among the residents of Far Cotton. Although Northampton Borough Council has a policy of restricting HMO density to 15% within any given area, that has been complicated by planning appeal decisions and a rise in unlicensed HMOs in the area. The community accepts that some change will take place; it is the scale that has caused the problem, as he has explained. How would his proposal assist this problem?
I seem to have struck a nerve. This issue is not unique to Perivale. Perivale may be unique, but in this matter it is not, quite clearly. The point is that at the moment local residents are profoundly disturbed because they see the character of their area changing and there is nothing that the planning officers can do. Last Sunday week, Councillor Tariq Mahmood, a local councillor, and I met the residents in the street, in Wyresdale Crescent, and to my horror I discovered that three local residents—families I have known for years—were selling up and moving out because they could not stand the character of their street changing from a quiet residential backwater into a row of houses in multiple occupation, and of course that then accelerates the process. Those three sell up, and before we know where we are we have a constant row of them.
I am not implying for a moment that the people who live in HMOs have riotous parties all night. This is about the number of people. There are issues of parking and refuse collection, as well as the drain and demand on local services. When Councillor Mahmood and I and the other two Perivale ward councillors, Councillors Charan Sharma and Munir Ahmed, went to see the chief planning officer at Ealing, David Scourfield, he said in effect, “My hands are tied; there is very little I can do,” and he referred to an article 4 direction, which I will come on to in a moment. Despite the fact that it is a total and utter waste of time and a complete irrelevance, it happens to be statute law and therefore I shall refer to it.
In the situation that I have described, what recourse is left for local residents? One of the residents has done an enormous amount of investigation and discovered that five of the properties, each one registered with a different company, are in fact all related to the same company. They all come back to the same addresses, in two cases outside the United Kingdom, and even outside the continent of Europe. Why could it not be a legal requirement for people to say that when making these multiple applications? If one company—David Hanson plc of north Wales, for example—decided to build 50 HMOs in Perivale, it would have to declare it. You would also have to declare it to the House authorities, Mr Hanson, but that is neither here nor there. However, at the moment companies do not have to declare that, because each application is considered individually.
The draft London plan, to which I referred earlier, does recognise the importance. It says in “(H12) 4.12.7”:
“Houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) are an important part of London’s housing offer, reducing pressure on other elements of the housing stock. Their quality can, however, give rise to concern.”
Here is the issue: quality. Quality is not an issue, because building enforcement can apply in these cases, but more importantly, the fire brigade has to certify. Therefore, there is the certification process and the licensing process, but that does not solve the problem. Why does it not solve the problem? It is partly because planning permission is not required in order to be a licensed HMO. Even worse, in London there is actually a numerical limit on the number of HMO licences that a local authority can give—I cannot speak for Reading, Stoke or Northampton. That means that once that ceiling is reached, the pressure of withholding a licence cannot be used by a council to make a difference. That seems to be an anomalous situation. I can understand why and how it has come about, but it is not helping the people of Perivale, and I do not think it is helping the people of Stoke, Northampton or Reading either.
The article 4 directions are what are normally flagged up. They are normally considered to be
“backstop powers to require developers to apply for planning permission for HMO conversions”.
Councils may use them
“in cases where they have concerns about the impact of a concentration of HMOs on local objectives in an area.”
Marvellous! That is music to my ears—absolutely delightful. This is where the council has backstop powers where there is a concern about the impact of a concentration of HMOs. Sadly, all is not well. It might appear good, but this is the curate’s egg. There might be a good bit, but most of it is completely rotten.
The plan continues:
“A council has to give 12 months’ notice before it can use an Article 4 Direction”—
meaning that the powers have no use whatsoever
“for reacting swiftly or efficiently”.
It goes on:
“If a council cannot wait 12 months to use an Article 4 Direction because it would risk the best interests of their residents…they must pay compensation costs.”
I need hardly say that local authorities are under unprecedented financial pressure and simply to take the risk of having to pay in these particular cases would be untenable.
“If a council uses an Article 4 direction, it will not necessarily prohibit the development or change of use.”
What use is it? That is ridiculous. It is as much use as a chocolate teapot. I see no more purpose in it whatsoever. It simply means that local people may have an opportunity to make representations and the elected representatives can decide on the development’s merits, but after the horse has bolted.
Article 4 directions must be reduced to get rid of the 12-month notice period and the compensation provisions. These are handcuffs. These are a ball and chain on local councils. It is impossible for a serious, sensible and concerned local council to actually act in the ambit of the article 4 direction, if 12 months’ notice must be given, plus the concentration provision. It simply makes no sense whatsoever. I believe that the Local Government Association has made representations to the Minister and her Secretary of State on this matter.
Planning law has to balance the two priorities. In the case of HMOs, I think we tended to look at it through the prism of student accommodation, or accommodation in some rundown, old areas, where it seemed to be a regeneration and gentrifying tool—in some cases it was; in some cases it was not. In the case of Perivale, it seems to me that someone has constructed a financial algorithm that says, “Because house prices here are lower than in the rest of west London, for the moment, where you can buy a three-bedroom suburban house for under £700,000”—that might raise eyebrows in Stoke but, believe me, it is pretty good value for money in west London—“if that is split into six units, you will get about £1,000 a month in rent.” Do the maths, as they say. It will work out as a very profitable arrangement. One of the people behind these companies is based in Brooklyn, New York, which is not normally closely linked with the London borough of Ealing, let alone Perivale. That suggests to me that this is a straightforward financial consideration that someone has made.
I am in no way opposed to people making a few honest bob. Good luck to them. I am quite new Labour about this. I think that people should be able to make money, but not at the expense of suffering constituents and residents, who wake up in the morning to find that what was their home—their parent’s home, in many cases—their neighbourhood and their area have changed utterly beyond recognition. What about the people moving in there? The young professionals or students moving into an HMO in Perivale are not going to be welcomed, wanted, liked or loved; it is going to be damn difficult for them.
What worries me most of all, however, is the fact that people look to their local authority, just as they look to us as Members of Parliament, to protect and defend their rights and interests. We must do that. The law should work for people, not against them. In this case, by tightening up an article 4 direction and maybe having a look at some of the other regulations within the use classes order, we can solve this problem. Now is the right time to solve this problem, because the national planning policy framework is subject to consultation at the moment.
I want my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) to make a brief speech. Mr Hanson. I hope that I have not been overly emotional, but I cannot stress too strongly the impact of this sort of development on quiet, decent, ordinary suburban people, who have not asked for this, do not want it and cannot endure it much longer. I look to the Government to come to their rescue.
Thank you, Mr Hanson, for the opportunity to speak briefly in the debate. I welcome the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) on this important issue and I congratulate him on securing the debate. I want to speak briefly in support of the hon. Member for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer) and also my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell), and make two points.
The first point is about the sheer proliferation of HMOs in urban Britain today. In my experience as a former councillor and now as an MP for a town in the country some way from London, the scale is quite significant and might not be fully recognised by all colleagues. Some 28% of the housing in Reading is now privately rented, and a significant proportion are HMOs. The typical issues that we face in our town may well be familiar to colleagues representing similar sorts of towns with similar street layouts. We have a lot of Victorian and 1920s housing. We have a limited amount of street space for parking—it is not like a rural area, with driveways or land at the side of buildings. One of the big challenges that we face—I suspect that other hon. Members may face it in their constituencies—is the sheer volume of cars generated by HMOs, in what are already densely populated areas.
The second serious and practical problem is the large number of additional refuse bins that are created. That might sound like a mundane matter, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North pointed out, a sudden change in the housing ownership on a quiet street can dramatically alter its appearance. It can be quite disturbing for local residents to suddenly see large numbers of new bins popping up in front gardens and large numbers of cars. The other issue is that many small front gardens become overgrown and much less attractive. It can be quite a dramatic change for residents who are used to living in a settled urban environment—and who are often from a range of age groups, from young couples and single people to elderly people—to suddenly have a proliferation of very often temporary residents who are unable to stay in the area for long and, as a result, unfortunately unable to put down roots.
I would also like to speak up for the residents in HMOs and to consider things from their perspective, because part of the issue is the wider lack of housing supply in the country, particularly in hotspot areas. I do not know about Northampton, but I suspect that, like us, it may face a chronic lack of housing. Part of the problem is that there is just not enough affordable housing for young people and people moving into these areas. Although this is not quite at the rates found in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North, I know someone who recently had to pay £300,000 for a two-bedroom terraced house in Reading town centre. That is pretty expensive. What we really need is more affordable housing to buy and more affordable council housing to rent.
I urge the Government to look into this. The article 4 directions offer some ability for local councils to intervene, but they are wholly inadequate. If the Minister can comment on that and suggest ways of enhancing legislation, I will be extremely grateful.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) on securing this important debate. I welcome the wide-ranging discussion and recognise many of the concerns about the impact of houses in multiple occupation, or HMOs, in certain areas.
I thought it would be helpful if I set out clearly the wide range of housing and planning controls that exist to control both the creation and operation of HMOs. I hope this will demonstrate that local authorities have an effective array of tools to ensure that any adverse impacts from HMOs can be properly addressed. Before discussing those controls in detail, it is important to acknowledge the wider context: the pressing national need to increase the supply of all types of housing.
As we set out in the housing White Paper, the Government are determined to boost the supply of housing and, over the longer term, create a more efficient housing market where outcomes more closely match the needs of all households. Our actions are already delivering success. Since 2010, we have delivered more than 357,000 new affordable homes, and around one quarter of them are in London.
The Prime Minister recently announced an additional £2 billion funding for affordable housing, which will increase the affordable homes programme budget to over £9 billion. The new funding will support councils and housing associations to build more affordable homes where they are needed most—where families are struggling with rental costs, and some are at risk of homelessness. But there is more to do.
The Government recently published a revision of the national planning policy framework for consultation, which implements around 80 reforms announced last year. It will ensure that planning remains locally led and that all local communities get the homes and infrastructure they need. It represents an ambitious step forward in our aim to tackle the housing crisis by bringing forward more land for housing in the right places. The consultation runs until 10 May at 11.45, that is 23.45—
Subject to being properly planned, constructed and managed, the provision of additional HMOs can make a small but important contribution to housing supply in some areas. That is particularly true for those entering the market for the first time.
One final point of introduction: hon. Members will appreciate that because of the Secretary of State’s role in the planning process, I cannot comment on specific cases raised today. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman that my comments will therefore cover the issues in general. I hope, none the less, to reassure hon. Members that the Government take proper control of HMOs seriously.
HMOs play an important role in the private rented sector. They provide a cheaper alternative to other private rented accommodation and flexibility. However, they sometimes pose greater management challenges than single household accommodation. That is why mandatory licensing of HMOs was introduced in 2004 for properties with three or more storeys that are occupied by five or more people. Since its introduction over a decade ago, it has been successful in raising standards and enabling local authorities to tackle overcrowded conditions and poor management practices. However, significant growth in the private rented sector means that some smaller properties are being converted for use as HMOs. Those HMOs do not legally require a licence at the minute, and there are sometimes problems with standards. To address that, we are extending mandatory licensing, which we expect to come into force in October 2018.
I am sure you will be pleased to hear, Mr Hanson, that the extended scope of mandatory HMO licensing will cover properties where five or more unrelated tenants share facilities, regardless of the number of floors in the building. We are also creating two new mandatory HMO licence conditions: national minimum sizes for rooms used as sleeping accommodation, and a requirement to comply with council refuse schemes.
As the Minister is outlining things that the Government are looking to do, would they be willing to consider a saturation limit? As my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) said, the issue is not necessarily the numbers, but the concentration in certain areas. If the Government were able to entertain that, I am sure she would find cross-party support.
There is not, in fact, a limit on the number of HMO licences a local housing authority can issue, so it can deal with it that way.
Good management of HMOs is important. Before a local housing authority can issue a licence, it must be satisfied that the proposed licence holder or landlord is a fit and proper person. It has to ensure that the landlord has no unspent convictions, has not carried out unlawful discrimination and is not in contravention of housing or landlord and tenant law.
Local authorities have the powers that they need to impose conditions on how landlords manage these properties, and to ensure that they do not cause overcrowding. Conditions can also be included to ensure that landlords maintain the upkeep of properties. The conditions can also make them responsible for such things as antisocial behaviour committed by their tenants. A breach of a licence condition is a criminal offence and a licence holder can receive a substantial fine if convicted. Repeated or substantial breaches of a condition can also result in the licence being revoked. That is a significant penalty.
Licensing HMO properties strengthens a local authority’s enforcement capacity. They have strong powers in the Housing Act 2004 to tackle poor property conditions and overcrowding in HMOs. They can serve improvement notices requiring landlords to carry out works to remedy poor conditions or make prohibition orders to prevent overcrowding. In the most serious cases, where the health and safety of tenants and their families is at significant risk, local authorities are under a duty to take action to combat the problem.
Landlords who fail to comply with an improvement notice or prohibition order are committing a criminal offence. Indeed, failure to apply for a licence is also a criminal offence. We have gone further in tackling rogue landlords by introducing new powers in the Housing and Planning Act 2016 that mean that non-compliant landlords can face a civil penalty of up to £30,000. Furthermore, we have enabled local authorities to keep the income from such fines to support their enforcement capacity.
Ealing, specifically, has been proactive in licensing smaller HMOs by introducing an additional licensing scheme in 2017 to cover HMOs occupied by four people or more. Ealing has gone further in using licensing to raise standards in the sector. It has also introduced selective licensing, which allows it to license all private rented properties in specific parts east of the borough. That is with a view to driving improvements in the quality and management of such properties. Ealing has also previously been successful in securing additional financial support under our rogue landlord funding. Through that, it has carried out more than 1,500 inspections and 30 raids in partnership with the UK Border Agency.
However, I recognise that HMO accommodation can sometimes lead to problems for local residents who live in the vicinity. Many of the problems arise from the intensification of the use of the property. If there is a concentration of HMOs, the cumulative impact can affect neighbours’ amenities. The planning system also has a role to play in controlling such development. Permitted development rights allow a family house to be changed to a small house in multiple occupation for up to six people sharing facilities without a planning application. Where neighbours have concerns, they can alert the planning authority. It is then for the planning authority to determine whether the works are lawful, and if not what, if any, action to take.
I will get to article 4, but I am concerned about the time because the hon. Gentleman probably wants to respond.
The hon. Gentleman does not? That is really kind; I thank him.
I will talk more about enforcement. A landlord who deliberately rents out a house to more than six individuals would be in breach of planning control if they had not obtained planning permission from the local planning authority, so it could take enforcement action.
The Government believe that it is important to tackle breaches of planning control that would have an unacceptable impact on the amenity of an area. Local planning authorities already have a wide range of strong enforcement powers to do so. However, enforcement action can be taken only when a breach has occurred. It cannot be taken in anticipation of a likely breach; although, where a local authority considers that an unauthorised development is likely to occur, it can apply for an injunction to prevent that from happening.
Making full and effective use of all the available powers can also act as a deterrent. Taking action against the unlawful development of houses in multiple occupation in a targeted area, combined with licensing and building regulation enforcement if necessary, can send a strong message to other rogue developers and landlords that they will not be tolerated. However, it is up to planning authorities when and how they use these powers. I am encouraged to learn that the hon. Gentleman recently met the chief planner of Ealing London Borough Council to discuss the local issue. It is best placed to undertake these investigations.
To conclude, I hope that hon. Members are convinced that there are rigorous powers available to local authorities to ensure the control and management of HMOs.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
UK-EU: International Development
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the UK’s future relationship with the EU on international development.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I thank the Minister for being here to respond to the debate, and hon. Members from across the House who have joined me for this important discussion.
This is the first Westminster Hall debate that I have secured, and I am proud to have done so on such a key issue. The UK’s future international development work will play a pivotal role in the lives of millions of the world’s poorest people. We cannot allow Brexit to undo the good work that we have achieved through overseas aid.
Before my election to the House, I ran a hospital and a community health programme in Uganda, on the edge of the Bwindi impenetrable forest, for almost five years. It offered HIV, malaria, and maternal and child health services to local communities. I have seen at first hand the difference that development programmes can make. We should be incredibly proud of the work that the UK and the EU do to save lives and end poverty around the world. We should also be proud of our continued commitment to spend 0.7% of national income on overseas aid.
I called for this debate because we are at a crucial crossroads in the discussions about Brexit. In the next six months, the second phase of talks must agree what our future relationship with the EU will look like. Just as crucially, at the same time, the EU’s multi-annual financial framework—its budget—for 2021 to 2027 is under discussion.
Many questions remain unanswered. So much is still unknown and so little time remains. It is therefore right that this House should have a serious say in what the UK is trying to achieve, as well as on our negotiating position to get there. We have had very few opportunities so far to do that, so I welcome today’s debate.
I will talk about four key points: first, the impact of this vital work, and the many lives we already save and improve; secondly, the importance of working together with the EU to achieve greater efficiency and to add value to what we do; thirdly, the recognition that the UK is a world leader on development—we punch well above our weight and it is important to continue to provide that leadership; fourthly, the acknowledgement that other options and partnerships simply will not match up to what we can already offer. There is much at stake. Our future relationship with the EU on international development matters.
First, and perhaps most critically, the impact of this work is such that the lives of the world’s poorest and most marginalised populations depend on our getting it right. We must get the greatest impact and value for money out of every pound of the UK’s aid budget. If we do not, we will deliver fewer life-saving vaccinations, put fewer girls in schools and save fewer refugees from sexual violence.
In 2016, £1.5 billion—11% of our total official development assistance budget—was delivered through the EU budget and the European development fund. After decades of working with the EU, we know that it is one of the most effective delivery channels for spending taxpayers’ money to help the world’s poorest. Hon. Members do not need to take my word for that: in the Government’s multilateral aid review, the European Commission’s development and humanitarian programmes were assessed as “very good” in terms of matching UK development objectives, and “good” in terms of their organisational strengths. When the Ebola crisis happened, with leadership from the Department for International Development, member states worked together. By pooling resources, they could provide a much more effective response on the ground.
Secondly, partnership working with the EU allows DFID to improve where and how it works, and to help more of the world’s poorest. It has been said that every £1 of aid the UK spends through EU institutions is matched by £6 from other member states. The EU has operations in 120 of the world’s countries. Our partnership enables our aid budget to reach and respond in a far higher number of countries than we could ever achieve by working alone—often in places that other partnerships simply do not reach.
Anybody who, like me, has worked in international development or humanitarian response will say how important co-ordination on the ground is in responding to an emerging situation. The EU is a crucial in-country co-ordination mechanism for European donors to quickly share information and make decisions, so we must find a way to keep a seat at that table. By pooling resources and expertise with the EU and with European donors, DFID can tackle, at scale, much bigger crises than it could by itself.
Thirdly, our financial commitments to EU development and humanitarian programmes grant the UK enormous access and influence over international development globally. In 2016, EU nations spent more than €75 billion on official development assistance, but that figure could and should be higher. The UK and others led the way by spending 0.7% of gross national income on development assistance, but many countries do not. We must persuade those who are still falling short to raise their game, but we can do so only if they listen to us.
I am loth to interrupt my hon. Friend’s passionate speech, but he mentioned 2016 and I wondered if he had seen the International Development Committee’s report of that year. It points out that the Government should
“consider the ramifications of the UK’s exit on the laws and regulations designed to curb corruption both here and overseas”.
Anti-corruption was not one of his four pillars, but the report said that it should not be de-prioritised. Yet when the Government’s anti-corruption strategy came out in December, there was no mention of this. Is he as disturbed as I am by that gaping hole?
I did not choose to talk about corruption, but my hon. Friend raises an important point. To ensure that our aid is spent effectively, and, perhaps more importantly, to maintain public confidence in the fact that we give 0.7% of national income to official development assistance, we have to work in any way we can, and with many partnerships, to root out corruption.
DFID is widely perceived as one of the top aid agencies, which raises the standard of aid effectiveness and transparency in Europe and around the world. It has a seat in Cabinet and it is supported by deep technical expertise. Many European partners do not have that, which means that it is often able to set the standard, raise the bar, and promote important principles, such as poverty reduction and the untying of aid.
Despite the key role we play in the EU’s international development, we would be naive to think that we could achieve just as much by going it alone. To withdraw from EU development and humanitarian programmes would be a mistake. Large proportions of the money we invest on the ground to help the world’s poorest would be likely to be swallowed up by the creation of costly administrative systems to distribute those funds outside existing structures.
I am the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Nigeria. The aims of our aid programmes and of the EU’s in that country are quite well aligned. How does the hon. Gentleman see that continuing? What happens when, as in central and eastern Europe, those aims diverge? The EU’s efforts in that area fell behind.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing his first Westminster Hall debate on this very important subject. Does he agree that the scale and size of the UK’s contribution to international aid helps to mitigate some of his concerns? The big part that the UK plays in international aid will give us an important role on the world stage.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. Together with our EU partners, we are the world’s largest donor, but if we are alone we will fall down the pecking order. At least some of our influence comes from working with EU partners, but I concede that our role and our leadership as a stand-alone player are still very important.
My hon. Friend is making very good progress. Does he agree that it is not just money that is important to our influence in the EU? In the final stages of the sustainable development goal negotiations, there were four actors around the table: the EU, the US, the G77 and the co-chairs. Is there not a risk that if we do not come to an agreement with the EU, we will lose a seat in some of the informal negotiations that shape development policy?
I thank my hon. Friend for that wise intervention. Yes, there is a risk that we will lose much of our influence if we do not get this right.
My final point is that we need to think seriously about what kind of country we want to become. The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs recently warned that the rhetoric of “global Britain” risks becoming nothing more than a slogan. Just a fortnight ago, DFID signed a controversial new humanitarian partnership with Saudi Arabia, despite what it is doing to put 8.4 million people in Yemen at risk of famine. When we form the wrong alliances, it could spell disaster for development. Some may say that we could form aid partnerships with nations such as the United States, but that would put our existing work at risk, especially in the light of the President’s Executive order that brings back the so-called global gag rule. We could find our ongoing progress on sexual health and reproductive rights held back by others’ beliefs.
Our partnership with the EU must surely be one of our top priorities. Given what is at stake and the risks of getting it wrong, we cannot afford to treat our humanitarian partnership as a bargaining chip in Brexit negotiations. The impact of our contributions on millions of lives and the amplification that they give to DFID are far too important to sacrifice in Brexit negotiations. I hope that today we will have a chance to put party politics aside and restate what I believe is a widespread commitment to moving forward with an ambitious and substantive partnership with the EU on international development.
To move forward, we need to fully understand the Government’s position, so I hope the Minister will paint a clearer picture of it today. In September, the Government published an ambiguous Brexit position paper, “Foreign policy, defence and development”, that made a commitment to an ambitious international development partnership with the EU. Six months on, however, the details are still lacking. Just weeks ago, DFID published a new paper that suggested that the UK will seek flexible engagement with different funds. It says that we will continue to seek influence and a seat at the table wherever we can—hardly a clear or compelling vision. Surely the public, our EU partners, non-governmental organisations and developing nations deserve more clarity than that.
I ask the Minister to provide some clarity by answering the following questions. What EU funds do the Government want to contribute to? Will the Government continue making contributions to the central EU budget, or only to ring-fenced funds outside it? Will they actively push for the European development fund to remain independent, ring-fenced and outside the scope of the central EU budget? I understand that that is far from certain. What influence would we need to secure from the EU in order to consider the negotiations to have been successful? What exact plans is DFID making for a no-deal scenario?
Tamsyn Barton, the chief executive of the UK international development network, Bond—British Overseas NGOs for Development—has already warned that DFID runs the risk that the EU will see it as cherry-picking. The Government’s new paper also urges so-called creative thinking. I hope that our negotiations in this important area of humanitarianism will not suffer from the same negotiating weaknesses that we have seen elsewhere.
I hope that this debate will be just the beginning of a meaningful discussion on the future of the UK-EU international development partnership. Questions remain about how Parliament will have a say on this crucial topic in the future and about how we will exercise real scrutiny over the Government’s position. The UK has collaborated with the EU for decades, with shared goals and values, to eliminate hunger, poverty, disease and inequality and to tackle conflict and crisis at scale. That partnership is too important to risk. We must now get on with the business of making sure that we preserve it once we leave the European Union.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again this week, Mr Hanson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton South (Dr Williams) on securing this important debate on an important subject.
International development has been one of the UK Government’s great success stories, as the hon. Gentleman recognises. We have met our commitment to spending 0.7% of gross national income on overseas aid; we are one of just seven countries in the world to do so. Working bilaterally and multilaterally, we have made progress towards reaching the 2030 global goals. That success is to be applauded, and I have every confidence that it will continue after Brexit, when the £1.5 billion— 11% of our overseas aid spending—that we currently funnel through the EU’s development programmes comes under our control.
Of course, if we are to maintain our 0.7% target, we must continue to spend that money on overseas aid, but we do not have to spend it all in the same way. Arguably, the EU still sends too much of its aid to middle-income countries that benefit either from being candidates for accession or simply from being near the EU. In 2016, for instance, the top five beneficiaries of overseas aid from EU institutions were Turkey, Morocco, Ukraine, Serbia and Tunisia, all of which are very much middle-income countries.
One of this Conservative Government’s great achievements in aid is the rigour that we have brought to the Department for International Development, which ensures that UK aid is spent as wisely and effectively as possible. I look forward to the aid that we funnel through the EU being subjected to the same focus. It is important to note that a lot of EU overseas aid work is excellent and helps some of the world’s poorest people, but it also benefits middle-income countries, as I said.
Britain, the EU, other developed economies and organisations such as the UN are all in the same fight to eradicate poverty and hunger and build a better world. As the hon. Gentleman said, there are cases in which multilateral aid—whether given through the UN, through another global organisation or through the EU—maximises the impact of our aid money and helps it to reach places and people that we could not reach alone. We should therefore be willing to continue working and co-operating with the EU on certain international development projects that we deem appropriate. I hope that the UK Government will express that wish to EU leaders as we negotiate Brexit and as the EU formulates its post-2020 overseas aid policy. If the EU puts our common goal of a poverty-free world first, it should accept our willingness to join in with some projects.
I am optimistic about the future of our international development policy. As the hon. Gentleman recognises, Britain can hold its head high: we have a proud record of giving significantly more money than most EU states. I hope we will get the control we need to ensure that our money is spent in the best way possible, while leaving the door open to co-operation with the EU where it is best not just for us and the EU, but for the world as a whole.
Thank you, Mr Hanson, for calling me to speak. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Dr Williams) for securing this debate, which is very important. Hopefully it will spur on the International Development Committee, which I sit on, to expedite its planned inquiry into this issue.
I will briefly touch on a number of issues, which supplement those that have already been raised, and which are particularly about the co-ordination of non-governmental organisations. At the moment, Britain and London are one of the leading hubs for NGOs and aid organisations around the world. Those organisations receive a number of substantial grants, from not only the British Government but the European Union, and they receive them because they have their headquarters or administrative offices in the European Union.
One thing we must ensure in any leaving of the EU is that we do not disadvantage NGOs that have decided to base themselves in Britain—very often because the British people have been so generous historically in supporting international development. We not only have Oxfam in Oxford, of course, but this city—London—is a leader for international development. Having a commitment that the Government will not only continue to support these NGOs from Government funds but go and bat for the NGO sector so that these NGOs are eligible for EU funds, even if their registered address is in London, will be vital to ensure that they continue their co-ordinated work. I hope that the Government will make a commitment on that.
On visits with many hon. Friends, I have seen how co-ordination on the ground is so important. Often, one of the big players—in other words, the EU or the United States Agency for International Development—takes a co-ordinating role between Government donors in countries, and Britain has often stepped up to co-ordinate EU efforts. Sierra Leone is one good example of that. Making sure that Britain is able to take the lead in co-ordinating Government efforts in-country, whether we are part of the EU or we have a memorandum of understanding with it, will be really important in ensuring that we continue batting like that.
The other thing I want to raise is the 2019 report to the high-level political forum. I welcome the fact that the Government themselves will report to that forum, which evaluates the sustainable development goals, but the EU will also report to it in the same year. How the Government feed into that report—feeding in the good work that Britain does—will be important, because it is international frameworks that help to leverage our money so that we have a bigger bang for our buck. However, if the EU report does not include British priorities, there is a danger that our voice will be diminished on the international stage. It would be really good to hear from the Minister on some of those issues.
I will finish by saying that very often, in my experience of international development diplomacy, and as I mentioned previously, it has been the EU that has led and co-ordinated, and it has been Britain within the EU that has helped to push the EU to be a leader in certain areas. I wonder whether the Government have had any significant discussions about how they will continue to play a leading role in “EU-plus”—I say “plus” because we will not be in the EU—co-ordination in New York when we are involved in these important negotiations. I ask that because there is a real danger, when we leave the EU, that if we do not have an arrangement with the EU to negotiate jointly with it, we will just not be “in the room”.
I leave Members with one anecdote. I was in the negotiations that set up the HLPF, and I remember that we went off into a small room. It was, as I mentioned earlier, the US, the EU and a few other big players. At the end of the negotiations, we had worked out a deal, but Switzerland came and said, “We’re not happy with that deal. We don’t like it.” The chairman turned around to Switzerland and said, “Well, I’m sorry, Switzerland. You’re not one of the big development players. You have a choice: you can either put up or you can shut up, but we are not changing our negotiated position now. You can vote against it and let the whole thing fail, and you will be the pariah of the world.” Switzerland decided to shut up and live with the negotiated text, which it was not quite happy with. There is a real danger that if we do not ensure that we leverage work with our partners in the US and the EU, we will become a poor relation, as Switzerland was on that night of the negotiations.
As ever, Mr Hanson, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. It is also a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle), who gave a very powerful speech, and to congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton South (Dr Williams), not only on securing the debate—I am glad that it is happening today, although unfortunately it is quite short, and I hope to hear more debates like it in the future—but on his incredible work in Uganda, which I am glad he told us all about.
The UK has a long history of working with European Union partners to help some of the world’s most vulnerable nations, and figures indicate that around 11% of our aid budget is channelled through the European Commission. However, serious choices for this Government lie ahead about whether and how to co-operate with the various development institutions of the EU after Brexit, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the debate.
The Scottish National party wants to see the closest possible relationship with the EU in relation to international development. Close co-operation with our European partners has had a hugely beneficial impact, not just here in Europe in terms of our relationships, but in the world, and it has allowed us to raise, pool and co-ordinate aid and expertise.
Working with others is essential for solving many of the world’s biggest problems, including achieving gender equality, tackling tax avoidance, using diplomacy to end conflict and promote peace, and, of course, tackling the devastating impact of climate change—fragile states are hit the hardest and have the fewest resources to cope with climate change impacts.
The EU functions as a bloc within the UN framework convention on climate change, with the UK as a leading member. After Brexit, if the UK does not maintain a close relationship with the EU, our influence on global environmental and climate change policies, which affect everyone, will be significantly reduced, and the world will be a whole lot worse off for it.
At present, many UK non-governmental organisations receive funding from the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations Directorate. Post-Brexit, they will not be able to apply for any of those funds, and they are already finding that grant applications are no longer being accepted. This situation undermines the global capacity to respond effectively to natural disasters, which is something that UK NGOs are among the best in the world at, including in terms of humanitarian recovery. All of us involved in this debate should be proud of that. However, we must make sure that Brexit does not impact the funding of those NGOs. Again, I would like to hear what the Minister has to say on that point.
After we, sadly, leave the EU—I have to say “sadly”—some will undoubtedly want aid funds to be reallocated away from foreign aid and into domestic expenditure. Can we be clear today what we are talking about here? UK aid alleviates suffering in some of the most climate-vulnerable, poverty-stricken and war-torn countries in the world. UK Government domestic expenditure policies —most notably austerity policies—are causing poverty and inequality in this country. That is a political choice and not an economic one, and it is one that the SNP does not support. We should not let these two things become conflicted.
As the UK remains committed to the 0.7% of gross national income aid target, funds that were previously channelled through EU international development activities will be reallocated to other foreign aid-related activities. However, there has recently been an alarming shift in the focus of the UK aid strategy, with increasing importance being attached to the promotion of the UK’s national interest. A key mechanism for achieving that has been to direct the aid budget away from the Department for International Development to other Departments, such as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence. Let me be crystal clear: the foreign aid budget should never be used for defence, and this development appears to be a clear attempt to dilute our efforts to achieve our No.1 goal in giving aid, which is to fight extreme poverty.
Not only that, but the International Development Secretary previously pledged to use Britain’s aid as part of
“a bold new Brexit-ready proposition to boost trade and investment with developing countries”.
It is concerning that UK aid could be used to mitigate the negative impacts of Brexit, with the UK’s security and prosperity becoming key factors in deciding how aid is spent. This direction of travel will reduce the focus on global poverty alleviation, as well as raising concerns about the transparency and accountability of aid spending outside DFID.
It is well known that Brexit will have a huge impact on the UK, but if unchecked it will also have significant repercussions on the world’s poorest people. It is vital that the UK and the EU continue to support harmonised responses and co-ordinated action to humanitarian crises. The SNP will continue to urge the Government to prioritise international development as a key dimension of our global contribution to the international community —something that all of us in this room are proud of—informed by core values of fairness and equality.
International development is about being a good global citizen, which can be accomplished only through effective international collaboration. That is why the UK Government should seek the closest possible co-operation with our European partners.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Dr Williams) on securing this important debate. He spoke passionately and persuasively about what is at stake in our future relationship with the EU, and why we must get it right. We have heard a number of particularly useful contributions and points, which have been made forcefully. It is testament to how important this topic is that we would all benefit from additional time.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) and the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) for their contributions. I also thank the hon. Member for Gordon (Colin Clark), who talked about the importance of working with EU partners, my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle), who reminded us that we should not disadvantage non-governmental organisations based in London when leaving the EU, given the work that they do, and the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law), who talked about the importance of our relationship with the EU, and the impact on our global capacity to respond to natural disasters if funding streams are not available to the sector.
We have heard today how important it is for the Government to lay out a clear and unambiguous position on what we want from a future relationship with the EU. That simply has not happened yet. We have a Government position paper from September, but it is remarkable only for its ambiguity. As of the end of February, we now also have the so-called “non-paper” that sets out the UK perspective on development instruments for the 2021-27 general EU budget. It provides a little more detail, but it runs the risk of the Government again wanting to cherry-pick, have our cake and eat it, and demand more “creative thinking” from the EU to solve the Government’s lack of imagination and focus.
We have heard today that our humanitarian and development partnership with the EU is too important, and has too great an impact on the lives of the world’s poorest people, to warrant dragging our feet, or sliding into a snail’s pace of negotiation. I believe that the House has heard loudly and clearly that decisions over future funding contributions to the EU must be guided not by short-term political horse-trading, but by their impact on the lives of the world’s poorest.
We must not allow the lives that are at stake to become simply a bargaining chip. We have heard today from Members that, although not perfect, EU development and humanitarian programmes are well proven as an effective, value-for-money, delivery channel for the UK. They have scored very highly in our own multilateral aid review, and they allow us to pool resources and expertise, to co-ordinate better on the ground, to reach a greater number of countries, to take to scale what we do, and to influence how more than €75 billion worth of aid funding is spent. That translates into real lives saved, real girls put in school, and real crises averted.
There is a groundswell of support for the UK remaining progressive, outward-looking, generous and a global leader on international development once we leave the European Union. We must not turn inwards. We must not abandon our partnership with Europe, even as we leave the European Union. I hope that the Minister will not give credence to those who disingenuously say they want to take back control of the aid budget from Brussels, only to stop spending it on helping the world’s poorest.
The Government now need to make up for lost time, set out an ambitious, bold, clear vision, and get on with it. There are just weeks and months to do that, and the clock is ticking. As we do that, it cannot just be the Government talking to themselves. We need to hear the voices of civil society, and of people in the global south who will be affected. We need to hear the voices of the organisations that know the EU’s development and humanitarian programmes best, and that understand the impact that decisions will have. We need to hear the voices of the thousands of international development workers whose jobs in the UK are at risk.
We also need to hear the voice of Parliament, and ensure that there is proper space and time given for Members to scrutinise the Government’s vision, debate it, and shape it. That must be much more than one Westminster Hall debate, which we are having thanks only to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South, who forced it. I hope that the Minister will commit to significantly expanding the space for future debate on this topic in the coming weeks, because so far it has been woefully insufficient.
Our future relationship with the EU is simply too important to fail, and we need to get on with ensuring that it does not. I thank all hon. Members for their excellent contributions, and look forward to the Minister’s remarks.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton South (Dr Williams) on securing the first Westminster Hall debate on such an important topic. I pay tribute to his work in Uganda prior to coming to this place. It demonstrates the incredible value that people with such experience bring to our Parliament—I wanted to put that on the record.
Today’s debate could not be more timely, because on Monday we reached a milestone in terms of publishing progress on the transition of our relationship with Brussels, including the important work that we do alongside the EU in helping the world’s poorest. I echo the vision that the Prime Minister outlined in her Munich speech: we very much want the European Union to succeed after the UK has left, because that is in all our interests, and we are seeking the broadest and deepest possible partnership with the EU.
The UK will remain one of the largest development spenders and influencers in the world, as will the European Union, and we want to retain a close partnership in this area in the future. We share the same concerns, the same values, and the same commitment to the sustainable development goals, to the Paris climate change agenda, and of course to the Addis Ababa agreement on financing for development.
In UK law, we have legally entrenched our commitment to spending 0.7% of our gross national income on international development—spending that I assure hon. Members is strictly controlled by the overseas development assistance guidelines set out by the OECD. Of course, we will continue to want to work alongside the EU on new and innovative approaches for financing the incredibly important agenda of moving the billions that are spent on aid to the trillions needed to move countries out of a situation where so many people live in poverty. It is worth putting on the record that the UK is one of only five EU countries that meet the target of 0.7%, which was a United Nations resolution of many years ago. We are proud of being one of those five countries. Across the EU as a whole, the average is just 0.3%.
The UK’s development priorities are closely aligned with the EU’s. As is often said, that is because we have had considerable influence in shaping them during our membership of the EU. Our approaches to addressing the root causes of migration, for example, or to meeting humanitarian needs from the outset in a way that prepares for longer-term crises, and puts in place advance readiness for long-term crisis responses, are very much based on our common experiences and joint shaping of best practice in development programming. I was pleased to hear so many hon. Members acknowledge the UK’s leadership in this area.
It is very much in the UK and the EU’s interest that we work coherently together in the future in response to specific crises overseas, and continue to help the world’s most vulnerable. Good examples are our responses in Somalia and in the Sahel—two areas where we have joint interests in addressing the causes of conflict, and the development and humanitarian needs that arise.
It will also be important to continue to support each other where we agree on policy priorities, for example on our human rights stance at the United Nations—it is absolutely essential that we remain united on that—and at a country level. Where we hold shared commitments and objectives, it is in our mutual interest to find ways to continue working together on a case-by-case basis, to ensure that we can collectively draw on expertise and lessons learned, to achieve our global development objectives and to deliver the best value for money.
We published a future partnership paper in September, which set out our desire for future co-operation with the EU, that goes well beyond the existing third-country arrangements. We look forward to formal discussions as soon as the European Commission is ready to engage.
We have committed to meeting our financial obligations already made, during the period while we are a member, and we will continue to pay into the European development fund and other EU instruments until December 2020 when the implementation period ends. As good development donors, we will continue to honour all our commitments to the world’s poorest and to shape how those funds are spent through all the means available to us.
While we have clearly signalled to the EU our openness to a future partnership on development, the extent and depth of such a partnership will be contingent upon the current discussions between the European Commission and member states about how the EU will finance its international development after 2020. Colleagues will be aware that most of the EU’s development finance instruments do not allow participation from non-member states. They may also be aware that the Cotonou agreement on development, trade and political co-operation between the EU and the 79 African, Caribbean and Pacific countries is shortly to expire and that the EU is currently rethinking how it will finance development in the future.
A flexible, open and responsive EU is very much in everyone’s interests. For example, in deciding to open its migration trust fund to non-EU partners, the EU was able to respond swiftly and effectively to large-scale crises, working with the right partners in the right places, particularly, for example, in the horn of Africa and north Africa, where we have joint interests now and for the future. The EU’s humanitarian agency, ECHO, has shown flexibility to third-party participation in the Sahel, where the EU is the lead humanitarian donor and has a strong field presence. That has allowed key partners to boost the collective effort and coalesce around a flexible but co-ordinated approach in a region of strategic importance to both the EU and the UK.
We encourage the EU to design a new set of development instruments that builds on the positive examples of the last few years and creates an open and flexible enabling framework, within which it can work with its partners to tackle global challenges and build a secure, stable and prosperous world. We envisage that holding the development financing instruments open to third parties would enable the UK to work through the EU on a case-by-case basis, where we judge our development impact would be amplified. We have not yet made any decisions on that, and whether we actually pay in will be contingent on the kind of EU exit agreement that we finally secure.
While we remain a member state, we are fully engaged in discussions around the successor to the Cotonou agreement and on the shape of the future financial instruments, from a strategic perspective of what makes best development sense, and with a view to what will allow greatest flexibility for potential UK participation in the future. However, there would of course be certain expectations attached to any future partnership. If we opt into EU programmes when that is the most effective way to deliver our mutual objectives, we would expect to engage with the EU at a strategic level on programme direction and would need to be assured of adequate governance arrangements to allow us to track and account for our spending and the results we deliver. We are also clear that the UK’s world-class development sector should be eligible to implement EU programmes. We are very much fighting that corner.
In spite of all the uncertainty, one thing that is clear: the UK’s aid strategy and the Government’s manifesto commitments do not change in March 2019, and neither will our unwavering commitment to the world’s poorest nor our statutory commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income, in line with the official development assistance rules set by the OECD. We will look to deliver our aid strategy through the best range of possible partnerships open to us. The EU and the UK have policy and programming objectives in common.
Where it makes best sense, we will continue to work closely with the EU on development and to implement the sustainable development goals side by side—the difference is that this time we will work with the EU where we choose to, and where it is in our mutual interest. We will be able to ensure better value for money through that choice and through tracking the impacts of our development spending. We will ensure that we continue to engage with the EU strategically, to direct our UK funds, but also on those global public benefits that we are both deeply committed to, such as global health security or mitigating the impacts of climate change.
We have signalled our future direction of co-operation very clearly to our EU counterparts, and we now need them to respond in kind. We have made our position very clear. Both sides now need to work together to make that happen.
I thank the Minister for that thorough response and for giving us some more assurance. It is important that we continue to have parliamentary scrutiny as we develop our future relationship with the EU, and I hope that this is not our final opportunity for such discussions.
I thank the hon. Member for Gordon (Colin Clark), my hon. Friends the Members for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) and for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle), the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) for their contributions to the debate. We must continue to find a way to partner with some of the key funds, as the Minister hopes, and we must continue to exert our influence. We are global leaders in international development and we cannot let Brexit affect the world’s poorest.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the UK’s future relationship with the EU on international development.