Tuesday 11 December 2018
[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]
House of Commons Financial Plan and Draft Estimates
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the House of Commons Financial Plan 2019-20 to 2022-23 and draft Estimates for 2019-20.
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. This is the first time we have had a debate such as this since 2014, and I think that all members of the Finance Committee feel that it is a shame and a mistake that we have not had one every year. I do not think we are the only people in Parliament who think that the management of the expenditure on the House and the way we do our business in Parliament has for years not been done as efficiently and effectively as it might be. In 2014, the Committee did have a debate of this kind. It took place on the Floor of the House and the expectation was that it would become an annual event. However, because we had general elections in 2015 and 2017, there was no Committee in place to ask for a debate, so we did not have one.
In the end, we are talking about taxpayers’ money here. Personally, I would be very critical of the whole way in which we spend taxpayers’ money in this country, in the sense that we theoretically have debates on estimates, but we never or very rarely have votes on them. We can only cut the amount of money being spent; we cannot reallocate from one estimate to another. To all intents and purposes, we do not really have a budget in this country, but a Budget statement. We do not have a budget in the sense that most other Parliaments in the world—or, for that matter, most local authorities—would understand the word. Therefore, the Finance Committee, which I chair, thinks it important that at least for this bit, which is the money spent on Parliament itself, we show a degree of discretion and try to get to the bottom of some of the key issues facing us.
We all also want to see far better responsibility and accountability for financial decisions made within the two parliamentary estimates that I will talk about. The two estimates, as I am sure you know, Mr Howarth, are the administration estimate and the Members estimate. The Members estimate is now much smaller than the admin estimate. I cannot for the life of me understand why we still have two estimates. I understand that the Government object to binding these two estimates together, but I cannot understand why. The admin estimate is far bigger than the Members estimate, and having the two separate just seems an unnecessary additional administrative burden.
In relation to the admin estimate, which as I said is far larger, the process is iterative. That is to say that as we advance towards the final estimate being laid, we on the Finance Committee provide advice to the House of Commons Commission, and that informs the estimate that is eventually laid. Quite often in that process, we on the Finance Committee have tried to bring decisions earlier, so that the Commission can be better informed and we can have a more strategic look at the whole of our finances. Part of what governs that is that we set a remit for the resource element of the admin estimate. At the moment, that assumes zero real-terms growth. That is partly because we have been making some £15.5 million-worth of savings, which we can then reinvest. Those are not just cuts; they are genuine savings. We are doing more for less money and we can then put the money back into the resource element of the admin budget.
We do have some exceptions and I worry, as Chair of the Committee, that the number of exceptions always grows; it never seems to diminish. For instance, we allow ourselves, quite rightly, an exception from the remit for increased scrutiny of Government. Brexit has led to an extra Select Committee. That has a cost, because there have to be Clerks and there has to be Committee time and there are printing costs and all the rest of it. Indeed, in recent years, the Select Committee process has become one of the most important elements of the way we do our business in Parliament, and consequently there has been a dramatic increase in the amount of work that those Committees are doing. The Liaison Committee, which gathers together the Chairs of all the Select Committees, made a passionate plea for an additional £1.3 million this year, and we think that that is an important additional piece of expenditure.
The hon. Gentleman is outlining his case very cogently. He has talked about the expansion of Select Committees. Does he agree that, hopefully in the very near future, the Exiting the European Union Committee will not have much more to do?
The second exception that we make—again, I think that it is difficult to disagree with—relates to security. The physical aspects of security in this building and of Members in their constituencies are obviously important, but as we have seen in the last two years, the cyber-security of the parliamentary estimate is also a vital element of enabling the democratic process to proceed. It is not just Russia but China and, potentially, a whole series of other countries that, as state actors, might be seeking to undermine the cyber-security of this place, and it would be all too easy for other people engaged in espionage to attack it. Of course, there have also been the very sad deaths of Jo Cox and PC Keith Palmer.
I am therefore fully aware that it is important to have an exception from the remit for security, but we need to be very clear that we are getting good value for money and that we are not wasting taxpayers’ money, even when we are dealing with security matters. I have some concerns about the contract with Chubb and the way it has been administered; I think that the Committee will want to look at that in the near future.
One of the largest areas of exception from the remit is, of course, the major strategic programmes that we have in the Palace of Westminster. There are three such programmes. The first is restoration and renewal. Everyone is aware of that—we had a big debate on it. Unfortunately, the delays in delivering it have made it very difficult for us to be clear about exactly when we will be incurring the expenditure. Indeed, the delays in decision making in the House have made it more difficult for the Officers of the House to be able to deliver clear financial decision making.
The second programme is the northern estate programme. That is definitely progressing. We have been involved in looking at some of the suggestions of what there may be, including in relation to the alternative Chamber that will be built, largely on the same basis as the current Commons Chamber but with better disabled access; provision of offices for Members who are being decanted out of this building; and ensuring that the whole of the northern estate within the curtilage is efficiently and effectively used. I passionately support that programme, because I think that at the end of it we will have a legacy for future generations that will improve access for the public to the whole of the parliamentary estate and to the archives.
That is the third programme—the archives accommodation programme. I do not know whether any Members have been into the archives of late, but it is virtually impossible to get there; it is certainly very difficult for any members of the public to get there. The photograph room has never worked since it was first installed, and all the rolled Acts of Parliament, going back to the 14th century, could be far better stored than they are now. They are higgledy-piggledy; they are in time order, but should be far more carefully stored. However, that cannot really happen until such time as we have new provision.
We have also made an exemption—this is new for us—for any decisions made by the House in relation to reports that are being done. The most important example is the Dame Laura Cox report, which has already led to significant public interest, as people want to ensure that Parliament is a safe place for everybody to work and that there is no bullying or harassment. There are costs involved in delivering that review and we are keen to support that, and we will doubtless be keen to support whatever Gemma White QC comes up with, when her review is completed.
In addition, we have allocated £2.4 million for the Sponsor Board, which is up and running in shadow form. I see that one of its members—my right hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami)— is here in his less shadowy form; certainly his tie is less shadowy than it might be, as usual. The shadow Sponsor Board is up and running, and we are hopeful that it will be able to engage in its work as fast as possible. As I understand it, it is keen to speed up decisions, rather than delay. At the moment, we are talking about not leaving the Palace in the decant until 2026, but there are people who would like that to be brought forward to 2025 if it is physically possible.
I apologise for missing the opening few minutes. I just want to emphasise the important point about driving things forward. This is not a vanity project: we are doing this work because the building is not safe as it is at the moment.
I completely concur with my right hon. Friend, who has been one of the key people seeking to drive this forward, in his role as a Whip and given his responsibility for Opposition accommodation. He is fully aware of the problems there have been throughout the Palace. The new fire doors are absolutely hideous, but they are essential. I am sure that when we get around to restoration and renewal we will have a version of them that performs the same function, but is more in keeping with the building. Finally, we have allocated £3.3 million of the administration budget to the restoration and renewal customer and client team, which builds the occupation for R and R when it comes online.
The Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which are important to many hon. Members, are funded out of the resource aspect of the administration estimate, as is the History of Parliament Trust. We have tried to be as tough with each of those bodies as possible, to ensure that we are getting good value for money. The only comment I would make about the IPU and the CPA is that in many other Parliaments there is a foreign affairs department with a room to welcome guests from other Parliaments. It keeps a record of who has visited and where MPs have gone on visits. That is available to their foreign office. There is a kind of inventory of all the work that is being done on foreign affairs visits. That does not happen here.
We have a multiplicity of different Committees and all-party parliamentary groups, and all the rest of it. For example, I went to Colombia in September, courtesy of ABColombia. It would have been interesting to have seen which other Members had visited there over the last five years and good to have exchanged information with them before going. Keeping such records is not something that we do, but it is one of the things that we should look at for the future.
Other Parliaments often have friendship groups, as they call them, which are serviced by staff from their Parliament, so there is a continuity to the visits and a base in the Parliament where Members can be serviced, and information collected and retained. That simply does not happen in this country.
That is absolutely right. When—if—Brexit happens, it will be all the more important, in relation to other European countries, that Members of this House and the House of Lords will be seen as diplomats or ambassadors on behalf of Parliament. We need to garner the information, ideas and contacts that come through that in the national interest. I worry that we do not do that very well at the moment.
The capital elements of the administration estimate are quite significant. We are talking about £236.8 million. Some of the figures in the report that we have published are slightly different from the figures that we are talking about now, because this is an iterative process. In a sense, the reason for having this debate was to be able to inform those decisions as they go forward to the commission. The two largest elements of this relate to the major ongoing building projects. Of that, £117.4 million relates to the Strategic Estates projects. I think everybody on the Committee would say that we worry about the Strategic Estates. It is not just that the Elizabeth Tower started off at one price and ended up at a completely different price—incidentally, it ended up being a rather different project. With the stone courtyard project, the money we were allocating for all five courtyards has been taken up on one. I am sure that both the Labour party and Conservative party would have moaned about this, but we also decided to close the cloister—one of the most beautiful parts of the Palace—and move all the staff out more than 18 months ago, yet work has still not started on it, even though it desperately needs work.
We were told at the time that those people had to leave because that work was essential and could not wait under any circumstances—it was quite an exercise to find somewhere else for those people—only to see it left empty, apart from some building materials that have been left there.
That is distressing and worrying. Apart from anything else, it is worrying because it is one of the most beautiful parts of the palace, which is hardly used or visited by the public. I hope that when restoration and renewal is complete we will not have destroyed the beautiful work that was done by Henry VII and Henry VIII. That would be a terrible sadness. The delay is down to capacity in the team and physical capacity on the site. It is not down to somebody being negligent in their job, or anything like that, but it is simply down to capacity. If we are unable to get that work done, there is a danger that we will lose one of the most important architectural aspects of the building.
It is not all bad. The cast-iron roofs project has been extraordinarily successful. It is on time and on budget. It is a massively impressive project. It has basically kept two companies in the north of England afloat over the last few years. The encaustic tiles project has been very successful as well. It is great to see the floors now being sorted out. It is also quite interesting to see people in the shop buying the old encaustic tiles that have been lifted up, thereby bringing a little bit of income back into the Palace as well. They are quite good Christmas presents, Mr Howarth. If you feel like buying one, you can buy me one.
All of us on the Committee have a fundamental worry that sometimes, because we have to meet Government pay scales and agreed limits, we end up paying for a lot of consultancy advice. That ends up creating more expense, but because it is sort of off the books, or is not accounted in the same way, somehow it meets some kind of Government requirement. I think this is a false economy. We are desperate to do whatever we can to ensure that we do not continue wasting taxpayers’ money in that way.
I should add that we are spending £88.8 million in the capital element of the administration estimate on the northern estate programme. It has been difficult to know when this money will be spent. That is one reason why it has been difficult to get the finances precisely right this year, because we did not know when we would be starting the work. If political decision-making causes delays, it adds to the cost. If the Minister has any role in making sure that key decisions come at the right time, and that we are not putting off votes, for instance—if she can chivvy the Leader of the House, or whoever makes such decisions—it would be enormously helpful to the finances of Parliament.
The Members estimate relates to Short money, which is available to make sure that Opposition parties can do their job properly. I am glad we won the battle a few years ago to make sure that is adequate. It also pays for the Deputy Speakers’ salaries and for the Exchequer elements of contributions to the pensions fund. It stands at £17.7 million, which is a little bit up from £17.1 million previously.
I will finish with a few general points. We on the Committee feel that we do not manage many of these processes well yet, so there is work to do. One issue about the Elizabeth tower, which I have already referred to, was that not enough investigative work was done before we started to let the contract. We then found out that the cables were not in the place that all the maps said they were, which incurred significant extra cost. We were also probably too optimistic about what it was going to cost. We now have a much better estimate of our optimism bias, although I have a slight worry that if we are too pessimistic, that will simply be an excuse for spending more money than we needed to in the first place. It is a difficult balancing act.
Another issue was that, in the end, the contract for the Elizabeth tower was let when there was no Parliament. Everybody ran around asking, “Who made the decision?”, but the truth is that it was taken somewhere between the Commission, which still existed because it is a statutory body, the Treasury, the Leader of the House and the accounting officer, who is the Clerk of the House. We need to have much greater continuity when we have general elections. To not have a Finance Committee for the best part of six months is a mistake. There is a strong argument for putting the Finance Committee on a statutory footing, as the Commission is, so it can still exist even when there is no Parliament, because financial decisions still have to be made.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; I have served on the Finance Committee and the Administration Committee. We sometimes concentrate on small items that cost very little, and scrutinise them to the nth degree, yet no one is quite sure who actually signed off a massive project.
I am led by the Committee. It is a serious point that we sometimes obsess about small amounts of money, but, for example, it looks as if the fire safety budget will have gone from £90 million to £160 million, and it is perfectly legitimate to ask who made that decision and at what point a decision was made by a Committee of the House or by the accounting officer. If we cannot match responsibility and accountability, there is a real danger that financial mistakes will be made and significant amounts of money will go in the wrong direction.
I have already made the point, but I want to labour it, that we are too bound by Government pay scales. That has made it difficult to pay the right price to get the job done in one of the most complicated and difficult buildings and in the context of the most complicated and difficult political decision-making processes. Many staff who work here are admirable—they dedicate themselves to their task as much as any Member of Parliament and work many hours beyond what they are required to do—but, all too often, we end up bringing in experts on consultancy rates and paying more than we need to simply because we are trying to meet the Treasury’s rules. That is a mistake.
I worry that the building swamps the work financially. We are talking about spending dramatic amounts of money on the building, but what is really important here is the scrutiny work that we do, the public coming to understand how we do our democratic business and the engagement with the public. There are major projects that should be slanted much more towards the public.
A classic instance is that, of late, people have regularly queued for an hour or two hours—often standing in the pouring rain—to get into the building to watch democracy in action. We simply have to do better on such projects. I have heard lots of different explanations. Sometimes I am told that it is because one of the security arches is not working, or that people are working to rule because they are fed up with decisions that have been made elsewhere in the Palace—who knows? All I know is that the public feel they are getting a pretty rum deal. They are often late for meetings that they are coming to in Parliament. This should be an open place, not one that is almost impossible to get into.
I certainly agree. After many years of using the Palace, some organisations are questioning whether they will carry on, because of the inability to get people in. After restoration and renewal, we are talking about doubling the number of people who come here, but there is no point having ambitious targets if we cannot get people in safely and more quickly.
As always, my right hon. Friend makes my point better than me, so I am grateful.
Finally, the structure is not quite right. It has been some time since the Commission was put on a statutory basis after the Straw review. The Leader of the House is keen to look at having the Commission elected, which I support; I would have the whole Commission fully elected to do a job. It would then function more like a traditional Select Committee and more like a team. That would be a good way to go forward, rather than the process we have now, in which all the members of the Commission are appointed by their respective party leaders, and then there are two external members, who are often the most informed and independently-minded on all the financial aspects but, bizarrely, are not allowed to vote. That system needs to change.
I have already said “finally”, but I will say it again: finally, if anything I have said has given the impression that I am not respectful of the Clerks or the people who work for the Committee, that would be a complete mistake. Myfanwy Barrett is a wonderful woman who has done a sterling job for many years. It is an enormous sadness to us that she is leaving—but who knows, maybe we will be buying in her consultancy advice later at a much greater price.
I do not want to turn the debate into the Oscars, but I also thank Philip Collins, who has done a magnificent job for us, and Rob Cope, who is our Committee Clerk.
We have done things differently in the last few months. We are keen to make sure that the Commission regularly hears our voice before it makes decisions about key financial matters. In the end, we are spending taxpayers’ money and we should do it better.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on clearly putting forward the case and on bringing the report to the Chamber. We are deeply indebted to him for his knowledge and interest in the House, and for his delivery of speeches. The low number of hon. Members present does not reflect the importance of the debate or of the issue. This is not the most dynamic subject, but it keeps the wheels turning, so we need to at least record our support for what has been proposed. I also put on the record my thanks to every member of the Finance Committee for the tremendous work they have done to produce the report.
I will discuss a few issues that I feel are important, one of which is security. I want to reflect on my own offices and the budget for them, including for security. For a number of years—since 1985 and for two years after I became a Member of Parliament—I ran my own business, and somewhat successfully, in that I made my tax returns and paid my tax every year. It was therefore a successful business. It also paid for my holidays and my mortgage over the years. I fully understand the importance of balancing the books. I also understand that we cannot plan for everything, and the hon. Gentleman’s introductory comments about the report clearly illustrated that things crop up. The courtyard is one example that he referred to, whereby the costs for one thing took up the money that was supposed to look after five, so again we see the problems that occur.
I have been made aware by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority that my staff would benefit from greater security measures in my constituency office, and I was also informed that the costs for that would be met from an additional budget. How it was to be done was very clear. If every MP was faced with a scenario in which they had to implement new security measures, the cost would be great indeed.
I have discussed with my staff which measures we believe to be necessary, and which can be resolved by small changes that make a big difference in increasing safety levels in the office and in operating a clear zero-tolerance policy on verbal abuse of staff. However, most of my staff are ladies and are unafraid of anybody and stand up for themselves. I might be their boss, but I know my place in life and although I give them instructions about what to do, they tell me what they think. There is nothing wrong with that; there is a good, fair and clear exchange on how things are. However, it is my responsibility to address any safety concerns and over the years I have tried to do that; indeed, I believe that I have done that to their satisfaction.
How much more was that the case for this place in dealing with the breach of Westminster Bridge, which was a direct attack on Parliament and which the hon. Member for Rhondda mentioned? We all know that; the attack is clear in the minds of those of us who sat imprisoned in the main Chamber during that time. I will advocate day and night for resources for security to ensure that this place is as safe as is possible, not simply for us as MPs but for every staff member in this House, who turn the wheels and ensure that this House operates at a very high level.
For that reason, I believe we must be fully accountable for, and transparent in, expenditure, and the general public must be made to understand that the money to run the parliamentary estate is not spent on giving us all our own butler. The report says:
“The Administration Estimate funds expenditure arising from the general administration of the House of Commons and activities undertaken to meet Parliament’s objectives and associated commercial activities. This includes, for example, the cost of House staff, office accommodation in Westminster, running and maintaining the Parliamentary estate, printing, security, broadcasting, IT and catering.”
All those activities turn the wheels and make this House successful. However, we must be able to address security issues as well.
The other issue I will raise is the House’s decision to support the comprehensive restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster, which has resulted in a significant ramping-up of activity over the course of the year. Along with the resource implications of other capital projects, such as the northern estate programme, it has resulted in a net increase of £85.5 million on the 2019-20 baseline that was agreed last year.
We understand the issues, but sometimes we are stuck betwixt two things: improving the House and making sure that it does not decay further, while at the same time making sure that we can still operate in it. That is the big question that the Members of this House have to answer.
The fire doors are an example. I met a lady this morning at nine o’clock for an interview that I was doing. We went through the fire doors and she said, “When did these come into place?” The hon. Member for Rhondda referred to them as well. They are not the most attractive, to be honest, but they are effective; they have a job to do and they clearly do it. The safety of those in this House is very important. The House of Commons is crumbling in parts, including its stonework, plumbing, electrics and much else, but at the same time we must ensure that we can continue to operate in this House.
If we are to save this wonderful piece of history, and my opinion is that we must secure this massive attraction and physical bastion of democracy—or at least that was my opinion until last night’s antics, which have thrown everything into question about whether we are truly democratic in this House. However, that is not the debate for today—although what happened last night does annoy every one of us, and if people are not annoyed, there is something wrong. That is all I can say. However, that is another debate for another time.
It is my belief that we should withhold the voluntary divorce payment to Europe and take care of our own pressing needs in this place. Again, that is just my suggestion for this debate and how I feel.
Many others in this House feel the same way. I did not sit on the Committee but, as Members will know, I take an interest in the things that happen in this House. I take an interest in the report that the hon. Member for Rhondda has put forward and I am also interested in all the thoughts and ideas put forward by all the members of the Committee.
To conclude, I support this report and its recommendations, as well as the thought and effort that went into bringing it forward. There is a need for enough funds for it to be implemented, but there must also be enough funds to ensure that all of us, at every level and in every Department in this House, economise in every way, when that is possible. I am an Ulster Scot. Some people say that every pound is a prisoner. Maybe it is; I do not know, but we are thrifty. We are careful about how we spend our money. When it comes to looking after the money for this place, we must economise where possible, and do what we expect everyone out there to do, who are doing it every day—stretch the pound until it squeals.
As always, Mr Howarth, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I came to Westminster Hall today hoping to be presented with a long-service award; I think that I have been on the Finance Committee since the 2005 Parliament. The hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), who is not here today, has been an assiduous member of that Committee and I think that he has been on it, too, for most of that time. Collectively, we have quite a good memory as to how things used to happen, and I will come back to that in a minute.
It is absolutely right that we should have this debate. As said by the Chair of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), there has been a gap in having a debate to which all Members can contribute. Next year, we can hopefully go back to having the debate on the Floor of the House, with an amendable motion, hopefully to get more interest from colleagues. That is where we set off and it would be helpful again in the future. The problems around renovation and restoration, including the decision making on it and the complexity that programme has introduced to the budget process, have somewhat handicapped us this year, but I hope we can get back to that arrangement in the future.
I also echo what the Chair of the Committee said when he asked why we need two estimates. When Members estimates dealt with all Members’ expenditure—their expenses, as they are often referred to—one could perhaps understand why there was a need for two estimates. Now, however, that work is carried out by IPSA and the Members estimate is such a small amount that it needs to be absorbed, so that we can get away from the need for two separate sets of accounts.
The Chair has also gone through some of the issues that the Committee has been dealing with, but thinking back to when I joined the Committee in the 2005 to 2010 Parliament, what is remarkable now is that we actually have a budget. Believe it or not, we did not have one then. If I said that the finances of the House were run worse than those of the most inefficient district council, I would be exaggerating—I would say the most inefficient town council. It was that bad.
Money got spent, nobody properly accounted for it and there was no proper monitoring. What we have now is a budget agreed each year, which is clear. We monitor against the budget; we have a forward plan; we have a framework for the budget, including criteria in which we lay down what is acceptable in terms of increases for future years, based on inflation, plus any exemptions that are brought forward, such as the Brexit Committee, increased scrutiny or security; and we have an efficiency programme as well.
There have also been efforts to raise extra income, which have been successful in many respects, through catering. We have also tried to bear down on costs. I think that we will have the lowest ever subsidy for catering this year and that is entirely reasonable. We put some subsidy in, because the catering by and large is used by the staff who work in this place, and any reasonable and responsible employer would provide that degree of subsidy for people who do not have a choice about where they eat, particularly at lunchtime.
We should recognise that all those things are a great improvement. By and large, I am pretty comfortable that we are in a good place with the revenue budget. There will be arguments, challenges and disagreements about particular amounts of money, the exemptions to expenditure control and whether efficiencies are going quickly enough, and it is absolutely right that we bear down and put extra pressure on those issues. By and large, however, I think we are in a reasonable place, and can justifiably say, and be content with the fact, that the budget is well managed and scrutinised.
On the capital programme, the situation is not quite as rosy. We can go through a number of the examples that have been highlighted. All the time, we have the challenge of getting to grips with exactly what is going on with some major projects. Hopefully, we now have systems in place that are learning lessons from past mistakes, but we can go around and see the evidence, can’t we? At some stage, there is a story to be told about the Portcullis House roof. I have always said that if someone wanted a page in The Mail on Sunday on that roof, they would probably get at least two pages and a colour supplement to match. It is not right yet, is it? It will be even more interesting when we come to replace it. How will it be replaced? It needs replacing at some point. That fundamental issue was not thought of when the roof was designed and constructed. No one here now is to blame, but there are clearly lessons to be learned.
On the Elizabeth Tower, hopefully lessons are being learned. Ultimately, the work probably needed to be done. It is probably the right project, and what is being done now is value for money, but how we got here is not a good example. We have the fire safety work. Again, it needed to be done, but how we got to the sum is not a good example of financial control. There are the problems with the stonework, and the contracts that have now been suspended, following all the difficulties that have been experienced. Then there is the contract for the sprinkler systems that went with the fire safety. There, again, is a story about how a project was designed and controlled. It does not make happy reading. There are lessons to be learned.
On the other side, we simply must accept that there will always be difficulties and challenges when dealing with this type of building. The very fact that every time we set off on a project it is almost certainly a one-off—it will not have been done for many years, and hundreds in some cases—and we will find things we did not expect. The unexpected will always happen. We are in a listed historic building with lots of construction workers around, and Members of Parliament and the public want security. It will never be easy to do construction work in this place. That is a reality, so it will probably never be possible to absolutely nail down the cost of a project right at the beginning and to know where we will get to at the end. We will find new issues and challenges and it will be difficult, but there are lessons we must learn, and be shown to learn, if we are to retain the confidence that public money is being properly spent.
I echo the comments of the Chair of the Finance Committee about the issue of paying staff properly for this sort of work—I have gone on about it ad nauseam, I know. It is a problem. The reality is that in certain areas—construction and IT systems—we are competing with the private sector in London. There is great pressure for those services and we end up bringing in contractors and agency staff and paying more than we would if we appointed people to the House service. In the end, it is a matter of being more flexible about the rules within which we have to operate, regarding the comparison between our pay grades and those of the civil service. That is a challenge we must recognise, and the unions have brought it to our attention. That is not in any way to denigrate the other people who work in the House—exactly the opposite. The Chair of the Finance Committee is absolutely right that we should give them great credit for the service they give us, right across the field, and for their dedication to working for the House, for us and for democracy. That should be put on record.
There have been comments about R and R and the northern estate and I will not go into what has already been said, but I am concerned about the considerable complications of the shadow R and R arrangements. The little draft diagrams about decision making under the arrangements are very challenging indeed. I also sit on the Members Estimate Audit Committee, and the other day I asked the National Audit Office whether, if there were a problem with the shadow R and R arrangements, it could be certain, as our auditor, of identifying where responsibility and accountability lay. I think it would be hard pushed to do that. It has gone away to consider it, but it is a worry, and we are heading for problems if we set up a system in which we cannot point with absolute certainty to where decisions are made and accountability rests. Everyone always blames everyone else when something goes wrong, so there is a challenge there that we ought to think about. I do not know how to get around it, because until we get to the final stage of the statutory arrangements it is very difficult indeed, but the shorter the period of shadow arrangement the better, and the less chance of things going wrong.
I have two final points. I first thank the Chair of the Finance Committee for how he has chaired the Committee this year. We perhaps set off with a different idea of who the Chair should be, but I nevertheless thank him for the inclusive way in which he has run the Committee. We have worked together to address some of the issues and I put on record my thanks to him. Also, the Chair rightly mentioned Myfanwy Barrett, who is leaving us. I have worked with her with various hats on, on the Finance Committee, as a pension trustee on the House of Commons Members’ fund, and on the Audit Committee, and she appears at all these meetings to give us very appropriate and sound advice. I talked initially about how we used to do finance in this place and how we now have proper systems in place, and much of the credit for that goes to Myfanwy. She has changed the system and brought us into line, with proper arrangements with which appropriately to run the finances of this place. We can all be pleased about that. I am sorry she is going, but I wish her well and thank her for what she has done for us. No doubt there will be opportunities to thank her again in Committee, but this is probably the only chance we will get in the wider forum of Parliament, so I would like to put that on record.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth.
I suspect that members of the Finance Committee will be wondering, “Who on earth is this guy? He isn’t the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts”. I bring the apologies of my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray), who had hoped to be here but has had to remain in Scotland due to family illness. I am sure that I speak on behalf of all of us here in Westminster when I wish him well.
When I spoke to my hon. Friend last night, he said he was grateful to me for taking on this speaking commitment about “one of the driest Committees in the House”, but I have to say that having sat through the debate, I have often found myself saying, “Be still my beating heart”. I sit on the Procedure Committee, so this is positively exciting—I might speak to my chief Whip to see whether I can get a swap. In all honesty, I am grateful to the Finance Committee for its report, which was very illuminating at 1 o’clock this morning when I read it. I will touch on that in a moment.
The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is absolutely right about the need to be diligent about how we spend taxpayers’ money, and that the scrutiny of the process in the past has been less than satisfactory. Wearing my Procedure Committee hat, I know that there are issues with how Committees are set up—particularly after general elections, when the scrutiny is not there. The public look to us, as Members of Parliament, to lead that scrutiny. It takes several months at a time to get Committees up and running, and that is a very different context from that of the Finance Committee. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for putting that on the record.
The hon. Gentleman was also absolutely right to pay tribute to the Clerks and the House staff, who do a magnificent job—I know he intended to do that, although it came towards the end of his speech. I certainly felt that yesterday, when watching the chief Clerk chairing what was a very volatile day. We really do get our money’s worth out of those guys. The hon. Gentleman was right to place that on the record.
I shall sum up the contributions. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke about security and the importance of looking after our staff, not just in our constituency offices but here in the Palace—the staff here are the real heroes of the House. He went on to speak about restoration and renewal, which I will touch on, and he said that perhaps some of the issues could be solved if we withheld our payment from Europe. I am not necessarily sure he will find agreement from me on that.
I was not aware that the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) had been on the Committee since 2005. If my heart is beating very fast from just one debate, goodness knows what that amount of time serving on the Committee does for the soul. The hon. Gentleman spoke about the importance of learning from past mistakes, and had some fairly sage advice in regard to Portcullis House.
That brings me nicely to my own contributions to the debate. I have looked at the front page of the report and seen the draft estimates, or the financial plan to 2022-23. As a Scottish National party Member of Parliament, I make no apology for not intending to be here in 2023. That is not because I plan to lose my seat; it is because the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) and I will be surplus to requirements, because Scotland will be an independent country and we will not need Members of Parliament down here. Perhaps that would be a good way of saving money.
The Minister is in her place; I have a standing engagement with her on Wednesday mornings, as the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) is trying valiantly to bring through a Bill that would stop the Government from reducing the number of Members from 650 to 600. It is interesting that the report talks about increased scrutiny throughout, whereas the Government are trying to reduce that scrutiny. Page 10 talks about what is probably the biggest elephant in the room: the decision to leave the European Union—well, it is not an elephant in the room, because we are all talking about it. We can clearly see that the implementation of that decision has an impact on the budgets in the report.
There are certain things for which the Scottish National party would clearly support increased budgets, some of which I have touched on, including security and perhaps the independent grievance process. However, I am accountable to my constituents back home, and I find myself talking to them about this place and the eye-watering sums being committed to restoration and renewal. The hon. Member for Rhondda spoke about building a replica Chamber; the fact that we are building a Chamber that looks exactly the same as the current one when that Chamber is so unfit for purpose sends a clear signal to ordinary members of the public.
We are recreating Division Lobbies that we can troop through. People regularly come to this place on tours, and I explain to them how we conduct our votes, walking through corridors—I mean, what an absolute waste of time! It is great that we have invested in the education centre, but the ironic thing is that when the children there cast their votes, they do so using an electronic keypad. How much time is wasted by the fact that we have Clerks sitting in the House for numerous votes as we walk around and around?
I sympathise with some of the arguments that the hon. Gentleman is making, particularly because at the moment, as I understand it, one in 10 Division lists is wrong. The new system is more difficult to use than the old paper system, although I am not arguing in favour of going back to the paper system. I like us gathering in the Lobbies, as it means we have an opportunity to see Ministers and all the rest, but by now we should be able to use our thumbs or our fingerprints to vote in the Division Lobbies, as we do for our phones, and still be counted through by the Tellers.
I have a huge admiration for the hon. Gentleman. He is one of the great custodians of the traditions of this House, and there is a place for respecting those. He has spoken about being in the Lobbies with Ministers as a great thing, but I can think of probably only one occasion when I have been in a Lobby with Ministers. As an Opposition MP, it makes not a jot of difference to me, because I am seldom in a Lobby with a Government Minister.
We have to think about how we are spending money. There has been some chat about the new fire doors that have been put in place; I managed to provoke a degree of ridicule—based on my part, largely—a couple of months ago when I had an interaction with the Chair of the Administration Committee, the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), who could not understand what I was saying. The point I was making was about disability access in this place.
We have just spent what was presumably a lot of money on upstanding fire alarms. I gather that the reason for that is the wiring in this place, but now a person cannot turn a corner in the main Palace because of these obstructive upstanding fire alarms. In one respect, we send strong signals about this place being fine for somebody with a disability, yet because we are trying to adhere to the customs of this place we have those ridiculous, massive alarms, which I suspect came at great cost.
I was speaking about restoration and renewal. I make no apology for the fact that I would be quite happy to see us decanted to a sports centre in Milton Keynes, although I know that, for some people, being on the banks of the Thames and in the big House of Commons is a status symbol.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about decanting to a sports centre in Milton Keynes. Would he be happy with decanting the Scottish Parliament to a sports centre in Glasgow or Perth? Of course, the construction of that building went 10 times over its planned budget. Rather than disrespecting the Parliament of our country—which it still is, unless the hon. Gentleman gets his way—he should focus on scrutiny, to make sure money is spent in the right way so that this Parliament is the most accessible Parliament for all the peoples of the United Kingdom.
I am very happy to stick to your guidance, Mr Howarth, and will not take any gratification from having managed to provoke a PPS into speaking from the Back Benches. The reality is that I would be happy for us to meet in Glasgow, Edinburgh or Liverpool. The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire is fond of saying that this is the United Kingdom Parliament, but it seems to me that we are very London-centric, and some of these cost issues arise because we are so determined to be in the absolute centre of London.
I have already mentioned security issues; the hon. Member for Rhondda touched on some concerns, and I would echo some of them. There is clearly a focus on making sure that our security is very strong. I probably feel most secure when I am here in the Palace of Westminster; I feel a lot less secure when I am sitting in Baillieston library—that is not necessarily concern for my security, but for that of the staff who are with me. I am very happy to endorse the security budget.
I did not intend to speak for nine or 10 minutes, but it is possible to go down a rabbit warren on this subject, and it does get quite interesting. I will close by saying that at a time when austerity is not over, and our constituents are struggling with austerity, we need to be mindful about the decisions we make. As a fairly new Member of this House, I am not always convinced that we get value for money. Nevertheless, in all sincerity, I pay tribute to the Finance Committee for carrying out a job that I am sure can be very dry, but is none the less very important.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. Much like the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), I came rather late to the honour of responding to this debate, and found myself at a late hour on Monday evening doing something completely different than I had planned. However, like him, I have found the debate fascinating, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for leading it.
At the outset, I will highlight some areas of success. We often talk about areas of failure when we talk about such topics, but there have been areas of success over the last few years. However, I will first pick up on an area of great concern: the absence of a Finance Committee over a six-month period during an election period. I think that is something that we would like to hear about from the Minister.
As a lifelong NHS bureaucrat, I have had to come to some documents quite late in time. Yesterday evening, when I was given the report, I first turned to the appendix to see whether anything was hidden in there. True to form, in the planning for 2019-20 on page 11, in the high-level planning assumptions, the first thing I read was this:
“The political temperature is high and this may spill over into other areas”.
I trust that the Minister will be able to outline to us how she sees that working over the next couple of years.
I welcome the opportunity to debate these estimates, because as I said, I spent my previous life as an NHS manager, and I am also a former member of the Public Accounts Committee. In our public services and on the Public Accounts Committee, we expect public bodies to behave to the highest standards. We expect them to demonstrate good financial planning, monitoring and accountability, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda said, also to demonstrate value for money. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) is a local government expert. Across the land, we expect our councils to demonstrate value for money, so it is imperative that we do so in this place.
We know that over the next few years Parliament faces a number of significant policy matters and events that will have a bearing on the budget. They include Brexit, restoration and renewal, the refurbishment of the northern estate, the review of the parliamentary archives accommodation, the implementation of the digital strategy, the significant increase in the employers’ pension contribution, pay and reward strategy beyond the current pay deal, enhancing security around the parliamentary estate, and developing cyber-security and technology infrastructure. It is quite a list.
The House debated and voted on restoration and renewal in January, and we would all agree that the Palace of Westminster is in need of restoration and renewal and that a number of issues need to be resolved. We have agreed the decant ahead of the refurbishment work and the work going on with the sponsor body, as we heard earlier. Anyone who has visited the basements and the full extent of this place will know how urgent that work is. A couple of years ago, I had the great pleasure of visiting to look at those places. The conditions in which we are expecting people to operate to service this place and make it work are unacceptable. It is vital that that work continues.
Anyone who knows the history of when Mr Barry and Mr Pugin were doing the original work on this place will know that restoration and renewal is a huge project for the country that will elicit great interest, and it needs to be done properly. We have a massive opportunity for skills development, for apprenticeships, for good employment practices and for reviving great skills that have been lost in this country. We need to be an exemplar not only for the country, but for the world in how the work can be done to make this Parliament fit for the 21st and 22nd century, although we may lose the hon. Member for Glasgow East and his colleagues. Jobs and skills can be developed in Bristol, the Rhondda, Sheffield, Northern Ireland and Scotland. There is a massive opportunity for our country, and I would like to see us do that.
We have not discussed this important point in our Committee—it is important for the R and R project—but there will be an enormous shortage of staff, in particular to do some of the craft functions that will be needed around the building. We should be setting up parliamentary building apprenticeships in large numbers and ensuring that there are academies across the country so that every different constituency in the land has some investment in the restoration and renewal project.
I am grateful for that intervention. After I visited a couple of years ago, I did a report in my local newspaper on that very subject. There is great interest in our cities, regions and rural areas in some of the skills that have been lost. We can see when we visit those facilities—I remember seeing it in Sheffield—that in the past people could demonstrate pride in their work and imprint that in this place. It would be magnificent to see young people and older people throughout the country develop those skills and then bring them here to do that work, and there is great interest in that. It is about how we manage that positively but also, critically, demonstrate that we are doing so on a good cost basis and with value for money.
Security and access to the estate are important. Changes to the estate as a result of restoration and renewal and the northern estate programme will require additional resources and security measures. We all have strong memories of the March 2017 attack. A number of security projects have arisen from the Murphy review following that attack. We note that that work is due to be completed by summer 2021, but cyber-security remains a high risk. We know that from last week. The House will continue to face cost pressures from that, but security is critical to the work we do here.
The medium-term financial plan should enable the House service to support Parliament, deliver our specific objectives and demonstrate how the service will become increasingly effective and efficient over time. The strategy is currently being refreshed and the three existing strategic objectives are expected to be expanded to four: facilitating effective scrutiny and debate, involving and inspiring the public, securing Parliament’s future, and valuing every person. Those are important objectives.
The hon. Lady is talking about an important subject, and it is important that it is recorded in the debate. The traditions, history and procedures we have in the House are perhaps unique to this place, but they have been the inspiration for many other democracies across the world. I think the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) referred to that. It is so important that we retain those things in the House. We are a modern society, but we should also keep our traditions for democracies across the whole world.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. I enjoy the traditions, and I agree in large part that they are important, but the evolution of new traditions is also important. I have visited the Scottish Parliament building and the Welsh Assembly this year. I have also been to Stormont twice. It was fairly quiet, but the building is magnificent, as are the others. I take on board the issue about cost, but we should be evolving by learning from all parts of the United Kingdom about how they are operating in a more modern setting. I have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda talk about the learning from Parliaments across the world. There has to be a way of preserving some of those traditions while making them work for the later part of the 21st century and into the 22nd century, which none of us will be here for. I hope we can bequeath something good to those who follow.
The investment plan sets out the bicameral plans for investment in strategic programmes, estates and digital. As we have heard, the bulk of that work is split into three areas: work on the Elizabeth Tower and fire safety, which is something we all would welcome; work on the northern estate; and the restoration and renewal programme, which we have talked about. I echo the comments made previously. It is important that that work is transparent and that we understand how it is happening. I am slightly alarmed to hear some of the comments about how projects are managed and the difficulty the Committee has had in following some of the decision making and the finances. These are substantial projects and we need to be assured that they are being well planned and monitored and are value for money. I agree that discussion at least annually is valuable. I would be interested to hear from the Minister why that could not happen.
On the Public Accounts Committee, we visited the Major Projects Authority, which is part of the Cabinet Office, as the Minister will be well aware. The learning and understanding of how to manage major projects is great within parts of government. There needs to be a way of taking the learning from places such as the Major Projects Authority and the work going on in the Cabinet Office and making it applicable to the work of this place. It is not acceptable that we ask other people, other public bodies and spenders of taxpayers’ money to operate in one way and then we operate in another. Although I am late to it, I am slightly alarmed that that does not seem to be happening. I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East said about looking at the role of the National Audit Office. Its reports on decision making and accountability are very clear and easy to follow. If the NAO cannot find its way through it, something is clearly wrong.
In concluding, I thank all the staff who are involved in all aspects of the work to make this place operate. I thank members of the Finance Committee for publishing this report, for the important work they do behind the scenes, which most of us perhaps do not see, and for their diligence in bringing that work before us this morning. The Opposition support the recommendations of the Finance Committee and welcome the chance to debate and scrutinise this report.
I am sure that this cannot make up the full set of all those who were reading this report late last night in preparation for this morning’s debate. I thank hon. and right hon. Members for their contributions today, and I am pleased to be here to participate in this important debate on the House of Commons financial plan and draft estimates.
I apologise straight away that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is not here. By rights, she should be responding to this debate. I am happy to be here in her place, and I know she spoke last week to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), the Chair of the Finance Committee, to explain that she would not be able to be here today. She would like me to convey her apologies again this morning. She will be following the debate very closely through Hansard, and I will ensure that key points are brought to her attention.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this Westminster Hall debate. I pay tribute to his hard work in chairing the Finance Committee and his dedication to the work on the finances for this place. I also thank him for his work with the Government in the cross-cutting parts of the draft estimates where work needs to be done in conjunction with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. As a member of the House of Commons Commission, she has asked me to thank the Finance Committee for its report, which represents the Committee’s provisional advice to the Commission, and the Members Estimate Committee for the 2019-20 to 2022-23 medium-term financial plan and the 2019-20 Administration and Members estimates. I am absolutely sure that she and all other members of the Commission and of the Estimate Committee will want carefully to consider the points made by Members today. I am also sure that they will want to carefully consider the thanks that have been expressed to the staff of the Committee and connected teams.
The Government continue to support a well-run House of Commons and share its drive to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the service. A high-quality service in support of Members’ duties is integral to the success and strength of our democracy and supporting processes. It is vital that all of us—Members and their staff, staff of the House, and the public—see that this House is committed to the delivery of a service that is both first class and excellent value for money. Today’s debate invites the House to consider those issues.
The purpose of the debate is to give Members the opportunity to comment on the advice before it is finalised, as the hon. Member for Rhondda set out in his opening statement. This annual debate on the draft estimates began in the previous Parliament and took place in 2012, 2013 and 2014 in the main Chamber: a point made by the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts). It subsequently fell into abeyance and so this is the first debate of its type in this Parliament. I know that the Chair of the Finance Committee submitted this as a Backbench Business debate, so we are here in Westminster Hall, but I hear the point about how it ought to be held in the Chamber. Perhaps that can be considered for the future. The fact that we are having this debate is to be welcomed because it allows the issues to be properly looked at in addition to the work of the Committees involved.
I want to thank the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth), the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), who spoke on behalf of the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray), and the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Sheffield South East for their contributions, in addition to the Chair of the Committee for setting out the issues.
A question was asked about why the two estimates are separate. It derives from legislation, so it could be regarded as a shared responsibility between the House and the Executive. It was argued that the two estimates could be combined, and there might be value in doing so. I understand that trying to merge them was the subject of a private Member’s Bill in 2016, when points were made on both sides of the argument. However, there was a desire from the Treasury to be able to continue to offer the right level of scrutiny and support to the House of Commons to be able to manage the expenditure, which would not be possible if the two estimates were merged. I am happy to ask colleagues to look further at those issues, which are not in my current brief.
Indeed. I shall ask my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to come back to the Chair of the Committee on that point so that it can be made clear.
On the question about the statutory footing of the Finance Committee compared with that which the House of Commons Commission enjoys, the Commission’s statutory footing gives it the authority that it needs to make the decisions that we ask of it, whereas the Finance and Administration Committees are advisory bodies. Clearly, there would need to be some consultation across the House to be able properly to scope such a decision to put those two advisory bodies on to a statutory footing. I know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is keen to see a more democratic governance structure, which goes back to a point that was also made during the debate. I think she will listen carefully to the points made today and will wish to come back to the Chair of the Committee on that point about the statutory footing.
I kind of get that the Finance Committee is advisory, as is the Administration Committee, but the only gritty examination of the finances is done by my Committee. I previously sat on the Commission and it simply does not have the time to devote to finances because it deals with hundreds of other issues, so it would be in our long-term interests to change that pattern. Also indicative is the fact that not a single member of the Commission is here today. I have no beef with either the shadow Leader of the House or the Leader of the House. I know they are busy in shadow Cabinet and Government Cabinet. I fully understand that, but it is not great when not a single member of the Commission is here.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for putting those points on the record today. It is helpful that this debate has taken place so that that can be done. I will absolutely make sure that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House responds and discusses the issues with him so that they get proper scrutiny.
On the question of how frequently the Committee has been able to meet and how frequently the debate has been able to take place, there is a general point about how quickly Select Committees can be set up in any new Parliament, and of course the Government wish to see that done as quickly as possible and would support promptness in that setting up. Again, I shall ask my right hon. Friend to look at that point.
There are two remaining points to deal with. One is that of Government pay scales being too restrictive to allow work to be done properly. I suspect that that sits in the discussions that need to take place on restoration and renewal rather than in this debate. Once again I will ensure that my right hon. Friend hears what has been said today. As a general point on the pay scales, they exist to try to get consistency across the public sector and value for money for the taxpayer, which are well understood and respected points. However, I hear what has been said today about the specialisms sometimes required in the work that needs to be done within restoration and renewal.
The hon. Member for Bristol South was very kind to acknowledge the good work done by the Major Projects Authority. I thank her for that and will pass it on to colleagues in my Department. She suggested that expertise could be shared and I will be happy to see what can be done on that.
On some other areas more generally that I know the Leader of the House would want me to touch on, the first is restoration and renewal. The Finance Committee’s report explains that the primary reason for the difference between this year’s and last year’s MTFP is because of the House’s decision earlier this year to support comprehensive restoration and renewal of the Palace. I know that the Leader of the House has been determined to get on with that job, and the Government published the draft Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill in October, to give effect to the resolutions passed earlier this year.
The Bill will facilitate Parliament’s decision to set up a sponsor board and delivery authority to progress the comprehensive programme of works. It has been developed in close consultation with the House authorities and will, I hope, put in place the rigorous and transparent governance structure that we need to drive that work forward, while ensuring that we focus on value for money for the taxpayer. There cannot be a blank cheque for the work; the Government and Parliament agree that it must represent good value for money. We look forward to the report from the Joint Committee that is currently considering the draft Bill.
Following the work taken forward on a cross-party basis and led by the Leader of the House on bullying and harassment, the Government strongly welcome the provisions made, which are represented in the report, to support the introduction of the new independent complaints and grievance scheme. That is important to ensure better training, new human resources support and, crucially, the two new independent helplines and investigative services that underpin the new behaviour code. That is essential to ensure that we are supporting those who experience bullying or harassment, and to change the culture here in Westminster for the good, and for good.
I thank colleagues who have contributed to the debate, and emphasise just how useful it is for members of the commission and the Members Estimate Committee. Present or otherwise, I am sure that they will look at the debate carefully in Hansard. We can all agree that ensuring responsible and sustainable delivery of services for the House, while allowing for efficiency and value for money, is essential. I again thank the hon. Member for Rhondda, and I will ensure, as I have already undertaken, that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is made aware of today’s contributions.
I am grateful to all hon. Members who have contributed. I will respond to a few points, but first I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts); since my back was patted, I want to pat his too. The Finance Committee is not necessarily the Committee that one expects to join when one arrives in Parliament, but ensuring that we properly scrutinise our finances is one of the most important things that we do as MPs. It is not something that the House of Lords can do; we are there to do it, and we are therefore an important Committee. I am grateful for the longevity of my hon. Friend’s service. That always makes him grimace, because he thinks that I am paying tribute to him beyond the grave.
No, not quite. Anyway, I am grateful.
I will respond to some of the earlier comments about R&R, or whether we should value this building or go off to a park in Milton Keynes—people always choose Milton Keynes. The problem with the argument for moving out of here and going somewhere else entirely is that because our system has the Executive within the Parliament we would effectively have to take the whole of Government with us as well.
I know that people argue, as I have myself sometimes, that Britain is far too London-centric, and that too much of the economy is focused on London and the south-east. However, the truth is that moving the whole of Government out of London to some other place, building some massive building, buying an enormous site and then providing accommodation for all those people would be more expensive than staying here, not least because this is a world heritage site. It is one of the most recognisable buildings in the world. We would still have to maintain it, even if we were going to hand it over to someone else anyway.
There would therefore be no cost saving. There may be political arguments, which I do not share, about the Union from the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), and about other elements. However, in the end I do not think that there is any real alternative that is financially advantageous to the taxpayer that involves moving us out of the Palace in the long run. The hon. Gentleman also said that we will build a Chamber exactly like the one we have at present. There may be many good reasons for changing the way in which we do our business, but restoration and renewal is not one of them.
If we want to make changes, that is perfectly within the will of the House, but it is up to the House to make those decisions, rather than to have them foisted upon us because of some kind of building project. As I understand it, the Clerks are already working on IT so that we will be able to vote in the Division Lobbies with our thumbprints or fingerprints, instead of having to walk through and tell them our names and all the rest of it.
As for the main substance of today’s debate, it is important that we scrutinise the finances of the House. They are not the biggest numbers in all Government expenditure, but they are very significant numbers, and over the next few years they will grow rapidly. One of the concerns of our Committee is that there is not much transparency about where decisions are made and whether they have been good decisions. As we move into the process of restoration and renewal, there is a danger that, if there is an extended period with a shadow Sponsor Board and a shadow delivery authority, where decisions are actually being made on very dramatic amounts of money will be even more opaque.
For instance, major decisions are being made on the northern estate project, which at the moment is not part of the restoration and renewal project, regarding the design, how many floors there should be, and what planning applications we should be submitting. Those decisions are currently being made somewhere between the Finance Committee, the accounting officer, and the commission. The shadow sponsor body will start to make key decisions, but, because it will not have statutory effect until the law is brought in, those decisions will have to be ratified by the Finance Committee advising the commission.
If that period goes on for too long, there is a danger that we will end up with bad decisions, uncertain outcomes and uncertain delivery of the project and the finances. The Government can make a material difference to that by introducing the legislation. We have it in draft form at the moment, and we are delighted that that has sped up a bit, thanks to the Leader of the House. However, we need to ensure that in the next Session we get on with passing that legislation as fast as possible.
The one caveat I add is that we should consider very carefully the fact that until 2004 the Palace, like all other royal palaces, was its own planning authority. Since 2004, we have not been our own planning authority, and we are subject to the planning decisions of Westminster City Council. We have a very good working relationship with the council at the moment, but in essence the project will completely dwarf its whole planning department. To all intents and purposes, we will be paying for a new planning department foisted on Westminster City Council. There is an argument for us saying, “Frankly, we should just have it in house, rather than being subject to Westminster City Council.”
I say that because one of the key decisions that is yet to be made concerns the lighting in Westminster Hall; I think that battle has been going on with the planning authorities for the best part of 12 years. That is why we still have hideous arc lamps on the side, on chunks of scaffolding poles, in one of the most beautiful buildings in Europe. If we are unable to make timely decisions, we will end up making more expensive decisions. We need at least to examine whether we should make ourselves our own planning authority.
I am enormously grateful to all those who have taken part in the debate and, in particular, to Myfanwy and her team, who are admirable.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the House of Commons Financial Plan 2019-20 to 2022-23 and draft Estimates for 2019-20.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered NHS treatment of patients requiring hysteroscopies.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. We know that hysteroscopies save lives, but all too often they cause excruciating pain and humiliation because some of the women who need them are not treated with the dignity, respect or even humanity that they deserve.
As hon. Members will know, a hysteroscopy involves the insertion of a camera into the womb, past the cervix, to look for abnormalities and potentially enable a surgeon to remove them. It can be used to rule out a diagnosis of cancer when women are experiencing heavy periods, unexplained bleeding, repeated miscarriages or difficulties in becoming pregnant, and it is a core part of the treatment for debilitating conditions such as fibroids and health risks such as polyps in the womb. However, for some women patients it causes severe pain, a sense of violation and lasting trauma.
The NHS website states:
“A hysteroscopy is not usually carried out under anaesthetic… Taking painkillers such as ibuprofen or paracetamol…can help reduce discomfort after the procedure.”
Unfortunately, many women experience severe pain during hysteroscopy. It is usually done with little or no anaesthetic, and many women are told nothing to prepare them for the agony that awaits. I have passed the Minister many dozens of anonymous cases from women who have experienced terrible pain at the hands of NHS surgeons and were ill-informed or misinformed about the pain risks and offered little or no pain relief. I am glad to say that she has always received those stories with sympathy, empathy and understanding, but I am receiving more and more of them all the time.
This is not an issue that gets huge acclaim or interest in the press. People are finding our campaign and Facebook page simply because they need to. I will put just two experiences on the record today.
As my party’s health spokesperson, I am interested in all health issues, but particularly in this one, so I commend the hon. Lady for securing the debate. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines published in March recommend that women should be offered an out-patient hysteroscopy if they have symptoms or risk factors associated with gynaecological conditions. Does she agree that that recommendation has not been translated into GP referrals? More must be done to ensure that those in need of the procedure, for the purpose of early diagnosis or the removal of issues, are referred and treated in an effective manner. It has to be done early, and that is where we fall down.
I entirely agree, but the importance of early action is sometimes used to encourage or even force women to stay with a procedure that is causing them great pain because of the fear of what might happen afterwards. If the hon. Gentleman gives me a moment, I will illustrate that point.
In October, I heard from Jenny, who has undergone two hysteroscopies, both of which were traumatic. She told me:
“My first experience was shocking. I wasn’t prepared for it. The doctor didn’t warn me at all, and during the procedure I experienced the most unbearable pain ever and I almost fainted. I rose up from the bed that I was on and I shouted out. It felt like my insides were being ripped out. I wasn’t given the option to stop nor was I given any support.
The nurse was behind the doctor throughout the procedure and just watched as I suffered. After the procedure my legs were like jelly. I felt faint and in pain but I wasn’t even helped off the bed, I wasn’t even given a sanitary towel to help with the bleeding. I left the room and drove myself home in that state, I’m lucky I didn’t have an accident. I felt traumatised, in a state of disbelief and shock.”
What is even more shocking is that Jenny’s second hysteroscopy was also traumatising, even though she now knew the risks and had taken steps to ensure that the same thing would not happen again. She explained to her doctor what had happened and requested a female doctor the next time. Her doctor said that she would write that on the referral, and at her pre-hysteroscopy appointment Jenny was told that she could have an injection to numb the area. She was reassured and trusted the female doctor to be more careful, but the procedure was—again—horribly traumatising. Jenny said:
“My god it was shocking, I once again shouted out and raised from the chair this time. The nurse was trying to calm me down…while the doctor said she would stop at any time but she needed to go in again and take a biopsy. I was told that if she didn’t...the procedure would be incomplete and I would be left worrying that it could be cancerous. So I endured more excruciating pain.
I wasn’t given the option to come back and have the procedure done under general anaesthetic, which I have now found out could have been an option. I felt tricked into having the procedure.
I suffered with terrible pain for a week after. Mentally I was left traumatised and still am to this day.”
Understandably, Jenny is now scared about any gynaecological procedure—including smear tests, which she knows are essential for her health.
This autumn, Annie got in touch. Annie had had ultrasounds and smear tests before; like many others, she was given literature about her hysteroscopy that made her think that it would be no different. She was advised just to take paracetamol and ibuprofen before the appointment, and she felt confident. She told me:
“As the procedure began, I felt instant pain, so unexpected and intense that I began to cry and panic within seconds. I was asking the nurse if this was normal as I was so scared there was something wrong, and she nodded to reassure me. I couldn’t get my words out, I was panicking, going into shock. She offered me her hand to squeeze through the pain. I tried to be strong, but I couldn’t, I was yelling out in pain, shaking and crying.
The nurses were telling me to relax my legs but it was impossible. When the Dr began the biopsy it was by far the worst pain I have ever suffered. I was hyperventilating and the nurse was telling me to breathe, but I couldn’t. I endured pain for 15-20 minutes.
I was asked to wait before I stood up, and I was so traumatised and sobbing, I just couldn’t move.
After a couple of minutes I got up and had to put on a sanitary towel and get dressed. It was hard—I was disoriented and shaking.
I sat with the Doctor who told me that due to it being too painful I have to have polyps removed under general anaesthetic. I could barely talk to him due to shock and tears. I wasn’t even offered water, and nobody asked me how I was getting home.
I cried from leaving the hospital at 2 until my wife arrived home at 6, at which point I broke down uncontrollably in her arms. I felt violated and abused, and the procedure felt very very wrong.”
As we know, women are still having these terrible experiences. I received another story in the past two weeks, but I do not have time to share them all. Women are still leaving NHS care feeling violated, and it ain’t going to stop unless we choose to stop it. I am very grateful to the Campaign Against Painful Hysteroscopy for providing support to those women and making sure that they are heard. The campaign group’s petition has received more than 47,000 signatures, which demonstrates that this is not an unusual, occasional thing.
We have four asks. First, if we are to stop patients from being violated or misled, all NHS trusts need to provide accurate information that enables women to give genuinely informed consent. I was pleased to hear from the Minister that her Department is developing tools to improve hysteroscopy care; I look forward to hearing her elaborate on those tools, but involving patients will be essential to making them work. The campaign wants to see a new patient information leaflet made available across the NHS. Campaigners have been working with the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and with specialists to create an appropriate leaflet that patients who have had negative experiences of hysteroscopy have helped to write, but it still needs to be rolled out.
The leaflet needs to be honest with patients. It needs to warn that there is a real risk of severe pain during out-patient hysteroscopy, and explain the risk factors that make pain more likely. They should tell patients that they have the right to ask for the procedure to be stopped at any time and for it to be rescheduled with a full anaesthetic. Hospitals should no longer have any excuse to hand out literature stating there will only be
“mild discomfort, just like a smear”.
After they have read through the leaflet, patients should be given an opportunity to discuss with a trained doctor what is going to happen during the procedure—whether a sample is going to be cut out for a biopsy, the risks involved, and the anaesthetic choices available. The campaign suggests that both patient and doctor should then sign a consent form to confirm the discussion has taken place and the choices the patient has made.
Our second ask is for improved training to enable better and more consistent care. We know that hysteroscopy can be a painless experience for women—some women will experience little pain from hysteroscopy even with minimal anaesthetic—but as we have heard, for others it will be like torture. There are some risk factors—older women and women who have never had children are far more likely to experience severe pain during hysteroscopy—but we cannot tell in advance what someone will experience, and that means we have to improve the guidelines and raise standards through training. The current national guidelines, produced by RCOG and the British Society for Gynaecological Endoscopy, do not recommend several forms of anaesthetic that I am told could be helpful. That has to be looked at, because, for some patients, stronger forms of anaesthetic might be the only way to have a hysteroscopy without experiencing severe pain.
Once we have changed the guidelines, investment in training will be needed to embed new best practice across the NHS. Hysteroscopy nurses should be routinely asking for patients’ pain scores during the procedure, so that informed decisions can be made about whether to continue or to stop. We need to audit pain scores and keep records of how comfortable the surgeon was with continuing, so that we can monitor whether more training is necessary. It should be a basic element of training that hysteroscopy teams should simply stop the procedure if a patient is suffering severe pain—not just hold them down—and reassure the patient that the procedure will be promptly rescheduled with more effective anaesthesia, rather than using the threat of possible undetected cancer to encourage her to continue.
Our third ask is for enough resources to enable all NHS bodies, everywhere in the country, to give women the choice between different anaesthetics when they need a hysteroscopy. The problem is not just flawed guidelines and inadequate training. Trusts may be loth to enable anaesthesia beyond over-the-counter painkillers or local anaesthetic simply because other methods are more expensive. Some are in-patient procedures, and some require clinicians to have specific training, and we all know that that comes with extra costs.
Our fourth, and possibly most important, ask is for a change to NHS incentives for hospitals. According to the information we have, the Department of Health’s quality, innovation, productivity and prevention tariff encourages trusts to promote hysteroscopy without anaesthetic, rather than offering an open choice to women. Annex F to the 2017 to 2019 national tariff payment system is explicit:
“For...diagnostic hysteroscopy...the aim is to shift activity into the outpatient setting.”
The best practice tariff
“is made up of a pair of prices...one applied to outpatient settings, the other to...elective admissions. By paying a higher price for procedures in the outpatient setting, the BPT creates a financial incentive for providers to treat patients there.”
The national target is for the risky out-patient hysteroscopies to increase to 70% of the total, up from 59%. The Department for Health is not working to reduce pain and trauma for women—it is incentivising hysteroscopies without effective pain relief and is taking our choices away. It has to stop, and I hope the Minister will look at how she is going to stop it.
Those are our four asks of the Government, and I think the Minister will agree with me that they are entirely reasonable. I do not believe they would be massively expensive to implement, and we should also consider that current NHS practices may not be cost-effective. Women who have undergone a painful hysteroscopy may not return for other gynaecological tests and procedures. If they do not have those early preventive interventions, more costly interventions will be needed later.
Some action has already been taken. The issue has been raised with the national medical director of NHS England. I thank the Minister for that, and for launching her women’s health taskforce, which I would be interested to hear more about today.
I would like to say something about the history of the hysteroscopy campaign and the amazing women who have led it—I am delighted to see some of them in the Gallery today. With their support, I have regularly been raising this issue in the House for four years now. I cannot say progress has been easy or swift. At times I—we—have been ignored by the Government, despite strong cross-party support every time I have raised the issue. I have been left concerned that officials at the Department of Health, and some senior NHS managers, have not been willing to engage with the problem of women’s pain when the NHS is under financial stress.
However, this last year has been more hopeful. The Minister met me and a core group of campaigners last year, and listened with compassion to their stories. I believe she has taken this cause as her own. I am waiting with bated breath to hear what she is going to say today, and to hear about the rapid and dramatic progress we are going to be able to make on this issue over the coming year.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. It is an even bigger pleasure to respond to the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown). I pay tribute to the work she has done to highlight this issue, which has affected many women over many years who have been left to suffer in silence.
As the hon. Lady said, there were 47,000 signatures on the campaign petition, which is an indication of just how many women have been badly affected by what is actually a common procedure. It does not matter that it is only one in four, which is probably the most generous estimate. It could be as low as one in 10; it does not matter. We are talking about individuals who have been badly affected and who have been traumatised to the point where it effects their ability to look after themselves in the future. Frankly, it is no value to the NHS to leave those women suffering in silence, and I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for sharing the experiences of the women who have been brave enough to come forward.
The hon. Lady set me a challenge. She is quite right to demand swift action, because this has been going on for many years. She had four asks. On the first two, I will work with her and the campaign to make sure we can deliver them. They are extremely reasonable, to be brutally frank. On her third ask, we need to make sure that we have sufficient resource to enable women to exercise genuine, informed choice about how they take this procedure. On the fourth ask, about the tariff, notwithstanding the guidance about what might be best practice in most cases, we need to make sure that the tariff does not encourage perverse incentives that will disadvantage women. At the heart of all this, we need to ensure that running through every piece of treatment for women with gynaecological conditions is the ability to make informed and empowered choices—genuine choices. In that respect, I see the hon. Lady as a strong ally in working towards far better treatment for all women at the hands of the NHS.
The hon. Lady has given a great voice to people who have been through such terrible experiences. She again shared some of the distressing accounts of women for whom current practice has not been good enough. She is right that in the past not enough attention has been paid to a common procedure that generates harm to far too many women. I hope that the very fact of our debate today will shine a light on the situation, because the more we can do to spread awareness, the more women are empowered to look after themselves when facing treatment in the NHS. I hope that she will take some reassurance from the fact that I will continue to work with her to improve women’s health outcomes.
I also want to put something else on the record: the hon. Lady talked about a complete lack of humanity in how those women were treated. I would not be the first to say this—I have spoken to many female colleagues across the House as well—but we often feel that, when our reproductive organs are not being used for the purpose of having children, they are just an inconvenience. The NHS needs to do better. She mentioned my women’s health taskforce, and it is very much at the heart of that. As we go through life, the virtue of having our reproductive organs brings morbidities which are not always treated well in the NHS. We need to do better.
Hysteroscopy, as the hon. Lady explained, is a useful tool in the diagnosis and treatment of a number of conditions, such as the investigation of heavy menstrual bleeding, which affects as many as one in four women between the ages of 15 and 50. That gives some indication of just how many women might consider the procedure. Hysteroscopy is also used to treat fibroids and polyps, which are conditions that can cause long-term symptoms of pain and discomfort. The procedure is without doubt useful in treating women, so hysteroscopies have a role, but as she illustrated beautifully, they can be invasive and traumatic. We need only think about what the procedure involves to understand how traumatic it can be when it becomes painful.
Women’s least expectation of going through the procedure—this is crucial—is that they should be treated with sympathy and respect. They should also have full understanding before undertaking such an experience. As the hon. Lady explained, however, often women find themselves in profound shock at what is happening, and it does not always take place in the most appropriate setting. We clearly need to do better. Information is crucial in that regard: we need to ensure that nothing comes as a surprise.
I encourage women to access the NHS webpage on hysteroscopy, which includes information on what the procedure involves, the likely recovery period and the alternative procedures available. It notes that experiences of pain during a hysteroscopy can vary considerably from one woman to another but—the hon. Lady highlighted this point—I do not think that it properly reflects that, for women who have never had children, the pain can be particularly acute. We should consider the question whether it is ever appropriate for women who have not had children to have the procedure. Clearly, from the evidence she has presented to me, that is where the highest risk is.
I also feel strongly that merely giving information is not enough. Not only is this about providing clarity about what will happen and whether there are decision points for patients—some women will experience little or no pain, but for others it can be severe. We should also remember that for some women the hysteroscopy might be a first encounter with gynaecological services and that some might need to confront past pain or trauma. The hon. Lady has illustrated that well today. It is concerning when medical professionals do not prepare patients for the treatment in a sensitive way.
I fully agree with the hon. Lady that when a woman is clearly suffering during the procedure, it should be stopped. In any case, consent means that at any point people should be able to request that a procedure is stopped. It horrified me to read some of the accounts that she shared, such as women being held down and told, in essence, “You’ve got to continue this treatment or it will be worse for you.” That sort of conversation does not belong in 21st-century Britain in our fantastic NHS. I think we would all agree, women need to be treated better in that regard.
I also agree that we need better training on pain relief and managing women who are to have what can be a traumatic procedure. For practitioners, gynaecological procedures might be an everyday thing, but us women who present ourselves for such a procedure might have to have an out-of-body experience to go through it, because it is not comfortable—[Interruption]—excuse me—to have people engaged in that. We need more sensitivity—[Interruption.] Excuse me, Chair, I have a terrible cold.
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has produced a guideline to provide clinicians with evidence-based information regarding outpatient hysteroscopy—[Interruption.] Excuse me—[Interruption.]
Order. The Minister is clearly in some distress. She must feel that she has more to say, but it would be perfectly in order if she wished to conclude the debate at this point. How can I put this? In these troubled times, it is really nice to see the amount of co-operation taking place across the Chamber. We have established that there is a consensus, so if she feels that she is still in some distress, it is perfectly acceptable if she wishes me to put the question, or we can continue—it is her choice.
I am really grateful to the Minister for her response thus far. I have found her, to be honest, to be the only Minister I have been able to have proper conversations with about such issues who has understood them. I am grateful. However, I honestly believe that we need to do something about the fourth ask. I am a fairly strong woman, but even I was in such a position: I had requested a hysteroscopy with general anaesthetic, but the hospital spent an hour of its time trying to talk me into having one without anaesthetic. I am in a high-risk category of being an older woman and of not having had a child, but I had to beat off the medic who was trying to use every piece of emotional blackmail that she could to get me to agree—the cost to the NHS, taking up resources, the possibility that I had cancer or of a long wait, and so on. It was an uncomfortable conversation. If we do not get rid of the perverse financial incentives, even women as strong as me will be browbeaten.
I thank you, Mr Howarth, and the hon. Lady for the generosity of allowing me to recover myself. We can tell it is December, because we all have colds—thank you very much.
In the short time I have left, I will address the specific issue of the tariff and the possible incentives, which I know the hon. Lady is particularly concerned about. She is right that there is a best practice tariff that incentivises care in a day-case setting with no anaesthetic, just pain relief. That tariff is agreed with the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, but it is revising its guidance. I want to engage the hon. Lady and the campaign group in that process through the women’s health taskforce, so that we can all satisfy ourselves that the guidance is appropriate. She is absolutely right: if someone such as her or me—women Members of Parliament—cannot look after ourselves, neither can anyone else, and I have heard many tales of people often feeling diminished at the hands of the NHS. She and I have the opportunity to use our voices to ensure that women get a better deal.
I again thank the hon. Lady for all her work. I look forward to continuing to work with her to ensure that all women who face that procedure can do so with sensitive treatment and appropriate pain relief.
Question put and agreed to.
Leaving the EU: State Aid, Public Ownership and Workers’ Rights
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered state aid, public ownership and workers rights after the UK leaves the EU.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to have been selected to sponsor this important debate. I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) and the Minister. Their presence underlines the importance of this issue.
I do not need to spell out that we are having this debate in the context of what appears to be gridlock in Parliament. There is no clear consensus about what priorities should shape our future relationship with the EU. Today was supposed to be a day on which we made at least one decision, but even that is no longer the case. I wanted this debate to take place outside the main Chamber to ensure that its content was not considered purely in the context of the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration. Instead, I wanted it to inform the wider, ongoing debate about what the future relationship might look like.
I have chosen to consider these three policy areas for three reasons: first, because they are tools with which the UK Government could transform our economy and society for the better; secondly, because I believe that there is public support for their use by the UK Government; and, thirdly, because I am concerned that there is some friction between the effective use of these tools and EU law. This year, research by the Institute for Public Policy Research concluded that the public want to take back control and expand the role of the state, not reduce it. It suggested that there is no mandate for a buccaneering Brexit based on a race to the bottom in pursuit of even freer markets. Instead, the public want higher environmental standards, tougher regulation and a greater use of state aid, even at the cost of freer trade.
For balance, I want to make it clear that I am not suggesting that EU law bans all forms of public ownership. Nor am I suggesting that the EU prevents all forms of state aid. Indeed, there are several exemptions, and where there are no exemptions a member state can seek the approval of the European Commission. I will come on to workers’ rights later in my speech, but I acknowledge that the EU has sought to create a floor for minimum employment standards. In theory, it should prevent a race to the bottom. Those are, without doubt, important safeguards.
I was more than troubled to read that the withdrawal agreement referred only to the non-regression of labour standards. I am deeply worried that exiting on that basis would leave the British workforce exposed to the risk of seeing their statutory rights gradually eroded or falling behind those of their European counterparts.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. She is right to have secured this debate in this Chamber. Before she moves on to employment rights, I want to take her back to state aid. How does she think it will be different, given that the UK helped to develop the EU’s state aid rules, and the withdrawal agreement says that there will be a level playing field, which suggests that the sort of things we see now will be incorporated?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I will come on to that issue, and specifically the level playing field, later in my speech. I hope that I will answer his question shortly.
One would have to be wilfully blind to argue that there is no tension between EU law and the pursuit of a heightened role for the state in our economy. For now, I want to move on to discuss public ownership, which can take various forms. I am not advocating organisations that are owned by the Government but behave in the same way as for-profit companies, focusing on financial goals and insulated from democratic control, but the dogmatic obsession with privatisation in the UK in recent years has been exposed as a failed and outdated ideology. Hon. Members no doubt represent workers in their respective constituencies who were affected by the collapse of Carillion, which cost the taxpayer at least £148 million. There were also the failures of the east coast main line and Northern rail services, and the emergency takeover of Birmingham Prison—the list goes on.
Our public services have been siphoned off and are run by private companies interested only in extracting profits to line the pockets of their shareholders, instead of reinvesting them to improve the service or reduce consumer bills. The privatised water companies have paid out £18 billion in dividends to shareholders over the past 10 years.
My hon. Friend is making a very important point about how water companies work. In Wales, we have Dŵr Cymru—Welsh Water—which is a publicly owned company that reinvests in the water network and reduces people’s bills. There are very real examples of how water companies can work for people, and we have the best example in Wales.
I thank my hon. Friend for that example.
In the name of efficiency, our public services have been handed to those offering the cheapest services, often at the expense of our public sector workers, who have paid the price with their pay, their terms and conditions and even their jobs. Public ownership does not just bring an end to such bad practices. Done right, it can be used to combat inequality, political disenfranchisement and underinvestment.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. If she wants a good idea of what workers’ rights will be like if we come out of Europe, she has only to look at the recent anti-trade union laws passed by the Government. That will give her a good idea of what will happen to workers’ rights. She talks about privatisation, and Crossrail will now cost an additional £2 billion. These are the issues that we have to consider. My third point is that there is no guarantee that the national health service will survive in its present form when it is opened up to predators from the United States. These are the issues that, at the end of the day, affect people’s jobs and livelihoods. There is no attempt whatever to provide future funding for university research and development, which affects manufacturing in this country in a big way—I asked the Chancellor a question about this this morning. Does my hon. Friend agree?
I agree with the points that my hon. Friend makes, and I share his concerns.
Economic democracy can empower groups and individuals who are otherwise excluded. Involving workers, the public and other stakeholders in economic decision making has both societal and economic benefits. Democratic participation can also enhance the effectiveness of publicly owned enterprises by tapping into grassroots forms of knowledge and the direct experience of employees and users of public goods and services. Democracy, if we are to view it as a vital part of popular sovereignty, must extend far beyond the ability to elect Governments every now and then. The active exercise of individual worker and community member ownership rights is a prerequisite of genuine democracy.
If those campaigning to leave the EU were at all serious about taking back control for the British people, they will recognise the role that democratic public ownership can play in tomorrow’s economy. It can be used to mobilise our economy in pursuit of other policy objectives. For example, democratic public ownership of our energy system could allow us to put tackling climate change at the heart of our energy system in a radical way, while protecting the industry’s workers throughout any energy transition. It is popular: opinion poll after opinion poll demonstrates that the public are crying out for more public ownership, even given the option of “whatever works”.
EU law specifically allows for the public ownership of a service provider, yet the treaty that contains that provision also sets out an economic policy based on an open market economy, with free competition and the liberalisation of services given special status. Some commentators have suggested that remaining subject to EU law will make the reversal of market liberalisation highly problematic for a UK Government who wished to do that.
To take the postal service as an example, the third postal services directive, adopted in 2008, established a clear floor for the postal market, ensuring that collection and delivery take place at least five days a week. At the same time, it has promoted competitiveness for its own sake, which has driven down standards and posed a threat. It fails to see the market as a natural monopoly, and insists that it must remain fully liberalised, restricting the UK Government’s ability to eliminate the market to sustain the publicly owned provider.
Although public ownership of the carrier is not prohibited, it is difficult to see how a UK Government who remain subject to EU law could create a public monopoly with workers and service users at its heart, and with the necessary cross-subsidisation to allow such services to thrive. As far as I am concerned, a true level playing field would establish regulations to ensure that private sector carriers could not undercut prices, and would include a re-establishment of collective bargaining, which I will mention later.
There are similar challenges in the energy sector. The European Court of Justice’s Essent ruling found that the Dutch ban on private ownership of shares in the energy sector amounted to a breach of free movement of capital. The experience in Germany shows that it is possible to create publicly owned energy companies to rival private energy suppliers, but only within the parameters of EU competition law. The recent fourth railway package poses similar challenges in the rail sector.
I briefly draw hon. Members’ attention to a recent dispute at Royal Bolton Hospital. In Alemo-Herron, the ECJ ruled that private employers that take on the provision of public services cannot be required to pay transferred staff the pay rises that they would have had if they had remained in the employment of the public sector. By prioritising the rights of private companies to business freedom over the rights of workers who find themselves in that situation, EU law creates a financial incentive to privatise our public services.
On state aid and public procurement, I recognise that the UK has not made full use of the flexibilities on offer to it as a member state. As with all other aspects of the debate, I do not blame the European Union for the pursuit of neo-liberal policies by successive UK Governments. This Government have certainly not needed any encouragement in that respect. I also accept that there will always have to be some rules to facilitate fair trade, but the EU state aid rules are far more stringent than those in the WTO subsidies regime.
Earlier this year, I called on the Government to provide funding to cover the cost of pay owed to care workers who were found to have been paid less than the minimum wage. The failure to do so risked bankrupting care providers and putting many vulnerable people at risk. The Government, however, had to discuss the issue with the European Commission because of concerns that state aid rules would prevent them from taking such action. I am not sure whether those discussions reached a conclusion before the Court of Appeal’s July ruling.
In addition to restricting the UK Government’s ability to react to certain economic events that threaten our industries, those state aid rules can restrict our ability to intervene proactively to support individual industries or domestic supply chains as part of a comprehensive industrial strategy.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and congratulate her on securing the debate. She is making some fair points, but I take issue with the last one. There has been a very effective deployment of state aid to expand broadband provision throughout the United Kingdom, which she surely welcomes as a positive boost to the UK’s infrastructure, and to help our public services. There are some good stories to tell, despite the general recognition that the level of state aid in the UK is much lower in comparison with that in many other EU countries.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I know everybody says this, but I will come to that later, when I address broadband specifically. I agree that improving that infrastructure is essential.
The recent research from the IPPR that I mentioned earlier concludes that the public place more weight on returning powers to expand the use of state aid than to deregulate, with 53% showing a preference for allowing the Government to support and protect our industries, while only 26% preferred conformity with EU state aid rules to secure a far-reaching EU trade deal.
The variation in WTO-plus agreements suggests to me that a bespoke trade deal could, in theory, include room for structural subsidies. Those could, for example, support industries of particular national value or natural monopolies, where cost reductions would be beneficial and would have no impact on other countries. In that sense, Brexit offers an opportunity to redefine what a true level playing field looks like.
The Communication Workers Union suggested that there would, in theory, be a strong argument for rolling out superfast broadband everywhere, supported by the state, which takes us back to the point made by the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter). Not only is that a natural monopoly, but it is a driver of social and economic wellbeing, as he pointed out. A similar argument could be made for our post office network.
With regard to the withdrawal agreement as it stands, the Attorney General has made it quite clear that in the backstop, restrictions on state aid are hardwired, and new restrictions could be introduced even if they are not in our national interest. I would be grateful if the Minister clarified whether he expects our future relationship with the EU to be substantially different or based on a parallel system. In the same way, the EU procurement directive is far more restrictive than the WTO agreement on government procurement. I would support, for example, limiting eligibility for public procurement contracts to companies that can demonstrate ethical maximum pay ratios and gender pay ratios, yet the EU procurement directive raises questions as to whether that would be compatible with single market rules.
There will undoubtedly be risks to workers’ rights if we leave the EU. Parliament is currently considering a deal that refers only to “non-regression”, when it would surely have been possible to ensure that British workers enjoy at least the same statutory rights as their European counterparts, as part of what I would describe as a genuine level playing field. We must also consider collective bargaining. I do not want to stray into a debate on the benefits of collective bargaining, but suffice it to say that I believe that rolling out sectoral-level bargaining will bring far more than just improvements to workers’ wages or employment conditions, and, alongside other reforms, it can give workers a real stake in their industries, and is another prerequisite for democratising our economy.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again, and she is making some important points. She has talked throughout about a level playing field for workers’ rights and state aid. Does she agree that it is extremely important that the UK Government work with both the Scottish and Welsh Governments where there are devolved responsibilities, to ensure that there is a level playing field? That applies particularly to future funding for communities such as mine, which received objective 1 and objective 2 status, and where Welsh Government Ministers are responsible, for example, for the NHS pay structure and, from next year, for teachers’ pay?
I am grateful once again to my hon. Friend, who makes some excellent points on devolved Governments.
Long before the formation of the EU, British workers’ rights were largely gained through industrial organisation and collective bargaining. Many statutory rights that have been introduced have simply extended those rights so that they can be enjoyed universally by workers not covered by those collective agreements and contractual rights. Although I do not blame the EU for the declining role of trade unions in the British economy, I am concerned that it is heading in the same direction.
The level of collective bargaining coverage is falling across Europe, under pressure from troika policies. To highlight the direction of travel, a report prepared by the European Commission’s directorate-general for economic and financial affairs lists the following “employment-friendly reforms”: decreasing bargaining coverage; decreasing extension of collective agreements; decentralising bargaining systems; removing or limiting the favourability principle; and overall reduction of wage-setting power by trade unions. The same report lists other reforms not related to collective bargaining, including loosening the conditions for dismissals and decreasing notice periods and the level of severance payments.
We must also consider the fact that under EU law the four freedoms of business—to provide services, establish business, move capital and move labour—trump all other rights. I have already highlighted the Alemo-Herron case, in which the right of workers to the benefit of collective bargaining found in the UN charter, the European convention on human rights and the International Labour Organisation declaration was not mentioned. Also, the more well known cases of Viking and Laval, amplified by the Holship ruling, reinforce the fact that under EU law the right to take industrial action will always be treated as subservient to the four freedoms. Furthermore, the directives passed by the EU on individual employment rights have been limited in scope. For example, the agency workers directive appears helpful in principle, but is reported to have led to a massive increase in the number of agency workers across Europe who do not enjoy the same full rights as their directly employed counterparts.
That is not to dismiss the significance of EU-derived employment rights and, as I have said, I am more than disappointed to see that the Brexit deal as it stands refers only to non-regression. Our existing rights must be protected, and safeguards should have been included to ensure that British workers never fall behind their European counterparts, as part of that truly level playing field. However, as hon. Members look for alternatives to the discredited deal, we should also be conscious that the EU is not the beacon of workers’ rights that it is sometimes made out to be.
To conclude, I ask that for a moment we consider the historic vote to leave the EU. The national turnout was the highest ever for a UK-wide referendum and the highest for any national vote since the 1992 general election. Despite the main parties campaigning to remain and interventions from all sorts of interested parties about the impact that leaving would have on our economy, the public voted to leave the EU, albeit by a small margin. In my constituency, that margin is estimated to have been somewhat wider, at 41% to remain and 59% to leave.
I am sure that everyone present is also aware of the research conducted by Lord Ashcroft that concluded that the three lowest social groups voted to leave by a majority of two thirds. In that same poll, the single reason most frequently given for voting to leave was the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK. One year later, more than 80% of voters cast their vote for parliamentary candidates representing parties promising to respect the result of the referendum—a promise that I also made to the constituents whom I represent.
Since June 2016, I have done a lot of reflecting about what the result really meant. In the end, I decided that many complex and interacting factors probably influenced it, and that making sweeping generalisations would be unhelpful. One thing I concluded, however, as I am sure everyone present did, is that to ignore the result would be a profound and unforgiveable mistake. The referendum was an extraordinary exercise of democracy. If the result in 2016 was anything, it was a demand for change by those who benefited the least from our economic status quo. What is more, it was an expression by a majority of the electorate—however small and for whatever reason—that that change was best achieved with the UK outside the EU.
Even if hon. Members do not feel that expanding public ownership, state aid or workers’ rights are desirable policies, I ask them to consider the long-term consequences of lending support to any deal that further hollows out our democracy or locks us into the economic status quo. I therefore strongly urge Members to reject the single market, along with its legal framework, should such an option appear before the House. To do so is not to retreat into isolationism, protectionism and nationalism; on the contrary, it could herald the beginning of a new internationalism.
Of course we want the fullest access to all markets for our businesses, but the expansion of international trade, including in services, has not required a single market or a similarly restrictive framework. We must be vigilant to ensure that any other deal includes the necessary protections, clarifications and exemptions, so that we can use such policy tools effectively to rebuild and empower our communities, our public services and our economy in every region of the UK. I believe that there is public support for a new type of economy, one in which the state plays a more active role, in which ownership by, and accountability to, the public is included, and in which those who work within those industries are rewarded properly for their labour.
It is, as always, a great pleasure to see you in the Chair for this afternoon’s proceedings, Mr Hollobone.
I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith) on securing this debate. In some respects it is timely, because the actions of the Prime Minister yesterday have perhaps moved us a little closer to a no-deal scenario, which would be catastrophic for jobs and our communities, although my argument is that that is not a new phenomenon.
The British Government have left key Scottish industries without support for decades, and are now set to subject our firms to a Tory Brexit race to the bottom. Communities in Scotland, whether those of Linwood, Ravenscraig or Methel, know fine well that British Governments simply cannot be trusted to protect jobs and people’s livelihoods. I welcome the opportunity to shine a bright light on the stark contrast between the privatisation-obsessed British Government and a Scottish Government who believe in a thriving, healthy public sector. Westminster, not the EU, sold off our public services.
Thanks to the Scottish National party, Scottish Water, the island ferries and our NHS have all remained in public hands. In sharp contrast to the increasing health privatisation by Westminster Governments, the SNP Scottish Government have kept, and will always keep, Scotland’s NHS in public hands. Unlike water suppliers elsewhere in the UK, Scottish Water has remained a statutory corporation that provides water and sewerage services across Scotland, and it is accountable to the public through the Scottish Government.
Caledonian MacBrayne is the major operator of passenger and vehicle ferry services between the mainland of Scotland and the 22 major islands of Scotland’s west coast. Glasgow Prestwick airport is also operated on a commercial basis, at arm’s length from the Scottish Government, in compliance with European Union state aid rules, and Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd is a public corporation wholly owned by the Scottish Ministers, which operates 11 Scottish airports that are vital to the social and economic welfare of the areas that they serve—some of the most fragile communities in our country. The reality, however, is that they are loss making and supported by subsidies from the Scottish Government.
The Scottish Government are also pressing ahead with plans for a national investment bank and a public energy company, supporting our position as a leading EU mixed economy. Last September, the First Minster announced plans to establish a Scottish investment bank, and we may hear more about that later this week. On a personal level, as someone who wants to see much more state ownership, I am genuinely delighted that the Scottish Government are on track to deliver their ambition of a public energy company by the end of the Parliament in 2021. Even better, there will be a public sector bid to run the railways in Scotland—long overdue, in my view. In Scotland, we have a good story to tell about our commitment to workers’ rights, protecting jobs and putting more services in public hands.
I now turn to the real threats to workers’ rights as a result of our exit from the European Union. History shows us that the EU has forced successive Westminster Governments to improve workers’ rights. Such rights must not be put at risk by a Tory Brexit race to the bottom. It is important that we reflect on them and take stock of just how much EU membership has improved workers’ rights. For example, the EU’s working time regulations were introduced in the UK in 1998, meaning that employees cannot be forced to work more than an average of 48 hours a week and should get a rest time of at least 11 consecutive hours. Equal pay between men and women has been enshrined in EU law since 1957, and the 1992 EU pregnant workers directive guarantees women a minimum of 14 weeks’ maternity leave.
Make no mistake: leaving the European Union and allowing the British Government to take charge of those rights is a deeply retrograde step that will lead to a bonfire of workers’ rights. That is why, even at this late stage, I appeal to Members on the Conservative and Labour Benches to join us to end the Brexit chaos. If they do not, or will not, they should not be surprised when Scotland unhooks the tow bar and takes us on a different path of independence.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith) on securing this important debate. I declare my interest as a proud lifelong trade unionist.
This debate is especially important because when the Prime Minister addressed the House yesterday, she gave the impression that the only concerns about her deal came from her own Benches and related entirely to the backstop. Let me say clearly and loudly to the Minister that is not the case for my constituents and working people across the country who want an agreement that protects both their jobs and their rights in those jobs. I will focus my speech on that.
Equality for part-time workers, maternity and paternity leave, health and safety standards, protections from discrimination and harassment, equal pay terms and regulation of working hours are among the basic labour standards won by the labour movement—not just in the UK, but across Europe—that are under threat from a Tory Brexit. The Minister may deny that but his colleagues have given the game away. The International Trade Secretary—the last man standing of the Prime Minister’s original three Brexiteers—was clear about his vision when he said:
“we must begin by deregulating the labour market”,
and that it is
“intellectually unsustainable to believe that workplace rights should remain untouchable”.
The former Brexit Secretary, the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), put it more bluntly when his book described British workers as
“among the worst idlers in the world.”
The track record of this Government speaks even louder than those words: a damaging and draconian Trade Union Act that attacks representatives of millions of working people across the UK, for instance. Tribunal fees caused a staggering drop in the number of workers able to bring claims against exploitative bosses. It is the same story even on an issue as basic as ensuring waiters can keep their own tips. If the Minister’s answer is to trust the Government, the people of Barnsley will regard that as little more than a joke. The withdrawal agreement gives us almost nothing in the way of legal safeguards; instead, it gives Ministers power to repeal, dilute and cut employment rights after we leave.
I will take the liberty of anticipating the Minister’s reply and deal with the so-called “non-regression” clause that my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich mentioned. Even during the transition, it leaves us exempt from any measure whose deadline falls beyond the end of the phase, leaving British workers falling behind our European counterparts even before we have fully left. Even worse, non-regression clauses of this sort have been found deeply flawed in a series of court judgments. I will not recite the legal precedents in full, but they have been described as a “fallen fig leaf” by leading legal commentators. The article in the agreement is for the stated purpose of
“ensuring the proper functioning of the single customs territory”
rather than protecting workers’ rights in itself, limiting it even further.
The Government could have given us a standstill clause, which would have given them a legally binding duty that workers and trade unions could enforce in the courts, but they decided not to. The Attorney General confirmed to the House last week that the
“non-regression clauses…are not enforceable either by the EU institutions or by the arbitration arrangements under the withdrawal agreement.”—[Official Report, 3 December 2018; Vol. 650, c. 559.]
He made clear that he thought that was a good thing. That is a stark and telling contrast to the far tougher and enforceable requirements on state aid that my hon. Friend referred to. No wonder the Institute for Public Policy Research, among others, concluded that the non-regression clause was
“not sufficient to maintain current protections”.
Then, there is the political declaration. We have often heard on Brexit that the devil is in the detail, but the problem with the political declaration is that there is no detail. It does not even have legal effects. Any new Tory Prime Minister—hardly an unlikely prospect, from what we see of the party opposite me—could just rip it up. Its only reference to workers’ rights is in the section on “open and fair competition”, which tells us exactly how they are seen—simply a way to maintain fair competition.
We have always said that we want a future relationship where rights and protections are defended, preventing a race to the bottom. This agreement threatens to do the very opposite. It opens the door to a future where labour standards come second to the interests of big business, rights at work are watered down and a Conservative Government can dismantle yet more protections for workers and unions. The people I represent in Barnsley voted very clearly to leave. I respect that decision, but I do not believe they voted for a reduction in workers’ rights, jobs and prosperity. The question is not whether we leave but how we leave.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I will not hold up the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) for very long, but I have just a couple of points that are too long to make as interventions; therefore, I felt the best thing to do would be to speak.
To pick up on the question of rights, a number of hon. Members spoke about a bonfire of rights that will come about as a result of our leaving the European Union. However, there is another organisation responsible for protecting those rights: the Council of Europe. We ignore that at our peril. I know that it is seen as a great thing in this country that we send no journalists along to Council of Europe meetings—we send along our delegation, if they can be spared by the Whips Office, but it is always a secondary thing—and yet the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith) mentioned a case that was heard by the European Court of Human Rights. That does not belong to the European Union; it belongs to the Council of Europe, an independent organisation set up in 1948 with the aim of protecting human rights in Europe. The ECHR, which the Council of Europe looks after, is a unique body. It is one where we, as council members, elect the judges to serve for individual countries, so it has a democratic legitimacy.
I think back to the various meetings that we have held over the past few years, and I can assure the hon. Lady that employee rights, whether in specific circumstances or more generally, have been on the agenda for discussion on many occasions. For example, on at least one occasion we have looked at the rights of employees to access information about themselves and their cases, in order to take forward what they want to do. This conversation seems to be a bit one sided. So far it has not looked at the bigger picture or taken into account what the Council of Europe does.
I think I am right in saying that the hon. Gentleman is arguing that the Council of Europe can help to protect workers’ rights, but the people I represent, and a lot of those who voted to leave, voted so that this place could protect workers’ rights. Surely, it is the democratically elected Government’s responsibility to ensure that workers’ rights are protected.
That is an interesting question. We give up our rights to decide things for ourselves in a number of situations. We give up the right to our own sovereignty by belonging to the United Nations and to NATO. To a certain extent, we give it up by belonging to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Most importantly, we give up our rights to some aspects of our sovereignty by being members of the Council of Europe. It is not right for the hon. Lady to look at this issue solely in terms of one or two organisations; she needs to look at a third organisation—the Council of Europe—which is there to provide just that sort of reassurance to people about their human rights, which I think she and her colleagues are, and have been, looking for.
I want to touch on Birmingham prison, which the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich opportunely mentioned in passing. This morning I participated in a Justice Select Committee sitting in which we questioned senior members of the Prison Service about what happened at Birmingham Prison. A key point relates to provisions in the contract with G4S not to hold it to account in many ways that we would normally expect. All of us, on both sides of the political fence, questioned those witnesses about the legitimacy of excluding those areas from the contract and how they could manage them.
Birmingham Prison is a good example of the mixture of public and private collaboration, in that we have public collaboration through the Ministry and the Department, which hold those running the prisons to account rather than having to run them themselves. We asked about the extent to which windows had been broken and not fixed, and why no one had been held to account and what had happened. At the end of the sitting we specifically asked the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice what would happen at the end of that examination. We got a firm statement that the contract would possibly at some stage go back to G4S when we could all be assured that it would be able to keep prisoners in the state in which we would expect them to be kept and look after them properly. That is a good combination of private and public sector partnerships in action.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, particularly as I was not on the speakers list. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith) for making such a strong case. I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) on the Front Bench and I welcome the new Minister. I hope he enjoys his portfolio for as long as it lasts.
I want to make three brief points that it is important to make, as they sometimes do not feature in debates. Although we are here in this important debate to escape from Brexit, it very much relates to Brexit or what might result from it. First, when I have been involved in trying to save companies and looking at how the public sector can get involved in that, I have always been told that we cannot do so because of state aid rules. I have never understood what those state aid rules are. I am sure that there are state aid rules that apply, and that the European Court of Justice or the European Court of Arbitration—whichever it is—can eventually adjudicate on whether public money was used properly, but that is at best years down the line.
My point is that the argument about state aid rules has always been used to effectively allow national Governments—in this case ours—a cop-out, when what they are really saying is, “We don’t want to help this company or industry, and we now have a wonderful excuse that gives some credibility to our rationale for so doing.” It was applied to steel in Redcar, and I can cite local cases where it was up to the national Government to put their money where their mouth was and where, if they had really wanted to save a company or industry, they could have.
I know a little about the agriculture industry and the different boxes—the amber, the red, the green and the blue. This relates not only to the EU, but to the WTO, and I was pleased to hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich said about that. We know that the WTO rules are laxer, but this is about the framework within which the EU wants to operate. The most subsidised agriculture system in the world is in America. Where did the term “pork-barrel politics” come from? It is about putting money into the American mid-west to win elections. It is against any notion of free and fair trade, so I take it with a pinch of salt when I am told that state aid rules are so restrictive that we cannot do anything.
In many ways I see that in contract law. Perhaps the days are long gone, but when we put forward a contract, the Official Journal of the European Union was always waved in our face and we were told the contract had to go through a system of rigorous assessment, yet when it came down to it, we could employ local labour when we wanted to, but that was always seen as not being possible.
My second point is about fairness in the application of state aid. I am grateful for the Library’s papers on this. When we look at state aid as a percentage of GDP, we are always in the bottom quartile. We choose not to invest anything like the sums of money that other countries do in supporting our industry. That must be the case because so many of our railways, water companies, waste companies and energy companies are owned by foreign national concerns—even nationalised concerns. So something happens elsewhere within the EU that, again, we choose not to follow as a national state. I worry that we use the EU as an Aunt Sally. Other countries seem able to control our major companies through their public sectors. Nothing illustrates that more than Hinkley Point, which we have effectively handed over not only to the French state, but to the Chinese state, which is funding it. Of course, China is not part of the EU, but it is part of the WTO, and I would love to know why, when we try to do things in this country involving the public sector, we are so much more constrained.
Thirdly, I share my hon. Friend’s concern, and I worry about where we will go after the end of March if we are out of the EU or whatever state we will be in. There is an inclination that we could witness a race to the bottom. I worry, for example, that our regulatory framework will be overseen by the Competition and Markets Authority, which, from my experience, has no real interest in labour standards or trying to protect trade union rights, which my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) talked about. We ignore that at our peril and might find not only that we have leapt from the frying pan into the fire, but that the fire has completely engulfed us. There will be the threat of a race to the bottom. The idea that we will become a global nation basically means that we will simply cut our wages and conditions, which will apparently yield a wonderful competitive advantage.
I have made those three points because the debate is important. It is apposite because it comes on the back of all the other shenanigans that have been going on over the past few days about whether we are leaving and on what terms. This is important. The British public might be asked for a second opinion on our relationship with the EU. It would at least help if we could put to them what really goes on, rather than some of the myths that seem to be continually put across about what we can do and what we choose not to do.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. As you can hear, I am going to battle through my speech this afternoon. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) has called me a “wee sowl”—all I can say is that interventions will be very much encouraged during my remarks. First, I thank the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith) for securing this debate, which is timely, given the game playing that we have seen over the past couple of days by the Government.
Yesterday I was expecting to address the House on the deal, but we found out that the debate was cancelled. Another reason why the debate is timely is that yesterday I was going to make the argument I made during the EU referendum campaign—to remain and reform. I understand the Lexit argument that the EU can be seen as a capitalist club, but my view was then, and is now, that the answer to neo-liberalism is not to leave for more neo-liberalism and deregulation. I fear that that is happening and very much regret that successive UK Governments, but particularly Conservative ones, have had a disgraceful record on applying for EU social funds. It is worth reflecting on that.
The hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), my friend and trade union comrade, made a point about people in lower income brackets—the same ones who would have benefited if former UK Governments had taken a more proactive approach on EU social funds. I am thinking particularly of the one for food poverty. However, the UK Government did not apply, so France and Germany got €450 million from the EU to help with food poverty, and because the UK did not apply it got the same amount of money as Malta, which was €12 million. Like many others who have spoken, I have a concern that we could end up with the UK leaving the EU and signing trade deals that would make the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership look moderate.
The debate is timely also in relation to the current Government’s direction of travel on public sector delivery and the management of the economy. Already, Carillion, which was providing public sector services, has collapsed. I have previously warned here, and in written questions, about issues with Interserve, which looks like being the next Carillion.
We are also in the ludicrous position where the current Government are considering privatising veterans’ services. This must be one of few nations that would even consider that. We know the current Government’s approach to workers’ rights because of—to correct my friends in the Labour party—the “anti-trade union” Act, which is what we should call the Trade Union Act 2016.
The Government, following the passage of the 2016 Act, were forced to consider e-balloting, but almost three years down the line they have done nothing to help with e-balloting for industrial action ballots. That is relevant to the present debate because if the EU referendum had been conducted according to the same rules as a trade union industrial action ballot, it would not have been possible to prosecute Brexit. The result would have failed to comply with the 40% rule that the Government insist on applying to trade unions in industrial action ballots. I shall take a sip of water now, Mr Hollobone —if no one is keen to intervene on me.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East has said, over the past few decades Westminster Governments have left key Scottish industries, and industries across the UK, without support. There is now a real fear that we face a Tory Brexit race to the bottom. In decades when Thatcherism, it has been said,
“swept like a wrecking ball through the mines, the steel industry, the car factories, shipbuilding and engineering and oversaw the demise of the communities which had built their livelihoods around them”
it was the Conservative Government who referred to miners as “the enemy within”. It was often felt that the same sentiment was directed towards many working communities. That Government’s attitude to many of those communities can be summed up by the classic Proclaimers song “Letter from America”:
“Bathgate no more
Linwood no more
Methil no more
Irvine no more”.
Let us not forget that the period from 1981 to 1983 was the worst recession since the 1930s, destroying one fifth of the industrial base and doubling unemployment. That was before war was declared on the miners. The Linwood car plant in Renfrewshire closed in 1981 with the loss of 4,800 jobs. Plessey Electronics in Bathgate closed in 1982. Leyland’s lorry factory in Bathgate closed in 1986 with 1,800 jobs lost. Ravenscraig steelworks closed in 1992 with the loss of 1,200 jobs. Various Clyde shipyards wound down or closed, including Scott Lithgow in Greenock in 1988.
I am grateful to that wee sowl my hon. Friend; my question is in 22 parts so he may as well take a seat, to quote “The West Wing”.
In all seriousness, my hon. Friend is rightly listing the communities decimated by the horrific economic policy of the Thatcher Government. Does he understand that there is a clear correlation between many of the communities he named and voting yes to independence in 2014? They realised that the only way they could get fairness in a rejuvenated local economy would be through their own Government having the power to act.
As someone representing the constituency with the second highest individual number of yes voters in the 2014 referendum, I think my hon. Friend is right. The reason why the issue is important is that European Governments supported their steel industries against cheap imports. They supported their industrial base at a time when the UK did not. There are fears at the moment, with the current Government refusing to match Scottish Government funding for the Tayside deal to support Michelin workers who face job losses. It just goes to show that the “nasty party” tag is still alive and well.
The Scottish Government have had to intervene to help commercial shipbuilding on the Clyde, finding a new buyer for the Ferguson shipyard, and they have also intervened in relation to securing a new owner for the steelworks. For the first time, following a campaign and the amendment of the law, the Scottish Government have secured the power to allow a public-sector bid for a rail franchise in Scotland. It was Westminster that sold off public services, not the European Union, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East described very well. It is the Scottish Government who are pressing ahead with plans for a national investment bank and public energy company.
Workers’ rights are a passion of mine. I was a trade union activist before I arrived in this place. It was the European Union that forced successive Westminster Governments to improve workers’ rights. The pregnant workers directive of 1992 guaranteed women a minimum of 14 weeks’ maternity leave, and that forced the then Labour Government to go further.
The European Court of Justice made it clear that any discrimination against a woman because of pregnancy or maternity leave is sexism and should be treated as such. It was EU law that provided that parents must be allowed 18 weeks’ unpaid leave from work to look after a child. The equal treatment directive led to UK law banning discrimination on the grounds of age, religion or sexual orientation. Indeed, that directive is helping many women, particularly in the public services, to make equal pay claims. I am grateful for that, and should declare that I am currently an equal pay claimant against my former employer—but I shall move swiftly on.
EU rules adopted in 2008 provide that temporary workers must be treated equally with directly employed staff, which includes the giving of access to the same amenities and collective services. We know from research that 41 of the 65 new health and safety regulations introduced in the UK since 1997 have come from the European Union. The Scottish National party takes the issue of tackling exploitative working practices extremely seriously, and we oppose the “anti-trade union” Act 2016.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East is campaigning for the UK Government to stop discriminating against young people and ensure they get a real living wage. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) is promoting the Unpaid Trial Work Periods (Prohibition) Bill, and I recommend the well-crafted and beautifully written Workers (Definition and Rights) Bill that seeks to simplify the status of workers in law and eliminate zero-hours contracts. I thank everyone who has contributed to this debate. SNP Members oppose neo-liberalism. We do not see Brexit as a way to enhance neo-liberalism, and if it turns out to be it will be a disaster for this country—it will be a disaster for the United Kingdom.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith) on securing this important debate, which is now the only piece of Brexit business tabled today—not what I was expecting.
State aid, public ownership, and workers’ rights are the critical building blocks of our nation’s economic model, and getting them right will be crucial to our future prosperity and the nature of any post-Brexit settlement. As my hon. Friend expressed so clearly, the Brexit vote has exposed the flawed foundations of our economic model. After decades of crying that “there is no alternative” to neo-liberal privatisation, laissez-faire economics, and deregulated labour markets, it was a Conservative Chancellor who, after the Brexit vote, threatened to “change our economic model”. Of course, he was actually proposing an acceleration of neoliberal reform without the constraints of European law—a “race to the bottom” in workers’ rights and protections, as the Leader of the Opposition put it in Lisbon last week.
The European Union delivers and guarantees important rights to British workers that we cannot allow to be taken away, but it has not always fulfilled the promise of a social Europe. I was also in Lisbon last week, representing the British Labour party at the congress of the party of European Socialists. I told them that no matter what happens with Brexit, we must all fight for socialist values within Europe: strengthening the rights of workers and trade unions, and ending austerity and wage suppression.
Yesterday in France President Macron finally recognised that French working people need higher incomes, not lower ones, if France is to prosper. It should not take riots in the street for our leaders to get that point. Here in Britain the real issue underlying Brexit is that working people want and deserve real rights, a real voice, and better lives. The Brexit deal must therefore defend what we have won in a European context by upholding workers’ rights and social protections, and if Brexit does not mean that, it is a total fraud against working people. The deal must also allow us to make further gains in the context of our continuing economic relationship with Europe, whether by strengthening European works councils, or restoring public ownership of public goods. That is what the Leader of the Opposition meant when he said in Lisbon:
“As socialists and trade unionists, we will work together to help build a real social Europe, a people’s European socialist Europe”.
What should that mean in practice for state aid, public ownership, and workers’ rights? As many hon. Friends have eloquently said, Labour Members reject the Government’s position that the best the state can do for the economy is get out of the way of the private sector. In the words of the renowned economist Mariana Mazzucato, we believe in an entrepreneurial state that stands shoulder to shoulder with the private sector. We are not talking about uneconomic subsidies for dying industries or failing firms; we want targeted interventions that support a prosperous, competitive, growing, and technologically driven economy that works for all. Yes, that should include public ownership where there is a natural monopoly or important public goods are at stake. Mazzucato also observed that, much like taxation and regulation, state aid rules are often used as an excuse for no investment and general inertia, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) pointed out, that is particularly true for the UK Government. One example of that is in my region, the north-east, where the steel sector was allowed to decline and suffer because of Conservative inaction.
The UK has never gone as far as European Union law allows to enable the state to support the UK economy. As a percentage of GDP, we spend far less on state aid than our European neighbours—roughly 0.3%, compared with 0.6% in France and 1.2% in Germany. Public ownership is common on the continent, guaranteed by article 345 of the Lisbon treaty, which allows countries to make their own decisions on ownership. SNCF is France’s national state-owned railway company, and the German energy sector is experiencing a return to public and communal ownership. In this country we have Scottish Water, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden). Some French and German public companies even own parts of our privatised utilities, and in that far-left enclave, the Netherlands, private ownership of water companies is illegal.
Although it is true that European Union member states are bound by a requirement to provide aid only on the basis of a level playing field, public service compensation does not constitute state aid when it applies to services of general economic interest. Those are economic activities that deliver outcomes in the overall public good that would not be supplied by the market—or would be supplied under different conditions regarding objective quality, safety, affordability, equal treatment or universal access—without public intervention. That could refer to a number of services, so will the Minister commit to report back to Parliament on which of our services of general economic interest we need to protect?
Before entering Parliament I had a job as Head of Telecoms Technology for Ofcom, the communications regulator, and I spent many months comparing our use of provisions for services of general economic interest with the way they were used by our European neighbours. I can confirm to the House, and especially my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich, that we do not use such provisions. The Government do not even seem committed to protecting our public services in new trade deals. Will the Minister commit to ensuring that future trade deals do not threaten the public ownership of crucial national assets such as our NHS?
As my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) remarked, regardless of whether people voted leave or remain in the European Union referendum, no one voted for worse rights at work. Well, at least not at their work. Members of the European Research Group may well have voted for worse rights for others, while wishing to retain and indeed expand their privileges as parliamentarians. They want working people back in the middle ages, but not the sanctions that MPs received at that time. A poll commissioned by the Institute for Public Policy Research in February this year found that more than 70% of people want European Union rights at work to be strengthened or maintained after Brexit—more than double the number who thought they should be watered down.
The Prime Minister has repeatedly promised to maintain workers’ rights post Brexit. For example, she said at her party conference in 2016 that
“existing workers’ legal rights will continue to be guaranteed in law—and they will be guaranteed as long as I am Prime Minister.”
Only last month, she assured the House that her deal successfully safeguarded workers’ rights. Yet, as colleagues pointed out, this Government repeatedly voted down Labour amendments to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill that would have required primary legislation if future Governments sought to reduce workers’ rights. With that rejection, our rights are left vulnerable to deregulation by ministerial diktat.
By not allowing new European works councils to form or having a contingency plan to replace them, the Tories would leave British workers at a disadvantage to their European Union colleagues. Will the Minister commit to reversing the decision to scrap European works councils?
The Government’s withdrawal agreement contains significant flaws with regard to workers’ rights. As was pointed out, one of the provisions of the backstop is a non-regression clause on labour standards, which would prevent either party from lowering protections below their current levels. However, it allows for some divergence, meaning that a UK Government would still be able to water down workers’ rights—a worrying possibility given this Government’s track record on labour protections.
Moreover, the non-regression clause would not require us to update our labour legislation alongside the European Union, meaning that over time we could end up with significantly poorer protections. That is a real concern given the growth of the so-called gig economy. Only last month, Tory MEPs joined the UK Independence party in voting against new rights for gig economy workers in the European Parliament. Will the Minister commit to updating workers’ rights in line with European best practice following the end of the transition period?
My party has pledged to protect workers and their hard-won rights, reject no deal as a viable option, and negotiate transitional arrangements to avoid a cliff edge for the UK economy and workers. We have pledged to ensure workers are represented on company boards and to require firms with more than 250 employees to set up ownership funds, making workers part-owners of their companies.
My party will make full use of the powers the state has, and should have, to build an economy that supports workers’ rights, trade union rights, innovation and industry in every region of our country, and that works for my constituents in Newcastle and for the constituents of the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell)—in short, an economy that works for the many, not the few.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith) for securing this important debate. There were passionate and learned contributions from the hon. Members for Glasgow East (David Linden) and for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), from my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) and the hon. Member for Glasgow South—
Apologies—the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens). I was deeply impressed by the hon. Gentleman’s ability to speak through his vocal impairment; he was cutting quite loudly through it by the end of his speech. We also heard from the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) and, last but not least, the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew), whom I thank for his generous congratulations on my fifth day in my new role.
I am deeply grateful for those kind words. I am getting stuck into the job by appearing at this debate, but I am here to represent the views of my Department as a replacement Minister. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst), the Minister for Small Business, Consumers and Corporate Responsibility, sends her profuse apologises that she has been unable to attend. She is representing the Department in the debate on the Accounts and Reports (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2018 in Committee corridor. I am here in her place to represent the Department’s views.
Let me start with what state aid rules are and why they exist, what is and is not state aid, and when it is allowed. Put simply, state aid is Government support or subsidy of an economic operator that gives it an advantage it could not get on the open market and distorts competition in the single market. The EU has tough rules governing the way subsidies can be given, to stop companies from getting an unfair advantage over their competitors and to ensure that countries with deep pockets do not subsidise their companies to the detriment of companies in other member states. However, where there are good policy justifications for state aid—where the benefit from giving aid outweighs the potential harm of a subsidy—the rules enable aid to be given.
Not all Government spending is aid. In fact, less than 1% of UK Government spending meets the technical definition of state aid. The state aid rules are about supporting fair and open competition, and the UK has long been a vocal proponent of them. The rules exist to stop countries from subsidising their industries unfairly, which would put businesses out of business and workers out of work.
A second misconception is that state aid rules prevent nationalisation. As long as the Government do not pay more than the market price for any assets acquired, the rules do not prevent that. However, the rules oblige the state to act as a normal market investor. That is good, because it prevents public authorities from unfairly distorting markets. State aid rules are neutral on public ownership and on the detail of spending decisions.
State aid rules are also fundamental to any free trade agreement. The political declaration on the framework for the future relationship between the EU and the UK recognises that. Free and fair trade is not possible if one party is able to subsidise without restraint. In a single customs territory that allowed the free trade of goods, as provided for in the draft withdrawal agreement, neither the EU nor the UK would be able to apply tariffs as measures against unfair subsidies by the other party. To ensure fair and open competition, it is absolutely necessary for the same state aid rules to apply consistently within the single customs territory, not to be frozen or disapplied for one bit of it.
I turn to workers’ rights, which have been the predominant topic of discussion. It is important to be clear that we are not making a choice between protecting state aid rules and protecting workers’ rights. As a responsible Government, we will work both to prevent unfair subsidies and to protect the rights of workers. The UK—we had several history lessons through some of the learned contributions to the debate—has a long-standing record of ensuring that workers’ rights are protected. Those include employment and equality rights, and protections for health and safety at work.
The decision to leave the European Union does not change that. This Government have made a firm commitment to protect workers’ rights and to maintain the protections covered in the Equality Acts.
In terms of the Government’s commitment and the commitments I am giving today, I reflect that the Prime Minister said recently in the House that
“we already go further than EU minimum standards, including on annual leave, paid maternity leave, flexible leave, paternity leave and pay, and parental leave, because we know that the first responsibility for protecting those rights sits with…Parliament. As we take back control of our laws, we will not only honour that responsibility, but go further still…by implementing the recommendations of the Taylor review. So we will not just protect workers’ rights: we will enhance them.”—[Official Report, 4 December 2018; Vol. 650, c. 760.]
The Government have been clear that they will take the recommendations of the Taylor review forward.
I appreciate the hon. Members’ request for a specific date. I will have to fall back on a position of ensuring that my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood, the responsible Minister in this policy area, will write to both the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Glasgow South West setting out clearly the next stages and the time frame for them.
Given our record in comparison to the EU standards in many areas, it is not surprising that Eurofound, the EU agency for work-related policy, ranks the UK as the second best country in the EU for workplace wellbeing, behind only Sweden, and the best country for workplace performance.
There has been some discussion about the EU withdrawal agreement. That will ensure that workers’ rights enjoyed under EU law will continue to be available in UK law after we have left the EU. That includes rights derived from EU law, such as the working time directive and the agency workers’ directive. Specifically within the withdrawal agreement, the UK is seeking a stringent and legally binding agreement with the EU not to roll back on employment standards. A joint committee would ensure that the UK was keeping to the agreement at a political level. There will be no roll-back of rights, including collective bargaining rights, when we leave the EU.
I remind my hon. Friend of the European Social Charter, which we signed up to in 1961. Of the rights guaranteed by that charter, there are the
“the right to work, the right to organise”—
that is to be part of a trade union—
“the right to bargain collectively, the right to social security, the right to social and medical assistance, the right to the social, legal and economic protection of the family,”
and so on. Those are just some of the rights protected by this Council of Europe treaty that we signed up to in 1961 and it stands completely outside whatever is agreed in the withdrawal agreement.
I thank my hon. Friend for putting that on the record. I listened to his speech on the Council of Europe and know he is a dedicated member of it. I pay tribute to his work, which often goes unheralded in this place. We know that there are many colleagues from across all parties who do a great deal of work on behalf of the United Kingdom at the Council of Europe, and it is right that that is recognised in this debate.
I hope the Government’s commitment, in both the withdrawal agreement and statements that we have made, will give certainty and continuity to employees and employers alike, creating stability in which the UK can grow and thrive. The political declaration on our future relationship makes it clear that we will build on this for the future deal with the EU. We want to ensure that the future economic partnership of the EU is underpinned by measures that ensure fair and open competition. Obviously, a rigorous approach to state aid is a critical component of that and provides a foundation for ensuring smooth trade and a partnership based on high market access. That is reflected in the political declaration, which establishes state aid as a crucial part of the level playing field commitments. The text makes clear that the precise nature of these commitments will depend on the scope and depth of the future relationship and the negotiations to take place.
There is no choice between taking the state aid rules or protecting workers’ rights; the Government recognise the fundamental importance of both.
I am not going to pre-judge what is taking place as we move towards a clear, definable free trade agreement with the European Union and the discussions that will happen after the political declaration. We have made that commitment, but actually we want to make sure that the United Kingdom has the ability to ensure that UK rights are clear, definable and stronger. They are already stronger than those in many European countries. We will continue to ensure that we have the reputation I mentioned: being the second best country in the EU for workplace wellbeing, behind only Sweden. It is important for our global reputation that we maintain that.
On the point about the EU workers council, if the EU withdrawal agreement is not approved we will still unilaterally protect workers’ rights in relation to European workers councils, as far as we can. However, to protect them fully, we require a deal with the EU, which sets the rules governing the establishment of a new European workers council. That is why I believe that the withdrawal agreement is so important to ensuring that we have no reduction in workers’ rights.
We will go further than the minimum labour market standards guaranteed in a withdrawal agreement. The Government will protect workers’ rights to ensure that they keep pace with changing labour markets. I hope the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich agrees that our approach on these vital issues will help secure the best possible deal for the UK as we leave the European Union.
Thank you to my hon. Friends the Members for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) and for Stroud (Dr Drew), to the hon. Members for Glasgow East (David Linden) and for Henley (John Howell), and to all other hon. Members who made interventions. I thank the SNP Front-Bench spokesperson, the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), who is incredibly brave, battling through his cold—well done. I also thank the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), and the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), who stepped in at the last moment.
There have been some excellent contributions on the importance of workers’ rights and the popularity of public ownership. I agree that it is UK Governments who are responsible for the privatisation of public services and the casualisation of labour.
On the points made by the hon. Member for Henley, my concern was precisely that the rights of workers in the charter in the European Court of Human Rights were not mentioned in the Court of Justice of the European Union ruling in the Alemo-Herron case. I was not criticising the ECHR or the Council of Europe—quite the opposite, in fact. I was pointing out that the workers’ rights afforded by the ECHR, which appeared to have no bearing in the Alemo-Herron case, were trumped by the four freedoms.
On the point about Birmingham prison, I stand by my view that the evidence is mounting up rapidly. The obsession with outsourcing and privatisation is a failed project that is costing the taxpayer and the workers in those services an awful lot, while letting down those who rely on the services.
Finally, the current withdrawal agreement means dynamic alignment with EU state aid rules, so it is important that we gain a full understanding of them and the likely direction of travel. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud that the UK Government have made conscious decisions not to aid industry in the way that other EU countries have done. The point is that our national Parliament understands and is happy that the future state aid framework and regulations around public ownership allows for proper democratic debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered state aid, public ownership and workers rights after the UK leaves the EU.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered cat welfare.
I am grateful to you, Mr Hollobone, and I am grateful that the Minister is in his place. This debate about cat welfare is linked to a private Member’s Bill that I presented to the House in July 2018, after speaking to a fantastic local charity in my constituency, Animals Lost and Found in Kent. To be frank, I was not aware of its great work until we were looking at the national volunteers charity day and my wonderful staff member Finlay, who is sitting in the Gallery behind me, said, “This is a list of charities in the constituency. Which one would you like to go and visit?” So I said, “Animals Lost and Found in Grange Road, Gillingham. Let’s go and see the great work they do.”
Meeting Natasha and Dee was inspirational. They are two individuals who do not have a lot of money, but they do have an amazing heart in wanting to do the right thing and ensuring that animals that have been abandoned, lost or injured get the support they need. I went to the back of their house and I saw a number of cats who had been neglected, injured or abandoned. I said to Natasha and Dee, “What can I do to help you?” They said that the legislation needed to be looked at.
There are 11.1 million cats in our country, who are part of our everyday families. They bring immense happiness to each and every one of us.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend secured the debate. Is he aware that in 2016 the press reported 202 cats as having been shot in the United Kingdom, with 90% shot in either England or Wales, where we have more lax laws on air rifles? Does he agree that we should look at tightening up the law on the possession and ownership of airguns?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that important information from 2016. I was made aware of specific points about firearms, banning electric training aids and the control of airguns by the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals—the wonderful charity that does great work in this area—but I was not aware of his specific point. It is absolutely right that we do everything we can on the regulation of those firearms to prevent that kind of completely unacceptable behaviour and to ensure that the welfare of animals is protected at every level.
The amazing joy that these wonderful animals bring to our lives also means that we have a responsibility to do everything we possibly can to ensure that their welfare is protected.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. I want to take this opportunity to congratulate Stapeley Grange Cattery in my constituency, which does an amazing job at looking after and re-homing cats. I also pay tribute to my own cat, Pudding, who is a remarkable addition to our family.
I, too, pay tribute to the work of that cattery and congratulate the hon. Lady on the new member of her family. I am sure that her cat will be treated like a member of the family, as cats are throughout the country.
I could look at several cat welfare issues, including the public education campaign, cat breeding legislation, the control and regulation of airguns, which was raised earlier, and fireworks.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. As a cat lover, I am very lucky that Trixie the cat came to me as a stray, and that, growing up, we had Tippy the cat, who came from the Cats Protection League. The Cats Protection League’s 2022 agenda encapsulates a lot of the issues that he has talked about, from microchipping to reducing violence against cats. It is really important that we get behind that campaign.
I am so glad that I gave way, because the hon. Lady talked about Cats Protection, which I have met with and which has written to other Members and me. I was delighted to attend its Christmas parliamentary reception, along with other colleagues here. It does amazing work, and it is important that we work with it to ensure that we get the right kind of framework.
I was making the point that we could look at several cat welfare issues, but I will focus on two: the compulsory microchipping of all cats and reporting after an accident.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. When I got married some 32 years ago, my wife loved cats but I perhaps did not. However, as I continued to love my wife, I continued to love her cats as well. That is how life is. She is a volunteer and worker at the Assisi Animal Sanctuary, which does excellent work for cats and dogs. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that charities such as Assisi do a phenomenal job in caring for stray cats and in providing sterilisation and other deterrents that he referred to? No matter how good a job it does, we in the House must do ours, and to an equally high standard. Unfortunately, I believe that thus far we are not achieving that.
I completely agree. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has done some brilliant work, but we have an immense amount more to do. I also agree on the first point. The hon. Gentleman has an amazing wife, who made him become a cat lover and animal lover. I am not married yet, but if I get married, I will need somebody who likes cats, so that we can get a cat. Coming in and out of London, I do not have time to have a cat; we are talking about animal welfare, and cats must be given time. That is key. His point about supporting and doing the right thing as parliamentarians—not simply talking about something but pushing for the right framework to be put in place—is absolutely right.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He will have seen the PDSA’s PAW report, which talked about cats’ five welfare needs, one of which is companionship. We talk about loneliness and the Government doing the right thing and people having the required environment to be happy, and what cats and animals do is absolutely amazing, so he makes a valid point.
My first point is about the compulsory microchipping of cats. I spoke to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on 25 October. He said that the proposals in my presentation Bill on the compulsory microchipping of cats and ensuring that car accidents involving cats are reported, as they are when dogs are involved, were very reasonable, and that he would ask his civil servants to look into the matter. I take the Secretary of State at his word, and if he says that the proposals are very reasonable, it therefore means that to do the opposite would be very unreasonable.
In the light of the Secretary of State’s commitment and his saying that the proposals are very reasonable, I ask the Minister: are cats less important than dogs? A statutory instrument requiring dogs to be compulsorily microchipped was introduced in 2015, so there does not need to be primary legislation; such a change could be done through a statutory instrument. At the time it was said that such a change would be done with dogs first to see how the process worked, and that extending it further would then be looked at. That was in 2015. I know that the Government and Parliament work slowly, but three years to see how a system works is long enough.
I know the Minister. He and I have been here for the same amount of time—eight years. He is a wonderful man who cares passionately about animal welfare and doing the right thing, and he listens to what people have to say. A petition on change.org, “Help me to change the law for Cats involved in RTA’s”, received 377,000 signatures. A parliamentary petition about microchipping had 33,413 signatures. A petition to introduce compulsory microchip scanning for vets, rescues and authorities had 70,800 signatures. That demonstrates that people out there want Parliament to do the right thing, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) says is our duty. Ministers can see the public interest in this area through the petitions put forward and the contributions of Members today and in previous debates.
My hon. Friend mentioned microchip legislation. It is also true that the Road Traffic Act 1988 could be amended. Section 170 requires motorists to stop and report accidents involving animals, including horses, cattle, mules, sheep, pigs and dogs, but not cats. Does he agree that it is time to amend that legislation?
My hon. Friend knows a lot about this because she chairs the all-party parliamentary group on cats and has done amazing work on this issue. She is absolutely right. We were told that legislation does not cover cats is because they are free-roaming. I say to everyone, “Let’s get away from technicality. Let’s do the right thing and let’s look at what counterparts around the world do on this issue.”
I am grateful to Mandy at CatsMatter. She gave me a copy of a piece of legislation, which I have with me today. It is article 26 of the agriculture and markets law from the State of New York Department of Agriculture and Markets. Rather than using the RTA, we could have a specific section in animal welfare provision. Section 601 in that document is entitled “Leaving scene of injury to certain animals without reporting”. It states:
“Any person operating a motor vehicle which shall strike and injure any horse, dog, cat or animal classified as cattle shall stop and endeavor to locate the owner or custodian of such animal”.
If the free-roaming issue is the reason why we cannot amend the legislation here—the RTA—I point out that cats are also free roaming in the United States, but there the issue has been addressed through separate animal welfare legislation.
I was going to come later to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), but I shall come to it now. It is absolutely at the heart of this. If an individual is going along at night and knowingly hits a cat, is there a moral obligation on them? Many people would already act, but I make to the Minister the same point that I made earlier: are cats less important than dogs? We have legislation, but we argue over a technicality. I have read Hansard for when the matter was debated previously in the other place: “Well, the issue is free roaming and we would define ‘free roaming’ this way.” Let us avoid the RTA and go with animal welfare legislation and do that because it is the right thing to do.
If someone knowingly strikes a cat, they should do the same thing as they would if they struck a dog. They would try to find the owner. If they could not find the owner, they would report the accident. This point was made to me when I asked people to clarify the matter. They said, “Should one then report it to the police? That might be onerous for the police in terms of resources.” I say, “Well, we do it for dogs, but if you don’t have to report the accident to the police, you could report it to a vet or to the local authority. You could do a number of different things.” Technicality can be avoided. This is about doing the right thing in the first place. I completely agree with my hon. Friend. That was the second part of my speech; I am grateful that it has now become the first part.
Let me quote from the wonderful charity Animals Lost and Found in Kent on the issue of compulsory microchipping:
“Our main job at Animals Lost and Found in Kent Ltd is to reunite animals, our job is extremely hard as 5 cats out of 10 are chipped, the other 5 we can’t get home and end up going through the rescue centres, that isn’t fair or the best for the cat’s welfare as the cat gets confused, upset, stressed and can shut down. Stress in cats can be very dangerous for them and can lead to big problems like a blocked bladder, urinary tract infections and urine crystals which can lead to death if not treated. Stress also brings out more sinister problems in cats like the flu. But if the cat was chipped, we could get the cat home where they belong.”
That quote is from the points given to me by Animals Lost and Found in Kent.
The hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) talked about Cats Protection. I am grateful for the comments and notes given to me by Cats Protection on this matter. It says:
“In England a survey conducted for Cats Protection showed that 27% of owned cats are not microchipped. Compulsory microchipping of dogs is already in force across the whole of the UK…In the last 12 months 62% of the cats taken in by Cats Protection’s UK Adoption Centres were not microchipped. Unlike collars, microchips don’t come off, or put cats at risk of collar-related injuries.”
I say to the Minister that it would not be difficult to introduce the legislation that we are calling for. That could be done. Why is it so important? Cats Protection says:
“Failure to microchip a cat can result in the following problems:
Difficulty reuniting a cat that goes missing with its owner
Cats are needlessly rehomed because they are believed to be strays
Worry about a pet cat in the event of an accident
Vets are unable to contact cat owners in any case of emergency
Ownership disputes are difficult to resolve
Detection of cat theft may be difficult”.
Are those not good enough reasons to say that we have to act swiftly?
I have had representations from CatsMatter, Cats Protection, the PDSA and Blue Cross, which I will refer to shortly. If I send the Minister those representations, will he be kind enough to respond to all the points that they have made? In addition, will the Minister be kind enough to meet me and representatives of all the charities that I have mentioned, which have been supporting and making this case, along with my wonderful hon. Friend the Member for Lewes, who chairs the APPG?
I am looking at the time and will mention just two other points. First, the Blue Cross animal hospitals do amazing work. I am grateful to Blue Cross for allowing me to visit one of its centres and see its great work. On microchipping, it says that in 2017, 24% of cats admitted to Blue Cross were considered to be strays, but it is not uncommon for owned animals to be presented as strays because they are not microchipped or do not have updated details on their chip. I agree with those who say, “There’s no point in microchipping if you don’t ensure that the details are correct.” That has to be addressed. The other point is, where will the money come from? Charities such as Blue Cross already do the work voluntarily. The cost is not significant; it can be done. If the issue is cost, I say to the Minister: it is not that expensive; it can be done. Ways and avenues can be found, because it is the right thing to do. Blue Cross says that out of a total of 5,057 cats admitted to Blue Cross for rehoming in 2017, a staggering 80% were not microchipped. If the legislation were amended and compulsory microchipping rules brought into play, that would address a number of those points.
My second point, which my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes has already brought to the fore, is about reporting after an accident. I say this to the Minister: if a jurisdiction in the United States addresses the issue of free roaming by covering it under animal welfare provisions, I think we should move away from amending the Road Traffic Act. That is why the presentation Bill that I put forward is called the Cats Bill. It does not talk specifically about the Road Traffic Act, because the matter can be addressed the other way round.
What I am calling for is the right thing to do. It ties in with what the Government are already trying to do. They have done a brilliant job on animal welfare, but a lot more needs to be done. I have seen the joy that cats bring. In October, for my 40th, I was in Little Rock, Arkansas, with my good friend French Hill. He is a Congressman down there and he has cats called JJ and Timber. I was not there long, but in the short time I was there, I became attached to them—I would see them when I came back after a day out. Cats are amazing creatures. They bring a lot of happiness, and I just think that if they bring us happiness, we have a moral obligation to support them—to make sure that they get the right support.
I therefore say to the Minister, who is a good man, from the bottom of my heart: can we please not just say today, “We will look to address this at some point in the future”? Short term, medium term, long term—what is the timescale now for getting this provision on to the statute book and putting it into practice?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) on securing the debate. I do need to correct him on one thing, having been raised in the county town of East Sussex—Lewes. It is pronounced “Lewis”, not “Looze”, otherwise, a certain Member here will be quite angry—but we have set that straight.
I am very keen to confirm to my hon. Friend and other hon. Members who have turned up for the debate—I am pleased to see so many—that of course I will be more than willing to meet him and the various welfare groups that he has talked about to respond to their concerns expressed in writing, and to see how we can best move this matter further forward. There are also other things that I want to do on the back of my hon. Friend’s very well argued speech. That may not satisfy all his demands, but we will move forward on this agenda. Of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) will be more than welcome at that meeting as well.
I do think it is time that my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham bought his own cat. He has made such a compelling case. He has shown how it can help people in their political affairs and to find their ideal partner. You never know: it might be the right thing for him to do in his own life.
Yes. It is great to see so many hon. Members with such deep personal experience with cats and involvement with welfare charities. Cats are cherished members of the family for many people. They bring great joy in homes across the country, and we need to recognise that. We also need to understand, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham pointed out in his excellent speech, the distress and concern it causes when a cat gets lost and people want to find out where it might be.
I join Members in their comments praising various groups. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith) is no longer in her place, but she mentioned Stapeley Grange. The hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) praised the excellent work of Cats Protection. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talks about his wife’s committed work in animal welfare in various debates, and I am pleased that that work also extends to cats.
In Suffolk, we have a very dedicated individual in Kathleen Lusted. She is now approaching 100 and has given almost her whole life to looking after and protecting cats that have gone missing and providing them with new homes. She has almost single-handedly set up a Cats Protection League branch in Framlingham and Saxmundham. Will the Minister join me in thanking her and congratulating her on her life’s work protecting and looking after cats in east Suffolk?
I join my hon. Friend in congratulating his constituent on her work in Framlingham and thanking her for it. If he will provide details, I will not only put my thanks to her on the record, but I will write to her, too, given that it has been her life’s work. I appreciate the contribution that my hon. Friend has made in putting that before us.
There are so many good causes and good welfare groups that take the cause further forward, whether that is Cats Protection, the RSPCA, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home or Blue Cross. They are absolutely committed to the welfare of cats and various other animals. Through their dedicated volunteers, they ensure that in many cases cats that have been lost can be reunited with their owners. They also rehome cats.
Before I get on to the substantive point of the debate, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) raised an important point about air weapons. I know his interest in these matters and I recognise, along with many others, the widespread concern about the shooting of cats with air weapons. Anyone who does that is liable to prosecution for causing unnecessary suffering to an animal. The maximum sentence is currently six months in prison, but that could be extended with new legislation that we are looking to put to the House in due course. A review of air weapons regulation was announced in October 2017. We are now considering what needs to happen with the licensing system and will announce the outcome shortly. That will help address some of his concerns.
I am most grateful to the Minister for that response. While he is reflecting on the matter, will he look at what has happened in Northern Ireland, which has a system of licensing for airguns? The number of cats reported in the press as being shot has dropped.
I must confess that I was not aware of that. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising what goes on in Northern Ireland with me. I am sure that the hon. Member for Strangford is aware of that, too. I will follow up with officials and see what we can learn.
Last year, the RSPCA reported that it had reached a five-year high for the level of airgun attacks on pets. The vast majority of pets attacked were cats. Will the review that the Minister is engaged in also look at where airguns can be advertised and sold? We had an incident in Norbury recently in which a pawnbroker’s shop turned itself into an airgun centre and had a big display of what looked like semi-automatic rifles, but were airguns, in the shop window on a high street right here in south London?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing that to our attention. I am not the Minister responsible for the matter, so I do not want to tread beyond where I should, but I have seen similar incidents and reports in my constituency. I will follow up on the very important point he raises and get back to him on how wide the review will go. I hope it will address such issues, but I will confirm that with him in due course.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham talked about his private Member’s Bill, which takes forward a serious issue. He also highlighted how the subject has been raised in numerous petitions. The sheer number of people who have signed the petitions highlights that the Members in the Chamber are not alone; many people are very concerned about the issue. The Government recommend that any owner should microchip their cat to increase the chance of being reunited with it if it gets lost. In April this year, we updated the statutory cat welfare code with the welcome collaboration of Cats Protection and others. The code now more strongly emphasises the benefits of microchipping cats.
Microchipping technology has vastly improved the chances that lost pets will be reunited with their owners. For a relatively small, one-off cost of about £25, people can have greater confidence that their beloved cat can be identified. Why would someone not want to do that? As the head of cattery at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, Lindsey Quinlan, has said, while the microchipping procedure is short and simple,
“the return on their value is immeasurable”.
It is therefore good to see that the proportion of cats that are microchipped has grown in recent years.
My hon. Friend highlighted the good report by the PDSA showing that 68% of cats are microchipped. However, a recent survey by Cats Protection found that the majority of the cats taken to its adoption centres in the past 12 months were not microchipped. It is heartbreaking to think that some of those cats may not have been reunited with their families simply because of the lack of a microchip. That is why I strongly endorse Cats Protection’s campaign to promote cat microchipping. The Government will work with Cats Protection and other animal welfare charities so that the proportion of cats that are microchipped continues to grow.
In England, compulsory microchipping of dogs was introduced through secondary legislation due to the public safety risk posed by stray dogs. That does not mean that cat welfare is any less important than dog welfare; it is just that there is not the same risk associated with cats from a safety perspective. For that reason, the microchipping of cats is not compulsory, but we strongly encourage owners and breeders to do it. That is why the Government’s cat welfare code promotes microchipping on two grounds. First, as I have already mentioned, microchipping gives cats the best chance of being identified when lost. Secondly and just as importantly, a lost cat that has a microchip is more likely to receive prompt veterinary treatment when needed. In that way, micro- chipping helps to protect more cats from pain, suffering, injury and disease, as required by the Animal Welfare Act 2006.
I am grateful to Cats Protection for its support in developing the cat welfare code. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs officials remain engaged with the issue. I commit to meeting Cats Protection in January, whether as part of the roundtable or separately, to take forward this important agenda.
In the limited time available, it is important to highlight some other actions I would like to take in response to this important debate. As has been said, under the Road Traffic Act 1988, drivers are required to stop and report accidents involving certain working animals, including cattle, horses and dogs. That does not currently extend to cats. However, the Highway Code advises drivers to report accidents involving any animal to the police. That should lead to many owners being notified when their cats are killed on roads. I am pleased that it is established good practice for local authorities to scan any dog or cat found on the streets so that the owner can be informed.
Following today’s debate, I will meet the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak) to discuss how we can work together to further promote best practice. Highways England has clear guidelines for contractors to follow when they find a deceased dog. That process is designed with owners in mind, giving them the best chance of being informed of the incident that has occurred. The process laid out in the network management manual currently applies only to dogs. I would like to see what could be done to extend it to cats, and I hope other Members agree. The area is the responsibility of the Department for Transport. Following today’s debate, I will work with the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) to explore what the Government can do in this area.
To conclude, I would like to say how important it has been to have this debate today. It has brought the issue very much to my attention as a relatively new Minister for Animal Welfare. I am extremely grateful for that. I would like to highlight how important animal welfare is to the Government and to DEFRA.
The Minister has made a general point about looking to what further can be done. Rather than amending the 1988 Act, can we not put post-accident reporting for cats in animal welfare legislation, like in the United States? Will he go away and ensure we can look at compulsory microchipping, as well as the animal welfare perspective post-accident?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comment. Of course I will go away and look at his points. He has made a compelling case. I, and the Government, feel some sympathy with what he says. There are practical differences between dogs and cats in terms of public safety, but notwithstanding that, there is more we want to do to promote these issues. I will gladly meet him and take forward the actions and meetings I have talked about already.
Question put and agreed to.
NHS: Staffing Levels
I beg to move,
That this House has considered staffing levels in the NHS.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. It is a pleasure to lead this debate and I thank hon. Members for being present. I know that many are eager to contribute, and the fact that they have taken the time to be here, during one of Parliament’s more eventful weeks, emphasises the strength of feeling in the House about staffing levels in the NHS. I also thank the many organisations that have contacted me, offered support and shared their research.
It is clear that the issue of staffing in the NHS is a great and growing concern to many. Indeed, the case of my local NHS trust inspired me to apply for this debate. Most of my constituents rely on the Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust for a range of acute hospital-based and community services. The trust serves not just the people of Batley and Spen, but more than half a million people across Wakefield and North Kirklees.
I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for securing this important debate. My constituents also use the Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust. There are still several hundred nursing vacancies there, and that is having a significant impact on the delivery of patient care. Does she agree that the chaos of the current Brexit situation is not helping to recruit nurses, potentially from the European Union?
For Sherwood Forest Hospitals trust, which covers King’s Mill Hospital in my constituency, the latest figures show 200 nursing vacancies and, since nursing bursaries were abolished, a 32% decline in those applying to do it. Is it not time to bring nursing bursaries back?
Does the hon. Lady agree that we must have fewer medical quangos and more medical professionals in their white doctors’ coats seeing patients; less cleaning up of paper trails and more cleaning up in wards and A&Es; and funding that is targeted at frontline staffing and reasonable rates of pay?
Certainly, funding and support should be given to frontline staffing. I will go on to talk about how I see that playing out.
The Mid Yorkshire trust is a major employer of about 8,000 members of staff who operate across three hospital sites: Pinderfields Hospital, Pontefract Hospital and Dewsbury and District Hospital, which is in my constituency. Like many trusts across the country, the trust is feeling the pressure on recruitment. In the most up-to-date figures, which were given to me directly by the trust this week, there is a 10% vacancy rate. That includes 95 full-time-equivalent posts for medical staff, 209 vacancies for full-time registered nurses, and vacancies for all other posts covered by the trust. The trust tells me that its key workforce challenge remains recruiting registered nurses and junior doctors in training. Those staff shortages lead to expensive cover being required— a bill that is ultimately paid by the taxpayer.
I am pleased that the trust has taken steps to mitigate against staffing shortages, including an extensive recruitment programme where vacancies across the trust are advertised and marketed widely. It has introduced a new associate nurse role in partnership with a local university, and expanded and increased the number of apprenticeship opportunities to offer different routes into careers in the NHS. It has held open theatre days to promote particularly difficult roles to recruit for, such as operating department practitioners. Finally, it has increased the number of nurses and doctors on the local temporary staff bank, which reduces its reliance on, and the cost of, commercial agency staff. I am sure that all hon. Members agree that that is all great.
Despite that work, problems remain. I must put on record my concern that staffing shortages can lead to problems for patients. The ambulatory emergency care unit at Dewsbury and District Hospital opened in 2015 to care for patients who needed a quick diagnosis and treatment, and who could be treated without the need for admission to a hospital bed. Since July, it has been closed because of staff shortages and it will remain closed for the foreseeable future. It had also been closed from the end of December last year to early March. Patients now face the lengthy and expensive trip to Pinderfields Hospital.
In the most recent inspection at Mid Yorks, the results of which were announced last week, the safety of services was deemed to require improvement, which will cause deep concern to my constituents. We are now told that the harsh funding climate for our NHS, which has existed since 2010, is coming to an end—austerity is over.
As the daughter of a nurse, I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I know she is a proud member of the GMB, like me, so I declare an interest in highlighting its survey, which showed that 78% of NHS and ambulance workers are incredibly concerned about staffing levels. Does she agree with a nurse from Barnsley who said that we need more registered nurses and trained support staff, not untrained volunteers, who are sometimes being used?
My sister is also a nurse. When someone has a nurse in the family, they understand how hard they work. My hon. Friend must be psychic, because I am about to go on to that point.
When it comes to the recruitment and retention of NHS staff, it could not be further from the truth that austerity is over. The Royal College of Nursing did not mince its words when it said:
“The UK is experiencing a nursing workforce crisis”,
particularly in England. With one in three nurses due to retire within a decade, we are looking at a perfect storm of increasing vacancies across health and care.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that, as a direct result of staffing shortages at Dewsbury and District Hospital, the midwife-led birthing unit has had to be closed several times? September was a particularly bad month for closures. That has a traumatic effect on mums-to-be, who expect to give birth there but turn up and get sent elsewhere.
Capacity, particularly in midwifery, is a massive issue, and midwife recruitment is also a problem. A mum who is about to have a baby wants to make sure that they are guaranteed a bed and a midwife who will be with them throughout the process, so of course that is a concern. There are almost 41,000 vacant nursing posts in the NHS and it is estimated that that number will grow to almost 48,000 by 2023—just five short years away.
The hon. Lady is being generous. Does she agree that the problem with the recruitment and retention of staff also stretches to our mental health services? In Cumbria, three years ago, the Government promised a specialist one-to-one eating disorder service for young people, which has yet to be delivered. Does she agree that it is not good enough for the Government to make promises that they cannot deliver because they cannot recruit the staff?
We are seeing increasing problems around recruitment and retention in mental health services, which I will go on to. We know that nurses are heroes of our health service and that they will always voice their concerns.
A survey conducted by the RCN in 2017 had some deeply worrying results. More than half of the nurses said that care was compromised on the last shift and more than 40% said that no action was taken when they raised concerns about staffing. If there was any doubt about the commitment of nurses, nine in 10 were not paid for extra unplanned time worked in the NHS. Unpaid time worked by nurses in the NHS saves the NHS hundreds of millions of pounds a year.
I am not just talking about nurses and the worryingly low levels of recruitment. The Royal College of Physicians informs me that in Yorkshire and Humber 36% of physician consultant posts advertised were not filled. Across the UK, a total of 45% of advertised consultant posts went unfilled, due to the lack of suitable applicants. The RCP believes that we need to double the medical school places to 15,000 a year to alleviate this problem in the long term and it is seriously hard to disagree with that assessment.
The RCP is also calling for investment in public health initiatives, which I am sure is another thing that we all agree on. The desperate need for more mental health staff is well reported. The consultant psychiatrist vacancy rate in the northern and Yorkshire region, which Batley and Spen falls under, is 11.7%, which is higher than the average consultant psychiatry vacancy rate in England. One in 10 consultant psychiatrist posts are vacant. Doctors specialising in mental health are uniquely placed to look at a person’s brain, body and psyche. Such specialists will only become more important, so I ask the Minister to update Members on his plans to meet the target of 570 junior doctors specialising in psychiatry by 2020-21 and to say what plans he has to ensure that all trainee doctors have experience of working in psychiatric settings?
The British Medical Association has provided information on the potential impact of Brexit on staffing levels in the NHS. Nearly 10% of doctors working in the UK are from the European economic area. Doctors, as well as many other professionals, make a massive contribution to our NHS. However, the BMA warns that many EEA doctors continue to feel unwelcome and uncertain about their future here. Given the uncertainty that we have seen in the past few days, I imagine that that feeling will not change any time soon. The results could be devastating, with more than a third of doctors from the EU considering moving away from our country. That is the last thing we need, as hospitals are already chronically understaffed, with more than one in four respondents to a BMA survey reporting that rota gaps are so serious and frequent that they cause significant problems for patient safety.
Alarmingly, some doctors feel bullied into taking on extra work. It is clear that something needs to change, particularly now we are in winter again. There are too few staff, who are too stretched, and trusts across the country are struggling to fill vacancies. However, in order to fix a problem, we need to know whose remit it is to provide a solution. Shockingly, there are no specific legal duties or responsibilities at UK Government level to ensure that health and social care providers have enough staff to provide safe and effective care to meet the needs of the population. Health Education England has some powers related to the higher education supply. In practice, however, those powers relate only to the funding for the 50% of their courses that nursing students spend on placements. Health Education England no longer commissions higher education university places, meaning that it is responsive to students signing up for nursing courses rather than proactively seeking them based on areas of need and workforce planning.
We know that the number of European workers in the NHS has fallen dramatically since the referendum. Mid Yorks recruited highly skilled workers from the Philippines, but delays to visa applications meant that 50% of them have now gone elsewhere and into other jobs. We need to do better than that.
The case is clear to me and to many others that we need a proactive and accountable power-holding body that makes robust assessments of population need, and uses that need to calculate the workforce requirements. No action has been taken to assess the level of population need for health and social care support now or in the future. Nobody has calculated how many nurses are needed to meet those needs safely and effectively. No workforce strategy is in place to set up the mechanism through which new registered nurses can be generated through a supply line.
Workforce plans are not consistently available and when they are they are based on affordability and finance, rather than on the expertise and skills mix of staff required to care for patients. Plans are limited in their ability to make effective change. Providers may identify a need for more nursing posts but then find themselves unable to fill them. Vacant posts stay vacant and gaps on the frontline are filled by more expensive bank and agency staff, and—as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock)—by volunteers, or substituted lower-qualified staff. Patient care is left undone, with lengthening waiting lists.
That is the sad truth of where we are and when the Minister responds I would be grateful to know what plans are in place to enforce accountability for the NHS workforce. Simon Stevens has confirmed that the long-term plan for the NHS could not definitely deal with the NHS workforce and there are serious concerns that without investment a new plan will ultimately fail.
Six years on from the Health and Social Care Act 2012, it is still unclear which organisation is accountable for workforce strategy. Too often, no one is taking responsibility. Health Education England has been consulted, but it has failed to deliver a workforce strategy. Now is the time for leadership and action, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister.
Order. The debate can last until 5.30 pm. I have to call the Front Benchers no later than 5.7 pm. Four Members are seeking to catch my eye. The guideline limits for the Front Benchers’ speeches are five minutes for the Scottish National party, five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister, and then Tracy Brabin will have two or three minutes at the end of the debate to sum it up. There are 20 minutes of Back-Bench time before I call the Front Benchers, so there will have to be a five-minute time limit on Back Benchers’ contributions.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) on securing this debate and on highlighting the biggest challenge facing the NHS: the creeping workforce crisis that has been evolving for some time now. We are now seeing that crisis beginning, in real terms, to affect patient care.
The hon. Lady was right to highlight the fact that a lack of staff in some parts of the country means that operations are being cancelled and beds are being closed. She was also right to point out the challenges that Brexit poses to the recruitment and retention of frontline NHS staff; in the past decade, we have been increasingly reliant on European Union staff coming to work in the UK—before that, it was staff from outside the EU who provided most of the overseas workforce in the NHS. I am sure that all of us would like to put on the record our support for the excellent work that NHS staff from the UK and from all over the world do in caring for patients.
I will also do what I should have done at the beginning of my speech and draw attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as I am a practising NHS hospital doctor working in mental health services.
I will not, because of the time limit and because I want to let other people speak; I am sure that we can talk about this issue in detail after the debate.
Very briefly, Mr Hollobone, the Government have made a number of promises about NHS staffing and yet, unfortunately, those promises are failing to come to fruition. In 2015, there was a promise of 5,000 more GPs. Recently, I submitted a written parliamentary question about how much progress had been made in realising that target but I did not get an adequate answer. I would be grateful if the Minister updated us in his concluding remarks by saying how close we are to realising that target of 5,000 additional full-time GPs.
I would also like to highlight some of the challenges in community and mental health services. Very often in this Chamber, we talk about hospitals, and very often the NHS is seen through the prism of that acute sector, but the key challenge to keeping people out of hospital is doing more in the community, building up community mental and physical health services—and they are the very services that are seeing reductions in frontline staff.
I want to touch briefly on mental health. We know that the number of full-time-equivalent mental health nurses fell by 6,000 between 2010 and March 2018, including a reduction of more than 1,800 in learning disability nurses alone. The number of child and adolescent mental health service and learning disability consultant psychiatrists has also slightly declined over the past decade, and many parts of the country, particularly outside London, are struggling to fill higher registrar training posts in those services.
Perhaps more concerning is that the number of junior doctors in specialist psychiatry training—core and higher psychiatric trainees who will become the consultant psychiatrists of tomorrow—has also fallen, by 490 full-time equivalent doctors, from 3,187 in 2009 to 2,697 in March 2018. [Interruption.] The civil servants are rapidly checking my figures; they are from answers to parliamentary questions, so they are absolutely correct.
That is a woeful record of decline in the psychiatric and mental health workforce, and it must be corrected. If the Government are serious about their rhetoric on mental health, about improving the quality of provision for people with poor mental health, they need to recognise that the workforce has already declined. Even if there is the promised increase in numbers, it will be from a lower baseline than that of about a decade ago.
The only way to deliver the expansion in services that patients deserve—for example, specialist eating disorder services in Cumbria or East Anglia—is by having a much more serious approach to the recruitment and retention of mental health staff and by paying premiums to attract both doctors to work in CAMHS and people to work in parts of the country where there is a shortage of mental health staff. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) on calling this vital debate.
I remember the challenging years of the mid-1990s, when I was working as a physio in the NHS. During that crisis time, I never knew when I would get home. Today’s scenario reminds me of the dying years of a Tory Government—the parallels are so strong.
In York, I read the Care Quality Commission reports in detail, and although the care given by our NHS staff is excellent, the real challenge that I pull out of the results of CQC reports is the staffing crisis. My local hospital currently has 59 doctor vacancies, and there are 580 nursing vacancies in bands 4 to 7, 312 of which are in bands 5 to 7. The trust has done everything it can to recruit. It went to Spain and recruited 40 Spanish nurses, 37 of whom left after a very short period. The reality is that NHS staffing is in crisis and that affects patient care.
Last year, the trust had to spend £8.5 million on agency staff. That pushed a trust that is already struggling because the funding formula does not work for York into further deficit, which has an impact on its control and on the resources it can get for the winter crisis—York had some of the highest levels of influenza last year. The Minister, therefore, must ensure that the money works, as well as addressing staffing.
I want briefly to look at primary care because, as we have heard, we need early intervention across all ages to keep people out of hospital. Rightly, the Government looked to increase the number of health visitors, and by 2015 the figure was up to 10,309, but since then we have seen a 23.8% fall, down to 7,852, meaning that young people are not getting the input they need. School nursing figures have also fallen by 25% since 2010. So we have a real crisis in our primary care workforce, and also in mental health, as the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) said. Certainly we feel that in York, whether in the community or the hospital environment.
I am going to continue.
The trust is doing everything it can to recruit, but it is impossible to recruit because the national pool of mental health staff is far too small. Therefore, it is vital that we consider the solution, which comes down, as has been said, to workforce planning. We need a partnership approach to planning the workforce. We need to understand the changing demographics and the increasing mental health challenges in order to put the right planning in place, but trusts will not be able to recruit unless the staffing framework is right. The removal of the bursary scheme has been seriously detrimental, particularly to the recruitment of mature students into nursing. People are giving up a job, but their staying in the profession for longer will pay dividends. Students have to pay to travel to placements, and I remember what that was like, so it is really important that they have bursaries.
Secondly on workforce planning, we need to look at how we educate healthcare professionals across the board. I remember discussions at a national level with the trade unions on that very issue, about needing to find a different way. In some countries they bring a real foundation into NHS training so that everyone works together in the first 18 months or two years of their training and has a breadth of understanding of medicine before going off to specialise. We, instead, train in traditional old silos of jobs that have clearly blended over the years, and we must look once again at how we structure that.
Thirdly, we need to look at the “Agenda for Change” package. There is no doubt that it is hard to recruit because people are poorly paid in the NHS and can be better paid elsewhere. Given the stress levels and the antisocial hours that people work, we need to look once again at the remuneration of our NHS workforce. Finally, the knowledge and skills framework has consistently been underutilised by the Government and NHS employers, and it is vital that we go back to that framework of professional development in the NHS.
I declare my interest as a nurse who is still on the Nursing and Midwifery Council, or NMC, register. I speak, therefore, with first- hand experience about having to deal with staffing shortages during more than 20 years of working in the NHS. Staffing problems have always been there, but I welcome the debate that the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) has secured because we must recognise the issues that many hospital trusts and community services are experiencing.
I welcome last month’s NMC figures, which show an increase of more than 4,000 nurses joining the register in the past 12 months, a significant percentage of whom were UK-trained nurses. There was also an increase of 3,000 UK nurses compared with this time last year. I welcome those figures, but that is not to say that there is not a staffing problem across the NHS.
I want to focus on some of the solutions from my experience that would make a real difference out there in the workforce. I understand the sentiments of the hon. Members for Batley and Spen and for York Central (Rachael Maskell) about the bursary scheme, but I trained on that scheme myself and it is far from the panacea that has been portrayed in recent years. We were paid a pittance—£400 a month—for the three years of our training. Yes, it paid for travel and expenses, but not for much else.
Someone training as a nurse has to do the minimum hours to get on to the register, so it is very difficult for them to have an additional job, as other students would. Often times they are mature students and have other commitments, such as children and family responsibilities, and an additional part-time job is almost impossible to hold down. Life on a bursary was tough, and it often explained the high drop-out rate during the three years.
The system I would prefer, and have always advocated, is the degree apprenticeship route. During my time in this place, I have been doing bank shifts at my old hospital with student nurses who are now on the degree apprenticeship route: it is a far better system, and we need to upscale it as a matter of course. Not only are student nurses earning while they are learning; they are part of the workforce, which is a point that the bursary scheme missed completely. Student nurses were university students, but not necessarily part of the working environment, and often found it tough to move into that environment, because they were not seen as key members of the workforce.
The degree apprenticeship route also means that when students work for hospitals or community trusts during their degree apprenticeship, they are often being paid by those trusts, which are then able to accurately predict the number of students coming through the system. That was different under the bursary system: trusts just had to wait and see which newly qualified nurses applied for their vacant posts. For long-term workforce planning, having those student nurses as part of the team means that trusts have an idea of who is likely to come forward when they qualify. There are a number of positives, and I push for the Government to roll out that degree apprenticeship system—maybe not just in nursing, but in other healthcare professional specialities.
I will briefly touch on flexible working. We are under the misapprehension that internal rotation and a shift-based system means there is flexible working for staff in the NHS, which there absolutely is not. In most areas, people are forced to do internal rotation, whether in the community or in the hospital-based system, and that is increasing as we move towards a seven-day-a-week service. If young parents with children are all of a sudden put on a week of nights with a week’s notice, and have no childcare provision, that makes it almost impossible for them to hold down their job.
In the good old days when I first started, people were able to do a permanent nights system, to do permanent weekends, or to choose to work evening shifts. That is all gone now: they are forced to do internal rotation. I say to the Minister that the NHS needs to look at a flexible working system for its staff, because if it does, it is more likely to hold on to the excellent staff who keep the NHS going.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) on having secured this important debate. I have a little bit of a family connection to the NHS, as I am the daughter of a GP, but it is an honour to follow colleagues of all parties who have direct experience of working in the NHS. I welcome their having shared that experience with us.
Staffing levels in the NHS are an important issue, which affects my local NHS trust in Worcestershire as well. I am in close contact with that trust and with staff at the Alexandra hospital in Redditch, and I very much hear that concern; I hear it from my constituents all the time. I agree that it is essential that we increase the NHS workforce at all levels, from nurses to consultants and, particularly, GPs. We are now in a situation in which demand is rising fast: the population is growing, it is ageing, and people are living longer. That is partly due to the success of our fantastic NHS, and the doctors and nurses who work within it, but it does create one of the biggest problems that the NHS faces.
I must have met every Minister in the Department of Health and Social Care over the past few months, and I am looking forward to meeting the Secretary of State later today, when I will be pressing for more details about a welcome capital investment in breast cancer services at the Alexandra hospital and across Worcestershire. There has also been more investment in my local hospital, to keep the frailty unit open and open a new urgent care centre. However, all those services have to be staffed, and we need the stability and security of knowing they will continue to be there, serving my constituents. I welcome those changes, but in previous meetings, I have consistently pressed the issue of staffing levels. I am encouraged that the Government are focused on meeting these challenges and providing the NHS with the workforce we need it to have.
At the moment, one of the biggest recruitment drives in the NHS’s history is taking place. It is intended to increase the number of doctors and nurses trained in the NHS by 25%—an increase of 1,500 places a year. Steps such as those will play a crucial role in supporting the future NHS workforce, but as Members have highlighted, the immediate pressures are still here and must be addressed now. Nowhere is this issue more acute than in general practice, and I often write to constituents who have complained about the waiting times for seeing their GP. Since becoming the MP for Redditch in 2017, I have pushed for change; I am pleased that the Government are listening and now intend to hire 5,000 more GPs and 5,000 additional GP staff by 2020.
I also welcome the fact that the Home Office has exempted doctors and nurses from the tier 2 visa quota system for non-EEA skilled migrant workers. That will enable the NHS to recruit more quickly and widely, especially considering that NHS recruitment demands account for 40% of tier 2 places. I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care have said time and again that we must get the message out that we want EU nationals to stay in this country, and we need them in our NHS. That has been unilaterally guaranteed by this country, with or without a deal, so please let us get that message out to our wonderful NHS staff.
There are positive steps, and the progress that has already been made should be welcomed. In my county of Worcestershire, the total number of staff employed rose by almost 7% between August 2013 and August of this year, to over 5,000. [Interruption.]
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I believe I was noting the positive progress in Worcestershire. The total number of staff employed rose by 7% to more than 5,000 between August 2013 and August this year, and the number of doctors has increased by 5% . The number of nurses has gone up by nearly 8%. There are now nearly 1,400 nurses working in Worcestershire acute hospitals. I have been to the wards, and spoken to the nurses at the Alex who tell me about the positive recruitment days that they have held at the University of Worcestershire. I very much welcome that work, and I hope that it will continue to bear fruit.
It is vital to maintain the morale of our staff, and I welcome what my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) said regarding flexible working. It is important that we look at the issues in the round. As a former employer myself, I know how important it is to get every aspect of the employment offer right. I welcome the new contract deals that will result in a 6.5% pay rise for more than 1 million NHS workers this year. That means that those on the lowest salaries in the NHS will see some of the largest proportionate pay rises. Many nurses and healthcare assistants will enjoy pay increases of at least 25%. We must get the pay offer right to ensure that we encourage our NHS staff both to enter the profession and to stay.
I thank the Minister for attending the debate. I want to hear more about the strategy. I welcome the progress that has been made, and I implore him to continue, steadfast, in that pursuit.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I, too, declare an interest as a longstanding NHS worker of more than 30 years.
Healthcare is not delivered by machines or buildings; it is delivered by people. People are the core of the NHS. The problem relates to workforce, and it is hitting all four nations. Although Scotland has the highest ratio of every group of healthcare staff per head of population, we too face challenges. We have a 4.8% nurse vacancy rate in Scotland, but in England it is more than 11.5%. The Royal College of Nursing says that there are 41,000 nurse vacancies at the moment, and if action is not taken, that will rise to 48,000.
As other Members mentioned, since the introduction of the bursary in 2015, there has been a one third drop in applications. Acceptances in England have gone down by almost 4%, whereas in Scotland they have gone up by almost 14.5% over the same period. The bursary is having a huge impact, particularly on mature students, who might already have a degree and have therefore also been hit by the removal of the post graduate bursary that allows a nurse to be trained in just two years.
There has been a 15% drop in mature students, which is hitting those with mental health issues and learning disabilities in particular, as those specialities tend to attract the more mature nurse student. There has been a 13% drop in mental health nursing staff and a 40% drop in nurses looking after those with learning disabilities. That makes those services unsustainable.
Brexit is affecting the workforce, as it is every other aspect of life. There has been a 90% drop in European nurses registering to come and work in the UK, and a trebling of EU nurses who are leaving the UK register. That does not help to solve the problem, and those nurses cannot be totally replaced by UK staff in enough time. It does not matter that the Government come out with warm words if the Home Office’s actions make people feel insecure. Friends of ours who have been GPs for more than 20 years in Scotland applied for citizenship for their children. The eldest and youngest children were granted it; the middle child was refused. What are they now talking about? “Maybe we should go back to Germany where we’d be safe.”
From every angle, the Government are taking actions that are making staffing levels worse. The former Secretary of State for Health, the right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Mr Hunt), used to go on about the lack of junior doctors and consultants as a cause of excess deaths among those admitted at weekends. Actually, the only staffing impact proven through research is on the ratio of registered nurses to patients—not healthcare assistants or others.
I am sure that most of us had great concerns about the previous Secretary of State’s use of statistics, but a mental health study was carried out and the highest morbidity rates were in the middle of the week, not at weekends, which rather disproved the assertions that he was making.
We pointed that out repeatedly at the time. It has been shown time and again that quality, well-trained, experienced nurses—not so much agency nurses or healthcare assistants—who know a ward are the bedrock of every single service in healthcare.
Brexit is having an impact. Even though in Scotland our Government have promised to pay settled status fees for all those working in public services, we have already lost, according to the British Medical Association survey, 14% of our doctors. England has lost almost 20%. We cannot reach a point where England has 50,000 nurse vacancies. That would be unsafe. The Government need to take action and, like the Scottish Government, put the bursary back, get rid of tuition fees, and make it sustainable for people to train to become nurses. If they do not do that, the sustainability and safety of the NHS in England will deteriorate further.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) on securing this extremely important debate, and on the tour de force that she presented. She touched on many important issues. Time restrains me, so I will not be able to pick up on all the points that she made, nor on all the impressive contributions made by other Members, particularly those who have had frontline experience, and had practical examples that we need to look into further.
My hon. Friend talked about her local trust being a big employer in her constituency and beyond. Indeed, it employs some 8,000 people, but has a 10% vacancy rate—sadly, very much in line with the national average. She was right that covering the gaps in the rota is an expensive business. I was pleased to hear that so many initiatives were being undertaken by the trust, but the fact that there is still a 10% vacancy rate shows that something is broken with the system.
My hon. Friend highlighted the impact on patients that staff shortages can have regarding closures, and she was right to highlight the nursing workforce crisis and the whole range of specialisms that are at risk. She was also right to raise the uncertainty that Brexit brings to staff, and to highlight the lack of legal powers to require safe staffing levels, and the overall strategy that we need to get the correct staffing levels.
I was also delighted, as always, to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell). She was right that agency spend sucks away vital resources and that recruitment challenges will never be solved unless we get the right framework. That is why we deeply regret the abolition of the nurse bursary, to which I will return.
We know that the NHS workforce is extraordinary. The NHS is one of the biggest employers in the world, and we must pay tribute, as we do every time, to the staff who work so tirelessly, day in and day out. We also have to recognise that there are simply not enough of them. Last month, the King’s Fund, the Nuffield Trust and the Health Foundation joined forces and warned that the staffing crisis in the NHS is deepening so fast that the service could be short of up to 350,000 staff by 2030. That warning is stark. Clearly there is an existential threat to the NHS if action is not taken to address the staffing crisis that we are now being told about.
According to official figures, there were more than 102,000 vacancies across the NHS at the end of September. That means that one in 11 posts in the NHS is currently vacant. The chair of NHS Improvement, Baroness Harding, recently acknowledged that
“the single biggest problem in the NHS at the moment is that we don’t have enough people wanting to work in it.”
However, the issues that we face run far deeper than merely how attractive the profession looks to applicants.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen said, we face a perfect storm of a retention crisis caused by factors including pay and conditions, ongoing uncertainty about Brexit, demographic challenges in many sectors of the workforce and the ongoing impact of the catastrophic decision to scrap bursaries for nurses, midwives and allied health professionals. Although many of those issues are clear and long-standing, there is no credible overarching strategy to address any of them. As the House of Lords Select Committee on the Long-term Sustainability of the NHS found, the lack of such a strategy
“represents the biggest internal threat to the sustainability of the NHS.”
We all eagerly await the publication of the NHS long-term plan, but I would welcome the Minister’s confirmation of precisely when that will happen. I was deeply concerned to hear Simon Stevens’s comments about how the plan will not definitively address staffing problems. Will the Minister confirm whether that is the case? If so, when will we see the comprehensive strategy for the NHS workforce that we so desperately need?
As many hon. Members have said, the workforce crisis has been compounded by the abolition of undergraduate nurse bursaries. When it was announced that bursaries would be abolished, we were told that our many concerns were misguided and that the changes would lead to an additional 10,000 training places being provided. However, just as everyone but the Government predicted, the exact opposite has happened. As of September 2018, almost 1,800 fewer people are due to start university nursing courses in England, while the number of mature students has plummeted by 15%.
In our debate on nursing higher education on 21 November, the Minister said:
“We expect NHS England to clearly set out its commitment to the nursing workforce in the long-term plan, and ensure that there is a clear way for that plan to be implemented…The Government will be consulting on the detailed proposals on future funding for higher education that the RCN has put forward”.—[Official Report, 21 November 2018; Vol. 649, c. 372WH.]
Will he provide greater detail on that point and say when that consultation will take place?
The issues that hon. Members have discussed today are acute, systemic and entrenched, but they have been exacerbated by the Government’s short-term and flawed approach. Any long-term strategy for the NHS will fail if it does not address them. Staff and patients deserve more than a health service in a constant state of crisis. They deserve better than this Government.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) for securing this debate. As she and hon. Members who have contributed to other such debates will know, the issues she raises are very similar to those that we discussed on 21 November in the debate that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) has just referred to. However, it is welcome to have the opportunity to discuss them again, because such debates reflect the importance that we all place on the NHS workforce. The one thing that the hon. Gentleman and I agree on is that it is right to begin by reiterating our thanks to the NHS professional staff for their work treating patients day in, day out.
I also thank other hon. Members for their contributions. I note in particular the comment rightly made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) that we need to upscale nurse degree apprenticeship routes. I will speak about that in more detail if I have time. My hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) spoke about the capital announcement made last week, which I was pleased to see come through. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) made some points about mental health—may I offer him a meeting at the Department to discuss those matters directly, because today I want to concentrate on other matters? The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) made a contribution based on her valuable experience.
I should say right at the outset, as I did in our debate two weeks ago, that the Government greatly value the staff who contribute to and support the NHS. We understand its importance and are committed to ensuring that it is supported and funded appropriately, which is clearly reflected in the extra £20.5 billion a year that the NHS will get by 2023-24.
As the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston quoted me saying in our last debate, we expect NHS England to set out clearly its commitment to the workforce in the long-term plan. The plan will address how to open up the profession to more people from all backgrounds and ensure that they get the right support throughout their training. To answer his question: yes, when the long-term plan is published, he will see the workforce embedded in it and in our strategy. We also expect NHS England to deliver a clear implementation plan to guarantee the future of the workforce. The NHS employs a record number of staff—more than 1.2 million in 2018, which is more than at any other time in its 70-year history—with significant growth in newly qualified staff since 2010.
Let me repeat what I said two weeks ago:
“the Government, and I as the new Minister for Health, should never be complacent”.—[Official Report, 21 November 2018; Vol. 649, c. 372WH.]
We are not. We are absolutely committed to ensuring that nursing remains an attractive career so that the NHS can build on the record numbers of nurses on our wards. Actions already taken to boost the supply of nurses range from training more nurses and offering new routes into the profession to enhancing rewards and pay packages, and there are now 11,000 more nurses on our wards than in May 2010.
NHS England, NHS Improvement and Health Education England are working with trusts on a range of recruitment, retention and return to practice programmes to ensure that the required workforce is in place to deliver safe and effective services. We should note that NHS Improvement has had some real success with its retention programme. Retention seems to me one of the key issues for the Government to focus on, and that will be reflected in the long-term plan. NHS Improvement’s programme continues its direct work with trusts to support improvements in retention, with a focus on the nursing workforce and the mental health clinical workforce. So far, 35 trusts have been involved and the initial evidence is positive and encouraging, with more flexible working programmes and greater support for older workers. It is therefore right that that programme be expanded further to all remaining NHS trusts in England.
Revalidation is a new system for nurses to retain their registration, but it is a very difficult and stressful process for nurses who may be part-time or part of a hospital bank. I was lucky because my NHS trust, the Royal Marsden, is extremely supportive to its bank workers, but will the Minister ensure that bank nurses are supported through the revalidation process to keep them registered?
I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend, and I will ensure that that work is undertaken.
As I have said today and on previous occasions, the priority is to get more nurses on our wards. There are currently 52,000 nurses in training, and we have announced a policy change that will result in additional clinical placement funding to make 5,000 more training places available each year. My hon. Friend made the point that nursing bursaries were not always the panacea that everyone suggests; students on the loans system are at least 25% better off than under the previous system. However, we recognise that students incur additional costs as a result of attending clinical placements, so we have introduced a learning support fund with a child dependants allowance, reimbursement of travel costs and an exceptional hardship fund. When I spoke to nurses at Barts last week, I listened carefully to the points they made about the need for help with travel in particular, and I am looking carefully at that issue.
The hon. Member for Batley and Spen raised the RCN proposal. Yesterday, as I had promised I would, I responded to the RCN in a formal letter to Dame Donna, and I look forward to meeting her to discuss her proposals in the near future—hopefully the very near future.
We are increasing the number of midwifery training places by more than 3,000 over the next four years. There continues to be strong demand for nursing places, with more applicants than places, but I am under no illusions, nor am I complacent. We need more people applying and we need to increase that route. A number of routes are open. HEE’s programme covers all fields of nursing; its RePAIR—reducing pre-registration attrition and improving retention—programme explores effective interventions to ensure that people are supported through their whole student journey from pre-enrolment to post-qualification.
The hon. Member for Batley and Spen was right to mention the number of new routes into nursing. In particular, she will have noted the report published last week by the Select Committee on Education on the nurse degree apprenticeship. We are working with the Department for Education to carefully consider the Committee’s recommendations and I will respond in due course.
I want to turn to the story of doctors. In the NHS today, it is true that there are 18,200 more doctors in trusts and CCGs than there were in 2010. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich raised the matter of the additional 5,000 doctors. This year, we have recruited 3,473 GP trainees, against the target of 3,250. That is an increase on last year, but we are determined to meet the commitment of 5,000. To ensure that that is possible, we have rolled out an extra 1,500 medical school places. By 2020, as he knows, five new medical schools will be open to deliver that expansion.
In the whole of this discussion, it is only right that I recognise that the Government value the professionals. It is key that we ensure that NHS staff are well remunerated. It is absolutely right that we have given NHS staff a well-deserved pay rise. All staff will receive a 3% pay rise by the end of 2018-19.
There is a lot more I might have said. The hon. Member for Batley and Spen raised a number of local issues, including ambulatory care. If she cares to write to me or to catch me, I would be happy to have a longer discussion with her. I thank her and all hon. Members for the points they have made in the debate. I also stress, as I have done today to staff at North Middlesex, and last week, that making sure that we have an NHS long-term plan that sets out a strategy for the NHS and ensures a sustainable supply of clinical workforce—doctors, workers and others—is key, and it is key to delivering our ambitions for the NHS. I thank the staff for all that they do.
I thank colleagues from both sides of the House for their contributions, particularly those with frontline experience, and I thank the Minister for his measured response.
I have a couple of points. First, I am sure the Minister can feel the sense of urgency in this debate. Although I appreciate that long-term discussions are needed, we still do not have a date for when the long-term plan will be published or for the consultation on the Royal College of Nursing proposals. The Minister said it would be soon, but when will we have that?
That is very reassuring.
We hear from across the House that mental health is receiving such little support. People are hanging by a thread. Nurses are saying to their organisations and their MPs, “I am worried for the health and safety of my patients. I’m doing too many shifts. I’m absolutely shattered. I can’t guarantee that I am going to be doing my job properly. They’re bringing in volunteers to support me on the ward.” It is an absolute crisis. While I understand that the wheels of government work very slowly, I hope that the Minister takes from this debate that Brexit has been a universal issue. We are losing staff members. I welcome the commitment to an extra 5,000 doctors and so on, but that is just plugging the gap of the staff who are draining away from our hospitals and frontline services.
I absolutely recognise that Brexit is a pressure on the system, but we should also recognise that there are 4,367 more professionals working in the NHS from the EU than there were at the date of the referendum. It is important to put that on the record.
If that is the case, the statistics are welcome, but in my constituency we are losing European members of staff. We cannot get away from the overall numbers—there are staffing shortages of 10%. In my constituency and in my trust they cannot recruit, because of various issues. I am grateful that the Government listened when I raised the question of tier 2 visas with the Prime Minister, when we wanted to bring over a paediatrician but could not because the visa took so long that he got another job. I welcome that when it comes to nurses, too, but we have to accept that there are things such as the bursary—
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).