Tuesday 11 September 2018
[Siobhain McDonagh in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered human rights abuses and UK assistance to Bahrain.
It is a great pleasure to be here under your chair-personship, Ms McDonagh—I think this is the first time I have had the privilege. I very much welcome the opportunity I have been given by the Backbench Business Committee. We do not often get the time to debate some of the smaller Gulf countries, and it is long overdue that the House look in some forensic detail at the issues in Bahrain.
Much could be said in general terms about the appalling human rights record of the al-Khalifa regime, even in the seven years since the Bahraini people played their part in the Arab spring protests of 2011. For a short time, the attack by regime forces on the protest camp at the Pearl roundabout, the invasion by the Gulf Co-operation Council—mainly Saudi—forces, the cancellation of the 2011 grand prix and the systematic crackdown, particularly on the majority Shi’a population, caught public attention, but then other, more momentous events in the region pushed Bahrain into the shadows. Indeed, Bahrain is often in the shadows of its much larger neighbour, Saudi Arabia. I am pleased that we are going to debate Yemen, and no doubt the Saudi intervention there, in the main Chamber, but that is, of course, a Gulf Co-operation Council intervention, in which Bahrain also plays its part. Bahrain also plays its part in the boycott of Qatar.
I am pleased that Bahrain is still a priority country—a euphemism, I am afraid, for what used to be “country of concern” on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office list. I am also pleased to report that, in a Foreign Affairs Committee publication that is hot off the presses today, Bahrain is cited as a country not just where there are human rights concerns but where—this is in line with the theme of the debate—the UK Government are not acquitting themselves well in the recognition of those concerns.
I am grateful for the way in which my hon. Friend is pursuing the argument. Does he share my concern that, after an apparent moratorium on the death penalty since 2010, Bahrain went ahead and executed three people last year? Is that not a matter of deep concern, along with all the other human rights concerns we have?
My hon. Friend, who is a distinguished lawyer and is particularly keen on human rights, touches on an issue I will spend some time on. I am afraid that this will be a rather long speech because I am taking advantage of the fact that we do not often get the opportunity to debate such matters, and I will come on to horrific examples of the capital punishment that has resumed in Bahrain.
As chair of the all-party group on democracy and human rights in the Gulf, I really welcome this debate. The Government must be held to account for their complicity in the suppression of human rights in the region. Female political prisoners in Bahrain, including activists Najah Yusif and Medina Ali, have been subjected to torture, sexual abuse and unfair trials. I am calling on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to acknowledge and condemn the abuse suffered by Bahraini female political prisoners and to call for their immediate release. Will my hon. Friend join me in that call?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Her position as chair of the APPG is an onerous task, as the group covers not just Bahrain but other Gulf countries. I held that position in an early incarnation of the group—the all-party group for democracy in Bahrain. My hon. Friend does an excellent job, and I will come on to the matter she mentions.
I would like this debate to shine a light on the continuing human rights abuses in Bahrain, specifically to gainsay their whitewashing by the regime, its paid apologists—the Bahraini Government often contract dozens of public relations and other companies in the UK to spread their message—and its political supporters. I also wish specifically to question the UK Government’s role, deliberate or otherwise, in sanitising the regime’s behaviour.
When the Prime Minister addressed the leaders of the Gulf Co-operation Council nations in December 2016, she noted the importance of UK-Gulf trade and security co-operation and advocated a strong UK role as the Gulf’s partner of choice, embedding international norms and seeing through reform. Indeed, as UK security co-operation and arms sales to countries such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have increased, so too have statements from the FCO and other parts of Government that they wish to see human rights reforms in Gulf monarchies, starting from what is a very low base.
That has been especially true in Bahrain, where the UK Government have strong military, defence and trade co-operation, including a recently opened naval base, a history of offering military training and substantial arms sales. In addition, the UK has spent more than £5 million since 2012 on a package of technical assistance, which it specifically claims is to improve Bahrain’s poor human rights record. The FCO has funded training for various arms of the Bahraini Government, including the Ministry of Interior, police officers, prison guards and the public prosecution office. The pursuit of human rights reform in Bahrain is certainly an important goal, but the evidence suggests that the UK’s reform efforts in the country, spanning six years and costing millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, have failed.
This is a timely debate in a number of ways because the whole question of the Arab spring—why it happened and where it is now—touches on human rights. More importantly, I wonder whether the Government, in terms of their trade with Arab countries in particular, ask what the human rights caveat is any negotiations. Does my hon. Friend agree that there should be a caveat to ensure human rights and that equipment is not used against the population?
I am grateful for that intervention, and I am glad to see so many Members here. I am not an absolutist in these matters—it is a balancing act. My argument is that things have gone too far in relation to Bahrain and some of the other Gulf countries. Britain has a substantial history of good relations with those countries, but that leads to turning to a blind eye to obvious abuses.
Surely it is the exact opposite. It is not turning a blind eye; the fact that we have a good working relationship of many years’ standing allows us to have a greater influence and to guide progress in human rights.
I am grateful for that intervention because it goes to the heart of my argument. The hon. Gentleman’s point is one that we often hear, but my argument is that exactly the reverse is true and that the intervention by the UK at a time when the human rights situation has worsened in Bahrain gives cover to those abuses.
If the UK has a strong relationship with Bahrain, should it not use it? For instance, I hope that we will hear from the Minister today a strong condemnation of the detention of Nabeel Rajab, which is a clear abuse of human rights that many organisations, including the United Nations, have recognised.
The right hon. Gentleman is, as always, ahead of me—he is on to the next page of my speech.
Since Britain’s reform assistance programme in Bahrain began, that country’s human rights record has deteriorated. Detainees held in Bahraini detention facilities have made frequent and sustained allegations of torture and forced or coerced confession, and courts have routinely convicted defendants on the basis of such confessions. Meanwhile, Bahrain refuses to allow the UN’s torture experts to enter the country.
The Bahraini Government have also persecuted and imprisoned peaceful human rights defenders, not least Nabeel Rajab, the founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights and a shortlisted candidate for this year’s Václav Havel human rights prize, awarded by the Council of Europe, who was recently sentenced to five years in prison for tweeting. Sayed Alwadaei, the director of the London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy—BIRD—has watched as his family members in Bahrain have been tortured and imprisoned in retaliation for his human rights advocacy in the UK. I note that Mr Alwadaei is here today. I thank him for his bravery and tenacity, and for continuing his laudable work in the face of such persecution, and I hope that the Minister does the same.
Hassan Mushaima, now 70 years old and a founding Bahraini opposition leader, was arrested alongside 12 other political leaders in 2011, and then tortured and sentenced to life imprisonment. He is being denied access to his most basic rights, including medical assistance, while in Jau prison, a detention centre that in July 2018 was criticised by the UN for its inhumane conditions. Hassan’s son, Ali, escaped arrest because he was in the UK in 2011. Fourteen days ago he started a hunger strike outside the Bahrain embassy in London, asking that his father be given access to adequate medical treatment, family visitations and books. Ali Mushaima is here today. I hope the Minister will also join his call for more humane treatment for his father and all other political prisoners in Bahrain.
Worst of all, as my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) pointed out in his intervention, during the UK’s current assistance to Bahrain, Bahrain broke a seven-year moratorium on capital punishment, with the execution of three torture victims by a secret firing squad in January 2017. The UN special rapporteur on summary executions swiftly declared the executions of Abbas al-Samea, Sami Mushaima and Ali al-Singace to be extrajudicial killings. After those unlawful executions, the size of Bahrain’s death row tripled in less than a year, and 21 individuals now await execution. It is a particular concern that specific Bahraini institutions trained by the UK have been responsible for serious violations of international human rights law, either while receiving UK training or shortly thereafter. Those violations have been especially severe, with catastrophic consequences in the case of death row inmates.
I want to spend a little more time talking about some of the people who have directly suffered violations and about the grave abuses they have experienced at the hands of Bahraini bodies supported by the UK. Al-Samea, Mushaima and al-Singace were executed in January 2017. Mushaima and al-Singace were the nephews of prominent peaceful opposition political activists in Bahrain, which their families believe is the real reason they were falsely accused of terrorism offences. All three men were tortured by police and forced to confess. Methods of torture included beatings, electric shocks and sodomy with metal objects. Al-Samea was tortured and al-Singace was raped by prison guards at a facility at which the UK was training 400 members of staff.
Al-Samea and Mushaima filed complaints about their torture with UK-trained torture investigators: the ombudsman for the Ministry of Interior and the Special Investigation Unit, the SIU. Those institutions, which are mandated to conduct inquiries into torture complaints lodged by detainees in Bahrain, failed to properly investigate any of the complaints made by the men. Mushaima’s lawyer submitted complaints about his client’s torture and false confession to both bodies, neither of which ever conducted an investigation. The SIU later rejected al-Samea’s torture allegations without interviewing him or commissioning an independent medical examination. The three men were never allowed to meet with lawyers and were eventually convicted and sentenced to death in trials that relied almost entirely on their torture-tainted confessions.
Mohammed Ramadan and Husain Moosa face imminent execution for alleged terrorism offences while they insist on their innocence. Both men were arrested and tortured by Bahraini police. Ramadan, a policeman and father of three, was blindfolded, stripped and beaten with iron rods and threatened with the rape of his family members. Moosa was hung from a ceiling by his wrists for three days and beaten with batons. Both men eventually signed false confessions and have since been tortured further by prison guards in a facility where the UK has trained staff. Despite receiving complaints about their torture and forced confession shortly after arrest, the ombudsman refused to investigate for two years, during which time the men were sentenced to death on the basis of their coerced confessions. Neither man has ever been allowed to meet with a lawyer. After their trial, the ombudsman and the SIU both agreed to finally investigate their torture allegations. The investigations have now been closed, but neither institution has released its findings. Both the ombudsman and the SIU refuse to tell the men or their lawyers whether the investigations confirmed their torture allegations. The SIU eventually recommended a retrial for both men, but their forced confessions, extracted through torture, may now be reintroduced as evidence.
Maher Abbas al-Khabbaz faces imminent execution for alleged terrorism offences, despite insisting on his innocence. He was disappeared by Bahraini police for a week and tortured so severely that he had to be transferred to a military hospital. Police forced Maher to sign a false confession, which was used to secure his death sentence in a patently unfair trial. Despite official complaints from his family and lawyer, the ombudsman has never investigated his torture. The SIU has also yet to investigate his torture, despite receiving a formal complaint from the human rights advocacy group Reprieve, which is assisting him, in late July.
Those defendants were failed every step of the way by Bahraini bodies the UK sees as reform partners. They were tortured by police and prison guards until they made false confessions, and their torture and ill treatment were covered up by torture investigators. Three of them have been illegally executed; the other three could be killed at any time. It is deeply concerning that the UK’s Bahraini partners are responsible for human rights violations as serious as torture and obscuring acts of torture in furtherance of unlawful death sentences. This is a poor result for a reform programme that aimed to improve Bahrain’s human rights record.
Of equal concern is the British Government’s reluctance to issue strong criticism of Bahrain’s human rights abuses, in spite of the growing human rights crisis there. In 2017, after the executions, the Foreign Office’s response was to state that Bahrain was aware of the UK’s opposition to the death penalty. It raised no public concern about the torture or unfair trials. Shortly thereafter the Foreign Office stated that it would not support a joint statement on Bahrain’s human rights record at the next UN Human Rights Council session because the statement would
“not recognise some of the genuine progress Bahrain has made.”
Indeed, the Government have maintained that, while Bahrain
“is by no means perfect and...has...a long way to go in delivering on its human rights commitments...it is a country that is travelling in the right direction. It is making significant reform.”—[Official Report, 20 January 2015; Vol. 591, c. 66.]
The British Government count the advent of the ombudsman and the SIU among the “reforms”. The Foreign Office continues to describe the ombudsman and the SIU as
“independent human rights oversight bodies”
that enjoy “increasing public confidence”, and it has not acknowledged their wrongdoing in the cases of prisoners facing imminent execution. That stands in stark contrast with UN human rights experts, including the special rapporteurs on torture and summary execution and the Committee Against Torture, which have expressed concern that the ombudsman and the SIU are “not independent” and “not effective”, and that their activities result in “little or no outcome.”
There is real concern that the UK’s defence of Bahrain on the global stage has served to deflect international scrutiny of Bahrain’s human rights record at a time when such scrutiny is sorely needed. There is now a false perception among many in the international community that Bahrain’s human rights record has improved thanks to British assistance. Bahrain aggressively promotes that idea. Government-affiliated newspapers there now refer to a supposed British belief that
“Bahrain’s human rights record is flawless.”
Meanwhile, despite mounting violations, states have failed to agree to a single joint statement criticising Bahrain’s human rights record at the UN Human Rights Council in the past three years, and Britain has been unwilling to support such statements.
UK reform assistance programmes are too often cloaked in secrecy. That is particularly true when it comes to the human rights risk assessments that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is obliged to carry out in approving assistance of that nature. The Government’s policy on overseas security and justice assistance—OSJA—is designed to prevent UK involvement in human rights abuses such as the death penalty or torture. The policy sets out a human rights risk assessment process that British officials must follow before approving UK assistance to overseas bodies that might be involved in such abuses.
When the OSJA policy was introduced, the then Foreign Secretary, William Hague, claimed that it would demonstrate the UK’s commitment to
“tackling issues related to human rights in an open and transparent way”.
In practice, however, the Government have adopted a blanket policy of refusing to disclose OSJA assessments, which have been used to approve UK assistance to human rights abusers. Bahrain serves as an example of this. The Foreign Office has refused to disclose any of the OSJA assessments completed in respect of its work in Bahrain, leaving Parliament and the public unable to determine whether the risks of such close co-operation with Bahrain’s security apparatus have been properly considered. It is also unclear whether the assessments, which the Foreign Office initially performed in 2011, have been repeated or reconsidered in the wake of serious and documented violations of international human rights law by the Bahraini Government since then.
The funding of such programmes also lacks transparency. Technical assistance to Bahrain was initially funded largely from the conflict, security and stability fund—the CSSF—a £1.13 billion cross-departmental fund that has received parliamentary criticism for its lack of transparency and accountability. In 2017, the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy described it as “opaque”. This year, both the Independent Commission for Aid Impact and the International Development Committee criticised the fund. ICAI noted that, owing to serious problems with the Government’s human rights risk assessments,
“we do not know if CSSF programming is causing harm”,
as working with security forces accused of human rights violations
“risks legitimising them and their actions, or even becoming complicit in violations.”
The IDC noted that cross-departmental funds of that kind risk being slush funds, the lack of transparency and accountability of which “undermines trust” in their use and
“risks undermining faith in the UK aid brand.”
That is an alarming message, which is very much repeated in the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report, published this morning.
The Foreign Office has shifted the funding stream for those programmes away from the CSSF and to the global Britain fund and the integrated activity fund, about which even less is known. When asked, Ministers have refused to provide details of those funds, including their objectives, safeguards or assessment frameworks, so Parliament has been unable to provide scrutiny or oversight.
It should also be noted that after several years of disclosing basic information about its Bahrain reform projects, the Foreign Office now refuses to disclose such details about its current and future work in Bahrain. In response to freedom of information requests and parliamentary questions, the Foreign Office has refused to tell the public and MPs the true scope of its current and future technical assistance activities in Bahrain, including who the Bahraini recipients are, how much is spent on each programme and which programmes are funded by which funds. It is unclear why human rights reform programmes should be subject to that level of secrecy. By formally shielding the details of such assistance from public view, the Government risk creating the impression that they are unwilling to accept scrutiny or criticism of their activities in Bahrain. That hardly reflects the values of good governance and openness that the Government apparently seek to advance in that country.
The efficacy of the British Government’s reform efforts in Bahrain are in serious doubt. Bahrain, already a repressive autocracy in 2012, has grown only more so since. The country’s only two opposition political societies have been forcibly dissolved. The only independent newspaper in the country has been forcibly closed. A recent constitutional amendment paved the way for military trials of civilians. The UN has described
“a clear pattern of criminalizing dissent”
and abhorrent cases of intimidation and reprisals against human rights defenders. Freedom House ranks Bahrain as less free and more repressive of civil and political liberties today than it did in 2012. In terms of press freedom, Bahrain ranks l66th of 180 countries, and the past six years have been marked by torture in detention, unlawful death sentences resulting from unfair trials, and illegal executions. Deprivation of nationality—so-called statelessness—is also now routine. That cannot be the result for which the Foreign Office hoped.
Rather than safeguarding human rights and democracy, the UK’s reform programme has coincided with a brutal assault by the Bahraini Government on the basic rights and freedoms of their citizens. The UK has shielded Bahrain from international censure and avoided criticising arms of the Bahraini Government that have received UK training. That problem is exacerbated by insufficient transparency related to the reform programme’s risk assessments, funding streams, and other details as basic as which arms of Bahrain’s Government will receive UK assistance in future. Given the violations carried out during the course of UK assistance to Bahrain, the British Government cannot keep UK taxpayers in the dark regarding what their money is doing in Bahrain.
The Foreign Office has urgent questions to answer. The UK’s reform efforts in Bahrain have been described as a failure on the basis of the deterioration of Bahrain’s overall human rights records, as well as human rights violations committed by the UK’s reform partners in Bahrain. Does the Minister disagree with that characterisation? If so, on what basis would the Minister describe the UK reform programme in Bahrain as a success? All the violations committed by the UK’s Bahraini reform partners in the cases I have raised have been put to the Foreign Office in writing on several occasions. Does the Minister dispute that those violations took place?
The UN special rapporteur on summary executions deemed the executions of Abbas al-Samea, Sami Mushaima and Ali al-Singace unlawful and an arbitrary deprivation of the right to life. Does the Foreign Office agree with that assessment? If not, why not? Does the Foreign Office accept that confessions extracted through torture must be excluded from criminal proceedings? If so, what steps is the Foreign Office taking to ensure that the special investigations unit and the ombudsman disclose the yet unreleased findings of their investigation into the torture of Mohammed Ramadan and Husain Moosa?
Does the Foreign Office accept the international position that no death sentence can be handed down without strict adherence to fair trial and due process rights, among other safeguards? What assurances has the Foreign Office received from the Bahraini Government that the retrial of Mohammed Ramadan and Husain Moosa will comply with such standards, in particular so that they will not risk a conviction and death sentence on the basis of confessions extracted through torture?
Maher Abbas al-Khabbaz faces imminent execution, and his torture leading to the procurement of a coerced confession has not been investigated by the ombudsman or the SIU, despite official complaints submitted on his behalf. Do the Government accept that they should be extremely concerned that Bahrain may carry out yet another round of unlawful executions without any steps being taken by the relevant authorities or bodies to investigate whether torture was used to secure a death sentence?
Sayed Alwadaei’s family continue to be the subject of reprisals by the Bahraini authorities, not only for his work as a human rights defender but for complaints against the very bodies that have failed adequately to investigate the ill treatment of his loved ones. Do the Government accept that Bahrain’s treatment of Mr Alwadaei and his family amounts to reprisals? Also, what steps are the Government taking to secure the release of Nabeel Rajab and Hassan Mushaima?
The Foreign Office has refused to release any of the OSJA assessments that it has performed in respect of its work in Bahrain. Given the obviously grave concerns about violations of human rights by the UK’s partners in Bahrain, and given the intention of openness and transparency underpinning the OSJA policy, will the Minister commit to releasing those assessments?
The Foreign Office has also refused to release any information on its continuing assistance programmes in Bahrain, or information related to the funds by which the assistance is carried out: the global Britain fund and the integrated activity fund. Will the Minister commit to providing sufficient information about those programmes and funds to ensure proper oversight by the public and by this House?
I am grateful for the assistance I have received from Reprieve and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy in preparing my remarks, and to their representatives for attending today’s debate. I gave some indication of the areas I would cover in my speech to the Minister’s officials. I understand that it might not be possible to cover all of them in his response today, so I hope he can write to me with answers to any remaining questions.
I know that the Minister cares personally, as I do, about the human rights of people in the Gulf and the UK’s record as a defender of human rights around the world. I fear that both of those are under threat and deserve proper scrutiny and investigation. I am grateful to many colleagues for attending today’s debate. I look forward to their comments and to the responses from the Front Benches.
I straightforwardly declare an interest: I am vice-chair of the UK-Bahrain all-party parliamentary group. I am very fond of the place, because my connection with it goes back almost 50 years.
Formally, the British relationship with Bahrain dates to 1816, when we signed a treaty of friendship, which has fundamentally lasted since then. In fact, Bahrain remained under British protection until it was granted its independence in 1971, becoming a constitutional monarchy led by the same royal family that had signed the original 1816 agreement. In July 1969, I was posted as an officer of the first battalion, the Cheshire regiment, to Bahrain. Fifty years ago it was a very different place.
The country still maintains close security co-operation with the United Kingdom—a relationship cemented last year with the inauguration of the Royal Navy base at Mina Salman port. HMS Juffair, which is what it is called, is a vital part of our Gulf defence network, and it was largely paid for by Bahrain too. However, internal security in Bahrain is becoming more and more of a problem. Two years ago, when visiting the country, I was shown a large amount of arms and ammunition found by the Bahrain security services. The arms came from Iran, which is definitely stoking up as much trouble on the streets in Bahrain as possible—trouble that is often deadly. Bahrain is now a major target for Iranian subversion. That threat is ongoing and very real. We should not forget that.
Yet, in a region where human rights are often hugely ignored, I feel that Bahrain is, with British advice and assistance, trying its best to be as good as anywhere, even though some may argue that it is not doing so very well. It is true that Bahrain is a majority Shi’a Muslim country governed by a Sunni-led constitutional monarchy, but listening to my contacts in many different sectors of Bahrain society, I feel that the Government do their best to represent everyone who lives there, no matter what their religion or origin.
It is true that Bahrain has banned some opposition parties from standing in the election, but I think those parties advocated or supported violence. I can understand that. I do not think that we in the UK would take kindly to any political party that advocated violence standing in our general elections either.
I would highlight that women in Bahrain can vote, dress, worship and drive as and when they like. I have met quite a few Bahraini female MPs. Everyone—Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jew or whatever—has freedom to worship the way they wish. That is pretty good when looking around the region, particularly at close neighbours such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. Some 8,000 police and security personnel have now received British-sponsored human rights training, as have 100 members of the judicial and public prosecution services. As we have heard, there is now an independent special investigations unit and an ombudsman.
Would the hon. Gentleman accept that human rights groups have noted that torture investigations carried out by UK-trained investigators in Bahrain rely on forensic medical examinations performed by Bahraini Government doctors and that independent UK experts have assessed those examinations and have declared that they should be totally disregarded because they fail to comply with the UN’s basic minimum for standards for medical examinations?
I do not know the full detail of that, so I will not comment on the hon. Lady’s point.
The UK’s inspectorate of prisons is helping, working with the judiciary. Since 2011, the International Committee of the Red Cross has had access to the country’s prisons, which is very important. Video and audio recordings now routinely occur when prisoners are interviewed. Inspections of prison conditions are now normal and the recommendations of such reports are implemented to the best of their ability—I believe that is the case. I consider such changes a major step forward. I do not personally agree with capital punishment, but I do not live in Bahrain. Over the last 50 years, there have been only five cases where it has been imposed, for what the state considers to be heinous crimes, such as the murder of a policeman. I remind colleagues that the United States, our closest ally, also still has the death penalty.
Bahrain is actively seeking expert advice on human rights from the likes of the British Government. I think it is determined to show the world that such things matter to Bahrainis as much as they do anywhere else. The country is truly a friend and ally. It is continually threatened by Iran, which is just across the Gulf and has scant regard for human rights. Bahrain is right in the front line of subversion and terrorism. I accept that human rights are not yet perfect in Bahrain, but they are a good deal better than many other places and there can be no doubt that the Bahrain Government cares about the issue and is taking active steps to be as good as possible.
I end by saying that many in Bahrain will be watching this debate. They are truly staunch friends of the UK, and will be pretty jarred off if we condemn them on human rights matters when they are so much better on such things than so many other countries.
It is a pleasure, as always, to make a contribution to the debate in Westminster Hall today. I thank the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) for bringing the issue to the House. As the chairperson for the all-party parliamentary group on freedom of religious belief, the matter of Bahrain has been on my radar for a long time before this debate was called. I am thankful to the hon. Gentleman and to the Backbench Business Committee for giving the issue the attention it deserves.
As we come nearer and nearer to the March 2019 Brexit deadline, I am increasingly aware of how important global trade is and will be, and I am thankful for the good relations between the UK and Bahrain that saw bilateral trade worth £884 million in 2012. I am thankful for the good relations that allow us to have an embassy there and to have a naval base that gives greater coverage of the Gulf region. Bahrain is very much our partner in that. There is certainly a relationship between the UK and Bahrain, which is a good thing, and we encourage that. The give-and-take friendship should be maintained and enhanced if possible, but we all know that with friendship comes a responsibility and I wonder whether we are fulfilling our responsibility and duty to freedom and democracy as much as we could be.
My mother—wise woman that she is—has often told me, “You tell an acquaintance what they want to hear; you tell a friend what they need to hear.” As a friend of Bahrain, are we telling it what it needs to hear? We welcome the friendship—the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) told us very clearly how important it is and we all know that—but sometimes with friendship we have to remind people of the things they are not doing correctly.
I apologise for being a few minutes late to the debate. Does my hon. Friend agree that, while some progress is being made, it is not enough and not fast enough, and that is the big concern for the people and for the wider global community?
I wholeheartedly agree with that. We want to encourage Bahrain to move towards a more open human rights approach, to ensure all opportunities for everyone, as we have here in the United Kingdom.
People in Bahrain, especially the rulers, are aware that when human rights improved between 1999 and 2007 that was noticed and was commented on by human rights organisations. Can we ask them to get back to the same situation again?
The hon. Gentleman’s words are very wise. We look to the Minister for a response on that, which is what this debate is all about. Can we encourage Bahrain to get back to where it was? If we can do that, I think we will be moving in the right direction. I am sure the Minister will refer to that point in his response.
I believe in the friendship that we have with Bahrain. British rule was relinquished in 1971 and yet we are in a situation where Bahrain is comfortable housing our military base. We have a large number of British expats working and living in Bahrain and many Bahraini students attend universities in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We are friends, but I wonder whether we have told our friends what they need to know—that their human rights record is not acceptable. While we are thankful for recent changes in legislation that give more rights to women and children, there must be bigger steps and more practical changes. That is what we are asking for. We are not saying that they have not moved—they are, in a way, a beacon for other countries in the region—but we need to highlight issues where human rights abuses have taken place.
I remind the House that it has taken us 800 years to get our human rights in order. Bahrain started in 1971. We want the process to be as fast as possible, but let us have evolution rather than revolution, because revolution is very dangerous.
We are not waiting 700 years for change in Bahrain. I have the utmost respect for the hon. and gallant Gentleman, but this issue has to move faster than that. We, our children, our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren will all have passed before it happens if we have to wait for so many years. We cannot wait that long. That is why this debate is important.
The Minister will hopefully respond to our requests. I ask him—I have the highest regard for him—whether he feels that we have used our friendship in an adequate fashion to bring about change. Although it is certainly true that we are not our brother’s keeper and can never be held accountable for the actions of Bahrain, can we morally claim to have done all we can to highlight and push for human rights in that nation? In May 2017, the UN Committee Against Torture stated that Bahrain’s oversight bodies such as the ombudsman and the National Institute for Human Rights—both recipients of UK training—are ineffective and not independent, even after the training we have given them to help them move in that direction. We must ask why they are ineffective and not independent.
In June 2018, the European Parliament condemned the NIHR for having
“repeatedly justified the human rights violations undertaken by the Bahraini Government”.
In July 2018, the UN Human Rights Committee reiterated that the NIHR
“lacks sufficient independence to perform its functions”.
I ask the Minister whether the Foreign and Commonwealth Office agrees with the assessment by the UN and the EU of UK-funded oversight bodies. That is the question they ask. We need to ask the Minister that question today.
The fact is that the Government have never acknowledged any wrongdoings by these bodies, despite significant evidence, including a report published by the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy and Reprieve. My concern is that that appears to show an acceptance of torture, which I truly hope is not the case. I hope the Minister will respond to that.
I press the Minister for an answer to that question, and I ask about the Department’s assessment of the aforementioned report. What steps are being taken to address the appearance of what some have labelled in conversations with me as complicity with the methods used? There are very serious allegations about indiscretions and human rights abuses, and we have a duty in this House to take them up on behalf of those people through the Minister.
I understand that we no longer rule Bahrain—that ended almost 50 years ago—but we do have influence and some sway, and I remain unconvinced that we can morally hold our hands up and say we are doing all in our power. We have spent £5 million since 2012 on a package of technical assistance to Bahrain, largely to improve the Gulf monarchy’s poor human rights record. That is to be applauded, but it could and should be argued—indeed, it has been presented to me—that in six years, millions of pounds-worth of UK technical assistance to Bahrain has failed to reform that country’s human rights as much as would be hoped or could be expected.
I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response. I also look forward to the shadow Minister’s speech, because he always makes very balanced and helpful contributions.
On the issue of technical assistance that we have offered Bahrainis over the past few years, does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that not only our own taxpayers but the international community see that some benefit is derived, that progress is being made, that there is no regression, and that people in Bahrain can see and feel a noticeable difference from that technical assistance?
My hon. Friend’s words are very helpful to this debate. The people of Bahrain need to see effective change, and whether that technical help has enabled that to happen is debatable. None the less, I believe we have a responsibility to try to do something through the Minister and the Government. I look forward to the Minister’s response, and I would appreciate a written response on the matter if he is unable to fully answer my questions today. I have asked many questions, and there are many others, but I mainly want to highlight the fact that I believe we can and must do more to influence Bahrain. I ask that we actively do that now and in the future.
We have an obligation to speak out for those with no voices. I often say in this Chamber that we are a voice for the voiceless, and we continue to be so. I believe we can and must be more eloquent in words and deeds as we speak through the Minister to their Government on their behalf.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) on securing this debate. It is important in our democracy that colleagues are able to hear all sides and views in any debate. All colleagues have their own experiences of different countries and of different issues they have campaigned on. I led a parliamentary delegation to Bahrain last November—that is in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Prior to that visit, we had a very good meeting with the Minister to look at a number of different issues, including religious freedom, trade and security.
Bahrain came to my attention because, just before I was elected to Parliament, Rev. Chris Butt, the vicar at St. Matthew’s church in my constituency, became the vicar at the cathedral in Bahrain. When you have constituents who have gone to another country, and you have said all along that you will campaign for religious freedom, it is important to take an interest in the work they do around the world. I had never been to Bahrain before, and I did not know much about it, but I became interested in it when the vicar in my constituency went there.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) knows about my commitment to religious freedom—we campaigned together to reform the blasphemy laws in Pakistan. Those pushing for reforms in such countries sometimes put their neck on the line, but pushing for change and standing up for religious freedom and human rights are the right thing to do. That is how I became interested in Bahrain.
When our delegation went to Bahrain in November last year, we went to the cathedral and met Rev. Chris Butt. We went to the synagogue with Bahrain’s former ambassador to the United States, Houda Nonoo. We went to the Hindu mandir. We met members of the minority religious communities to hear what they had to say. It is one thing to sit in Westminster and say that this is what is being written in the papers or said elsewhere, but this is about engaging and listening to people. I make this contribution having gone out there and engaged and listened to those people. I think that is very important.
There is something else that is very important about this: the Shi’as and Sunnis can get on, and the oldest Jewish synagogue in the Gulf remains untouched. That is very important.
My hon. Friend is spot on; he knows the area very well. There is a Shi’a majority in Bahrain, and religious freedom is absolutely core. They must be able to practise their faith as they want. There are 751 registered Shi’ite places of worship, 432 registered Sunni places of worship and another 618 places for the Shi’a community.
I have said this before in Parliament: there must be no compromise on religious freedom. In politics, there is always give and take, but that is not the case on religious freedom. I say that when I travel abroad. I have an interest in religious freedom, and I have served on the Joint Committee on Human Rights in this place.
Members of Parliament from across the political spectrum engage with diplomats at all levels. On 17 August, I visited and engaged with the ambassador for Bahrain—I am my party’s vice-chairman for communities, and I engage with diplomats across the board. When I came out of that meeting, I was followed by individuals outside, chased down the road and shouted at. Pictures were taken. I did not know who those people were; I had never met them. They had never asked to see me and speak to me. I was threatened. I tried to flag down a cab, but one did not stop, and those people ran after me. I went further down the road and tried to flag down another cab as the voices got closer. I jumped into the cab and said to the driver, “Lock the door. Drive now.” I then reported the incident to the House of Commons security services.
Is that how Members of Parliament should be treated? Those people have their views, but they should engage constructively. We have a difference of opinion. The House of Commons brief says that Bahrain is a priority country for human rights. I accept that there are concerns, but Members of Parliament should not be treated in that way; we should be engaged with. If people want to come to the United Kingdom and claim asylum, they should claim it according to the criteria, but they should respect individuals and how democracy works, and not treat parliamentarians in that way—I make that very clear.
The other point I wish to make is this. I listened with care to the hon. Member for Hammersmith, and he did not mention anywhere where he thinks progress has been made on reform. To be as fair as I can, I refer to page 2 of the House of Commons Library document prepared for this debate, which refers to the commitment of Bahrain, which is a signatory to the United Nations convention on civil and political rights. That note says that some progress has been made—it does not say that no progress has been made—but outlines a number of areas where more needs to be done. So the point I would start with is that progress has been made—my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) took my line earlier.
Over the summer, I read “Agincourt” by Ranulph Fiennes. Many hundreds of years ago, our country went through a lot of changes, and we did a lot of things to one another that were not right, some on the pretext of religion. It has taken us hundreds of years to get where we are now. Countries that became independent only in 1971 cannot evolve to that point so quickly, but it is important that we support them to get there as quickly as possible. The support that we have given on this specific issue—I will be brief because I want to hear the Minister—relates to the ombudsman service. The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) wondered about our international partners: what are they saying? They, too, want to see change.
I refer hon. Members to a written answer from Lord Ahmad, a Minister in the other place, with regard to the ombudsman, which is supported through UK funding:
“In 2014 the Ministry of Interior Ombudsman’s Office won the EU’s Chaillot Prize for the promotion of human rights in the Gulf Cooperation Council region.”
Linked to that important point are two of the cases mentioned by the hon. Member for Hammersmith. Husain Moosa and Mohammed Ramadan have been convicted and sentenced to death, but the ombudsman’s report found that those decisions should be overturned. They were overturned because of the ombudsman’s report, and there is a retrial process, so the system works. More needs to be done, but there is a document that says that some of the reforms that have taken place have helped to save two individuals from going to the gallows. It is not just anyone saying it, but a House of Commons document saying that reform is taking place and making constructive change.
We all talk about human trafficking, but Bahrain has recently been given tier 1 status in that regard. It has improved how individuals who go to work there are treated. Thanks to Bahrain’s work on human trafficking, it is now rated on a par with Germany, the United Kingdom and other developed countries by the United States State Department.
Reform is taking place; change is taking place. More needs to be done, and I welcome the Minister’s work on the biannual UK-Bahrain joint working group, where human rights, the environment, education and security are all discussed. I look forward to hearing what he has to say about what was and will be discussed.
In essence, change has taken place. Yes, more needs to be done, but it is no good simply to criticise. Credit must be given where it is due. By working with our partners around the world, we can push for more change. I do not believe in the death penalty, and I never have done. I made that point to the Americans, and I always will. We have to work for change, and as United Kingdom parliamentarians we will do so through engagement with our counterpart parliamentarians in that kingdom.
I am grateful to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I draw hon. Members’ attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, which shows that I have a long-standing relationship with the Kingdom of Bahrain.
Not as long as mine.
Not as long as that of my hon. Friend, that is true. It is an association of which I am extremely proud, because the relationship between our country and the kingdom is hugely important and historic.
I will make three brief points, the first to set some context about the domestic situation in Bahrain. When we travel to Bahrain, we see a young country that has achieved remarkable development in a very short time. Many points have been made by other hon. Members, but those developments include the steps towards democracy that the kingdom has taken, the remarkable level of religious freedom and of freedom of worship for all religions, and the moves towards a family law that provides greater autonomy and freedom for women in the family. They are all remarkable steps for a young country in the region to have taken. Where else can one meet a female Jewish Member of Parliament in the middle east? The Kingdom of Bahrain has made remarkable progress in recent years. I have travelled throughout the kingdom, including in Shi’a villages, and spoken to all sides, and the modern development of this remarkable young country is something of which they are very proud. That is the domestic context, and we must not forget it.
The regional context is also important. Although I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) for securing the debate, his contribution was notably lacking in—utterly devoid of, in fact—regional context in terms of Bahrain’s situation. That context is one of Iranian interference in the domestic affairs of the Kingdom of Bahrain. It is a tragedy that, since 2011 in particular, political groups and those seeking to engage in politics have been militarised by the Islamic revolutionary guard corps from Iran, and sectarian divides that were not there before have been created and exploited.
That is a modern-day tragedy, which the kingdom is seeking to overcome. Of course, it did not start in 2011; it started in 1979 with the Islamic revolution in Iran. Since then, Iran has sought to export Islamic revolution throughout the region, and has sought to claim leadership over Shi’ite groups throughout the region. Indeed, a seat is reserved for the Kingdom of Bahrain in the Iranian Majlis—so Iran utterly rejects the notion that the kingdom should be a sovereign state.
That is the important point to remember—what started in 1979. We must ensure that an understanding of the regional context and of the threat that Bahrain faces daily guides our thinking, because the threat is real. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), I have seen Iranian-supplied munitions, explosives and improvised explosive device materials brought into the kingdom by boat by IRGC operatives and, fortunately, seized by members of the security forces.
The problem is that some of those weapons get through. Explosives are being used against decent people of all religions in Bahrain, and those attacks are Iranian-inspired. The regime has got to do something about it.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. Bahrain is at the frontline of Iranian subversion, which is a pitched military battle in which many Bahraini security personnel have become casualties.
We have had manifold relations with the Kingdom of Bahrain over two centuries; we co-operate on a range of issues. It is not only about our remarkable and hugely important new naval base, HMS Juffair, and nor is it only about the huge range of technical assistance and co-operation or other matters, such as education and culture; it is about the mutual interest and trust that we have with the leadership in Bahrain, which allow us to contribute and guide them towards better human rights outcomes. I look forward to the Minister’s confirmation and elucidation of the importance of that close relationship to the benefit of all involved.
We must almost remember—I will conclude with this—that, broadly, we face a very stark choice in our relations with Bahrain. The question is whether we want to support this modernising monarchy, which is delivering good governance and trying its best for its population. Some of us know that the foremost exponents of political reform in the Kingdom of Bahrain include His Royal Highness the Crown Prince. There is a huge impulse in the ruling family to deliver reform and improvements.
The choice we face is whether to assist the reform to bring it to fruition or to say, “No, we don’t want anything to do with it. Bahrain can become an Islamic republic under the influence of Iran.” Just think of the profound regional and strategy consequences if the Khalifa family and the Government of Bahrain were overthrown by violent Islamic revolution. That would be strategically catastrophic to everyone’s interests in the region.
The fact of the matter is that we need Bahrain more than Bahrain needs us. Bahrain is very successful without us.
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman continues his speech, I should tell him that we are hoping, very shortly, to get to the summing-up speeches.
Thank you, Ms McDonagh. I will conclude by saying that I agree with my hon. and gallant Friend—this is of mutual interest. It is not for us to preach; we must listen and learn. I look forward to the Minister’s confirmation that this close relationship will continue.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms McDonagh. I thank the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) for bringing forward this important debate and for the particularly insightful examples of human rights abuses he gave.
We have heard that there have been positive and rapid developments since 1971 in family law and religious freedom. We have also heard that over the past two years the situation in Bahrain has rapidly deteriorated into a full-blow human rights crisis, irrespective of external state actors. This dangerous direction of unending repression and persecution was documented last year in Amnesty International’s human rights report on Bahrain. The report revealed that the Bahraini authorities have embarked on a systematic campaign to dismantle free speech in the country. The campaign was marked by travel bans; the arrest, interrogation and arbitrary detention of many human rights defenders; the dissolution of the opposition group Waad and the closure of the newspaper al-Wasat; and the continued imprisonment of opposition leaders. We heard from the hon. Member for Hammersmith about the ranking for press freedom—Bahrain ranks somewhere near the bottom.
To give an example of the human rights abuses, the 70-year-old Bahraini political opposition leader, Hassan Mushaima, is being denied his most basic human rights while serving life imprisonment. His son Ali went on hunger strike outside the Bahraini embassy in London more than a month ago, which continues to this day. In January last year the Bahraini Government resumed executions after a hiatus of nearly seven years. Mass protests in Bahrain have been met with excessive force, resulting in the deaths of five men and one child and the injury of hundreds. According to Human Rights Watch, last year the Bahraini Government stripped 156 Bahrainis of their nationality, rendering them stateless persons.
Despite the atrocities against human rights activists, the UK Government—arguably one of the most influential actors in Bahrain—have remained largely silent. The UK’s recent human rights country assessment on Bahrain downplays the severity of the situation, referring only to a “mixed picture”. I hope that will be a whole lot clearer after today’s debate. When it comes to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and other serial violators of human rights, the UK Government have long allowed arms sales and lucrative money deals that benefit them to trump commitments to the principles of justice and democracy. It has been estimated that the UK Government have licensed more than £80 million of arms to Bahrain since the uprising. Earlier this year, the UK opened a naval base in Bahrain. The UK Government want to promote principles of justice and democracy, but that is not the way to do it.
Over the past six years, the Foreign Office has spent more than £5 million of taxpayers’ money on security and criminal justice bodies in Bahrain. Alarming investigations by Reprieve and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy show that the FCO’s assistance has gone directly to bodies involved in serious human rights abuses. They have listed UK funds that have contributed to torture and forced confessions. That is completely unacceptable and has all the hallmarks of a lack of coherent UK Government policy, as was the case when UK Government funds were used for educational courses for the Burmese military, while the Rohingya people were subject to textbook ethnic cleansing and acts of genocide.
The FCO’s work in Bahrain has been funded from the conflict, security and stability fund, a cross-departmental fund of more than £1 billion that has been criticised for its lack of transparency and accountability. In June this year, the International Development Committee, of which I am a member, found that cross-departmental funds of this kind completely undermine value and trust in UK aid. Despite mounting evidence of abuses, the FCO has refused to release any of its human rights assessments for its work in Bahrain or evidence to assure MPs that these programmes represent value for money.
Amnesty International’s report on Bahrain makes this important conclusion:
“The failure of the UK, USA and other countries that have leverage over Bahrain to speak out in the face of the disastrous decline in human rights…has effectively emboldened the government to intensify its endeavour to silence the few remaining voices of dissent”.
Members have spoken about progress being made, but this is not progress—this is going into reverse. In short, the UK Government have directly contributed to the worsening human rights situation in Bahrain. I want to hear the Minister say, without equivocation, that that will be immediately reversed.
The UK Government must exercise every means available to end these human rights violations. Will the Minister outline the steps that the UK Government will take to improve the transparency of their programmes in Bahrain, to ensure that they represent value for money and to stop abuses rather than enabling them? Will he put pressure on the FCO to release its human rights assessments for the UK’s work in Bahrain? Everyone has the right to have access to that. I urge the Minister to send a strong message to Bahrain that if it wants to do business with the UK, it must uphold basic human rights principles and treat its people decently and fairly. It is vital that the UK Government consistently condemn these crimes and call for sanctions against those who carry them out.
The UK should proudly promote human rights and the rule of law, not undermine them. Using an array of tools of repression, including harassment, arbitrary detention and torture, the Government of Bahrain have led the disastrous decline in the human rights situation in the country. The UK Government have an opportunity to act now, by strengthening their response to the deteriorating situation and leading the international community to publicly condemn these human rights violations. I hope that the Minister will condemn them shortly. To do anything less would be to be complicit.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) not only on achieving this debate but on detailing forensically, as he always does, the many concerns he has—that we should all have—about human rights violations in Bahrain. He has always been a champion of the oppressed, wherever they may be in the world. He pointed out the systematic clampdown on the majority Shi’a population since the Arab spring. He mentioned that the United Kingdom’s policy towards Bahrain is of great concern to many organisations that champion human rights around the world.
We heard an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee), the chair of the all-party parliamentary group dealing withn. Bahrain, who is concerned about the sexual abuse of female prisoners. I hope that the Minister will say something about that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith highlighted the arrest, torture and abuse of human rights protesters and listed numerous individuals, including the well-known human rights activist Nabeel Rajab. He mentioned that the executions resumed in January 2017, following the end of the suspension of the death penalty. All Members in the Chamber have equally condemned the reintroduction of the death penalty. He gave a comprehensive list of the UK’s involvement in Bahrain, in spite of the well-documented violations of human rights. One of his conclusions was a quote from Freedom House, which said that Bahrain is more oppressive and less free than it was just six years ago.
We heard from the hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who has considerable experience of Bahrain going back 50 years. He gave a very different view of that country. He talked about its independence in 1971 as a constitutional monarchy, and that he was posted there in 1969. He said that it was a very different place then, but he mentioned, as many hon. Members have, that Iran is stoking up subversion. We should not forget that the majority population is Shi’a and that Iran feels that it has a right to interfere in Bahrain’s internal matters. He said Bahrain was trying hard to act well with regard to human rights, that it tries hard to represent all minorities and that the people banned in Bahrain are those who advocated violence. He asked how we in the United Kingdom would feel about accepting parties that advocated violence. I am not sure that the evidence I have seen backs that up, but I accept what he said. He also mentioned that women have greater freedom to choose in Bahrain than in most of its close neighbours. All those are positive things. Like other hon. Members, he mentioned freedom of worship being far greater in Bahrain than in any other country in the region. Human rights are a good deal better in Bahrain than in the rest of the region.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief, champions freedom of religion worldwide. Wherever there is a threat to anyone’s freedom to worship, he stands up and speaks about it. He said that with friendship comes responsibility, and that we should be a critical friend of Bahrain. He said that if we see human rights abuses, we should say, as a friend of Bahrain, “You need to stop this; you need to ensure that everybody’s rights to political freedom are equal.”
The hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), who visited Bahrain last year, talked about his experience of engaging with and listening to religious minorities in synagogues and churches as well as mosques. It is to the huge credit of Bahrain that people have real religious freedom in that country. He mentioned that reform is taking place. Clearly, for many of us, it is not happening fast enough.
The hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), who is also an expert in the region, told us that Bahrain is a young country that has achieved remarkable development in a very short time, and that there is much greater freedom for women in Bahrain than in any other country in the region. He mentioned the regional context—that Iran’s interference in Bahrain’s domestic affairs is a real threat to the country. We also heard a good summing-up speech from the Scottish National party’s spokesperson, the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law), who always speaks well in our debates.
Let us go back to what is actually happening. As we know, Bahrain is a slight anomaly among its peers in the region because it lacks the abundant oil and natural gas reserves of many of the other Gulf states. For Bahrain’s Sunni royal family, unrest among the country’s Shi’a population is obviously an existential threat. That is why freedom of religion and closeness between Shi’a and Sunni forms of Islam is so important. Bahrain hosts the US navy’s fifth fleet, and we heard much about the new UK military base there. Some 70% of Bahrain’s population is from the Shi’a branch of Islam.
Bahrain has been ruled by the al-Khalifa family since the 18th century, which gives that family an enormous history and tradition in the country. However, the recent increase in repression must be a cause for concern. Since June 2016, the Bahraini authorities have dramatically stepped up their crackdown on dissent. There has been an indefinite ban on peaceful demonstrations in Manama since August 2013. Amnesty International found that at least 169 critics or their relatives were arrested, summoned, interrogated, prosecuted, imprisoned, banned from travel or threatened between June 2016 and June 2017.
This year, the United Nations stated that it
“is concerned at reports of excessive and disproportionate use of lethal force and at reports of enforced disappearances, torture, arbitrary detention and threats against civilians involved in peaceful demonstrations for political and democratic change in 2011.”
However, the Assistant Foreign Minister of Bahrain, Abdulla al-Doseri, stated that Bahrain was a model in the region for its religious tolerance, social protection programmes, the empowerment of women and the development of human rights.
The UK has opened a new naval base at Mina Salman, which cost more than £40 million and is staffed by approximately 500 military personnel. It is the first UK base in the region since the 1970s. The British Government stated that the base will
“enhance the Royal Navy’s ability to operate effectively in the Gulf and further demonstrate the Government’s enduring commitment to regional security.”
The UK has licensed more than £80 million of arms to the Bahraini military since the Arab spring uprising in 2011. It has also licensed exports of military equipment to Bahrain; in 2017 the Government issued licences for the export of military and dual-use components to Bahrain to the value of £36,862,990. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the UK transferred £28 million of arms exports to Bahrain in 2016 and 2017.
The British Government ensured that training for more than 400 prison guards was paid for by the British taxpayer from the £1.52 million that was paid in overseas aid to Bahrain in 2016-17 as part of the conflict, stability and security fund. Some of those prison guards have been accused of torture. Reprieve has stated that, despite the UK Government giving Bahraini authorities training for seven years, the number of inmates on death row tripled. The UK Government continued to fund that training even after the executions of January 2017.
Let me conclude by asking the Minister four questions. What pressure will he apply to our close ally, Bahrain, to ensure that its human rights violations are brought to an end? Is it acceptable to overlook recorded human rights violations in the name of military co-operation and security? Does he feel that the introduction of an ombudsman, which the UK helped to provide, train and support, has genuinely improved the human rights situation in Bahrain? Finally, has enough progress been made on human rights in Bahrain in recent years?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) for securing the debate. I know that he and other colleagues across the House take a keen interest in developments in Bahrain, and I recognise the strength of feeling that was expressed about human rights.
I will try to respond to many of the points that were raised, although, as the hon. Gentleman kindly recognised, I will not be able to address them all. In so doing, I will highlight areas where Bahrain has made real progress and set out plainly where I believe the Government of Bahrain have further work to do. I thank all the Back-Bench speakers, as well as the other Front-Bench speakers, the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) and the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), who again did an excellent job of summing up all the speeches. That means I can get to the substance of the concerns, which I hope is the best way for me to spend the next 13 minutes.
Let me start by making it clear that Bahrain is a key partner for the UK in the middle east, as was expressed. The UK Government make no apology for that. Our two kingdoms share a close and lasting bond that dates back more than 200 years to the treaty of friendship of 1816, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) made clear. We have a strong partnership based on mutual interests, shared threats and a desire to promote greater security and peace in the Gulf. For example, as colleagues mentioned, our new United Kingdom naval support facility, which opened this year, is the first UK naval presence east of Suez since 1971. However, I reassure the hon. Member for Leeds North East that none of that allows the UK to overlook the things that need to be brought out in a relationship between friends. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, we sometimes need to make representations to our friends.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) made clear, we work with Bahrain and other regional partners to confront states and non-state actors whose influence fuels instability in the region. We remain committed to working together to address Iran’s malign regional behaviour and ballistic missile activity. I confirm his view that we will continue to be engaged in such a way in the region.
It is not unfair or partial, however, to observe that there is a much-contested political dispute about Bahrain—national and international. There is a significant gap between the claims on the two sides, which this debate is unlikely to dispel. We heard contrasting speeches, which illustrated the differences of opinion about Bahrain. As with most things in the House, there are elements of truth on both sides of the debate. The United Kingdom recognises that. A number of colleagues have expressed concern about the human rights situation in Bahrain, the subject of today’s debate, and questioned the UK’s close partnership with that country. Although the difference between the speeches has been stark, the United Kingdom recognises that Bahrain has more work to do in this area. Bahrain continues to be a human rights priority country for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and as the hon. Member for Strangford has recognised, that is no small admonition by the UK Government.
The Government remain committed to protecting and promoting human rights around the world. However, we believe that the best approach—as other speakers have indicated—is to engage with Governments and work with international partners and civil society organisations to promote and defend those universal freedoms, and to bring about positive change. We apply this approach consistently, including with Bahrain, and it follows work that—as many of us know—began in Bahrain before 2011. The reform programme led by the crown prince and others had been ongoing, but 2011 catalysed it. The response of the Bahraini Government—the establishment of the commission of inquiry—was unprecedented in the region. The public presentation of its findings in front of the king was unprecedented, and the response of the Bahraini Government was also very different to anything in the region.
The depth and breadth of our relationship with Bahrain means we can, and do, express our concerns about human rights in a frank and open way at senior levels. We do so publicly, but more often do so in private discussions, as the House has obviously noted. The FCO’s latest annual human rights report outlined action taken by the UK—relating, for example, to the prison sentence given to Nabeel Rajab—as well as our concerns about the deprivation of nationality, where that renders an individual stateless. We will continue to support Bahrain to address those and other human rights concerns, both through our bilateral engagement and through international institutions. At the same time, we should acknowledge and welcome the steps that Bahrain is taking to address a range of rights issues. I will highlight some of those before returning in more detail to some of the cases mentioned by the hon. Member for Hammersmith.
The UK has provided assistance and support to Bahrain in many areas. First, freedom of religion is guaranteed by the Bahraini constitution. There is a vibrant multi-religious community, and in addition to numerous mosques, Bahrain is home to churches, a synagogue, and the region’s oldest Hindu temple. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) has so clearly stated, members of all religions and communities co-exist peacefully and play an important part in Bahraini society, whether in the Shura Council, in the elected chamber of Parliament, or as senior Government Ministers and officials. My hon. Friend made a brave speech, and I hope that no-one would seek to defend those who pursued him outside the Bahraini embassy in the manner he described. The United Kingdom acknowledges peaceful protest, but there is activity that is unacceptable, and my hon. Friend was right to raise his concerns.
The Bahraini embassy requires protection when that sort of thing happens. Will the Foreign and Commonwealth Office consider whether policemen should be placed outside it, like they are outside the Iranian embassy?
Matters affecting the Bahraini embassy and its protection are at the front of our mind, and a conversation is ongoing with many of those who were involved. We hope that protest can be de-scaled, and normal service can return.
Secondly, Bahrain is taking a leading role in the region in protecting and safeguarding women’s rights. It is a party to the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, and last year, the Bahraini Parliament adopted new legislation designed to benefit women and children from all the country’s communities. I also welcome Bahrain as a signatory to the UK-led WePROTECT global alliance, demonstrating its commitment to combating the abuse of children online.
Thirdly, as has been mentioned during the debate, Bahrain is a regional leader in improving the rights and combating the exploitation of migrant workers. The Bahraini Government have increased the transparency of working conditions, introduced a victim-centred approach to their response to trafficking and exploitation, and signed the UK-led call to action on modern slavery. Such efforts have been recognised internationally. The US’s annual trafficking in persons report recently rated Bahrain a tier 1 country, the same as the UK, indicating that Bahrain fully meets the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. Finally, Bahrain is taking steps to improve prison conditions, particularly for young offenders and vulnerable children.
Our objective in providing technical assistance is to help to bring about positive change by sharing the UK’s expertise and experience. One thing should be said straight up: the UK’s technical expertise in improving a human rights situation is usually employed in countries where that is needed. That is why we engage with countries where support is needed, as opposed to countries where everything is perfect, and that is what we have tried to do here. All training is provided in line with international standards and fully complies with our domestic and international human rights obligations. A number of colleagues have mentioned oversight bodies; the UK has been working with Bahrain’s independent human rights oversight bodies since their creation, following recommendations from the commission of inquiry in 2012. Our work has supported the building of effective institutions that hold the Bahraini Government to account. While those bodies still have more to do, they have already demonstrated their abilities, including through the prosecution of police officers accused of human rights abuses.
We also work to strengthen Parliament and youth engagement. Bahrain remains one of only two countries in the Gulf with an elected Parliament, and we look forward to elections this year. UK support has strengthened the institutional capacity of the Bahraini Parliament secretariat, enhancing staff skills to support MPs in their oversight of the Government, and the composition of that Parliament is wider than some outside critics recognise.
I hear the points that the Minister is highlighting about progress, but I wanted to ask one specific question, which I raised earlier. Is it the Minister’s decision that the human rights assessments that the FCO is currently withholding will now be released, so we can have our own insight into what those assessments are?
We publish what we can, and what it is appropriate to publish. We try to be as transparent as possible in official publications, and we will continue to do that. Not everything is publishable, but we will publish as much as we can to give a clear impression of what is happening. We will, as always, continue to look at whether there are ways to strengthen such publication.
Earlier, I mentioned Bahrain’s new legislation related to alternative sentencing. The Bahraini system has already started to implement provisions under this new legal framework, and it would be unfair for me not to deal with some of the individual cases that have been mentioned.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the British embassy in Bahrain have closely followed the case of Mr Hassan Mushaima, and have raised it with the Government of Bahrain. We continue to encourage anyone with concerns about treatment in detention to report them to the appropriate oversight body, and we also encourage the oversight bodies to carry out swift and thorough investigations into such claims. The Government of Bahrain have released a detailed public statement regarding the access to healthcare that Mr Mushaima has received since he has been in detention, and we have received categorical assurances that, in his case and others, there is and has been access to appropriate medical care while in detention.
I expressed my concerns about the sentence given to Mr Nabeel Rajab on 21 February, and reiterated the UK’s call to protect freedom of expression for all its citizens. We have closely monitored the trials of Mr Rajab. Officials from the embassy regularly attend Mr Rajab’s court hearings, including the handing down of the latest appeal verdict. There is now an opportunity for Mr Rajab’s legal team to apply for an appeal through the judicial system, and our officials will continue to monitor the case closely.
The British embassy and the FCO continue to monitor the cases of the family members of Mr Sayed Alwadaei. We have raised those cases with the Government of Bahrain, and should we have further concerns, we will do so again as part of our continuing dialogue. We welcome the investigation and recommendations of the Special Investigations Unit in relation to Mohammed Ramadan and Husain Moosa, and the subsequent decision of the Minister of Justice to refer those cases back to the Court of Cassation for retrial.
In conclusion, Ms, ah, McDonagh—sorry, it is age—
Yours, not mine.
We take seriously both sides of today’s discussion. Bahrain remains an important partner, but we do not ignore the other voices that we hear. As a long-standing friend of Bahrain, we both offer support and speak frankly about our concerns. We will continue to do so.
When I was first in Bahrain, so many people expressed their desire to be Bahrainis, not to divide themselves into their respective groups. I am keen that we should look forward to that future in Bahrain, so that people see themselves as Bahrainis first and foremost, and nothing else. The United Kingdom will continue both to support Bahrain, and support progress where it is needed to deal with the sorts of concerns that have been raised today.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered human rights abuses and UK assistance to Bahrain.
Universal Credit (Liverpool)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered roll-out of universal credit in Liverpool.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh, although in this debate it will not be possible for me to do justice to the magnitude of concerns that have been raised with me about the imminent full roll-out of universal credit across Liverpool. Disability charities, trade unions, civil servants, housing associations, private landlords, advice agencies, food banks, local councillors and the local authority have all provided me with briefings, statistics and case studies, for which I am grateful. Together, they paint a bleak picture of what lies ahead this autumn.
Starting this month, and continuing into November and December, jobcentre by jobcentre, full service universal credit will be rolled out across my constituency. I am here because of the people I have met in my surgeries and food bank visits, and because of the harrowing stories I have been told. I am here because of the people I have seen—people who are broken and who feel worthless and trapped in a cycle of poverty that they cannot escape. The roll-out of universal credit is only the latest onslaught from a benefits system that is stuck in Victorian times; it is just the latest instalment of austerity for our city—a city that has borne the brunt of eight years of cuts that have hit the most deprived areas the hardest. Our local authority budget has been slashed by 64%—£444 million since 2010—and 40% of children in my constituency are growing up in poverty.
According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Liverpool has the second highest level of destitution of any city in the UK, and there is a lack of basic essentials, including food, shelter and toiletries. That is the climate in which the Government are imposing their flagship welfare policy—a policy that had cross-party support when it was launched in 2011, but is now a byword for institutional incompetence. It is six years behind schedule, universally unpopular and, according to the National Audit Office, likely to cost more than the system it replaces.
I have a case of a mum who has started a new relationship, and consequently she has been put on to universal credit because her partner, who is from another area, is already on it. Her tax credits were stopped at the end of May, but by 31 August her application still had not started to be administered. If it were not for the mayoral hardship fund, Liverpool’s citizen support scheme and Can Cook, which have fed the family for two months, that family would be absolutely destitute. Has my hon. Friend heard of similar experiences in his constituency?
I will come on to some of the case studies and personal stories that I have been told. Well-documented design flaws and unresolved administrative issues have seen tens of thousands of claimants plunged into debt arrears and reliance on food banks. My casework is already loaded with people who are struggling to make ends meet, and piling universal credit—a policy that Citizens Advice has called a “disaster waiting to happen”—on to an economic situation that is already bordering on crisis will lead to levels of hardship not seen in the city since the 1980s. This is the last chance to apply the brakes, stop the roll-out of universal credit, and fix the flaws in its design and delivery.
Universal credit lists its stated aims as: to improve work incentives, reduce poverty and simplify the benefit system, making it easier for people to understand, and easier and cheaper for staff to administer. Who could disagree with that? However, the National Audit Office found in June that:
“Universal Credit is failing to achieve its aims, and there is currently no evidence that it ever will.”
Worse still, the evidence on the ground in areas where full service universal credit has been rolled out is clear: not only is universal credit failing to meet its aims, but it is having the opposite effect. It is punishing those in work, exacerbating poverty, and creating an unwieldy, arduous and inefficient system that increases pressures on claimants and staff alike.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. One flaw in the system concerns the rigidity of the assessment period. I am in correspondence with the Minister of State for Employment on behalf of one of my constituents who is affected by the rule that means that if two sets of earnings are covered by one assessment period, the claimant will get nothing or a reduced amount for the next period. My constituent is already worrying about how she will afford Christmas. Surely that cannot be acceptable in this day and age.
It is absolutely unacceptable, and Ministers know that the system has major structural problems. Payment of universal credit is 35 days in arrears, which results in the common requirement for an advance payment. One local member of Department for Work and Pensions staff called the five-week wait a “scandal in itself”, and in practice it can take up to 12 weeks before claimants are paid the correct amount. That staff member also told me that the so-called advance payments put claimants even further in debt, because future payments are reduced by up to 40% to claw the money back. That corresponds with data released by Citizens Advice, which shows that more than half its clients who receive universal credit were forced to borrow money while waiting for their first payment. Other problems include payment as a single lump sum, including housing costs, which causes households to choose between rent or food, especially at the outset of the claim.
There is also the online system. We know that 17% of people who earn less than £20,000 never use the internet—I have met people in that situation. One in five disabled people, and two in five of those with learning disabilities, do not have access to the internet, and the DWP’s own analysis shows that just under half of all claimants are unable to register their claim online. How have the Government prepared for the online roll-out in Liverpool? By closing four jobcentres—including two in my constituency—and eight across Merseyside, in the very areas where claimant rates are highest. It beggars belief to take away the very facilities that were established to support those seeking work.
Despite cuts, our local authority has set aside £50 million to protect the most vulnerable people. We have, I believe, one of the best benefit support services in the country, so that when people are in crisis, they can at least access emergency financial support such as discretionary housing payments, the mayoral hardship fund and crisis payments. Liverpool’s benefit maximisation scheme costs £3 million a year, and its specialist advisers last year helped to secure an extra £10.5 million for Liverpool’s families. No ring-fenced money has been provided by the Government for that—the money comes from general funds and reserves. In the last two years, £1 million has been spent topping up discretionary housing payments, and stopping countless people losing their homes before the roll-out of universal credit has even taken place.
Austerity has decimated our local council services, yet for years the local authority has acted as a sticking plaster for the worst effects of austerity. This autumn’s roll-out of universal credit is expected to rip that away, and I am told that it will simply no longer be able to cope. One problem is that the DWP does not currently share data with local authorities, which means that it is impossible to identify and support people with differing needs for support. It shifts the burden of responsibility on to vulnerable people to seek out support services themselves, and the tragic reality is that we simply will not find those people until it is too late—until they have lost their home, until they are on the streets, until we find them in A&E, or until they simply become one more suicide statistic.
We know that nearly three quarters of housing association tenants on universal credit are in debt, compared with less than a third of all other tenants. Riverside Housing Association told me:
“The time of planned rollout is particularly worrying as it comes ahead of Christmas, a time when historically our tenants often struggle financially due to the additional heating costs and the festive season—with debt and arrears increasing.”
The Trussell Trust reports that in the past year food bank referrals rose by 52% in areas where the full service of universal credit was introduced in the previous 12 months, compared with a 13% rise across the UK as a whole. North Liverpool Foodbank says that changes to benefits are the most common crisis suffered by families, and that is before the full service has been rolled out.
In the local private rented sector the situation is even more critical. I spoke to a letting agent based in my constituency who told me that 100% of the agency’s tenants who are on universal credit are now in rent arrears—every one of them. Letting agents complain of ongoing issues in securing direct payment of housing costs under universal credit, even when the tenant has given explicit consent. I was told that one tenant on live service universal credit was £700 in arrears and was moved on to direct payment; then, as soon as full service was rolled out in Bootle, a neighbouring constituency, the direct payments stopped again. The tenant is now £2,500 in arrears. The letting agency told me, as others have, that it is at the point of refusing universal credit claimants altogether.
I do not need a crystal ball to tell the Minister that if the roll-out continues and the Government press ahead, there will be even more people living on the streets. More than 90% of local authorities surveyed by Crisis said they expected the roll-out of universal credit to increase homelessness. Rough sleeping in England has already more than doubled under the present Government. Let us remember that the first claimants to move on to universal credit were single unemployed jobseekers—the so-called easy cases. This autumn people with much more complex circumstances will transfer on to the system. It is a sobering thought that the worst is yet to come. It is a scandal for Ministers to proceed when basic failures in the system have not been fixed.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s quite legitimate concerns, but perhaps I can offer a little reassurance following the roll-out that has already happened in Dudley. Many claimants and the jobcentre—particularly in Stourbridge—are seeing that universal credit gives extra flexibility to help cases that simply would not have received the help and appropriate support they needed under the old system. More people—precisely the kind of difficult cases that he refers to—are getting into work and staying in work.
I can tell the hon. Gentleman categorically that that is not the experience of people moving on to universal credit. The evidence I am giving in my speech does not back it up.
Analysis by Citizens Advice shows that a self-employed worker earning £9,750 a year would be £630 worse off under universal credit than an employee with an identical annual income but paid a regular monthly salary. It is astounding that the Government have overseen an increasingly insecure jobs market, based on bogus self-employment and agency and zero-hours jobs, while putting in place a welfare system that leaves the workers who do those very jobs hundreds of pounds worse off each year.
There are also changes to the work allowance. Mary is a hard-working single parent of three children in Liverpool and under the old system her income was topped up with £48 child benefit each week and a universal credit payment of £885 a month. After the changes, Mary’s salary and child benefit remained the same but her universal credit was cut by £219 a month. It is just another family pushed into hardship.
Yesterday I visited a constituent called Ann, who went on to universal credit when she lost her job as a cleaning supervisor in New Brighton in July 2015. She phoned the Department for Work and Pensions the next day to register a claim and was asked to attend a local jobcentre in Everton. She attended and was advised that she would need to go online to register, but she explained she had never had access to a computer or training in the use of one. She was asked whether she had a relative she could get assistance from. She was never once offered assistance in completing the application, even after she admitted lacking the skills to do so.
Ann attended a universal credit appointment on 18 August and received her first payment on 21 September. She went 10 weeks without receiving any payments and when she was in distress was told to attend the local food bank. She sought the support of local councillors in their surgery, because of the humiliation she felt at her situation and her lack of food. After her claim was live, she had three consecutive months of sanctions because of bewilderment at the system, and lack of understanding of the digital diary. She was then informed that she had to travel to look for jobs, but without any offer of travel expenses up front—all expenses had to be claimed back through receipts.
Ann summed up the experience as humiliating, degrading and utterly confusing—and she was one of the easy claimants selected for live roll-out. She was one of thousands in the city who will have followed a similar path from factory work decades ago to low-skilled work more recently, and who are now on the jobs market with no computer skills to enable them to navigate the system. I am sick of living in a society where we punish people because a broken economy does not provide them with decent jobs. What looks good to Ministers on paper is in reality asking a 60-year-old woman who has worked all her life to spend hours each day walking around a city handing in CVs in shops, begging for jobs. I do not think it is humane or worthwhile for society to be in that position.
I am here today to ask the Minister to apply the brakes—to stop the roll-out of universal credit in Liverpool and fix the flaws in its design and delivery. Outside Whitehall there is total acceptance that the current system will cause untold misery and push communities to breaking point across Liverpool. The Government have thrown away cross-party support for a new benefits model that would simplify the welfare state, and instead have caused chaos. Universal credit could be accepted, but only if it worked as originally intended. Ministers must remove the mandatory waiting period of 35 days; provide additional ring-fenced funding for local authorities based on local need; reverse the cuts to the work allowance and family premium; make sure that families making a claim for universal credit are at least as well off as they were under the previous system; remove the freeze on the benefit allowance and make sure welfare support reflects the needs of families; withdraw the disastrous two-child policy; and carry out a full cumulative impact assessment on the impact of welfare reforms at a local level. Finally, they must ensure that universal credit really does “make work pay”, while also carrying out the statutory duty of care to citizens.
The director general for the universal credit programme is Neil Couling. According to the ministerial code, he has responsibility for its implementation and has the power to pause it. I call on him urgently to use that power. He and Ministers have been warned about the impending crisis if they push ahead. I ask the Minister to step back and evaluate: what is the policy trying to achieve? I understand the predicament that the Department is in. It would cause a headache in Whitehall to pause the roll-out. Changes are deeply embedded, and it would be complex and expensive to stop, but that cannot mean, “Shut your eyes and hope for the best.”
Seven years ago there was cross-party agreement on the principle of simplifying the benefits system and helping people into work. However, the policy has unravelled because it was built on deeply flawed assumptions about what causes unemployment, designed in Whitehall by people who have never experienced poverty. It has become part of an agenda to undermine welfare provision and force the vulnerable and disabled to pay for an economic crisis caused by an elite. It is a joke that the Government talk about making work pay at a time when real wages are lower than they were 10 years ago. The Government have already been forced into a series of changes on universal credit. They backtracked on charging for the claimant helpline, they rolled back the six-week minimum wait—albeit only to five weeks—and they backtracked on 18 to 21-year-olds being excluded from the housing allowance. The Government know that the system is not working.
We urgently need to change the culture of the social security system from one that demonises people who are not in work to one that supports people and communities, that lifts people up rather than kicking them while they are down, and that seeks to improve the pay and conditions of those in work rather than punishing those who are not. Decent wages, lifelong learning and a patient strategy of long-term investment are how we will achieve a prosperous society. I shall continue to make those arguments in this House, but right now I have only one ask for the Minister: pause the roll-out of universal credit in Liverpool; fix it and save my constituents from the inevitable suffering it will unleash.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) on securing today’s debate. I apologise to the House that the Minister for Employment is not able to be here, so I am deputising on his behalf.
We are introducing universal credit at a time when record numbers of people are in work and unemployment is at its lowest rate in more than 40 years. Since 2010, 1,000 jobs a day have been created, and in the north-west region more than 3.4 million people are employed, up 268,000 since the 2010 general election. The north-west employment rate is 74.3%, up from 68.7% in 2010. Nationally, according to the labour market statistics released today, the unemployment rate is now 4%—it has not been lower since 1975—and the employment rate is 75.5%, which is again a near-record high.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh, and it is also an opportunity for me to make the point that, nationally, the number of children living in workless families is down 608,000 since 2010. As of March 2018, the employment rate of people aged 16 to 64 in Liverpool itself was 67.6%, up from 60.3% in March 2010, and in Merseyside, as of March 2018, the employment rate had increased from 64.2% before the 2010 election to 70.2%.
Turning to the points raised by the hon. Gentleman, I will try to address the issues relating to universal credit. As I am not the Minister, I may not be able to answer the specific questions raised, but, as the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) has been artfully demonstrating to me across the Chamber, I will write to hon. Members, or the Department will write to them, on the specific questions they raised.
The Government believe that universal credit remains a vital reform. It replaces an outdated and complex benefit system; the six benefits are replaced with one simple monthly universal credit payment, designed to support people whether they are in or out of work. There is no doubt that the old system did not incentivise people to come off benefits and get into work.
Does the Minister accept that the administration of universal credit is chaotic? I had a constituent who ended up being sanctioned for a year after his father died and he was unable to cope with going to meetings. After my office intervened, his benefit was reinstated and the sanction was removed. He had eight letters telling him that, but when he received his first payment, which was supposed to be a back payment, it consisted of £5.
I cannot comment on the individual case, but it is unquestionably the case that the old system had inherent flaws and, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton very fairly said in his speech, it was right for it to be reformed at that particular time. We may have a debate and a discussion about the quality of the system thereafter, but the reform of the old system was unquestionably the right thing.
Under UC, claimants are better off when they move into work and better off when they progress in work; the payment is gradually reduced as earnings increase, so claimants will not lose all their benefits at once if they are on a low income. There is no 16-hour ceiling, no 16-hour floor and no risk to people’s benefit as they move into work. It also means that the more people work, the more money they get in their pocket. We believe that universal credit lies at the heart of our reforms to transform the welfare system, because it supports those who can work and cares for those who cannot.
The UC full service is available in approximately 63% of Jobcentres in Liverpool, with those remaining to be rolled out by December, as the hon. Gentleman outlined. I would urge all hon. Members to visit their local Jobcentres and to speak to the staff in charge of the system, the work coaches and the claimants who are attending. I myself have visited a number of Jobcentres and sat in on randomly selected interviews with dedicated work coaches. I held a jobs fair last Friday in Hexham with my Jobcentre Plus, and I am going to another Jobcentre this week.
I thank the Minister for visiting my constituency and meeting with local advocacy organisations, representative groups and local charities, who deal with people claiming universal credit on a daily basis. What lessons and messages did he receive from those organisations in Dudley, where the roll-out was completed over a year ago, about how the system has changed and improved with the tweaks that have been made?
The reality of the situation is that, as the roll-out takes place across the country, there are good examples, as was seen when I visited Brierley Hill in my hon. Friend’s constituency, of excellent integration—
Order. I have been generous in my interpretation of what can be said during this debate, but it is about the introduction of universal credit in Liverpool, and I would like us to concentrate on Liverpool.
I totally accept that, but with respect, Ms McDonagh, the integration of services is a nationwide matter, and the roll-out is happening across 430 Jobcentres.
Would the Minister like to have a go at answering my question about administration of the benefit in Liverpool?
With respect, that is what I am attempting to do and intending to come to. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton raised the issue of local authority funding. The Department for Work and Pensions provides local authorities with UC support funding and new burden funding to take account of additional costs. The local authority should provide the data, and he should be aware that £14 million has been paid out in this tax year alone.
On the managed migration, there was a “Universal Credit programme full Business Case summary” early this year, which showed that when UC is rolled out it will deliver £8 billion worth of benefits to the UK economy every year. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Citizens Advice in his speech; he will be aware that only recently, when the changes were made to universal credit, it was quoted as saying:
“These changes should make a significant difference to the millions of people who will be claiming Universal Credit by the time it’s fully implemented.”
Similarly supportive comments were set out at the time by the Trussell Trust and others.
I will ensure that the Department writes to the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) on the specific point he raised. In relation to the lady from Everton, if he provides the detail to the Department I will ensure that a specific point is raised, and I will also ensure that the point about the constituent case mentioned by the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood is addressed.
It is important to mention that there have been significant changes and a “test and learn” approach to universal credit as it is being rolled out. Changes were made in November last year following the Budget, and the Secretary of State herself made changes in June this year. We have made a commitment that anyone we move onto universal credit without a change of circumstance will have their existing benefit entitlement safeguarded until their circumstances change. That is to accommodate the changes needed; managed migration will be completed in 2023. We have also announced that people on legacy benefits receiving severe disability premium will stay on legacy benefits until we move them, even if they have a change of circumstances, and we will look at protection for people previously in receipt of severe disability premium who have already moved onto universal credit.
Will the Minister give way?
Very briefly; I have barely a minute.
I just want the Minister to answer the points about housing associations and private rented landlords, who are saying they will no longer take universal credit claimants in the private rented sector. What is the Department going to do to talk to housing associations and landlords, and to stop a homelessness crisis hitting our city?
I will ensure that the Department gets in contact with the hon. Gentleman to find out the details of which he complains. He will understand that I cannot specifically answer that particular point now, but contact will be made if he provides the explanation of the specific examples that he is concerned about. It is definitely the case, though, that the individual Jobcentres are working with the local authorities and with the various charities on an ongoing basis.
To finish, we are in the middle of a fundamental structural reform that is already changing lives. We will continue to work with claimants, partners and hon. Members to resolve the issues and improve universal credit as it is rolled out across the country. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman, who is a worthy successor to his predecessor, on securing today’s debate; it is definitely the case that we call on all hon. Members to get behind this particular revolutionary reform, but I am grateful for the opportunity to set out the position today.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered funeral poverty.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Streeter. While few things are certain in this world, we can be sure that almost all of us will have to go through the unbearable, gut-wrenching pain of losing a loved one. Since death does not work to a strict timetable and can often come without warning, even at the end of a long illness that final passing can still take us by surprise. The support and help that people need at this time must surpass all normal standards. Sadly, it does not, which is why I secured this debate.
I am deeply frustrated that the debate is one in a long line I have contributed to on this subject. Over the past four years, I have faced a multitude of Ministers and met numerous organisations and groups in an attempt to press the Government to make much-needed reforms to how funeral services and, crucially, social fund funeral payments, administered by the Department for Work and Pensions, operate. The measures I have pressed for, and which I proposed in a Funeral Services Bill some years ago, would ease the burden of those who want to give their loved ones a fitting tribute. That I am here again to ask the Minister the same questions is evidence enough that, despite warm words from the Prime Minister as recently as last week, when she said that
“it is important to families and individuals to be able to give their loved one a proper funeral”—[Official Report, 5 September 2018; Vol. 646, c. 160.]
the reality is that, on her Government’s watch, more and more people are simply unable to do just that.
One key ask in my Bill, and from many other people at the time, was for the Government to carry out an over- arching review of funeral affordability. Back in 2014, more than 100,000 people were estimated to be suffering from funeral poverty. A Co-op survey earlier this year revealed the number now to be 4 million. That is 4 million people who have experienced financial hardship as a result of a loved one’s death.
The gulf between incomes and living costs continues to rise as the Government’s agenda, coupled with punitive welfare and benefit reforms and inaction on low-paid, insecure work, has led to a record 8 million working adults living in poverty.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her tenacity and determination in taking on this terrible scourge. Is she aware of the exploitation that people face when trying to bury a loved one, with local authorities doubling, tripling or quadrupling burial fees for someone who did not live in the borough at the time of death, even if they own the grave and lived in the borough almost their entire life?
One measure in my Bill was to look across the board at what local authorities and the market were doing in relation to funerals, because people are being exploited at such a sensitive time.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely debate. Is she aware that the average cost of a burial nationally is £4,561, yet the average social fund funeral payment is £1,427—about 35% of the cost? Given the rising cost of living in other respects, that is quite a burden on a lot of families, and a lot sometimes have to sell goods to pay for funerals. Does she think that there should be an investigation into funeral charges, and also into the scope of the social fund itself?
It should come as no surprise to my hon. Friend that I will address all the points he raises.
As I was saying, a record 8 million working adults live in poverty in the UK, with 14 million people overall living in poverty. It is little wonder that, for someone living day by day and hand to mouth, the final act of giving a deserving tribute to their loved ones is heartbreakingly out of reach. An estimated 81% of people have been unable to save for a funeral. Funeral poverty in the UK has now reached a record high of more than £160 million in 2017—a 50% increase in the last three years alone. There has also been an increase in people having to wait more than a year to bury family members.
The cost of a basic funeral is now £4,078, yet this can rise in some London areas to as high as a staggering £12,000. Around a quarter of families that cannot afford funerals borrow from friends or relatives, a quarter put costs on a credit card, and the rest take out loans or work out an instalment plan with funeral directors. Some even sell their belongings. It has been revealed recently that people are increasingly turning to crowd- funding websites to raise money for funerals, with JustGiving showing a 400% increase in people asking for money from friends, families and strangers to fund funerals for their loved ones. I cannot imagine having to seek support from strangers on a faceless website to pay for a loved one’s funeral.
My Bill and the “Support for the bereaved” report by the Work and Pensions Committee both called on the Government to negotiate a simple funeral service and to establish with the sector a reasonable cost for items required for a simple funeral. The Government claim that doing so would interfere with people’s choice but that they are working with stakeholders to agree what might be included in a standard package funeral. I hope the Minister can advise us what stage he is at after two years of discussions.
For those struggling to afford a funeral, there is state support in the form of the social fund funeral payment. It is accessible to those on certain benefits, but it is in absolutely dire need of reform. In 2017, out of the 41,800 applications for the fund, 16,900 were declined. Considering that the fund can be accessed only once funeral costs have been committed to—once a debt exists—that leaves almost 17,000 people struggling to pay. The DWP’s target to deal with claims is 16 days, yet the average between a death and a funeral is 13 days, and much less for some religions and cultures.
Those payments also categorise certain aspects of a funeral. The provisions refer to “other expenses” as being funeral directors’ fees, ministers’ fees and a coffin. These apparently optional extras have been capped for 15 years at £700. If the cap had kept up with inflation, it would be £300 higher today. However, funeral costs have far exceeded the rate of inflation, more than doubling since 2003.
I acknowledge the Government’s changes in recent years, such as allowing recipients to receive contributions from other sources without deductions, extending the claim period from three to six months after the funeral, and introducing both a shorter application form for children’s funerals and the electronic submission of forms. However, the stark reality is that, without exploring the regulation of the market and funding demand and establishing eligibility for the social fund before people commit to costs, the number of those in funeral debt will continue to swell. In 2016, the then Minister rejected calls for an eligibility checker, saying that that would cause more “confusion”. I find it absolutely impossible to see how someone knowing whether they are eligible to afford a funeral for their loved one before committing to one can cause more confusion than not knowing and being saddled with debt.
The hon. Lady is making very important points about the social fund funeral payment system. Does she agree that it not only is confusing but adds considerable emotional stress for those going through the system if they wait so long for a decision as to whether they will get money, bearing in mind that the grant itself does not even meet some of the basic costs of a cremation, for example?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The process is indeed distressing and complex for many people. I think the forms that need to be filled in number 24 or 26 in total. When someone is grieving and trying to find the money to pay for a funeral for a loved one, filling in 20-odd forms and trying to have a clear head while doing so is nigh on impossible.
Today the Minister may well refer to budgeting loans as an option for helping families to pay for funerals, but I am sure he knows as well as I do that the figures for how many people apply for those loans for funerals are not recorded or kept centrally and that the average amount of a loan in the past year was only £420.
The Government should note that putting their head in the sand does not make this problem go away; it simply moves it around. A freedom of information request via ITV revealed that a 70% increase in public health funerals over the past three years has cost local councils up to £4 million. Historically referred to as paupers’ funerals, they are the last option when there is no one available to pay. It was also revealed that some local authorities were not allowing families even to attend those services. In short, taxpayers are paying for funerals one way or the other. Surely, making the fund fit for purpose is preferable to the scenarios I have outlined.
I am pleased to say that, where the Government are failing, others have stepped up. The Fair Funerals campaign—Fair Funerals is no longer in operation, but I thank it for its co-operation over the past few years—successfully managed to persuade one third of the industry’s members to display transparent, honest prices on their websites. The Co-op announced that it would invest a further £6 million in lowering funeral costs by introducing a best-price guarantee, reducing the cost of its cheapest funeral to £1,895, and the Competition and Markets Authority announced a review of the £2 billion funerals market earlier this year.
At Prime Minister’s questions last week, the Prime Minister was asked to meet a Conservative Member to discuss funeral poverty. The Prime Minister declined a meeting and went on to assert that
“the funeral expenses payments do continue to cover the necessary costs involved with funerals and cremations”.—[Official Report, 5 September 2018; Vol. 646, c. 160.]
That is completely wrong and contradicts the DWP webpage, which clearly states that the payment
“will not usually cover all of the costs of the funeral.”
It is also at odds with what funeral directors themselves are saying, with 95% reporting that Government funeral payments no longer cover even the very basic costs.
I appreciate that, in the past, Ministers have been unable to comply with all my asks on funeral poverty, so today I have only two main asks: a commitment to raising the social fund funeral payments and a commitment to introducing an eligibility check. Those two simple asks would make a world of difference.
It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), who is not here with us today, and of the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess). Both are doughty campaigners on this issue.
Funerals are not a choice. Death shakes us and changes us forever. No one ever wants their loved one to pass away, and the debts associated with the funeral—or the memory of not being able to give them a decent send-off—loom over people for years. In austerity Britain, people are not just struggling to afford to live; they are also unable to afford to die. The Minister has an opportunity today to make some very small departmental differences that would ease this enormous burden on people in their darkest days. I just hope that, this time, he will.
I congratulate the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) on introducing the debate and on the contents of her speech. I entirely agree with her on the two issues that she drew to the House’s attention at the end of her speech, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to address them. I also join her in congratulating the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris). She is a formidable lady and led a brilliant campaign—it was an all-party effort. I am delighted that the issue of funerals for those under the age of 18 was addressed.
Some people do not like talking about death, but it is the one thing that none of us can avoid. All of us here will have been to many funerals. We are asked to give eulogies. On a number of occasions, I have been asked, even though I am not a vicar, to take the funeral. And we all deal differently with the moment of saying goodbye to someone. My wife wants no fuss whatever; she wants a cremation and she wants her ashes scattered off the end of Southend pier. Her husband wants to be buried—that will give people the pleasure of lining up just to screw the lid down on the coffin. We all want to say goodbye in different ways, but the hon. Member for South Shields is absolutely right; with all the stress that people have at the time of someone dying, the last thing they want is the added stress of wondering how they will pay for the funeral.
A number of my points have already been made, but there is no harm in repetition. New research from Royal London puts the average cost of a funeral at £3,757, which represents a 6% increase over the past five years. Some people might say that that is not a big increase, but it is really, and it has had a knock-on effect, with people taking on an average debt of £1,744. The impact of funeral poverty can be financial, in the form of a legacy of debt, because of all the insurance policies that people are signing up to. Many of us, in our constituency surgeries, are coming across any number of elderly people who have taken out those policies, and they just pay peanuts. Although families struggling with funeral costs could be entitled to help from the Government to pay for necessary costs, research has found that that support goes only so far.
This is what I really want to address to the Minister. The average social fund funeral payment award—the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) brought this issue to our attention—was £1,429, about 35% of the average cost of a funeral. As a result, even people awarded a grant are left with a substantial shortfall, which often leads them into unmanageable debt, because they are stressed and very vulnerable. Even if any award such as that average provided some relief to claimants, there are other important factors to be noted. The social fund funeral payment is all well and good, but up to £700 can be paid for other expenses and the cap for that payment has remained at £700 since 2003. It is absolutely ridiculous that for 15 years it has remained at £700. I would like the Minister’s response to that.
The Department for Work and Pensions will pay out a grant only once the funeral has taken place. That in itself is an issue, and I know that one or two of the Scottish National party Members will want to say something about that. Again, the situation is not very satisfactory. Funeral directors normally require a deposit of more than £1,200 before a cremation can go ahead. That is a lot of money, and it rises to more than £3,000 for a burial, which is what I want.
People find themselves having to raise that money fairly quickly, before they know whether they will receive anything from the DWP. Unfortunately, family members of the deceased are often expected to have sufficient savings to afford a funeral, but that is rarely the case, as death often occurs unexpectedly, or after a period when savings have been depleted as a result of healthcare costs or long-term illness, leaving a stressful financial situation.
This is not just about the Government providing more funding to help families afford funerals; a number of steps could also be taken to improve the accessibility of low-cost funerals to family members. After a house, a car and a wedding, a funeral is the most expensive purchase that anyone will make—although, I am beginning to find that one’s children’s weddings should be at the top of that list. In spite of that—I say this as a member of the all-party parliamentary group for funerals and bereavement—there is little consumer scrutiny of the funeral industry. That can largely be explained by the fact that bereaved people are vulnerable consumers who are understandably reluctant to shop around. If someone has died, the bereaved are expected to make three or four phone calls and go to the lowest bidder, but life is not like that. Most consumers do not realise that there is a huge difference in funeral charges. Additionally, the funeral industry is not subject to mandatory state regulation and there are no rules governing what funeral directors can charge for their goods and services, which is surprising.
The United Kingdom’s funeral industry is worth an estimated £2 billion—that is big money. Although there are 1,600 funeral directing companies across the country, the market is dominated by three big companies: Dignity, the Co-operative Funeralcare and Funeral Service Partners. My family tends to use two wonderful family firms—it sounds as if we are dying all the time, but this is over a number of years—because east-enders have what we like to call funerals in style, with horses and a carriage, which is expensive. Those firms, Cribbs and Stibbards, which can do the funerals in a wooded area or just a simple funeral, are absolutely magnificent. Combined, however, the funeral industry is making quite a big profit, with annual growth of around 3% between 2011 and 2016.
Despite the various issues with the funeral industry and the Government’s efforts, I am delighted that the Government responded positively to what the hon. Member for Swansea East said and that the call for action on funeral poverty has gained political momentum over the past few years. Quaker Social Action’s Fair Funerals programme, which ran until earlier this year, set out a number of recommendations, which will provide much needed relief to family members while they are grieving. The first recommendation is to raise the social fund funeral payment to cover basic costs. Within the funeral fund, the amount of money available for funeral costs should increase in line with funeral cost inflation from £700 to £1,377.
Secondly, I am asking the Government to create a plan to tackle funeral poverty. It would be highly effective for different Government Departments to work together—I know that is not always easy—to set out how best to deal with the situation. Little is known within Government about how different state bodies cover and interact with bereaved people on low incomes. A Government inquiry should take place, so that recommendations can be made for improving the situation for people on low incomes arranging a funeral. I do not want an inquiry that will go on and on, but a short inquiry followed by some action.
Finally, a third-party advocate scheme should also be created to provide a solution to several of the factors that result in funeral poverty. The scheme could quickly determine for people their eligibility for SFFP, and other state and charitable grants, and it could help them find a funeral that meets their needs at a reasonable price. Such a scheme would likely save the DWP time and money, as state funds would be channelled towards funeral directors charging a reasonable price, rather than those with inflated costs. That could have the overall effect of bringing prices down across the industry.
I do not want to live in a country where someone who is short of money, in this day and age, has to resort to crowdfunding a funeral—that is ridiculous. As a Conservative, I embrace the spirit of enterprise, but this issue affects everyone. The people who are left behind, who do not always know the circumstances of the person who has died, have to deal with the situation. I hope that the Minister will say yes to the hon. Member for South Shields, yes to the hon. Member for Southend West, and yes to anyone else who will make a point.
I thank the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) for the constructive and informed way she opened the debate. Funeral poverty remains a pressing issue, which affects far too many of our constituents. I have spoken in debates on this matter on every occasion it has arisen since I was first elected in 2015. I have spoken to far too many constituents who have been deeply distressed by the costs of burying their loved ones. As the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) pointed out, there is a rare consensus on this issue, because we all recognise that it cuts across party boundaries.
The matter I keep returning to in these debates is that when a family loses a loved one, a bereaved person’s human instinct, through the shock, fog and bewilderment of grief, is to give the person they have lost the best and most dignified send-off they can. There is nothing else they can do. Often, understandably, thoughts about the cost of the funeral do not factor into their considerations at that time of grief, and only later—albeit when the grief is still raw—does the reality of the debt and the cost of that send-off become apparent. Too often, for too many people, the anxiety over this debt works against and interferes with the entire grieving process.
We can agree that, for those on benefits and low incomes, help with funeral costs has not kept pace with the cost of funerals. That must be a cause of great concern to all of us. In our constituencies, we have all witnessed the anxiety of those struggling to meet funeral costs for their loved ones, as they battle through their grief.
As we have heard from the hon. Member for Southend West, it is important to remember that, as well as the huge variations in the cost of funerals, funeral plans are not realistic for those struggling week on week to put food on the table. The over-50 plans we hear about can also mean that those on low incomes pay thousands upon thousands of pounds over many years, with the full amount paid never recovered by families, despite the deceased having paid in more money than the funeral actually costs.
Now that responsibility for funeral payments has been devolved to the Scottish Parliament, I look forward to a much more well-rounded and compassionate approach to support for bereaved families struggling with these costs. The Scottish National party Scottish Government plan that the funeral expense assistance benefit will replace the current DWP funeral payment by summer 2019, with an additional £3 million to support another 2,000 people each year who would have received no support at all from the DWP under the old scheme. They are also looking at uprating the flat-rate part of that payment to take inflation into account, unlike in the rest of the UK, where, as we heard from the hon. Member for South Shields, the payment has been frozen since 2003 at £700, which is a help, but is woefully unequal to the task of helping families with these costs. The SNP Government will also ensure that guidance is provided on funeral costs, funeral planning and strengthening consumer protection with regards to funeral plans. They will make a real effort to tackle funeral poverty by working with credit unions and delivering a social innovation fund.
Funeral poverty is a cruel and bitter obstacle to grief. Coping with the loss of a loved one is bad enough, but 12% of people report that they got into debt trying to pay for a loved one’s funeral. It is simply not acceptable that, in the increasingly unequal society in which we live, people often cannot afford to live and now, it seems, cannot afford to die, as I have pointed out in every single debate on the subject since 2015.
I am heartened by the Scottish Government’s measures. I urge the Minister to at least carefully study their proposals and try his best to match the commitment to supporting bereaved families at their most vulnerable time.
The inevitability of death and the recognition that life is temporary grow with the passing years. Death begins as a distant destination, but as the years go by, it becomes a nearby place that one does not want to go to, and ultimately, a near neighbour that one does not like. That realisation is less and less prevalent in our society, however, as we have become more frightened of death. I suppose that is to do with the decline in belief in an afterlife, which has made death so terrifying for people. The lack of preparedness might reflect that—people just do not anticipate or prepare for death in the way they once did.
My ancestors took out insurance policies of a farthing, a ha’penny or tuppence a week—we are going back to years gone by, of course—to raise enough money to pay for a simple funeral. These days, however, it is a simple fact that people do that less, and funeral costs have risen, as we have heard repeatedly. People’s expectations of funerals have changed too. They want the send-off to be a more significant affair, and that is not unreasonable. Why would they not want that, when they have lost someone whom they love?
As several hon. Members have said already, that time of grief is horrible, frightening and bewildering, and while feeling bamboozled by all that has occurred, people are faced with the business of organising that last goodbye—the final passing. As has been said by the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), whom I congratulate on bringing the matter to the attention of the Chamber, in those circumstances, it is unsurprising that sometimes people do not know where to turn. They are vulnerable.
I had an Adjournment debate in the main Chamber on the subject and raised it with the Prime Minister last week. The number of public health funerals has grown immensely, by about 200% since 1997, as has been said already—I do not want to repeat what other hon. Members have said, except to amplify points that need to be made. I have a simple request: the Government need to issue guidance to all local authorities that those funerals should be conducted with decency and dignity.
It is appalling that some local authorities forbid next of kin—the nearest and dearest—from attending those funerals. I was with representatives of the funeral industry yesterday, in anticipation of this debate, and they told me that several local authorities do the right thing, including my own in South Holland. You would expect that from a well-run Conservative local council, would you not, Mr Streeter? It is not actually a matter of party, and I do not mean to make light of it, but there are local authorities that refuse to return the remains of the departed to the family; refuse to notify the family of the time of the funeral, which is so extraordinary and shocking that it is almost beyond belief, yet it is true; and refuse to allow them to attend. That is intolerable and it should stop straightaway.
I do not expect the Minister to do anything about it today—let us give him reasonable notice, because I have been a Minister, as he knows—but he should do something about it by the end of October. By then, every local authority should have learned from Government that that practice cannot be allowed to continue. The local authority highlighted by the funeral director I met yesterday was Derby City Council—that is a start. I was told that that practice happens there. I would like that to be checked, and if it is true, for action to be taken immediately. Other councils have already been highlighted in the national press.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that people should be able to have any funeral they want with numerous cars and bells and whistles at an unlimited cost. That would not be responsible and I do not think people would expect it. I am told by the funeral industry that they can conduct a perfectly dignified funeral of the kind that we have all been to, and which we might expect for ourselves, at a reasonably limited cost, where people can be invited and there can be a minister or some other person to conduct the service in a decent and dignified way. Some councils will not allow them to do that, however, and will not even allow them to have a minister there. As I say, it is bizarre. Let us get it sorted by the end of October.
The funeral expenses payment scheme, which was frozen in 2003, represents a smaller and smaller proportion of the total cost of a funeral, as has been said, and has become less meaningful than it once was. I have suggested that fewer people prepare for funerals. Of course, some people are not given that luxury, because death might be unexpected. If someone dies suddenly or at an early age, how can they be expected to have prepared for that eventuality? Given that, it is right that we raise the payment to a reasonable amount. The Prime Minister generously invited me to write to the Chancellor to suggest that he did just that in the Budget, and he can expect a letter from me that makes exactly that case without delay—indeed, I am meeting a Treasury Minister later today to discuss it.
The challenge is actually a bit more complicated than that, however. It is not just about the size of the grant, but the business of applying for it. About 30% of people who apply get no money at all, because the system is complicated and there is a big problem with who can apply. Complicated family rules mean that only a nearest member of the family can apply, so there are all kinds of complications with stepchildren, second wives, first husbands and other things of that kind that need to be clarified. The process needs to be smoother and simpler, because people are bewildered, in grief and confused. That must be understood and the matter must be dealt with sensitively.
I accept that not all of what I request is within the Minister’s purview, so I hope he will forgive me. One of the problems is that this matter crosses several Departments, which is always a difficult business in Government. We need to act on the recommendations of the 2016 Work and Pensions Committee report, which called for a simpler and more streamlined process, for the reasons that I have suggested. Let us do what the Select Committee asked to make it a straightforward affair and make the grant meaningful.
I want others to be able to contribute, so I will finish now by saying this. It is sometimes said that there are no noble causes left—nothing worth fighting for; no wrongs to be put right—but there is no more noble, virtuous battle than this one, and I will fight for those cruelly dubbed “paupers”, as they have been described as in the press. “Paupers’ funerals” is a cruel description. People who are poor and are looking to bury those they have lost and loved deserve to be treated with dignity, decency and discretion. The Minister can make sure that happens. In his response today, he can see to that. If he does not, and if the Government fail to act, I will make sure they do.
I congratulate the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) on securing the debate. She has spoken on this matter before. Indeed, I think that everyone who has spoken today has spoken on this before. It continues to be a bugbear for us all, which is why we are here to make our contributions. I thank all those who have spoken in the debate, including the hon. Lady who introduced it, for their valuable comments.
This is a sensitive issue. I can remember dealing with such issues when I was a local councillor, so I have some knowledge of how the system back home seeks to address it. I want to tell a story that clearly illustrates the issues. In my home, a pauper’s funeral happens more than I like to think, unfortunately. The very name “pauper’s funeral,” as the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes) indicated, encapsulates what happens.
A lady that my staff and I had sought to help had no family—we were not aware of any relatives, to be truthful. As an elected representative, I and my staff had a relationship with her though our office. We heard that she had passed away and the girls in the office rang the council to find out the funeral arrangements, because they wanted to pay their respects. They wanted to make sure she was not buried alone, because they were aware that she had no immediate family. They were not aware of all the circumstances until she died. They were sensitively told by the council that as no one had claimed the body, the funeral would take a number of weeks to arrange. In Northern Ireland we have a tradition of people being buried three days after they die. A week is an awfully long time to wait. I know that here on the mainland it can sometimes take even longer, never mind a few weeks.
The girls were taken aback when they were told that there would be no funeral service. They could not understand why that should be the case. The remains would be taken from the undertakers in the cheapest coffin and laid to rest in the council-allocated paupers’ grave section, where there would be no funeral service as such. That was probably our first introduction to what it really meant to have a pauper’s funeral, although in my capacity as a councillor I was aware of it happening once or twice before.
Whenever someone passes away, a catalogue is drawn up of all the items in their house, if they have a house, or the car or whatever it may be. Unfortunately, in the cases that I have been aware of, there has been nothing of value in the house. Everything was taken out and disposed of.
To go back to what my hon. Friend said about Northern Ireland compared with the rest of the UK, with the much shorter time between the demise of the deceased and the burial, is that not all the more reason for clarity at a very early stage, particularly given that in most cases some members of the extended family will be in other parts of the country, or possibly overseas? It is a very short period in which we need clarity and certainty about the extent to which family members, if there are any, will have to contribute to the funeral costs.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Clarity is what we hope to achieve through this debate. There are occasions when someone has passed away and their families have not had the financial capacity to pay for the funeral, which is why we have paupers’ funerals, where no one is there to help. During my time as an elected representative—as a councillor, as a Member of the Assembly and now as a Member of Parliament—I have had occasion to be involved with families who have had no financial assets at all. The system has changed now, but it used to be the case that if no one in the family was working, or if someone was old or disabled or on benefits, at least some of the fees for the funeral could be provided. I know that the system has changed in Northern Ireland, and probably elsewhere.
To go back to the lady who passed away, when my parliamentary aide asked for details of a time so that she could attend and read a psalm, she was told that she would have to ring back closer to the time, but they could not guarantee that the lady would not already be buried. My hon. Friend referred to clarity. My goodness me! We did not even have the detail of when the funeral would be held. The lovely council official—I want to be clear that they were trying to work within the system—reassured the girls that often the undertaker used by the council would pray before the burial. Although that eased some of the angst, the girls were upset that that was the way things had to be done. I wish to thank the undertakers who, in their own time and as a mark of respect, ensure that there is a brief prayer or reading. They are not paid to do that, but they still do it, and we thank them for that. There are a great many people of good will and intentions who wish to help.
We understand that local authorities simply cannot afford to foot the bill for a full funeral, but a pauper’s funeral is a terrible way to be laid to rest. I am a firm believer, as are others in the Chamber, of “absent from the body and present with the Lord”. There is something to be said for a respectful interment. I am in no way saying that the bodies are treated with disrespect, but could changes not be made to ensure that people can at least attend the interment of the body? It is important to have a send-off.
Some cases have been fairly prominent in TV programmes. We have had occasions when people die alone, and perhaps there is some money to bury them, but they do not have anyone to go to their funerals, and it is important to have someone to pay respects and to be respectful at a funeral. Could a change not be made to ensure that people can at least attend the internment of the body, so that those who could not be expected to pay directly for the funeral, such as social workers and church families, can at least pay their last respects?
I should have said at the beginning—it was remiss of me not to do so—that I welcome the Minister to his post and wish him well. I said that to him in the Chamber last week and I have now said it again publicly. He contributed greatly in his previous ministerial post at the Department for Work and Pensions. I wish him well.
Funeral poverty reached a record £160 million across the UK last year, and one in six people say they struggle with funeral costs. That goes back to how the financial pressures associated with funerals can make an already difficult time overwhelming for bereaved families and loved ones, causing additional stress on top of existing grief and leaving a lasting negative impact on their health and wellbeing. Those who are on benefits can apply for help with the funeral costs of a loved one, but “help” is the operative word. They can receive some money towards burial fees and the rights to burial in a particular plot, and money towards cremation fees, including the cost of the doctor’s certificate, and up to £700 for funeral expenses, such as the funeral director’s fees, flowers, a coffin and travel to the funeral. The estate will be liquidated and any money will go towards the funeral. However, bearing in mind that the average funeral in Northern Ireland costs just under £3,000, there is a large discrepancy and a large debt for a grieving family to pay off over time.
I read in the press this week that the Co-op is offering a cheap funeral—in no way does that take away from its commitment—for about £1,900. It would be fairly basic, but none the less it helps some families. In her introduction, the hon. Member for South Shields referred to the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), who has been involved in the issue of funeral costs for some time and had an Adjournment debate in the main Chamber on this very issue. She is not here today, but her story is incredible. For those who have not heard it, I gently suggest that if they get the opportunity they listen to or read her story. That lady had nothing when it came to paying for a funeral, and the community came together to help and support her at a time of need.
Many funeral directors have started a system that enables families to contribute to payment schemes—I have them in my constituency and I very much welcome them. They take away the need to make a financial commitment all at once and have helped some people. Everyone in this Chamber knows that we are sure of only two things in this world: death and taxes. The costs of a funeral have certainly risen over the past 15 years, so I join the hon. Member for South Shields and other hon. Members in asking for an increase in the social fund funeral payment, to ensure that people are not having to go to food banks in order to pay for a loved one’s service. Many organisations, such as Christians Against Poverty, can sometimes assist. The churches also help, and some funeral directors cut their costs to the bone to make a funeral happen.
There has to be a better way of doing things. I am asking the Department to consider upping the funeral grant in line with inflation and allowing people connected to those who have the indignity of a pauper’s funeral at least to get friends or connections to say a few words as the remains are interred. That is important. We have to have more compassion for people who are in dire circumstances, and believe in the fact that no person would allow a loved one to be buried in an unmarked grave if they could possibly help it. We can do something small, such as providing for a set time of interment if requested, to allow some dignity and marking of the occasion. We all understand why councils cannot and should not put on fancy funerals, but allowing people the opportunity to pay respects cannot cost that much, can it?
It is a pleasure to take part in the debate with you in the Chair, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) on securing this important debate, and on the way she presented her argument. I pay tribute to her for the work that she has being doing on the issue for a number of years. She mentioned a review of funeral affordability, and what she said is right. I will touch on the Scottish Government’s action with reference to that. She also said that, alarmingly, 81% of people are unable to save for a funeral. That is why I hope we shall soon get to a place where funeral plans become more attractive to consumers. She criticised UK Ministers in relation to social fund funeral payments, and other Members made similar calls to the Minister. Perhaps that will form part of his Budget submission in the negotiations that will no doubt take place between the Department for Work and Pensions and the Treasury in the coming months.
The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) intervened to raise the issue of council-based costs for funerals—burial and cremation fees—and she was right to do so. Without doubt some local authorities, including the one covering my constituency, North Lanarkshire Council, have used burial and cremation fees as a cash cow, to mask cuts in other areas. It is extremely worrying. The hon. Lady was right to pay tribute to the Fair Funerals Campaign for exposing some of that behaviour and campaigning for greater transparency from funeral directors. I am sorry that that campaign no longer exists.
Part of the problem, which I did not highlight in my speech as I did not want to go on for too long, is that currently there is a separation between what is known in the industry as the disbursements—the cost of the cremation, burial and so on—and other costs. The current statute refers to necessary funeral costs, and that needs to be revisited. A minor amendment, through secondary legislation, would enable us to make it much clearer what the funeral grant pays for. Simplification is required.
I appreciate that intervention. Clarification is also required in the context of the funeral plan market. The criticism and the furore about consumer rights issues in relation to funeral plans has in part been about that very issue—what people should expect the plan to pay for. Many people have redeemed a product but found that they were still liable for burial and cremation fees that were substantially more than anyone would expect to budget for.
The hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) made a very good speech. I have had the pleasure of working with him on the issue and, as ever, he was constructive and helpful. He was right to draw attention to the fact that the £700 additional expenses have been frozen for so long. I hope that his intervention, and that of the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), will influence the Minister to strengthen negotiations with the Treasury about the upcoming Budget. I do not think that dealing with that would cost an awful lot of money, but it could make a major difference to people’s lives. On that issue, and the regulation of funeral directors, which the hon. Member for Southend West also touched on, we are doing something different in Scotland. I know he is aware of that, and I hope that the Minister’s attention can be drawn to it.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) made a good speech, having also campaigned on the issue since her election to Parliament in 2015. She is known for being consensual, so it was to be expected that she would draw attention to the rare consensus in the Chamber today—and she was right, as there has been a great degree of consensus. My hon. Friends and Labour colleagues were nodding along sagely to the speeches of the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings and the hon. Member for Southend West. I hope that Ministers will take that consensus into account. My hon. Friend also raised the matter of people’s overwhelming, understandable and natural desire to give their loved ones the best possible send-off, and the reality of the debt that sadly results from that natural desire. She spoke of several areas in which a greater amount of action could be taken—and is being taken, north of the border—to alleviate some of the pressures felt at the sad time of a death in a family.
The right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings spoke about some people’s lack of preparedness for death and the understandable reasons for that, which were well documented in his speech. He touched on something I have already spoken about, which could solve that problem: funeral planning. I think that we have the answer there, if we can get the regulation right. I reiterate the call that the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made for more dignity in what have been termed “paupers’ funerals” —social or council-run funerals—and that is right. There have been examples of what they mentioned in Scotland, too. Having a dignified funeral for a loved one should not be the preserve only of people who can find thousands of pounds at the drop of a hat. We should all expect that for our loved ones, and for ourselves. We never know what circumstances we shall find ourselves in. It was right to draw attention to that matter, and to the fact that we should honour our loved ones with dignity.
It would not be a Westminster Hall debate if I were not, in summing up, reflecting on a speech by the hon. Member for Strangford. As always, he made a constructive and considered speech. It was disturbing to hear the personal example he gave of a pauper’s funeral in his constituency. There are no two ways about it; we need to do much better for people in that regard.
Having heard the speeches made across the Chamber today, we can be in no doubt that there is a considerable problem. According to a 2018 report on national funeral costs, one in eight people who had to pay for any type of funeral expense had to take on debt to do so. I suspect that in many areas, including Airdrie and Shotts, that figure will be far higher. As has been touched on, many funeral directors go above and beyond to do what they can to help people who are clearly struggling, but we need to do more on a structural basis.
The hon. Member for South Shields called for changes, and she could look north of the border for a Government who are making strides in some of the areas she described. The Scottish Government have set out a 10-point action plan to help tackle funeral poverty. Their funeral costs plan, published in 2017, included launching a new funeral expense assistance benefit by next year, publishing guidance on funeral costs by the end of this year, strengthening consumer protection in relation to funeral plans, delivering a social innovation fund to help tackle disadvantage such as funeral poverty, and giving more options for saving for a funeral, including a funeral bond pilot. That is not the entirety of the Scottish Government’s action on the matter, but it is something that I hope Ministers will reflect on.
Another area is planning. In December 2016 I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill that considered the regulation of funeral plans, and Ministers have now—very helpfully—issued a call for evidence. I welcome that and look forward to hearing the outcome. We can also debate whether it would be best to strengthen the Funeral Planning Authority, or merely to move regulation to the Financial Conduct Authority. There is no doubt that since my Bill the FPA has made welcome changes to many of its practices, and it has done a lot to bring about greater confidence in the industry and strengthened its regulation. I welcome that and congratulate the FPA. My only caution about moving to FCA regulation would be whether we have too big an umbrella trying to cover the problem, and whether the problems with funeral plans would get lost among the myriad issues that the FCA has to consider. That is my only caution—we must ensure that the regulatory model that comes forward is right. We obviously cannot move from a model that has not been working well or encouraged consumer confidence to one that is no better.
In conclusion, this is my first opportunity to congratulate the Minister on his return to office. I have always enjoyed debates with him—some have been constructive and some not so much, but he is always helpful in his response. I hope that today he has heard the agreement among all parties about the need for change and for greater action by his Department and others, and I hope that he will take that message away in the spirit of consensus mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran. The Minister has allies in the SNP to help drive that change, and not just for funeral payment assistance but for the regulation of funeral plans. Let us get it right and allow people to give dignity to their loved ones at times of bereavement.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, and I welcome the Minister to his place. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) for securing this important debate, and for all her work over a considerable period. There is consensus on both sides of the Chamber on securing change.
As we have heard, funeral poverty affects many thousands of people, and all families and friends should be able to mark the death of someone they love through a funeral. A funeral is a chance to remember those who have passed away and an important part of grieving after someone has died. Being unable to provide a funeral for a loved one can cause real distress and make grieving much harder. Support must be available for bereaved families to provide dignified funerals, regardless of income. In the media, across the House and across all parties, we talk a lot about the cost of living, but we probably talk a little less about the cost of dying.
The Government must recognise that the problem has grown under their watch as a result of the rising cost of funerals and their failure to increase the level of support to keep pace. In the words of the then Minister, so-called “difficult choices” about welfare spending meant that the Government refused to increase the £700 maximum for funeral-related expenses provided by the social fund—that point was raised by the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess). That figure has not gone up since 2003, although funeral costs have. According to SunLife Insurance, funeral costs have risen by 70% in the past decade alone, and the average cost of a funeral in Britain now stands at almost £4,000.
The Minister’s difficult choice is nothing when compared with the difficult choices faced by those forced to find money elsewhere—for example, by crowdfunding. There are even reports of mortuaries keeping bodies for several months until a family could afford the cost of a funeral, and it is almost impossible to imagine the distress that that must cause.
Public health funerals, sometimes called paupers’ funerals, have risen by 70% in the past three years. If the phrase “paupers’ funeral” sounds Dickensian and outdated, that is surely because it is. What could be more Dickensian than having no option but to rely on charities or to beg and borrow simply to afford the most basic of dignified funerals? Dickensian as that is, we must not fall into the trap of assuming that funeral poverty is the only problem for those forced to access the last resort of public health funerals.
As my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields stated, a recent YouGov survey found that 4 million people in the UK had suffered hardship following the death of somebody close. Research has shown that people are taking on an average of £1,744 of debt to pay for a funeral—an all-time high. That is the reality of funeral poverty today in our country and in the 21st century. That is the reality we heard about earlier from my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) and the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), who spoke about the distress caused by having to fill in a 23-page application form. Things must change.
I ask the Minister to listen to those stories and take action so that local authorities are no longer underfunded and struggling to meet the costs of providing even the most basic funeral. As has been said, if we are to allow local authorities to get things right and offer a dignified funeral, we need to take action so that the founding principle of our welfare state—the offer of security from cradle to grave—lives up to its name. As hon. Members have said, we should follow the recommendations in the 2016 Work and Pensions Committee report “Support for the bereaved”, which called for support through the social fund to properly reflect the cost of a funeral.
Will the Minister take action to shorten and simplify the application form—I think all Members have raised that issue—to prevent people from falling further into debt through a lack of understanding about eligibility and process? Will the DWP introduce a clear eligibility checker—that point was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields?
The Government must take action to reduce regional inequalities in the cost of funerals. According to recent research by Royal London, the average cost of a burial funeral in some parts of London is almost £12,000, compared with a general average across the UK of £3,757—it is rare to hear a northern MP pleading for more equity between the north and south, but this is in reverse gear, and that wrong must be righted.
Bereaved families should not have to rely on a Supreme Court judgment to get fairness for children, as the inspirational Siobhan McLaughlin recently had to do in relation to the widowed parent’s allowance. I make these asks of the Government not to score party political points—this issue goes across the parties and deserves better than that. These points are not only being made by politicians in this Chamber, but have been raised for some time by charities, voluntary organisations and the Work and Pensions Committee.
Labour Members ask these things because when it comes to tackling the hugely sensitive issue of Government support for the bereaved, we can do better by working together. Indeed, at times we have done better. Earlier this year, my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) fought an incredible campaign to get funeral fees for children waived by local authorities. To the Prime Minister’s credit, the Government listened and set up the children’s funeral fund. Other partners can also play their part. Halton Borough Council in my constituency has just begun to offer a fixed-cost funeral package for under £2,000—that local authority is putting its principles where its mouth is. Also, as a Co-operative party Member, I am pleased to see that the Co-op has just reduced the price of its low-cost funeral by £100.
However, as welcome as those steps are, affording a funeral should not be dependent on the postcode lottery of being fortunate enough to live, and die, in a local authority area that is able to offer a fairly priced funeral service, and we should not be reliant on the market or a so-called price war between providers to have access to an affordable funeral on the open market.
People on both sides of this Chamber have stated that it is time for the Government to act—to review the broken market, to make sure everybody gets a dignified funeral when the time comes, to ensure bereaved families and friends can focus on the memories of their loved ones and not the cost of their passing, and to make sure that our welfare state truly offers support from cradle to grave. The Minister today has the power and the opportunity to do those things. I urge him to act for justice and dignity now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, in today’s very important and very timely debate.
First of all, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), who has been a long-standing campaigner on, and is highly respected in, this incredibly important area. Honestly, I am new as a Minister and I must stress that despite the plea of my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes) that I should be allowed a power grab, this is an area of responsibility that is split across the Department for Work and Pensions, where I am a Minister; the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government; the Ministry of Justice; and the Department of Health and Social Care. So I am afraid that I personally cannot commit to all of the asks today.
Nevertheless, I will set out and make very clear—I do not have a pre-written speech; I have been listening very carefully to what has been said—some of the things that are being done, some of the things that are in train, where I think we can go further, and what we need to do as we work together on this incredibly important issue.
In her very measured speech, the hon. Member for South Shields made a number of key points, which were also made by many others, particularly on the lack of clarity in discussions around eligibility, the whole stress of the process and the actual value of support that is available.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), who has been another tireless campaigner in this area, also highlighted the stress involved in the process, particularly around the eligibility criteria, and then the potential gap between the support that is available and the costs for things that many people feel are required. He also expressed some concerns about the pre-plans and the scrutiny of the industry. Again, I will cover those issues later.
As for the hon. Members for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray), for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), I am genuinely very interested in the changes that the Scottish Government will potentially make. I will look very carefully to see whether lessons can be learned there and again they made valuable points about funeral plans and scrutiny, which I will cover when I am further along in my speech. Also, the Scottish National party’s spokesman—the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts—highlighted the fact that we have worked together and we are in mutual agreement in many areas, and I hope that this issue will be one that we can continue to work on.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings for the question he put at Prime Minister’s questions last week; that was advance lobbying, even before we begin our lobbying in particular areas. He was right to highlight that expectations have changed; I spent much of the summer making visits, including to funeral directors, and that message very much came through. Actually, as part of some of our long-term solutions, that also presents an opportunity, because there has been a change in expectations and there is now much wider scope for people to pay their respects as they wish to. He was also absolutely right to highlight concerns to do with funerals and public health; again, I will come on to that point later.
I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his very kind words. As ever, he contributed by giving a measured and sensible summary of the situation, which shows what a proactive campaigner he is here in Parliament in reflecting the views of his constituents. However, he made a mistake by saying that two things are certain in life—death and taxes. In fact, three things are certain: death; taxes; and his contributing to a debate. [Laughter.]
By the way, Mr Streeter, I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship as I contribute to this debate, and I should have said so earlier.
I will forgive my hon. Friend the Minister for not calling me “right hon.” if he will agree to meet me to discuss this issue further. Would that be a fair deal?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that request, in response to which I say, “Fear not. Hang on”; I will be covering it as part of the things that I will address going forward.
We have discussed the three elements of support that are available. First, and predominantly, there are the funeral expense payments for the necessary costs, which can be accessed by those who qualify for benefits such as income support, state pension credit, income-based jobseeker’s allowance, the disability or severe disability element of housing benefit, income-related employment support allowance, the element of working tax credit, universal credit and support for mortgage interest. As I had to read out that list, I absolutely accept the point about what is often the confusion over eligibility; again, I will come on to that.
Secondly, there are the funds available for the additional expenses. However, it has been highlighted that the figure involved has not changed since 2003, so a number of Governments have had to wrestle with that decision. Nevertheless, I understand that that is an issue that has been raised by all those who contributed today. Thirdly, there are the social budget loans. Support is also available to working-age people through the bereaved payment support, a new benefit whereby we increase the initial payment with the potential for that money to be used for funerals, if claimants needed or wished to use it in that way.
As I have said, this issue is cross-departmental, but work is already going on. In June, the Competition and Markets Authority announced its investigation of this industry. I think we all welcome that. The CMA will look at the whole process, including its transparency—or lack of it—and fairness. Actually, I learned through my visits this summer that there is no regulation at all in this area—any one of us could set up as a funeral director tomorrow. I am not sure that that is a great thing.
On that point, the Minister will recognise that in Scotland there are moves afoot to change that situation, and the regulation of funeral directors will ensure that it can no longer be the case; that is my understanding.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and that is on the list of things that I will look at.
We must also focus on the quality and the standards of funerals. I accept the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings made, when he said that people do not necessarily shop around for funerals. Again, on my visits this summer, I was told that it is often the case that people go to the same funeral director that everyone else in their family has ever used, so that the relationship is built up. In this area, it is not necessarily an empowered consumer shopping around and using their buying power—I 100% get that.
Nevertheless, the CMA investigation is important as it will shape our work going forward. We expect the interim report in November and the final report next May. This investigation will be integral to our work in the future, because it is a comprehensive review of what is happening out there in the market.
Also, the market is responding, which is a good thing. Both Dignity and the Co-operative, two of the biggest players in the market, have started to offer more affordable basic funeral packages; that is a great step. Following the CMA investigation, the onus will be on us as to how we can make such basic packages more of a given and build on them; that is a really important area for us to look at. The Royal London national funeral cost index has also been doing lots of investigations, and I will meet Royal London later in the year.
We have already made some vital improvements.
I thank the Minister for giving way and I am sorry that I did not welcome him to his new position; it is hard to keep up with things here these days, with reshuffle after reshuffle. Before he moves on to say what is coming in the future, can he update me in relation to a point I made in my speech? I asked what had happened to the discussions that I was promised two years ago about working with the sector to develop a simple funeral.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. That is ongoing work, but we felt that we needed additional evidence. I understand the importance of getting these things done, although I am relatively new to this role. However, we needed the information from the CMA to give us the ability to make informed asks, in respect of what we expect of the industry and what more we can do to empower the industry to deliver more affordable options. Perhaps then we can see areas where the Government can consider the public health aspect of funerals, as was raised in the debate, and also what local government can do. I understand the frustration, I absolutely do, and my commitment, as I am trying to demonstrate, is that we will do a lot more.
We have extended the claim period from three to six months. That is a welcome measure. We have exempted contributions from relations, friends and charities, which is also welcome. On the key bit about people not understanding, we have already made a start by introducing a helpline, about which we have had fantastic feedback. It is really important to try to give people more information and there is a lot more to be done in that area. People do not receive the ultimate decision until they have either signed a contract saying, “This is what I want to do”—but it is people’s nature to often change what they want—or until the funeral has taken place, so I understand the important point that more needs to be done on that issue. I will continue to meet and work with the industry, utilising its expertise and that of any colleagues here who wish to be engaged following both the interim and final CMA reports. I would welcome such contributions.
I can tell from the Minister’s tone that he really appreciates the issue and is determined to do something about it, and I thank him for that. I probably complicated my question earlier. Will he meet a small delegation of colleagues—he clearly knows the people concerned—perhaps following the interim report, to look at how we take this further?
I am absolutely committed to doing that and am happy to do so. The Treasury is investigating pre-planned funerals. The matter is not in my area, but we welcome the work and will carefully consider the outcomes. We absolutely need to continue to make the forms simpler—we have done a lot on that but there is more to do—and the whole process quicker.
The benefit is to be devolved to Scotland and rolled out next year. We are looking at eligibility for funeral payments but it is still to be firmed up. Is the Minister considering the eligibility criteria concerning those relatives who have the capacity to pay but with whom the next of kin, who gets the funeral bill, might not have any relationship? That is certainly something that has prevented someone in my constituency from being able to access funeral assistance. It is a complicated matter, but Ministers need to look at it.
Part of the main reason why the issue is so complicated is because it is to do with qualifying relatives’ next of kin, and we are constantly looking at that. I very much hope that the hon. Gentleman will be part of the roundtables as we further consider the matter.
On the children’s funerals front, I join the tributes paid to the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris). I have enjoyed working with her on this and a number of other campaigns. She is a real credit to Parliament, on this and other matters, and I think we all welcome the improvements that have been made. It has been demonstrated that where the Government have been able to look at the matter practically and constructively we have responded, and rightly so. In addition to the ongoing work with the forms and the helpline, and with providing information, we are also supporting the private Member’s Bill on parental bereavement leave and pay for parents.
I understand the concerns raised about public health funerals. I too have heard stories about people not being able to pay their final respects, and about the length of time taken and the confusion during what is an incredibly distressing period. Although that is not a matter for the DWP, it is all part of the same thing, and I am keen, as we get all that information back from the Treasury and the CMA, that we drive forward really important changes.
I thank all the speakers in what has been a really helpful debate. It is also very timely, with the report due soon, and I look forward to working with many Members here on this important subject in the future.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for taking part and for their thoughtful contributions. It is unusual to have members of four different parties all asking for the same thing.
I thank the Minister, and I welcome his tone and his openness towards moving forward, but I am a little disappointed because it would not have been difficult to guess what I would be asking for today and it would have been nice if he could have given at least some assurances or had promised that we would see some change soon. Ultimately, the only thing we will leave here knowing as an absolute certainty is that more and more people will join the thousands who struggle to provide their loved ones with this final act, and that is not good enough. The matter is an urgent one, and I press the Minister to get cracking.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered funeral poverty.
Trans-Pennine Rail Travel and Delays
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Trans-Pennine rail travel and delays.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Like those of many of my colleagues, my postbag has made for pretty grim reading this summer, with letter after letter from frustrated passengers. We have seen totally unacceptable delays and cancellations of trains, leading to a decline in punctuality from 91.5% in April 2017 to 85% in April 2018, and to as low as 62.1% this May.
First, it was the delayed completion of engineering works in the north-west by Network Rail and the lack of notice for operators of the new timetables that had a knock-on effect right across the north.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman agrees that it is about not just the delays to the service but the timetable itself. The timetable that has been designed for Hull already leads to slower train times, without the added complication of additional delays.
The hon. Lady makes some good points. There are longer term benefits to some of the work. It has been poorly executed, but I can speak only for my constituency, where, in the longer term, we will see a doubling of rail journeys between York and Scarborough. That is good news, but in the short term the delays are totally unacceptable.
Other issues have combined to make the situation even worse, such as the incomplete signalling works at Leeds station and significant congestion on Manchester services. As things were seemingly getting better—we had a meeting with TransPennine Express, which improved the rosters of its drivers—further disruptions were suddenly caused by a new policy to cut the number of late-running trains on the east coast main line. That policy prioritised trains and passengers travelling north to south over those travelling east to west.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to talk about the problem with rosters. When a train is delayed arriving at York and bound through his constituency via Malton to Scarborough, often the driver does not have enough hours left to get back to York without having to get off the train at Seamer or somewhere else. I hope that a little leeway can be introduced into the rosters, so that drivers can cope with a slight delay.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: operators can take a number of measures to reduce the impact of some of the problems.
To give some examples of passengers I have spoken to or corresponded with, one told me that, since the end of May, because of the new timetables, his train
“had been cancelled or delayed nearly every single day”.
“Whether I get to work now is a painful lottery.”
Another frustrated rail user described how, on one day, two trains were cancelled, with 100 people, including the elderly and infirm, left without warning on the platforms at Malton station. At Malton, there are no toilet facilities, and the café opens for only limited hours each day.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman shares my frustration with the facilities at Hull station, which is managed very badly by TransPennine Express. We had to run a campaign to get a toilet attendant at the station, and my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) recently wrote to the managing director of TransPennine Express to express her disgust that the station does not have a manager. TransPennine Express is failing us with not only the railways but the stations.
The hon. Lady makes some good points on behalf of her constituents. Although some issues, which I will come to later, are beyond the control of TransPennine Express, the operator clearly could deal with some issues that would alleviate many of the problems, and it is absolutely right that she draws attention to them.
Another traveller contacted me this week on Twitter to say:
“two days in a row no driver for the 15.17 from Manchester Piccadilly.”
The late departure of her train from Huddersfield meant that she would not make the 16.01 connection to Malton and would have over an hour to wait.
There are many others. Another gentleman said:
“TransPennine seem to cancel trains regularly to Malton and Scarborough which should not be happening. The frustration of passengers is starting to boil over and I know that some TPE staff are fearing for their safety. One of the staff told me on Sunday that nurses and doctors from Malton working at Scarborough Hospital were not getting to work on time on a regular basis. People are losing their jobs over the delays and cancellations.”
Just to add to that catalogue of woes, one problem in Manchester is that, owing to train cancellations, trains frequently have to stop in the centre of Manchester and do not carry on to Manchester airport. That causes a great deal of disruption. The whole point of TransPennine Express is that it should work for the whole of the north, not just part of it.
The hon. Lady makes a good point. We have had similar issues from York travelling east, and from east travelling west, which I will come on to in a second.
There is also the problem of overcrowding due to cancellations and the short-forming of trains, which is when they travel with fewer carriages than specified. My constituent explained:
“the late-running train from Malton was so overcrowded on arrival some passengers had to wait for the next train, hopefully an hour later…Typically on the return journey from Leeds or York you can wait for 90 minutes for a York/Scarborough train.”
The theme is the same: people are completely fed up with the delays, the cancellations and the lack of information and clear communication. Many people are leaving York only to be dumped at Malton, which is a great place, but not if they do not want to be there at that time. If people were notified that that was going to happen, they would probably stay at York where there are facilities. Again, it is about communication. These things have a knock-on effect on work and other appointments. They also put huge stress on holidaymakers trying to make it to Manchester airport. The result is general, costly inconvenience.
In this day and age, people are entitled to expect a reliable service. It is not unreasonable to think that, if someone plans to take a scheduled train on a specific date at a specific time, it will be there and they will not be hanging around for hours on end waiting—a huge inconvenience for not just the person themselves but everyone involved in their day. Recently there have been more delays, more cancellations and more people stranded. In one instance, spectators trying to get to the cricket at Scarborough were turned back at Malton. For the county’s cricketing faithful, missing Scarborough festival is as close to sacrilege as it can get in Yorkshire.
To put the situation in context, over a three-month period in the summer of 2017 in my constituency, six trains were cancelled at Malton. This year, over the same period, 56 trains were cancelled. During that period in 2017, 110 trains between Leeds and Scarborough were more than nine minutes late. This year, there were more than four times as many—a total of 479 delayed trains.
We need much more joined-up thinking and a far more collaborative approach between Network Rail and the operators. They need to work together to put the needs of passengers first—or perhaps train operators should have more control over the tracks. I know that the Minister and the Transport Secretary are looking at that possibility very closely and are keen to explore it further.
Whichever solution we come to, people are entitled to a reliable service. They should be able to expect to get to work, to appointments to school and to their holiday on time or, at the very least, to get up-to-date information about what is happening. Otherwise, people will inevitably stop using our rail service and return to their cars. That will, of course, put further pressure on already congested roads.
Although punctuality has improved to 80%, that still means unacceptable delays. To improve matters in the short term, TransPennine has proposed timetable and other changes to Network Rail, to take effect in December. I very much hope the Minister, who I know is keen to resolve the issues, will do all he can to support the changes and bring them into effect. Given that it takes eight weeks to implement changes, as he will know, time is critical, and we need to get Network Rail to accept the proposed changes if those will bring about an improvement in performance.
In the medium term, the Minister is undertaking a review of rail disruption. It is absolutely right that we look at the issues and identify what has gone wrong, rather than jumping to conclusions, before we start trying to apportion blame. The Minister is examining the issue with Councillor Judith Blake, leader of Leeds City Council, which I welcome. We look forward to that review with keen interest. It is right that when we determine who is responsible, they are held to account and we put measures in place to make sure that these things do not happen again.
Looking at the wider perspective, if there was ever an example of why we need more powers devolved to the north to resolve these kinds of problems and to prevent them in the future, this is one. In terms of the strategic, longer term approach, Transport for the North is keen to be given more powers over infrastructure and operators in the north of England so that the region can take responsibility for the delivery of a much better, more efficient and more tailored service. That call is supported by many, including the train operators themselves. I know that there are issues about the giving up of powers by one authority to another. I know that the Minister is looking at that closely and that it is not as straightforward as it may seem, but if it would improve performance and allow decision-making powers to be returned to a more effective local organisation that could look at these things holistically, it has got to be seriously considered.
The summer’s disruption has shown that we really do need the tools in the north. By that, I mean the powers, but also the investment. Part of the problem has come from the fact that we are investing in the lines. The changes have not been implemented as they should have been, but the fact that we are investing, which will ultimately lead to an improved service, is to be welcomed, as is the Government’s planned £3 billion upgrade of the TransPennine route and their commitment to Northern Powerhouse Rail. Those measures and proposals are to be welcomed and celebrated.
Transport for the North has made a plea. I am one of the chairs of the all-party parliamentary group for the northern powerhouse, and we are asking the Minister and the Chancellor to look at bringing forward Northern Powerhouse Rail to coincide with the completion of High Speed 2. At the moment, Northern Powerhouse Rail is scheduled to be completed in 2040. We are asking for the delivery of that new, transformational service, which will halve journey times between Leeds and Manchester, to be brought forward to 2032. I hope the Minister will comment on that. With investment and the powers to make decisions, the region can transform our transport system to provide a service passengers deserve and, at the same time, bring massive and long overdue economic benefits to our region, through increased productivity and the creation of more jobs.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I start by thanking Members who have already contributed and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) on securing the debate, which covers an important and timely topic. As he said, it has filled his postbag over the summer and I am sure it has contributed to the work of other hon. Members on behalf of their constituents over recent weeks.
I share the frustration of those constituents with the unacceptable levels of disruption that they have faced over the summer since the introduction of the May timetable, especially those who have struggled to meet caring commitments, to get to workplaces and even to get to the Scarborough festival. While performance has not yet reached pre-timetable levels, measures introduced recently have led—as I am glad my hon. Friend acknowledged—to a steady improvement in performance, in particular in reducing the number of cancellations.
Will the Minister acknowledge that even without the delays, the May timetable changes offer Hull a worse service than it had before? I am not just talking about the delays—the actual timetable changes give Hull a worse service. Surely that is wrong.
The timetable changes were intended to enable us to take advantage of the substantial investment that the Government and the country have been making in our rail network. That important investment is enabling more frequent services and the replacement of rolling stock across the north of England. Those are benefits that will be felt by the hon. Lady’s constituents in time, when they are fully delivered. I acknowledge that the timetable introduction did not go well, to say the least, and that the hon. Lady’s constituents have had a difficult experience. Northern and TransPennine are in the process of fully rolling out the May timetable change. Once it is fully rolled out, I am sure her constituents will feel the benefits it is intended to deliver.
On the subject of jam tomorrow, will the Minister welcome the fact that Northern will be providing an additional service on the half hour into Scarborough, which will double the service and will mean that people who have maybe bought cars because of the congestion in the summer will go back to using the train?
I am delighted that that is in prospect for my right hon. Friend’s constituents. More regular and more reliable services are the objective of everything that we are doing at the moment to stabilise and improve performance. Ultimately, we want to see that contribute to more people getting off the roads and using public transport, including the railways.
I thank the Minister for giving way again. I am sure he remembers the lobby to address this issue, when we came to see him with Hull chamber of commerce. He has not acknowledged my point. The timetable changes offer Hull a worse service than it had before. That is not because of the delays or because the timetable introduction has been chaotic. It is because the timetable we now have in Hull is worse than we had before. Surely that is unacceptable.
As I said when I met the delegation that the hon. Lady refers to, I am keen to look at Hull’s services and see how we can improve them for the future. Hull is a critical city and we want to ensure that the hon. Lady’s constituents are getting the kind of services that they need so that Hull and its economy can thrive. I am happy to see any further representations that she wants to make about where she sees the timetable falling short and the kinds of changes she wants to see in the future. It remains the Department’s overriding priority to make sure that the industry restores reliability for passengers as soon as possible.
With respect to Manchester, York and Scarborough, with services affected by congestion in the central Manchester area and the rules applied by Network Rail when considering which services are given priority at key pinch points, many of the York/Scarborough services have been subjected to an agreed performance recovery plan. That requires them to terminate services short of destination in certain circumstances in order to limit the potential for a reactionary knock-on for other services.
In the light of that plan, TransPennine Express has been implementing a number of measures to improve performance on the line. For example, it has pledged to change the schedules of its drivers to reduce the circumstances where trains need to be terminated prior to arriving in Scarborough. It has also promised to advise passengers, wherever possible, prior to their departure from York if a train does need to be terminated at Malton, so that they can wait for the next train from York if they so wish.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton mentioned communication shortfalls. TPE is also working with London North Eastern Railway on the east coast to ensure that communications at York during disruptions are improved for passengers, with clear guidance, advice and information, and arrangements to allow eligible season ticket holders to claim compensation, in addition to the ongoing and regular delay repay process.
The Minister mentions rosters and communication, but TransPennine promised those measures to me in a meeting four or five weeks ago. Does he know whether it has implemented them? It would be interesting to see whether it has actually implemented them or whether it is still promising them.
My hon. Friend is rightly anxious to see progress on behalf of his constituents. The Department will hold TPE to account for the delivery of its promises. It is vital that we see rostering at a sufficient scale to enable the services to proceed as scheduled. It is also vital that communications are of the quality that his constituents expect.
It is right that passengers are compensated after severe disruptions. Like Northern, TPE has opened compensation for season ticket holders. TPE season ticket holders on routes that were disrupted are eligible for up to a week’s compensation. Both train operators—Northern and TPE—will be opening an additional compensation scheme to ensure people who travel regularly on the disrupted routes without a season ticket are also eligible for compensation. That was announced at the end of July by Transport for the North, which is leading on the design of the scheme. Further details will be announced shortly.
More broadly, the Secretary of State has commissioned an independent inquiry by the Office of Rail and Road, the independent regulator, to examine why we were in that situation and to reduce the chances of it ever happening again. An interim report is expected to be published this month ahead of a final report towards the end of the year. Following recommendations from a joint industry group including TPE and Northern, the operator will implement a number of further performance improvement measures from December 2018 focused on the north trans-Pennine route, where performance has been poorest. A number of other improvements are also due across the region in the next year or so. In 2019, TPE will be introducing its three brand new Nova train fleets, which will provide additional capacity across the network. Customers will benefit from more seats, faster journey times and improved comfort with greater leg room.
Investment across the north will deliver more services by 2020. We plan to deliver additional services and capacity in the next two years over a series of timetable changes. However, they are to a degree predicated on infrastructure works being delivered in time by Network Rail.
I am grateful to the Minister for his comments. Is he able to shed any light on the issue of short-forming? Is it appropriate policy, and what can we do about it? It is clearly causing significant overcrowding on some routes, and some people are being prevented from travelling on certain trains and have to catch later trains.
The Department monitors short-forming very closely as part of its supervision, jointly with Transport for the North, of the Northern and TPE franchises, which are jointly managed with Transport for the North. The operators are required to provide specified levels of capacity, and if they short-form trains or provide fewer carriages than they are meant to, the Department takes that very seriously and holds the operator to account for it.
I thank the Minister for giving way for the third time. To reiterate what was said at the meeting we had previously, he was invited to come to Hull to discuss this issue in detail—in fact, to come on one of the TransPennine Express services. I suggest he gives himself plenty of time for his journey. I repeat the invitation, and I look forward to having a date set in the diary very soon.
I thank the hon. Lady for repeating the invitation, which I have already accepted. We are in the process of trying to find an appropriate date that suits her and the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson). I look forward to travelling there.
I hope that hon. Members will be assured that the Department is continuing to do everything possible to ensure passengers get the safe and reliable services that they expect across the trans-Pennine route and the northern franchise as a whole.
Question put and agreed to.
Economic Justice Commission
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the final report of the Economic Justice Commission.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I hope that you will forgive me if I start with a short hymn of praise to the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was actually at his behest that, two or three years ago, I and others founded the all-party group on inclusive growth, which I chair and in which I declare my interest. His Grace helped to inspire and mobilise the Institute for Public Policy Research’s Commission on Economic Justice.
I congratulate the commission on producing a seminal report. Michael Jacobs, Tom Kibasi and the entire team of commissioners deserve our gratitude for sharing with us in detail a blueprint for reconnecting wealth creation and social justice. The mission is ultimately a moral mission and a righteous ambition. His Grace reminded us in his first major speech to the all-party group that Jesus was a wealth creator:
“Jesus worked for his living and created wealth for ninety percent of his life”,
so he would be unlikely to be much impressed by a country that grows both the number of billionaires and the lines at our food banks. The Archbishop continued:
“the foundations of a Good Economy are given in the nature of human beings: creativity, gratuity, solidarity and subsidiarity”.
We do not have enough of that today.
Branko Milanović, the New York economist, recently published an extraordinary book in which he set out what exactly has happened to the fruits of growth over the past 30 years. The extraordinary statistic that he revealed was that an incredible 44% of the absolute gain in total wealth has gone to the world’s richest 5%. What that means for us here in Britain, as Oxfam and others tell us, is that the richest 1% of the UK population now owns more than 20 times the wealth of the poorest 20% combined. On the streets of my constituency, therefore, among the homeless, the hungry, the young people in despair and the disabled struggling for their social security, I see, feel and share pain—pain that should not exist in the fifth richest country in the world.
The point of the Economic Justice Commission’s report, however, is not to kick off a slanging match; it is to kindle a peace match, an adult conversation that might grow in strength and one day foster something akin to the cross-party consensus that we had on economic policy after the second world war. In that spirit, therefore, I want to begin my remarks with some self-criticism about the past to steer us in the future.
Labour achieved many fine things between 1997 and 2010 but, with a lead that was greater than Attlee’s, we left a legacy that was considerably less. In power, we failed to tame and reform capitalism, and to bend it to the people’s purposes. That is what we must seek to do in the future. There was of course the tragic scar of errors in Iraq, but elsewhere we rolled forward public finance instead of reinvigorating a new public ethos, and our party was too top-down when we should have renewed bottom-up. That, in part, explained why we acquiesced in too much financial engineering and not enough real engineering.
In the face of the China shock, therefore, which unfolded after China joined the World Trade Organisation, and of the doubling of the size of Europe after the Berlin wall came down, we let too many communities deindustrialise. Yes, we created jobs, but we did not create enough good jobs. Former manufacturing powerhouses such as Burnley or Barnsley fared very differently from Berlin or Beijing, which took a different way forward. We allowed too much globalisation without compensation. In the spirit of that self-reflection, I hope that Ministers will accept that we cannot go on with today’s economic muddle when what we need is to agree a new economic model, one that will take us to a different kind of country in which we are better at creating wealth and an awful lot better at sharing wealth.
Today we face a triple curse: growth is too slow, with rates that are far slower than the trend rate of growth achieved in the new Labour years; productivity is too weak, with rates of productivity growth lower now than they were at the end of the 1970s, when it was known as the “British disease”; and, despite today’s news, wages remain much too unfair, as we continue to face the largest squeeze on wages since the days of Charles Dickens.
Ministers need to confront what the capitalism around us has become. In our workplaces, our workers now face a smaller and smaller group of companies, the great technopolies created by the $20-trillion merger wave of the past 30 years. Those companies now power world trade and dominate world technology. They use that power of technology, trade, automation and outsourcing to hold down wages. Ultimately, that is why we need a different economic model in this country. Hitherto, we have failed to create what the IPPR commission calls “a new economic constitution”, and that is what Britain needs.
The linchpin of this very fine report is what the commission called a “mission-oriented industrial strategy”. This debate is the Minister’s first outing—we welcome her to her post—but I suspect that she will say that Her Majesty’s Government do indeed have such an industrial plan. However, we must be honest with ourselves in this Chamber: the industrial strategy that we have is nothing compared with the $300-billion “Made in China” programme, Narendra Modi’s “Make in India” campaign, or the new $100-billion Vision Fund of Japan’s SoftBank. We need an industrial strategy financed on a wholly new scale.
We must therefore have new fiscal rules to guide our budgeting, so that we drive up public investment in things such as infrastructure by an extra £15 billion a year. We need to leverage that with a £200-billion national investment bank with strong regional investment banks on the ground, much like the KfW model that was such a success in post-war Germany. We need new economic governance systems—such as the four new economic executives proposed for England—tasked with ending the regional imbalances that have cursed our country for decades. Crucially, we need to leverage that with change to the Bank of England mandate, as I have argued for a number of years now, so that it seeks not simply price control but unemployment and underemployment as low as possible.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned subsidiarity and the question of regionalism. One of the things that struck me on reading the full report, which he has on his desk, is that in terms of gross value added over the past decade Scotland has far outperformed all the regions of the United Kingdom except for London and the south-east. Scotland, of course, has control over economic development—it has economic powers—so will he join me in asking the Minister what assessment her Department has made of Wales’s potential to increase GVA if Wales had the economic means to do so, as is advocated in the report?
One of the great achievements of Labour’s time in office was the devolution that allowed different economic models to begin to emerge across the United Kingdom. Although there has been interesting and impressive growth in parts of the country, it is nothing compared with what we need for the years ahead. Let us be honest; it will be impossible to match what is happening in the east, in Asia, unless we put behind a strategy the real power of fiscal, banking and monetary policy.
To rewrite the rules of our labour market, the commission proposes a real minimum wage of £10.20, set 20% higher for anyone on a zero-hours contract—an important, interesting and innovative idea that should command our attention—and it proposes New Zealand-style rights of access for trade unions, crystal-clear rights to join a union and trials of auto-enrolment in unions for workers in the gig economy. Why are these things so important? They are important because of the power that is now exercised by giant firms in our economy. Over the summer, The Economist reported that the $5 trillion merger wave in the United Kingdom is, adjusted for scale, 50% greater than in the United States.
According to the International Monetary Fund—of all people—that rise in market power is much more pronounced in the UK than it is elsewhere. It looks at price mark-ups as a proxy to judge market power. The mark-ups it found in the United Kingdom are about 60% since 1980. That is way ahead of the average for the advanced economy. We are more dominated by technopolies than many other countries, and the price for that is paid not by shareholders or chief executives but by workers. That is why we need to rewrite the rules of the marketplace, to rebalance power in the marketplace.
In the boardroom, we should finally privilege those with a genuinely long-term perspective—also known as workers —by putting them on boards. The IPPR proposes at least two on every company board with more than 250 staff. Why is that important? The chief economist of the Bank of England recently reflected that once upon a time the average length of a shareholding in a British company on the stock exchange was something like six years. Now it is only six months. Shareholders are no longer the long-term stewards or guardians of a company’s interest. It is the workers, and very often suppliers, who have the longer term interest. We need workers on remuneration committees, to stop the ludicrous expansion of chief executive pay. Crucially, we need to change section 172 of the Companies Act 2006, which we wrote, in order to ensure that directors have a fiduciary duty to have regard to the long-term interests of a company and the welfare of all stakeholders, not simply the stakeholders known as shareholders.
In the capital markets we need new fiduciary duties for asset managers and priority rights for long-term investors, like the rights that are enjoyed by shareholders in France. America and Italy. We need new tests for takeovers, plus crucial reform of competition law to introduce a new public interest test to check today’s uncontrolled technopolies that are carving up the digital marketplace. Finally, to ensure that wealth is genuinely shared, we need a new £186 billion citizens’ wealth fund, in order to help redistribute wealth to our young people who are struggling under the burden of high debt, sky-high student loans and the challenge of saving to put down a deposit on a home.
To help rebalance the fiscal system and ensure that money is available, the IPPR proposes a total overhaul of our tax system, with German-style formula-based calculations of income tax. Crucially, we need the equalisation of income and capital gains tax—much as we had when capital gains tax was introduced in the 1960s—and new wealth taxes. It is extraordinary that the stock market is up by about 40% and the property market by about 25% since the financial crisis. The wealth of assets in this country has multiplied exponentially, yet wealth taxes are still only 5% or 6% of GDP—the level they have been since the early 1970s.
Let me conclude with a reminder of how much is at stake in this debate. Globally, Oxfam estimates that about half of global wealth is in the hands of the richest few. That means that, globally, 85 families own as much as the poorest 3 billion of our fellow citizens on the planet. We can have an argument about how we share the wealth that is on the table, or we can think afresh about the wealth that is to come. If the richest 1% carry on accumulating wealth at the rate they have enjoyed since the financial crash, they will not own half the world worth by 2030; they will own two thirds—two thirds of global wealth will be in the hands of the top 1%. It will be impossible for us to restore any meaningful measure of equality in this century if we allow that situation to unfold. What will affect inequality in the years to come is not simply the exponential rise in the wealth and assets of the richest—a rise that is forecast as up to £217 trillion in the hands of the luckiest few—but what will happen to the poorest and the working poorest in our country.
We need to zero in on what is happening in the automation of the world of work. At the World Bank and IMF meetings earlier this year, the chief executive of the World Bank was very clear that automation will hit people in different ways. Some people will be hit harder than others—young people will be hit hard, and the working class harder still. My research, undertaken with the House of Commons Library, shows that among the poorest 25% of the labour market—someone who is on less than £9 an hour—2.1 million jobs are at risk of automation. Why? Because automation will hit retail, transportation and routine manufacturing, where most of Britain’s working class happen to work. If we lose those jobs, the impact will be five times bigger than the shutdown of the coal and steel industries put together. Think about how those communities are still scarred today by the seminal changes during the 1980s. We can see these changes unfold in our economy. Those workers will be left behind in tomorrow’s economy unless we change strategy.
We have to answer the question: are we prepared to stand by and watch this happen? We cannot and we will not. We need to have new ideas and turn them into action. We have a blueprint for those ideas today. I want the Minister to tell us just what she disagrees with in this seminal report.
Order. The debate can last until 5.30 pm. I am obliged to call the first of the Front-Bench spokespersons no later than seven minutes past 5. The guideline limits are five minutes for the Scottish National party, five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister. If the Minister would be kind enough to leave three minutes at the end, Mr Byrne may sum up the debate. Two Members are seeking to contribute and we have 20 minutes, so they may each speak for up to 10 minutes.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I reassure you that I will not talk for 10 minutes. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) on securing this particularly important debate and on his mind-blowing speech.
I welcome the final report of the Economic Justice Commission and, in particular, its recommendations on the reversal of this Government’s damaging decomposition of workers’ rights. This decade is forecast to be the weakest decade for average real earnings in 200 years. One in 10 workers is said to be in insecure work. Many of my constituents tell me of employers who impose restrictions, withdraw hours and refuse their workers rights, without their having the status of an employee in return. Meanwhile, there are almost 1 million people on zero-hours contracts, with the toxic combination of falling real wages, frozen benefits and insecure work resulting in 8 million people in working households living in 21st century poverty. Given this reality, it is heartening to read the report’s notable strong stance for workers’ rights, hard-wiring justice into our economic system as opposed to treating it as an afterthought.
Over recent weeks, I have seen at first hand the urgent need for many of the report’s workplace recommendations. I place on record my ownership of a single Sainsbury’s share—a golden ticket to attend its annual general meeting. This is an organisation that goes against recommendation after recommendation in the report. All Sainsbury’s shop floor staff are currently in the final stages of a consultation over new “sign or resign” contracts that will slash the salaries of 9,000 of its most longstanding and loyal members of staff. They will lose their paid breaks, their Sunday premium will be removed, the night shift will be shortened and their bonus scheme will go.
Some Members may argue that that is an unavoidable cost-cutting exercise for a key player in the struggling retail sector. Sainsbury’s argues that it is an exercise in fairness, to ensure that all colleagues doing the same role are paid the same. But I argue that the organisation simply shows no regard for its lowest paid staff. Although he scrapped the bonus scheme for shop floor staff, chief executive officer Mike Coupe has just taken home a £427,000 bonus as part of his £3.4 million pay packet—and we wonder why he sings about how he is “in the money”.
Many of those staff have shown decades of dedication to the organisation. While their salaries crumble, their bills, mortgages and rent at the end of each month remain the same. Take Paul, a 53-year-old staff member of 29 years who this week resigned from his role upon facing a £1,300-a-year pay cut. He describes himself as angry and upset that his loyalty has been sacrificed for the company’s profits. We met the Minister last week to discuss Sainsbury’s and the wider issues with such “sign or be sacked” contracts.
I have no qualms about those at the top being well paid, but I call for consistency, fairness and parity, and for the importance of the contribution of those at the top to be recognised in tandem with that of those at the bottom. As the IPPR report states, remuneration committees should contain elected worker representatives who decide the pay, incentives and conditions of all company staff in one whole-company pay policy. It would be really hard for people to agree to a £500,000 bonus for the chief executive officer if they knew that would mean cutting the take-home pay of the people at the bottom.
The need for such a policy becomes all the clearer when we consider exploitative “pay between assignment” contracts. In theory, such contracts are a sensible proposal, under which agency workers are guaranteed a basic level of pay between assignments and while they are out of work. However, in reality, workers are often kept on those lower paid contracts even when they are in the same job for years on end with no such gap between assignments. Such exploitative contracts can and must be prohibited, and I would be grateful if the Minister addressed the recent consultation on ending them. I congratulate BT and the Communication Workers Union on working together to end them in the near future, which will lead to an increase in the take-home pay of 1,200 call centre staff. I would also be grateful if the Minister told us what the Government’s response is likely to be to the recommendations of the Taylor report on work and the gig economy.
The Economic Justice Commission proposes putting fairness at the heart of the economy, because that would make it perform better and improve the lives of millions of people. Who would have thought it?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) on securing the debate and on his excellent synopsis of the report, which I hope most Members have read. Mr Hollobone, you will pleased to hear that I will not take my full 10 minutes. I prepared for having rather less time, as I expected there to be an awful lot of interest in the debate, such is the importance of the report. It is sad that so few Members took the opportunity to attend, but I hope this is the start of a dialogue about how we change some of the fundamental injustices in our country.
Like my right hon. Friend, I congratulate the members of the Economic Justice Commission on their hard work in the past two years on a compelling report that deserves the attention of all Members. People in my constituency have experienced not just a stagnation but a marked deterioration in their living standards. Average earnings have fallen in real terms while the price of housing has continued to soar, leaving many in my constituency to see home ownership as an unachievable dream, despite the fact that many pay more in rent every month than they would in mortgage repayments.
Many people who live in insecure and expensive accommodation have equally insecure jobs. As we heard, there has been a significant increase in agency and zero-hours jobs, in under-employment and in bogus self-employment, which is a stain on our society that creates many problems down the line for individuals and, ultimately, the state. Even those in permanent employment do not feel secure, due to the erosion of employment rights. For example, workers can now be sacked without any reason during their first two years in a job.
The UK ranks eighth of 140 countries for labour market flexibility. The report states:
“It is now possible for an employer to take on a worker with almost no attached responsibilities on the employer’s part, or rights for the worker, at all…It is this flexibility that largely explains the simultaneous occurrence of high employment levels and largely stagnant wages.”
It also explains the shocking fact that more people in poverty now live in working households than in non-working households, after housing costs are taken into account. Does the Minister think that state of affairs is something to be proud of, or does she agree that it is unjust and unsustainable?
The workers we have discussed also face the brunt of the coming force of automation. My right hon. Friend mentioned a number of statistics that show how those who earn the least will be hit hardest by automation. I have another for him: workers in jobs paying less than £30,000 are five times more susceptible to having their posts automated than those earning more than £100,000.
The report also sets out clearly the geographic inequalities we face. London is the richest region in northern Europe, but the UK as a whole contains six of the 10 poorest regions in Europe. That shocking imbalance comes as no surprise to those of us who represent parts of the north. We have grown accustomed to infrastructure investment being used to entrench rather than tackle that divide.
Even in a time of economic growth, unemployment has not fallen universally. Since the Prime Minister promised two years ago to tackle the burning injustices in our economy, unemployment in my constituency has increased by almost 50%. If that happened during a time of economic growth, when the hard times come—and they will—we will be even further behind. Of course, that is before we consider the impact Brexit may have on large employers, such as Vauxhall in my constituency. We heard today about the potential impact on the car industry if the Government do not get the right Brexit deal.
It is clear that we cannot go on as we are and that the report’s proposals cannot be ignored, but I wonder whether the Government have the political will to respond positively. It is clear from the report that there is a direct correlation between the decline in collective bargaining and the deterioration in working conditions. The only way to reverse that decline is to strengthen trade unions.
I did not expect to intervene, but my hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. The case he makes has been rehearsed by the Opposition for some time, but it has now been endorsed by the International Monetary Fund, which reported over the summer that the dismantling of labour protections accounts for a huge slice of the fall in labour’s share of national income. That is not just our view—it is now the IMF’s view.
I did not think I would quote the IMF today, but my right hon. Friend is absolutely right about the share of income that goes to labour. I found that statistic in the report staggering. It is clear that the direction of travel will only continue downwards. We must find a way of reversing that decline. We like to say in this place that economic growth is the answer to all society’s problems, but that growth has to be shared by everyone, and it clear that that is not happening. If we do not solve that puzzle, we will have failed our constituents.
We must also tackle the myth propagated from time to time that an empowered workforce are a barrier to growth when, in fact, as my right hon. Friend said, all the evidence shows that they are an enabler. Many of the countries that outperform us in productivity have better paid workers and stronger workplace rights. The report states clearly:
“If both productivity and pay are to be increased, power will need to be rebalanced in significant ways from employers to workers. This will require stronger labour market regulation and strengthened trade unions.”
Sadly, the Government seem to spend a disproportionate amount of time looking to stifle and inhibit trade union activity.
There has been a lot of soul searching in the past few years about why people voted as they did in the referendum. I think many of the answers are in this report. I always maintained that the arguments advanced during the campaign about the threats to our economic security from Brexit would never work with people who already did not feel economically secure. As the report makes clear, the issues that have created the rampant inequality that fuels division and discontent in this country can be solved only by a Government who are prepared to tackle the root causes of what is a very lopsided economy. The lessons of the past tell us that things will change only if there is a political will to make that change. We will fail this country if we do not take the lessons in the report seriously.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Like others, I commend the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) on bringing forward the debate, and on the work he does as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on inclusive growth. In his opening comments he mentioned a moral mission, and I certainly agree with that. Frankly, more politicians need to get behind this subject. I share the sentiment of the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), who thought that more Members would be present. This important subject needs more than a one-hour Westminster Hall debate.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman on the issues he raised, including deindustrialisation, growth and the squeeze on wages, and the fact that the rich are getting richer meaning that we need a new economic model. I commend his reflection on Labour’s 13 years in power in which it did not address that. Labour has certainly moved on from the days of Peter Mandelson talking about having no problems with people getting filthy rich; that is progress. I also commend the work of the commission and its report, with its intention of stimulating debate about necessary changes to the UK economy. I also welcome how it considered Scotland in the round, not as an afterthought.
Who can argue against the principle that prosperity and justice should go hand in hand? As I said, I agree with the comments of the right hon. Gentleman, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to his challenge to her to outline which principles in the report she disagrees with.
We are aware that the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest is increasing all the time, and I am concerned that the UK Government do not seem realise that or care about it. As the report sets out, the UK economy is not working and the nations and regions are diverging even further. Fundamental reform is required, and the ultimate aspiration must be a fair economy that has economic justice hard-wired into it. That in turn will make for a stronger economy.
The report also highlights issues that my colleagues and I have been going on about for a while. The UK economy is overly reliant on household consumption, excessive household debt and further increasing property prices—it is as if we never learnt the lessons of the financial crash 10 years ago. Sure as fate, another crash will come. The report also outlines that the UK has a serious investment problem, sitting at about 4% below the OECD average. Just today I was at a civil engineering briefing where it was noted that the UK is ranked 24th on infrastructure investment. We obviously need greater investment in infrastructure, and true regional and national investment in infrastructure would help to rebalance the economy. That must be looked at seriously.
Scotland has been playing catch-up, because before the creation of the Scottish Parliament we were always overlooked on infrastructure. I welcome the report’s call for greater borrowing powers for the Scottish Parliament to allow for greater investment in infrastructure. I am interested to hear what the Minister will say about that.
The report also outlines that there should be further devolution, as the UK is
“one of the most centralised states in the developed world”
and, as was touched on, the “most geographically unbalanced economy” in Europe. These matters are connected, and they are particularly pertinent to me as just today I have received written answers from the Scotland Office saying that the Secretary of State for Scotland has no interest in devolving further powers to Holyrood. He does not even want the Scottish Parliament to have the same powers as the Northern Ireland Assembly when it sits. That is a sad indictment of the Secretary of State’s ambition for Scotland. Again, I look forward to what the Minister will say about further devolution of powers.
On the workforce and the balance between the working and non-working population, the report highlights the risks associated with an ageing population, which is a bigger issue in Scotland than in the rest of the UK. I agree with the recommendation that immigration policy should be devolved to Scotland. It is predicted that we will need an additional 860,000 contributing workers by 2041, so we need control over immigration.
The report shares the Scottish Government’s ambition to tackle the gender pay gap. Complementary policies on that and gender balance deserve further consideration. The report says that
“all firms above 250 employees should be required to publish their pay scales—both ranges and averages by role—to employees within their firms”.
Thanks to the Scottish National party, we have the Gender Representation on Public Boards (Scotland) Act 2018, which sets the objective that 50% of non-executive members of public boards should be women. It also requires steps to be taken to encourage women to apply to become non-executive members of a board. That gender balance will help us towards a fairer and more understanding economy.
On fairness, the report suggests that everyone aged 21 and over should be paid the real living wage, and I concur. In Scotland, a higher percentage of workers receive the living wage, but until Westminster takes action and provides legislation it will not become a reality for all.
The report says that it has
“already drawn on the Scottish government’s Fair Work agenda”
“the establishment of a new national productivity agency, skills policies and a ‘good jobs standard’”,
which could deliver fairer working practices. The SNP Government are striving towards that, and it is time for the UK Government to do likewise and have a dramatic rethink about how the economy works. Otherwise, I look forward to the day when we have an independent Scotland, where a Government who have the correct will and desire can implement those policies.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) for securing the debate, for his excellent work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on inclusive growth, and for starting the debate with such a passionate and comprehensive call for a change to the economy.
I also thank the IPPR for bringing together such an amazing group of commissioners—Justin Welby, Mariana Mazzucato, Frances O’Grady and Lord Kerslake, to name but a few—to carry out such a far-reaching investigation into economic justice and to reach such radical and, at the same time, common-sense conclusions, as we have heard. That is such a contrast with the “same old, same old,” right-wing, neo-liberal policies of this Government and their Tory-led predecessors.
The British people are sick and tired of being told over and over again—largely by the same smug and privileged voices—that there is no alternative to the economy-wrecking, service-slashing, opportunity-destroying, soul-sapping austerity agenda. The Brexit vote and Labour’s surge in the polls in last year’s election were both, in different ways, products of the paucity of economic justice under the current regime.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) emphasised, we need to address the challenges of Brexit, but also the causes of Brexit. We are experiencing the longest period of stagnant wages for 150 years, with 6% of the workforce on short-term contracts and 3% on zero-hours contracts. UK productivity is 13% lower than the G7 average and we are, as we have heard, the most regionally imbalanced economy in Europe.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) highlighted the plight of retail workers, but we see those kinds of conditions in other sectors across our economy. The commission’s assessment of those problems and of the need for the fundamental reform of the British economy matches the principles of Labour’s transformative economic programme. Indeed, many of the report’s recommendations are already Labour policy: a national investment bank with a regional network, compulsory diversity reporting for companies and a mission-oriented industrial strategy, as championed by leading economist and commissioner Mariana Mazzucato. Other recommendations we will look at closely as we prepare our programme for Government.
Having written before on the need for radical action to tackle our productivity crisis, I was struck by the commissioners’ detailed proposals here; their suggestions on data are a welcome attempt to take seriously the power of this new property that drives the new economy. We have heard that strengthening union participation, as recommended in the report, is good not only for workers but for companies, the economy and, ultimately, the country. On that, as well as a number of other areas, the commission has produced thoughtful and practical recommendations, in stark contrast to the total lack of action on the Government’s part. I hope that the Government will take the recommendations seriously. I welcome the Minister to her role and ask her to commit to publishing a full response to the commission’s report.
Two years ago, the Prime Minister stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about building
“a country that works for everyone”,
but in reality she has clung to the discredited zombie economics of Mr Osborne. The relentlessly negative and unimaginative election campaign waged by the Conservatives last year was proof of that. Meanwhile, Labour offered a serious critique of our economic model, with positive and practical measures to build a high-wage, high-skilled, high- productivity Britain. It is no coincidence that the publication of our manifesto saw our party soar 20 points in the polls, while Tory support fell dramatically once people saw what thin gruel they were being offered.
I welcome this report as an important intervention in the economic debate that Labour ignited last year. It is a debate in which this Government have no meaningful voice or even ideas; but perhaps that is about to change. Perhaps the Minister will now pledge to give this report the attention it so richly deserves. If not, she should step aside and allow us to do so.
If the Minister would be kind enough to finish her remarks no later than 5.27 pm, that will give Mr Byrne time to sum up the debate.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for my first Westminster Hall debate, Mr Hollobone.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) on securing this debate. The IPPR’s Commission on Economic Justice has produced a thoughtful and wide-ranging report on our economy, and it is absolutely right that this House should debate it and its recommendations. I thank him for bringing it to the House and for introducing it, and I congratulate the IPPR and the commission for their contribution to the public debate.
We can all agree that the issues raised today are of fundamental importance. Tackling low pay, boosting equality and putting fairness at the heart of society, while building on the strength of our jobs market and on economic growth, are issues that affect all our constituents. I will start by simply reflecting on where we are now. We have a deserved reputation for being a great place to do business, with high standards, respected institutions and the reliable rule of law. We are an enterprising and successful economy, built on firm foundations: the skills of our workers, the quality of the infrastructure, and a fair and predictable business environment.
The Government are committed to building an economy that works for everyone, to raising living standards and to growing our national wealth, not just for today, but for future generations. That commitment is demonstrated by our progress since 2010: near-record levels of employment, with more than 3.3 million more people in work than in 2010, unemployment at a record low, income inequality down, fairness in the tax system—the right hon. Gentleman spoke about the wealthiest 1% in this country, but the top 1% contribute 28% to income tax and the top 5% contribute nearly 50% of income tax—and absolute poverty falling.
In terms of rebalancing the economy and an economy that works for everyone, can the Minister explain how cutting the rate of inheritance tax and cutting capital gains tax help the poorest in society?
One of the things we have absolutely seen is that putting wealth back into the system creates wealth. That is one reason why we have these measures and why we take some of these fiscal decisions—to ensure that we are fuelling wealth to be spent in order to benefit the lowest in our society.
We recognise the progress that has already been achieved in improving the life chances of millions around the country, but the right hon. Gentleman is right that we must not be complacent. For all our many strengths, we have businesses, people and places whose level of productivity is well below what can be achieved. That is why the Government have launched ambitious and transformative plans for our economy and for employment. The industrial strategy deliberately strengthens the five foundations of productivity: ideas, people, infrastructure, the business environment and places. It is a strategy that is being implemented with, not just for, British enterprise. It provides a template for the partnership between Government and the private sector that is required to solve productivity issues. Through the “Good Work” plan, the Government are supporting people to seize those opportunities as the labour market is changed by technological advances. I will talk about those today.
The Government’s industrial strategy is our long-term plan for building a Britain that is fit for the future. It sets out how we will help businesses to create better, higher paying jobs in every part of the UK. It focuses on the necessary investment in the skills, industry and infrastructure of the future. It ensures that our country and its citizens can embrace and benefit from the opportunities of technological change. We need to prepare to seize those opportunities. That would be necessary at any time, but Britain’s decision to leave the European Union makes it even more important.
Technology is transforming the world of work. That means we must invest in our workforce. We have committed to establishing a technical education system that rivals the best in the world, to stand alongside our already world-class higher education system. As part of wide-ranging reforms, we will invest an additional £406 million in maths, digital and technical education. Technological progress and a faster pace of change create opportunities but also challenges for those who may find themselves needing to learn new skills to find a job. We will therefore embed a culture of career-long learning through a new national retraining scheme that supports people to re-skill and grow their earning power throughout their lives.
We should not forget that it was the Conservative party that introduced the national living wage, delivering the lowest earners their fastest pay rise in 20 years. In April this year, we increased the national living wage by 4.4%, from £7.50 to £7.83. That increase is expected to benefit more than 2 million people and means that a full-time worker on the national living wage will see their pay increase by over £600 over the year.
Our industrial strategy also sets out what we are doing to make sure that the UK is the best place in the world to start and grow a business, which will create new jobs. We firmly believe in business as a force for good in society.
Will the Minister give way?
I will make some more progress.
Our corporate governance reforms are driving changes in how our largest companies engage, at board level, with employees and external stakeholders. Significant changes to the corporate governance code will strengthen workers’ voices in boardrooms by requiring boardrooms to put in place robust employee engagement mechanisms, while new laws will require companies to report how they engage with employees and have regard to their interests. Amplifying the voices of employees and external stakeholders will improve boardroom decision making, deliver more sustainable business performance and build confidence in the way businesses are run.
We are also introducing pay ratio reporting, requiring quoted companies to compare CEO pay with average worker pay, supported by an explanation of why the ratio is consistent with pay, reward and progression policies in the wider workforce. Under the revised UK corporate governance code, remuneration committees will have to engage with the workforce to explain how executive remuneration aligns with wider company policy. These changes will help to ensure that boardroom pay is connected with wider workforce pay and not set in an artificial bubble.
I thank the Minister for setting out the Government’s industrial strategy proposals. Does she intend to deal with the proposals in the report? Specifically, does she agree with the report’s underlying assertion—that our economy is currently unjust?
The premise of the report and some of the measures it suggests are already being considered by the Government, and I am outlining the actions we are taking in those areas. I am committed, and so are the Government, to providing fairness and high-quality jobs in the workforce.
The Government are investing. We plan to deliver £20 billion of investment in innovative and high-potential businesses by establishing a new £2.5 billion investment fund, incubated in the British Business Bank, and we will continue to support businesses to grow by accessing international markets. We aim to create a business environment well equipped to meet the challenges and opportunities of new technologies and new ways of doing business.
Across Government we are making huge strides towards rebalancing the economy and empowering local government. Through devolution deals we have strengthened local leadership and devolved powers and funding away from Whitehall, so that they are exercised by those with the strongest understanding of the needs of their communities. We are absolutely committed to this continuing.
The Minister must forgive me for presuming that she will refer to the UK shared prosperity fund; she already referred to the importance of regionality and understanding the regions. Will she explain why a devolved English Ministry—namely the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government—will administrate the shared prosperity fund? Its history has involved dealing with English issues, rather than, for example, deprived communities in Wales.
As I have outlined, the Government are committed to devolution and to giving local people the power to take decisions. There is a Minister responsible for the shared prosperity fund in that Ministry, but we feed into it across Government.
However, we are committed to delivering for the whole UK, including England, Wales and Scotland. That is why we are implementing the industrial strategy and why we are working with local communities to come up with, for example, local industrial strategies, which will build on their strengths and deliver on the economic opportunities that every region in the UK requires. Leadership and ambition for the future are key, and we recognise that there are individuals in those regions who can deliver those. The Government also continue to support the northern powerhouse strategy and have invested more than £3.4 billion directly into it for locally determined projects. Public support, combined with private sector dynamism, is enabling the region to flourish.
Technological change presents both challenges and opportunities for the world of work. New ways of working have a part to play in a modern, flexible labour market, but it is absolutely right that we look at what we can do to support people through these changes. In response to Matthew Taylor’s review of modern employment practices, the Government published the “Good Work” plan, in which we commit to reporting annually on the quality of work in the UK, with the first baseline report to be published later this year. I am clear that quality of work should take equal priority to quantity of work. Through the plan, we are also supporting workers by introducing a right to request a more predictable and stable contract, to tackle issues around one-sided flexibility, and by introducing enforcement of holiday pay.
I will pick up on some of the points raised by hon. Members. I again thank the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill for bringing the debate before us. I also thank the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), who has a strong interest in this area and is extremely committed to tackling the injustices that affect her constituents.
On the point from the right hon. Gentleman about AI, robotics and the potential loss of 2.4 million jobs, the report by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, “The Age of Automation”, suggests that technological advances would not necessarily lead to job losses in the medium term but would actually improve opportunities for workers.
I must also clarify a point around zero-hours contracts. We often hear that they are all bad contracts and that people do not want them. In reality, we need to keep up with modern practices, and people want the flexibility that these contracts provide to work around childcare or other home commitments. That is why it is important that we are truthful about the benefits of zero-hours contracts.
On the Taylor review, we are analysing the responses to it and we will come forward with proposals in the relatively short term. I am committed to that.
I thank the IPPR for its report. I am committed, as the Minister responsible, to delivering fairness and quality of work for the people of this country. I must mention that I am not smug and I am not wealthy. I am a working-class girl who is a Conservative MP. I am absolutely committed to delivering for the people of my country.
A vote is imminent, so I shall be brief. I am not entirely convinced that the Minister has read the report. She did not say much about what she had learned or what she disagreed with; we heard a defence of everything in the Government’s platform. I do not think that the British public want an economic policy that is a nudge here and a nudge there. I think that they are looking for a much more radical transformation.
The Government have an opportunity at the G20, which is focused on the future of work, to make good on the commitments that they made when signing up to the 2015 sustainable development goals and the communique at the 2016 Hangzhou G20 summit. Those commitments were to creating a much more inclusive economy than today. That will not be delivered by a nudge here and a nudge there; it needs the radical transformation proposed in the report. I hope that the Minister reflects on the debate in preparation for another debate after the G20, when we will test her conclusions.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the final report of the Economic Justice Commission.