Tuesday 24 April 2018
[James Gray in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered street homelessness.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thought I had had the most interesting February recess, but in fact you were sailing through the south Atlantic to South Georgia in rather hazardous circumstances, so I will defer to you.
In the February recess, I wandered into Covent Garden, armed with some cardboard that I had taken from outside a store, and I bedded down for a night under the awning of St Paul’s church. I was there with a very friendly Italian man and a Romanian couple, who were busy checking their phones before going to sleep. My idea was to spend as many days as I could updating myself on the situation of the street homeless in London. I first did that 27 years ago as a much thinner and fitter ex-Army officer, who had only just left the Army and who was trying to become a television reporter. In February, 27 years later, I was doing the same thing as a much fatter Member of Parliament.
I wanted to understand what the Government strategies are to end street homelessness. The Government and the Prime Minister herself have said that they want to eliminate it within 10 years. I wondered how we will do that and whether it will really be possible. I also wanted to look at what effect the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 is likely to have.
I emphasise that, from my perspective, this debate is about street homelessness, which is the obvious problem. There is, however, also the much bigger problem of sofa surfing, which I am not covering at all, although I acknowledge that it is very much there.
Some things have changed, and some things are the same. Things that are the same are the kindness and compassion of members of the public and of the charities dealing with this problem.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. One of the most profoundly moving things I have heard—possibly he heard it too—was after the recent passing of the Rangers and Chelsea footballer Ray Wilkins. On the radio, a moving tribute was paid live on air by a homeless man, who said that, when he was outside a tube station in London, the person who came to him, took him for a hot drink, gave him some money and changed his life was Ray Wilkins. That man said in his tribute that the world might remember Ray Wilkins the footballer, but he will remember the man who saved his life.
What a lovely story—I thank the hon. Gentleman.
The other thing that has changed is that the Mayor of London, Westminster City Council, councils across the country and indeed the Government—I do not speak for the Government; I wish I did, but I am just a passed-over Back Bencher—are taking this problem extremely seriously, and I genuinely believe that. The No Second Night Out programme is a good example.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Earlier he mentioned voluntary organisations, and I am sure he agrees that we should pay tribute to those in Coventry, such as the Cyrenians. They are underfunded to a certain extent, which we could have a debate about, but the serious issue is what to do about the problem. We need go less than 100 yards from here, across the road, and every morning we can see someone sleeping rough just under cover where the bookshop is. It is a serious problem, so how do we tackle it? I understand that a private Member’s Bill became law last April—
I have not come across the Cyrenians, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that across the road is an excellent sleep spot.
The No Second Night Out programme is a good example of an early intervention service. It was launched in 2011 by my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), now the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, and it aims to ensure that no one, once identified, spends a second night sleeping rough in central London. More recently, Sadiq Khan has gone further and set up the No Nights Sleeping Rough Taskforce, trying to come up with new solutions. The taskforce brings together boroughs, voluntary organisations and central Government.
Apart from the proactiveness of the agencies that are helping, I noticed some other differences. In February 2018 the majority of the people I came across living on the streets were foreign nationals. One evening, at a soup kitchen on the Strand, there were—I will not exaggerate this—certainly 200 people. Various church groups—from Maidenhead, I think—and some Ahmadiyya Muslims, a Sikh group and an evangelical group were helping out. I wandered about while shawls and brand-new trainers were handed out, and I honestly did not hear English being spoken by anyone. I heard east European languages, Arabic and Italian.
The statistics seem to bear out my anecdotal evidence. Information collected by the Combined Homelessness and Information Network—the joint agency of people working with rough sleepers that is run by the excellent charity St Mungo’s—records that, in 2016-17, of the rough sleepers in London for whom nationality information was available, 30% were from central and eastern Europe. The figure for non-UK nationals overall was 52.6%; that does not include those who do not wish to give a nationality, and other sources put the figure nearer 60%, which was certainly my experience.
I note that the hon. Gentleman mentioned that those figures relate to London. Does he accept that, UK-wide, only 4% of rough sleepers in England are non-European Union nationals and 16% are EU non-UK nationals? Will he join me in thanking those faith groups who go out to serve all communities, regardless of background, and to help people who are in the direst of straits if they are rough sleeping?
Well, of course—the hon. Lady need not even have bothered asking the latter question, because it is a no-brainer, isn’t it? As for the numbers for the rest of the country, I do not know—I have not looked at them—but they are very interesting. There are many different people with different sets of figures, and I am sure that hers are correct. With the example of the numbers of foreign nationals living homeless in London, we can take our pick, but the CHAIN figure is the most reliable—I do not think that the figure is much more than 60%, but nor do I think it is much less.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. One of the things that the figures mask is that some people are asylum seekers with no status, going from home to home. In fact, on Monday, I met a group of people who are concerned about this. The figure of 4%, or whatever it might be, belies the real figure. Does he agree?
Yes. As I said at the beginning of my speech, this debate is about street homelessness, and I totally accept that there is a much bigger and much less visible problem of people sofa surfing. Indeed, tomorrow morning I will be seeing an asylum seeker without recourse to public funds who is in exactly the position that the hon. Gentleman is suggesting.
Going on to the reasons for rough sleeping in 1991 and now, the demographic of the people I met on the streets recently is clearly different, because of the foreign nationals, but the reasons for people being there are as sad and complicated as they always were. Once again, I met that seemingly intractable group—the mentally ill, the drug addicted and, in particular, people suffering from mental health issues. Of the what one might describe as “genuinely” street homeless, the overriding majority had some sort of mental health issue, which is compounded by living on the streets and by drug or alcohol addiction.
My hon. Friend is being very generous with his time. At the last count in Cheltenham, there were nine rough sleepers, often with complex needs relating to substance misuse or poor mental health, as he indicated. Does he agree that, in those circumstances, there can be no substitute for qualified expert and intensive support, such as that provided by P3 in Cheltenham, and that we should continue to fund that generously?
I do not know P3, but I am sure that it does great work. I agree with my hon. Friend, and I will come on to that point. How we deal with the mentally ill and the drug addicted, how quickly they have access to support, and how the money goes to the teams on the ground is a very important part.
Some of the street homeless I spoke to were ex-soldiers. One guy had separated from his German wife, whom he had met during our time in the Rhine. She had taken the children back there, and he had been living in a forest in Germany for four months. He had come back to London before trying to head back down to the west country.
There are also ex-offenders, some of whom leave prison with £46 in their pocket, although I did not meet any of them. I am sure that there are also those who lost their homes as a result of benefits sanctions, financial problems or the breakdown of relationships, although despite speaking to many dozens of homeless people, I did not come across any of them. But, of course, there are many of them, and there will be many more in the sofa-surfer sector, which we discussed.
The most common theme was mental illness of some kind. If hon. Members have walked along the road to Victoria station, they will have seen all the people zombified out of their heads on this horrible synthetic cannabis, Spice. I spent a night sleeping there, round the back of the “goods in” entrance to McDonalds. I was looking for a suitable place to sleep, and I found a guy sitting on his own. I wandered up to him and had a bit of chat. He was an alcoholic and was quite lonely, and he was quite nervous of all the Spice guys in the area. He said that I could bed down next to him, which I did. He was 30, from the north of England and quite anxious for company. As we lay there in our sleeping bags—him drinking beer—he told me that he had a flat outside London; in fact, he showed me the keys. But he said that when he is in the flat, he just sits there, getting wasted, and sees nobody. I found it terribly sad that he was so lonely that he preferred to be out on the street. That guy illustrates the complexity of rough sleeping and why the problem persists, even when money is being poured into the system and huge numbers of different services exist.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and going on to the streets to find out the realities for himself. I have to respond to the point about pouring money into the system. That is absolutely not the case; money is being poured into the system to react to a crisis. The crisis is caused by the breakdown of our public realm—the decimation of frontline public services and the lack of mental health services and drugs and alcohol services. On the one hand, the Government are pouring in ring-fenced money to tackle the problem, but the breakdown of the social fabric of our society—like in the ’80s and ’90s—is the reason we have such a high level of rough sleeping.
As I said, I would like to be in the Government, but I am not. We will hear from the Minister, who I think will confirm that enormous amounts of money are being poured in. The hon. Gentleman may have a case in terms of sofa surfers, but for the hard-core rough sleepers, I cannot agree with him. I did not come across the sort of people that he characterised. I accept that, in terms of the other group, he may well be correct, but I think that the number of rough sleepers has much to do with the very high levels of eastern European immigration over the last few years. But he is absolutely right that we still have the intractable problem that, whether or not people think we are pouring in money, we are not getting to the people at the very bottom—I will come to them in a minute.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his initiative to put focus on this issue. Over the Easter recess, I did the 6 am shift with police community support officer Steve Hart, in Sheffield, where I met all the people sleeping in doorways and stairwells. None of them were foreign nationals—they were all British—and they all had the sort of complex problems that he describes. I talked to the agencies that worked with them; the reason why those numbers have gone up each year over the last few years is surely that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) highlighted, starving money from local authorities has minimised not only their ability to deal with the issue, but a key source of funds for the charities in the third sector, which cannot provide the intensive support that people with complex problems need.
Again, I do not want to be a cop-out, but I will throw that to the Minister. If someone is fit and of sound mind, there are all sorts of services, although not quite 24 hours a day, that make it possible to sleep out. I am 52 years old and I was in the Army; to be honest, sleeping rough in central London is a lot more comfortable than going on exercise when I was in the Army. For those who are mentally ill, drug addicted, old or personality disordered, it is a very different thing.
Sorry, I cannot hold on. I have been out with homeless people in Crewe and Nantwich, and I do not relate to what the hon. Gentleman is saying at all. Does he agree that an area that needs to be looked at more closely is the high rate of benefit sanctions among homeless service users and the impact of those sanctions?
As I said at the beginning, this is a debate about street homelessness. I accept that is probably true in that other sector, but I did not come across it, and I am here to talk about my experience, so I do not know.
The hon. Lady said that she does not recognise what I was saying. I am not saying that even a large minority of the homeless are there because there are resources for them. I am trying to say, and I will develop this later, that we will get nowhere in solving the problem and getting to the people who are most needy if we just continue to talk about the homeless and feel sorry for everybody. We have to focus on the people in real need. Come out with me some time, and I will show you.
I go and help the homeless in my community; we have great volunteers who also help them all the time. Thank you, but we are interpreting the issue completely differently. It worries me that you are not recognising some of the real, ingrained problems. I do not think that anybody would choose to sleep rough—I do not buy that.
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman replies, I must make a couple of boring points. First, interventions are getting terribly long—Members must make short, one-sentence interventions. Secondly, any Member who says “you” means me. If Members refer to another Member, they must use the third person—“him” or “her”.
Thank you, Mr Gray. I can only go by my own experience. I am very keen that we should get to the people who are in real need and that we should start treating people as individuals rather than lumping them all together and suggesting that everyone has the same need. I am trying to be honest; I can only go with my experience of three months back in the ’90s.
Sorry. As the hon. Gentleman just said, we should not lump all homeless people together; rather, we should look at them individually. Does he agree that, based on his own experience, he is taking a broad-brush approach to all homeless people, and that that is incorrect?
Well, I am not—actually, I have just turned the page, and I am now on page five of 14. I hope I do not give that impression, because I certainly do not think that. People are on the street for a reason. The problem is not homelessness—although of course that is a problem—but whatever reason someone is on the street. I do not think we disagree at all, but I will get to the hon. Lady’s point.
What was my experience with No Second Night Out? That initiative is based on the idea that once someone is identified, they will not spend a second night out. That happens in cities up and down the country. I reported myself to the StreetLink helpline, and I was woken up at about 2 o’clock in the morning by two outreach workers and asked whether I would like to get in an Addison Lee taxi to go to the No Second Night Out south hub in Hither Green. No Second Night Out has three hubs in London—one in the east, one in the north and one in the south. I had a 3 am interview with a charming, extremely competent and razor-sharp member of staff, and I was then taken into an L-shaped room about a third of the size of this Chamber where about 30 people were camped out on the floor with their own bedding. I squeezed into the one remaining space between a refrigerator and some French windows. I got up the next morning, had a Pret A Manger sandwich and some coffee, and later had an assessment interview. Not wanting to take a valuable place, I made my excuses and left.
To be honest, I was quite relieved when I left. The thought of spending days or weeks sleeping on the floor in a cramped room between the refrigerator and the French windows did not appeal to me much. I can completely see how, for someone able-bodied and of sound mind, it would be much more appealing to sleep under the awning of St Paul’s church in Covent Garden or at the “goods in” entrance round the back of McDonald’s in Victoria, because people have freedom in those places. Also, if I were a drug addict, I do not think I would want to abide by the rules that hostels must have to protect the other people there. But if I had been ill or elderly, I would of course have been grateful for that place on the floor and the plan that St Mungo’s, which operates the initiative, has for people eventually to go on and find housing.
Even if I were Alastair Campbell himself, I would find it hard to put in terms quite how extraordinary the staff of St Mungo’s are. Having made my excuses and left, I was walking down the street, and I had gone round the corner from the hostel when its manager ran down the road after me and said, “No, no, no—you don’t have to do this yourself. Come back and we will sort you out.” It was quite remarkable.
Prior to becoming an MP, I worked for YMCA Birmingham dealing with homeless young people. Will my hon. Friend join me in celebrating the £2.2 million it was recently granted by the Government to refurbish its 72-bed hostel in Northfield, creating facilities for organisations such as Mind to provide support to formerly homeless people?
Absolutely. Indeed, I experienced that. For another programme I made some years ago, I pretended to be a homeless mentally ill person in Birmingham. When I was discharged from Queen Elizabeth psychiatric hospital, I went to that very institution and the people there arranged to look after me. That was 30 years ago.
All I can do is suggest that the hon. Lady watches that “World in Action” series from 27 years ago and draws her own conclusions about whether that was a good thing. Let us have a chat about it when she has done that.
Let us carry on with some realities. It is very depressing, after 27 years, to look at streets with the same cohorts of mentally ill and drug-addicted people on them—the people who fall through the cracks in the system. Although the police are more able to intervene when a mentally ill person is on the streets and local authorities have particular duties to those who are vulnerable due to mental illness, the reality is that someone who has had serious psychiatric problems is extremely unlikely to maintain a tenancy or stay off the streets for some time. Indeed, I had not appreciated the churn of people—even when people are engaged, the system does not seem able to keep them for the time that it needs to.
Let us be honest about the correlation between immigration and the rising number of street homeless. It is no surprise to me that, in 2016-17, 1,950 rough sleepers were migrants from Romania, Poland and Lithuania. Obviously, homelessness is a much greater risk when people are far from home and from familial support structures. It became clear to me that some migrants sleep on the streets by choice, preferring to sleep rough than to pay for accommodation. It is a no-brainer that years of high immigration and of successive Governments not building enough houses will have a knock-on effect for people at the bottom of society. Of course that will make rents unaffordable.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Scottish National party Scottish Government have presided over a decade-long slump in Scottish house building? We went from almost 26,000 new builds in 2007 to almost 17,000 in 2016. That is totally unacceptable, and it has fuelled homelessness in Scotland.
The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), will attest to the fact that I am not well enough versed on what is happening in the rest of the country, so I cannot answer that question, but if my hon. Friend says that, I imagine it must be true.
On people from eastern Europe, perhaps it is time to ask ourselves whether it is exploitative to build an economy on cheap labour provided by those who can barely afford to accommodate themselves in our country. We could of course argue that those people are not strictly homeless, because they might have a home back home, but that is their reality when they are here.
My hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) alluded to the housing crisis. We must face up to the inevitable impact of that crisis, and of the related issues of lack of supply and affordability, on homelessness. It is estimated that between 2010 and 2016, population growth, including net international migration, was around 1.58 million. The number of rough sleepers has increased by 169% since 2010. In 2016-17, the housing stock in the UK increased by around 217,000 residential dwellings—an increase of 15% from the previous year, but short of the estimated quarter of a million-odd new homes required to keep up with household formation.
It is not difficult to see that the sums just do not add up, including under this Government. Although the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 strengthens the duties of local authorities to provide advisory services to people threatened with homelessness and encourages pre-emptive action where house building has not kept up with population increases, it is absurd to think that that will not impact the people at the bottom of society who are often the most unseen—not those on the streets but those on sofas.
We must address the fact that homelessness impacts men and women in different ways. Rough sleepers are overwhelmingly men. During my recent stint on the streets, I saw only a handful of women whom I unscientifically judged to be street homeless—the big giveaway is people carrying bags and suitcases. CHAIN data for 2016-17 shows that only 15% of rough sleepers in London were women. Part of the issue must be that those who care for young children—typically women—are rightly prioritised in the allocation of social housing. However, somewhere along the line we seem to have forgotten that men who live on the streets were once part of a family unit.
Yes, absolutely. It is right for housing priority to go to people who look after children, and typically they are women. Again, I am just stating the reality. If it is different, the hon. Lady should tell us.
Let us move on. We must recognise the particular challenge of mental health issues that affect men, and the way that men who battle for many years with the perceived stigma of mental health problems can be particularly susceptible to a sudden crisis that can lead to homelessness. I also learned about the ways homelessness affects women. Some women in London ride the bus for 24 hours a day to stay off the streets, and some go from place to place in return for a bed to sleep in.
We must also address the issue of how people’s generosity can sometimes be as much part of the problem as the solution. The man I met near Victoria station spent the night drinking beer bought with £30 that kind members of the public had come up and given him that evening. St Mungo’s staff told me of a client who had abused drugs for many years and had a leg amputated as a result, but who finally managed to get clean. This man told them that if he had not been given money by the public for so long he would have sought help much sooner. Begging is part of the problem—an able-bodied person can make quite a lot of money from begging on the streets of London. Generosity by members of the public is a factor in this; generosity can be enabling and mask those in real need.
No, and rather like the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith), the hon. Lady is not listening. I am not saying that; I am saying that if someone is a drug addict, the generosity of members of the public can enable their addiction. I just gave the example of a guy who was on the streets for years and had a leg amputated, and who now believes that if the public had not been so generous, he might have sought help much sooner.
I will change that sentence. A person can make money in order to buy drugs to feed their addiction—that point was pretty clear in what I said.
An added complexity is that there seems to be a perception among some of those involved in helping the homeless that in order to access services someone needs to sleep on the streets. Surely we should be helping people earlier. The endless churn of people entering the system—many of whom could and should have been helped earlier—makes the job of organisations who are trying to care for those vulnerable, and trapped, people even more difficult.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point about the trapped nature of many homeless people. I recently visited a homeless shelter in Glasgow and I discovered a vicious cycle for people who might get a job, but they cannot then secure it because they do not have a bank account, and they cannot get a bank account because they do not have a job or permanent address. That puts people into a spiral of despair, which may well lead to them having addiction problems—no wonder they have addiction problems given the cycle of despair they are in.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s overall point. I think the business of not having an address has been dealt with by quite a lot of charities, but it is clearly much harder to hold down a job for someone who also has the complexity of sorting themselves out every night and living on the streets. I definitely agree with that.
How should we tackle the problem? From my experience of sleeping rough in 2018, I would say that our priority must be to ensure that we do not make the mistake of lumping all rough sleepers together. That stops us recognising people’s problems, and often means that we not go far enough to tackle the underlying reasons for rough sleeping. We also need urgently to address how mental health problems experienced by rough sleepers are identified and treated. Since my recent experience on the streets, a link has been made between the scaling back of mental health services and a rise in homelessness. An outreach worker, and former rough sleeper, told me only yesterday how he literally begged a doctor to get him some sort of treatment when no mental health services were available to help him.
Outreach workers also speak about their frustration at the lack of emergency mental health assessments, and the desperate need for help at the right time and in the right place. A supervisor at the No Second Night Out hub in London said that sometimes when someone arrives who is obviously suffering from a mental illness, the charity has to hold that severely mentally ill person in the hostel for up to three weeks before they get a mental health assessment. During that time the support workers, who are not psychiatric nurses, have to try to contain the situation, which is hugely challenging. If the person is accepted into an NHS mental health unit—that does not always happen, particularly if the person is a drug addict—more often than not, as has been said, they are simply released on to the streets a few weeks later.
Clearly there is an urgent need for mental health teams to be embedded with outreach teams so that they can look at the needs of an individual and refer them without any delay for the treatment they require. Homelessness charities say that there is no point putting enormous amounts of money into general mental health budgets, where it just disappears. The money has to go to the tip of the spear and stay with those people as they go through the system, so that we do not get the churn I have spoken about.
Thankfully, the problem of homelessness seems to be higher up the political agenda than ever before, and the Government’s 2015 Budget increased central Government funding for homelessness programmes to £140-odd million over the following four years. However, it is important that that money is used correctly, at the tip of the spear, focusing on the immediate needs of those on the streets and getting them the help they require, rather than being wasted on intervention that comes too late or does not tackle the root cause of someone’s homelessness.
If we are serious about this issue—I think the Government’s target is potentially over-ambitious—we must see people as individuals not just as homeless people. We must differentiate between different groups and have the courage to look at whether the provision of service is enabling some people to live on the streets, but obscuring others from the help that they need. We must think carefully about whether public kindness is enabling some addiction, and whether by lumping everyone together we are masking those in real need. In this country where we spend gazillions of pounds on a welfare state, we must try to rescue the people at the very bottom of our society from roaming the streets of our cities.
Order. I will call the Front-Bench speakers in 20 minutes, and seven Members wish to speak. My rough arithmetic makes that three minutes each. I do not intend to impose a formal limit, but as a matter of courtesy to each other please speak for three minutes if at all possible.
It is always a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) on securing the debate and on his extraordinary account of what he learned.
I care passionately about this issue, as do other Opposition Members, because homelessness is the ultimate symbol of the gross inequality that scars our country and, in my case, the city region of Greater Manchester. We are proud of the renaissance of Manchester, but we cannot celebrate the cranes in the sky, which represent growth and development, while so many people are sleeping in shop doorways before our eyes. This issue also matters to me because in the 1960s, a middle-aged woman was found sleeping in a Manchester park with her young twins. The police officer who found her said, “You can sleep here, madam, but the children can’t,” and they were whisked into care. That middle-aged woman was my grandmother, who was a war widow battling mental health problems, and the twins were my uncle and aunt. The point that I want to make is it that can happen to anyone, and anyone’s family.
Why do we face such a shocking situation—one that in my view is a repeat of the “no such thing as society” ’80s and ’90s? The hon. Member for Gravesham listed the range of people who could be rough sleepers. It is important to underline the need to look at things on an individual-by-individual basis, as there are many causes. Two points I want to make are that, first, many foreign nationals are of course not eligible for public funding, which creates a range of problems for the system and, secondly, that I do not think that the hon. Gentleman meant to say that someone is better off sleeping on the streets than being in the military. That would, I think, be a great indictment.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification.
I want to talk about the consequences of the slash-and-burn approach that has decimated public services as a consequence of the Government’s policies. The rhetoric is about a shift to prevention and early intervention, but the reality is that slashing and burning local authorities’ budgets has reduced them to providing their minimum legal responsibilities. Prevention and early intervention go out of the window. As for voluntary organisations, we no longer hear the term “the big society”. The reason why that was killed—that it was dropped and never mentioned—was that at the same time as the Government were talking about the growth in the importance of voluntary organisations, they were slashing the funding that they depended on. It is nonsense to talk about the big society. The alleged commitment to localism has proved to be complete nonsense. If you were running a business, Mr Gray, and you had a 50% cut in your budget over four years, you would go bankrupt or would be likely to go out of business. That is what is happening to local authorities under all political direction throughout the country. We are paying a heavy price for that.
I welcome the ring-fenced money that the Government have made available to tackle the issues, especially in Greater Manchester, but the irony is that the money, which is not adequate, is necessary only because of the impact of their social policy failures and cuts. It is right, therefore, that in a debate of this kind we do not say, “Take the politics out of it.” There is a rough sleeping epidemic as a direct consequence of political decisions. However, it is incumbent on an Opposition to offer creative and positive solutions, and Greater Manchester deserves tremendous credit for the innovative approach it is taking under the leadership of its Mayor, Andy Burnham, working with the 10 local authorities, the voluntary sector, faith groups and the private sector. The Mayor’s ambitious and morally right commitment is to end rough sleeping by 2020—seven years ahead of the Government commitment. They are committed only to ensuring that no one has to sleep on the streets of this country by 2027. I argue that that is a massive lack of ambition, in view of the humanitarian crisis.
Mayors across the country have a role to play. We have heard about Sadiq Khan, and the hon. Gentleman has talked about Andy Burnham. Andy Street, in the West Midlands Combined Authority, chose homelessness as the first thing to address in his time as Mayor.
I congratulate Andy Street on making it a priority, but if the hon. Gentleman were to meet all the Mayors they would say the problems are the consequence of the breakdown of frontline services that many of the people we are talking about have traditionally depended on. I agree that Mayors have an important role to play, and I am proud of the groundbreaking approach that Andy Burnham is taking, which everyone acknowledges.
The first key element of a successful approach is high-level political leadership. It is of absolute importance that the people at the top should care about rough sleeping and homelessness and make that a priority. Another is that solutions should be co-produced with people who have lived experience of rough sleeping, and frontline organisations. The issue should never be about top-down solutions. There should be a clear strategy and plan, focused on reduction, respite, recovery and reconnection. As the hon. Member for Gravesham said, there should be a personalised approach across organisational boundaries, with key workers, support plans and personal budgets. Also, we need innovative, imaginative public services. I am really proud of the innovative work being done by the NHS and the fire service in Greater Manchester. Expanded housing provision will sometimes need to involve specialist provision. The hon. Gentleman said that the issue is mainly about men, but what about specialist provision for women, who, often, are fleeing domestic abuse, and for young people? There is a dearth of that provision.
There is also a key role for business. The corporate sector in most communities wants to help, and it is important that the statutory authorities find a vehicle to enable businesses to make a positive contribution, through their expertise and skills, and their willingness to make financial resources available. In Greater Manchester the Mayor’s fund and Big Change have been successful in putting together resources from a variety of sectors on a ring-fenced basis.
I agree with the hon. Member for Gravesham about the importance, in addition to support services and a rebuilt infrastructure, of tackling Spice. That is another epidemic, and I do not think that society is yet clear about how to tackle it. I also agree with him that it is of course appropriate, when we have succeeded in minimising the number of people on the streets, to take on the issue of begging on the streets by people who are not actually homeless and who have addresses. However, that is not the place to start. Public support should start with minimising the number of people who are sleeping rough.
Our society reached a post-war consensus that every citizen in this country should have access to free healthcare and universal education, and it is about time that in the same way we offered every citizen the right to a decent, affordable home.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) for securing the debate.
In Penzance we have a problem, and across Cornwall two years ago we had the third highest level of rough sleeping in the country. When I ask people why, they say because it is the end of the line. People get on the train and get off when it stops in Penzance. There are rumours that local authorities buy people tickets to Penzance, but they are yet to be proved. I also know from personal experience about family breakdown, including instances when a new member of the family moves in and younger members feel they can no longer stay. Eviction for debt and so on has recently been a factor.
The problem is not new. In a previous job, many years ago, I worked for a local charity, and we supported homeless people. Long before food banks existed we set up help for them, providing food given by local people and tents and sleeping bags, as well as trying to get them better accommodation and support. Many years ago, under the Labour Government, there was a significant problem in Penzance, while I was on the district council. It was right that the council tried to address it, but unfortunately it caused extreme problems. The approach caused a lot of anxiety for those concerned and for the local communities, and cost several million pounds. The local authority just did not handle it correctly. I was concerned at the time for those who were homeless. It was right to help them, but things were poorly and ineffectively handled. That is why I am so encouraged by the efforts being made now; but we must proceed with caution.
Before I was married I invited a homeless man called Stan to come and live with me. It was quite funny as other people who came to the house were curious as to why there were two toothbrushes in the bathroom, and it started all sorts of rumours. What I learned was that more is needed than a roof over someone’s head, which I think is the point that has been made. In Penzance we have great services. Various meals are available throughout the day and there is support. All sorts of charities and other groups provide support, assistance and therapies.
Members on both sides of the House recognise that homelessness is a complex issue and can be solved only by everyone working together—including the police, local authority, voluntary sector, health and social care providers and landlords. It is true that house building must take place. We have not seen a significant amount of house building, and I am not yet aware of any scheme that is deliberately looking at how we can provide suitable housing for people who, as I have said, need more than just a roof over their head.
I will give three recent examples that have come into my casework folder of people who, as we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham, could have been helped earlier. There was one family whose business went bust; their house was tied to their business and they lost their business and their home. The council knew well in advance, but the day they left their business they had nowhere to go. More recently, there was the eviction of a tenant where there had been lots of work previously to pursue and achieve the eviction, but very little support, and she had nowhere to go on the day. There was also a young man I met recently who wanted to be close to his family and his children, but the only option available to him was at the other end of the county.
Those are examples of people who become homeless, rough sleepers or sofa surfers, yet none of those cases was a surprise. There was plenty of warning for all those concerned to have helped them. Excuses and reasons given to me included that the property had a section 106 agreement and it was not available for their situation. Another public sector organisation said, “This is not our responsibility.” Another said, “We offered him temporary accommodation,” but, as I have described, it was miles from home. An email I received yesterday described a hostel in Cornwall—it is a hostel for ex-service personnel, with eight beds in the room, mixed sex and miles from home. The individual is “terrified and cannot sleep”. There is no doubt in my mind that more can and should be done.
I am encouraged by the fact that we recognise the issue and that significant money and effort are being put into it. Cornwall Council is receiving £648,000 this year and £846,000 next year to address the issue. My colleagues and I will be asking how it intends to ensure the money goes where it is needed. I welcome the opportunity to debate this big and complex issue, which will not easily be resolved.
I will be brief. It is clear that everyone has a backstory; it is certainly clear, from spending time with the homeless in York, that if decisions had been taken elsewhere in the system we would not be in the situation we are in. We have multi-agency failure due to the austerity measures and the harsh decisions of the council, which has resulted in homelessness exploding on the streets of York. In 2010, just two people were recorded as sleeping rough, but today the picture is completely changed.
The chief executive of Changing Lives, which provides one of the services in York, said that rough sleeping is now,
“highly visible and we believe the numbers that will be counted later on in the year will be alarming.”
Even though he runs a service himself, he was “visibly shocked” at the levels of street homelessness in York and, of course, homelessness across the board is in an even more desperate situation.
The reasons for that are complex, but it is clear that some decisions can be made to change the situation, not least looking at the housing situation in York itself. It is absolutely hopeless for the council to say, “Go to the private rented sector,” because people cannot afford to live there. The broad rental market area for York does not match the true cost of housing in the city, due to the broad area it covers. Therefore, the private rented sector is not an option, yet people are still sent there by our service. I would like the Minister to look at that.
I would also like the Minister to look at the term “intentionally homeless”. I do not believe anybody makes themselves intentionally homeless. It is the council that intentionally makes people homeless. While we know that people have complex needs, there need to be alternative strategies for missed rental payments or antisocial behaviour, rather than people ending up intentionally homeless.
I also ask the Minister to look at what is happening with York’s local plan. The council is resubmitting it, seriously under-marking a number of housing types, particularly social housing. We need to disaggregate the terms affordable housing and social housing, but we need to put housing first for homeless people, as Nicholas Pleace at the University of York has more than adequately described. We need to look at what happens, because there is currently a punitive system in place around much of housing. We need to get it right, because people are really struggling in my city—local people, I stress.
The words of Sheila McKechnie will always stay with me. As a teenager, she fiercely held politicians to account to ensure they did not bypass the issues of homelessness. We need to ensure that no politician sits comfortably, even if strategies have been put in place, because it is a matter of such urgency. Different solutions are needed in different areas, and I ask the Minister to work with all of us to make sure that we find them.
I have scribbled out a lot of my speech, so I will try to crack on, with your best wishes, Mr Gray.
Homelessness is one of my key local campaigns, and something I have worked on consistently since being elected last year. I have visited most of the relevant services in Mansfield and brought both the previous Minister for homelessness, my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), and the Home Secretary to meet the public sector charitable organisations and businesses to look at various aspects of things we might do better locally.
It is fair to acknowledge that the Government has taken some important steps to tackle homelessness. The recently introduced Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 is an important move in the right direction and can potentially help to reduce the number of people becoming homeless in the first place. Through my investigations over this year, I know that that prevention aspect of support was previously lacking. The flexible homelessness support grant is also welcome, providing £250,000 to Mansfield over three years.
In Mansfield, we have some brilliant supported housing associations, not least Framework Housing Association, the Nottingham Community Housing Association and others, that help to get people back on their feet after times of crisis. They would love to be able to offer ongoing support to the people who rely on them, but they struggle to access the funding to do so. Those providers are experienced in the issues surrounding homelessness and are often best placed to offer local support and tailored services.
In my constituency it is not the housing itself that is the real challenge, but the complexity of need, including mental health difficulties or addiction. Providing support in managing those things, with financial management, can make all the difference. Too often the way is blocked by bureaucracy or protectionism over different organisations’ priorities and budgets. People cannot get support for a mental health problem if they are on drugs, but they cannot get support for their addiction if they have an obvious mental health problem. The problems are clearly interrelated, but the services are not.
Addressing mental health issues, providing tailored local support and a joined-up approach between housing, health and local social services is key to addressing the issue of homelessness. Most local stakeholders would agree that in Mansfield, our acute services are pretty good. If someone finds themselves homeless, they have a good chance of getting accommodation and support fairly quickly. The numbers of street homeless in Mansfield have fallen over recent years.
We have some amazing local groups and charities such as The Hall, the Beacon Project and the Soup Kitchen that provide excellent care and support, and most importantly link in with key services. What we do not have is a low-level ongoing support or prevention service, to help people to manage their money and maintain a tenancy as they move on, and to stop them ending up back on the streets. For an entrenched population of long-term homeless, that is key.
It is important to note that a significant number of people, as has been mentioned, might not feature in the rough sleeping statistics because they have hostel accommodation or another form of temporary accommodation. While as a first step hostels can provide useful accommodation for homeless people and help to provide shelter, they are not a long-term solution. The use of drugs and alcohol, threats of violence, theft, bullying and other issues can mean they are not the safe space that people deserve.
It is frequently acknowledged that bed-blocking is a significant problem in the NHS. There is also an increasingly problematic form of hostel bed-blocking, where former rough sleepers in hostels are ready to move on but there is no move-on accommodation or support to help them do so. A joined-up effort to look at the ways in which we can continue to make progress in reducing homelessness will need to involve all levels of Government, the NHS and social care, charities and voluntary groups. There is no one-size-fits-all approach; we must take a range of different approaches to deal with the problem.
I have argued over the last year that tackling homelessness must remain a priority and that the funding should reflect its importance. That funding should not just be based on numbers. London obviously gets a lot of cash because the numbers are incredibly high, but I will argue for Mansfield, where the numbers are comparatively small but we have a deeply entrenched population of long-term homeless, who simply will not be able to get back on their feet without some intense long-term support.
Finally, can the Minister tell us when we are likely to have an assessment of the impact of the Act and the success of the various trials of different services, such as Housing First in Manchester, that have been brought forward by Government? Are more proposals are likely to be brought forward to look at those prevention services that I mentioned, with a view to meeting the target of eradicating homelessness by 2027?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. Like others before me, I thank the hon. Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) for securing this vital debate.
Homelessness affects probably every Member, not only of this Parliament but of the devolved Administrations and their respective Parliaments, who work side by side with local authority councillors and officers to help to resolve this huge issue. In my constituency of Falkirk, I work with a variety of other local organisations that willingly give their utmost to resolve this terrible situation, which too many of our constituents find themselves in.
Many interesting points have already been made. I have to praise the hon. Member for Gravesham for again getting out of his comfort zone and going to live with the homeless, some 27 years later. I read his report in The Daily Telegraph and thought it was extremely interesting on how different things are—or not—after such a long time. He asked why the problem still persists. It is a great question, and I would like some answers. He made some interesting observations in his report on that point, many of which have been mentioned. The two I noted were the No Second Night Out initiative, which I thought was excellent, and how all people cannot just be lumped together. That is extremely important.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that in rural areas such as the one I represent, the difficulty is that, while we have always had hidden homelessness—people have slept in the woods and so on or have sofa-surfed—it is now street homelessness. We have to look at the dilemma of whether we provide a shelter or whether we try to find other ways of coping with these people. I would obviously prefer the latter. That shows the difference.
Hear, hear. I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman.
I come back to a point made earlier by the hon. Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair), who is not in her place. She mentioned the Scottish National party Government. I will quote Shelter Scotland to her, which warned, in evidence submitted to the Scottish Parliament’s Local Government and Communities Committee, that the combination of universal credit and the UK Government’s benefit cap reduction and the cap on housing benefit, all
“directly threaten tenancies and risk pushing more people into homelessness.”
None of us should tolerate that situation.
The hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) impressed me with his points on the new Mayor’s ambitions. That is an extremely important development for these new powerhouses; taking decisions locally is vital for all areas. The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) described the effect of austerity measures on increasing homelessness in her own area.
There has been a 32% increase in homelessness in Northern Ireland. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, contrary to popular belief, homelessness is not restricted to people who sleep rough? It encompasses a much wider range of individuals in a variety of circumstances—particularly those with mental health issues.
I absolutely agree. I will come on later to describe some things I have already managed to do this year. I will first make other Members aware of what the Scottish Government are doing in relation to our own homelessness problems, and I will end my speech by taking the opportunity to mention two initiatives I recently had the honour of being asked to visit, to witness the innovative work being undertaken there to reduce homelessness in a very practical manner.
In Scotland, the SNP Government are taking action to end rough sleeping for good. Scotland has some of the strongest rights for homeless people in the world. A major change was made in the Homelessness etc. (Scotland) Act 2003: from 31 January December 2012, the priority needs criteria were abolished. This was described by Shelter as providing
“the best homelessness law in Europe”.
That is praise indeed. It was also described as very ambitious, and required 10 years of preparation between receiving Royal Assent in 2003 and coming into force at the end of 2012.
Everyone found to be homeless in Scotland is entitled to housing. Most people are provided with settled, permanent accommodation. Last winter—I hope it is now finished—the Scottish Government increased the capacity and capability of homelessness services in three Scottish cities, to meet the challenge of the harsh winter. As part of that strategy, the SNP Scottish Government set up the homelessness and rough sleeping action group to bring forward recommendations on how to eradicate rough sleeping, and also announced £150,000 of funding to extend some projects that had already been assisted in the winter.
Another great example of the Scottish Government’s commitment is the creation of the ending homelessness together fund of £50 million over five years from this year. Importantly, this focus on prevention has already contributed toward a significant fall in homelessness applications—a 38% reduction when compared with the number of applications between April and September 2007 and April and September 2017.
New recommendations to ensure the eradication of rough sleeping have been set out by the Scottish Government’s homelessness and rough sleeping action group. Some of the measures include a national system of rehousing, involving integrated support from frontline outreach services and, importantly, our own local authorities. For example, that includes moving to a Housing First model for those with the most complex needs, whereby people move straight into a permanent, settled home, rather than temporary accommodation. The Scottish Government invested £320,000 to support additional capacity for night shelters and extra staff, to help more people into accommodation over the winter. More money—some £150,000—will be committed this summer to continue some services going forward.
Jon Sparkes, chair of the homelessness and rough sleeping action group and chief executive officer of Crisis, said he was very pleased that the Scottish Government have
“given in principle support to all of the recommendations on ending rough sleeping from the Homelessness & Rough Sleeping Action Group”.
That group has to be praised for the manner in which it has dedicated itself to bringing the right recommendations that will have the biggest impact on the way people sleeping rough can access and receive services. The new recommendations have also been welcomed by Annette Finnan and John Mills of the Association of Local Authority Chief Housing Officers, who said:
“ALACHO members will welcome these new recommendations, they reflect much of the good work that is already going on in local councils across Scotland.”
That is praise indeed, and it is a good example of how Government and partners can work together.
As has been mentioned by many MPs when discussing Tory policy, welfare cuts are causing major hardship and housing insecurity for far too many people.
I absolutely and totally agree. That figure is in your face and unavoidable. The impact those cuts are having on our streets is unavoidable; how could anybody not see it?
The Westminster Government must scrap the punitive cuts that have pushed people into destitution. Other charities and organisations are left firefighting these decisions. I will mention some action that has been taken by way of education into employment—life-changing measures for the vulnerably housed and homeless.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the hair industry, I was honoured and privileged to attend a wonderful example of a community working together, in Exeter in Devon. Hair@theAcademy provides professional barbering courses for the homeless and vulnerably housed. A truly remarkable project, the academy has successfully piloted a level 2 certificate in barbering qualifications for six homeless adults. Those adults, who have issues, are all moving into full-time or part-time employment or self-employment. Before starting, all participants must complete a two-week citizenship course with Learn Devon, to ensure that they are clean and ready to begin learning.
The barbering course has the built-in flexibility to run over six months, recognising that there will be difficulties and issues. I would call it a magna vitae. It shows great, creative thinking from Learn Devon and from Mary Pugsley from Hair@theAcademy, who put the project together. What a great vision she has to help others who are more needy. The course is delivered with one-to-one tutoring, and as the learners become more confident, they are encouraged to become more independent in their learning journey. The courage of the businesses that support the course needs to be recognised. They have allowed these people to enter into life and have changed their lives and their way of living and their own communities are all the better for it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the hon. Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) for securing this very important debate. The turnout of colleagues goes some way to demonstrating how important this issue is to so many representatives throughout the country. I am only sorry that more colleagues have not had more time in which to share their views and discuss issues affecting their constituents.
Street homelessness is just one part of the ever increasing problem of homelessness, but it is one that shames the country, so we must welcome the Government strategies to tackle it. I am referring to piloting the Housing First schemes in mayoral areas and bringing in the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. However, I must enter a small caveat. Housing First has worked incredibly well in Finland and areas of Canada, and St Mungo’s, which the hon. Gentleman has spoken to and worked with closely, has also been undertaking this work for quite some time outside the pilots, so we should take this opportunity to congratulate those organisations that have already been undertaking this good work for some time. I also need to raise my concerns about local authorities’ ability fully to implement the range of facilities in the Homelessness Reduction Act without the funding properly to support the requirements of that Act.
I, too, feel that those are exactly the problems, so does my hon. Friend agree that local authorities up and down the country face these difficulties? In my own city of Manchester in 2010, we had only seven people in this situation, but in 2017 the number was 94. Manchester City Council is giving £3 million to tackle homelessness, but it is also fighting the tide of crippling cuts to local authority budgets, an historical housing crisis and punitive welfare reform—
My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) is absolutely right, and I could not support him more. I congratulate Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, on the action that he has taken to ensure that homelessness is at the top of his agenda and to tackle this issue for his city, including by putting some of his own funds into the task group. The rise in homelessness in Manchester and other areas has not simply happened by chance; it is a result of Government choices.
The figures show that almost 5,000 individuals are now sleeping rough on our streets. That is a 15% increase on 2017 and a 169% increase since 2010—a massive increase. Does my hon. Friend agree that we cannot help the homeless if we do not provide the homes that they require?
Absolutely, and I will come on to that issue shortly. This problem is not insurmountable. When Labour was in government, there was an unprecedented drop in homelessness, but since 2010 it has worsened by every measure. As the hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) made clear, the doubling of rough sleepers since 2010 is a problem of the Government’s own making. Home ownership is at a 30-year low. The average home costs eight times the average salary. Today in England there are 120,000 homeless children. The building of social rent homes has plummeted, with fewer than 1,000 last year—the lowest level on record.
The Minister, who has responsibility for homelessness, recently said that she did not know why homelessness had risen. I find it very hard to believe that anyone in this place cannot immediately see some of the main reasons for homelessness increasing. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) rightly recognised some of them: a lack of social and council homes; disproportionately high rental increases making homes unaffordable for those on lower incomes; reductions in council funding meaning less for drug and alcohol services; crippling welfare reforms that have cut too fast and too far for those who were genuinely just about managing; and difficulty in accessing mental health services as the thresholds for those services get ever higher.
I shall take the opportunity to highlight some of the innovative work that NAViGO mental health services is undertaking in my constituency. It has worked closely with the local housing association to purchase properties and then uses them as step-down accommodation to support the service users who come to it for help, to ensure that they have wraparound care. That is the principle of Housing First in action in measures being taken by innovative organisations around the country.
My hon. Friend gives very good examples of people who are homeless being given assistance. I wonder whether she will share my dismay at a letter that I received from Eleanor Wilson, a medical student in Glasgow, last night. She said that she witnessed, in a branch of Starbucks in Glasgow, a homeless man who was just queuing for a cup of coffee being told to get out of the premises. That is one of a litany of issues with Starbucks in the city of Glasgow. Starbucks cannot pay its taxes—does not contribute to helping the public realm—and is also ostracising homeless people on our streets who need help. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is totally unacceptable for a corporate citizen of the UK?
Absolutely. I think that we all have a responsibility. The hon. Member for Gravesham talked about a society that is enabling homelessness, but I think that there is room for compassion when dealing with people who have myriad social, economic and personal issues driving them to be in this situation.
A sensible welfare state provides security to those in society who need it. That has been eroded over the last eight years, creating an underclass to the extent that the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has stepped into the Government’s shoes with its report published yesterday in the New Statesman and identified 78 homeless people who have died this winter. That is 78 human lives lost, 78 people without a place that they could call home, 78 lost people. Why do I call them “lost people”? Because the Government do not collect those figures centrally. Because in response to my written questions and those from colleagues about deaths associated with rough sleeping, the Minister has repeatedly brushed that question off. There was no acknowledgement that the central collection of data would prove to be of discernible use—that it would better inform the Government of the scale of the issue at hand and provide some evidence and a means by which Government initiatives could be measured.
The Minister’s Department seems similarly unaware of which local authorities have commissioned adult safeguarding reviews in the event of homelessness-related deaths in their area, so we cannot know which local authorities have good practices and which need improvement. Will she agree today to start collecting centrally data in relation to deaths from homelessness? For everyone’s information, at least 59 men and 16 women have died. Their ages ranged from 19 to 68, and 14 of those who died were under the age of 35.
I congratulate them on their assiduousness, but it should not take investigative journalists calling round councils, charities, coroners’ offices and police forces to establish a full picture of how many people are dying on the streets of our country. And it is not just those figures that matter. The Government should be doing better in collating general information about people who are rough sleeping, because the accuracy of those figures is wholly insufficient. In the official figures, the estimated figure for rough sleepers in my constituency sits at around 22, but the list that I get every single month from my local outreach services shows more than double that number.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent contribution to the debate. Does she agree that there is a case for reviewing the nonsensical, arbitrary headcount that takes place once a year, in November, and leads to completely misleading statistics? We actually need a personal profile of each individual so that we know what their needs are and how to address them. The headcount once a year is completely misleading and unhelpful.
The hon. Gentleman makes an incredibly valid point, and I hope that the Minister is listening. I see that the hon. Member for Gravesham, who initiated the debate, is nodding: he thinks that what has been referred to would be of great use.
It is shameful that in 2018 we have experienced such a rise in homelessness in all its guises, from families left in supposedly temporary accommodation for up to two years, to those without even a roof over their heads. There must be action. Now is not soon enough, let alone 2027, especially for those who have lost their lives without the security of their own home.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) on securing a debate on this extremely important issue. Tackling homelessness in all its forms is a priority not only me for me, but for this Government. I understand his interest in this subject. As he mentioned, he has seen what it is like to sleep rough.
I am also thankful for the other experiences and expertise shared here today, whether it comes from a constituency or wider perspective. I am grateful to hon. Members for their speeches and questions and will, I hope, answer them as I work through my speech.
It should never be the case that someone finds themselves without a roof over their head. That is why, as hon. Members will be aware, the Government have committed to halving rough sleeping by the end of this Parliament and to eliminating it altogether by 2027.
No, I will not. There is not enough time, because I have to give time to my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham at the end.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham for his kind comments about the ambitions of this Government. Hon. Members will be aware that at the beginning of this month we implemented the most ambitious legislative reform in decades, the Homelessness Reduction Act, which transforms the culture of homelessness service delivery. For the first time, local authorities, public services and the third sector will work together to actively prevent homelessness for any people at risk, irrespective of whether they are a family or a single person, of what has put them at risk or of whether they have a local connection to the area. To deliver the new duties under the Act, we know how important it is to provide local authorities with the requisite support to build the homelessness workforce. To help this, we have funded the London Training Academy, which will provide current frontline staff and apprentices. I am exceptionally proud of the work that has gone into delivering these changes and the work the Department has done. As ever, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for all his endeavours in bringing this Act to pass.
On rough sleeping, hon. Members will be aware that we are publishing our strategy in July, setting out the measures that we will take in order to achieve our manifesto commitments. Overseeing the development and delivery of the strategy will be the ministerial taskforce, chaired by the First Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington), and comprises Ministers from key Departments with responsibilities in relation to homelessness and rough sleeping. It is supported by the rough sleeping advisory panel, which I chair, with Mayors Andy Burnham and Andy Street sitting on it. The panel brings together key figures from local government, central Government and homelessness charities. We have met three times so far. Sub-groups of the panel have also been established to look at a range of themes, such as prevention, intervention, recovery, data and long-term social change for the strategy. Good progress has been made on the development of the strategy and I look forward to sharing our plans with hon. Members this summer.
We are, however, determined to take action to tackle rough sleeping right now. I am sure hon. Members will have seen the recent announcement on what we have called the “rough sleeping initiative”, which lays the foundations for the strategy. The measures contained in the initiative are based on tried and tested measures, which have previously had significant and immediate impact on bringing down rough sleeping. The measures include setting up a rough sleeping team, made up of rough sleeping and homelessness experts, drawn from and funded by Government Departments and agencies, with specialist knowledge across a wide range of areas, including housing, mental health and addiction. There is a £30 million fund for 2018-19, with further funding agreed for 2019-20. This funding will be targeted at local authorities with high numbers of people sleeping rough. The rough sleeping team will work with local areas with higher pressure to support them and deliver bespoke local interventions to immediately reduce the number of people sleeping rough on the streets. A further £100,000 will be made available to support the frontline rough sleeping workers across the country, to ensure they have the right skills and knowledge to work with vulnerable rough sleepers.
In addition, the Department is working with the National Housing Federation to look at providing additional co-ordinated move-on accommodation for rough sleepers across the nation, to ensure that they can stand on their own two feet once they have received help. As well as the support provided by other Government Departments in developing the strategy, this new package of measures will be supported by a range of Departments across Whitehall. For example—this will answer many colleagues’ questions—the Department of Health and Social Care will make available experts in mental health and drug treatment services to help support the new outreach teams, including those in hostels, and the Ministry of Justice will focus on prison and probation work with local authorities and outreach teams, in particular to identify short sentence prisoners and offenders serving community sentences who are at risk of sleeping rough. These measures build on existing action we have already taken to tackle rough sleeping. For example, as announced in the 2017 Budget, we are piloting the Housing First approach to support some of the most entrenched rough sleepers in our society. I have personally seen the good that Housing First can do, especially for those struggling with addiction, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham mentioned. I saw that when I visited the Housing First projects in Glasgow last month. The Government are keen to see the results of how it will work in England and robust evaluations will inform wider roll-out, which my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) asked about.
Charities and volunteers carry out vital work across the country. Their work is key to ensuring that rough sleepers get the help that they need and they help us in meeting our manifesto commitment, particularly charities such as St Mungo’s and Homeless Link.
I understand the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham that people sleeping rough might be migrants. To be clear, we have always worked closely with councils and homelessness outreach services to ensure that the genuinely vulnerable receive the care they need. The Government also provide funding for local authorities for specific projects to tackle rough sleeping by non-UK nationals. This fund helps projects to secure regular employment and accommodation for non-UK nationals, or facilitate voluntary return to their country of origin.
The Government have allocated more than £1.2 billion to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping over the spending review period. This includes––this is by no means exhaustive––£617 million in flexible housing support grants, £316 million of local authority prevention funding and £100 million to deliver low-cost move-on accommodation places to enable people leaving hostels and refugees to make a sustainable recovery from the homelessness crisis. There is a further £215 million for a central Government programme, which funds a range of innovative projects across the country and a £20 million fund for schemes that will enable better access in the private rented sector for those who are, or are at risk of, becoming homeless, which the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) asked about.
I thank the Minister for her contribution to the debate. I ask her to look at a report published today by the organisation Justlife, which shows that there are ten times more people in temporary accommodation than Government figures suggest and that there is a direct correlation between unsupported temporary accommodation, welfare reform and rough sleeping. These people are living in appalling conditions in bed-and-breakfast hotels and guest houses. Will she study that report and will she be prepared to visit one or two of the Justlife projects in Greater Manchester with me, to see for herself the realities on the frontline?
I heard about that report yesterday. It is devastating to see the quality of the property that certain people are being asked to stay in. That is not acceptable in this country. I had a meeting arranged in Manchester. Unfortunately, it was cancelled by the people in Manchester, but I am sure there will be another time when I will come up.
In conclusion, I thank all hon. Members for their contributions to this important debate, which has been truly worthwhile. I reiterate that this Government are truly committed to achieving our manifesto targets and we will have further updates in the near future on what we will do to ensure that we meet them. Rough sleeping and homelessness is a scourge on our society. We will do everything in our power to sort it out.
I thank the Minister and the shadow Minister for their speeches, and the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) for his excellent intervention. It was fascinating to hear about the grandmother of the hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis). Thank God we have moved on some way from that. I would love to hear more about Stan at some point.
We need to think about the realities of homelessness and see it for what it is, rather than how we would like to characterise it. Homelessness is of course a problem, but it is only a symptom. We will get nowhere if we do not get to the underlying problems these people face. As we have seen from this debate, if we cannot discuss this honestly, without the degree of ignorance and prejudice that we saw from a couple of hon. Members, we will get nowhere. We have to treat homeless people as individuals. We have to segment people to some extent, so that we do not mask the problems of the people at the very bottom of our society, who—at the moment and for generations—we have not managed to reach.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered street homelessness.
Independent Financial Advisers: Regulation
I beg to move,
That this House has considered regulation of independent financial advisers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I put on record my role as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on fair business banking and finance, which is primarily concerned with the business banking scandals that have devastated many viable businesses and ruined the lives of many business people and their families. The debate does not directly relate to those issues, but does have connections with the regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority, and its willingness and ability to hold those it regulates to account.
Whether as a consequence of malpractice, incompetence or deception, there will always be situations where innocent investors lose money through the failings of financial advisers. I will refer to the cases of two constituents. For the purposes of confidentiality, one would prefer to be known simply as Helen, and the other is Andy Mohun-Smith. The only connection between them is that they used the same financial adviser, Scott Robinson, who owned and operated a company called TBO Investments until 2016. He also owns a company called Mount Sterling Wealth.
Those cases and the supposed regulation of Mr Scott Robinson are truly astounding because nine years after an initial complaint was made to the FCA, seven years after the financial ombudsman ruled that he had provided unsuitable advice and ordered him to pay compensation, six years after an expert witness concluded that the investments advised by Mr Scott Robinson that were made on behalf of Andy Mohun-Smith were completely unsuitable, four years after it was established that he was providing advice without the required professional indemnity insurance, four years after Mr Mohun-Smith was awarded damages of £2.2 million, three years after Companies House issued a compulsory strike off order to TBO Investments, as it had failed to submit accounts since 2012, 18 months after Mr Scott Robinson put TBO Investments into liquidation and phoenixed those clients into his other company, Mount Sterling Wealth, and 12 months after I first asked the FCO to address those cases, the regulator continues to designate Mr Scott Robinson as an approved person and to authorise his company to provide regulated advice. Most incredibly, it does so principally on the basis that to do otherwise may deprive an individual of their livelihood.
I am sure that my constituents are two of many people who have suffered significant financial loss and distress at the hands of Mr Scott Robinson and his companies. Mr Scott Robinson is a clever salesman with a long and extremely chequered history of providing investment advice. According to the research of my constituent Helen, he has to our knowledge set up five limited companies. Three of them have been dissolved. One, TBO Investments, has been put into voluntary liquidation. Three have had striking-off proceedings taken against them. I would be happy to hear from other investors who have had similar experiences. I urge them to come forward and to make complaints directly to the FCA.
My constituents’ connections to Mr Scott Robinson began in May 2007, when Mr Mohun-Smith started to invest in supposedly safe, regulated investments with him. Over the next four years, he invested more than £2 million with the firm. By the end of 2012, he realised that the investment advice he was being given was deficient, defective and deceitful, so he took legal advice.
In January 2013, Mr Scott Robinson’s insurance brokers informed him that his professional indemnity insurance did not cover the investments he was making, but he did not reveal that to Mr Mohun-Smith until June 2014. In March 2013, Mr Mohun-Smith issued a legal claim against TBO Investments and Mr Scott Robinson. In June 2014, when the trial took place, the judge struck out the defence, because Mr Scott Robinson did not appear at the trial, and awarded damages of £2.21 million.
A court of appeal effectively decided that Mr Scott Robinson could have a rehearing, but before that could take place, in August 2016, he placed TBO Investments into voluntary liquidation. That thwarted any opportunity for my constituents to take legal action to cover their losses, and left his own lawyers out of pocket. He then transferred all his clients to his other company, Mount Sterling Wealth, which he still trades in, for a sum of £28,613, despite the fact that the company’s directors earn six-figure sums from their provision of investment advice to those clients.
I understand that the insolvency practitioner for TBO Investments is taking legal action against Mr Scott Robinson to return moneys to the firm, on the basis that he breached insolvency rules by way of those asset transfers. For Helen, the financial services compensation scheme may help, as her losses are below the £50,000 threshold. For Mr Mohun-Smith, that is of little help or consequence.
To this day, Mount Sterling Wealth continues to operate. Its website features Scott Robinson, and it states above his photograph:
“We will help you to create, build, and protect your wealth, and tax efficiently pass it through the generations.”
According to Companies House’s records, however, Mr Scott Robinson’s directorship was terminated by his resignation from that company four days ago, after nine years of directorships. Perhaps that is coincidental, perhaps not.
Crucially, what is the FCA’s role in all this? On the question of TBO Investment’s lack of professional indemnity insurance, it simply states that
“it remains the responsibility of the firm”.
That is despite going on to say that it requires firms to report on that every six months and despite the fact that the FCA eventually cancelled TBO Investment’s permission to undertake regulated activity due to non-compliance. Despite all that, Mount Sterling Wealth continues to be authorised and regulated by the FCA. It says it will consider outstanding complaints when future applications for authorisations of individuals are made, but it continues to designate Mr Scott Robinson as an approved person.
According to the FCA, an approved person needs to be able to demonstrate that they are a fit and proper person for the purposes of providing advice. Shockingly, once they are approved, there is no ongoing re-approval process or requirement. The FCA has the power to levy fines and to impose banning orders on individuals, but it has thus far decided not to.
I have met Mr Andrew Bailey, the chief executive of the FCA, and I have spoken to other senior executives there. Incredibly, the only justification I can get for Mr Scott Robinson’s continuing designation as an approved person is that they are concerned that they may be
“depriving an individual of their livelihood”,
That is this individual, with their chequered record. What about the deprivation of my constituents’ livelihoods? What about their income, their investment and their hard-earned money? Is that not what the FCA should be principally concerned about?
I turn to the solutions. The FCA must take action. It must take a more proactive oversight role of the financial advisers that it regulates; it must surely instigate a re-approval process for financial advisers; it must be willing to hold financial advisers to account where there is clear wrongdoing, and impose fines and banning orders; and it should work with the Financial Services Compensation Scheme, and with Ministers if required, to revise and raise the level of the compensation scheme from the current level of £50,000, which is totally inappropriate.
For my constituents, Andy and Helen, this has been a most traumatic experience. In Andy’s words:
“This has had a devastating effect on my life...the damage to my health has been considerable. The enormous stress my wife and I were subjected to as a result of Mr Robinson’s disastrous investment decisions was undoubtedly a major factor in the breakup of our marriage.”
Those words say more than I ever could.
The FCA, the regulator that we entrust to make sure that our consumers, investors and businesses are fairly treated, has many questions to answer. It needs to take a long hard look at itself, and it must prove to those it is accountable to—the Treasury and Parliament—that it is able to carry out the role that it is required to perform. I, for one, am very sceptical that it is capable of doing so.
I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) for securing this important debate. I also thank you, Mr Gray, for chairing it.
I am aware that this debate has been prompted by the constituency cases that my hon. Friend has highlighted today—those of Helen and Mr Mohun-Smith. As my hon. Friend will no doubt appreciate, I cannot comment on the specifics of the cases, although it has been extremely useful to listen to and learn from them. I was very concerned to hear the evidence he brought before us today and laid out so clearly and painfully.
Successive Governments have sought to put in place a policy framework for the regulation of the financial advice market, and they have provided the independent Financial Conduct Authority with the powers that it needs to set out the rules for this market and to enforce them to ensure that consumers are treated fairly. It is troubling to hear the issues that my hon. Friend’s constituents have experienced, which suggest either that the framework itself has not been able to give them the protection they deserve or that the FCA has not acted to enforce the rules in the way we would have hoped it would.
Consumers depend on good advice from honest and reliable individuals to manage their life savings properly, to help them make life-changing decisions and to ensure their security in retirement, especially following the implementation of pension freedoms. We want people to access help to make those important decisions, from simple guidance and information to regulated financial advice.
To ensure that the market for financial advice functions effectively, we have to protect people from unscrupulous advisers, and we also have to protect the majority of reputable advisers from those who would do down their industry and their jobs. The independent FCA has set out the rules for the market, and it has been tasked by us to enforce those rules robustly to ensure that consumers are always treated fairly.
Firms and advisers have to be authorised by the FCA, they have to be qualified to provide advice and they have to ensure that such advice is suitable for an individual’s personal circumstances. As in any walk of life, there will always be individuals and firms out there who try to bend the rules or even to commit fraud and other forms of criminal activity. The FCA has the ability to take swift enforcement action to ban individuals firms from providing financial advice, although that does not appear to have happened in the cases that my hon. Friend has mentioned, and I will give thought to the point he made about ongoing re-approval. More action may be required in that regard.
In other cases, advisers might not provide suitable advice, leading to financial loss for consumers. In those cases, consumers can refer to the Financial Ombudsman Service for compensation, which is usually up to a maximum of £150,000 per individual. The advisory firm is then legally required to provide that compensation. Sadly, it is often the case that firms go into liquidation and cannot provide the compensation that individuals deserve. There is then a second tier of protection through the Financial Services Compensation Scheme, which is mainly funded by an annual levy on the financial services industry. Since it was founded, the FSCS has helped millions of people and paid billions of pounds in compensation.
As my hon. Friend mentioned, the current limit for compensation from the FSCS for people who have received bad advice is £50,000 per person. Hon. Members will be pleased to know that the FCA has recently consulted on raising that compensation limit to £85,000, with an intention to introduce the new limit from 1 April 2019. We would strongly support such an increase. A limit of £85,000 would mean that—based on historical data, at least—only 2.5% of claims relating to investments and only 3.8% of claims relating to pensions advice would not have been fully compensated. Clearly, there will be individuals who have invested and lost far greater sums, perhaps including my hon. Friend’s constituents, but the vast majority of consumers would be protected.
Of course, when setting a compensation limit for the FSCS, the FCA has to strike a balance, providing an appropriate level of compensation to enough claimants, without placing an undue burden on the reputable financial advisers and firms that pay the levies—of course, those costs would be passed on in the end to consumers.
That is why it is mandatory for firms to be covered by professional indemnity insurance, which brings us on to another point raised by my hon. Friend. Such insurance should cover many claims, reducing pressure on the FSCS. The FCA published its consultation paper on the FSCS in October 2017, and it is considering whether to go further, to prevent firms from buying professional indemnity insurance that does not allow claims when the policyholder or a related party is insolvent. The FCA will issue a paper on this matter shortly, and we will welcome the decision that it makes.
The FCA has to remain vigilant in cases where firms go into liquidation to avoid paying compensation to consumers before re-forming as “new” firms. Andrew Bailey, the chief executive of the FCA, whom my hon. Friend referred to, has recently said that this practice, which is often called phoenixing, is actively being examined by the FCA and that the FCA is also considering whether the existing rules are sufficient or the creation of new rules is required.
For example, the FCA placed asset sale restrictions on eight advice firms last year in an effort to clamp down on phoenixing. That was done to prevent the common practice of transferring assets that belong to the collapsed firm, including from the client bank, to its former directors, who of course go on to set up a new firm.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for addressing so accurately and so well the points that I made. Is he surprised, as I am, that what he referred to as professional indemnity insurance beyond an insolvency, which is commonly known as run-off cover, is required in many other sectors but not currently in this sector? Is he also surprised that the FCA countenances a situation whereby an adviser it licences as an approved person is able to carry on activities with professional indemnity insurance even though that insurance does not cover the activities they are advising people about?
I am surprised by both the points that my hon. Friend has just raised. He and I both worked in professions before coming to this House—I worked as a lawyer, and he worked as an estate agent—and it is surprising that, in the profession of financial adviser, those practices are permitted. I hope that answering such questions will be part of the scope of the FCA’s inquiry and the work that it will subsequently do.
To return to phoenixing, we will work with the FCA to ensure that appropriate rules are in place. I intend to ensure that action is taken in this area. Phoenixing in these circumstances is wrong. It leaves consumers and taxpayers out of pocket and tarnishes the reputation of the industry. Just as with phoenixing in other businesses, these practices can be deeply corrosive to public confidence and to trust in the system, and the effects are, in time, passed on to the whole economy. We want an economy and a society that understand that entrepreneurs and businesspeople can fail—and often do so on the road to later success, wealth, job creation and flourishing new businesses—but those who fail deliberately or recklessly damage our economy and public faith in capitalism, and they must be stopped.
I would like to use this opportunity to raise some additional critical points. The Government have been implementing other policy areas to ensure that we have a better-functioning market for financial advice that benefits consumers. The first of these is the retail distribution review launched in 2006, which drastically altered the current charging market for independent financial advisers, encouraging them to charge set fees and prohibiting them from receiving commission from product providers. That was an important step forward, reducing incentives for advisers to recommend investments in which they had a financial interest, and improving the overall quality of financial advice. It has been welcomed by the sector and those who rely on it.
More recently, under this Government, the Treasury and the FCA launched the financial advice market review in 2015, with the goal of improving the accessibility and affordability of financial advice. Research we have done shows that those with high incomes generally—although not always—have access to quality advice, but those with moderate or low incomes, who arguably have the greatest need, have found decent advice far less accessible. The final report, which we published in March 2016, set out a package of 28 recommendations, which the Government and the FCA have now implemented. Although the recommendations of that review will take time to take effect, we have had encouraging feedback from market participants that the work we have done, which the FCA must now take forward, will make a real difference to consumers, and we are already seeing some tangible results in that respect.
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this discussion on a very important topic here today. I will raise the points he made with Andrew Bailey at the Financial Conduct Authority again—I appreciate that my hon. Friend has already been to see him. I will highlight the cases he has brought to my attention and will ask for further explanations. He does not bring cases to this place lightly. He has a great deal of experience in business. He and the constituents he has talked about deserve answers and actions, and others in his constituency and across the country deserve to be protected.
The issue is not static; the Government and the FCA are committed to ensuring that it remains under constant review. I will urge the FCA to step up its efforts, particularly in respect of phoenixing, which is a wider problem and a challenge for all of us who believe in a free economy and who want to see its reputation protected. Like all Members of this House, I want to see consumers and members of the public protected, and the reputations of those who choose to pursue careers as financial advisers protected, not tarnished by the actions of the few.
Question put and agreed to.
Dieter Helm Energy Review
[Steve McCabe in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the cost of the energy review by Dieter Helm.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. The motion has a slight ambiguity as to whether we are considering the cost of producing the report or the contents of the report itself, and I want to make it clear that we are considering the report itself, and not the £500 a day paid to Professor Helm for producing it.
The report is a devastating critique of Government policy over the past 10 years or so. That is not just this Government, but the coalition Government and the previous Government. The report’s extraordinary headline is that we will have paid £100 billion—that is one hundred thousand million pounds—more than necessary by 2030 for current energy policies. Consumers are paying 20% more for energy than would otherwise have been necessary. Thinking about the debates, rows and discussions we have about major infrastructure in this place, High Speed 2 will cost £40 billion or £50 billion, which is half as much. Some of my hon. Friends are against that highly controversial project, and many Government Members are in favour of it. Cost is a crucial issue, but it looks as though, for no real infrastructure benefit whatever, by 2030 we will be paying twice as much—£50 billion more—for an energy system that is, in the words of Professor Helm, “not fit for purpose”. One could also argue about the marginal differences in cost that people see for remaining in or leaving the EU. The sheer size of this £100 billion figure leaves many such arguments in the shade.
Professor Helm’s report is long—240 pages long—but if people want a simple version of his views, I recommend reading the transcript from when he was before the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee on 16 January. He knocked down some of the criticisms of the report when he was quizzed by Members. The transcript is much easier to digest and more to the point than the 240 pages of dense, well-argued points.
One can agree or disagree with the report, but it is logically coherent. One surprise is that, given the sheer magnitude of the figures involved, the Government have not responded in detail to it. I am sure there are responses that could be made. There could be disagreements on much of the detail in it, but it is a real failure that the Government have not responded to such an important report, which they of course asked for.
One thing that the report emphasises is how the energy market is working and has been set up. The Government have tried to pick winners, but as often happens, they have not. We would all like to pick winners; we would all like to win on the Derby or the Grand National, but most of us are not very good at it, and Governments by and large are not much better at picking winners in industry and energy. The people who are good are inefficient businesses—losers, rather than winners, if you prefer, Mr McCabe. They are good at picking weak Governments and lobbying and arguing for subsidy for less-than-competitive industries. The report says that they have done that, and it is devastating in its analysis.
Not only have the Government—as I said, I am not making a particular charge against this Government; this charge is levelled at the last three Governments—been subject to lobbying and wasted money, but in the background of the process are many lobbyists and green groups whose acquaintance with the truth sometimes leaves a lot to be desired. We not only have industry with vested interests, but groups such as Greenpeace lobbying in the background, many times dishonestly, to support policies that fit their ideological preference.
Mr McCabe, you may remember walking into the House of Commons before Christmas and seeing big signs outside sponsored by Greenpeace that said the cost of wind had been cut by 50%. That was an outright lie. It was challenged at the Advertising Standards Authority, and Greenpeace was made to take those adverts down. When Greenpeace and others were asked to justify their position, they said that they were using projected costs for wind farms in the North sea that had not yet been commissioned, let alone built. That is the background to a controversial policy area that the Government should by now have responded to.
I said that Professor Helm was coherent, which he is, but—this will come as no surprise to the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead)—I do not agree with the objectives that Professor Helm has always agreed with. They are the Government’s objectives, too, and I will explain why I do not agree. He starts the energy review by talking about the Government’s target in the Climate Change Act 2008 to reduce carbon emissions in this country by 80% from 1990 levels by 2050. I do not agree with that, and I will explain why. However, it is the Government’s policy and the law, and that is the basis of the review. His second objective, which he took as concrete, was the security of energy supply. Along with those two objectives, he wanted to see whether costs could come down.
My disagreement is that I have always thought that there should be a hierarchy of targets in energy policy. Security of energy supply should always be the top target, because if the lights go out, not only would we be in trouble as Members of Parliament for creating a system that does not keep the lights on, but the country would be in trouble. I have always thought that security of energy supply, rather than arbitrary carbon targets, should be the top priority.
Secondly, I would find it difficult to explain to my constituents and industry in my constituency if price was not one of the top priorities. For it to be tertiary is a mistake. Lower prices should be a priority, but a consequence of the policy is that they have been neglected, and they have gone up by more than they would have otherwise. That is where I disagree.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate; he makes some good points. I agree entirely with what he has just said about price, and with what the report seems to indicate. There has been a complete failure of competition in the domestic energy market; Governments always talk about it, but they have failed to deliver. There is still a predominance of the big six energy companies, effectively rigging prices. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that needs to be fundamentally addressed if we are to have a proper energy market that benefits customers?
That is my reading of the report. I think Professor Helm goes slightly further than that—beyond the big six energy companies—and talks about the problems that have been caused by investing in costly new technologies that might have been cheaper to purchase later, but I essentially agree with the hon. Gentleman.
The price of energy is important not just in the way that I have described; it is also probably the most important industrial policy that this country can have. Matt Ridley pointed out in The Times some 12 months ago that at the start of the industrial revolution—this is from memory, so I might have the numbers slightly wrong, but they will not be far out—the cost of energy in Newcastle was about one 20th or one 25th of the cost of energy in China. We know what happened: this country, Europe and the United States boomed ahead because what previously required 20 horses could now be done with a few lumps of coal.
Recklessly putting up the price of energy has been a huge mistake for the country. When I say that, I do not want anyone to think that I am somehow in the category of anti-science. My background is that of a scientist, and I understand the opacity or otherwise of carbon dioxide to different wavelengths of electromagnetic energy. I understand the greenhouse effect in some detail, and I do not deny its existence—I think that what its impact will be is sometimes exaggerated, but that is a debate for another day.
We have been putting the price of energy up and closing coal stations—probably the coal stations should have been closed earlier, as Professor Helm says. As an intermediate pathway to the Government’s goals, it might have been sensible to use gas-fired power stations, which have half the carbon emissions of coal-fired power stations. If we look at the whole-world picture, we see what little impact we have—I think we produce about 2% of the carbon dioxide in the world. Over the next 10 years or so, 1,600 coal plants are planned in 62 countries around the world. China will make 700 of them. Approximately 65% to 70% of India’s energy production is from coal, but last Monday India cancelled the vast majority of its planned nuclear power plants.
Whatever impact we have will be minimal to negligible, yet we are putting the price of energy up for some of the poorest people in the country, including my constituents. We are also undoubtedly damaging industry, because due to the high price of energy we are, in effect, exporting many jobs to countries such as China, India and Malaysia, where they are often less efficient, and there is the carbon cost of the transport by ship or plane when we buy their goods.
Professor Helm, taking the Government’s policies as firm, has a number of suggestions. First, he believes that there should be one uniform carbon price. He points out, in a chart towards the end of the report, that we have many carbon prices at present, where we add to the cost of fossil fuels through many of the interventions to VAT. He believes that they should be unified, which would make things transparent. He also believes that there should be auctions for energy suppliers. Devastatingly, he says in the report that he is surprised, and I think it was a surprise to everybody else, that when things were put out to auction, rather than using interventionist prices, the prices dropped dramatically.
Professor Helm gives us his reasons on the interventions. I do not want to read too much of the report directly, but he says that the different interventions have made the market extremely complicated and expensive. He points out:
“The legacy costs from the Renewables Obligation Certificates (ROCs), the feed-in tariffs (FiTs) and lowcarbon contracts for difference (CfDs) are a major contributor to rising final prices, and should be separated out, ring-fenced, and placed in a ‘legacy bank’. They should be charged separately”.
On the complexity, Professor Helm’s answer to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee was devastating, because some of the vested interests had been into the Committee previously and had lobbied. Some of the renewable energy people and some of the people from the Committee on Climate Change—all of them professors, you understand, Mr McCabe—had said, “There’s no problem with complexity whatever.” I think there is a problem, and anybody who has been in the real world for very long knows that there is a problem. Professor Helm’s key finding and recommendation on that was:
“The scale of the multiple interventions in the electricity market is now so great that few if any could even list them all, and their interactions are poorly understood. Complexity is itself a major cause of rising costs, and tinkering with policies and regulations is unlikely to reduce costs. Indeed, each successive intervention layers on new costs and unintended consequences. It should be a central aim of government to radically simplify the interventions, and to get government back out of many of its current detailed roles. This review explains how to do this.”
In taking on the professors who think that complexity is not a problem, Professor Helm said:
“It is empirically impossible to work out the costs of current policy, because each policy intervention interacts with every other policy intervention. Any cost-benefit analysis of a particular intervention has to do the plethora of interactions with all the other bits as well. If you want an empirical piece of proof, you need to have all that analysis done and then analyse the empirics of the counterfactual, of what would have happened if you did not have all that complexity.”
I agree with him: it is impossible.
The report also says that, having created that complexity:
“As a consequence of Electricity Market Reform (EMR), the government now determines the level and mix of generation to a degree not witnessed since these were determined by the nationalised industries”.
I suspect that if I had been a Member of this House when Lord Lawson, as Energy Secretary, proposed privatising the energy industries, I would have voted against. Nationalised industries at least have a direct line of responsibility between the taxpayer, who may benefit from them and subsidise them, and the controlled industry. What we have here is a complete mess: Government intervention, interfered with by lobbyists and vested interests with no accountability, which ends up with the poor consumer paying more than they need to.
Professor Helm criticises the Government for focusing too much on electricity and not enough on agriculture, which is a tiny part of the economy and creates about 10% of carbon dioxide emissions. He strongly believes—this should please the Government—in a free market solution. He believes that the auctions will not pick winners, but that the winners will pick themselves by being efficient in the auction process.
I want to deal with one of the main questions put forward by my hon. Friends who represent constituencies where Vesta, for instance, produces wind turbines. That question is whether the alternative, renewable energy business would have got going without intervention. Nobody can really answer that. When all that extra cash has been put into the energy market, there are bound to be spin-off benefits, but it cannot be known at any time, unless the market is tested, whether someone could have got more bangs for their buck for investing differently.
One area where I completely agree with Professor Helm is that we need research—not just the research carried out by vested interests who want to produce energy, but pure research. There is a long way to go in battery technology, which may be part of the solution. Unless something has happened since I left the Energy and Climate Change Committee, we do not even have a proper pilot scheme for carbon capture devices. All those things could be explored in a pure way and then, in the way that often happens after pure research, industry could look at what could be used and the way we are investing at the moment.
The final point made by Professor Helm is that tens of billions have been invested in subsidising wind farms in the north sea. On what basis can we say that was the right decision, rather than putting the money into carbon capture and storage? I do not have the answer to that, and I know the Government do not have the answer. They have opened their arms to vested interests and have ended up with a system that disadvantages our constituents and is essentially not fit for purpose. The Government need to respond thoroughly and properly to this important report. It is possible to disagree with it or to agree with parts of it, but it certainly needs a response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe, and I thank the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) for securing this important debate.
I thank Professor Helm and the advisory board for their work on the independent review. It has certainly contributed to the wider debate on how we should approach energy policy in a way that balances the challenges of climate change, energy security and justice for customers. The true cost, or benefit, of the review will be determined by what the Government do with the findings. I am confident that the review, or at least the debate it has provoked, will lead to positive and successful steps to reduce the price of energy in this country for both domestic and business users.
The concept of starting an important debate about the future of energy markets, with the aim of bringing down the cost of energy for customers, must surely be the right thing to do. The UK Government have already shown that they are serious about making energy prices more affordable for consumers. In July 2017, the UK Government and Ofgem set out a plan to create a smarter energy system. We are seeing some progress, although perhaps not as much as many would like, on smart meters. It is a big hill to climb and I only hope it will continue to accelerate in the next couple of years. I am looking forward to the return of the Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill to the House for its remaining stages, which I believe will be next week. It is entirely reasonable that the UK Government have sought to build on those actions with a review of what else can be done to bring energy prices down and provide energy security in a low-carbon economy. All the elements of energy production and the low carbon aspect make this quite a difficult Rubik’s cube to square off.
Professor Helm has frequently raised concerns about the price of renewable energy as produced by current technology and has called for Governments to take a more balanced approach to sourcing and securing energy. In his review, he put forward many interesting proposals for the future of UK energy policy, from a carbon price to the replacement of overpriced standard variable tariffs with a new default tariff, to a wider simplification of the whole raft and range of state interventions, which are cumbersome and only understood by a few people, if by anybody.
We do not necessarily have to subscribe to the findings of the review in full to acknowledge that many of its proposals are interesting contributions to the debate and at least merit further examination. That is why it is right that the UK Government have responded to the review by taking evidence from a range of interested parties, including consumer groups, and are now analysing that evidence. The review has been worthwhile and I am confident that it will prove to have been a valuable contribution to the UK Government’s efforts to reduce the cost of energy and to reduce fuel poverty—an important aspect for many—and to assist industry to become far more competitive as we go forward.
I express my thanks to the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) for securing this debate. I am pleased we are having this debate on the cost of the Dieter Helm independent review, launched by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and led, of course, by Professor Helm, an economist specialising in energy. Such a review is a rather important matter. Therefore, it was extremely disappointing that it was announced by BEIS on a Sunday in the peak of the August holiday season last year and was scheduled to last a mere 30 days.
The review was set in the context of rising customer concern about power prices, which were set to increase by 15%, following the decision by British Gas to increase electricity prices by 12.5% on average, despite falling wholesale prices. Although UK domestic power tariffs remain low relative to other countries in the EU, they are rising, and for industrial users, they are the third highest of 15 European countries, according to the UK Government’s figures. One reason is increases in climate-related policy costs, which make up a growing proportion of the average energy bill.
The review’s terms of reference are about ensuring energy is affordable for households and businesses. It sets out 11 short bullet points and reiterates the laudable ambition to have the lowest energy costs in Europe for homes and businesses. However, the expert panel of five working alongside Professor Helm lacked a consumer voice, although manufacturing was represented. I do not understand why that was the case, but perhaps the Minister can shed some light on it.
Although the review was independent, with the purpose of reviewing the cost of energy, it focused on electricity. The Government said:
“The specific aim of this review is to report and make recommendations on how”
carbon and energy security aims
“can be met in the power sector at minimum cost and without imposing further costs on the exchequer.”
Indeed, the Government recognised that, although the UK has some of the lowest gas prices in Europe, our electricity prices are less competitive, compared with those for households in Europe, and are among the most expensive for the industry. Bills are about volume, not just price. For example, average domestic electricity prices in the US are half those of the UK, but bills are higher because the more energy-efficient UK homes have less waste. The same can be said of gas.
As well as the fact that the review was restricted to electricity, utility firms’ pricing and profits were not included, which some might argue was a missed opportunity. The Government have rejected the idea that the review was too narrowly based on Professor Helm’s opinions and too brief to unearth any valuable new evidence. Does that remain their view? How on earth can anyone seriously consider the cost issues facing UK energy without looking at the £20 billion Hinkley Point reactor project? I know that many in the energy industry agree with that.
There has been much debate about various aspects of this report, and that is as it should be. The report’s two main findings are that the cost of energy is significantly higher than it needs to be, and that energy policy, regulation and market design are not fit for the purposes of the emerging low-carbon energy market, but I believe we have to focus on the cost of energy to the consumer. The report makes it clear that, since late 2014, the price of oil, gas and coal has fallen significantly, the price of renewables has fallen, and there is downward pressure on the cost of transmission, distribution and supply. New technologies should mean lower, not higher, costs, and much greater scope for energy efficiency. Margins should fall as competition increases, yet Professor Helm points out—if we accept this—that households have seen few benefits from the cost reductions. Prices have gone up, not down, for too many consumers.
I am sure I do not need to tell the Minister about the strain that the unnecessarily high costs for households put on household budgets across the UK. Indeed, Professor Helm warns that such costs risk undermining the broader democratic support for decarbonisation. The Climate Change Act 2008 estimates that the cost of decarbonising electricity is about 20% of typical electricity bills, and it is thought that such legacy costs will amount to well over £100 billion by 2030. Professor Helm concludes that much more decarbonisation could have been achieved for less, and that costs should be lower and falling further. I am interested to hear the Minister’s reflections on that.
As Professor Helm identifies, the problem is that those higher than necessary costs are locked in for at least a decade, despite the Government’s welcome temporary price cap, due to contracts that the Government entered into. We need a way to reduce the burden imposed on consumers and businesses and ensure that decarbonisation costs are more transparent, at the very least.
There is no doubt a difficult balance to strike between costs and the challenges that the electricity and energy system will face in the next decade and beyond. Carbon budgets need to be met as we invest in new technologies that come on stream. We are living through a technological transformation, and electricity is increasingly the dominant energy form.
Professor Helm is clear that the 2050 carbon target could be met at a lower cost. It could perhaps even be met early, which would be of real benefit to households and the entire industry. Does the Minister have any thoughts about that? It is important that we consider Professor Helm’s work more carefully than is possible in a 90-minute debate, because our wider economic needs, and our ability to meet our energy demands and deliver our carbon budgets may, as Professor Helm points out, depend on it. We must also be extremely mindful when we attempt to break out of the high costs of our energy system, which locks too many households into fuel poverty. There are opportunities in the energy market, and I am extremely interested to hear how the Minister intends to capitalise on them for the sake of consumers, businesses and the delivery of our carbon budgets.
We cannot take Professor Helm’s conclusions as gospel, and nor should we. Indeed, in the past his work has not been short of critics, but it always provokes debate. It seems that Governments have pretty much ignored much of what he has said in the past. I am interested to hear about how his work will inform the Government’s approach as we face the future in this field, and about how consumers can remain at the heart of this process.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) on securing the debate.
I agree with much of what has been said. The Helm report is imperfect, although my copy is greatly improved by the artwork on the back of it contributed by my children. Such a report was always going to be imperfect. For the past 18 months, since the report was first discussed and commissioned, the whole industry and the Government have been holding their breath in anticipation of the response. It was always unlikely that the clouds would part and Professor Helm—as brilliant as he is—would provide the absolute solution for all future energy policy.
Professor Helm is right that the auction system we have been operating over the past decade or so is imperfect. It is complicated, and parts of it have given us the wrong result. Until recently, in the grid services markets, in particular, we ended up with lots of diesel coming through to meet that need. Clearly, that is not what the Government or anybody in the lobby in favour of decarbonisation hoped for. Clearly, it was not perfect. I accept Professor Helm’s criticism of the Government’s picking winners. More accurately, losers are very good at picking Governments. There is no doubt that some things we committed to in the past would not bear scrutiny today.
I do not accept that it is all doom and gloom. I accept the criticism from the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton of the advertising that suggested that the cost of offshore wind had come down by 50%, but let that not hide the fact that the speed at which the cost of offshore wind has come down is a stunning success. Whatever the reduction is—we can debate that—there is no doubt that, only a few years ago, it was well over £100 per megawatt-hour, and it is now well below that. That is a consequence of the Government seeing the opportunity both from an energy perspective and for industrial strategy in the north-east of England. I think that is a good thing.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point, but does he agree that there has not been a huge technological advance in windmill technology over the past few years? The drop in costs probably represents how inefficient the energy market was previously, rather than an increase in wind turbines’ efficiency.
I do not have the evidence at hand to disagree with the hon. Gentleman absolutely, but my understanding from the industry—I accept that he is sceptical about the industry’s lobbying prowess—is that there have been some fairly significant improvements in the cost of manufacture and in the scale of the wind turbines that can be deployed. It may be that the cogs, wires and mechanisms within are no more efficient than they were—I honestly do not know—but if they can now be deployed much more cheaply because of the scale at which they are being manufactured, and if they can generate so much more electricity because of the size of these things, I think that those are cost reductions even if the underlying technology has not moved on. I suspect it has a little, but I do not have the evidence at hand to debate that point today.
Renewables have, I think, become the cheapest form of generation. Solar has been going gangbusters in the speed at which it has brought down its costs and so, too, has onshore wind, notwithstanding the political pressures against it in this place. It is increasingly hard to argue that the burning of hydrocarbon for the purpose of generating electricity is the cheapest way of providing electricity. More and more often, we can buy out the intermittency of renewables to deliver very cheap clean green energy, and it is no longer a choice between decarbonisation and cheap energy. It is just that the greener energy happens to be the cheapest as well. Crucially, what renewables also allow us to do, which will realise a big saving, is to decentralise the energy system. That will certainly bring with it significant reductions in the costs of transmission, and potentially even distribution as well.
I have said that our auction mechanism is imperfect, but it is worth noting that many other countries have sought to emulate what we have done with Government policy on the deployment of renewables. It has sped up our decarbonisation—spectacularly so—and has reduced the wholesale price of energy. I accept that that has been clouded by a combination of the energy companies not necessarily passing on the savings to consumers as quickly as they could and of the green taxes that the Government put on top of the wholesale price. That has meant that consumers do not see it, as some people in this room would, as the right thing, because, as the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton said, they have not seen on their bill the translation of that change into their energy costs.
Professor Helm also rightly mentioned that there are other areas for decarbonisation where the Government have not yet made as much progress as they might. Some very good things are being talked about within the Minister’s Department and I know that she is a big champion of the decarbonisation of heat and how we do that better. I am a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Department for Transport and I know that a lot of work is going on there to look at how we decarbonise transport and the future of mobility.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is doing great things on waste. I accept the criticism of Professor Helm and others in this place that agriculture has been lagging behind. Representing a farming constituency, I know exactly why that is the case. It will be very challenging when we have to start telling people that they need to reduce their consumption of meat, milk, cheese and everything else in the interest of decarbonisation, but that conversation is surely coming.
The issue is how we translate all the advances in technology in the power sector into reduced bills. The Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill, which I spoke to on Second Reading—I also served on the Public Bill Committee—should not be regarded as the process by which we do that. I am reassured by my previous discussion with my right hon. Friend the Minister, and I hope that the Bill will not be a temporary raid on the market.
The analogy that I like to use is that the current market, the caterpillar, is going into the chrysalis and on the other side we will have the butterfly that is the wonderful, digitised, decentralised energy system of the future. It would be disastrous if the caterpillar went into the chrysalis and after an inordinate period of time what emerged on the other side was still a caterpillar. We need to give Ofgem the latitude to use this as an opportunity not just to introduce a price cap, but to transform the energy system so that all of the savings that clean tech undoubtedly will afford start to translate into reduced bills for consumers.
In this place, we have a job to keep ahead of what will undoubtedly be a change in the mindset of consumers. Electric vehicles are not gaining in popularity among the electorate because we in Parliament have told people they are a good thing. They are gaining in popularity because they are unquestionably the future of motoring. They are technologically advanced, better than normal cars and cheaper to run, and people will be going for such things as a result of that, not because they are motivated by decarbonisation. We need an energy system that is ready to give them not only the ability to motor effortlessly because the charging network is all there, but from which, with their electric vehicles, they can take full advantage of the fact that they now have a battery parked outside their home and can participate in the energy system to further reduce their bills.
Increasingly, people will start to get the internet of things within their home and businesses. They might not realise that that transition is happening because all that it might mean at the moment is a smart speaker in the corner of the room from which they invite Alexa to tell them the weather. Increasingly, people will find that as their homes become smart, they will be able to participate in the energy system and access services that will allow them to deliver their domestic energy much more cheaply because something like Alexa, Siri, Google Home or whoever else will be able to run their homes more cheaply and will work out when they need to perform various functions to take advantage of cheaper market prices.
In turn, as policy makers we need to ensure that everything is in place for storage to be fully unlocked both in catalysing the research and development for grid scale storage and making sure that the market is ready for people who have storage in their business, home or community. We need to make sure that the market is ready for storage to participate.
Demand-side response has been spoken about for so long, but I am not sure we have the policy levers quite right yet to make sure that demand responds on a meaningful scale, particularly when aggregated across lots of domestic users and small businesses. We have the big users signed up to it, but delivering it when it is aggregated across a large number of consumers is very important. We need to accelerate that transmission because I suspect that consumer demand for those things will start to take off quite quickly in the next five to 10 years. There is a danger that we will get caught out having not put in place policy and regulatory frameworks for the new energy system that people will realise they want, and it will not be delivered if we do not get that right.
The other thing it is tempting to do when talking about Professor Helm’s report, which focuses on the big stuff, is to forget that energy efficiency is far and away the best way to deliver savings to consumers. I know the Government have made some eye-catching announcements on this recently, and it is absolutely right that we continue to see small gains in people’s homes and businesses as just as important as the things that we talk about in the North sea or the big power stations that we build here in this country. They will deliver the biggest savings by far for consumers in the short and medium term.
I will wrap up simply by saying that the report is not perfect—we know that—but it raises interesting points that have stimulated a conversation in Parliament and helped to focus the Government on what could change. We are in danger of losing the argument with the bill payer if we do not start to show how all the clean technologies can and will translate into lower bills for users. The longer-term challenge is how we make sure that we fully decentralise and digitise the energy system. With that comes an opportunity to balance upwards from behind the meter through the community and then the region, rather than having the current system that is run rather inefficiently by a centralised system operator.
Last week BP announced some eye-catching policies for their internal decarbonisation goals over the next 10 to 15 years, but what was interesting was to hear Bob Dudley. When asked about the role BP might play in helping its customers decarbonise, he was clear that getting carbon pricing right is the thing that will move the dial most obviously, particularly for the big industrial users of energy. As policy makers we need to start considering urgently how we strike that balance between prompting the right behaviour from industry and not being punitive when it comes to increasing the price of energy. The opportunity for a future hydrogen economy requires decades of planning as we seek to transition, so starting that conversation now is very important indeed.
The discussion that we are having today is excellent. There is a lot that the Government need to do, and that Professor Helm will have prompted them to do through his report. It is not perfect, but the fact is that renewables are driving down the costs of energy. We need to be able to translate that into cheaper bills for the consumer. I know that the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton is sceptical on such matters, but I passionately believe that the evidence shows that what we are doing is the right thing, and that we should keep our course.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) on bringing forward the debate. I was glad that we cleared up, right at the start, the pedantic point about the title and that we were not going to be debating whether Professor Helm should have been paid £500 or £400 a day.
The hon. Gentleman set out his stall with respect to the potential value of the overpayment by consumers. Obviously, we need to realise, going forward, that the issue is about getting the best value for consumers. I was a wee bit alarmed when he said that he was a scientist. I am a civil engineer, and I am always aware of how scientists like even more evidence-based detail. Funnily enough, one of the criticisms of Professor Helm’s report by some parties was that there was perhaps not enough evidence to back up his assertions. However, as other hon. Members have touched on, it certainly provides a good debating point, and throws down a few markers for the Government to consider.
The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton mentioned a potential 1,600 new coal plants coming in around the world, while we are decarbonising and, correctly, eliminating coal-fired plants, so the UK impact on overall world reductions is pretty minimal. I do not think that that is the correct attitude. We must continue to lead by example on decarbonisation and to lobby and negotiate for others to do so. The hon. Gentleman was correct in pointing out that complexity is an issue—a theme that Dieter Helm brought out in his report.
A recurring theme of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks was the correctness or otherwise of the information presented by lobbyists for what he sees as vested interests. There is no doubt that it is a challenge for the Government and for all politicians when someone sets out how good their technology might be and how it might change the world. As I get more involved with the energy sector, it is a challenge to get to grips with the terminology—the buzzwords and abbreviations.
Most of the hon. Members in the Chamber seem to agree that the review is a good thing, but there has been debate on aspects of it. The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton seems to question the value of the reductions in respect of offshore wind and how much is through cost reductions or efficiencies. I suggest that, at the very least, there has definitely been an increase in the efficiency of the manufacturing supply chain from going bigger and better. There is obviously an initial up-front cost. Cost reductions can be seen all around Europe. Given those similarities, I think there are genuine reductions in connection with technology.
In a relatively brief speech, the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) touched on smart meters and the progress of the Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill. He mentioned the Rubik’s cube, which is another thing I never got to grips with, and overpriced standard variable tariffs. At least in terms of the tariff cap and overpriced SVTs, cross-party working and political pressure are bringing the energy companies to book at last. I welcome that.
The hon. Gentleman talked about reducing fuel poverty. That is certainly important. I suggest that it is not just energy policy that leads to fuel poverty; austerity clearly feeds into it—if people do not have enough money coming into their household, they will, by default, almost certainly experience fuel poverty. So other Government policies have an impact.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) gave a characteristically laid-back and chilled speech. I am tempted to go down that route, but I certainly agree with all the points she made. She concluded that consumers need to be at the heart of considerations. She is a champion of consumers, and I echo that sentiment. She correctly highlighted the issue of Hinkley Point. I shall come back to that and the fact that the cost of decarbonised energy is equivalent to 20% of bills; perhaps there is a better way of paying for decarbonisation.
Finally, we heard from the hon. Member for Wells (James Heappey). I congratulate his children on the high standard of their art work. The hon. Gentleman echoed Dieter Helm’s assertion that the auction system may be imperfect, but, as he said, it has clearly led to decarbonisation and the introduction of low-carbon technologies. There may be faults, but it has moved things in the right direction.
When the hon. Gentleman spoke of lobbyists and of losers backing Governments, I thought he might mean losers in government—but perhaps that is just a cheap shot by me. Electric vehicles are perhaps an offshoot of the debate, and although he said that there is increased uptake because people see them as the technology of the future, I am not sure we are quite there yet. Electric vehicle uptake is still too low, and we need to do more to get people to use them.
Uncharacteristically, I want to commend the Government for commissioning the review of energy policy. It may have been an admission that household energy bills are too expensive. As we have heard, that point has been reinforced by the announcement of the intended energy price cap—the Bill has its Third Reading on Monday. In October 2017 the Secretary of State said:
“Over the past 15 years energy prices have risen by over 90% in real terms.”
He added that there were bill increases
“on prices the CMA had already concluded were too high.”—[Official Report, 12 October 2017; Vol. 629, c. 473.]
The cap is intended to be temporary—until 2023—which does not give the market too long to become truly cost-effective and competitive. That means that we need longer term, consistent, logical energy strategies in place by then. Hopefully we shall see the butterfly come out of the chrysalis, as the hon. Member for Wells said.
It is therefore not surprising that Dieter Helm obviously agrees that the cost of energy is too high
“to meet the government’s objectives and, in particular, to be consistent with the Climate Change Act”.
Another key finding was that
“energy policy, regulation and market design are not fit for the purposes of the emerging low-carbon energy market, as it undergoes profound technical change.”
Those aspects of the matter, as the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton said, are the result of a combination of successive Government failures to remedy matters.
The review highlights the fact that the investment strategy of picking winners is not necessarily efficient, and suggests that interventions should be radically simplified. No doubt the latter point will appeal to a Tory Government, but it is also the case that simplification should not happen to the detriment of emerging technologies. I have sympathy for a Government trying to support particular technologies. However, it should not be done on too much of an ad hoc basis. The way the Government have tackled the matter has not always been logical. My hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran mentioned Hinkley Point C, with a price of £92.50 per megawatt-hour, compared with £57.50 per megawatt-hour in the latest auction for offshore wind. That is only half the story. As Dieter Helm correctly reminds us, Hinkley is sucking those costs out for a 35-year contractual period. Meanwhile offshore wind gets only a 15-year contractual period. As he says:
“The nuclear plant will always run, reducing the market available to newer technologies until mid-century or possibly longer. This could act as a brake on technical change”.
Will the Government heed that warning and pull back from other nuclear projects such as Sizewell?
On my recurring theme of onshore wind, we need to find it another route back to market. It has been excluded from contracts for difference auctions, cannot bid for the flexibility market under current arrangements, and is not allowed to bid for the capacity auctions. We need to find a way to get onshore wind and photovoltaics or solar back to market so that we can capitalise on the reduced prices.
Dieter Helm also recommends that the legacy costs for renewables obligations certificates, feed-in tariffs and contracts for difference should be separated, ring-fenced and placed in a legacy bank. It will be interesting to hear the Minister’s recommendations on phasing those out.
Dieter Helm highlights the fact that the “revenue = incentives + innovation + outputs” framework for Ofgem, which covers the transmission and network operating regime, needs to be changed, and is resulting in higher than necessary prices. We have long argued that the current transmission system is outdated and disincentivises the construction of appropriate generation in the correct locations. Of course, it also disadvantages Scotland—particularly the north of Scotland.
Dieter Helm suggests that the Government should establish an independent national system operator and regional system operator in the public sector, with relevant duties to supply and take on some of the obligations of the relevant licences from regulated transmission and distribution companies—again, it would be good to hear a ministerial response on that. Such a provision might be slightly different, but to me it vindicates the SNP Government’s proposals to develop a not-for-profit energy retail company, and further changes that Dieter Helm suggested would complement that venture. It would also reduce Ofgem’s role in network regulation, which would be good.
Dieter Helm highlights that capping the supply margin would be the best way to meet the objectives of new legislation, and that the Government should issue an annual statement to Parliament, setting out required capacity margins and guidance for system operators. That would give parliamentarians greater scrutiny and input, which I would welcome.
Energy costs are a function of two things—the cost of energy and the amount of energy households use, which is linked to a property’s energy efficiency. Other hon. Members have touched on that issue, and I think the Government need to make more direct investment in energy efficiency policies. The SNP Government are doing that, and there is no doubt that the cost of energy then becomes less of a burden on those who might be fuel poor or struggling with their energy bills. If the money comes from direct taxation—especially in Scotland, where we have a more progressive tax system—that is clearly a much better way of paying for such initiatives and creating a fairer society.
As other hon. Members have said, this is a great starting point for debate. In the long term, we look forward to a proper Government response after their call for evidence, and I would certainly welcome a response from the Minister on the matters raised today.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) on securing this debate. He is well ahead of the Government in having the first response to the Helm review—as he rightly said, a response from the Government who commissioned the report in the first place is currently conspicuous by its absence. Given how these things proceed, it is a little odd that the Government’s initial response to the Helm review into the costs of energy was essentially to call for evidence on the cost of energy. I am not quite sure where we are with the Government response to the report they commissioned, although I am sure we will hear about that from the Minister. Because we have no indication of what the Government intend to do with the Helm review, we are slightly at sea in terms of how best to respond to it at this stage. Should we consider the commissioning of the report, its terms of reference, the recommendations within it, or, indeed, what the Government will do with it?
A good place to start would be Dieter Helm’s conclusion that there is apparently nobody in government or any other sphere who can explain all the interventions being made in the energy market, such is the clutter of interventions in that market.
The hon. Gentleman makes a strong point. That point is also made strongly in the Helm report, which has a list of the various interventions in play. Indeed, I think we can add a few more to those in the report, some of which have appeared more recently, such as energy intensive industry, underwriting and so on. What the Helm report says is right: we have vastly over-complicated many of the areas that we consider necessary as policy levers. Indeed the temptation, not just for the current Government but for successive Governments, has been than when they see a shed that is slightly leaning, they build another outhouse on the side to stop the shed leaning. They subsequently have to do something with the outhouse, and then we get the current extraordinary complexity of the whole process.
To get a feel for exactly how complex the market is, I refer hon. Members to a recent chart produced by the University of Exeter about the various interactions that the energy market now undertakes. Helm makes that point strongly. The question is this: if we are simplifying the market and how it works, how do we do that? How do we dismantle the complexity as we simplify the market, and what will be the consequences of that simplification?
All other things apart, this review was a hospital pass for Dieter Helm, and, as the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) emphasised, it was, frankly, an unbelievably rushed job. It was commissioned on 6 August last year, and concluded on 25 October last year. Not only was it commissioned on 6 August, but it had terms of reference that ran to one and a half pages. If hon. Members read them, they will see that not only do they greatly curtail what the review could have covered, but they are internally contradictory regarding what they ask the review to do. For example, the review states that the Government have
“the ambition for the UK to have the lowest energy costs in Europe”,
but, as the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) emphasised, the review merely talks about power. Although we are supposed to have the lowest energy costs, the review is only supposed to consider power, and not heat or energy efficiency; that point was made by the hon. Member for Wells (James Heappey). The review has apparently wide ambition, but in practice it covers a constrained area of examination. It is essentially a review of the cost of electricity, and that is what it concentrates on.
Given where energy is now, if we talked properly about its overall cost we would have to mention that, as the Helm review lays out in some circumstances, the cost of energy is higher in a number of other European countries but the cost to consumers is much lower. That is because of the difference in energy efficiency in those countries, and the interaction between different forms of energy—what happens to heat, for example—and the power sector. If we take the lowest energy costs in Europe as our theme, it is not immediately clear what we are talking about. What will those lowest energy costs be compared with? If we restrict ourselves to the power sector, how can we complete that examination in terms of overall energy costs? That is a bit of a theme of the report, hospital pass that it is, although given the short time span and the terms of reference given to Professor Helm he has done a tremendous job.
Nevertheless, we should be clear that the report in essence represents an extended opinion piece: the opinions of Professor Dieter Helm on how the energy market and the electricity market in particular will work in future. He has been expressing those opinions—I am familiar with a number of them—forcefully for a considerable period. I strongly agree with some of his opinions and I do not agree as much with some, but they are mostly there in the report, one way or another.
The question we have to ask about the recommendations that Professor Helm makes in the report is, how are they backed up with evidence? Having read the recommendations or even the executive summary, we might confidently assume that in the report we would find not only evidence to back up the recommendations, but talk of their consequences. However, we do not find that. What we find is material to back up why Dieter Helm’s opinions are right. As a satisfactory answer to the question asked, the report falls rather short of what one wishes might have been achieved. That is a problem in responding to it fully.
I strongly agree with some of Professor Helm’s conclusions, but some I do not agree with at all. However, I would have liked to see in the report what informs his conclusions, what the consequences of those conclusions are, and how they will be worked through. Professor Helm, for example, talks about the legacy costs of energy and of interventions by Government. As the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) intimated in his intervention, the extent of those potential legacy costs is laid out for us in the Helm report.
The solution provided is that those legacy costs should be discontinued as something that goes on people’s bills, as they do at the moment, but that they should be all bundled up and put somewhere else. Where are they put? There is nothing in the report to tell us that, except that they will be socialised across consumers and not across to industry. One way or another, the bundle of legacy will reach back on consumers’ bills, in just the way that the social and environmental costs that appear on bills now are also borne by customers. Not only that, that cost will land on customers’ bills in a more concentrated way because, according to Professor Helm’s recommendation, industry will be exempted from the impact of the legacy costs. That means that customers’ bills will go up considerably and not down considerably over the period, as I assume is the intention of that particular proposal.
Similarly, one suggestion is that generators that produce power intermittently might be required to back that up by commissioning their own power resources to ensure that the intermittency is not spilled across the rest of the market. That sounds like a good idea except that if we do that, with each of those power generators independently commissioning their own power back-ups, that is a recipe for extreme inefficiency in the market over time. The market would have a series of near-redundant back-up power stations, not socialised across the piece but responsible only to those people who commission them and, therefore, in the market as a whole probably substantially increasing rather than decreasing the cost of energy.
There are a number of things in the report—the question of who runs the distributed energy service, how that is best run in the public interest, the simplification of the system over the period, and how the carbon price can be used in future to manage the transition to a low-carbon economy—but I am not convinced that it is much other than a good talking point as far as future energy policy is concerned. The report is a good, elegant and well-constructed talking point, but nevertheless it is a starting point and not a conclusion by any means.
I hope that that is how we see the report in future, because there is a long way to go before we get to the conclusions necessary to back up what the hon. Member for Wells described as the difference between the caterpillar turning into the pupa but still ending up as a caterpillar, or the caterpillar turning into a butterfly. As I think I have already mentioned to the hon. Gentleman, I personally prefer the example of the axolotl, which is a Mexican salamander. As I am sure hon. Members know, unlike other salamanders, it does not undergo the metamorphosis necessary to become a land-living amphibian; it stays for the whole of its life unmetamorphosed, with gills, under water. We do not want the energy market to end up like the axolotl. We are in a process of rapid transition—
Yes, Mr McCabe. I am just about done with the axolotls.
To conclude that remark and indeed all my remarks, in our energy markets we are above all—indeed, the terms of reference to an extent underline this—in a period of rapid transition towards forms of energy generation, transmission, distribution and supply that will look very different from most things that we are used to today. We know that is the case, because that transition is proceeding apace. I am not sure that the report does justice to that transition, and I hope that the Government response to it and their actions on its recommendations—that transition and the need to achieve a safe landing with that transition in the interest of customers and carbon emissions—are properly undertaken for the future. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe.
I understand about axolotls and chrysalises, but I did not know what a hospital pass was. I assumed that it was something people put in their windscreen when at Great Western Hospital. It made me very grateful that we unveiled the statue of Millicent Fawcett today— 11 blokes and now one woman in Parliament Square. Perhaps we can have some terms everyone understands in the future.
I thank the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) for securing the debate. We could discuss the issues of science and climate change, but that is not why we are here. The points he made were very good ones. The challenge of how to make policy in a way that keeps the lights on and the costs down, does not burden future generations with unnecessary costs and achieves carbon emissions reduction targets, involves important questions for debate, so I am grateful.
Before I get on to some Helm comments, I will set out a couple of ground-preparation points. We are at a tipping point. When we used to talk about low carbon, it was axiomatic to think about high cost. As we heard very eloquently from my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey), those trade-offs increasingly are going away. I accept that renewable energy without the necessary level of battery, solid state or liquid storage will not keep the lights on and give us the hot showers we want, which is why I am such a proponent of gas, particularly clean gas, in the system in future.
Tackling our climate change issue and delivering on our carbon commitments, which are world leading in their scope, does not mean that we are looking forward to a high-cost, low-economic productivity future—quite the opposite. As we have set out in the clean growth strategy and continue to debate, we are employing more than 400,000 people in the low-carbon economy, which is bigger than aerospace in the UK. That economy is growing very rapidly, creating great export opportunities, and is doing so in the knowledge that we have decarbonised more and grown our economy more than any other G7 country. That is something of which successive Governments should be very proud.
I want to reassure the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton that when we think about technological investments in the future, we are trying to apply a triple test. First, what happens to the carbon emissions? Can we see emissions actually coming out—can we count them? Secondly, can we see a cost-effective pathway to deployment? Can we deliver technology that will reduce costs rapidly? Thirdly, does this give us a competitive advantage based on what we are doing well in the UK, which we can export? It is not just us on this low-carbon journey; the world is pivoting to a low-carbon economy. Trillions of dollars are being spent on low-energy production and transport.
The hon. Gentleman talked rightly about coal; as a founding member of the Powering Past Coal Alliance, I wish we could persuade all countries that it is the fuel of the past. Equally, it is not right for us to dictate to some of the emerging economies their energy mix. We have to encourage and support them. India has said that it wants its entire car fleet to be electric by 2030. That will have a material impact on the price of that technology around the world. All that creates a reinforcing, positive spiral. If we can demonstrate leadership in technologies and other countries do, too, the price will drop, as has been seen with solar panels. That means that more countries can adapt and we get ourselves to a better place.
The focus on low carbon is not a win-lose situation; it is a win-win situation. The emphasis on innovation cannot be made strongly enough, which is why we have committed £2.5 billion over this Parliament just for this area of low-carbon innovation, which is part of the biggest increase ever in public spending on UK science research and innovation.
We can debate strategies, and we will, but we need to focus on costs now. Reducing costs both for consumers and for businesses is the heart of what we want to do. We have seen and heard what has happened to the input cost going into the system; I accept the point about onshore wind—the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) and I have debated that. We have a manifesto commitment that we do not believe large onshore wind is right for England, but I am aware of other parts of the country and we are working to see what we can do.
We have seen a dramatic fall in the cost of low-carbon energy. Indeed, we have just celebrated our second period of coal-free power generation—a record of 57 hours not using coal to power our electricity in the UK. There are some other more subtle points, too. Network costs, which make up a quarter of dual fuel bills, have fallen 17% since privatisation, and the pressure is downwards on those. We have seen a dramatic increase in the level of competition in the retail energy market—there are now more than 65 suppliers. Switching levels are hitting record highs.
As hon. Members will know, I will bring back to the Floor of the House the Report stage of the Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill next week. It sounds as if we will have strong support from all Members present. We believe that we need to do more to help that market move towards a more price-competitive place, and we want that cap to be in place for this winter.
On household energy bills, it has not just been about consumers and taxpayers investing in the future of energy generation and low carbon. Much of that investment has been offset by improvements in fuel efficiency in homes, which I believe the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) alluded to, often directly through measures such as the energy company obligation. In fact, although prices have gone up as a result of the investment in future forms of technology, the average bill in homes has dropped by £14 since 2012, because we have become much more efficient.
My hon. Friend has anticipated my speech; I was also going to mention the very dramatic, large roll-out of smart meters. We know we need to move to SMETS2 and make sure that that is done as seamlessly as possible for consumers who already have a SMETS1 meter—I am happy to take that offline.
I do; things such as the warm home discount are part of the long-term commitment that we have made to ensuring that there is better energy efficiency. We are working hard to take out costs wherever possible.
The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton represents a manufacturing and industrial constituency; we have reduced the policy impact of energy bills on our most energy-intensive industrial consumers by up to 80%. He mentioned the relative costs of energy in Europe, where we tend to do very well in terms of gas costs and not so well in terms of energy. That is often because of political choices that countries make about where they will allocate their network costs. That is exactly why we commissioned the Helm report, to understand what it is we need to do better to ensure that our cost of energy for both households and businesses is as low as it can be.
I heard a lot of conversations about not wanting Government meddling in the design of the energy system, but somehow the terms of reference were too broad and Government should have been involved in setting them, and that the report was too short. Professor Helm is one of the world-leading experts on energy markets and design. It is fantastic that he has come out with some incredibly far-reaching recommendations; it is a no-holds-barred look at how we deliver more affordable energy, keep the lights on, decarbonise, create innovation and build relationships between the market and the public sector. I will not even answer the criticisms about his remuneration; he did a great report and it was good value for money.
We have had a very vibrant debate about the report; we will not rush to respond to it. This is an opportunity when we are at a tipping point on how we generate and deliver our energy. We need to take a very sensible, sober look at what we want to do. Much of that was covered in the report—questions about the importance of energy to our economic success, the disruptors that are going along, the move from passive to active demand, zero marginal low-cost clean generation, and the need to access lower cost, effective storage technologies. The market is changing, regardless of what the Government do. All the analyses of the report benefit strongly from hindsight, which is a wonderful thing, but the hon. Gentleman’s point about complexity, and Government layering intervention on intervention, are really well made. We need a response that is sober and sensible, that sets out an energy policy or strategy for the future that can survive successive political cycles and can respond quickly to what I have no doubt will be enormous technological changes.
The job of Government is to set ambition. We are among the most ambitious Governments in the world—we are the first developed country to ask for advice on what a zero-emissions economy would look like in 2050. It is great to see other countries joining us. We are also responsible for setting a balanced budget, so that all our decisions can be made secure in the knowledge that we will have a stable financial framework. Our job is not to respond to customers who lobby loudest, but to look to work with companies that create value for consumers, so we have frameworks and stability that will stand the test of time. If we get that right, this trilemma that we always talk about of cost, carbon and security, would be solved, at least for electricity.
I thank all the Members who have spoken; it is always a pleasure to talk about this very important subject. I look forward to repeating the debate when we bring forward the response to the Helm review, but I am extremely grateful to Professor Helm for his report and for challenging us to think about these vital issues for the future.
It has been a good debate. I thank the Minister; I understand why she says she is reluctant to formally reply to the report in the short term. That is disappointing—an interim reply on the Government’s position would be useful. I am pro-renewables: I just think that we are at the stage where they have to answer the question of whether they can exist without subsidy. If they cannot, auctions look to be the way forward, as Professor Helm says.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Protection of Welsh Speakers from Defamation
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
Will those who are not staying for the next debate please be kind enough to leave quickly and quietly? We now come to the important issue of the protection of Welsh speakers from defamation. I call Liz Saville Roberts to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered protection of Welsh speakers from defamation.
Diolch yn fawr, Mr Hollobone. It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship. It will probably come as no surprise to anyone present that the subject of the debate was inspired by the recent contributions of a topical columnist to a national Sunday newspaper and current affairs magazine. The text is in the public domain, so I will refrain from using the little time available to repeat it. Suffice it to say that those comments are the latest manifestation of a long tradition of decrying, belittling and mocking the Welsh language and, by association, Welsh speakers.
The royal commission on Welsh education stated in 1847, in Y Llyfrau Gleision, or the Blue Books:
“The Welsh Language is a vast drawback to Wales and a manifold barrier to the moral progress and commercial prosperity of its people. It is not easy to over-estimate its evil effects.”
Fast-forward to 2011, and the Daily Mail saw fit to allow a book reviewer to describe Welsh as an
“appalling and moribund monkey language”.
There has been much in between—you get the picture.
I want at the outset to establish a sense of proportionality. I do not seek to equate the bigotry against the Welsh language in the 21st century with the extremes of Islamophobia or anti-Semitism, but neither should the fact that majority prejudice is directed against a range of minorities devalue the need to address this issue.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. She talked about how this issue sweeps back to 1847. Putting aside the specifics of what has happened in the modern era, does she agree that no one should be discriminated against by virtue of the language they speak, whether it is Welsh or any other language?
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Does she agree that the refusal by the Independent Press Standards Organisation to apply clause 12 of the editors’ code of practice to groups such as speakers of the Welsh language shows how inadequate the regulatory system run by IPSO?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising something that I will raise anon. The two of us agree with the National Union of Journalists, which has raised that very point. Sadly, we live in a time when bigotry is increasingly acceptable. Hate words open the way to hate crimes.
The hon. Lady is being hugely generous in giving way. Does she agree that one way we could address this issue is by extending the use of the Welsh language in this place? It is currently restricted to the Welsh Grand Committee, but I wrote to the Leader of the House today to ask her to meet me to discuss permitting the use of Welsh in our debates in this Chamber and in the main Chamber. Does the hon. Lady think that that might be one way to raise the profile of the Welsh language and stop the bile of the bigots?
Of course. We recently used Welsh for the first time in the Welsh Grand Committee, but allowing its use in the Chamber and here in Westminster Hall would be a clear statement about the status of the language.
IPSO acknowledges that hate crimes and hate words are connected by exhorting the media to avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity or sexual orientation, or to any physical or mental illness or disability, but complaints to IPSO are turned down on the ground that the editors’ code does not apply to groups of people. As I mentioned, the NUJ has long campaigned for the press regulator to accept complaints about how specific groups are represented in the media, rather than confining its remit to comments relating to specific individuals.
The drip feed of mockery undermines the extraordinary success story of one minority language at a time when 97% of the world speaks around 4% of the world’s languages—mostly English, Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Indonesian, Arabic, Swahili and Hindi—and only 3% speak the roughly 96% remaining languages. Wales’s Government have set a target of doubling the number of Welsh speakers to 1 million by 2050. The number of pupils in Welsh medium schools reached an all-time high last year of almost 106,000, and more than 1 million people learn Welsh on the language learning app Duolingo.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. She must be proud of having secured this excellent debate. Does she agree that we should not belittle the advancements the Welsh Government have made with Welsh language learning? Although I am not a Welsh speaker, I am a proud person who represents Wales and I speak other languages. The advancements that Wales has made are a good example for other languages, particularly in Northern Ireland.
Indeed. Much about Welsh is a success story. None the less, the constant undermining—the drip feed—affects the way parents approach sending their children to Welsh medium schools and the way individuals approach using Welsh in services. I will return to that.
There is an idea that Welsh is somehow antiquated rather than new. We need to challenge that. Many of us are frustrated by references to Welsh as a quaint folk antiquity. A language is as venerable as its oldest literature and as vital as its youngest speaker. Yet language is not just a mechanical tool of communication. There is an expression—in Welsh, of course—“Cenedl heb iaith, cenedl heb galon,” which means, “A nation with no language is a nation missing its heart.”
For many people, Welsh is their first language. For many, the Welsh language is their mother tongue. It is the language of the home, the language of the community and the language of the workplace. Why would anyone seek to force those people to justify the language in which they think, dream, work and live? It is as natural and as normal to them as the English language is to its first-language speakers. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to learn the language as an adult, but my daughter’s first language is Welsh, as it is for my husband and for the majority of people in my constituency. For them, speaking Welsh is not an optional extra; it is who they are. The Welsh language just is.
Ask almost any Welsh speaker and they will talk about the accumulative effect of centuries of establishment scorn. They will talk about parents choosing not to pass their own first language on to their children, about Welsh speakers being reluctant to use the language beyond a narrow social group, about the social norm of turning to English, about children who lack the confidence to use Welsh outside school, and about adults who are reluctant to access services in Welsh, internalising the negative stereotype. Let us speak plainly. We know that that prejudice is an example of the majority asserting its power over minorities to devalue them. Tolerance and diversity walk hand in hand. This is on the spectrum of oppression.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way and thank her for securing this debate. I have the advantage of not reading the Sunday papers, but I understand that the debate originated with Rod Liddle. I am not a defamation lawyer, but does the hon. Lady agree that, rather than changing the law in the long term, we need a respect agenda for the United Kingdom’s four nations and their languages so that we can all express ourselves comfortably in the language of our choice?
I agree entirely that we need a range of approaches. We do not want to be heavy-handed in our legislative approach, but when there is legislation that could be put into effect, as there is in other countries—I will come to that—it would be remiss of us not to consider all the options open to us.
Let me give an extremely brief synopsis of the status of Welsh in law, which is concerned mostly with the rights of Welsh speakers to use and access services in the language. The office of Welsh Language Commissioner was established by the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011, which gave Welsh the status of an official language in Wales with legal effect. Most of the commissioner’s work concerns the creation and implementation of language standards, but she also has a remit to ensure that Welsh speakers are treated fairly. In the light of what we are discussing, the commissioner recently stated:
“While it is important that we respect freedom of expression…the increase in the offensive comments about Wales, the Welsh language and its speakers is a cause for concern.”
She called for action to stop such comments and said that
“legislation is needed to protect rights and to prevent language hate.”
I remind Members that Welsh and Scottish Gaelic enjoy European status as semi-official or co-official languages, meaning that they can be used in the European Council and the requesting member state. The UK ratified the European charter for regional and minority languages 17 years ago, and article 7 of the charter includes provision to,
“promote…mutual understanding between all the linguistic groups of the country and in particular the inclusion of respect, understanding and tolerance in relation to regional or minority languages among the objectives of education and training provided within their countries and encouragement of the mass media to pursue the same objective.”
I also draw attention to the evident relationship between the characteristics afforded protection under the Equality Act 2010 and how a number of those are reflected in the way police forces and the Crown Prosecution Service record hate crimes on the grounds of hostility or prejudice towards a person’s disability, race, religion or belief, sexual orientation or transgender identity.
It is interesting that some forces have chosen to identify additional protected characteristics, with Greater Manchester police recording hate motivation against alternative subcultures such as goths. North Wales police treat the Welsh language and culture as legally protected characteristics. Such hate crimes and incidents are identified under race and further categorised as Welsh or English, with 42 such crimes and incidents recorded in the last two years in the force’s region. Indeed, it appears that legislation may already cover hate crime on the grounds of people speaking a different language, given that the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and the Criminal Justice Act 2003 included national origins within the definition of a victim’s membership or presumed membership of a racial group when considering whether an offence was racially aggravated.
Looking further afield, it is interesting to note that a number of legislatures make specific reference to language as a factor in crime. Those include Canada, Belgium, Croatia, Kosovo, South Africa and Australia. Australia’s federal Racial Discrimination Act 1975 makes it
“unlawful for a person to do an act”,
“the act is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people;”
“the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or of some or all of the people in the group.”
I draw attention to the reference here to both individual and group rights, which is significant to our debate.
As the Welsh Language Commissioner has stated, this matter requires a number of approaches, but I question why Welsh speakers, as individuals within a group, have no legal protection at present. Put simply, that is felt by speakers in the present post-Brexit climate to encourage comments against them that they as individuals feel to be defamatory.
I ask the Minister to commit to respond to the Welsh Language Commissioner’s call for a meeting with interested individuals and groups to explore how to move this agenda forward. I also ask him, in his response, to consider the implications of article 7 of the European charter for regional and minority languages, which we have of course ratified, and the UK’s commitment to encouraging the mass media to play its part in promoting respect, understanding and tolerance across linguistic groups.
Although I understand full well that defamation as a legal concept refers to the individual rather than the group, I beg the Minister to consider that linguistic groups are made up of individuals, as are groups protected from discrimination and hate crime by the Equality Act’s protected characteristics, which in turn are reflected in IPSO’s list of what qualifies as discriminatory.
I ask the Minister to approach his Government colleagues and discuss how to deal appropriately with the prejudiced caste of Welsh language speakers by acknowledging the existence of language hate and thus laying the foundations necessary to identify language as a recognised protected characteristic in equality legislation. That might be on the grounds of the Welsh language’s status as an official language, along the lines of a list of identified languages, or by an alternative method. It might be via greater clarification of the resources already available in criminal law. As this is potentially a protected characteristic, could he comment on the means by which IPSO might then be called on to review its present dismissal of Welsh speakers’ complaints, and on the wider question of IPSO’s handwashing of responsibility for the effects of media incitement of hatred against protected characteristic groups?
Finally, I ask the Minister to join me in welcoming North Wales police’s inclusion of the use of both Welsh and English as protected characteristics in relation to hate crime, and request that we work together to facilitate the complete devolution of policing and the enabling of Wales’s four police forces to establish a hate crime unit best able to address our country’s needs. Would he also note that once again this might well be an example of how a separate legal jurisdiction would better serve the needs of Wales than the England-and-Wales anachronism? Diolch yn fawr.
Diolch yn fawr, Mr Cadeirydd. I first congratulate the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) on securing this debate. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the important matter of the protection of Welsh speakers.
The hon. Lady’s speech, and the interventions, were certainly interesting. I have noted the strong views expressed on all sides and I am grateful to hon. Members for their contribution. I will try to respond to as many of the points as possible in the short time I have, but I will say at the outset that I would be more than happy to meet the hon. Lady so that we can perhaps discuss this in more detail. I think we need more than half an hour to discuss this important matter. I also think it would be useful to ensure that we include an invitation to the Welsh Cabinet Secretary, given the important role they play in the Welsh Assembly and the Welsh Government, to come to that meeting. I hope she will be happy with that offer.
The right of the people to speak in Welsh is simple, but powerful. Our language is part of what defines Wales as a nation, but it should not set us apart. I am very proud to be a Welsh speaker. I grew up in an English-speaking household, but my parents sent me to a bilingual primary school because they wanted me to have the best options available to me. When I moved away, as I have mentioned before, I stopped speaking Welsh daily. Now, returning to more frequent use of the language, I have noticed that it is not easy to get back into the swing of things and confidence can sometimes be something we struggle with.
As a Minister, though, I not only want to use Welsh more frequently, but believe I have a responsibility to do so. We all work in privileged positions and we have an opportunity to show Welsh speakers that our language is a normal part of the business of running the country. That is why, although I felt quite a bit of nervousness about it, I was keen to get on with doing media interviews in Welsh and trying as much as I can to conduct some of my meetings in Welsh, and indeed a phone call with the hon. Lady just yesterday. I do that because I believe it sets a good example, because people have a right to expect to be able to interact with their Government in the language of their choice.
I will come on to Rod Liddle’s comments later, but I will not make a comment about my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) at this stage. I am sure the hon. Lady will not mind.
I was also immensely proud to be able to speak Welsh in the first bilingual Welsh Grand Committee that was held in this House in February. Again, I confess I was apprehensive, and I was worried that people would pick up on my mistakes rather than focusing on the content of what I was trying to say. I know that many speakers have that worry, but we all have to get over it, frankly, and we all have to support each other. I think I mentioned during the St David’s day debate that I was struck by the comments of the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd:
“Only through the use of the language will the language live.”—[Official Report, Welsh Grand Committee, 7 February 2018; c. 81.]
Governments at both ends of the M4 can set policies and targets, and commit to certain service levels, and those are undoubtedly important, but what is critical is to support Welsh speakers to feel able to speak the language. We have a responsibility to continue to protect and support its use not only when dealing with officialdom, but as everyday conversation. I say we all have a responsibility. Yes, the Government have a role, but those who are fluent in Welsh also have to help those who are learning to feel confident to be able to speak it. If they make a mistake, it does not really matter; it is about giving oxygen to the language.
I know that the Welsh people as a nation have a sense of humour. Much of the debate has centred on the individual who tried to deride our language, and even though we have a Welsh sense of humour, and even though the author of the article says it was a joke, I have news for him: he is not much of a comedian. His articles were, frankly, downright rude.
The Government are committed to a free and independent press, and as such only intervene in cases where publishers have broken the law. I am sure that we all agree that that is vital to a strong and fully functioning democracy, in which the powerful can be held to account without fear. The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd and others have mentioned IPSO, which regulates 95% of national newspapers, by circulation. The rights of individuals are protected under IPSO’s editor’s code, but not the rights of groups. I am sure that the hon. Lady and I will discuss that in the meeting we will arrange.
The crucial point is the Government’s position, so far as IPSO is concerned. The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport recently asserted that he supports IPSO in its regulatory role. However, IPSO refuses to look at cases such as the one we are discussing. Does the Minister support the Secretary of State, or does he support people who want an appropriate regulator?
The Government are committed to a free and independent press. That is an important part of what we do. We intervene only when the law has been broken. I have been asked if I will raise these issues with my colleagues, and I commit to do just that. Once I have had those meetings, I will be happy to reply to the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd and, if he wants, to the hon. Gentleman too.
The issue of equalities has come up. The hon. Lady mentioned the various groups and individuals that are protected because of their age, disability, sex, sexual orientation and so on. However, there is already appropriate legislation to capture potential cases of defamation—the Defamation Act 2013. Unlike colour, nationality and ethnic or national origins, language is not, as she knows, an explicit aspect of race for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010.
Nevertheless, where an organisation, such as an employer or service provider, imposes language requirements that may in some way be linked to person’s nationality or national origins, it would be a matter for the courts to determine whether that might constitute unlawful indirect discrimination under the race provisions of the Equality Act.
Along those lines, it is important that I mention Gwynedd County Council v. Jones in 1986. It was declared legal for Gwynedd County Council to have a language requirement across a number of its jobs because there was not, in terms of employment, a connection between race and language, because language is an acquirable skill.
Again, this is why we need careful consideration of many of the issues that have been raised. Looking at the Equality Act, for example, it is not clear what the effect of adding language to the list of protected characteristics might be. For example, if it was unlawful to discriminate on the basis of language, would it be possible to advertise a job that required a person to speak Welsh, or would that be discriminatory against speakers of other languages? I hope the hon. Lady understands why I want to make sure that we discuss this in great detail and that we do not actually create unintended consequences.
I take note of what the hon. Lady says. I will move on, because I notice that time is running out, as often happens in these debates.
I know that the author of that article wanted to be provocative. It is what he is about. It is how he tries to gain publicity, in the hope that more people will read his articles. He will probably give some publicity to this response. However, I do not personally intend to give him any more airtime.
The Minister and I are both from a bilingual community. Although he does not want to give any more oxygen to that author, is he as concerned as many Opposition Members, including the mover of the debate, about IPSO? Will he take this matter up with the editor of the newspaper that the article was published in, to show the concern there has been in Wales? I am sure that the Wales Office is also upset by the article. Will he make the editor of that newspaper aware of what has been said in the debate?
I will happily write to the editor.
As I say, I do not want to give any more oxygen to that article—although I commit to writing that letter. Instead, I will focus on our language and the important contribution it makes to our culture. At about 4,000 years old, Welsh is one of the oldest languages in Europe. We should be proud of how we teach people to speak Welsh; of how we are keeping the language alive; of our institutions, such as S4C, which, through the reforms we are implementing following the independent review, will broaden the appeal of the language to a digital audience; and of events such as the National Eisteddfod, which has roots back to the 12th century and attracts more than 150,000 visitors each year. Our attention must be focused on the important matter of ensuring a strong language for the future; on giving people across Wales the opportunity and confidence to use Welsh in social and official capacities; on ensuring that more and more Government services are available in Welsh; and on taking every opportunity to promote the strengths and attractions of our nation.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd. She made an important contribution, as have other hon. Members. I know that there is a great strength of feeling on this in Wales, but I also know that Wales is a very confident nation. It is staggering to compare the number of Welsh speakers in my community of Llanfaes and around Beaumaris when I was growing up on Anglesey with how many there are now. I was there just a week or two ago and it was pleasantly surprising to hear more and more people speaking in Welsh in shops, in restaurants and, of course, in the pub. I hope we will see more of that.
I have agreed to the hon. Lady’s meeting request, and I will of course approach other colleagues. However, the Government have a firm view on police devolution. The practice of English and Welsh police forces working together is a strong one that we will stick to. On the other issues, I look forward to our meeting in due course, so that we can debate these issues even further and hopefully get the resolution and the confidence that we all want to see.
Question put and agreed to.
Global Road Deaths
I beg to move,
That this House has considered global road deaths.
Not many people realise this, but 3,500 homes will today have a knock on the door, and a policewoman or policeman will say to the person who opens the door that their son, daughter, mum, dad, uncle or aunt is dead. Some 3,500 people die on the roads globally every day. That is, at a conservative estimate, 1.3 million people dying on the road on this planet of ours each year. That is a disgraceful number.
I have been in this place longer than you, Mr Hollobone, but you will recall that I have form when it comes to being passionate about tackling road deaths. I shall be very careful today, and I hope that colleagues will stop me if I mention something that ends in “safety”, because I do not believe in that description. I think that we should talk about road deaths and serious road casualties, because that brings home to us the reality that 3,500 people die on the roads every day and 1.3 million die every year.
According to the World Health Organisation, road accidents are the 10th leading cause of death globally—the number of people killed in road accidents is just under that for deaths from tuberculosis, which is in ninth place—and they are forecast to be the seventh biggest cause of death by 2030. But unlike natural disasters or disease, this is a human-made problem and every one of the deaths is avoidable—every one of them.
I did promise that I would not call them accidents or talk about safety.
As I said, I have form on this issue. Very early in my career, I saw two young people thrown from a car and dying by the side of the road, and I never lost that image in my mind. They had been thrown out of the car because they were not wearing seatbelts. When I came to this place, I tried to do something about the issue. My only successful private Member’s Bill—the only time I have come in the top 10 in the ballot—was my Safety of Children in Cars Bill, which stopped children being carried unrestrained in cars. After that, with a little help from the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who is now the Father of the House, I managed to wangle past him a coalition that delivered adult seatbelts. We managed to get a 72 majority in the vote the night before a royal wedding, and I am very proud that that was the case. We then took the coalition that succeeded in that and called it PACTS—the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety. I still have the privilege and honour of chairing that organisation. After 10 years, we formed the European Transport Safety Council, as regulation was moving to Europe. Some years after that, I became chairman of the Global Road Safety Partnership established by the World Bank.
I think that I have to challenge my hon. Friend. He said that if he mentioned the word “safety”, colleagues in the Chamber should stop him, so I am stopping him—because he has a very proud record on transport safety, in terms of seatbelts, his private Member’s Bill, the role that he played in setting up the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety and his recent role, which I am sure he will come on to, leading the inter-country legislators committee at the United Nations. Safety is in his DNA, and he should not be embarrassed by that.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, who has campaigned with me for many years on this topic. One thing that I am trying to highlight today is that too many of us in this field have been doing this work for a long time. We need fresh blood; we need new people coming in who will be as passionate as we have been. Certainly part of my role as chair of the Global Network for Road Safety Legislators will be trying to enthuse people in legislatures around the world to get involved—to understand that 1.3 million deaths a year is unacceptable to any civilised society.
When I was working in this area some years ago, a Swedish professor—a doctor—said to me, “We have to get the United Nations to take this seriously and then we can lift the profile of what is happening on our roads.” As Lord Robertson said in a presentation only recently, people forget that if road deaths carry on at the present level, more people will die in the 21st century on the roads than died in all the wars of the 20th century. I hope you agree, Mr Hollobone, that that is a chilling statistic.
I want to say a little about Britain. In 2016, 181,384 casualties on Britain’s roads were recorded. There were 1,792 fatalities—that is 1,792 knocks on the door. Please let us use that all the time—the knock on the door, the chilling moment when someone is told that a member of their family has died. The long-term trend in the numbers of people killed and injured in road accidents has been declining, but the decline has stalled since 2011, and in 2016 we actually had an increase. To those figures we should add the road deaths and injuries in Northern Ireland; otherwise the Minister, who understands these stats very well, would pick me up on that.
It is important that the United Nations now has road safety as one of its sustainable development goals. Why is that? It is because the United Nations knows that that is vital to taking on poverty worldwide. We know that the death of a member of a family in the developing world usually means that family unit lurching into poverty, or, if it is a long-term disability, it drags the family down because it affects their ability to live a decent life. These tragedies are not just about statistics; they affect real families.
In relation to the countries that we have knowledge of, we know that we probably have an underestimate of the numbers of people dying. I was in Beijing not many months ago, and an interesting fact is that, mysteriously, as soon as the United Nations introduced a 5% reduction target, a 5% reduction started appearing every year in the Chinese statistics. I am saying that the stats may be worse even than we are arguing today.
I have just come back from New York, where we had a General Assembly debate on road deaths. It was a very good debate indeed, and a motion was passed on an action programme that I think will be very useful if we take it seriously.
I am arguing today that the United Kingdom has great knowledge about transport safety and great expertise. We have quite a good record. It is not the best in the world—sometimes Sweden is better than us—but the fact is that we have a good record. As I said, we have enormous knowledge; we have research centres and research evidence. We know very well how to reduce the number of accidents on the road, and we do not do that by a lovely gesture.
I have been in this field long enough to know that someone has only to knock on the door of an insurance company and it will say, “I will give you this flashy little thing that you can put on your bicycle when it’s dark and it will illuminate you and prevent accidents.” Another company will say, “I’ll give you lots of money to have a brand-new version of the Tufty Club, where you train all children about road safety.” Neither of those things, according to the research evidence, has been very successful at all. They may be quite fun to do, but they are not the way in which we tackle these things.
I have worked very closely with the Safer Roads Foundation. It knows very well the efficacy—all the research shows this—of low-cost engineering schemes. We know where people are having accidents. We modify the landscape; we do something about a particular junction that is dangerous, and that low-cost engineering scheme provides the best return possible on our investment.
We have knowledge of the research across the world. I also chair the international committee for road safety research. That is an attempt to link all the researchers on this planet of ours to one another so that we know what each of us is doing. We have worked very closely with India, for example. It is a case of finding out which research can help and sharing the information. One nation will have done the research and can pass it on quickly to the others.
We did not have a millennium development goal for road safety, but the sustainable development goals adopted by the United Nations changed the whole framework. We are now being taken seriously and we need to work very hard indeed to ensure that we achieve something substantial.
In September 2015, at a UN Heads of Government summit, the UK accepted sustainable development goal target 3.6, to halve road deaths by 2020. That was welcomed, but it was rather paradoxical, as our Government have failed to adopt a target for the UK since 2010. The Minister and I get on very well. He knows that, in a debate like this, I will nudge him again on two things: first, to have targets in the UK and, secondly, to have a national centre for investigation of all road accidents, particularly road accidents involving a road death.
We know that we are holding back casualty reduction at home. Targets are not a solution, but they do indicate ambition and commitment, and they influence where we put the resources. When the Government have targets for issues such as reducing suicides, hospital waiting times and net migration, it is hard to see the logic for not having an accident death reduction goal as well.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point and one that many of us have challenged the Government on since 2010. Does he agree that it is completely anomalous that the Government are signed up to the sustainable development goals for the reduction of road casualties, deaths and serious injuries internationally, and that they are signed up to the European Union’s targets for the reduction of road deaths and serious injuries, but that they will not sign up to targets for the reduction of deaths and serious injuries in the United Kingdom?
I take that point. My hon. Friend is a great campaigning friend of mine. I did not know whether to apply for this debate under this Department or the Department for International Development. I hope that I am stimulating a relationship between the Department for Transport, which is very good—I will give it its due—and has a Minister who cares about this, and the International Development team, so that they make proposals.
Using our experience, research and knowledge to help people around the world is one of the best investments we can make in helping a developing country at the moment. Road crashes are the No.1 killer of young Africans aged between 15 and 29. Certain countries leap off the page, such as Tanzania and South Africa, because they are well above where they should be, given the size of their population, the nature of their roads, and the number of people driving cars and two-wheeled vehicles. Much of this has a heartbreaking real cost. Road crashes frequently kill or injure household breadwinners, causing loss of income, increased costs—such as those of caring for a disabled victim—and tipping people into deepest poverty.
The Overseas Development Institute report “Securing safe roads” contained in-depth analysis in three cities—Nairobi, Mumbai and Bogota. That analysis was led by the ODI and the World Resources Institute, which found that it is the poorest sections of society that bear the brunt of traffic-related injuries and deaths, and that politicians and the public tend to blame individual road users for collisions, rather than policy makers or planners.
Can I put this next point at the heart of my remarks? The fact is that, in many ways, cars have become much safer—like a cocoon. My wife recently changed her car because she wanted a hybrid car. It has automatic collision avoidance and 16 airbags. Cars are safer and getting safer still thanks to some of the great work that is being done on the new car assessment programme worldwide. The people in danger are the vulnerable road users—the pedestrians, cyclists and people on two-wheeled vehicles—across the world. Those are the people we really have to worry about.
In terms of other places, America is in fact slipping back on its success. There should be good laws and sensible research-based activity by Government, such as seatbelt legislation, as well as law enforcement, so that people are not let off, or able to pay bribes, because they do not want to be caught for speeding or drunk driving. In the United States, because the states have different rules and regulations, many of their cars do not have rear seatbelts or regulation on that. They are slipping behind. We need that mixture of wise laws, good science-based answers and ensuring that these laws are obeyed. How confident are the Government that their contribution to accident prevention overseas will be well spent?
There is a new United Nations trust, which we established last week. It has every possibility of being a good and substantial fund. The Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile put in the first £10 million, and some companies will put in. However, given my experience with the World Bank and the Global Road Safety Partnership, there is a danger that we put too much emphasis on the private sector. Individual Governments must come in. I hope the British Government will put money into the United Nations trust, but they must ensure that there are strings attached, so that we know that the money flows to evidence-based, good ends.
We need to support the development of a road accident strategy across the world. We need to highlight what the Overseas Development Institute report says. We need to reframe road safety in public debates, making connections with issues that people care about, such as the economy, equality and education, and to build alliances at all levels of government, including local, regional and national. We must also produce, in every country, a dedicated road safety plan with short, medium and long-term objectives.
I have had the privilege to work with some very good people on this. Etienne Krug at the World Health Organisation in Geneva has been inspirational in the work that I have done. David Ward and the team from his organisation produced the wonderful report “Manifesto #4roadsafety”for the Global Network for Road Safety Legislators—that comes out of the Towards Zero Foundation. There are some very good people in this area, but at the end of the day, we must ensure that we have, as the World Health Organisation says, a policy called “save lives” based on an integrated safe-systems approach. The WHO report recommends 22 priority interventions in six key areas: speed management, leadership, infrastructure, vehicle safety, enforcement and post-crash survival.
To conclude, we know the answers. We can stop these 1.3 million deaths. We can reduce them dramatically if we work together on the basis of good laws that are enforced fairly and squarely across every country that we work with. We have an enormous opportunity to save lives, communities and families. Let’s go for it!
I am obliged to call the Front-Bench spokespeople no later than 5.8 pm. The guideline limits are five minutes for the Scottish National party, five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister. Then Mr Sheerman has a minute or so to sum up the debate at the end. There are five hon. Members seeking to catch my eye, including at least two former firemen. I am afraid there will have to be a time limit of four minutes to ensure that everyone gets in.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. As you suggested, I have served more than 31 years in the fire and rescue service and sadly, I am no stranger to road traffic crashes. It is unbelievable—indeed shameful—that road crashes are the leading cause of death worldwide for people aged between 15 and 29. It is a sobering thought to consider the number of lives and the human talent, especially in less well-off countries, that have been lost due to road crashes that were in many cases, if not all, entirely preventable. Things can and do change. In my time in the service, from the early ’70s to 2005, I witnessed many advances. I thank the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) for his contribution to some of them. They include local authorities’ road improvements at dangerous corners, chevrons, warning signs and improved lighting.
The law has been brought to bear through drink-driving limits, speed limits, speed cameras, seatbelt-wearing, crash helmets for motorcyclists and improved driving tests. Safety campaigns such as “Reckless driving wrecks lives” are another advance that many authorities introduce to school children at secondary 5. Manufacturers are to be complimented again for introducing air bags, side impact bars, advanced braking systems, child safety seats and restraints. The fire service has also improved training and equipment and introduced collaborative working with the police and our wonderful ambulance service in the UK.
Road deaths around the world are tragic and costly, and it is time that we stopped treating them as simply things that happen. With others, I delivered fire service training in Romania in the ’90s post the Ceauseşcu regime. That was an eye opener. It was a wonderful country with wonderful people, but they had no particularly good infrastructure. They had poor equipment and poor training and, at the time, the fire service was linked to the military. I am sure the situation will have improved in recent times.
A report earlier this year by the World Bank and the World Resources Institute spoke about treating road deaths as a public health issue, which I would be very much minded to support. There is much more that can and must be done, particularly in developing countries, to improve road safety and reduce the number of accidents and the number of lives needlessly lost due to traffic accidents every year.
As the hon. Member for Huddersfield said, it is very often the police officer who has to go and knock at the door to advise mum or dad that their son or daughter is not coming home, or sometimes to advise the son or daughter that their mum or dad is not coming home. That is a horrendous consequence of a road traffic crash.
I am proud that the UK still has one of the lowest traffic-related fatality rates in the world, with 2.9 deaths per 100,000 people per year. Despite the improvements mentioned earlier, that is still too many, and we should continue to work to reduce that figure further, but it can be compared with the African average of 26.6 deaths per 100,000 people per annum, which is surely unacceptable. I hope that the Department for International Development and the Department for Transport recognise that global road safety is a public health issue of immense importance. The unacceptable fact is that traffic accidents—or traffic crashes—cause almost as many deaths each year worldwide as malaria, HIV and AIDS combined.
I trust that DFID and Transport will consider what more can be done to engage with Governments and stakeholders to promote road safety around the world and in developing nations. The UN rightly included among its global goals for sustainable development a target of halving road deaths by 2030. I hope that those who can implement change are listening, especially to the passion and enthusiasm of the hon. Member for Huddersfield.
It is a pleasure to see you in the chair, Mr Hollobone. I am pleased to follow my friend, the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant), and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on securing the debate and on his excellent speech that laid out the issues.
My hon. Friend outlined the statistics of more than 1.25 million people dead and 20 million seriously injured across the world, and the international response, including the World Health Organisation’s and the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, of which two specifically target road crashes. I am delighted to see the Minister present, who is highly regarded, which is the upside. The downside is that because he is highly regarded, much is expected of him. We look forward to his contribution.
The UK is one of the world leaders in road safety. My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield attended the UN General Assembly, as he described, and I commend his activities in sponsoring the inter-parliamentary legislators group to share best practice. We can help other countries. We are doing so already through individuals and organisations such as His Royal Highness Prince Michael of Kent, the international patron of road safety; the FIA Foundation; the Towards Zero Foundation; the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety; the Department for Transport; the THINK! campaign; Max Mosley; and Stop the Crash, chaired by David Ward and Lord Robertson and mentioned by my hon. Friend, to mention just a few.
In this Chamber, we recently debated the International Development Committee’s report on education for all. I made the point that it is all very well promoting education in developing countries, but we should also be teaching road safety in schools, because 500 kids leave for school every morning and do not return home. They die on the world’s roads. We need to get those kids to and from school safely.
I chair Fire Aid, which is the umbrella organisation for the UK fire service and fire industry that delivers post-crash response and training equipment to more than 30 countries. One of our founding partner organisations, the Eastern Alliance for Safe and Sustainable Transport, quotes the 2015 World Health Organisation report on road safety, which details that half a million lives could be saved each year through good post-crash care. That includes stunningly simple things, such as a single universal telephone number for an emergency service response—18 countries have no 999 number and 41 countries have multiple numbers. Our partnership organisations deliver equipment and training, and are saving lives.
The UK has a good road safety story. The THINK! brand of the Department for Transport is held in international regard. We have expertise across the piece that we can share with other countries, whether on legislation, regulations, equipment or training. That soft diplomacy could enhance UK plc’s reputation. We can save lives. We can prevent broken bodies. We can have the most positive economic impact in the countries that would benefit most.
We need a signal from Government that recognises not only the opportunities that the sustainable development goals provide but that we are in the best position to help so many countries, whom I hope would acknowledge our assistance. We should not do it just for geopolitical advantage, although that should not be lost on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but because it is the right thing to do. It is already being done by all those I mentioned earlier and others.
I am keen to hear how much the Government are doing, how much they recognise what is being delivered by those UK organisations and how much more they think we can do—not just through the Department for Transport, but through the Department for International Development too. I look forward to the Front-Bench responses from the SNP, from my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) for the Opposition and from the Minister. This issue should demonstrate that there is no difference between any of the UK parties.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on securing the debate and on his excellent speech, which many hon. Members found very stirring. His passion in the subject reawakened in me the memory of a phone call to our home in the middle of the night when my cousin, Eric, sadly died in a road traffic collision. I shall never forget the sight of my father, a typical Scot who did not wear his heart on his sleeve, standing in the kitchen of our home in Forfar and crying.
I want to speak briefly about the privilege I recently had of attending a presentation on stage at the Macrobert theatre at the University of Stirling entitled “Safe Drive, Stay Alive”, which shows young drivers how dangerous the roads can be. All the year 4 and year 5 pupils from the surrounding secondary schools in central Scotland attend the presentation. Frankly, the dramatic production uses shock tactics to hammer home the message about the importance of being aware on the roads and concentration when driving, and about how dangerous the roads are. I pay tribute to the team who I saw on stage: PCs Vinny Lynch and Andrew Starkie alongside Alan Faulds, Patrick Boyle, David Galloway and Bill Taylor. David Galloway particularly deserves a special plaudit. He talks about road safety with the authority of someone whose life has been drastically changed by a road collision. The performance is intensely emotional and moving, so it is hard not to shed a tear throughout the evening. From start to finish, it works effectively to truly convey the impact of a car crash—those two seconds that change lives forever, both physically and mentally.
I will never forget what someone from one of the blue light services said on stage:
“When I go home from my shift at night, and I lay my head on my pillow and I close my eyes, I see you lying in the wreckage of the car.”
No matter how hard the rescuer tried to expunge that memory from her mind’s eye, that is what she saw. It is my view that although it is a shock production, it is so important that the relatives of those who have died, the voices and testimonies of the emergency service first responders, and the victims themselves speak to young people, as it can truly be a turnaround moment in their appreciation and awareness of the danger of roads. If every young driver could see this production and see through the eyes of a road casualty, I am sure that we would go a long way to ending the scourge of car fatalities among young people. I believe that it would teach lessons that would remain for a lifetime.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Hollobone.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on securing this debate, on the compassion and passion that he always shows for his subject matter, and on the vociferous way that he speaks on each and every occasion that he brings an issue forward. The hon. Gentleman is a Huddersfield Town supporter, but we forgive him for that. As a Leicester City supporter, I am very pleased to remind him of that; I think that his team beat us once this season, but we beat them the other time. However, that is by the way.
It is very good to come along and speak about an issue that is very important to the hon. Gentleman and indeed to every one of us who is here in Westminster Hall to participate in this debate. One preventable death is one too many. The fact is that road deaths are largely preventable and we must do our part to try to ensure that such deaths are prevented.
As I always do in these debates, I will give a Northern Ireland perspective. I look forward to the Minister’s response. There is a great responsibility on his shoulders to come forward with the answers that we are looking for, but I have no doubt that he will respond in a very strong and supportive way to what we are saying.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland data shows that 95% of all deaths and serious injuries on roads are caused by human error, whether that is drink-driving, speeding, carelessness, inattention, or not wearing a seatbelt. We all know what we have to do on the road and sometimes, inadvertently and for whatever reason, we may not do those things.
The latest figures released by the Department for Infrastructure in Northern Ireland show an increase in the number of serious injuries from road collisions to 828, which is the highest figure since 2010. While the number of road deaths has been dropping in the last couple of years, the number of road injuries has not, and we also have to consider that.
The 63 road deaths in Northern Ireland in 2017 continued the downward trend that began in 2014, when 79 people in Northern Ireland lost their lives on the roads. Although the 2017 total is significantly higher than 2012’s low of 48 deaths, about half as many people die on Northern Ireland’s roads now compared with a decade ago. Yet, as I said at the start, one preventable death is one too many. Sixty-three families are grieving today; 63 homes have been torn apart; and the communities of those 63 people are living without a vital part of their make-up. We need to see an improvement in road safety and in this place we need to play our part in achieving that.
A recent survey by the Brake charity and Churchill Car Insurance of 2,000 UK drivers was quite illuminating; we always cite statistics, but I believe they give an indication of what people are thinking. Some 52% of those surveyed admitted to driving at 25 mph or faster in areas with a 20 mph speed limit; 25 to 34-year-olds were the age group most likely to drive at 25 mph or faster in a 20 mph area, while 55 to 64-year-olds were the least likely to do so; more than seven in 10 drivers underestimated the number of children who are killed on roads globally every year; and eight in 10 drivers thought that vehicles travelled too fast in their area. In addition, research has found that children cannot judge the speed of approaching vehicles that are travelling faster than 20 mph, so children may believe that it is safe to cross a road when it is not.
In his introduction to the debate, the hon. Member for Huddersfield referred to the Green Cross Code, the Tufty Club and so on; I am of the generation that can remember those things. When we were children, those things were very much part of the safety regime that existed.
Five hundred children are killed on roads globally every day, which comes to nearly 183,000 deaths across the world each year. It is for that reason that we must take on board the manifesto of the Global Network for Road Safety Legislators—Manifesto #4RoadSafety—which highlights the measures that it believes parliamentarians worldwide should adopt to reduce the number of road deaths.
As I have said, we have a role to play to improve road safety globally. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this matter forward, raising awareness of it and highlighting it for the attention of the Minister. I would also like to highlight the fact that any strategy must be carried out in co-operation with the devolved Assemblies, and I look forward to understanding what the cohesive UK-wide strategy will entail. I ask the Minister to consider—indeed, very much consider—having a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland-wide strategy. If he introduced such a strategy, all the regional devolved Administrations could be part of it, which would also be a good idea.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) for calling this debate on a really important topic. Around the world, we must design better safety into our roads, and as a member of the Transport Committee I will confine my remarks to how we can design better safety into roads, not only here in Britain but around the world.
There is one feature in particular that I will speak about, which is road signs, because right around the world, whether the road signs are pointing to Plymouth—
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
Before the interruption, I was talking about road signs. Whether they point to Plymouth, Perth, Paris, Panama or Phnom Penh, they are important around the world. The issue was brought to my attention by one of my constituents, Trevor Gorman. His son, also called Trevor, was killed in a road accident last June on the A38, which runs through Plymouth. Trevor was driving with two friends when their van collided with a road traffic post, killing all three men. The post they collided with was made of steel, and was not designed to collapse or crumple to absorb the impact. Experts at the inquest said that the pole met requirements when it was erected in the 1990s, but had not been replaced since then.
The accident that took the lives of these three young men could have been prevented. Thanks to Highways England, the steel signpost has now been changed to a lattice-type pole that crumples in the event of an impact. I wrote to the Minister on 15 March trying to raise awareness of the importance of crumple-able lattice poles in preference to hard steel poles that do not crumple when hit by traffic that comes off the road. I wrote to and met Jim O’Sullivan, the chief executive of Highways England. He confirmed that the sign would be replaced with a crumple-able post, not the same steel post that has been used in the past. That is really important, because as there is more and more traffic, more and more hard, galvanised steel posts are being erected on motorways and lesser roads across the world. In Britain, many of those hard posts are being replaced by lattice-type posts. I invite hon. Members, next time they are driving on busy motorways, to have a look at the signposts. The lattice-type posts—those that can be seen through—crumple if they are hit by a car, absorbing the impact. The pole will not come loose and hit people in cars, which is how Trevor Gorman and his friends died.
We have an obligation not only to learn from best practice of replacing hard, galvanised steel poles in the UK with crumple-able, collapsible poles, but to ensure that best practice is shared around the world. I am sure that hon. Members will be familiar with the 1968 UN convention on road signs and signals, which sought to standardise the amount of signs. What it did not do is standardise the poles to which those signs are attached. I invite the Minister to engage in international collaboration and co-operation on road safety. Could the best practice that is being adopted on our roads in the UK—replacing hard poles with collapsible poles—be shared with our international neighbours?
Mr Gorman, who has been running a fantastic campaign to raise awareness of this issue, wants to ensure that no other families suffer the knock on the door spoken about by my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield. If we can do that not only in England and for traffic authorities across the UK, but around the world, those three young men who died on the A38 because their van hit a pole that could not collapse might not have died in vain.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship; the debate has been impeccably run, as usual.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on introducing the debate. He has spent a long time campaigning on road safety in general, and I pay tribute to his previous work on seatbelts and his parliamentary manoeuvres to ensure that that important legislation got through. He clearly set out the magnitude, scale and impact of global road deaths, how important the issue is, and the fact that this is the 10th biggest killer in the world at the moment—set to rise to seventh, around the level of tuberculosis and all the rest of it. As parliamentarians we all sign up to campaigns to eradicate diseases and other killers, but clearly more needs to be done to tackle the scourge of global road deaths.
I pay tribute to all the other speeches made by hon. Members—I cannot go through them all due to time constraints. Clearly, it has been a consensual debate because it is on such an important subject, but I may make a couple of comments about the Government that are not quite so consensual. I pay tribute to the hon. Members for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) for their speeches and the work they have done in the fire services. I have friends in the fire services. Such personnel are at the front end, seeing this close up. The devastation is not just for the families; we have people at the front end, and the psychological stress has an impact on other people besides the families.
We have touched on the fact that according to the World Health Organisation, road accidents are the 10th leading cause of death, so obviously the issue needs to be tackled. To tackle it properly, we need to understand the causes. Over the years, better vehicles and roads have contributed, particularly in the UK, to a reduction in the number of deaths on the road, but the fact that 90% of deaths occur in low and middle-income countries—Africa has the highest death rate—suggests that there are other factors such as healthcare and remoteness when people are involved in accidents. We need a detailed analysis to tackle the issue on a proper, global scale.
From the Library briefing paper, Great Britain seems to do well; it is ranked 46 out of 49. I noticed that, interestingly, Mexico has the same death rate per million as the UK—27.7 deaths per million population. Mexico is not a high-earning country, so other factors are obviously at play. As the hon. Member for Huddersfield mentioned, the US does not have as good a record—it is the 9th worst in the chart. What are the reasons for that? In the US, they have a car culture, so I would have thought that they would be more safety conscious. They certainly have a much more lax attitude to drink-driving. There is no compulsory requirement for crash helmets for motorcyclists, who are vulnerable road users. The hon. Member for Huddersfield touched on rear seatbelts. It shows again the theme of having correct laws, enforcing the laws and making sure people adhere to them.
In the UK, there were fewer road deaths this year than in 1926 when records started, which shows the progress made. There was a post-war increase in the number of deaths, up to 1966, in line with the number of road users. In 1966, drink-driving legislation was introduced and that started a downward trend in the number of deaths, which has continued since.
A few years ago, the Scottish Government went one step further. They have lowered the drink-driving limits further, from 80 mg per 100 ml of blood to 50 mg per 100 ml. The measure was met with scepticism by Opposition politicians at the time. The Tories were telling us that all these poor wee grannies were going to be targeted by the police and meanwhile real criminals would be going scot-free. In actual fact, there has been a 7.6% reduction in the first year of the new legislation. It has helped to bring about a change in culture, which will clearly lead to a reduced number of fatalities and accidents. I urge the Minister to think carefully about this and to fall in line with Scotland, rather than having the joint highest drink-driving limit in Europe.
In terms of other road safety measures, average speed cameras have been a success. On the A9, average speed cameras have reduced the number of fatalities by 40%. Investment in the strategic road network helps. I would also suggest that the UK needs to sign up to the UN target to halve the number of road deaths. The Scottish Government have a target of a 40% reduction in road deaths between 2010 and 2020. I believe the UK Government abandoned their target for a reduced number of fatalities—I would urge the Minister to think carefully about that.
It is a pleasure to see you in the chair, Mr Hollobone. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on securing this important debate and on his knowledgeable speech. He has been an impressive road safety campaigner for many years, and the debate is worthy of him. I also pay tribute to other hon. Members who have spoken today.
This is a very timely debate. Globally, about 1.3 million deaths as well as more than 50 million injuries are caused by road accidents each year, according to the latest estimates from the World Health Organisation. In the UK, we have a proud record and some of the safest roads in the world. There are an estimated 3.7 road traffic deaths per 100,000 people in the UK, meaning we have the safest roads in the world other than in Sweden. However, we must strive to be even better.
I am pleased that the last Labour Government supported global road safety. In 2009, Labour pledged to donate £1.5 million each year from the Department for International Development to a global road safety facility. However, under this Government, progress has somewhat stalled. The 2010 to 2015 coalition originally scrapped our 2009 pledge, before being forced into a U-turn by the International Development Committee in 2011. In our 2017 manifesto, we said that a future Labour Government will reset the UK’s road safety vision and ambitiously strive for a transport network with zero deaths, reintroducing road safety targets and setting out bold measures that will continuously improve road safety standards.
I ask the Minister why the Government scrapped the road safety targets that were introduced by Labour. The Government talk about road safety being a top priority, but Ministers have failed to reduce the number of those seriously injured or killed on our roads.
I know my hon. Friend has limited time, so I will just ask a quick question. We had a 30-year consensus on the reduction of deaths and serious injuries on roads, starting with the Conservative Administration in the ’80s under Mrs Thatcher—I think the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) was Road Safety Minister at the time. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is very disappointing that the coalition Government moved away from targets? Does he hope, like I do, that the present Conservative Government would restore the targets that they started 40 years ago?
My hon. Friend puts it very well. I seek consensus on this issue and I hope the Minister will consider the points that my hon. Friend has made so eloquently. He did not mention the reductions in the police, but I should add that there is a link to that as well. I hope the Government will also reconsider their cuts to the police service.
It is worth bearing in mind that the road injury statistics are rising. A Department for Transport statistical table for the year to September 2017 showed that serious road injuries had increased by 7%. We should focus on that point and seek consensus. As I mentioned earlier, the Minister should seriously look at the UK taking a leading role in promoting road safety globally. What discussions has the Minister had with colleagues in the Department for International Development about global road safety? I also believe, in addition to domestic consensus, that there should be consensus between Departments. We should seek to work with our international partners.
In conclusion, although we have one of the safest road networks around, we should not be complacent. The Government should be doing much more to make our roads even safer. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments on some of the important points raised in today’s debate.
I am very grateful for those remarks, Mr Hollobone. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I am grateful to colleagues from all parts of the House for the thoughtful interventions they have made on this important topic and for how they have managed to compress a lot of thought and passion into a small number of minutes. That is impressive and good to see.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on securing this debate. As he said, this is a serious global issue. It is a sobering thought indeed to reflect that around the world, 3,500 lives are lost in road crashes every day according to the World Health Organisation. I absolutely recognise his efforts over many years, internationally and at home, to create a positive force for change. I am also pleased to acknowledge that sat behind him is a Mount Rushmore of dignitaries from the global road safety world, including David Ward of the Global New Car Assessment Programme and David Davies of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety. I thank them very much on behalf of the House and the Government for the work they do.
I had the pleasure of presenting to an international field of parliamentarians and others at the Global Network for Road Safety Legislators in December last year. That was a welcome opportunity to share the UK experience with other legislators, to learn from them and to see best practice in the field. As has been said today, by international standards the UK has an excellent road safety record and a long history of success in encouraging safe behaviour and safe road use from all those who travel on them. It is a record that this country should be proud of. It goes back many years under different Administrations. It is interesting to reflect that the number of people killed or seriously injured on Britain’s roads has dropped by 61% since 1990.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) rightly mentioned that many of these accidents occur from human error. It may be that in a world of connected autonomous vehicles and pods travelling around the world, human error will be minimised, road safety will be improved and accidents will fall, but there are many things that Government, local authorities and business can do and have done to reduce the number of people killed and seriously injured on our roads and roads in other parts of the world.
I am keenly aware of the impact such fatalities can have and the need to protect our most vulnerable road users. I cannot pause without reflecting on the comments made by my hon. Friends the Members for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) and for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) and the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick). They drew attention to the important issue of the impact on young people. In my constituency we have a marvellous charity called the ELY Memorial Fund, which is dedicated to supporting those bereaved by road traffic accidents. It was set up after the death of Emma Louise Young by her wonderful parents, Angie and Steven Tyler. They have pioneered a “Dying2Drive” initiative that will match anything that my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling could mention. I have visited it myself. As the sixth formers come out, seeing a smoking ruin of a car with bodies slumped over it and blood everywhere, the colour drains from their faces and they become completely aware in the most graphic way possible of what it could be to have an experience like that. As my hon. Friend rightly said, it is absolutely harrowing.
Just looking at our young adults, the number of those aged between 17 and 24 killed on Britain’s roads has fallen by 25% since 2010 and 77% since 1990. There is therefore much to be proud of but much still to do. The UK has been a key driver in the development of the sustainable development goals. We are in a strong position to make an effective contribution to the UN’s target on road safety, sustainable development goal 3.6, which is to halve the number of global deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents by 2020. We are also pleased to play our part in the development of a common global vision and narrative on sustainable transport through a target to provide by 2030 access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems and special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations. The hon. Member for Huddersfield rightly focused on the impact that a death can have in destroying the fabric and the social and economic integrity of a family. That is one reason why that is a development issue as much as it is merely a road safety issue.
I suggest to the House that the Government’s commitment in the area is clear. The road safety statement, “Working Together to Build a Safer Road System”, published on 21 December 2015, set out our priorities for action. We have delivered heavily on those actions. In particular, in March 2017 we doubled the penalty points and increased the fine—to £200—for using a hand-held phone when driving, as part of our continuing efforts to tackle that dangerous and reckless action.
For more than 50 years, we have used a combined approach of tough penalties and rigorous enforcement along with the THINK! advertising campaigns, recognised by Members across the House for their quality and the international respect that they command, to reinforce the social unacceptability of drink-driving, reminding people of the serious ramifications that drinking and driving can have on themselves and others. That has had results: alcohol-related fatalities have reduced from 25% of all road deaths in 1979 to 13% of a much smaller number of reported road deaths two years ago.
On drug-driving, we introduced a specific drug-driving offence in 2015, with specified limits for 17 drugs, including illegal and prescription drugs. In addition, in 2015 we provided £1 million in funding to police forces specifically for better equipment, enforcement and training of officers in drug-recognition and impairment-testing skills. Last year we published research on the effectiveness of the drug-driving legislation introduced in 2015. It found that the legislation had led to additional police activity against drug-drivers, and higher prosecution and conviction rates.
It is important to say that we also recognise the importance of equipping drivers with the right skills, encouraging the uptake of more pre-test practice in driving and a broader range of real-world driving experiences for novice drivers. Following a public consultation last year, therefore, we have announced amended regulations to allow approved driving instructors to provide lessons on motorways to learner drivers in a dual controlled car. Those new rules will come into effect in June this year. Meanwhile, from 4 December 2017 the practical driving test changed to include following directions from a sat-nav and testing different manoeuvres, making it more applicable for modern driving.
A theme of this debate has been that young people are particularly at risk. That is absolutely right. We know that they are disproportionately represented in our casualty figures, and we are undertaking a substantial £2 million research programme to identify the best possible interventions for young and novice drivers. Those measures to be considered include voluntary limits during the first months of driving solo, more pre-test learning and hazard perception learning, the use of telematics to help novice drivers, and a range of educational interventions.
It is also important to recognise that vulnerable road users other than drivers need attention. Motorcyclists account for 19% of all road deaths, despite accounting for only 1% of traffic. They have not been mentioned in this debate, which I know is by accident and because of the short time we have had, but they are a very important source of the killed and seriously injured statistics. We consulted on improvements to motorcycle training and provided our response last year, setting out our long-term intention to provide for change.
In September last year I announced a cycle safety review. In March this year I launched the consultation on the cycling and walking investment strategy safety review, which invited those with an interest in improving safety of cyclists and pedestrians—including vulnerable road users—to provide evidence, whether drawing on experience from this country or other countries, so that we may use that evidence to shape future policy decisions.
Our road safety statement sets out the Government’s vision, values and priorities to improve the safety of our roads, and how we are working towards a reduction in the number of deaths and injuries domestically. However, I recognise that our road safety statement—it is a theme that that has come out today—does not include a national road safety target.
No mention has been made of the insurance companies, which have been strategically and purposefully trying to reduce accidents by offering insurance incentives. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that, because some of those insurance companies have brought in systems that really help.
As the hon. Gentleman acknowledges, insurance can cut in different directions based on the pooling effects and the way it is segmented, but potentially insurance can be a valuable part of setting a set of incentives, particularly for young drivers, that could improve road safety over time.
I will return to the key topic that has been raised: the lack of a national road safety target. It is true that we do not have one and we do not have road safety targets for local authorities or the police. Our judgment has been that there is a tremendous need, as has been recognised here, for local road safety practitioners, the police and local authorities, to supply and apply their knowledge and skills to local circumstances, but we are wary of a centralised approach to setting targets. That occurs in a political context in which the 2010 Government took over a vast panoply of targets across the whole of Government and sought to create greater empowerment and local accountability by removing many of those targets. It is important to say that local authorities, the police and other bodies remain free to set their own targets, if they find that useful. It is also worth saying that the over-emphasis on targets can itself be counterproductive, because it can cause people to chase the target, rather than the problem.
We understand and remain committed to the international road safety goals, to which we have already committed ourselves, to sharing our experience and expertise with other Governments, and to taking part in many global forums, which have responsibility for making roads safer, including the UN World Forum for Harmonisation of Vehicle Regulations and the Global Forum for Road Traffic Safety, both hosted by the UN Economic Commission for Europe in Geneva. In addition, my colleagues in the Department for International Development are contributing nearly £10 million—not £1 million or £1.5 million—to the Global Road Safety Facility, a multi-donor trust fund operating through the World Bank. That is a scheme to which the Government as a whole are signed up. The programme has been running since 2013 and is due to continue until 2021.
The Global Road Safety Facility generates research and evidence on road safety. Working on these areas directly relates to the focus area of disability through potential reductions in future disabilities incurred through road crashes, as well as all the other economic and social effects that have been highlighted today. That facility has made progress on road safety particularly within the World Bank, and in 2015 all World Bank-funded road programmes included the road safety component as a result of its work. Also, in 2016, road safety was accepted as a theme in the World Bank environmental and social safeguarding framework, so that all programmes approved near a road will need to include an appropriate road safety component.
This research will help to reduce the high numbers of fatalities for road traffic accidents in low and middle income countries. We will be collecting road transport data through a grant between the Department of Health and Social Care and the work of the official development assistance research funding, in order to assess solutions to road safety problems globally. That will help shape policies and regulations to reduce accidents in four partner countries: Vietnam, Bangladesh, Kenya and China. In summary, the Government take an active role in reducing global road deaths and will continue to support and engage in making not just our roads, but all roads around the world, safer.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).