Wednesday 13 March 2019
[Sir David Crausby in the Chair]
Application of the Family Test
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the application of the family test.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I am delighted to have secured this debate and to be introducing it; it is a refreshing change to be in this Chamber talking about something other than Brexit.
I secured the debate because this year marks the fifth anniversary of the family test, which was introduced when David Cameron was Prime Minister, so I felt it would be an appropriate time to review the test’s application across Government. While conducting my review, I was intrigued to learn that almost 150 parliamentary questions had been asked on the topic since the test’s introduction. There is significant interest in its application—particularly among my Conservative colleagues, if I may say so.
I am pleased to present to the House the review of the family test that I conducted with the Centre for Social Justice—I have a copy here. I place on record my thanks to Frank Young of the CSJ for his work with me on producing it, and to my parliamentary assistant Sam Yung, for his very hard work. As an elected Member, I get the credit for the report, but I should acknowledge that, as usual, other people have done most of the hard work to produce it.
I hope that the Minister will read the review and consider its recommendations; I know that he has already had a look. It was carried out with the intention of providing the Government with constructive and practical recommendations for improving the application of the family test, so I hope that he and his officials will take that on board when they consider it. I welcome the Minister for the Cabinet Office’s comment:
“We know that there is work left to do in order to ensure that the Family Test becomes fully embedded in every department.”
We are sympathetic to the view expressed by Ministers and officials that making the family test a statutory obligation would create a tick-box culture, contrary to the test’s intentions. We have tried to avoid repeating the argument for making the test statutory, following oral evidence to us that suggested that doing so would make the test “a political football”.
Strengthening family life should always be a Government priority. Stronger families improve outcomes for children, while the break-up of family relationships is often the quickest route into poverty. Poverty figures show that children in families who break apart are more than twice as likely to experience poverty as those in families who stay together. The consequences of families breaking up and the role of stronger families find their way into every part of Government, which is why the family test is so important.
New polling evidence from the Centre for Social Justice shows that
“the general public support a government prioritising family within its policy making and rhetoric… Approaching three in four (72 per cent) adults in Britain think that family breakdown ‘is a serious problem and that more should be done to prevent families from breaking up’… More than eight out of ten adults…think that ‘stronger families and improved parenting are important in addressing Britain’s social problems’.”
The review is also intended as a reminder that the test will be important if the Minister shares my ambition for the Government to do everything they can to strengthen families as part of a wider approach to policy. I regret that my review shows that such a commitment is not shared by all his ministerial colleagues; I say that as someone who supports them and is willing them to be more ambitious in their approach to social reform. However, I commend the Departments that are clearly taking the issue seriously and that came out well in our research: the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Health and Social Care were able to provide very detailed examples of the use of the family test and its application to their work.
By its very nature, family does not fit neatly into a single Government silo, which is one reason why the Government-wide family test was introduced in the first place. Family can also be a challenging subject for officials to consider, particularly the practical relevance of family breakdown. That is clear from some examples of bespoke guidance to officials on the test’s application, in which the guidance is technical in nature and provides no clear evidence base or clarity about how family applies to a particular Department, or about the consequences of family breakdown for its work.
My first recommendation and request to the Minister is, I believe, simple: each Department should appoint a named senior policy lead, as the Cabinet Office has done, who would be tasked with strengthening the family test network and spreading expertise within the Department. They would amend departmental business plans to include the family test, the Department’s objectives that relate to the family and the impact on families of its work. I do not believe that that would be particularly challenging to the Government, but it is one change that could be made immediately. I hope that the Minister might lead on the matter and ask Departments to appoint a lead. I put him on notice that in six months I intend to return with parliamentary questions on whether that has been delivered.
Saying that, may I praise the work of officials in the Minister’s Department on promoting the family test across Government with a new family test network? I know that he and they are looking to refresh guidance to Departments; I ask that he consider conducting a formal Government-wide review to mark the fifth anniversary of the test. That does not need to be a difficult exercise, and it would renew the Government’s stated commitment to family policy. I recommend that the review be led by someone outside the Department who can bring an external perspective.
External advice can be helpful to the Government in building the evidence base for the impact of family on Departments. The issue of evidence is particularly challenging, so wise counsel is needed. We recommend that the Government make
“better use of external expertise (for example, the Relationships Alliance) by creating an expert reference group. This group should be formalised through a paid expert chairperson who would act as a lead to the group. The group would assist with difficult policy questions relating to the Test… The group would also help each department establish an evidence base on issues relating to the family.”
Our review involved writing to 14 Departments with a series of questions about their implementation of the family test almost five years after it was introduced, supplemented by written questions to all those Departments in the other place. The responses from Ministers were revealing and, in many cases, concerning. Not a single Department, including the Minister’s, routinely records the application of the test, so none of them could tell me or CSJ researchers how many times it had been applied—despite his Department’s clear guidance:
“It is important that the application of the Family Test is documented in an appropriate way as part of the policy making process.”
We uncovered some good examples of Departments that were able to evidence the application of the family test and its impact on policy making. Others, astonishingly, claimed that family had no relevance to them. In answer to a written question, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy claimed:
“The majority of BEIS policy areas do not have a direct impact on the formation, make-up, or breakdown of families.”
I am not sure that working parents struggling with work and family life would agree. Surely the Government understand the connection between work and stronger families.
A lack of transparency about the application of the family test has led to concern that it is not being applied across Government in the way that was intended. Since the introduction of the test in 2014, 149 parliamentary questions have been asked in both Houses of Parliament about it. The Centre for Social Justice has taken oral evidence from MPs who regularly ask parliamentary questions on the application of the family test, and who have criticised Ministers’ responses, which are opaque because no record of the test is kept; there is no statutory requirement to do so. That should not be something to hide behind.
There is good reason not to make the family test a statutory requirement, but equally we need to improve transparency around the test and confidence in its successful application. Although I understand that the intention of the family test is not, and never should be, to reduce family life to a tick-box exercise, there is plenty of evidence in the review that more could be done to record its consideration separately from any requirement to publish that deliberation. We have called for a duty to record. The Minister, as the Government’s lead on this, could make it part of his work to ask Departments to record the number of times the family test has been applied, and to what areas of policy, and to publish that information with an annual statement. That would help to ensure that the test’s prominence is assured across Government.
We have heard of examples of Ministers rejecting advice or proposals if the test had not been applied. We would like that practice extended. Any review of the family test should simply advise Minsters routinely to reject proposals that do not come with a clear statement on the family test. We are told over and over again that the Government are committed to strengthening families, but when we ask if the family is being properly considered in the work of Departments, they cannot even tell us if they have applied the Government’s own family test. The review should make Ministers stop, think, and tell officials clearly that they simply will not consider any ideas unless there is clear evidence that the impact on family life has been thought through.
In coming months, I will challenge the Government to up their game on strengthening families, as I am sure other colleagues will. A Government review would be welcome, to complement the work done by the Centre for Social Justice. I ask the Minister to meet me and other interested colleagues very soon to discuss the family test and how we can work together to help improve its application.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) for bringing forward this debate, and the work of the Centre for Social Justice over many years on this issue. My hon. Friend quite rightly said that it is refreshing not to be speaking about Brexit in a debate, but over many years, many of us—particularly those sitting here—have spoken often about strengthening family life. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that much more needs to be done, and to be done by this Government.
In December 2017, I submitted written questions to every Department—15 of them—asking how they had applied the family test. More than half provided an identical and completely inadequate response:
“The Government is committed to supporting families. To achieve this, in 2014 we introduced the Family Test, which aims to ensure that impacts on family relationships and functioning are recognised early on during the process of policy development and help inform the policy decisions made by Ministers. The Family Test was not designed to be a ‘tick-box’ exercise, and as such there is no requirement for departments to publish the results of assessments made under the Family Test.”
That is very ironic, given that it is something of a ‘tick-box’ reply, and only really restates the importance of the question.
Several other Departments provided equally inadequate replies or replies that lacked any information. I will share some of them. The Attorney General Office’s reply was one line long:
“The AGO has not been the sponsoring department for any legislation in this session.”
Officials must have—or should have—considered the issue during the Session.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said:
“Although not a statutory requirement, the impact on families is considered as part of the Department’s compliance with the requirements of the Public Sector Equality Duty as specified in the Equality Act 2010.”
That does not tell us anything about what the Department did.
The clear contrast between the duty under equalities legislation and this legislation is interesting. A clear duty is being properly and systematically applied and honoured under equalities legislation by every Department; they look at legislation in that context in a way that they do not in the context of strengthening families.
The Cabinet Office’s reply was three and a half lines long, and we should bear in mind that the Cabinet Office is the responsible Department for having a broad overview of how Departments apply legislation. Its reply was much the same:
“The Government's guidance on the family test is available on Gov.uk and provides that the test should be taken into account, if sensible and proportionate, when considering all new policies that might have an impact on the family, including those set out in legislation.”
It took three months to reply, but it was not the worst. I had to issue a reminder to the Home Office, which took six months to reply to my important question.
As my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay said, ironically, the Department that provided the best and fullest answer was the Ministry of Defence. I cannot possibly read the whole answer, but it provided the kind of reply that I had hoped to receive from every Department. Among other things, it says:
“We recognise the vital role that their families play...we are developing flexible engagements for those who wish to vary their deployability to better fit their Service career around family life, all of which aims to contribute to increased family stability. A key component of the Families’ Strategy is to ensure that Service families are considered in people policy development, supporting the principles outlined in the Family Test. This is achieved through consideration of the Service family as part of each relevant submission or policy discussion, and through regular engagement with the single Services and the three Families’ Federations who represent the needs and views of Service families. The Department also monitors the development and implementation of policy to assess the impact on families.”
That is the kind of response that we hoped for, and which we deserve, from every Department.
The hon. Lady is making an interesting point about the Ministry of Defence. It is very good that it has policies of that kind, but, in practice, I have a constituent who is looking for flexible working—she is looking to support her poorly mother and a child. She is getting absolutely stonewalled by the Ministry of Defence. Does the hon. Lady agree that policies are good, but they have to be put into practice and they have to work on the ground?
Having well over 2,000 serving defence personnel based in my constituency, I wanted to comment on my hon. Friend’s important points about the Ministry of Defence. Does she agree that rather than being seen as a kind of hindrance, a pro-family policy is incredibly important for morale, not just for the armed forces but right across the civil service and across the country? It should be looked at as a positive thing, and not as something that somehow gets in the way.
As so often, my hon. Friend puts his finger on an important point. We need to ensure that strengthening family life is embedded within our policy making, because it is good for the individuals involved, but also because it is good for the country. I am convinced that our productivity levels, which are lower than they should be compared with many other developed countries, have some connection with the fact that we also have one of the highest levels of family breakdown in the developed world. People need to be supported and secure in their home life, from which they can then go out to work and be fulfilled.
As my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay who introduced this debate said, we all pay the price if we do not have strong families. There is pressure on housing, because families are divided. There is also addiction, underachievement at school, mental health problems among young people, pressure on GPs’ surgeries because of depression, and, as I have said, underperformance at work. All that adds up to far more than the £51 billion cited in one assessment—I think it was by the Relationships Foundation. We need to look much more closely at underproductivity; it will cost our country dearly if we do not. Clearly, those who are responsible for safeguarding the security of our nation—working in defence—deserve that to be addressed more than anyone.
The Government Equalities Office sent an amusing reply:
“The family test was not formally applied to any of our regulations, as they do not have a direct or demonstrable impact on family relationships.”
It quoted three such regulations, including the Equality Act 2010 (Gender Pay Gap Information) Regulations 2017 and the Equality Act 2010 (Equal Pay Audits) Regulations 2014. If they do not have an impact on families, what does?
I will pass over the Department for Exiting the European Union’s tick-box response. I am sure that we all agree that Brexit will affect every family in the land, if it does not already. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office gave a one-and-a-half-line reply:
“The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has not applied the family test to date, as it applies to domestic policy only.”
The Department of Health and Social Care replied with only four and a half lines, stating:
“The Department does not keep a formal record of the legislation to which the family test was applied.”
That is really important, because it is the exact point we are making: given that there is no requirement to record any assessment, there is no evidence of it being done, which is not satisfactory.
As I said, the Home Office—after a reminder—sent a reply six months later, which was three and a half lines long. It said:
“The Government’s guidance on the family test is available on gov.uk…The Home Office will apply the family test if sensible and proportionate.”
It gives no further information at all. I could go on, but I think colleagues get the gist.
What do we do about this? We need to ask the Government not just to take action, but to take on board the Family Relationships (Impact Assessment and Targets) Bill. It is a draft Bill that was introduced in the Lords by Lord Farmer, and which I introduced in the Commons in May 2018. I would like the Minister to explain why nothing has happened about the Bill. It addresses the concerns that we are talking about today. The Bill would require
“public bodies to accompany any proposal for a change in public expenditure, administration or policy with a family impact assessment”.
We felt that “family test” was perhaps not the best term, because it implies a pass or fail. By contrast, a “family impact assessment” is a broader exercise. The Bill would also:
“require the Secretary of State to report on the costs and benefits of extending family impact assessments to local authorities”
within six months of passing the legislation. We wanted to press for that because local authorities keep virtually no data on the extent of family breakdown in their areas. If we do not have the information, how can we start to address an issue?
It is very interesting that a number of local authorities are actively addressing this issue in a way that those of us who work on strengthening family life have recommended to Government in our policy paper, “A Manifesto to Strengthen Families”. I am sure that the Minister is aware of the document, but I never miss an opportunity to pass a copy to a Minister in such a debate. The document is now supported by about 70 Members of Parliament and contains several policies to strengthen family life.
It is disappointing that the Government have not collectively embraced the policies in the manifesto. Ideally, we would like to see that done through the leadership of a Cabinet Minister for families. That is not in any way to denigrate the work or enthusiasm of the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson). I know that he is interested in this subject, because he has told me so. However, if we are to make real headway on this issue, we need to have a Secretary of State who is responsible for strengthening families. Once again, I ask the Minister to take that message back—it is a key ask in the manifesto.
Another key ask is the development of local family hubs. These would not be Sure Start centres, which are just for pre-school children. The Minister might tell us something about the working group on young children, of which he is a member, and we support that. However, in each community we need a family hub where people can go if they have family difficulties and challenges regarding children of all ages, couple relationship problems or problems caring for an elderly relative. People need somewhere to go to get support on all those issues.
It is very interesting—this will bring me back to talking about the Family Relationships (Impact Assessment and Targets) Bill—that many local authorities are setting up family hubs, despite the national Government not providing any particularly strong incentive for them to do so. Across the country, we are getting such hubs set up. In fact, we will hold a family hubs fair in the Jubilee Room on 5 June, and I invite the Minister to attend. There will be examples from all over the country of local authorities that aim to strengthen family life. As I said, without the requirement for data to be produced by local authorities so that they can understand the extent of the issue in their area, how can they address it? That is why the requirement is in the draft legislation.
We also state in the Family Relationships (Impact Assessment and Targets) Bill that we want there to be proper evaluation of “progress towards family stability”. The Secretary of State in each Department should publish an annual report on progress towards stabilising families within the Department: what action have they taken? The family impact assessment would then begin to gather together information, recording how policies ultimately have a negative or positive impact on families.
When Lord Farmer introduced the Family Relationships (Impact Assessment and Targets) Bill in the Lords, he quite rightly said we need it because there is no systematic way that policies are developed to support family relationships; there are only individual Ministers doing this. It is interesting that the Department of Justice gave a tick-box reply, because it has actually taken up strengthening family life with great gusto. It indicates that the dots are still not being joined up within Departments regarding officials’ work on this issue. I commend the Department of Justice for the way it is developing the Farmer review, but we need to do more.
Our Bill would put family impact assessments and their publication on a statutory footing and, as I have said, require the Secretary of State to report annually on progress. The Government need to do much better. Some of us have been speaking in this place about the matter since this Government came to varying forms of power. It is now almost a decade. We will shortly enter our tenth year—that is half a generation that we have now lost, when we could have taken action to help children who are growing up in dysfunctional families.
We talk about how we will be held to account for the way that we address Brexit, but those children are not able to hold us to account. They cannot go to the ballot box next year or the year after, but they are being dreadfully impacted by the fact that we are failing them and failing to look at how we can strengthen family life in this country. If I am right, there are now 27,000 children involved in gangs. What are gangs if not substitute families? Those children are looking for somewhere to belong, and we must do something urgently to address that. The Government must get a grip on this issue. The responses to our questions about the family test show that that is simply not happening.
The Government should adopt our draft Bill and get on with it. Will the Minister please explain why that has not happened? The whole point is to highlight the importance of the family perspective in policy making. Perhaps one of the problems is that officials and Ministers need training. Perhaps we need to help them assess the impact of policies on family life. We expect them to do it, but perhaps we need to help them by giving them training. As a comparison, we all agree that antisemitism is a concern. Officials are rightly being given training in how to address it, and I believe that the Government have allocated more than £14 million for that. That is positive, but how much is being put in to strengthen family life holistically? Which Departments have sent anyone on courses to train them in how to assess family impact? If that has happened, who was sent, where did they go and what was the outcome? If it has not, why not?
Please let me know if I am speaking for too long, Sir David. I will conclude shortly, but I would like to turn to the loneliness strategy.
Plus the Front Benchers, obviously.
The loneliness strategy, published in October 2018, states:
“Family wellbeing is crucial for preventing loneliness.”
“Government’s intention is to embed consideration of loneliness and relationships throughout the policy-making process. Government will explore various mechanisms for doing this and will, for example, include it in guidance for the Family Test.”
We are six months on. Will the Minister tell the House what action has been taken to fulfil that commitment? If he cannot do so today, will he write to us? The strategy also commits to a cross-Government approach to be led by the Minister for Sport and Civil Society. What steps have been taken across Government to fulfil the Government’s commitment to
“developing and improving its approach”?
The Minister is from the Department for Work and Pensions. Is this on his desk? I believe that he has families in his job description. If not, could he find out what stage this is at? The fact that this is on the desk of the Minister for Sport and Civil Society shows that this issue ends up being split into silos if we are not careful. There is not an overarching senior Minister responsible for it. Whose desk is this on, given that the Minister is from DWP? Could he find that out and ascertain how the Cabinet Office is ensuring that this issue is being taken forward in a cross-departmental way? How many Departments have highlighted the progress they are making on addressing loneliness through their 2019-20 departmental plans? I hope they have them now. Any efficient small business would. How many have published an annual progress report on the loneliness agenda, as set out in the strategy?
The strategy says:
“More research is needed in this area. But current evidence suggests that frequent loneliness and its wider impacts are costly for society as a whole as well as for individuals. Supporting people in this situation to become more connected to their families, friends and wider community also links to government’s aim to promote a more integrated and productive society.”
That is very interesting. I refer back to my question about the connection between family breakdown and productivity. If more research is done on that, we might be able to persuade the Treasury that investment in strengthening family life would be well made.
When the loneliness strategy was launched, I asked the then responsible Minister whether she agreed that one of the greatest antidotes to loneliness is stronger families. She agreed and said:
“We recognise the importance of families in tackling loneliness…we can quite often forget members of our family, so all that is at the heart of the strategy.”—[Official Report, 15 October 2018; Vol. 647, c. 460.]
The Government have a poor history of applying the family test. I will give a specific example, which I thought was an affront. The first family test published was on the Enterprise Bill and the issue of Sunday trading. Several of us had to press Ministers to get it published, despite the fact that the Bill would surely affect every family in the country. In the end, it was begrudgingly published on the day that the debate was taking place in the House of Commons, and the piece of paper was brought into the Chamber. That was completely unacceptable.
Subsequently, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), who was the responsible Minister, said that she would encourage Departments to publish family tests. That was in response to a question from our former colleague David Burrowes, who is now executive director for the manifesto for strengthening families and still works on this issue continuously. We very much hope we will see him back in this place very soon so he can continue his excellent work in the House.
This is not just a tick-box exercise. It is not just about keeping bureaucrats in their jobs or creating red tape for the sake of it. It matters. It is about people’s lives. It is about saving relationships. It is about preventing addiction. It is about reducing loneliness. It is about addressing mental health problems. It is about improving life chances. It is about improving education and employment opportunities. It is about tackling homelessness. It is about poverty. It is about productivity. Why has this important exercise never been properly embedded in the Government’s thinking or procedures? What is the Minister’s answer to all that?
I thank my Cornwall colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), for securing this really important debate. It is good that we continue to return to this subject. I know the Minister to be a man of compassion and empathy who wants to do the right thing in this area.
I would like to think that I am a Back-Bench Member of a progressive Government. At the moment, it might be difficult to see signs of that. I listened to the responses that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) received from different Departments, and there seems to be a real lack of enthusiasm about applying the family test. I absolutely support the creation of a Secretary of State in this area, which would be important for the wellbeing of our great nation, and the establishment of family hubs.
A great number of topics have been covered already. I will touch on some specific examples of where we are failing families, and where there is evidence that the family test is needed. The review of policy is not helping but hindering family units. The establishment of a one-stop shop where families can go to get help and support whenever things arise would be very welcome. I was very pleased to put my name to the “Manifesto to Strengthen Families”. I often look at what progress we are making in delivering those outcomes.
It is just common sense to apply the family test to legislation. Doing right for families in Government policy has to be the most effective way of creating stronger, healthier communities that feel well, cared for, valued and empowered to play their part in caring for each other. The issue concerns not just people in families, but those who are not, because strong families are a very important part of addressing isolation and loneliness for those who do not have loved ones.
I will mention a series of examples. I have not plucked them from the media or social media; they are examples from my constituency that show where we are failing families, often through policy and its implementation. The Home Office has been mentioned, and I have been working with the Home Secretary on one particular case.
As part of our immigration policy, we welcome people from the Commonwealth to work in our armed forces—this year we are increasing their number to 1,000. For various reasons, they tend to do jobs that are not significantly well paid. I had one such case, which has now been resolved through some clever working of the law. These people are not allowed to bring their loved ones, including their children. They are not allowed to do other jobs because their visa and their commitment to the Ministry of Defence mean that they cannot top up income and reach the threshold that allows them to bring over their wives and children.
The crazy thing about that particular part of immigration policy is that there is no risk that the people will disappear, because they have fixed contracts with the MOD and have to return to their original countries when they finish their contracts, which, in this case, are 12-year contracts. They are provided with housing and there are no concerns about their being a burden on society, so it is a bizarre breakdown of immigration policy and concern for families. Fortunately, in the case I mentioned, we have found a way for this particular individual to come over, but among the 1,000 people who will come from the Commonwealth this year, a number of men and women will not be able to bring their husbands, wives or children.
I chair the all-party parliamentary group on brain tumours. We have seen great progress in the diagnosis, treatment and removal of brain tumours in this country, but for children that progress has been poor. When they survive a brain tumour—I was pleased to be able to mention this at Prime Minister’s questions last week—they are left with an injury and we fail them because we do not put in place the available therapies and care, which would be available to a stroke patient with a similar type of injury. We do not do that for those children. Families are put under incredible pressure because we do not support them in supporting the child to have the best life chances. As a result, families spend a lifetime receiving support from social services and the NHS, which could be avoided—that is proven.
Another area where we fail families and that the family test and application of Government policy should address is special needs education in schools. Schools are now under enormous pressure and unable to provide the necessary support to children with special educational needs. The impact on family is not the breakdown of relationships between the child, the family and the school, but the child’s removal from a school that is unable to provide adequate support, however hard it tries. That means that families suddenly become isolated and lost from the system as they try desperately to give their child the best start.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this relates not only to education, but to the huge burden faced by families with children with special educational needs during school holidays, when all the support on the education side is taken away? Will he join me in commending the Cornwall Accessible Activities Programme, a local charity in Cornwall that provides support to parents with children with special educational needs during the school holidays?
Absolutely. It was really good to have a debate in the main Chamber recently about the work of voluntary organisations in supporting families in that very situation. The Government still have responsibility and we should look at how Government policy helps or hinders the lives of families.
Another example from my constituency is a family with two children in separate schools—they were doing well, having moved from other schools. Because of a situation at home, they were evicted and the council’s response was to move them out of the area, away from their schools. Suddenly, through a breakdown of proper legislation and support, the family was ripped out of their local community and support network, and the children were ripped out of schools in which they had become established and were beginning to do well. That is another example demonstrating that the family test is either not considered or not applied and that we are failing families.
As well as the issue of special educational needs, another problem is what the Department of Work and Pensions calls “natural migration” to universal credit—the Minister will know about that. Natural migration sounds very easy, straightforward and normal, but it is not at all. People who naturally migrate on to universal credit have quite often had devastating changes to their lives and situations—for example, a loved one who is the household earner suddenly developing an illness, a significant health problem or another reason why they can no longer be the breadwinner, meaning that they move on to universal credit.
As support mechanisms and transitional arrangements are not being introduced until next year, that change is proving difficult and causing real hardship for families. I have met the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about this. She explained that work coaches should be sensitive to the issue and should not pursue natural migration, but I know from constituents that that is not the case.
Natural migration happens when someone loses a loved one. In those situations, families are broken apart through circumstances beyond their control, and without even realising, they are suddenly subject to the welfare system. When universal credit is eventually complete, that system will probably be better for them—I am not opposed to it—but natural migration to universal credit is causing hardship for many people. Many find that it works when their circumstances change for positive reasons, but for those who fall through a disastrous net—or, dare I say it, over a cliff edge—we must intervene quickly.
On mental health, I have a case in which loving parents are at the absolute end of their resources and energy because of a very unwell 13-year-old daughter. The problem is that, despite the involvement of lots of agencies, the people from them go home at the end of the day and leave the parents to do what they can with a very unwell young lady. Having worked on and watched this situation closely, I can say that we are not providing the right support, empathy or care for families in which young ones have mental health problems.
An issue that I have raised many times is fuel poverty. Government policy should look at how we improve people’s homes. With poor-quality homes and fuel poverty, children do not attain what they can, do not reach their potential in education, and their homes are not as productive as they could be. The older people in those homes find that they enter into social services and NHS care far more often than they would otherwise. It is a massive issue for places in this country, including my constituency, where homes are not of the standard they should be: they are leaky and fuel-poor. Since I was first elected, I have argued that Government could use infrastructure money to address that situation, and that doing so would be a cost saving to Government. I have yet to hear a serious response from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
It is absolutely right that the family test should apply to new legislation. That is good and necessary, but I would also like the Minister to consider how we can review existing legislation and the examples I have given, to look at what the Government can do to ensure we are on the side of families and avoid some of the issues that I have set out. That would be a win for Government; there is huge support across the country for strengthening families, and for Government policy to support families.
We must show a commitment to families, make life easier for them where possible, and remove the unnecessary barriers and unintended consequences that Government policy is causing for our families. Communities are so much stronger when families work well. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to speak in this debate.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir David. I am glad to be able to sum up for the SNP this morning.
I give credit to the hon. Members for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), and for St Ives (Derek Thomas), who secured the debate. Their commitment is honourable, but the reality of the family test is that it is barely worth the paper that it is written on. The answers that the hon. Member for Congleton received from all the different parties indicate that. The Government say that the test is not designed to be a tick-box exercise, but in reality it is no kind of exercise at all. It is perfectly clear from cases that I deal with in my constituency that the Government are not applying the test to the policies that they come up with, either in theory or in practice.
On 30 January last year, in a debate on marriage in Government policy—hon. Members may have been there—the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), speaking from the Conservative Benches just there, said this of the time before he left Government:
“I was nominated to construct the family test against which everything was going to be measured. When I finally left—of my own volition, by the way—at no stage had I managed to get agreement from any of the key players about what it would consist of. While there was a principle, which was that the Prime Minister wanted a test that all decisions would be set against, the reality was that the Treasury in particular was not keen on any of it. I urge the Minister to press for a definition of the family test, by which all the effects of policy decisions could be looked at to see whether they would damage the family or make things more difficult. That would make logical sense.”—[Official Report, 30 January 2018; Vol. 635, c. 271-272WH.]
That was last year, and nothing has changed. The policy might exist in some form somewhere, but it is perfectly clear that its application is non-existent. It is utter escapism, and full of contradictions.
I have campaigned on a lot on the first issues that I will discuss, which are to do with child poverty and austerity. The family test has no relevance at all to the two-child policy; I know because I asked Ministers about that when they were talking about bringing the policy in. I have raised the policy at least 60 times in this Chamber and the main Chamber, asking questions about it and campaigning on it. It is completely destructive of families for many different reasons, not least because it moves children into poverty, making it far more difficult for their families to cope and survive.
The two-child policy has been condemned by Professor Philip Alston in a recent UN report, and just this week by CEDAW—the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women—which recommended scrapping it. On Monday, I met a range of organisations, including the Church of England, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, representatives of Scottish Churches, the Child Poverty Action Group, Turn2us, Women’s Aid, Rape Crisis—I have heard from the Scotland, England and Wales, and Northern Ireland equivalent organisations—and Refuge; all of them, as well as the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nursing, condemn the policy, because they know that it is damaging to families and meets no aspect of the family test. It means that families will be at least £2,780 worse off per year, which makes it far more difficult for them to survive.
The first element of the family test is:
“What kinds of impact might the policy have on family formation?”
The two-child policy deliberately encourages families to have fewer children—that is its stated purpose and aim. That is inimical to family formation. The policy also discriminates against families who wish to come together from two previous relationships. In blended families, where someone has two children from one family and wants to marry and have a third child, or another child comes from the other family, the impact is that families lose out. The policy does not meet that aspect of the test.
The second question of the test is:
“What kind of impact will the policy have on families going through key transitions such as becoming parents, getting married, fostering or adopting, bereavement, redundancy, new caring responsibilities, or the onset of a long-term health condition?”
The UK Government had to be taken to court, and an element had to be added. A woman who had taken on caring responsibilities for her two siblings lost out when she had a child, so the Government were taken to court—and lost, because the policy is unfair; they had not taken into account the impact on those with caring responsibilities.
There is also an impact on bereavement. Say a family had three children, and everything was fine because they could well afford those children—the Tories often say that people should only have the children they can afford. All of a sudden, one of the partners dies; the other has to claim universal credit and reduce their hours worked. The two-child policy does not meet the second aspect of the test, because it deliberately punishes people who end up in those circumstances, which they could not reasonably have predicted.
The third question of the test is:
“What impacts will the policy have on all family members’ ability to play a full role in family life, including with respect to parenting and other caring responsibilities?”
Again, the two-child policy means that anyone who has three children but whose circumstances change will struggle to play a full role in family life. They would not have enough money coming in, or would have to work longer hours and so would have less time with their children, who, as the hon. Member for Congleton suggested, might look to other sources of support, such as gangs. There is a huge impact on the ability to play a full role in family life, not least because of the poverty aspect.
“How does the policy impact families before, during and after couple separation?”
The two-child policy has an impact on that as well, because it creates a perverse incentive: people with three children will get more money if they separate their family, becoming two single parents—a family with two children over here and a family with one child over there. That is the incentive under the policy; the Government cannot deny that.
The final question is:
“How does the policy impact those families most at risk of deterioration of relationship quality and breakdown?”
As I say, families are incentivised to stay apart, rather than to stay together. The Government have not recognised that in any part of the two-child policy.
As Conservative Members present will know well, the policy also has a disproportionate impact on people of religious faith—those who will not use contraception or do not believe in abortion. People who have four children and are affected by the policy lose out, and that disproportionately affects those of religious faith, including the Jewish community, who have spoken out against the policy—as has the Church of England—and those of Muslim faith. That is out-and-out despicable. The Government do not accept that, but it is absolutely true. Furthermore, the two-child policy will have a chilling effect as it impacts on thousands of families throughout the country. People will lose out on their entitlement and on their ability to support their family, which is ridiculous.
In my constituency, I have many cases of families affected by Home Office issues and by Government policy on how they can live their lives. There are people who cannot afford to live as a family, because of the £18,600 threshold that has to be met before someone can bring a spouse over to this country. People who desperately want their partner to come here and to be reunited with their children cannot do that because of an arbitrary figure. I have constituents who lost out by a couple of pounds, and so were not allowed to bring family members into the country. What impact does that have on family life? Where does that fit with the family test?
The minimum income threshold also puts huge pressure on earners in the family. I have a constituent who works two jobs. He works as a bank clerk—a mortgage adviser—and at night, stacking shelves in a supermarket, so that he can bring his family here. That has a huge impact on his mental health and wellbeing; he has to work all the hours he can to get his family in. The Home Office is still making that incredibly difficult for him.
The Government policy of no recourse to public funds also has an impact. People have come to this country and been granted their status, but the Government have decided that they are not entitled to any working-age benefits at all. I have a constituent, case No. 3 in my books—the third from when I was elected in 2015—who still has no recourse to public funds. She is almost destitute. Every year, she has come to my office, looking for support for school uniforms or Christmas presents for her children, because despite the fact that she is working, she cannot afford them. She is working all the hours that she can, but under this Government’s cruel policy of allowing no recourse to public funds, she cannot earn enough to live on. It is heartbreaking. I had her and her daughter in my office at Christmas time, and her daughter came back into my office after she and her mum had left and said, “Alison, why have we not got any money?” I cannot answer that question. It is for the Minister to answer why he wants to put families in a position in which their children are heartbroken and in poverty, and are judged by their friends, and do not have any kind of a life because of the Government’s cruel policies.
Home Office policies such as the hostile environment make it very difficult for people to carry on family life. There is the impact of policies that prevent people from staying in this country. I will give an example. At my surgery one Friday, the first of a number of people to see me were a couple. The wife was a British citizen and the husband was from another country. They had been told by the Home Office that they both had to leave and go to the country where the husband was from because they had no family ties here. They did not have any children, so they could go and live there, and that would be just as easy for them as staying in the UK—there would be no problems there. They asked me, “Alison, would it make any difference if we had children? Would we be able to stay if we had children in this country?” I said, “Probably not. This is just the way the Home Office does things,” and I offered them support.
The next couple, who came in straight after, had quite a young baby and a toddler. They were in much the same circumstances: they had been told by the Home Office to go back to some other country to live, and that it would not make any difference because their children were young and would not know any better. They asked, “What can we do? We have family ties here.” The Home Office computer still said no. That is a huge insult to people who want to come here and do us the honour of choosing to live in this country. We tell them, “No, go and contribute to some other country, because we do not want you here.” That is despicable; it is against everything that the family test ought to stand for.
The family test is not worth the paper it is written on. I am not surprised that the hon. Member for Congleton says that it took the Home Office six months to reply. She is lucky; in many of my cases, it has taken much longer. The Home Office does not care how it treats people. A family with three children who were due to report to Brand Street as part of their obligations under the Home Office’s hostile environment policy had to take one child out of nursery and the other two out of school, and did not know if they would be able to go back afterwards. They did not know if they would be removed and sent to Dungavel. What kind of family test is that? What kind of impact will that have on family life—the stress, the distress and the indignity of being forced to report to Brand Street without knowing if they would go home afterwards? It is utterly despicable.
I talked about the impact of people living on low wages having no recourse to public funds; I would like to talk about the Government’s pretendy living wage. They know that it is not enough for people to live on. That has an impact on family life. People who are working away without enough to live on will struggle to maintain a family life, to do all the things they would like to do with their family, such as going places, and to pay for things such as schools trips or books, which would make for a better family life. It is worse for parents under 25, because they are not entitled to the Chancellor’s pretendy living wage. There is a growing gap for those under the age of 25, who are entitled to much less but may have exactly the same obligations. They may have children to support. They have different lives to lead, and they do not get a discount on their rent for being under the age of 25. The Government need to recognise that and ensure that a fair day’s pay is earned for a fair day’s work, which is not the case in this country.
Under the family test, there is no protection for families when people reach old age. I refer to the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign; those women have worked their whole life, and sacrificed their time with their family, only to find their retirement cruelly stolen from them. That has an impact on the family; often they are expected to look after their grandchildren, but cannot, because they have to keep working, and the mums have to keep working to pay the nursery fees. That has a detrimental impact on family life.
I want to talk about Brexit. The hon. Member for Congleton mentioned it briefly, but it will have a hugely detrimental impact on family life. Those people who have chosen to come and live in this country now feel that they have very little option. Some are leaving the place that they called home because they no longer feel welcome. They are giving up the links that they made here, and they are disrupting their family life. There is probably nothing that covers that in the family test, but Brexit has a real impact on families right across these islands. It is hugely sad that the Government are pursuing it, and it will mean that EU nationals in this country will be forced into the same kind of hostile environment that the Home Office applies to everybody else, causing the problems I have outlined.
In Scotland we are doing our best; we are trying to provide baby boxes, and grants for families to support children in the early years, so that they have the best place in the world to grow up in, but we are hampered by the policies of this Tory Government and by the decisions of Westminster. I firmly believe that if we were an independent country, we would make it true for everybody that Scotland was the best place in the world to grow up in. Proper family tests—not something that is barely worth the paper it is written on—would be applied to all our policies.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) on securing this debate. He rightly pointed out the importance of families and parenting. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) told us that the Government have a poor history of applying the family test. She spoke of the impact of family life on productivity; I wonder whether she would support Labour’s policy of ending zero-hour contracts, to improve the quality of family life. The hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) spoke thoughtfully about a number of areas where policy is failing families, and particularly about the impact of natural migration to universal credit, which is causing hardship for many families. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) spoke passionately about poverty and austerity, and the impact of the two-child policy.
The family test has admirable aims, but this Government have not quite followed through on it in full. It is not clear whether the initiative has made a significant impact. When it was introduced, it was not made mandatory to publish the outcomes of the test; to date, few have been published. Could the Minister tell us how many tests have been carried out or are under way? Will he commit to publishing them in full?
In 2015, the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), said that the Social Justice Cabinet Committee would take the lead in ensuring that the family test was properly applied across Government Departments. Will the Minister confirm whether the committee still exists, and when it last met?
The family test was introduced to provide a family perspective in the policy making process. While that is a laudable objective, it is clear that Government policy since 2010 has completely undermined that aim. Families across the country have suffered the impact of this Government’s austerity measures, particularly through cuts to social security. One only has to think of the upheaval and misery caused by the bedroom tax to see that; families were uprooted from their community because of an ill-considered and heartless policy.
The test includes five questions to consider when making policy, including assessing what kind of impact the policy might have on family formation, families going through key transitions such as becoming parents, and all family members’ ability to play a full role in family life, yet Government policy appears almost designed to disrupt and interrupt family life. Indeed, they have made it much harder for parents to secure a safe and happy upbringing for their children. When Professor Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, visited the UK last year, he lifted the lid on a national crisis. He said:
“People I spoke with told me they have to choose between eating and heating their homes, or eating and feeding their children. One person said, ‘I would rather feed my kids than pay my rent, but that could get us all kicked out.’ Children are showing up at school with empty stomachs, and schools are collecting food on an ad hoc basis and sending it home because teachers know that their students will otherwise go hungry.”
There is no use speaking about the family test while ignoring the growing stark reality of people’s lives. More than 14 million people in the UK are in poverty, including more than 4 million children. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, that figure will rise to more than 5 million by 2022. No child should have to go to school hungry, or go without heating or clothing, but the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported last year that more than 300,000 children had to do just that. Its report found that 365,000 children experienced destitution in 2017. Shockingly, 131,000 children woke up homeless on Christmas day last year, according to Shelter. Most people would consider that completely unacceptable in 21st-century Britain.
The Library recently analysed the extent of the cuts to working-age social security, and found that £36 billion has been cut from that budget since 2010, including nearly £5 billion from social security. That has made it extremely difficult for many families to pay the bills. Two years ago, we asked the Government for an impact assessment of the cuts on women, after we published Library analysis showing that 86% of the impact of austerity had been shouldered by women, yet despite their supposed commitment to the family test, the Government still refuse to publish an impact assessment of the cuts on women.
The family test was introduced in 2014. I take this opportunity to examine the policies introduced since then and their effect on families. The two-child limit, which has been mentioned, is expected to push 200,000 additional children into poverty by the time universal credit is fully rolled out. The policy breaks the vital link between what families require to meet their daily needs and their entitlement. The Child Poverty Action Group says that the policy means that
“some children are held to be less deserving of a decent standard of living than others, simply because they have more siblings—a circumstance which they cannot control.”
It was described as “fundamentally anti-family” by the UK’s foremost religious leaders.
The family test asks policy makers to assess the impact of policy on family formation. The Child Poverty Action Group says the two-child limit
“risks creating incentives for larger families to separate, and could discourage single parents from forming new ‘blended’ families. It could also penalise children in separated families who switch the parent they live with—for example to be with siblings, or to remain in their school if one parent moves away.”
It goes on to say that the policy
“may also leave women who become pregnant with a third child, for example through contraception failure, with a difficult choice between moving into poverty and having an abortion.”
Clearly, that is extremely shocking. The two-child limit completely undermines the aims of the family test and the fabric of family life. Can the Minister confirm that it was subjected to the family test? Will he make that assessment public and explain how the policy passed all five tests?
Another policy introduced in 2015 was the freeze on social security, which quite simply increases poverty. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, almost half a million more people will be driven into poverty by 2020 as a result of the freeze, which it says is the single biggest driver behind rising poverty. The Secretary of State sought to reassure the public that the benefits freeze would not be extended beyond next year, but that is not soon enough. The value of working-age benefits is expected to be cut by £1.5 billion over the next year. We have repeatedly called on the Government to end the benefits freeze immediately. Ahead of today’s spring Budget, we say it is not too late for the Government to stop the freeze. The Government have the opportunity to lift 200,000 people out of poverty altogether by ending the freeze, so will they take action?
Since its introduction by a Labour Government, child benefit has been a vital means of supporting families. It is now frozen, having been cut repeatedly since 2010. According to Unison, a family with two children is £450 a year, or £8.67 a week, worse off than it would have been in 2010. Unison analysis shows that, at current prices, that would buy 1 litre of skimmed milk, 15 medium eggs, a Warburtons medium white sliced loaf, a bag of straight-cut chips, washing-up liquid, pork loin medallions and eight sausages—clearly, all things that families could do with. Again, can the Minister confirm that the social security freeze was subjected to the family test, and will he make that assessment public and explain how the policy passed all five tests?
Universal credit has undergone rapid expansion in recent years. However, its roll-out has been chaotic and hampered by cuts—especially those made in the 2015 summer Budget. Universal credit is not working for families, and it is driving many people into poverty, debt and rent arrears. The five-week wait, which was originally a six-week wait, is unrealistic for low-income families. It is difficult to see how families are supposed to survive for five or six weeks without any payment at all when children need to be fed and clothed. The Government say universal credit is linked to food bank use, yet they have failed to address that issue competently and have offered people loans instead. Once again, can the Minister confirm that universal credit—in particular the 2015 cuts and the five-week wait—has been subjected to the family test, and will he make that assessment public and explain how the policy passed all five tests?
I am very short of time, so I will continue.
Sadly, Government policy is putting intolerable strain on some families. Under this Government, mixed-age couples will be denied pension credit and forced to claim universal credit instead. What is more, younger partners will potentially be subject to the sanctions regime, too. Some families are set to lose as much as £7,000 a year. There have been reports of couples who have been together for more than 20 years considering separation as a result. What assessment have the Government made of the impact of that policy on families? Does the Minister believe it meets the five tests?
There are many more areas that betray how Government policies have undermined the interests of families. Cuts to local government are forcing councils to overspend on their children’s services and social care budgets and run a huge deficit in their reserves for schools. As many as 1,000 Sure Start centres may have closed because of Government funding cuts, and the Government’s change to the threshold for free school meal entitlements could leave 1 million children without a hot meal at school.
We believe that when we all get old or sick, or we have a family, our public services should step in—they should help families remain secure and avoid poverty—but austerity is making that much more difficult to achieve. Indeed, the policies I have mentioned would, in my opinion, demonstrably fail the family test. I hope the Government listen to the points I have made, end austerity and develop policies in line with the stated aims of the family test.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, in this very calm and sensible week for Parliament. I am sure all eyes will be focused on this very important debate.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) for securing the debate. He has an exceptional track record in this important area; it is a real credit to the work he has done that he has so much support from the colleagues who attended the debate. I pay tribute to his work alongside the noble Baroness Eaton with the Centre for Social Justice, which culminated in its recent report on the family test. That excellent piece of work was a really good way to focus minds—not just in my Department, but across Government. I will go into more detail about that.
I also thank all the other Members who contributed, in particular my hon. Friends the Members for St Ives (Derek Thomas) and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). I will cover many of the questions raised, but let me say two quick things before I forget. I would be delighted, diary and parliamentary duties permitting, to attend the family hub event, so I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton to make sure I have all the details of that.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives has done fantastic work as an MP to support those with special educational needs, using his wealth of experience from his work prior to arriving in the House. I recognise his point about supporting families with special educational needs children.
I pay tribute to one of my local special educational needs schools, the Uplands School, which has made a very small change that could easily be adopted by all schools and is making a huge difference. Like all schools, it has parental support classes, which offer peer-to-peer support—parents get together over cups of tea and talk about the challenges they are facing and how they can support one another. The headteacher, Jackie Smith, has ensured that parents get an invite to those support classes once they know their children will end up at the school, rather than having to wait until the day they come. That ensures that peer support is provided from the very early days, which is making a huge difference.
We also had a contribution from the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who perhaps stretched the intention of the debate—most of her comments were probably better suited to a Home Office debate. I am sure there will be opportunities for Home Office Ministers to respond in the future.
I thank the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) for welcoming the principle of the family test. I appreciate that, but she then applied a series of political statements loosely to the principles of the family test. It would be remiss of me not to correct some of the points she made. For example, under this Government there are now 500,000 fewer families on the housing waiting list. Food affordability—the measure of whether families can afford the basics in terms of food—has almost halved in just under five years and is 2.5% lower than the EU average. Material deprivation has never been lower. Income inequality has fallen under this Government, having risen under the last Labour Government. There are now 300,000 fewer children in absolute poverty. Welfare spending under the last Labour Government—
The hon. Lady was not willing to take interventions from colleagues who actually stuck to the principles of the debate, so I will not.
Under the last Labour Government, welfare spending rose on average by £3,000 per house. Imagine the impact on hard-working families.
I will shortly. The Opposition voted against income tax threshold changes that have given families an additional £1,200 a year. Our spending on childcare will have risen from £4 billion in 2010 to £6 billion by 2020—a 50% increase—and we are delivering record employment in all regions of the UK, yet again supporting families. I give way to my hon. Friend.
The Minister has actually made my point for me. The speech by the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) highlighted the fundamental difference in the way we approach this issue. The Opposition’s solution to so many social problems is throwing more money at them. There was no money left when they finished in government.
We are saying that if we strengthen family lives, just like the teacher the Minister mentioned, we will prevent those problems—mental health problems in school, addiction, people going to GP surgeries with depression and losing work days, and so on—from arising in the first place. That is the fundamental difference. That is why we are pressing for the Government to strengthen family life: because we believe that prevention is far better and cheaper than attempted cure.
My hon. Friend is spot on. It was clear from my colleagues’ speeches that they have a constructive, proactive and real focus on the absolute principles of the family test, and I shall now turn to that.
Many hon. Members have underlined the importance of the family test, and I am pleased to see sustained interest in that test among colleagues. I restate the Government’s commitment to the family test, which was introduced in 2014 to help put families at the heart of policy making. In designing the test, alongside the Relationships Alliance, we wanted to help policy makers understand how policies might, positively or negatively, affect families.
We want potential impacts on families to be considered early so that they can shape proposals, rather than at the end of the process when we are preparing to announce and implement any changes. That point is key, and the test helps to ensure that potential impacts are properly considered in the advice that Ministers receive. My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay was spot on when he said that such issues must be embedded into that early thinking.
I will respond to the thrust of the debate. We want the family test to be broad and flexible, reflecting the nature of 21st-century families. The test already encourages policy makers to consider a wide range of impacts, including on family formation, families going through key transitions, the ability of all family members—dads, mums, and the extended family—to play a full role in family life, families who have separated or who are undergoing separation, and those families most at risk of a deterioration in relationship quality and breakdown.
I acknowledge that some would like the family test to be a statutory obligation, but feedback from policy makers, and points highlighted in speeches today, suggest that a statutory test could risk becoming a box-ticking exercise at the end of a policy process, with pass or fail outcomes, rather than something embedded at the beginning of the process, which is key. A legislative test would also risk losing the flexibility to adapt and change.
I welcome the review of the family test by the Centre for Social Justice, and I thank it for highlighting these important issues, many of which my officials have been working to address with the relevant Departments. There is a strong alignment between the report’s recommendations and our approach to strengthening practice in the use of the test. I agree that individual Departments should take responsibility and ownership of their application of the family test—interestingly, the report by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton highlighted both good and bad practice.
There we are—it is on the record, and those Departments will no doubt be held to account. The Attorney General’s response is probably the shortest that I have heard from any Department, and I know my hon. Friend will scrutinise it carefully.
We are working with a network of representatives from all domestic policy Departments to develop tailored resources to help officials apply the test in their unique policy contexts, and ensure that advice to Ministers reflects the impact on families. That will be underpinned by refreshed central guidance for officials, which we expect to publish this summer—I will return to that important work at the end of my remarks, with a request for those Members who have demonstrated passion about this issue to ensure that we get it right. My Department will actively consider including the family test in the DWP business plan.
I am pleased to be part of the inter-ministerial group that is focusing on how to improve support for families in the first 1,001 days. Another of the report’s recommendations is for Ministers to take a more active role in ensuring that the family test is applied in their Departments. I have raised the family test with that inter-ministerial group, and I will ask Ministers actively to consider whether the test has been considered in all the advice they receive, on any topic, in their Departments.
The excellent report by the Centre for Social Justice builds on important issues raised by colleagues who published the “Manifesto to Strengthen Families”. It also highlights examples of where Departments have used the family test, and where that has made a difference to the policy making process. We recognise, however, that more progress can be made to ensure that the test is robustly applied to all domestic policy. That is why my Department, which has the cross-Government lead on the test, has been taking action to strengthen its implementation across Government.
Each Department has a nominated representative on the new family test network—my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay highlighted the importance of that—and the network is identifying, developing and sharing best practice on applying the family test. That helps us to deepen our understanding of how the test is applied across Government, and what further support officials need to embed it fully as part of any considerations made when formulating policy.
The network pays particular attention to the need highlighted in the report to build evidence, and we are currently exploring ways to support Departments in that. We will continue to encourage and support Departments to apply the family test, and to make their own judgments on whether and when publishing assessments is appropriate. We will consider whether more can be done to improve transparency, which includes reflecting on the report’s recommendations. It is unclear, however, whether knowing how many family tests a certain Department has applied would bring much greater or more meaningful transparency.
I am keen to avoid introducing layers of unnecessary bureaucracy to the policy making process, but I understand the thrust of the point being made. Insights from the family test network are driving our review of family test guidance, published on gov.uk, which helps officials to understand why, when, and how they should apply the test. Revised guidance planned for summer 2019 will better reflect the needs of users.
We are helping Departments to develop a toolkit of resources for officials to improve consistent and meaningful family test application across Government. Given that effective implementation of the test is fundamentally an issue of capability, we are also working with Civil Service Learning and the Policy Profession unit, to consider how best to support policy makers to apply the family test effectively.
Let me share some examples of how the Government are actively working to make lives better for families, and how our policies are responding to the key questions and evidence set out by the family test. My Department is currently implementing the Reducing Parental Conflict programme, which is backed by £39 million. That programme helps councils across England to recognise the evidence about the damage that parental conflict can do to children’s long-term outcomes. It will soon provide evidence-based, face-to-face support for parents in 31 English local authorities. I attended an important roundtable with those local authorities, and there is real enthusiasm to deliver this programme and build that tangible constructive evidence.
We are digesting all the successful bids for the various strands of that programme, and I am sure that many organisations will have a proven track record in that area. I am happy to consider that specific issue in greater detail in a meeting on the programme.
We want face-to-face support to be available to those families who need it most. This is why we will prioritise help for workless and disadvantaged families, and why we are exploring how to ensure that those eligible parents with whom we are already working, through Jobcentre Plus and the Child Maintenance Group, are able to access such support as early as possible.
All local authorities can access funding to increase their strategic capability to address parental conflict, as well as training for frontline staff. We are funding even more innovation through our joint work with the Department of Health and Social Care to support children of alcohol-dependent parents, and with our new £2.7 million Reducing Parental Conflict challenge fund. A number of Departments have highlighted that fund to their stakeholders to ensure good engagement.
The principles of the family test are visible across the Government. The Department for Education recently announced that all children and young people will soon be taught about the importance of healthy relationships, including marriage and family relationships. I welcome the positive comments from my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay about the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Health and Social Care, and the Ministry of Justice is also considering how we can reduce conflict in families that are going through a divorce. The Troubled Families programme is driving better ways of working around complex families, improving outcomes for individuals and reducing their dependency on services, and delivering better value for taxpayers. That programme aims to achieve significant and sustained improvement for up to 400,000 families with multiple high-cost problems by 2020—something I passionately support.
In conclusion, I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the thrust of this debate—particularly my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay, who has been a real champion in this area. We welcome the continued constructive work by the Centre for Social Justice, and its review of the family test, and we are actively considering its recommendations.
The importance to our society of strong families cannot be understated, and we look forward to working with all hon. Members as we continue to strengthen our use of the family test and make a difference for families. I would greatly welcome the opportunity to meet my hon. Friends from the Centre for Social Justice and have a deep-dive look at the recommendations in their respective speeches and the recent report.
I thank hon. Members for their contributions to this good debate. We may have differences of opinion on how to address this issue, but it is encouraging to hear that everyone has recognised the importance of strengthening families and the role that Government policy can play in that. I welcome the Minister’s response. We are encouraged by his clear commitment to ensuring that the family test is applied consistently and meaningfully across Government. He will find that many hon. Members, particularly on the Government Benches, are ready and willing to work with him, to ensure that the policy works as best it can to benefit families up and down the country.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the application of the family test.
Acute NHS Care: South-west Hertfordshire
I beg to move,
That this House has considered acute NHS care in South West Herts.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Sir David. I start by saying that none of my comments about the health provision that allegedly looks after my constituents or about the West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust are, in any shape or form, about the frontline staff. The doctors, the nurses, the porters and the cleaners are fantastic. However, as I said the other day in a letter to Mr Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, frankly we have absolutely no confidence in the management of the clinical commissioning group for West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust.
That lack of confidence that we are being represented and looked after in the best possible way has united the community over many years. It is not new. We have been let down time and again. Unlike a certain other subject that is occupying a lot of our time at the moment, there is no political or community division in west Hertfordshire about what we need from hospital acute provision in our part of the world. I will not go on about the other problems we have with health provision, but I have called the debate today—indeed, I was asked to do so by the community—to discuss how we can trust what is going on in our area.
A package is being put together that is convenient for West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust and it appears that the CCG and, I am sad to say, NHS Improvement and NHS England are going along with it. To put it in context for the Minister, we used to have acute hospitals in St Albans, in Hemel Hempstead and in Watford. Years ago, there was an evaluation and the decision was taken to close the acute facilities at St Albans. We were told not to worry, as Hemel was very close and would continue to have its acute provision, and there was a minor injuries-type facility in St Albans for elective surgery. After another consultation called “Investing In Your Health”, all the promises that had been made went out of the window and the acute services in Hemel were closed. As a sop, we were given a 24-hour urgent treatment centre.
Guess what? The urgent treatment centre is now not open for 24 hours a day and has a completely different name. Is it open at night? No, it is not. Where does everybody have to go? Even though Hemel is the largest town in Hertfordshire, we go to Watford. Watford General Hospital is a Victorian building next to the football stadium, in the heart of Watford, which is very densely populated. Promises were made about how quickly the ambulances could get there and how good it would be. They have completely gone out of the window, particularly when Watford football club is playing at home. Even though I am not a Watford supporter, I do not want to criticise the football club in any way. Watford football club is there, and has been for a long time.
Now we are looking to the future, not so much for my generation but for the younger generation in this massively growing area of the country. What is the future of the acute provision and hospital provision in my constituency? Historically, West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust is a small trust that has not been well managed. I have lost count of the number of chief executives it has had during the time I have been MP for Hemel Hempstead. They come and go repeatedly. What always happens—every time—is that the trust gets into deficit, and it is then bailed out in some way. That happened when there were primary care trusts, and now it is being done with the clinical commissioning groups. The trust is in deficit and failing. I do not know how it managed to get something positive into the newspaper the other day, when yet again it is failing in four out of five categories.
That means my constituents are at risk. We rely on the CCG and the trust. I will come on to our involvement in that process in a second, but it appears that as an elected Member of Parliament I have absolutely no influence at all on the CCG’s decisions, West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust decisions or decisions about any other NHS provision in my area. Joe Public does not understand that there are a myriad pillars and silos inside the NHS. The public just sees the NHS, which people are rightly massively proud of; we all are, including me, and it is fantastic that we are putting more money into it. However, we have got more managers, finance directors and heads of nursing. Why on earth have we got all these people divided up inside the NHS? That is an important point I will come on to.
Part of the appraisals and discussions for the strategic outline case—the Minister will know what I mean by a SOC—was about making decisions on what acute hospital provision should be provided in my constituency. I went with constituents to see Mr Mackey, the head of NHS Improvement. I said to him, “What are the criteria here? Tell me, face to face, what are the criteria for the decision that the West Herts hospital trust is going to make about the future?” He said, quite categorically, that fundamentally different options must be put to us. I asked, “Including a greenfield site?” We have greenfield sites available. He said yes. I received a letter of confirmation that that was a requirement of any SOC that was put forward.
Moving forward to where we are now, we apparently cannot have a new greenfield hospital. Why? That is the question that every one of my constituents asks. It would not necessarily be in the middle of Hemel, St Albans or Watford, but somewhere where there is decent access and transport links for the whole community. We cannot have that. Why not? We are not allowed to borrow more than our income. Because we are a very small trust, the income happens to be £350 million. We cannot borrow more than that. Why? Why do my constituents suffer because we have a small, inefficient, badly managed acute trust?
If we amalgamated with another trust, the income stream would probably be about £500 million, or we could amalgamate with another acute trust and double the income to £700 million. All of a sudden, we get somewhere near the fictitious figure of £750 million, which keeps coming up for how much it would cost to build a new acute hospital. The figure of £750 million is why the trust is ruling out new build at the moment. I am not aware of any new hospitals in this country—leaving aside private finance initiative problems that we had in the past under the previous Administration—that cost £750 million. Interestingly, one of my constituents recently emailed me about the new hospital in Birmingham, which was being built by Carillion—we all know about that problem—that is costing £300 to £350 million. The new hospital in Liverpool is costing about £350 million. These are brand new hospitals, which is exactly what I am asking for and certainly what my constituents are united in wanting.
Where has the figure of £750 million come from? It is being used as part of a narrative to block any new acute hospital in my constituency, which would also look after people in St Albans and Watford. In my area, we seem to be fixated on the idea that the only way to use that £350 million is, believe it or not, to plough it into the Victorian hospital in middle of Watford. There are supposed to be evaluation panels, with the community engaged.
The community evaluation panel sat, and some of the members said, “Could we not have on the list a new hospital on a greenfield site?” There was no request for a show of hands, or vote. It just went forward; but it appears it has been completely ignored. The boards of both the West Hertfordshire hospitals trust and the CCG have disregarded it. It is all too expensive. We know, however, that it is not too expensive. Other parts of the country have an open mind, not a closed mind. They are not the same people who closed our hospitals in the past, making the same decisions on the future of Watford hospital.
I have concerns for the people of Watford—the patients of Watford hospital—and the staff. I am concerned about stripping out and fundamentally refurbishing what is a predominantly Victorian hospital, which was massively refurbished in the 1960s and 1970s. How can a full acute hospital continue to operate while that is going on—with all the risks? I have recently written—my old ministerial role was in the relevant Department—to the head of the Health and Safety Executive, because we know there is asbestos in the building. It is fundamentally dangerous, and it is not just because of asbestos, although that is the most prominent issue, and something that can have a massive effect. A tiny fibre in the lung is a death sentence. We know it is there, but we do not understand why the figure of £750 million has been used, and why the figure of £350 million is trapping my constituents in a certain quality of care, simply because we happen to be small and badly managed—not just by the present management but over many years.
Why are we being penalised? That is how we feel, as a community, across political divides—across everything. Labour were massively involved with the problem long before we took over in Government. Why does not NHS England say: “This trust is failing again. It is not big enough. It cannot cope. Let us sort it, management-wise, and bring trusts together.” Then we would go over the £350 million income stream figure, up into the £500 millions. Strangely, £500 million was the figure for what has just been built in Leeds. It seems strange that for Hertfordshire’s largest town, and one of its most historic towns, St Albans, which have massively growing populations, Watford is the option. I do not want to take anything away from Watford until there is a new build. I do not want to take anything from it that will undermine what is has—unlike what happened to us. However, perhaps the Minister would like to come to Watford when Watford football club is playing at home—or even just during the rush hour. He will have a very different experience coming from Hemel or St Albans from the one he would have coming from any other part of Hertfordshire. It is chock-a-block.
I want to touch on a final thing before I hand over to the Minister, because I want him to have time to respond. I have already asked him not just to read out what has come from the trust. I know, having been a Minister, exactly what happens. An MP asks for a debate, the Department writes to the CCG, the CCG speaks to West Herts, and the speech is halfway written before the Minister has even got to Westminster. I ask him please to listen. We are passionate people and are not going to give up. Some people in the campaign group for the new hospital have been working on it year after year. I want to pay tribute to Zena Bullimore, who sadly passed away, and who was chairman of the hospital campaign, and to Edie and Ron Glatter—Professor Glatter. Even though they have been retired for some time, they are a driving force behind the campaign that I was part of long before I was elected. That is how far we go back.
I have some anecdotal evidence to show how wrong it is even to contemplate going further with Watford, instead of getting a hospital out of Watford in a suitable place. One of my constituents had a heart attack and the ambulance arrived in good time. The paramedics did a wonderful job and she was taken to Watford. The ambulance was turned away by the police from the fastest route to accident and emergency. The police had a cordon up so that the fans could use the streets, so it had to go another way, at which stage the non-local ambulance driver got lost. I went to see the officer in charge of the football match and said, “Did you turn the blue light ambulance away?” He said, “I can’t quite—”. I said, “Let’s do another one. Would you have turned away the blue light ambulance that was trying to get to the A&E because you had a cordon up?” He said, “Yes, I would.” I said to him, “If one of your officers had been assaulted and stabbed, would you have let the blue light ambulance in to pick him up?” “Yes, of course I would.” What is the difference between my constituents and the police? I want the police protected, and he would have been absolutely right to let the blue light in. However, the Department and NHS England seem to have tunnel vision about the situation.
I had a response in the last couple of days to a letter I sent to NHS Improvement—to Mr Stevens, actually—saying, “Would you please analyse this very in-depth document that goes into five pages, and give us your opinions?” I got, apart from the signature, one piece of A4 back, which in my opinion was written by the West Hertfordshire hospital trust. If it did not write it, it contains all the same language—probably the same language that is in the Minister’s notes. We have to open up to the fact that there must be accountability in the NHS. It is right that Ministers do not these days made decisions in the way they used to, but things have gone too far. There are people running CCGs who are not qualified to do so. I do not think that a GP is highly qualified to chair and run such a trust.
My acute trust has to make a fundamentally important decision, based on fact, but it is ignoring fact—not just public opinion or “This is the best place for it”, but fact. They keep going on about “You can’t afford it. It will be over £350 million. It will cost £750 million.” Frankly that is a pack of lies and we need to wake up. As I said the other day among colleagues, “Wake up and smell the coffee.” The public will not put up with a second-rate management system in the NHS. It is affecting my constituents—and I class myself as a member of the public. I live in the middle of the town. I am not going to put up with a second-rate system of management, and incompetence in running a trust.
I shall probably ask to intervene on the Minister during his speech.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and to respond to my right hon. Friend. I want to say at the outset that one thing we absolutely agree on is what he said in his opening remarks. He expressed, in bringing forward this important matter for debate on behalf of his constituents, recognition of and admiration for the frontline staff. Even though I do not know the frontline staff in his area, I know from my visits in my short time as Minister and from my constituency experience that the professional care they deliver is admirable and extraordinary. We should never forget the effort they put in, and my right hon. Friend is right to acknowledge that.
Before I address specifics, and before what I suspect will be an iterative debate, I want to deal with two fundamental points, which I know my right hon. Friend knows, but are worth putting on the record. First, any service change in the NHS must clearly be based on clear evidence. Secondly, before any substantive change is made, patients and the public should be consulted. My right hon. Friend raised two interesting subjects on which we could have a debate of an hour and a half, or probably even three hours. One was local accountability in the NHS, in its wider sense and form, and how he is accountable as the Member of Parliament. The other was funding criteria.
My right hon. Friend has, I think, addressed two other Ministers on his passion for the longstanding need to improve the quality of hospital infrastructure in west Hertfordshire. That has been a stated aim of the Hertfordshire and West Essex sustainability and transformation plan since its inception. I know it is engaging in the process of looking at how a redevelopment and redesign of the hospital provision in west Hertfordshire can be achieved, working alongside NHS England and NHS Improvement.
I recognise that my right hon. Friend has real concerns and real scepticism about the work of the CCG. I hope he will recognise the work that the sustainability and transformation partnership is involved in in the hospital development process, and the fact that the director of strategy took part in a process and evaluation meeting in February 2019, at which a shortlist of our options was discussed. The STP is also due to take part in the next evaluation event.
I understand what my right hon. Friend says about the capital. I hear his criticism and scepticism of the West Hertfordshire hospitals trust, but it has been taking the lead in developing the strategic outline case for change. I understand that it and NHS Improvement had dialogue, and feedback was provided on the strategic outline case for the acute hospital redesign submitted by the trust. I also understand, as he will, that the feedback made two key points: it was clear, first, about the need for funding, and secondly, that the overall public money for hospital redevelopment is relatively limited.
My right hon. Friend has raised the issue of the £350 million; he knows that the turnover figure is a key criterion and a key threshold for capital investment, and that any options that significantly exceed the £350 million capital cost have been excluded from the current shortlist. He is obviously aware of a £705 million figure being used locally, but I must confess I am not aware of that figure. I would be delighted to offer him a chance to sit down and try to work out with me where that figure came in—recognising, as he rightly points out, that it will not be a Minister who makes any decision. If it is helpful to him, I am happy to have that discussion.
I had that discussion with the Secretary of State, a couple of days after he was appointed. It is not just Ministers that I pick on—Secretaries of State get it in the ear as well. There are two points I would like to touch on. First, how can it be fair to a community that, if it is just based on the turnover of a trust and that trust happens to be a very small one, the provision we get locally is second class? We cannot even go to that territory. Secondly, on the £750 million, I will ask the Minister to step in, because that is the figure being used locally to rule out the greenfield site. There was an evaluation panel, and members of the panel asked for the greenfield site to be put in, and fundamentally, it appears to me, they have been completely ignored.
I made the point a moment ago that, because the cost of that greenfield site exceeds the £350 million threshold, it has currently been dropped from the shortlist of options. My right hon. Friend repeats a point that he made during his speech, questioning the criteria; he will know that I have heard what he has said. As he has just informed me, he has made a representation to the Secretary of State about that figure, and I have offered to have a meeting with him so that we can both explore it.
I do not think that, in the relatively short time available, I should get into the debate about the loan criteria, as I said at the beginning. We can have that debate at some other stage if my right hon. Friend wishes to put it forward, but he knows that at the moment the key threshold for capital investment would be the turnover, and therefore options that significantly exceed a £350 million capital cost have been excluded. As part of the option appraisal process, senior leaders and clinicians, as well as expert analysts, were involved in information gathering to put together the option evaluation. He will know that that included demand and capacity analysis based on population, hospital activity and operational planning.
With regard to reviewing that process, my right hon. Friend, as he said, wrote to both NHS England and NHS Improvement concerning the approval process. As he referenced in his speech, he forwarded to them an email from Professor Ron Glatter of the New Hospital Campaign. I understand that in that email, the professor requested a full statement of the outcomes of NHS Improvement’s review of the trust’s acute transformation strategic outline case.
In its answer, NHS Improvement has so far said that it has not started its formal review because the Treasury and the Department have not yet decided whether the proposal represents a scheme that can in principle be supported by central Government. I recognise the strength and effort of the campaigning for the new hospital option and I acknowledge the expert views that have been sought. While it is obviously not right for me to prejudge the answer from NHS Improvement, I know my right hon. Friend will recognise that I and the Department must take a wider view and that decisions made on capital funding must be the same for everyone across the country.
There has clearly been a huge amount of public engagement throughout the process, and I understand that further public engagement is planned for this month. Notwithstanding my right hon. Friend’s scepticism, I understand that the results of those consultations, in terms of the preferred way forward, will be taken to the trust board and the CCG in June 2019.
I recognise my right hon. Friend’s commitment to improving services; I assure him that the information provided by the New Hospital Campaign is being considered and will be considered as part of the review. As I said, it is not appropriate for Ministers to comment on specific decisions but, as he knows, the Government are determined to encourage innovation and to ensure that all patients have access to high-quality services. The updated proposal will clearly help to inform both the Department and the Treasury about capital allocations in the next spending review. I will not rehearse the arguments about the extra £33.9 billion of cash to support the NHS, or the additional capital and the bid we are putting forward in the comprehensive spending review.
If we accept that the rules at the moment are that any bid cannot be over the revenue income, which is the £350 million, can the Minister explain to me why, in Birmingham, the new build for 750,000 people cost between £300 million and £350 million, which we know because of the Carillion contract that collapsed, and the Royal Liverpool cost £335 million, yet we have been ruled out of having any new build on land that is actually owned by us—one of the sites is on Crown Estate land, public land—because it would exceed £350 million? I know he probably will not have the ability to answer that this second, but a letter in the next few weeks would be very helpful.
As my right hon. Friend knows, all Ministers can make an attempt at an answer, but I am sure he would prefer a detailed answer. Therefore, I will make that detailed response to him, as he has asked, in a letter. I also know that he would like me to commit to the spending now, but he will know that I am unable to do so at this stage. I have listened carefully to his points about what might be the cost of the redevelopment that he believes should happen, and he will know that I have heard that. He will also know that I have heard the differences that he has pointed out between the supposed or quoted cost and the cost of build in other areas. He knows that I will have taken that on board.
At this stage, with just 30 seconds to go, I thank my right hon. Friend for bringing this matter to the Chamber and for making the case yet again for his constituents. He should know that the Minister and the Department have listened, and I will respond to him and have that meeting with him.
Leaving the EU: Fishing
[Mr Graham Stringer in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered fishing and the UK leaving the EU.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I start by welcoming the Minister to his place. It is incredibly welcome that he is an east coast colleague, and so will understand the particular pressures on the fishing industry in that part of the world. I look forward to building a constructive relationship with him over the many years that I know he will be in post. Many Members will use their contributions to talk about the catching aspect of our fishing sector—both around the whole UK and in their local areas—with which they will be more familiar than me. I will focus on the impact of Brexit on the post-catching aspect of the sector.
The fishing sector has been the hallmark of Grimsby for generations, and factories such as Young’s and Seachill are the largest source of employment for people in Grimsby. Traditional Grimsby smoked fish is perhaps the most recognisable symbol of quality in the fish world. If the Minister has not yet had the chance to try some, I urge him to visit my constituency and to come along to Alfred Enderby, which supplies Marco Pierre White’s restaurants, and hopefully then he will understand exactly why it has such an excellent reputation.
However, the fish that feeds those factories and smoking houses no longer lands at the docks in Grimsby, and often not even in the UK. Instead, the fish processed in my constituency arrives at our factories from across northern Europe. The cod and haddock used by companies such as Young’s and Seachill and enjoyed by many in the fish and chip shops up and down the country are caught in the likes of Norway and Iceland. They are then transferred across Europe, usually by lorry, moved on to a container ship and then put back on a lorry, eventually arriving at their destination. Those companies really worry about the effect of Brexit on their sector.
It is right that we talk about the sector as a whole, including processing. The Government document, “Seafood 2040: A strategic framework for England”, looks at the whole sector, from catching the fish all the way through to its ending up on people’s plates. The strategy covers the industry in its entirety, which is why it is relevant for me to raise these issues. Companies such as Young’s and Seachill rely on seamless supply routes to ensure that the fish that they use arrives in as fresh a state as possible. Any delay in the transport of what is a highly perishable good will have a massive impact on both the quantity of spoiled fish and the quality of the end product in our supermarkets.
The hon. Lady mentioned, and is a powerful voice for, processors in her constituency. Could she give us some idea of how much of their supply those processors source from EU member states and how much is sourced from places such as Norway and Iceland, which are clearly third countries to the EU at the moment?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right: we source the majority of our product for processing from Iceland, Norway, the Faroe Islands, Greenland and so on. However, it is worth noting that those countries have European economic area and European Free Trade Agreement agreements with the EU. Our relationship with the EU will impact on those agreements. There is no way, so far as I can see, that we can supersede their existing relationships with the EU. The hon. Lady is shaking her head vigorously from a sedentary position. I am sure that she will address that point in her own comments when the time comes.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Does she share my concern about a no-deal scenario? The Welsh fish and sea fish sector exports 90% of what it produces, much of it to the EU, and is worth £25 million to Wales. Will she join me in calling on the Department to provide financial support in the event of a no-deal scenario?
The hon. Lady raises an important point, and £25 million is not an insignificant sum to Wales. We saw this morning the release of proposed tariff rates, which I will come on to later. Perhaps the Minister can offer some reassurance on that. Going ahead with no deal will have a dramatic impact on trading as we know and understand it, because all our systems are set up to work within the current framework. It is absolutely imperative that the Minister hears these issues raised by colleagues.
The hon. Lady will doubtless be aware that the tariff guidance published by the Government this morning lists a range of tariffs for imported fish. However, there will of course be zero tariffs between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. First, how workable does she think that scheme will be? Secondly, does she think that it will find favour with processors in her constituency?
Certainly, the information we received this morning presents a range of difficulties, as the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight. The difficulties of potentially having zero tariffs on imports coming from Ireland, through Northern Ireland and into the UK will have a dramatic impact on the whole sector’s trade routes. I think the figure put on tariffs for import was 11.9%. I will ask for further information about that, because obviously we had that information only this morning.
It is quite concerning that that information has only been released today. It would have been preferable for these kind of details to be in the public domain at an earlier stage. All parliamentarians have been considering and voting on issues relating to leaving the EU and we are only now finding out some of these facts. That is not in the best interests of the industry and is certainly not in the best interests of people working in the industry in our constituencies around the country. Grimsby’s fish processing sector needs assurances that, come what may, it can continue to enjoy its current seamless supply route. However, industry leaders in the area currently express deep concern about the lack of clarity over how they expect the sector to operate in what could be a matter of weeks.
Currently, health certificates for fish imports from inside the EU or EFTA are only required for species that carry, or are at risk from, controlled diseases, but they are needed for all fish imported from outside the EU. Fish from EU and EFTA nations do not need to go through border checks when entering the UK. Imposing requirements on markets such as Norway and Iceland to provide health certificates for all the fish they export to us would lead to increased border checks on fish from those countries and could mean damaging delays to the delivery of fresh fish into the country. Will the Minister confirm that it is not the Government’s intention to require all fish from markets such as Norway and Iceland to have health certificates once we leave the EU?
If we leave the EU without a deal, all fish exported to the EU will require export health certificates, but companies in my constituency have raised concerns that local environmental health officers simply do not have the resources to facilitate that significant increase in their workload. Can the Minister perhaps put companies’ minds at ease by informing us of what steps the Government are taking to ensure that exporters will not be hindered by struggles to produce health certificates in the very unenviable situation that we leave without a deal?
If there are extra certificates, checks and tariffs, those will all be checked and carried out at our ports, and there are concerns among Grimsby companies that even with a deal, ports will experience a bottleneck post Brexit. We have heard about the plans for lorry parks in Dover, but there are also plans around the country for extra capacity to deal with delays in port areas, and the position is the same in north-east Lincolnshire.
Currently, fish arriving at ports in north-east Lincolnshire have been checked and certified in Iceland before being shipped to the UK. Fish arriving here can be seamlessly transferred because of the long-standing relationship between Grimsby and Iceland. There is enormous trust as a result of that relationship, which has existed for decades. It works, and nobody wants that to change. It means that the fish is moved seamlessly. There is no damage to the product. It comes in, and there is no risk of any kind of perishing of the product when it comes through, which of course would devalue it on the open market.
If the UK imposes its own customs checks on fish once we leave the EU, rather than accepting checks as it does now, that would severely impact the quality and quantity of usable fish that ends up in the UK market. Can the Minister therefore confirm that the Government will continue to accept checks from the likes of Iceland as valid and will not impose further checks at UK ports, which could have severe impacts on the viability of the fishing industry in the UK?
We know that additional funds have been directed towards UK ports. The Humber ports of Immingham, Grimsby, Hull and Goole will share £135,000. However, the “Seafood 2040” document highlights the fact that 72,000 tonnes of fish caught under UK licence are currently landed in ports outside the UK. That issue is partly about infrastructure at ports and partly about inadequate facilities. If the Government really recognise the potential for the future of the fishing industry—the potential to grow as we leave the EU—do they consider that that investment of £135,000 between four different ports in the Humber area will be enough to enable them to cope with future demand? Will it make Grimsby fish stocks ready for the 21st century?
May I congratulate those people in my hon. Friend’s area who have secured some of that money for the ports, however inadequate it is. I point out to the Minister—I understand that this is a Department for Transport and Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government matter—that of the £3 million in total that is being given to ports across the country, not a single penny is coming to any port in the north-east of England.
My right hon. Friend raises a serious issue. There must be equitable distribution of funds. If there is a genuine desire to support the industry, the infrastructure and the facilities must be there. To exclude one at the expense of another is not looking to the future. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to respond to my right hon. Friend’s point in his closing comments.
The additional funding is of course welcome; nobody is going to say no to additional funding, but how it will be shared and distributed and where the priorities will lie are still a concern. When it comes to the spending, will it go to the company that runs the dock facilities, which will have all the responsibility of dealing with the customs checks and perhaps an increase in activity? If Dover is unable to cope, perhaps we will see an increase in freight coming up to our port. What will that mean for the fish stocks and for the auction site? Will it get a share of it? That is not clear. I would be interested to know whether the Minister has any thoughts on that, too.
The concerns are clearly not felt by the processing sector alone. According to the UK Seafood Industry Alliance, we export most of what we catch and we import most of what we eat, with 90% of the cod consumed in the UK coming from outside our borders, and species such as nephrops, which are quite unfamiliar to UK dinner tables, being among our most valuable seafood exports. If we leave without reciprocal and favourable trade arrangements with major importers and exporters, we could easily end up in a situation in which fishermen struggle to make vital profits on export species that are extremely valuable in foreign markets, while we see the cod and haddock in our chippies and supermarkets skyrocket in price as tariffs are slapped on our imports.
Customers may not recognise nephrops, but they will certainly know what Whitby scampi or Young’s scampi look like.
Yes. The Minister makes a key point. Perhaps there is less familiarity with some of the other species that we export, and export very valuably, to the EU markets.
Let me return to the point about tariffs, which we touched on. There was the publication this morning that referred to 11.9% on protected lines. That is the most preferred nation rate. It is what, in the event of no deal, we will be trading on. Can the Minister explain that in greater detail? The information came out only this morning. I have gone to various sources, including the Library, to try to get more detail about exactly which species will be affected and how, but perhaps the Minister can put that on the record here today. If he cannot do so, will there be a ministerial written statement to explain the implications of the tariffs and what they mean for the UK sector?
We are in a fortunate position, in that the Minister’s predecessor set a very positive tone from the start of the negotiations to leave the EU. I expect that tone to continue under this Minister. He is a very reasonable gentleman, and I expect him to recognise, in the same interest of standing up for the UK fishing sector, that an unnecessarily aggressive approach is not one that he should take. I do not think that there is any desire on either side to start so-called tariff wars. There is a mutually beneficial industry. The common fisheries policy may continue to be a bone of contention, but in more recent years the relationship has improved, and the changes that have been made in the CFP have struck a good balance between the environment and the catching sector. I hope that that will continue, so I hope that the scenario that the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) highlights and perhaps foresees does not come to pass. That would not be in anybody’s best interests.
I confess that I am not entirely sure what this means, but the list published by the Government this morning says that
“shrimps of the genus ‘Penaeus’ even smoked or whether in the shell or not—including shrimps in shell cooked by steaming or by boiling in water”
will be subject to a 12% tariff. If that is what we are levying as a tariff on imports, why would the EU not levy something similar on our exports to the EU?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point about what would happen in the event of no deal. We know—we will be voting on this very subject later—that it is highly unlikely that there will be a majority for a no-deal outcome. For this sector, we should perhaps, in the course of the debate taking place in the main Chamber, go and make our voices heard and say exactly why that would be an incredibly unhelpful outcome.
Does the hon. Lady share my concern, though, about the withdrawal agreement? The whelk market is worth £6.2 million a year to Wales. It is understood that even if we leave with the withdrawal agreement, there is currently no agreement with South Korea. At the moment, we trade with South Korea under an EU agreement. Processed seafoods, such as whelks, would be subject to a 20% tariff in South Korea if we traded under World Trade Organisation rules.
The hon. Lady leads me neatly to a point about international trade and the role of the Secretary of State for International Trade in securing deals. As I see it—I am sure hon. Members on the Government Benches will leap to the defence of the Secretary of State—there has been such a strong desire to ratchet up the number of confirmed trade deals that, in some circumstances, they have been made at the expense of the fishing sector. The hon. Lady’s point stands, but I would like to expand on the example of the Faroe Islands deal.
It is good that a deal has been done with the Faroe Islands. In the fishing sector, the Faroe Islands is a relative small exporter to this country, exporting about 35,000 tonnes, which is much less than Norway and Iceland. In previous fisheries debates, we have discussed the fact that the catching sector has been kept very separate from the trading element. At the time, we all agreed that it was probably a good thing not to combine the two, because it would get too complicated. In the case of the Faroe Islands, it seems the deal has been made at the expense of—
Mackerel, I am reliably informed by the right hon. Gentleman from a sedentary position. If that is the blueprint for future deals with Iceland and Norway, it will not serve our industry well. I wonder what conversations have taken place between the Department for International Trade and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on this specific issue. If there have not been detailed conversations, perhaps there could be such conversations in advance of signing up to any more deals, which otherwise will make it more difficult for companies that catch and trade in fish to continue their business. Companies that rely on importing say that we need to focus on deals with major suppliers, such as Norway, Iceland and Canada, if we are to have a seamless transition post Brexit.
That point has been discussed in previous debates on this matter. It complicates the issue of whether things are considered food or industrial goods, or whether they come under farming. Therefore, it is unclear which Department has responsibility for and understanding of the fishing industry, which is a complex industry, because it encompasses so many different elements, as we discussed.
Will the Minister confirm what discussions he or his Department—given his recent appointment—have had with the Department for International Trade about the importance of getting those deals with major suppliers over the line? Will he inform us of the status of the deals with Norway and Iceland, and whether we can expect favourable trade terms for fish when we leave the EU, regardless of the scenario in which we leave?
I know that people in the industry are very concerned at the amount of repetition that occurs in paperwork and fear that it will only get worse post Brexit. Are there any plans to simplify the often arduous paperwork? Currently, there are no digital solutions in place that I am aware of to reduce the burden of the bureaucracy on people throughout the sector.
Finally, regarding the future of the fishing sector, I know that people in Grimsby would be delighted to see the rebirth of its traditional fishing industry, to sit alongside the new, emerging sector in offshore wind energy. There remain issues around training, awareness and skills. Even in the industry as it stands, we have not managed to get those things right as a country. I hope the Minister will put all his efforts into ensuring that we have the best possible industry in future.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), my colleague in the all-party parliamentary fisheries group, on securing this debate. My constituency of Banff and Buchan is estimated to have been the most pro-Brexit constituency in Scotland—in fact, it was the only constituency in Scotland that voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum. That is unsurprising in the context of this debate, given that it is home to two of Europe’s largest fishing ports. Peterhead is the largest white fish port in Europe and Fraserburgh is the largest for shellfish.
Fishermen across the UK have endured 45 years of their industry being run down through being a member of the EU and the common fisheries policy. They voted to take us out of the EU and the CFP. For years, they have compared their industry, declining under the CFP, to the Norwegian and Icelandic fishing industries, and even to that of the Faroese, all of which have flourished. Opposition to the CFP is a major reason why those countries have refused to join the EU.
It is clear that we can forge a better way as an independent coastal state with our own fisheries policy, but it is important that we get this right. We must ensure that we leave the CFP and take back control of our waters no later than the end of 2020. The UK Government have committed to that repeatedly. I hope that my amendment to the Fisheries Bill currently going through Parliament, ensuring that we do become an independent coastal state by the end of 2020, will reinforce that commitment and reassure fishermen across the country.
Likewise, it is vital that any future relationship with the EU does not compromise our status as an independent coastal state in exchange for some other priority, which would be a betrayal of the fishing communities. I have repeatedly said that I could not support any future arrangement that does not advance the interests of fishermen in general, and Scottish fishermen and those in my constituency in particular.
The Government have repeatedly committed to lead us out of the CFP, to become an independent coastal state. When that is achieved we can control the access to our waters for all foreign fishing vessels and secure a greater supply of fish for our industry, without compromising on sustainability. That rebuilding process will require more than those measures alone.
Decades of decline in the industry, coupled with the appeal of the oil and gas industry in north-east Scotland, have made it particularly difficult for the industry to attract local labour to crew fishing vessels, leaving us heavily reliant on attracting foreign crew. In Scotland, approximately 400 fishing crew come from the EU and twice that number come from places outside the EU, such as the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Ghana.
The industry has already made moves to return to reliance on local workers in the future, and is willing to work with the UK Government to achieve that, but for the time being it expects to continue having to employ significant numbers of foreign crew, especially from non-EEA countries. As the hon. Member for Great Grimsby will appreciate, that applies to the seafood processing industry, which is heavily reliant on foreign labour.
Across the fisheries sector, the increased supply that Brexit promises will exacerbate the need for foreign staff in the short term. It would be tragic for British fisheries to be liberated from the CFP, only to be held back by labour shortages. I have been consistent in calling on the UK Government to ensure that their future immigration policy is fair for the entire UK fisheries sector.
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that inshore on the east coast, and particularly on the west coast, where all fishing is inshore because of the Hebrides and the Outer Hebrides, we have an even greater problem in getting visas for non-EEA fishermen? We require a fishing or seafarers visa. At least a lot of fishing in the north-east is outside the inshore limit.
I agree with the hon. Lady. It is a cross-party concern: the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) and I have repeatedly approached the Immigration Minister on that basis.
I was going to encourage the Minister to engage with the industry, but I found out recently—I think he announced it yesterday—that he is going to visit my constituency to discuss the investment opportunities in the sector. That is most welcome. It is not enough to suddenly have access to more of our own fish in our own waters; we need to expand our capacity to catch, land and process our seafood, and we need to expand that capacity rapidly—perhaps more rapidly than business will be able to do naturally. We must ensure that our fish and seafood produce can be easily exported to markets around the world.
When the hon. Gentleman shows the Minister the investment opportunities in his constituency, he should probably also take him to local veterinary practices, which are now being sounded out about their ability to produce export health certificates in the highlands and islands and Aberdeenshire. In a no-deal Brexit, the Scottish Government expect that somewhere in the region of 150,000 certificates will be required in Scotland, but local authorities do not have the capacity to deal with that 3,000% increase. They are looking to vets to fill the gap.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a couple of interesting points. One reason why I supported the withdrawal agreement last night was that it would have helped to alleviate that. The need for additional environmental health inspectors has been repeatedly raised with me by the fishing industry in my constituency. They are employed through the local council but no funding has been received from the Scottish Government for them, although I understand that English councils have received about £56 million overall for EU exit preparations.
I am conscious of time, so I will finish. As I said, we must ensure that our fish and seafood produce can be easily exported to markets. These are turbulent times for Brexit and for the country more generally, but we must never forget the hope that led many of our coastal communities to vote to leave the EU and the CFP. We can vindicate that hope, and I believe that the Government are committed to doing so, but delivering on that commitment will not be straightforward. It will require a cross-industry and cross-Government vision of our islands becoming the world-class global centre of excellence that they can be in the fisheries sector.
It is a pleasure to speak on this matter, Mr Stringer. I do not think a fishing debate has taken place during my time in Westminster that I have not participated in. People may say, “Well, he participates in most debates”, but that is by the way. The predecessor of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) was the instigator of many fishing debates and it was always a pleasure to work with him, as it is to work alongside the hon. Lady now.
It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid), with whom I see eye to eye on many fishing issues. He highlighted the issue of the Filipino fishermen, who we have spoken to the Minister about. The Minister knows the story only too well, because the four parties involved have made cross-party representations to him to try to bring about changes. We are fortunate to have the Minister in his place and I look forward to working with him. I also thank the former Minister, the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), for his contribution, because he was definitely a friend of the fishermen as well.
The Minister was a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which did an inquiry into fishing, so he knows the issues. He also had an opportunity to visit my constituency, especially the village port of Portavogie. He sampled and enjoyed the wonderful Portavogie prawns and scampi, so when I say they are the best in the world, he knows that they clearly are.
The other issue that came up in the visit to the village port of Portavogie was the boats and the fact that many of them were old—we talked about it yesterday, as the Minister will recall. We need reinvestment in the fishing fleets in Portavogie, and in Ardglass and Kilkeel. In this House, I represent the fishermen and fishing sector in Portavogie, but I also have the opportunity and privilege of representing the fishermen in Ardglass and Kilkeel, given that the hon. Member for South Down (Chris Hazzard) unfortunately does not feel that it is his duty as a Member of Parliament to come to the House and represent the fishing sector. That is a story for another day, although it is true and factually correct.
The difficulties with fishing post Brexit could be no different from today, but I am quite confident about the future and I believe that the situation will improve. The fishing sector in my village of Portavogie is confident about where it will go and what it will do. The investment and the money that the Northern Ireland Fishery Harbour Authority has spent in Portavogie harbour is significant and welcome. We are also pleased that significant multimillion-pound projects are planned for Kilkeel post Brexit.
On a slightly different issue, I mention to the Minister the issue of the eel fishery, which we looked at in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. I am mindful of the time, so with that introductory comment, I will quickly comment on one issue.
The hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) and I brought the issue of the voisinage agreement to the Minister’s attention. He responded to me in a letter after I applied for an urgent question, which the process of the House unfortunately did not allow to happen. I put on the record my annoyance on behalf of the fishing sector. We talk about post Brexit, but here is an example of what could happen to us.
The voisinage agreement means that Irish fishermen can fish in our waters close to the shore, and enables us to do the same, but a court case brought by Irish fish producers down south legally restricted the option and possibility of our fishermen—British fishermen—fishing in their waters. Under that legal agreement, they seized two fishing boats from Kilkeel and arrested the crew. At that point, some sanity crept into the process at long last. The Northern Ireland Fish Producers Organisation and the Anglo-North Irish Fish Producers Organisation released a statement, but in fairness, the judge in the court down south realised that the matter could be dealt with in only one way, and released them. That increased our angst about it, however.
For our fishermen who have fished under the voisinage agreement, and for the future of fishing, that is a warning signal that we cannot afford to ignore when we move out of the EU and into better times. We have continued to allow Irish boats access to our fisheries as part of our gentlemen’s agreement and as a nod to good working relations, and the behaviour of the British Government, the Minister and the Minister before him has been above reproach, yet that was the Irish Government’s response to our decent hard-working fishermen. They need to be reminded of the harsh truth; I am sure the hon. Member for South East Cornwall will do likewise.
I am conscious of the time, so I will skip forward to the other issue. I welcomed the immediate statements from the Irish Government; it appeared that they had realised that their aggressive approach and the arrest of our fishermen was not in the spirit of co-operation or neighbourliness. Despite the commitments made by the Irish Prime Minister and deputy Prime Minister, however, who indicated that in the light of the situation, they would table legislation in the Irish Parliament to resolve the matter, I have seen little or no evidence of that so far. Again, I ask the Minister to update us on where the Irish Government are on that. Our fishermen need assurances that the Government will hold the Republic of Ireland to their commitment to pass legislation to resolve the voisinage agreement in the immediate term.
The previous Minister told us that he was committed to doing that at a meeting that my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) and I held with the two fishing producers organisations in December last year. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs addressed a group of industry representatives in London stating that he and the Home Secretary were working to ensure that there would be a route for non-EEA fishermen into the industry post Brexit. I mentioned that earlier, and I mention it again. There seems to be some welcome news coming. Indeed, it is an essential component to any fishing policy.
I finish by making something abundantly clear: the post-Brexit fishing potential is enormous. It can bring great dividends. We must make the most of it, and stop kowtowing to those who have no respect or regard for us. They are taking care of their own and now, I believe, it is the Minister’s job to take care of us.
Leaving the common fisheries policy provides so many opportunities for the UK fishing industry. Article 62 of the United Nations convention on the law of the sea states that any surplus, and only the surplus, that UK vessels are unable to take from UK waters needs to be made available to other nations, and the UN fish stocks agreement protects shared stocks that transit between each country’s waters.
Leaving the CFP means an opportunity to boost our fishing industry, rather than allowing other member states to simply come in and take fish from UK waters, as is the case when the French take 80% of the cod from waters off the south-west coast—we will be able to take that with our fleet. That has the potential to benefit the UK economy: we will no longer be just giving away this very valuable UK asset to other nations to profit from, with no benefit at all to the Exchequer.
I pay tribute to the Minister’s predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice)—he did a really good job—and I welcome the Minister to his place. I cannot think of a better person to represent the fishermen for whom I care so much.
Leaving the CFP gives us the potential to implement measures that will attract young blood into the fishing industry. The industry has been in decline for the last 40 years, and we have the potential to grow it. I pay tribute to my joint co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on fisheries, the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), who I know really cares about the processing sector. I also pay tribute to her predecessor, who I knew for many years and who I worked with on the Save Britain’s Fish campaign, since he was—
Yes, but he is not an MP any more. Sorry—I should have said he was a great MP!
Processors source much of the fish used in their factories from outside the EU—from Iceland and Norway, in particular. As an independent coastal state, we can set up deals with those nations. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby mentioned the European economic area. I may be wrong, and the Minister may correct me, but as I understand it, protocol 9 of the EEA agreement refers to no tariffs between EU and EEA nations, but does not prevent the European Free Trade Association—the three nations that sign up to the EEA—from signing bilateral agreements, either collectively or independently. I genuinely believe that there is an opportunity for the United Kingdom to sign trade deals that could benefit our processing sector with those nations.
I also believe that our membership of the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission provides us with a very real opportunity to speak to other nations that are not part of the European Union club. We have been hampered by our membership of the European Union for the past 40 years. I also understand that the EEA agreement excludes fisheries and agriculture, apart from some areas of compliance with regard to fisheries products. Could the Minister confirm that?
Finally, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). It is time for the UK to take action under the voisinage agreement to stop the Republic of Ireland from imposing what I would describe as a hard border between the six-mile limit off the Republic of Ireland and that in UK waters off the coast of Northern Ireland. I hope the Minister can give us that assurance today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and to welcome the new Minister to his place. I thank his predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), for his sterling efforts over the past few years. I congratulate the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) on securing this debate. Her timing is particularly auspicious.
Although the final form that Brexit will take is uncertain at present, I believe that, generally, the Government and Parliament have used the period from 23 June 2016 up to now to good effect—focusing on the UK fishing industry and gradually putting in place a policy framework that will revive the industry.
To revitalise the industry in Lowestoft and along the East Anglian coast, which is now a very pale shadow of its former self, we need to address three challenges. First, local fishermen must be given the opportunity to catch enough fish to earn a fair living and to supply local markets, processors and mongers. Secondly, we must put in place a sustainable fisheries management system. Thirdly, we must ensure that the benefits of properly managed fisheries go to local people, local communities and local businesses.
My view is that, although there is still much work to do, we are gradually moving in the right direction and making progress. The cornerstone for the revival of UK fisheries is taking back control of our waters so that we decide who fishes there and on what terms. The Prime Minister has come under much pressure in negotiations to compromise on that undertaking. She has not done so and, whatever happens in the next few months, it is vital that we do not give ground on that point.
From my perspective, the Prime Minister has come under a lot of pressure from the French and the Dutch, and she has not given way in a meaningful sense.
Despite the fact that I tabled a large number of amendments to the Fisheries Bill when it was in Committee, it is generally a good document and Ministers and officials are to be commended for drafting it to such good effect under such time pressure. That said, it does need some changes. I have tabled an amendment to promote the fairer distribution of fishing opportunities, and we need to consider strengthening what is known as the economic link. Furthermore, although the Government have laid down a statutory instrument to outlaw electro-pulse fishing, there is a worry that loopholes are being left open. I wrote to the previous Minister detailing those concerns and, if they cannot be addressed, we may need to consider outlawing that abhorrent and completely unsustainable practice through provisions in the Bill.
To make the most of the opportunity to ensure that Lowestoft and other East Anglian fishing communities reap the Brexit dividend, the industry in East Anglia, under the leadership of June Mummery and Paul Lines, has formed the Renaissance of East Anglian Fishing. With the assistance of Waveney District Council, a grant has been obtained from the Marine Management Organisation to develop a long-term strategy for the East Anglian fishing industry. Additional financial support has been provided by the east Suffolk councils, Suffolk County Council, Norfolk County Council and Seafish. The work, which is being carried out by Vivid Economics, is now under way. It looks at the current state of the industry and will come up with a strategy for its revitalisation all the way from the net to the plate. I anticipate that it will highlight where investment is needed in port infrastructure, skills and supply chain building, and I expect that we will be making submissions to the Chancellor’s autumn Budget.
The project is exciting and could prove to be a blueprint that could be replicated around the coast. I invite the Minister to visit us in Lowestoft to find out more about it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. It is always an honour to follow the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), who is well known for his knowledge of these matters. As he knows, I have family connections to Lowestoft, and it is good to hear him.
The Minister was a member of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs and had the honour of visiting Northern Ireland on many occasions during that time. He of course visited Portavogie and other ports, and met fishermen there; he was a keen Committee member. We prepared a report on fisheries in Northern Ireland, and the conclusions and recommendations were welcomed by the fishing industry there, as he will know. Unfortunately, however, the Committee and industry have still not received a substantive response to the report from the Government. Now that the Minister is effectively a poacher turned gamekeeper, perhaps when he is in the Department he could rustle up a powerful and positive response to it, to ensure that the industry and indeed the Committee is better informed about Government thinking on the key issues we identified. The report recorded the enormous potential that Brexit offers the industry in Northern Ireland. The common fisheries policy has had a detrimental impact there, and we want to rectify that—something that the industry looks forward to.
The United Kingdom has previously stated its intention of leaving procedures for importing seafood unchanged. Today that has been reinforced by the Government’s announcement of no tariffs on produce entering Northern Ireland from the Republic. Clearly that must be reciprocated by Dublin and the EU. Otherwise, as I said in an intervention, it is the Republic of Ireland that stands to lose more in a tariff war with the rest of the United Kingdom, given its dependence on British sea waters. No one wants that; we want to be good neighbours to the Republic of Ireland, and we have been good neighbours. However, it is important that people recognise that the hard border in Northern Ireland is actually a hard sea border, where the fishermen of the Republic of Ireland have denied access to our fishermen. That has to be rectified. I wait with interest to see whether an amendment going through the Irish Parliament in Dublin will rectify the situation and ensure that the reciprocal voisinage agreement once again operates fairly for our fishermen in Northern Ireland.
Our report came out in December, at which time the Minister for Immigration would have been aware of the issues that affect the Minister’s constituency in this regard. The Minister met fishing representatives in Northern Ireland, and heard that among the issues that affect them is the fact that Whitby Seafoods, based in his constituency and employing 250 people in Kilkeel in Northern Ireland, needs to maintain supplies of raw material to its factories. Without crews, one of the trawlers is clearly going to stop operating. Over two years and longer, there has been no resolution, although, interestingly, owners will shortly pay Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs tax for their crew who are not from the European economic area. That seems a little ironic given what a grey area the question of status in the United Kingdom is.
We look forward to those issues being resolved by a Minister who had his hands on the issues while in other service. I hope that the concerns of people who raise the harvest from the sea will be identified appropriately and resolved to our satisfaction.
The Scottish industry dominates because of the sheer scale of its share of water around Scotland. As the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) said, the industry is overwhelmingly based at Peterhead. However, there is a significant difference between the industry on the east and west coasts. In the east there is inshore fishing, but deep sea fishing predominates. That brings up the issue of visas, which I mentioned earlier. Non-EEA crew can get transit visas and join a ship. That is not available on the west coast or to inshore fishing.
On a point of clarification, the hon. Lady is obviously correct to comment on the vastness of the waters, and the fact that the Scottish area is huge—and that there is an emphasis on deep sea fishing in Peterhead, as well as Fraserburgh and Lerwick in Shetland. However, there are a lot of smaller-scale fishermen from those ports who fish on the west coast.
I did say that there is inshore fishing. On the west coast it is predominantly inshore fishing. In Troon in my constituency, we have the south-west Scotland fish market. It is very much a matter of small boats, and of nephrops, lobster and langoustine. Eighty-five per cent. of that harvest is sent to the EU. People make statements about all fishermen supporting leave, but that is not the case. The Clyde Fishermen’s Association and the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Association have withdrawn from the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation because they felt that the only view ever put forward was for leave, as if fishermen were unanimous.
I understand that there are major issues with the common fisheries policy, but lots of issues that have been blamed on it are nothing to do with it. One is the fact that 80% of all the boats in Scotland share 1% of quota. The rest has largely been dominated by a handful of companies. In England the figure is 77% sharing 3% of quota. A lot of change would have to happen in the UK to make sure that the industry has quota. Norway has been mentioned. Why not look at having community quota, so that quota remains where it should be and is not transferred, as happens in Scotland—bought up and transferred from the west coast to the east? When we talk about opportunities for coastal communities, that must include the harbour, market and processors. The processors employ more people and generate higher gross value added than the fishermen. We must look at the whole supply chain. We do not feel that that is happening.
The right hon. Member for Tynemouth (Sir Alan Campbell) mentioned that there was no funding for ports in north-east England. No Brexit preparation funding has come to ports in Scotland. I am not sure of the situation in Northern Ireland. Up and down the west coast, we cannot get crew and have boats tied up, so the industry is on its knees. That is not to do with the common fisheries policy; it has to do with decisions made here.
As I have said, most of our produce from south-west Scotland goes to Europe. As was mentioned, under WTO there would be a 12% tariff, but fishing is excluded from the customs union, even within the withdrawal deal. We have a particular problem because of the Irish backstop. Northern Ireland fishermen could fish right in close to our waters, land fish and send it through southern Ireland at 0% tariff, whereas the more that was processed, the higher the tariff would be. Scottish salmon dominates the smoked salmon market in Europe. It is one of the biggest food exports of the UK. It beats Norwegian salmon, which carries a 13% tariff. We will lose our aquaculture advantage, and Scottish smoked salmon could also end up with a 13% tariff. The idea that this is all easy and will be beneficial to fishermen is simply not true.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I welcome the Minister to his place. I congratulate the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) on securing this debate, which gives Members another opportunity to raise their concerns about the effect that Brexit will have on their fishing industries. I say “industries” because it is important to recognise the great differences that lie underneath the catch-all term “fishing industry”, and all too often only the voices and opinions of the big players are heard or considered newsworthy.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) rightly said, in Scotland about three quarters of our active fishing vessels fish primarily in inshore waters, which are defined as those up to 12 nautical miles from shore. As Member of Parliament for Argyll and Bute, I am well aware of the importance of the fishing sector to the economic wellbeing of my constituency. As well as having an inshore fishing fleet, Argyll and Bute produces and exports enormous quantities of shellfish and has a hugely valuable Scottish salmon industry. Although those industries may do different things, they are linked by a couple of vital threads. First, they need to be able to recruit the right people to crew their boats and process their catch, and secondly they need guaranteed, fast and unimpeded access to markets. I believe that Brexit, in whatever form it eventually takes, threatens all that, and I do not think that that feeling of trepidation about what lies ahead is confined to the west coast of Scotland or the inshore fleet.
I will make some progress for now. In a debate last November I quoted from an article in the Financial Times by Mure Dickie who, during a visit to Peterhead, spoke to at least one fish wholesaler based there who believed that they had been sold down the river once again.
Let me finish my point. Interestingly, a couple of weeks ago, the Financial Times asked Mure Dickie to visit the west coast of Scotland to see how the promise of the bright new post-Brexit world was going down with fishing communities in Argyll and Bute. What he found bore a striking similarity to what he had encountered in north-east Scotland. When asked about the “sea of opportunity” that was promised to fishing communities during the referendum, Kenny MacNab from Tarbert, who chairs the Clyde Fishermen’s Association, replied:
“It’s only a sea of opportunity for a few. It’s not a sea of opportunity for the west coast inshore fleet”.
Just down the road in Campbeltown, long-time skipper Andrew Harrison said:
“We haven’t got the fishing opportunities to gain out of Brexit. We’ve got a hell of a lot more to lose”.
For fishing communities—from large producers in north-east Scotland to the inshore fleet on the west coast—the promised sunlit uplands of a painless extraction from the European Union, in which the UK will dictate who can fish in our waters and exactly how much they can take, while still receiving tariff-free access to the European Union, have been replaced by cold reality. Their sense of betrayal is palpable. That is not what people were promised; that is not what was written on the side of a bus.
I am referring back to the debate we had last November, and indeed before then; we have had this verbal ping-pong before, and I will not be taken down that blind alley again. [Interruption.] I will make some progress.
I fundamentally disagree with the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous); like it or not, the EU has already linked gaining access to UK waters with access to markets. That suggests that any increase in quota for UK boats could come at the price of new trade barriers. That is an inescapable fact; that is what the EU is going for. Let us be honest: United Kingdom Governments do not have the best track record in defending the interests of the fishing industry when it is expedient for them not to do so.
In 2016, fishing, aquaculture and fish processing combined generated just short of £1 billion to the Scottish economy, and employed 15,000 people. In 2017, Scottish vessels landed just short of 0.5 million tonnes of sea fish and shellfish. However, it is one thing to catch and land fish, but quite another if there is no market to sell it in. Right now, we have a mature, stable and growing market. Fifteen days from now, who knows what we will have? That is causing grave concern in the Scottish fishing industry.
The European Union is by far the most important export market for Scottish seafood; in 2017, 189,000 tonnes of Scottish seafood, with a value in excess of £700 million, was exported to the EU. Fishermen in my constituency have perfected the art of getting langoustine, lobster or prawns out of the water and on to tables in some of the best restaurants in Europe in a matter of hours. That does not happen by chance. That has taken 40 years of dedicated hard work, and we will not stand by and watch it be thrown away by this Government’s incompetence, intransigence, and ideologically motivated red lines. As members of the European Union, we enjoy tariff-free access to 27 member states. No Brexit deal out there could be better for our exporters than the one we already have as full members of the European Union.
Does my hon. Friend see the danger in the fact that if fish processors on the continent require fish, they can invite fish catch landing at zero tariff? That could take fish from the North sea to the continent, which would mean that processors, harbours, and the rest of the supply chain here would not get to handle it.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I will touch briefly on fishing tariffs. We all feared that catastrophic tariffs would accompany a no-deal Brexit, and at 7 o’clock this morning we found out just how catastrophic they would be. As the hon. Member for Great Grimsby and the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) pointed out, the suggested tariffs are colossal and include a 7.5% tariff on monkfish, 15% on frozen fish, 12% on shrimp, 12% on nephrops, and 24% on tuna. I do not share the optimism of the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) that the EU will not at the very least reciprocate when it comes to those tariffs. Those figures are potentially ruinous for the industry and will cost thousands of jobs in areas of the country that can least afford to lose them. I hope that every MP who cares for the future of this industry will join me in the Lobby tonight to ensure that no deal is taken off the table.
This debate is not solely about the tariff regime; a lot of other issues are deeply concerning. Last month I hosted a fishing summit; 60 skippers from all over the west coast of Scotland and beyond came to meet the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy in the Scottish Government. Had anyone else bothered to turn up, they would have heard concerns about the loss of the European maritime and fisheries fund, how the quota has operated historically, and how the crippling cost of buying or renting quota is blocking new entrants to the industry.
In conclusion, for more than two years the UK Government and Westminster have offered Scotland, its people and its businesses nothing more than crippling uncertainty, and there is no prospect of that ending soon. More and more people are coming to the conclusion that only independence as a member of the European Union will save Scotland and its peoples. I look forward to the day when we can work with our neighbours and friends in Europe, collectively and collaboratively, on a fishing policy that benefits us and our neighbours.
First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) on securing the debate. Her timing could not have been better, because this debate gives the Minister an opportunity to let us know what he thinks about fishing and to clarify some of the remarks on his website, which I hope he will do shortly.
This debate has also been a chance for Members to ask where the Fisheries Bill is, because as we approach the end of this parliamentary Session we want to know where it is, when it will make a return, and whether it will be carried over to the next Session or whether it will fall, meaning that the process would have to start all over again. I realise that the Minister’s views may be subtly different from those of his predecessor, and I would be grateful if he clarified that when he gets to his feet. Nevertheless, I welcome him to his post, as I did in yesterday’s debate about farming; then, I welcomed him as the new farming Minister and now I welcome him as the new fisheries Minister. He has quite a portfolio of challenges ahead of him and Labour Members wish him well, because it is really important that fisheries policy is got right.
I will spend the brief time I have today talking about what fishing should look like after Brexit. There is an opportunity to recast fishing policy and to address the genuine concerns that have been raised about the common fisheries policy; like my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby, I am no fan of the CFP. However, concerns have been raised about the additional powers that the Government are considering, how they will be used and whether the Government are using the powers they already have to make the lives of fishers better.
It is worth saying that the Labour party does not oppose the Fisheries Bill. However, like the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), who mirrors lots of my views about fisheries, there are still improvements that should be made to it. In particular, we need to consider how the Fisheries Bill can create truly sustainable fisheries. Our fishing needs to be sustainable, both environmentally and economically. In the past, those two elements have been seen as being opposed to each other, when in fact they are the same thing. If we do not have a sustainable fisheries policy, we will not have the fish, which means we will not have the fishing fleet, the processors and the industry, which would further affect our coastal communities.
That is why sustainability needs to be at the heart of the Fisheries Bill. The Minister’s predecessor was not so generous as to accept an amendment from the Opposition that sought to change the name of the Fisheries Bill to the “Sustainable Fisheries Bill”. Nevertheless, I would like to see the new Minister to put sustainability throughout the Bill. We need to ensure that, regarding what comes after Brexit, the Fisheries Bill considers how we can regenerate our coastal communities, gives a fairer deal to our small fleets in particular, ensures a high level of marine safety by UK boats and—importantly—by foreign boats in our waters, promotes fishing co-operatives, and deals with the grand rhetoric and huge promises that the Secretary of State and others in Government have made about what fishing can get out of Brexit, because, as has already been mentioned, there have been concerns about the betrayal of fishers.
I encourage the new Minister to be cautious about making any grand promises, because, as we have heard about fishing in the transition period, promises that have been made to the industry and repeated time and again have not been delivered. I therefore invite him to be cautious about some of the words that he uses, to make sure that there are no additional betrayals or disruption.
The Labour party believes there is an opportunity to use the Fisheries Bill and post-Brexit fishing to consider redistribution of quotas. It is really important to consider how we can support the small-scale fleets in particular in post-Brexit fishing. There is an opportunity, with the powers that the Minister already has under the CFP, to consider reallocation of quotas and whether our quota system is the right one.
The Minister, writing on his own website, has come out in support of effort-based regimes regarding quota allocation. Many of us in this House hoped that that had been put behind us, so I would be grateful if he clarified his view on effort-based regimes, especially as they were not front and centre in the Fisheries Bill. As we go forward, it is important that the promise to coastal communities that Brexit will deliver more jobs and more fish is delivered, and it can be delivered through fair distribution, within the CFP and outside it. That needs to be written throughout the Fisheries Bill.
Another issue that we discussed in the Fisheries Bill Committee was marine safety. Brexit must be used as an opportunity to increase marine safety, for not only for UK boats but foreign boats. At that time, the Minister’s predecessor did not want to consider a suggestion from the Opposition to require foreign boats to have the same high environmental standards and marine safety standards as UK boats. However, there are great opportunities to adopt more widely what is already going on.
I invite the Minister to consider the lifejacket scheme being pioneered by Labour-run Plymouth City Council. This scheme has been developed with the industry to provide new lifejackets to fishers—let us face it: fishers do not always wear the lifejackets that we know they should wear—to ensure that the buckle does not get in the way of their work, and, importantly, that there is a personal locator beacon on every single lifejacket, so that if a fisher falls overboard or comes into contact with seawater, the PLB activates and the “search” is taken out of the search and rescue operation. Although responsibility for this scheme is shared with the Department for Transport, developing it further is something that the Minister could achieve a quick win on.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is very well aware that I have a personal interest in safety at sea. Does he welcome the fact, as I do, that in the last Budget the Government made quite a considerable sum of money available for safety equipment for fishermen?
I thank the hon. Lady, who has a neighbouring constituency to mine, for that intervention. It is good that we have two MPs from the far south-west championing fisheries in this debate. However, I would like to know what that money is being spent on, because I am cautious about press releases and announcements, and I want to see action, including action to spread the best practice of that lifejacket scheme to every single one of our fishing communities. That could be really strong action.
I agree with the hon. Member for Waveney, who made some compelling points about strengthening the economic link; we know that for every one job at sea, there are 10 jobs at home in fish processing. However, the Fisheries Bill does not strengthen that link; it is nowhere near strong enough in that regard. I therefore invite the Minister to consider how we can strengthen that economic link. Labour’s proposal to ensure that at least 50% of all fish caught under a UK licence is landed in a UK port could be a huge step forward in that respect.
I also press the Minister to do more to support the development of fishing co-operatives, in both the catching sector and the processing sector. Fishing co-operatives are a real success story; from the south-west of England to Scotland, they have prospered largely without Government support. Their potential for expansion, with a fairer share of wealth and power in our coastal communities, is vast.
I hope that the Minister will carefully consider ways to encourage the establishment of more co-operatives, and that he will work with Labour and Co-operative MPs to help double the size of the co-operative sector in fishing. There is a real opportunity to keep the money that is generated by fishing in those coastal communities by building more co-operatives.
Finally, because I realise my time is running out, I repeat that I share the concerns of my “double” from across the aisle—the hon. Member for Waveney—about electric pulse beam fishing. I know that we had a brief conversation about that in the margins of yesterday’s debate on farming, but I put on the record the Opposition’s real concern about electric pulse beam fishing. It is a cruel method of fishing. As a nation, we should be proud to say that we will not allow it in our waters. I know that the Minister is taking steps to look again at the licences of UK boats engaged in electric pulse beam fishing, but the statutory instrument that was tabled by his predecessor would allow 5% of the UK fleet—around 200 boats—to use this cruel method of fishing, which is simply not good enough. We should ban electric pulse beam fishing and allow it only under scientific derivations when there is a clear scientific case for it, and we should not use the case for science—as some of our Dutch friends do—to create commercial fisheries that use electric pulse beam fishing.
There is a huge opportunity to make sure that our coastal communities receive the investment they need, because in many cases those communities have been hit hardest by the austerity of the last nine years, and if we are to realise the promises made during the leave campaign, and since the referendum, about the benefits that can derive from a revised fisheries policy, we need the Minister not only to ensure that the regulations and laws that come after Brexit work, but to use the powers that he already has to ensure a fairer distribution of quota and more investment in our coastal communities.
Thank you very much for that, Mr Stringer, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Greater Grimsby (Melanie Onn), who is my relatively near neighbour on the other side of the Humber, for securing this important debate.
As a former shipping Minister, I know Grimsby very well. Indeed, I recall that, years ago, when I first entered Parliament, there was the annual fishing debate, when Austin Mitchell and I would often engage in speeches. By the way, I am very pleased to know that he is still alive, but he will be very pleased when the UK finally leaves the European Union, as will the many people in Greater Grimsby who voted to leave.
I begin my first debate as fisheries Minister by paying tribute to our fishermen, who regularly risk their lives to provide healthy, sustainable and nutritious food in what is still one of the most dangerous jobs in this country. My thoughts are with the fishermen who have suffered loss and injury and with their families, and I thank those in the rescue services for their bravery and dedication. Before I turn to the notes I have prepared, I will comment on some of the points that have been made during the debate, which are probably more important. I particularly want to address the hon. Lady’s point about tariffs, and the situation in Northern Ireland.
Leaving the EU with a negotiated deal remains the best outcome for the UK, and I am disappointed that so many people in this room, particularly those on the Opposition Benches, did not vote last night to leave the European Union on 29 March. Doing so would have moved us on from many of the concerns that Members expressed about a no-deal Brexit.
I know that many fishermen are watching this debate. Will the Minister tell fishermen in Wales who export processed whelks to South Korea what their future will be under the withdrawal agreement? I emphasise to the Minister that the highest percentage of small vessels in the United Kingdom are Welsh vessels. Ninety per cent. of Welsh vessels are under 10 metres, and many of their owners make their money out of this sort of industry. The withdrawal agreement could be devastating for them—I declare an interest, because my daughter is the part owner of exactly one of those vessels. Will the Minister commit to providing financial support to fishermen who trade under non-EU free trade agreements in this current situation of uncertainty?
South Korea, as we know, is not in the European Union, and therefore Brexit will not have an impact on that industry. However, the hon. Lady may rest assured that we are planning for all scenarios, as any responsible Government would, including leaving without a deal.
Today, the Government have published information about essential policies that would need to be in place if the UK were to leave the EU without a deal on 29 March. In that scenario, the Government would implement a temporary tariff regime that would apply for 12 months. Under that regime, the majority of imports would be tariff free, including the majority of fish imports. There would be exceptions for some fish products, primarily tuna and warm-water shrimps and prawns. For those products, preferential access to the UK market is important for developing countries.
In a no-deal scenario, the Government are committed to entering into urgent discussions with the EU, including Ireland, to jointly agree long-term measures to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. On a temporary basis, the Government would not introduce any new checks or controls on goods crossing from Ireland to Northern Ireland. However, fish from outside the EU would need to enter Northern Ireland through a designated entry point.
In recent weeks, I have been corresponding with Iceland’s ambassador to the UK, who is particularly concerned about whether the tariff advantages that Iceland receives under EEA arrangements will continue. Can the Minister confirm that that will be the case?
I think I will be spending quite a lot of time in Oslo, Reykjavik and the Faroe Islands, which will be our new allies in this area, particularly at the annual Fisheries Council. We will attend those negotiations as an independent coastal state like Norway, making those important decisions.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), the Opposition spokesman, talked about effort-based regimes. The points I made came at the height of the discard crisis, when there was a particularly emotive story on local BBC television about perfectly good fish being thrown into the sea because the fishers had found some larger-quota fish. We are moving into a new era, and the landing obligation solves many of the problems that the quotas created, but our White Paper noted that effort-based regimes attract mixed views. We may consider a pilot, but we need to ensure that fishing is sustainable and that we do not encourage a race to fish.
The right hon. Member for Tynemouth (Sir Alan Campbell) made a point about investment in ports; as a former ports Minister, I refute his allegations. Ports up and down the country, including in the north-east—private ports, trust ports such as the one in Newcastle, and local authority ports—are making massive investments. In Whitby, £7.6 million is being invested in pier repairs. Sirius Minerals is investing massive amounts of money as part of a £4 billion project to deliver polyhalite fertiliser through the port of Tees, using many of the facilities that British Steel used. On 26 February this year, Hartlepool council announced a big investment development order through which many opportunities will come to Hartlepool, including offshore wind.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) repeated his invitation to visit Peterhead, which I hope to do very soon.
I want to correct the record. Opposition Members said that there had been no investment in the fishing industry, but last year’s UK Government Budget delivered millions in technology and methodology funding. That will ensure that we not only regain control of our waters when we leave the CFP, but give our fishermen the chance to innovate within the industry.
On a point of order, Mr Stringer. The hon. Lady claims that people on the Opposition Benches said certain things, but she was not in her place for most of the debate. I am flabbergasted as to how she could have come to that conclusion having not been in her place.
If anyone wants evidence of investment and confidence in the Scottish fishing industry, they should visit Parkol Marine Engineering in Whitby, which builds fishing boats. It has an order book stretching almost into the middle of next decade, with Scottish fishermen from Shetland and elsewhere buying state-of-the-art boats because of the confidence they have in the fishing industry. Massive investment has gone into Fraserburgh and Peterhead, and I have also heard of amazing plans for future investment in Peterhead’s fishing industry.
I hope the Minister will forgive me for potentially being helpful to Scottish National party Members, but does he agree with the Scottish Government’s report from last summer, which stated that Brexit could generate up to £540 million for the fishing industry and 5,000 jobs?
That is exactly right. It is nice to hear some optimism from the Government Benches, in stark contrast to the SNP, which is fast becoming a one-trick pony. It has had one referendum, which it lost, but it seems to think that the answer to everything is an independent Scotland. The people of Scotland made their view quite clear in that referendum, and the SNP should respect it, in the same way that the people of the United Kingdom respect the result of the referendum on leaving the European Union.
It is a fact that the majority of people working in the fishing industry voted to leave, and many did so because those in that industry who survived the common fisheries policy still bear its scars. It is also true that we have asymmetric access to the market: an average of 760,000 tonnes of fish was caught by foreign EU vessels in our waters between 2012 and 2014, compared with only 90,000 tonnes the other way around.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We touched briefly on visas, and as a former immigration Minister I know about the problems with Filipinos working on vessels because of the way the 12-mile limit works, particularly in Ulster and the west of Scotland. I am sure that the new Immigration Minister will have conversations with right hon. and hon. Members on that topic. Of course, as my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) said, we need to get young blood into the industry. We need to train our own people, and have newer ships in places such as Portavogie.
I know of the recent concerns about the Irish suspension of the voisinage agreement, which has been mentioned, and the impoundment of two Ulster boats. That was the result of a legal challenge, not of any action by the Irish Government; I am pleased that the Irish Government have committed to resolving that issue, and we will monitor any moves closely. When I was a transport Minister in the European Council, Mr Varadkar was my opposite number. I know that he is a man of great integrity, and we should take the Irish Government at their word that they are going to fix that problem.
I understand the concerns that have been raised about pulse trawling. The statutory instrument laid before the House on 13 January will provide continuity for the fishing industry by ensuring that EU law on technical conservation is operable in the UK. That will mean that vessels will no longer be able to conduct pulse trawling in UK waters.
I had better allow the hon. Lady who secured the debate to make a few concluding points. If I have not covered every point, I will be happy to write to right hon. and hon. Members.
I have to say that I am sorry about the tone that the Minister took in his remarks, particularly about the withdrawal agreement. He said that he knows my constituency very well, but he does not know it that well. It is Great Grimsby; getting its name right would be a good start.
I worry about the flippant tone that he has taken about non-EU nations and the impact on the industry of leaving, even with a deal. That is not going to help the Welsh industry, as the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) pointed out, so I hope that the Minister will take that point seriously. Why will the Minister not set up a DEFRA marine safety hub in my constituency, to support the industry in Grimsby and secure its future?
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Child Trust Funds
[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Child Trust Funds.
It is very nice to see you in the Chair, Sir Christopher. I am pleased to have secured this debate on child trust funds—a landmark Labour policy set up by Gordon Brown in 2005 to give every young person a financial asset.
Child trust funds were closed to new accounts by the coalition Government in 2011. When Gordon Brown launched them in 2005, he said:
“Our aim is a Britain of ambition and aspiration where not just some but all children have the best possible start in life. The Child Trust Fund is designed to ensure every child has assets and wealth and that no child is left out.”
Unfortunately, it seems that lots of children are being left out. Child trust funds provided a tax-free savings account, with Government contributions to children born between 1 September 2002 and 2 January 2011. Under the scheme, the child is allowed to manage the account when they become 16, but can withdraw money only when they reach 18 years of age. The funds will mature on 1 September 2020.
The scheme was designed to provide a financial cushion for young people as they entered adult life, while building their skills and confidence in money management. As I said, child trust funds were closed to new accounts in 2011, but they remain live and continue to gain value through market growth and family contributions. Today, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced the continuation of their tax-free status. There are now 6 million such accounts, worth an astonishing £9.3 billion in total, but shockingly the Government have lost more than 1 million of the account holders; their accounts are worth £1.5 billion. What a blunder! The Government have failed to run the scheme properly.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does she share my concern that, when I have tabled written parliamentary questions asking for the number of lost accounts by social class or nation and region, the Minister does not know? He also does not know how much he has allocated in additional resources. Does that not show a lack of political will to identify that, and to get the money to the poorest children in the country?
Absolutely. I did not know about my hon. Friend’s parliamentary questions, but I find that astonishing. The figures that I will present come from the Share Foundation.
There are now 6 million accounts worth £9.3 billion, but 6% of the accounts held by children in the top 15% of the income distribution have been lost. In total, those have a value of £213 million. Some 14% of accounts in middle-income families—where Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs cannot link them up with the family—have a value of £540 million. There is no contact information for four in 10 of the children from families on child tax credits—the worst-off, struggling families, in the lowest 15% of the income distribution. The Share Foundation tells me that, on top of that, another 40% have been contacted but have not responded.
There are therefore between 400,000 and 800,000 children with accounts valued at £1,600—a lost value of £710 million, or even £1.4 billion. That is completely disgraceful. Losing £1,000 may not seem like a lot to a Treasury Minister, on a salary of £100,000 a year, but to most families in my constituency it is a fortune that could pay a young person’s rent as a student for several months, or for a course, or for driving lessons.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. I have to declare an interest: both my children received child trust funds when they were born. That started the pathway for us to save for them for when they are 18. It is a terrible scandal. The Government should recompense all the families who missed out, and look at the accrued interest and compensate them fully for everything that they have lost.
The money is in the accounts but the families have not accessed them and do not know about them, so what the Government need to do is link them up. The Chancellor had an opportunity in his spring statement this afternoon, but he failed to take it. The whole purpose of the scheme was redistributive. The wealthiest children were given a Government contribution of £250 at the outset and middle-income children were given £500, but poorer children and children with disabilities got more. They got it in two chunks that totalled an average of £920.
I simply think that the Treasury has taken its eye off the ball completely on this matter. It thinks that it can contract the administration out to a small, well-intentioned charity that is doing its best, but it is fundamentally a Government responsibility, and Government Ministers must take their share of the responsibility.
As I was saying, children from wealthy families started off with £250. Children from poor families started off with £920. However, the valuation of the accounts now shows that that position has completely reversed. The accounts of the wealthiest children are now worth, on average, £4,000, but the accounts of the children from the poorest families are worth £1,600. That is partly because wealthy families were able to keep topping them up, which poor families cannot afford to do. Wealthy families have also been managing them more actively.
In essence, the Government have overturned the whole purpose of the scheme. Moreover, as my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) said, the Government seem to be hiding the funds from those for whom they are intended. Information is printed in tiny typeface on the letter that goes to 16-year-olds giving them their national insurance number. All it says is: “When you turn 16, take control of your child trust fund. Ask your parents for more information. Go to www.gov.uk/child-trust-funds”. If someone does not know that they have a child trust fund, or what a child trust fund is, they will not notice or follow that. It ought to say: “You have an asset. It is probably £1,000. If you want to get hold of it, you need to do this.” It should be in big red typeface, like the national insurance number itself, on the letter that is sent out.
Furthermore, most young people, once they have clicked through to the Government website, will not be able to access the fund, even if they follow the instructions in the letter that they get with their national insurance number, because the Government website requires them to have a Government gateway user ID—I do not know whether you are familiar with those, Sir Christopher. It means that, as well as their national insurance number, young people need a passport, a P60 or a payslip. Obviously, 16-year-olds are at school; they do not have P60s and payslips. We are particularly concerned about people in low-income families. Many of them do not have passports, which are very expensive. More to the point, young people are not really very financially sophisticated: 62% of 14 to 17-year-olds cannot read a payslip, while only 52% of seven to 17-year-olds say that they have received any financial education in school, at home or in other settings.
The Government contracted out the administration of the scheme to the Share Foundation, a charity that has been administering it for the 45,000 children in care and which has managed to track down 60% of them via local authority records. That is very commendable, but I put it to the Minister that it is completely irresponsible to contract out the administration of a database of 6 million people to a voluntary sector organisation for a fee of £300,000 a year and expect 1.5 million people to be tracked down on a voluntary basis.
HMRC writes to every mother whose child is soon to be 18, stating that entitlement to child benefit is about to end. I suggest that that is the perfect opportunity to signpost them to the child trust fund. Mothers could be told, “Your child benefit is coming to an end, but your child will then be entitled to this money.” I hope that the Minister will take that idea away and implement it with HMRC, which is a department under the Treasury’s responsibility.
That is exactly right. If the account is dormant for 15 years, the person will no longer be able to access it.
The results of a YouGov survey, published at lunchtime today, underscore the lack of signposting:
“One in six parents of children aged 8 to 16 were not aware of Child Trust Funds… This figure rises to one in five (21%) among families who were receiving child tax credit at the time”—
families that would thus have been eligible for the larger voucher from the Government.
This is a scandalous and secret maladministration of public money on a vast scale. Unless the 1 million children and young people are tracked down and the £1.5 billion is given to those for whom it was set aside, that money will go back to the Treasury, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) said, to be redistributed by a bureaucrat. That would be a terrible waste—not just of the money, but of the life chances of the young people for whom it was intended.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) on securing this debate; I recognise that she has taken a keen interest in the issue and has been a doughty campaigner on matters of childcare and child poverty, following her 11 months as a Minister in the last Labour Government. I also acknowledge and will try to address the points made by other hon. Members.
The Government share the commitment of hon. Members of all parties to supporting people to save at every stage of life, irrespective of income or background. Financial inclusion is one of my key priorities as Economic Secretary, and in the past year I have met many organisations and experts in the field. I strongly believe that learning financial skills at a young age equips young people to make better decisions when they are older, so I am pleased to have this opportunity to set out the Government’s view.
The Government introduced junior individual savings accounts in place of child trust funds in November 2011, providing continued tax incentives to encourage families to put money away for their children’s future. Under legislation introduced in 2015, existing child trust fund accounts can be transferred into a junior ISA, providing families with the flexibility to choose the right option for their child. The Government also sought to make specific provision for children in care; as the hon. Lady pointed out, we contracted the Share Foundation to work with local authorities to open a junior ISA account on behalf of looked-after children.
The Government currently pay £200 into the accounts of children who have been in care for at least one year. The Department for Education has provided the Share Foundation with funding totalling £531,624 for that administration, and 120,000 payments of £200 have been made to children in care since 2012. We want those children to leave care with money to their name and the means to continue saving as they become independent. I should stress that junior ISAs are just one element of our work to promote financial education among young people. We want all children to enter the world of work understanding the importance of budgeting and saving, so financial literacy is now taught as part of the citizenship curriculum for 11 to 16-year-olds.
Let me turn to the so-called lost child trust funds, which were the core of the hon. Lady’s speech. There are many complex and overlapping reasons for the lack of engagement, but the Government are working with industry to actively seek holders of the accounts. Child trust fund providers are required to send regular statements to the child’s last known address and are taking steps to trace those who have moved. They have a statutory obligation to send such statements on the child’s seventh, 10th and 15th birthday, but in line with Financial Conduct Authority guidance, most do so annually.
The national insurance notification letter that HMRC sends to all 16-year-olds has recently been amended to include details about how child trust funds can be located; the hon. Lady referred to the size and colour of the font used, which is clearly a matter that I can take on board and examine. I also draw hon. Members’ attention to HMRC’s online tracing tool, which is available via gov.uk. Of course, people can still contact HMRC by telephone or post if they so choose.
May I put to the Minister the same question that I put to my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman)? The Share Foundation was able to give her statistics on the distribution among socioeconomic groups, but when I tabled questions to the Treasury asking for exactly the same information, it was not available. When I asked for estimates by nation and region, that information was not available. When I asked what additional resources had been allocated to assist in locating child trust fund accounts, that information was not available either. Can the Minister supply it today?
I am grateful for that question about the regional and income breakdown of the distribution of child trust funds. Such information is published by HMRC and discriminates by region and county and by whether additional contributions were made; no income distribution data is collected by HMRC. I am happy to look into the matter further; if I can give the hon. Gentleman any more information, I will write to him.
Looking to the future, approximately 6 million child trust funds have not yet been transferred to junior ISAs. The first of those accounts will mature next September, and a further 55,000 will mature every month thereafter until 2029. What young people choose to do with their money is ultimately a matter for them, but we want them to engage in the process so that they can make the best decision for their individual circumstances.
As I have explained to the Minister, the problem is that people cannot use the Government website to access their accounts if they do not have a payslip, a P60 or a passport. Will the Minister address that point? Hundreds of thousands of young people will be in that situation.
The key question is how an individual child knows what they have. The hon. Lady’s allegation is that this money is lost, but it is not lost; it is just that the individuals have not come to the point at which they can engage with it, which will happen at age 16 when they get a letter with their national insurance number. At 16, they are allowed to make decisions about their investment choices for that fund, and at 18 they can access it. They get the letter, along with their national insurance information, at 16, the age when they can start making individual decisions about that money. I think it has been suggested that the Share Foundation should interrogate data from the Department for Work and Pensions, cross-reference it with HMRC’s, and somehow write to these individuals—
What plans does the Minister have to encourage eligible parents, and children when they turn 16, to access this money? Is it not the responsibility of the Government to do some kind of public awareness campaign to say, “Hey, look—here’s your investment that the Government made for you. This is how you access it.” Let us make this a can-do exercise.
The key point is that children have access to this money when they are 18, but can influence decisions about it from the age of 16, when they are paying tax and have a national insurance number. They will gain that access mechanism when they secure their national insurance number. The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland made a point about how this issue should be depicted on the form when 16-year-olds get their NI number, but that number provides the key to unlock awareness of, and access to, the fund that has been invested for them.
I do not like to denigrate my former profession, but I do not think the Minister has been very well briefed. According to the Share Foundation, the lost accounts of the most wealthy number 54,000, the middle income 560,000, and the poorest 444,000. Those are not families in which the child is already 16 to 18; it includes all families. It means that the addressee has gone away. We do not know whether the address we have got is the right address for that group of people.
The point I am making is that all individuals, no matter what their background is, will gain access to the funds at the point when they can gain their national insurance number, by reference to the letter that has been provided. I have had extensive conversations with my officials, and I note the hon. Lady’s reference to bureaucrats. She worked for over 20 years at the Treasury—I have the highest regard for it and the accuracy of the material it has given me.
No funds or accounts have been lost. All child trust funds have been managed by child trust fund providers—either by the original provider with which the account was set up, or by a subsequent provider to which the funds have been transferred. There are 69 providers currently managing child trust funds, and the Share Foundation’s analysis appears to be based on accounts held with just one provider: the Share Centre, which represents only 1.5% of the number of accounts. The hon. Lady might want to contradict that by extrapolating the data to all of them, but the Government are working together with the industry to encourage child trust fund holders to re-engage with their accounts.
As I said, we have developed an online tracing mechanism and recently amended the national insurance notification letter to 16-year-olds to include a reference to child trust funds. That happened in January in order to take into account the points raised. Any account holders who are unable to retrieve their account details online are encouraged to contact HMRC directly.
I do not think that the hon. Lady’s raising her voice in an aggressive manner is going to help anyone. I have just set out the Government’s position and explained the detail of the provision. The hon. Lady has extrapolated some figures from one piece of analysis by one of the providers, which is not a reliable way of carrying on. I have told her about the action we took in January.
The issue is not just about the online portal, but about being able to call up HMRC. Last year’s Budget included a commitment to consult on draft regulations that will ensure that investments currently held in child trust fund accounts can retain their tax-free status after maturity. The consultation will take place later this spring, when the Government will lay regulations before the House, well in advance of the first accounts maturing in September 2020.
In summary, both junior ISAs and child trust funds allow parents and guardians to save on behalf of their children, tax free. People have the option to convert their child trust fund into a junior ISA, and we are working with providers to reunite dormant accounts with their intended owners. However, all remaining child trust funds will continue to enjoy tax-free status, even after they mature. The amount that young people can save in child trust funds and junior ISAs will increase by the rate of inflation in April—it is currently £4,260 a year.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland that the system is not working. As a way out, would the Minister consider meeting people who have sufficient knowledge—I would include my hon. Friend—or perhaps citizens advice bureaux, the Share Foundation and a panel of parents, so that some answers can be given to the questions that have been raised?
On behalf of the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who is the Minister responsible for this area and is currently before a Select Committee, I would be very happy to offer a meeting with hon. Members to discuss this matter further. It is his responsibility, and I am sure he would be very happy to attend.
We have made efforts to provide young people with savings to draw on as they reach adulthood, and we hope this encourages further saving at every stage of life. The points made by the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland on access have been comprehensively addressed by the Government’s sending a letter to 16-year-olds.
The key point here is: when does somebody have access to make investment decisions as a young person? It is when they turn 16, and then they can access it when they are 18. Trying to overlap the letter with the mother when actually it is about the beneficiary, who is the child, is not the route to go down.
Disability Assessment Services
I beg to move,
That this House has considered improvements to disability assessment services.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I am grateful to have the opportunity to debate this important topic. People with disabilities and ill health are often confronted with barriers at every turn. I believe it is the role of Government to remove these barriers as often as possible. Everyone deserves the same opportunities to achieve their potential, and I am proud that we are ensuring that the issue is high on the Government’s agenda. The support available through the benefits system is there to take some of the strain off people who are living through often unimaginable day-to-day challenges. However, I am sure that, like me, colleagues have heard from constituents at times when they have needed help and found it difficult to navigate the system.
A very dear friend of mine and colleague from the business world, Andrew Knowlman, sadly lost his courageous fight with motor neurone disease late last year. He used his time and experience of the disease to campaign to ensure that I clearly understood the physical challenges it brought him, and the challenges he faced in trying to access the support available through the Department for Work and Pensions. One of the most significant issues that he brought to my attention was the repeated requests he received to attend work capability assessments.
This point is echoed by my constituent Lee Millard, who has been diagnosed with the same condition. Lee and his wife Jean have been campaigning to make a difference for those affected by the disease. When we met, Lee explained how stressful the reassessment process can be for claimants of the employment and support allowance, which is now moving across to universal credit, and personal independence payments—particularly when we consider that conditions such as motor neurone disease are degenerative, and the person who is affected is all too aware that they will not improve. He said that the whole process can feel very much like a “waste of precious time.”
Yes, that is absolutely vital. One of the learnings from the system is that it needs to make sure that those assessments are available in time. I will go on to talk about that.
In a bid to tackle this problem, the Department stopped requiring people with the most severe and lifelong conditions to undertake assessments from September 2017. However, some of my constituents told me that that is not their experience, and that they are still being asked to go for assessments. The Minister kindly clarified that for those receiving ESA and universal credit before 29 September 2017, the severe conditions criteria will take effect at their next work capability assessment, so it could be that my constituents had one after that date, but will not have another.
I welcome the move, which is being encouraged, to enable decisions to be made without face-to-face assessments, through health questionnaires and evidence collected from GPs and specialist health professionals. On a similar note, I am pleased that people receiving the highest level of PIP will receive an ongoing award, with only a light-touch review after 10 years. That is another progressive step to ensure that those who most need support receive it hassle-free.
Some of my constituents have found the PIP assessment process and the work capability assessment deeply traumatic and very flustering, and they often get confused. Does my hon. Friend agree that allowing assessments to be recorded—especially video-recorded—will give people confidence that they are getting a fair assessment, and that the assessors are being monitored and must come up to a high standard?
I declare an interest: my wife is disabled. I am interested in the assessment that takes place when somebody moves from the disability living allowance to PIP. From my constituency surgeries, I have noticed that that the mobility element for DLA is somewhat lower than for PIP. Does the hon. Lady think that that pattern is more widespread throughout the UK? Is there something here that is not right? Leaving out my wife, I have dealt with cases of people who have lost out on the initial assessment. The sentiment about continuing assessment is absolutely correct, and I support that.
I am not in a position to see an overall pattern—perhaps the Minister does, because she sees what is going on across the country—but many of us have heard about issues relating to mobility and Motability.
Last week, the Secretary of State announced that people over state pension age will no longer have to go through PIP reassessments. That is part of her ambition to ensure that disabled claimants do not feel like they are on trial. These changes have been rightly welcomed in the press and, I am sure, by many Members in this Chamber.
These improvements are good news for claimants. However, one of the most common times when I receive a request for help from a constituent claiming disability benefits is when they do not agree with the outcome of their assessment. Recent figures from my area—Chichester—show that the overturn rates at tribunal are 71% and 81% for ESA and PIP respectively. It is my understanding that that is largely due to medical evidence not being available in good time, and being available only at tribunal. Those levels are clearly unacceptable. It is very stressful for people to go through the initial assessments, the reassessments and a tribunal. I would be grateful if the Minister could let us know what more work is being done to improve the system. Are there any plans to consider the timescales within which we ask GPs and medical professionals to give information about claimants, to ensure it is in time for assessments?
We have all seen that the appeal rates are unusually high. What, in the hon. Lady’s experience, is the time it takes to get to an appeal? In my part of the world, it is 40-plus weeks, which for some of these people is a ridiculous amount of time to wait.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech and is putting into words what a lot of us experience in our constituencies. In my area, it takes 48 weeks for an appeal to be heard, and people usually have to sign on for universal credit, rather than ESA. They have to undergo conditionality, even though in 71% or 72% of cases in my area, at the end of the process it is found that they are not able to work. They are being pushed into that by a system that does not take into account their disability. Does the hon. Lady agree that that desperately needs looking at? People have to wait a year or more to get assessed properly.
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. She is being very generous with her time. Is she as concerned as me about a report in the GP journal Pulse last week that said that the transformation of the new health assessment system could lead to unfettered access to medical records via the GP? We should surely speak up against that. Medical records are personal data; that is an absolute human right.
Yes, although we need to balance that with having enough medical data to make the assessments in the first place. I have not seen that report. I do not know whether the Minister has, and whether she can take that into account in her speech.
I am glad to hear that, following the recent Government announcements, we are moving our benefits system into the 20th century by integrating multiple data sets into one system, although I take the hon. Lady’s point that we must ensure that they are very well protected. That will streamline the assessment process and make submitting a claim much more user-friendly, particularly for people transitioning between benefits. Plans to test a single health assessment for all disability benefits will mean less form-filling, and will reduce face-to-face assessments, cutting red tape and the inconvenience it causes. My constituents who need support often have highly complex needs, so I hope the changes will save them time and stress. It is important that we listen to our constituents and put them in the driving seat of reforms. I hope the Department will do that.
An issue that has been highlighted to me is people’s reluctance to attend assessments. We must do more to ensure people feel comfortable with and trust the process. It is key that we ensure that people know that in every case they are being assessed by a qualified doctor, nurse or healthcare professional—often somebody who works in the NHS—who has undergone additional training to carry out assessments. I did not realise that every single assessment is carried out by a qualified medical assessor. Many members of the public do not realise that. They think it is some third-party company, but often nurses work for those companies. We need to do more to make sure that people are aware of that, so they feel more comfort and trust.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we must ensure that the questions in the assessment process are not too intrusive, so people do not feel that their integrity or dignity has been taken away from them? They should feel comfortable taking part in the process.
Yes, absolutely. We should not only look at who is carrying out the assessments, but open up where they can take place. Perhaps we can have a wider range of premises where assessments can be carried out, including places that are more familiar to and convenient for claimants, such as local authority buildings, NHS sites or even jobcentres. I would be interested to hear whether the Minister has any plans to do that.
In recent years, disability employment has risen, and now over half of disabled people are in work. Nine per cent. more disabled women and over 6% more disabled men are in work than in 2013. That is testament to the programmes that support people with disabilities into the workplace. I am pleased to hear that the Secretary of State outlined her ambition to build on that record, as every person with a disability or learning difficulty deserves the same opportunities to go to work and build a career. Programmes such as the personal support package have been crucial to that; they provide tailored employment support that recognises the individuality of people’s conditions. Much of that work is done through the jobcentre. In Chichester, we have a great team with some real success stories because of the support available through the programme.
Our Jobcentre Plus makes good use of the community partners and small employment advisers. Chichester has a low unemployment rate of 1.7%, so local businesses look to use all the available talent and need more local people in the workplace. I am glad that the small employment advisers are able to bring people with long-term health conditions and disabilities together with businesses to help them find a decent job.
Work coaches and disability employment advisers use all the tools at their disposal to help build skills, and to help disabled claimants prepare for the workplace. They do that not only through national programmes, such as the Work and Health programme, but local initiatives, such as WorkAid, which is run by the Aldingbourne Trust. It is great to hear the success stories of constituents who have managed to move into work, and that is made possible by the tireless effort of the jobcentre staff, who make those initiatives a success on the ground. I am sure that we all have many examples of that.
Getting a good job has a powerful impact. Last year, I met a constituent whose son is on the autism spectrum—there is a big problem getting people with autism into the workplace; much more needs to be done on that. She told me that he rarely utters a word and is uncomfortable around people. She is determined to help her son, and managed to get him work experience at a games software development firm. That was transformative; for the first time in a long time, he began to speak.
Getting a foot on the career ladder is challenging irrespective of disability; sometimes, extra-special effort must be made to find opportunities, particularly for work experience. I am very pleased that the jobcentre is offering careers advice to disabled students in schools, because building confidence in disabled kids as early as when they are 12 is critical to making them feel that they have all the opportunities that everybody else has. This is just the start; there are exciting pilots up and down the country, such as Tri-Work, which offers work experience to children in years 10 and 11, and programmes that support internships for school-leavers. I want every disabled child to be excited and have a wide range of options in the workplace, so we need to ensure that such initiatives are available throughout the country. The schemes are empowering young children, but they must to be available to all who need them.
The Disability Confident scheme is another successful programme, which now has almost 10,000 signatories. One participating employer is Chichester District Council, which works hard to make sure that its work environment is accessible, and has made workplace adjustments—for example, providing ramps, lifts, and an emergency evacuation chair. Perhaps more importantly, on top of that, the council has a welcoming workplace culture, actively helps applicants to apply, and will always interview disabled applicants when they have fulfilled the basic role requirements. That additional support removes the barriers to the workplace for disabled people and gives them confidence to start their journeys into new jobs.
We all know from our constituents that the system is not perfect, but I am pleased that the Government and the Secretary of State are listening to constituents’ voices and reforming it. There needs to be less stress, wasted time, and red tape all round; we need a more welcoming environment that makes people feel that they can trust the system, not that they are on trial.
I am proud of this Government’s record in supporting disabled people into work. There is still a long road ahead to ensure that all disabled people who can and want to work get the support that they need and the opportunities that they deserve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) on securing the debate. Like many other Members, I am sure, I felt compelled to speak because of the number of constituents who have come to me with harrowing stories of their experiences, and with a clear message that improvements to disability assessment services are very much needed.
In my constituency, we have seen a variety of issues recently, including cases of incorrect information being recorded; there have been statements saying that physical assessments were carried out when they were not, and that a constituent could go out alone when the assessor was actually told in the interview that they could not. In one case, the information was so incorrect that it was assumed that the assessment report had been mixed up with that for another case. My constituent Amy was recorded as walking despite being wheelchair-bound, which must surely have been apparent at the assessment. When a complaint was raised, the DWP noted that that could be a “misleading statement”, but worryingly, Capita, which has consistently failed to meet its target for an acceptable standard of assessment, responded that there was no evidence that the statement made by the assessor had been misreported. I find that unbelievable.
Last-minute cancellations are a problem. We have heard from constituents whose assessments were cancelled on the day that they were due to take place. Even worse, in some cases, the constituents were actually at the assessment centre when their appointment was cancelled. Yet perversely, if a constituent is unable to attend their assessment, they are penalised. When one of my constituents rang up two days before her assessment to give notice that she would not be well enough to attend, she was told that it was too late for the assessment to be rescheduled, and that she would be recorded as a no-show. Those are double standards of the highest order.
Constituents who have attended assessments have raised with me the concern that their assessor carried out the assessment very quickly, and did not listen to their answers. Others were concerned that the assessment was not carried out safely. For example, a constituent with a slipped disk was asked to complete the physical part of the assessment without anything to support her, despite informing the assessor that she would need to hold on to something. Why are my constituents being put at risk in that way?
Another major concern is the refusal to conduct home assessments, despite medical evidence that they are necessary. That is a concern shared by organisations such as Macmillan Cancer Support, which has found that home visits can often be difficult to obtain, and that the option of a home visit is not widely communicated.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point about home visits. Does he agree that the problem is compounded by the fact that some people have to travel very large distances for those assessments? That is an issue facing some of my constituents. It would be so much easier if they could be done at home.
I was recently contacted by a constituent who won her battle against cancer. That should have been a moment of celebration, but she is worried about her impending disability assessment. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the parity of esteem between mental and physical health should be reflected in disability assessments?
I agree; I will address that shortly. I will not take any more interventions, because a number of hon. Members wish to speak.
My constituents feel let down by the complaints process. They do not feel that it is fit for purpose. Many of their legitimate complaints are just passed back to the DWP, so those undertaking the assessments face little accountability. Does the Minister monitor the number of complaints against particular providers, and if so, can she tell us who the worst offenders are and what will be done about them?
As the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) mentioned, another common issue is that assessments do not take into account the effect of mental health conditions, or acknowledge that many physical conditions can fluctuate daily. Certainly, the assessments that I have seen have focused on what people say about their good days—or moments—as the baseline for a typical day. There appears to be an almost institutional incapability of appreciating that just because people with fluctuating conditions have times when they are doing better, that does not mean that that is their condition all the time. There are occasions when they do need real assistance.
I am sorry to say that some private providers show no prospect of making any real improvements to disability assessment services, which are inaccurate, ineffective and unfair, and need to be brought back in house. It is a damning indictment of the system’s failings that the DWP does not even bother to turn up to about 80% of the appeal hearings against the assessments.
The message that I bring from my constituents to those who undertake the assessments—perhaps the Minister can consider this—is that they should be carried out with the idea that we should treat others as we wish to be treated. Show respect, show empathy and show compassion. That is what our constituents deserve.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate, Sir Christopher, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) on securing it. I know that the Minister, who is almost a constituency neighbour, is fully engaged in the issue, and we should be in no doubt about how committed she is to finding a way through.
I am sorry that I did not make it quite as plain as my hon. Friend did, but that was the point that I was trying to make.
I am fortunate that in my office I have a member of staff who used to work in the DWP, before I pinched him. He has taken this issue seriously, and we work hard and often successfully to support people who find themselves challenging, and struggling because of, PIP decisions. My office has seen numerous cases of the DWP accepting a poor medical report containing obvious errors and incorrect recommendations from medical services. If those reports had been returned at an earlier stage, decisions would have been overturned immediately.
We have also seen numerous cases in which the mandatory reconsideration has rubber-stamped the original decision, failing to reflect in any detail what the constituent has said or to refer to any new evidence provided, and in which the DWP has failed to send new medical evidence for a medical opinion—I mentioned that earlier—to contact the constituent to find out more, or to consider further evidence when it is provided. Therefore, once a mandatory reconsideration is done, it must go to appeal. I know that is often very much the responsibility of work coaches and individual jobcentres, but there is a need for leadership in addressing the problem.
Resolving any disputes without the need for an appeal will help to ensure that people receive the right decision earlier in the process. Avoiding a tribunal saves money and time for everyone concerned. I am reluctant to mention the Minister’s constituency and county, but the tribunal statistics for the Truro tribunal centre in this financial year show that 351 PIP appeals have been cleared, with the DWP’s decision upheld on only 32 occasions. We have heard other tribunal statistics this afternoon, but in Cornwall 90% of tribunal appeals are won. That must be addressed; we need to look at what is going on in Cornwall.
A constituent of mine was awarded no PIP at all, but on appeal was awarded higher mobility and daily living components within minutes of attending the tribunal. I dropped off my member of staff as I went to another meeting on the way up to London, and he texted me within 15 minutes to say we had won—it was almost immediate, because the minute the tribunal started my constituent was awarded the higher allowance.
Like the hon. Gentleman and his office, we have had cases—in particular those related to PIP and other benefits—where it has been questionable whether people will get their benefits through examination. I know that the Secretary of State is looking at that, but it also strikes me that the companies who do the assessments are not well managed and, more importantly, their staff are not trained properly. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
That is fair. I sit on the Select Committee on Work and Pensions with other colleagues in the Chamber, and we hear such examples all the time.
I met the individual I am talking about and I could see clearly that he should have been getting the higher mobility component. An assessor who had asked the right questions and inquired after the person’s clear and obvious physical difficulties would have discovered their whole life was adapted to be independent, and a tribunal would absolutely have been avoided.
On a few occasions, medical services for PIP assessments have stated that tribunals are not as “restricted as we are”, when justifying the fact that tribunals are often successful for the claimant. Our understanding, however, is that they all follow the same legislation and the same medical handbook, so it can only be down to poor information gathering, poor questioning and poor decision making.
The Minister knows about what I will mention now, and I am sure that she shares my concern. If the DWP did not rubber-stamp mandatory reconsiderations, as it does, people in Cornwall would not be left in desperation, causing them to turn to organisations such as Benefit Resolutions, which charges clients £100 before it even looks at the cases. Then, from some of our most vulnerable people, it takes 15% of tribunal winnings in commission. It no longer attends tribunals, and it uses aggressive tactics with the DWP, other offices and its clients. Going by the results claimed on its website, Benefit Resolutions has taken almost £200,000 from the most vulnerable people in Cornwall over the past four years. There have been numerous complaints about its conduct throughout Cornwall, and the previous charity related to it, which was called Bufferzone, was closed down following an investigation by the Charity Commission.
I take the opportunity to remind people that the many free-to-use services include Citizens Advice, Counselling and Benefit Support, disAbility Cornwall and MPs’ offices. I have serious questions about the work and moral justification of companies such as Benefit Resolutions. I would always encourage people to make contact with the organisations that I have referred to. However, the truth remains that Benefit Resolutions and companies like it exist only as a result of incompetent and poor service provided by the system.
To conclude, I will read from a letter that has been submitted as a formal complaint to the DUP, I mean the DWP—probably not the DUP, though they might do a better job—which clearly sets out the case being made this afternoon:
“Last week I had a PIP assessment which lasted an hour and a half. They ask you really hard questions like do you think about committing suicide, and you have to go over again and again how your disability or illness has affected your life.
I understand they have to assess people and I am grateful there is somewhere that we can ask for help in this country, but the system is failing and more importantly it is hurting people…This was my third assessment in three years. It was gruelling and left me completely distraught afterwards. Having to face how much my life has changed and how little I can do now in comparison to before is very difficult. Watching the person who is sitting in on your assessment with you get visibly upset by the process is heart-breaking.
I have probably over 20 supporting letters from doctors, neurologists, colorectal surgeons and healthcare professionals. These letters state that I am not going to get better. That things are likely to deteriorate for me. Not fun reading. I hand them all over willingly.
A week later I got a phone call saying that I would have to be reassessed again. The healthcare professional had not gathered enough evidence. They were at my house for an hour and a half asking me question after question. I have support from all my doctors. How could they not have enough evidence? They could not answer that question. My father asked for management to call back the next day. They did not, and have not fulfilled that request. Instead I was booked in the next day for another assessment. Not just a few extra questions. I have to go through the whole thing again.”
Thank you, Sir Christopher.
Thank you, Sir Christopher. I will be as brief as possible.
Support for those living with a disability is a mark of a civilised society but, as we have heard, the process that too many seeking support have to go through is often found to be daunting. That is certainly the case in my constituency. The rate of successful mandatory reconsiderations and appeals demonstrates that the process is fundamentally flawed. Evidence-based reviews conducted on behalf of the DWP have identified a pervasive culture of mistrust around PIP and ESA processes. That is simply not good enough.
There is no place in a welfare system for private companies, because that immediately introduces the profit motive. Looking after and supporting our sick and disabled should not be influenced by how much profit a private contractor can make. The Scottish Government will therefore remove the use of private companies for assessments.
We all have cases of constituents who have had an unfavourable decision made about them because information on them has been inaccurately recorded. Unbelievably, for example, someone with a heart condition has been assessed by a mental health professional, or vice versa. How does that promote faith in the assessment system? We need an overhaul of the system, a true recognition of the fact that life costs more for someone who lives with a disability. That is not a matter of opinion; it is a matter of fact. For that reason, in Scotland the bedroom tax has been fully mitigated by the SNP Scottish Government, because we know that people who live with a disability are disproportionately affected by the tax.
The PIP evidence-gathering process should be streamlined—that is the way forward. The stress and bureaucracy that claimants are put through, which I see every day in my constituency, are unacceptable. They cause real harm to people who are already struggling every day with serious and debilitating conditions. The system must take more account of the often very vulnerable people with whom it deals, and be redesigned accordingly. Otherwise, when our constituents need support, they will continue to face cruel and unnecessary barriers. Scotland is building a social security system that is fair to all. I urge the Minister to look critically at the system in place and do what she can to improve it for the people who use it.
I thank the hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) for securing this debate. As MPs, we have all handled cases where errors have been made with disability assessments; that was the case before the introduction of universal credit and the personal independence payment. Sadly, no doubt it will continue to be the case as the system is further refined and improved. I do not say that to lessen the impact of the distressing cases we have all assisted with or read about, but to illustrate that individual mistakes do not alone indicate a fundamentally flawed system, just that the system has to improve.
I certainly had concerns previously that there was a lack of common sense and flexibility in the assessment process for those with longer-term disabilities. I know many in this House felt the same. Health conditions can change and hopefully improve over time, so there will always be a need for occasional assessments to establish the correct level of support, but one must recognise that for some conditions sadly there is no improvement or recovery. However, I am pleased that of late there has been a greater focus on flexibility in the assessment process, whereby those with the most serious conditions can now have their evidence reviewed by a DWP case manager without the need for a face-to-face and repeated assessment. I very much welcome that change.
The help to claim service in tandem with Citizens Advice, which was mentioned earlier, is free to the user and is to be launched next month. It is designed to help the most vulnerable claimants with their applications, whether through a home visit, over the telephone or online. It will assist universal credit claimants with their award until the first accurate full payment is received. I very much welcome the Government’s recent improvements to the PIP process and the measured approach with which the universal credit system itself is being implemented nationally. However, there is no room for complacency. I hope the Minister and the Department will develop a policy of continuous improvement, ensuring that client trust is established—particularly with clients with a disability.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) on bringing forward this debate. It is an important issue; I told her I would make it my business to be here at the right time.
I have made my reputation as a councillor, a Member of the Legislative Assembly and an MP based on my constituency work, which I am very proud of. I used to fill out the disability living allowance application forms myself, and attend appeals for constituents. I do not have the time do that now because I am over here most of the time, but also because the number of applications and the help needed have increased so much. I have a full-time staff member who is allocated to PIPs and benefits, although I still carry out that work whenever I can when I am at home.
Benefits is the biggest issue in my office, but the question is not why so many people are claiming—I have always had large numbers in my area who are disabled and who claim. People are so desperate for help and they deserve help and attention. The Minister is always very responsive to anything I ask her—I thank her for that. I have seen people with serious illnesses being turned down for PIP.
I have a constituent with a long list of ailments who is at pains always to be dressed well, be washed and look the part. That is only possible because his ex-wife comes every day to make sure he gets out of bed and is washed and dressed. He was turned down. Like the example the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) gave, he went to an appeal and was not even called in, because the panel looked at the notes and said, “You know something? This man should get it,” and he got it in 15 minutes. Why did that happen? When someone goes out to assess someone and looks at their circumstances, they will say, “He looks terribly well,” or, “She’s dressed well and her hair is combed. She’s okay, she has no illness.” But they need help.
I have said this to the Minister in correspondence and I will underline it: one must question how much a physiotherapist knows about the intricacies of ulcerative colitis and the side effects of the medicine. How much does a paramedic know about the restriction on the movement of someone with multiple sclerosis? Someone with expertise needs to assess the circumstances, and GP notes should follow that up. Four out of 10 PIP candidates do not appeal as they cannot handle the stress. Do we really believe that half of the people who are claiming do not deserve it? I do not. As far as I am concerned, those people are telling the truth and they should not be looked upon as liars.
There must be a written review. We must start again for the sake of those people who are living beneath the poverty line, because they do not possess the mental fortitude to fight for what they are entitled to. Today, other hon. Members and I fight on their behalf and ask for fairness, a level playing field and an assumption that not all people are telling lies.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) on securing this debate.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s recent announcement of the change in the assessment process. Face-to-face assessments cause anxiety and distress among our constituents. It is paramount to safeguard the most vulnerable in society from undergoing assessment when their conditions are unlikely to have changed from their previous visit. As a constituency MP, I am often able to obtain the agreement of the DWP for paper-based reports that remove the need for face-to-face assessments, or at least the agreement to a home consultation, but it can be a real uphill battle to do so.
Those suffering from conditions such as MS, myalgic encephalomyelitis, severe autism and Asperger’s, agoraphobia and a range of mental health health disorders should not be required to submit a new claim every two years. Those suffering from mental health conditions do not find it easy to obtain the required evidence, particularly if that person has no engagement with medical professionals due to their condition. The recent announcement will alleviate those concerns for some claimants. I quickly draw hon. Members’ attention to the great report by the Scottish Association for Mental Health, which is the Scottish equivalent of the charity Mind. It is a sensible report that states clearly that the assessment process does not adequately gauge the impact of mental health or other fluctuating conditions, because it focuses primarily on physical impairment.
The decision to integrate assessment services into one body is welcome news; it will streamline services and allow those applying for ESA, universal credit and PIP to undergo just one assessment rather than two. Although the benefits assess two different matters, the information obtained from one assessment can be used to determine both benefit outcomes.
Like all hon. Members, I have met several constituents who have stressed their anxiety at undergoing assessments because they do not trust the system. Many constituents have been reassessed for ESA and PIP every couple of years and do not get the time to focus on improving their well-being without the threat looming over them of going back for another assessment and potentially losing some or all their benefit. Ultimately, as many Members have stressed, the issue is a lack of trust and faith in the system. Is it any wonder, given the number of low or nil awards given incorrectly, not properly picking up hidden and non-physical disabilities and forcing people to battle the system that should be supporting them?
Like many MPs, my office offers full advocacy support for welfare claimants, from the initial application and accompanying to the assessment centre, to doing appeals and representation at tribunals. Our record of success is well over 80%, which is partly due to my amazing caseworker, Jamie. But that is ridiculous, because we should be getting those decisions right first time, to increase the faith and trust of vulnerable people in the assessment process. By introducing the changes the Government have outlined, we are taking a huge step to begin to rebuild that trust with those living with disabilities.
I echo much of what has been said across the House. I am glad that Members on the Government side are taking an interest. I would love for some of them to take up the vacancies on the Work and Pensions Committee, where we look in detail at these issues.
I have met and heard from many constituents, particularly those with mental health problems, who suffer from the whole round of assessments. They are often on both ESA and PIP, so they have assessments roughly every year. Once they get a letter about an assessment, they have to fill in a form and seek medical letters to substantiate their claim. Many medical professionals are refusing to write those letters, because the DWP ask for such detailed information and they cannot possibly give the time to provide that. If they do, they charge for the letters—often £25 or £30.
As Members across the House have said, there is great reluctance to perform home visits—particularly in my very rural area where they can take longer, but also where it takes much longer for constituents to travel to appointments. Often, they simply cannot. One constituent told me about dragging her disabled daughter, who was ill and in pain, out of bed to go to her assessment because she was told she had to. Another’s GP refused to give evidence for any more assessments about home visits.
Yes, people get their taxi fare paid for them, but they have to pay up front. That often costs £100, which some people simply cannot afford. The Minister promised the Work and Pensions Committee that work capability assessments would be video-recorded, but now people are being asked to provide their own recording equipment. Again, that is an issue of affordability.
As the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) said, the process has an impact on claimants’ mental health. They go to an assessment; they wait for the result; they put in for a mandatory reconsideration, which often is turned down point-blank, and they then have to wait for an appeal. That is an incredibly stressful process, during which the claimant has to sign on for universal credit and go through the process of being assessed for work and claimant conditionality, under threat of sanctions.
I spoke to the Minister last week about a constituent of mine who died on his first day back at work. I spoke to his wife, who was absolutely clear that her husband had been forced into returning to work by DWP’s refusal to take doctors’ evidence. It said it knew best because he had passed a work capability assessment. That should no longer happen. Doctors should not receive letters saying they must not give people fit notes because they have passed a work capability assessment. That sends people further into mental health despair and, in some cases, towards suicide. I really hope the Minister looks at this issue.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I appreciate that we only had an hour for this debate; I am only sorry that some hon. Members who made a number of interventions were not able to stay to hear the Minister sum up. I am grateful for the opportunity to follow the hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George), whom I commend for her work on the Work and Pensions Committee. I thank the hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) for securing the debate. I share her belief that we need a system that works better for everyone, especially those with disabilities.
The process for claiming personal independence payment or employment and support allowance is not easy or straightforward. As we have heard, claimants fill in extensive forms detailing how their condition affects their daily life and send them off to the Department for Work and Pensions. For some people, that, along with medical evidence, is enough to merit an award. However, more often than not, people are required to attend a face-to-face assessment carried out by one of three contracted assessment providers. The healthcare professional employed by the contractor reports back to the Department, and a decision maker makes a decision about the claimant’s entitlement.
Last Friday, I was invited to witness a personal independence payment assessment, which was conducted by an actor and a health professional. It took an hour and a half. I imagine that was the gold standard for conducting such an assessment. I am sure everyone in the Chamber would agree that the experience of most of our constituents—granted, we see the worst examples—is that assessments are never conducted quite as efficiently or in as gold-standard a way, so I think that exercise was slightly contrived. It was worthwhile to see how the process should operate, but we have all argued time and again how it should operate; the reality is that it does not operate in that way. In reality, assessments are stressful, and many people are forced to go through the mandatory reconsideration process and the conclusions of a decision maker, which ultimately is unfair.
I only have a few minutes to sum up, but I pay credit to the hon. Member for Chichester for rightly highlighting the experience of her constituents, and to my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and the hon. Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), for St Ives (Derek Thomas), for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton). I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the work of the Scottish Association for Mental Health. The Government have to do more to recognise mental health in the assessment process.
I read recently that the Department for Work and Pensions will introduce a further step in the appeals process called the continuous online resolution system, which will involve an online review by a tribunal panel. If my understanding is correct, that means people will have to endure a claim, potentially a mandatory reconsideration, and an online text-box tribunal before they can get an oral appeal. The success rate for written appeals is dramatically lower than that for oral hearings, so does the Minister accept that that step may serve only to introduce another needless level of bureaucracy to claimants’ appeals, and that it may not achieve the ends she hopes it might?
The high number of mandatory reconsiderations and the fact that, as the hon. Member for Chichester outlined, 71% of decisions are overturned shows that there are already flaws in the system. I would like the Minister to do more to address those current flaws before taking on the process of streamlining and bringing all these benefits together. I genuinely worry that that would cause many of those who need financial support—particularly those who are disabled—not to get that support, and that such an integrated assessment service would penalise disabled people who need the full range of benefits. I would hate to see that happen.
It is not right or fair for any individual, whether they are disabled or suffering from mental ill health or a long-term debilitating health condition, to be put through such an arduous process. These people are not criminals—they are people who demand and need support from the social security system, which was designed to support them. I hope the Minister takes the time to answer my questions.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) on bringing forward this debate. She made some really valid points. She is absolutely right that it is up to the Government to remove of some of the barriers that disabled people face to ensure that they can live independently and participate fully in society. I welcome the move to stop assessments for personal independence payment for pensioners, but we need to go further to ensure that those who do not need reassessment do not have to continue to go through the arduous assessment process.
We heard from Members across the Chamber about the fundamental flaws in the assessment framework for disabled people. We heard about the time that many ill and disabled people have to wait for an assessment. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Ruth George) highlighted that in her area people have to wait up to 48 weeks before they get to an appeal. We heard countless accounts of what happens at assessments and of poor decision making. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) shared his constituent’s experience of being given two days’ notice but still being recorded as a no-show, yet assessment providers can cancel at the last minute. We need to eliminate such double standards. The hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) pointed out some of the poor decision making that happens after assessments and highlighted the rubber stamping of decisions at mandatory reconsideration stage. That step was put in place to ensure that we got decisions right earlier, so it is really important that that issue is picked up.
Since 2013, more than 700,000 ill and disabled people have been forced to challenge decisions at appeal following poor decision making after their assessment. Last week, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions admitted that disabled people feel “put on trial” by these assessments. By her own admission, we need not just small-scale improvements of the assessment framework, but a wholesale overhaul of the system, which has created a hostile environment for disabled people.
Every week, I hear from constituents and from disabled people across the country who have been pushed to despair as a result of the failing assessment framework. I was contacted by a lady called Susan, who has Crohn’s disease. She is on DLA and has a Motability vehicle. Following her assessment, in which she did not score any points for her mobility, she lost her car, which she described as her one bit of independence. I share her experience with the House because it is not isolated; I hear these heart-wrenching accounts all the time.
Some 72% of PIP decisions are overturned at appeal, and more than 100,000 disabled people have been wrongly deprived of PIP. We heard that more than 4,500 disabled people were wrongly denied PIP when they transferred from DLA. Most shockingly, 17,000 people died before their PIP decision was reached. In the last three months, nearly three quarters of people who appealed their work capability assessment decision were successful.
We know the system is flawed and is not working. That is why it is worrying that we are looking at combining all these assessments. We cannot combine them when we know there is bad decision making and the assessment framework is flawed, so I ask the Minister: why not listen to people like Susan, and look at conducting a wholesale review and overhaul of the system?
I will not; I do not have time, frankly.
The Government announced last week that they would extend the contract of the Centre for Health and Disability Assessments, better known as Maximus, to carry out work capability assessments. Nothing could be worse for any disabled person to hear. Since 2014, an estimated £595 million has been paid to Maximus to carry out assessments and in total £1 billion has been paid out to private contractors. These companies have repeatedly failed the DWP’s standards, so does the Minister agree that rather than extending the contract, it is time to bring these assessments back in-house? Will she confirm that the details of the new contract will be made available to Members?
It appears that I have only 20 seconds left, which is shocking, so let me be clear: we need a radical overhaul of the assessment framework before any moves are taken to combine the assessments. We need an assessment framework that will take into account disabled people’s lived experiences and treat all disabled people with the dignity and respect they deserve.