Tuesday 8 May 2018
[Joan Ryan in the Chair]
Concessionary Bus Passes
I beg to move,
That this House has considered concessionary bus passes.
It is a pleasure to serve when you are in the Chair, Ms Ryan. During my three years in Parliament, it has been noticeable that although most of our fellow citizens use buses, we rarely get to discuss bus issues in the House. I am delighted to see in the Chamber my good and hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), Chair of the Select Committee on Transport, who I am sure will be putting that right in the coming months and years. Today, I shall focus mainly on the concessionary fares scheme and highlight its value and how it could be extended, but I shall also make a few observations about the problems that arise when running such a scheme in parts of the country with unregulated bus systems, and draw out possible solutions.
The national concessionary fares scheme has been a huge success. It has really changed the way older people live their lives, by increasing their freedom and, in many cases, reducing loneliness and isolation. As I think hon. Members will be aware, the bus pass in England provides free bus travel for older and disabled people during off-peak times—from 9.30 am onwards. Ironically, should anyone have chosen to use their concessionary fares pass to get here this morning, they would have been late. I can see that some of my colleagues set out much earlier—not that I am suggesting they would qualify for a bus pass. I am very pleased that so many people have made such an effort to be here at what is quite an early hour for Parliament on its return from recess.
The age of eligibility for the concessionary fares scheme has become slightly flexible. If the eligible age had remained what it was when the scheme was first announced, I might almost have qualified by now, but it seems to be slipping into the distance; I hope one day to catch it up. I think it is now 66. I hope that, in the future, many more people will be able to benefit from the scheme.
The trigger for calling this debate was the 10-year anniversary of the scheme. I congratulate the National Pensioners Convention, which made a big effort to celebrate it, including by sending birthday cards to Downing Street; I joined members to go and hand those in. I have to say that I was hoping there might be slightly more enthusiasm from the Government for celebrating the anniversary. We did have a discussion at Transport questions, and the Minister, I am delighted to say, had removed the threat of ongoing review, but I was hoping for something slightly more celebratory—a bit more Jürgen Klopp, a bit more dancing up and down, celebrating the success of the bus scheme.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He is a very long-standing supporter of buses. Will he also congratulate the TUC Midlands pensioners’ network? Its members marked the 10th anniversary of the concessionary bus pass by touring the midlands using their passes. My hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear that, when they came to Nottingham and we were talking to residents in Market Square, the overwhelming number of people did not avoid us; they came and spoke to us, and they expressed their great joy and made celebratory remarks about the bus pass for older people and disabled people, because they know what a lifeline it has been for so many people. Does my hon. Friend agree?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. She is very prescient, because the TUC campaign was in the next paragraph of my speech; she has pre-empted it. She is right. Those of us who have done market square campaigning will know that we are not always a magnet for people to come and join us and enthuse, but I find that whenever we speak to older people, they are enthusiastic. I echo my hon. Friend’s congratulations to not only the east midlands TUC but Richard Worrall, who, when the scheme was initiated, set off on a tour of the country and was able to demonstrate that, using his bus pass, he could get round the whole country, which was very exciting. I am told that he is going to do that again, and certainly if he comes through Cambridgeshire I shall be very pleased to join him, although I shall be paying the extortionate fares that we suffer in rural Cambridgeshire—should we be lucky enough to find a bus. I say that because the enthusiasm to which I have referred is tempered by the fact that, in far too many areas, the Government seem to be managing decline rather than celebrating new routes. I will say a little about how that might be addressed, but first I would like to go back to the history of this scheme.
As I look around the Chamber, I see that some of us are old enough to remember that in the ’80s and ’90s pensioner campaigning was central to everything we did. I remember that, as a parliamentary candidate, I was summoned to many vibrant meetings—the pensioners’ organisations had a long list of demands at the time. That was because they compared, strangely enough, our situation in the UK with that in many other European countries and found that our European neighbours often enjoyed a whole series of things that pensioners in our country did not. One success of the post-1997 Labour Government was that they addressed pensioner poverty. I am thinking of measures such as free eye tests, the winter fuel payment and so on, and the bus pass was of course a key part of that.
However, there was not a particularly smooth path to that. We started with quite a panoply of schemes. Some places, such as London, had long had better schemes. Some of the urban areas—I have to say that they were almost always Labour-run areas—had been much more generous in the past. However, in the shires, it was much more of a battle. A kind of halfway house was introduced back in the Transport Act 2000, which gave pensioners half-price fares. That led to quite a lot of even more vexed campaigning.
I remember going to a Labour policy forum in 2004 with colleagues from adjoining counties in the rural east of England—I particularly remember the then leader of Norfolk County Council, Celia Cameron, and Bryony Rudkin from Suffolk. We sat with the then Secretary of State for Transport, Alistair Darling—this was long before he realised he was to become Chancellor of the Exchequer—and explained to him why we thought that a concessionary fares scheme of this type would be not only equitable and fair but hugely popular. I remember the look on Alistair’s face: he said, “Do you know how much that would cost?” That was actually quite a good question because, as I shall explain in a minute, the question of costs has never been properly tied down. His point, of course, was that it would be quite a costly commitment. We went away, having established the idea in principle, but with no great hope that it would necessarily be adopted, so it was with huge joy that we greeted the development a year later. I am not suggesting that it was just we who achieved this; it was a wide range of campaigners, but in the 2005 Labour manifesto a full scheme was suggested, and it was finally implemented in 2006.
The issue of funding is important because, right from the beginning, it has proved to be complicated and difficult. When I was a parliamentary candidate, I spent many a happy hour trying to work out, with my local county councillors and district councillors, who was paying for what and how much it was really costing, and, frankly, coming to the conclusion that probably no one was entirely sure.
We are told that, overall, this scheme now costs £1.17 billion per annum. Not surprisingly, the cost has increased since the scheme was introduced. We are told that, in 2013-14, 9.73 million concessionary travel passes were issued across the country; that puts the average cost at £120 per person. When the scheme was first introduced, the Government provided an extra £350 million for 2006-07 through the formula grant system to fund the cost to local authorities as they then saw it. Between 2008 and 2011, the Department for Transport provided a special grant, totalling just over £650 million, to local authorities to pay for the statutory concession.
Since 2011, however, it is the formula grant that funds the bus pass; money is no longer ring-fenced. Of course, it is a familiar sleight of hand by central Government to apparently put money into the local government grant and tell local government that it has to do this. As the years go by, it becomes less and less clear what the money is for. There is a strong suspicion that it is a sleight of hand, and particularly when councils are being so heavily squeezed, it is asking a lot of them.
Therefore, my first question to the Minister is whether she would like to have a word with the Treasury about looking again at providing proper, ring-fenced funding for the scheme to local authorities. It is not entirely clear to me that the current system of local government finance, particularly with the move away from central Government funding and, supposedly, to business rates retention, actually provides a good, sustainable model for supporting a scheme such as this.
Surely a proper cost-benefit analysis ought to be part of that assessment. In many rural areas, the benefit is that people in smaller, local towns can access services. Most significantly, the benefit is to the health budget, by keeping so many of our pensioners active and engaged. There are lots of studies now on the impact of loneliness on older people. This scheme helps to get people out and about, and maintains their health for much longer.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will come on to the social and environmental benefits in a minute. This partly shows us how complicated it is to assess the long-term benefits.
Returning to the relationship between central Government and local government, local authorities were charged with coming up with a reimbursement system that left the operator no better or worse off, but they are in a difficult place, and I will come on to the reimbursement system in a minute. The Local Government Association estimates the cost to local authorities at around £760 million a year, with a funding shortfall of £200 million. I suspect that that pressure will only get worse.
The operators are not keen on the system at all. I frequently hear complaints. It is difficult to prove what it costs to carry passengers for free, in a way that observes that reimbursement rule. Putting some extra people on half-empty buses does not necessarily cost more. If there are too many extra people, however, extra services are required.
I understand that the prime task of the bus operators—the big five and many smaller operators—is to return a profit to their shareholders. That is right and proper; that is what they do. They will inevitably claim that this costs rather a lot. In the early days—this was my experience in Cambridgeshire—the bus operators did quite well, because the reimbursement cost they extracted from the county council was rather high. Over time that seems to have settled. As has been said in questions to Ministers, the number of appeals has settled down, which suggests that there is a kind of settlement in all this. I think there is a wider question, however, of how and whether the reimbursement system works.
There is a comparison to be made between London, which has a regulated system, and the rest of the country. Thanks to the Bus Services Act 2017, we hope that some of the new mayoral authorities will adopt franchising. I hope my own in Cambridgeshire does. In London, where you have gross cost franchising, it is much simpler for Transport for London to make decisions about the public good. It decides the fares and the frequency, and then it pays the operator to deliver the service. In a way, the operator has much less to worry about, provided it does not drive up usage and extra costs too far. For London, which groups pay and which do not, and how much is made up by the fare box and how much is raised in others ways, are political choices.
In the rest of the country, it is much less clear. It could be suggested that operators have a perverse incentive to put up fares, because if they know that many of their passengers will be concessionary fare holders, they will be reimbursed for that. We will see whether that gets any response from the operators. The choice over discounts and whether young people should qualify for similar fare schemes is essentially market driven; it is not a choice around social need or the social good. There is a huge opportunity, if we shift to franchising, to move to a much clearer and more efficient model. It may reduce operators’ profits, but if it provides lower fares and space for social choices for the social good, it is worth them paying that price.
I pay tribute to the work being done by the Transport for Quality of Life team, including Lynn Sloman and Ian Taylor, who have begun to look at European systems where, effectively, transport is provided for free across an urban area—it is predominately urban areas at the moment. That is not a novel or unprecedented idea, because many people take the view that public transport—like health, education, policing, parks and museums—is an essential public service that contributes to the fabric of local life. The organisation’s work—often commissioned by my trade union, Unite—shows that this is already happening in 100 towns and cities worldwide, including more than 30 in the United States and 20 in France. Dunkirk, with a population of 200,000, will apparently become fare-free in September. The largest city in the world to have made its public transport free is Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, with a population of 440,000. Free transport was introduced to residents in 2013. It has cost the city €12 million, but it believes that that has been offset by a €14 million increase in municipal revenues, as many more people have moved there, increasing the tax base.
That links to some of the work being done by my colleagues on the Transport Committee about mobility as a service. We are looking at a whole new range of ways of getting around cities. My vision is what I see when I visit an airport. Some airports are like small cities. There are travellators, lifts, shuttle metros and shuttle buses. The noticeable thing is that we do not pay to get on each of them, because it is in the interests of that community to get people where they want to go quickly and efficiently. I argue that is in the interest of all of us, in all our cities and smaller towns, to ensure that people can get around quickly and efficiently.
That is my vision for the future, but to return to the present, extending franchising beyond the mayoralty areas would allow local authorities much more control over services in their areas. It would put them in a much stronger position to maintain stability in funding the national concessionary travel bus scheme. The additional flexibility could also be extended to the community transport sector. That is sometimes a controversial issue, but it is being raised by people in the sector. If we are looking for a flexible mix of transport solutions, particularly in rural areas, I think it should be considered.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar) has already raised the social issues involved. Very good work has been done on that by Claire Haigh at Greener Journeys. She demonstrated, in research done a few years ago, that each pound spent on a bus pass generates at least £2.87 in benefits to bus pass users and the wider economy.
Like my hon. Friend, I am very familiar with “Bus2020: The Case for the Bus Pass”, produced by Greener Journeys. I noted that in responding to the Government’s decision to confirm the bus pass, Claire Haigh produced an updated figure. Greener Journeys’ research has now shown that every pound spent on a bus pass delivers at least £3.79 in wider benefits for society. That updates the case made in 2014, when Greener Journeys first published that research.
That shows why my hon. Friend is Chair of the Transport Committee—I should keep up. That is an even bigger benefit. I know it is always difficult for Government when such figures are put forward, but in straitened times, understanding the wider cost-benefits is one of the challenges. How many of us have sat on councils where we have talked about trying to pool budgets and make things work more efficiently? It is a challenge, but one worth pursuing.
As we have heard, there are also savings for social services. The social benefit is intangible, but some interesting recent research by Transport Focus has shown that the social benefit of the bus—people talking to one another as opposed to taking separate taxi journeys—has a real value. We must not underestimate these social benefits. The bus absolutely contributes to the wider social good.
My hon. Friend is being generous with his time. Does he agree that the value of the bus is not only in its social benefits, but in the opportunities for the Government to realise some of their other policy goals, such as tackling poor air quality and congestion in our cities? Does he share my concern that the Government’s figures on congestion and traffic rises indicate that by 2040 there will be a 55% rise in traffic and an 86% rise in congestion? That is why it is in all our interests for the Government to adequately support bus travel.
Once again, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. The environmental benefits are really important. I was pleased to see the Minister announce at the UK bus summit the retrofitting proposals, which I was happy to see in the Labour party manifesto last year. It is always good to see the Government adopt such things, and I will have some more suggestions for the Minister in a minute. Alongside that proposal are the very good hydrogen buses that are being developed. I suspect that other Members, like me, have been happy to go and see them. All those things add to my point that the bus is one of the important ways forward in improving the quality of life in our cities, towns and villages.
One extremely good way of promoting buses is by looking at the younger generation, who we are reading about this morning.
Just before my hon. Friend moves on, I want to make a point that may lead on to the next part of his speech. Does he share my concern about the Resolution Foundation’s report today that calls for increased taxes and charges on pensioners? It once again raises the concern that many pensioners have that their use of or access to bus passes will be rationed or restricted. I hope he would say that that certainly should not happen, and perhaps give the Minister an opportunity to make it clear on behalf of the Government that they will definitely not be taking any action to change the availability of bus passes for pensioners.
My right hon. Friend is an experienced and skilled operator, and I am sure the Minister will have heard his challenge, which echoed the challenge I laid down at Transport questions the other day. Older generations may have done better—as I indicated, only 20 years ago pensioner poverty was a very real and terrible thing, and because of policy changes it is only recently that people have been less likely to be poor when they are older—but we have to get the balance between generations right. We do not do that by punishing another generation; we do that by finding the resources from other places.
Turning to younger people, who now need to benefit, I want to reiterate something about the scheme in general. Claire Walters, the chief executive of Bus Users UK, recently said:
“Far more people rely on bus services than trains in this country. They are as vital to many people’s lives as gas, electricity and water”.
For many young people, particularly those in rural counties such as mine, getting to college or work is a real challenge. We are not talking about home-school transport today, but the Government would do well to consider that at some point, because there are rumblings in the shires, as they may have noticed last Thursday. Part of the challenge for young people is the cost of travel, including home-school transport.
As my right hon. Friend has just mentioned, the Resolution Foundation report showed the immense squeeze on the younger generation. They have experienced the tightest squeeze on household spending we have known since 2000, and they now consume 15% less than older working-age people on items other than housing. As we know all too well, home ownership is now out of sight for many people who are working, particularly in cities like mine. At the other end of the spectrum, those under 25 face significant restrictions on the amount of benefits they can claim.
I was absolutely delighted by the announcement by Front-Bench hon. Friends a few weeks ago that in future Labour would provide free bus travel in some parts of the country to those under 25. That would reduce the barriers to accessing work and education that so many young people face. The proposal could benefit up to 13 million young people, helping them save up to £1,000 a year. My hon. Friends have suggested that money ring-fenced from vehicle excise duty could be used. In addition to my earlier argument about franchising, with much greater control from local authorities there could well be extra headroom within local funds to help fund such an extension of the scheme.
I can anticipate the reaction from the bus operators. My local Stagecoach bus manager, with whom I have had many detailed conversations about bus franchising over the years, is not shy in coming forward to warn me of the perils of such an approach. I say gently to the operators that while their books remain closed and their finances opaque, it is not unreasonable for those of us interested in the wider public good to wonder whether more savings could not be made. We are told it is an unregulated market, but it is a funny kind of free market when public money accounts for more than 40% of bus operator revenues through local authority contracts, the bus service operators grant, reimbursement for trips made under the concessionary passholders scheme and grants. We therefore have a responsibility to ask whether we are making best use of that public money.
There is a lot of public money going into the bus system. Can we make it work better? I welcome the announcement that the concessionary fare scheme is no longer under review, but as I intimated earlier, I would like a slightly warmer endorsement of the underlying principles and a true enthusiasm for universally available mass public transport systems. Let’s hear it for the bus! Where older people have led the way, let us open the door for young people too. As we do not know when the next general election is coming—it could be a little while yet—will the Minister consider meeting me and the shadow Minister responsible for buses to discuss adopting yet another of Labour’s excellent bus policies? Young people would be as happy with their new bus pass as millions of older citizens have been with theirs over the last decade.
I am pleased to speak in this debate about concessionary bus passes. As the House will know, the matter is devolved to the Scottish Parliament, and it is a policy to which myself and my party remain absolutely committed. As we have heard, the point of free bus passes for our senior citizens is not only to enable them, but to actively encourage them to go out and about and to socialise. We know that improves their wellbeing and their mental and physical health. It is worth remembering that society encouraging good physical health in senior citizens, even in purely monetary terms, is a sensible and ethical thing to do since the older someone is, the more likely they are to develop problems with their physical health.
It does not help senior citizens or society for our older people to be trapped at home, whether that is for reasons of poverty or a lack of social contact. We want them to live productive lives, travelling about the country, volunteering, spending time with grandchildren and building up social networks. That will keep our communities vibrant and our older people healthier for much longer. Indeed, a fairly recent study by KPMG found that every pound spent on the bus pass generates more than £2.87 of benefits for society and the wider economy. We have heard from the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) that that has been revised upwards to £3.79, which is good news. The same report said that scrapping the passes would cost £1.7 billion due to the likely decline in volunteering and poorer health and wellbeing among older people. The news on free bus passes is very positive.
The scheme enables older and disabled people to have fuller and more efficient access to the key public services they need and to take part in activities that would not be affordable to them without the free bus pass. That freedom to travel has a wide range of social, economic and environmental benefits, including the ability to use local shops and being more able to look after children and care for others. The study says that four out of five of those eligible to take up bus passes do so. The 12 million pass holders altogether took more than 1.2 billion trips across Britain in 2012-13. According to Passenger Focus research, some 95% of passengers believe that older and disabled people should be entitled to a free bus pass.
The Department for Transport’s latest statistics reveal that outside London, concessionary bus journeys have decreased by 14% since 2010-11. In London, they decreased by 4.8% in the same period. Does the hon. Lady not share my concern that the reduction in bus travel generally and the reduction in services, particularly supported services, by local authorities is leading to fewer people making use of their bus pass, perhaps because there is not a bus on which they can use it?
The hon. Lady anticipates an important point I was going to make. My party and I are absolutely committed to free bus passes, because the policy makes ethical and financial sense. We know it would be penny wise and pound foolish for the bus pass to be under threat, and the hon. Lady makes a very good point.
In Scotland, Transport Scotland provides an annual subsidy of about £70 million to the bus industry, the aim of which is to keep fares at affordable levels and to enable bus operators to run services that might not otherwise be commercially viable. However, as a bus user myself, as someone who relies on public transport and having listened to what my constituents tell me—which I see for myself every day—I am concerned about cuts to bus services across North Ayrshire. That has persuaded me that we need to look seriously at bus reregulation—in my constituency the cuts to bus services have been nothing less than savage.
There is limited value in giving someone a free bus pass to encourage them to get out and about and to improve their health and wellbeing, if the bus services are cut to the point at which one cannot go where one would like to go using that bus pass. We need to look at bus reregulation, because the cuts have had a devastating effect in my constituency. I know that I am not alone in that situation.
Politics is always about choices. The principle of the free bus pass is a prize that we need to hang on to. Whatever else happens, it is something that we need to value, not forgetting the benefits it brings to us and to older people in our wider society. Politics is about choices, and we in the Scottish National party will continue to support the principle of free bus passes for pensioners but, like the hon. Member for Nottingham South, I am concerned about the overall cuts to bus services in our communities.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Ms Ryan, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) on securing it and on setting the scene for us.
I have a particular interest in this issue because we are one of the regions of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland that already has a concessionary bus pass in place. I am pleased to put on the record in Hansard that my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) was the Minister who put that in—and he is now a recipient of the bus pass. It is always good to have such contributions in Hansard. I should add that I, too, am entitled to be a recipient of the bus pass, although I have not applied for it or taken it up. I want to make that clear.
I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning in passing that I introduced the pass. Does he agree that what we have seen in the 17 years since it was introduced in Northern Ireland is the incredible advantage taken of it by our elderly citizens, to the advantage of their social mobility and of their wider community?
My hon. Friend and colleague is absolutely right: the advantage of the concessionary bus pass in Northern Ireland is one that we see the benefits of—I see it in my constituency. For those who are on in years, the introduction of the bus pass has provided the fun of the bus journey, which can be across all of Northern Ireland, so they get the chance of going places, and all that without the fuss and the bustle of driving a car through traffic, which makes it relaxing for them. He is right that the bus pass has helped to improve social inclusion.
I want to declare an interest, not just as someone over 60 but because I am entitled to a bus pass—though, as I say, I have not taken it up. I have not availed myself of the pass because bus services outside the main cities are not the most frequent, including in my home village of Greyabbey on the Ards peninsula. My younger brother does use the pass, and so I want to focus the Minister’s attention on three issues: disability; vulnerability; and, for some people, social isolation, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry said.
Some 12 years ago, my younger brother received a serious head injury during a motorbike race. He avails himself of the bus service, which stops literally outside his house. Our Keithy gets such freedom and independence from the bus. I have to mention the particular care given to him by the bus drivers—simply put, Keith is disabled as a result of the motorbike accident, so needs help getting on and off the bus, and the drivers are extremely helpful and give him specific care. That is a personal experience, but I hope this House will benefit from my alluding to it.
The bus pass for my brother means the difference between a life constrained to his four walls and the ability for him to go to the shop or to call into the office to see my staff, as he so often does. The fact of the matter is that Keith received severe brain injuries in the accident, so he also has someone that goes with him. A lot is happening there. I mention Keith because it is for him and others like him that I stand here—so that we do not forget the disabled or the vulnerable, to whom the pass is the difference between freedom and isolation, between community and loneliness and between connection and seclusion, especially in rural communities.
Those on the disability living allowance or, as it is now, the personal independence payment receive the half-fare concessionary option. Those like Keith who have to live off their state benefits because of their disabilities are therefore able to go out twice a week without being concerned about counting the pennies. It is a tremendous scheme. I am not saying that only because my hon. Friend and colleague introduced it, but because it is tremendous. I pay credit to all the hard work that went into the scheme that operates in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, those who have driven all their lives but are declared medically unfit to drive can still access an affordable way to get to work and to travel.
In 2016-17, to give an idea of the take-up in Northern Ireland, 312,593 SmartPasses were held by older people. I am following up on the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), who listed the advantages for Scotland, as will her Front-Bench colleague, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown). Comparing the numbers for holders of the 60-plus SmartPass and the Senior SmartPass for those over 65 with the 2016 mid-year population estimate of persons aged 60 and over, uptake of the SmartPasses was approximately 79%, which is a tremendous figure. Ninety-five per cent. of the passes were held by people aged 60 or over.
Moreover, in 2013 to 2015, almost a fifth—18%—of persons aged 16 and over who were surveyed reported having a mobility difficulty. On average, those with a mobility difficulty made 590 journeys per year, so they not only took up the concessionary passes, but made use of them, which goes back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry: it has turned out to be a magnificently utilised scheme by those who gain the advantage and benefit of it. On average, therefore, those with a mobility difficulty made 40% fewer journeys than those without a mobility difficulty, who made 988 journeys per year. In 2016-17, 98% of buses and coaches used as public service vehicles were wheelchair accessible. Transport NI, which runs the bus service in Northern Ireland, including the private bus companies, has taken significant steps to make its buses wheelchair and buggy-friendly, investing a lot of money.
I say this often, not to boast but to make a point: in Northern Ireland we have taken steps to advance things greatly, as others have in other parts of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the concessionary fares, with the public transport response and investment, is an example. In Northern Ireland, clearly there has been large uptake of the pass by the elderly population and that is for a reason: many are unable to drive any longer, many feel less confident in driving and parking, and many have worked all of their lives but never had the opportunity to travel throughout Northern Ireland and now wish to do so. The concessionary fares also help take people to the Republic of Ireland, so they go outside our own area.
I recently read an article in the Belfast Telegraph that highlighted the extent of social isolation and loneliness in Northern Ireland. This goes back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry. I wish to quote it in its entirety, because it is important to have it recorded in Hansard:
“Northern Ireland is in the grip of a loneliness epidemic, with a quarter of people admitting that they don’t even know their neighbours’ names.
Nearly two-thirds (63%) of people admit to feeling lonely, a report found… The Rotary Club’s State of the Nation survey questioned people aged 16 to 59 on social and community issues.
It found that the highest percentage of people feeling isolated were in the 16 to 29 age group (71.5%), followed by 62.7% of those aged 30 to 44—ending the myth that loneliness only affects the elderly.
Further analysis shows that, while nearly half of people (48.6%) see their families on a weekly basis, a small number (2.9%) never see their relatives… The report found the main causes of anxiety for people in Northern Ireland were mental health (60%), poverty (57%), health problems (54%) and opportunities for young people (51%). Worryingly, 92% of people confessed to feeling bogged down by the stresses and strains of modern life”—
“bogged down” is one of the Ulsterisms we often use; I hope everyone understands what it means—
“while 42% thought it was harder than ever to manage finances, get on the property ladder (40%) or maintain a job for life (40%).”
The concessionary scheme is a way of connecting people. It allows people to make the journey to visit a family member without waiting on someone to collect them and leave them home. It allows those who may otherwise not be able to attend their local church or community group seniors meeting, or indeed their care for cancer group, to hop on public transport and go. Those two things are very important in my constituency—they mean a lot to my constituents. I see among the people I speak to on the ground that there is massive take-up of the concessionary fee in my constituency.
The SmartPass concession does not benefit only the holder, does not simply help to combat rural or social isolation and is not merely a means to open up the transport network to those who are no longer able to drive, are widowed or have lost their driver through death or divorce, although all those things are worthy enough. I spoke to constituents yesterday on the doorsteps of Greyabbey—like other Members, I try to make contact with people regularly, and yesterday was an opportunity to do that when people were at home—and a number of them said to me, “I’ve lost my driver,” or, “I was friends with a person who lost their partner, and now they’re away.” The concessionary fee and the bus become a big part of those people’s lives. Concessionary and free bus passes connect us all to each other, and we must think long and hard before we alter that and introduce means-testing.
I say this cautiously, but for how much longer will we squeeze our middle classes—people who have worked all their lives? Will it be until they are brought to poverty the minute they retire and stop working? Surely they deserve to retire at some age, and we must attempt to protect this perk. I spoke to the Minister and her Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green), before the debate to remind them of the things I want them to focus on. The priority should be disabled people, vulnerable people and those who feel socially isolated. I believe that we could do something on the mainland. I know there would be a cost to that, but we cannot ignore the many benefits that would come off the back of it.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who spoke passionately and movingly about the progressive policies in Northern Ireland. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), who certainly did the bus proud in celebrating the 10th anniversary of concessionary bus passes. I am 57 years old, and I hope—if the Lord spares me—to get my own bus pass by the 20th anniversary. There is no greater joy in life than sitting on the front seat at the top of a double-decker bus, as I did this weekend. I must put on the record that, in my unbiased opinion, Keighley bus station is the friendliest in the United Kingdom.
The hon. Member for Strangford rightly said that conversations on buses can be frank. Having conversations we would not normally have is one of the great joys of travelling on buses. I left the House in 2010 and spent a number of years outside it. I used to get the little hopper bus—the 962—from Otley to Ilkley. I was the youngest person on that bus by far. A particular lady who was well into retirement shouted across the bus to me every week, “Have you got a proper job yet, love?” The whole bus was riveted by the progress of my career outside the House.
The question of means-testing comes up from time to time, but the evidence shows that concessionary bus passes are a progressive policy. They are used by the middle class, but they are used most by those who need them most. If I remember the statistics correctly, a 2016 Department for Transport study showed that people with an income of £10,000 or less make twice as many journeys as those who earn more than £20,000, and that non-drivers tend to use their concessionary pass about three times more than drivers. It is a progressive policy. A quarter of people, like the hon. Gentleman, do not use their bus pass, but that is self-selecting. I do not think people waste their bus passes, but those who need them most use them most.
We have heard a lot about loneliness. This policy—one of the Labour Government’s most progressive measures—was introduced in 2006 for local public transport in England and extended nationwide in 2008. To be frank, loneliness did not come into the debate very much at that time. However, as other hon. Members have put more powerfully than I can, whatever someone’s income and however many friends they have—even if they have nowhere to go—they can get on a bus and get out, do a bit of window shopping, have a few conversations and so on. That is wonderful, and I hope that all parties commit in their next manifestos to leaving the scheme unaltered.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about people making journeys almost for the sake of it, to keep up with friends or just to get out of the house, but around 25% of bus journeys by older people using concessionary bus passes are for medical appointments. Many of those people struggle with inaccessible or irregular bus services, as Age UK stated in its recent “Painful Journeys” report. Does he share my concern that those journeys are becoming increasingly difficult because of the number of bus routes that have been cut?
I do. As the number of bus routes is cut, the potential for journeys is cut. I think that is why there has been a slight but significant decline in the use of bus passes.
One of the great things about the scheme in 2008 was that it was universal in England. People over 60 knew that, wherever they went, they could travel on a bus for free. With the rise in the pension age and so on, that is no longer true. There is a patchwork of schemes across the country. As I understand it, London, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have put extra money into the scheme so that people over 60 can travel for free on buses. In the rest of the country, I think that is true only in Merseyside. The scheme, which was national in England, and indeed throughout the United Kingdom, is now broken, in the sense that people over 60 cannot be sure, unless they live in certain areas, that they can travel for free. That is a cause of resentment in areas of England outside London.
I will not divert too far into rail, but in some parts of England bus passes also give people rail concessions. Indeed, a number of years ago there was a revolt by so-called “freedom riders” against Sheffield City Council’s plans to abolish the rail concession completely. As in West Yorkshire, concessionary bus pass holders in South Yorkshire now get half fares on the railway, so there is that anomaly, too. I would like us to return to the idea that people over 60 can travel throughout England as of right, as they can in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, London and Merseyside.
I do not want to detain hon. Members for much longer, but it is worth looking at bus regulation and the Opposition’s plans for the under-25s. The politics of bus regulation is fascinating for those of us who were lucky enough to be in the House in 1997. If we are honest, even though the Labour Government were progressive in bringing in the concessionary fare scheme, they resisted bus regulation. We brought in a very complicated scheme of bus partnerships—it was almost impossible to jump through all the hoops—and we consulted on strengthening bus regulation only when we were out of office, because there was a lot of pressure, particularly from urban councils, to introduce it.
The current editor of the Evening Standard, George Osborne, then came along and wanted to do deals on devolution. What was the obvious thing he could offer to get Labour councils to sign up? Bus regulation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge said, it suddenly became fashionable in areas that were going to have Mayors. Then, lo and behold, some Tory shires thought, “We want a bit of this as well; we want to have a little bit more control of our buses,” hence we have the Bus Services Act 2017. We will have to see how that develops.
In theory, areas throughout England now have the potential to go for bus franchising. I have always thought that it is a very good idea, for the reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge outlined. I understand that we now have a policy on free bus travel for the under-25s, and I look forward to hearing the details. Whatever we decide to do must be properly costed to stand the rigours of a general election campaign, and I am sure that it will be, in time. I would like whatever we offer to be a national offer. Otherwise we shall be doing exactly what was done in the 1990s for the over-60s. There is a patchwork of schemes, depending on whether councils opt for bus regulation. I believe in devolution and in councils’ right to determine the best way forward, but in my humble opinion it would overcomplicate things to say that under-25 concessions should be given only in areas that adopt a particular model of bus franchising or ownership.
I want to end on a positive note. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge lifted our eyes to the horizon of what is possible, and talked about free public transport as a possibility in some areas. That is not an idea of just the left or green elements of European politics; Chancellor Merkel’s Administration are clearly looking, on grounds of air quality rather than anything else, at running some experiments with free public transport in places such as Bonn, in the west of Germany. In future, on environmental as well as social grounds, it will be well worth looking at those ideas—properly costed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) on securing the debate. We know that someone is passionate about a subject when they take the 9.30 slot after a bank holiday weekend; that is testament to his keenness. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan). He made an excellent speech, in which he outlined his own passion for the subject. I was curious to hear about his excitement at sitting in the front seat of a double-decker bus. It took me back to my schooldays, but then the measure of how cool we were was how far back in the bus we could sit. I never quite made it to the very back seat—that tells Members all they need to know. I am also curious to know whether the constituent he mentioned thinks he has a proper job yet. I suspect that most people think working in this House is not a proper job.
A strong theme came through about how successful concessionary bus pass schemes are in social terms, because they give people mobility and stop them being isolated. That brings further benefits, and different cost-benefit ratios were cited, but the higher figure of £3.79, against £1 spent on the bus pass scheme, is clearly a good thing. The discussion of middle-class people using the schemes brought to mind a curious thing that happened in Scottish politics. A Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition in Scotland brought in the concessionary bus pass scheme in 2006, and it has been successful. Now that it is administered by the Scottish National party, however, apparently the universal concessionary element is suddenly a bad thing. We hear comments such as, “Why should a millionaire get a bus pass?” I have not met too many millionaires on the buses I have used, but if a millionaire takes a bus, leaves their gas-guzzler car in the garage and mixes with normal people like you and me, that is clearly a good thing for social cohesion. The universal aspect is important and we need to stick to it. I think most Members today believe that.
I like the fact that the hon. Member for Cambridge highlighted where there is universal free public transport. It is something we should monitor. The example of Tallinn in Estonia shows what a small independent country can do when it puts its mind to something. That welcome example is something to bear in mind for the future.
It would not have been a debate if the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) had not spoken, so it was good to see him in his usual place. I must admit that the opening of his speech slightly disappointed me; I like to say how Scotland is first at everything, but he highlighted the fact that Northern Ireland brought in concessionary bus passes 17 years ago, and clearly it was the first part of the UK to do it. It is clearly a good thing, and we have all learned from that and introduced schemes. He gave a good personal example when he talked about his brother’s accident, and how having a bus pass enables him still to get out and about. That aligns in a way with the comments of the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), the Chair of the Transport Committee. She explained that many people use bus passes for medical appointments, and they can thus be a lifeline service. That lifeline must be protected.
The hon. Member for Cambridge suggested that in England there is something of a hotch-potch, with a variety of qualifying ages. For most people it aligns with pension age, which, as we know, is continuing to rise—it is mostly 66 for people in England. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, we have retained a qualifying age of 60, which is clearly a good thing. We know about the WASPI—Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign—women who have lost pension; they have suffered a double whammy, because they cannot retire when they want and they do not get free bus travel. They must wait longer for all their benefits, and that is a real shame. At least in other parts of the UK there is a slight mitigation for those women, because they can still have concessionary bus passes.
I personally consider Labour’s proposed scheme for free bus travel for the under-25s to be a good thing. There was a wee bit of friendly fire in the debate on the question of how well costed it might be, so it would be good to hear the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda), explain the costings. In Scotland we are looking at extending the scheme not universally to the under-25s, but to modern apprentices, to help young people get to work, so we are going somewhat in that direction. We also have free travel for under-25s if they are volunteers. It would be good to hear how a universal scheme for under-25s would operate.
This is the type of Westminster Hall debate where those who speak are mostly in agreement. We all agree that concessionary bus travel is a good thing that should not be eroded. The UK Government need to look at extending it along the lines we have heard about, and that certainly includes removing the link between eligibility age and pension age. There are clear benefits in reducing loneliness and promoting social cohesion, and of course there are cost benefits. To give one more example, in response to what the hon. Member for Strangford said about the middle class, I speak to people who could be called middle class who love using their bus pass in Scotland for travelling and going out and about. I am a big fan of Kilmarnock Football Club and some of those people use their bus passes to go to away matches. People may ask why middle-class people should do that, but it gets them out and about, and used to using buses. There are cost benefits, as we have heard, because they go to other places and spend money, buying meals and so on, which helps the economy more widely.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Ryan. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) and congratulate him on securing this important debate, and on his knowledgeable speech. He has been a consistent campaigner on transport issues for many years. I also thank other hon. Members for their many and varied contributions. The debate is indeed timely; as my hon. Friend mentioned, it is 10 years since the then Labour Government’s Concessionary Bus Travel Act 2007 introduced free off-peak travel on local buses, nationally, in April 2008. It is right to mark that milestone.
More journeys are made on buses than on any other form of public transport. Indeed, for many people buses are the only form of public transport available. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge correctly says that the research shows the enormous benefits that concessionary bus passes bring to older people. For example, although it also covers modes of transport other than buses, Transport for London’s freedom pass is aptly named: it gives older people the freedom to travel locally, it increases their access to services and activities, and it reduces loneliness. I am sure we all agree that is a good thing.
My hon. Friend is also right, however, that the funding for concessionary bus passes has been contentious. Although there is a statutory duty on local authorities to provide concessionary travel schemes for pensioners and disabled people in England, there is no ring-fenced money. At a time of growing austerity, local authorities have highlighted how funding cuts have forced them to divert money from other services to continue to support the concessionary fares scheme. A recent Local Government Association briefing estimated that there is a £200 million shortfall in the moneys paid by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government as a non-ring-fenced formula grant. I am afraid that is down to a failure by the Government in devolving the cuts, giving local authorities the responsibility to deliver services while not providing the resources, or the means for them to raise funds, for that delivery. The next Labour Government, however, have committed to enabling councils across the country to provide first-class bus services for all, by extending the powers to reregulate local bus services to all areas that want them.
We have also committed to supporting the creation of municipal bus companies: those publicly run for passengers and not for profit. Municipal companies often provide cheaper services. They have higher usage and, as a result, provide much better value, both to passengers and to local businesses and services. Firms such as Nottingham Transport Group, and Reading Buses in my constituency, are indeed a model for many other areas. We would also introduce regulations to designate and protect routes of critical community value, including those that serve schools, local hospitals and isolated settlements in rural areas.
Labour will always be on the side of pensioners and will work to ensure security and dignity for older people in retirement. In our last manifesto we committed to keeping free bus passes for older people as a universal benefit, which we believe is a right rather than a privilege. However, as has been mentioned, we would go further. We are committed to concessionary travel, and the next Labour Government will extend free bus travel to under-25s across the country, in a move that would benefit up to 13 million younger people. Young people and households with children have less disposable income than working-age adults or households without children. Young people tend to be in lower-paid and more insecure work and they spend a higher proportion of their income on travel. Free buses are therefore an investment in the future of our children and young people, through improving their access to education and work. As with older people, encouraging children and young people to lead more active lives has significant related public health benefits.
The next Labour Government will provide funds for free travel for under-25s for local authorities that introduce bus franchising, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (John Grogan), or move to public ownership of local services through municipalising buses. Labour will support and incentivise such local authorities, and local municipal bus services will be run for passengers and not for profit. Research shows that removing the profits that are extracted from the bus sector would achieve savings of £276 million per year for the taxpayer.
On savings for younger people, it has been noted that they would save up to £1,000 a year through free bus travel, which would generate a lifelong habit of using public transport. We will pay for that by using just one fifth of the revenue from the vehicle excise duty, which is currently ring-fenced for building new roads. We are committed to providing additional funds for new road building to support that policy through our other borrowing from central Government.
I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say about the policy, given her previous remarks that the scheme is undeliverable, despite the Welsh Conservatives proposing a similar policy last autumn, offering free bus travel for all 16 to 24-year-olds in Wales. Perhaps the Minister will explain why a policy of free bus travel is affordable for young people in Wales but not in England.
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge that the Minister’s announcement that the concessionary bus fare scheme is no longer subject to review is welcome. I am glad that he highlighted the immense value in our policy of free bus travel for under-25s, and I urge the Minister to join him in that.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) on securing this debate about concessionary bus passes, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan.
I am a little bit nervous that I am not dancing or doing cartwheels, and the hon. Gentleman wanted a lot of excitement. Nevertheless, he is right that this debate is very timely and I am delighted that we are here this morning to mark the national concessionary bus pass. Instead of my dancing and singing, the good news may be that I announced some legislation only last month to protect the national concessionary travel scheme in its current form. I know that this issue was raised by more than one Member, so the Government have demonstrated our commitment to making sure that we no longer have to review legislation every five years, and this scheme will now be protected. Surely no greater celebration than that is needed.
Buses are essential for many people to get to work, to school, to doctors, to hospitals and to shops. Also, many hon. Members have commented today on how buses help to tackle loneliness and aid cohesion. For many people, particularly those in rural areas such as my constituency, the bus is a lifeline and without it they would not be able to access essential services or go shopping and socialise, with over half of those who rely on buses having no access to cars.
As the Minister represents a rural area, does she share my concern about the fact that the number of bus miles being served is decreasing? In the last year alone, there has been a 13.8% decrease in mileage on local authority-supported services, which she will know are approximately a fifth of all services. What will the Government do to address that decline in supported services?
Bus services in rural areas are a concern —especially in my constituency of Wealden—when we are dealing with an older population and people who might not have access to cars. However, this issue is complicated; it is not just about making sure that there is more money available. Funding is available through the £250 million grant that supports bus services, and the bus service operators grant, with £40 million going directly to local authorities. It is also about making buses accessible and easier to use. I will go on to discuss the other things that we are doing to make buses a far more attractive way to travel, in one’s own constituency let alone across the country.
Before that, however, I will just go on to another issue that the hon. Lady raised, which was loneliness. As part of the Prime Minister’s commitment to deliver a national strategy on loneliness, a ministerial group has been set up: I sit on that group as the representative of the Department for Transport. I am a passionate campaigner—even if I am not doing the cartwheels that the hon. Member for Cambridge wanted—for explaining and sharing how buses are vital in tackling loneliness and helping cohesion.
The benefits of a reliable and innovative bus service are clear—less congestion, greater productivity, and communities that are connected rather than being kept apart. However, we need more people to benefit from buses. That is why we introduced the Bus Services Act 2017, which provides local authorities with new powers to bring about change and unlock the potential for the bus industry to achieve more for passengers than it does today.
That includes a range of powers to introduce franchising or enhanced partnerships, with guidance on how local authorities and bus operators can work together to improve bus services in their area. These could include multi-operator tickets, improved vehicle standards and better connections between transport modes, employment and housing, all of which will drive an increase in bus usage and performance.
That is also why, as I mentioned earlier, last month I announced a change in legislation to protect the national concessionary travel scheme in its current form, so that it can continue to provide free travel for elderly and disabled passengers for years to come. It has been noted that the scheme has a value of £1 billion for 10 million people, which means 929 million concessionary bus journeys, or, on average, 95 bus journeys being taken per bus pass.
The concession provides much-needed help for some of the most vulnerable people in society, offering them greater freedom, independence and a lifeline to their community. It enables around 10 million older and disabled people to access facilities in their local area, and helps them to keep in touch with family and friends. It also has benefits for the wider economy, which was a point made earlier.
The national concession sets a minimum standard available to any eligible person anywhere in England, but of course it does not come cheap. That is why, given the current economic situation, there are no plans to extend the remit of the basic concession any further. However, local authorities have the powers to enhance the offer with discretionary concessions, according to local need and funding priorities. That may include extending the times when concessions are available to include peak-time travel, offering a companion pass for people who need assistance to travel, and offering concessions on different modes of transport. Some 71% of local authorities offer further concessions for elderly and disabled passengers. In Cambridgeshire, there are concessions for the elderly and the disabled before 9.30 am and after 11 pm.
Encouraging bus use among the elderly and the disabled is about more than just concessions. We are doing a lot to make buses more accessible. I draw attention to the comments made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on dealing with disability in his family and accessibility. On occasion, when I am allowed to leave this place, I am a carer for my parents, who both have very different disability needs. I know full well the occasional difficulties of being unable to understand which buses are running on which routes when dealing with people with different disabilities.
I will say more about accessibility later, but the hon. Gentleman will know that the Equality Act 2010 requires the bus industry to ensure that buses are as accessible as possible for disabled passengers. Recently we also made announcements to make it clear that priority seating should be for people in wheelchairs. Since 2016, all buses have been required to meet minimum standards, with low-floor access. From March this year, all drivers are required to complete disability awareness training. The next step will be to ensure that all buses have audio-visual announcements, so that people with hearing or visual impairments have confidence that the bus they take will work for them. We plan to consult on those proposals this summer.
I welcome audio-visual announcements. I am one of the MPs who backed the “Talking Buses” campaign by Guide Dogs. Can the Minister give a clearer timescale for when audio-visual information will be mandatory on buses?
We have had the action accessibility plan, which we will respond to shortly—within the month.[Official Report, 10 May 2018, Vol. 640, c. 10MC.] We are working with the Royal National Institute of Blind People and the charity Guide Dogs. We meet regularly with them to talk about how we can make the information available on all our buses, and in the most appropriate form. Unfortunately, during a trial some passengers complained that too much information was being given out all the time, and that occasionally the wrong information was given out. We are working on that with all the charities involved with people with visual impairments.
The hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) has talked about concessions for younger people on several occasions. I draw attention to the comments made by the hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan) that any concessions or free bus service available for younger people has to be financially robust and stand up to the rigour of examination. The Government recognise that public transport is of particular importance to young people, and that the cost of travel can cause difficulty for those seeking education, training or employment opportunities. That is why a trial extension of discounted rail travel for 26 to 30-year-olds has recently been announced. That industry-led initiative to gather evidence on a full roll-out has seen a 100% take-up. The first phase of the trial saw 10,000 railcards sold across Greater Anglia, including Cambridge.
As I mentioned, local authorities have the powers to offer travel concessions on buses to local residents, and there are many examples of that for groups such as students. As part of the Bus 18 partnership between operators and West Yorkshire combined authority, there are half-price tickets for young people up to the age of 19, and pupils wearing their school uniform will no longer have to show a half-fare bus pass. In Liverpool, the voluntary bus alliance between Merseytravel, Arriva and Stagecoach has seen a flat fare of £1.80 for young people, with growth of 140% in bus travel by young people, as well as overall passenger growth of 16%. In Hertfordshire, young people aged 11 to 18 can pay £15 for a card that entitles them to half-price fares on local services.
There is more to encouraging bus use than cost alone. A recent report by Transport Focus found that young people want better access to information about buses. That is why we introduced powers through the Bus Services Act 2017 to require operators to provide better information on fares, timetables and when the next bus will arrive. In addition, a national scheme such as that in place for older and disabled people would require a change to primary legislation, but there are no plans to do that presently. The hon. Member for Reading East will appreciate that this is a complex area and there are no quick and easy solutions. The Department continues to work with local authorities and bus operators on young people’s travel.
I return to the comments made by the hon. Member for Keighley on the robust nature of the budget put forward for free bus travel for the under 25s. Labour originally calculated that policy to cost more than £1 billion, but unfortunately, the numbers were later calculated to be closer to £13 billion. At the moment, that has not reached robust investigation in Westminster Hall.
I thank the Minister for her support and praise for local discounted schemes. I want to raise the report by University College London, “Social prosperity for the future: A proposal for Universal Basic Services”. Although we are not proposing this—perhaps to the disappointment of my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner)—the research by University College London estimates the possible cost of free bus travel for every person in the UK to be £5 billion per year. That suggests that the Minister’s estimate of £13 billion is somewhat excessive. Our estimate of £1.3 billion has been costed carefully.
The hon. Gentleman started at £1.3 billion and then moved on to £5 billion, which possibly could reach £13 billion—I am a little nervous about the true figure. We already have a concessionary programme that costs £1 billion. To announce something as available without it having been costed would do the bus industry no service.
The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) mentioned apprentices; the Department is considering concession options for apprentices and is completing research on a feasibility study. We will report on that later this year and it will inform the development of the policy. There are no plans to fund such a scheme but we will see what the feasibility study concludes.
Reimbursement by local authorities to bus operators is made on a “no better off, no worse off” basis. The hon. Member for Cambridge noted that reimbursement appeals have been in decline and have reached a new low. In 2006-07, there were 69 appeals, but in 2017-18 there were just 21. That means that operators are fairly recompensed for the cost of providing concessionary travel in both urban and rural areas. The reimbursement mechanism is now fit for purpose, as shown by the large fall in reimbursement appeals in recent years. EU state aid rules do not allow the Government to provide the concessionary scheme on any other basis—it cannot be used to provide hidden subsidy to operators.
Much has been said about the increase in pension age; the state pension age of men and women is being equalised. The pensionable age for women has risen gradually to reach 65 this year, and the state pension age for both men and women will rise to 66 by 2020. Equalising the age at which free bus travel applies makes the national travel concession scheme more sustainable. Finding efficiencies in this way rather than cutting back on the entitlement offer to older and disabled people is the best way to focus support on those who need it most.
It is right that Government support focuses on the most vulnerable members of society. The Government believe that local authorities are often in the best position to offer concessions that work for the people who live there. All local authorities have powers to introduce concessions in addition to their statutory obligations, including the extension of concessionary travel to those who are yet to reach the qualifying age. For example, in Cambridgeshire, the largest operator offers half-price travel to jobseekers.
I return to the point raised by the hon. Member for Cambridge about securing funding for concessionary travel schemes, which sit across many Departments. He was right to note that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is responsible for the concessionary travel budget. The Treasury is jointly responsible for local authority ring-fencing. I work with all those Departments to ensure that we get the best that we can for bus services. We have just agreed a further two-year ring-fence for the local authority element of the bus service operators grant for the next two years.
The hon. Member for Cambridge also mentioned franchising; he will be aware that any local authority can request franchising, but will need to demonstrate delivery capability and a track record of doing so. We will see how that pans out.
I want to quickly talk about air quality and congestion, which was raised by the Chair of the Transport Committee, the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood). We have recently made some good announcements on that. The Government are committed to buses being greener, which is why we announced an extra £48 million for ultra low emission buses. That follows £30 million in funding for 300 new buses through a low emission bus scheme and £40 million for retrofitting 2,700 older buses to reduce tail-pipe emissions of nitrogen dioxide through the clean bus technology fund. We are trying to make journeys easier and more accessible, and to ensure that the concessionary bus pass remains in place.
I hope that I have demonstrated that the Government are committed to protecting the national concessionary travel scheme for buses. We are keen to do what we can to improve bus service patronage. Of course, I will meet with the hon. Member for Cambridge if he has good evidence of best practice, especially of initiatives that have taken place in other countries that we can use here, and especially if they involve new, innovative technology, to learn as much as we can to ensure that the Department is doing what it can to increase bus patronage.
We are determined to ensure that bus patronage increases as much as it can, and we are focused on delivering concessions to those who need it most, while allowing local authorities and operators the flexibility they need to support their local populations. It was interesting to hear that, as we get older, we migrate from the front of the bus to the back of the bus, and then to the front of the bus again. Hopefully, we can all wait our turn until we get hold of our concessionary bus pass. Some will have to wait a little longer than others, but it will definitely be there, once we reach our old age.
I thank all hon. Members for the positive and constructive tone of the debate. I commend the Minister for her enthusiasm for the national concessionary fares scheme, which I hope will take it out of the political arena in future. For many older people, it has been a cause for concern but, if I understand what she is saying, we no longer need to have any concern about it.
A couple of points came out of the debate, such as universalism and means testing, as raised by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). It is fair to say that that debate ran through the Labour Government years. I think it has shifted in favour of universalism, and I hope it continues to, for all the reasons that hon. Members mentioned, such as bringing society together. There is an old adage that services for the poor produce poor services, but if they are universal services, they will be better services. That case has been particularly well made in terms of transport.
In the wise words of the Chair of the Transport Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), the concern is the declining availability of buses in too many areas. Having a bus pass without a bus is no use to anybody. In some of my wider reflections about how we could make better use of the public money that is spent, I was trying to suggest how to reverse what has seemed to many of us to be a sad decline. We all want my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (John Grogan) to enjoy the view from the front of his bus, but I suspect that if many more young people were on that bus, whether they were sitting at the front or the back, there would be more chance of having it. I commend Labour’s policies to the Minister and I suspect, over time, that we may well see progress.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered concessionary bus passes.
Children Missing from Care Homes
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered children missing from care homes.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. One of the first Adjournment debates I initiated in this House in 1995 was on the subject of children’s homes. I am pleased to say that since that time, there have been many improvements in regulation and inspection. In 2012, the all-party parliamentary group for runaway and missing children and adults, which I chair, held an inquiry into the risks faced by children missing from care homes. The inquiry expressed serious concerns about the high numbers of vulnerable children living away from their home town, some at a considerable distance. We heard evidence that children living in distant placements in children’s homes were more likely to go missing and therefore at higher risk of physical and sexual abuse, criminality and homelessness. I must make it clear that I of course accept that placing a child in another area can sometimes be in that child’s interest. My concern is that children are being placed in children’s homes out of their local area because there is no choice in provision.
Ministers responded positively to our report and introduced a number of changes in 2013 to try to reduce the number of out-of-area placements, but despite repeated pledges the latest Department for Education figures show that the numbers in placements subject to children’s homes regulations have soared from 2,250 in March 2012 to 3,680 in March 2017—a rise of 64%. They now account for 61% of all children in children’s homes.
At the same time, the number of children going missing from children’s homes out of their area increased by 110% between 2015 and 2017. That compares with a 68% increase in children going missing from children’s homes in their own area. Some 10,700 children went missing from all care placements last year, initiating 60,720 reports, of which 12,200 missing episodes, or one in five, were from placements 20 miles or more from their home address.
On average, children go missing from all care placements six times per year. About 40% of all missing incidents involved a child from a children’s home, despite the fact that they only account for 8% of all looked-after children. It is extremely concerning that nationally about 500 children were missing for more than one month in 2017, and 4,770 were missing for between three and seven days. Children who go missing are at risk of coming to harm and falling prey to grooming by paedophiles for sexual exploitation and by organised crime gangs exploiting them to carry and supply illegal drugs in county lines operations.
Figures for my own area of Stockport show that 53% of children reported as missing in April this year were at risk of child sexual exploitation and 65% of children who went missing from Stockport care homes were placed from other authorities. The report of the expert group on the quality of children’s homes set up by the Department for Education in 2012 said that,
“being placed a long way from family and friends is often a factor in causing children to run away.”
Those children are also more likely to be targeted for sexual exploitation, as has been highlighted in cases in Rotherham, Derby, Torbay, Rochdale and Oxfordshire.
The last Labour Government placed a duty on local authorities to secure sufficient accommodation for looked-after children in the local authority area, so far as is “reasonably practicable”. The intention was to ensure local provision for looked-after children, so that they could be placed nearer to home, with access to friends, family and support services. Local authorities are required to publish a local sufficiency plan detailing how they are meeting that duty. However, despite the existence of these plans, the number of children being sent to live away from their home area remains stubbornly high.
One of the main conclusions of our 2012 inquiry into children missing from care was that the unequal geographical distribution of children’s homes meant that large numbers of vulnerable children were placed away from their home area. We found that many placement decisions were made at the last minute, driven by what was available at the time, and in some cases by cost, rather than by the needs of the child. Children told our inquiry that they felt dumped in children’s homes many miles away from home, which increases their propensity to go missing.
One of the expert group’s conclusions was that local authorities must improve the planning, management and monitoring of placements for looked-after children. Introducing the Children and Families Bill in February 2013, the then Children’s Minister, Edward Timpson, called for an end to the out of sight, out of mind culture, which he asserted had led to the high number of children being placed many miles from their home communities.
In January 2014, new statutory guidance on children who run away or go missing from home or care stated:
“Any decision to place a child at distance should be based on an assessment of the child’s needs including their need to be effectively safeguarded. Evidence suggests that distance from home, family and friends is a key factor for looked after children running away.”
An April 2014 Ofsted report, “From a distance: Looked after children living away from their home area”, said these children were more likely to go missing and to submit to the serious risks associated with going missing. The research showed that, in far too many cases, local authorities failed to pay appropriate attention to the quality of care provided, leaving too many children without the support and help that they needed. The most common shortfall was that decisions to place children out of area were driven by a shortage of placements close to home, rather than by individual need.
In 2016, the all-party group produced a report on safeguarding absent children. The inquiry obtained data from local authorities that suggested that—in the areas that responded to information requests—an average of 50% of missing looked-after children were children who went missing from placements outside their home area.
The National Crime Agency’s 2017 report into county lines drug operations said that gangs were deliberately targeting vulnerable children and young people in care. It said:
“Children assessed as vulnerable due to missing episodes do appear to be more regularly linked directly or through association to drug networks operating in the areas they reside.”
I recently surveyed all 45 police forces about the use of vulnerable children by drug gangs with county lines operations. Many forces, including Humberside and Essex, cited evidence of the targeting of vulnerable children in care—especially those living away from their home areas.
I congratulate the hon. Lady both on the great work she has done in this area over many years and on securing the debate. Does she agree that the one thing that children in care need most is stability? In instances in which children have to be removed from their parents, we should attempt to preserve stability in as many other facets of their life as possible. If we leave them isolated, they can fall prey to exactly the sort of malign influences that she describes.
I absolutely agree. The hon. Gentleman has put his finger on it: children need stability. They need it when they live in families and also when we take them into our care. We should remember that and plan a care a system that responds to that need for stability, taking into account what children say they need as well.
The other aspect I am concerned about, which I highlighted during a previous Adjournment debate on children’s homes in April 2016, is the continuing unequal distribution of children’s homes. Some 54% of all children’s homes are concentrated in just three regions. Nearly a quarter of all care homes, but only 18% of the children’s home population, are in the north-west of England. Conversely, London has only 5% of children’s homes, but 14% of the children’s home population.
The choice of placements for children is constrained by the uneven distribution of children’s homes. Children can be placed only where there are children’s homes. The care market does not seem to be working for children: an increasing number are being placed outside their home area, and consequently an increasing number are going missing and are at risk of harm from those who seek to exploit their vulnerability.
The unequal distribution of children’s homes demonstrates a continuing catastrophic failure of the care market for some children. The system seems to work for the providers, but not for the children. The failure of the care market can be demonstrated vividly by the 2017 north-west placements census. Placements Northwest is a regional children’s service that assists the 22 local authorities in the north-west that make out-of-authority placements. It said in its recent report:
“There remain many young people from the North West placed outside the region, in part because of the 693 beds located here taken up by young people from the rest of the country.”
There has been a significant and unprecedented increase in the number of externally purchased residential placements, which have risen to 836 active placements, up from 646 in 2016. This has resulted in an estimated increase in spend of £45 million between 2016 and 2017, from £95.5 million to £145 million—
“a very significant and unsustainable increase in the spend on residential services driven by increased consumption and increased unit cost of individual placements”.
For the first time, the cost of some homes has hit £5,000 per week per child, which now applies in 9% of placements. Placements Northwest maintains that the increased mismatch between demand and supply is a driver in the increased costs. It adds that the costs of residential placements seem inconsistent between providers and purchasing decisions, and that they are often led by available capacity rather than clinical social work decisions about what is best for the young person.
In his independent review of children’s residential care in England, which was published in 2016, Sir Martin Narey said:
“Certainly, too much of what I saw and heard was really about buying places in children’s homes, not about commissioning them.”
That is an important statement, because commissioning is about ensuring that there are places where they are needed, not simply placing children randomly where there happens to be a place.
Edward Timpson, the former Minister for Children and Families, said in his response to the debate on children’s homes in 2016 that he shared concerns about uneven distribution of children’s homes and that he wanted to see more regional commissioning. He said:
“there are still instances where the supply of places distorts too many decisions.”—[Official Report, 19 April 2016; Vol. 608, c. 131WH.]
I welcome the setting up of the new residential care leadership board under the chairmanship of Sir Alan Wood. Sir Martin Narey said that it could improve commissioning and obtain better value for money for local authorities, and will look into out-of-borough placements. I hope the Minister will give the House some information about its progress.
We also need a better understanding of the relationship between out-of-borough placements and children going missing. For example, a child could be placed more than 20 miles away from their home but could still be inside their local authority’s boundary, whereas a child could be placed five miles away but be in another local authority’s area. Is the problem distance, or the fact that it is more difficult to support a child who lives in another council’s area? What matters to children? Is the quality of placement a mitigating factor? I do not know the answer, but it is alarming that nobody else seems to, either.
This is a complex area. Each child’s needs are unique. Of course, it is not always possible to find the perfect placement, but if the evidence collected over the years is correct that distance and being placed away from home are factors in children’s going missing from care homes, it cannot be right that in spite of that evidence, concerns about such placements and an increasing understanding of the risks of harm to children when they go missing, more children are being placed out of their home area than in 2012.
The Department for Education collects data about the number of children’s homes, children placed in them, and out-of-borough and distance placements, and it collects a lot of comprehensive data about children going missing from children’s homes. The situation is much improved, compared with 2012. However, it would be helpful if the Department could bring that data together in a more accessible form—perhaps in a yearly datapack.
Ofsted also collects data about children missing from children’s homes at each full inspection to inform its lines of inquiry for that specific inspection, which include whether the child was living out of borough. Although that information is not published, it is a potential source for understanding the patterns of children going missing.
It is very difficult for individual local authorities to be commissioners of children’s homes because they simply do not have the financial clout. Of course, they can be direct providers, which would give them much more ability to provide the care needed by their looked-after children. Devolution offers Greater Manchester combined authority an opportunity to commission on a regional basis. However, the DFE needs to offer support to regional commissioners to help them to develop a framework for commissioning the provision of children’s home places where they work best for children. Perhaps the Minister could tell us more about that work.
The innovative “Achieving Change Together” project in Rochdale and Wigan, which was funded by the Department for Education, demonstrated a successful alternative approach. It invested in social workers and worked with young people on the edge of care to keep them in their communities and families, which is much better than placing them in distant children’s homes and secure units. Perhaps that is a way forward—there has to be one.
If we take on responsibility for the care of the most vulnerable children and young people, we have a responsibility to keep them safe. The evidence suggests that that is not happening: an increasing number are being placed in children’s homes outside their home area, and an increasing number are going missing from those homes and coming to harm. Children’s homes need to meet the needs of children. If locality is an issue for children, local authorities and Government need to respond to that need proactively to ensure that change happens and their needs are met.
I commend the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing this important debate. The Government share her commitment to protecting all looked-after children by giving them a stable, loving environment where they can succeed and achieve the outcomes we would all want for our own children. I also commend my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) on his previous work and on his ongoing work, now as a parliamentarian. His is a committed and serious expert voice.
I share the hon. Lady’s concerns about placing children far away from home. However, we recognise that, for very specialist provision, a child may sometimes need to be further away from home. In addition, as she rightly points out, sometimes circumstances make it the right decision for a local authority to identify a placement outside of the child’s local area, such as when a child is at risk from sexual exploitation, trafficking or gang violence, which she spoke about eloquently.
I fully recognise that placing a child far away from home can break family ties and make it difficult for social workers and other services to provide the support a young person needs. I have first-hand experience of speaking to a child about his personal problems when he was placed too far away from his mother, who is clearly very loving but was unable to provide the safety he needed, which meant he had to run away. It is also in many ways unsettling for children—the hon. Lady is right that it increases the likelihood of them going missing from care.
The needs of the child must be paramount when we make decisions about the right care placement. As the hon. Lady rightly described, local authorities have a duty to consider the right placements for the child and take into consideration a number of factors, one of which is placement area. However, there must be effective planning and oversight of the decision. The hon. Lady will be aware from earlier discussions that my Department has worked closely with local authorities through the Association of Directors of Children’s Services to strengthen legislative safeguards relating to children being placed out of area. Directors of children’s services must approve all decisions to place a child in a distant placement. That directive encompasses all placements that are more than 20 miles away from the child’s home address. Ofsted will also challenge local authorities where they believe poor decisions on out-of-area placements are being made.
As the hon. Lady rightly points out, far too often local authorities are unable to find the right care placement in the right location to meet a child’s needs. Local authorities remain responsible for ensuring a sufficient range of placements for looked-after children and for working with their local providers to make sure that provision meets the needs of the young people living in that area. Sir Martin Narey pointed out in his review of residential care that there is value in local authorities coming together to fulfil those responsibilities so that they can jointly commission and address gaps in provision. That is why we are providing almost £5 million in innovation programme funding to test new commissioning arrangements that bring local authorities and providers together to achieve better outcomes and improve the experiences of looked-after children. The projects being funded are in and around London, where demand for places far outstrips supply.
To deliver the degree of change needed, all those involved in the commissioning and provision of care in children’s homes will need to work together. Only by working in partnership will we be able to tackle the trickiest issues and deliver a sustained improvement in the quality of care for the country’s most vulnerable children. That is why we are also setting up a residential care leadership board, chaired by Sir Alan Wood, so that sector leaders and practitioners can come and work together to drive improvements in commissioning and address gaps in provision. The board will engage with the wider sector to support the development of new approaches and ensure that best practice is shared and implemented.
For a small number of very vulnerable children, a secure home is the best environment and can address why they go missing from care. We are improving the availability of this provision in partnership with ADCS, the Local Government Association, the Youth Custody Service and the Secure Accommodation Network. That work is also being driven by Sir Alan Wood, the chair of the residential care leadership board. We are considering the best long-term commissioning arrangements for secure homes and looking at options to build local capacity. In the interim, we continue to fund Hampshire County Council’s secure welfare co-ordination unit. Through that unit, we have established a central point of contact and source of support for all local authorities seeking secure placements. We continue to invest in the secure estate with our £40 million capital programme over this spending review period.
We have made it a requirement of all children’s homes to have clear procedures in place to prevent children from going missing. The statutory guidance empowers homes to challenge local authorities where they are not providing the input and services a child needs, which include offering an independent return-home interview to a child after a missing episode, which could help to inform care planning and reduce the risk of repeat missing episodes.
In addition to Ofsted’s inspection of individual children’s homes, Ofsted’s local authority inspections always report on the responses of local authorities and their partners to missing incidents, highlighting good practice and identifying specific areas for improvement. Since 2013 the Department has published guidance on protocols regarding how and when Ofsted can share information on the location of children’s homes with the police—a positive development, I believe, that is pivotal to ensuring that children in care are robustly protected.
When children go missing they can be vulnerable to threats that include criminal exploitation and sexual abuse, and no child should have their life blighted by that abhorrent crime. That is why the Government’s “Tackling child sexual exploitation” report, and the follow-up progress report of February 2017, set out a national response to child sexual exploitation. We have boosted capacity and expertise in local areas that experience high volumes of child sexual exploitation by funding a CSE response unit, and we have introduced a new definition of child sexual exploitation, and practice guidance for professionals. We have also funded projects through the children’s social care innovation programme, such as the St Christopher’s Fellowship Safe Steps project, which is targeted specifically at children in care who are at risk of sexual exploitation. In addition, the £7.5 million centre of expertise on CSA, which is funded by the Home Office, is introducing evidence of what works to prevent and tackle child sexual abuse and exploitation.
We are working collaboratively to ensure that key partners in health professions and children’s social care are trained to identify and refer young people who are involved in criminal exploitation, such as the county lines mentioned by the hon. Lady. We are undertaking a nationwide awareness raising communication activity about the threat of county lines targeted at young and vulnerable people, including advice on how to avoid becoming involved with and exploited by gangs. I sit on the Home Secretary’s taskforce that seeks to tackle this scourge.
Again, I thank the hon. Member for Stockport for securing this debate, and I express my immense gratitude for the relentless passion and commitment that she has demonstrated over many years in her capacity as chair of the all-party group for runaway and missing children and adults, and for her wider advocacy for the wellbeing of children in care. Although I recognise the ongoing challenges, I am keen that we do not let them detract from the fact that children’s homes do a sterling job of caring for some of the most vulnerable children and young people. Residential care continues to remain a vital part of the children’s social care landscape.
The hon. Lady raised important issues, and the steps we are taking will support local authorities in addressing gaps in provision and ensure that the needs of young people are met in the right care placement. Our underpinning principle, as set out in the Children Act 1989, remains that the interests of the child are paramount, and that must be reflected in all decisions about individual children’s care.
The hon. Lady mentioned data. Since 2014, local authorities have collected data on every incident of a child going missing, not only those missing for more than 24 hours, which has been a massive improvement. I remind Members, however, that those data continue to be experimental, and in 2018 we will seek to ensure that the data are robust and can be presented in a form that will allow the hon. Lady and her colleagues rightly to challenge us all the time, and to challenge local authorities to do better. I will soon visit Manchester—I hoped that it would be this week, but alas departmental duties mean that I have had slightly to postpone the trip. I want to see the opportunities for Greater Manchester, where 10 local authorities can work together to have a commissioning strategy that works properly for children in that area.
Question put and agreed to.
As the Member in charge of the next debate has been caught in traffic and is not here, we are unable to start it. I am afraid I shall have to suspend the sitting, without the debate, until 1 o’clock.
We now come to a debate about progress on the Government’s skills strategy, in which we will hear from the former skills Minister and the present one.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered progress on the Government’s skills strategy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. One thing that has remained remarkably consistent as I have spoken to business leaders in my constituency over many years is that, when I ask them what they look for in their future workforce, their answer does not often focus on exam certificates. They want individuals who have a good attitude and are good communicators, excellent problem solvers and strong team players. Yet, barely a day goes by without a story in the news about skills shortages in one sector or another.
It is a drain on our economy and our society that job vacancies cannot be filled because employers are unable to find the right skilled individuals. That is not just a challenge to productivity and prosperity; skills are a social justice issue too—perhaps the central one. When we look at the overwhelming number of senior leaders who were privately educated—I am lucky to be one of them—it is not so much their exam results that got them where they are today, but the connections they were able to make and the networks and team-working skills they developed. If we are serious about social justice, it is our duty to afford those opportunities to all young people.
Since the closure of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, no single organisation has had responsibility for monitoring skills shortages and sharing information about them, so I was delighted when the Edge Foundation stepped forward to form an analysis group, bringing together key organisations in the area. I pay tribute to the foundation’s chair, Lord Baker. The first in a regular series of its bulletin is published today, and it makes for challenging reading—I will happily ensure that copies are available to Members.
The British Chambers of Commerce report says that 60% of services firms and 69% of manufacturing firms experience recruitment difficulties.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Culham Science Centre in my constituency? It has got together an apprenticeship hub that specialises in providing high-tech engineering apprenticeships for local people, and it has transformed how local firms react to those skills.
My hon. Friend is a champion of skills and apprenticeships, and the Culham laboratory is exactly what we need to build up our skills base and address our skills deficit. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and to the organisation he mentions.
Shortages of skilled manual labour in manufacturing remain at their highest level since records began. That concern is echoed by the CBI, whose education and skills survey last year showed that the number of businesses that are not confident about being able to hire enough skilled labour is twice that of those that are confident. Reducing the skills shortages must be a key aim of our skills strategy and a barometer of its success.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on bringing the issue to Westminster Hall. Northern Ireland has a very strong education and IT skills system, which has been key in creating jobs and attracting new business. Does he feel that the Government should be encouraged to look to Northern Ireland as an example of how a skills strategy can be brought together? There are good examples there. Let us use what is good in the rest of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to benefit us all.
The hon. Gentleman is a great champion of skills. We can learn a lot from Northern Ireland’s incredibly high education standards. I am sure we have a lot to learn from the skills and the IT that he has just mentioned.
I recognise that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills has her work cut out because, as the skills strategy is implemented, the economy is changing rapidly. Driverless vehicles will automate road haulage and taxi operations. Artificial intelligence will power medical diagnosis, and 3D printing will be used to construct bridges and houses. Our skills strategy needs to not only address the skills shortages in our economy, but create our most resilient and adaptable generation of young people. They will need to be able to turn their hands to new careers and demonstrate the human skills such as creativity that robots cannot master.
CBI research shows that the biggest drivers of success for young people are attitudes and attributes such as resilience, enthusiasm and creativity. Although 86% of businesses rated attitude, and 68% aptitude, as a top attribute, only 34% said the same of formal qualifications. The Department for Education’s own employer perspectives survey showed that more than half of employers said that academic qualifications were of little or no value when recruiting, while two thirds said that work experience was significant or critical. Yet in the same survey just 58% of businesses said that 18-year-old school leavers in England were prepared for work. That is a key blocker to social justice and a gap that must be addressed through the skills strategy.
Before they are delivered into the care of the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills, young people have already received more than a decade of education in school. As I said in the House only a couple of weeks ago, I am convinced that the quality of education, particularly in English and maths, has improved greatly in recent years. Yet despite record overall levels of public money going into schools, the skills shortages in our economy have been growing. Clearly, something has become disconnected in the wiring between our schools and our skills systems.
Four key steps would build on the strength of the knowledge-rich curriculum to ensure that it fosters young people who are also skills-rich and behaviours-rich—the areas that employers say they value most. First, we must remember that since 2015 all young people have been required to participate in some form of education and training up to 18. Yet GCSEs remain just as much the high-stakes tests they were when many young people finished their education at that age. We must fundamentally reimagine this phase of education as a time for our younger people to prepare themselves for their future life and work. At a time when we can extend the ladder of social justice to young people from all backgrounds, broadening their horizons, building their skills and helping them develop the social capital that will take them far, we have an opportunity for that phase of education to end in a much more holistic and comprehensive assessment—a true baccalaureate. Just as the international baccalaureate does in more than 149 countries, this would act as a genuine and trusted signal to employers and universities of a young person’s rounded skills and abilities.
Secondly, we must match the broader phase of education with a broader and more balanced curriculum. I support the need for every young person to be able to access through their schooling a working knowledge of our cultural capital, our history and our literature. However, it is also essential that we develop the next generation of engineers, entrepreneurs and designers. A narrow focus on academic GCSEs is driving out the very subjects that most help us to do that. Entrants in design and technology have fallen by more than two fifths since 2010, alongside reductions in creative subjects such as music and the performing arts—the very skills that will give young people an edge over the robots. There is a real danger that no matter how hard the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills works to make skills a success post 16, young people who have never experienced anything but an academic diet up to that age will be unable to compete for an apprenticeship or even progress to a T-level.
Thirdly, I often speak about the importance of careers advice, and it is vital, but we must go further and create deep connections between the world of education and the world of work that inspire and motivate young people. I am talking about employers providing externships so that teachers can experience local businesses and provide first-hand advice to their pupils, collaborating on projects that bring the curriculum to life and sharing real-world challenges to help students to develop their problem-solving skills. That kind of profound employer engagement strikes right at the heart of the social justice debate: it gives young people from all backgrounds the kinds of experiences, contacts and networks that have traditionally been the preserve of those attending elite institutions. We should merge the duplicate careers organisations into a national skills service that goes into schools and ensures that students have the opportunity to do skills-based careers.
Fourthly, we must acknowledge that what we measure affects what is delivered in the education system. Therefore, we should start to measure explicitly what really matters—the destinations of young people who attend our schools and colleges. At present, destination measures are seen as no more than a footnote in performance tables. We need to move destination measures front and centre, giving school leaders and teachers the freedom to deliver the outcomes that we want for our young people.
I had the pleasure last month of meeting senior education leaders from Nashville, Tennessee. Ten years ago, Nashville’s high schools had very poor rates of graduation, and businesses were clear that they were not receiving the skilled labour that they needed. They set about working intensively with the school board to revolutionise the system. In the first year of their high school experience, young people have the opportunity to take part in intensive careers exploration: through careers fairs, mentoring, visits and job research, they broaden their horizons and understand the full range of opportunities available. For the remainder of their time at high school, they join a career academy, which uses a particular sector of the local economy as a lens to make their schoolwork more relevant and engaging. Young people in the law academy learn debating skills by running mock trials, while those in the creative academy are mentored by lighting designers, who help them to understand the relevance of angles, fractions and programming in the real world.
The results are extraordinary. High school graduation has risen by more than 23% in 10 years, adding more than $100 million to the local economy. Attainment in maths and English has improved by as much as 15% to 20% as young people see the relevance of their work. Leading schools in the UK are already starting to show that similar approaches work just as well here. They range from School 21 in Stratford, where employer engagement is its ninth GCSE, to XP School in Doncaster, whose innovative expeditionary learning Ofsted has judged as outstanding across the board.
The planned programme of skills reforms can be a success only if it goes hand in hand with a schools system that is equally focused on preparing young people for work and adult life. I would encourage the Ministers responsible for skills and for schools to work closely together on that shared aim. I have no doubt that T-levels can provide great opportunities for young people to prepare for a successful career, and I am impatient to see them on the ground, having a tangible impact on young people’s lives. I would encourage the skills Minister to learn from some of our most prestigious apprenticeship employers and attach a rocket booster to the programme, but sometimes I wonder whether there is really a need at age 16 for young people to choose between a wholly academic route and a wholly technical route. Might many young people benefit from a more blended opportunity?
An excellent model exists north of the border in Scotland’s foundation apprenticeships, which are the same size as a single Scottish higher and can be taken alongside academic qualifications to maximise a young person’s options. They carry real currency with universities and support progression to higher education. They also allow a head start of up to nine months on a full modern apprenticeship. That is truly a no-wrong-door approach that helps people to keep their options open.
I want apprenticeships to go from strength to strength. Most people think of apprenticeships as helping young people to achieve full competency in their future career, but the figures show that in the 2016-17 academic year, 260,000 of the 491,000 apprenticeships started were at level 2, and 229,000 were started by individuals aged 25 and above. It is essential that apprenticeships continue to focus first and foremost on preparing young people for skilled jobs, otherwise we will weaken one of the rungs on the ladder of opportunity.
Continuing the expansion of degree apprenticeships—my two favourite words in the English language—will play a pivotal role in that. They hold the unique power to fundamentally address the issue of parity of esteem between academic and vocational education, which has plagued this country for far too long. They give young people the opportunity to learn and earn at the same time, gaining a full bachelor’s or master’s degree while putting that learning into practice in a real paid job. Leading employers are already making a dramatic shift from graduate to degree apprenticeship recruitment, which allows them to shape their future workforce. More must follow suit.
I recently came across an example of a remarkable university from Germany, DHBW Stuttgart, which is entirely made up of degree apprentices. I issue a challenge to our higher education institutions, including Oxford University, which will not even open the door to degree apprenticeships, to be the first to declare their intention to work towards becoming the first dedicated provider of degree apprenticeships.
We are at an exciting crossroads for the skills system. Employers are clear that there are significant and growing skills shortages, but they have given us a clear recipe to address them. The foundation for that must be laid in school by a broad and balanced curriculum, intensive employer engagement, and destination measures as a key driver of success. That will create the basis for a holistic system that prepares young people for high-quality T-levels and apprenticeships as part of a blended route that breaks down the artificial divide between academic and technical education to create a real ladder of opportunity for our young people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing the debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to talk in broader terms. I have a great pile of briefings from my wonderful officials, which I will not refer to at all, because I would be telling him things that he probably already knows. He makes a wider point about why skills matter, and he is absolutely right that we have a significant skills shortage in this country.
I was at the WorldSkills competition in Abu Dhabi last year, and there was also a conference where I met many Ministers from Germany and Singapore—there were a whole host of them there. It is clear that we have a world skills shortage; it is not just in this country, although some countries are perhaps doing slightly better. One of the Ministers I talked to attributed their success in technical education, particularly at levels 4 and 5, largely to embedding maths and English so well in the curriculum. When young people came out of that skills system, it was a given that they had reached a high standard, so they could get on and take the academic or technical route that they wanted.
As my right hon. Friend rightly said, surrounding all that is this country’s economic need for a skilled workforce, but it is also about social justice. I did not go to private school and I did not have the networks that my right hon. Friend referred to, which many people have. In fact, I entered politics knowing almost nothing and absolutely nobody. I had to make it up on my own, which was fine for me—I chose politics as a second career—but it is not all right for a young person leaving school at whatever age. It should not be about who someone knows or actually about what they know, or where they live or where they come from; it should be about what skills they have.
My right hon. Friend talked about what employers are looking for. Like him, I have heard that reiterated to me time and again. It is about resilience, attitude, team playing, problem solving and aptitude. Those will not be learned only in the classroom. He also talked about the narrow focus of the curriculum. In some ways, there has been a focus on some of those academic subjects for exactly the reason a Minister from another country pointed out to me: a good foundation in certain key subjects, such as English, maths and digital skills, is important. However, it is also important to widen young people’s eyes to the opportunities that are out there.
My right hon. Friend talked about employer experience, which is critical, particularly for children who are not doing particularly well at school, who are bored in lessons and who do not understand the point of it. Contact with employers demonstrates to them why they are learning those things. It gives them a goal and an aim; it makes it all make sense. Without that it is much harder, particularly for people who, for whatever reason—not necessarily to do with how bright they are—find school slightly more challenging.
Experience of the working world also prepares children to go on to the next stage. I am a mother of four children, and all four worked weekend jobs when they could, and certainly during the holidays. That gave them invaluable experience, because the errors they made will have stood them in very good stead when they went to university or into a job after leaving school.
My right hon. Friend is quite right that the glue around that is the provision of careers advice. Ever since I was at school, which was a very long time ago, I do not think we have got that right. The careers strategy that we published last year is a step in exactly the right direction. It is not necessarily particularly tidy, but the way to reach young people these days is not simply an hour-long lesson with a careers teacher; it has to be much more than that. At the end of the previous Parliament, he was responsible for changes to the Bill that meant that providers of technical education and of apprenticeships must be allowed into schools, which opens young people’s eyes to other possibilities.
A difficulty in my constituency is that the sixth-form colleges do apprenticeships and skills training very well but ordinary schools do not; they are still wedded to an academic view of life. Does my right hon. Friend share my view?
Yes. My hon. Friend mentioned an organisation in his constituency and its apprenticeship hub, and I commend that local initiative. I have seen something similar down in Gosport that showed an absolutely groundbreaking attitude. He is right that careers advice in schools has traditionally not always been very good.
I thank my right hon. Friend for what she said. She mentioned the legislation ensuring that schools have to invite apprenticeship organisations and university technical colleges into schools and further education colleges. What is she doing to enforce that? There are suggestions—and there have been a number of reports—that schools are not actually implementing the legislation.
I am very mindful of that, which is why I have frequent meetings—I think weekly or every other week; certainly once a month—with the careers team in the Department for Education. The need to do this was introduced only in January, so we are in quite early days, but I will watch this, because the proof of the pudding will be in whether it actually happens.
My right hon. Friend rightly pointed out that teachers could do with some of this advice, because a classroom teacher might have left school, gone to university and got their degree, done their teaching qualification in whatever way they wanted, and never experienced the world of work outside the institutional school environment, and that experience is critical. I suggested that to a number of careers professionals the other day. It would be really worthwhile, particularly in the local economy, so that teachers understand the needs of local businesses and can tailor their whole approach to them. A career is what someone does after school, and that should be the thread that runs through everything they do within school. Otherwise, if someone is like I was at school, they will say, “What’s the point of all this?” That is absolutely critical.
I will not hold the Minister back for long. In my intervention on the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), I suggested perhaps looking at the Northern Ireland system, where education and IT skills are coming together. I wonder whether the Minister has had a chance to consider that.
The hon. Gentleman is right; the Government should not be too proud to learn from anywhere that is doing well. We have set off on a course, but it is not restricted and I will pick up on anything that makes this process work.
We have seen good progress, certainly on raising the quality of apprenticeships. We have gone from 3% of apprenticeships on standards up to 36%, which is well beyond what we expected. We are making progress. The opening up of degree apprenticeships is critical, and my right hon. Friend is right that it will help achieve that parity of esteem for apprenticeships. I think we will start to see a huge tide of degree apprenticeships coming forward, because employers will get not only people with the required academic qualifications, but people with the skills. For a young person leaving school, of course, it is a no-brainer; they are getting paid, they are getting a qualification and they will have no student debt. What is not to like about that?
Achieving that parity of esteem is important. My right hon. Friend talked about a holistic education, which is so important. There is a wonderful scheme in my patch—I was with it on Friday—whereby one of the independent schools provides a year’s worth of stringed instrument teaching to year 3 pupils. It is funded by the local community foundation. Royal Grammar School Guildford has been really supportive. That increases young people’s knowledge of things. They will not necessarily all go on to learn an instrument, but it widens and broadens their experience, so they will think of other things, and that will filter through everything they do.
Work experience is important because, as my right hon. Friend rightly said, we must be careful not to draw a sharp distinction between technical and academic education, with pupils feeling that they have to choose between one or the other. The two must be interwoven, and degree apprenticeships are a way of doing that, whether at age 18, 19, 20 or whatever point. He talked about that as a ladder of progression, but I sometimes see it as a path, because a lot of the apprentices I have met have maybe done one or two level 2 apprenticeships, trying to find out which way they want to go and which is the best career option for them, while at the same time improving their skills and aptitude, and their ability to understand the knowledges and behaviours needed within the general workplace, rather than in one specific workplace.
I share, with a passion, my right hon. Friend’s view that we need to do this for the economy of the country, because employers are desperate for the skills. Employers now have the means to employ apprentices—those paying the levy and, soon, those not paying the levy. The means are there. What matters now is that we make the system work, because for me, as for him, it is a matter of social justice.
Question put and agreed to.
Rohingya: Monsoon Season
[Siobhain McDonagh in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of the monsoon season on the Rohingya.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. The desperate situation facing the Rohingya people is one of the greatest humanitarian crises of recent times. It is a deliberate crisis—a man-made crisis—and one now set to be compounded by nature as the monsoon season hits Bangladesh. Nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees who have fled Burma are in camps in Bangladesh. During August last year, nearly 700,000 Rohingya men, women and children fled, following unspeakable violence and systematic abuse, including torture, rape and murder, by the Burmese military.
The monsoons look set to exacerbate an already dire situation. The International Rescue Committee has estimated that 36% of the Rohingya in the camps already do not have access to safe water. Nearly one quarter are suffering from acute malnutrition. Communicable diseases thrive in those conditions; 81% of water samples collected from Rohingya refugee households in December last year held E. coli. The World Health Organisation’s report on the situation in the camps makes for grim reading. Diphtheria, acute jaundice, respiratory infections and watery diarrhoea stalk the camps. To mitigate those problems, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees put out a plea for $950 million to meet the refugees’ immediate needs, but less than 20% of that money has been raised.
I visited the largest of those camps, at Kutupalong, with parliamentary colleagues in November last year. I saw sights, and heard testimony, so shocking that they will remain with me for the rest of my life.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate and on her speech. I had the privilege of going on that visit with her. It was difficult to get around Kutupalong when the roads were dry and the sun was out; if it is pouring with rain, those roads will be simply impassable and treacherous, especially to the young children in the camps.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is hard to imagine how anyone will be able to move. When the monsoons hit, not only will shelters collapse, but it will be almost impossible away.
When we were at Kutupalong last November, I met a young, very frail woman, who beckoned me inside her tarpaulin shelter and pointed at a little bundle of dirty rags on the plastic sheeting on the ground. I did not know what she was pointing at, but she slowly lifted the rags and underneath was her days-old baby. She held the baby up with such pride and with tears in her eyes, but I thought, “What a beginning to life for that child.” It is a squalid existence, but undoubtedly a safer one than if that young, heavily pregnant woman had been unable to get out of Burma.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. I apologise that I cannot stay for the whole debate, but there are a number of things that need to be considered. There are 102,000 people at risk of being directly affected by landslides. Of those in flood and landslide-prone areas, 54% are children and 33% have vulnerable people under their control. Some 46% of water pumps are at risk from flooding and landslides, as are 38% of women-friendly services, and 36% of people are without access to clean and safe water. Only 1% of the 3,500 in need of legal and counselling services for sexual violence and trafficking have been reached. If we wanted seven good reasons why the Government should respond, which encapsulate the debate, those would be the reasons. Does the hon. Lady agree?
I could not have put it better myself. What was most shocking about Kutupalong was the number of children there. I have never seen anything like it, and I hope never to again.
It is now nearly nine months since the August 2017 slaughter and rape by the Burmese military. One shocking statistic is that an estimated 60,000 Rohingya women are pregnant in Kutupalong and other refugee camps along the southern Bangladeshi border. Many of those women are victims of brutal sexual violence, used by Burmese soldiers as a weapon of genocide. Pramila Patten, the UN envoy on sexual violence, has described it as
“a calculated tool of terror aimed at the extermination and removal of the Rohingya as a group”.
Aid agencies are preparing for a surge of births and abandoned babies at the camps, and it is reported that Bangladeshi social services have already taken in many refugee children whose parents have been murdered, have got lost or disappeared among the hundreds of thousands of people in the camps, or are unable to care for and support their children, having lost everything they owned in the flight from Burma. There is deep concern that many more children will be abandoned in the coming weeks by mothers who are victims of rape and cannot bear to keep their babies.
Does the hon. Lady share my concern that in the memorandum of understanding there was a discussion about the status of those children, who will potentially be taken in by the Bangladeshi Government and not given any recognition of their vulnerability?
The hon. Lady is right. Not only do the Rohingya have no citizenship from where they came; they are now in a sort of no man’s land in Bangladesh, and children are obviously particularly vulnerable.
A new generation of victims of this terrible and evolving crisis is about to develop, and these desperate people now face a further tragedy as the monsoon season hits and threatens to wipe out even more lives. We know that Bangladesh can be hit by some of the most severe monsoons in the world, with 80% of Bangladesh’s annual rainfall occurring between May and September. Severe cyclones have killed thousands of people there within living memory, and those victims were not living in flimsy shelters in refugee camps.
In Kutupalong, we saw the shelters that people were living in, some of which consisted of just a piece of tarpaulin tied to a tree or wall and pegged to the dry, dirty ground. Others consisted of a few bamboo sticks and a bit of plastic sheeting on steep hillsides. They were crammed next to each other, with little space for people to live. In Cox’s Bazar, more than 102,000 people are in areas at risk of being directly affected by flooding and landslides in the event of heavy rain.
I think the point the hon. Lady is making is that the biggest risk is the type of land on which people have been settled. Will she join me in calling for the British Government to work with the Bangladeshi Government to try to find risk-free land where these people can settle?
I entirely agree that it is about the topography, but it is also about the flimsiness of the available shelters —and not everyone has a shelter. The Bangladeshi Government have done wonders, given the limitations they have.
As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned in his intervention, 33% of the 102,000 people in Cox’s Bazar are classed as vulnerable—including single mothers, children, the elderly and the ill—and at particular risk of being killed in a natural disaster. However, the risks are not confined to the initial effects. For example, the rains will adversely affect mobility around the camps, which is already very restricted, turning steep dirt pathways into mud and making roads impassable. That could severely restrict access to more than half a million people, worsening the malnutrition rate. More than 91% of people are reliant on food supplies. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has made it clear that the shelter packs that I saw being handed out in Kutupalong in November by hard-working UNICEF aid workers will not survive monsoon rains. That will inevitably lead to harm and displacement as shelters collapse.
It has been reported that half of the refugee population do not have access to sanitation facilities. Some 13% do not have access to latrines. The latrines are not gender-segregated or fully functional. Does the hon. Lady share my concern, and that of many in this House, that disease and contamination will be critical at this time of year, during the monsoons?
I would use a terrible analogy, which is that it is a perfect storm. Conditions are terrible, and communicable diseases will be rife where there is a lack of sanitation. That is why the situation is so bleak. There is an urgent need for international action.
Shelters will collapse. At best, that will lead to overcrowding, but the obvious outcome is far, far worse. The latest round of oral cholera vaccinations will bring the number of locally vaccinated people up to 1 million. That is welcome, but a population of 1.3 million people are affected, so 300,000 are left unvaccinated, which is a desperate situation. We know that unsanitary conditions and malnutrition make people more vulnerable to all kinds of diseases. The World Health Organisation has been clear that the risk of disease, more than the initial flooding itself, could lead to a massive loss of life. The UN estimates that up to 200,000 people could perish.
Some preparations have been made for the monsoon season. I have seen the details of the upgraded shelter kits that are being made available to vulnerable families in the camps, but they consist of tarpaulin, rope, bamboo, wire and sandbags—no real protection against winds, severe rain and flooding. I am afraid that hundreds of thousands of refugees are effectively sitting targets for the monsoon, and that could be catastrophic.
What can be done? A crisis does not stop because the headlines have moved on elsewhere. I obviously welcome this weekend’s announcement of the additional financial support from the Government. That additional £70 million is good news, as it will help to fund some sanitation, healthcare and vaccination programmes for the most vulnerable refugees. The British public have shown remarkable generosity, raising nearly £26 million for the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal. In my constituency, the British-Bangladeshi community has raised more than £30,000 through the Cardiff Bangladesh Association, spearheaded by my Labour colleague, Councillor Ali Ahmed.
We need to recognise, however, that trying to protect a million people living in squalor on open hillsides is not a long-term solution. Will the Minister tell us what conversations he has had with other Governments about encouraging more international financial support to meet the overall funding shortfall? Access to the camps for the UN and other aid agencies is being held up by red tape. I have repeated conversations with aid agencies about that long-standing problem. I have also discussed it with the Bangladeshi high commissioner, and it does not seem to be getting any better.
We must work with the Government of Bangladesh to see an increase in the speedy registration of international organisations to work and deliver services in the camps. That will allow technical experts to support the incredible Bangladeshi response so far. Without that expertise, almost half a million people will continue to be unable to access services such as health, food, support and education. Will the Minister ask the Bangladeshi Government to streamline the FD-7 approval system by ensuring that applications are processed within the stated 48-hour window, to provide extended windows of at least six months for programme delivery, and to allow for appropriate visas for international emergency personnel?
The Rohingya have an inalienable right to return to Burma, and that right must be protected. It is vital that steps are taken to address the conditions that have forced and continue to force people to flee. The findings of the Annan commission on Rakhine state provide a nationally and internationally endorsed framework designed to address the marginalisation of the Rohingya—although I wanted it to go much further and recommend immediate and full citizenship for the Rohingya. It is vital that the UK, in partnership with regional actors and partners, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, supports the progressive implementation of those findings by the Burmese Government, but progress on ensuring Rohingya citizenship must be an essential condition for return.
In the longer term, the international community must work with the Government of Bangladesh to define, agree and finance a response to the crisis that supports refugees’ self-reliance, as well as contributing to improved conditions for host communities and Bangladesh’s own development objectives.
The picture that my hon. Friend is painting accords absolutely with what the Select Committee on International Development saw when we visited Cox’s Bazar in March. However, I want to take her back to the monsoon and the action that needs to be taken now. She has already made the point that strengthening the shelters and shacks will simply not be enough to protect them against the monsoon. This goes back to the point made by the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), but Bangladesh has said that it has been looking for other land to which Rohingya in the camps can be moved in an emergency. Does my hon. Friend have any information on whether progress has been made on that? If she cannot answer, perhaps the Minister will say something about that when he sums up.
I do have some information. An island has been identified as a potential space for refugees to move to. I am concerned about it because, as I understand it, the island is like a floodplain, so people would not be in a better position were they to be moved there. I hope that the Minister can give us more information about that, if he has been discussing it with the Bangladeshi Government.
Agreements have been reached with other refugee-hosting nations, including Jordan, Lebanon and Ethiopia, which provides an indication of what can be achieved with the right package of support, combined with strong partnerships. In my view, strong partnerships and political leadership on the rights of the Rohingya, and action against Burma for its gross violations of international law, must go hand in hand. I want our Government to take a lead.
In January, I wrote to the Minister for Asia and the Pacific, the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field), at the Foreign Office to ask the Government to support a referral to the International Criminal Court. In February, I was one of 100 parliamentarians who wrote to the Foreign Secretary in exactly the same terms. What was the response of the Burmese Government? It was to ban individual members of the International Development Committee from visiting Burma. The Minister will say that a UN Security Council resolution on a referral might be vetoed by Russia and China, but that is exactly why we in the UK must start to support a referral, building global support—from the European Union, the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation and other countries—to overcome such opposition. Our Government can hardly ask other countries to support a referral when they do not even call for one themselves.
My hon. Friend is making a very important point. Will she consider suggesting, first, that the Minister also look at freezing the assets of the Burmese Government and of people who are connected to that Government? Secondly, because the ICC covers citizens of signed-up countries, the Government should be clear that any UK citizens, or those with joint citizenship, could be referred to the ICC if or when any incidents occur.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. The Government should take every possible measure to show the horror we feel about what I believe to be a genocide in Burma. We should be taking the political lead, and everything that can be done should be done. As Edmund Burke, a former Member of Parliament, said, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. This humanitarian and human rights disaster is about to be compounded by a natural disaster, which was entirely avoidable. It cannot be allowed to happen again. Burma cannot be allowed to operate with impunity and to set an international precedent for the unpunished genocide of a minority population.
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh.
This is an enormously important debate. We have heard the statistics about the amount of rainfall, so I shall not rehearse them, save that the north-eastern part of Bangladesh receives the greatest average precipitation of some 4,000 mm per year. By the end of the monsoon season, as the Minister knows because he has been there so often, a third of the country is under water. As other right hon. and hon. Members have seen, and as I saw when flying down from Dhaka to Cox’s Bazar in September, the landscape is vast and watery, barely above sea level. Many areas of Bangladesh are treacherous and cut off in the monsoon season, which was absolutely visible. There are already huge pressures on the population as a whole—not just the Rohingya—as a result of global warming and the rains. When those rains come, communities can be accessed only by boat, houses are damaged, crops and livestock are lost and, importantly, the rice harvest is often lost, which impacts the population’s future.
In the pre-monsoon and monsoon seasons, there are access constraints on the mud roads to which the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) referred. They become impassable, footpaths become slippery, and earthen stairs and slopes become dangerous and may collapse. Members who have been to the camps will know that they are like something from Mars or the moon, and will have seen the deforestation that has gone on to create mounds of earth. Where hills and mountains were covered in greenery, there are now barren, muddy landscapes with little to hold the soil together. Shelters and facilities will be flooded and damaged, prompting displacement and overcrowding in even more of the camp.
This issue is not new—as the Minister knows, it goes back 20 years—but Rohingya camps have never existed on such a scale, and never before have so many people been confined in such a small, cramped and inhospitable place, so there is no direct experience to indicate how that number of people will survive the monsoon. They have withstood monsoons in the past, but not in such numbers.
When I visited in September, I saw vast deforestation. An elephant rampaged through the camp, killed someone and was shot. People thought that was terrible, but to be fair to the elephants, every single bit of their habitat is gone. As far as the eye could see, the landscape was totally barren and vulnerable to landslips and shelter collapse. We were there for several days, and we actually witnessed 100 small, pitiful homes of the sort the hon. Lady described that had been washed away overnight. I felt utterly guilty to be listening to the heavy rain in my hotel in Cox’s Bazar. As we have all seen, many of the Rohingya in camps do not have shelters at all—some simply shelter under plastic bags and other small pieces of plastic, which they hold over their heads. It is pitiful. After several nights of heavy rain, the gullies that people had been easily fording turned into death traps, and we saw an individual who had drowned while trying to access food for his family being pulled out of a flooded gully.
I am appalled that, to resolve the overcrowding that no doubt exists in the camps, 100,000 individuals from that very camp may be relocated to Bhasan Char island, which the hon. Lady mentioned. That island—a misnomer if ever there was one—is basically a large mudflat. It is a shifting bank of sand that did not even exist 20 years ago. It is not an island but an accumulation of sediment formed by the Meghna river. It changes shape radically. If anyone has not looked at it, it is possible to go online and see its changing contours. Sometimes it is totally submerged under floodwater. It is not a suitable place to create a haven for the Rohingya.
I wrote to the Secretary of State and pointed out that the topography of the island makes it extremely vulnerable to flooding and cyclones, and that it regularly disappears underwater. I also mentioned the increasing concerns about the adequacy of resources such as food, water and additional facilities, and about humanitarian access to the island. I wrote that I am worried that the planned settlement—the media are trying to look at what is going on on Bhasan Char island, but it is being planned in quite a secretive manner—would, in effect, act as a prison camp. It would allow the refugees to be resettled, but I am concerned that the island would not be a safe haven for the Rohingya.
The Minister has stated that the Government have
“concerns that the island may not provide safe accommodation for Rohingya refugees and we have shared these concerns with the Government of Bangladesh.”
Given that building is going on apace, and that plans are going on apace to relocate 100,000 people to Bhasan Char island, I want to know what progress if any has been made with stopping that relocation. A huge amount of building is going on. The designs for the island show that there will be cyclone shelters, which look amazingly like prison blocks. They are absolutely tiny. The Rohingya who are there are already traumatised. I question what the value of those cyclone shelters will be, if they are imprisoned on a featureless mudflat in the bay of Bengal, cut off from the current aid groups that are in the camps on the mainland.
The flooding of contaminated water has already been referred to. Camp sanitation is bleak—I know because I have used it. I am not surprised that there are outbreaks of E. coli and other faecal matter diseases, given the overflowing latrines. We do not know what facilities will be on Bhasan Char island. I would like to know if the Minister plans to visit Bhasan Char island to reassure us.
The UK has just generously pledged £70 million more. That is £129 million pledged on behalf of the British taxpayer. Many of my constituents are fundraising for the Rohingya. I do not think many of them are aware that there is a potential Alcatraz—as I refer to it—in the bay of Bengal. I would like to know whether the British Government plan to visit given the amount of development that has already happened there.
When the International Development Committee visited, we were told that NGOs had identified significant amounts of other land that would be safe for the Rohingya to be put into. Does the hon. Lady agree that the British Government need to use all their powers to get the Bangladeshis to release the land that the aid agencies have identified, and focus less on putting them on to an island?
I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. We cannot dictate, however, to other countries that have opened their arms and done a very big job in taking nearly 1 million people. Far be it for me to tell the Bangladeshi Government which bits of land they should give away. That would not be appropriate. I do have concerns, however, about the pieces of land that have been identified. To be fair—hon. Members have been there and seen them—other areas are barely above sea level, but the island is particularly vulnerable. With the cyclone coming on, a cyclone shelter just does not cut it.
I would like the Minister to have plenty of time to answer these questions, so I will not carry on much longer. The hon. Lady mentioned the pregnant women in the camp. I am concerned that women and children will be located on this island, many of whom are pregnant as a result of rape by the Burmese militia. We should call that out. I am absolutely appalled that we do not have any formal international recognition of the atrocities that the Burmese army are committing in order to call them out for what they are, which I believe is genocide and war crimes that should be held accountable.
I thank the hon. Member for Cardiff Central for bringing this debate and allowing me to speak in it. The British Government have been enormously generous. The Bangladeshi Government have opened their arms, but they have an election coming up and the Rohingya are not a vote-winning issue, as there are already pressures on the Government to sort out the problem with disease in the camp and some of the unfortunate practices that are being associated with the camp, which the local population are not happy with. My main point is that Bhasan Char island is not an acceptable place to send people who are already traumatised. Following the response I have had from the Government on sharing my concerns, I would like to know that the Minister has asked for a visit.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I thank the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) for bringing this important and timely debate. I also thank the many hon. Members who have been to see first-hand Cox’s Bazar and to hear the accounts of the Rohingya refugees who are there at the moment.
Today, nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees have fled across the border from Myanmar into Bangladesh. Most of them arrived in the last year. These people have arrived with virtually nothing and have fled unspeakable levels of violence after decades of persecution accelerated rapidly over the last nine months. After fleeing horrific and barbaric violence, Rohingya refugees now face potentially life-threatening monsoon rains and cyclones this summer. As we have heard, the situation has the potential to spiral out of control and the need for collective action is more critical than ever before. Cox’s Bazar is already one of the most frequently flooded regions of one of the most flood-prone countries on Earth. To put that in perspective, monsoon and cyclone season brings more than 2.5 metres of rainfall in three months alone—more than four and a half times the average annual rainfall of my Dundee constituency, a region not unaccustomed to rainfall.
Pre-monsoon rains have already started in Cox’s Bazar, and the storms have damaged shelters. UNICEF has reported that many children have been sitting on top of their family shelters in an attempt to keep the plastic rooftops from blowing away. The Bangladesh Government and aid groups estimate that as many as 200,000 refugees are at direct risk due to landslides or floods and require urgent evacuation, but they have nowhere else to go. Basic services, including clean water, sanitation and healthcare, remain inadequate, and the spread of disease will be worsened by flooding and stagnant water. In addition, one third of health facilities and nutrition centres, and more than 200 educational facilities, could be lost, putting at risk the lives of the 60,000 pregnant women and their babies—many of whom are born of systematic rape which, as we have heard today, is used as a weapon of war. To make it worse, it is highly likely that aid provision will be disrupted because the roads into the camps are made of clay and may become impassable after heavy rain.
When I visited Cox’s Bazar only two months ago with the International Development Committee, including some hon. Members who have spoken, I saw for myself the condition in which the Rohingya refugees are living. Nothing could have prepared us for the enormity of this humanitarian emergency. We saw, for example, that refugees are making a living in makeshift, flimsy shelters, built only of bamboo and tarpaulins, which are precariously positioned on land or carved into sandy, deforested hillsides, and are easily swept away when the monsoon season arrives. Let us be clear: the conditions were already dangerous before the monsoon season began. Now there is—dare I say it?—the perfect storm for a catastrophe. The heads of NGOs I had a chance to speak to were deeply fearful and could not emphasise strongly enough that our inaction would result in needless destruction, disease and death.
As our Committee’s report outlined last month, more funding and resources must be made available immediately to save lives and improve living conditions during the monsoon season. I therefore join others in welcoming yesterday’s news that the UK has pledged an additional £70 million of humanitarian support for the crisis. Alongside providing more funding, the UK Government must urgently step up their efforts with other donor nations and international agencies, and encourage and work with the Bangladesh Government. There is an immediate need for NGO staff to be allowed into the camps. Without technical expertise and the ability to deliver basic programmes, almost half a million people will continue to be unable to access essential services. Although I acknowledge Bangladesh’s generosity in taking in the Rohingya refuges, the UK Government must put more pressure on it to allow aid agencies to operate more freely.
There is no time left. This has been neglected until the eleventh hour, and there is nowhere to turn and no other options. We cannot hide from this deadly issue, so it falls on us to do all we can to help. Urgent action is needed now so that we, as elected Members of Parliament, are not forced to stand up in this House in the months to come and admit we could have done more for the Rohingya and the Bangladeshi communities that host them. On a humanitarian and human rights front, the UK Government should be operating on the principle that everything that can be done should be done. I look forward to hearing how the £70 million will be spent, for what purpose it will be used and, most importantly, how soon it will be made available.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) on securing this important debate. Her testimony about her recent visit to Cox’s Bazar was deeply harrowing and real. Other hon. Members also made excellent contributions. We have heard from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), my hon. Friends the Members for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) and for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), and the hon. Members for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) and for St Albans (Mrs Main), who raised concerns about the relocation of the Rohingya. The hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) echoed the concerns raised by the Members who spoke before him.
The plight of the Rohingya people is clearly one of the greatest human tragedies of this century. Forced by violence to flee their homes, more than 1 million refugees have sought haven in Bangladesh—the majority in Cox’s Bazar. That speed of displacement has not been witnessed since the Rwandan refugee crisis in 1994. More than half a million Rohingya arrived in Bangladesh within a month.
Cox’s Bazar is one of the most flood-prone areas of Bangladesh and has an average of 2.5 metres of rainfall during June, July and August. To put that in perspective, in Britain, where we are far from blessed with glorious sunshine, we receive less than 1 metre of rain in the entire year. Time is clearly of the essence. The pre-monsoon rains have already begun, and the situation is critical. On 26 April, a storm damaged shelters and affected several families in the camps. Last week a mudslide was reported in camp 4 in Cox’s Bazar, and there were reports of at least one fatality. The scale of the potential humanitarian disaster is truly horrifying, and more than 100,000 people, more than half of whom are children, are at risk of being directly affected by landslides and floods. That is only a conservative estimate, because that figure could double, should the rains be particularly heavy.
It is not just that there is a direct threat to life from the rains and mudslides. We have heard today that sanitation conditions are expected to deteriorate significantly, leading to reduced access to safe drinking water. As of December, water samples collected from households showed that 81% were already contaminated with E. coli, and the situation will only get worse in the coming months. It is highly likely that there will be increases in water-borne diseases such as diarrhoea and hepatitis and in diphtheria, malaria and dengue fever. According to the International Rescue Committee, 36% of people are already living without access to clean, safe water—a figure compounded by the fact that 46% of the functioning water pumps in the area are at risk from flooding or landslides. Can the Minister confirm whether the UK emergency medical team is in position to respond, much as it did between late December and early February, to an upsurge in disease in the camps?
The window of opportunity for moving refugees to more secure locations is rapidly closing. As of 23 April only 12,400 refugees had been relocated to safer sites. I recognise that the United Kingdom is playing a leading role in the humanitarian response, and I welcome its overall humanitarian work—especially the announcement yesterday of an additional £70 million towards preparing for the monsoon. Will the Minister provide assurances that that leading role includes encouraging others to increase their contributions to the effort, and will he outline what steps are being taken to achieve that?
I welcome the Department for International Development’s direct humanitarian work, but it is clear that the issues of humanitarian access, safe, voluntary, dignified returns, and dealing with the long-term persecution faced by the Rohingya in Myanmar can be addressed only with a political solution. For that purpose I urge the Government to keep their eye on the ball and to step up the political will and the focus that they are devoting to finding such solutions.
Does the hon. Lady share my concern at the lack—particularly when the memorandum of understanding between Bangladesh and Burma was being agreed—of a voice for the Rohingya at the table? There is no identified leader and no person who can speak out for what the community would like to happen in the negotiations.
I absolutely agree, and I will come on to that point.
The Government of Bangladesh have rightly been praised for their initial response, but as we move into a dangerous new phase of the crisis it is imperative to address operational barriers that hinder the work of aid agencies. International donors have granted $14 million of funding, which cannot be utilised at present because of restrictions on which organisations can deliver aid programmes in Cox’s Bazar. That has led to the utterly perverse situation of badly needed aid money being returned to donors.
In response to a written question that I tabled on 13 April, the Minister recognised:
“International non-governmental organisations face ongoing challenges with securing and renewing visas and permits”.
“UK Ministers and officials continue to liaise with their Government of Bangladesh counterparts on this issue.”
With that in mind, will the Minister provide an update on discussions between the UK and Bangladesh Governments on the process of issuing FD-7 visas so that international aid organisations can implement humanitarian projects, and will he confirm that the UK Government are pressing for the duration of the authorisation to be increased?
Owing to further administrative procedures, up to 90% of aid staff currently have to use short-term tourist or business visas to enter the country. Will the Minister assure me that his Department is doing all it can to ensure that the Government of Bangladesh agree FD-6 agreements with agencies, so that their staff are able to apply for the appropriate visas necessary to plan and implement their work?
Secondly, at the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, a roundtable on the Rohingya crisis was co-hosted by the UK and Canada, with the Foreign Ministers of Australia, New Zealand and Bangladesh in attendance. That meeting represented a chance to discuss the crisis at the top level of Government. Will the Minister say whether preparations for the monsoon season were specifically discussed at that meeting?
Thirdly, although the immediate priority must of course be the impending monsoon, the only permanent solution to the crisis is for the security situation in Rakhine state to be such that the Rohingya are able to return safely and voluntarily to their home. Although in January an agreement was reached between the Governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar to repatriate 156,000 Rohingya over the next few years, in reality neither the security situation nor the stipulations placed on returning Rohingya, such as identity documents, are conducive to such a move.
I met the Myanmar ambassador to raise my concerns about the ongoing treatment of the Rohingya, but I do not believe that blaming the failure of Rohingya repatriations on administrative errors by the Bangladeshi authorities indicates a serious desire on the part of the Myanmar Government to solve this crisis. The UK Government must maintain pressure on the Myanmar authorities to engage seriously with the issues faced by the Rohingya, not least those of security and citizenship. What are the Government doing to ensure that the Myanmar Government and General Min Aung Hlaing are properly brought to account for the atrocities they have committed? Does the Minister agree that the Myanmar Government cannot be trusted to protect the Rohingya until they truly feel the heat of international pressure and accountability for what has happened?
I welcome the UK continuing to fund humanitarian work in Cox’s Bazar as monsoon season approaches, but I hope that that terrible threat will act as a spur to renew the UK’s political will and to solve some of the longer term political problems. Only then will we finally see an end to the suffering of the Rohingya people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I thank the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) for securing this debate and all colleagues for taking part.
I will begin with some general remarks, and then turn to the substance of the debate. As we know, this is an immensely complex issue, but the moment that people moved in August last year, it was perfectly obvious that the monsoon season would come round again. Colleagues can therefore be reassured that preparation for this event has been long in the planning, although there is only so much that can be done on the piece of land that colleagues have, in many cases, seen and described accurately. With such flimsy conditions underneath, only so much can be done to prepare and strengthen shelters. At the same time, handling the crises of people who are already there, and the multifaceted difficulties that they bring, has been exceptional.
Colleagues are right to question the responsibility of the host Government, but we must be sensible about this. Bangladesh has taken on an enormous responsibility. It is supported by the rest of the world community, but there are limits to telling a sovereign Government who they should admit to their country, who must work there, under what terms, and everything they can do. We must understand the limitations that we are working with, but equally we must accept that from the moment so many people moved last August, people have been aware of what was going to happen, and have been making appropriate preparations as best they can. That sets the background to this debate.
I absolutely accept the Minister’s point about aid and outside agencies and countries directing the Bangladesh Government, but does he agree that, if millions of pounds of funding is being given to help, the Government have leverage to sort out these difficulties? There are practical difficulties of aid workers not being able to get into the camps to help.
We entirely agree. We constantly raise these issues directly with the Bangladesh Government, and have letters from agencies that have been helped and supported thanking us for the work we have done in company with others. There is no point in aid being available if it cannot be distributed, but the Bangladeshi Government have issues with who comes in and why. These are big camps, and there is a lot of scope for things to go wrong. They must have the responsibility themselves, but easing administrative difficulties is a key part of what supportive Governments do on behalf of the various agencies.
We are in the second week of May and the monsoon starts in a month. I accept the Minister’s point that we have known that the monsoon was coming since August last year, but just eight weeks ago when I and colleagues from the International Development Committee were there on the ground we heard from NGOs that nothing is getting done—or that what is getting done is far too late. Given that we had all that information and we know that there are monsoons in the region year on year, why are we only now at this critical stage putting funding towards monsoon relief, and with little or no plan for what we will spend it on?
That takes me comfortably to the second part of what I want to say. Let me answer that, because it is a perfectly fair challenge. I pay tribute to the Government of Bangladesh and the communities in Cox’s Bazar for the extraordinary generosity they have shown in welcoming hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing despicable persecution in Burma—persecution that amounts at the very least to ethnic cleansing, and possibly more. More than 680,000 have fled since the latest violence in August 2017, and they join about 300,000 fleeing waves of violence in previous years, bringing the total Rohingya population in Bangladesh to almost 1 million.
One camp alone in the Kutupalong area of Cox’s Bazar, which my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) referred to, contains almost 600,000 people, giving it the dubious distinction of being the world’s largest refugee camp. Conditions in such camps are almost unimaginably hard, as colleagues who have visited have made clear. As my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary saw when she visited Bangladesh last November, many are makeshift, built piecemeal and without proper planning or foundations. Those fragile structures are extremely vulnerable to the heavy rains of the current monsoon season, which could soon be compounded by high winds and storm surges if a cyclone hits the area. The Bangladeshi Government have an excellent track record in saving lives in extreme weather events, and we call on them to use their expertise to help support those currently at risk.
As far as preparedness is concerned, UN agencies, the Red Cross and NGOs, with support from the UK, are working tirelessly on measures to improve conditions in the camps and prepare for extreme weather. The UK has led the way in terms of the scale and speed of our response to the crisis, pledging £59 million in humanitarian response. As colleagues mentioned—I am grateful to them for welcoming this—my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary announced yesterday a further £70 million of UK support for the crisis, which will help to protect vulnerable people during this volatile rainy season, improving structures and infrastructure such as roads and latrines, and help to clear newly allocated land. It will also provide urgently needed humanitarian support such as food, medicines, shelter and psycho-social support to many hundreds of thousands of Rohingya and the communities so generously hosting them.
Let me spell out a few more details. That support is expected to try to help 200,000 people with much-needed materials to strengthen their shelters and 300,000 people with food assistance and clean water. The aim is also to provide emergency nutrition for 30,000 pregnant and breastfeeding women, plus 120,000 children younger than five. Another aim is to get access to midwifery care for 50,000 women, including many who may give birth during the rainy season, and to provide access to bathing cubicles for nearly 53,000 women and girls. It is hoped that another 50,000 people will be helped in getting access to healthcare services.
I thank the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) for bringing forward the debate. I have written to the Minister about the potential for a serious malaria epidemic in the area. As he well knows, there is the issue of drug-resistant malaria coming up from Burma, which may impact on the area. What preparation is being made to prevent a devastating outbreak, which could transmit drug-resistant malaria further afield through Bangladesh and into India and beyond?
On receipt of my hon. Friend’s letter, I took advice from the agencies on the ground about their concerns. Their concerns were not quite as acute as his information, but they were aware of the risk and were taking precautions against them.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) mentioned the emergency medical team. It is not permanently out there but it is always on stand-by to respond, just as it responded to the cholera and diphtheria epidemic around Christmas time. Many people saw that work. That emergency medical team remains on standby. I am conscious of what my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) said about malaria —we keep an anxious check on that.
Unfortunately, many people die in the camps. Funeral arrangements in the camps are very difficult. Families who I spoke to said that burying the dead and having decent funerary rites was a real issue. Will the Minister say whether there is any progress on that?
I try always to be honest with the House when I do not know something. I do not have any information on that. My hon. Friend knows full well that the quality of the ground makes washing, digging foundations and shelter difficult enough. Latrines are far too close to services, so burying people must be even more dreadful than it would ordinarily be. I will find out the answer to her question and supply information.
UK aid already ensures that more than 250,000 people will continue to have access to safe drinking water during the rainy season. The latrines issue is vital: more than 7,000 latrines have been constructed and strategically placed throughout the camps, and more than 6,700 new latrines will be decommissioned or re-sited. There is an understanding of the importance of that. UK-supported cholera, measles and diphtheria vaccination campaigns have been carried out in readiness. They will provide protection against some of the most common diseases in the camps, which are expected to be more widespread during the rainy season. Preparation for that is being done. More than 391,000 children under the age of seven have been vaccinated to date. Healthcare workers are being trained to prevent, identify and treat common illnesses expected during the rainy season and to manage higher case loads.
Some 450,000 people have benefited from support to make their shelters more resilient to rain and heavy winds. Site improvements such as drainage, protecting pathways and stabilising steps and bridges to enable access are already being undertaken. Everyone with knowledge of the camp knows that there is limit to what can be done, not only with the flimsy shelters but the foundations on which they are built. We are advised that the best protection possible is trying to be devised and put in place.
We are funding efforts to relocate or accommodate up to 30,000 of the most vulnerable refugees. We welcome the fact that the Government of Bangladesh have made an additional 800 acres of land available close to the existing camps, and we are supporting the work of the UN to make this land suitable for the safe relocation of refugees.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans mentioned Bhashan Char island. I will be happy to go and see that when I get the opportunity. She made clear that we have had our own reservations about that particular piece of land. We have made clear to the Government of Bangladesh that any relocation of refugees must be safe, voluntary, dignified, and in accordance with international humanitarian standards, principles and laws. We have shared with the Government of Bangladesh our concerns that the island may not provide safe accommodation for Rohingya refugees. We have requested that the UN be given the opportunity to conduct a technical assessment of plans for the island. We have had no involvement in developing plans for the proposed relocation—we are very conscious of the pressures on land in the whole area, but that is the role that we intend to take in relation to Bhashan Char island. The sheer scale and availability of alternative lands makes things so much more difficult.
The hon. Member for Cardiff Central spoke of sexual violence and pregnancy. Accountability for crime is very important, and the assessment of what happened to people is vital, but supporting them now is equally important. We believe we have led the way in supporting a range of organisations, providing specialised help to survivors of sexual violence in Bangladesh. That includes 30 child-friendly spaces to support children with protective services and psycho-social and psychological support and 19 women’s centres that will offer a safe space and activities to women. Case management is being provided for just over 2,000 survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. Thirteen sexual and reproductive health clinics will provide access to sexual and reproductive health services, including antenatal care. More than 53,500 women will be provided with midwifery care. Medical services counselling and psychological support will be provided to Rohingya refugees who have either witnessed or are survivors of sexual violence. With DFID support, UNFPA and partners have developed guidelines on how to support women and girls who have been raped and are pregnant, which includes the training of caseworkers and those who will support them through pregnancy and beyond.
This is a desperately serious issue and Members are right that the births that will take place in the next few months will be among the most difficult that could be witnessed, but we have done all that we can, alongside various other agencies, to try to prepare for these circumstances.
I welcome all of that. It is very welcome, but it is small in comparison with the size of the problem. The Minister has not addressed the question of Burma’s impunity for those crimes and for the murder and torture of other Rohingya. I hope he will address that point and tell us what the Government are doing to seek a referral.
Let me turn to the issue of Burma—the hon. Lady was right to anticipate this point. We do not and should not forget that it was the actions of the Burmese military that drove Rohingya from their homes, leading to the current extremely precarious situation in which they find themselves. Although it is of course vital and right that we provide immediate, life-saving humanitarian support to Rohingya in Bangladesh, we continue to call upon the Burmese authorities to create the conditions for them to be able to return home safely, voluntarily and with dignity, under a process overseen by the UN. In particular, Burma should fully implement the recommendations of the Rakhine Advisory Commission, beginning with full, unfettered access for agencies to northern Rakhine.
The hon. Member for Cardiff Central and the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) mentioned the referral and access to justice. Other countries know the UK’s commitment to justice. It was the UK that secured a UN presidential statement in November calling for accountability for what happened in Rakhine. The UK was instrumental in getting a recent UN Security Council visit and the Security Council is now considering Burma’s statement made during last week’s visit that it was ready to conduct an investigation. We will press for that first. We also await with interest the decision of the International Criminal Court as to whether it has jurisdiction regarding forced deportation into Bangladesh, which it has just announced it is examining. Calling on the Security Council to refer Burma to the ICC will remain an option.
The UK has sought to lead the way in a variety of different ways—in responding with aid; in using the UN to call for the presidential statement and getting other states involved; in securing sanctions against named individuals who have been responsible; and in continuing the work and efforts in preparation for the monsoon season. As I said at the beginning, this is a very complex issue and we will discuss it again, but the United Kingdom, with other agencies, is doing as much as it can to do what we can. We will not desist from that and recognise that there will be much more to do in the future.
I thank the Minister for his remarks and everyone who has participated in the debate. It is most important that we do not forget the children, women and men in those camps. I welcome what the Government have done so far. I hope they continue to put international pressure on Burma and build a coalition against it so that we can see justice for the 1 million people who have suffered this terrible atrocity.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the effect of the monsoon season on the Rohingya.