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House of Commons Hansard
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Westminster Hall
19 February 2019
Volume 654

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 19 February 2019

[Geraint Davies in the Chair]

Free Childcare: Costs and Benefits

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the costs and benefits of free childcare.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I probably ought to declare that I am father to 14-month-old Ophelia and expectant father to another child, which is on its way, so I have a vested interest in this topic. Somewhat ironically, a number of colleagues asked me to express their disappointment at not being able to make the debate, given that this is half-term week. This week was supposed to be a parliamentary recess, but the Government cancelled it, so the debate was drawn for a time when lots of colleagues have to look after their children.

The motion refers to free childcare. Clearly there is no such thing, given that someone will always have to pay—parents directly, the state or a bit of both—but the premise of my argument is that childcare that is fully funded by the state should be seen as a redistributive investment rather than a cost. Such an investment could create a more productive, more equal and happier country due to the contribution that fully paid childcare can make to the economy, the impact it can have on tackling class and gender inequality, and what it can do for family happiness.

It is worth summarising where we are today. I think it is fair to say that most parents, if not all, would say the childcare system is far too confusing. Someone with a two-year-old child can get 15 hours of childcare per week if they receive certain benefits or have a child with disabilities, or if the child is looked after by the local council, but parents who do not fit into those categories have to fund the equivalent childcare or not be in work to look after their children. For children aged three or four, parents can get 15 hours of childcare per week until reception class for up to 38 weeks each year, and an additional 15 hours per week can be claimed by a single parent in work, a couple of parents earning less than £100,000 a year—that is, of course, a generous income bracket—and those in some other technical situations.

On top of that, we also have childcare vouchers, tax-free childcare, working tax credits and universal credit. Childcare vouchers are claimed through work, but the Government are phasing them out. Tax-free childcare involves a prepayment top-up by the Government, with parents using an online system to make payments to registered childcare providers, but is only for those who do not receive childcare vouchers. People on low pay can claim universal credit or working tax credits, but doing so means they cannot claim tax-free childcare.

All those schemes rely on someone receiving a regular income from employment, creating difficulties for those who rely on commission—one of my constituents, who is an estate agent, found it very difficult to evidence her income to fit into some of those categories—who are in flexible work or who are self-employed. I recognise that the Government have made welcome changes to tax-free childcare for those in self-employment, but those difficulties come up frequently in my constituency surgeries. That is especially true for tax-free childcare, which has been mired in IT problems since its launch. Parents now have to take the time—every three months, I think—to log in, register their children and make payments into the system, and must find a childcare provider that is able to receive money through the system.

There were significant problems, which have now been fixed, for people with children with disabilities. Those people get a 40% top-up rather than a 20% top-up, but that was not calculated properly on the system. Constituents in well-paid jobs told me they were having to think about selling their car in order to pay for their childcare and stay in work. That just cannot be right. Not only is the system too confusing but parents do not use it because it is too much hassle. Only last week, we heard that only one in 14 eligible families claim their tax-free childcare. The system is too hard to use—it is too confusing—and parents are not using it.

All that is in the context that childcare is an enormous cost in the family budget. In 2014, which I appreciate is now some time ago, the Family and Childcare Trust conducted research into the cost of childcare across the country and concluded that, on average, families pay about £10,000 a year. That cost will now be higher, because of welcome changes such as having to pay the living wage and other costs faced by childcare providers.

Even with families paying such large costs, however, the system is still not sustainable. Childcare providers tell me that they cannot afford to make ends meet without applying additional costs to families, on top of the core costs of childcare. A Twitter follower of mine made the point that, under Government-funded childcare, and obviously with the right ratio of staff to children, her childcare business receives only £3.84 per hour per child. She says she is on the brink of closure. We have a system that is too complicated, that parents are not fully using, that is not sustainably funded and that is bringing the childcare system to the brink of closure.

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My hon. Friend is making an eloquent speech on the realities that parents face. I congratulate him on his wonderful news. The situation in Wales is different, and I may come back to that in a later intervention.

I have anecdotal evidence that, in order to reduce the pressure on family budgets, lots of my friends who are our age and who have children find it more cost-effective to work part time or to rely on elderly relatives—not just grandparents but great-grandparents in some cases—for childcare. Does my hon. Friend agree that, in the long term, regardless of which Administration lead on childcare, that is simply not sustainable?

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I agree with my hon. Friend and thank him for his intervention. It has been shown that parents—especially mums, as I will come on to in a moment—often go from working full time to part time and do not return to full-time work until their children are in primary education. They are out of the labour market for years when they may wish to be in it. That is a systemic issue associated with the pressures of childcare.

I am not moaning about looking after children; I enjoy looking after my children. However, the fact of the matter is that I also want to contribute and to have a career, as does my wife. We should not have to live in a system where having a career is a trade-off between one and the other; where the childcare system is not fit for purpose; and where our way of life does not allow us fully to contribute to the success of the economy. The system is ripe for reform, not only so that we can help families or spend taxpayers’ money more efficiently but to create a country in which we can all be happier and more productive.

Moving on to the economy, OECD research shows that moving to a culture in which men and women are able to share parental duties, without mum or dad trading off who looks after the child, and therefore creating equal participation in the labour market, would increase GDP by about 10% by 2030. Under their current policies the Government seem to be in the mood to surrender GDP growth in the coming years, so reform of the childcare system may be a welcome contribution to increasing GDP.

This issue is particularly relevant to parents of children with disabilities, who find the system even harder and more expensive. I am proud that the Flamingo Chicks charity in my constituency teaches ballet to children with disabilities because there was no such provision. It not only provides excellent services for young people in Bristol and across the country—it is a growing organisation—but does research, too. I hosted the charity in Westminster a few weeks ago, when it launched research showing that only one in 10 dads feels able to tell their employer that their child has a disability. They fear telling their employer because they think that it might impact on their career. How sad is that? People ought to be able to tell their employer that they need to claim their right to flexitime or childcare leave in order to care for their children. In order to maintain their career, they should not feel pressured into having to put their job first and hiding the fact that they have children who need to be looked after. That is entirely incorrect.

I am also pleased that several Bristol businesses have signed up to the new Flamingo Chicks employers’ charter, under which employers should proactively encourage their staff to take flexitime, if required, to look after their children—whether they are disabled or otherwise—and which encourages policies to support staff in playing a more positive and proactive role in looking after their families without it having an impact on their career.

If more parents are in work, it has the obvious benefit of more people paying tax, which, which is welcome and helps to fund systems such as these. That is especially true for in respect of properly funded childcare providers. If we have a sustainable, fully funded childcare provider system across the country, we will create lots of reasonably well paid jobs that people value. Creating a public service we can be proud of will help us to rebalance the regional economies, invest in the next generation and help families to do better today.

Some have suggested that fully funded childcare could increase economic productivity because it would give parents more flexibility around their working days and around the way in which they take time off work to care for their children. That means that we would get more output from them at work, because they would not have to take so much time off at short notice or reduce their hours to fit what the current childcare facilities provide.

The Minister may wish to refer to some studies, including that from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, that say that there is little connection between childcare policies and parents in work. Of course, some parents will choose to stay at home and care for their children, and it is absolutely their right to do so, but surely we would not wish to miss the prospect of increasing GDP, tax returns and productivity. Surely we should aim to help those who want to be in work to lead more productive and meaningful, less discriminatory and happier lives. Not that long ago, the Government started to measure happiness—I think it was under Prime Minister Cameron. I do not know whether they still do so, but it would be interesting to see the statistics.

Moving on to gender and class, we should not shy away from the fact that the childcare system facilitates discrimination in the workplace and the education system. Gender inequality is obvious, isn’t it? The Government admitted that in testimony for the Treasury Committee’s excellent report on childcare of March last year. In that inquiry, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said that women having children end up on the “mummy track”—that well-known phrase—doing less skilled work than they are perfectly able to do, for a salary that is less than they are worth.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies, in its report on wage progression and the gender wage gap, said that by the time a woman’s first child is 20, she will have lost on average three whole years’ worth of salary compared with men, and will have spent the equivalent of 10 years out of work in terms of time lost, loss of progression and lack of career development. Those are enormous numbers; it is an enormous impact. Even in our increasingly modern society, it is disproportionately applied to women and mums.

In my view, we should talk more about class inequality. The childcare system has a really important role to play here, too. The Sutton Trust and others have shown that, by the time children leave secondary school, the attainment gap in terms of education, training and skills, means that children from disadvantaged backgrounds have lost nearly two years’ worth of schooling, compared with those from more advantaged backgrounds. That has to be unacceptable in our country. We know that the class gap starts from the earliest of ages, with attainment gaps of more than four months of equivalent schooling having been noted at the compulsory education age of 5.

I saw that frequently, because I used to be the chair of governors at the primary school that I used to go to in what is now my constituency. Everyone who has been a governor knows that they look at lots of data on progression, attainment, attendance and all that stuff. The primary school is in Lawrence Weston, where I am from, which still has one of the lowest levels of attainment in the country for education, training and skills. When children come into the reception class, the gap between those who are the most prepared for mainstream education and those who are the least is really quite significant. Primary schools like Nova Primary School—it was called Avon Primary School when I was there and it was not an academy—put in enormous effort to try to bring children up to the average by year 6. Primary schools do a really good job, but it takes a huge amount of effort and support from teaching staff and teaching assistants to get them there.

Then, of course, the environment changes in the secondary education system—there are more children and less one-to-one support—and the children who were brought up to the average in year 6 start to fall back again. That is when we get an attainment gap at the end of secondary school of so many years’ equivalent of educational outcome, compared with those from more advantaged backgrounds.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. We should target childcare at the poor more comprehensively, because as he has described, when children arrive in school they are sometimes not ready—they are not even properly toilet trained and they cannot use a knife and fork. Does he agree that we should lament the number of Sure Start centres that have gone to the wall recently? They provided the foundation for better preparing those children for school.

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I agree entirely. I am pleased that, in Bristol, we have managed to keep our children’s centres open by coupling them with nursery schools in the majority of cases, and by creating a funding environment that means we have not needed to close them.

We do not need to look far from my constituency, however, to see how many centres have closed around the country under the current Government. I wish that my predecessors in the Labour Government had thought about the scheme sooner, because they introduced it late in their time in government. It was the right thing to do and I hope that we will be able to reintroduce such schemes under a future Labour Government. The evidence is clear: intervention at an earlier age is essential for tackling the inequality gap.

I will touch on maintained nursery schools and the link to childcare.

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My hon. Friend talks about the closure of centres across England, but of course things are different in Wales. In my constituency, two new Flying Start centres have opened in the last two years. I was previously a cabinet member for education in a local authority in Wales and we continued to open such Flying Start centres.

All the evidence from Welsh Government analysis and local government analysis shows that early intervention works. It can be clearly shown that, where early intervention takes place around potty training, interaction with adults and early learning, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) mentioned, it makes a huge difference. Things can be done differently and are being done differently by the Labour-led Welsh Government.

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I declare an interest because there are two islands within my constituency—Steel Holm and Flat Holm. One of them officially belongs to Wales, so I class myself as a Bristolian and a Welsh MP. I take great pride in joining my hon. Friend in recognising the achievements of the Labour Government in Wales and I long for such achievements in Westminster too.

One issue with the Sure Start centres was that some data suggested that they were being utilised most by more middle class families, although the policy intention was to tackle the inequality gap that I have referred to. My argument is that a fully funded childcare system, because it is considered a public service, is not seen as a nanny state or someone trying to intervene to tell people how to parent; it is just available and it is what it is. We could have a more mainstream application of early years intervention in this type of system, which would tackle some of the challenges of the past.

I return to my soapbox on maintained nursery schools, which I and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), and other hon. Members, have talked about frequently. We have some excellent maintained nursery schools in Bristol, which have the costs of and are regulated as schools, but which are funded as private childcare providers. Some of the Minister’s colleagues have recently responded about them in the House of Commons.

The evidence from maintained nursery schools clearly shows that putting in the intervention and assistance before mainstream school has a huge impact on bringing those children up to the average when they get to mainstream education, which helps to tackle the inequality gap. We should take that evidence seriously and apply it to our public policy, to show that it could be done not just in cities and regions that still have maintained nursery schools—they do not exist everywhere in the country—but across all the regions and nations.

On happier families, the Resolution Foundation produced an interesting report last week that looked at wellbeing markers for the happiness of families. To no one’s surprise, it concluded that being in meaningful work and having more disposable income generally makes people happier. It specifically showed that an extra £1,000 a year of disposable income can have a measurable impact on the wellbeing and happiness of someone’s family life, especially for those on the lowest incomes. To perhaps no one’s surprise, as income gets towards £100,000 a year, extra disposable income has less of an impact, but it can have an enormous impact for someone on £13,000.

Helping parents to be in work and providing fully funded childcare could have an impact on the average cost of £10,000 a year for working families. One of the consequences of reading a speech from an iPad, Mr Davies, is that pressing the wrong place on the screen returns the speech to the start, rather than staying where I was speaking from. Reducing the amount of disposable income that working families spend on childcare, especially those on the lowest incomes, would have a measurable impact on their wellbeing and happiness. In many situations, parents are having to trade off between each other’s jobs, after-work arrangements, work trips, having to look after children, who does the school run and all those things. We could make a difference not only to family life planning, but to their income.

I do not have any evidence for this, and I would be interested in the Minister’s view, but surely fully funded childcare is an investment in the country. If we allow parents to work, reduce the amount of disposable income they spend on childcare, give them more money to spend on the high street or elsewhere in the market, allow them to pay taxes and VAT on the products they buy and fund properly paid childcare providers which then pay their own income tax through their workers in a fully funded childcare system, that money will not just go into a black hole, but will create a system that could help us achieve public policy priorities on gender, class, economic productivity and all the issues I have raised today. It seems an obvious thing for the Government to want to look at and reform, because it will mean something to so many people across the country, while also stimulating all those important factors.

In conclusion, it is clear that the current childcare system is too complicated, does not work and is not sustainable. When we speak to anyone involved, that is what they say. Parents are not aware which system is most relevant to them. It is very confusing. People might think they are on a better scheme with childcare vouchers, which are easily done through work, and they are being told that is coming to an end and they should consider tax-free childcare, but then the IT system does not work and they cannot calculate which scheme is better. If someone is about to be or has already been pushed on to universal credit, they are told they cannot get tax-free childcare, even though they may have been able to get childcare vouchers if they were on working tax credits. It just does not work.

As a consequence, the Treasury has been saving money. The budget allocation for tax-free childcare alone—that is just one aspect of this complicated service—went from £800 million to £37 million. The Treasury has made a saving of hundreds of millions of pounds. Where has that money gone? Why is it not being invested back into reforming childcare systems? The fact of the matter is that while the Treasury is clawing back this money and spending it on God knows what—ship companies with no ships, or whatever it might be—childcare providers are having to charge parents on top of the already expensive price of childcare, whether it is for food, activities or private hours outside of the hours provided by the system.

We see that time and again. Whether it is policing, council services or childcare, the Government cut the funding to public services and those who provide for our constituents, and then push those costs on to hard-pressed families, whether it is through increased council tax to pay for the police funding that the Government have cut or to cover their cuts to the core grants to councils, or passing on more costs to parents from the attempt to save money on childcare systems. Enough really is enough.

We should be aiming for a fully funded childcare system, with qualified and decently paid childcare professionals. It is an investment in our future. It will break down gender and class inequalities and will help foster happier and healthier families right across our country. I do not see why it is even a debate. I hope that the Minister will set out today what he will do to make it a reality.

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I will impose an advisory time limit of nine minutes.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) on securing this important debate. I am pleased to speak today, particularly following the debate that I secured here last week on nurture care and early intervention in primary schools, which feeds nicely into this subject.

Early years education and nursery provision are crucial to ensuring that every child has the best start in life. Last week I spoke about that with reference to primary schools, although I said that the need for such support starts even earlier. As the hon. Gentleman said, free childcare is considered important because it allows parents to return to work and—for me, this is even more important—it ensures that children receive a good educational foundation. Without the right support in early life, children suffer, challenges become more complex, and costs grow. That is why I am an advocate of early intervention and proper support for disadvantaged and troubled families.

Across Mansfield and Warsop many low-income families rely on free childcare, and would certainly benefit from greater support with those costs. We have a relatively high take-up of the free childcare offer for two-year-olds, but I continue to have concerns that those most in need do not take up such support. The financial viability of those free places is a huge challenge for nurseries. Costs for nursery owners have increased because of payroll costs and other elements of inflation, and the funding offered by the Government to support childcare providers has not increased proportionately. That issue is consistently raised with me by local providers, and one local nursery owner also raised a valid point about wages and staffing.

In general, nursery staff are not particularly well paid, and progression can be unclear. That means there is a high turnover of staff, and providers cannot retain their best and most experienced people. After a few years working in childcare many people leave the sector and go elsewhere looking for better wages, and when we discuss the costs and benefits of free childcare we must also consider those aspects. I know from my experience with my now five and two-year-old boys that the attachments children make to nursery staff are important and emotional. My boys come from a safe and loving home, and it stands to reason that for children from the hardest backgrounds with problems at home, those relationships and the structure and safety of nursery are even more important. High levels of staff turnover are not helpful in delivering that continuity of care.

The Sutton Trust has been campaigning on that issue, and it argues that we should consider giving early years teachers qualified teacher status. The increase in pay, conditions and status that that would entail would help to retain a skilled and experienced workforce in that sector, although it would need funding to make it work.

I welcome the commitment by Ministers in autumn to support early development at home, including funding for additional training for health visitors to identify speech, language and communication needs. That is a good step towards tackling disadvantage and helping to identify special educational needs, in order to offer the best and earliest interventions. I would like early years education to be part of a formal intervention to which those children who most need it can be referred, following those early identifications. Giving children access to such support as early as possible, perhaps in a more formal and directive way for parents, would be helpful.

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The hon. Gentleman makes a good case for those who are less advantaged than most of us. Does he share my view about Sure Start centres? They were developed to provide outreach, yet we have lost a lot of that. Will he encourage the Minister to encourage greater outreach into those communities, as we had under Sure Start?

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That is an interesting prospect. Sure Start centres, and the ideas behind them, are positive, and we need that early support and intervention for families, and that hub for them to receive such support. I do not know whether Sure Start centres are always the right place—as the hon. Member for Bristol North West said, take-up at those centres is often by middle- class families and people who perhaps have the social capital to go out and find that support, when perhaps it could be more focused and targeted on those who most need it.

It is good that we are spending more than any other Government on supporting early years education at around £6 billion a year by 2020, and it is positive that more than 90% of all three and four-year-olds are accessing Government-funded early education. We are heading in the right direction in many respects, but we need to look more carefully at the impact of such provision, especially when it comes to the existing childcare offer. The Government’s policy of 30 hours of free childcare amounts to just over 1,100 hours of free childcare a year for many families, including my own—indeed, I count down the days until September when my youngest will be eligible for free childcare, and all the holidays I will be able to go on with that extra money. That perhaps identifies the problem—the funding should not necessarily pay for my holidays, which might be what it is used for.

The Education Committee, which I have the privilege of sitting on, noted in our recent report, “Tackling disadvantage in the early years”, that the policy might have entrenched inequality, rather than helping to close the gap. The Committee argued that the Government should reduce the upper earnings cap for 30 hours of childcare, the extra funding providing more early education targeted at the most disadvantaged children.

In 2016, a two-parent family on the national living wage with an annual wage of £19,000 a year, received 6% more in childcare support than a two-parent family on £100,000 a year, but now the former receive 20% less childcare support than the latter, because support has increased for wealthier parents, not the other way around. That is according to the Education Policy Institute. There is a balance to all such things. An important element is to provide value and support for those in work, so that people feel the benefit of work, but perhaps support has moved slightly too far from prioritising children who most need early intervention and support from the education system.

The social mobility index places Mansfield 524th out of 533 constituencies in England. I care passionately about social justice, an issue that is at the centre of my work in Mansfield and Warsop, and one of the best ways to tackle that low social mobility is to improve education, and early years support and intervention, focused on those most vulnerable children and families. I hope that the Minister will commit to look at ways in which we can reform education right from the start, from those early years, in order to support the most disadvantaged children, including many from Mansfield.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) on bringing this issue to the Floor for consideration. I deal with this issue every week in my office, and in particular with my staff. I will give the Chamber an example of how the matter works in practice.

I have six staff, five of whom are ladies, so the issue comes through clearly. They are of differing ages, though I will not mention their names or refer to their ages, because that is something we do not do, if we want to live well. My part-time worker is in her 50s and is a grandmother. I allow her flexibility to change her days so she can mind her grandchildren and come into my office on the days or mornings that she does not have the children. That is a practical arrangement that works for her and for me—that is important.

A further two staff members in their 40s have children in the last year of schooling, so they are able to work their normal full-time hours. It is easier when children attend secondary schools and further education. I also have a staff member in her 20s who is due to marry next year, and she has informed me that I should be prepared for her maternity announcement the following year, as she wants children right away after she gets married. Again, I support her wholeheartedly in that.

My parliamentary aide is in her 30s, and has a three-year-old and a four-year-old. Her childcare arrangements are more pressing. They are all key members of staff, but she is in particular. When she returned to work after her second child, we came to a flexible working arrangement that allows her to work at home on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursdays, when I am at Westminster.

In practice, when my aide’s kids are at nursery in the mornings, she works away for me, and when her husband gets home at 6 pm, she works on. She is my speech writer, preparing many of my speeches, so she probably has little to do—I jest, because I keep her busy. I talk the speeches over with her, but cut and add to them as I progress through the time. She is kept very busy, and her workload means that I sometimes see work coming through to me at 1 o’clock in the morning. That is a fact, it is how she does it with her flexible hours—I am very fortunate to have her working for me.

When I asked my aide about childcare, her answer was simple: “Jim, I earn too much to get help from Government but not enough to pay the £300 a week for someone else to mind the children. I am holding on for the P2s”—primary school—“when the kids are in until 3 pm, and I can then cut back on night-time hours.” That has made me ask some questions. How many young families working to pay for childcare are holding on by a thread until they get the care? How many grannies and grandas are missing out on actually relaxing in retirement because their children are not able to pay for childcare?

Too many families are over the threshold for tax credits and struggle to do it all. That was illustrated clearly by the hon. Members for Bristol North West and for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) in their contributions. Families earn too much for social housing, but not enough to be comfortable.

What we have is what I refer to as the working poor and there is a greater number of them, and every one of us could probably reflect that and illustrate that in our constituencies. I believe that if the burden of childcare was lifted, there would be benefits for the quality of life for so many families throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We need more schemes such as the tax-free childcare scheme, which puts 20% of Government funding alongside someone’s 80%. The fact is that, although that is good, not many people are aware of it and I look to the Minister to give us some illustration of what can be done to improve that. There are many people who just do not know about the scheme.

Some 91,000 families made use of the new tax-free childcare system in December, which is far below the expected number. What are the Government doing to increase that number and increase awareness, because official figures show that the Government had planned and budgeted for 415,000 families? We are far off that figure, for a scheme that was launched in October 2017. It is a gentle question, but hopefully it will receive an answer. At one point, 3 million could qualify for the help, meaning that only about one in 14 eligible families had applied for it. So we really have an issue to increase that number.

When we look at countries around the world, we see that we are at the top of the league for costs, and they must come down. Just yesterday in the provincial press back home, there was an illustration of the cost of childcare per child across Northern Ireland. In my constituency of Strangford, and in mid and east Down, we have the highest levels of childcare costs anywhere in Northern Ireland. We have a middle class that is squeezed beyond control, with rising rates, rising insurance costs for their home and car, rising food prices and rising petrol prices. Everything is more money, apart from their wages, which remain the same.

It is little wonder that so many people believe that it is better not to work. We have mothers and fathers who slog it out at work, and then try to cram in time with their children in the evening hours, and stay on top of housework and mundane issues. I believe that they need help.

I will finish with this comment: childcare is one way we can help and encourage women with young children to have a career, and find a way to do it all. So I urge the Government to expand the 20% help for childcare and bring us down in the global charts, instead of our being “Top of the Pops” for all the wrong reasons.

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Thank you very much. We have still got a lot of time.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Davies.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) on an excellent speech. It is a shame that he was not around a few years ago, because he could have been on the Bill Committee that considered the Childcare Act 2016. He would have been a tremendous asset at that time.

Although I would prefer to see a Labour Government delivering big on childcare, I, for one, recognise how the last Tory Government built on the legacy of the Blair-Brown Government—they most certainly did. I know that they like to pinch our policies, but I am always happy when they pinch the right ones.

I am saddened, however, that despite the Government’s policy of expanding childcare, which was progressive and actually made some progress, we are in danger of failing to land the kind of childcare provision that we want, because the implementation has fallen short. It has fallen short because the Government failed to engage properly with the sector originally. They failed to recognise the challenge they were facing in building capacity; they failed to understand the need to develop a sector that would be even more professionally led; and, despite the very welcome cash that came with the policy, they failed to recognise the need for professional staff to be paid a decent wage for looking after all our children.

I am a dad and a grandad, and my sons and grandson are the most precious of precious people to me; I am sure that there is not an MP here in Westminster Hall, or across the Estate, who does not think of their family in that way. Yet as a nation, we seem content to leave those most precious young members of our families to be looked after by people who are often on the minimum wage and discontented with their working lives. The hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) referred to that issue in some detail, and I am sure that he agrees that we need much more action on it.

After all, childcare staff are some of the most loving and dedicated people that we have in our country. They do the job because it is their vocation. They do it despite a system that does not appreciate them for not just looking after our children, but keeping them safe. Should we really devalue them so much?

We know why we believe in childcare. It allows parents, especially mothers, to go back to work, which is important not just so that they can earn, but because it gives them the fulfilment of a challenging daily routine beyond childcare—believe you me, I know that that too can be challenging—the fulfilment of earning their own living and supporting their family, or perhaps the fulfilment of doing work that they feel passionate about.

We must ensure that parents have a choice, which the 15 or 30-hour offer provides, but we need to make sure that it is easily accessible and well resourced, and that we create happy spaces for children that result in happy parents who are content to leave them there. If the free childcare that we all like to boast of is not resourced properly, parents end up subsidising it through expensive contributions to meals and the provision of nappies and materials—even wet wipes.

Not everyone is covered, of course, and childcare can be expensive for those who are not. Some rely on family, but not everybody has family members who they can rely on or expect to take up childcare responsibilities. It is also important to recognise the specific needs of adoptive parents. If we are serious about encouraging people to foster and adopt, we must ensure that the law and regulations are favourable and provide them with an environment that supports them and enables them to do their jobs as well.

When I served on the Childcare Bill Committee—I lament the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West was not there—one area we looked at was the costs associated with the provision for disabled children. Parents of disabled children need an extra level of support. Often, going back to work is not an option for them, but they are in desperate need of respite care. From talking to my own local authority, Stockton-on-Tees, I know how difficult it can be to provide adequate respite services to all the families who need it. Last week, the Government passed yet more cuts to authorities, particularly across the north, which does not help to deliver on that agenda.

As other hon. Members have said, in the mainstream, we have a system of childcare vouchers and tax-free childcare. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West that the new tax-free childcare system is less favourable than the voucher system we are moving away from. In a previous debate on childcare, I reminded hon. Members of what the Prime Minster said on the steps of Downing Street after she entered office:

“We will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.”

Perhaps the Minister can share with us how the Government are actually helping poorer families who are in desperate need of childcare but do not currently qualify for the scheme. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West referred to the Treasury Committee’s report on childcare, which found several gaps in the Government’s childcare schemes, including that one.

Access to childcare support while training is a real issue. Mothers who opt to do a nursing degree are particularly badly hit, especially with the advent of universal credit. There are women in my constituency who struggle to qualify for universal credit because, despite the fact that they work—and I believe they do work—on the wards during training, they do not accrue sufficient working hours, which has a direct knock-on effect on their entitlement to childcare. They are left to survive on child benefit and a student loan that they will have to pay back one day. We all know about the loss of the bursary scheme.

Parents aged 20 who wish to take on training can seek support only if they are on a further education course and are facing financial hardship. Childcare costs are a barrier to the participation of parents, especially young parents, in courses. Those costs actively prevent them from taking on the training that could advance their careers and give them more money to support their families.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West also mentioned the gig economy. Zero-hours contracts are notoriously inflexible, no matter how much people try to portray them as the opposite. Shifts are offered at the last minute, so staff who can drop everything to come into work at the drop of a hat are prioritised. Workers are also told at the last minute that they are not needed, so they lose out on a day’s expected pay.

There is a real risk of a parent needing last-minute childcare to be able to pick up a shift, but that flexibility does not exist in the system. Parents have to pay for childcare, but they frequently get to work and find that they are not needed, so they are shelling out money that they do not have. Not every worker knows their shift pattern two weeks or a month in advance—a bit like MPs, perhaps. Sometimes, workers are lucky to know 48 hours in advance. I am repeating myself, but we need childcare provision that matches the economy people work in.

During the Bill Committee a few years ago, Pat Glass, the then MP for North West Durham, and I challenged the then Minister time and again on building capacity, on the need for a professional-led service, on engaging with the sector and on so many other things. I know that it was not the Minister before us today, but the former Minister gave reassurances that have proved to be no more than fantasy. We were told that the market would sort it out, that there were people keen to enter the market—many did—that there were sufficient people coming through to staff the system, and that all would be well.

Sadly, that has not really happened. We have seen nurseries close, and we still see demands from parents for more and more support. We have a long way to go to ensure that we have that professional-led service. I would never do down our nurseries, which do tremendous work, but professionals should be leading that service. We need that provision to help people on the bottom rung of society who cannot get a job because they cannot get the training they need, since they do not qualify for the comprehensive childcare they need.

It is time to look again. We have a vast wealth of talent sitting dormant at home, often on social security, because our system does not recognise their need the way it should. We should concentrate resources on those people—starting with childcare, to allow them to get on with work. I also say to the Minister: please look again at the provision for people with disabled children, which remains totally inadequate. We really need action in that area.

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I call Thangam Debbonaire. I will call the first of the Front Benchers at 10.30, so you have a reasonable amount of time.

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Thank you, Mr Davies. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) and to other colleagues, who made excellent points. I will try to do what I always swore I would and not say things that others have covered.

Both parents and early years providers in Bristol West report problems with the current system, including the cost to the economy in lost work and skills when parents are unable to take up childcare because of the complexity of the system or its inappropriateness for their needs. However, I will focus on the social costs, in particular the social cost to gender equality and the social and economic cost to lone parents.

In 2015, the OECD published statistics on net childcare costs as a percentage of average wages for a two-earner, two-child couple. The eurozone average was 14%, but in Malta the cost was 0%, in Austria 3%, in Sweden 5%, in Iceland 5% and in Germany 5%. In the UK, the cost was 55%—higher even than the United States. I just put that down as a marker for two-parent families. For single parents, there are of course often benefits and benefits in kind that help even out the additional burden of being the sole provider and income earner, but there is no doubt that free or very low-cost childcare is a great contributor to gender equality and to single parents’ ability to provide for their families.

Other Members have mentioned parents using childcare for economic benefit, so I want to focus briefly on its impact on gender equality, and particularly on its use for training, job interviews and voluntary work, which are essential for women re-entering the workforce, leaving violent partners or needing to fit childcare around being a lone parent. A single parent cannot get free childcare to go to a job interview or just to clean up the house and go to the shops, which is unbelievably difficult for a lone parent with young children. Free childcare also helps those starting up in business. Again, that has a particular impact on women, who often choose that route into employment after having children. Of course, all that benefits the economy, but there are also social benefits, which include older relatives’ ability to participate in the workforce or in other activities when they no longer have to offer to provide free childcare to enable their daughters or female relatives to do training, job interviews and so on.

Continuing on the theme of gender equality, of course men and women love their children and want to be with them, but men and women also want to provide for them, contribute to the wider world and develop their skills. If high quality, affordable childcare is widely available—the OECD defines “low cost” as less than 10% of average wages, although in the United Kingdom it is nowhere near that—that allows men and women to make decisions based on what is best for them and their children, rather than on the probable inequality of their wages, which further reinforces the inequality of their wages.

I have friends in the Netherlands, where the childcare system is far from perfect, but where there is at least a cultural understating that when someone becomes a parent, whether they are a man or a woman, they should work fewer hours, and that men and women have an equal responsibility for picking up children from childcare or school. I am constantly amazed that, when I pick up friends’ children from school in the Netherlands, there are roughly equal numbers of men and women, and nobody notices because it is not a thing. I have friends who moved to four-day working weeks after they became parents. That is the norm. That means that each child is in childcare for three days per week and with parents for a total of four, but it allows both parents to maintain their work and play a full and active role in their child’s life, as so many parents deeply want.

In my constituency of Bristol West, childcare providers and state-maintained nurseries report problems with the take-up of free childcare by families on low incomes in general, but particularly by single parents—usually women—who struggle to fit the complexity of the system around their needs and those of their families. The OECD has documented the consequent restrictions on their economic participation.

There are other social benefits involving gender. Childcare that is free at the point of delivery, such as Sure Start —a wonderful achievement of the previous Labour Government, of which I will always be proud to bear the legacy—provides many other benefits for women. My friend Jude Grant, who is now a Labour councillor, used to run a domestic abuse support service in the north-east out of a Sure Start centre. Why did that matter? She did that in parallel with a support service for women with post-natal depression, and both those services could operate completely confidentially. When a woman went through the door of that building, everybody—including, importantly, their partners—thought they were going in for a bit of a playgroup. It meant that they could get advice, information, support, guidance on developing a new life and economic support, which was often critical for those women.

Jude has told me of her memories of teaching women how to set up bank accounts and how to organise their finances—things that their abusive partners had never let them have any control over. Their domestic abuse support was not just about recovery from emotional, sexual and physical abuse, important though that was. Having free childcare on site provided both the practical support that the children were well cared-for, and the confidentiality and the reduction in stigma that allowed them to move on to safe lives. I pay tribute to my friend Jude and many others who did similar things in Sure Starts across the country. As a domestic abuse specialist, I was grieved greatly to see all those specialist services gradually shut down as Sure Starts across the country were reduced.

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My hon. Friend has tempted me to tell a story about a young woman who came to me when I was a member of the council. She had many of the problems that have just been described. I said, “One of the things you could do is go to the neighbourhood centre and meet people, because they have childcare people and things like that.” She said, “Okay, I might do that.” Her entire life was home, school, shop, home, and all of a sudden she had an extra place to go. She eventually got into employment. I found her at the till in Tesco, not buying but working, and she recounted the fact that she had come to see me. Such opportunities are absolutely critical.

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for adding that example from his caseload. I could tell many a story of people I worked with in Sure Start centres across the country who had similar tales to tell about having that stigma-free, confidential safe space in which their children could be cared for, but with other services wrapped around it. That was transformative for women’s lives, and it grieves me greatly to see them gone.

I have several questions for the Minister. I believe he is an honourable gentleman who wants the best for children and families across the country. I have asked Treasury Ministers and other Children’s Ministers—not this Minister—about funding for early years, and I have not really got satisfaction. There is a tendency for each to refer me to the other side. I raised early years childcare funding two weeks ago on the Floor of the House when the Education Committee presented its report on the subject.

I will ask the Minister a few questions. First, what will his Department do about the exclusion and complexity of the current system, particularly for women and lone parents, that other hon. Members have described? Secondly, what will he do about the difficulties for lone parents in getting childcare and its impact on their getting training and job interviews? That is critical for getting lone parents, who are often skilled but unable to work owing to childcare problems, back into employment. Thirdly, has his Department carried out a gender impact assessment of the current childcare system? Fourthly, has his Department assessed the impact of the system specifically on low-income families? Fifthly, has his Department had time to review the Select Committee report? It is not all about funding; there are related issues.

I plead with the Minister to consider what has been said today. The impact on families of high quality childcare that is free or affordable at the point of delivery is immense.

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As ever, my hon. Friend champions the people of Bristol West and those in our society who most need help and are most vulnerable. Does she agree that the Department for Education could learn from what is happening in Wales? The Welsh Government announced yesterday a 30-hour offer and investment in 150 new or redeveloped childcare centres, to ensure that all working families benefit. It will not be based on income but on genuine need, which will be met via Government intervention. That shows the difference that a forward-thinking and progressive Labour Government can make.

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I applaud the Welsh Government and I look forward to seeing the impact of that, which may have lessons for the UK Government.

I believe that, like the Labour party, the UK Government want to champion people getting into work. We are the Labour party—the clue is in the name—but the Tory party also says that it wants people to be in good quality jobs and to able to do those jobs without constantly worrying about what is going on at home or about childcare, or about not being able to make it to childcare. I have heard that as a Whip, when people I am whipping say to me that they need to leave before a vote otherwise they will not be able to pick their child up from childcare. That is manageable as a Member of Parliament—just.

I urge the Minister to answer my questions and those of other hon. Members, and to recognise the economic and social value of free childcare to the entire country.

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On behalf of the Scottish National party, in a late change, I call David Linden.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, as always, Mr Davies, and I thank you for your forbearance, as I did not intend to sum up the debate, hence I am sat next to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) in our usual season ticket seats. I extend my sincere congratulations to the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) on securing the debate and, on behalf of my party, I wish him all the best for the impending arrival of his next child.

It has been an excellent debate. The hon. Gentleman gave a thorough speech and spoke about some of the economic arguments—that more people in work means more people paying tax and increased productivity. I certainly agree. He also challenged some of the gender inequality, which I thought was a powerful point. The hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) has a strong track record of speaking in debates on family issues. He spoke powerfully about early intervention, which I definitely agree with. He also spoke about the need to pay nursery staff better and about some of the impacts of current pay rates, such as the high level of staff turnover. I shall come on to my experience of that.

The hon. Member for Strangford spoke about his experience of employing six staff, five of whom are women, and the need for employers to be flexible. He has obviously grasped that as an employer. We, as Members, are all employers, and we know that it is better for staff productivity if we can be flexible. He also spoke about the mysterious Strangford speechwriter, who I think will be the only person furious that this week’s recess was cancelled because it means their having to write more speeches for the hon. Gentleman as he continues with his impressive speaking record.

The hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) spoke powerfully about his experience, particularly in the Bill Committee. He gave a fair critique of the Government’s policy and particularly the link to the gig economy—an additional dimension to the debate that I do not think anyone else raised. He, too, hammered home the need to pay nursery staff better; I want to come to that later. He also spoke powerfully about something that I see in my own case load—the need to support in particular parents of disabled children. I would like to hear the Minister refer to that point when he winds up the debate.

Lastly, the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) spoke about childcare for people attending job interviews and some of the social costs associated with childcare. She also spoke about her experience of seeing how things in the Netherlands work, particularly the equality between men and women. That is another issue that I want to come to. Finally, she spoke about some of the challenges experienced by lone parents.

At the outset of my remarks, I should probably, like the hon. Member for Bristol North West, declare a personal interest, in that I am already a beneficiary of free childcare for my son, Isaac, who since August last year has been part of Glasgow City Council’s expansion of nursery provision.

I want to break my remarks into three sections. First, I want to give the context of what we are doing in Scotland to try to revolutionise childcare. We have heard from Northern Ireland, Wales and England, so to complete the set, I will speak about Scotland. Secondly, I want to talk about some of the data picked up by CHANGE—Childcare and Nurture Glasgow East—which is a lottery-funded project in my constituency. Finally, I want to touch on one or two of the key challenges in this policy area.

The hon. Member for Bristol North West very eloquently set out the situation in the context of England, so I thought that it might be helpful if I set the scene in Scotland. The Scottish Government are pressing on with the implementation of their commitment to double the entitlement to funded early education and childcare for eligible two-year-olds and for all three and four-year-olds, taking that up to 1,140 hours by August 2020.

My own son, who attends a Scottish Gaelic-medium nursery, is already at nursery from 8 am to 1 pm five days a week, and my wife and I have greatly valued the flexibility that the current system allows us. As parents, we were able to decide whether we wanted him to attend for five half-days or whether it might be better to block-book two and a half days a week. In the end, because of my role as an MP and hers as a teacher, we decided that it would be best to spread the care over five days, but it was good to have that choice, which meant that we could tailor the care to our needs as a family. It is estimated that, in essence, the current investment in early learning and childcare is saving each family approximately £4,500 per child each year. That is certainly good news for families in my constituency of Glasgow East.

Having set the scene, I want to turn to some work that has been undertaken by an organisation doing work in my constituency and funded by the Big Lottery Fund. In a debate such as this, it is important that we look at the challenges, as well as the opportunities, that the provision-of-childcare policy will provoke. Although we have the ambitions that have been stated, there are also challenges, as I think we would all accept.

First, I know from my own constituency casework and the data collected by CHANGE that there are still challenges with nursery provision for children aged from zero to two. Fundamentally, fewer places are available and waiting lists are much more common. In the Parkhead area of my constituency, there are some outstanding nurseries, but there are serious supply and demand issues, on which I am currently lobbying Glasgow City Council; I hope that we might see action before long. When I met Anthony O’Malley from CHANGE, I was concerned to learn about the limited availability of childminders in my constituency, and it is now down to single figures. Certainly when I was a child growing up in the east end of Glasgow in the 1990s—I feel a bit strange talking about growing up when it was not that long ago—childminding was much more prevalent. We ought to be asking ourselves why the provision of that hugely beneficial service has declined in such a short time.

Secondly, childcare providers and families told the project that there is a need for more out-of-school care places in the area, especially in and around Parkhead. Perhaps an unintended consequence of the offer of extended nursery provision, coupled with the very well deserved increase in pay for child development officers in Scotland, is the concern that after or out-of-school care services may see an exodus of staff who see working in the nursery sector as a bit more attractive.

That brings me rather nicely to the final point that I wanted to touch on during the debate. It concerns general workforce and recruitment challenges for the expansion of early years provision. As a result of the ambitious plans to increase the offer of free childcare, we clearly need to recruit more child development officers.

Four or five months after I was elected, I attended a Scottish Government event at Tower View nursery in the Craigend area of my constituency. The event was a media launch of the campaign to recruit up to 11,000 additional staff to meet increased early years provision. One thing that struck me that day as I was going round carving pumpkins and meeting all the lovely children was the fact that we are still not getting it right in terms of seeing more men working in the sector; we perhaps need to do a little more to attract men to work in the nursery sector. Clearly, the debate around early years provision has moved more towards nurture, but I am not sure we are getting the balance right. I make that point as an observation and ask the people reflecting on these proceedings to consider that, because in Scotland only about 4% of the workforce in early years daycare provision is male. As we look to inspire children, we should look at role models, and perhaps we are not getting it right when 96% of the workforce is female.

I will finish where I started by talking about my own son’s experience. I want to say a massive thank you to all of the staff at his nursery who go the extra mile every single day and have a massive and hugely positive impact in shaping our little boy and how he perceives the world. We would all agree that that is a noble and rewarding profession, and I hope that many more people consider it as a career in the future.

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It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. May I begin by saying how apt it is to be discussing childcare and early education this week when many Members and, perhaps more unfairly, the staff who work in this place will have had to organise last minute and probably premium-cost childcare because of the late notice recess cancellation? I am pleased to see the Minister stepping in for the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi). Perhaps he is not here because he has a childcare problem, or perhaps, as the papers suggest, he is skiing. We wish him well and hope he comes back in one piece.

I want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), who secured the debate and is a young father himself. I congratulate him on the fantastic news that another baby is on the way. It has been great to hear submissions from parents in all parties who have talked about their own childcare arrangements and how valuable it is in enabling them and their partners to do their jobs and fulfil their potential.

I will summarise some of the excellent contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West had a passionate and humane approach to what childcare is all about: creating happy, fulfilled families so that children can grow up in brilliant homes where they can fulfil their potential while feeling safe and secure. The extra £1,000—£20 a week extra in pay cheques—would bring happiness and flexibility to families. That money is vital for some families, certainly families on the breadline. For them, if a washing machine breaks down, that £20 could mean going to a food bank or not. It is absolutely imperative that we also look at the wider economic situations for some of the poorest families.

The idea of families selling their cars to pay for childcare is distressing. My hon. Friend’s focus on equality and families having to decide who goes part time and who loses out in their career progression was incredibly powerful. I was also interested to hear about Flamingo Chicks and would like to know more if he will meet me. Also, the focus on gender and class is really powerful. We know that the gender pay gap starts at the beginning when a woman has her first child. Women often never recover from that. In the creative industries—my previous career—we see the awards season and more men than ever winning awards, but why is that? Because women have to make a choice about stepping out of their careers. Then it takes forever to try to catch up. Some never catch up and they just step out permanently.

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The disadvantage to women is not only in their earning power through the years, the loss of the opportunity to work and everything that means but in the effect on their pensions—they lose many years’ pension contributions and are more likely to be in poverty in retirement.

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I absolutely agree and I will probably pick up later on the idea that, despite the welcome alignment of men and women’s pension age, some women are coming to me and saying, “I can’t look after my daughter’s children, so she can’t go back to work, and I’m having to continue working.” Women Against State Pension Inequality has a case to make about the fact that the inability to find cost-effective childcare is impacting on their families.

We have heard some fantastic contributions. I value the work that the hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) is doing with the Education Committee. Let me take a moment to thank him and his colleagues on that cross-party Committee for their report, “Tackling disadvantage in the early years”, which was published last week. I will flag up to the Minister, although I am sure that he will comment on it, the Committee’s observation that the Government’s own policy on 30 hours of funded childcare is

“entrenching inequality rather than closing the gap”,

and the Committee’s recommendation that the Government

“resurrect their review of children’s centres and…explore promoting family hubs as a wider model for provision of integrated services.”

The Committee’s work is absolutely invaluable in trying to close that disadvantage gap.

I welcome the contribution from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), including his personal stories about his workforce; his member of staff who sends speeches at 1 am deserves a medal. He, too, mentioned older women who are unable to look after their children’s children.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) celebrated childcare staff, and talked about nursing bursaries and nursing trainees. It is absolutely vital that we enable those people, who are going into incredibly stressful jobs—jobs that we absolutely need—to get the support they need to study, rather than their having to worry about getting a part-time job. My daughter is working in a bar at the moment and she is working alongside a nurse who working there to top up her salary, in order to work at night. That cannot be conducive for training, can it?

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) was, as always, a fantastic champion for the single parent, for gender equality, and for childcare. Childcare for those who are training, volunteering or going to job interviews, and for entrepreneurs who are starting up, is absolutely vital. For example, 95% of notonthehighstreet.com businesses are run by women and were often started at their kitchen table. They need support, to help them to get their businesses up and running. There is also the magic of Sure Start—we have all said that, have we not?—with that confidentiality, and that opportunity to go in and get support.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), who is no longer in his place, made an intervention. It has been very interesting to hear what Wales and Scotland have on offer; I also welcomed the contribution by the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden). The number of childminders is falling off a cliff and it is really important that we pull that back, and find really great strategic ways to support childminders, because they are the ones providing the wraparound care.

I thank everyone for their contributions today. It goes without saying that free or affordable childcare is fundamentally a good thing. It gives families autonomy over their own decisions; parents, especially mums, can go back to work and work the hours they wish to, within a timeframe that suits them. We know that so often the greatest barrier to accessing childcare is the cost, so we should always applaud efforts to bring the costs to parents down.

Free and high quality childcare has an incredibly positive impact on children. A child’s brain grows at an extraordinary rate in their first few years of life, and it is so important that children have access to stimulation and learning. Our collective aim should be that as many children as possible receive high quality early years education.

However, all is not well. The Government have introduced 30 hours of free childcare, a flagship policy in this area, but there are problems. The 30-hour policy excludes children whose parents are out of work. Those people’s children, many of whom would benefit the most from free childcare, are exactly the children who are being cruelly excluded from accessing it, through no fault of their own. I believe that is a fundamental flaw in the policy, and we may not understand the repercussions of that decision for a long time to come.

This term, more than 200,000 three and four-year-olds will receive that free childcare; that is 200,000 children who are entitled to double the support of their future classmates. They will arrive at school potentially having received hundreds more hours of learning than their more disadvantaged peers. We would not accept such exclusion in primary, secondary, or any other form of education, and I would like it to end for early years too.

Maintained nurseries are one part of the early years sector that does incredible work with children from disadvantaged areas. There has rightly been a huge amount of recent debate and discussion about those schools, because they are often the standard bearers for the sector. Wherever they are present, standards across the board are improved. I know the Minister realises how essential it is that those schools receive news about their funding as soon as possible. We have been told not to expect that news until the next financial review, but chatter suggests that an announcement could be made as soon as the spring statement. I do not expect the Minister to announce the funding today, but if he could shed some light on when the Department expects to make that announcement, I, Members, schools and concerned parents would be extremely grateful.

According to Members, charities, settings, think-tanks, Select Committees—just about anyone other than Ministers—the 30 hours policy needs more investment to work how we want it to. Local authorities are given an hourly rate that is set by central Government and passed on to providers for the hours that they look after eligible children. Regrettably, in too many circumstances the funding falls short of what is required to provide good quality childcare. Sector analysts Ceeda estimate that there is currently a £616.5 million shortfall in the private and voluntary early years sector. Providers are caught between a rock and a hard place. They are struggling and sometimes unable to make ends meet, so they pass on extra costs to parents in other ways.

Since the policy was introduced I have consistently warned of the havoc facing providers, but it has never felt as if those concerns have been taken seriously by the Department. The weight of evidence is becoming undeniable. The Early Years Alliance—formerly the Pre-school Learning Alliance—published a survey of more than 1,600 early years practitioners in September 2018, in which four in 10 childcare providers said there is a chance that they will have to close their setting in the next academic year due to the funding—or under-funding—of 30 hours’ free childcare. Eight in 10 providers said that there will be a somewhat or significantly negative impact on them if the funding rate stays the same next year. It has since been confirmed that only two councils will receive an increase in funding in April 2019. Thirteen will see a decrease, and the rest will have no change.

Will the Minister, when he responds to the debate, say whether any cross-Government discussions are taking place to increase funding for providers? What assessments are being carried out to ensure that parents are not paying for supposedly free hours of childcare through the back door? If those conversations are not happening, is he willing to facilitate a committee of providers—not just the big names, but childminders and small providers—to examine the day-to-day problems they face?

I am running out of time and I wish to give the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West an opportunity to respond to the debate. Briefly, however, let me mention a part of the sector that I am interested in—co-operatives. As Members will know, I sit as a Labour and Co-operative party MP. I have visited a number of co-operatives, and I am convinced we need to support them further. Co-ops allow time-rich but cash-poor families to contribute. They invite parents’ skills into the setting, and in return, parents get a say in how that setting is run. Those settings have huge potential, and in the spirit of co-operation I will conclude by saying that I will happily work with the Minister and his colleagues if he would like to explore ways of supporting co-ops.

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It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) on securing this debate and his welcome news—and the interesting way he introduced it.

I am grateful for the opportunity to set out the Government’s position on childcare support. It is a pleasure to stand in for the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) who I understand is seeing family in Washington DC, which is appropriate, given the debate on families that we are having.

I think the truth is that Members here violently agree on the importance of high quality childcare. Evidence shows that high quality childcare supports young children’s development and helps to prepare them for school. Affordable and convenient childcare gives parents the ability to balance work and family life, allowing them to enjoy the benefits of a job, safe in the knowledge that their children are in good hands.

When the Labour party left office in 2010, only 15 hours of free childcare was available for three and four-year-olds. It was the Conservative-led coalition Government that introduced free childcare for two-year-olds from disadvantaged families. Early education from the age of two has long-lasting benefits for children, and we believe that it helps to promote a child’s emotional, cognitive and social development.

However, evidence shows that, on average, disadvantaged families are less likely to use formal childcare provision than more advantaged families, which is why the Government introduced 15 hours of funded early years education for disadvantaged two-year-olds in September 2013. Eligibility was expanded in September 2014 to include children with a disability or special educational needs from low-income working families, or who have left care. Our balanced approach to managing the public finances enabled us to do that. The extended learning programme for two-year-olds has been popular with parents. Local authorities reported in January last year that 72% of eligible parents nationally took up their entitlement to a place. That is a significant increase from 2015, when the figure was 58%.

A year and a half ago, we also doubled the childcare entitlement of working parents of three and four-year-olds to 30 hours a week. On the point made by the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), only working parents are eligible for those additional 15 hours; the first 15 hours are universally available for parents of all three and four-year-olds. In its first year, the 30 hours of free childcare, alongside the Childcare Choices website and the childcare calculator, helped more than 340,000 children to take advantage of more high quality childcare, with savings for parents of up to £5,000 a year. Again, the Government’s balanced approach to the management of the public finances and the economy enabled us to do that and to provide that benefit to parents.

Independent evaluation of the first year of the 30-hours entitlement found more than a quarter of parents reporting that they had increased their working hours as result, with 15% of parents saying that they would not be working at all without the extended hours. Those effects were stronger for families on lower incomes, helping to fulfil our commitment to help disadvantaged families and to boost social mobility. Furthermore, surveys of parents highlight the impact that the 30 hours can have on parents’ working patterns, with a majority of parents reporting that the 30 hours have given them more flexibility in the hours that they can work, and a small but significant proportion of mothers reporting that the 30 hours had led them to enter work or to increase their hours.

The evaluation report quoted one parent as saying:

“By doing four days now instead of three…my company looks at my development and progression in a way that they wouldn’t if I was only doing three days.”

Some 86% of parents reported that they thought that their child was better prepared for school as a result, and 79% felt that their family’s quality of life had improved. The latest study of early education and development—SEED—report, published last year, also points to the clear evidence of the benefits of high quality early education for the cognitive and emotion development of all children aged two to four.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) asked for a commitment to support the most disadvantaged children, but that has been the driving force behind all our education reforms since 2010. On early years education, more than a quarter of children finish their reception year without the early communication and literacy skills that they need to thrive. The Government have ambitious plans to halve that proportion over the next 10 years. The Department is working closely with the sector to deliver on our commitment to reform the early years foundation stage profile. The reforms are an important opportunity to improve outcomes for all children, but especially to close the word gap between disadvantaged children and their peers. We know that the gaps can emerge much earlier in a child’s life, well before they enter reception. That is why we recently launched a capital bidding round of £30 million to invite leading schools to come forward with projects to create new high quality nursery places for two, three and four-year-olds. Those are the reasons why the Government are investing more than any other in childcare. We will spend around £6 billion a year on childcare support in 2019-20—a record amount.

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In my contribution, I referred to the take-up figure of 91,000. The number that could take up the scheme is 417,000. I asked what the Government are doing to bridge that gap and ensure that people take up the scheme.

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I will come to that point in a moment. We believe that the take-up of all the different schemes has been very high, but we always want to do more to ensure that it continues to increase.

The introduction of 30 hours has been a large-scale transformational programme, and such change can be challenging, but tens of thousands of providers have none the less responded to make it a success, because of their ongoing commitment to helping families. The evaluation of the introduction of the 30-hour entitlement found that three quarters of providers delivering free entitlement places were willing and able to deliver the extended hours with no negative effects on other provision or the sufficiency of childcare places. Almost two thirds of providers offered full flexibility with free choice to parents on when they could take the extended hours. Overall, we are already starting to see how the 30-hour entitlement is making a difference to families across the country.

The childcare market in England consists of a diverse range of provider types, allowing parents real choice in their childcare provision. The supply of childcare in England is generally high quality, with more than nine in 10 providers rated good or outstanding by Ofsted. There are strong indications that supply can meet parent demand for Government-funded entitlements. Nearly 79,000 private childcare providers were registered with Ofsted in August 2018 and more than 7,500 school-based providers, including maintained nursery schools, were offering early years childcare.

While there are some examples of providers closing, as the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) pointed out, there is no evidence of widespread closures in the private and voluntary childcare market. The latest official Ofsted data, published in December 2018, showed that the numbers of childcare providers on non-domestic premises is fairly stable over time, showing a marginal 2% decrease compared with 2012. Providers joining and leaving the Ofsted register is normal in a private market and can be due to a variety of reasons. In fact, more non-domestic providers joined the register between 31 March 2018 and 31 August 2018 than left.

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Will the Minister accept that in order to keep the lights on, some smaller nurseries have had to ask parents for top-ups, such as baking birthday cakes and selling them, or even taking in ironing in order to keep their business going?

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These issues are always raised. While there are some examples of providers closing, there is no evidence of widespread closures in the private or voluntary childcare sector. As important as the availability of places is, I am pleased that the quality of childcare providers remains high, with more than nine in 10 rated good or outstanding by Ofsted. In January 2018, more than 1.2 million children under five were receiving funded early education in settings rated good or outstanding. We continue to support growth in the childcare sector. As part of that, we have allocated £100 million in capital funding to create extra high quality childcare places.

Maintained nursery schools were mentioned in the debate. They provide high quality early education and support some of our disadvantaged children. I have seen that for myself in my constituency. In order to allow the hon. Member for Bristol North West to make some final remarks, I take the opportunity to again thank him for securing this debate. High quality childcare provides crucial support for children’s development and prepares children for school. The free childcare entitlements being provided by so many impressive providers are backed by record levels of Government spending.

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I thank all Members for their contributions today. Like all parents and providers across the country, I look forward to seeing the Government’s words turned into actions.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the costs and benefits of free childcare.

Heat Networks: Greenwich and Woolwich

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered heat networks in Greenwich and Woolwich.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am grateful to the Minister for responding to the debate and for previously finding time in her busy diary to discuss the issue with me.

This is not the first time that I have expressed concerns about systemic problems in the UK heat network sector and I suspect it will not be the last. In the comparatively short time that I have been a Member of the House, I have raised the issue on numerous occasions and I have repeatedly made the case for statutory regulation of heat networks, particularly those that supply domestic customers.

For a long time, it felt as if those of us calling for greater protection for heat network customers were making no headway. When asked, former Energy Ministers would nod sympathetically and politely explain that statutory regulation was not appropriate and risked strangling an emerging industry in red tape. When I turned to the Competition and Markets Authority a few years back and made the simple request that it open an area of investigation into the industry, I was told that it had no plans to do so.

Thankfully, the situation has changed. The CMA was persuaded to carry out a detailed market study into heat networks and it published a final report in July that made several sensible recommendations. Ministers have now accepted the need to introduce a regulatory framework for the sector.

Of course, that is welcome, but it provides little comfort to heat network customers who are not getting a fair deal and for whom every month that passes without effective protections being put in place means continued poor service and expensive bills. That should concern us all deeply, and I know it concerns the Minister, not only because of the Government’s avowed aim to keep customer bills as low as possible, but because of the possibility of the widespread loss of consumer confidence in heat networks, which would make it harder for the UK to decarbonise heat and reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions.

As the Minister is aware, if the UK is to meet its future emissions reduction targets, we have to do more to decarbonise heat. The Committee on Climate Change estimates that about 18% of UK heat will need to come from heat networks by 2050 if the UK is to meet those targets cost-effectively. From a consumer protection and an environmental perspective, we cannot allow the benefits of heat networks to be tainted as a result of our failure to address promptly the flaws in the sector before it grows significantly over the next decade.

My purpose in securing the debate is to highlight the impact of the current absence of a regulatory framework on heat network customers in my constituency, to make the case for the urgent introduction of statutory regulation, and to urge the Minister to give some thought to what might be done in the interim to protect the minority of customers at the sharp end of industry practice.

For many customers, heat networks offer an efficient supply of heat and hot water at prices close to or lower than other sources of supply such as gas and electricity, with comparable service standards. It is not in dispute, however, that a significant minority of heat network customers are being badly let down. In London, as the Minister knows, the number of heat networks is growing rapidly, partly because developers are incentivised by London’s planning framework to install onsite systems, and partly because their use makes a huge amount of sense given the density of new build developments in the capital.

In my constituency, every large new build development, of which there are a great many each year, invariably includes a communal gas boiler, a combined heat and power engine, or a biomass boiler. That should be something to celebrate, and it would be, were it not for the fact that many of those networks and their operators are badly failing those who have no choice but to be served by them.

Since my election in 2015, not a month has gone by in which at least one constituent, served by one of the at least 13 communal heating schemes in my constituency, has not written to me with a complaint. Those served by privately operated schemes are at a much greater risk of poorer outcomes in terms of price and service, which, along with other factors that are specific to London or more prevalent there, explains why so many heat network customers in constituencies such as mine are suffering.

I will touch briefly on the three main drivers of the problem. First, while the London planning framework deliberately incentivises the installation of heat networks, more general planning requirements often lead to the installation of poor quality infrastructure or systems that are inherently expensive to operate. The situation is exacerbated by the lack of enforceable technical standards. The result is that communal heating systems are prone to failure and cost consumers more than they should.

Secondly, there is a very real problem with the choice of heat network operators. In my constituency, this issue relates almost exclusively to new build developments, so there is no existing body of residents to put pressure on the building owner to provide a customer-focused heat supply. In the absence of consumer pressure of that kind, the developers, which have no long-term interest in a site, have almost no stake in which operator they award a contract to. If the anecdotes I have heard from those involved in the local property market are to be believed, the selection of an operator is more often than not determined by which commits to giving the developer the largest up-front capital contribution to offset the capital costs incurred in having to install the network.

Even developers that have a long-term interest in the site complain to me that they have a limited choice of who could operate the network. The result is that developers invariably turn to one of the small number of large, established suppliers, or one of the growing number of much smaller, less established operators, both of which can be problematic.

Thirdly, heat networks are natural monopolies. They require a relatively large up-front capital expenditure. When a contract is awarded to an operator, it tends to last for decades. The operators for most of the communal heating systems in my constituency have contracts lasting for more than two decades. Some last for 30 or even 35 years. There are, of course, good suppliers out there, but if the group of customers has no freedom to switch to an alternative heating system until the mid-2030s or even 2040s, there is little or no competitive pressure to offer reasonable prices, a reliable supply and a high quality of service.

In my experience, the result is that the majority of heat network operators are totally unresponsive to their customers. The large operators seem not to care particularly about what amounts to a very small part of their business model, and many of the smaller operators are—to put it bluntly—a law unto themselves, because they do not even have to worry about the reputational impact of providing a poor service.

The combination of those three factors on a significant minority of heat network customers is well documented. A minority of privately owned heat network schemes offer extremely poor value for money. Even allowing for the fact that heat charges cannot be directly compared with standard gas and electricity prices, the tariffs levied on some of those customers cannot be justified. Moreover, unit prices and average bills vary significantly between schemes. I have seen evidence of discrepancies in charging between customers on the same scheme and in the same development, and significant month-by-month variation for individual customers when it comes to standing charges, which are supposed to be set annually.

There is a lack of transparency in billing for many heat network customers. Over the years, I have been sent many examples, and the vast majority of the bills are barely penetrable. Is it any wonder that most customers do not feel able to challenge their supplier on cost, prices and services? I suspect that a number of heat network operators prefer it that way, because it reduces the pressure on them to provide reliable, value-for-money heat.

Those problems are exacerbated by the fact that heat network customers do not have the same regulated consumer protections as domestic gas and electricity customers. It is true that some communal heating schemes are registered with the Heat Trust, but there is no requirement for individual heat network operators to register themselves with the trust or to register all their schemes. As a result, the Heat Trust provides only limited protection to consumers, and operators can pick and choose which of their heat network schemes they wish to be held accountable for and which they do not.

To illustrate what that perfect storm means for individual customers served by privately operated schemes in London, let me take a concrete example from my constituency. There are many that I could choose from, from the E.ON-run scheme at New Capital quay in Greenwich to the Evinox-run scheme at Wick tower in Woolwich. I will focus on the most recent case that has been brought to my attention: a scheme operated by a company called Vital Energi in a development called the Movement in central Greenwich.

The 530-unit development was constructed in 2015, and after—one hopes—an open, competitive tendering process, the operator was awarded a decades-long contract to operate the onsite communal heating system. Residents of Bellville house, the main block on the development, recently wrote to me en masse with a series of complaints relating to heat and hot water outages, a lack of transparency in billing, misinformation from their supplier and dire customer service. All those areas of concern are echoed in the findings of the CMA’s final report. However, their main grievance was the price hike that Vital Energi landed them with on 1 October last year. Not only did the operator increase the standing charge and what is itemised in the bills as “Separate capital replacement 1” and “capital replacement 2” charges—whatever that might mean—but the unit charge was increased by a staggering 96%.

As the Member of Parliament, I have no way of ascertaining whether the operator had valid grounds for that price hike, or whether Vital Energi simply priced in an exorbitant profit. The problem, however, is that residents of Bellville house and the rest of the development cannot submit a complaint to the ombudsman for it to adjudicate on the matter because Vital Energi has chosen not to register the scheme with the Heat Trust. Vital Energi has registered a scheme in Bristol, but for some reason has chosen not to cover the scheme on the Movement development, so residents have no protection other than the limited protection afforded to them by the Heat Network (Metering and Billing) Regulations 2014 and general consumer protection and competition law.

The hundreds of residents on that one Greenwich development are not alone; thousands of heat network customers in my constituency face similar problems and are not getting a fair deal, undoubtedly with tens of thousands more across the country. Their ranks swell with every high-density new build development constructed in my constituency, across London and in other parts of the country in urban areas.

I would be grateful if the Minister addressed two specific questions in her response. First, how long will it be before heat networks are regulated? The Department welcomed the recommendations in the CMA’s final report and made it clear that it intends to consult on more detailed policy proposals later this year, with any subsequent legislation to follow as parliamentary time allows. I appreciate that policy needs careful preparation and that any legislation required cannot be rushed, but any heat network customers watching our proceedings today will be forgiven for worrying that they will still be without effective protection for years to come. I know that the Minister will do everything she can within Government to address their concerns, but will she provide more detail with regard to the outlines of the regulatory framework that the Department believes is necessary and, more importantly, the estimated timeline for implementation?

Secondly, what, if anything, can be done in the short term, before a new regulatory framework is established, to give heat network customers greater protection? For example, will the Department do more to persuade and, if need be, cajole suppliers and operators to ensure that all of their heat networks are registered with the Heat Trust? Will Ministers write to operators such as Vital Energi to make it clear that they are expected to register each of their schemes with the trust? Such a step would not be a panacea, but it would at least ensure that all customers received minimum service standards and had access, if they felt it necessary, to the energy ombudsman. Will the Minister touch on that and on what steps might be taken to protect customers in the here and now, before the introduction of a regulatory framework?

The Minister knows what the problem is, she knows what needs to change and I know that she is doing her best to push the process along, but I urge her to redouble her efforts. Heat network customers are not getting a fair deal now, and are being ripped off in many cases. They are not being well served and cannot wait another year, or possibly two years, for those protections to be introduced.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, in particular as you have a long-standing interest in the whole area of decarbonisation.

I sincerely congratulate the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook) on securing the debate. He, as usual, gave us a thoughtful, informed and passionate exposition of the problem. In his current position, and as a councillor for half a decade, he has campaigned hard on such matters. He has also been assiduous in his correspondence with me. We have discussed the matter face to face and via correspondence on multiple occasions. I will address some of his concerns and come back to him on his action points—as we all know, I am a woman who likes to get things done.

To set the scene for why this is an important debate for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and more generally, we believe that heat networks have an important part to play in the decarbonisation of the heat system in future. About half a million customers are part of a heat network, with about 14,000 individual schemes throughout the UK. As he has pointed out, however, there have been ongoing concerns about treatment of consumers and effective regulation of a small monopoly provider. That is why the CMA produced a report, to which we responded.

Last December we published a commitment to developing a market framework that will protect customers, including through regulation where needed. I believe that five of the seven networks in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency are members of the Heat Trust, to which he referred. Their feedback and that of others in the market has demonstrated widespread support for that commitment.

An immediate priority is to tackle the lower-performing networks. The hon. Gentleman makes a very strong case as to why some of those are in his constituency. Before addressing the broader question of how we regulate the market, it is hugely important to address the problems of people who are already on lower-performing networks.

Of course, the market is already regulated, and that includes consumers on networks, who are covered by general consumer protection regulation. In addition, there are the Heat Network (Metering and Billing) Regulations 2014, and customers on a Heat Trust registered scheme have free access to the energy ombudsman’s services. I was very pleased to meet energy ombudsman representatives only a few days ago and welcome their commitment to improving customer service for all customers, including those on heat network schemes.

Our large-scale survey in 2017 found that, on average, heat network customers are as satisfied with their heating systems as non-heat-network consumers, and that, on average, they pay about £100 less for their heating and hot water. Clearly, however, there are also examples of consumers on heat network schemes who are more likely to experience a loss of heating and less likely to receive a bill statement or account summary. As the hon. Gentleman eloquently pointed out, that reduces people’s understanding of what they are being billed for and possibly their ability to campaign to change suppliers. Heat networks are perceived reasonably well, but clearly there is much more to be done. There is evidence that some customers are getting poor deals in terms of value for money—the prices that they are paying.

Therefore, as we said in December, we agree that the sector needs to be improved. We have set out our priorities for addressing the CMA’s recommendations. We strongly believe that a long-term market framework needs to be underpinned by regulation, with Ofgem best placed to take on the role—essentially, taking on whichever legislative powers we agree to give it. As the hon. Gentleman said, we will consult further on those powers later this year.

As I said at the beginning of my speech, that is not just because we want to ensure that consumers have adequate redress, particularly if they are on low-performing networks, but because there are huge potential benefits, both for customers and for decarbonisation. Heat accounts for about one third of the UK’s carbon emissions. We have to cut emissions from heat. We have had various other schemes, such as the renewable heat incentive and the energy company obligation. In February, I opened the heat networks investment project, which will see up to £320 million of capital funding invested in heat network projects through grants and loans across England and Wales.

The hon. Gentleman, who is standing up for his constituents in Greenwich and Woolwich, will know that many of the early heat networks came about in London. There are real planning incentives to bring forward networks in London, and there have been some excellent examples of that being done. I was happy to convene an investor roundtable a few months ago, to understand how we could reduce barriers outside London to ensure that networks could be deployed more fully. As we roll them out, though, we have to be mindful of the consumer experience, so we not only intend to bring forward legislation, but want to ensure that the Heat Trust or equivalent standards are widely adopted, are in place, and are actually delivering the consumer support required.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Heat Trust is a UK-wide independent consumer protection scheme, which draws on the terms of service offered to gas and electricity consumers. Heat Trust membership continues to grow, but, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, right now it is a voluntary scheme. He makes an excellent suggestion: I will indeed, while we are in this period of refining and consulting on the regulatory requirements, commit to writing to all heat network members that are not part of the Heat Trust scheme, essentially to suggest that it is a very high-quality voluntary scheme and that we would like to ensure that all members sign up to it. That was a very good suggestion.

We are absolutely committed to heat networks. It has been good to learn from some of the experiences, both good and bad, in London. It is no comfort to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, however, that his area still has networks that he and others believe are providing a poor-quality service. I will therefore leave this debate with redoubled vigour to ensure that we consult on and bring forward the necessary framework as quickly as possible. I have to say, however, that the way to unclog the current parliamentary timetable, which is snowed up with Brexit, is of course to vote for the deal, so that we can get on with our lives and get on with dealing with the very many other issues that affect the day-to-day lives of all our constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Merseyside Police Funding

[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the funding of Merseyside Police.

It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I am grateful to my hon. Friends from across Merseyside who have joined us for this Westminster Hall debate this afternoon.

I begin by paying tribute to our Merseyside police officers, police community support officers and police staff, who do a fantastic job in extremely challenging circumstances. Police officers across the country take enormous risks to keep us safe. I pay tribute to our officers for their service. In particular, I thank Andy Cooke, our Merseyside chief constable, and Jane Kennedy, our excellent police and crime commissioner, for their leadership through a tough time.

The police on Merseyside have been struggling with almost a decade of year-on-year real-terms cuts in funding. Since 2010, Merseyside police has been required to make cuts of £110 million. We have seen a cut of one third in the police grant to Merseyside, so it came as no surprise to my constituents last September when the National Audit Office confirmed that Merseyside police is the third worst hit force across England and Wales in terms of cuts in funding. As a consequence of those cuts, we have lost 1,700 staff and police officers since 2010. That translates to one in four—25%—of police officer posts gone. At the same time, Merseyside fire and rescue service has seen its budget cut in half by the Government. Liverpool City Council has faced some of the most savage funding cuts of any local authority.

The impact has been felt in every area of policing. Chief Constable Andy Cooke has warned that Merseyside police is reaching breaking point as budgets are “stretched to the limits”. Of course, the situation is not unique to Merseyside. Last year, the Home Affairs Committee issued a stark warning that policing in this country is at risk of becoming “irrelevant” amid falling staff numbers and rising crime.

The additional £8.4 million in Government grant to Merseyside police for the coming year will be consumed entirely by meeting the pension shortfall. While the additional funding is of course welcome, there is no guarantee that the pension grant will be repeated in future years. When the Minister responds, will she give an assurance that the additional funding, which is welcome, will continue beyond 2020? The settlement provides no new money from Government for the day-to-day running of our police, the cost of which increases every year with inflation, particularly wage inflation. Yet again, our PCC Jane Kennedy has had no alternative but to ask local people to pay more in council tax to keep police on our streets and in our communities.

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Clearly on the Wirral, we do not have some of the more dramatic issues that those on the other side of the river have, but does my hon. Friend agree that local taxpayers are asked to fund increases well above inflation, yet there is no extra money for putting frontline officers back on the beat to improve the visibility of the police presence? They are being asked to pay more, yet the service they receive seems to carry on disintegrating.

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am sure her constituents say to her as mine do to me that there is that sense of having to make an increased contribution, yet not seeing an improvement in service.

With the increase in precept this year, there will be some new officers, which is very welcome, but it comes after almost a decade of considerable cutbacks. During the consultation on this year’s council tax increase, about three quarters of respondents indicated that they were willing to pay the additional money to protect police officer numbers and to put some extra officers on the beat, so our commissioner took the reluctant—I think—decision to propose an increase in the precept to generate an additional £10 million.

That increase, for most households—most Merseyside households are in band A for council tax—is £16 a year; for a band D property, it is £24 a year. Families across Merseyside, in our constituencies, face tight finances, so that kind of decision taken by local politicians is not one that is taken lightly. In an environment of increasing crime, however, with increasing calls for help from the public, politicians were left with no alternative. We simply cannot afford to lose any more officers, police community support officers or police staff in Merseyside.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. On the Wirral side, we have begun to have shootings. I hope that it is only a temporary blip; it is very important that it does not become a way of settling disputes. We will therefore need extra resources. I will see the chief constable on Thursday afternoon, and I will take the results of this debate with me and make the very point that my hon. Friend is making.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for that important intervention. We have seen an increase in shootings on the Liverpool side as well, and he is right to emphasise the real risk to our communities. I represent Croxteth and Norris Green which, a decade or so ago, suffered very serious issues to do with so-called gang violence, including the use of firearms. The strong sense in those communities is that they do not want to go back to those days. One of the ways to ensure that they do not is to resource our police service properly.

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I am not a Merseyside MP, but I grew up there. I pay tribute to Merseyside police, who thankfully I did not cause too much trouble to, but they were always there if required—

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That’s what you say!

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I think they would probably still say that.

For the record, my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore) would like to be present to take part in this debate, but he is on a parliamentary trip to the Falklands with our armed forces. Like me, he voted to increase the funding for all police—as we know, across the country there is a mixed funding model for the police—and for Merseyside police by up to £18 million, we hope.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that many changes are going on in the police force, in particular the access to lots of technology? From going out with my police force, I know that there are a lot of changes, so straight-on comparisons of the amount of resource are difficult, because the whole nature of policing is changing across the country.

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There is no doubt that the nature of policing is changing and that technological innovation is providing opportunities, but I think that bobbies on the beat are still a fundamental part of what our constituents expect of policing. I will come on to that in a moment when I talk about the impact that almost a decade of austerity has had on neighbourhood policing across Merseyside, including in my constituency.

The increase in the precept enabled the chief constable to avoid a planned further cut of 100 police posts and provided the opportunity for an increase of 40 police officers across the whole of Merseyside. That is a modest increase, but welcome, and it is the first time that officer numbers have increased in nine years. In a sense, this relates to the point made by the hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan). If we contrast the position in a place such as Liverpool with that in her constituency, the Merseyside police force is heavily reliant on central Government for funding—77% comes from central Government. As that funding has been reduced, the only way in which the impact can be ameliorated is for local people to step in through the council tax. As a result, Merseyside police is more dependent on hard-working local taxpayers, whose contribution to its funding has risen from 15% in 2010-11 to 23% in the coming year. Even with that increase in council tax, the force’s overall funding has reduced, as I said.

Let me contrast that with Surrey, one of four police forces that raises more funds locally than it gets from central Government, simply because it has a much more affluent council tax base. Surrey raises 57% of its funds through council tax, compared with 23% on Merseyside. As a result, although its budget has fallen, it has fallen by a lot less than Merseyside’s. The same story could be told about other areas with high levels of social and economic deprivation. Surely, that is inherently unfair. Does the Minister recognise the unfairness of passing the burden on to the local taxpayer where the ability to raise more locally is demonstrably regressive, meaning that the system itself compounds existing inequalities?

Merseyside has consistently been recognised as one of the best performing metropolitan police forces in the country, but the combination of cuts and rising crime inevitably has serious implications. That brings me to the latest crime statistics. Office for National Statistics stats show that crime across Merseyside increased by 12% in the year to last September. That does not paint the full picture. Robbery was up 18%, violent crime was up 16% and knife crime was at its highest level in 10 years, with more than 900 serious incidents reported last year. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) talked about the threat of shootings and firearms offences. I pay tribute to our police force for the priority it has given such offences in recent years, which meant firearms offences on Merseyside fell from 258 in 2012 to 199 in 2016. Very sadly, that trend has reversed: in 2017, the last full year for which we have figures, firearms offences increased sharply to 353.

People in Merseyside are bearing the brunt of police funding cuts, of which the most visible example for many is the loss of neighbourhood policing. Neighbourhood police are the eyes and ears in our communities. Although crime trends have changed, the importance of a visible policing presence on our streets surely has not, so one of the many areas of concern is that we have lost 46%—almost half—of our police community support officers since 2010. Neighbourhood policing is at the heart of tackling the scourge of antisocial behaviour, the low-level crime that so often makes people’s lives a misery. The loss of PCSOs, combined with the rise in more serious violent crime, has had the inevitable effect that, despite the best efforts of officers on the ground, they so often do not have the resources to respond to that blight on our communities.

One example of that is the impact of so-called scrambler bikes. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) is on the Front Bench, because she has led on that issue in the House. Those nuisance bikes are noisy, intimidating and frightening. They affect the quality of life of our constituents and pose a real threat to safety on roads, on footpaths and in parks. They endanger the safety of both pedestrians and other road users, and increasingly are used to carry out serious crime. I have worked with our commissioner and the local force to try to tackle the issue. Merseyside police is doing good things to identify and prosecute people for the illegal use of off-road bikes, but it tells me it needs the resources and powers to do more to tackle that appalling scourge.

I welcome the Home Office’s proposals to help tackle motorcycle-related crime by providing police officers with better legal protection when they pursue suspects. Those long-overdue proposals went out to consultation last May, but as I understand it, we have not yet had a Government response to that consultation. I hope the Minister can provide an update on the Government’s plans to tackle the scourge of scrambler bikes and motorcycle-related crime.

Another area of great concern in my constituency and across Merseyside is road safety, and the impact on road safety of the loss of funding. Across the country, the number of dedicated traffic police officers has fallen by nearly a third in the past decade. In that time, the decline in the number of deaths on our roads has stagnated; indeed, the number of deaths on our roads last year was at its highest since 2011.

In Merseyside, there has been a concerted effort to keep those numbers down, with the ultimate aim of nobody losing their life on our roads. More than 500 people were killed or seriously injured there in 2017, which was a significant drop from 599 the previous year. I pay tribute to Jane Kennedy for the personal lead she has provided in seeking seriously to reduce those numbers. Every single death or injury is one too many, and I fear that spending cuts could compromise the vision of zero deaths and serious injuries on our roads.

I briefly pay tribute to the fantastic work of the Bobby Colleran Trust, which campaigns for road safety around schools. It was set up by the family and friends of Bobby Colleran, a little boy who died on his way home from Blackmoor Park Infant School in West Derby in my constituency. They have dedicated themselves to working with schools, the local authority and others to limit the number of injuries and deaths, and to make our roads—especially those near schools—safer.

Rising crime and police cuts affect our communities, but they also directly affect those who work in the police service. Last week, a national Police Federation survey of 18,000 officers of all ranks found that nearly 90% of officers say that the police are understaffed. Responses from Merseyside reveal that 84% of officers say that not enough officers are available for the job to be done properly; that 72% are often or always single-crewed; and that 76% experienced stress and anxiety in the previous year. The survey paints an all-too-familiar picture to those of us who talk to police officers working in our constituencies. They are over-burdened, stressed out and often exhausted. They work under immense pressure with fewer resources at a time of rising crime.

Tragically, we have seen in Merseyside several shocking incidents of officers being targeted while carrying out their duties, including the tragic example of PC Dave Phillips, who was killed in a hit and run in Wallasey, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle). Other incidents include a petrol bombing at a scene in Anfield and an officer being stabbed in Huyton, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth).

There remains a lot of uncertainty over future funding levels for Merseyside police. I am told that the force’s own forecast is that, over the medium term, it may need to make further savings of around £22 million to balance the books. I hope that the Minister can give us some assurance that the Government recognise the scale of the challenge facing Merseyside police, and that there is the potential for new money to bridge this funding gap and provide the force with the resources it so desperately needs to tackle rising levels of crime.

It surely cannot be right that the largest cuts in police funding hit the communities with the greatest social and economic need. I urge the Home Office to engage with Merseyside police to address this serious funding crisis as a matter of urgency.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), whom I congratulate on securing this timely debate. I agree with much of what he had to say, particularly on the consequences of year-on-year real-terms cuts. There is no doubt that the Lib Dem-Tory coalition Government from 2010 and the Tory Governments that succeeded them from 2015 slashed the capacity of Merseyside police to do the job that it does so well and that we all need it to do. My hon. Friend is correct that there has been, in effect, a 32% reduction in central Government funding in that time.

Even if we take into account the extra income raised by the allowed increase in the precept—he set out some of the issues relating to that, which I will come back to—there has still been a 21% reduction in real terms. My hon. Friend made it clear that it is not easy to raise the precept, partly because there is a low council tax base across Merseyside, and partly because the people who have to pay it face other cost pressures—they not only have to pay other precepts, but they are already hard-pressed to pay their ordinary bills. We therefore cannot simply keep saying that the precept can be raised.

It is a particularly deplorable trait—I do not blame the Minister personally for this—that the Government have tried to claim in the figures they put out that the increase in the precept is an increase in the money from them. The Department and Ministers—perhaps the Minister could address this—should stop including the money raised from the precept, if it is all collected, in the grant money, which gives the idea that the Government have handed over the money, when they have not. The difference it makes to Merseyside this year is between £8 million—the additional money that the Government have given—and £18 million. The Government cannot claim that they have given Merseyside police an increase of £18 million, as they repeatedly do.

There has been a switch from central Government funding to a reliance on hard-pressed council tax payers to pay for basic policing needs and to try to ameliorate the declining ability of the police. The force is down a quarter of its officers—1,120 police officers have gone on Merseyside. Although the increase of 40 that the police and crime commissioner is hoping to introduce this year is incredibly welcome, that does not make much of an impression, given that 1,120 officers and half of our PCSOs have gone.

Neighbourhood policing is particularly hard hit when hard choices have to be made about what the police can afford to do, because something has to give. That stores up problems for the future in a way that cannot be calculated at this stage. PCSOs and neighbourhood policing are the eyes and ears of the police. Neighbourhood policing prevents future crime and diverts young people and those who are going off the rails from the path they are choosing. It can lead to less crime in the future. To get rid of neighbourhood policing and make it impossible is a false economy. It is stupid in policy terms. It is damaging to the police’s future capacity to do their job.

Investigations have also been hard hit. If the police cannot investigate crime, crime does not get solved. People get away with crime, and lives of crime can continue with some reward. That is not a good way of dealing with possible future difficulties.

There has been an overall increase in all crimes on Merseyside of 29% in the past five years, and 12% in the past year. We are seeing an accelerating increase in crime on Merseyside. After 10 years of year-on-year, real-terms cuts in resource, that is not surprising. It is accelerating and will accelerate more if the Government do not realise that they cannot have policing in an area like Merseyside on the cheap. They must resource policing better, otherwise this will get worse.

That is without taking into consideration the new types of crime that we are beginning to see: there is masses of cyber-crime and online fraud, and people in our society have other vulnerabilities and need to be protected. New crime is coming along to challenge traditional policing, but old types of crimes are also coming back and increasing on Merseyside. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby referred to knife crime, as did the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), and it has increased by 31% in the past year—a huge increase that includes fatal stabbings.

A number of us, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) and other Merseyside colleagues, have met Ministers from this Government and the previous one for three or four years. We have raised issues of gun crime and gangs, but we have received not one iota of help or one extra penny to deal with those issues. It is about time the Government ensured that Merseyside police, which is excellent at dealing with criminal gangs, gets the resources to turn back the tide which, at present, is rising.

Last week, the Liverpool Echo reported that there have been nine incidents of firearm discharge on Merseyside streets so far this year. The year is not very old. Those incidents include one fatal shooting. Another chap was shot while holding his child in his arms, and it would not have taken much for that incident to have been even worse than it ended up being. There has been a 29% increase in demand for police services on Merseyside in the past five years, but at the same time the overall police establishment has reduced by 22% and we have had year-on-year cuts. It is not rocket science, and it does not take a genius to see that that situation will lead to more, and worse, problems in future.

Merseyside police is consistently recognised by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services as one of the best performing metropolitan forces, but it is becoming increasingly difficult for it to do the job. Is it any wonder that those Merseyside police who took part in the Police Federation capacity and welfare survey, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby referred, reported a job satisfaction rating of four out of 10? Some 84% of police said that there were not enough officers to do the job properly, 67% said that their workload was “too high” or “much too high”, and 72% stated that they were often or always single-crewed. More than three quarters of those surveyed indicated that stress, low mood, anxiety or other health and wellbeing difficulties were assailing them and had done so in the previous year.

The Government claim that they have increased funds to Merseyside police—that is what we heard in the debate on the police grant report on the Floor of the House last week. Merseyside police has received a 5.8% cash increase for 2019-20, which is the joint lowest in the country together with Cleveland police. Therefore, the £8 million extra—that is £8 million, not £18 million—simply funds the police pension gap that has opened up because of the change in Government policy. What the Government are giving with one hand has already been taken away with the other before it is given. That £8 million will not lead to one extra police officer on our streets, and no Government money has been given to the police on Merseyside to help with policing on the streets next year. There has been no new money to provide policing services on Merseyside since 2010-11, only cuts. That is the reality, and it is simply not good enough.

Despite the horrendous and ongoing challenges, I commend Merseyside police and our police and crime commissioner, Jane Kennedy, for making good things happen when they can. They are using the extra precept money—the £10 million they hope to raise—to balance the budget and recruit an extra 40 police officers. That will make a dent in the 1,120 who have gone, but not much of one.

Through the careful use of inadequate resources, they can still do some good. Last year, a concerted focus on reducing burglary in dwelling houses, known as Operation Castle, resulted in a 22% fall, which equates to 1,616 fewer crimes of that distressing kind. In the last year, perpetrators of burglaries on dwelling houses have been sentenced to 130 years for those offences, which has taken dangerous and often repeat offenders off our streets. There is always more to be done, but that is a real achievement.

I commend the police and crime commissioner and the chief constable for recognising that police stations in communities that need them are a valuable resource. In that respect, they have recognised the campaigning efforts of Labour councillors and campaigners in Halewood and have undertaken to refurbish Halewood police station and open an new community police station in that building later this year. I welcome the extensive refurbishment of an asset once earmarked for closure. I commend the efforts of local Labour councillors on Halewood Town Council and Knowsley Council for their excellent and focused campaign, which has resulted in that good news.

In closing, however, if the Minister cannot offer Merseyside police far more resources, the crime issues that are building and worsening on Merseyside will only worsen further.

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May I, too, say how good it is to serve under you in the Chair, Sir Edward? I add my thanks to Jane Kennedy, the police and crime commissioner for Merseyside and to Merseyside police. My hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) and for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) have given us a comprehensive survey of the current situation, particularly the financial problems that Merseyside police faces, which I will say a bit about in a moment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby made the point that a police officer was stabbed in my constituency, which brings home, sharply and regrettably, the risks that police officers face when going about their everyday business of trying to keep us safe. I will return to knife crime in a minute.

As has already been said, Merseyside police has had to make more than £110 million of savings since 2010 and as a consequence, the police officer establishment has been reduced by 1,120, which is a fall of 24.4%. That must have consequences; it cannot simply be brushed aside as, “Well, we don’t need them.” I want to talk about how some of those consequences affect my constituents.

I will make three points. On gun crime, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby has already stated the statistics, but I will repeat them for emphasis. In Merseyside, there were 79 firearm discharges in 2018 and 94 firearm discharges in 2017. Of the discharges in 2018, 13—16%—were in Knowsley, and in 2017, 22% were in Knowsley. That means that guns are now considered something relatively normal in some sections of the community, which was unthinkable when I was growing up in the area and cannot be right. There must be some connection between that and the level of policing that Merseyside police can provide.

Knife crime has become commonplace, and 88 knife incidents in Knowsley in one year is really frightening. It is frightening, first, that the knives seem to be readily available, and secondly, that the—mainly young—people who use them seem to think that doing so is perfectly normal. Again, that must be linked to the level of policing provided. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby rightly referred to the policing model. Neighbourhood policing has now been abandoned, so the intelligence needed to deal with this problem, such as who has the knives, where they are getting them from and all that important information, is not being gathered to the same extent. That is not the police’s fault; they simply do not have the resources.

I will make one further point on knife and gun crime before I move on. This is not unique to Knowsley or to the Merseyside police force area; to a different scale in different places, it exists everywhere. There are a group of young people in this country who will probably not get any GCSEs. Most will get an apprenticeship, find work and make their way in the world. However, there is a sub-group within that who, maybe because of family influence or other influences in the neighbourhood, see a life of crime as being a perfectly normal progression. We need to do much more with those young people, to make them appreciate that, first, that is not normal; secondly, that they have the potential to do other things—really good things in some cases—with their lives; and thirdly, that they need to be in a position where they can provide for a family in later life, and not by the haphazard means of the proceeds of crime.

My second point is on antisocial behaviour. Merseyside police says, and the statistics show, that there has been a recent 32% reduction in the number of reported incidents of antisocial behaviour—[Interruption.] I have to say that that is not my experience as a local MP, and I can see from the reaction of my hon. Friends that they feel the same. I simply say that I held two advice surgeries on Friday evening—one in Huyton and one in Kirkby—and most of the cases brought to me were in some way related to antisocial behaviour.

I also think that the term “antisocial behaviour” often does not properly describe the sort of problems we are talking about. For example, with the local social housing provider, Knowsley Housing Trust, I have been dealing with a case of a woman in north Huyton who cannot step out of the door without a volley of abuse being thrown at her by neighbours. The police might classify that as a neighbourly dispute, but when someone is literally afraid to step out of the door because of the abuse they will get from neighbours, that is serious.

People have a right to a reasonably quiet life in which they should not expect daily abuse to be normal, yet in some cases it is. There are people in housing need who might be in a perfectly nice, well-maintained house that they pay the rent on, but they want to move out to get away from the trouble. That cannot be right. There cannot be places in this country where those subjected to antisocial behaviour feel that the only way they can escape it is to move house. Again, it comes back to whether the policing resources are there to deal with the problem. The police are honest about that and say there are not.

There is some light at the end of that particular tunnel, certainly in Knowsley. Knowsley Council, as my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood is aware, is looking within its resources to see what more support it can provide to the police to get on top of antisocial behaviour. However, should that be the responsibility of the local authority?

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The Minister nods her head and says yes from a sedentary position. Perhaps up to a point she is right, but at the end of the day Knowsley Council does not have the powers to intervene in such cases without the support of the police. All it can do is to help to point the police in the right direction, perhaps building up a case with some evidence, but in the end it has to be a policing matter.

Finally, I agree with my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, West Derby and for Garston and Halewood in that I welcome the increase in the precept and that it is not how policing should be paid for. The increase will not have the impact that we need, but nevertheless I welcome it. Late last week, Merseyside police announced that they were going to downgrade Kirkby police station in my constituency, so that it will be open to the public on only two days a week. I recognise that we do not want police to sit in police stations; we want them out on the streets doing things. To be honest, however, if people want to report a crime, to get into a dialogue with the police about antisocial behaviour that they are experiencing or to give information on gun and knife crime when PCSOs are not out and about on the streets, the only place they can do so is at the police station.

I also question the way that the announcement was made on social media. The local councillors and I were alerted to the announcement on social media, but was that any consultation whatever? Is that any way in which to do it? I know why the police had to do it—because they have problems with resources—but I question the method.

A group of local councillors has been invited to meet Merseyside police tomorrow. Those councillors will put the case against the downgrade strongly. The leader of the council, Councillor Graham Morgan, has written to Jane Kennedy, and I will quote from what he said, because I agree with him. This relates back to the decision about the increase in the precept:

“The Chief Constable, and yourself for that matter, had the opportunity to let Cllr Aston know that you were planning the same thing for Kirkby ahead of her formally considering your Precept proposal on Knowsley’s behalf. Nothing at all was mentioned!

As you know, Cllr Aston moved the proposal and Knowsley reluctantly supported you, noting that colleagues in St Helens were not in a position to do so given the issues relating to Newton Police Station”—

which my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) raised in a debate in this very Chamber. The letter continues:

“I ask myself would we have taken this course of action”—

to vote for the increase in the precept—

“if we were made aware that we too were going to see a reduction, almost identical to that faced by our colleagues in St Helens?”

For the leader of Knowsley Council, the sort of person who tries to be reasonable with everyone, to write in such strong terms is an indication of how annoyed the community are about that. I share that annoyance. When the police meet the local councillors tomorrow, I hope that they will reach a solution that does not involve virtually closing down Kirkby police station for most of the week.

Unless Ministers appreciate the terrible circumstances in which the police have to operate throughout the Merseyside police force area, and do so quickly, I am afraid that we will have this debate repeatedly, with some of the problems that we are concerned about just going up and up. That cannot be right.

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It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Edward. I will not repeat the stark figures that my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) and for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) put on the record, which show the terrible difficulties the Government’s decisions about police funding have left both the chief constable, Andy Cooke, and our PCC, Jane Kennedy, in over the years. Suffice it to say that we have seen an increase in demand, a rapid acceleration in crime, a significant reduction in the resources to deal with that demand, and a huge reduction in numbers, which has led to the loss of those eyes and ears that all our communities were so used to seeing when the Merseyside force pioneered the introduction of neighbourhood policing.

I do not think anyone in the room—I certainly hope that includes the Minister—would have anything other than praise for the Merseyside force and the individuals who make up the service. Merseyside police regularly outperforms other police forces. It has made huge efficiency savings over the years and was ahead of the curve in that respect, but it appears to have been punished for that by the scale of the cuts it has had to make. Merseyside police feels very much that it has been made to suffer for entering into the spirit of making efficiency savings and transforming the service. The Minister needs to recognise that my hon. Friends and I—some of us more than others—all represent areas of very complex and difficult policing challenges, particularly with organised crime and gangs, the like of which it is rare to see outside the Met.

The Minister will probably make all the usual arguments about how, really, the Government have massively increased resources and everyone should be able to manage with a bit of snipping and efficiency here, there and everywhere. However, the false economies of the cuts to prevention that decisions by the Minister and her Government are forcing on the Merseyside force will come back to haunt us in the not-too-distant future. Because many of the officers who remain are forced to do so much more with far fewer resources, they are becoming overstretched, and that is affecting their ability and capacity to do their job, their enthusiasm for the job and their mental health. Some of them are approaching burn-out, as demonstrated by the review my hon. Friends mentioned.

Aside from storing up trouble for the future, what do the cuts and pressures that the Minister and her Government colleagues are presiding over mean for our communities? What kind of society are my constituents in Wallasey and everyone else in Merseyside expected to put up with? It is one where respect for the law is decreasing rather than increasing; one where communities are cynical about reporting what is going on because they never get an adequate response; one where the police have to make really difficult choices about who to respond to and whether to respond in any meaningful way at all, and one where the wrong incentives are demonstrated day in, day out. It teaches that crime can pay and that the police are so overstretched that they will not arrive and deal with issues, so low-level crime begins to escalate, and that they are beginning to lose control of the streets.

There have been incidents in my constituency, which by some definitions is at the quieter end of the Merseyside area, of thugs arriving at people’s doors and threatening them if they have complained about scrambler bikes and low-level crime. The police have been to visit, and the thugs have come back and threatened members of the household for supporting each other and trying to do the right thing. The fact that the police do not have the resources to follow up makes previously law-abiding citizens, who believed that the police were there to help them, frightened to stay in those areas. They become increasingly cynical about reporting anything because they do not think the police can respond properly, and it makes them really question their values. That is what the Minister and her Government are presiding over by not funding our services properly.

What kind of society are we building if the cuts to the Merseyside force have stretched it to that extent? Given the emergence of county lines problems, no one should think for a minute that the issues that people have to live with in inner-city areas will not spread. They will, and we are now beginning to see them spread down train lines to areas that were previously untouched. We are seeing the increasing exploitation of people by organised gangs for drug purposes and the spread of really bad behaviour, which wreaks havoc in formerly quiet and law-abiding communities. That creates even more difficult problems and provides the wrong incentives.

I urge the Minister to give us some comfort that the Government will not continue unfairly expecting people on council tax band A and in poorer, more deprived areas to pay for the increasing cost of policing in areas that were difficult to start with, but that the Government will take their share of responsibility, step up to the plate and fund the forces of law and order that keep our society safe and secure. That would give people the confidence to plan, to be out on the street, to talk to each other and to have a proper community, rather than cower behind their doors, worried about antisocial behaviour and thuggery, which is spreading. The Minister must assure us that she has heard what we are saying and that her Government will respond in a way that will make a difference. They must reassure us and our constituents that they will fund our police services properly and will not resort to the unfair practice of putting the biggest burden of policing on those who are least able to cope with it.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I completely endorse everything my right hon. and hon. Friends have said, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) on securing this debate.

Sam Cook, my constituent, was murdered in Liverpool city centre just over a year ago on the night of his 21st birthday celebration. He was in a bar, somebody shoved his girlfriend, he stepped in to intervene and was stabbed. He died, despite desperate attempts to save his life. Sam’s dad, Alan, spoke to me recently about his son. He said that he received that knock on the door that no one ever wants to receive. I left a message for him before the debate and said that I would be thinking of him throughout it. He wants to pay tribute to his son in the best way he feels able to—by succeeding in his campaign to reduce the number of knives on our streets. Let me set out what he said about Sam:

“He would come in and make everyone laugh. He was a joker and he always had a smile on his face. He was a decent kid too. All his friends went to Sam if ever there was an issue. He was sensible in the head.”

That was the glowing tribute paid to this young man by his dad, but however decent he was, he was still a victim of appalling knife crime.

We have heard already from my right hon. and hon. Friends the figures for the increase in violent crime that we face across Merseyside. I have the figures for knife crime over the past year. There was a total of 914 crimes involving knives on Merseyside between April 2018 and January 2019. That is an increase of 217 such crimes—an increase of 31%—compared with in the same period in the previous year. There have been two fatal stabbings, within the figures, in the past two years. One of the victims was Sam Cook, whom I have mentioned.

What Alan Cook is calling for is no more knives. What he is calling for is the action that the Government could take to increase the opportunity, through legislation, to reduce the number of knives on our streets and to reduce the potential for what has happened to his family happening to anybody else. That is uppermost in the mind of Alan and his family. He says:

“I don’t want any other family to go through what we have had to go through”,

because it is the worst thing in the world. I am sure that we would all agree wholeheartedly with that.

The problem is that the increase in knife crime has corresponded with a reduction in the number of officers on our streets. As my right hon. and hon. Friends have reminded us, central Government funding has seen a real-terms reduction of 32%, and there has been an overall reduction of 21% in real terms, after account has been taken of precept increases. Since the 2010-11 financial year, the precept element of funding for Merseyside police has risen significantly, going up from 15% of the force’s funding to 23% by next year. This is all because of the low council tax base that we have across most of the boroughs of Merseyside.

The force has made more than £110 million of savings. My hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) made the point that it feels as though it is being penalised for doing so. Over the period to which I have referred, the consequence of the cuts in funding has been a reduction in the workforce overall of 1,614. That is a fall of 22%, which is higher than the national figure of 18%. There has been a fall in the number of police officers of 1,120—a reduction of 24.4%, which is way above the 15% national average. That has been accompanied by a 46% fall in the number of PCSOs. That figure is also above the national average, which was 40% in that period. There are 215 fewer PCSOs.

Police staff numbers are also down. Not just the frontline but the very important support staff are affected; no one should ever be in any doubt about the importance of support staff and the work that they do. I spent a very interesting morning at the force control centre not long ago. I watched just how hard the staff in that centre, both uniformed and non-uniformed, work in trying to keep Merseyside safe.

We have had the biggest cuts. We have the lowest tax base. We have the biggest cuts in grant and the smallest potential to raise funds from council tax, as we have heard from my colleagues. But we still face one of the lowest increases in central Government funding, despite having the greatest need for resources because of the scale of the problems that we face. All this is not in isolation, because it goes alongside cuts elsewhere in the public sector. The cuts to the youth service have been especially severe—hundreds of millions of pounds across the country—and probation service funding is down 30% in the past three years.

I mention probation because the man who has now been convicted of murdering Sam Cook was on licence, having been convicted previously of being in possession of an offensive weapon. He was wandering round the streets of Blackpool waving a machete. He was given 16 months but was released after serving half that period and was then able to go and murder Sam Cook. The problem is that the public sector does not have the resources to prevent reoffending and to keep tabs on individuals such as the one who carried out that appalling crime.

We have a problem not only in direct services, but in council services more generally. The police service has to backfill for the National Health Service, especially in supporting people suffering from poor mental health, and there are other examples where officers carry out duties that are not part of mainstream policing. All these things add up to huge pressure on police time and contribute to making it much harder for the police to respond. In the case of Sam Cook, the issue was about prevention and making sure that they played their part in ensuring that he was kept safe. The increase in the number of knife crimes are all linked to the wider picture.

Like my hon. and right hon. Friends, I want to pay tribute to Merseyside police, whose officers do a very good job. Andy Cooke and Jane Kennedy work extremely hard at keeping our communities as safe as possible. We heard reference to Operation Castle, which has had a significant impact in reducing the level of burglary and recognises the damage that it does both physically and psychologically to its victims. We have also been told that unless additional resources are forthcoming, such an approach will become increasingly difficult to sustain, just as it will become harder to reverse the increase in violent crime that we have heard about in the examples given by me and my right hon. and hon. Friends.

I looked at the Hansard from 4 February and the Minister’s response to the urgent question from my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) on the proposed introduction of knife crime prevention orders. I said earlier that Alan Cook wants tougher laws introduced to help reduce knife crime, and I suppose knife crime prevention orders might be part of the answer. The Minister might remind us, as she did on 4 February, that the police want such orders introduced. I do not doubt that for one moment. However, if we see a continued decline in the number of police officers who can respond, and a reduction in the numbers of officers and their partners across the public sector because of continued pressure on public sector finances, who will carry out the knife crime prevention orders? Who will implement the new policy? Who will be there to police our streets and prevent knife crime and other violent crime from continuing to escalate?

I notice from the urgent question and the responses from the Minister that what is happening in Merseyside is repeated again and again right across the country. The same pattern is evident: a clear increase in the number of knives on our streets and in the number of attacks, as well as a fall in the amount of resources available. I want to be able to go away today and say to Alan Cook and his family and to Sam’s friends that the Minister agreed that Alan’s campaign for no more knives was the right campaign to support. Not only that, I want to say that she also said she would look seriously at giving an increase to Merseyside and other parts of the country where these things are a problem and where the resources that are needed are not there. We have those additional pressures, and my right hon. and hon. Friends have shown that the increase does not leave us at anything more than a standstill. I want the Minister to look very seriously at how our police are funded so that we can keep our communities safe and prevent any more Sam Cooks from happening.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. This has been a fantastic debate with some wonderful advocates from the Merseyside force area. We have had a true overview of the issues facing Merseyside police and its funding. I do not know whether we can call it a debate when everyone has agreed so wholeheartedly with each other, and it will not surprise the Minister that I am about to agree wholeheartedly with the points my right hon. and hon. Friends have made.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) on securing this vital debate. He passionately laid out the case that Merseyside has suffered significantly from being one of the forces worst hit by funding cuts, resulting in the loss of almost half of Merseyside’s PCSOs and more than 1,100 officers. As a result of its low council tax base and the increased cuts to the Home Office central grant caused by the political failure to review the police funding formula, it is continuing to receive a deeply unfair funding settlement.

The cuts have consequences, as we have heard. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby mentioned the increase in firearms offences, as well as off-road bikes and related offences. He also mentioned the number of people dying through cuts to the number of road safety officers and the consequential impact on the welfare of our police officers and staff.

My hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) spoke about the 21% real-terms reduction, even including the allowed precept rise. She was absolutely right to say that an absolutely deplorable trait of this Government is to pretend that somehow they are being generous in allowing our hard-pressed ratepayers to pay more in council tax. The chair of the UK Statistics Authority agreed with her when he wrote to the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary last year to insist that they stop making such claims, because the claims were “misleading the public”.

My hon. Friend spoke about the consequences for neighbourhood policing and investigations, the huge demand caused by new crimes, such as cyber-crime, and the increase in traditional demand caused by things such as knife crime, which is plaguing so many of our communities. She mentioned the consequential impacts on faith in the police, and the Home Affairs Committee has found that, too. The very legitimacy of our police is at stake. The situation is undeniably leading to a lack of confidence in reporting to the police, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) mentioned, and confidence that they will be able to act at all on those reports.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) spoke about the consequences that sadly resulted in a police officer being stabbed in his constituency. The safety of our officers and staff is increasingly being put at risk. More people are single-crewed when responding to crime. Guns are increasingly available and knife crime is increasingly normalised, particularly for young people on our streets. My hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) spoke about the tragic murder of Sam Cook on his 21st birthday. It is hard to escape the conclusion that that was not at least in part down to cuts to policing and prevention and the massive failure in the privatisation of our probation service.

As we have heard, nine years of brutal cuts to our police service have led to stark consequences on the streets of Merseyside. The precept increase will raise just £8.4 million, in comparison with Surrey, which has a smaller population and substantially less violent crime, where the police force will be able to raise £3.5 million more. As has been said, almost all additional funding from central Government will be spent on covering the cost of pension increases that have been passed to Merseyside police by a changed Government policy. That is completely and utterly unacceptable.

From 594 incidents of knife crime in 2010 to more than 11,000 today, Merseyside police have suffered one of the highest rises in violent crime of any force in the country. It has one of the highest rates of gun crime per head, and it is little wonder that its chief constable, Andy Cooke, stated:

“So have I got sufficient resources to fight gun crime? No, I haven’t. I will put all of the resources I have available to it and we will continue to see some excellent convictions…but if I had more staff would I put them to deal with gun crime? Yes I would.”

At the heart of the inequity in the Government’s approach to funding our police, particularly in Merseyside, is the fact that it is based on the ability of an area to pay—it is based on the number of large houses that that police force happens to have in its area. When we consider the picture for police forces nationwide, that is not only unfair but reckless. The greatest challenges facing our police forces are the surge in violent crime, child sexual exploitation, risks from terrorism, county lines and cyber-crime. Those challenges do not present an even picture across the country because crime rates are higher in metropolitan areas such as Merseyside. It is therefore completely perverse that forces such as Merseyside police, which have suffered the greatest cuts, should receive least from the funding settlement.

Last month the Government should have presented a funding settlement that meets need and demand, but instead of using any of the investment provided by the Home Office to help meet the operational demands caused by missing persons, child sexual exploitation and serious crime, every penny of central Government funding will be sunk into pension costs that the Government have imposed on forces. That is perverse and will create a postcode lottery in policing, meaning that those communities that cannot afford to pay will see policing get worse and worse.

As has been said, Merseyside is an excellent police force with exceptional officers from the chief constable, Andy Cooke, to the frontline and the hardworking police community support officers and staff. The force has fantastic advocates in its parliamentary representatives and its police and crime commissioner, Jane Kennedy, who consistently make the case for a fairer funding settlement. It seems, however, that with this Government in office Merseyside police will never get the funding that it needs or deserves.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) on securing this important debate, and I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for contributing.

Before we get to the rough and tumble of political debate, I wish to reflect on the cases that colleagues have raised of deaths in their constituencies. The hon. Gentleman spoke about Bobby, which is a terribly sad case, and our thoughts are with his parents and his family. The right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) spoke about Police Constable Dave Phillips, and again our thoughts are with his family. Any murder is a terrible event, but to my mind, the killing of a police officer goes to the heart of our society and values, and we are reminded that police officers are on the front line every day.

We heard movingly from the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) about Sam Cook—about the terrible loss of that young man’s life on his birthday, and his father’s extraordinary strength in setting up a charity to help other families and ensure that they do not suffer as his has. If it would meet with his approval, I would be delighted to meet Mr Cook and learn more about the work that he does in his local area.

I am extremely grateful to colleagues for the way they have conducted this debate. One point on which we can all agree is our wish to thank officers and police staff who work to protect people and communities in Merseyside. I pay tribute to them and thank them for their work, just as I thank colleagues across the country for the work they do day in, day out to keep us safe and fight crime.

I am struck that many colleagues raised the welfare of officers. The Policing Minister cares deeply about that, as do I, not least because particular types of crime, such as child sexual exploitation, can be incredibly trying for any human being to work on. I am always keen to ensure, as are the Policing Minister and the Home Secretary, that our officers are looked after in the course of doing their jobs, which are often very stressful. Hon. Members may be interested to know that the national police welfare service run by the College of Policing will commence in April, which I hope will bolster and consolidate all the efforts that happen at the local level. We want to spread good practice nationally as well.

I must mention my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore), who is on an armed forces visit at the moment but who spoke to me last week, ahead of the debate, to emphasise his thanks and to pay tribute to his local police officers and staff. I am sure that he would want that to be reflected.

The first role of Government is of course to protect citizens. The Government are determined to ensure that the police have the powers and resources they need to keep our citizens and communities safe. We absolutely recognise that there are major pressures on the police, including in Merseyside. There has been a major increase in the reporting of high-harm crimes such as child sexual exploitation and modern slavery, many of which were previously hidden behind closed doors. We absolutely acknowledge that violent crime in Merseyside has sadly risen recently. I hope in a moment to go into a little more detail on the national strategies to fight serious organised crime and serious violence, what we are trying to achieve at the national level, and the impact that I hope that will have at the local level.

The title of the debate requires me to talk about funding. I know that there is not agreement across the House on the approach to funding. I feel obliged to remind people, as I do on such occasions, that these tough decisions were taken in 2010 and thereafter because of the financial situation that the country found itself in. They have been very tough decisions, but as of 2015, at the insistence of the then Home Secretary, who is now the Prime Minister, we have been in a position to protect police funding.

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Will the Minister explain why this settlement gives Merseyside police the lowest increase apart from Cleveland? If she is aware of Merseyside’s difficulties, why do we have the lowest increase of any force?

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There is a great debate in my home constabulary of Lincolnshire at the moment, which, although very rural, has its crime demands and faces similar pressures. The problem, as we have discussed before and as the Policing Minister has gone through in detail, is that the funding formula needs reform.

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Do it then.

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The hon. Lady says, “Do it then.” We tried to do it in 2017 and sadly were not able to achieve that. We have tried since the general election to consolidate the formula as it is at the moment. The Policing Minister has spoken to every single chief constable and police and crime commissioner about the needs in their local area, to try to make the existing formula work and to reflect the rising demand. We are conscious that the demands on the police are changing, which is why the Home Secretary has made dealing with police funding a priority in the next comprehensive spending review.

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Progress on the formula would be very welcome, particularly to meet the point that several hon. Members raised about areas with high deprivation. Can the Minister respond to my specific point about the fact that the additional funds this year essentially cover the pension shortfall? What prospects are there that that money, at least, will be available again in future years?

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We have been conscious of the impact that the rule changes would have on constabularies. That was discussed in 2016, I think, and there was an expectation that forces would be able to go some way to ameliorating the increase. Following the conversations that the Policing Minister had with chief constables, we have secured more money from the Treasury to try to cover the majority of that pension increase. I accept that a proportion still falls on local forces, but we have managed to secure some assistance towards the overall cost.

I will ask the Policing Minister to write to the hon. Gentleman about next year. We are working towards the comprehensive spending review and I imagine that the message from this debate and others will be heard loud and clear by the Policing Minister and, importantly, by the Treasury.

I return to the fact that we have tried to increase police funding; last year, we increased it by up to £460 million. Contrary to allegations from Opposition Members, I have always been clear that it has been with the help of police and crime commissioners that we have helped, as a society, to inject that further money into policing.

Similarly, this year, we are injecting up to £970 million more, again with the help of police and crime commissioners. That is why I am pleased that the police and crime commissioner for Merseyside has conducted her consultation, won the support of more than 74% of respondents for her proposals, and can raise council tax by £2 per month on band D households.

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Will the Minister recognise, on the record, that by doing things in that way and by bringing local taxpayers into the formula, she is saying to my constituents and the constituents of all hon. Members on this side of the Chamber that people in the poorest areas, who are least able to cope with tax increases, have to pay them because they happen to live in an area with greater demands on policing? Why is that not the national Government’s duty? Why should our constituents have that unfair burden put on them?

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That is where the hon. Lady and I part in our political philosophy. There is no such thing as Government money; it is taxpayers’ money, collected centrally, that is paid to police constabularies. None the less, we have been careful to protect and increase Government grants where we can.

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I am sure we could have many a philosophical discussion about what taxpayers’ money is, but that would be for another time. Even with that difference of view, will the Minister not admit that using the council tax system puts a greater burden on the people who are least able to pay, because of the regressive way that council tax is worked out? We have many constituents in band E properties who are, by definition, asset poorer and generally poorer than those in higher council tax bands, but she is suggesting that there should be a redistribution from people in better-off areas to those in poorer areas, who will be forced to pay more. How is that fair?

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There is still funding from central Government. We are concentrating on the direct funding formula for the force, but there are other ways in which police forces receive money to target particular needs in their communities. For example, with the issue of serious organised crime, which has been raised today, I am delighted that Andy Cooke, the chief constable, is in fact the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on serious organised crime. He brings his expertise to that role.

Through the funding settlement, there is a national grant of £90 million to tackle serious and organised crime. Regarding the local area, I think the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) said that there was not a penny being put towards serious organised crime—I hope she will forgive me if I have misquoted her, but it was something along those lines. We are funding a serious organised crime community co-ordinator in Merseyside and Cheshire, as one of five pilot areas with a specific focus, and through this pilot programme we are looking to increase significantly our focus on diverting people away from serious organised crime and on building resilience.

In addition, the North West regional organised crime unit is providing specialist serious organised crime policing capabilities and advice to its six host forces, which include Merseyside. We want very much to help local PCC funding across those forces by supplementing their funding through core grant funding, as we did last year. The hon. Member for Garston and Halewood specifically raised the point about cyber-crime. The North West ROCU has been allocated £434,000 of specific funding for cyber protect and prevent officers, and an international standards officer, so there is funding from sources other than the grant.

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I did actually say that as a consequence of the meetings—the repeated meetings—that we have had with Ministers, and despite having been given many promises, not a penny-piece extra has been forthcoming. Merseyside police is an acknowledged expert at dealing with guns and gangs. It does not need “advice”; it needs money in order to do things. It is good that the chief constable is the lead, but that does not give him an extra penny-piece to deal with the issues.

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I am conscious, Sir Edward, that the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby will want to respond, so forgive me if I race through.

On serious violence, a great deal is being done at a national level. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), who specifically mentioned the rise of county lines. She will know—having, I am sure, read our serious violence strategy—that we are very conscious of the impact of drugs as a driver of serious violence, which is why we are doing so much on early intervention, including providing a £200 million youth endowment fund for the next 10 years.

The right hon. Member for Knowsley mentioned antisocial behaviour. Powers are available to councils as well as to the police, because we are conscious that the police are not always the right people to deal with antisocial behaviour. I encourage him to look at the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014; I am obviously happy to discuss it with him.

I will now sit down to give the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby two minutes to respond. I thank everyone for their contributions.

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I thank the Minister for her response, and I thank my hon. Friend the shadow Minister and hon. Friends from across Merseyside for their contributions to what has been a comprehensive debate on this important matter.

This morning, I was on BBC Radio Merseyside, ahead of this debate. The presenter said, “There have been loads of these debates and all the issues get aired, but nothing ever changes.” One of the frustrations of being in Opposition is that, sadly, that is often how it feels.

I appeal to the Minister and to the Policing Minister who cannot be with us today: I think that my hon. Friends and I have made the case that there needs to be an increase in spending on the police nationally and that the distributional impact of the system fails areas such as Merseyside. The very small amounts of money that the Minister just referred to for co-ordinators and particular programmes are a drop in the ocean compared with the scale of the reduction that we have seen.

We need a fair funding formula in the future that recognises that in areas with a low council tax base, it is simply unjust and wrong to shift the burden on to hard-pressed local taxpayers in the way the Government have done. Nationally, we need policing to be given a higher priority in the spending review. I think that a powerful message from today’s debate is that in a context of rising crime, especially given what we have heard regarding the horrors of the impact of gun and knife crime on our communities, Merseyside needs a fair funding formula, but we also need a spending review that gives due priority to fighting crime and policing our communities.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the funding of Merseyside Police.

Foreign National Offenders: Prison Transfers

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered prison transfers of foreign national offenders.

It is a joy to see you in the Chair, Sir Edward. I thank Mr Speaker for granting me this debate, and I welcome the Minister and his team to the Chamber.

Believe it or not, we have something like 160 nations of the world represented in our prisons. About one third of those individuals have been convicted of violent and/or sexual offences, about one fifth have been convicted on drug charges, and others have been responsible for burglary, fraud, robbery and other serious crimes.

[Ian Austin in the Chair]

Some years ago, the National Audit Office did an estimate of the cost to the British taxpayer of incarcerating those people in our jails, and came out with a cost per year per prisoner of something like £33,000. When we add to that the cost of the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, legal aid and other things, the total bill could be something between £750 million and £1 billion a year. The National Audit Office came down somewhere in the middle of that range, and estimated the annual cost to the taxpayer to be about £850 million a year. That assumes that there are about 10,000 foreign national offenders in our jails.

I first ask the Minister, given that he is attended by a galaxy of civil service talent, who no doubt have the numbers at their fingertips, what is the present prison population today? Of the total number of prisoners, how many foreign national offenders do we have in our prisons today? I reckon the present prison population is something like 85,000, and that there are about 10,000 foreign national offenders in our prisons. Of those 10,000, what proportion come from the European Union—I think the figure is about 4,000—and how many come from non-EU countries?

Can the Minister confirm these estimates of what I call the list of shame—the top 10 countries that are represented in our prisons? I reckon that No. 1 is Poland with about 950. No. 2 is Ireland with 750. No. 3 is Romania with 630. No. 4 is Jamaica with 550. In joint fifth, sixth and seventh place are Albania, Lithuania and Pakistan with about 475 each. No. 8 is India with 450. No. 9 is Somalia with 425. No. 10 is Nigeria with 400. In total, I reckon that the top 10 nations in our prisons total something like 5,580 foreign national offenders. My contention is that those people should not be incarcerated at Her Majesty’s pleasure; they should be in prison in their own countries at the expense of their own taxpayers. Her Majesty’s Government are not doing nearly enough to send those people back to prisons in their own countries.

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I thank my hon. Friend for giving way very graciously. I hope he will be pleased to know that in my constituency we have a prison at Huntercombe that exists to house foreign national prisoners in the process of transferring them back to their own countries. That has gone down terribly well with the locals, who wanted to see those prisoners transferred back. They can go to say goodbye to them, waving as the coach takes them back to the airport. It is close to Heathrow airport, so the transfer can be made easily.

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I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I will give way to him again if he knows—I do not expect him to, but if he does—the number of prisoners at HMP Huntercombe. The nation needs to know. Perhaps the Minister will advise us in his response how many prisoners are held there pending deportation. I am pleased for my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) that he has such a facility in his constituency, and that it is popular with his constituents, but my contention is that the prison is not large enough. We need to send a lot more of these people back, and quickly.

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The operational capacity of the prison is about 1,300.

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That is about 13% of our foreign national offender population at any one time, so we need at least nine more Huntercombes if we are to deport these people back to the countries from which they came.

No doubt the Minister will tell the House today that since 2010 some 45,000 foreign national offenders have been removed from the UK, including 6,000 in the past year. My first reaction to those numbers is, “My gosh! Given the extent to which foreign nationals commit crimes in this country, thank goodness they are being caught; the number who commit offences but are not caught must be even larger.” We have a real problem on our hands, with such a large number of foreign nationals committing crimes in this country.

No doubt the Minister will tell the House that prisoners are transferred in four main ways. The Government maintain that the main method to remove foreign national offenders from prison is what is called the early removal scheme. Will the Minister give us more detail on what that scheme entails? I hope that it does not mean that prisoners’ sentences are cut short and they are just deported to be at liberty back in their countries of origin, because that is not the point that I am making. These people should be sent back to their own countries and kept in prison there, until their sentences have been completed. Last year, I understand that some 2,000 were removed under that scheme.

No doubt the Minister will then tell us that prisoner transfer agreements are in place, falling into three main categories, the first of which is the EU prisoner transfer framework decision, which EU member states signed up to between December 2011 and December 2015. There are 27 EU member states to which we can send prisoners and which can send UK prisoners back to us. Amazingly, since the scheme first went live in December 2011, two EU nations have still not ratified their membership of that framework decision: Bulgaria and Ireland. I suggest that Ireland spends less time trying to cause problems for this country with the Irish backstop and more time on ratifying the prisoner transfer directive, which is now eight years old.

Under the EU prisoner transfer framework decision, since it has been inaugurated, we have only sent back 357 EU national offenders, out of an EU prison population that is in the order of some 4,000, as I am sure the Minister will tell us. The top three are the Netherlands, to which we sent back 141, or 39% of the total; Romania, 56, or 16%; and Poland, 35. I point out to the Minister that we have sent 56 Romanian nationals back to prison in Romania, but at any one time we have about 630 Romanians in our prisons; and we have only sent back 35 Polish nationals, but at any one time we have about 950 in our prisons. Furthermore, of the 27 signatories, to 10 we have sent no prisoners back at all.

Of course, this is a two-way process, and we are entitled to receive UK nationals who committed offences abroad back into this country. We have taken back a total of 100. The largest number—40—came from Spain, nine have been returned from Germany, and nine from Italy. It seems to me that the scheme, despite having been in operation for eight years, is not working very well.

However, it is working better than the additional protocol to the prisoner transfer framework decision, to which 13 other countries are signed up: Georgia, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Norway, Russia, Serbia, San Marino, Switzerland, Turkey and Ukraine. It was confirmed to me yesterday in a written parliamentary answer that we have transferred to the countries adhering to the additional protocol the grand total of zero foreign national prisoners. We have sent no foreign national offenders at all back under the additional protocol. It is absolutely and completely useless.

The third category we have is bilateral prisoner transfer agreements. The same parliamentary answer listed six countries, out of the 160 nations represented in our jails, with which we have compulsory prisoner transfer agreements. In other words, we can send foreign national offenders back to those countries without their permission—it is compulsory for them to go back. Those six countries are Albania, Ghana, Libya, Nigeria, Rwanda and Somaliland. The Ministry of Justice helpfully listed the dates on which those six prisoner transfer agreements came into force. The oldest goes back to 2009, and the latest came into force in 2017. For one country—Somaliland—the Department has no information about when the agreement came into force. The answer states, “Not Available”. Can the Minister confirm whether we have a compulsory prisoner transfer agreement with Somaliland?

We have sent back a grand total of 25 foreign national offenders to those six countries, one of which is Nigeria. We have something like 400 Nigerians in our prisons at any one time. We have sent back one Nigerian under the compulsory prisoner transfer agreement. That simply is not good enough. I suggest that the Minister takes the lead on negotiating effective compulsory prisoner transfer agreements with countries for which we hold a large number of foreign national offenders in our jails.

Let me give two examples. Pakistan is seventh on my original list—in fact, it is joint fifth, sixth and seventh with Albania and Lithuania. There are something like 475 Pakistanis in our jails at any one time. Nigeria is tenth, with 400. We should use our foreign aid budget to build prisons in those countries so we have a place to send those people back to. Pakistan and Nigeria are among the five biggest recipients of UK aid in the world. We give something like £400 million a year to Pakistan and £330 million a year to Nigeria in international aid. It seems to me that if we have, by law, to spend that money on international aid—I do not agree with that, but it is the law of the land—we should use it sensibly, by trying to reduce the £1 billion annual cost of incarcerating foreign national offenders in our prisons.

I understand that the Government are seeking to build an additional wing on a Nigerian prison, at the cost of some £700,000. Is that correct? Has that wing been completed and is it operational? Given that we have sent back only one Nigerian, presumably he is living in luxury in that 112-bed facility somewhere in Nigeria. Do we have plans for any more?

Do we have any plans to build prisons in Pakistan? There are almost 500 Pakistanis in our jails, and they should be held in prison in Pakistan at the cost of taxpayers there, rather than taxpayers here. Will the Minister negotiate more compulsory prisoner transfer agreements? Will he make sure that they are effective and that we send back more than the 25 prisoners who we have sent back under the agreements so far? Will he speak to the Department for International Development to use aid money to build modern prisons in those countries so we can return more foreign nationals?

I will allow the Minister some time to reply, so finally, once we have sent those people back, will the Minister liaise with the Home Office to make sure that they cannot return to this country? It is one thing to send them back to prison in their own country, but we should ban them from ever returning and darkening our shores again. Surely that would be fairly straightforward for the Government to do and my constituents would certainly welcome it.

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On a point of order, Mr Austin. May I correct the record? I said that the capacity of Huntercombe was 1,300; it is actually 480. I read the wrong figure.

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Thank you.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) for securing the debate. He has raised the issue tenaciously on previous occasions, most recently at Justice questions earlier this month. He and his constituents attach great importance to it and, as always, he acts as a powerful and strong voice in Parliament for the people of Kettering.

As always, the debate raises a matter of huge importance and is an opportunity to update the House more fully than would be possible in a single parliamentary answer. Rightly, increasing the removal of foreign national offenders is one of the Government’s top priorities. All foreign national offenders sentenced to custody are referred by the Prison Service to immigration enforcement as quickly as possible to be considered for deportation action.

As all hon. Members present are aware, the Government are absolutely committed to increasing the number of foreign national offenders removed from our prisons. Any foreign national who comes to our country and abuses its hospitality by breaking our laws should be in no doubt about our determination to punish and remove them.

My hon. Friend raised several statistical questions. He rightly alluded to the fact that since 2010 we have removed more than 45,000 foreign offenders from prisons, immigration removal centres and the community. In 2017-18, as he stated, we removed almost 6,000 foreign national offenders, of whom 2,000 came directly from our prisons. That represents good progress, but the Government are determined to do more.

My hon. Friend asked some specific questions. The current overall prison population is 82,236, which is a little shy of what he thought but in the same ballpark. The latest statistics that I have are that foreign national offenders make up 9,090 of that—roughly 10% or 11%—and EU foreign national offenders make up 3,943 of those.

My hon. Friend touched on his top 10. His fabled statistical brilliance has slightly changed, because our order and numbers are different, but if it is helpful, I will briefly run through them. The latest list puts Poland in first place, with the highest number, then Albania, Romania, Ireland, Jamaica, Lithuania, Pakistan, Somalia, India and Portugal. In terms of the stats that sit behind each of those, if I do not manage to answer every question he has raised today, I am happy to write to him.

As he is aware, the primary responsibility for the removal of foreign national offenders rests with the Home Office immigration enforcement team, with my Department supporting its work by setting the policy for, and administering, early removal schemes from our prisons. Prisoner transfers are a matter for my Department and fall within the portfolio of the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart). I will certainly pass on to him the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering about negotiating further such agreements and the form of those agreements.

Before I turn to the specific issue of prison transfer agreements, I want to highlight the substantial cross-Government work under way to increase foreign national offender removals. A lead Minister’s group that meets quarterly is in place. It focuses on the removal of foreign national offenders and brings together key Departments to ensure a co-ordinated approach. We continue to work hard to improve and speed up every part of the removals process, right from the point at which a foreign national offender first comes into contact with criminal justice agencies up to their removal back to their home country.

For example, as my hon. Friend will be aware, the Government introduced new requirements through the Policing and Crime Act 2017 so that anyone appearing in court now has to state their nationality. It is designed to speed up early identification of foreign national offenders and therefore assist with speedier removal. In other initiatives, my Department is working with the Home Office on ways to speed up the immigration appeal process for foreign offenders held in prison, and to ensure that appeals are determined as quickly and as efficiently as possible so that foreign offenders with no right to remain here may be removed quickly.

We are also working to concentrate foreign national offenders within fewer prisons in our estate. As has been mentioned, we have already created two foreign national offender-only prisons, one of the first countries in the world to have done so, with the benefit of concentrating foreign national offenders and allowing the Prison Service better to address the specific needs of that cohort of offenders. Importantly, it also allows the Home Office better to deploy its immigration enforcement teams, which need access to the prisoners to undertake the deportation process.

As my hon. Friend highlighted in his speech, there are different routes by which foreign national offenders can be removed from this country. The first that he touched on is the early removals scheme, which is our principal mechanism for removing foreign national offenders from prison. Under the scheme, offenders are returned to their home countries and are barred from returning to the UK, potentially for life. In 2017-18 we removed more than 2,000 prisoners through the scheme; that is about 95% of early removals from prison. I am keen that we should not lose sight of our success in removing such a large number of foreign offenders.

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I am listening closely to the Minister. Can he clarify whether the 2,000 a year who are returned under the early removals scheme are then at liberty in their country of origin, or are they behind bars?

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My hon. Friend is clearly clairvoyant, because my next note addresses exactly that point. Under the transfer agreements, the mechanism allows us to transfer a sentenced prisoner during their prison sentence so that they will continue to serve that sentence in a prison back in their home country. Importantly, the agreements are reciprocal and allow the return home of British nationals from overseas prisons. We have more than 100 transfer agreements—he mentioned 160, which is roughly in the right space overall—with countries and territories around the world. Depending on the type of agreement that is in place, prisoners can be transferred either on a voluntary basis, meaning the consent of the prisoner is required, or on a compulsory basis, meaning their consent is not required. To address a point that my hon. Friend specifically raised, under either type of agreement, including the compulsory one, the receiving country still has the right to accept or refuse the prisoner; the country receiving them still has to agree to accept them even if the prisoner does not have a say in that process.

To focus briefly on the EU prisoner transfer agreement, that is the most effective transfer agreement to which the UK is a signatory, largely because, going back to my previous point, there are limited grounds on which a receiving member state can refuse to accept a prisoner transfer request. Our departure from the EU will therefore have an impact. As the prisons Minister said earlier this month, if we leave the EU without a deal there is the risk of a decline in the number of transfers to and from the EU, because we might be forced to fall back on older transfer mechanisms that could prove less effective.

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The Minister says that under the EU prisoner transfer agreement there are limited grounds for a country to refuse to take their prisoner back. There are 950 Polish nationals in our jails, and Poland has taken back only 35. Is the Minister telling us that Poland regularly has 915 good reasons not to take prisoners back? It seems that this agreement is not as effective as the Minister makes out.

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I will make two points. The first is a statistical point because latest figures show that there are 787 Polish prisoners, although my hon. Friend’s point about the number and scale still stands. I was about to come to the other legal and procedural reasons for why transfers can take a long time in this country. In that context, I wish to touch on the suggestion made previously that the prisoner transfer agreements are in some sense not working, and that our prisons are full of prisoners who could be transferred. As my hon. Friend is aware, many of our transfer agreements are necessarily voluntary, not just for the country receiving them but for the prisoners themselves. That is due to the poor standard of prison conditions and the treatment of prisoners in some parts of the world, and our obligations under those agreements as well as our human rights obligations.

For our compulsory agreements, we target transfer at those offenders who are serving lengthy prison sentences. Transfer can take place only if all appeal routes have been exhausted, a deportation order is in place, and there are no legal concerns about the prison system to which the prisoner will be moved. Consequently, when all those factors and process points have been taken into consideration, the number of prisoners who are eligible for a swift transfer might not be as high as my hon. Friend might wish, and in some cases the process could take longer than the prison sentence being served.

We are, however, working to increase the number of transfers wherever possible, and our current agreement with the EU has enabled the transfer of 357 prisoners to EU prisons, with each transfer freeing up several years of cell space. Transfer numbers continue steadily to rise now that most member states have implemented that agreement and operational processes are bedding in. Such transfers therefore play a role in managing our prison population and ensuring that capacity is available for offenders who have been sentenced to custody.

I will also highlight a number of successes for our transfer agreements with countries outside the EU. In late December we signed an agreement with the Government of Pakistan to restart the voluntary prisoner transfer process between our countries. Given that Pakistani prisoners are one of the top 10 nationalities held in our prisons, that progress is welcome and I thank all Departments who worked on that issue for their support. We also have a prisoner transfer agreement with Albania, which is another of the 10 most common nationalities in our prisons. A transfer agreement has seen 24 Albanian prisoners transferred, and there is ongoing engagement with Albanian authorities to improve that mechanism and speed up and increase transfer rates. The prisons Minister met the Albanian Justice Minister earlier this month to discuss co-operation on that issue, and an agreement was reached to continue with close co-operation.

I am conscious that only a short amount of time is left, so I shall conclude by saying that whether removal is through the early removal scheme, prisoner transfer, or deportation after an offender has completed their sentence, the key point is that we continue to work to remove those who have broken our laws and have no right to be here. I suspect my hon. Friend will continue to champion and push hard on this issue—indeed, I suspect we may well debate it again in the coming weeks and months—but he should be in no doubt that that the Government are committed to that agenda, and to increasing the number of foreign national offenders who are removed from this country.

Question put and agreed to.

Transport for Towns

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered transport for towns.

I appreciate the opportunity to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. The presence here of so many of my hon. Friends and other parliamentary colleagues shows the strength of feeling on the towns that we represent and on the importance of transport to our communities and their survival. There is no successful town that cannot move people around it efficiently, moving workers from homes to places of work at all hours, visitors to hospitals, patients to GPs, students to schools and colleges and even people on trips to the pub, cinema or leisure centre.

I represent a constituency of just over 100,000 people living in more than 30 towns and villages. Apart from one suburb, all those communities are detached from Doncaster town centre, many with open countryside in between. Undertaking my monthly surgeries across seven wards involves a 62-mile round trip. Reliance on cars is essential for many in those outlying communities, as public transport has failed them. Effective transport is central to revitalising our post-industrial towns and giving new life to our smaller town communities.

We often hear about connectivity, but that is all too often about links—massive infrastructure projects costing many billions of pounds—to major cities such as Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester in the north. No matter how right those projects are for our regions and for the country, they jar with people frustrated by the everyday transport problems that they face.

This is not new. When Tony Benn was MP for Bristol South East, he received a letter from a constituent that read:

“Dear Tony, I see the Russians have put a space vehicle on the moon. Is there any chance of a better bus service in Bristol?”

I want those voices to be heard. Like many of my colleagues here, I have fought against post office and bank closures. I have been exasperated by the last-call attitude to providing mobile phone and broadband coverage to our homes and businesses in towns. I struggle to understand why new housing developments are built without broadband.

The reality of transport for Britain’s smaller towns is very different from our cities. Our communities are often the places travelled past, not to; communities that no longer have rail services, or a bus service on certain days of the week or in the evenings. Last year, Joseph Rowntree Foundation research found that unaffordable and unreliable public transport cuts off the poorest families in the north of England from crucial job opportunities, making it harder for them to attend job interviews or to hold on to paid employment. Poor transport entrenches poverty.

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My right hon. Friend is making an important speech. A lot of people in rural villages around Hartlepool, such as Elwick, are getting older. Does she agree that improvements to bus services, which can be vital links, are important not only to keeping those communities going but, from a social and welfare perspective, to keeping those older people connected to the towns that serve them?

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I absolutely agree. I actually speak from personal experience, second hand though it may be, because my husband, Phil, lived in Stockton and travelled to Hartlepool every day to go to secondary school. In many respects, the service was probably better then than today for many of our schoolkids.

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My right hon. Friend is making an important speech. In accessing further education, schools, and also employment to help to pay for that education, young people in villages such as Barford and Bishop’s Tachbrook in my constituency are being alienated.

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That is an important point about young people. I will talk later about the fatalities in my constituency of young drivers, who are often forced into getting a car as it is the only means of getting around. These young people are not drinking or anything else but are just inexperienced drivers on our country and rural roads. That is a big problem.

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My right hon. Friend and I have been good friends for many years, and I think we share the desire for a really good rail link across the northern regions and the northern midlands. That is absolutely essential. We now know that HS2 will cost £100 billion. Does she agree that it would be better if we invested that money in good local transport across the north of England?

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My hon. Friend is right to point out the rising cost of those major infrastructure projects. Many people around the country find it hard to believe how much money is spent on HS2 and other projects—in some cases misspent if the projects are not kept on budget—when they find it hard to find a few thousand pounds for something that could make a big difference locally.

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I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for securing this debate. I was talking to an old man in Spennymoor in my constituency who told me that when he was young he had taken a train from Spennymoor to Spain. Now there is not even a railway station, and it costs £10 to take a bus from Spennymoor to Barnard Castle. Does she agree that high bus fares make it impossible for most people to use public transport?

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That is absolutely right. Although parts of our community get access to cheaper fares, for many people it is still a problem. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation study makes the point that, for many of our constituents who are sadly at the lowest end of the pay scale, once they factor in transport costs and the hassle of getting to work—particularly if they are on shift patterns—it is hardly worth while. I have always been a strong believer that work should pay.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for securing this debate. Ashfield falls under the north-east of England traffic commissioner. The latest annual figures show that 712 bus services were cancelled in that area, compared with 178 in the south-east and metropolitan area. That pattern has been repeated every year for the last six years. Is it not true that we are paying twice as much for half as good a service in our towns? That has to change.

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right: it has to change. At its heart, this is about understanding the price of everything but the value of nothing. Too often, it is the economical routes—if that is the right word to use—that the operator is attracted to. Meanwhile, the areas of the country that cannot compete with our cities—certainly not London and the south-east—do not get a look in because it does not pay. That has to change for the common good.

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I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate. She is making an important argument. In Greater Manchester, 8 million miles of bus services were lost between 2014 and 2017. All too often, bus companies cherry-pick the profitable routes and ignore others, which means that many people on the outskirts, such as in Affetside in my constituency, are left behind. Does she agree that social prescribing should include access to transport to avoid isolation and the knock-on impact that that has on the wider social health of our population?

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I absolutely agree. As a former Public Health Minister, I have always thought that we should not be confined to the clinical aspect of public health. It is also about housing and transport. So much of this debate is about air pollution, and given that our buses could run on green fuel, I would have thought that that is a no-brainer as a way to get people on to more sustainable, greener and affordable transport systems, which benefit not only individual travellers but the wider community by reducing air pollution.

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I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate about transport in our towns. Normanton in my constituency used to be at the heart of the national rail network. Now, we have only one train an hour into Leeds, even though it is only about a 20-minute drive away. We see that pattern across the country. Towns are losing their connections, and there is real resentment about the fact that such a high proportion of the investment and infrastructure is going into cities, while towns are getting an unfair deal. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government must change their pattern of investment across the country if towns are to get a fair deal in the future?

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My right hon. Friend is right. It is unfair to blame people for not taking up some of the massive job opportunities that our cities offer when it does not make sense for them to do so. We must change not only the investment but the attitude to transport. It is not just about cities but our towns. My right hon. Friend is right that our communities are being not only left behind but bypassed. They are isolated and excluded by planners, operators and, I am afraid, policy makers, who see them as uneconomic.

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I was brought up in the Tyneside conurbation, and the passenger transport executive supplied an integrated bus system in the 1970s. My parents never had a car and travelled everywhere by bus and metro. We need a change of structure, so that our towns are brought into transport systems and we do not have a separate, privatised structure, which is at the heart of the problem that we now face.

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My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. Sometimes we have to look again at the old ideas that worked and see where they fit in the world we live in today. I am a great believer in not reinventing the wheel. What we do not need is just another set of initiatives that get rebranded as one Transport Minister passes the job to another and that mean we do not make any progress. What matters is what works. But first, to get to what works, we have to understand what people and communities actually need and how that can be inclusive.

Last week, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), said that the north of England’s transport system had suffered

“long-term under-investment stretching back decades”.

He is right, but still today London receives £4,155 of transport spend per person. That is two and a half times the figure for the north and five times more than Yorkshire and the Humber and the north-east.

As co-chair of the northern powerhouse all-party parliamentary group, I recognise the importance of our cities to the regions and smaller communities of the north. We need to accelerate the delivery of Northern Powerhouse Rail to provide a fast Hull-Manchester-Liverpool service. I do not want this debate to be about towns versus cities or the north versus London. However, big cities are magnets for investment in transport, technology, culture and jobs on a level that few UK towns could ever aspire to achieve. My constituents want to be able to travel to our cities for both work and pleasure. We want bright young professionals for whom city living is the pull—I get that; I was young once—

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You still are.

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I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comment. We want those young professionals to be able to travel easily and at an affordable price to work in our local schools and health services. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) pointed out, we have to have a twin-track transport strategy whereby we can deliver for both our towns and our cities. When announcements are made about the mega transport projects, the smaller schemes, which speak to our communities, should get equal billing.

I have a message of hope for this Minister. All is not lost; small changes can make a big difference. My own experience as the MP for Don Valley speaks to this. Under the last Labour Government, by 2002 Doncaster town centre had a new road bridge over the River Don. By 2005, two old, dirty bus stations were united in one airport-style clean and safe bus interchange attached to Doncaster railway station. Those two vital schemes are in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster Central (Dame Rosie Winterton), but they benefit everyone across Doncaster.

In 2002, a road bridge replaced a level crossing, connecting my communities of Denaby and Conisbrough to the economic developments in the Dearne valley. Doncaster’s 100-year aviation history was brought to an end when our last airbase, RAF Finningley, was closed in 1995. It was destined at that point to become my area’s third prison. Backed by a people-led campaign, FLY—Finningley Locals say Yes—I lobbied the newly elected Labour Government to cancel the prison and secure a commercial airport. My 1997 election address pledged to secure a link road from the M18 to Rossington village. Today, Doncaster Sheffield airport, which opened in 2005, supports more than 1,000 jobs and the planes fly to more than 50 destinations.

The road scheme took somewhat longer—21 years, with the final mile of the Great Yorkshire Way completed last year. It is not often that constituents tell us what a difference something has made to their lives, but that four miles of road network has done just that. It has cut 15 minutes off journey times to Sheffield and other work centres. It has ended the Cantley crawl along Bawtry Road to reach a route to the M18. The Great Yorkshire Way connects the Humber ports to the iPort strategic rail freight interchange—a development that created more than 2,000 jobs, including at a large Amazon distribution centre.

However, the relatively small results count just as much. I have had to fight with Government and planners over the years to ensure that the Rossington part of the road scheme was not dropped. Rossington was known as the village with one road in and one road out. People could be left waiting for 20 minutes because of the level crossing servicing inter-city trains. Now, they are connected to the Great Yorkshire Way; Rossington has a road that it feels it owns and can be proud of. That is how all infrastructure projects should be managed—by not losing sight of how important the small picture is to the bigger picture.

Not every town can have an airport to help to lever in transport investment, but every town can have its own small or large success story. Many towns and villages in Don Valley would benefit from better public transport services, as well as investment in road maintenance, including traffic calming. Many of my smaller communities, where national speed limits apply on rural roads, suffer from speeding traffic. We have an above-average rate of fatalities caused by young drivers. I believe speed is part of the cause, but the funding pot for repairs to roads and effective traffic management has suffered unsustainable cuts.

Housing built around a coalmining industry where people walked to work cannot cope with modern car ownership. There is a lack of parking spaces, so cars and commercial vehicles are parked on grass verges. That is unsightly and sometimes leads to antisocial behaviour, so we end up with a policing problem. Where funds have been found to tackle that practically, but not at the expense of green space, residents and the wider community have benefited. Small changes make a big difference, but there is not enough money, which stops a strategic programme being put together that gets the job done over time.

Last summer, I discovered that the 57 bus had been changed. Despite bus operators, the passenger transport executive and local authorities forming a bus partnership, they left Blaxton, one of my villages, with no convenient service to the nearest secondary school and sixth-form college, and some residents with no service to their GP practice in Finningley. On investigating, I found that neither the GP practice nor Doncaster clinical commissioning group had been consulted, and nor had the dial-a-ride service, which the bus operator assumed could provide transport for patients. Assumptions had been made about the school opening hours, too, which turned out to be wrong. I think that is typical of what happens in many small towns and villages. I do not think my transport stories are an exception.

I am sure the Minister will dazzle us with examples of funding pots and schemes to address concerns about transport in towns. I am not in denial about those initiatives, but too many of them just do not hit the mark. I support devolution, but it cannot be a journey just from Whitehall to the town hall. Our smaller communities still get left behind. I therefore have three asks of the Minister.

First, I want the Government to launch a national conversation about transport in towns. I do not want it to be dominated by the professionals, big businesses, the committee people and the usual suspects who respond to Government consultations. Instead, let us find new ways to hear from people in our towns and villages—people like the lady who wrote to Tony Benn all those years ago—about what bugs them and what makes them infuriated when they hear about the mounting billions spent on HS2 and other big Government projects that over-spend and under-deliver. What do we have to fear? A massive transport tab? Give the people credit. My constituents inspire me every day with their no-nonsense approach and understanding of priorities. Give them the chance to express their choices.

Secondly, we need a bus consultation review so that when bus operators and planners consult on new routes and timetables, the obvious destinations, such as shops, markets, schools and health centres, are all taken into account before changes are made.

Thirdly, we need to establish a rebuilding Britain fund that supports smaller but just as important infrastructure projects for our towns and villages. This is not just about transport, but transport without a doubt should be a significant part of it. If that fund is to work, our small towns cannot be expected to provide the kind of match funding that our cities and large towns can muster. Too often, they miss out on central funding because the match funding required is undeliverable locally. The fund should not require match funding. Alternatively—here is an idea—the Government should seek national or regional sponsors to support our towns, alongside Government resources, through the rebuilding Britain fund.

I do not expect the Minister to say, “Yes, yes, yes,” to those three asks, but I would welcome the opportunity—[Hon. Members: “Go on!”] I can always be surprised. I would welcome the opportunity to meet other colleagues to explore my asks at a later date. This debate follows an earlier Westminster Hall debate secured by my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson) on Government support for a town of culture award, in which I and many other Members present participated. There will be more to come. We will not stop standing up for our towns and villages. We will not stop trying to convince the Government and all our political parties to remember that the voices of people in our towns count as much as those of people living in our cities and wealthy university towns, and to say to our towns that their best days are not behind them, that decline is not inevitable and that their communities do matter.

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Order. I will have to call the first of the Front-Bench spokespeople at eight minutes past 5. Seven people want to speak, so I will have to restrict speeches to two and a half minutes. I am sorry about that, but we have limited time. I ask people to bear that in mind.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I thank the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) for securing this important debate.

Transport connectivity is essential for many members of our communities in achieving daily activities such as going to work, places of education and medical appointments, and participating in leisure and other activities. For some, that involves travelling to and from neighbouring towns and villages, and we need to ensure that adequate and affordable public transport connectivity is in place.

Connectivity is only as good as the timetabling allows. Some of my constituents in Cumnock recently raised the issue of the revised bus timetable, which results in them arriving unsociably early or unfashionably late for work. Greater care must be taken in the notification of proposals and there must be improved consultation on any public transport changes, with active participation from those who are likely to be affected.

Even worse than timetable changes, an inordinate number of buses and bus routes have been withdrawn, which has had a negative effect, particularly on people in rural communities seeking to go to and from work. Lifestyle choices will have a bearing on the transport that commuters utilise, although some people have little or no choice, particularly in rural areas. Life events outwith their control, such as an illness that requires regular treatment, may influence people’s preferred mode of transport between, for example, Ayrshire towns and the excellent Beatson oncology centre in the city of Glasgow. Any transport infrastructure also needs to be mindful of those with limited mobility.

In my constituency, with the publicised threat of some specialist NHS services being relocated to larger towns and cities, it is important that we consider the needs of different travellers at different times in their life journey. Many communities and charities run community transport buses, which—believe me—are a lifeline in rural Scotland. It is vital that we support them where possible and that we do not overlook the varied needs of rural and urban communities.

I am conscious of the time. It is important that we invest in affordable, functional and durable transport infrastructure that enhances the ability of our constituents to journey safely within and between our towns and cities. The UK Government’s industrial strategy recognises the need for investment in greener, cleaner transport and for support for electric vehicles, including public service vehicles. We need towns with safe cycling and electric vehicles that lead to clear air to breathe, where trees and greenery intertwine with modern connected living. I hope that the Minister will continue to support such investment throughout the United Kingdom, including the much-needed improvements to public transport.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. Many passengers across Greater Manchester had a torrid time last year. With daily disruption on the rail network and congestion on the motorway network due to smart motorway construction, getting around has been hard. Transport issues form a constant, if not large, part of my constituency casework, and my office regularly receives complaints, particularly about late or cancelled bus services.

My colleague, Councillor Phil Burke, who is a member of the Transport for Greater Manchester committee, describes the buses serving my constituency as dire. He points out that it takes up to an hour to make the average 10-mile journey to Manchester from the area, which is unacceptable for anyone trying to get to work in the morning. He also points out that we are in a vicious circle, with people not using the buses because they are unreliable, which leads to prices being hiked up because of low patronage or to services being cut altogether. With rail services available to only part of my constituency, my constituents are more reliant than most on good bus services. Until the damage done by deregulation is put right, bus services in my constituency will continue to be the poor relation of public transport.

The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, is working to create an integrated bus system that will be more affordable, more reliable and more accessible for disabled people. For the last 30 years, however, bus companies in Greater Manchester have been run in the private, rather than the public, interest. That needs to change. We are still waiting for the Department for Transport to put all the necessary regulations in place to enable franchising to begin under the Bus Services Act 2017 and for the much-needed reform of our bus services to commence.

If we do not have good transport in our local communities, no one benefits. Transport has to be affordable and reliable. It is a vital link for young people to access education and gain skills and for people to get to places of work, and it boosts the local economy. For the elderly, transport plays a vital part in helping them to access local services, such as hospitals and GPs, as well as in tackling social isolation. I am conscious of the time, so I will call it a day there.

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I congratulate the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) on securing this debate, which gives me another opportunity to raise important local transport priorities with the Government.

The economic opportunities for an area such as Mansfield, the largest town in Nottinghamshire, are greatly improved by good transport links. The ability to attract new employers to create jobs so often comes from quick and easy access to major motorway and railway networks. Such major infrastructure needs to be supported by the Government, however, because often the projects are on such a scale that they are not viable for local authorities to consider alone.

The town of Mansfield has experienced challenges similar to those of all growing towns. The housing is built, but the infrastructure cannot cope, in particular our roads, which were built for a time when fewer if any cars were on the road. The A60, the main road through my constituency, is a prime example: to the south, it is congested because of a poorly planned retail park, with 1,700 new homes to be built shortly as well, while to the north it is narrow and surrounded by housing, which makes expansion incredibly difficult. I very much appreciate the Secretary of State’s multiple visits, which have built great momentum behind the plans to improve the junction and traffic flow at the retail park. I hope to secure Government support for the project this year.

The roads were just not built for a town of this size, but there are economic opportunities from road investment, including in the A617, which is known as the Mansfield Ashfield regeneration route, or the MAR. It has grown steadily to accommodate new housing, and it could expand further to support new jobs and to provide an increasingly necessary route for heavy traffic to get around Mansfield, rather than to plough through the middle of it.

Rail infrastructure, too, can have a big impact. Increasingly, people see Mansfield as a commuter town, from which to travel to Nottingham or Sheffield, but we do not have a national rail link, only the Robin Hood line to Nottingham. I want to improve on that. We have one of the best value-for-money rail expansion projects in the country. We are opening an existing line, extending the Robin Hood from Shirebrook through to Warsop, Edwinstowe and Ollerton, linking historically deprived communities to jobs at the former collieries at Welbeck and Thoresby pits, and tying in our tourism offer in Sherwood forest with access from our towns to make the most of the social and economic opportunities of such tourism. In the future, only a short hop will be needed to link Mansfield directly to the HS2 hub at Chesterfield. HS2 could be a game-changer for towns such as ours, but it will only work if communities can access it effectively and efficiently, and local lines will be pivotal.

There are major opportunities to utilise transport improvements to support ever-growing towns, whether in boosting infrastructure or improving the scope to attract new jobs and businesses. I hope that the Government’s priorities in the industrial strategy will genuinely seek to boost towns, which are often more deprived, more isolated and more in need of support. The east midlands in particular sits at the bottom of the list of the Government’s regional investment. Transport could play a big role in changing that. I will continue to raise with the Department for Transport those relatively cheap projects that can make all the difference to our community.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) on securing this important debate. I despair, however, at the necessity for it, because once again hon. Members find themselves discussing transport struggles. As usual, we see that smaller towns have been overlooked. In fact, two months ago to the day I stood here in Westminster Hall to relay the disgraceful experience of many people in Barnsley with our local rail services: prices are extortionate, delays regular and, when trains arrive, they are dilapidated, overcrowded and, frankly, better placed in a transport museum.

For many, the bus services around Barnsley are little better. Too often, they are run in the interests of profit, rather than as the essential public service that they provide. Many of my constituents in relatively rural towns are left isolated or out of pocket because of decisions made by the bus companies. Those companies pay no mind, for example, to my older constituent who, when his local service was changed, faced the prospect of spending a third of his weekly pension on a taxi to his local hospital appointments. They care little about my disabled constituent who, since the removal of her bus service, is forced to rely on the good will of neighbours to access the shops, library, post office or hairdresser. She is left, in her words,

“so isolated, lonely and fed up”.

That is simply not acceptable.

Bus services are the lifeblood of towns such as mine, but are too often run solely in the interests of profit. When unprofitable routes are cut, little mind is paid to the impact it has on the people who rely on them. Bus services should remain just that: a service.

Two months ago, the Minister admitted that

“it is fair to say that rail services across Yorkshire and the north as a whole have not been good enough.”—[Official Report, 19 December 2018; Vol. 651, c. 313WH.]

The fact of the matter is that that is true for many transport services in towns throughout the country, in particular northern towns such as Barnsley. It is about time that the Government finally addressed that woeful imbalance, and ensured that the interests of the public are taken into consideration in town transport services.

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I congratulate the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) on securing this debate. I represent Comber and Newtownards, which are small former mill towns with textile factories and a linen industry, so I well understand to what she is referring.

We see the loss of industry to foreign fields. The vast majority of people who once walked to work now travel to work, if they can, and there is little or no infrastructure to deal with that. If someone misses a bus in my constituency, they will not get another in five minutes; it will be 45 minutes or 60 minutes. If they miss their bus, they miss their work and then they will not have a job. It is little wonder that so many use their car or taxis, as there simply is not the infrastructure in place to allow people to use public transport. Access to cars has gone up six percentage points in 10 years in Northern Ireland.

The fact of the matter is that areas with unaffordable and unreliable public transport cut off the poorest families. The right hon. Lady referred to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which did a survey interviewing people in neighbourhoods across the north of England and Scotland. It found:

“Transport was consistently highlighted as a significant barrier to work once the trade-off between the cost, reliability and speed of local public transport; and the prospect of low-wage, insecure work was considered.”

We did a similar survey in Northern Ireland. The travel survey for Northern Ireland found that 17% of people travelled on a bus once a week, 9% travelled by bus at least once a month, 44% said they never travelled by bus, 3% travelled on a train once a week, and 6% travelled by train at least once a month. When asked what would encourage them to use local public transport, 28% said cheaper fares and 19% said more frequent weekend services. Just under a fifth said that nothing would persuade them to use local public transport. Those are the issues.

The numbers paint a clear picture: we need much better public transport links to enable people to look further for work and to enable people to travel affordably and without having to work out if the job pays enough, given the bus fare. There is no quick fix and no short-term answer; there is only a need for funding a visionary plan. For me, any city deal should have enhanced links to towns and villages as a key component. To fail on that is to fail to unlock the potential of cities and the surrounding towns. Worse than that, we are failing to bring industrial towns and villages outside of the area up to modern-day life. That is grossly unfair and changes must be made.

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It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) on securing this debate, which has demonstrated the strength of feeling across the House on the issues that face our local transport networks, particularly in towns.

Stoke-on-Trent is one city, but it is in fact six towns linked together by an artery of roads that all too often neither get people to the place they want to be, nor get them there on time. We struggle in Stoke-on-Trent because of the non-traditional geographical nature of our city. Towns that are no more than 2 miles apart do not have a direct bus route. In one instance, people can stand in one town and almost see the other, yet they have to travel through a third town to get there by bus. It is telling that since 1991, bus usership is up by 8% across the country, but network coverage is down by 30%. That is disproportionately affecting the small towns we all represent.

In places like Stoke-on-Trent, bus companies make operating changes, and that has consequences. In my community, a morning bus service at school time was changed, meaning that young people could either get to school an hour early or 10 minutes late. I am not convinced that the consequential impact of such changes on the day-to-day lives of those we represent is being taken seriously by bus companies or the Government. The Government have given additional powers to the combined authority areas to do proper regulating and franchising of buses, but they have also extended that power to local authorities outside of those combined authority areas, if they can prove they meet the criteria and standards set by the Department for Transport. When the Minister is sums up, will she tell me how many times the Department has granted to local authorities that cover small towns those powers to get directly involved and bring their bus routes back into public ownership?

Municipal bus companies have not been mentioned. There are multiple examples around the country of small towns running their own bus services for public benefit at a profit to the taxpayer, meaning that services can be subsidised from a commercial interest. That is not being talked about and the Government appear to be opposed to the idea. When the Minister sums up, will she explain why she does not think small towns should be in control of their own bus services?

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) on securing this important debate. I have to confess that I love buses. Being on one gives people a chance to daydream, to chat to strangers, and now, on wi-fi-enabled buses, to do their emails. Communities like mine—clusters of small communities—really rely on their bus routes.

The economic gap between towns and cities is demonstrated by the differing opportunities to use buses to get out and about. The Urban Transport Group has shown that one in 10 people would be out of a job without their bus service. Two thirds of bus passengers earn less than £24,000 a year. These are working people on low wages or benefits, the unemployed, students and retirees—people who are already under pressure because of austerity.

With only one railway station in Batley and Spen, for a service that has really struggled with timetable changes, our roads are becoming increasingly congested, with parking on pavements and speeding cars being common complaints. We need a green alternative, and buses are that alternative. With air pollution rising beyond official limits and deaths connected to poor air quality on the rise, we need more people to use buses and trains.

I have been inundated with correspondence on Arriva’s bus timetable changes in Batley and Spen. One woman might be forced to give up her cleaning job at a local school, which she has had for 18 years, because the bus will no longer go down her road. A 92-year-old will now have to use a taxi to get to the doctors, rendering her bus pass useless. Numerous residents have told me that the changes will result in them becoming further isolated from jobs and opportunities, robbing them of time with family, friends and loved ones. The changes have been made for cost reasons, but buses are not unprofitable. Bus companies have raked in a combined £3.3 billion in profit since 2009-10. We can make money out of these bus services.

We need to readjust our priorities for towns. Our constituents should not be abandoned by bus companies due to their emphasis on lucrative routes only. I echo my right hon. Friend’s request for a national transport and towns conversation, a bus consultation review and a rebuilding Britain fund.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) on securing the debate. There is clearly a lot of interest in it, which I assume is why there are so many Members on these Benches, rather than it being part of any further breakaways from the Labour party.

On a serious point—this is a serious subject—the right hon. Lady correctly set out the problems of connectivity in rural areas, and how towns and villages, and the people in them, can be left behind. I was particularly struck by her saying that that can entrench poverty. My constituency covers many rural villages and towns. I actually stay in a village 5 miles from the main town of Kilmarnock, so I know all about the problems with bus services, the cost of bus fares and bus companies changing timetables without proper consultation with or consideration of the paying public.

On a more positive note, today saw the opening of the final stretch of the Aberdeen peripheral bypass, which was first planned 65 years ago and has finally been delivered by the Scottish National party Government. That is typical of the Union dividend that Scotland has had to deal with over the years and that it now has to rectify, post-devolution. We also had the last single-track trunk road—the vital trunk road to Mallaig—in the UK, which was only upgraded to allow traffic each way in 2009.

There has also been the Pulpit Rock upgrade on the A82, with a viaduct replacing what were supposed to be temporary lights but which were left in place for 30 years. The Crianlarich bypass on the A82 opened in 2014. There are ongoing upgrades to the A9, A96 and A75, and the M8 has been completed, as have the M74 and M80 extensions. The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) will welcome the Maybole bypass, which is now receiving funding. That was first mooted in Westminster in 1989 and is now being delivered by the SNP Government.

The SNP Government also delivered the borders railway, which has been transformational. The rest of the UK could look at that when thinking about reconnecting the towns and villages left behind by the Beeching cuts. Since its reopening, we have seen new businesses on the borders, the creation of travel hubs and a massive increase in tourism and the associated increase in tourism jobs. Such developments create jobs and people do not necessarily need to travel once the connectivity is in place for visitors.

The Urban Transport Group published a particularly relevant document, “About towns: How transport can help towns thrive”, which states:

“Now, in a post industrial age, transport has a key role to play in putting these towns back on the map. After all, it is transport that can plug towns into larger city regions and national economies, and in doing so widen labour markets; meet housing demand; draw in investment; and open up access to opportunity.”

We would all welcome that. It continues:

“Transport can also shape the way towns look, and the way they feel about themselves, through creating better and healthier streets; though the sector’s employment, procurement and community involvement practices, and through the quality of new or transformed transport infrastructure.”

We cannot argue with those key findings. Others are using transport to open up new housing and commercial development opportunities in long-term master planning.

I was particularly struck by the document’s case study of Kilmarnock train station, under the subheading, “more than just a station”. It rightly covers the transformation of previously unused, partially derelict rooms in basement areas into vibrant community hubs in Kilmarnock train station. That was undertaken with Kilmarnock Station Railway Heritage Trust. That group is spearheaded by another Allan Brown—it feels like he is a more dynamic Allan Brown than me, given his achievements.

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Not possible.

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I will take that compliment, Mr Austin.

The trust managed to secure £500,000 of funding from a number of sources and brought seven station rooms back into use. They now host a gift shop, a coffee shop called Storm in a Teacup, and a bookshop called the Killie Browser, which has a huge range of second-hand books—rest assured, nobody can go in there and come out empty-handed. It is used to create skills and opportunities for people and to help people back into the workplace.

A number of community groups use the rooms. The Breaking Bread group involves local people coming together to cook together and socialise for one evening a week. A local peer support group has been set up, focusing on family-related issues. The group receives community reinforcement and family training in order to improve relationships and family communication. “Living life to the full” training is offered via eight sessions over eight weeks, to help with low mood, confidence and self-esteem, and with breaking cycles of negative thinking. The transformation of the station is also transforming people’s lives, helping them in a social environment and moving them on from social exclusion. It really is more than a station.

Next to Kilmarnock station, we have the fantastic Kilmarnock campus of Ayrshire College, which is helping to regenerate the former Johnnie Walker site. That is another example of master planning. It is reconfiguring college housing and locating it next to important transport hubs. That is how we can change towns for the better.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) on securing this important debate, and I thank her for raising the important issue of transport in towns. It is clear that the issues that towns face are distinct from those affecting major cities and the countryside. There are several thousand towns across the UK, ranging in size from a few thousand people to a couple of hundred thousand residents. Many have a long history. They are linked to their local area, have particular industries and are situated in particular parts of the country. Their identity and the local economy often differ considerably from those of cities. Some have less effective transport links, and many can feel different and distinct.

I am proud to represent Reading, which is one of England’s largest towns. It is a borough with a long history. It is the site of an important medieval abbey, the burial place of Henry I, and was later an important industrial town. We are very lucky that our town sits on the main road and rail link between London and Bristol and south Wales. However, not all towns are as lucky, and many suffer from poor transport links. I will mention that later, as Labour has a range of policies to support our towns.

Many towns also suffer severe problems with congestion. It is important to address that serious issue, which wastes valuable time and money for businesses and harms the quality of life of many residents. A number of towns suffer from serious air pollution as a result. Given those serious problems, my right hon. Friend is absolutely correct to call for a new focus on transport in towns. However, I am afraid to say that the current Government seem quite simply incapable of identifying that as an issue, even though transport problems in towns affect a huge number of people across the United Kingdom. I should say, however, that that is hardly surprising, given the woeful track record of Ministers and in particular the Secretary of State.

The evidence of that inept handling of transport policy is clear for all to see. Ministers have failed to see the scale of the need for investment across our country, as they have continued to put London and the south-east first. Encouraging long-distance commuting through their new roads fund has diverted resources that could have been spent on improving transport in towns. New A roads have been built to get from one city to another—or perhaps I should say to get from one traffic jam to another.

Ministers have cut funding for buses and failed to promote bus use, which has now declined for several successive years; indeed, bus funding has fallen by 45% since 2010. They have also failed to acknowledge that investment in buses is a simple, cost-effective and environmentally friendly way to cut congestion and give more people access to high-quality public transport. This ill-thought-through approach has hit pensioners, commuters and young people, all of whom rely on buses.

To make matters worse, the Government have also missed their targets for cycling and walking. Quite simply, they have failed to invest in the modes of transport that reduce congestion, improve health and the quality of life in towns, and protect the environment.

Labour’s strategic approach would provide a complete contrast to the years of failure under the current Government. Labour would introduce a young person’s bus pass and we would offer local control and improved services, to allow all councils to franchise bus services and set up new municipal companies. We would bring rail back into public ownership, which would improve services and lead to much more effective spending of money. We just have to look at the simple comparison between the profitable publicly owned east coast service, which paid a surplus back into the Treasury, and the recent bail-out of Virgin on the same line.

Labour would also invest in walking and cycling, and we would support imaginative schemes to join up parks and tow-paths, and encourage more cycling and walking in towns.

The UK is also one of Europe’s most unequal countries by region. Many of our towns and cities have suffered severe under-investment in transport, and we would be committed to ensuring that each region of the country receives its fair share of transport spending.

I will turn briefly to the excellent points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley. First, she is absolutely right to highlight the Government’s failure to tackle transport problems affecting towns. She made a very important point about the need to make transport respond to the needs of local people in towns. The Government should review the way in which private bus providers consult on changes to routes, so that obvious destinations such as shops, markets, schools and healthcare centres are not excluded. Her third point was also telling: as I have said, for far too long infrastructure investment has been biased towards London and the south-east. It is high time that Ministers embraced a new deal for towns.

To conclude, this has been an important debate. Transport and the rejuvenation of our towns go hand in hand. I hope that this debate encourages the Government to realise that our towns’ best days are not behind them but in the future, and that communities matter.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) on securing the debate. There has been a wide-ranging discussion this afternoon. I am pleased to note that this debate was not just about a particular journey from A to B but about how transport can regenerate our communities and bind them together. This afternoon, we have all discussed the fact that transport is essential for opportunity, growth and the wellbeing of the whole nation, including the towns that represent the living souls of the UK.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has set local transport as a key priority for the Department for Transport, recognising its vital role in achieving a prosperous and well balanced society. However, as has been noted this afternoon, most people say, if they are asked, that they just want their transport system to be local, convenient, clean, reliable and safe. They want to have less congested roads and better air quality. My Department is delivering on those expectations, but of course there is always more to do, and transport is a key driver for social and economic change.

I was pleased to note that the right hon. Lady spoke about technology. The 21st century is seeing rapid shifts in mobility, with the adoption of broader and more sustainable approaches. Social and economic trends are also changing people’s behaviour and attitudes. The digital revolution, the growing awareness about smart places, and the greater emphasis on sustainability and environmentally friendly ways to travel create new transport challenges and opportunities.

I would be pleased to respond to the right hon. Lady on the transport in towns conversation and the rebuilding Britain fund, but most hon. Members raised the issue of buses, so I will discuss them first. As I come fresh from the Select Committee on Transport session last week on buses, I hope that hon. Members will note that I am a particular advocate for them.

The right hon. Lady mentioned a quote from Bristol, is that correct?

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It was from Tony Benn.

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I was just trying to find out the statistics for Bristol. The Member, or the resident, was obviously disturbed about how or when they could catch a bus, but if that Member was still around, the right hon. Lady could point out to them that 50% more people are using buses in Bristol compared with in 2009-10, as I saw on a visit last weekend.

No matter what happens with technology or how people change the way they want to travel, buses will still play a key part. More than 4 billion journeys take place on our buses and passengers satisfaction among those who use buses have the highest satisfaction compared with all other modes of transport. Buses will continue to play a huge role in our transport system. They connect our communities to the workplace and to vital public services such as healthcare and education. They are the quickest and most effective way to deal with people’s desire to get to work and school.

Most importantly, the Bus Services Act 2017 gave local authorities the option to manage those relationships even better, including new and improved options to allow transport authorities to enter into partnerships with their local bus operators. As was noted by many hon. Members, Mayors have additional franchising powers, too.

I was interested to note which hon. Members’ constituencies were in mayoral authorities. The hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) mentioned that her local authority was waiting for an update in the regulations, but those regulations are already in place under the 2017 Act. Her local authority just needs to contact the Department and it will have the opportunity to enter into a voluntary or statutory relationship.

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indicated dissent.

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The hon. Lady shakes her head. If she wishes to get in touch with the Department, we can lay out how the plans can work for her local authority so it can take the relationship forward.

I believe the constituency of the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) sits under the mayoral authority of the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis). Through the powers in the 2017 Act, the Mayor has the opportunity to franchise bus services. I had that conversation with him in person when he met me about HS2.

The hon. Lady was also keen to make sure that the right investment was made in the rail network in her region. About £48 billion of rail investment is projected between 2019 and 2024. There has also been a substantial amount of infrastructure funding—about £300 million—to help with HS2.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell) was keen to understand how the 2017 Act could help his local authority. Local authorities can have a voluntary or statutory partnership with their bus companies. They just need to get in touch with the Department. We would welcome any interaction, because we are always delighted to enable local authorities to take that forward.

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Having read the 2017 Act, I am acutely aware of what possibilities exist in it, but my specific question to the Minister is how many local authorities have taken up those powers outside mayoral combined authority areas. Simply having something on paper does not mean that local authorities are doing it. Can she give me a figure today of how many local authorities have taken up the powers that she references?

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The hon. Gentleman raises a valuable point. Previously, the argument was that the powers were not available. The Department made those powers available in 2017—they have been in place for only a few years—and we are in conversation with a number of local authorities and Mayors. We need local authorities to put business cases together, come forward and be bold and responsible for the bus services that they should be making available to their local communities. The hon. Gentleman might also have noted his area has been shortlisted for a slice of the £1.28 billion transforming cities fund. I know that is a city and we are talking about towns, but we can ensure that buses are central to how that fund is allocated.

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Does the Minister accept that communities such as Kirklees, where we have had a 60% cut to our council funding since 2010 and where, since One Yorkshire has been kicked back, we cannot currently get a Mayor, are in a perfect storm where bus services are stagnating?

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I share the hon. Lady’s frustration and concern for her constituents who rely on bus services, but we have to remember that these are the choices that local authorities are making.

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But they don’t have the money to do it.

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These are the choice that local authorities are making. They need to be aware that if they make changes to buses, they do more than just remove a mobility service; they affect people’s opportunities to access health, education and jobs. We all talk about devolution, but if we are going to talk about devolving these powers so that local authorities are responsible and in charge, they need to think about the impact of the choices they make on the communities they represent. The hon. Lady will be pleased to know that there should be more funding available for buses in her area, because West Yorkshire has also been shortlisted for a share of the £1.28 billion transforming cities fund. I am sure that she—

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That’s transforming cities!

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I agree, but buses and towns will also play a part in that fund. Most of us have spoken about buses. We all have a role in ensuring that buses are part of that project and that, when local communities put in plans to transform transport, buses are not seen as something to add on at the very end.

One of the issues raised was how people can access buses and get information about what tickets are available and when services are running. The 2017 Act puts in place bus open data. That will require bus services to make public information about timetables, fares and tickets, which at the moment are not that easy to understand, in real time so passengers can make decisions about how and when to get the bus. That information will be available from 2020. Those improvements aim to remove uncertainty about bus journeys, improve journey planning and help passengers secure the best value for money for their tickets.

The hon. Member for Batley and Spen was absolutely right to say that buses are the greenest option. That is why we recently announced a further £48 million for low emission buses, which means that catching a bus is also environmentally friendly. I believe there is also a discussion to be had about how buses are a way for people to communicate with each other. A huge amount of work was done on tackling loneliness on the back of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. Once again, buses were seen as a service that some people take up just to have a conversation. I therefore urge all Members present to work with me to ensure that their local authorities understand how important bus services are.

I will touch on taxis for just a moment, because they are a key service in our towns. We recently responded to the taxi and private hire vehicle task and finish group, which put together proposals for ensuring that taxi and private hire vehicle passengers continue to be secure, on the back of the cases in Rotherham and Oxford. Only a few weeks ago, we announced that we will raise the basic threshold for drivers to secure a licence and will have a national database and national enforcement policies.

I was going to talk about walking and cycling, but I seem to have run out of time. I wanted to end with what the right hon. Member for Don Valley said about having a towns conversation and ensuring that we have a transport fund and strategy by touching on the future high streets fund and the transforming cities fund, but I believe she wants to respond, so I have run out of time—forgive me.

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I am afraid the Minister did not really address the sum of all the parts of today’s contributions. Twelve Labour Members contributed to the debate, including my hon. Friends the Members for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero), for Hartlepool (Mike Hill), for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), for Bury North (James Frith), for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell) and for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas), my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and my hon. Friends the Members for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) and for Stroud (Dr Drew). We also heard from the hon. Members for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant), for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon).

Clearly, the sum of all the parts of those contributions adds up to a huge amount. The Minister did not address what our towns and villages are crying out for—a holistic strategy that understands that local areas need to be given not only powers but resources. I will take up the opportunity of a meeting with the Minister. By the way, Tony Benn has been dead for four years and the Russians landed a vehicle on the moon in 1959, when the letter I quoted was written.

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).