Wednesday 20 June 2018
[Dame Cheryl Gillan in the Chair]
UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
Good morning. I have some technical announcements to make before we start the debate. First, gentlemen may remove their jackets, because the air conditioning in the room is not functioning properly and the temperature may rise. I am sorry, ladies; I cannot really say the same to you! It could get quite warm in here.
We have a few technical failures, in actual fact, I think because there is no one who can put a fuse into the fuse board. We do not have the screen to my right operating, or the screen behind me. We rely entirely on that screen over to my left, although of course my Clerk has a screen here with him. If anyone wants to ask a question about timing or anything else, I shall certainly entertain that.
Without further ado, as the mover of the motion is present, I call Rosie Duffield.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Government’s response to the UN report on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Thank you, Dame Cheryl. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship in my first ever Westminster Hall debate.
This is an issue of great national importance and, indeed, embarrassment. What I am raising today is something in dire need of urgent and effective remedy. I am referring to the United Nation’s assessment of the UK Government’s ability—inability, I should say—to protect the rights of our disabled citizens.
As I am sure most people in the Chamber are aware, last August a UN report by the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities found that the UK was in serious breach of international human rights law. The report found that the UK was lacking in enforcing or upholding equality legislation in sectors including education, justice and employment.
The beginning of the report offered some praise for recent Scottish and Welsh legislation, but it went on to make 80 recommendations for further action by the UK Government and the devolved Parliaments to implement. As important as I believe it to be to do so, unfortunately, I shall not have enough time today to consider all 80 UN recommendations in my opening speech, although I hope that colleagues will afford focus to some areas that I shall sadly have to miss.
I shall focus on those aspects of disability and equality rights that are the most repeatedly brought to my attention by my disabled constituents and disability rights groups throughout the country. Those are: poverty, inequality in employment, and substandard, illogical and poorly enacted access to welfare provision. As such I shall concentrate on articles 27 and 28, and draw some attention to articles 7, 13 and 21.
Let me begin by painting a picture of the situation in the UK. Right now, about 4.2 million disabled people live in poverty across the country. In fact, more than half of those living in poverty are either disabled or living with someone who is. In the UK, half of all disabled people are still unemployed and, even when they do attain employment, not enough provision is in place for them to maintain it sustainably in the long term.
The report on article 27 of the convention made four key recommendations, which have yet to be implemented. The Government have not yet offered an effective employment policy for disabled people.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing her first debate in Westminster Hall, and what an important subject this is. On employment specifically, may I invite her to attend or even join my all-party group on youth employment, which looked at this very subject—those furthest from the labour market—and in particular to look at the report, which drew on organisations such as Leonard Cheshire Disability, highlighting a really important body of work in this area?
I shall do, thank you; that will be interesting.
I suggest that access to legal aid and information on accessing it should be made much more readily available, so that disabled people can challenge employers and potential employers on inadequate access arrangements. According to observations of the report on article 13, regarding rights to justice, the UK must:
“Provide free or affordable legal aid for persons with disabilities in all areas of law”.
I ask the Government: what consideration of the legal aid system has been made to facilitate and enfranchise the legal challenges of disabled people on any of the convention articles or the recommendations in the UN report?
In order to access good legal representation and advice, disabled people also need quality digital information services that take account of customers’ disabilities in their design. On article 21 of the convention, the UN committee recommended that the UK improve statutory accessibility standards for all digital information services, including those offered by Her Majesty’s Government.
Does my hon. Friend agree that part of that commitment is access to information? Since 2010, 478 libraries have closed and we have lost 8,000 librarians, so access to information is yet another blockage to disabled people going into work and gaining their human rights.
Absolutely. I have heard from my own constituents about the assumption that they have access to a computer, and many people use public libraries for that service.
On top of all of that—as if existing barriers to disabled people maintaining sustainable income and accessing information and help were not already high enough—the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities rapporteur concluded that UK Government cuts have disproportionately impacted on disabled people, amounting to “grave and systematic violations” of the rights of persons with disabilities.
Going back to the point that the hon. Lady made about helping disabled people get into work, my experience in my constituency is that a huge number of projects are going on that do help disabled people to get into work. Clearly, every individual is different, and some people need different levels of support, but will she join me in saying, “Well done,” to the 600,000 disabled people who have moved into work in the past four years? Great progress is being made, and we should congratulate them.
What the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) said sounds fantastic—really good news. However, in my constituency, the lack of jobcentres—they have closed recently—severely impacts on the sort of access that I am talking about. It would be great if that did not happen.
The Centre for Welfare Reform found that austerity has been targeted at disabled people nine times more than the general population, and at severely disabled people 19 times more. Such statistics are shocking. The targeted austerity measures put in place by the Government are clearly unusually cruel in that regard.
The UN recommendations under article 28 state that UK law should ensure that welfare policies protect the income levels of disabled people and their families— the key word there is “protect”. I want to know what the Government think they are doing to protect such income levels and to protect disabled people from having to beg for help from friends, families and food banks in order to stave off poverty, dire need and hunger.
The Government must also ensure that that local authorities have enough funds to support disabled people. Also under article 28, the UN committee’s report is critical of how the squeezing of local authority funding impacts on disabled people. I only need to think of the shocking state of some social housing provision for people in my constituency. For example, one woman who is a full-time wheelchair user—I shall call her Janet—came to my office for help. Janet had been confined to her council flat for months and months. She had been housed on a high floor of a housing block. The flat was not adapted or good enough. My office were pleased to help to secure her move when she needed our help, but for every Janet out there we know about, 10 other people are forced to make do in private with inadequate social housing.
It is important to remember that such inequalities experienced by disabled people in our community are intersectional. The UN committee expressed concern about a lack of legislation in UK law to prevent intersectional discrimination. Intersectional disadvantage means that a person experiences multiple disadvantages from different discriminations at the same time. It is horrifying enough that—according the Disabled Living Foundation—the average income of families with disabled children is £15,270, or 23.5% below the UK mean income of £19,968, but for a single mother who faces other difficulties such as the gender pay gap or limited child welfare because of cuts, those hardships will be so much worse.
On article 7, the UN committee’s report called on the UK Government to cut the high levels of poverty among families with disabled children. Will the Minister tell me what monitoring there has been in that respect? Does she feel that the Government should be proud of recent statistics relating to family poverty where one or more of the children is disabled? It is not just families who are affected; the onslaught of cuts and austerity unscrupulously enforced by the Conservative Government has left many single disabled adults, and couples in which one or more of the couple is disabled, struggling to obtain and access the bare necessities.
A well-known topic that adversely affects disabled people throughout the UK is the flawed roll-out and poor implementation of the personal independence payments scheme. The many statistics and stories that we regularly hear are simply gut-wrenching. As a result of PIP assessments, 80% of disabled people’s health has deteriorated because of stress or anxiety. A third of those who experience funding cuts as a result of the outcome of the test have struggled to pay for food, rent and basic utilities.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She talked about cuts, but does she welcome the Government’s increase in the amount of the access to work fund from £42,000 to £57,200? People with disabilities can access that fund to get themselves into work. I led a debate in this Chamber on the Disability Confident scheme, and I invite her to sign up to it, as I am sure other Members have done.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point, but the cap is still quite low and it is difficult for people to get beyond that.
It sounds too simple to say that problems with PIP assessments cause poverty, but it is true. Those statistics bear witness to that fact. The trauma caused by the PIP assessment process and the ramifications of losing welfare provision are even more infuriating, because 69% of decisions made by PIP assessment bodies are overturned by our courts. I hear about this every single week from my constituents. If 69% of decisions are challenged and later found out to be wrong, the original system is not just broken; it is wholly inadequate.
I agree that for some people the PIP assessment has been severely challenging, but only 4% of cases are now being appealed, because the process has improved. [Interruption.] Does the hon. Lady agree that continual improvement is needed, and that we should work to have PIP assessments recorded, when the claimant wishes, so that the claimant can have greater confidence in the process?
In Liverpool, when a constituent tries to appeal one of the rulings of an assessment centre, there is a nine-month wait at Liverpool tribunal services. The case that I raised with the Prime Minister of my constituent Anthony has been resolved individually, but thousands of constituents are affected.
I have heard of similar waiting times, too. It is really distressing and adds to all the trauma that has been going on. I will give an example: Julius Holgate, who is a double leg amputee, won an appeal. The Department for Work and Pensions told him that he was fit to work because he could
“climb stairs with his arms.”
Because he lost his benefits, Julius resorted to selling his belongings in order to survive. The DWP claims that this was a clerical error, but in reality, it was an error caused by a lack of humanity.
Article 28 of the UN recommendations calls on the UK Government to ensure that all eligibility criteria and assessments for PIP, employment and support allowance and universal credit are in line with the social model of disability. When is that being done? Despite the repeated, serious and notorious assessment failures by Atos and Capita—the outsourced companies that conduct the assessment—the Government have renewed their contracts to run the assessment process for two more years. These organisations have repeatedly failed to meet their target of 97% acceptable tests, and 100,000 people have won appeals against their assessments. How much is this flawed system costing the Government? If we ignore the human element just for a second and question how much each reassessment and court challenge costs, surely we can agree that this money would be better spent on rolling out decent provisions for the disabled and on remedying those affronts to human rights by introducing a holistic, bespoke assessment service that includes a home visit.
The PIP assessment system is highly traumatic and often misassesses; in January of this year, it was ruled by our own courts to be severely in need of remedy and review. In January this year, the High Court ruled that the PIP system is “blatantly discriminatory” against people with mental health conditions. That criticism is echoed by many mental health and disability organisations. I am sure we all appreciate that not all wounds and maladies are necessarily physical and observable. A single-day assessment is therefore a ludicrous way of properly gauging whether a person is in need of financial assistance because of mental health conditions.
It is high time that this Government turned their focus away from tax breaks for bankers towards a system of disability welfare that is, at the very least, in line with basic human rights outlined by the UN. The convention needs to become part of UK law. The UN committee noted last year that there had not been a full review of the UK’s laws and policies in the light of the convention. There is not enough information on what the UK is doing to stop disabled people being negatively affected as the UK leaves the EU. A statement by Inclusion London explains:
“Disabled People’s organisations are seriously disappointed by the Government response and its failure to adequately take on board any of the UN inquiry recommendations. This response brings into question the Government’s commitment to the progressive realisation of Disabled people’s rights.”
The hon. Lady is being generous with her time. She has used phrases such as “targeted austerity” and “lack of humanity”, but will she not join me in welcoming the fact that disability benefits spending is at its highest level ever, and that it will continue to be higher than it was in 2010 every year up to 2022?
We all know that in real terms that is not the case, because the cost of living is constantly rising. I do not hear from my constituents who struggle to pay the bills that their lives are any easier—in fact, the opposite is true. We have to disagree on that one.
Since the committee’s investigation in October 2015, further measures have been introduced that have or will have further adverse impacts on disabled people. They include the cut to ESA for those in the work-related activity group that is due to come into force in April 2017 and further cuts to local authorities’ social care budgets.
I call on the Government to develop and implement a plan of action that abolishes any laws, regulations, customs and practices that discriminate against disabled people. Imagine losing your livelihood as a result of a flawed assessment that is not your fault. Imagine going hungry, living in poverty and being under so much stress that it severely affects your wellbeing. Most of us in this room will never have to experience that, but most of us are not already living with the challenges of disability.
I call on this Government to begin taking seriously the poverty and discrimination experiences of disabled people and those who care for loved ones with disability. I call on this Government, as a bare minimum, to honour their commitment to human rights, by accepting and acting on the recommendations provided by the UN inquiry. The protection of human rights is a sacred function of the state and we are in breach of that function. It is not the time to deny facts, ignore inequality and dismiss the well-documented experiences of our citizens. It is time to act. I urge the Minister to do just that.
I thank hon. Members for listening. I am sure many colleagues wish to speak because, as I said at the beginning, there are so many recommendations that we could cover in this debate. Each recommendation and article is important and each is deserving of its own debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. I congratulate the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) on securing an important debate.
The hon. Lady mentioned the problems created by the closure of jobcentres. There are other similar cases. For example, my own constituency has no jobcentre at all—the jobcentres are in neighbouring Oxford, Abingdon or Reading—but rather than moan about that and point out the difficulties that that creates, I have been working with the Secretary of State to try to put in place a solution to overcome it. That solution is a system of mobile jobcentres, the model for which is the way the Post Office runs its mobile post offices around the country. I envisage a situation where, in areas where a jobcentre has closed or there is no jobcentre, jobcentre vans turn up on certain days—they would have to be regular days—to provide the services and advice that many people want. I am happy to recommend that model to hon. Members—as I said, I am already working with the Secretary of State to try to get it ready.
My second point is about PIP. In a number of cases—I say this quite openly—PIP has been delivered appallingly slowly. Again, I have been working with the Secretary of State to look at how those payments can be sped up and at how information can be better integrated into how PIP is delivered, so that we do not continually knock the system but try our best to improve it.
My motivation for speaking in the debate was to highlight the excellent work done in my constituency by the Ways and Means Trust and its Greenshoots nursery, which provides excellent help to people with a whole range of disabilities, including mental disabilities, on how to do work. It provides lectures in various areas to try to give people a basic intellectual grasp of what they need to do, and it provides people with the physical work experience to be able to take that forward. I am sure that everyone looks forward to Christmas, for a range of reasons, but I look forward to it in particular because it means I can go to Greenshoots to get the wreath for my front door—they are made there in a particularly spectacular way.
I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution to this important debate. Does he agree that we have moved on since the UN report, which the Government refuted? Does he also agree that it is good that through the Disability Confident scheme 600,000 disabled people have secured employment and the dignity it brings? That must surely be a good thing—and that has happened in the past four years.
My hon. Friend is quite right—it is very important to mention that. I will say something about the Disability Confident scheme in a moment.
Let me finish what I was saying about the Greenshoots nursery, because it is important. My hon. Friend highlighted the importance of dignity in employment. That is important for people who might otherwise be disadvantaged from taking employment. From what I have seen, Greenshoots delivers a tremendous boost to people’s confidence, wellbeing and ability to provide for themselves.
Prior to coming to this place, I was the main development worker for Social Firms England, which supported enterprising charities, such as the one the hon. Gentleman describes, to support disabled people into work. Social Firms England was decimated by cuts. Social Firms Scotland and Social Firms Wales were active and well supported, but I was the only worker for Social Firms England, and I worked one day a week. That was it—that was all the support it had. Social firms are going to the wall. That is what is happening to disability support. Remploy was also cut. Support for getting disabled people into work has actually been decimated in the past eight years—it has not moved forward.
I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. I do not accept that there has been that level of cuts to charities in my constituency, or that cuts are having such an appalling effect on people with disabilities, who are continuing their work.
A wide range of companies and organisations are involved in providing these services. We have the likes of Microsoft and Glaxo, we have slightly smaller companies that are nevertheless household names, such as Sainsbury’s, and we have a range of individual organisations, such as the Greenshoots nursery, Leonard Cheshire and indeed Mencap, which provide assistance to people with disabilities in my constituency.
To pick up on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant), more than 6,500 employers are involved in the Disability Confident scheme, and that is to be celebrated. I am pleased to say that all main Government Departments have now achieved Disability Confident leader status, which is to be welcomed.
My hon. Friend makes a good point about the number of disabled people in work. It is important that we give our constituents the facts. Opposition Members have used very emotive language. I know from having a family member who has been disabled and from the number of cases that my office works through how disruptive PIP assessments can be. We need to cut through to get to the facts and look at turning the screw on Atos and the other companies that deliver these services. It is not a genuine intention of the Government to be inhumane, but there has been a failure of administration by some of the companies that we have employed to deliver services.
I am sorry, Dame Cheryl, for allowing interventions to run on, but my hon. Friend makes an important point. He is right that we need to cut through the haze and give the figures, so let me repeat one: 600,000 disabled people have been moved back into work in the past four years. That is something that we should be proud of and hang on to.
Like my hon. Friend, the problems that I have found have been with the implementation of PIP, not with PIP itself. It behoves us to work closely with the Department and the Secretary of State to ensure that we get those things right, and I am pleased that I have been able to do that.
This time last year I got a lot of cases from constituents who had problems with the PIP assessment process, but it appears to have improved. I fundamentally believe that it would be better if it were easier to get those assessments recorded. Does my hon. Friend agree that that would put more trust in the system?
I do—my hon. Friend has got this right. We can all help with that. I will not claim responsibility for the improvement in PIP, but I think that all of us who have worked with the Department and the Secretary of State to do that can claim some responsibility for the improvement in the process. We need to do more to make that work.
With those remarks, Dame Cheryl, I will sit down and allow the debate to move on before anyone else intervenes at length.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. I apologise in advance, because I have some parliamentary business to attend to, so I may not be able to stay for the winding-up speeches.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) for introducing such an important debate. The points that have been made have been both interesting and troubling. I say that because, while I understand the facts and figures presented, the reality experienced in my constituency is very different. I will tell some of the stories that constituents of mine have shared with me, giving first names but not surnames.
I was approached by a constituent called Hugh, who has T-cell psoriasis in his hands and feet. He struggles to dress himself without great discomfort, and when I met him he could not lift a cup of coffee with both hands. Walking can be difficult for him. He was found to be fit for work.
Gloria is 71 years old, with arthritis in her legs. She lives on the second floor of a building with no lift and struggles with stairs. She lives with a grown-up son who has learning difficulties—although he has a job. With regard to her housing, she was told that she cannot be moved to any higher band as her son works, so they consider him to live independently.
Victoria has severe mobility issues and sepsis in her legs. At her first assessment, the disability element was reduced as she could prepare her own meals and wash herself with installations at home. Her condition has since get worse, but she was refused PIP and the PIP assessment at home. She was granted an assessment only when my office intervened.
Harry was working in the Navy. He sustained a brain injury so is not able to work. He suffers from severe depression and anxiety as well as the brain injury. The PIP assessor said in his assessment that he was “too aggressive” and ignorant of his mental health conditions. PIP was declined as a result. Those are just a few of the people I come across, so warm words or advising about more money that can be accessed is not helpful at all.
I was tearful when I spoke with this last person. She explained that she had had four strokes—four strokes. She was expected to do a work capability assessment, and because she touched her face during the assessment, the assessors said she was able to work; in fact, they did not believe that she was as paralysed as had been said. That is what we come across as Members of Parliament.
We are not standing here to say that this is unfair just to represent the Opposition and be against what the Government have set out, but the fact remains that it is unfair. The disabled people I represent believe they are “the forgotten class”. Where are they when we look at assessments? I agree with the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) that assessments should be recorded, because the way in which assessors put questions across is bad. For example, assessors say, “Can you walk 50 metres?” but how far is that? We do not look at that. Another of my constituents, who has Asperger’s, was told, “You can walk 50 metres, can’t you?” so he said, “Yes,” not understanding the impact that would have.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury said, the four recommendations on article 27 have not been taken on board. We talk about facts, but how many of the recommendations have been implemented? How many people have to go under the radar, unnoticed and unhelped, and fight, going for appeals with no deadline or timeframe for how long they will wait for their appeal to be heard? They are supposed just to get on with life.
It is not enough to say, “We are trying to encourage disabled people into work.” That is applaudable and honourable, and I agree with that when they can work, but many disabled people cannot work and are not only penalised for sometimes having a physical disability that prohibits them from working; but we say, “We know you need financial assistance—this welfare—but we’re not going to give it to you until you can prove to us how disabled you are.” Something is wrong there.
The hon. Lady is making a passionate and cogent speech. Does she accept that the vast majority of disabled people do want to move into work? While welcoming the 600,000 who have already done so, does she agree that that is just a start and that we should look to close the disability employment gap in its entirety?
Let me be clear. It is good that disabled people want to get into work, and this is a start. I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that. Where we differ is on disabled people who are not able to work who have to fight to prove that. I do not agree with that. It is not correct; it is against their human rights.
I am not saying that those who can work should not work but that we should listen to what those who cannot work are saying. They are going through assessments. I have a constituent who had four strokes and is physically disabled, yet because she touched her face she is told she can work. Something is wrong there. Something is wrong with a double amputee being told they can climb the stairs with their hands. That is what needs to be addressed.
My hon. Friend is making an incredibly passionate speech with which I am completely in agreement. The assessments really need reviewing. My constituent wanted a home visit because he struggles even to leave his house. On the first appointment, he fell outside his door, so he could not get there. For the second appointment, which the assessors agreed to give, he struggled to get the buses—transport was slow and delayed—but he got there. They refused to see him because he was three minutes late. He did not get his assessment. The system urgently needs changing.
I agree that the system needs changing. My concern is that if there are recommendations that could make a process better or even more streamlined, why would they not be adopted? I do not have the details of the situation of my hon. Friend’s constituents, but I do not understand why his assessment would be refused for being three minutes late.
We are all in agreement on seeking to help those who need assistance, but why are recommendations that would make the process easier and more streamlined not being taken on board? Why are we not looking at people’s rights? We are all one race—the human race—so why are we not looking at people and saying, “You need assistance.”? It is a bit like a body: if in a big society—to coin a phrase from the Government—something is not functioning correctly, why do we not stop and rectify it? Why do we just say, “Actually, don’t worry about that,” and carry on? That is how it comes across to our constituents.
Has the hon. Lady ever taken part in a work capability assessment? I had one acted out for me to allow me to understand the process, which was enormously helpful. I would recommend that other Members do that. One can either sit through an assessment or have the process demonstrated. It was really helpful to aid one’s understanding.
Sorry, Dame Cheryl, I realise that time is short, so I will be quick. I have not been to a work capability assessment, but one of the people I work with who was a barrister goes to many assessments to advocate on behalf of disabled people, because the assessments are not very clear and the way in which questions are asked can be quite misleading. That is how I was able to give the analogy about the distance in metres.
The hon. Lady is making a good speech with many good points. I believe the Government have been listening, and the Minister is very much aware of some of the shortcomings in the assessment process and has worked incredibly hard to try to rectify them. Is she willing to acknowledge that the Government have listened to the concern of Members across the House and improvements are being made to the process?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Gillan, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) on her excellent speech.
I will be brief because several Members still wish to speak. This debate is about the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities and the UN committee that investigated the UK regarding breaches of those rights. This started back in 2015, when I was the shadow Minister with responsibility for disabled people. I was interviewed by the committee, and its first report stated that there were “grave and systematic violations” of the convention. The findings published in 2016 charged the UK Government with failing to uphold the rights with which we as a signatory to the convention from 2009 had agreed to comply. The judgment was based on facts, testimony and evidence. We have been saying that we should judge things on the facts, and this judgment did just that. The Government must accept responsibility for the devastating impact of their austerity policies, which have had the biggest impact on disabled people.
For eight years, we have seen cuts to social security support—that has already been mentioned—but the convention’s judgment goes far beyond that. There have been cuts affecting disabled people who need social care and cuts to specific support for disabled people in the NHS. There have been cuts to support for those with special educational needs and disability in schools and to allowances for disabled students. The list goes on and on. We have recently debated trains, but there have been cuts to the Access for All programme that seeks to improve accessibility to train stations. There have been cuts to supported housing, legal aid and much, much more. What disabled people are going through is absolutely horrendous.
I would like to focus on a few points from the UN report. In August 2017, the UN committee met to consider whether any progress had been made since the devastating report of 2016, and unfortunately it said, “No, there is no progress. You are not a global leader on disability rights.” In the recent debate on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, there has been a fundamental disagreement about upholding rights, because of the failure to support the charter of fundamental rights that gives more protections under domestic law to disabled people.
I am sorry, but I will not give way because my colleagues still wish to speak.
The UN committee stated that cuts to social protection in the UK were “a human catastrophe”—a catastrophe! The UK’s human rights watchdog stated that the examination by the UN had seen a “disconnect” between the UK Government’s replies and the “lived experiences” of disabled people. That is what we are hearing, despite Government Members saying that everything is hunky-dory. In conclusion, the rapporteur stated that the committee was
“deeply concerned about the lack of recognition of the findings and recommendations of the conducted inquiry”.
The Government have said that they will not act on that report, but it is not the only such report. Indeed, the Council of Europe has also stated that it has significant concerns regarding upholding the rights of disabled people.
The Minister has said that the Government will set up a new inter-ministerial group to co-ordinate work across the Government and seek to reinvigorate our engagement with disability stakeholders to help shape our plans. Will she confirm what that engagement will involve, including which deaf and disabled people’s organisations will be engaged, as repeatedly recommended by the UN? Will she publish details of the membership and terms of reference for that group and say whether it will extend to the Department of Health and Social Care? There are real concerns that the consultation on the Green Paper on adult social care, which includes support for disabled people, is failing to engage with DDPOs.
The response to a question that I asked in the debate on social care on 25 April shows a complete lack of understanding about article 19 of the convention and what is meant by independent living. Last year, the UN disability committee brought out a general comment on article 19, in which it referred to how institutionalisation can occur in people’s own homes. People can become isolated and separated from society if they are not given that basic support, and we are effectively seeing the re-institutionalisation of disabled people due to current cuts to social care. Waiting until autumn to see the Green Paper on adult social care, as has been suggested, is not good enough. Some £7 billion has been cut from social care, and 1.2 million people, including disabled people, are not getting the support they need. To their shame, the Government’s failure to recognise and act on the social care crisis is affecting our most vulnerable citizens.
Finally, will the Government consider producing a cumulative impact assessment of all their policies on disabled people and their impact since 2010, as recommended by many organisations? It is time for a different approach, and that is summarised in the manifesto that we developed with and for disabled people: “Nothing about you, without you.” I know my hon. Friends are building on that commitment, which includes scrapping current disability assessments and replacing them with an holistic, person-centred approach that is based on the principles of dignity and inclusion. We have already committed to incorporating the UN CRPD fully into UK law—something that was rejected by this Government. We believe that, like the NHS, our social security system is there for every one of us. Nine out of 10 disabled people have become disabled—their disability has been acquired. We should recognise that that could happen to anyone and ensure that the support is there. It is time for things to change, and I hope the Minister will reassure us that that will happen.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) on her excellent speech.
I wish to focus on the effect of universal credit on disabled people, and others. As we know, the National Audit Office has released a report ahead of the roll-out of universal credit, stating that the new benefits cost more to administer than the previous system of the six benefits it replaced, which include jobseeker’s allowance, tax credits, housing benefit, personal independence payment, and employment and support allowance. The spending watchdog also said that it was uncertain whether universal credit would ever deliver value for money. The report proves that the assertion by the Department for Work and Pensions that everything is going well is false, as many of my constituents in Hartlepool can testify.
Hartlepool was one of the early implementers of universal credit. My office is informed about issues with universal credit on a daily basis, and many people in the town have become accustomed to that unjust and arbitrary system. Some have not just experienced hardship, but suffered near destitution through delayed payments or through sanctions that affect all six benefits, not just one, which mean that they experience a drop in the level of benefit that they receive compared with the income derived from previous benefits.
Hon. Members will be aware of the recent High Court judgment on the roll-out of the new payment system. Two severely disabled men, one of whom is a constituent of mine, experienced unlawful discrimination when their benefits were significantly reduced after moving from one area to another, and subsequently on to universal credit. My constituent, who can be identified only by the initials AR, is 36 years old and moved from Middlesbrough to Hartlepool in 2017. AR has severe mental health problems and was forced to move because he could no longer afford the property where he was living, because of the bedroom tax. Unfortunately for him, he moved to an area where universal credit was already being rolled out and was therefore required to make a claim under the new scheme. Both my constituent and the other complainant were advised by DWP staff that their benefit entitlement would not change. However, they experienced a monthly drop of £178 under universal credit. Following the judgment, their solicitor Tessa Gregory from Leigh Day said:
“Nothing about either of the claimants’ disability or care needs changed. They were simply unfortunate enough to need to move local authorities into a universal credit full service area. The Government need to halt the roll out and completely overhaul the system to meet people’s needs, not condemn them to destitution. If this doesn’t happen, further legal challenges will inevitably follow.”
Universal credit has taken significantly longer than intended to roll out and it may cost more—as determined by the NAO—than the benefits system it replaces. Also, the DWP will never be able to measure properly whether it has achieved its stated goal of increasing employment. On the contrary, thanks partly to the fact that universal credit covers a broader span of claimants who are required to look for work—such as the disabled—than jobseeker’s allowance does, the count of the number of unemployed people in “full service” areas has been inflated. Because of that, my constituency currently holds the unenviable record of having the highest rate of unemployment in the country. The total number of unemployed claimants there in May 2018 was 4,080, which is 9.6% of the economically active population of the town. The UK average is 2.8%. I am confident that when universal credit is rolled out across other constituencies, we will lose that unwanted title, particularly as I am proud to say that our figures for youth unemployment are among the best in the UK.
The NAO report concludes that the DWP has not shown significant sensitivity towards some claimants, and it does not know how many claimants are having problems with the programme or whether they have suffered hardship, as in the case of AR. In 2017, about a quarter of new claims were not paid in full or on time. Late payments were delayed on average by four weeks between January and October of that year, with 40% of those affected waiting for 11 weeks or more, and 20% waiting for about five months. Never mind the able-bodied—just imagine the effect on disabled people. The report is talking about my constituents and a system that renders people homeless, destitute and desperate. It is simply unacceptable—chaotic and catastrophic. I pity those in other areas who are about to feel its full force.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) on securing such an important debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) hit the nail on the head in her speech: the report is a condemnation of the Government. It cannot be emphasised enough just how damning the 2016 UN report is. Conservative Members can talk all they want, with weasel words, about the system getting better, but we know that that is not the case—certainly not in constituencies such as mine in north Liverpool, which is one of the most deprived in the country. I want to tell the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) that we have had our two jobcentres closed. The council has worked so hard—tirelessly—to develop co-location plans and put any proposal in front of the Government to save those jobcentres, to absolutely no avail. I wish him better in Henley, but it certainly has not worked in north Liverpool.
The chairwoman of the UN’s Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities described the Government’s treatment of sick and disabled people as a “human catastrophe”. That is not poetry or a rhetorical flourish; that language is used deliberately and precisely, based on the weight of evidence behind the report. That report came to the conclusion that the Government’s welfare cuts have resulted in “grave and systematic violations” of the human rights of disabled people. It is a national scandal, and one that I see in my surgeries every single week. I am going to talk about a few cases that I have had to deal with in recent months. The situation should be a wake-up call to the Government, but they learn no lessons. My constituency casework is loaded with complaints relating to personal independence payments. Instead of supporting people, the process is dehumanising and inaccurate, and it exacerbates the health conditions that my constituents suffer from.
It is no surprise that there is widespread distrust of the assessment, when 68% of PIP decisions that are taken to tribunals are overturned. As I said earlier, that means a nine-month wait to get the right decision and, often, to get the original decision overturned. In that time people lose their mobility vehicles—at what cost to Government, when they must return them? Something that I have seen happen in the system—and I wonder whether it is systematic—is people going from a low rate of care with high mobility to a high rate of care with low mobility. That seems to happen in case after case, because if someone’s care rate goes up they get a couple of quid extra a week, but if they lose their high-rate mobility they lose their car and their ability to leave the house—they lose their ability to exist.
At Prime Minister’s questions on 25 April, at column 879, I challenged the Prime Minister on a specific case—that of Anthony, who has a chronic, debilitating illness. After his PIP assessment he had a nine-month wait. Once that was raised in Parliament, the DWP intervened to overturn the decision. However, I see that every week—the Prime Minister is asked about this issue, and it is always an individual case. Well, it is not an individual case—it is built into the system. I should like to know what work the Minister is doing with the Ministry of Justice about tribunal waits. Is she working on that? There must be investment in the court system if the problem is to be resolved. I do not see any work being done on it at all.
The Government’s contractors, Atos, Capita and Maximus, have consistently failed to meet basic performance standards. One of my constituents was asked by an assessor about her cerebral palsy—a lifelong condition from birth. She was asked how long she had had it and whether it would get better. What on earth is going on, and what do the Government do when such cases are brought to light? Several other people have told me that the information in their assessment report was inaccurate and did not reflect what was said in the assessment, but for some of my constituents even getting that far is a challenge. My office has been inundated with reports of the unsuitability of assessment centres for disabled people. The range of problems includes a lack of suitable parking, no drop-kerb for wheelchairs and no disabled access button to open doors. A report released this month by Muscular Dystrophy UK found that two in five respondents had been sent to an assessment centre that was not accessible for disabled people. You could not make this stuff up. It is not a matter of individual cases, one by one. There is a systemic problem at the heart of the Government’s policy, and until they wake up to that fact nothing will improve.
I will not.
The pointless reassessments of people with severe, long-term or progressive conditions are cruel, and an absurd waste of resources. I have a constituent with Down’s syndrome whose payments stopped after she was transferred to PIP, as did those of another constituent, who has multiple sclerosis. I welcome the announcement this week that the Government are preparing to end such unnecessary reviews of people with severe or progressive conditions, but that should not have taken the determined effort of disability campaigners. The Government need to understand that what they are doing is already debilitating for the people in question. Having to be part of national and local campaigns just to get basic human dignity in the assessment process is outrageous.
In any case, it is it is simply not enough to tinker around the edges. The truth is that all the problems are not glitches in the system. They are the system itself. Research published this month by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that almost 650,000 people with physical or mental health problems were destitute in the UK last year. That means being so poor that they cannot afford essentials such as heating, regular meals or basic toiletries. The systematic impoverishment and denial of basic rights highlighted in the UN report and others are part of what we now know to be a “hostile environment”, not just in one or two Departments but across the board. If a society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable, what does that say about ours?
We must treat disabled people, and the vulnerable or dispossessed, with dignity, and it is absurd to think that we can do that when we have a programme of austerity and cuts in local authorities and across the board. That is what the report signals. Not only does the Government’s austerity agenda harm communities and society; it hits the most vulnerable and the poorest hardest.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl, particularly given all the excellent work you have done over the years for people with autism and on the all-party parliamentary group. I thank the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield), who made an excellent, detailed and thorough speech. The empathy she feels for her constituents and the hard work she will do in the constituency on their behalf were clear. I particularly thank her for bringing this important debate to be heard today.
I thank all the hon. Members who contributed by reminding us that some progress is being made, particularly in employment and with the Disability Confident scheme, and that further employers are signing up. It is important that we make progress with that scheme, but I would caution that I am aware that an employer can sign up and, I believe, reach the full level without employing anyone with a disability. Further progress is required in that regard.
I also thank all hon. Members who contributed for outlining the widespread failings in the system, giving constituency case examples to show the impact on the people they are trying to help, and highlighting where the issues lie—not simply to berate the Government, but to suggest areas where we need to work collectively to take things forward. We must work collectively to improve the lives of people with disability across the United Kingdom, to ensure that they reach their full potential.
We are all aware that the reason we are here is that the optional protocol allowed the United Nations committee to investigate a state party if it received “reliable information” of “grave or systematic violations” of the convention. The UK is the first country to be investigated by the UN under this convention. I believe that brings great shame, but it is also a warning and a call to improve where we are. We must grasp that and stridently take it forward. The report published on 6 October 2016 found that reforms have led to grave and systematic violations of the rights of persons with disabilities, emphasising in particular changes to housing benefit entitlement, eligibility for PIP and social care, and the ending of the independent living fund.
I am aware that the Government have challenged the veracity of the report, but it must be said that it was based on thorough research, with visits across all four nations of the United Kingdom, interviews with more than 200 people and the collection of more than 3,000 pieces of documentary evidence. Where facts were disputed, they were cross-checked with collateral sources, including national statistics and parliamentary inquiry reports. Although hon. Members may wish to challenge the report, it is thorough and detailed. While the Government have not conducted the cumulative impact assessment on disabled people to challenge the report, we have to take it and its findings and view them very seriously, and ensure that the system is overhauled in a positive way that changes the lives of people with disability.
The subject of welfare benefits has been thoroughly covered today, so I will just touch briefly on it. The Access to Work fund is a good scheme, but it requires much further publication to increase awareness. Many people in my constituency and beyond, whom I have spoken to through the all-party parliamentary group for disability, were not aware of it. Where a scheme has the potential to assist people, we should ensure that they can access it.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech and her point about Access to Work is absolutely right. Of the 4 million disabled people who want and are able to work, 25,000 have had support through Access to Work on a yearly basis. It is just not adequate.
Perhaps, where things are assisting, we need to look at rolling them out and generalising them to ensure that those who need that system can access it. It is an irony indeed that people cannot access Access to Work.
I will speak briefly on the need for medical collateral information to be accepted and routinely sought in welfare assessments. I feel that often those assessments are conducted in a way that perhaps does not lend itself to getting the adequate information. People may not be aware that they can bring that information, or they may not understand the system properly, but it is crucial. Often people who come to be assessed are anxious and stressed; they may not be able to explain in the best way the extent of their difficulties, but having that collateral information can be valuable in ensuring that an accurate assessment is undertaken in the first place and the individual does not have to go through the stress of appeals processes, which have such a devastating impact.
The Scottish Government intend to place dignity and respect at the heart of the welfare system. That is obviously in transition, but it is a great aspiration and something that we should aspire to across the four nations. I ask the Minister to look at the “Ahead of the ARC” inquiry that the all-party parliamentary group for disability completed last year. It points out a number of important areas, including access to training in job sectors, particularly those that will be sectors of the future and where jobs are likely to be found. The Government have made some movements on apprenticeships, and I am grateful for that, but I think much more can be done.
Public procurement should reward businesses that provide inclusive employment opportunities, to ensure that procurement contracts are not just awarded on cost, but look at equality legislation and inclusion wherever possible. We also need to be mindful that when we think of people with disabilities, the stereotype is often that they are unemployed or work for someone else; we need to also think about maximising skills and potential and looking at further opportunities for entrepreneurs who have disabilities. That could offer a flexible work pattern, which might suit many people, but it would also harness the skills and abilities of many people who perhaps are not already in the workplace, and who wish to take that forward, employ other people and contribute greatly to our economy. Let us try to change the rhetoric.
In the minute I have left, I make a plea to the Minister on Motability. People are losing their Motability cars; is there any opportunity for people to retain their cars during the appeal process rather than losing them? I recently had a constituent who had won their appeal, but had already taken out a loan for a car, and was left with a Motability car and a massive loan at the end of the process. Surely that is not something that should be happening when the process was faulty in the first place.
The announcement of £20 million for the Jo Cox loneliness fund is very welcome, but is it not counter-intuitive that on the one hand the Government are offering this sort of money to combat loneliness while on the other hand they are taking away mobility cars?
Yes, we must ensure inclusion and that people can be independent and live as independently as possible.
The final point I will make before sitting down is that with the closure of banks right across the United Kingdom, many people feel vulnerable going to mobile banks. When I spoke to the Royal Bank of Scotland, I was told that it does not even have ramps for its vans, so the mobile vans are not accessible. Is that something the Minister could have a dialogue about, with RBS in particular and with other banks? People with disabilities have told me they feel vulnerable getting money from a mobile van in an open setting, even when they can access it, and they are fearful that it may place them at risk. Those are some of the practical issues we need to take forward to improve people’s lives.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield), first for securing this important debate and secondly for the incredibly powerful speech she gave. She was right to highlight that no Government should introduce legislation that discriminates against disabled people. She rightly stated that the Government’s record is a national shame, and highlighted the dire inequalities in social security and access to justice, the increase in poverty, and the lack of access to information. There are huge difficulties in access to digital information, as my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) highlighted, and alternative formats for people living with sight loss are lacking. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury was right to call out the fact that there is a lack of legislation covering intersectional discrimination.
I also want to pay tribute to some of my other colleagues, including my hon. Friends the Members for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) and for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden). My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) made a powerful speech. She has led the way and has held the Government to account powerfully for many years. I thank her for all the work she has done and will continue to do. She rightly highlighted that the Government chose not to include the charter of fundamental rights in the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which is a shame. My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Fiona Onasanya) shared the powerful testimonies of some of her constituents. I thank everybody for all their efforts. It is right to point out that this is a shame, and there is no other way of looking at it.
The UK was once at the forefront of disability rights: 48 years ago, we passed the groundbreaking Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. It was led by Lord Alf Morris, who shortly afterwards became the first Minister for Disabled People—I am honoured to be in that shadow role today. That legislation was a response to disability campaigners calling attention to the deep and pervasive injustices that disabled people face. In December 2007, we became signatories to the convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, which committed us to progressively realising the rights of disabled people—our rights to live independently, to be included in the community and to have access to education and justice. After eight years of brutal Tory cuts to disabled people’s social security, of increasingly cruel and degrading assessments and sanctions, and of being stigmatised by Government Ministers, disabled people know that the Government have not been defending our rights. The UN CRPD committee found that disabled people’s rights have been “gravely and systematically violated”. It is difficult to overstate the significance of that judgment.
The UK was not merely the first country to be found in breach of the convention’s obligations; we were the first ever to be investigated. Over the past eight years, we have seen not the progressive implementation of disabled people’s rights, but their unprecedented erosion and violation. The committee found that Departments are grossly failing disabled people.
The brutal cuts to disabled people’s social security have made a mockery of article 19, on the right to live independently and in the community, and article 28, on the right to an adequate standard of living. The Welfare Reform Act 2012 alone cut £28 billion from social security. Half of people in poverty are now either disabled or living with someone who is disabled. Almost a quarter of disabled people are now forced to miss meals because of economic hardship, and one in five cannot pay to heat their homes. Such drastic cuts to social security led the UN committee to find that disabled people were the single biggest group affected by Tory austerity policies.
The UN said that the systematic impoverishment of disabled people was an entirely predictable effect of the Government’s austerity policies. It was, of course, predicted by disability groups, but the Government ignored it and refused to carry out a full cumulative impact assessment of the cuts.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right.
Will the Government commit to carry out a cumulative assessment of their tax and social security reforms since 2010? In addition to the devastating cuts and suspicion, disabled people have been endlessly mistreated by the chaotic Department for Work and Pensions. High Court judgments have repeatedly found that the DWP has blatantly discriminated against disabled people. Only last week, it was found that the cutting of disability premiums from universal credit was “unlawfully discriminatory”. There has been “blatant discrimination” against PIP claimants, and employment and support allowance has been continuously underpaid.
The UN report found that disabled people are being undermined not just by the social security failings, but by the lack of social care funding. Since 2009, the number of disabled people receiving social care has fallen by nearly 30%. The UN report highlights that social care is vital, and that it allows many disabled people to live independently. Will the Minister outline whether the Government’s forthcoming Green Paper will include working-age adults? I asked the Secretary of State for Health that question on Monday but did not get a full answer.
On the right to work, the Government have not done enough to remove the barriers that disabled people face. There is a lack of high-quality impairment-specific support. The Government’s flagship Disability Confident scheme does not measure the number of disabled people it has directly helped to move into work. Access to Work must be improved, extended and better publicised. Will the Minister consider removing the discriminatory cap?
Signatories to the CRPD are obliged to promote inclusive education. Under the Government, there has been regression and an increase in the number of special school places. What is the Minister doing to encourage her colleagues to improve inclusive education? In recent months, the Government have created a cross-ministerial body that is supposed to promote disability issues across Government, but at the same time they have cut the number of staff at the Office for Disability Issues. As my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth asked, what is the group’s scope? Where are its published terms of reference?
The Government are helping to organise a global summit in July, but why should any other state take them seriously on disability rights when they are systematically violating the rights of disabled people and continue to ignore the UN’s recommendations? When will the Government publish their response to the UN’s report?
When we get into power, the Labour Government will incorporate the convention into UK law, scrap the punitive sanctions regime, and replace the assessment regime with a more holistic, supportive assessment framework. It is a shame on the Government that we have to stand here today and debate this issue once again. They must take heed and listen.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl, as you have taken a lifelong interest in disabled people and made a personal difference by introducing the first piece of legislation specifically supporting people with autism. I congratulate the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) on securing her first Westminster Hall debate. Given the way she has approached it, I am sure it will not be the last. After the Government publish our response to the UN inquiry, I will be more than happy to come back to this Chamber to debate it with her.
Before I respond to the individual points that hon. Members made, let me say that, like everyone else in this Chamber, I want to ensure that every disabled person and person with a health condition in our country has the opportunity to play a full part in society, including at work, when they can do so. Of course, there are disabled people who cannot work, and they must be supported. However, I utterly refute the allegations that the Government have discriminated against disabled people, systematically undermined and violated their human rights and, worst of all, that we are targeting their welfare support.
I have so little time and have been asked so many questions that I will not take an intervention.
The Government are utterly committed to the convention. Britain helped to develop and shape it, and we were one of the first countries in the world to sign and ratify it, in 2009. We are one of the very few nations that also ratified the convention’s optional protocol, which allows for individual complaints to be raised and permits the UN committee to investigate allegations of violations of the convention. That is what happened, and it was the first time it had happened. We were disappointed that the UN representatives who came to the UK simply did not take on board the evidence that the Government gave them and did not acknowledge the full range of support.
When we set out our response—I will set it out in full—we will clearly make our case and rebut the allegations levelled against us. We firmly believe that a disability or health condition should not dictate the path a person is able to take in life, including in society or in the workplace. That is the basis of everything we are doing to try to make sure that disabled people are able to realise their potential, including at work. We engage constructively with the United Nations and we have had constructive meetings, and I will of course meet all the reporting requirements in full.
As hon. Members will know, in line with the convention, disability is mainstreamed across the Government. I reassure everyone that we have strong legislation on our statute book to protect disabled people, through the public sector equality duty in the Equality Act 2010 and through the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Those protections are some of the strongest in the world.
The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) asked why we have not performed a cumulative impact assessment of our welfare reforms. We undertake cumulative assessments of reforms for each fiscal event, because we want to be as transparent as possible on the cumulative distributional impact of Government policies, including welfare reforms, tax changes—direct and indirect—and public spending changes. To present as full a picture as possible, we publish the living costs and food survey, which includes all the information that Members have mentioned.
All that information enables me to say clearly that the proportion of people in relative poverty in a family in which someone is disabled has not risen since 2010. These allegations that we are driving people to food banks and forcing them into destitution are simply irresponsible. The proportion of people in absolute poverty in a family in which someone is disabled is at a record low, because we are spending more than £50 billion a year on benefits to support disabled people and people with health conditions. That is up by £7 billion since 2010; it is around 2.5% of our gross domestic product and accounts for more than 6% of Government spending. As a share of our GDP, public spending on disability and incapacity is the second highest in the G7; only Germany spends more. Disability spending will be higher than 2010 in every year through the spending review. There has been no freeze in the benefits that disabled people receive, and those benefits are not subject to the benefit cap.
It is important that we hear the facts in these debates. Of course there is more we can do and of course I want to close the disability employment gap, but let us actually deal with the facts of the situation and stop this quite irresponsible talk that we have heard in this Chamber and that we hear in the main Chamber. Who will suffer because of what we have heard from Opposition Members today? It will be disabled people and their families, who will be frightened to come forward and claim the benefits and support available to them.
In my few remaining moments, I will touch on some of the criticisms that we have heard about personal independence payments and employment support allowance. PIP and ESA have been subject to a number of independent reviews, with the findings from the most recent, undertaken by Paul Gray, published last year, and to which I have published my response. I responded positively to each and every one of his recommendations. We are moving forward with continuous improvements to PIP.
The Work and Pensions Committee undertook a full inquiry into the assessment process, and it has welcomed my response and the series of measures we are taking, particularly the video recording of assessments. It is important to me that we build confidence and trust in that assessment process. We know from independent data that the vast majority of people undergoing a work capability assessment or a PIP assessment feel treated with respect and dignity, and that the system works. However, one person receiving poor treatment or not getting the right result is one too many, which is why we are so determined to implement all our reforms.
Those reforms stretch from working more closely with medical professionals, which was raised several times today, to making sure that it is easier for medical professionals to provide data to the process, that companions can support people in those assessments, that home visits are implemented wherever that could support people and that all the forms are in an accessible format. I actively consider implementing each and every suggestion put to me. I have a huge amount of stakeholder involvement with disabled people and people who represent them through our PIP forum and through a whole range of bodies under the Department for Work and Pensions. People are co-designing these benefit systems with us. When PIP was introduced, it was developed with organisations that support disabled people and with disabled people themselves. We want to make sure that PIP remains a modern, dynamic benefit and that the Government treat people with mental health conditions equally seriously as people with physical health conditions.
Many more people are being supported and helped on PIP than they ever were under the disability living allowance legacy benefit. As we know, the evidence shows that more people receive higher rates of support on PIP than on DLA. Some 30% of people moved on to PIP get the highest levels of support; the figure was only 15% on DLA. It is important that disabled people or people with disabled family members who listen to and follow these debates know that there is support for them and that they should come confidently forward to receive it, in the full knowledge that, when we come across problems with the system, we work tirelessly to improve it.
There has been talk about Access to Work. We are very keen to see Access to Work grow and develop. We recently announced that the support available to each person each year is double the average income—that is just under £60,000 per person per year to support an individual into work. It is a demand-led scheme, and I am pleased that it grew by 8% last year. This is one budget that we are happy to see grow, because it means that more people are being supported into work.
I welcome the comments on Disability Confident, which is a growing and successful scheme, and I am grateful to the hon. Members here who have signed up to it. I hope more will come next week to the launch of the community challenge, where we will ask leaders in communities—that is us, as MPs in our local communities—to spend time in our summer recess dedicating ourselves to visiting businesses and employers and asking them to become disability confident and to provide more opportunities for disabled people in their communities. I hope as many people here as possible will come along to that event and will join in with those activities.
So many questions have been asked that I have not been able to answer. I will write back in detail on every point that has been made, so that we can all work together to make sure that every disabled person in our country is truly supported to be the best that they can be and to play as full a part as possible.
I thank everybody here for making my first Westminster Hall debate so fantastic. The contributions by Members from across the House were really special. We heard passionate speeches, particularly from my hon. Friends the Members for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) and for Peterborough (Fiona Onasanya), which were really moving. That is about it—I know we are out of time—so I thank you for your chairmanship and generosity, Dame Cheryl.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Government’s response to the UN report on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Rail Services: Cumbria
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of rail services in Cumbria.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. I will try to make my speech a little shorter than it would have been, to allow time for the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), who shares my deep concerns on this issue.
The Lakes line, between Oxenholme and Windermere in my constituency, may be only a short, 12-mile stretch of railway, but when it comes to significance, it punches far above its length. The Lake district is in its first full year of being a world heritage site, meaning many thousands more tourists, at least, visiting our part of the world. The Lakes line is essential to those visitors accessing the astounding natural beauty of the national park and surrounding areas and the wonderful tourism industry that provides such a breadth of experiences for locals and visitors alike. Our tourism industry generates £3 billion a year, supports 60,000 jobs and is vital to our local economy, but the Lakes line service is not only used by tourists. It is also a key part of the lives of many locals. It is used by hundreds of commuting schoolchildren and workers and is a means of accessing vital services—or at least that is how it used to be. Over the past few months, that has all changed.
When 200 of us walked in protest along the length of the Lakes line 10 days ago, what had been a bustling line was deserted. There were no people at the stations and no trains on the tracks. And let us not fall into the trap of believing that the new timetables are entirely to blame for this catastrophe. Services on the Furness line and the Lakes line have been consistently failing and regularly cancelled ever since Northern took over the two lines in April 2016. This April alone saw 160 cancellations just on the Lakes line. By itself, that substandard provision would be totally unacceptable, but Northern has taken underperformance to new heights.
Like so many others in Cumbria, I was horrified to hear Northern’s announcement on Monday 4 June that all trains on the Lakes line were to be completely suspended—a train line with no trains. The Northern franchise is huge, covering all the local and commuter services in the north-east, Yorkshire and almost all the north-west of England, yet since the introduction of Northern’s interim timetable on 11 June, one in five of all the cancellations on the entire huge network has been on the relatively small Lakes line. Indeed, it is the only line in the country on which services have been completely suspended. That is beyond unsatisfactory; it is completely unacceptable.
However, Northern has not stopped there. We learned on Friday that Arriva Northern had extended the suspension by a further two weeks, to 2 July. That was possible only because the Government had rubber-stamped its request to extend that appalling suspension. A spokesperson for the Department for Transport said that it did not object to that “operational decision”, despite the fact that the Secretary of State himself had assured me that he was
“not prepared to accept more than the current two weeks”
and that he had been
“clear to Arriva that doing this over the long term is simply unacceptable”.—[Official Report, 4 June 2018; Vol. 642, c. 58.]
Those are the Secretary of State’s own words, on the record, from the statement in the House of Commons on 4 June—words that he repeated to me and the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness when we met him that evening. It sounds very much to me, and to many of us, as though the Secretary of State said one thing to the House on that Monday and in practice did the opposite on Friday.
This calamity could not have come at a worse time. The cancellations have occurred during the Easter holidays and through the May half-term, and they are now hitting the local economy during the early summer season. There are fears that the substandard or non-existent provision could stretch into the summer holidays.
Let me gently remind the Minister that we are not a dispensable backwater. After London, we are Britain’s second biggest visitor destination. Our contribution to the UK economy is huge and our contribution to the broader British brand is unrivalled. The lack of trains has already had a catastrophic impact on the people of Cumbria, and the toll that it will inevitably take on the local economy could be enormous. Over the past few weeks, local young people taking their A-level and GCSE exams have found themselves stranded or late to school. People have missed hospital appointments and benefits assessments, while others have been regularly late to work. One woman I spoke to is having to move house from Staveley to Kendal just so that her kids can get to and from school every day and she is not blighted by the worry of her 12-year-old child being stranded in town and unable to get home.
Northern has not only failed to do its job, but completely undermined local confidence in this stretch of railway. My constituents are voting with their feet, and the sight of deserted train platforms along the line is now all too familiar. The replacement bus services are barely used by locals at all. Tourists use the service only because they see no alternative.
However, Northern’s utter failure to do its job and provide adequate train services in Cumbria is not limited to the Lakes line. Over the past few months, the Lakes, Furness and Cumbrian coast lines have all experienced shocking services.
There are also concerns about staffing levels at Northern. It is short of train crew to cover the new Cumbrian Coast timetable, and the Northern control centres are so overstretched that the routes in Cumbria seem to have fallen right to the bottom of its list of priorities. Over the past month, there have been daily cancellations of trains through Workington, including the last train of the day, which is a huge inconvenience and runs the risk of stranding people miles away from home, with no idea of how to get back. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the situation is simply unsustainable and that Northern is badly letting down thousands of people on a daily basis?
I completely agree with everything that the hon. Lady has said. It feels to me very much as though all the lines in Cumbria are afterthoughts for Northern, given its huge empire. Many of the staffing problems would have been completely foreseeable and predictable by competent management who were planning for the future and had Cumbria’s interests at heart, so the hon. Lady is absolutely right to say what she has said.
As I said, over the past few months the Lakes, Furness and Cumbrian Coast lines have all experienced shocking services. My constituents who use the stations at Arnside, Grange-over-Sands, Kents Bank and Cark have experienced service equally dreadful to that experienced by those who use Oxenholme, Kendal, Burneside, Staveley and Windermere. That is not the result of accidental oversight; it has been caused by a series of appalling decisions by both Northern and the Government.
There seem to be three main failings that must be identified and fixed. First, the Government’s choice to cancel electrification of the Lakes line last year has very clearly contributed to the mess that we are in today. Northern took on the line on the understanding—this is the only excuse I will allow the company—that it would soon be running electric trains, and it planned and ordered on that basis. Because of the Government’s decision to cancel electrification, on the basis of inaccurate figures that must now be revisited, Northern were forced quickly to borrow from Scotland old diesel trains that their drivers were not trained to run.
Secondly, the Government awarded the Lakes line and Furness line franchises to Arriva Northern from April 2016. This was an unfolding disaster from day one, given the removal of good services from TransPennine and the introduction of substandard stock and service from Northern. The Minister should undo that mistake today and take the Furness and Lakes lines off Northern. It has clearly breached the terms of its contract: it is contracted to run trains and it has failed to do so.
Thirdly, we have seen incompetence from Northern and inertia from the Government. The fact that no statement was made to Parliament on the crisis until 4 June, despite months of poor performance and despite many of us raising the matter in the weeks and months beforehand—I raised it at Prime Minister’s questions and at Transport questions weeks before it came to the House of the Government’s own volition—leaves many of us questioning the Government’s commitment to those of us in the far north-west.
When the Secretary of State did finally make a statement to the House, it was in part to explain that he had permitted Northern not only to cancel trains, but to cancel an entire line for what turned out to be a month. That cancellation is as unprecedented as it is unacceptable.
In the last few days, a number of us have chosen to prove that we could and would do what the Government and Northern rail could or would not. On Sunday, thanks to the Lakes line rail user group, West Coast Railways and many other volunteers, we began a temporary and limited, but reliable and glorious, service on the Lakes line. The Lakelander has been successfully running on that line for the last four days, and it has kept to time.
Many in Government and the rail industry have helped us—they know who they are, and they probably would not thank me if I named them—but many have not been so helpful. As we have gone through the process of reintroducing trains to England’s most picturesque railway line, we have seen from the inside the lack of co-ordination and can-do spirit in some parts of Government and the rail industry. Never have I seen so much buck-passing or excuse-making as I have in the last few days. Despite that, we now have a limited but excellent service on the Lakes line—a heritage operator on a commuter route.
I do not need to tell hon. Members that that is not a long-term solution, so I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm what action he plans to take. Will he remove the Lakes and Furness lines from Northern as a matter of urgency and run those services directly from the Department until a suitable operator can be identified with the necessary resources, competence and commitment that those two superb lines deserve? The Secretary of State told me and the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness that he would look at that option two weeks ago, so what progress have the Government made?
Will the Minister look again at the case for the electrification of the Lakes line? We now know that the Secretary of State cancelled the electrification last year based on figures that were ludicrously inaccurate. The model that he threw out was based on a service with trains running on at least two tracks, at 125 mph and at intervals of less than two minutes. I respectfully remind the Minister that a brief look at the Lakes line demonstrates that we require none of those things. As a result of using that inaccurate model, it was assumed that the electrification would cost more than double what it would cost to electrify the line in reality. Given the enormous damage done to the reputation of the Lakes line by Northern and the Government, does the Minister agree that the best way to show ongoing commitment to it would be to keep the Government’s initial promise to electrify the line?
Will the Minister fulfil the promise made to me by the Secretary of State in yesterday’s debate to ensure funding to support a marketing campaign to repair and boost the reputation of the Lakes line and of the wider Cumbrian economy? I have forwarded a formal bid for that package to him. I am grateful to Cumbria Tourism, which I asked to draft that proposal and which came up with an excellent bid. I understand that the Minister spoke to the chief executive of Cumbria Tourism this morning, and I am grateful to him for that, so I hope that he will be able to announce today that he will endorse that bid.
Given the chaos on our railways, will the Minister clarify his and the Secretary of State’s powers? On the east coast main line, it appears that the Government have the power to remove a franchise from an operator because the shareholders deem it unprofitable. However, Northern, which has demonstrated an inability to run a basic train service, still retains its franchise. Why has the Secretary of State not intervened? Is it because he does not have the power? In that case, when will the Government seek such powers from Parliament? I, for one, would be happy to vote to grant them. Or is it that he has those powers but has chosen not to use them, in which case he has quite some explaining to do to the people of Cumbria?
It appears that the Government are prepared to take a line away from a rail company when shareholders are losing money, but when passengers are left stranded and are forced to miss work and school, they simply look the other way. That raises the question: what is the purpose of the railways? Are they a public service that underpins our economy, or simply an opportunity for private profit at public expense?
In arranging the Lakes line temporary shuttle service over the last few days, it has become clear that when there is a commitment to a railway line, a passion to serve local people and a determination to succeed, anything is possible. The question is: is the Northern franchise not simply too big and too unwieldy for its own good? Would it not be better for the Cumbrian lines to be taken out of the franchise altogether and run as a micro-franchise so that the people who run our lines are also the people who are committed to them?
I was walking with my children along the old railway line at Sandside between Milnthorpe and Arnside last week. We talked about what had happened to that old line—why it had been closed, the tracks removed and the viaduct dismantled. The Beeching axe fell more than half a century ago on lines that the industry had given up on. It is painfully clear to all of us that Northern has given up on Cumbria. For the sake of everyone who relies on the Lakes and Furness lines, from local students and commuters to our millions of visitors, I call on the Minister to give Northern its marching orders. The travellers of Cumbria are at the end of their tether and, frankly, so am I.
I congratulate you, Dame Cheryl, on your elevation. I thank the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) for his generosity in allowing me a couple of minutes to speak. I congratulate him on securing the debate and on the key role he clearly played in getting a rail service running on the Lakes line.
I will add a couple of remarks about the Furness line and the Cumbria coast line, which are integral parts of the package. I agree with all the calls the hon. Gentleman made. Surely, there is a case that Northern has broken the terms of its contract across its network, particularly in Cumbria, so there must be a case for stepping in in the way that he described.
The Minister must be aware that the Cumbria coast line’s passenger numbers have shown a frightening drop-off since Northern came in. At a time when we are building a world-class civil nuclear corridor, that is clearly not in the country’s interest. On the Furness line, there has been a 500% increase in cancellations since Northern took over the franchise. The recent upsurge in trains running has been made possible, as the company admits, only because the Lakes line has not been running so drivers have been available. In rectifying the problems on the Lakes line, I make a plea to the Minister not to rob Peter to pay Paul. The Furness line and the Cumbria coast line are absolutely vital.
Surely, it is time to admit that the move by the Government and the company to impose driver-only operated trains and to ban vital and popular guards from trains was wrong. The Government can make things better for passengers who are suffering yet more strike action because of that wrong-headed move.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) on securing this debate, which gives us the chance to discuss the Lakes line and Northern in some detail. That is important at this time of significant disruption to passenger services, which affects his constituents and those of the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), who also made some powerful points. Let me not forget the points made by the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) on behalf of her constituents.
I want to remind all hon. Members that the Department’s overriding priority is to restore the reliability of the service across the network. The Secretary of State has left franchise owners, including Northern, under no illusion that they must urgently improve their operational performance. We are also seeking to ensure that we learn all the lessons of why we are in this position and of what has happened since the introduction of the timetable on 20 May, so we have commissioned an independent report by Stephen Glaister, the chair of the Office of Rail and Road.
On Northern’s performance, passengers have experienced unacceptable disruption to their journeys on parts of the network, particularly on the Lakes line. There is a very long way to go until performance reaches what anyone would regard as a reasonable level, but, as I said yesterday, there are signs of improvement. We are starting to turn a corner. The introduction of a temporary timetable by Northern on 4 June will start to rebuild passengers’ trust. The first signs are promising. Industry figures show that over the first two weeks of the reduced timetable, 80% of trains arrived on time and 4% of trains were cancelled or arrived significantly late. That compares to the previous two-week period when 66% of trains arrived on time and an average of 12% of trains were cancelled or significantly late. That is clearly not yet good enough by any stretch; I am not by any means suggesting that. What is important is that we build on that improvement and ensure that over the coming weeks Northern makes further progress towards restoring journeys and reducing disruption as rapidly as possible. Northern plans to run that timetable until the end of July, when it will review progress and hopes to significantly increase the number of timetabled services while continuing to ensure increasing stability.
On the Lakes line, as the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale has said, Northern took the decision to implement an interim timetable from the morning of 4 June and, within that timetable, to effect a temporary suspension of all its services on the Lakes line. That was an operational decision taken by Northern and accepted by Transport for the North, which co-manages the franchise along with the Department for Transport, as the best temporary solution for passengers. That gave the operator greater flexibility to allocate work and training, and it concentrates resources on providing a more resilient train service on wider parts of the network, while providing Lakes line passengers with a more reliable service.
Yes, I can confirm that the franchise is co-managed by Transport for the North, which represents the 19 local transport authorities and local businesses, and the Department for Transport, through the Rail North Partnership. The Rail North Partnership accepted Northern’s operational decision, and the Department for Transport did not accept the decision that went to the Transport for the North board and to the Department for Transport for approval.
The Transport Secretary has been very clear that the line must be open as soon as possible, and Northern is working to keep customers on the move, especially with the tourist season soon reaching its busiest time. From 11 June, the bus service was increased to a pattern of three buses an hour, compared with the usual hourly train service. As well as Northern, both Transport for the North and Transport Focus have been working to obtain feedback from passengers about the replacement bus service. I understand that there has been recognition that the bus service is regarded as acceptable.
I am aware that an open-access operator, West Coast Railways, has agreed access with Network Rail and holds a valid safety certificate with the Office of Rail and Road, permitting it to run services. I want to congratulate the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale on his efforts in galvanising services along the route. In the meantime, the Rail North Partnership and the Department have focused on the introduction of full scheduled Northern services. I am pleased to note the announcement yesterday of a shuttle service between Oxenholme and Windermere offering 12 services daily to commence from 2 July. Northern has consulted Cumbria County Council, the Rail North Partnership and Transport for the North on the details of that shuttle service, which will be an important next step for the resumption of high-quality services in the Lakes area.
On why problems happened and what is being done about them, as hon. Members know, Northern has faced a shortage in the availability of drivers with appropriate route and traction knowledge in various locations, which has, unfortunately, led to far more delays and cancellations to train services. As a result of the delay to electrification schemes in the north-west, Northern is currently undertaking a significant training plan for drivers. That training is planned to continue until the end of July. Northern has also worked hard with ASLEF regarding the situation around rest day working and is hopeful of finding a longer-term resolution that will improve performance. Once the problems are resolved, we will have a much better service for passengers. I understand that that is small comfort to them when things are not working as they should, but once we are through this difficult period, we will have a better railway at the end of it, particularly once all the new trains start to arrive later this year.
On compensation, we are clear that passengers on the lines that have been severely affected will receive additional compensation. My Department is working closely with Network Rail, train operators and stakeholders to introduce a special compensation scheme as soon as possible. We have already recommended to the board of Transport for the North that passengers who buy weekly, monthly or annual tickets on Northern and TPE-affected routes should be eligible to claim up to four weeks’ compensation. We are inviting Transport for the North to work with the operators on the detail of the scheme, which will be announced by the operators in due course so that passengers make compensation claims from early July. I hope that Transport for the North’s board will be able to confirm the final details of the compensation scheme by the time of its next board meeting on 28 June, so that payments can begin to flow in July.
The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale asked about support for the northern economy. We are looking at options to support the Northern economy further, and we expect Northern to fund a marketing campaign encouraging travel to affected areas by train, including the Lakes line when it resumes operation by Northern.
The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness asked structural questions about the shape of the franchise and its future. I understand that passengers have been frustrated by the changes that have happened since services were transferred from TPE to Northern a couple of years ago. The rolling stock is not as good, and reliability has suffered in a way that is not acceptable. There was also understandable disappointment that the Lakes line will not be electrified as previously planned.
To press the Minister on that point, I spoke to Mark Carne a couple of weeks ago and he said he would look again at electrification of the Lakes line. Admittedly, that was before I criticised his award of a CBE, but I hope that he does not take that personally. I would be grateful if the Minister paid serious attention to the possibility of reopening that case, given the evidence I put forward in my speech.
We are looking very carefully at how we can deliver the passenger benefits that electrification would have delivered along the Lakes line. We are continually assessing projects to ensure they offer the best approach. Technology, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is advancing very quickly, and the Government are committed to using the most suitable, practical and affordable approach to modernising each part of the network. Bi-mode trains and other technologies mean that we do not need to electrify every bit of every line to achieve significant improvements, and we will electrify lines only where it delivers a genuine benefit to passengers.
Northern will begin work to explore the possibility of deploying alternative-fuel trains on the route by 2021. It will be a trial to pilot trains capable of using the electrified mainline to Manchester airport and then switching to battery power sources on the Lakes line. Until that happens, the Secretary of State has committed to new trains operating on that line from 2019, subject to the business case.
All stations on the Northern network will benefit from a £38 million investment in bringing stations up to standard, delivering new platform seating, replacement shelters, new waiting rooms and toilets and customer information screens. That will be delivered by the station improvement fund and will also include ticket machines, real-time information and help points at every station with at least 10 passengers using it every day. There will be an additional £9 million investment in making stations more inclusive and accessible.
The Department, working through the Rail North Partnership, is putting in place an action plan for Northern, which includes improving driver rostering to get more trains running now, increasing driver training on new routes, additional contingency drivers and management presence at key locations in Manchester and putting extra peak services in the timetable along the Bolton corridor. Northern has also announced that, until the end of July, it will run fewer services than were originally planned, per the May timetable, to give passengers greater certainty and to increase opportunities for driver training. That temporary measure is necessary to stabilise the service, enabling improvements to be introduced.
I hope that I have reassured hon. Members of the seriousness with which the Government are taking the disruption facing passengers. We are taking action to resolve the problems as quickly as possible, to compensate passengers and to learn the lessons that will help prevent such problems happening in future.
Question put and agreed to.
UK Intergovernmental Co-operation
[Phil Wilson in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered UK constitutional machinery and frameworks for intergovernmental co-operation.
It is a pleasure, Mr Wilson, to serve under your chairmanship.
I am a Unionist by conviction. I have an English mother and a Scottish father; two of my children have married people from Northern Ireland; and three of my four children now live in England. I am also a proud Scot. For me, as for many Scots, the Union is personal; it is social; and it speaks to the heart. It is about family; we are literally a family of nations.
I believe that the people of Stirling, and the people of all the nations and regions of the United Kingdom, expect their Governments at all levels to work together for the common good of all people. Those of us privileged to serve in the House of Commons have a special responsibility to engage in a relentless mission to see that people’s expectations are met. To that end, I propose that we now need to address inadequacies in the constitutional machinery and frameworks, in order to create a better and more functional Union.
Of course, with devolution comes divergence and I embrace that, where it is needed, but I am not interested in creating divisions and differences for the sake of it. Diverse as the nations and regions of the UK are, we also need to work together and to remain united, and deliberate in our determination to do so.
The United Kingdom has now a fairly complex structure of governance. In academic circles, phrases such as “asymmetrical devolution” are used to describe the Union’s complex governance structures. That is a product of the organic way in which the constitution has developed over time. We have had devolution for Scotland and Wales, which required a new way of working; then we had the Good Friday agreement, which required further changes; and then we added more powers for Scotland and Wales. That has all left us in a position where governmental structures are convoluted, complex and, in my opinion, not entirely fit for purpose.
In Scotland, we have a full Parliament with wide-ranging legislative and executive powers, but the powers of the Welsh Assembly are different, and the same is true of the Northern Ireland Assembly. England is governed by the UK Government. However, there are also emerging and exciting visions of local democracy in England, with regional and metropolitan Mayors working to galvanise communities and to bring democratic accountability closer to the people.
That is very different from the situation in, for example, the United States, or in other federal regimes, where the nature of government at state and national level is derived from a uniform constitution that treats all the constituent parts of the country equally. I am not a proponent of such federalism, because imposing an artificial uniformity on our constitutional arrangements would undermine the diversity that makes the United Kingdom unique. The situation in Scotland is different from that in Wales, England and Northern Ireland, and to argue otherwise is to ignore centuries of history and our present-day realities. So, understanding how these different Parliaments and levels of Government relate to one another, given their different competencies, is vital to this Parliament.
What, then, is the current situation with inter- governmentalism in the United Kingdom? The process is governed by a 1999 memorandum of understanding that set out the intentions for how joint working and co-operation should work. There is also a series of concordats that set out the structure for how devolved Administrations should work with the UK Government to ensure that there is co-ordination on certain issues.
The memorandum of understanding then outlines how the Joint Ministerial Committee should work. The JMC is the main way in which such joint working can happen. There are three main elements: to consider where there are devolved issues that will be affected by non-devolved decision making; to consider where there should be joint working on devolved issues; and the resolution of disputes.
The JMC is high-level, chaired by the Prime Minister and attended by the leaders of all the devolved Governments and the Secretaries of State for each of the territorial offices. In the formative years of devolution—from 1999 to 2004—the JMC hardly, if ever, met. The 1999 memorandum of understanding comes from a time when Labour was in power in Westminster, Holyrood and Cardiff. That meant that issues could mostly be dealt with through the internal structures and workings of the Labour party.
As with so many things, the way that Labour approached this situation was without any thought for a future that did not involve them in government. Labour assumed it would be in the respective seats of government in Westminster, Holyrood and Cardiff in perpetuity, and the whole machinery of government was run out of No. 10 or No. 11 Downing Street. Scottish Labour, in the words of a former Labour leader, was run as a branch office of the Blair-Brown axis. In part, that was why Tony Blair once described the power of the Scottish Parliament as being akin to that of an English parish council.
That arrogance in power is what led the people of Scotland to reject Scottish Labour. I remember the days when Conservative voters in Scotland would choose positively to vote for the Scottish National party to get Labour out, and certainly not because of nationalist sympathies. It hardly seems necessary for me to say this, but it is changed days now. The decade since 2007, which followed the end of Labour rule in Scotland and the election of an SNP Scottish Executive, has repeatedly served to show up how inadequate and incomplete the constitutional machinery is. These years have been characterised by growing party political mistrust and division.
Nationalism feeds on discord; it feeds on any grievance that can be created. We saw that last week, when the SNP Members stormed out of the main Chamber of the House of Commons. Theatrics aside, that told the story of how nationalism works. Nationalism works by cynically manipulating imagined slights; it works by stoking our fears and worst instincts. And when there are gaps in the constitutional machinery that should bring Governments and Parliaments together, as I contend there are, those gaps become a wide open space for the manufacture of grievance and division.
Nationalism does not instinctively seek to work co-operatively. I am surprised that even now well-meaning and sincere colleagues from across the House misunderstand the politics of Scottish nationalism. Those colleagues believe that if we are all courteous and reasonable, and show a willingness to compromise to reach an agreement, that approach will be reciprocated.
I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this debate. Although what he says about nationalism is true, does he agree that at the other end of this equation his party is currently also using this situation to aid its best interests? What we are seeing here is a fight between two of Scotland’s Governments, which serve two political parties and not the people of Scotland.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The fractious relationship between the Governments of Scotland serves nobody’s purposes, and it serves no good purpose to have the situation continue.
To be clear, when nationalists walk into a negotiation they are not looking for a way to build a consensus that works for everyone; they would far rather walk out in a huff, having achieved nothing, because that fits with their agenda of conflict and grievance. For them, it is always about the politics and never the outcomes. They would rather have the argument than the solution.
There is no doubt that the nationalists create jurisdictional confusion for their political advantage. If we consider how the public sector in Scotland is run through the civil service and, perhaps more importantly, local health boards and local government, we see that differences between English and Scottish regulatory systems allow a wall to be built around the Scottish public sector. However, when we scratch the surface, we see that the differences between the system in Scotland and the systems in the rest of the United Kingdom are actually not so great. This separation creates separatism; it is moving us apart; and it builds a wall around Scotland.
My hon. Friend is making a very good speech; he is speaking very passionately and articulating clearly the challenges that we face in Scotland now, given the new and evolving democratic position that we find ourselves in. However, in my own area in the borders, we have the borderlands growth deal, which is a very good example of having communities on either side of the border facing the same challenges. The Governments are coming together; the councils are coming together; and we will hopefully find solutions and investment. It is very disappointing, therefore, that the Scottish Government have indicated that they might withdraw from the JMC and stop the delivery of these growth deals, which would mean that those communities would lose out on that investment.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and for the information he brings to the debate. What he describes would be a tragic outcome for everyone, but he underlines the point I am trying to make, which is that the emphasis on differences is not always true. The wall I am describing cements a nationalist agenda of Scottish exceptionalism and difference. It discourages working across borders. The border is used as a barrier to seek to limit the building of partnerships throughout the United Kingdom.
Glasgow City Council has more in common with Manchester and Birmingham City Councils than it does with Argyll and Bute, but they are lumped together incongruously to satisfy a geographic and nationalist imperative. Similarly, the problems of rural health boards are not dissimilar, regardless of whether they are on one side of the border or the other. It is a real shame that the arrangements for the devolved settlements do not contain references to partnership working, other than at ministerial level. Instead, we have created a system that allows for the creation of division and separation, rather than one that encourages partnership and innovation.
The hon. Gentleman makes some interesting propositions on collaborative working at a number of different levels, but the current primary mechanism is the Joint Ministerial Committee. Does he agree that it is currently pointless, as it has no authority? It needs to be put on a statutory footing to give it proper teeth. I am perturbed, because the hon. Gentleman voted down a proposed amendment that would have done that. Why did he do that?
I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman said. I welcome his intervention. I will come on to the point he raised. It has also become the norm with the current arrangements that Scotland’s two Governments conduct their business by megaphone rather than by meeting, speaking and perhaps even listening. There is no imperative that means they must sit down and listen to each other, which speaks to the point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney), and that is just not right. Regionalism is a positive example of how things could be made to work.
The recently established metropolitan Mayors by necessity work with different levels of government. They work with the councils across their regions and with the UK Government. That in turn builds a broad-based coalition of partners that seems to work well, criss-crossing local rivalries and party political loyalties for the good of the region. It encourages compromise and the sharing of objectives. Andy Burnham, the Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester, must work with Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors, and he also must work closely with Conservative Government Ministers. He must negotiate and compromise, as all the Mayors do, but of course none of them are nationalists.
The arrangements for the devolved Parliaments and Assemblies do not encompass that vision of partnering. They seem to me to be tokenistic and designed to create a hierarchy of importance that is not in keeping with a vision of partnership unionism. The history of the JMC is that it meets irregularly on an ad hoc basis, with little or no formal recognition of the value of joint working. There is limited transparency on what happens at those meetings and what difference they make. They are exclusively focused on the Government-to-Government business of the moment. There is no structure for formal departmental or inter-parliamentary working, or for local government agencies or other national agencies to work together. There is so much to be gained by creating those networks and forums as part of the process of the machinery of the Union.
There are examples in the world of how things can be made to work better. The Canadian system is a case in point. It is federal in nature, but the different provinces and territories have different levels of local control, and the parliamentary system has important similarities with that of the UK. The Canadians have a national Ministry of Intergovernmental Affairs and Youth, headed by a Cabinet Minister—the so-called Unity Minister. So important is that role to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that he performs it himself. It is not as simple as being a command and control network from the federal Government. Far from it—the Ministry’s remit is far deeper than establishing national guidance or control for the provincial and territorial governments. It is responsible for encouraging joint working between the provinces and territories and the local government agencies.
My hon. Friend has spoken precisely about the Canadian situation. He is coming from a Scottish point of view, but does he see the parallel with our position in Europe? There is an intergovernmental body in existence already, called the Council of Europe. We should be using it more as the framework for the future.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the Council of Europe, and I am going to talk about Europe. I will return to Canada for a moment, though, because there is a plethora of joint working agencies across Canada engaged in educational, infrastructural, economic, health and environmental works. The support mechanism is a secretariat that seems to be independent of the federal Executive. The body is drawn from civil servants from across the Canadian public sector and exists to support intergovernmental co-operation at all levels. It encourages and facilitates meetings, helping provincial, territorial, federal and local government leaders to arrange sessions and meetings on any subject. They call it collaborative federalism, and it encourages a sense of national unity, even in a federation where there are nationalist elements. There are lessons for the United Kingdom here.
I propose a partnership Unionism. At present, we have the Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland Offices. It has often been thought that merging them would create efficiencies for the UK Government, but in doing so we would lose a lot of the point of those Departments. The idea is that they give voice to the nations of the Union within the UK Government and are the UK Government’s voice in the nations that they serve. Rather than thinking about merging them and reducing the role of the respective Secretaries of State, it would be far better to think of an entirely better way of working.
There is a statement in the memorandum of understanding of 1999 that says that
“the Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are responsible for ensuring that the interests of those parts of the UK in non-devolved matters are properly represented and considered.”
Part of the issue here, however, is the role of the territorial Offices of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Departments that have a Union responsibility, such as the Treasury, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Department for International Trade and so forth, depend too much on the territorial Offices. They should not be channelling their activities through a territorial Department; they should be actively involved in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on a direct basis and to a greater extent. I feel very strongly about that.
The Departments that have an area of responsibility covering the whole of the Union should be active in all the nations and regions of the Union, not only in England. Please do not short-change my constituents. We pay our taxes, elect a Government and have every right to expect that the Union Departments are working for us across the United Kingdom.
Absolutely not. On the contrary, what I am proposing will be another support to the functioning of devolution, because it will bring the nations and regions of the United Kingdom together, so that we can have better governance in all parts of the United Kingdom. As I said earlier, I feel very strongly about the issue.
The Union Departments that work in Scotland should not be working through the prism of the Scotland Office. In the eyes of the Scottish people, there needs to be more to the UK Government presence in Scotland than the Scotland Office. It is not an easy task by any means to operate a territorial Office; the expertise required stretches across all aspects of government, and the territorial offices have relatively small budgets to staff themselves. The expectation that they can have expertise across all aspects of government is unrealistic.
We must also banish any notion of “devolve and forget” on the part of the Departments that serve the whole Union. Can we please ensure that there is no tendency on the part of those Ministers who have a direct responsibility for matters in Scotland to walk on eggshells and tiptoe around issues, rather than authoritatively dealing with them, as they would in any other part of the UK? The people of Scotland want the UK Government to act, and they have every right to expect them to do so. Surely, Ministers of the Crown are not nervous about upsetting nationalists? I can report that I have seen no evidence of such an attitude from the Ministers I have worked with.
Part of the confusion here is a genuine misunderstanding of which Departments are genuinely UK-wide and which Departments are England-only. A renaming of Departments that relate to England to clearly mark them as Departments for England, such as having the “Department of Health and Social Care for England” and the “Department for Education for England”, would help with the demarcation. It may require some rejigging of departmental responsibilities. I find it very difficult to understand how a Department can possibly have both England-only and Union responsibilities. The Home Office, for example, should be the UK Department for Borders and Security; prisons and policing in England should be passed to the Justice Department for England.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I am proposing nothing for England. It is up to the people of England to decide what kind of governance they want. I am proposing a better way to operate the Union to serve all parts of the United Kingdom.
My proposal would help the Health and Social Care Secretaries for Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland to sit together in a council of equals and discuss matters of mutual concern, allowing joint working and the cross-fertilisation of ideas. It would be the same for education, policing, transport and a multitude of other issues. The creation of a new and powerful Department of the Union at Cabinet level would help to bind that together and encourage joint working. That is especially important because leaving the European Union will require us to come up with new frameworks that will need to be negotiated between the devolved Governments. Those frameworks would allow for mutual esteem and respect.
Intergovernmental conferences should be a big deal, not an ad hoc tick-box exercise to satisfy a memorandum of understanding. Those in political leadership should be required to hold such meetings regularly and to have a Department that drives a partnership agenda. The Department of the Union should be established with civil servants seconded from across the United Kingdom, not simply from Whitehall, to encourage a culture of mutual respect and the dissemination of ideas throughout the country. Its remit should reach beyond the national Government level to the local level—not in a statutory or interfering way, but in a positive way that encourages Governments and politicians to work together.
The Department would have at its core the principle of early intervention in conflict resolution. It would be designed to ensure that conflict is avoided and consensus achieved before there is any hint of a full-blown confrontation.
I am really interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Given the behaviour of the UK Government towards Scotland over the past few weeks, and last week in particular, it seems to me that they are not particularly interested in what Scotland or Scots have to say.
With the greatest respect, I have never heard such nonsense. The opposite is the case. The United Kingdom Government are determined to ensure that powers repatriated from Brussels go to the Scottish Parliament, and the SNP voted against that last week. We should never forget that.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generosity. He mentioned local government, which is an important aspect of the equation. This is not merely about devolved powers residing in Holyrood; it is a question of the over-centralisation of government in Scotland itself. Scotland is actually the most centralised country in Europe in terms of governance. We have to radically address that distribution of power within Scotland.
I could not agree more. We need to look closely at what has resulted from 11 years of SNP Government in Edinburgh. It is highly centralised and it is denuding our democracy at a local, grass-roots level.
When there is a dispute or an argument, there must be a formal process for arbitration and ultimately for judgment. It is still right and proper that the ultimate judgment in matters of constitutional law should be reserved to the Supreme Court, but such a referral should be seen as failure of the model that I am outlining. We should take the best lessons from the Canadian system and from our experience in the European Union. We should build on the strengths of the EU Commission model to ensure that all parts of the Union are engaged. That may require politicians to think beyond their existing positions and more strategically than they do today.
The EU has also created a series of structures designed to draw the union closer together. The Committee of the Regions was a good example of that, where local government was involved in the decision-making structure. That gave an incentive for local government to get involved and work together across the EU. It helped to draw people together and to forge friendships and working partnerships. We need the same for the UK, and a statutory meeting of local government across the UK would be a good foundation to build that on, supported by a secretariat from the Department of the Union.
My vision is for a system that is underpinned by statute, where an independent body provides a secretariat for intergovernmental working, replicating that which occurs in the Canadian and European systems. It would be founded in a spirit of co-operation, and laws would need to be passed to ensure that it was funded and given the authority to co-ordinate that kind of joint working. We would need to give it the kudos to attract and retain talent, and it would need to be at the heart of the Governments in Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast and London.
The ideas that I am presenting are fairly simple ones that would allow the Union to flourish. Learning from the Canadian and EU experience would allow a new partnership and allow Unionism to emerge by stark contrast to divisive nationalism. I love the Union, and it remains under threat by nationalism. Those of us who believe in it have an immovable duty to work together to see that it is strengthened, renewed and remains relevant to the lives of the people of our country. There is something here too for the nationalists who want to see a country where the machinery of government works for the common good of all. It is about our mission to build a better country and a better future.
Today’s debate should be the start of a dialogue. I invite all my colleagues who want to make our country work better to come forward and give their ideas for a realignment of our constitutional machinery. We must work together to resolve our differences and problems, rather than shout at each other over the media or the Floor of the House. I know the public in Stirling and the rest of the United Kingdom would like us to do that. They are fed up of the point scoring and petty politics. They want politicians to be mature, to act maturely and to work together to build a better United Kingdom for the future.
It is a great pleasure to speak in the debate and under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Wilson. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) for the tone and the manner in which he presented the debate. We have seen over the last week or so in this Parliament what can be achieved if people work together constructively, rather than perform petty political stunts that merely fan the flames of what we are trying to fight against.
The hon. Gentleman talked about a fractious relationship between the UK and Scottish Governments, which there certainly is. I made the point in the House this week that we have to try to find a way for both parties to come together, because the current stand-off, particularly on some of the major issues regarding devolution and our withdrawal from the European Union, cannot be sustained in the long term. We have to find a way for both Governments to put aside their problems, to get round the table and to try to thrash out a negotiation. A negotiation has to involve compromise. There have been very few negotiations in history on major issues where both parties have got 100% of what they wanted. There needs to be a willingness for both sides to compromise, and I am not sure at this stage if that ability to compromise is there.
We know the structure of both Governments working together is written down in a 1999 memorandum of understanding. In fact, Tony Blair, whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and Jack McConnell the former First Minister said at the time that they wished to remove it, because they did not think that the Joint Ministerial Committee, in the way it had been set up, was constructive and would take things forward. We now have some real problems with devolution. It worked when Scotland was Scottish Labour, Wales was Welsh Labour and there was a UK Labour Government. Government was able to function, probably because of the more informal ways that the Governments could talk, rather than through the formal JMC.
I took umbrage at a bit of what the hon. Gentleman said. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) was right. I tabled an amendment to the Scotland Bill that would have put the Joint Ministerial Committee on a statutory footing and set out agendas, minutes, publication, involvement and a mechanism for resolving disputes. The Conservative Government at the time completely dismissed that and voted against the amendment.
During the debate on the Sewel convention, I tabled an amendment that would have taken the word “normally” out of the convention, so the UK Government could not legislate in devolved areas unless they went through the process of the JMC and a formal dispute resolution mechanism. The Opposition have been trying to be helpful this week—indeed, we have been trying to be helpful for a number of years—regarding legislation on the Floor of the House. The hon. Member for Stirling was not in the House at the time, but his party voted against our amendments.
We have to get off this grievance agenda. I have no problem with the SNP’s stunt of walking out of the Chamber. It elevated an issue to the front pages from pages seven or eight, because we were unable to get media interest in those big issues. I have no problem with that kind of stunt, but does it really serve the interests of the people whom we are here to represent? We have to find a way forward.
The key point is that there is absolutely no trust whatsoever between the Scottish Government and the UK Government at the moment. Until we can find a way of building that trust, the only people who will suffer are the people of Scotland, who voted in 2014 to remain part of the United Kingdom, who voted for the Scottish parliamentary set-up that we have at the moment and who voted for their contribution to the UK Government in terms of the votes in Scotland. The people have spoken and would expect both Governments to get on with it, and will be very frustrated at the moment. I agree with the tone and tenure of what the hon. Gentleman is trying to achieve. I hope that the Minister will listen to some of those very brave ideas and bring some forward.
I will finish with an example. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Canada, but in the provisions of the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland, he will find it written down how the north of Ireland and the Republic work together cross-border on a whole manner of issues—how that holds together is one of the biggest concerns in the post-Brexit Britain environment. There are examples out there in Canada and across the globe of how Governments can find formal mechanisms to work together, but there is also one on our border across the Irish sea. If the hon. Gentleman was to bring a ten-minute rule Bill to the House, proposing something written in a legislative form, it would certainly get my backing. I am sure that it would get the backing of the whole House if we could find a mechanism for both Governments to work better together in a more formal setting.
I would say this to the hon. Gentleman: knock on the door of the Secretary of State at Dover House and get him to publish the proper minutes of the Joint Ministerial Committee on the issues of devolution, so that we can find out whether it is the Conservative party or the Scottish National party that is frustrating it. I think that I know the answer to that question already, but the Scottish public deserve to see exactly what is going on. Until we have transparency, we will all be in the dark about how both Governments work together.
It is a pleasure to speak under your direction, Mr Wilson. I congratulate my colleague and constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr), on securing this important debate. I will start on a positive note—the recent signing of the Stirling and Clackmannanshire city deal, which is a prime example of what can be achieved when different levels of government work together to achieve for their constituencies.
The key point about devolution in this country is that reserved powers are as important to the devolution settlement as devolved powers. Schedule 5(1) of the Scotland Act 2016 is very specific. Westminster is as vital to devolution as Holyrood. That is why we have directly elected Scottish MPs. If anyone ever doubts the influence of Scotland in Westminster, they should just look at the Conservative Government, which would not be standing if it were not for the seats held by Scottish Conservatives—[Interruption]—within the Conservative party itself.
Devolution has so far been a completely one-way street. With the Bill that is currently in the House, we will have 80 more powers transferred to the Scottish Parliament that have never before sat with Scotland. My hon. Friend raised some important questions about the structure of how we want to govern for our constituencies and for the United Kingdom. Devolution was not meant to build a wall between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. It was not meant to separate Scotland off. It was meant to bring power closer to the communities that that power is meant to serve.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that devolution should not be looked at as a wall. Does he agree that we are talking about not just how the United Kingdom operates within a governmental mechanism and how we can devolve governance and politics, but how we can also devolve the economy and employment? An awful lot of the time nationalism feeds on dissatisfaction and unemployment, and that is why we need to try to address the problems that exist right across the United Kingdom.
I could not agree more. I think devolution has been a response to the failures of previous Governments of all colours to serve all nations and regions of the United Kingdom. I will come on shortly to the point that has been raised, and I have raised previously, about the centralisation of power in Edinburgh and how that does a disservice to my constituents and others throughout Scotland.
Looking at the performance of devolved powers, there are very few benchmarks where we can say we are doing better. In health, seven out of the eight targets set by the devolved Administration have not been met. NHS Tayside, which covers a large part of my constituency, is an absolute shambles. Education in Scotland used to be outstanding—a byword for world-class standards—but it is now ranked merely as average, as we fall down in maths, science and reading in international rankings. We want things to be devolved, but when areas are struggling and when Scotland’s economic performance is a full percentage point below that of the rest of the United Kingdom, we need to look at what central Government can do to provide even more support, whether through additional funding or whatever else, to support our constituents.
No one should be forced to choose between being Scottish and British, or English and British, or Northern Irish and British, or Welsh and British. It is an identity that people can choose to adopt. It should not matter wherever someone is born—Scotland and the United Kingdom can be their home. We need to be very clear that devolution should not act as a wall but should be used to pass power right the way through the United Kingdom.
On the centralisation of power in Edinburgh, the Smith commission cross-party agreement, which included the Scottish National party, said that powers would pass from Westminster to Edinburgh to local councils and authorities. That has not happened. Powers have been taken from Westminster and are gathered jealously in Edinburgh, rather than being distributed to support our local councils and constituents.
It was not Scotland alone that won the world wars. It was not England in isolation that launched the NHS. We achieved those big programmes together. Looking forward, we can bring together and champion our 75,000 or 100,000 constituents, the 5.3 million Scots in Scotland and the 800,000 or so in England, and pull together as a total country of more than 65 million to face some of the huge challenges that the entire world faces. We are not better facing climate change alone or becoming smaller. We are not better facing international instability on our own or becoming smaller. We are better doing that together. Governments should support that. Devolution is not a wall. Westminster and every other level of government needs to deliver for our constituents.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) on setting the scene so very passionately. It is refreshing to have him and his colleagues in the House to add to our richness of political expression on all sides of the Chamber. It is good to have that. I am an Ulster Scot, with my ancestry in Scotland—I have checked it out and know that to be the case. I am descended from the Stewarts from the lowlands of Scotland. The name Shannon is not an Irish name; it is a derivative of the name Stewart, and I am very pleased to put that on the record.
I understand completely the point of view of the hon. Member for Stirling, and I am sure he will understand my comments within the framework of the current Northern Ireland situation. I am a Unionist, a Democratic Unionist and an Ulster Scot, and we are within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and we are better together, all regions and all of us—Scots, Welsh, Northern Irish and English.
As hon. Members have outlined, the framework for intergovernmental co-operation in its current form came from devolution in 1998. The UK Government have territorial Offices whose function it is to facilitate relations with the Scottish Government, Welsh Government and Northern Ireland Executive. The Cabinet Office is also responsible for intergovernmental discussions where matters arise between them. The parent forum for intergovernmental co-operation is the Joint Ministerial Committee, which consists of the respective Heads of Government in the United Kingdom and, where relevant, the Deputy Prime Minister and Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but other Ministers may attend in certain circumstances where the relevant areas of policy discussion require it.
As much as I respect and understand my friends and colleagues in this Chamber of all political aspirations and from other regions, the situation that we face in Northern Ireland is so very different, and is so very complex and serious, that I would not be doing my job as the MP for Strangford if I did not stand up and say that we are in a crisis. It is past time that the Cabinet, the Joint Ministerial Council and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland began to take steps to take control of the non-administration of the Northern Ireland Assembly in Northern Ireland.
We are fast approaching the time when that will have to happen. We have school principals from every area of the country—in my constituency and across the whole of Northern Ireland—writing to us as MPs, literally begging someone to come and sort out the funding issue. We had additional money granted in the block grant, and additional money delivered to address issues in health and education, but for some reason we have permanent secretaries who feel unable to allocate additional funds as needed. We achieved the £1.4 billion financial agreement between the Conservative party and the Democratic Unionist party that delivers for everyone of all political aspirations in Northern Ireland, on both sides of the community—that money is for all. The greater good of the nation drove the deal that we made in June last year.
We are looking at country schools that service isolated communities and the cutting of their funding by a full teacher’s salary, which to all intents and purposes closes the doors, while at the same time giving grants for schools that manage to save resources for the following years. Let us allow them to fund a teacher instead of giving grants for not using as much in resources. In my constituency we have teachers from small rural schools bag-packing in Tesco on Saturdays to attempt to raise money for their schools when they should have time off, as is their right. We need a Minister to direct a diversion of funding to staunch the bleeding of our education system and to carry out the surgery that is needed to direct the flow in the right direction. We need direction, which we are not getting from democratically elected Ministers.
My party is happy. There are no red lines preventing us going back into power, but it is clear that Sinn Féin are the obstacle to moving forward. It is time for us not to differ, but instead to look towards the things that we can agree on. That is where we should be. Whenever I talk to some of the Shinners they tell me that they want education and a better health system, but at the same time they draw a red line on the Irish language and other issues that we have some problems with. Since we are rudderless and this place has the ability to step in and step up, that must be done.
I cannot speak for other areas, but this is the place to speak for my constituents in Strangford in Northern Ireland. For the day-to-day running of the country, I urge the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Education, the bodies that we have heard so much about today, to influence and even instruct permanent secretaries to do the right thing. Decisions must not be made by public outcry, but by reasoned and considered information exchange, and that is not happening in Northern Ireland. Let us use our intergovernmental ability to unfreeze Northern Ireland and make it into the place where we educate our children, fix all of the health issues that are so important and get the operations done. Let our young people get a place in their excellent local university and have job opportunities and a stable future. That was the case some years ago, but that has changed and our modus operandi must change too.
This debate is about the UK’s machinery for the framework of intergovernmental co-operation. I appreciate that my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) has approached it from a Scottish perspective and that much of the debate has centred on devolution. But the more I have listened to this debate the more I am convinced that it has implications for our future relationship with Europe. My reason for saying that comes from various perspectives. We have heard that this was about better ways of operating the union, but I think we also need to look at better ways of operating Europe. One of the ways in which we can do that is already in existence as an organisation of intergovernmental co-operation: the Council of Europe. I am pleased that all of the political parties represented in the Chamber have representatives on the Council of Europe. Not a single party here is not represented on the Council of Europe and the issue of devolution does not come up at all in the delegations. We act very well as a UK delegation.
The intergovernmental framework already exists and we already work together on a constructive basis. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling mentioned that it is better to work together, which is absolutely true. The Council of Europe works on the basis of consensus, not on the basis of legislative implications for the various countries there.
The hon. Gentleman is developing the thesis that he alluded to earlier. Does he agree with me that the vast majority of people outside the body politic would assess the progress or otherwise of intergovernmental conference working, whether it be on devolution or Europe, on how it affects them in their local society, how it affects their ability to get a job, and how it affects their schools and all the devolved issues? Those are the criteria by which we have to judge any success or otherwise. Does he agree that that is what the general public would adjudicate on?
I agree that that is how the public would look at it. I think that we have been absolutely useless at telling the public what the Council of Europe does. It operates across almost every main Department of Government in the UK. It operates across the Home Office, with an emphasis on terrorism and security. It also operates across the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport through the recommendations we put forward on football governance, for example. We need to send out a message about what the Council of Europe does and how it operates. It does not dictate laws to countries. Even its conventions are for Governments to decide whether to sign up to, rather than ones that they are forced into. For all those reasons I think that there is a great purpose in the future of our relationship in Europe being based on the Council of Europe.
The Prime Minister said that we are leaving the European Union, but not leaving Europe. She went on to say:
“We should not think of our leaving the EU as marking an ending, as much as a new beginning for the United Kingdom and our relationship with our European allies.”
I do not think that is a new beginning in itself. It is a beginning that can be founded in the Council of Europe. When we have that body in place, why on earth are we trying to reinvent the wheel and not using it for the purpose for which it was intended in 1949?
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) on securing this debate. He made a characteristically rumbustious speech that might be provocative in some quarters, but at no time can one accuse the hon. Gentleman of not engaging his grey cells, because there was a lot of new stuff and food for thought for us all in what he said.
First, I want to absolutely echo the remarks made physically on my right but politically on my left by the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) about the fact that the Joint Ministerial Committee is a toothless tiger. It needs to beef up and be made real and I wholeheartedly endorse the comments that have been made. Secondly, no one knows better than a former Highland councillor or a representative of a Highland constituency just what has happened apropos the centralisation of powers in Edinburgh. The style of government that I see today is dramatically different, believe it or not, from that under Conservative Administrations long ago when there was more opportunity to do things differently and to negotiate with the Government and tailor-make solutions to suit the local area. Thirdly, the point made about Canada is absolutely apt. There is a mechanism there that we should look at because it works.
Some days ago I made a point in the Chamber about how 16 to 18-year-olds can buy knives in Scotland—carving knives or suchlike—and yet across the border in England they cannot. That seems to a lot of people I know, ordinary folk, to be dotty. The point was made to me by a colleague afterwards that knife crime is lower in Scotland. That is all very well, but it still means that someone can go and buy a knife across the border and come back, so that is hardly being a good neighbour. Many people have asked me what the point is in having drunk-driving laws on one side of the border that are different from those on the other. When I drive down to see my sister-in-law who lives in Northumberland, every time—not because I have a drink problem—I think to myself, “I am in England. I can have a pint now and I will not be pulled over and not be done for it.”
On the other hand, this is not at all an anti-devolution speech—before I am accused of making one. I am proud of my 12 years in the Scottish Parliament. Some Members present for the debate attended an event today about the Scottish food and drink industry. The fact that the Scottish Government are looking at a different, tailor-made approach to the obesity problem is wholly laudable, and other regions of the UK can learn from that. That is what I call a proper exercise of devolution, but where there is a mismatch in fundamental laws embracing the entire UK, across borders, we should think carefully.
My second point—to repeat myself—is one that I made on Monday. In addition to the matter of the Joint Ministerial Committee, there is a breakdown between institutions—between Westminster and Holyrood. I said twice in interventions on Monday night that there should be some cross-party mechanism for Back-Bench MPs and MSPs to engage and converse, and to have a dialogue to understand the needs and issues that both institutions face. Let us face it, dialogue never hurts. Some sort of mechanism should be set up, and to that end I wrote this week to Mr Speaker and to Mr Kenneth Macintosh, the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament. I hope that they will look favourably on the idea of considering some such mechanism. As other hon. Members have asked, what do we gain from dispute between the institutions? Nothing. Who loses? The citizens—the good people of Scotland.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson.
I have fond memories of happy days discussing constitutional machinery and frameworks for inter- governmental co-operation with people on the doorsteps of Edinburgh North and Leith in 2014. How engaged they all were with it. I love a bit of constitutional machinery, and the way it works so well when Governments co-operate for the greater good, as has been said. It is special—an aggregation that is greater than the sum of its parts. Each side benefits when Governments, sovereign in their own rights—none subservient to another and none in a position to overrule another unilaterally—benefit all the peoples of their nations by agreeing a way forward. That is a description of the EU, by the way, as has been mentioned. A supranational organisation with co-operation between nations delivers benefits for all that no nation could achieve on its own. They put aside their differences and any petty mistrust they may have, agree common rules and laws and tear down barriers. None has the right to impose on another and none can say “We will keep this power here,” or “You don’t know enough to do this yourself”.
That is the difference between confederal co-operation and controlled devolution; between sovereignty being pooled only with the consent of individual nations and power devolved being power retained; and between parity of esteem and patronising guff from a Parliament and Government that think they are above all else. That is the difference between the Canadian federal system of which the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) spoke so glowingly and the uneven, unfair devolved set-up that promises many rights but delivers few. I find it difficult to envisage the Canadian federal Government dictating laws to the Governments of the provinces in the way that the UK Government aggressively and contemptuously forced measures through last week.
In using the Canadian example I think the hon. Lady misinterprets what my hon. Friend was saying. He was talking about a mechanism. The histories of our two countries are very different. I should hope that the hon. Lady would appreciate that. Canada was separate states that then came together in union. We are one unitary state with devolution taking a part. It is a completely different constitutional framework. I hope that the hon. Lady appreciates that.
I perfectly understand that, but I do not think I should have to accept it. It is an odd argument to make.
Of course, we could have had the debate in a forum where it matters—in debate on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. If only there were a Government with class and confidence in Whitehall, rather than a collection of desperate individuals who act with all the finesse of a tap dancing wildebeest. The sheer cowardice displayed in refusing to programme properly for debate on devolved issues was as appalling as the contempt shown by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster—of all offices—who made sure that he talked away any chance of a contribution from anyone else, before leaving the Chamber with a grin, and a spring in his step.
As to the point made by the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) about the different histories, I am unaware—perhaps the hon. Lady can enlighten me—but was not there a union of the two crowns, in the Acts of Union, between Scotland and England?
Yes, there was indeed. There was a union of the crowns in around 1605. [Interruption.] Forgive me—1603, indeed, under James VI.
Surely there can never have been a Government so tone deaf about such a crucial constitutional debate as the one who decided that what I have described was the way to handle things. When we think back through the list of Prime Ministers who have navigated their way through Parliaments in this building there are some numpties but there are few who would have made such a breathtaking mistake as to allow that contempt to show so openly, and even fewer who would not have been advised well by others around the Cabinet table of the danger into which they were putting themselves—the Government and the United Kingdom that they so preciously guard.
The current Prime Minister, one of the least able of all recent holders of the office—worse even than Gordon Brown—is poorly advised by her colleagues, ill advised by her staff and not advised by the Secretary of State for Scotland. He is posted missing—not quite absent but certainly not present. He is not engaged in Whitehall on Scotland’s behalf, but is busy in Scotland on Whitehall’s behalf.
Thank you, Mr Wilson. Yes, I am perfectly aware that the people of Scotland, or some of them, certainly, will be watching. I am not sure that I personify the kind of nationalism of which the hon. Member for Stirling constantly tries to portray the SNP as proponents. Of course I am an Australian, and half English. He might be advised to remember that.
If George Younger were Banquo the current Macbeth would wonder what he was on about. Younger’s boast that UK Government decisions on Scotland were made in Edinburgh, not London, would never pass the lips of the current Scotland Secretary. His constitutional machinery has broken down. He is not Scotland’s man in Whitehall, or even Whitehall’s man in Scotland. He is simply Whitehall’s voice in Scotland—a dunnerin brass. He is the propaganda man under whose tenure Scotland Office spin doctor spending has gone through the roof, reaching three quarters of a million pounds this year. On his watch advertising spending on social media has become a Scotland Office priority, excluding people who have an interest in Scottish independence from a marketing campaign trying to suggest that Scotland needs the UK more than we need the EU, but including people with an interest in RAF Lossiemouth in a campaign about the budget. Then, of course, there was the online advertising campaign that was run entirely in his constituency.
The UK Government talk a lot about Scotland having two Governments, and about how they should work together, but there is a chasm between the suggestion that there is still a respect agenda and the reality, where a Secretary of State uses his office of state to attack Scotland’s Government, denigrate the politicians who are trying to improve Scotland, and undermine the very fabric of devolution. We have seen a sustained and unrelenting attack on the choices that Scots have made—and on none more than the decision we made to stay in the EU. We have seen the disregard, disrespect and contempt in which the UK Government has held those choices.
I would be perfectly happy to speak about the suggestion of the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) on some future date.
Scotland’s Parliament voted for the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill; Scots MPs wanted to debate the implications of the EU question for devolved Administrations; the Scots Government offered compromise and conversation, and at every step the UK Tory Government turned a sneering, contemptuous face away. The constitutional machinery and the frameworks for intergovernmental co-operation on these islands will work only if the political will is shown, if there is mutual respect, and if they are allowed to. They do not work, and that is the fault of Whitehall Ministers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I had hoped that more Members would be present today, but I realise that this feels a little like a break-out group from the main plenary in the Chamber of the House of Commons.
I have two preliminary points. First, the last time I replied to the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) in a debate that he initiated in Westminster Hall, I said that I would not congratulate him because I felt that he was being extremely partisan in using this forum for debate to attack the Scottish National party. On this occasion, I welcome the fact that he has initiated this debate, and I congratulate him on the way that he conducted himself during the first half of his speech. There were moments when he perorated on constitutional and democratic theory, and I would respect that in any debate in this Chamber. Unfortunately, he got ahead of himself. He could not really help himself, and he went into his usual rehearsed invective against my party, the Scottish Government and, I suppose by implication, the 40% of the Scottish electorate who support what we argue for. That was a bit of a shame. I feel that he let himself down at the end, but there we go—something is better than nothing.
My other preliminary point concerns what a number of Members have said about the events of last week, which they described as some sort of theatrical parliamentary stunt, or apparent walkout, by my party. That situation arose last Wednesday because of what had happened the day before, when we were given 19 minutes to discuss all the consequences of the Lords amendments to the Brexit Bill in the context of Scottish devolution, Welsh devolution, and the whole question of Ireland and the Irish border. Nineteen minutes—one minute for every year that devolution has existed. I think everyone will agree that that was woefully inadequate; I hope that even the Minister will agree with that. When the leader of my party tried to protest about that lack of—
I will take your guidance, Mr Wilson, but I am responding to the debate and those accusations were made. I want to put on the record that we attempted to protest about that lack of opportunity to represent our constituents, and I feel that a better Prime Minister would have acknowledged that and provided more time. Instead she was dismissive of the leader of my party, who then got into a row with the Speaker who expelled him from the House. I do not know what else we could have done at that juncture except walk out in solidarity.
I fear not. I suspect that the Chair does not want us to get into a discussion about the events of last Wednesday.
Let me turn to the motion before us. It is good that we are discussing this issue now, because it is topical and relevant. We are in the middle of a process that is all about relations between the United Kingdom Government and the devolved Administrations of the United Kingdom. Government Members have suggested that when I use phrases such as “power grab”, not only am I over-egging the pudding, but I am completely misrepresenting the position. Apparently there is no power grab whatsoever; there is a powers bonanza with a huge list of powers being given to the Scottish Government—indeed, that list was read out in the Chamber last week. From the Labour Benches, the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) says, “Actually, you are both wrong. It is neither a power grab nor a powers bonanza. Those are partisan arguments from two parties, one in government in Scotland, and one in government in the UK.”
I would like to test the arguments about a power grab. First, one must distinguish between responsibility for a particular area, and the power to execute and change policy in that area. It is proposed that the Scottish Government should get a list of additional responsibilities after powers are repatriated from Brussels post-Brexit, but they will have much less authority and power than they currently have to do anything about those responsibilities. In 24 major areas—the most significant ones—the way that the Scottish Government discharge their responsibilities will be subject to a United Kingdom framework. We do not know the details of that framework because the discussion has not even got that far. So far in the Joint Ministerial Committee on Europe, and other forums, there has been a discussion on the principles of how those arrangements might work, but it is the principles that are the problem.
Let me illustrate that by an example. Suppose after Brexit, we have a joint committee of the United Kingdom, involving the United Kingdom Government and the devolved Administrations, to discuss agricultural policy. In that body, the interests of Scottish farmers would be represented by the Scottish Government or their appointees, and likewise for Wales and possibly Northern Ireland. The interests of English farmers would be represented by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—a Westminster Department. Why? Because there is no other body to do that for English farmers. There is no English Government or representative for English farmers.
I agree that English farmers need to be represented thoroughly in those discussions. The problem is that when there is a difference of opinion between the components of those arrangements, DEFRA will decide what happens. As well as advocating for the interests of one party, it will sit as judge and jury in deciding what happens for everyone else. That effectively means that this Parliament—Westminster—always gets to dictate what happens to the devolved Assemblies. There are two potential ways round that. One is to find another way of representing English farmers, such as by having an English Parliament or some other body, and the other is to allow DEFRA to continue to do that, but to have an independent arbiter as part of the arrangements that can arbitrate in disputes, supported by all parties and according to an agreed set of rules. That is exactly the proposition that the Scottish Government put forward in the JMC, but it was dismissed by the Westminster Government. We have therefore stalled the discussions about joint arrangements because there is no agreement in principle. We must return to the realisation that if we are to make this work, there must be a partnership between the component parts of the UK.
I do not accept for a minute that we need such joint arrangements to dictate uniform policy all the time, although there will be times when a case for that can be made. Sometimes, however, it is simply a matter of co-ordination. What does it matter if some things differ in different parts of the United Kingdom? Perhaps we can benefit if one Administration were to go further, while others might like to take see their time and see whether something works.
A smokescreen is being presented that claims that we cannot have the type of system I suggest because it would affect the United Kingdom’s ability to undertake trade deals. I think that is nonsense. No one is arguing for executive authority over farms and fisheries in Scotland to frustrate a United Kingdom trade deal. Let me illustrate that, because at the moment there are differences. Take liquor retail, for example, which I worked in before I became a Member of the House. At the moment there are completely different regulations north and south of the border. For example, the previous licensing Act prohibited the use of incentives to buy alcohol through discounting—we cannot have a three-for-two offer in Scotland.
I am sorry, Mr Wilson. I thought I had 10 minutes, but I will bring my remarks to a close. At the moment, retailers and wholesalers in Scotland have different point of sale presentations, and different packaging on products. That is really not a problem—people are trying to make it one but it does not exist.
Finally, my beliefs have been caricatured and mis- represented in this debate. SNP Members have been called “nationalists” in the same sort of breath with which one might describe a pervert or somebody who has something wrong with them. Mine is a legitimate belief and not something that seeks to divide people—far from it. It is something that seeks to bring people together and allow them to exercise their democratic expression. What it boils down to is a belief that the people who live in Scotland should be the ones who control what happens in Scotland. We wish that power for the Scottish people in order to engage better with our neighbours. We seek not to put up fences but to break them down, and to have better arrangements for the whole island and the whole continent. In order to do that, people in Scotland must have the authority to make those deals and strike that mission for themselves.
On a point of order, Mr Wilson. I fear that we will be voting at that time.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I compliment the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) on securing this debate. It is almost as though it was meant to take place this week, given recent events. However, I am mindful that it would have been unnecessary if the suggestions that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) made and the amendments that the Labour party tabled relating to the operation of the JMC and the Scotland Act 1998 were taken on board, but here we are.
We are discussing the constitutional machinery and frameworks for intergovernmental operation at a time when it has never been so evident that they are fundamentally broken. In particular, they are not working well between the UK and Scottish Governments. Over the past few weeks, we have seen behaviour that people in Scotland find somewhat distasteful. Officers of government have not come forward when we have needed them to do so. The Secretary of State indicated that the UK is not a partnership, and that Scotland is just part of the United Kingdom—not helpful language, in the context of this debate—and the Scottish Parliament was overruled. I do not think anyone can disagree with that analysis of where we are. There is a general feeling that Scotland’s voice is not being heard in the Brexit process. Again, I do not think anyone could disagree with that. We have witnessed walkouts and the Secretary of State going AWOL from the Dispatch Box. Many Members have been trying to foster dialogue, but the cancellation of two JMCs in recent weeks shows that is not happening.
Once again, I have come to the Chamber with some constructive proposals to improve the situation. The Joint Ministerial Committee is completely and utterly impotent. It can be called to meet only at the Government’s behest. It did not meet for eight months—those were eight months of lost opportunity, in which work could have been done to avoid some of the issues we face today—and we have missed two meetings in the past few weeks. We do not have minutes of the meetings. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) talked about arbitration. If minutes were published, we would all have had the opportunity to contribute to that debate. Even when the meetings take place, they have no statutory underpinning, which is a fundamental flaw. I do not believe that, in this modern and open democracy, that is how we should conduct discussions between our Governments. It must change.
Labour offered a viable solution during the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill debates. We want the JMC to be put on a statutory footing, and we want it to produce a report and minutes. We want it to report to the Commons, and we want every single member and Government represented on the committee to be kept informed about and consulted on the UK’s Brexit negotiations at every turn. However, that proposal was rejected by the Conservative Government, who appear to have absolutely no understanding of devolution or of the fact that the tactics they have been deploying are fuelling the frustrations that the hon. Member for Stirling referred to.
The amendments that my fellow Scot, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, proposed to the withdrawal Bill would have established a council of Ministers—an advisory body bringing together Ministers from the devolved Administrations and the UK Government. That would have helped to ensure that the devolved Administrations and the advisory panel could make recommendations that the Government were required to take account of and make provisions to implement. It is important to make it clear that this is not about frustrating Brexit; it is about recognising that the current settlements are not working. On the back of Brexit, it is even more important that these mechanisms work clearly and effectively, and that legislators across our countries are co-ordinated.
On Monday, we heard about the desire of the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) to see a parliamentary council made up of Members of this place and of the Scottish Parliament. We should look at that proposal carefully, as we believe it could take the heat out of the argument we are currently involved in.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Let me just say that I did ask people to be back here for 4 o’clock; if there had been another vote, we could still have come back. We should have started at 4 o’clock. It is now six minutes past, and the next debate is being delayed. The only person who turned up for 4 o’clock was the Minister. Lesley Laird, would you like to continue your speech?
Thank you, Mr Wilson. Before the Division, I pointed out that the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross had highlighted a proposal during the week. I am asking that we all look at that proposal carefully. We believe that it could take the heat out of the argument in which we are currently involved. But what is vital is that any council of the type that we are discussing has some authority, because if it does not, we are back to square one, with the UK Government holding all the cards.
I have come to the conclusion that the UK and the Scottish Government have been approaching this all wrong. Rather than trying to rectify the root cause of the problem, they are trying to tackle the inevitable outcomes of a flawed system. That will happen again and again on the Trade Bill and on every single, and subsequent, piece of Brexit legislation, so today I would like simply to do one thing. I urge the Minister to get the UK and Scottish Governments around the table. The difference is that this time it is not to argue about the intricacies of one clause of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. Instead, we must look at the fundamental problems with our current constitutional arrangements and establish how we can improve them for the benefit of the people we are here to serve.
We believe that the talks could form a memorandum of understanding between the Governments about where we go from here and how we address the real concerns that have arisen about devolution in the UK. Then, and only then, should we start trying to deal with the minutiae. It is time to break the stand-off and come to an arrangement that will work for all partners of the United Kingdom in the long term. The Labour party stands committed, as it has always done, to facilitating and engaging in the talks. I sincerely hope that the Minister and the UK Government can give us the requested assurances today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson.
I sincerely thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) for requesting the debate, and I shall of course be sure to leave him time to respond to what has been said. He has prompted a rich exchange on intergovernmental relations, and I thank him for doing so. I am also grateful to other hon. Members for all the contributions that have been made.
This is, after all, a timely debate, considering various recent events, but I shall preface my remarks on the subject by thinking about the principles that we operate on in our constitution, such as it is. We do not have a codified constitution such as Canada’s, to provide a model for other countries around the world to use. Instead, we have the product of organic history, as my hon. Friend said. We have a flexible approach that allows us to respond as circumstances demand and, crucially, to reflect the different ways in which we have, across the four nations of the United Kingdom, reached today’s point.
I was conscious of the remarks with which my hon. Friend began. He said that we ought not to aim for artificial uniformity, and that we should not ignore either the history of how we got here or the present-day realities. That was a very helpful reminder of the principles that we might use to approach today’s debate. How do we keep the structures that we have fit for the future? That is the question on which I wish to offer some thoughts to the Chamber.
Our exit from the European Union of course prompts a range of extremely challenging considerations. We need to ensure that our statute book continues to function, to examine those areas of policy in which EU law has created consistent UK-wide practices to date, and to ensure that our intergovernmental ways of working continue to be fit for purpose. Crucially, as the Prime Minister has made clear, we need to safeguard the integrity of our precious Union—I, too, am a strong believer in that.
It is imperative, as the UK leaves the EU, that all the Administrations of the UK benefit from a unified approach. That is only possible through the strength of our relationships and our joint working. The Joint Ministerial Committee structure that has been discussed today provides that but, while it has served us well, it is still evolving. That is important, and there is a very current example of that.
Recently, the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), and I chaired an additional forum with the devolved Administrations under that structure—that was only on 24 May—and we look forward to the next one soon. In itself, that is an example of the flexibility in our constitutional arrangements that let us convene that group fast and effectively.
We have found ourselves in times that our colleagues in the devolved Administrations agree are not normal, but the Government are absolutely committed to working closely with those Administrations to ensure full engagement and collaboration across the breadth of what we need to do to leave the EU. That was very obvious during the months that were spent working with the Scottish and Welsh Governments and Northern Ireland civil servants on revised proposals for the EU withdrawal Bill, which the Welsh Government have confirmed safeguard devolution and the future of a successful United Kingdom.
The ways in which we work with the devolved Administrations are supported by departmental structures inside the UK Government. For example, as part of my own Department, there is a thing called the UK governance group, which brings together the whole of the UK Government’s work on constitutional and devolution issues under the oversight of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. It brings together the Cabinet Office’s constitutional work, the Scotland and Wales Offices, and the office of the Advocate General, and it works closely with the Northern Ireland Office. We can therefore conduct that work to strengthen and maintain the Union across all Departments as a shared responsibility. That is very important, allowing us to have detailed expertise and, crucially, to hear the voice of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland at the very highest levels of Government through the Secretaries of State who relate to those Offices.
As well as getting on with our immediate business—not least leaving the EU—and considering the structures that facilitate that, we must also look to the future. As hon. Members will know, our departure from the EU will result in a significant increase in the decision-making powers and responsibilities of the devolved Administrations. New responsibilities will go to Edinburgh, Cardiff and—once a new Executive is formed—Belfast. In some of those areas, the UK Government and the devolved Administrations will continue to work closely in frameworks across the whole of the UK. That will be done through principles that have been agreed through all the devolved Administrations.
As we set up those arrangements, one thing is clear: the success of each of them surely will rely on the strength of our relationships and of the partnerships and collaboration that have been a theme of the debate. It is so important that we work together to put arrangements in place that stand the test of time. We must seek to achieve that in order to provide certainty for people and businesses living and operating in the UK and the flexibility to adapt should that be needed.
Hon. Members considered during the debate how we can improve existing intergovernmental structures. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling in particular for laying out his vision, but I also note the suggestions by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) about the Council of Europe. Let me also take a moment to thank the Select Committees of both Houses and of the devolved legislatures, as well as academics, for their suggestions about this subject. This is, as I said, a rich and timely debate.
The UK Government recognise the need to ensure that our structures are adaptable and fit for the future. The Prime Minister led a discussion about this very issue at the plenary meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee in March, at which Ministers agreed to review existing intergovernmental structures and the memorandum of understanding. That review rightly provides us with an opportunity to look carefully at the current ways of working between the different Administrations. It means we can learn from the existing arrangements that work well, listen to the ideas that have been put forward today, and improve less effective structures as we put our future frameworks in place.
We have to ensure that intergovernmental structures and agreements remain adaptable enough to address the interests of the four Governments and their people at any given time. As we do so, we should continue to reflect on our unique circumstances—the different settlements and the constitutional history that led us to this place. The UK is not Canada, after all—close friends though we are. We can certainly learn from other countries, but it is important that we get this right.
I thank the Minister for her remarks, and all the Members who participated in the debate. It was lively and robust, as one would have anticipated, but there was also a huge degree of agreement that we need to work together to improve the processes by which our country works. Only when all parts of the United Kingdom, all levels of government and all the Parliaments and Assemblies work together will we be able to achieve the great things we all hope for for our country. Ultimately, that is tied up with the prosperity and wellbeing of our people. They sent us here to do that, and we must set our minds to that task.
I look forward to further engagement and discussion with Members across the House about these ideas and proposals. I hope that we can come together to reach an outcome that stands the test of time, as the Minister described. I agree with her that there have been many helpful contributions to the debate about this issue, principally by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which has done some fabulous work. We need to build on all that to secure the future of the United Kingdom and an ever strengthened and better Union.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered UK constitutional machinery and frameworks for intergovernmental co-operation.
UK and Polish War Reparations
I beg to move,
That this House has considered UK and Polish war reparations from Germany.
Last year, I visited Warsaw to receive an award on behalf of my family for the brother of my grandfather Jan Kawczynski. He was acutely aware that in Poland there was the death penalty for hiding Jewish friends and neighbours. Nevertheless, he took the risk and hid many of his Jewish friends and neighbours on his estate. As a result of doing that, the Germans killed him and his entire family. When he returned to his estate, the Germans instructed him to take off his officer’s boots. They made him watch as they shot his 12-year-old daughter in front of him. Then, they shot his wife. Jan Kawczynski was my age at the time he was shot by the Germans. His 12-year-old daughter who was shot in front of him was almost the same age as my daughter Alexis.
It was a very moving moment for me and the Kawczynskis to pick up this award for him and his family. It brought back to me the emotional issue of just how much Poland suffered during the second world war at the hands of the German invaders. The attitude of the Germans to war reparations can be summed up very eloquently in three Polish words that were sent to me by my friends in the Polish Parliament: przemilczenie, przedawnienie and zapomnienie. That basically means that they want to silence the debate. They want to show that the debate is outdated and from a bygone era that is no longer relevant to today. They want to forget it.
There has been no resolution to this issue; no formal treaty has been signed between Germany and Poland since the second world war. Bearing in mind the huge loss of life, the buildings that were destroyed and the works of art that were stolen from Poland, this issue simply will not go away. I pay tribute to our friends in the Polish Parliament, in particular my friend Arkadiusz Mularczyk, who has been tasked by the Polish Government with compiling a major dossier to look at the practicality of Poland being able to take Germany to a tribunal to seek war reparations. Of course, the Minister will know that article 3 of the Hague convention of 1907, a copy of which I have before me, clearly states the responsibility of an aggressor nation such as Germany in ensuring that there is proper compensation for all aspects of an invasion of this kind.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this matter to the Chamber. If there are going to be any reparations, which quite clearly the hon. Gentleman requests and which I support, let us start with an apology to Polish people from Germany for its actions. Has that ever been done?
That is a very good point and I do not believe there has actually been a formal apology to the Polish nation and people. Germany has not publicly stated to Poland the importance of apologising for what happened and of granting compensation. I have spoken to many Germans this week. They say, “Look, this is an issue that we have already dealt with. We reached an agreement with the Polish Government.” I say, “Which Polish Government?” They say, “The Polish communist Government.” They claimed that they reached an agreement with the Polish communist Governments in 1970 and thereafter. Of course, as the hon. Gentleman will know, those Polish Governments were completely illegitimate. Poland, trapped behind the iron curtain as a result of the Yalta agreement, had no legitimate Government.
Absolutely. I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for that. The Soviet Union wanted some form of peace in the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance and the Soviet bloc—bear in the mind the importance of getting along with East Germany—so Poland was forced by the Soviet Union to keep quiet and not ask for any compensation. These Communist dictators, whose names are indelibly imprinted on my mind—Bierut, Gomulka, Gierek, Kania and Jaruzelski—were Soviet puppets, imposed on us, who had no right to sign any documentation. Anything signed with the Germans is non-valid and illegal.
The only thing I consider to be valid is the agreement of 1990, where a free Poland, alongside Britain, France and the Soviet Union, signed an agreement with the new Germany—Germany was being reunified—guaranteeing Polish western borders. Exchange of territory in that treaty, whether former east Prussia or Silesia—all those lands—is legitimate. All the previous agreements simply do not hold water because of the illegality of the communist regime.
The Minister will have to correct me if I am wrong, but my understanding from the Library and other sources is that the Germans have paid a total of €75 billion in compensation to other countries for war damage. I find that figure breathtakingly small. When we bear in mind that we are being told to stump up €40 billion for having the temerity to leave the European Union, it is amazing that the Germans have paid only €75 billion for the complete destruction of our continent and the murder of millions of people. Apparently, only 2% of that €75 billion has so far trickled down to Poland. The country worst affected by the second world war has received less than €1 billion in compensation.
I will send the Minister a letter on all the different agreements reached between Germany and other affected countries on the continent of Europe. There are extensive treaties and agreements with the Czech Republic, France, Belgium and many others—even Sweden, bizarrely, which I do not think was a participant in the war. All those countries have received compensation—apart from the country most affected. Of course, Israel and others have received compensation.
I want to read out some of the horrifying statistics, which are indelibly imprinted on my mind. I thank my Polish teacher, Mrs Wątrobska, for helping me to translate some of this information. Six million Poles were slaughtered during the second world war by the German invaders, and—hon. Members should remember this—for every 1,000 citizens, Poland lost 220: a fifth. Think about that for a moment. Out of a thousand people in a community, wherever you go, 220 are killed. By comparison, the United Kingdom lost eight, Belgium 7, Holland 22 and France 15. Poland lost 220 of every thousand citizens.
More than 200,000 children—the ones who looked Germanic—were kidnapped by the Germans and taken to Germany for the process of Germanisation. Some 590,000 people were left forever disabled. More than 1 million people fell ill as a result of tuberculosis, and many of them died, because so many people were kept in such horrific conditions, particularly in forced labour camps. Just under 2.5 million people were exploited in labour camps, and a further 2.5 million were displaced. In 1939 alone, 38% of all Poland’s wealth was stolen.
The hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) is present, and he represents one of our cities that was worst affected by Luftwaffe bombing. In Warsaw, the city of my birth, 90% of factories, 72% of buildings and 90% of the cultural heritage were destroyed and 700,000 people were killed. Of the country’s cultural heritage as a whole, 43% was destroyed or stolen in 1939. I am in discussions with Sotheby’s and many other important British auction houses to try to track down the huge amount of Polish art and literature that was stolen and taken away by the Germans as they plundered Poland and then escaped.
My Polish teacher, Mrs Wątrobska, gave me another point. During the war, a large number of people were experimented on. No one mentions the children who suffered those experiments and who forever remain mentally ill or physically disfigured.
A senior Conservative MP—I will not say who—said to me, “Do not raise this issue now, old boy, we do not want to upset the Germans when we are negotiating Brexit.” Needless to say, I have ignored his advice, because a time of major change on the European continent, as we pull out of the European Union and regain our sovereignty, independence and foreign policy, is exactly the time to raise the issue and to help our Polish allies to get the compensation that they deserve.
This is a timely debate. Quite frankly, these issues should have been raised many years ago, and that is not the hon. Gentleman’s fault. We owe it to the Polish people to do what we can to get back some of the treasures that he has described. Coventry was badly bombed, so people there understand. I am sure that he knows we have a fair-sized Polish contingent in Coventry who would be very interested in the debate.
We have had huge support. Let us not forget that there are now 1 million Poles living in our country. Poland is the second-most spoken language on our island after English. I am very proud of the contribution that those 1 million Poles make to our country. As I tour the United Kingdom and meet Polish organisations, they repeatedly raise this issue with me. It is such an issue of honour for them and their families. What message would it send if we chose to forget the suffering of those who were killed or tortured during the second world war?
The proudest moment of my parliamentary career was going to the RAF club with Lord Tebbit. In front of an Anglo-Polish dinner, he said something that will resonate with me for ever—of course, I have told my daughter about it and I will tell as many children as I can. He said that the Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force were so evenly matched in 1940 that the arrival of the Polish pilots that summer tipped the balance in our favour. Lord Tebbit and others say that we may well have lost the battle of Britain if it had not been for those Polish pilots. Of course it is possible to replace planes relatively quickly, but it takes a long time to train up pilots, and it was the bravery of those pilots—those Polish pilots—that secured freedom for us.
Let us not forget that the Polish 303 Squadron got the highest number of kills during the battle of Britain and was the single largest foreign contingent in the RAF. Let us not forget that General Anders brought the Polish Free Army out of Poland, through the Soviet Union and Iran, to meet up with the British 8th Army. The Poles trained in Palestine; they joined the British 8th Army; they fought at El Alamein and at Tobruk; they went through the whole of north Africa; and as the hon. Member for Coventry South will remember, they took Monte Cassino. The most difficult part of the Gustav line was won and secured by those brave Poles at Monte Cassino. And let us not forget that the Poles were there at the Arnhem landings.
Let us also not forget, however, what happened when we secured victory in 1945. Guess who was prevented from joining us in the victory parade—the Poles. After everything that they had contributed during the second world war to help us, the Poles were banned by the Government at the time from joining the victory parade, for fear of upsetting Stalin.
We have a duty, a blood duty, a duty of honour to the Poles to ensure that we use our position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and as a major European power to make sure that we help Poland to get this compensation.
I will come on to that right at the end of my speech, if I may, to sum up.
Let me quickly turn now to British war reparations, because this debate, of course, is about Polish and British war reparations. We have in Westminster Hall the hon. Member for Coventry South, whose city was more affected than any other in the bombing that Britain experienced during the second world war.
In March, I asked the Minister what the British Government’s position is on our claims to war reparations, bearing in mind that the United Kingdom was completely bankrupt at the end of the second world war. We had had to borrow money to fight the war; many British cities had been destroyed; and many British lives had been lost in liberating half the continent of Europe. The answer came back that we had renounced all claims to compensation in 1990, upon the reunification of Germany. I want to know why we renounced our claims in 1990. I can understand why we would want to celebrate and wish the two countries—East Germany and West Germany—every success in coming together, but I want to know why, and how, that decision on British reparations was taken.
I then subsequently asked what consultations there had been with veterans—British war veterans—in making the decision to abandon all war reparations claims. The answer came back as follows:
“Records on this are not readily available. To find this information would incur disproportionate cost.”
Well, I am in discussions with veterans’ organisations and we have put together a team of leading British barristers who are willing, on a pro bono basis, to test this matter through the British courts. I very much hope that those veterans who are listening to or watching this debate on television around the United Kingdom will take note and get in touch with my office, to see if they would like to be part of this attempt to take Germany to court, through our own High Court, to receive compensation.
There is a huge battle ahead for us—for the United Kingdom—as we pull out of the European Union. Poland will have to decide whether she wants to join us and the United States of America in an Atlanticist organisation based on sovereign nation states co-operating on defence and working collaboratively to protect one another through NATO, thereby retaining her sovereignty, currency and independence, or whether she will go along with Germany’s project for a single European superstate, with a single currency, a single European army, a single foreign policy and the rest of it. If Germany is serious in trying to convince Poland to back her in her quest to create a genuine European Union, this issue has to be resolved. Otherwise, I believe Poland will increasingly side with the United Kingdom and America in an alternative alliance.
This has been the most emotional debate I have ever participated in. Bearing in mind how my own family were shot and imprisoned, how our estates were burned to the ground and how all those working for the Kawczynskis were murdered, I will not rest until this issue is resolved.
The issue of reparations was considered in detail at the Paris reparations conference of 1945. The final act of the conference, which came into force on 24 January 1946, set out the international agreement that had been reached. In 1953, Poland’s then communist Government recognised that Germany had fulfilled its financial obligations with regard to Poland and decided against seeking compensation.
In 1990, the treaty on the final settlement with respect to Germany was signed by West Germany, East Germany, the US, the UK, the Soviet Union and France. It allowed the recently reunited Germany to have full sovereignty over its internal and external affairs. The Government considers that that treaty definitively settled between the parties matters arising out of the second world war. The treaty was laid before the House for clearance under the Ponsonby rule. The Government have no plans to reopen any claim for reparations from Germany in respect of losses sustained during world war two, including for damage caused to UK cities.
In Poland, the issue of financial reparations from Germany came to the fore in July 2017, when it was raised by the PiS Law and Justice party leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, and again in September 2017 when it was raised by the then Polish Prime Minister, Beata Szydło. She argued, as we have heard this afternoon, that decisions made by the Polish communist authorities were subject to pressure from the Soviet Union and were therefore not necessarily valid.
In August and September 2017, the German Bundestag and Polish Parliament analysed the matter and, in separate reports, came to opposite conclusions. The German report concluded that decisions made by the communist regime were fully valid, and that Poland officially relinquished its claims in 1953. The Polish report, on the other hand, concluded that Poland’s right to reparations had not expired under international law, and that Poland had an ongoing right to claim reparations from Germany.
When Polish Foreign Minister Czaputowicz visited Berlin in 2018, he and the then German Foreign Minister Gabriel agreed to set up a joint Polish-German commission on the issue. It is not yet clear whether that proposal has been agreed by the current German Government, and if it has, when such a commission might be created. Clearly, this is a matter for Poland and Germany to decide.
The Government consider the issue of German reparations to have been settled by the treaty on the final settlement in 1990. We believe that there are risks in the Polish Government’s reopening the issue with Germany, as we have made clear to the Polish Government. However, the question of whether they choose to take the issue forward and how it is resolved is clearly a matter for Poland and Germany to decide. For our part, the UK believes that we must never forget the lessons of history, but nor should we dwell on the past.
Question put and agreed to.
Insecure Work and the Gig Economy
I beg to move,
That this House has considered insecure work and the gig economy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I declare an interest as a proud member and former officer of the trade union GMB. I thank GMB for its support, and I refer hon. Members to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Today’s debate is predicated on one simple issue: work in the UK is becoming increasingly insecure. A changing economy over the past decade has led to a boom in new jobs, which have combined to create a worrying picture of employment rights across our economy. Often under the pretence of offering flexibility, employers have exploited working practices to maximise profit at the expense of workers. The experience of being trapped in a low-paid job with no guaranteed hours, wages or security of employment, and of being unable to plan past this week’s rota or pay cheque, with fewer rights and lower pay than colleagues, is all too familiar for people across the country.
It is notoriously difficult to measure insecure work, which is in itself part of the problem, but some estimates put the number of people trapped in insecure employment well into the millions. The number of people in zero-hours or agency contracts alone is near the 1 million mark, while nearly 3 million people are underemployed and left seeking more hours than they secure week after week.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. We had an instance in Coventry a few years ago with a company called City Link. At Christmas, about 1,000 van drivers were laid off; those drivers rented their vans, and were left high and dry and could not get any redundancy money—so this is a timely debate. I hope that she will touch on the Taylor review, which I think did not go far enough. It could be called a whitewash, quite frankly.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention; I will indeed talk about that. He is right that the problem is not confined to small sections of our economy, but spread throughout. From tourism to retail, hospitality and our public services, the economy is dependent on these jobs. It goes far beyond genuine short-term work, such as meeting seasonal demand over the Christmas rush in retail, or the busy summer period at a caravan park. The balance of power is woefully skewed in favour of employers who use short-term contracts to minimise their responsibilities and maximise their profits at the expense of job security for their employees.
Areas such as my own in Barnsley are disproportionately affected. Former industrial towns and coalfield areas are disadvantaged communities that have been left behind by the economy and are taken advantage of. Where average wages lag far behind national levels, unemployment is higher and social mobility is appallingly low. Unscrupulous companies can offer insecure, low-paid work where the alternative is often nothing. In Barnsley, the switch to gig employment and short-term work in areas such as distribution in warehouses and our public sector means that too many people in my constituency simply cannot be certain that their job will last longer than the next rota. No matter how hard they work, their precarious employment leaves them with no chance to save up or plan for the future.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful case. Does she agree that a characteristic of the gig economy is that on the one hand companies make enormous profits, while on the other workforces live in permanent insecurity, with all that means for their living standards and their family life? Will she join me in congratulating the GMB for the landmark challenges it has mounted—in particular, to the grotesque abuses characterised by Uber?
I totally agree, and I join my hon. Friend in congratulating GMB. He is right: many employees are forced into debt and are unable to pay their bills or buy food, and others are forced to work through physical or mental illness out of fear of losing what employment they have.
My hon. Friend and I have heard from members of our trade union, GMB, who work in warehouses in Yorkshire on relentless shift patterns, which means that they never actually get a weekend. Inevitably, that has an impact on their mental health. Does she agree that we cannot improve people’s mental health without improving their working standards?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I believe she is referring to research from the GMB trade union, which shows that, across the country, 61% of insecure workers have gone to work while feeling unwell for fear of losing pay, hours or even their job. The same percentage have suffered mental health issues. For their troubles, they are often first out of the door when times are hard, and are cast into a welfare state that is not fit to help them.
It is not just workers who suffer. Companies’ widespread avoidance of the minimum wage, holiday pay and sick leave is estimated to cost the public purse £300 million a year in lost national insurance contributions. Such practices undermine the many employers who play by the rules, the companies that invest in their workers’ skills and training, the family-run businesses that pay their staff a decent wage, and the employers who pay their taxes and make pension contributions. In one way or another, we are all footing the bill for the businesses that take advantage of precarious work. Action is long overdue.
It is a little over a year to the day since the Prime Minister stood on the steps of Downing Street after the election and noted that people who have a job do not always have job security. Sadly, the Government have kicked the Taylor review’s recommendations into the long grass, and have failed to take action on areas such as the Swedish derogation, which I sought to address with my private Member’s Bill. Will the Minister commit to take action to ensure more and better workplace inspections to ensure that the scant, bare-minimum protections that workers are currently afforded are actually enforced, and that swift action is taken against abusive employers?
On companies that make profits off the backs of agency workers, will the Minister ensure that, from day one, agency workers are afforded the same rights and pay as permanent staff doing the same roles in the same company? That is another issue that I sought to address in my private Member’s Bill. Cases brought against Uber and Pimlico Plumbers show that such workers are employees; they are not self-employed or independent contractors, as claimed. In view of such cases, will the Government act now, rather than wait for every single worker to undertake judicial proceedings against their employer? Those are not just legal judgments against individual employers, but damning indictments of employers in the gig economy as a whole.
I have heard from an Amazon worker who has seen women colleagues tragically miscarry in a warehouse, and fights break out on the packing floor because the competition for work is so high. I have heard the heartbreaking story of a careworker whose employers forced her to provide a urine sample to prove she was too sick to work. Another careworker’s agency refused to give her work as soon as it found out she was pregnant. I have heard from a Hermes worker who gets only one day off a year to spend with his family, which has a damaging effect not just on him but on his wife and children.
Will my hon. Friend join me in condemning organisations that engage in such practices? One of my constituents ended up with hypothermia after waiting for Deliveroo work. When he was admitted to hospital, he was not offered the sick pay and protection that other employees get. The Government must take action now because although GMB and other unions are doing fantastic work we cannot rely just on unions. We need to ensure that the Government support our unions.
I join my hon. Friend in condemning that. I am sure the Minister is listening carefully.
Those workers are the real face of the gig economy. It is simply not good enough. We urgently need an economy that works for everyone. We need well-paid jobs that offer long-term security and give people the chance not just to get by but to succeed and prosper. We need genuine action that addresses the employment loopholes that unscrupulous employers use to exploit vulnerable workers. Many people in Barnsley and across the UK need action now.
I will follow your guidance, Mr McCabe, although I am the only Back-Bench Member represented on the Government Benches. I would like to thank the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) for securing this important debate.
The 21st century has brought us the advent of digital technologies, which have been transformational to working environments, creating opportunity and flexibility with remote working and online networking. Unfortunately, there are cases where flexible working models have led to poor management practices and a degradation of employment rights.
Although flexible work has advantages for employers and employees, in some instances insecure work does not provide a fair balance for employees. I have experienced that in my family. A cousin of mine is on a zero-hours contract. He took a shift with a well-known retailer, but on arrival was told he was only needed for two hours, leaving him with a day’s wages that barely covered the bus fare to and from work. That is not uncommon, and it can be worse: people can turn up for work and find that there is no work for them. There is no excuse for that; it is just bad management practice. Employers can plan how many people they need before somebody turns up for work. Those situations can sometimes be facilitated by working arrangements in the gig economy, but that is not the case for most workers.
A study carried out by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy identified that the most common use for this type of employment was to supplement income streams, with approximately two thirds of those who took part in the study earning less than 5% of their income with gig work. It was basically topping up income. Even in today’s world, it is normally women who take time off to care for loved ones, and the gig economy can provide a great way for women to continue to work while balancing their responsibilities. I am sure we all have many examples of that. I have one in my constituency. Through an online platform, a constituent does administrative jobs for 20 hours a week while her son is at preschool or when he is watching the football with her husband. I guess we are hoping that she will be earning a bit more as England continue in the World cup.
The use of flexible work to bolster household income is increasingly common. Some people choose that way of working permanently. Technology has enabled capabilities to take off as the world gets smaller, in terms of connectivity. One of my constituents, a recent graduate, currently works as a freelance online comms manager. He runs social media accounts from home, servicing the needs of companies. The work is insecure, because it is not contracted, but he values the flexibility. He is not alone; some 90% of those who are wholly reliant on gig income said that they were satisfied. Of course, we need to listen to the concerns of the 10%, some of which have been expressed here today.
The gig economy can empower people to live in a way that increases choice, allowing them to balance their commitments. That will become increasingly important as we all work for longer and will require greater flexibility in how we manage our careers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) on securing this important debate and the powerful way in which she introduced the subject.
The world of work is evolving rapidly. The plethora of court cases and the growing uncertainty are a reflection not only of how technology is changing the employment relationship, but of how new and unscrupulous employers are seeing that as an opportunity to loosen the relationship further, usually to the detriment of the worker.
I, too, pay tribute to the GMB, which has pushed back against this wild west frontier approach, but it should not just be down to trade unions to try to make the best of 20th-century laws in the 21st century. Parliament should be setting out a new, comprehensive settlement to take us into the new world. We should do it in a way that ensures dignity, certainty and fairness for those who work in the gig economy. That is why it is completely unacceptable that, weak though it is, there has been no progress on the Taylor review a year after it reported.
I am talking about the 21st century, and I have to say that I was rather amused and disappointed by the comments made by the founder of Pimlico Plumbers.
The important thing is that we are now creating a new animal in our economy: the working poor. That is what people tend to miss, and it is happening as a result of the gig economy. We had an incident in Coventry a fortnight ago on a Saturday night between black cab drivers and Uber drivers, and it ended in a certain amount of violence. Surely, things cannot go on like this.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Whole ways of working are being disrupted in ways that really are undermining the economy. I go back to the Pimlico Plumbers judgment, which found that someone who had worked for the company for six years was entitled to some basic workplace employment rights. The founder of Pimlico Plumbers said:
“We had five judges in the top court in the country and an opportunity to bring our employment law into the 21st century and unfortunately they missed the point.”
I have to say that he has rather missed the point, if he thinks that in the 21st century it is acceptable for someone to work at the same company for six years and not be entitled to any basic workplace protections. That sounds like something out of the 19th century, not the 21st.
I had rather more sympathy with him when he said:
“We can’t get our heads around this word ‘worker’ and what it means.”
I am sympathetic to that, because the truth is that the worker category has always been an unsatisfactory halfway house between employed and self-employed. If we leave aside the question of agency workers, there should be no halfway house—a person is either employed by someone or not. If we can offer a bold and clear legislative framework, with the presumption of employment if someone is carrying out the work personally, we can end the uncertainty and hopefully begin to end the exploitation that we see in the sector.
Those who advocate these new relationships often present them as providing a choice to those who work under them, but it is an utterly false choice. It is a choice that is no choice at all. A choice is ordering food from a menu or choosing to have gammon and deciding whether to have egg or pineapple with it. The choice here is whether someone accepts what is served up or does not eat at all. That is not a real choice. It is a business model and a culture that says people are as disposable as coffee cups. It says, “If we don’t have enough work, tough. If you fall ill, tough.” And, crucially, it says, “If you question our methods or challenge any of our payments, you should not expect to get any more work from us in the future.”
Without job security, people have no security. How can they plan for the future, look to buy a house, have a family, save for retirement or maybe even start their own business if the labour market is so cutthroat, insecure and parasitic that it takes everything that they have got just to keep their head above the water? I think we can do better than that. We need to enter a new world where people are valued as much as the product that they are producing. At the moment, we are in a world where exploitation is all. It has to come to an end.
It is a pleasure to see you in the chair, Mr McCabe. I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) on securing this debate and on her private Member’s Bill, of which I am a sponsor. I also want to take the opportunity to commend the work of Better Than Zero, an organisation primarily organised through the Scottish Trades Union Congress youth committee, which continues to expose rogue employers in Scotland.
Mr McCabe, you and I sit on the Select Committee on Work and Pensions. You will know that there are 4,504 full-time equivalent posts chasing social security fraud estimated at £1.2 billion. There are 400 workers from the state who are employed to chase minimum wage compliance. If the minimum wage compliance unit had 4,504 full-time equivalent posts, I just wonder whether there would be 200,000 workers in the United Kingdom not being paid the national minimum wage.
Another piece of legislation, in addition to the hon. Lady’s, is the Workers (Definitions and Rights) Bill. It is in my name, and it proposes a number of key things as solutions for workers in the gig economy. First, it looks at zero-hour contracts. I think they should only be in place where there is a collective agreement with a recognised trade union. That will be the test of whether the claim that people like zero-hour contracts is actually true or not. Mainly people tell us that people like zero-hour contracts, but I have never met anyone who went to a careers adviser at school and said, “I want wan o yon zero-hour contracts.” It just does not happen.
Has the hon. Gentleman considered alternative contracts such as they have in other countries? In Holland, for instance, they have contracts by agreement, which are fixed-term agreements paid by the hour with a legal route to permanent contracts. Is that something that he would consider in his legislation?
I am not opposed to what the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) suggests.
I want to deal with the important issue of shift changes. Some of us in the Chamber attended a TUC event earlier this year. It is clear that two things are happening: sometimes shifts are cancelled, which means that people miss out and have to pay for childcare, and sometimes people are told they have to work additional hours. There is a real case for saying that if people turn up at work and are told that they have to work additional hours or that their shift is cancelled, they should be paid double time so that they are compensated for childcare.
We must also look at worker status. I have a very real concern about the Taylor review trying to introduce additional tiers of worker. There should be a single definition of a worker. It is clear that if someone provides their labour to an employer, they are a worker—full stop. Self-employment is also easily defined. It seems clear to me that a window cleaner with 200 customers is self-employed. We really need to address the issue with worker status to help the many people who are told that they are self-employed when, in actual fact, that is bogus.
I want to touch finally on an issue that we have seen with Carillion and in other places, such as a Hilton hotel in Scotland, where a hairdresser absconded with £80,000, leaving four workers without a job, and the hotel said, “Not our responsibility.” We need to deal with that issue, too. Where an employer absconds or goes bust, the principal contractor should be responsible for the wages and the terms and conditions of its workers.
I thank you, Mr McCabe, for calling me to speak, and I thank the hon. Member for Barnsley East for securing the debate.
As an employment rights lawyer for many years, I have seen time and again how insecure work can blight people’s lives. Between 2006 and 2016, there was a 49.8% increase in self-employment in London. That increase may not, as some claim, indicate an upsurge in entrepreneurial spirit, but it is a symptom of an ever more insecure workforce.
I spent the first part of my career working on holiday pay claims for construction workers. Many worked for the same company day in, day out under the strict control of their boss and without taking any of their own financial risk, but they were routinely told that they were self-employed and therefore not entitled to holiday pay, let alone to notice or protection against unfair dismissal.
Many years later, the issue of bogus self-employment has certainly not gone away, as demonstrated by the claim brought by Uber drivers, which was supported by the GMB. Uber tried to categorise its drivers as self-employed and said that they were not entitled to holiday pay or the national minimum wage, despite the fact that they were subject to Uber’s rules and training, were obliged to accept fares and could be penalised if they accepted a job and then cancelled. In a scathing employment tribunal judgment, those drivers were found to be employees. Time and again, unions and tribunals have stepped in where unscrupulous employers have thought they can get away with it.
Agency work is another area of insecure work that desperately needs reform. The Agency Workers Regulations 2010 brought in limited rights for agency workers—after 12 weeks, they are entitled to the same pay as they would be if they had been hired directly by the company—but there are a number of significant problems with those regulations. A loophole called the Swedish derogation means that agency workers can be exempted from equal treatment on pay if they have a permanent contract with the agency and it pays them a minimum amount between jobs. The reality is that agencies simply put workers on one job after another with the same hirer for many years, and that those workers never get equal pay with workers who are directly employed.
Moreover, the regulations do not create a presumption of employment with the hirer. For example, a factory worker who has worked in the same factory for 20 years but is employed via an agency could be dismissed on a whim. As the factory is not deemed to be her employer, she cannot claim unfair dismissal or redundancy against it. Surely that cannot be right.
Although the Taylor review may have been a step in the right direction, it simply did not go far enough. It is time for actions, not words, from the Government. Let us have a presumption of direct employment for agency workers, close the door to bogus self-employment and ban zero-hours contracts, and have better enforcement and tougher penalties for those who flout the law. Let us end the exploitation once and for all.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) on setting the scene so well.
When I first saw the phrase “gig economy”, I thought of nightlife, but then all of a sudden I realised that this issue is about people’s lives. The debate is about casual workers and those on zero-hours contracts and, if we look across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the rights of fully covered workers are clearly not happening for them. It is more like a nightmare, with no holiday pay, no sick pay or any idea of what wages the next week will bring.
From the beginning, however, I want to make it clear that many small shops and companies need that flexibility. It is important, and I think that every Member who has spoken so far has said that. So, if a small company employs a student during the summer time for a break of two or three months, or something like that, that is quite acceptable. We must also be aware, however, that many people consistently work up to four times longer than their eight-hour contract. The question is: why, and how can we do something to protect workers from being exploited?
I am pleased to say that Northern Ireland has the UK’s lowest proportion of workers on controversial zero-hours contracts. Indeed, a 2016 report from the Office for National Statistics revealed that only 1.9% of workers in Northern Ireland, or about 15,500 people, were employed in that way. In the UK as a whole, however, the figures are extreme, with 900,000 people on a zero-hours basis in their main job.
One of my major concerns about those on zero-hours contracts stems from the fact that, in my constituency, almost 23% of children live in poverty. That is partly due to people being on zero-hours contracts. When they are working 32 hours, getting that new pair of shoes for their child seems doable, but when they only get eight hours of work the next week, the question is not “Which shoes?” but “How are we going to eat this week?”
I want to make a quick point about food banks—I will only take a short time, because I want to be fair to speakers after me. In Northern Ireland, we gave out some 32,433 three-day emergency food supplies to people in crisis between April ’17 and March ’18, and some 13,300 of those went to children. That figure is up 13% on the past year.
I am making a point but being careful about what I say, because I know that people need to have some of these things, but I also know that they need protection. That is what this debate is about, and I congratulate the hon. Lady on it. People are struggling, and a way to help is to afford them certainty of hours and ensure that they do not feel forced into overtime for fear of losing their jobs. There is work to be done, and I look to the Minister to outline how we can begin to do that seriously, and to ensure that there is a true balance of mutually beneficial flexibility.
My constituent James Bloodworth spent six months undercover working for some of the UK’s most notorious organisations for insecure work. His book, “Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain”, is an astonishing insight into the day-to-day reality of such workers.
Amazon was the worst, James said. He had a zero-hours contract and he even faced a disciplinary for days off sick. It is no wonder that 74% of Amazon staff are too scared to go to the toilet in case they fall behind with their productivity targets. To quote:
“Each of us carried around with us a hand-held device that tracked our every move as if we were convicts on house arrest.”
Uber was not much better, he said, with constraints even on what can be discussed inside the car and a requirement to accept jobs although it might not be financially beneficial to do so. Likewise his time as a careworker, with relentless targets that left him with mere moments to visit each elderly person on his round. It is no wonder that 47% of careworkers leave their post within a year.
Some people see insecure work as a modern way of flexible working, but the reality is that those in the gig economy do not enjoy the flexibility. Of course, it is not only the workers and their families who lose out; so does the whole community, with the fake self-employed status of gig economy workers costing the taxpayer a staggering £75 million a week in lost tax and benefit payouts. That is equivalent to 20% of this week’s promised budget boost for the NHS by 2023.
The reality is that Jeff Bezos, Will Shu and Charlie Mullins become richer and richer off the back of their insecure employment methods, to the detriment of both staff and society. It is time that the Government stuck up not only for those workers, but for this country.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) on securing the debate and on the powerful case that she made. Like me, she came to this place as a union activist and union member of staff. I refer colleagues to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Let us be clear about this: insecure work, especially that which is low paid, is a disease in my community. It causes ill health, poverty and low aspirations, and wittingly or unwittingly we immerse ourselves in it every day. It is the delivery driver about whom we wonder why they left quite so quickly; that is because of the timeframe in which they are trying to deliver their packages. It is the barista who serves us our coffee in the morning. It is the driver who drops us off after a night out. It is around us, and it is in plain sight.
Recently commissioned Government statistics show that a quarter of workers in the gig economy are paid below the national minimum wage. We would not accept that in any salaried sector. It is a cause of national scandal, and we ought to do something about it. It is right that we, as a Parliament, take an interest in this, but we need our Government to show leadership on it. At the moment we are actually looking to those outside Government to show that leadership, and I make absolutely no apologies for praising the work of our trade unions—of my union GMB, of Unite, of USDAW and of others—in shining a light on this issue, and of my Labour colleagues in trying to make this point. Look how many of us have come for the debate.
Our trade unions, which are the voice of workers across the country, have repeatedly warned that individuals are being pressured into signing away their rights and too often have to accept low pay as a default. Companies use whatever loopholes and grubby shortcuts they need to exploit people’s desperation. We have a responsibility to act, to close those loopholes and to stand up for the employee who, in that moment, simply cannot stand up for themselves.
On the sorts of actions we should ask for, the Trades Union Congress has come up with a helpful list of five wins that would improve matters very quickly and that could be acted on immediately. They are: banning zero-hours contracts, to ensure that workers get guaranteed hours; ensuring equal pay for agency workers by ending the Swedish derogation; cracking down on bogus self-employment and ensuring that those workers enjoy the same basic rights as other employees; allowing trade unions to access all workplaces, to support workers who need representation the most; and increasing resources and powers for enforcement.
Steps such as those, which put workers and people first—including those in my community—are what we need. They are what I want from Parliament and they are what we need our Government to act on.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) on securing this important debate. The casual- isation of the jobs market is nothing new. For decades now this country has been moving from an industrial, export-led economy to a services-led economy. Over that period we have begun to see—at an increasing pace—a race to the bottom in jobs, pay and terms and conditions for working people. That is why the debate is so important.
In my capacity as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on taxis, I have raised concerns about the taxi and private hire industry, which other hon. Members have referred to. For anyone in any doubt about the agenda of those companies and the way they treat their workers, look at the way that companies such as Uber have had to be dragged kicking and screaming through the courts by trade unions, on behalf of their members—Uber workers—to be made to provide the basic terms and conditions and decent wages that everyone should enjoy.
I am proud of the role that GMB has played, of my party’s relationship with the trade unions and of the support I have enjoyed as a trade union member and supporter, which is reflected in my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. However, people should not have to rely on trade unions or High Court judges to protect their basic rights and terms and conditions; they should have a Government and a legal framework that is on their side, which they clearly do not.
We have heard nonsense about flexibility—about how flexible the gig economy is and how people really enjoy the choice. How many people would choose that flexibility for themselves?
I am happy to give way, but how many Members would choose to earn less than a real living wage or not to receive holiday pay and maternity or paternity pay? The truth is that, when we are looking at the way our economy will change—the next phase of globalisation, and the next phase of the industrial revolution that will change our country—how we protect the value of labour will be one of the single biggest questions that defines our political generation. It is about skills, but fundamentally it is about shaping the economy in the interests of ordinary working people and not allowing tech companies, top-heavy business models or digital platforms to shape it in their interests.
The Taylor review was a wonderful opportunity to answer and to meet some of these big challenges. Matthew Taylor is a great guy with a big brain, but clearly, because of his working for this Government and within the political framework in which he knew the report would be received, that report was not nearly ambitious enough. If that was not disappointing in and of itself, the fact that we have seen so little action off the back of it tells workers that they cannot rely on this Government to protect their interests. We desperately need a Labour Government that will put their interests and their rights at work front and centre.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) for securing this important debate. Insecure work and the gig economy are increasingly and rapidly becoming the norm. Indeed, I have spoken to youngsters out there who have never known a full-time, permanent contract or secure hours. Far too often, work in the gig economy comes with the erosion of employment rights—something that those who have worked in the creative industries know only too well. When I worked in television, we used to call ourselves the original gig economy, because just about all the work was casual and just about everyone was self-employed.
I will use my contribution this afternoon to highlight two particular points: maternity rights and pregnancy discrimination. Pregnancy discrimination is something that affects women no matter what type of employment they are in. The Women and Equalities Committee estimates that 54,000 women a year are dismissed or made redundant, or feel they have no choice but to leave their job, because of pregnancy. That is simply not good enough, but I suspect it is even worse in the gig economy. When the work is insecure and short term, the reality for many women is that once they start showing, they simply will not receive any more contracts. That is something that actors know all too well.
We need to put protections in against that culture becoming more widespread across our economy. I know that in response to the Taylor review, the Government said that they were reviewing maternity legislation, and they committed to updating the advice on the Government website this summer, but the truth is that when it comes to pregnancy discrimination the Taylor review did not go nearly far enough. It does not recommend any concrete change for pregnant women or new mothers. It makes a reference to employment tribunal fees making enforcement of rights difficult, but it does not say that fees should be scrapped. It does not mention access to antenatal care, which is a big problem for many women in casual work. It does not mention the specific health and safety needs of pregnant women and new mothers in casual forms of work, nor does it deal with their specific concerns about sick pay and qualification for maternity pay. Those issues should all be fundamental rights for all mums.
Moving on to maternity leave and pay, I think we all agree that the introduction of shared parental leave and pay is a big step forward. It is, for those in conventional employment. It is not available for freelancers or the self-employed. That is why I have introduced my ten-minute rule Bill, which would allow mums to share the maternity allowance with their freelance partners. It would cost the Treasury very little, and I know the Treasury seems quite sympathetic toward it. I simply encourage the Minister not to let this issue slip off the radar.
In summary, although I believe the Government should move swiftly to implement elements of the Taylor review, I would encourage them not to limit their thinking. Pregnancy discrimination is rife and by some measures it is getting worse. Freelance mums and dads deserve the flexibility afforded to other families. That is a matter of fairness, so now please let us get on with it.
I add my thanks and congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) on securing the debate.
I will just make three broad points. First, it is extraordinary that the Government have not got a grip on the debate. It are not a marginal issue. One in five workers in this country are now self-employed—a bigger proportion than public service workers. If public service workers in this country were confronting the kinds of conditions and suffering the kinds of stories we heard this afternoon, there would be a national scandal. Why are we not getting to grips with this challenge for the country’s self-employed?
If the present day is not bad enough, hon. Members should think about what is to come. Over the next 10 years this economy will be fundamentally transformed by automation, Brexit and the rise of China. Automation alone is likely to destroy five times more working-class jobs than the shutdowns of the coal and steel industries put together. We know that trend is coming; we know what happened when coal and steel were lost to communities across the country in the 1980s. What grew back were the kinds of insecure jobs we are debating now. Let us not make that mistake again. Let us put in place now a regime for good jobs in the years to come.
Secondly, we have to look again at why it is that basic laws, such as the right to trade union organising or the right to the national minimum wage, are not being enforced today. I commend James Bloodworth’s book on the scandals we have heard about. I had the honour of meeting him this afternoon. It beggars belief that some of the biggest firms on the planet, such as Amazon, are being caught not paying the national minimum wage. Where is the inspectorate? Where are the prosecutions? Where are the court cases? Is the Minister prepared to tell us what he is doing to ensure that justice is done?
We have had a useful debate this afternoon about the shortcomings of the Taylor review. The economy will inevitably grow in the years to come, so we have to try to equalise definitions of workers. We have to do away with the nonsense of the Swedish derogation and put in place the kind of action plan that the TUC has carefully and thoughtfully developed.
I will leave the Minister with this thought: there is a basic injustice in a marketplace where, over the course of a single morning, James Bloodworth can earn £29 working in an Amazon warehouse but the wealth of Jeff Bezos goes up by $1.4 billion. We had a long tradition in this country of entrepreneurs, such as George Cadbury, William Lever and John Spedan Lewis, who not only built great businesses, but changed society for the better. We need the Government to ensure that the entrepreneurs of today are doing a damn sight better job on that front.
Just before I call the Front-Benchers, the debate is scheduled to finish at 5.51 pm, so there should be enough time for the mover of the motion to make a brief reply, and for the Minister, if he is so minded, to take an intervention or two. That is, obviously, up to him.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) on securing this timely and important debate.
As we have heard from the contributions this afternoon, a lot of people are rightly concerned about the fate of workers in the gig economy. The hon. Lady talked about the insecure employment of between 1 million and 3 million people, which is an outstanding figure to contemplate. She talked about the balance of power lying with employers, about how unscrupulous companies are using employees, especially in distribution warehouses and the public sector, and tellingly about how there is little future for those trapped in such employment. The £300 million in lost national insurance contributions alone should be of interest to the Government.
I would love to cover everybody who spoke in the debate, but that will not be possible, so I will refer to some hon. Members and not others. However, I thought everybody made a telling contribution. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) rightly commended Better than Zero for the work that it has done and talked about the difference between the 4,504 full-time-equivalent people chasing social security claimants and the 400 workers chasing people regarding employment rights and compliance. I thought the key moment was when he spoke about career advisers not advising anyone to go for a zero-hours-contract career.
My hon. Friend rightly talked about shift cancellations and adjustments and suggested that people should be paid double time in such circumstances. There has to be a consequence if people are turning up at work and finding out that the goal posts have shifted for them unfairly. He also talked about the status of the definition of a worker and the responsibility of the principal contractor.
The hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) was the only Tory MP to speak, which is a telling shame. She rightly said that the gig economy can provide opportunities for people, but as we have noted, flexibility is used too often as an excuse for exploitation. That is not good enough for people.
Hon. Members talked about people without proper jobs, such as those on zero-hours contracts, not having a future and struggling to keep their head above water and about the need to treat people with respect. The hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) rightly talked about the move from an industrial to a services economy. That was backed up later when one of his colleagues talked about the move to automation. There are real challenges and workers need to be protected. As the hon. Member for Ilford North said, people should not have to rely on trade unions to make those points; they should have those protections.
The hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) rightly talked about women—a subject too often overlooked in detail—and the issues of pregnancy sick pay and maternity leave. Her ten-minute rule Bill sounds eminently sensible. I look forward to seeing the detail, but I am sure that that is something the Government should consider.
The Scottish National party firmly opposes exploitative zero-hours contracts and other types of employment that offer workers little or no job security. Scotland is ahead of the curve in promoting fairer working practices and protecting workers’ rights. Only today, my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) sought leave to bring in a Bill for a genuinely representative body for the armed forces. The SNP has led on such matters at Westminster and on tackling exploitative work practices. Too often, when exploitative zero-hours contracts are used, it is said that they will provide flexibility, but the workers simply end up being exploited. Those workers often have too few alternative options. Where that practice occurs, or is likely, there should be a ban.
The Scottish Government were the first Government in the UK to become an accredited living wage employer. New guidance has been issued, to ensure that companies that bid for public sector contracts cannot use exploitative zero-hours contracts. Scotland is the best performer of all the four countries in the UK, with the highest proportion of employees paid the living wage or more. The figure is 81.6%, compared with 78% in England, 75% in Wales and 72% in Northern Ireland. We have more than 1,200 accredited living wage employers in Scotland, paying a minimum of £8.75 an hour, which is the new real living wage.
In 2015, the Scottish Government introduced the Fair Work Convention, so that fair work will be embedded in the workplace by 2025. The Scottish business pledge has signed up 498 companies, including Coca-Cola, Microsoft and Virgin Money, to demonstrate a commitment to fair work, employee engagement and, crucially, productivity. That is where companies can really take the benefit: when workers are treated properly and get a fair wage and conditions, they are far more productive in the workplace. That is demonstrable.
The Scottish Government are developing a fair work charter, to be finalised this year in conjunction with the TUC as a guide for employers and workers who face unexpected events, including severe weather such as the beast from the east, but we could do more. The Smith commission proposed that the administration of 22 reserved tribunals be devolved to the Scottish Parliament, where we could make a further difference, but the UK Government have yet to do that. Those matters cover the underlying substantive rights and duties that remain reserved to this place, so I ask the Minister whether he will now commit to acting on the issue, devolve the remaining powers and allow more protection for Scottish workers?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) on securing this important debate, and on the thoughtful, passionate contributions made by colleagues today—all but one of them from the Opposition. It seems that the Government’s ruthless whipping ended with the last vote to happen in the Chamber.
My hon. Friend eloquently captured the fear and precariousness associated with modern workforce practices in the gig economy. She made the crucial point at the heart of the issue: there is a fundamental power inequality between the employee and the employer, and we cannot reply to that inherent difficulty in the gig economy with consultations. To remedy it, there must be recognition in law that the power imbalance exists. A pattern that has emerged as a feature of the gig economy is the process of outsourcing and of apps as managers. Those who reap inordinate profits from workers’ labour are distant from accountability for them and from their welfare. They have relinquished that responsibility.
Hon. Members have told us about people who have had long, loyal relationships with a company but have been refused employment contracts and have been left languishing with few or no workplace rights. Members are, rightly, deeply disappointed with the Government’s response to the Taylor review. It was a consultation, and for the Government to conduct a consultation on a consultation seems a weak response.
I really need the toilet right now, probably because I am eight and a half months pregnant, and my lasting memory from the contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) is of people being too scared to go to the toilet because they are worried about what will happen to their jobs, which is an absolute disgrace. That people are too scared to go to the toilet in this century, never mind any other century, is absolutely terrible.
The Conservatives and the Government boast about the recovery of employment and lower employment figures, but, sadly, for millions of people work means rising insecurity and low pay. Average real pay has still not returned to the level it was before the financial crisis, and the Resolution Foundation predicts that this is likely to be the weakest decade of real pay growth in almost two centuries. We might have high employment, but we also have record poverty among those in work, so a celebration of employment figures alone is completely disingenuous. What are the Government actually celebrating? More than 8 million working people live in poverty. In 2018, that is an absolute disgrace. The Minister celebrates low unemployment but fails to recognise the poor quality of those jobs.