Wednesday 10 October 2018
[Mike Gapes in the Chair]
Nursery Sector: Sustainability
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the sustainability of the nursery sector.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I appreciate the opportunity to have this important debate on the sustainability of the nursery sector. In recent years, I have increasingly seen and heard concerns about the sector, both through the media and through conversations in my constituency. What really brought the issue to a head for me was a meeting with the Federation of Small Businesses and a couple of local nurseries. They raised their current concerns about sustainability, rising costs, and the lack of a level playing field within the sector. Following that, I surveyed all of the nurseries in my constituency and got an incredibly strong response. Most of the nurseries replied, which shows that there is a great deal of interest in improving and reforming this area.
I will first talk about the enormous contribution that nurseries make to children and families in all of our constituencies. Nurseries provide a wonderful start in life for children. They provide opportunities for socialisation for children who are at home during their earliest years, so that they can meet other children in increasingly large age-based groups. When I say “socialisation”, I do not mean socialism; I mean the broader sense of meeting other people in the local community. Nurseries are also valuable for helping children prepare for primary school, as we know that people have concerns about how ready children are to take that step in their lives.
Nurseries are also important for parents, who can get advice about what they are doing as they raise their children, and meet other parents. Sometimes, having young children can feel very isolating for parents, and nurseries provide a good forum for them to meet other parents, get advice, and feel confident that they are doing the right thing—or to seek further advice if, perhaps, they are not. Nurseries provide parents with a very useful break from the children, and increasingly both parents work. The traditional, old-fashioned style of one parent, typically the mother, staying at home to raise the children is not so prevalent these days. Normally, both parents work, and nurseries provide a very important service, enabling both parents to go to work or perhaps re-enter the workforce.
Working in a nursery can be a great deal of fun: it is an enjoyable, rewarding form of work, and a nursery is also a really good business to own and run, because it is an interesting part of a local community. People who work in nurseries can see the children develop over the years, and the importance of the contribution their nursery makes to all those families.
The initial introduction of the universal 15 hours a week of free childcare was followed by a further 15 hours, but since then, there has been concern that funding has not kept pace, and does not provide all the moneys that nurseries require for the care that they deliver. Funding not keeping pace with costs is a concern, and nurseries have been finding ways of supplementing that income without increasing their hourly rate. For example, some nurseries have been charging additional money for lunch that far exceeds the actual cost of that lunch. Across the country, the average charge is about £10 per day. That is a very significant amount of money for a family to have to contribute on a weekly basis when they believed that the 30 hours of childcare was free. There is a strong narrative that what is offered is 30 hours of free childcare, which leads to problems for families when they are managing their budgets. They may have had a family conversation about whether a parent staying at home should go back to work, and what the household accounts would look like if they did, but if they then get a request from the nursery for more funding, that creates problems for that family. Having to have a conversation right from the off about what looks like a demand for more money also creates a difficult start to the relationship between the family and the nursery.
This support is there to help people; of course, there is an aspect of education for the children, but the support is clearly also there to support people in the workplace. However, it last for only 38 weeks of the year. Most people do not work 38 weeks in the year, so what about the remaining weeks in which the family has to make up the difference? Again, many people have the understanding that what is offered is 30 hours of free childcare a week; they would not think that meant 30 hours of free childcare just during school term time, in essence. Of course, that is a concern for many parents, but especially for parents on very low pay, for whom any surprising additional outgoings will be quite a shock to the system.
Across my constituency, nurseries have raised concerns about business rates. If children are supported for 38 weeks, they will often attend for 38 weeks; the parents will look after the children for the rest of that time, or will perhaps find some mechanism involving their extended family. However, the business rates are set as though the business is being operated for the entire year, so if that nursery is over the threshold to pay business rates, it will in effect be receiving the money for 38 weeks but paying business rates for 52 weeks. If there is not flexibility over that 30 hours of bringing in more money, that creates a challenge.
There is also a concern about VAT. If a nursery is associated with a primary school, that nursery has the ability to reclaim VAT, because it is part of an educational institution. However, a nursery not associated with a primary school does not have the opportunity to claim that money back, which does not demonstrate a level playing field between the two. That is a problem. Councils also take a cut, and I welcome the fact that the Government have driven the expectation that the amount of money going from national Government to the council and then on to the nursery will go up from 93% to 95%. I am pleased that Wigan Council has already achieved that goal of 95% of money going to the nursery, and that Bolton Council is a level ahead, with 97% of its money going from the council to the nursery. It is important that councils are recognised for that commitment to ensure as much money goes to nurseries as possible.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the fact that nurseries are having to look for other ways of raising funding, including charging for meals—I have heard about all sorts of things, such as taking in ironing, or baking and selling cakes—indicates that insufficient funding is coming to nurseries full stop, and that that should be the starting point for dealing with this issue?
I am very sympathetic to that view. Fundraising by nurseries or other organisations does have a positive aspect for those organisations, but I am very sympathetic to the view that councils have been squeezed, and it is challenging for councils to pass on as much of that money as they would like.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He is raising some important points about top-up fees and business rates, and their effect on nurseries’ finances. I should say that we are fighting to keep five outstanding local authority nurseries open in Salford, not far from Bolton. They have been put at risk because the Government have changed the way they fund early years provision, leaving our cash-strapped Salford council to find £1.5 million this year. He has outlined how he values nurseries, so does he agree that we should not be in the position of losing any outstanding nurseries? I am sure he would not want to lose five nurseries in his constituency. Will he join me in urging the Minister to help Salford and other authorities whose nurseries are now under threat?
The hon. Lady and I share a common position. We ought not to be losing any provision, and certainly not the outstanding provision in her constituency. I welcome the Government’s consultation, because it recognises that when new schemes come along, with the pressures on councils, we have to reconsider the ongoing funding and support. The Minister might be able to answer the hon. Lady’s question in that regard.
There is also concern about the ratio of children to carers and about when the bands kick in. Some nurseries have mentioned that perhaps there could be adjustments. It is a complicated subject, so I will not go into the details, but I simply raise that as a concern. Will my hon. Friend the Minister also look at best practice across European countries to see what they do and what works there?
There is a sense that perhaps there is not sufficient flexibility within the system beyond the rigid bands that are set out. I will read out one of the responses to my survey to give a slight sense of the feeling:
“I feel that a professional should be able to decide what ratio would be required depending on the children in each room as well as the level of qualification of staff etcetera.”
There is a sense that if there are talented, experienced and well qualified staff, the ratio needed for a certain group of children might be different from that for a more challenging group of children with staff who are not as well qualified and not as experienced. A little more flexibility might perhaps be considered.
Sometimes a nursery cannot take a child when the family request it at the last minute, because all the age groups are at their limit. Perhaps one parent does not normally go into the office on a Friday, but there is a big project at work and they are required to attend, and the nursery has no space or cannot hire a member of staff just for the one additional child for that day. Because of the way the rules are applied, the nursery does not feel that it can say, “Okay, for this one day we will allow a little flexibility.” Perhaps that could be recognised and allowed within the system, because at the moment some nurseries say that they cannot take a child in those circumstances which causes a problem for the child, for the parents and for the place of work. Could that be resolved with a little flexibility? It would have to be monitored so there was no abuse of the system, but I think it would help all parties concerned. Of course we want transparency, but sometimes there is a conflict between ticking the boxes and trusting the professionals to run a service. We need a slightly better balance between the two.
I want to make the point that nurseries are not right for all children and all families. We ought to recognise that in families where one parent chooses to stay at home to raise the children, it is a wonderful, positive thing, but sometimes parents feel they are being told they are making the wrong decision because they have only one income and they are taxed to support other people who have two incomes. It is almost as though the state tells them that they are doing the wrong thing and they should have someone else look after their children and go off to work.
I am pleased that the Minister is having a consultation, and I have some points that I wish him to address in his speech later. My first point is on the hourly rate of support within the 30 hours. If the entire cost of childcare is not covered, families and nurseries ought to be clear that the childcare support is not free and should be seen more as a contribution towards childcare. Following the example in Scotland and what will soon be the example in Wales, there should be an exemption from business rates for nurseries and equality between independent nurseries and those associated with schools. They should all pay VAT or all be exempt.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Gapes, for such an important debate. I thank the hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) for opening the debate so concisely and for raising many important issues.
First, I must declare an interest. My sister is an early years specialist and a teacher in a nursery, and she lobbies me every day about the sector, but in positive ways. She talks about how it should be reformed, improved, invested in and supported. There are fantastic examples in Scandinavian countries of the level of investment in early years. We are talking not about running a service on a shoestring, but about investing in young lives and making sure youngsters have the best start in life. That is what this debate is really about: ensuring that we put excellence right at the heart of early years. We need only look at the WAVE Trust’s work on “The 1001 Critical Days” to understand the importance of bringing that work into nurseries and then into early years education.
I have been working with the National Day Nurseries Association, and in the summer we met providers in my constituency. That is significant for the Minister because York was the first whole authority pilot for the new funding formula and the new system around early years. Not only the statutory sector but the voluntary and private sectors in York bring to bear the real-life experience of the impact of the pilot, so I want to reflect on that today. Of course, I am also here to problem-solve, so I trust that, between us, we will be able to find some solutions to the challenges.
We are talking not only about education for youngsters, but about the whole life experience—the holistic experience—for young people. I was reminded of the increasing need around language and communication skills that young people need, not least because children are often more screen-fed these days. We need to make sure that we have holistic services, which is where Sure Start and children’s centres came in in early years, and we need to make sure we do not lose that approach. With the Budget coming up and the announcement that austerity is at an end, I am sure the Minister will walk through an open door in making sure that we have the resources we need.
Let me go back to York, the early implementer. Talking to providers right across the spectrum, it is clear that serious financial stress is being placed on nurseries. The dedication of the sector and the creativity of people running businesses make the system work, which is what we would expect of professionals. They want the system to provide good, safe services that benefit children and make sure they have the best start in life. York did a lot of preparation through the pilot to ensure business sustainability, and it put business planning support in place for nurseries, which has helped with sustainability in these challenging times of not having the necessary resources. York has also set up a shared foundation partnership, a model where providers come together to talk about the challenges they face and to try to find solutions between them, often signposting families to providers that perhaps have some spare capacity.
However, right across the board, local authorities, private providers and voluntary sector providers are saying that the money is not enough. I want the Minister to understand that. Between £1 and £2 more per hour is needed. The National Day Nurseries Association says that we are £1.90 an hour short. Obviously we need to listen to that evidence base as we move forward.
Financial viability issues are putting real pressure on the sector. Of course, that has been increased by the national living wage coming in, minimum wage costs and auto-enrolment around pension contributions, particularly for providers that want to provide better pensions. We heard about business rates. A nursery provider in my constituency has two nurseries and has paid an increase in business rates of £11,000. That was just the increase. That in itself spells out the real pressure being put on nurseries, which of course still want to provide the best possible service.
In York we have a real challenge around the high cost of living, which means that recruitment and retention is an issue. Of course, when new staff are recruited, they have to go through mandatory training, and in York we want to provide good continuous professional development for staff as well. Often it is the higher paid, more qualified staff who are leaving the sector because of the pressures being put on, for instance, teachers and other professionals. The cost of training and upskilling is therefore also having a negative impact on those providing services.
We need to heed what the NDNA is saying regarding resources, and the Treasury Committee has highlighted how the data the Government used to cost affordability—the amount of money going to the programme—was old data. We therefore need to ensure that affordability is calculated in real time, addressing the real issues that nurseries face today.
We heard examples of how nurseries are being creative to get money, because they obviously need to maintain staffing levels and ensure that children have the best engaged education. We are talking often about £15 to £25 being raised per day. We heard the example of people charging over and above for lunches so that additional money can pay for resources, activities and equipment. Some of the money is going just towards basic staffing costs. This is about getting the essentials right and charging parents for it. So the offer is certainly not free—we need to clarify that—but we want it to be, and that is clearly Labour’s policy. I trust that the Government will step up to the plate.
Other nurseries are restricting the number of children who can be in receipt of the 30 days, or restricting the number of hours available, to ensure that they can balance the books. They are telling me that they now cannot afford to update things such as equipment that is getting old and tatty or other resources. That has a negative impact on a child’s growth and learning. It is important to note that, although we have an excellent education system in York, there is an attainment gap in areas of deprivation. The system is driving greater inequality, and there is concern about that. We are trying to address those issues, and take on board the impact that they are having on young lives.
Nurseries with children who have special educational needs and disabilities wanted me to highlight the impact that the situation is having on them. There is a lack of funding specifically for those children, particularly if they do not have a statement in place. It is also about provision. Often one parent will not work; they will stay at home and be the carer for the child. They therefore do not qualify for the additional hours, because both parents need to work. Alternatively, a single parent could be at home caring for that child, and would therefore be excluded. I ask that that rule is changed as well.
We need to ensure that we are not providing the minimum, but going for the best within the amount of investment we are putting into early years. The costs to the state of getting it wrong are enormous later on in life. We are paying for that now because things have not been put in place right through the education system. Let us put the investment where it really makes a difference.
My hon. Friend has just introduced something that ties in with the situation in Salford that I outlined: the impact that our nurseries have on families of children with special educational needs. She also made a point earlier about language and communication. We are potentially losing £1.5 million out of the £3 million cost of running our five nurseries. However, the key point she raises is about the impact, if we cannot save them, that that will have later on education. Parents have told me just how much those nurseries are doing for families with children who have special educational needs.
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. We really have to put the right investment in place for children with special educational needs. We need to give those children the start in life that any other child should expect. We also need to support parents. Parents do an amazing job looking after their children. Having the support of a nursery helps them in their work as well. It is vital that they are not excluded from the so-called “free” offer and that a new exemption is introduced by the Minister. I would be really interested to hear him commit to that today.
We mentioned business costs, which are important. We have heard that nurseries in Wales and Scotland are exempt from business rates. We trust that that can be introduced in England. That would make such a difference to nurseries. Nurseries based in schools and childminders and domestic child carers do not pay business rates, so why do nurseries have to? We also heard about VAT, where we need a level playing field.
The Minister has a real opportunity to reform the funding. York is the example to call on. Those working in the sector have shown dedication, but they are really struggling, and the viability of nurseries, as I saw when visiting them across my constituency this summer, is very fragile indeed. There is a real plea, which is the basis of today’s debate, for the Minister to go back and get the funding that is required. Otherwise, many nurseries could disappear, and that would jeopardise early years altogether.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) on introducing this morning’s important debate.
My interest in the sector arose as a consequence of an invitation to visit Pathfinders Day Nursery in my constituency, which is based at Crescent School in Rugby, to discuss the challenges faced by the sector with Alison Dyke, the owner of the nursery and the Warwickshire chair of the National Day Nurseries Association. My interest was aroused partly because I know about the importance of providing 30 hours of quality childcare and nursery education to our youngsters to give them a great start in life and to parents, particularly because it enables those parents who want to get back into the workforce to do so.
My interest was also aroused as a businessman. I was a businessman for 25 years, and some of the issues that were drawn to my attention related to the sustainability and viability of a fast-growing small business sector. I wanted to understand the business implications. A great deal of what I learned at my meeting related to funding, which earlier speakers mentioned.
As a fellow Warwickshire MP, the Minister will be aware that there is variation in the amount of funding that different authorities receive. The national headline funding rate is £4.94 per hour, but as the county authority, Warwickshire receives £4.30 an hour. I had assumed that that meant £4.30 an hour paid to the childcare provider. That, of course, is not the case, because local authorities are entitled to take a deduction. In Warwickshire, that deduction amounts to 5%, which is used by the local authority to fund the early years special educational needs team, to provide some business support and to contribute to the early years provider. That results in a rate of £3.96 being paid to childcare providers in Warwickshire, which Alison tells me is really not enough to provide high-quality childcare or anything more than a bare bones service.
As the Minister will be aware, there is research to support that contention: Ceeda has found that the hourly cost to a provider of each place for a three or four-year-old is £5.08, whereas the average Government funding is £4.34 an hour and Warwickshire pays its providers £3.96 per hour. Ceeda calculates that that shortfall of about £1 an hour adds up to an annual funding shortfall of £63 million for the 30 hours offer for three and four-year-olds nationwide.
The National Day Nurseries Association has found that since 2017, when the 30 hours policy was introduced, closures have increased by 47%, largely as a consequence of financial pressures. It has also found that 19% of nurseries expect to make a loss, while only 43% anticipate a profit or surplus. I have already mentioned the difference between the costs of delivering the service and of funding it. Survey respondents highlighted administration challenges in the sector: 85% said that there is now additional administration to do, while 58% said that managing the complexity of the system is among the challenges they face.
Mrs Dyke is delighted that some parents are now able to access funding and provide a nursery education for their children in a way that they could not before. She and Pathfinders are very proud of the high-quality environment that they offer to children between the ages of six months and five years. They allocate 28 places for three and four-year-olds who receive the extended 30 hours’ funding. Her assessment is that children who attend nursery make extremely good progress in their development and gain an enormous advantage, but she is concerned about how to fund it—I understand that the rate has now been frozen until 2020, despite the increasing costs of labour, staff training and service provision. She is also concerned that for children on the 30-hour funded places, providers are being required to provide a no-frills service, which does not equate to quality childcare.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West referred to the fact that many providers are asking parents to pay for additional services; Mrs Dyke highlights snacks and other food, as well as other consumables and specialist sessions.
There is also an additional cost for those parents who need 40 hours of childcare and have to pay a separate rate for it. They may not have a higher income—they may still be on a very low wage—yet they may be subsidising additional hours for other parents who are on the 30 hours.
That is exactly my constituent’s point: there is a differential, and those on the higher rate are effectively subsidising those on the Government-funded rate. A further problem that Mrs Dyke identifies is that parents are not obliged to pay for the additional services. If all parents refused to pay it, more businesses would become unsustainable, quality would be compromised and providers would have to either stop offering the 30 hours or shut down completely. At a time when we are working hard to extend provision to more and more children, that is a matter of concern.
I know that the Minister is aware of Mrs Dyke’s concerns, because I wrote to him about them and he was kind enough to send a prompt reply, which I have passed on to her. I look forward to his speech; I hope that he will share some early indications of the results of the Department’s evaluations and that we will continue to push forward and develop this very important sector.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) for securing this debate on a really important subject. I will not make a lengthy speech, but I would like to follow up on a few of his points, to which I listened with great interest.
I appreciate and fully support the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the value of the nursery sector to working parents and the importance of its availability, but I will focus on its value to children, particularly those from deprived communities. Worryingly, extensive research shows that as many as 35% of children arrive at school with language skills that are inadequate or below the level expected of their age group. It is important that we distinguish between childcare and the educational value of this excellent sector; Ofsted judges more than 90% of providers as outstanding in providing exceptional support for children’s development. For children in deprived communities, that is often a lifeline for the entire family.
When parents have so many life challenges to deal with, the daily support of qualified professionals can make the difference between getting by and not getting by, and can be crucial to children’s life chances. Highly qualified and well-trained staff can often pick up developmental issues, mental health stresses and strains, or special educational needs. They can nip problems in the bud and search out specialist help at a very early stage, which has an impact further down the line. Extensive Oxford University research has shown the value of investing in early years.
I understand that organisations in the sector have business costs, but I would prefer that we saw them as an educational service for children in their early years—a national priority. The current funding arrangements are complex and extremely fragmented, and many nurseries and nursery schools are in danger of closure. I fully understand the pressures on local government; my local authority has endured nearly 60% of cuts to its funding. However, what I seek from the Minister today is recognition that early years should be part of the Government’s plan to increase social mobility and educational attainment and to enhance our economic opportunity as a nation by ensuring that every child can contribute.
I hope that the Minister is listening and that he will try to change the focus—and maybe the Prime Minister’s mind. Instead of focusing on the impact of things like grammar schools, let us get investment into the early years where it will make the real difference. Education does not begin at 11; it begins in the early years. If we invest in children and ensure that they have that opportunity in their early days, they will reap the benefits tenfold in their later educational life. I dare say that we will all benefit from that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) on securing the debate. As we have heard, our nurseries play a vital role in children’s development and in preparing them for their future education and careers; if we get it right, they play a very important role in promoting social mobility and alleviating poverty. Improving standards should be a central part of that, along with ensuring that they are properly resourced.
Since the Government introduced the new early years funding formula and the 30 hours free childcare policy in 2017, 121 nurseries in England have closed, which is a 66% increase in closures from the previous year. That is a very worrying figure when we know—from the Government’s commitment to provide 30 hours and so on—that their intention is not to see a decline in nursery provision, but that is what is happening. Of the nurseries that have closed since the policy was introduced, 71% received an hourly funding rate of less than £5 per child. A total of 44% received the lower hourly funding rate of £4.30 per child. These recent closures are affecting thousands of families. To be charitable to the Government, I believe this is an unintended consequence of a well-intentioned but flawed policy.
Although I welcome the 30 hours free childcare scheme for working families, the range, complexity and fragmentation that have been mentioned have made take-up less than desirable. Some of the things that have been introduced include the 15 free hours for disadvantaged two-year-olds, the 30 free hours for three and four-year-old children of working parents and the tax-free childcare scheme. In parallel, the childcare voucher schemes have been closed to new entrants, but no assessment has been done to see what the impact would be on those who have benefited and others who could benefit from it. That is despite requests from the Treasury Committee, which I serve on. Although the time was extended, there is still a lot further to go in looking at how childcare vouchers could be used to continue supporting families where schemes have worked well.
The funding situation is underlined by the wider concern about passing on the requirement to increase wage levels as a result of the national minimum wage, and about pension contributions and business rates. Yet, the Government have not faced up to the fact that nurseries cannot afford to pay for that without national Government support. Nor can local authorities step in any longer—again, because of the context of unprecedented funding cuts over many years to local authority budgets.
The wider context is that, in constituencies such as mine, where schools have worked in partnership with nurseries to co-finance and support them, that is no longer an option. Despite some of the changes after the general election, the school system still faces some £2 billion-worth of cuts under the so-called fair funding formula, which is nothing short of a disgrace and is certainly not fair to constituents such as mine, who have seen a massive cut in school funding. Those options, which have been a huge help in protecting nurseries in constituencies such as mine, are no longer available.
The number of free places for disadvantaged two-year-olds and children with special educational needs and disabilities—something I know the Minister cares deeply about, given his brief—is falling because those children are more expensive to care for due to the higher staff-to-child ratios. The Government have not taken that on board; if they did, they would recognise the important contribution that nurseries working with SEND children make in our constituencies. Two-year-olds are currently not eligible for support from the disability access fund, the early years pupil premium or the SEN inclusion fund, all of which could be used to improve their access to early years provision.
After campaigns and petitions—one petition received over 10,000 signatures—the Government committed in the 2017 early years national funding formula to continue the level of funding for maintained nursery schools until 2019-20 through a supplementary grant of £59 million per year, but there are no guarantees that this will continue after 2020. Our maintained nurseries are left unable to plan and are, as Members will hear shortly, facing closure in some cases. It would represent a 31% cut if there is no continuity of funding, so I hope the Minister will say today what he is going to do post 2020 and whether he is extensively lobbying the Chancellor ahead of his statement to try to address this major problem, because the specialist support that is provided to maintained nurseries is vital if we want to address the specific needs of the children who desperately need that provision.
Maintained nurseries are vital services, and they completely transform lives. I have seen that when visiting nurseries, meeting children and parents across my constituency, and meeting outstanding professionals who work really hard with very little remuneration because they believe in our children and in giving them a good future. Some 64% of maintained nursery schools are in the 30 most deprived areas of England; 63% are graded outstanding by Ofsted because of the quality of education they offer. When Ministers talk about cost savings, they should not use such blunt instruments, which do not take into account the way professionals and families have worked to improve achievement from an early age, creating the building blocks for success in later life.
In those nurseries, admissions policies prioritise children who are in greatest need and provide a high number of places for disadvantaged and SEND children, particularly those with the most complex needs. These children make great progress through the education system, which they would not do otherwise. The average number of available childcare places in areas of disadvantage has fallen from 33 children per 100 in 2016 to just 25 per 100 in 2018. That is a worrying trend, which the Government need to reverse. Across the UK, there are now over 500 fewer Sure Start centres than there were in 2010, so the wider support structure has also crumbled, at a time when families are facing huge pressure, uncertainty and insecurity. That is one area of vital provision that needs protecting.
The child poverty rate in my constituency is the highest in the country, and yet our education system has been transformed over the past 20 years; early years and maintained nurseries have played a critical role in that. We also face funding cuts of 24% from 2010 to 20, and the local authority will have to make a further £58 million-worth of savings because of the national Government cuts. In that context, unfortunately, the local authority can no longer co-finance and meet the shortfall of a number of maintained nurseries in my constituency. I am deeply concerned about that, because it was announced this September that three out of six were to be closed. We simply cannot afford for that to happen, but the local authority no longer has the bandwidth to be able to continue to finance them.
Nurseries such as Overland, Mary Sambrook and John Smith have made huge differences to children’s lives. For example, the Overland children’s centre provides specialist care services for deaf children. Parents are extremely anxious about what is going to happen in the future, and they are particularly concerned about other children who could have benefited from those nurseries but who will no longer be able to.
I hope the Minister will heed the warnings of a cross-party group of more than 70 Members of Parliament, including 12 from his own party, who called on the Government to think again about the funding that is available for this important service. I also hope he will heed the Treasury Committee’s report, which recommended that the Government ensure that the costs that are being passed on through the national minimum wage, pension contributions and business rates are borne by national Government. Otherwise, nurseries will have no option but to charge—some have started to do so, making a mockery of the policy of 30 or 15 hours of free childcare—or, as the Minister is aware, to close.
The Treasury Committee also called on the Government to look closely at why take-up is so low. At the time, it was 90% lower than initially expected. We highlighted the importance of targeting disadvantaged people, because the new arrangements do not seem to be reaching those communities and families.
Cutting back higher quality staff and changing the services that were previously free may undermine the Government’s overarching policy objective of supporting those who live in disadvantaged areas, including constituencies such as mine and those of many other Members of Parliament. I hope the Minister will redouble his efforts to persuade the Chancellor to do more to finance this important sector, which is vital to the future of our children and our country.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I thank the hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) for securing this important debate. It has been absolutely fantastic to hear so many contributions from Members across the House.
I pay tribute to the hon. Members for Bolton West and for Rugby (Mark Pawsey), who are obviously listening MPs and are very much connected with their communities. The survey that the hon. Member for Bolton West instigated was a great tool for getting to the nitty-gritty of what is going on in his community. He talked about business rates, about primary schools that cannot get their VAT back when non-school nurseries can, and about ratios, which I am sure the Minister will want to look into. Given the way the world works now, we need flexibility more than ever. The hon. Member for Rugby talked about the stark costs and the shortfall of £1 an hour in his community, and asked how nurseries can keep going with that shortfall.
My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper) has worked very hard with the maintained nursery sector in her area—in fact, I visited a group of nurseries in her community. She said that they are a lifeline for many families. She made a powerful argument, and she is a massive advocate for her community.
I am so grateful that my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) made a contribution, because she was an early implementer and was at the coalface of the roll-out, so she has seen the effects of the funding shortfall. I am glad that she mentioned Sure Start and SEND provision, which are vital parts of our offer for families. I congratulate her sister, who is working very hard in the sector.
My hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), who is no longer in her place, made a powerful intervention about losing five outstanding nurseries, and she talked about the prospects for SEND children. My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) has done incredible work in her community, where the school for deaf children potentially faces closure. Her work on the Treasury Committee was really helpful a few months ago in helping us to understand the landscape in more detail, and it gave us a granular understanding of the funding shortfall. I congratulate her on her work and on the way she has supported her community. It is a pleasure to follow so many fantastic contributions.
The Minister and I have discussed the financial sustainability of the early years sector many times in the Chambers of this House. Our discussions have focused on the funding levels the Government set for their policies. As hon. Members are aware, Government-funded childcare schemes have become an increasingly large part of early years settings’ incomes in recent years. The biggest single change was arguably the introduction of 30 hours of free childcare per week, which came into effect in September 2017. In many instances, those free extra hours result in some financial support being available for all the childcare hours a family uses in a week. Of course, there is a wider discussion to be had about top-ups and the additional charges placed on those hours, but it is undeniable that, for many working families, financial support is welcome overall. However, the change means that what nurseries and childminders can charge is limited, as a larger proportion of their income comes from an amount set by central Government.
That would not be a problem, however—this is where the Minister and I stop agreeing—if the funding levels set by the Government were not too low. I do not want to ruin the surprise for anyone, but I imagine that the Minister will point to a report by Frontier Economics and to a 2016 National Audit Office report that called the Government’s spending review “thorough and wide-ranging”. I have heard that response many times, and read it in the responses to many written questions. However, I want to push the Minister a bit further today. In the same sentence in which the NAO said that the review was “wide-ranging”, it also stated that the review
“used a variety of sources, including evidence from 2,000 providers and other stakeholders.”
Although the Government did receive about 2,000 provider responses to its call for evidence about delivery costs, they subsequently admitted that, because the providers’ responses
“were often not supported by figures”,
“unable to determine from the responses what providers’ unit costs were”.
I would therefore be grateful if the Minister could confirm the number of providers whose evidence was used in the review. If the number is below 2,000, has the NAO been made aware of that?
The early years sector is in a precarious financial position and is one of the lowest-paid sectors in our economy. I am sure every hon. Member in the Chamber will have visited nurseries in their constituencies and seen the passion, talent and commitment of practitioners. I hope we can agree that the low pay is a scandal. Margins in the sector are always tight, and we see a considerable churn of providers. However, I am extremely concerned by some of the recent research. For example, the Pre-school Learning Alliance survey of more than 1,600 early years practitioners in September found that eight in 10 said that it would have a somewhat or a significantly negative effect on them if their funding rate stayed the same next year. Half of providers have increased their fees because of the 30 hours offer. Four in 10—42%—have introduced or increased charges for additional goods and services, and, incredibly, four in 10 say that there is a chance that they will have to close their setting in the next academic year due to the 30 hours offer and/or underfunding.
That survey is not a one-off. The National Day Nurseries Association unearthed a yearly funding shortfall of £2,166 per three and four-year-old child. That has contributed to a 66% rise in nursery closures over the past 12 months—a loss of a staggering 5,000 places. A Department for Education-commissioned report conducted by Frontier Economics, released last month, found that 25% of providers had moved from making a profit to breaking even or making a loss.
Despite the weight of evidence clearly showing that there is an urgent need for a funding increase for early years policies, the Government remain defiant. Later today, “Save Our Nurseries” campaigners will be outside Parliament, and campaigns are springing up in Salford, Birmingham, Tower Hamlets, Burnley and elsewhere, but for too many there is nothing to be saved. Bright Beginnings in Stockport said that
“the reality is that we can’t provide Outstanding nursery care on the funding provided.”
The Ark Nursery in West Sussex is closing because of a decade of underfunding. Windymiller, in my own constituency, where I grew up, closed its doors a few months ago because of funding pressures. It seems that at least once a week, I hear of another outstanding nursery closing its doors for good.
What is to be done? Well, the Budget is coming up this month, and I wonder whether the Minister could enlighten us as to whether he or the Secretary of State have held conversations with the Chancellor about a funding increase for free childcare. In recent days, a petition calling for a review of how business rates are applied to nurseries has reached 10,000 signatures. Perhaps the Minister could let us know his thoughts on that, and whether he supports the decision in Wales to scrap business rates for nurseries.
Maintained nurseries remain concerned that there has been no commitment to extra funding, considering the extra costs that they incur. With budgets requiring sign-off two years in advance, can the Minister tell us when a decision will be made? As the Government occupy a larger role in the funding of nurseries, they must also face up to their responsibility to nurture the sector. If we continue on our current trajectory, we will see a growing recruitment crisis and an exodus of experienced and outstanding providers. Nobody wants that. I look forward to hearing what plans the Minister has to halt this growing problem.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) on a very thoughtful speech and on securing this important debate. We have heard some important contributions from both sides of the House, and I am genuinely grateful for the opportunity to set out both the Government’s position on childcare support and our priority of ensuring that hard-working parents are able to access high-quality provision.
Evidence suggests that high-quality childcare supports children’s development, as many colleagues have said, and prepares young children for school. Affordable and convenient childcare gives parents the ability to balance work and family life, allowing them to enjoy the benefits of a job, safe in the knowledge that their children are in good hands. That is why—I am very proud of this fact—this Government are investing more in childcare than any other Government. By 2019-20, we will be spending around £6 billion a year on childcare support. That includes an extra £1 billion a year to deliver 30 hours of free childcare and pay our higher funding rates.
The Secretary of State and I announced that we have committed a further £30 million of capital funding to build more school-based nursery places in the most deprived areas. That supports our commitment to social mobility, ensuring that we provide more quality places for those that will benefit the most. We are also providing additional funding, worth around £60 million per year, to support maintained nursery schools at least until 2019-20. Time permitting, I will return to maintained nurseries in response to some of the comments from colleagues.
All three and four-year-olds, along with disadvantaged two-year-olds, are able to access 15 hours a week of free early education. We have just celebrated the first year since doubling the childcare entitlement for working parents of three and four-year-olds to 30 hours a week. The childcare service, which is the online application for 30 hours of free childcare, along with the information available through the Childcare Choices website and the childcare calculator, have helped 340,000 children to take advantage of more high-quality childcare and put savings of up to £5,000 back in their parents’ pockets. That is something to be celebrated.
The recent independent evaluation of the 30 hours free childcare found that over a quarter of parents reported that they had increased their working hours, and 15% of parents said they would not be working without the extended hours. One parent interviewed for the evaluation also noted the wider benefits, which sometimes go unnoticed, of being able to work more:
“By doing four days now instead of three...my company looks at my development and progression in a way that they wouldn’t if I was only doing three days”.
That is great news which genuinely demonstrates the real and valuable impact of 30 hours. At a celebration, I met one parent who came up to me and said, “I just want to thank you for this. We are not the poorest family in the country, but we are certainly not rich. The 30 hours have allowed my wife to retrain in accountancy and she has got a job in that sector.” Those are real lives that are being impacted by a policy that is truly delivering on the ground.
Will the Minister give way?
I have so many things to say. The hon. Lady made a thoughtful speech, and I will try to get through as many of the questions asked by her and other colleagues as possible. I hope she will forgive me for not giving way.
In this research, parents also reported wider benefits for their families: a fantastic 86% thought that their child was better prepared for school, and 79% felt that their family’s quality of life had improved. The recently published “Study of Early Education and Development” report evidenced the beneficial impacts of high-quality early education for all children aged two to four on both cognitive and socio-emotional development at the age of four.
The introduction of 30 hours has been a large- scale transformational programme, and change can be challenging for everyone. But we have seen tens of thousands of providers respond magnificently—I want to thank them for that—because of their ongoing commitment to helping families. The evaluation of 30 hours found that three quarters of providers were willing and able to deliver the extended hours, with no negative impacts on their provision or on sufficiency of childcare places. As we have heard from colleagues’ local experiences, the childcare market in England consists of a diverse range of provider types, allowing parents to have choice over their childcare provider. The supply of childcare in England is generally of high quality, with strong indications that existing supply is able to meet parental demand for Government-funded entitlements.
Nearly 80,000 private childcare providers were registered with Ofsted in March this year, and we know that nearly 10,000 school-based providers offer early years childcare. While there are, of course, sad examples of providers closing—as some hon. Members have shared—there is no evidence of widespread closures in the non-domestic childcare market. [Interruption.] Well, let me share the Ofsted data if hon. Members do not believe me. The Ofsted data published in June 2018 showed that the number of childcare places has remained stable since 2012. It is normal for providers to join and leave the Ofsted register, as it is a private market, and it can happen for a variety of reasons.
Most significantly, we have not heard via local authorities, from hon. Members or in the media of eligible parents being unable to find a 30-hours place or a place for any of the free entitlements.
I am so grateful to the Minister for giving way. He says that there is no evidence of parents not being able to access the 30 hours. I have spoken to providers and nursery owners who say that they are not offering 30 hours at all.
The hon. Lady makes an important point. It is up to providers whether they want to offer the 30 hours or not. That is a choice for them to make, but we have seen no evidence of parents being unable to find a place.
As important as the availability of a place is, I am also pleased, and in many ways delighted, that the quality of childcare providers remains high, with more than nine in 10 rated good or outstanding by Ofsted. In January 2018, over 1.2 million children under the age of five were receiving funded early education in settings rated good or outstanding by Ofsted.
We continue to support growth in the childcare sector. We have already invested £100 million in a capital fund to create extra high-quality childcare places in all provider types. We continue to work with councils to support the providers who deliver our free entitlements, through initiatives such as the £7.7 million delivery support fund and through our delivery contractor, Childcare Works.
I was not going to mention the NAO report or Frontier Economics, but I am pleased that the shadow Minister commended the thorough and wide-ranging review that the NAO report mentions—we will say a bit more about that later. Over the next year, Childcare Works will continue to work with local authorities to raise awareness and to support childcare providers to deliver the Government’s childcare entitlements, including the 30-hours offer.
The Government have introduced a range of business rate reforms and measures, which will be worth more than £10 billion by 2023—my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West mentioned the issues to do with business rates—such as raising the rateable value threshold for 100% relief from £6,000 to £12,000, which means that about 655,000 small businesses pay no business rates at all. A package of support worth £435 million over five years is available to those that have had a large hike in business rates. We are also increasing the frequency of property revaluations from every five to every three years following the next revaluation, to ensure that bills more accurately reflect property values.
We have provided powers under the Localism Act 2011 to enable local authorities to offer business rate discounts as they see fit. In 2015, my predecessor and the local government Minister asked officials to write to all councils to encourage them to use those powers to support access to local high-quality childcare provision. So far, I am aware of only two councils that have chosen to do that. Members could talk to their local authorities about joining in to do that.
On the work on costs—I want to address the issue of costs—funding is inevitably and understandably high on our agenda during any discussion about free early education entitlements. My Department continues to pay close attention to the matter. I do not want colleagues to go away with the impression that this Minister thinks funding is not a challenge. We are, however, clear that getting the funding right is critical to the successful delivery of free entitlements.
Will the Minister give way?
I am coming on to something the hon. Lady raised, but I shall give way happily if I have time at the end.
This year, we shall be enhancing our annual survey of childcare and early years providers with more detailed research. Again, I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West on his research, and I am interested in getting deep into the evidence on provider finances and childcare fees for two to four-year-olds. We have also commissioned independent research that involved site visits to a representative sample of early years providers to provide us with robust, up-to-date evidence on the costs of delivering childcare, including operating costs such as business rates. That is part of our ongoing monitoring of 30-hours implementation, and we shall consider the next steps once we have the findings on costs.
I shall now turn to some of the comments made by colleagues. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West mentioned VAT. Under European law, registered childcare providers deliver an exempt service, which means that they do not charge VAT on their services. The exemption is obviously designed to ensure that tax does not fall on individuals using welfare services, such as nursery services. However, goods and services purchased by the providers are subject to VAT, which causes understandable frustrations in the sector, but the rules cannot be changed within the existing legal framework. There may be opportunities to make changes to the VAT system in the future, but our rights and obligations remain unchanged until negotiations on our departure from the European Union are complete.
On the point my hon. Friend and many colleagues made about nurseries going out of business, the Ofsted data in itself is interesting. It shows that the number of childcare places available has remained stable since 2012. I also remind hon. Members that childcare providers do not have to offer the free 30 hours—that is entirely up to them—although, since the roll-out of 30 hours of free childcare, we have seen a sizeable majority of providers increasing the number of free hours available to parents, with no evidence of an impact on their funding.[Official Report, 16 October 2018, Vol. 647, c. 8MC.]
My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) and other Members mentioned the issue of nurseries charging parents. The Government have been clear that the funding is intended to deliver free high-quality, flexible childcare. It is not intended to cover the costs of meals, consumables or additional services, so providers can charge parents for such things. However, parents must not be required to pay any fee as a condition of taking up a place. Our guidelines state that providers should ensure that their charges are clear to enable parents to make an informed choice.
A number of colleagues mentioned financial support for parents in connection with disadvantage. I remind hon. Members that, in addition to the investment that we are making, under universal credit working parents may claim back up to 85% of eligible childcare costs, compared with 70% of costs covered under the outgoing tax credits system.
The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) raised another issue to do with disadvantage, pointing out that two-year-olds cannot access the disability access fund, the early years pupil premium or the SEN inclusion fund. In 2017, we increased the funding rates for all disadvantaged two-year-olds by 7%, and we pay a higher rate for them because we recognise the higher costs associated with two-year-olds. The two-year-old funding is, by its nature, already targeted to the disadvantaged in that age group.
Will the Minister give way?
I shall give way later if I have time. The hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper) mentioned maintained nurseries. The Secretary of State and I have both seen the incredible work that maintained nurseries deliver for their communities, and we have made £60 million a year of supplementary funding available at least until 2020. My message to local authorities is: do not take premature decisions on maintained nurseries. Many colleagues have made representations to me about the quality of maintained nurseries in their constituencies.
The hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), who is no longer present, spoke about nurseries in Salford being forced to close as a result of funding rules. I met the hon. Lady and other colleagues to discuss the matter, but it is for the council to manage its local markets and to ensure appropriate provision for children with special educational need and/or disability. Councils may request exemption from the high pass-through rule, but Salford chose not to do that. My officials continue to discuss the matter with council officers. I am pleased that there are no 30-hour sufficiency issues in Salford.
The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) made a strong speech about the early years workforce and professional development. As she said, staff training and development is associated with quality, and I have announced that we are investing £20 million in professional development and training for practitioners in disadvantaged areas of our country.
The attainment gap was mentioned by the hon. Members for York Central and for Burnley. I would say that we were in agreement. More than a quarter of children finished their reception year still without the early communication and reading skills that they need to thrive. The Government have ambitious plans to halve that number over the next 10 years. The Department is working closely with the sector to deliver on our commitment to reform the early years foundation stage profile. We know that those gaps can emerge much earlier in a child’s life, as the hon. Member for York Central rightly indicated, well before the child enters the reception year. That is why we have recently launched a capital bidding round of £30 million, inviting leading schools to come forward with projects to create new high-quality nursery places for two, three and four-year-olds, which I spoke about earlier.
The hon. Member for York Central also spoke about the need to put the right investment in place for children with SEND. A high-needs funding system provides funding to local authorities for children and young people with complex special educational needs, from age zero to 25. The total high-needs block of funding now stands at a record high of almost £6 billion in England. Every local authority will attract at least a 1% increase in core formula funding per head in 2019-20 compared with 2017-18. The support is there for children with SEND, and our disability access fund is worth £615 per child. Local authorities should also establish an SEN inclusion fund. I think I shall end there, unless colleagues wish to intervene.
The Minister was asked about funding. He has heard from Members across the Chamber that funding does not match need. Will he set out the discussions he has had with the Treasury ahead of the Budget to ensure that we have the right amount of funding for nurseries? Can we expect an announcement on 29 October?
I hope that I conveyed to the hon. Lady, even if I did not convince her, that we are looking at funding very closely—a real deep dive. We have included our own additional survey questions for providers and have taken a representative sample of providers so that we can begin to understand it. My hon. Friends the Members for Rugby and for Bolton West and Opposition Members have offered evidence that we will look at very closely. I assure the hon. Lady that we are doing the work to ensure that there is continued sufficiency and that providers are able to deliver the excellent service that many thousands of them deliver.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West for securing this debate and for his thoughtful contributions.
Will the Minister give way?
I think I have enough time, although my hon. Friend is allowed a few minutes to conclude the debate.
I was particularly heartened by the Minister saying that local authorities should not make premature decisions about closing maintained nurseries. Will he say a little more about that? If he cannot now, will he write to me? My nurseries face imminent closure, so local authorities need that assurance to find alternatives. They are stuck between a rock and a hard place. I really hope that he appreciates just how serious this matter is and that the Government should not keep passing the buck to local authorities. To say that it is “sad” that local authorities have to do that is not good enough for families. I hope he takes that message to the Treasury in his campaigning, in which we will support him.
I repeat, as I have done many times, that local government bodies—I hope many will at least read the transcript of this very good debate—should not make premature decisions on maintained nurseries at this stage. We have a spending review coming. The Secretary of State and I have been around the country looking at the great work that maintained nurseries deliver to the most disadvantaged parents in our country. I am happy to write to the hon. Lady to repeat that message so that she may share it with her local authority.
I am grateful for your patience, Mr Gapes, and to colleagues for their contributions.
From London to York, stopping at Rugby, Salford and Burnley along the way, there has been broad consensus, captured by the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), that there is increasing pressure on the system that is challenging the sustainability of the nursery sector. Some nurseries have closed; in my constituency others feel under threat and are eating into their reserves. I welcome the Minister’s comments; I know he will take away our concerns. I was surprised there was a Brexit angle in this debate—it seems to get everywhere. I hope he will take every opportunity with the Chancellor in the run-up to the Budget.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the sustainability of the nursery sector.
Central Heating Installations: Consumer Protection
I beg to move,
That this House has considered consumer protections for new central heating installations.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I am extremely glad to have discovered just seconds ago that I do not need to sum up at the end of the debate. Being relatively new to this place, I suddenly had kittens at the thought that I might have completely misunderstood parliamentary procedure, but I think I may have got it right.
The very first time that what I regard as a fairly serious issue crossed my radar was shortly after my mother died. I may be called sentimental by many but I decided that it would be too sad for my mother’s old telephone number, which she had all her life, to go to some anonymous BT file. For that reason, three years ago I thought that I would ask for my telephone number to be deleted, so I could take on my mother’s old telephone number. That was when the trouble started. Why do the calls always seem to come at 5 o’clock in the afternoon? That is my impression, at least. They go, “Hello. If you’re a pensioner or on benefits, you will be very interested to know of a central heating scheme for which you could be eligible.” If I had a penny for each of those telephone calls, I would have a few quid by now.
There is nothing inherently wrong at all with the idea of people in need receiving new, efficient central heating systems, paid for by either a Government grant or a levy scheme from a large utility company. The good intention behind the scheme cannot be faulted; after all, it is simply about making those in need warm and able to afford the cost of being warm. However, the trouble comes because the recipient of the new central heating system has not paid for it directly themselves.
The Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013 do not apply. Those regulations contain detailed and pretty stringent requirements of businesses that sell goods and services off-premises—that is, door to door. They require consumers to be given detailed paperwork, and give them the right to a cooling-off period. In fairness, other consumer laws apply, but I must tell Members, as an MP and a citizen, that making them actually bite can prove a real challenge. I do not want to go into the detail of that in the short time I have, but I am pretty sure that every Member will have some experience of that issue.
I return to the issue of people being called and asked whether they would like a new boiler and heating system. Sadly, all too often we hear stories about cowboy installations. In some cases the heating system is defective, and getting it put right can prove nearly impossible for the household involved.
Related to the matters the hon. Gentleman raises, many people across the UK—certainly in Scotland—fell victim to the Home Energy and Lifestyle Management Systems green energy scandal. Customers have been left feeling very let down and are pleading with the UK Government to intervene directly to assist them out of the mess they found themselves in after that company cold-called them, went into liquidation and left them high and dry.
The hon. Lady makes a fair point. As a fellow Scot, I come across that kind of case all too frequently, and it is a nasty example of what I am on about. I will return to the sort of regulatory scheme we might use to try to tackle it. Of course, at that point the person in trouble often turns to their MP for help, so I am pleased to have secured the debate.
I have no doubt that Her Majesty’s Government and the Minister wish to do everything they can to help sort out this issue, so I wonder whether I may make a few suggestions. The first is that there ought to be a truly independent body—it could be administered by local authorities—to assess the need for a particular household to be considered for a new central heating system.
I suggest that would achieve two things. First, it would nip in the bud the rather extraordinary situation, which I am sure my Scottish colleague will recognise, whereby virtually new boilers and heating systems are unnecessarily removed and replaced when there is no need for that to happen—the system may just have needed some mechanical tweaking to make it work better. Sadly, that happens, and it is a waste of money. Secondly, I hope that it would tackle thorny situations where there is a really old heating system—30 or 40 years old, or more—that is highly inefficient but, for reasons I know not, contractors hesitate to replace it. There is something wrong with the system in that respect. There is evidence of that, and I suggest that the Department should look at that aspect of the issue.
My second suggestion is that there should be an accreditation system for businesses that install such equipment. After all, in the building world, we have building control regulations. We all know them—they run in parallel with planning conditions. Those regulations cover all manner of issues about the design and construction of a new build—everything from the steepness of a staircase to the load-bearing potential of roof trusses. The fact is that those rules work well—I think I can say that is true throughout the UK—which is why we do not have houses falling on our heads. People may get a bit irritated when building control people come out and say, “No, you’ve not done it right,” but the regulations are there for the best of reasons. It seems to me that a similar regime could be applied to heating systems purchased through grants and levies. The bottom line is that if a heating system is installed wrongly, it can, in the wrong circumstances, be dangerous and may cause a household fire.
My third and final suggestion is that there should be a cooling-off period after a householder agrees to a system being installed during which they are allowed to change their mind. Indeed, my first suggestion could kick in at that point. It should be the law that, when a householder says to the person on the other end of the telephone, “Yes, I like the sound of a new central heating system,” it must be pointed out to them that that system must be run past the independent body I mentioned before they proceed. The independent body may agree with the householder and say, “Yes, your system could do with upgrading, and this suitably accredited firm might be just the people to do it for you.”
I thank the hon. Gentleman for pointing out how we could improve the situation and prevent the unfortunate experiences of our constituents, but I hope the Minister agrees that we must also try to address some of the huge injustices that my constituents and people much further afield have experienced. We are in a situation where consumers cannot sell their houses. Under the HELMS deals, consumers had solar panels fitted in good faith but found they were not in the feed-in tariff and could not register for it. They were mis-sold credit deals, they pay more for their electricity, and they are tied into payment contracts with energy suppliers for two decades. I wonder what the hon. Gentleman thinks about fixing those injustices before—
Order. I remind the hon. Lady that interventions are meant to be brief.
Indeed, but I just wondered—
Yes, they will be brief—thank you. I call Jamie Stone.
It is a pleasure to take an intervention of that quality. The hon. Lady contributes wisely to the point I am trying to make. She is exactly right that the sale of a house can be affected.
I said that a householder, once they have said, “Yes, we like the idea of a new central heating system,” should have to go to an independent person, who should ask, “Do you or don’t you actually need it?” However, I would not want that rule to be absolute. For instance, social workers and, to an extent, NHS employees may have a good idea of which households might benefit from a Government grant or levy scheme heating system, but the householder may not feel inclined, for whatever reason, to reply to the telephone call or make an independent application. Sometimes there has to be a push from a different angle to ensure that someone gets the best deal.
Let me conclude where I started. A lot of people find the telephone calls I mentioned intrusive, but for some they are quite frightening, which many people do not need. In the case of my late mother’s telephone number, my wife is sick and tired of telling firms that my mother is no longer with us. Curiously, as an anecdote, one of our neighbours—a doctor’s widow, who is no fool whatsoever—finds that when she mentions that she is over 80 the conversation from the other end stops immediately. I have no idea why that is, and I will forgive the Minister if she does not know the reason for that curious quirk of fact.
I repeat—I give the Government credit where it is due—that the good and kindly intention of giving someone an affordable, warm home absolutely should not be underestimated. There are various marks of a civilised society, and I believe that is surely one of them. As I represent one of the coldest parts—nay, the coldest part—of the British Isles at Altnaharra, I do rather know what I am talking about on keeping houses warm.
It is a shame if a number of loopholes lead to unsatisfactory service delivery, and I suggest to the Minister that that is what we see. Of course, there are good contractors who are proud of their standard of their work, and it would be a real shame, would it not, if their reputation were tarnished by the odd rotten apple? I suggest that, sadly, that is rather the case. It is simply not fair on the firms that are trying to do their best, or on the Government, who have the best of intentions in trying to look after old people and make their lives of the highest possible quality.
Whether through a Government grant or a levy scheme, money can be used to the good of people. Getting it right and targeting the money with absolute accuracy is crucial. The electorate are not stupid. They like to see the public pound targeted for maximum effect, and they expect nothing less of good government.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) on securing the debate and on approaching it in a collegial way. He asked important questions on behalf of his belated mother—I extend my condolences to him for his loss—and raised important questions that cross the provision of better forms of central heating as well as, more broadly, telephone mis-selling and consumer rights. I feel qualified to answer some of his points but, in my summation, I will say how I will help to perhaps raise all of our understanding.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Government are committed to making energy bills more affordable, particularly for lower income or more vulnerable households. Of course, that involves working with industry in particular to improve both the targeting of schemes such as the one to which he referred and the process of delivering improvements in a way that benefits consumers. I will take a moment to talk about current protections and then address some of the hon. Gentleman’s excellent suggestions.
Reasonable levels of protection are in place for boiler installations. Indeed, all installations should be reported to a local authority building control, which is responsible for ensuring that such work meets building codes and regulations, not least because of safety questions. All installers of gas boilers must be on the Gas Safe Register—and, of course, they can be struck off. We have the highest energy efficiency standards for gas boiler installations of any European country, and we continue to raise those standards to ensure that consumers get the maximum heating efficiency for the minimum cost and carbon dioxide emissions. As with any other consumer contract, if consumers are dissatisfied with how the work has been delivered, they can appeal to their local citizens advice bureau or trading standards. In Scotland, people can appeal to Home Energy Scotland, which can provide free and impartial energy advice.
On the hon. Gentleman’s question about cooling-off periods, the installation of a boiler, as with any consumer contract, is subject to a cooling-off period, which I believe is 14 days. I will put that in a letter to him, which I will refer to later in my remarks.
As the hon. Gentleman noted, we also have the energy company obligation scheme to help those who are struggling with bills. Historically, that scheme has been split between helping those struggling with bill payments and reducing carbon emissions. I have decided to put as close as possible to 100% of that scheme into solving the challenge of fuel poverty, as part of the Government’s manifesto commitment to reduce the level of fuel poverty by 2035. The scheme is worth about £640 million a year—a large sum of money—and 10% of the households in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency have received measures under it, which might include electric storage heaters and oil boilers. I am sure that, like in my constituency, many of his constituents will live off the gas grid and be reliant on stand-alone heating.
The hon. Gentleman asked an important question about how we can ensure that these things are needed. I live in an off-gas-grid area in the middle of my constituency, and most weeks I go home to a flyer through my door suggesting that I apply for a new oil boiler. I do not feel that I am the target audience for these measures, and I have raised repeatedly with my team how we improve the targeting of this valuable sum of money towards those who need it most.
I hope the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that, in the latest iteration of ECO, we have increased the level of money that a local authority can spend with its discretion to 25%. We have also increased the level of money spent in rural areas such as those we represent to 15%, so there is now more of a local targeting element. On the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that local authorities should know who has been approached, I am the least likely person to want to burden our hard-pressed local officials with more reporting requirements on behalf of central Government, but the local relevance of measures, as he said, is incredibly important.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned standards. Any ECO installation must meet building regulations and British installation standards, and insulation measures must have an appropriate lifetime guarantee—even tighter measures than for general installations
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) rightly raised the question of renewable heat contracts sold to constituents that had indirect payments associated with them. In June, I introduced an assignment of rights so that people trapped in such contracts can assign them to another party, which should enable them to free up their homes for sale. One of my action points from the debate is to write to her with the details of that scheme to share with her constituents.
I thank the Minister for promising to write to me on that, because it is important to many constituents. Given that we know that HELMS exploited constituents by mis-selling a Government-backed deal and that the Government backed the company, will the UK Government undertake even to consider a review of green deal loans proposed by that company, given the high volume of loans that have a payback period exceeding 20 years?
The hon. Lady is not alone in raising the challenges of mis-selling under the green deal, and I have asked my officials to look at that. The green deal—I was on its Bill Committee—was designed to unlock the issue of persuading people to improve the energy efficiency measures of their homes. Currently, all contracts are covered by existing consumer protection, but as a second action point I undertake to go away and review this specific company and write to her with the state of progress on those conversations.
I mentioned the assignment of rights, and both hon. Members have raised the challenge of whether there should not be more trust in the system. We have a question of mis-selling, which I will address in my final remarks, but should households not be able to trust the installer phoning them up to offer what could be a valuable addition to their homes? We conducted a review called “Each Home Counts”, and one of its key recommendations was for an independent, all-encompassing mark of quality for both installation and customer service that consumers can rely on and trust. We will launch a more robust, Government-endorsed quality scheme through TrustMark.
This is a side issue to what I said earlier. Given what the Minister just said, there may be some evidence that wood pellet boilers are being proposed for households—particularly for the elderly—where that may not be the most suitable form of heating. I have heard stories of pensioners going out in the snow to shovel wood pellets.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important question, and because of the changes to the renewable heat incentive, which were a driver for many domestic wood pellet installations, such things will no longer be supported. I agree, however, that we had a shortage of domestic pellets for much of the winter, and in my region we have a shortage of engineers to service those boilers. I do not suggest that people should rip those boilers out, because they play a valuable part and are supported historically under the RHI, but in future I would like homes in rural areas that are off the gas grid to be supported with things such as heat pumps and other technologies that are far less complicated and costly. That is part of the change that we are hoping to make to the RHI scheme and the energy compliance obligation going forward.
Let me return to the question of trust. We plan for all Government schemes such as the ECO to require installers to deliver those TrustMark standards. That will help drive out rogue traders—the hon. Gentleman is right to say that some traders claim falsely to be part of the Government’s scheme, when they are no such thing—and we will strongly support such measures, and encourage consumers to use only reputable traders. Consumers should be certain when they see a brand that they are dealing with a company that has the right technical competencies and is committed to customer service and the customer for the long term. The Consumer Protection Partnership has identified energy efficiency measures as a priority area, and it will be taking forward work to see how consumer detriment can be reduced in that area.
The hon. Gentleman raised other important points, which I do not feel qualified to answer, regarding the whole challenge of consumer mis-selling over the phone—that has now switched to mobile phones, since many of us decided never to answer our landlines to an unidentified number. He raised the question of rights for consumers under existing contract law, and my fellow Ministers have done good work in this area. I am afraid I am not prepared to give the hon. Gentleman the details, but I will write to him as a third action point to set those out, so he can be sure that the question of telephone mis-selling and consumer protection is being addressed.
I hope that that partially answers some of the hon. Gentleman’s excellent suggestions about independent bodies, local involvement, an accreditation system and cooling-off points. I have set out a number of actions for my team to follow up, and I thank the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran for raising such important points on behalf of their constituents.
Question put and agreed to.
Asylum Accommodation Contracts
[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered asylum accommodation contracts.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main.
This issue might not grab the headlines of the mainstream media, it might not be a scandal that starts to trend on Twitter and it is unlikely to be an issue that party leaders are doorstepped on, but it is an issue of extreme importance. It reflects what kind of country we are and want to be, and what kind of people we are and want to be.
A huge number of areas could be addressed to improve the quality of life of asylum seekers, particularly when they are living on asylum support, from the amount of financial support they get to their general health and wellbeing. We can and should do better, and it need not cost the taxpayer any more money. Today’s debate is specifically about asylum accommodation contracts. The Government are just weeks away from signing new contracts that will determine the quality of asylum accommodation support for the next 10 years. This is a tremendous opportunity for mostly small but significant improvements to be made to provision. Perhaps even more importantly, it is an opportunity to ensure that service providers are delivering what they are supposed to and treating asylum seekers with the dignity and respect that we would expect for our own families.
Sadly, under the current contracts that is not generally the case. The total lack of adequate monitoring lets contractors get away with providing the most basic of services, which often fail to meet the old contract criteria. Brief after brief and organisation after organisation has called on the Government to step up the monitoring and to work in partnership with local authorities and third sector organisations to ensure that asylum seekers get the services they are entitled to and that the British taxpayer pays for.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. There is a pattern with these private companies in relation to public services. We have seen it in social security, where companies have actually had their contracts cancelled. More importantly, we should also touch on the Shaw report, which lays out what the Home Secretary thinks and the changes he is going to make. We must do what my hon. Friend suggests and go along with the Shaw report.
Order. The hon. Gentleman knows by now that interventions are supposed to be short.
My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) makes a fair point. That is why we have to take opportunities with the new contracts to improve on what we had in the past.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is just one of dozens of organisations that has reached out to me since I secured this debate. In common with many others, it has recommended that the new contracts must have robust monitoring, with compliance and complaints mechanisms built into the agreements. I wonder whether the Minister agrees with that.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests in relation to funding support I receive for research capabilities in my office on immigration and asylum. In its report, the Select Committee on Home Affairs suggested a much tighter monitoring and inspection regime—something we would have hoped that the Government would have picked up in issuing the new contracts.
Yes, indeed; that is the case. It is something that I will allude to later on in my remarks.
My staff team and I know first-hand how hard it is to break through the barriers of service providers and their subcontractors to try and get them to fulfil their contracts to vulnerable people. One example in Stockton is a family with a seriously disabled member. They were dumped in a second floor flat, making the person a prisoner in their home. It took us weeks and umpteen phone calls to providers, contractors, subcontractors and the Home Office to sort it out. Had the contract been properly monitored, this would never have happened.
The Home Affairs Committee—I said I would mention it—recommended that the Government recognise local authorities and the third sector as key stakeholders, empower devolved Governments to monitor the delivery of the contracts and give local authorities greater flexibility to determine where accommodation is procured.
I appreciate my hon. Friend giving way and congratulate him on securing this debate. As my neighbour in Teesside, will he join me in congratulating the local authority there? They have proved themselves to be excellent partners in delivering the Syrian resettlement programme. Does he agree that flexibility should be extended on the asylum dispersal system, so that local authorities can again prove themselves to be excellent partners in providing these services when the private sector fails?
Yes, I most certainly do. We have some great local authorities throughout the Tees valley. The local authorities really want to work with the Government on this. They have the expertise, they know the people, they know the places and they know the facilities.
I thank my hon. Friend for being generous with his time. Specifically on that point about local authorities, my local authority, Newcastle City Council, recently received a court judgment that prevents it from imposing decent home standards on asylum accommodation. Does he agree that that is absolutely unacceptable?
It is absolutely unacceptable. All the more reason why the Government can now take an opportunity with the new contracts to lay down higher standards for the vulnerable people who we should be looking after.
A briefing from the Local Government Association confirms that the current model of provision for asylum seekers does not provide the necessary funding for councils and is likely to place further pressures on specific areas of the UK. I share the view that partnership structures need to be established as a matter of urgency that allow local authorities and regions to work with the Home Office and contractors to better manage the provision.
My hon. Friend is very generous with his time. He is making a passionate speech. I want to add to the point about local authorities and community members. I have been supporting an Iraqi family who have had a real issue. The community came to me and said that the way that the family were being treated was absolutely unacceptable. In the scrutiny we need to make sure that communities are on board as well.
That is most certainly the case. If it were not for the community organisations in my constituency and throughout the Tees valley and the country, the people who are refugees in our country would be suffering a hell of a lot more than they currently are. The current contract fails in so many ways, and the new one will also fail if it is not designed and monitored properly. We need to listen to these organisations, be they local authorities or third sector groups. Daily, they meet and work with asylum seekers; they know where the failings are and how services could be improved.
A briefing from Asylum Matters says that the Government’s asylum accommodation contracts are worth more than £4 billion. That is £4 billion of public money, but Parliament seems powerless to influence the procurement process in order to ensure that some of the most vulnerable in our society get the support that they deserve as human beings. I hope that that will change today.
I want now to take a few moments to talk about simple matters: duvets, pillows, plates and mattresses. I am appalled at the poor quality of the ones provided to asylum seekers in Stockton. The contract says to provide a duvet and pillows, and the contractors do, but it is possible to get two pillows into one pillowcase, and the duvets are so thin as to provide no warmth at all. The mattresses, too, are poor; they are uncomfortable and often dirty. Then there is the single plastic plate issued to some refugees. The contract says to provide a plate, so the contractors do, but the plates are not fit for purpose and end up stained with knife marks cut into them from the simple task of cutting up food. If it were not for the churches and charities in my area and, I am sure, elsewhere that provide better quality goods, refugees would be freezing in houses where heating is often restricted.
My hon. Friend is right to highlight those cases. All of us are present at the debate, I guess, because we have dealt with very distressing individual cases and too many of them. I had one recently in which for six months and after 30 telephone calls, G4S failed to deal with accommodation where there was damp and cockroach and rat infestation. My hon. Friend mentioned the Home Affairs Committee report. The Government have said that they want to—
Order. I am sorry, but this cannot be a speech, because a lot of hon. Members are down to speak. I therefore ask for short interventions.
I know exactly what my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) was talking about, and I am sure that I will address some of those issues later.
Surely refugees should not have to rely on charity. I therefore ask the Minister to get into a little bit of detail and ensure that the new contracts define good tog ratings, decent pillows and—who knows?—even a plate that can be left clean for use the next day. That would be an easy and quick win that would make a tremendous difference to the lives and dignity of our refugees.
There is a tendency among some in this country and in the wider world to view someone seeking asylum as an “other”. So often it is ignored that asylum seekers are fleeing some of the most horrendous and dangerous situations, which we in this country could not even imagine. I will continue to use my voice to inform and educate and to communicate the message that asylum seekers are welcome here, that they will be treated with dignity and respect, and that they have a right to expect a quality of life that we would want for our own friends and family. I therefore stand with all those organisations that have contacted me and with asylum seekers in this country in making a plea to the Home Secretary to work in partnership with local authorities and the third sector, which can add so much value.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I am sure that he has spoken with Refugee Action about the enormous need that asylum seekers have to learn English. Perhaps through him, I can appeal to my right hon. Friend the Minister to talk in her reply to the debate about what can be done to increase the capacity for teaching asylum seekers English.
That is a very strong point. Local churches including my own, the Portrack Baptist church, are running the English classes for refugees in our community, so the point is well made and I am sure that the Minister will have taken it on board.
Asylum Matters commissioned an analysis of the statement of requirements for the new asylum accommodation and support contracts in order to identify how they differ from the current COMPASS—commercial and operational managers procuring asylum support services—contracts. It found that, on the whole, the new contracts resemble the current one, with most of the alterations being made unlikely to improve significantly the service that is provided. Has the Minister seen that analysis and, if so, what does she think of it?
There is also serious concern that the contract is for 10 years without any review period built in. That is reckless and wrong. The whole approach lets the Government wash their hands of the whole issue for a whole decade. With inadequate monitoring, many profit takers will just maximise their returns by short-changing refugees.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. Does he agree that it is wrong to award 10-year contracts without adequate contract compliance being in place to ensure that people meet the obligations and that basic standards are met, so that the human rights of asylum seekers are not violated?
Exactly. I really look forward to hearing from the Minister how the compliance and monitoring will be improved for the new contracts.
Things may have changed in the last few days, but we believe that the Home Office has not yet received compliant bids in north-east England, Yorkshire and the Humber and Northern Ireland. With no information provided to local authorities about why that situation has happened, the people who could be left to pick up the pieces are being left in the dark. Perhaps the Minister can update the House on the current status of compliant bids and, if we do not have them, tell us about plan B.
In a report put together by Asylum Matters on asylum housing in Tyneside, it was found that there are real concerns about mother-and-child accommodation. Women with two children of different ages are still all put together in one room—a situation that would never normally be accepted in the UK. Babies are particularly vulnerable to sickness in such situations, and the cramped conditions are causing disease to spread at an alarming rate, leading to everyone suffering from a sickness bug but still having to join a queue to use the bathroom down the hall. That is intolerable and even inhumane.
One of the other more emotive issues with the proposed contract has been highlighted by the Home Affairs Committee and so many other people. I am referring to asylum seekers being forced to share a bedroom, perhaps with a person of a different culture, different nationality and different religion. Often, it can be a victim of torture who is forced to share a room. Freedom from Torture has many examples that demonstrate that the Government and their contractors are failing to consider properly the vulnerability of many of these people.
One asylum seeker was placed in a shared room, and even though his therapist wrote to UK Visas and Immigration on three occasions, outlining his depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal ideation and chronic pain, no response was received for weeks on end and the suffering continued.
My hon. Friend is making a really important point. One reason why this situation happens is that the Home Office fails to effectively share the information with the accommodation provider. Does he agree that the contracts should require the Home Office to share the information and that the accommodation providers should act on it accordingly?
Yes, there are always going to be all sorts of issues in relation to confidentiality, but people who are providing direct services need information if they are to provide the correct facilities for people, so that definitely has to be addressed. I see this as the Government overseeing not just bad practice, but dangerous and cruel practice.
Another example involves a young Kurdish man who was moved from Teesside, where he had settled and joined a local church, to Tyneside because an older man sharing his accommodation thought that he could tell him how to live his life simply because he was his elder. The young man was intimidated, but rather than the older man being dealt with, the young man was moved, leaving the troublemaker to start on the next young person to be accommodated there.
One of the organisations in my own patch is Justice First, and I am pleased to see Kath Sainsbury from Justice First sitting in the Public Gallery. It has stressed to me that currently the Government’s position is that a person will not have to share a room if they are determined to be “vulnerable”, yet the Government have refused to define what vulnerable means to them.
In the reply to my parliamentary question about shared accommodation, the Minister said that room sharing will continue to be permitted
“providing it complies with the strict criteria set out in the contracts and with relevant national and local housing regulations, including advice from social services and primary and secondary care bodies on whether room sharing is inappropriate…
In addition all accommodation providers will be required to continue to ensure that they take into account a service user’s individual characteristics and provide them with appropriate accommodation reflective of any changing needs, including adherence to religious practice.”
I ask the Minister today how that will work. Will she spell out what those “strict criteria” are? How does she define vulnerability? How will providers be monitored—the word “monitoring” comes up again—and managed to ensure that they do not just ignore the advice and disregard individual needs? That is quite a list of questions for the Minister and, if she is not prepared sufficiently to reply to them today, I ask that she write to me and publish the reply, because we all need that level of understanding.
We must also work to reduce the use of large-scale houses in multiple occupation. In particular, vulnerable service users such as pregnant women, new mothers, victims of violence or torture, and those with physical and mental health needs should not be in large-scale HMOs. Proper and effective vulnerability screening needs to take place regularly in asylum accommodation to identify individuals with specific support needs, such as those with mental health issues, the survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, survivors of trafficking, pregnant women, young mothers and LGBT individuals. Sadly, the existing contract often fails here, too. The experts on those issues tell me that the new contract is no better. I ask the Minister, what will change in the contract to sort this out? These people need to feel safe and secure in order to be able to rebuild their lives away from the horror they have escaped.
I received a briefing note from Doctors of the World, which recommended that the contracts be amended to ensure that those seeking asylum are provided with the right to register with a GP while housed in initial accommodation. It recommended that the contracts be amended to require accommodation providers to register vulnerable people with a GP within five working days of arrival at initial or dispersed accommodation. Does the Minister agree with those recommendations? Will she at least listen to the doctors and act on that?
The Government’s current position is that accommodation should be safe and habitable, but those are largely relative assessment factors. What is safe for someone who has experienced physical and mental torture? What is habitable to someone who has severe and advanced physical needs? Temporary accommodation should mean exactly that—not six months of never-ending uncertainty and despair. There have been cases in this country under the contracts where there has been a lack of access to suitable nutritious food, a lack of access to drinking water—right here in 21st century Britain—and a lack of a clean and hygienic environment.
There are also examples of bullying from staff at large accommodation facilities. One person, when complaining about the food at the hotel where they had been placed, was told by a manger from the hotel that they would simply, “Tell the Home Office to take you away”—a direct violation of the specific stipulation that asylum seekers should be treated with sensitivity. There must be a complaints management system to provide ways and means for asylum seekers to raise complaints. Instead, they are threatened with removal by the Home Office. That is not a proper complaints management process.
The Home Office has a choice: it can choose to work with local authorities, third-sector organisations and other hon. Members of this House, or Ministers can bury their heads in the sand and try to wipe away their responsibility for another 10 years. But we will not let them forget it and we will keep using our voices to stand up for those who are resident in our country and just want to get by and live their lives.
I have more questions for the Minister to address. Would she be content knowing that her own child was sleeping in a cold, damp house with just a duvet with a 6.5 tog rating? Could she sleep at night if she had an 18-year-old daughter who was sharing a room with a stranger, whose background she did not know? Would she be okay watching cockroaches and rodents crawl across the floor and perhaps on to the bed, while her children were trying to sleep? That is the reality that some people in asylum accommodation are going through.
I have talked extensively—I do not apologise for it at all—about monitoring provision. I wonder whether the Minister has ever visited the supposedly temporary accommodation of asylum seekers. I would be pleased if she has. Maybe next time she could come to Stockton unannounced and see what people have to put up with, rather than going to a place where a provider can set things up for a nice, pleasant ministerial experience.
We have a duty of care over people who are in this country, the conditions they live in and how they are treated. The Minister still has the opportunity to take on board the suggestions from dozens of organisations that really want to help the Government and our refugees. I hope she will take a step back, think and do just that. I look forward to her response.
Order. Given the number of hon. Members who are seeking to catch my eye, I will impose, with immediate effect, a time limit of four minutes.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) on securing this important debate.
There are so many horror stories about asylum accommodation in the UK and so many reasons why we need independent oversight that it would be impossible to cover everything in the time I have, but I hope that what I do share gives an understanding of how outsourcing companies acting like vultures are failing our most vulnerable. I hope these contracts can be delivered better locally by those who have the interests of the residents at heart.
G4S holds a contract in the giant north-east England, Yorkshire and Humber region. It has a home for 14 mothers and 14 babies in my constituency. I was first contacted about the property by the manager of a local children’s centre, who described a multitude of issues and the unwillingness of G4S to act. On visiting the house, the first thing that struck me was the stickiness underfoot and the smell of urine. That was the result of an earlier rat infestation, which was reported to G4S and ignored.
Although the local church stepped in and blocked the rats’ entrance to the bedroom, the carpet remained coated in rat urine. A toddler crawling over the carpet had a skin infection. Her mother told me, “There is nowhere else for her to go.” That was not strictly true. Her baby could have crawled in the hallway, where a missing baby gate left a steep set of stairs exposed—something of which G4S had been informed months before. Or perhaps the child could crawl around the kitchen, where rat poison was left on the floor and mould covered every wall.
There are other issues in the property, including a lack of cleaning and cooking equipment, which G4S should have provided. After writing to G4S in exasperation, I met the landlord of the property, who stepped in and provided what G4S did not. That was in addition to the maintenance requests that G4S had failed to pass on, increasing its profit margin at someone else’s expense.
Vermin is a common theme in these properties. Another woman living with a young child reported a mice infestation, caused by holes in the walls of the property. G4S refused to be held accountable. Instead of dealing with it, it sent the woman on a training course in kitchen hygiene. After six months of complaining, and with multiple open wounds caused by mice biting her face, she went to Leeds City Council, which acted swiftly to solve the problem. That cost should have been covered by the asylum accommodation contract. However, the public sector had to step in, subsidising the private sector. It is not only G4S that is failing. I heard about one young woman who moved into Serco-run accommodation only to find human faeces smeared on her bedroom wall. She cleaned it up, but the cockroaches and rodents were more persistent.
These stories represent the dark side of Conservative ideology—a disturbing faith in privatisation and outsourcing, no matter the human cost, and the growing of private profits at the expense of the public and the vulnerable. These contracts underline the unwillingness and inability of the private sector to provide safe, habitable accommodation to some of the most vulnerable in our society.
My experience of working with those 14 mothers in my constituency shows the neglectful regime of G4S, compared with the generous and loving nature of the city of Leeds and our Labour council. I thank our children’s centre, which worked unpaid to support those mothers, as well as the church, which did the jobs the private sector could not, the landlord, who stepped in, and my staff and local party members, who helped to provide basic items that G4S would not.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, in cases such as this, local authorities ought to be empowered to take over these contracts and oversee them, because this situation clearly is not acceptable?
It is absolutely not acceptable. I was just coming on to those points, which I thank my hon. Friend for raising. As she said, it is not up to individual and local groups to step in. These contracts cost millions of pounds in public funds, but struggling local authorities step in to prevent homelessness when the private firms cannot fulfil their contracts. Our councils are expected to bail out these companies, but they are not granted any oversight of the delivery of their contracts. That is both insulting and impractical. It has created a system lacking in democracy and dignity.
Everyone deserves a safe and secure home in this country. These contracts must be revisited. Councils and charities must have a central role in ensuring that the safety of asylum seekers is the priority in delivery. There must also be independent oversight of these contracts to ensure that people come before profit.
I want to congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) on bringing this debate to the House and on his excellent presentation. I thank him for giving us all an opportunity to make a contribution.
I want to address a couple of points to the Minister, which are specific to Northern Ireland, in relation to how the Home Office looks at some of these issues. I want that to be on the record and, if possible, for the Minister to get back to me and to let me know how we can improve the system to help people in Northern Ireland.
My friend the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) told me that he has similar issues to the ones that I see in Northern Ireland, particularly in Belfast. As we are all aware, and contrary to what we have heard touted, asylum seekers are not permitted to work or to receive mainstream social security benefits. I am concerned that the financial support is £37.50 per person per week, and that accommodation is provided on a no-choice basis, so if an asylum seeker refuses an offer of accommodation, she will be denied access to ongoing support. I am concerned about that, and I want to put it on record. The stories that we have heard about the accommodation, and others that we will hear later, clearly illustrate the issue. Asylum seekers may also be required to move accommodation at short notice, which creates problems by its very nature.
The view of the Law Centre NI is that asylum seekers living in Northern Ireland may face particular difficulties that are simply not reflected in Home Office decision making and guidance. An asylum seeker seeking an accommodation transfer due to racial harassment is generally required to provide documentary evidence in the form of police reports. Unfortunately, we are aware of cases where asylum seekers do not feel able to approach the police to seek their help. That can be because of a lack of trust, which can arise due to negative experiences of policing in the countries they came from—it is not necessarily to do with our police force; it is to do with their experience and what has happened to them.
Lack of trust is also prevalent in particular neighbourhoods in Belfast as a legacy of the conflict. That is a fact, so we have to address that issue as well. It means that, despite encouragement from support organisations, asylum seekers do not seek assistance from the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
In such instances, there may be other forms of evidence. I suggest to the Minister that we look at medical reports to enable the consideration of alternative accommodation. Mental health issues may arise from a fear of a particular neighbour, but the Home Office is not likely to accept such forms of evidence. Gently and honestly, I request that the Minister looks at alternative ways to address the issue—whether it is mental or physical health. Let us do that, and give these things an equal status with the police.
As the Minister will understand, and as I am sure everyone else does too, we must be ever mindful that we have had 30 years of conflict, so things are different in Northern Ireland. Another example of a situation that is particularly acute in Northern Ireland is when children are moved to a new area away from their school. Parents must make a difficult decision, either to transfer their children to a new school, assuming school places are available, which is disruptive to the children’s education, or to make arrangements for their children to continue at their old school. That is not an option, because £37.50 per person means that people cannot put their child on the bus to school. Difficulties also arise when a child walks through a neighbourhood wearing a school uniform associated with the “other” community. These are real things that are happening, which is why I want to bring them to the Minister’s attention in the short time I have.
I ask the Home Office to review and revise its allocation of accommodation policy to better reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland. In particular, Home Office guidance should provide for greater discretion. I also refer to my earlier request regarding an asylum matter involving the extension of the refugee transition period from 28 days to 56 days. I hope the Minister can take all that in.
I have no doubt that, when I sit down after making my remarks, I will receive a threatening letter from the chief executive of Serco, as has happened on the last two occasions that we have debated the issue. I have had to go to Mr Speaker twice for a ruling on that correspondence.
This summer in Glasgow, Serco threatened 330 asylum seekers with immediate eviction. It was during the parliamentary recess and Glasgow City Council’s recess. Was that a coincidence? We all know the answer to that. If it had not happened during recess, an urgent question would have been tabled the very next day after Serco had announced that it was threatening those 300 asylum seekers with immediate eviction.
Why did Serco threaten them with immediate eviction? It claimed they were failed asylum seekers, but refugee and asylum charities established within days that they were not. Many had lodged an appeal, and many had submitted a fresh claim. Why did that multinational profit-making company think it was appropriate to threaten 300 asylum seekers with lock changes and eviction—to put them on to the streets? Obviously, there had been no meaningful discussions between the local authority and the Home Office about sharing information. Why is that?
The average time it takes for someone to make a section 4 application and receive a decision about getting support is 37 days. Frankly, I do not think that that is good enough. The only reason that not one asylum seeker in Glasgow has been evicted is the Govan Law Centre, which raised a case in the Court of Session on behalf of two of my constituents. I thank my fellow Glaswegians and my fellow Glasgow Members of Parliament who attended all the protests. It was quite clear that the anger in Glasgow was such that hundreds would have been outside the accommodation if Serco had gone there and tried to issue a lock change to lock asylum seekers out of their accommodation. It is clear that the people of Glasgow were going to use their human rights to protect the human rights of others.
I thank the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), and I stand shoulder to shoulder with him and many of the comments he made about the lack of engagement and meaningful consultation that is taking place with local authorities. That is clearly the position that has been adopted by Glasgow City Council, which has made public its concerns, as have the local authorities in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. The Local Government Association is supported by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities in that.
I have dealt with constituents—asylum seekers—who were the victims of sexual violence. The accommodation providers thought that it was appropriate to put those women in a tenemental property where the other five occupants were single men. If the providers had had meaningful consultation and dialogue with the local authorities and the Home Office, we could have avoided that situation. That is one of the many errors that we are seeing. My real concern is that, with the new 10-year contracts, those mistakes will be made again.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) on securing the debate. I thank him for the work he has done with my friend, Suzanne Fletcher, from Citizens UK and Tees Valley of Sanctuary. She brought him one of the duvets that were provided, which were so thin that the health of the people who used them was hit—their limbs were affected and their general health deteriorated. That is one of the shocking examples of how poor service, and the failure to comply with basic human standards, are undermining the health of these people. We have already heard some graphic stories.
As I do not have much time, I will focus on asking the Minister about the contracts. We do not know an awful lot about them, although some local authorities have seen the statements of requirement, but they will be signed in the next few weeks—by the end of the year—and they are worth £4 billion over the next 10 years. This debate is timely because it gives the House a chance to scrutinise them and to ask what the Government are doing before they sign the contracts.
First, have local authorities been offered the contracts? It seems that they might be able to do a lot better with £4 billion over the next 10 years. I would not be surprised if they could do it for less, and it would be of higher quality. They could lock it in to their overall local housing strategy. Has there been any discussion with the Local Government Association, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities or other local authority organisations about whether they could provide the services? If not, why not?
Secondly, we have heard a bit about sharing bedrooms from the hon. Member for Stockton North. There is no doubt that some of the most vulnerable people living in our country not only are being given some of the most shocking accommodation, but are being asked to share rooms, which is causing their mental health to deteriorate, as we heard in the graphic example from the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens). We hear about people who left a country because they were afraid of another group of people in that country or a neighbouring country, and who, in this country, are being asked to share a room with people whom they tried to escape from or who are from a group they tried to escape from. The lack of sensitivity and understanding of the mental health needs of such people is extraordinary, so my second question is, can we go beyond just protecting an undefined group of vulnerable people? Can we not get to a point where people simply do not have to share bedrooms? It does not seem too unreasonable a question to ask or too unreasonable a criterion to have in the new contracts.
On monitoring quality, if local authorities had the contracts, there would be a group of people in the local authorities who could help monitor them. What reassurance can the Minister give us today that the contracts will be properly monitored, whether that is to do with duvets, quality of housing, advice or other aspects of the contracts that will be let?
I have not had a chance to read the statement of requirements. Why has that not been shared with Members of Parliament? Can aspects of the contract not be shared with Members of Parliament—perhaps the Home Affairs Committee—beforehand on whatever terms are needed? If Members can see the contracts, can the Minister tell us today whether there really will be minimum standards? A statement of requirements seems too wishy-washy. We need to know that legally enforceable minimum standards will be provided in the contracts so that people who are not getting them might have recourse to the law. That is the only way we can ensure that people will be treated properly. It is absolutely right that the contracts should have legal safeguards.
I will refer specifically to the case of Solihull, which, during my 23 years as an MP, has been a destination for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. I want to raise with the Minister the legacy issues associated with accommodating the most vulnerable of the vulnerable: the children who arrive here on their own.
The difficulty that faces my local authority is the shortfall in costs of accommodating this vulnerable group, which are estimated to be in the order of £1 million a year. That might not sound like a lot to Members with larger local authorities, but mine is relatively small with a disproportionately high number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. After a visit by the regional director of the UK Border Agency, whose staff spent a month embedded with the local authority, it was confirmed as a result of the audit that the costs could not be contained within the standard rates. So I want to raise with the Minister the problem that legacy or old standard grant rates have not been increased since they were introduced in 2011-12, eight years ago, during which time there has been considerable inflation.
To illustrate the shortfall in accommodation costs, the invoice costs of supported accommodation are £22 a day compared with the national grant rate of £28.57 a day, or a legacy grant rate of just £21.43 a day. The invoice costs of external foster accommodation for 16 and 17-year-old unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are £113 a day compared with the national grant rate of £91 a day, so there is a baked-in shortfall year on year. I know that the leader of the council has written to the Minister, but I want to place on the record the unique position of Solihull in doing its very best by the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.
It is a pleasure to follow my neighbour and colleague in the midlands, the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman). I associate myself with what she said. I also want to talk about the financial element of the contracts and how the money works. I do not know whether I am in an exclusive group in this room or perhaps this House, but I am somebody who has applied for a commissioning contract through a national Home Office contract, so I know what it takes to win a contract with the Home Office. I did it for accommodation for victims of human trafficking. When the Home Office, another Government Department or a local authority commissions things through the voluntary sector, I can tell Members that the monitoring, the length of contracts and the amount of money in the contracts is certainly not what has been suggested today when we have talked about the private sector. The idea of a 10-year contract—even a 10-minute contract—in the voluntary sector would be manna from heaven.
However, I have applied and was successful in the commissioning round of national contracts for accommodation and support services for victims of human trafficking. I remember the very detailed stuff I had to learn about special secure thumb turns for security, specialist issues around single-sex accommodation, specialist support that had to be provided, and the training that my staff had to have. It was very detailed, and rightly so. Nobody would criticise that.
The women we supported in the community—we provided support both in the community and within accommodation support services—were largely women who had been trafficked into sexual slavery and forced to have sex with 15 or 20 men a day. “Raped” is what I should say. Because of differences in where they came from and different immigration statuses, even though they were trafficked, some of those women stayed in National Asylum Support Service accommodation. So we would go out and support them in the community, and that took me to Stone Road in the centre of Birmingham.
I had to go and give financial support to a woman who had been through the national referral mechanism and been identified as being trafficked. I remember the level of security that I had to go through: the police checks and the training I had to do to get the contract as a voluntary sector provider. I went to Stone Road and asked to see the woman. She was on the run from a trafficking gang who had trafficked her for sex, and as I walked through the Stone Road accommodation I saw her name written on the wall with a message that said she had to pick up her post. It was just written there. Anyone could have walked in. Now that was not in the contract that I had to sign up to. The standard seemed to be different for G4S at Stone Road from what it was for me, the provider of secure accommodation for victims of human trafficking. The Home Office loves to trumpet how brilliantly it behaves, but it is the same people living in that accommodation.
When I meet the woman, she is pregnant and sleeping on a mattress on the floor. She looks a size 10, but she is nine months pregnant. We have managed to find her decent trafficking victim accommodation, but it is in Sheffield and I have to tell her she cannot go because the standards that my contract stipulate say that we cannot move a woman at that stage in her pregnancy because she needs continuity of care, and she cries and begs me to let her go because she cannot bear to live there any more. I simply want to ask the Minister why, for the same people and the same commissioning body, the standards are so different for me and for G4S.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, and a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), who spoke so powerfully about her direct experience. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) on securing this important debate. I rise to speak because my constituency is home to Barry House, a hostel for people seeking asylum or refugee status in the UK, provided by Clearsprings under the existing contract.
Barry House is categorised as initial accommodation, and it provides a temporary home for more than 100 people. I see many residents of Barry House in my surgeries, and I have visited it with an NHS team who provide outreach services there. When I visited I was told that there were 19 pregnant women and 40 children living there at that time. The information I have gathered from residents of Barry House speaks to a much wider set of problems with the current asylum contract.
Barry House is for short-term use, but the reality is that many people are there for long periods. Barry House is not fit for purpose. Conditions are cramped, there is no variation in or quality to the food, and there are no meaningful activities for residents. The corridors are obstructed by many buggies and there are a high number of wheelchair users, leading to concerns about fire safety and basic standards of accessibility. It is very poorly managed. There are infestations of vermin, and it is dirty. Everything about the quality of accommodation is poor, yet there is no accountability. When complaints are raised there is no response, and it is left to the council’s environmental health team to undertake inspections when things get really bad.
Barry House is not suitable for children, despite there being so many children and pregnant women staying there. It is difficult to place children in local schools as there is no guarantee on how long they will be there. There is no support with language tuition and no support for the many people living at Barry House who are deeply traumatised by the experiences and situations from which they have fled. There is no structured access to health facilities. A dedicated team from Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust provides what support it can, but support for access to maternity services and any other type of specialist service is difficult to secure and very patchy.
Many residents of Barry House have been through levels of trauma and hardship that is hard to comprehend. There are high levels of physical disability and mental ill health. The instability, hardship and sheer monotony of having to spend long periods at Barry House or in accommodation like it is no way to treat people who are fleeing conflict or persecution. The new contract must address the current problems. There must be a service standard for the timescale on which people are forced to stay in initial accommodation such as Barry House—a time after which they must be moved to suitable accommodation. There must be proper accountability for the quality of accommodation. When overcrowding, infestations, damp, dirt or poor quality food are raised, the providers must be held to account, with financial penalties if necessary. Councils must be empowered and funded to step in if the issues are not addressed. There must be funding for emergency short-term psychological support for people suffering trauma. It is simply not acceptable for people with high levels of mental health need as a consequence of their experiences to be left to cope on their own. There must be provision in situ for language teaching, early years activity for children and education, where school places cannot be provided.
There is a relationship between the situation at Barry House and the wider dysfunctionality of the Home Office. People are at Barry House for long periods partly because their applications are not being determined, or because applications are refused and they must appeal. The constituent I saw a few weeks ago who, as a Red Cross employee, was shot four times by Hezbollah in Lebanon, should not be appealing a refusal by the Home Office. The way that the Government treat those who seek asylum in the UK is part of the wider hostile environment. There is no support, comfort or dignity, and the UK can and must do better than this.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I extend my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) for securing the debate. I shall try hard not to repeat what has already been said, so there are lots of crossings out in my notes, but I want to try to pin the Minister down, and I hope she will respond on some specifics.
Someone who was forced to make the heart-rending decision to leave their home, family, friends and community, and who made a long, perilous journey to reach a place of sanctuary and safety, would hope to be welcomed by a country that wanted to pride itself on the welcome it gave to victims of torture and conflict. However, as other Members have said, for too many the welcome is to unhygienic, unsafe and unpleasant accommodation—for which the taxpayer is paying. That serves no one, and I hope that the case has already been made powerfully enough to mean that the Minister will want to take up the cause.
The Government should have known the situation long ago, because the contracts in question are Government contracts, but even if that was not the case, last December’s report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs on asylum accommodation should have made the matter clear. I have personally seen cases, through visiting asylum accommodation in my constituency. I have also talked to survivors of torture and trafficking, and to other people who have been in the asylum system. The report made it clear that the incidents in question are not exceptions proving any sort of rule of an otherwise well functioning asylum system. They are symptomatic of wider problems, but they also show specific deficiencies in the design and delivery of the asylum accommodation contracts.
I agree wholeheartedly with the organisations that have provided helpful briefings, some of which are represented in the Public Gallery today. They include Asylum Matters, Freedom from Torture, Doctors of the World, the Refugee Council and many other third sector organisations, as well as others from my constituency, such as Bristol Refugee Rights, Borderlands, Bristol Hospitality Network and Aid Box Community. Also, Councillor Ruth Pickersgill goes above and beyond any example I have known, as a councillor supporting refugees and asylum seekers. All of them have told me that the situation must change. The new asylum accommodation and support services contracts should be an opportunity to right the wrongs and ensure that taxpayers’ money funds decent accommodation, reflecting us as the compassionate and welcoming country that we want to be. I therefore ask the Minister whether she will commit to publishing at least the statement of requirements and performance management regime for the new contracts.
Those of us who have visited asylum accommodation or discussed it with refugees and asylum seekers, as well as with the Government, know that if the implementation of the contracts is delayed, or if providers fail to live up to the terms, local authorities, third sector organisations and compassionate individuals will pick up the pieces, but that is not a good way of running the system. We need nothing short of a completely new approach to the way we take responsibility for refugees. The Minister has been very welcoming to me, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and others in discussing necessary changes, but I want to remind her of how those changes connect to housing. On a global level, the UN global compact on refugees provides a helpful model on resettlement. The Minister knows that I want an end to indefinite detention, particularly for survivors of torture but also for other vulnerable people such as victims of trafficking; increased places on resettlement schemes; the comprehensive introduction of classes in English for speakers of other languages; the abolition of healthcare charges; and the right for asylum seekers to work after six months. Those things could all help to ease the pressure on accommodation, but they would also all require the accommodation to be good.
I invite the Home Office and the Minister to let politicians, local authorities and others, and the public, see what is behind the curtain, and to open the tendering process to proper scrutiny. The quality of the welcome that we extend speaks volumes about who we are and want to be. We are at a pivotal moment. Britain’s place in the world has rarely been subject to so much scrutiny. Sanctuary with dignity and respect for people fleeing unimaginable horror will send out an important and powerful message about who we are.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) on securing the debate, and my fellow Glasgow Member, the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), on his speech. No sooner did the summer recess hit than we found we were dealing with a major crisis in the city of Glasgow, because Serco announced its intention to undertake mass evictions of asylum seekers. Indeed, in my constituency, which has the highest population of asylum seekers in Scotland and, indeed, the UK, I have had to deal with 106 asylum cases in the past five months alone, largely because of Home Office service level failures. I do not think it is the job of Members of Parliament to do the Home Office’s job for it and to have to deal with that level of failure. Clearly the asylum contract is not working. I do not know whether the new proposal will deal with the issue, because there is no clarity about it.
I want to pay tribute to those working in the area of refugees’ and asylum seekers’ housing, who stepped up when there was failure and crisis in Glasgow, including the Living Rent campaign and the Scottish Refugee Council, as well as numerous registered social landlords across Glasgow who undertook collectively to say that there would be no forced evictions from their properties under the Serco contract. That is to their credit. They stood up for what was morally right in the face of Home Office and Serco intransigence. It is clear that the message needs to be taken on board at the Home Office. Glasgow will not accept that level of indignity and callousness in dealing with the “move on” policy.
As well as being undignified, is not that approach also counterproductive? It forces people into further destitution and the black economy and the rest of it, with people effectively going missing.
The hon. Gentleman makes a pertinent point. The self-contained parallel bureaucratic process does not interface in any meaningful way with other services provided in the dispersal areas, such as integrated assistance provided by the city council and associated NGOs. As for the fundamental definition, what does it mean to have exhausted the asylum application process? There is no clear definition of what that means, which is why in most cases the service providers will act to maximise profit, dealing with things in an overly bureaucratic, distant and dubious manner.
One example is the Umeed family in my constituency, who have been living in so-called temporary accommodation for seven years. They are subject to relentless antisocial behaviour, which has had a serious impact on their mental health and that of their young children. Yet they show dignity in their situation. Time and again we confront people who show immense dignity in the face of an appalling situation. That is the clear issue. When the “move on” policy is applied to people who have achieved refugee status, the fact that it is so rapid creates huge trauma for people trying to go through the transition. My young constituent Giorgi, whose mother died earlier in the year—he is a 10-year-old orphan—was granted leave to remain. He was told within seven days that he had to leave his temporary accommodation, leave his school and seek accommodation elsewhere in Glasgow, which would wrench him out of all that he had left in his life of sustaining comfort and established order. That shows how the policy is failing even young children, and how disgusting the contract is.
I want to understand a few things about what the new contract will do. What checks will be carried out to ensure that accommodation is habitable? Who will define and monitor the minimum quality standards for housing, and what assessment has been made of the habitability of accommodation provided since 2012? It is clear that for most people it is below the liveable standard. What assessment and review has the Department made of the current asylum accommodation approach, and particularly the work carried out by contractors such as Serco? It has been dealing with the “move on” policy in particular. I should like the Minister to assess the impact of the change in approach at local level since 2012 when, for example, the YMCA provided the contract in Glasgow, which is now provided by Serco. What change has that meant to the quality of service provision?
What provisions exist in the new draft asylum contract for future Governments to alter or terminate that contract, and what costs would those provisions incur? What learning from the current contract period has been used to inform the design of the new contract? Did it involve engaging with the views of asylum seekers or speaking to charities on the ground to assess and improve the contract? I do not think any of that has happened, and there has been no discussion and no indication whatsoever that such things have taken place.
I note that the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) is sitting behind the Minister as her understudy, but there has not been a word from the Scottish Conservative party on this issue throughout the summer. I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, but he should stand up and be counted. The 13 Scottish Conservative MPs hold the balance of power in Government, and they should start exercising that power in the interests of the most vulnerable people in Scotland today.
Before I call the Front-Bench speakers, may I remind them that we wish to leave one minute for the mover of the motion? To give the Minister plenty of opportunity to respond, perhaps the Opposition speakers could confine their remarks so that a lot of the questions can be answered.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) for securing this debate. We are at a hugely significant moment for our asylum accommodation system, and this debate could not have been more timely. It is great to see such a significant turnout.
Members have, quite rightly, used this opportunity to highlight the many problems that have beset COMPASS asylum accommodation contracts almost from the beginning. Those problems included poor—sometimes absolutely shocking—standards of accommodation and furnishings, and we heard a particular horror story from the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel). We heard about inappropriate accommodation allocation and the forced sharing of bedrooms, about totally ineffective complaints and inspection regimes, and about disregard for the needs and vulnerabilities of torture survivors—my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) gave an appalling example of that.
We heard about the outrageous conduct of certain providers, including in Glasgow, as several Glasgow MPs have described, and about the linked issues of asylum support levels and transition periods, which were highlighted by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). The right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) spoke about the design of the contracts, and how that makes it impossible for local authorities to compete. Indeed, Glasgow City Council expressed an interest in taking on one of these contracts, but the design made it impossible for that idea to be taken forward.
The sad fact is that none of this is remotely surprising—we have heard the same criticisms over and over again from asylum seekers, from organisations that do such fantastic work on their behalf, and from the Home Affairs Committee, the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee. The fundamental problem behind all this is that local authorities are not being given an appropriate oversight role and powers to determine provision in their areas, and nor are they, or other partner organisations, given the necessary resources to support all the work and services required in dispersal areas. That has to stop.
This debate is slightly different, however, because the Home Office has now pushed the whole system of asylum accommodation to breaking point. Some key local authorities that have been involved in the scheme for decades are now saying enough is enough, and they are seriously looking at withdrawal from it. Responsibility for that lies squarely with the Home Office, which has repeatedly failed to address those concerns, which have been expressed again today, instead playing them down and tinkering around the edges. Our local authorities have been pushed too far.
As hon. Members have said, the expiry of the COMPASS contracts provides the perfect opportunity to deliver fundamental reform and to safeguard and improve asylum accommodation provision. Instead, the Home Office has decided to press on with a new set of contracts that repeat so many of the flaws in the existing model, including a lack of proper accountability, a lack of oversight for local authorities and a lack of proper resources to allow them to fulfil their duties. As the hon. Member for Stockton North said, having contracts for 10 years is reckless and wrong.
The Home Office must think again urgently and listen to the requests and calls made by participating authorities and organisations that work with asylum seekers. Those bodies are calling for equal partner status for local authorities involved in the new contracts, and for full disclosure of terms and conditions. They call for full transparency and accountability from contractors when sharing information requested by local authorities to support the work they do on dispersal. They are calling for local authorities to have full authority over dispersal levels and cluster limits at a council and ward level, and for the Home Office’s power to overrule councils on procurement decisions to be brought to an end. The Home Office should directly and adequately fund local authorities to undertake all the work they do in supporting asylum seekers effectively. That includes those destitute families that the Home Office prevents from accessing public funds.
Other sensible proposals were presented by the hon. Member for Stockton North, so will the Minister listen to those perfectly reasonable asks and engage with dispersal authorities about them during her imminent four nations meeting? If the Government will not listen to those asks and engage with the authorities, the Minister must explain the consequences of their alternative approach. For example, do they accept that they are required to re-engage with existing dispersal authorities to seek their participation in the new contracts, or is it the Government’s position that having endured COMPASS 1, those authorities have no option but to continue on to COMPASS 2? In the latter case, what is the legal basis for that assertion, and what will happen if councils take a different approach?
Will the Minister clarify her Department’s plan B if key local authorities withdraw from the scheme? Would the Department seriously consider attempting to procure private accommodation and place asylum seekers in cities without engaging dispersal-area councils? Does she believe that the legislation gives her those powers? If she is seriously stating that funding for local authorities is already sufficient, will she provide accountability by setting out the funding formula used for that in an easily comprehensible published document?
In conclusion, the ball is very much in the court of the Home Office. There is a chance to reform the system in a positive way, benefiting communities and asylum seekers alike. Equally, however, there is a genuine risk of an escalating crisis if the Home Office gets this wrong. This time, it must listen and act on all the concerns raised today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) on securing this timely debate. I thank all Members for their contributions and for the important and powerful examples they have given from their own areas.
I, too, will start with an example from my constituency. A few months ago I was approached by a journalist who had visited asylum accommodation for mothers and babies in Longsight, Manchester. The conditions he described and evidenced were truly shocking. There were bedbugs on the family’s bed—he sent me photos of the children’s bites—and the mother could not sleep because of the sound of mice. Traps were full of cockroaches, and the extent of the damp was worsening a child’s asthma. Although supposedly for mothers and babies, this was in fact a mixed hostel, with families in the basement, and the upper floors inhabited by men. One mother was forced to stay in such accommodation for months, even after her doctor and health visitor had asked for her to be moved. As I said at the time, nobody, let alone families with children, should be forced to live with cockroaches, bedbugs, damp, leaks and mice.
The even greater tragedy, however, is that that was not an isolated case—we have heard about such things again and again this afternoon. The conditions in much asylum accommodation have long been appalling, and concerns have been raised consistently and by a wide range of parliamentary and external bodies. The Home Affairs Committee, the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have all published highly critical reports of the current COMPASS contracts.
Less than a year ago, I was in this Chamber discussing urgent recommendations made by the Home Affairs Committee, many of which have yet to be resolved. The Home Secretary is currently sitting on a report from the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, which was sent to him on 9 July and should have been published within eight weeks. Third sector organisations and faith and community groups have been ringing alarm bells about the contracts for years. Last month, 14 local authorities took the unprecedented step of writing to the Home Secretary to warn that the asylum accommodation system is on the brink of collapse, and that he must personally step in. It is therefore unacceptable and profoundly undemocratic that the Government are taking an “as is” approach to the new contracts, which are due to be renewed next month.
What Labour is calling for, and what a Labour Government would oversee, is the return of responsibility for asylum accommodation, and the billions that come with it, to local authorities. In the absence of that, the very reasonable key recommendations from local authorities and third sector and community groups should be incorporated.
There are three broad issues that urgently need to be addressed. First, key stakeholders are being kept in the dark on the procurement process. Feedback during the consultation was not taken on board, and problems were treated as one-offs, rather than as symptomatic of wider failings. In a letter to the Home Secretary, the leaders of eight local authorities in Yorkshire said they were disappointed by the decision to seemingly limit public scrutiny until the re-tender process was closed. They described the transition to the current COMPASS contracts in 2012 as a failure, with mass sudden homelessness prevented only by local authorities stepping in.
Local authorities, charities and community groups are an essential part of asylum accommodation delivery. They are already central to integrating asylum seekers, and they are the ones who step in when things go wrong. It is essential that the Government are transparent with both the public and Parliament during this procurement process.
Secondly, local authorities lack oversight over asylum accommodation. Asylum seekers are not evenly distributed across the UK, with 35 local authorities—less than 10% of the total—hosting three quarters of the asylum seekers in dispersal accommodation. Many towns and cities across the north of England have more asylum seekers in a handful of wards than entire regions in the south and east of the UK. This often causes problems in local areas, especially as local authorities have no power to veto where accommodation will be procured.
I outlined earlier the awful condition of some accommodation. Local authorities need the power to inspect properties and safeguard vulnerable people. Despite being the ones who step in when contracts fall short, often to prevent destitution, local authorities do not have the power to regulate the conditions of asylum accommodation. The new contracts must give more powers and resources to local authorities to oversee and inspect accommodation in their areas.
Finally, all these measures must improve the shocking conditions of asylum accommodation. No one should be forced to share a bedroom, and providers should respect local rules on homes in multiple occupation. There must be better provision for vulnerable asylum seekers. To highlight just one example, pregnant women are being moved late in their pregnancy and at very short notice, interrupting their maternity care. That can have a significant impact on the mental health of the women, who have often already faced significant trauma. Maternity Action has called on the Government to require contractors to comply with existing Home Office guidance on the dispersal of pregnant women and new mothers and to collect data to enable the Home Office to monitor compliance with that guidance.
The proposed COMPASS contracts are worth £4 billion and will be binding for the next 10 years, with no review period built in. The previous contracts did not have adequate review provisions, but there was at least a break clause after five years. So far, the Government have not recognised or addressed the wide-ranging criticisms of the current arrangements. Will the Minister commit to taking a more transparent approach to ending the appalling conditions that are, at the moment, common in asylum accommodation?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) on having secured the debate, and I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed. I will do my best in the time allowed to answer all the questions asked of me. Members did incredibly well in their four allocated minutes to convey their key points. It is always a huge frustration when time runs out. I will undoubtedly drive my officials, who are sat behind me, slightly potty, because I am about to divert completely from my script and respond to some of the important points that have been made, for which I apologise.
In no particular order, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) made a point about dispersal engagement. No doubt I will at some point return to my script and find the actual points that I am supposed to make on this issue, which will no doubt detail precisely the engagement that has already taken place. Suffice it to say that I am conscious of the debt we owe those local authorities that are part of the dispersal areas and which work incredibly hard to make available services and facilities to enable those seeking asylum to integrate into local communities.
We have already started a dialogue about how we can increase the number of dispersal areas. We all know that the more that we are able to disperse asylum seekers among different local authorities, the easier it is for those authorities to manage. Indeed, it is better for our communities for there to be a wide range of people living within them and contributing to the better integration of asylum seekers.
I have engaged in discussions over the past few months with some metropolitan mayors, local authorities, the Local Government Association, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and other groups of local authorities that come together—it would be wrong of me to try to remember all of the local authorities that I have engaged with. Serious conversations are ongoing about how we can increase the number of dispersal areas, whether I have the power to mandate that and whether that is the right way forward. In my view, it is better to engage with local authorities and to encourage them to take part in dispersal schemes. My gut instinct is that that has to be the right way.
I have learned from engagement with local authorities—hon. Members might expect to hear this from someone who spent a happy 12 years on a local authority—that they sometimes come up with the best solutions and ideas. I know that the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) will undoubtedly pick me up on this, but it is true that no local authorities have come forward as part of this bidding process. It may well be that the procurement process that we are bound to take part in, as current members of the European Union, is too prohibitive and difficult for local authorities, which would be a matter of profound regret.
City councils have provided asylum accommodation while the United Kingdom has been a member of the European Union, so it is not the European Union that is at fault here but the design of the contract. Glasgow City Council previously provided such accommodation, but it cannot, for example, provide asylum accommodation for the whole of Scotland. It has to be broken down into much smaller units.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Glasgow City Council will of course not seek to provide accommodation for the whole of Scotland, and perhaps there is a very good case for breaking contracts down further, which might increase engagement from local authorities. I have to say that I am never averse to the greater engagement and involvement of local authorities. We all know that, first, local authorities are very good at providing services and, secondly, people in a crisis often turn to the local authority first.
Have the Minister or her officials talked to different local authorities to see what sort of contract they would be able to bid for? It is clearly not an argument that local authorities cannot bid for contracts because of the European process; they do that every day. It is a question of whether the Home Office is willing to design the contracts in a way that would be achievable for local authorities.
Officials have of course engaged with local authorities and will continue to do so, and they have shared with both local authorities and stakeholders the statement of requirements, which has been the subject of much discussion among some Members this afternoon. I am perfectly happy to share that statement of requirements, as some hon. Members requested. I see absolutely no obstacle to doing that, given that we have already shared it with a number of stakeholders and local authorities.
The hon. Members for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) and for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) raised the Serco contract, and the hon. Member for Glasgow South West commented on the timing of Serco’s announcement. From Serco’s perspective it was probably very unfortunate timing, as I was pretty much already on my way to Glasgow. However, that gave me the opportunity to have some very constructive engagement with Glasgow City Council, and later with the Scottish Government.
I am perhaps sometimes too much of an optimist and look for the positives in even very negative situations, and one thing that situation taught us is the benefit of making sure that there are information-sharing mechanisms between the Home Office, local government and the accommodation providers. That is absolutely key. We must all instinctively understand that by sharing information, we will get a better outcome. To be frank, one can face the obstacle of not being allowed to share sensitive data, but we are all working towards the right outcome for individuals so we actually have to find mechanisms—not just for the Glasgow contract, but across all these contracts—to find a better way to share information.
Does the Minister share my concern that Serco was bandying around unfortunate terms such as “failed asylum seekers”? Will the Minister tell us from where Serco received the information that there were 300 so-called failed asylum seekers?
It would be unfair of me today to comment on numbers without having them immediately to hand, but what is clear through that process, as I think the hon. Member for Glasgow North East pointed out, is that some of those individuals had submitted additional claims for asylum and some were still at an appeals process. That absolutely indicates that the information sharing has to be of the highest quality.
We all know, although Members may find it uncomfortable, that through the asylum process there are many opportunities to submit appeals and to make fresh or additional claims. That sometimes puts accommodation providers, and indeed the Home Office, in the difficult position of having to consider claims and have them properly go through the courts. When people’s claims for asylum are found by the courts not to be appropriate, of course we have to take action. In situations where there are people in accommodation that should actually be used by new asylum claimants or those who are at an earlier stage in the process, we are left in a very difficult situation. As the Home Office—I have been completely candid about this—we have to improve our ability to ensure that those with no valid claim for asylum are assisted to return to their country of origin; unfortunately, we have to do that.
I can see that I am about to be intervened on; I will give way to the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), who has not yet intervened on me.
I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way. Will she agree that that assertion would perhaps have more support from across the House if it was not for the very large number of rejected asylum claims that are overturned on appeal? Indeed, from some countries it is the majority that are overturned. Her claim does not really add up if we are being asked to agree that people should be removed when they have further rights to appeal to remain and when those appeals often succeed.
I did not say that people who were not at the end of the process should be returned to their country of origin, and I am very conscious—perhaps more conscious than many—of how long the process takes, how many opportunities there are for appeal and, indeed, how often further information is brought forward. There is much more work to do to speed up the process and ensure that Home Office processes are accurate at the earliest possible stage. However, a lot of that is about finding mechanisms for people who are going through the process to bring forward as much information as possible as soon as possible. When information is not forthcoming at the outset and not all the information is available, it is very difficult to make a determination.
I will continue to give way; I give way to the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes).
I thank the Minister for giving way. Since she is talking about problems with the process, I will put on the record the very serious concerns raised by Freedom from Torture and others about the lack of medical expertise in the asylum assessment process, which, in large part, is a cause of the inaccurate decisions that her Department is making.
I thank the hon. Lady for putting that on the record. I have a comment on the medical processes somewhere in my notes; I may not find it in the course of the next few minutes, but I will try to. Of course we can—at all times and in all ways—improve on our systems, and I am absolutely determined that we will find better ways to ensure that information can be brought forward earlier.
I will give way to the hon. Member for Glasgow North East, because he has been very patient.
I thank the Minister for giving way on that point. When Rupert Soames phoned me in July to describe his concerns about the contract, as he saw them, he said it was actually the charity of Serco’s shareholders that was keeping people in accommodation for far longer than they were being funded by the Home Office. Somewhere in that balance, there is clearly a point where the Home Office is prematurely cutting funding for provision of housing. Surely there should be a longer cooling-off period to enable legal counsel to be consulted, to see if the intent is to appeal and so on and so forth before people are turfed out of their housing by Serco.
I refer the hon. Gentleman back to my comments about information sharing and ensuring that information is accurate, because that is the only way in which we will make the best decisions.
I am sorry; I will not give way again for a little while, because there were a couple of other points in the debate that I found particularly poignant and that I wanted to pick up on.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) painted a very clear picture of how the situation in Northern Ireland could be different. His description of children walking through certain areas in a school uniform that was different from that of other children particularly struck a chord with me. He will know that Northern Ireland is one of the areas where the contract has not received the same level of interest that it has in other areas, so clearly we have more work to do there. I will certainly bear his points in mind.
The hon. Gentleman also spoke about the opportunity for oversight of complaints and how to monitor complaint resolution—that is a key issue that several other hon. Members referred to. Of course the preference must always be for a service provider—the body delivering on the ground—to deal with complaints from service users promptly and adequately in the first instance. However, I recognise that that does not always happen, and of course escalation routes exist and will continue to exist—ultimately to UK Visas and Immigration—and I am very keen that complaints should be raised and addressed with the utmost efficiency and speed. I have heard some horror stories from hon. Members this afternoon, which we would certainly not wish anyone, let alone one’s own child, to experience. That was particularly true of the comments about vermin and cockroaches. Of course those things are not acceptable and we do not wish them to happen now, let alone under the new contracts.
I will not give way to the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), because he made a point I wish to address about the length of contracts and whether they are set in stone for 10 years. There is a break at seven years, at which point we would be able to address the—[Interruption.] Well, the current contract is seven years as well, and that will give us the opportunity to review matters, should we need to do so.
I will give way to the hon. Member for Stockton North, who secured the debate.
In the light of what the Minister has just said, seven years is still a hell of a long time. Will she take that point back and think again about it, and see whether we could perhaps have breaks at three years or five years?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point; I will certainly think about it.
On break clauses, there are indeed mechanisms within the contracts being proposed to ensure that any changes that the Home Office wishes to make in the future can be enacted appropriately, so these are not contracts that are set in stone for a 10-year period. As I said, there is a break clause at seven years, but we will also have the opportunity to make changes that we may need to make.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I have two very simple questions for her. First, can she tell us what significant improvements there will be in the new contracts? Secondly, can she say whether there will be any penalties for any breach of contract or poor performance?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am conscious that I only have a couple of minutes left and I was hoping to move on to the bits of my prepared speech that actually include those points.
Alongside the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, we continue to explore how central and local government can work better together to enable us to meet our international commitments and to let service providers, local partners and civil society play their part. We are currently working with a number of local authorities to develop a place-based approach to asylum and resettlement, and considering how closer working and greater collaboration could work in practice.
As I have said, I have met many local authorities and the devolved Governments, but we are determined to improve standards and will stipulate more standardisation in the initial accommodation estate. That will ensure that there are dedicated areas for women and families, and more adapted rooms for those with specific needs, including pregnant women.
The new contracts will improve service-user orientation, to help service users to live in their communities and access local services. There will be better data-sharing with relevant agencies, to better join people to those services. The new contracts will also focus on safeguarding and improvements to support—
Will the Minister give way?
I am sorry; I have got one minute left.
The new contracts will also focus on safeguarding and improvements to support vulnerable service users, which will build on the enhancements to safeguarding that have been put in place across the immigration system over recent years. Standardised health checks will be introduced to identify those with specific physical and mental health needs, and we will provide more uniform training for providers’ staff on safeguarding.
I also want the new contracts to improve advice services. We will introduce a national contract to provide advice to and assist destitute asylum seekers in making support applications.
The new contracts will further improve engagement with other agencies, and the accommodation provider will be required, during the normal course of its operations, to liaise and co-operate with other organisations, including local authorities, the voluntary sector, the NHS and the police, which will ensure that the interests of the service users are best served.
I am clear that I want the new contracts to build on the groundwork for a constructive relationship between central Government, local government, the private sector and civil society, for the benefit of communities and those seeking asylum.
Thank you, Mrs Main, for calling me again.
I am grateful to everybody who has taken part in today’s debate. We have had a list of horror stories, broken systems, broken lives, poor-quality provision, contractors failing in spectacular style and different standards for third sector organisations from those for private-sector organisations, and not one soul mentioned any success stories in this process.
I appreciate the Minister’s response to the debate. There were many things that she did not manage to cover in her remarks and I hope that I can look forward to receiving a letter from her that addresses some of the things that I outlined in my speech. Nevertheless, I make the appeal again to be transparent, to get into the detail and to work with others, especially local authorities. I also go back to that word “monitor”. Please, please, please put a system in place to monitor these contracts properly to ensure that asylum seekers get the facilities that they need, so that they can at least live a peaceful life in that respect.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered asylum accommodation contracts.
Universal Credit Split Payments
[Geraint Davies in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered universal credit split payments.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Universal credit has been slammed by charities, experts, politicians from both sides of the House, and—most importantly—people living and suffering in the system. Just today, we heard from former Prime Minister Gordon Brown about the failures of universal credit and how it pushes more people into poverty, but today I want to focus on automatic split payments.
I firmly believe that it is a matter of human rights for all women—for all people—to be entitled to financial independence. The Equality and Human Rights Commission agrees, but the Government do not seem to. This year, I met the Employment Minister, the hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), to talk about universal credit. In that meeting, I asked him about automatic split payments, but I was told they were not going to happen. I was disappointed by that response, which is why I am glad to have secured today’s debate to raise the issue and add the voices of some of the people I have been speaking to. I hope that I will get some answers from the Minister and that he will take away some of the issues that I raise.
First, as I said, I believe that this is a human rights issue. When couples work, they do not get their wages paid into a single account, so why should welfare payments be any different? It seems like an oddly backward system. Under the current system, universal credit payments for a household are paid into a single bank account or joint account. Recipients of the joint award are required to nominate who receives that payment at the outset of the claim. For much of this debate, I will refer to women being able to have financial independence, but of course the policy will affect men too. The policy is not that the man automatically receives the payment; however, it will mainly affect women, which is why most of my comments will refer to women.
A report by the Scottish charity Engender pointed out that the policy
“does not account for the fact that financial decision-making takes place within the context of gendered power dynamics. The majority of jointly awarded ‘out of work’ benefits are claimed by men and assumptions that couples own, access and control joint banks accounts on an equal basis are unfounded.”
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Universal credit was rolled out in my constituency in September, so it is fresh to us. My staff went on a reminder course to learn how to do it, and one of the key issues that has come up is the very issue that the hon. Lady has brought forward. We are new to universal credit, but split payments—especially in a home where one partner might have a mental health issue—are simply a must. Does the hon. Lady agree that rather than having to apply for a legal power of attorney, we need the Minister’s Department to apply discretion in allowing split payments to be part of the system? They have to be part of the system; if not, it is unfair.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. That issue came up at a roundtable to discuss universal credit that I held in my constituency earlier this year. It brought together charities, local groups and service users to talk about their experience. In my constituency, full service universal credit has been rolled out since March 2017. At the roundtable, the need for automatic split payments was highlighted as a clear and prominent issue that has been impacting the lives of survivors of domestic abuse. Attendees of the roundtable, as well as respected organisations and groups, have stated that a single household payment has been shown to be highly problematic for a number of reasons, the first of which is that it perpetuates and contributes to inequality. Engender stated:
“Payment…to one partner in a couple is likely to result in less equal relationships, with one individual less able to access income.”
Again, this applies especially to women, as women are more likely to be economically dependent, to hold caring roles and to be subject to financial and other abuse.
That brings me to the heart of this issue, which is that single household payments facilitate economic abuse, where a person is deprived of financial independence. I pay tribute to the work of the Work and Pensions Committee on this issue. Evidence submitted by Scottish Women’s Aid and Engender to that Committee’s investigation into universal credit and domestic abuse stated:
“The single household payment is a gift to perpetrators of domestic abuse as it rapidly facilitates and legitimises what may previously have taken months or years of coercive control to achieve.”
That is disgraceful. It is shocking and deeply concerning that Government policy can be making it easier for abusers. What makes it worse is that single payments can then act as a barrier to survivors leaving abusive relationships.
My hon. Friend is making such a powerful speech. For those who are watching this debate, and for Members with concerns on both sides of the House, it is baffling that the Government are continuing with a policy that will encourage further economic abuse and encourage victims of domestic abuse to stay with their partner. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing such an important debate.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: being financially dependent can make it very difficult to leave a relationship, even just on the basic levels of affording transport and accommodation. A local case—one of the first cases I dealt with when I was elected—was that of a woman who was trying to leave an abusive partner. She had three children, one of them very young, and she came to me and said, “I don’t know what to do. My welfare payments are paid into my partner’s account, and I can’t leave. I’m now faced with a choice between staying, and subjecting not just myself but my children to this abuse, or leaving, making myself and my children homeless and unable to afford accommodation.” It cannot be Government policy to force people into that terrible position.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech. As someone who sits on the Work and Pensions Committee, know that the—evidence we received was shocking. Is the hon. Lady as disappointed as I am that the Select Committee’s eighth recommendation—that
“where claimants have dependent children, the entire UC payment should be made to the main carer by default”—
appears to be getting rejected in the Government’s response?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I absolutely agree with him, and I will give some of my own thoughts on the Government’s response to that as well.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. I am sure the Minister will respond by saying that people can apply to have split payments, but Women’s Aid has said that this is not enough—that the Government are not, for example, monitoring how many people are applying and how many people are being refused. The record of what is being provided for in terms of alternative payments gives a very skewed and false picture, and we must have a default split payment soon.
I absolutely agree.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will make some progress, if that is okay.
As I said earlier, I met the Employment Minister and talked about this issue, and he assured me that one can request a split payment. He even boasted that the system is designed so that a person will not be informed that their partner has made a request for a split payment, but I imagine most people will notice if an amount of money is missing from their bank account when the payment comes in. That just shows that the policy has not been designed with any thought to those in abusive relationships, and that the Government do not understand what life may be like for someone in such a relationship.
The Women’s Aid survey showed that 85% of abuse survivors would not dare apply. That is why having it as the default is so important. Long before women reach the point of leaving a home, they have no money in their purse to go for coffee with friends or to go out with family, and they become isolated. Nobody is around them to offer a bed or advice. That is the start of it.
I thank the hon. Lady for her comment. Absolutely—there is a whole host of reasons a woman might not be able to request it, and the Government seem unable to grasp that.
Under the system, survivors of domestic abuse are required to request split payments—a process that might put them at greater risk of further abuse, which is clearly preventing requests. Women, often accompanied to appointments by abusive partners, will fear repercussions when the abuser notices a change in the payment amount. The Department has said to the Select Committee that it recognises the risk that requesting split payments poses to those experiencing domestic abuse, but it has made no significant moves to rectify the problem.
I thank my hon. Friend for the powerful speech she is making. Does she agree that the Government are being derelict in their duty to keep women safe if they put any hurdles in the way that could put women at greater risk? This is one such hurdle, and the Government must get rid of it.
I absolutely agree, and I hope that the Government listen to that important point.
Although clearly detached from reality, it was somewhat unsurprising that, when I spoke to him, the Employment Minister believed that there was no problem with having to request split payments. That is because the Department has not been collecting the data needed to identify the issues surrounding domestic abuse and universal credit. It has only recently finally started publishing statistics on the number of households that request split payments, although it still does not require any information on why people request them.
When I asked for statistics on the number of people experiencing domestic abuse who are on universal credit, I was informed that that information is not available. Without the relevant data, the Department cannot ensure that people are effectively supported. The Work and Pensions Committee report states:
“the lack of data on split payment requests and abuse disclosure means there is no systematic way of understanding, identifying or disproving any relationship between financial abuse and UC.”
How can we help people when we do not have the data to work on?
The Government response to that report, which I believe is being published today, states support for the recommendation to prioritise gathering and publishing data on abuse and split payments, including the reasons for requests for split payments, so they seem to agree with it. Yet the Government also state later in the document that
“providing data on the reasons for split payments is not something the Department is currently considering as we need to consider sensitivities and protecting our claimants as a priority”.
That just sounds like an excuse for not collecting the data, as there are many ways of collecting it in an appropriate and sensitive manner that ensure that the claimant’s data is protected.
Of course, as a Scottish MP, I have to talk about the situation in Scotland. The case for automatic split payments is so compelling that earlier this year we won the argument on the need for split payments in Scotland. Thanks to the hard work of Scottish Labour, all parties, including the Scottish Conservatives, supported my colleague Mark Griffin’s amendment to the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018, securing a change in the law. As such, the Scottish Government have committed to use their powers to split payments automatically. Given that the Scottish Tories supported automatic split payments in Holyrood, Conservative party policy appears to be confused. The Scottish Tories have seemingly failed to influence their party on this harmful policy. That is disappointing and weak, and it shows how little power they hold.
Looking at the practicalities, now that the Scottish Government have committed to automatic splitting of universal credit payments, the Department, which retains the practical responsibility to implement split payments through its automised digital payment system, must work with the Scottish Government, as well as relevant civil society organisations, to ensure that the decision is appropriately implemented. It needs to do that quickly and positively, scoping out and agreeing different forms of trial and of splitting the payment.
My hon. Friend is making an incredibly powerful speech on the compelling case for split payments. As she says, the system being rolled out in Scotland defaults to split payments. If that infrastructure is available, surely it would make absolute economic and financial sense to scale it up to a UK level.
I thank my hon. Friend for his point.
I welcome the Government’s support for the Select Committee’s recommendation that they view the introduction of split payments in Scotland as an opportunity to learn about carrying out such a system. However, there is very little detail in the Government’s response about how they plan to do so. There is no mention of carrying out the evaluation recommended by the Select Committee report. The Government’s response states that they will implement the policy on the Scottish Government’s behalf
“when it is feasible to do so”,
but sets out no detail of the current plans and timelines.
I would like the Minster to answer the following questions. What is the Department’s timetable? Have the Scottish Government proposed a possible split formula? Have they told the Department that they are preparing prospective regulations, and has it been consulted on them?
For the sake of women across the UK, the Government need to follow Scotland’s example and agree to adopt automatic split payments UK-wide. The recommendation is to view the introduction of split payments in Scotland as an opportunity to further consider whether, on the basis of evidence, there is a case for splitting payments by default in the rest of the UK. I suspect that, if such an evaluation is undertaken, the evidence in support of split payments will be, as it was in Scotland, overwhelming. However, it could be a lengthy process and, for many women, it would be just too long.
In the meantime, given figures released last month that showed that just 15 out of 880,000 households benefit from split payments—I was shocked when I heard that figure—what is the Department doing to better promote the option of split payments and to reduce the associated risks of opting for it? The Government have taken an important step recently, acknowledging economic abuse as significant by proposing to include it in a statutory definition of domestic abuse for the first time, but how does that fit with the wider Department’s policy on split payments, which supports economic and wider domestic abuse? Is the policy in contravention of the Government’s own position on domestic abuse? Can the Minister also please tell me, in the light of the draft Domestic Abuse Bill, what discussions have been had on split payments?
Automatic split payments will not prevent abuse altogether in households claiming universal credit. Some abusers will find a way to control their partners regardless, but automatic split payments are a significant step to ensuring that the state is not implementing a policy that plays into the hands of abusers, strengthening their hand and giving them more power than they already have over victims and survivors of domestic abuse.
Currently, universal credit is paid as a single household payment. It poses a risk to women’s financial independence, autonomy and security, and generally stands in the way of a person’s right to financial independence. The Department and the Government have a duty to ensure that they are providing the right support to survivors of abuse, and currently they are failing in that duty. The availability of the option of split payments is clearly not sufficient. To avoid supporting domestic abuse, split payments need to be a default—an automatic way to prevent abuse.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Midlothian (Danielle Rowley), who has been a long-standing campaigner in this area through parliamentary questions; meeting the Minister for Employment, who has overall responsibility for universal credit; and visits to her local Jobcentre Plus, where she has also met supporting organisations. I know it is an area in which she has a long-standing track record of campaigning.
I share that passion. For many years I have supported my local women’s refuge. I have also worked with Women’s Aid, hosting parliamentary events prior to my ministerial appointment. I was very briefly on the Work and Pensions Committee, so I was present when they were considering the report, although I did not contribute to it because I was not there during the hearings. I pay tribute to my former colleagues on the Committee who were really engaged with this incredibly important topic.
Will the Minister give way?
I will take a few interventions, but I am conscious that I do not have too much time.
The Minister heard the powerful evidence taken by the Select Committee, of which I am a member. I am interested in how, having heard that evidence on the impact on women and, in particular, on children, he can justify the Government response to the recommendation that if a payment cannot be split it should go to the main carer by default.
I was not present when that evidence was given, just when the Committee was considering it, but I will cover many of those points as I proceed.
With respect to domestic abuse, we are covering physical, sexual, psychological, emotional and financial abuse, and controlling and coercive behaviour. We are particularly looking at economic abuse. We all agree that the solution to domestic violence is complex and should ultimately be delivered through the judicial system, but the Department has an incredibly important role, not just through UC but through the wider work of the Government. The Government are fully committed to taking the issue very seriously, and I expect that to have full cross-party support. The Department will continue to feed into progress towards the domestic violence and abuse Bill. I represent the Department on the inter-ministerial group on violence against women and girls, and we regularly work with key stakeholders such as Women’s Aid, Refuge and the ManKind Initiative—I shall give more details on that work as I proceed.
I was particularly touched by the case that the hon. Member for Midlothian raised. Today I met representatives of Women’s Aid and Refuge to talk specifically about the journey in the jobcentre process. It is now mandatory for all work coaches to have training to recognise and identify victims of domestic abuse and those at risk, and to offer support, which can include signposting to national partnership organisations such as Refuge and Women’s Aid, but also to local organisations—every town is different. That approach relies on people being willing to be referred, but they are offered that menu of signposting options.
In her case study, the hon. Lady mentioned financial barriers to people leaving their household. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) said in an intervention that it would be totally unacceptable for the Government to put up a barrier. That is a really key point, so we ensure that people who wish to leave their household can be put immediately on the universal credit single payment in their own right. If they are already on a legacy housing benefit, they will get two weeks of additional housing benefit money up front, to give them immediate cash. While they are there, they will also have 100% access to the advance payment on day one, as well as the signposting.
We do not encourage people to stay in such a household, so we put a big emphasis on partnership working and on talking to those with expertise in the area. However, those who do wish to stay, for whatever reason, can request split payments. The hon. Member for Midlothian cited a figure of 15 households, but the figure is actually 20. At the moment, the majority of people going through UC are single claimants, so it is not an exact science, but we will continue to look at the statistics. I take the point that the data is limited; it tells us whether people are now successfully receiving split payments, but I would like more—that is a given. As a Minister, I will push for more data because we will need it to target support. UC design is not a simple process.
As the Minister knows, I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill on the issue: the Universal Credit (Application, Advice and Assistance) Bill. In my work as a breast cancer surgeon I have seen the effects of current policy in action. Does he recognise that collecting data on women who have applied would just lead to more complacency? We know from the survey that 85% of women would not dare to apply.
The data is not the solution, just a part of it. I am just being supportive on one of the recommendations. I absolutely accept the hon. Lady’s point.
On financial support, if someone has financial housing commitments such as rent or a mortgage for their existing household, we can, in effect, make double payments of housing benefit for up to 26 weeks automatically, or up to 52 weeks at discretion. Again, we are doing everything we can to remove the financial barrier to people moving away from their household.
I commend the hon. Member for Midlothian (Danielle Rowley) for securing the debate. I do not believe that my hon. Friend the Minister has fundamentally addressed the issues raised about the particular vulnerabilities of people who face abuse and of people with mental illness, who may well be at risk of exploitation. I ask him to take away from the debate the thought that rather than carving out exemptions for special cases, it would be much simpler to say, “There is a potential problem for vulnerable people, so let’s have split payments.”
If my hon. Friend had been a little more patient and had not intervened, my very next point would have covered that.
It is important that when we design policy, we do not presume that everything is utopian. I have made a commitment today to Women’s Aid and Refuge—I stress that our meetings were in the diary before today’s debate was arranged—that over the next couple of weeks they will work with me and our operational frontline teams to check the typical experience. My hon. Friend makes a valid point about those with mental health issues; not everybody immediately says, “I am a victim or potential victim of domestic abuse,” so it is about identifying the signs and looking at what additional support can be given for those who, whether because of mental health or as a consequence of the abuse that they face, do not have the confidence to navigate the incredibly difficult and challenging journey to break free. We will therefore do a deep dive to look at what the typical journey is like for people, and at what more we can do through training and through providing local partnerships. Every single district will have a highly trained named team programme manager solely responsible for making those partnership arrangements locally and nationally.
Will the Minister give way?
This will have to be the last intervention, because I have a lot to say and not long to say it, and I do not want to be criticised for missing things.
I just wonder what the jobcentre will do when it discovers, as we have all done, that those local partnerships lead to a dead end because the services are no longer there.
We will be looking at that. I understand the hon. Lady’s point. I want to engage with the experts—the ManKind Initiative, Women’s Aid and Refuge—to look at it and identify the problems. I am not in charge of UC; I am in charge of trying to make it better for those with complex needs, including victims of domestic abuse. That is a real priority for me.
I welcome the work of the Work and Pensions Committee and the fact that its report states:
“Since 2010, the Government has begun to make great strides in tackling domestic abuse… It has also demonstrated a clear commitment to being more supportive of survivors of domestic abuse.”
Although we are not everything, we play an important role, and I take that seriously.
I am conscious of time, so let me address the specific point about split payments. I welcome the fact that Scotland wishes to try them. As it stands, anybody who is a victim of domestic abuse can be given a split payment. I accept the point that there are then challenges—not unreasonably, the hon. Member for Midlothian said that the current recipient would notice that it was potentially half of the income. We need to look at Scotland because we have to learn from the test and look at the unintended consequences.
Those groups that campaigned for a split payment do not agree on how to split it. It is not the case that everybody would simply do it 50:50. If the state arbitrarily says that somebody should have 70% and somebody else should have 30%, that could have unintended consequences. That may not mean that it is not the right way to do it, but it is why we have committed to give support to the Scottish Parliament to do its pilot. The pilot will cover a sufficiently large area for us to draw good information from it and decide whether split payments are the way to go or whether—because of unintended consequences, and despite the good intentions—they are not.
The answer to the specific question of whether the Scottish Government have introduced suggestions on how to do split payments or a plan for legislation is, “Absolutely not.” I suspect, in their defence, that that is because the issue of how the payments are split is so complex. However, they will get our full support to make whatever they do work. Just to be clear, the principle of having household income is not new to UC; it has been the case for legacy benefits since the dawn of time. That does not mean that it is right, but we will look closely at the Scottish Government.
Will the Minister give way?
No, because I have only one minute left.
It is a shame that this debate was not a longer one in which hon. Members could have expanded on the points they made today in interventions. However, there is a real commitment from me as the Minister that we will work with the experts and the Scottish Government to see whether lessons can be learned from their pilot. In the immediate future, we are looking at what will happen and what we can do to identify and support those who are in danger of domestic abuse or are current victims of it, so that we can do our bit. It is an issue that the Government take very seriously and will continue to push, not just in this area but through the forthcoming domestic abuse Bill. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Midlothian, who has been a dedicated worker in this area.
Question put and agreed to.
Economic Growth: East of England
I beg to move,
That this House has considered promoting economic growth in the East of England.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. The purpose of this debate is to highlight the enormous economic potential of the east of England and to put forward proposals for promoting growth, which can benefit people right across the region. In the past, East Anglians have perhaps been slow to come forward. We have hidden our light under a bushel, and thus the region has not secured the investment in infrastructure that is needed to transform what is already a highly successful economic region into a global leader. It is important that we now cast aside such shyness.
As we look beyond Brexit, the UK must strive to be the leader in a variety of fields. The east of England can help secure this goal, whether it is in the clean energy, agri-food, life sciences or information and communications technology sectors. The catalyst for this debate was the formation last December of the east of England all-party parliamentary group, which the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) and I co-chair, and which last month launched its Budget submission, “Building together the foundations of more productivity, prosperity and inclusivity in the East of England”. Much of what I will say is based on the proposals set out in that publication.
What is the east of England? In some respects, it is an area without boundaries. It includes the counties of Suffolk and Norfolk as well as Cambridgeshire and what used to be Huntingdonshire, and it extends to parts of Essex and Hertfordshire, though owing to the post-war growth of London, it does not reach as far south as it used to. From the Minister’s perspective, I fear it does not include Watford—its inclusion would enable the region to claim a premiership football team, as the Town and the Canaries currently flounder.
The region is relatively flat—it is often described as the bread bowl of England—and made up of attractive villages and countryside, interspersed with popular market towns and larger towns and cities such as Cambridge, Norwich, Ipswich, Colchester, Peterborough and, on its southern boundaries, Chelmsford.
My hon. Friend is a fine bastion of our region and I congratulate him on securing this debate. The east of England is beautiful, but if we want to encourage tourism, people have to be able to get there. Does he agree that one of the fundamental challenges is our rail network in the eastern region?
My hon. Friend is spot on: infrastructure and communications, whether road, railway or digital, are hugely important to the region’s future. I shall briefly touch on that, and I am quite sure my colleagues will do likewise.
The east of England APPG held its inaugural meeting on 13 December 2017, when we were addressed by Lord Heseltine, who emphasised the need to think strategically and to consider how best to manage and spread economic growth across the whole region for the benefit of all people. The Budget submission has been supported and endorsed not just by MPs, but by business, local government and local enterprise partnerships. Signatories include British Sugar, Stansted Airport, AstraZeneca, Anglian Water, James Palmer, who is the Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, the Haven Gateway Partnership, the New Anglia local enterprise partnership, the Hertfordshire local enterprise partnership and the East of England Local Government Association.
In arriving at our recommendations, we held evidence sessions and considered a range of innovative ideas as to how to promote and sustain economic growth, including proposals from Lord Adonis; Councillor David Finch, who is the leader of Essex County Council; and Mayor James Palmer, who is working up plans for much-needed infrastructure improvements through land value capture. The recommendations that we are putting forward should be regarded not as a wish list, but instead as a new way of working and getting things done—business and Government, both national and local, working together to secure investment that ensures the whole of the east of England realises its full potential.
It is important to highlight the enormous economic potential in the east of England. We are one of the fastest-growing regions, in terms of both population and economy. With a population of 6.1 million, the region is growing rapidly at a pace that is second only to London. In 2016, the east of England was one of just three UK regions to contribute more in tax than it received in public moneys. Despite this, public expenditure in the region was £8,155 per capita in 2017, which is less than the UK average of £9,159.
We are a frontrunner in attracting business. In 2017, the east of England saw the largest increase in business numbers of all UK regions. We are at the forefront of global excellence in innovation. The region is a centre for nationally and internationally recognised expertise in sectors such as life sciences, ICT, agri-tech and low-carbon energy supply. The corridor from Cambridge to Milton Keynes and Oxford has the potential to be the UK’s Silicon Valley. We are a jobs powerhouse—total employment is expected to rise by 7% over the next 15 years—and we complement and enhance the position of London as a world city.
Significant investment is already taking place in the east of England. By 2020, all trains in the area served by Greater Anglia will be brand-new, not second-hand hand-me-downs from other regions. Some £1.5 billion is being spent on removing what is probably the worst road bottleneck in the whole country: the A14 between Huntingdon and Cambridge. A further £300 million is being spent on schemes along the A47 from Peterborough to Lowestoft. The Norwich northern distributor road is open, and vital new bridges are being built in Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft—the latter is in my constituency.
There is a need to join up the dots and to think strategically, so that the whole region can benefit from those investments. There are also challenges that are best met at regional level, such as climate change and water resource management. We are not only a very dry region but a low-lying one, with a coast where the battle with rising sea levels has been raging for millennia. The recommendations in the APPG report provide the foundations to promote growth in three areas: transport, infrastructure and industrial strategy. I shall briefly go through them.
With regard to transport, we recommend that the
“Government should support England’s Economic Heartland and Transport East—the region’s two sub-national transport bodies—to become statutory bodies.”
By doing so, we will be better able to prioritise, fund and then deliver road, rail and air transport improvements.
“councils should have greater discretionary powers to encourage housing delivery…Further action is recommended to free-up finances to build affordable homes at scale”
through a variety of measures, including
“relaxing Housing Revenue Account borrowing…Ministers should explore innovative funding options that could help deliver infrastructure to enable new housing, either by direct council investment or by leveraging in other funding…Government should facilitate greater cooperation between developers, infrastructure providers, and local planning authority providers to improve housing delivery.”
The importance of digital connectivity cannot be overestimated. The need for a full fibre network to all homes and businesses across the whole region is incredibly important. It is an absolute must, if the region is to compete globally post Brexit. If necessary, greater powers should be granted to Ofcom to ensure that commercial operators do not just concentrate on the larger urban areas.
With regard to our regional industrial strategy, we should be focusing on our flagship industries: life sciences, agri-tech, ICT and clean energy. If necessary, Ofcom should be granted greater powers to ensure that commercial operators do not concentrate just on the larger urban areas. Our regional industrial strategy should tackle the productivity gap, which is a particular problem for the region. The local enterprise partnerships are key to developing and enacting an effective industrial strategy for the region, because local private and public sector leaders best understand the region’s opportunities and challenges and are best placed to co-ordinate the promotion of the various sectors to ensure consistency. The education strategy should focus on helping local people to develop transferrable and adaptable skills.
I have sought to provide a framework, albeit in an outline form, for promoting and spreading growth across the east of England. There is a great deal of flesh to put on the bones, and I anticipate that colleagues will do that by highlighting the opportunities and constraints in their areas. Now is only the beginning of this campaign. There are many proposals in the APPG’s report, and they deserve careful thought and implementation. I ask the Minister to signpost the roadway that we need to go down to ensure that the east of England is a global leader and that we enhance productivity and increase prosperity for all those who live and work there.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing the debate. We co-chair the all-party group, and he has excellently described the work it has done since it was inaugurated just over a year ago. It is truly cross-party. Although the issue of what defines the east is sometimes a matter for debate, I strongly believe that, given that sub-national transport bodies are emerging in other parts of the country, as well as in our own region, it is in our very best interests to work together in the east. That is particularly important, given its geographical proximity to London. Although the east is, by many measures, an affluent area, if the wealth generated by people commuting to London is taken out, the figures suddenly reflect what we actually see on the ground in much of the region: in many places, for many people, life is a daily struggle. I will use the old six-county definition of the east, which many of us still hold dear.
The east is indeed a net contributor to the UK economy and the Treasury, and its industries are world-leading. In my constituency of Cambridge, we have life sciences and tech—I do not need to rehearse the arguments. However, the region is not without its challenges, which were outlined very effectively in the Budget submission. There is a need for more housing, given that so many are priced out of it. Just last week, it was shown that my city of Cambridge is one of the most expensive places for young people in the ratio between income and rent, and buying is almost out of the question for most people. The need for improved transport and infrastructure is well known. We also have a future skills deficit, which risks causing employment growth to slow and eventually to reverse—and, indeed, possibly worse than that.
Those issues are very well explained in the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough independent economic review, which the Business Secretary and the Mayor of the combined authority launched in London yesterday. It was produced by a high-powered commission chaired by Dame Kate Barker, and its high-powered and knowledgeable commissioners include Lord Willetts and renowned telecoms entrepreneur David Cleevely from Cambridge. I hope Ministers will look closely at its work.
The review points out that, without the right tools to tackle these issues, employment growth in Cambridge could level off in the next couple of years, and there is the risk that it will go into reverse after 2031. Most people would find it surprising to learn that there is a danger that big businesses in the area may have to move away. The review’s conclusions are clear: future prosperity is not guaranteed, and if action on transport, housing, infrastructure and skills is not taken soon, there will be adverse effects not just for Cambridge or for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, but for the wider region and the whole of the UK economy.
The review rightly highlights the need to spread wealth more fairly and protect all that makes areas such as Cambridge so special for people. That is a very important point. It is about not just the traditional measure of growth—just more—but doing things better, being more productive and improving the quality of life for everyone. Our skilled workforce has been the driving factor in Cambridgeshire’s success in recent years, but given that our future relationship with the EU is uncertain, a failure to make the right investment in skills and infrastructure could cause internationally focused businesses to look elsewhere.
I have inevitably emphasised Cambridge so far, but those lessons hold good for much of the rest of the region. I believe that cities will be the driver within the region, but their relationship with the rural—or, perhaps more accurately, semi-rural—areas and market towns is vital. Skills and labour will be essential in our future relationship with the EU, not least because the agricultural sector relies so heavily on seasonal workers.
Transport is a huge issue, of course. The BBC’s Andrew Sinclair recently pointed out that it can take as long to travel the 110 miles from Norwich to London as the 220 miles from London to Liverpool. We desperately need to unlock transport infrastructure across our region to improve our productivity.
There are things we can do. For instance, I am told that digital signalling on our rail network would cost about £1 billion, but the benefits to quality of life and increased productivity would pay that sum back many times over. It does not require building new lines and upsetting people all over the place; it is about using the existing capacity better. It is the same message again: we should improve productivity, not just of people but of assets. If we can improve our links from places such as Cambridge though Stansted to London, we will create vital connections to the wider world.
Although our councils are struggling horribly with underfunding at the moment—it is frankly a disgrace that Cambridgeshire County Council has been reduced to forcing staff to take unpaid leave at Christmas—our ask is slightly unique, in that it is not always for more funds. We want the means to raise our own revenue. I used my first speech in the House three and a half years ago to speak not about glamorous issues but about the slightly arcane subject of tax increment financing. That and land value capture, which the Mayor of the combined authority has argued for, could unlock the investment needed. It would not cost the Treasury. We are prepared to take on the risk. The benefit sharing scheme got so close to being approved by the Treasury, but it was killed. We just need the authority and the tools to get on with the job—to borrow a phrase—of opening up access to jobs, skills and housing.
The east is a region with enormous potential, but we are reaching the point at which business as usual is not enough. Future prosperity has to be earned, but it also has to be shared fairly. Many in the east are up for the challenge, but we need the Government to work with us.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing this debate, on his chairmanship, with the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), of the east of England all-party parliamentary group, and on helping to put the east more firmly on the Government’s map.
My hon. Friend was absolutely right that the region has not always advocated our case for investment to the Government, and we have not always outlined the reasons why additional investment in the east would unlock a region that already helps to bring economic benefit to the country as a whole. The east is a net contributor to the UK economy. As the hon. Member for Cambridge said, additional support for our infrastructure, connectivity and digital economy will deliver benefits for the whole region, and will help to improve the growth and economic productivity, which will raise tax revenue for the whole country. That is a compelling argument for why the Treasury should support infrastructure projects in our region.
Before I touch on agriculture, food and drink, infrastructure—particularly the A12 and rail, which I am sure my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) will talk about later—and the importance of looking after the public sector at a time when we are seeing private sector growth in the east, it is important to reflect on the fact that unemployment in our region has come down over the past 10 years. Youth unemployment is at lows that we have not seen for more than 20 years—particularly in my part of Suffolk—and we are seeing more vocational training and apprenticeships. Those are all good things. We can also note that average wages across the east of England, particularly in Suffolk, are above the UK mean and median, which means that we live in a relatively affluent part of the country. There are still pockets of deprivation, as we are all aware, such as those in Lowestoft and Ipswich, which need particular attention.
Agriculture, food and drink is one of the drivers of the economies of Norfolk and Suffolk, and of parts of Cambridgeshire and north Essex. There are many national names in our counties that contribute to the UK economy. They are names that we can be proud of, such as Gressingham Duck, Aspall Cyder and Adnams brewery, to name but a few. However, our agricultural sector needs additional support from the Government for the development of land-based college training so that young people have opportunities in agriculture, food and drink. One area that I ask the Minister to look at is vocational training. Throughout the region, there has been a tremendous expansion in vocational training in agriculture, food and drink, particularly in light manufacturing, and we can be very proud of that. It is the driver of our economy, particularly in Norfolk and Suffolk, but we need more support for our land-based training colleges, such as Easton and Otley College, which can provide the next generation of agricultural and land-based apprentices, farm workers and people working in the food and drink industry that is so important to our region.
We recognise that the east of England—Suffolk in particular—has benefited from considerable Government support for infrastructure. We have support for the third crossing in Lowestoft that my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney has campaigned for so tirelessly, and, to alleviate traffic congestion in Ipswich, we have the promise of a bridge, for which the previous Member for Ipswich campaigned very hard.
We have also had additional investment, with the A11 being dualled, but the A12 is the “motorway”—although it is not actually a motorway—for entry to Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk. The Government have already indicated support for improvements to the A12 approaching Ipswich, but if there is a case for additional support and investment, it is the other stretch of the A12—between Ipswich and Lowestoft—which unlocks the energy gateway and energy coasts and needs considerable improvement. It is still a single-track road, which reduces the ability of new businesses to develop on the eastern coast of Suffolk. Investment in the A12 would both benefit tourism—another great driver of our economy—and help to unlock the energy coast, with the potential of Sizewell C, renewable energies and the many windfarms. I know all MPs here will strongly support that investment.
Finally, I will touch on investment in the sustainability of the public sector. If we want a thriving private sector in productivity and economic development, we need to look after our public sector. We have to recognise that in the east of England, we have challenges in retention and recruitment. Although there are national retention and recruitment challenges in some parts of the public sector, such as in the healthcare workforce, in the east of England we face particular challenges, with a shortage of GPs. Many GPs are approaching retirement age, which I believe is also true in parts of north Essex, and we need to recognise that challenge. We must also recognise that we have a shortage of nurses in some areas, and that to continue looking after the private sector, we need to invest in the public sector and support the east of England with financial incentives that will attract public sector workers.
That is also true of education in parts of our region; there are difficulties attracting teachers to some of our schools. If we want to maintain the engine room of our thriving and growing east of England economy, we have to recognise that the package that will attract families will also support teachers and other public sector professionals who relocate to the east of England, as well as looking after the many dedicated professionals who already work very hard there.
I hope the Minister has heard my plea about supporting vocational training and apprenticeships for the agricultural and land-based economy. If he is free, perhaps he could come and visit Easton and Otley College to see for himself some of the good work that goes on there.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for securing this important debate. It is a pleasure to stand here and discuss how we can promote economic growth across the east of England. Clearly that is one of my priorities as the Member for Clacton—a place my hon. Friend probably only inadvertently left off his list of great towns of the east.
Nationally, our economy is growing. At last, we are beginning to say goodbye to austerity and are getting the country back on track. However, while national economic growth is without doubt welcome, some communities are being left behind. One such community is my constituency of Clacton. As we begin to discuss the future of our economy, we must ensure that no community is left behind. I was encouraged to hear the Prime Minister argue the same in her conference speech last week.
I am here today to offer my thoughts on how we can be more inclusive as the economy grows. By way of further context, in 2013 my local authority, Tendring District Council, published an excellent economic development strategy. But in its pages was the somewhat troubling assertion:
“While there are some excellent businesses and highly resourceful residents locally, the district’s economy is not performing as well as it could—employment, job numbers and business formation have…been static or shrinking in recent years.”
In a former life as the cabinet member for regeneration and inward investment at Tendring District Council, I saw at first hand how eager our council officers were to correct that situation. I also saw how support for businesses can pay tremendous dividends in terms of economic growth. As I have said in previous speeches on the economy, in that role I prided myself on being able to make cash grants of up to £150,000 available to businesses in, and coming to, Tendring, so that they could grow, flourish and create inward investment. Many businesses did flourish thanks to that funding from the SME growth fund, which I introduced—businesses such as Nantmor Blinds, based in Clacton-on-Sea, which received a grant to assist with the purchase of an auto louvre machine. It also enabled it to hire new staff. In its own words, Nantmor Blinds said it was
“blown away by Tendring District Council’s hard work and determination.”
To date, the SME growth fund in Tendring has supported businesses, created 20 full-time jobs and leveraged over £200,000 of private investment into the district. I am delighted to say that, thanks to that success, the scheme is being widened and extended to 2020.
Clearly, in my area local government support is truly there for businesses. I have no doubt that that is the case across the east of England. We must ensure that that continues and expands to national support. Nevertheless, and despite our enthusiasm, something continues to prevent businesses from really committing themselves, and the prosperity they bring, to Tendring. That obstacle, which has been mentioned before and will be mentioned again and again, is the quality of our local infrastructure. In my view, a country’s economy will only ever be as good as its roads, rails and ports, and we are no exception in that regard. I have often argued in this place—some might say far too often—that there is a need to improve the connection to overlooked areas such as the Clacton constituency. As a regular commuter myself, I know that it takes far too long for my constituents to travel to the capital and vice versa. I have said it before and I will say it again: the 69-mile journey often takes the best part of one hour and 40 minutes—that is nonsense. Without more investment in our local transport infrastructure, I believe that we will limit the incentive for people and businesses to move to our area. That would mean that my district would continue to be excluded from the strong national economic growth, which is an unacceptable outcome.
Moreover, as I have said before, if we are to do our bit to tackle the housing crisis, we must improve our transport infrastructure before any major new housing developments break ground. We are leading the way with our garden community developments. We simply cannot build more dwellings without first making it easy to occupy, live in and work from them. Investing more in transport would do that.
That is why I will continue to push my “70 in 60” campaign at every opportunity. It aims for the people of Clacton to be able to cover the nearly 70 miles to London in less than 60 minutes, which is not an unrealistic proposition when we look at similar rail services in the area. For example, commuters to Ipswich cover the journey in about 70 minutes, and let us not forget that people can travel the 52 miles from London to Colchester in 58 minutes, only to crawl the final 18 miles to Clacton in about half an hour—on a good day. That clearly has a lot to do with the quality of infrastructure between Colchester and Clacton, compared with the main line to Ipswich, so we should change that.
When we commit cash to infrastructure in such a way, businesses get excited and want to invest, thereby laying the foundations for future economic growth, and I have been shown that clearly by my past experience and conversations I have had as the Member of Parliament for Clacton. If we are to promote economic growth in the east of England, we must adopt the “infrastructure first” mantra everywhere and ensure that our region has the best transport links going.
I therefore welcome the formation of Transport East, a forum that now meets regularly. It will be the vehicle for the delivery of a collective vision for transport and wider infrastructure for all communities in the east of England. Its formation is certainly a positive step. It will lead to the creation of a truly joined-up transport network that does not exclude any of our communities from infrastructure improvements, which are a precursor of economic growth. The forum will also help us to secure vital investment in future infrastructure. I encourage the Government to engage with Transport East in whatever way they can.
To turn to the roads, I ask the Government to look favourably on the application for RIS2—second road investment strategy—funding for the new A120, which will reduce pressure on existing roads used by residents of the Clacton constituency. Improving that road, which runs across the east of England from Stansted airport to Harwich, would also help move goods more quickly and deliver a boost to the local economy. Furthermore, upgrading that strategically important road is an essential precursor to further unlocking Essex’s economic potential, along with the wider east of England region.
That brings me back to the point of the debate. The east of England is a unique region, with strong economic growth prospects, thanks to places such as Cambridge, Peterborough, Ipswich, Stansted airport, Luton airport, Harwich and Felixstowe, Colchester, Waveney, Southend-on-Sea and, of course, the sunshine coast of the Clacton constituency—I get them all in. However, if we do not have first-rate infrastructure, and cannot successfully and efficiently link those economic sub-units together, we will not get the best out of the east of England. We will therefore not maximise our economic potential, and certain communities will continue to be left behind.
To conclude, I return to the economic development strategy to which I referred earlier. Despite the troubling conclusions drawn about Tendring in 2013, it was also argued that the area has the potential for growth which could create thousands of jobs. Good will and hard work from our council has allowed us to start unlocking that potential, and I am proud of our record so far. Real and sustained investment in our infrastructure, however, would allow us to deliver such results quicker. I have no doubt that, in the same way, there will be no shortage of good will and hard work throughout the east of England. To match that, we must now ensure that good infrastructure is in place across the region. That is how we will promote economic growth for all communities in the east of England.
I hope to call the shadow Minister at 10 minutes past 5. It is a pleasure to call Priti Patel.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and to join the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) and all colleagues who have spoken on being strong advocates for the east of England. In so many areas, we have common ground. I agree 100% with many of the comments and points that have been made today.
We have heard that the economy of the east of England is vibrant and dynamic. It is an engine of economic growth that contributes enormously to the Exchequer. It delivers on housing and jobs, and we have pioneering industries and manufacturing bases, and quality research and innovation throughout the region, with global connections through ports and airports. We have a world-class array of institutions ranging from Cambridge University to Essex University and many other educational establishments, as well as our traditional industries, in particular agriculture, which we have heard about.
Cumulative economic growth figures for 2010 to 2016 show that, in terms of gross value added, the east of England region hit 13%, behind only London at 22% and the west midlands at 15%. In 2016, our region’s total GVA was £147 billion. The regional population of more than 6 million is also growing fast, at 8.9% for the decade to 2024—the fastest rate after London’s.
In the county that I represent as the Member of Parliament for Witham in Essex, we have first-class airports at Stansted and Southend, and the London Gateway, Tilbury and Harwich ports, which all offer world-class global trading connections. They are keen to expand and grow, not only as we leave the European Union, but to diversify what they do to boost global trade and to secure future growth and job creation.
Since 2010, the number of enterprises in Essex has risen by 25%, from 52,000 to 64,000. The county now contributes around £40 billion in GVA to the UK economy. Essex is highly aspirational and ambitious, and that is shown by the jobs being created. We have heard plenty about infrastructure today, and I want to touch on how vital it is not only to economic development, but to economic prosperity and growth in the region—that cannot be taken for granted. We have heard about public expenditure in the region, which is £1,000 per capita less than the UK average, and our infrastructure has suffered severe historic underfunding. That has to change. My hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) touched on the issue of the A120. I agree with him 100%—we need that road investment to come fast.
On top of that is another awful conundrum. I have spent many debates in this Chamber talking about the A12, which we also heard about today, but the development scheme for that road is being delayed. Any delay costs money and jobs, while the congestion and extra business costs continue. The Government committed to widening the road between the Boreham and Marks Tey interchanges, but Colchester Borough Council caused delay by changing its housing and development proposals. That scheme needs to be actioned quickly, as does further widening up to the junctions north of Marks Tey.
We have touched on rail. The Great Eastern main line taskforce, which I chair, is all about a key infrastructure route that we absolutely need to invest in. A few years ago we proposed a package that could deliver £4.5 billion in economic benefits to the region, unlocking 50,000 new jobs. We need those urgent improvements.
We all welcome the new trains on the region’s railways, but they will clearly not be able to perform as well as they might unless we also get infrastructure investment in the track itself. Furthermore, does the right hon. Lady agree that one of the things holding back parts of our region is the extraordinary and anomalous cost of our rail tickets? Some parts of the region are some of the most expensive places anywhere in the country to get to by train per mile.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Our constituents as rail passengers are paying some of the highest fares in the country, which also means that we are cross-subsidising other railway networks elsewhere, without reaping money that should be coming back into our own rail lines. That is exactly the purpose of the taskforce—to argue for that infrastructure investment.
Greater investment in digital and broadband has been touched on, so I will not cover that, but it is essential, in particular for connectivity in the rural economy. Instead, I shall end with some comments on fiscal measures, because the debate has come about as a pre-Budget discussion. We want to invest in key infrastructure to boost productivity and jobs, but the Government should also look at fiscal measures to support the economy not only in our region but throughout the economy. That means cutting the tax burden to unleash more job creation and to give entrepreneurs and investors more scope to invest.
More than 80% of my constituents work for SMEs. A worrying trend is politicians constantly looking to introduce tax rises to solve the country’s problems. The Government need to use the tax system to encourage and nurture the entrepreneurial spirit, instead of punishing entrepreneurs. We need to be much more dynamic about addressing that issue, as well as looking at business rate reform and support for our high streets and town centres—frankly, we are seeing their death. In a county that has two airports, we need to look at slashing air passenger duty; it is a cost that affects passengers as well as businesses. We could develop many more flight routes as we trade our way around the world post-Brexit.
Fundamentally, when we get to the Budget and the comprehensive spending review, we must review the tax burden on businesses and do everything possible to ensure that we support enterprise and growth across the east of England.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing a debate on the important subject of our industrial strategy and economic growth in the east of England. As a Member of Parliament for a north-eastern constituency, I am intimately familiar with the challenges of regional economic growth, although a premiership football club can make a significant difference.
Enjoy it while you can!
Exactly. As we heard, the east of England contributes nearly 10% of the UK’s gross value added and has experienced cumulative growth of 13% since 2010—slightly higher than average. It boasts enormous strengths, from world-leading science and innovation to agriculture and food production, as was highlighted by the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter). With the right support, the region can continue to thrive and contribute to the future prosperity of our country, yet it appears that uncertainty, particularly over Brexit, is causing economic growth in the region to stall, with both business creation and GDP growth down since 2016. That effect is seen in the news that both Robinsons, which has been in the region for 90 years, and Colman’s, which has produced mustard in Norwich for 160 years, are to leave the region, taking jobs with them.
Meeting the challenges of Brexit requires a positive industrial strategy. Unfortunately, what has been put forward so far does not cut the mustard, as Colman’s might say. Let us look at just three aspects of the Government’s industrial strategy. First, if the Government stick to their current policy of arbitrary migration targets with no concern for economic need, and if they press ahead with the Prime Minister’s plans to cut what she calls low-skilled—earning less than £50,000 a year—immigration, businesses will have huge problems recruiting and retaining staff. That is true not only of agriculture, which employs tens of thousands in the east of England, but of research in the region’s great universities and development in the Silicon Fen tech cluster around Cambridge worth £1.54 billion. The Government’s industrial strategy does not try in any meaningful way to address the huge skills gap caused by the Government’s Brexit position.
On skills, it would be easier to plan for future skills need if the Government offered any real devolution or economic decision-making powers to the region, such as the
“massive devolution of the skills agenda and funding”
that the all-party parliamentary group’s Budget submission calls for. The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority does not have the powers or autonomy enjoyed by others in England, and there has been no visible effort from Government to consult on or put forward regional industrial strategies. I look forward to the Minister explaining how that will happen.
The Government’s approach contrasts starkly with what Labour is doing: we are putting regional need first, with plans for a network of regional investment banks with real money behind them and decisions made locally. We will hold the first in a series of regional industrial strategy conferences in Newcastle next month, and another business conference in the north-west in January. The shadow Chancellor and the shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy are touring the country holding regional economic conferences and roundtables.
Thirdly, as the Government are paying scant attention to the spread of growth within regions, the all-party parliamentary group’s submission to the Budget argued that the key issue for the east of England is
“how to manage and spread Cambridge’s growth to market towns and coastal communities in a strategic and effective manner.”
My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) gave a detailed account of the economic strengths his city brings to the region. It boasts as many private-sector research and development jobs as the whole of the north, which has 50 times more people. He also highlighted the key challenges of the unaffordability of housing and poor transport links, both of which deter talent and investment. Tory-led Governments have failed to address either of those issues in eight years, but Labour will build 1 million affordable homes over five years and transform our country’s transport infrastructure with our £250 billion national transformation fund. According to the comments of the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel), the hon. Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) and the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, that transformation is much desired.
As shadow Science Minister, I am keen to see an industrial strategy that maintains current centres of excellence such as Cambridge. Our strategy would do that, but it should not end there. Last year, research from Sheffield Hallam University found the Government’s pledges as part of their industrial strategy would have an impact on just 1% of the economy. By focusing on a small number of elite technologies and industries, the Government have failed to provide a vision for how workers in Clacton-on-Sea, Yarmouth or Lowestoft can share in the prosperity and growth generated by Cambridge. Labour is committed to building an innovation nation where prosperity, high productivity and good quality, high-skilled jobs are shared across the nation.
The east of England deserves a real industrial strategy that lays out a vision for a shared prosperity across the region: a high-wage, high-skill, high-productivity region that leads the way to a more prosperous post-Brexit future. That is what Labour offers and I hope the Minister will be bold and follow our lead.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Did you arrange the cabaret in the background?
Especially for you.
I could not quite hear what they were saying, and it is probably better that I could not.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) not only on calling today’s debate but on his contributions to many other debates I have taken part in. He has always contributed in a non-partisan and a very statesmanlike way, and today was absolutely no exception. I welcome the east of England APPG submission, which we have read in my Department. I hope that some of my points respond to its recommendations.
I have a bit of a strange relationship with the east of England, simply because my constituency, as mentioned by my hon. Friend, is in the east of England, but most people who live in it do not think they are in the east of England, simply because it is such a large area, as was mentioned by several hon. Members. It varies from what some people think is outer London—it is not quite, but there is a more urban type of London demographic—to areas that are geographically quite remote. My right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) mentioned—eloquently, as ever—that Essex is a huge county in its own right: it varies from outer London urban to quite remote country areas. It is difficult for any policy to take into consideration such a large area, and there is no simple solution. I accept the point about transport and more modern infrastructures being critical to everything, and I will come to that. It is easy for the European Union and national Government to talk of regions—as we talk about metropolitan areas—as being fairly homogenous.
I want to reiterate the Government’s commitment to promoting growth in the east of England. Any Minister would say that, and I would certainly say that to my constituents in the east of England. But the facts speak for themselves. The region is growing fast. It has seen continued growth in jobs and is one of only three regions that is a net contributor to the UK. Those are exactly the sorts of strengths the country needs to build on in securing a prosperous economic future for the UK as a whole.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) said, the region has not always pushed its case well, probably because of its large area and the different organisations in it. The all-party group’s report clearly reverses that, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney said, it is the beginning of a process, not a one-off report—the Government certainly do not treat it as such.
Hon. Members highlighted many of the strengths of the east of England. I will not repeat the comprehensive list, but there are world-famous brands in Cambridge, which the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) mentioned, as there are in Milton Keynes, Hertfordshire, the coastal region and so on. However, I agree with him that the future is not guaranteed, which is why we have an industrial strategy. The shadow Minister was really quite scathing about that strategy—I hope I have time to come on to that. Governments have industrial strategies and policies because nothing in the economy is guaranteed. She mentioned the effects of our leaving the European Union. None of us knows what they will be, but whatever happens while we are in the European Union or out of it, nothing is guaranteed. It is important that the Government realise the importance of the east of England to the economy.
The shadow Minister will disagree, but since 2010 the Government have made good progress on supporting businesses and people in the east of England. Unemployment has halved, the number of small businesses has increased by more than 100,000 and, although good points were made about apprenticeships, 350,000 people have started them in the area.
The hon. Member for Cambridge mentioned the CPIER report. I welcome that and look forward to seeing how it is reflected in the local industrial strategy. He also mentioned land value capture. The Treasury and I look forward to receiving further developed proposals on land value capture in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough from the Mayor in due course. We have yet to see the full effect of Mayors, but I am positive about them and pleased that we have them.
The east of England is at the forefront of industrial strategy. We have local enterprise partnerships and, as I said, mayoral combined authorities developing and implementing industrial strategies. We are at the beginning of that road, but the east of England is in good shape. The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough combined authority and the South East Midlands LEP have been identified as trailblazer areas as part of the Oxford to Cambridge arc. Those pilot areas have made good progress and are on track to publish their strategies in March next year, with the rest of the region publishing theirs in 2020.
I reject much of what the shadow Minister said—not because she has a premier league football team in her constituency. I have made rather unpleasant comments about that, which I would like to withdraw, and I apologise for any offence caused. I am sure Newcastle United will remain in the premier league at least for this season, if not beyond. If that does not happen, at least she can blame their relegation on our leaving the European Union, since she seems to blame that for everything else.
I thank the Minister for the initial generosity of his remarks about Newcastle United. Should they leave the premier league, we will be clear that the fault lies not with Brexit but with the club’s ownership. We hope his Government do something to address that.
I think the hon. Lady just called for the nationalisation of Newcastle United football club. Another few billion for the national debt—it really doesn’t matter, does it? We have many billions more.
Order. Minister, we need to focus on the east of England, not the ownership of Newcastle United.
Governments have learned the importance of giving local areas control of local growth. I have seen for myself that we have to be careful about that. I studied economics A-level and, being from Leeds, we went to Newcastle to visit the National Economic Development Council there. Those bodies, which were known as “Neddys”, showed that localisation in itself is not enough. That was not a very effective system, but at least it was an attempt to regionalise. We have developed significantly beyond that as a society, which means we do not just send civil servants from London to work in Newcastle and say that is regional.
I hope we will see the benefit of devolution, with LEPs, Mayors and everything else. [Interruption.] I am cantering because I have only five minutes—I cannot really take any more questions about that. The Cambridge and Peterborough devolution deal builds on the significant commitments made to the east through previous city deals. I am very optimistic about the greater Cambridge city deal. It is delivering, and I really think we will see a lot more from it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich made many extremely helpful points. The Government are committed to dealing with local skills shortages, such as those in agriculture, through the establishment of skills advisory panels, which are being rolled out to all parts of eastern England and will help to ensure that training matches the needs of local businesses. That cannot be ignored, and I believe our policy will help to achieve it.
The east of England benefits from more than £700 million of local growth funding through growth deals, and the region’s business-led local enterprise partnerships determine how that funding is spent. I have seen different kinds of LEPs, but the range of products being delivered in this case—the aviation academy in Norwich, the STEM innovation campus at Stansted airport and the Watford health campus scheme in my constituency, for example—will lead to a more skilled workforce and are very important for the east.
Infrastructure was mentioned by many speakers, in particular my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham and my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, who stressed the importance of the A12. That is why, in addition to the devolution city deals I mentioned, we have invested £1.5 billion to upgrade the A14 between Cambridge and Huntingdon, which is an important route, and £151 million in new river crossings. Those are just examples. The transforming cities fund will really help Cambridge and Peterborough, which have already received £74 million. I could go on, but time does not allow.
The Government are committed to working with local partners. Many Members mentioned transport, which is absolutely important. I intend to send a summary of the points they made about particular roads to the Department for Transport. I know Members have done that, but I feel it is my job—I am not in that Department, but I represent the Government—to ensure that those points hit home.
My hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) spoke so well about no community being left behind. He feels that his community and others, particularly in coastal areas, have been neglected by the system. He stressed the importance of infrastructure in such areas. I will not forget the points he made about his experience on Tendring Council, and I am happy to chat with him separately about that.
We have had a wide-ranging debate in which we did not have time to consider some of the necessary detail. However, the east of England all-party group has set out a model for how such groups can focus their lobbying of the Government on specific points. I am happy to meet formally with the all-party group or with individual Members. I do not mean only those on the Conservative Benches, as I hope the hon. Member for Cambridge knows. These are important points, and I would like to see the successful implementation of many of the policies mentioned in the APPG’s report.
We have had a wide-ranging debate, and I do not have time to highlight colleagues’ excellent contributions. Someone who looks at the east of England might say, “Everything looks reasonably okay there. It’s perfectly satisfactory. Let’s rumble on.” But do we want to be just rumbling on, second best? No, we do not. To use another football analogy, we want to be in the premier league. We want to be in the top four. We want to be not just playing in Europe every year but winning World cups. That is what this work is about and what we are putting the framework down for. This is a new way of doing things. This is a start—let’s get going.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered promoting economic growth in the East of England.