Tuesday 14 May 2019
[Ian Paisley in the Chair]
One Public Estate Programme
I beg to move,
That this House has considered One Public Estate.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing me to bring forward this debate. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Paisley.
I have secured this debate because I believe it is important to review programmes and policies and, as far as I can see, there has been very little scrutiny of the One Public Estate programme since its launch some six years ago in 2013. It was launched by the coalition Government, largely in response to their priority of reducing the deficit. Although I acknowledge that ambition, my great fear is that we are witnessing a wholesale asset stripping of the public estate with very little public or central Government scrutiny.
However, I appreciate that the programme’s aim was just as much to seek to join up central Government, local government and other partners to make better use of public assets and their land. The idea was that by public partners sharing space, running costs could be reduced and surplus assets sold to generate money or released for other purposes to create new jobs or homes. In fact, the programme had three core aims: to create efficiencies, generating capital receipts and reducing costs; to create local economic growth, creating new jobs and homes; and to deliver more integrated, customer-focused services, providing citizens with better access to Government.
My interest in securing the debate was motivated by my own time as a councillor on Warwickshire County Council, and by a local project involving new offices for Warwick District Council, my local authority, which I believe could have made use of the One Public Estate programme. It is also motivated by my wider interest, which many will know of, in housing issues and particularly social housing. I will outline the aims of the programme when it was first launched, provide my own assessment of its success and perhaps unpick some of its failures, particularly in relation to housing.
Launching the policy in 2014, Francis Maude, who was a Minister in the Cabinet Office in the years 2010 to 2015, outlined the impetus for the programme thus:
“In the absence of a comprehensive, coordinated strategy, central departments and their arms-length bodies all did their own thing.”
“They did it without talking to each other and without thinking about their local partners.
Because no one was looking at the bigger picture, departments would take on expensive new leases when government freeholds remained under-used—or where local authority accommodation was available just down the road.”
I will come back to that point and illustrate it with a local example. Later in my speech I will also return to what Mr Maude was saying in 2014, as I think his words were particularly significant. They are certainly eerily apposite to the case of Warwick District Council, my local authority, and its proposed self-described new headquarters building in the centre of Leamington.
There was merit in Mr Maude’s approach, and I applaud his thinking at the time. For example, the notion of providing services in one place as opposed to several could better serve the public by providing easier access to local government and other public services. The obvious example would be a jobcentre sharing space with a council’s welfare and housing team.
In its initial trialling in 2013, the programme focused on 12 councils. It has since expanded rapidly so that just over 300 councils now participate, representing 95% of all English local authorities. The One Public Estate programme also works with 13 Government Departments and hundreds of health and blue light organisations. It works by providing a combination of central Government grant funding directly to partnerships, which have to bid for it, and expertise that local authorities and other public bodies do not always possess.
The purpose of the funding is to cover up-front costs associated with getting a project under way and to unlock those potential assets, for example through remediation works on land that could be used for housing. One Public Estate has also formed a partnership with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to jointly administer the Government’s land release programme, which is designed to release land for 160,000 homes on Government land and a further 160,000 on local government land by 2020. That was formulated back in 2017.
There have been some successes through the programme. In my assessment, the aims of One Public Estate are, in the main, laudable. As someone who spent part of my career bringing change to an organisation, I wholeheartedly support the programme’s aim to rationalise the use of public assets to reduce the cost to the taxpayer, and to provide Government services in a more joined-up and accessible way. In fact, shortly after the programme’s national launch, I proposed a “one Warwickshire estate” programme as a county councillor. I could see that the county and district councils in my community could make much better use of the land and buildings they owned to serve each other’s needs.
Across the country, there have clearly been some successes, albeit limited ones. The most impressive is that to date the programme has created 5,700 jobs, and the latest phase is expected to create a further 14,000 new jobs. That is a tangible benefit for people up and down the country. To date, it is estimated that running costs associated with partner projects have been reduced by £24 million, and the new phase is expected to save taxpayers £37 million in running costs. However, I point out that, while any saving to the taxpayer is positive, £24 million over five years is relatively small beer compared with the overall cost of Government.
There are individual cases that will bring big benefits to their local communities. Looking through the various materials available on the programme, I see the development of public sector hubs, if done in the right way, as a positive step forward. The West Suffolk partnership is currently developing such a hub, which will have space for a school, leisure facilities including a swimming pool and health centre, children’s centre, public library, jobcentre and citizen’s advice bureau, as well as space for Suffolk police, West Suffolk Council and Suffolk County Council. That will surely benefit how the local community interacts with the public sector, and the project is expected to reduce running costs by £4 million to boot.
Another example is in Cornwall, where the police, fire and ambulance services have co-located in a new joint headquarters in Hayle, saving £500,000 a year on running costs and releasing two sites for redevelopment. The new facility has enabled the emergency services to reach many more people within the target response time. Since the success of that first tri-light co-location, Cornwall partners have progressed to a number of further blue light property co-locations and piloted emergency services collaboration, with tri-service offices being rolled out across the county.
I mentioned that Warwick District Council, in my area, has been seeking to build itself a new office. I do not believe that is necessary, because there is ample vacant or void space in the county council offices, just two miles up the road. I will come back to that a little bit later.
There have also been failures of the programme. Perhaps the greatest failing of all has been the wholesale disposal of public land, ignoring the greatest crisis of all—the need to deliver much-needed public housing. That is my greatest concern because, to paraphrase, “They don’t make land any more,” and, together with its people, public land is a community’s greatest asset.
We are in the midst of a serious housing crisis: 277,000 people are homeless and 1,157,000 households are currently on the housing waiting list. There is a clear and urgent need to house people who are at the sharp end of this crisis, but we also hear from older constituents who are renting privately and unable to afford their rent—a problem that will only increase. It is estimated that by 2040 up to one third of 60-year-olds will be renting privately. We also know that many younger people are trapped in the private rented sector.
One of the major barriers to providing housing is land. Sky-high land prices are preventing local authorities from gaining access to land to build on, and those prices are incentivising cash-strapped councils to sell off the land they own rather than build on it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He talks about social housing, and there are five major cartels in this country that the Government should tackle. They get involved in what I call land banking, for want of a better term: they get outline planning permission, and then they sit on the land until it becomes more valuable. Then, of course, house prices in the private sector go through the roof. Does he agree that that is one of the big problems that should be tackled?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point: this is an oligopoly, with just a few players controlling our land. I increasingly see local authorities coming to arrangements with the big players and developers, and that prevents land from being used wisely to deliver the sort of housing that we need.
With such a colossal social crisis before us, we should use all suitable public land to build high-quality social rented council housing, without exception—not 50% here or 40% there, but 100% of such land. I fear—with good reason, it seems—that the One Public Estate programme was designed more to incentivise the public sector to sell its precious land as part of a national asset-stripping programme than to use the opportunity so afforded to design in a more efficient delivery of public services or facilitate the building of social rented housing, which would be of most social benefit to most communities.
A relatively small number of homes have been delivered by the OPE so far: just 303, which is a failure in itself. Overall, the land released will enable the building of a further 2,550 homes, with an estimated 10,000 more homes over the next five years. It worries me that I cannot find the data on how many of those homes will be social rented, or even affordable—I suspect most are not—or how much of the land has been released to local authorities to build council housing; I suspect most has not. It would be helpful if the Minister provided the data today.
I do know, however, that the Government’s estate strategy revealed that around £2 billion has already been generated from selling more than 1,000 buildings in the last four years, with £164 million in capital receipts from land and property sales raised as part of the OPE. How much of that land could have been suitable for delivering the social rented council housing we desperately need? In truth, any such need, or means of facility to meet that need, has been fundamentally undermined by the prevailing attitude that public sector assets and land are best released to the private sector. I think it is fair to say that that was the view of what is now seen as a surprisingly neoliberal coalition Government. In the speech that I referred to earlier, Francis Maude went on to say that
“we want to release property back onto the market”,
and that the Government
“identified assets which could be released between now and 2020, generating £5 billion for the taxpayer.”
To be fair, it appears that this Government’s priorities have changed from those of the coalition Government. The Prime Minister has claimed that austerity is over, although the public are yet to see any evidence of that. She has also claimed that she wishes to solve the housing crisis, naming it the Government’s No. 1 domestic priority. Indeed, the borrowing cap has been reformed so that councils can begin building council housing at scale again, but a cap should never have been imposed in the first instance. I therefore urge the Minister to look again at how the One Public Estate programme operates, in terms of releasing public land, and to shift its priorities so that public land that is suitable for the development of social rented council housing is prioritised for that purpose, instead of being flogged off to the highest bidder.
The defence estate optimisation programme provides a very good example of the potential of OPE, but also its failings. The Ministry of Defence currently accounts for 2% of the UK’s land mass. The Government recognise that many of those sites could be better used, particularly for housing, and the Ministry of Defence therefore plans to release around 90 of its most expensive sites before 2040, potentially releasing land for 55,000 homes. That relies on linking up the Ministry with the relevant local authorities and providing them with the up-front cost and expertise needed to make the most of the release of those sites. The OPE is well placed to fulfil that role; indeed, it is already involved in discussions relating to 12 of the sites.
However, if we dig slightly deeper, we see that the opportunity for mass social rented housing programmes on that land is being totally missed. For example, St George’s barracks in Rutland is due to close in 2021, and the master plan that has been developed provides for 2,200 homes as part of a new garden village. The OPE programme was awarded £175,000 in December 2017 for project management, consultation, surveys and master planning of the barracks site—so far, so good. However, when we delve into the master plan, we see that only 30% of the homes will be affordable. Worse still, of those, 50% will be affordable rent, which we all know is not that affordable; 35% will be starter homes or other affordable home ownership products; and 15% will be rent to buy. It appears that none will be social-rented housing—a prime example of a fantastic opportunity missed for OPE and genuinely affordable housing.
I spoke to the Minister this morning before the debate. Does the hon. Gentleman believe it is important that there is a purpose behind the sale of any land, such as saving money when Departments come together? Equally important, as he outlined, is the need to ensure that, whatever land becomes available, there is a social housing requirement to give those who do not have the same assets the opportunity to buy or rent houses. In Northern Ireland, we had a suggestion—not a rule—that developers should set aside 10% of land for social housing. Does he feel that the Government should look at something more objective for the mainland, with land set aside in law for social housing? Does he think that might be a way of retaining land for social housing? People cannot get housing if we do not give them the opportunity to do so.
Order. If Members wish to make speeches, will they please make an application to do so? The Chair of the debate will happily accommodate them.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention—I think it was an intervention—and he makes a valid point. There is a huge need to legislate for this, as I have identified, with 1.2 million people in homelessness. We have a massive social crisis because of the land banking that is going on across the country, as my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) said. We saw that in yesteryear with commercial land, when the big supermarkets just took up options, and now we see it with housing developers and home builders, who have a huge number of options across the country, in Northern Ireland and here on the mainland. They control the prices, the roll-out and the build of housing in this country, and they allow to be built what is viable for them, in view of the profitability that they want to achieve.
In Amsterdam, all housing projects have to deliver 80% social housing. Whether it is 10% or 40%, or whatever the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, we have to choose, politically, the right figure. I want the figure to be 100%, which is the way the Dutch authorities are looking to go in Amsterdam. That is what we need, because we have such a crisis. The Shelter report from January on the need for social housing identified that we need to build 3 million social rented properties in the next 20 years—155,000 every year for the next 20 years. That is why we should use all this land to realise its greatest value, which has to be in its social value, not simply in the financial receipt.
To summarise, let me be clear: I support the overall aims of the One Public Estate programme. It has been important in trying to achieve a change in the mindset of those in the various public sector authorities and our Ministries to try to deliver better outcomes. Its simple approach of seeking to establish a partnership model across the sector was, and remains, right. The simple idea of mapping the public estate and understanding, through audit, what is out there and what we have that local authorities and others can use; the establishment of a strong governance mechanism, with representation across the public sector, which is vital in driving delivery; and the engagement of public sector partners as early as possible, to ensure that a project meets the needs of local communities, are all creditable and right. When delivered effectively, it can produce savings to the taxpayer and, most importantly, improve local services, but I am absolutely not convinced that that is happening as widely or as openly as was originally hoped.
I can only draw on my own experience in Warwickshire and with my local authority, Warwick District Council, where there has been no real appetite to exhaust the options of sharing assets. We still have in Warwickshire a police headquarters and a fire headquarters, and both are on prime land. There is considerable opportunity for a master plan to improve the delivery of services while enabling the best use of assets for the public purse. The Suffolk example that I gave earlier is a positive example of what can be achieved.
I think, however, that there are examples across the country of asset stripping, and of the wholesale industrial sell-off of land. My fear is that there is not, through the Public Accounts Committee or through this place generally, proper scrutiny of what is going on, even though billions of pounds of public assets are in play. I would urge the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy to be more closely involved.
In my own investigations, I realised that one particular company was involved with my local council, Warwick District Council. Called PSP—Public Sector Plc—it is, I discovered, involved with 22 different authorities across the UK. I understand that it has not followed a procurement process, yet it is advising and involved in the disposal of these assets. Surely CIPFA and others should be looking at that. I believe that the Government Property Agency should be looking at it, and so should the Public Accounts Committee.
We should focus on the ambition, which is the utilisation of the assets for the maximum possible benefit in our communities, and on how we realise true social value. In practice, that means a shift in the programme from delivering as much money as possible—the highest receipt—through the sale of assets, to releasing land for local authorities to deliver the best services, the best joined-up practice and high-quality social rented council housing so that we can finally get to grips with our housing crisis.
I look forward to hearing the contributions of other hon. Members and that of the Minister, but I urge us all to think about our most pressing need, which is to deliver low-rent social housing. Only public land can deliver that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) on such a superb and powerful opening to the debate. In particular, he made the case for social housing and the importance of 100% social housing and affordable housing on the sites released by Government. If he will excuse me, I am going to take a slightly different journey and talk about the opportunities for release of public land in relation to creating jobs, which is an essential part of creating the fairer society that we want to see.
This speech will be an unashamed plug for Plymouth. As many people who have heard me speak in this place will know, I am very proud to be a Janner, very proud to be from Plymouth, and the experience that Plymouth has had, the journey that it has been on, can tell us a lot about One Public Estate and how it fits with other Government programmes and, in particular, the Government hubs programme, which I think has a good opportunity to create jobs in my part of the world.
I was intending to spend a bit of time talking about how fabulous the far south-west is, until I saw the new Minister in his place. I believe that, as the hon. Member for Torbay, he may have an inkling of just how fantastic a part of the world the far south-west and, in particular, south Devon is. I know that he knows Plymouth very well.
I want the Government to start realising at a faster pace their ambition to move jobs out of central London and into the regions, in particular those regions that have missed out on many of the large Government relocations in the past. The far south-west, and Devon and Cornwall in particular, is one of those areas with an appetite for greater investment. There is a willing and skilled workforce who can support our public sector objectives, and there is an opportunity, using the lower land costs, to realise benefits for the taxpayer in terms of not only output, but economic activity and cost to the taxpayer.
We know that, on average, good-quality, affordable business premises in Plymouth and the far south-west are about a third cheaper than similar properties in many parts of the south-east. Considerable savings can be made when we look at costs in central London in particular. I think that the principles behind the One Public Estate strategy support moving more jobs into the regions. Programmes that channel funding and support through councils to deliver ambitious property-based projects tend to work best when there is opportunity, land and a real willingness and drive to do that. The opportunity to work more with local councils should be a thread running through this debate, because from the initial small cohort of councils when the One Public Estate strategy was first formed, we now have, as my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington said, nearly all English local authorities involved, and entrepreneurial, innovative local councils are driving forward very interesting and beneficial property development.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that he is now going down a route that is particularly advantageous for other parts of the United Kingdom, in terms of not just developing social housing but the economic benefits that can be derived by Government looking at disposing of surplus land—land that will not be required over the next 10 or 20 years—but that that requires intensive consultation with local communities to arrive at the conclusion that he and I seem to draw?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The important points are what Government land is disposed of, how it is disposed of and where the benefits of that disposal flow. We have seen in Plymouth, a city with a very large military pedigree and current military role, that many of our former armed forces bases have been sold off, but the benefits of the sale have been taken to the Exchequer in London and not delivered to the communities that previously gained employment and investment and a sense of identity from those military bases. I think that there is an opportunity to use much of the surplus land, which is owned by a cohort of public authorities—ranging from the Ministry of Defence and all the weird and wonderful MOD agencies, through to Plymouth City Council and different parts of the Government estate—and to bring services together. If the Government are to realise their ambition of moving from 800 to 200 Government offices by 2023, the idea of creating a Government hub in the far south-west, in Plymouth, where we have already shown, through the Land Registry and previously the Child Support Agency, that civil service and public service jobs can thrive, is a good opportunity.
We lost out on the Marine Management Organisation towards the end of 2010, and many of us in the far south-west still talk about how we lost out on the wealth tax agency in 1979. We were scuppered by the election of a Tory Government who perhaps were not too keen on creating a wealth tax agency—who would have known?—but there is now a real opportunity, and if you will forgive me, Mr Paisley, I will talk for a few moments about Plymouth’s One Public Estate journey.
The unlocking of South Yard in Devonport has been an incredible success. That surplus land owned by the Ministry of Defence was not being used for Royal Navy purposes. It has been repurposed as Oceansgate and, through the One Public Estate programme, is creating new marine jobs. Plymouth has a huge opportunity in marine science and marine engineering, and Oceansgate is helping to unlock that. It is taking far too long to overcome the logistical barriers between the detail of what the MOD might want and what businesses might want, but that challenge can be overcome.
OPE 3, 4 and 5—the funding streams—have helped us to develop our integrated health and wellbeing hubs. There is huge potential here. We have spoken about some of the big, aggregated services, but GP surgeries, mental health support, sexual health testing and social care can all come together at a much smaller, micro level. Indeed, I would encourage the Minister to have a word with his new colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the hon. Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy), about the super-hub project. Plymouth has applied for funding from the Department of Health and Social Care for that project, which would bring sexual health testing, an eight-to-12-chair dental surgery—enabling dental students from Plymouth’s superb dental school to learn and help to treat people in some of the poorest communities in the city, right next to the city centre—directly employed GP surgeries, mental health support and health and wellbeing services all into one building, at Colin Campbell Court, which the Minister may know well. There is a huge opportunity there. Part of the One Public Estate strategy has to be to mobilise and motivate other Departments to make decisions that might be slightly off their usual funding streams if there is an opportunity from doing so.
The other aspect that I would like to mention relates to the better defence estate. My hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington spoke passionately about some of its successes and some of its failures, and we have had a similar journey in Plymouth. There is the success of relocating the Royal Marines from Royal Marines Turnchapel. Releasing that land and creating what is now a world-class centre for autonomous marine engineering has been a huge success. The new base at Royal Marines Tamar, at the very north of Devonport, has been an incredible success for the Royal Marines. It gives quick and easy access to the Tamar and, through that, to Plymouth Sound and to the training facilities at HMS Raleigh and a superb new state-of-the-art facility for our Royal Marines there.
However, there have also been failures from One Public Estate, and that has largely also been about the Royal Marines, in relation to the closure of Stonehouse barracks. There has been an attempt to rationalise that defence estate by closing the spiritual home of the Royal Marines—the only purpose-built barracks for the Royal Marines that are still in use. Those barracks are not fit for purpose. There is no hot running water in many of the accommodation blocks; the showers and the heating do not work. We should not accept that for our Royal Marines when they are at home. Many of them would accept that when on deployment, but not at home.
Now that we have seen the Government U-turn on their commitment to build a superbase in Plymouth, which would have brought the Royal Marines to our city, I would be grateful if the Minister encouraged his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence to look at how the programme for relocating the 3 Commando Brigade from Stonehouse barracks to a new purpose-built facility can be accelerated. The new date of 2028 means that our Royal Marines will be waiting a long time to have hot water in their accommodation. I think we would all agree that that is unacceptable.
There is an opportunity to create a new Government hub in Plymouth, bringing together civil service and public service jobs from the centre of London to create a new, superb facility in Plymouth. As the Minister will know, Plymouth is a centre that can create jobs not only within Plymouth and the PL postcode boundary, but for the wider Plymouth travel-to-work area—or perhaps the greater Torbay area, depending on one’s perspective—to help us create wider economic benefits for our region. There are many failings of the One Public Estate strategy.
In Northern Ireland a very different approach has been taken. The Government policy is to turn former Army barracks into intergenerational places, where the community and the economy can come together, where businesses can build and where councils can be involved. That is all happening on Army bases. In other words, the benefactors are the communities of all sides. That was an opportunity we have used in Northern Ireland. Perhaps they could do something similar where the hon. Gentleman lives?
Order. I feel that the hon. Gentleman has a speech waiting to get out of him today. I am tempted to put him on the notice paper, whether he wants to or not.
I take what the hon. Gentleman has said. In Plymouth, although we are better known for the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines, we do have an Army base at the Royal Citadel. One of my frequent concerns about the defence disposal programme is that the MOD maps have a red line drawn around the site, and that is the land chosen to be disposed of. We need to take a much more holistic approach and ask about the needs of the wider community beyond that red line and what benefits can be accrued for it, especially when it comes to disposing of Ministry of Defence bases, with which the local community’s identity and employment opportunities are often so intricately involved. I encourage the Minister to speak to his MOD colleagues about that.
Although One Public Estate has had many failures, it has also had some successes. I encourage the Minister to keep tweaking those elements that are not quite right and also to unblock the decision-making process that is delaying the relocation of civil service and public service jobs from central London to the regions. My sense is that there are decisions waiting to be made and announced that could have a profound and positive economic effect on the regions, especially in the far south-west. I encourage the Minister in his new job to give the cage a bit of a rattle, to see if we can accelerate some of those decisions, because there are jobs to be created, value to be restored and money to be saved for the taxpayer. I also encourage the Minister to look at that wider opportunity of creating more affordable homes and decent jobs.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) for opening the debate in the way that he did, looking at not only his local perspective, but the national perspective of One Public Estate. It is always a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard). I concur with him about the opportunities the regions provide in departmental change and bringing those vital jobs into the region. I look at York and its connectivity: with the upgrade of the east coast main line, it will be just over an hour and a half out of London—and what a fantastic place to live, rather than in the heart of this city, in order to facilitate many of those vital public functions.
Today, I want to reflect on some of the disposals of public land that we have seen in York and highlight a particular problem, which I trust the Minister will look at. First, to give a tour de force on what has been happening, we have seen the disposal of many public land opportunities in York, and, unfortunately, it being placed in the wrong hands as a result of that. For example, Strensall barracks and Imphal barracks have been earmarked for closure under the better defence estate strategy, by 2024 and 2031 respectively, but the Government need to remind themselves that the Army has resided in York for over 1,000 years and that those sites provide vital jobs not only for the armed forces, but for civilians—the people of our city. Over 600 civilian jobs will be lost as a result of those closures. Just up the road, RAF Linton-on-Ouse is also earmarked for closure.
Such land is then put into the local plan, but it will not come forward within the time framework. Therefore, there is real concern about how this is being used to lever in the local plan, as opposed to looking at the real challenges of the local housing environment in particular. The council has earmarked most of this land for housing, but not the vital social housing that my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington mentioned and that we desperately need in York, which has had one of the lowest levels of social housing build in the country. Instead, the land is being earmarked for the developers, who clearly just want to make a profit and to take advantage of those opportunities.
In addition, we have seen the closure of the post office in our city, which again is a detrimental step, and I do not believe that that is going too well for the Post Office, as we forewarned. The York Central site is the biggest development site across the whole of Europe. It is a brownfield site that has lain dormant for 30 years. We are eager to see it developed, but, regrettably, the council handed over power and control to Network Rail, which clearly is disposing of as much land as possible. We just need to remind ourselves of the sell-off recently, which was identified as a financial loss by the Public Accounts Committee. Over 2,100 luxury flats are being proposed for the site, but that is not what our city needs, because the housing crisis in York is around family housing and social housing, which are hardly getting a look in at the site.
I ask the Minister to look at this issue—I will be meeting with his colleague to discuss it—because the site’s economic opportunity is being lost, sixfold or sevenfold. In York, we have a low-wage and quite insecure economy, so to throw away that opportunity in the heart of our city, right next to the railway station, is a serious detriment. Therefore, we have asked for the decision to be called in and are waiting for a response from the Department. Clearly, we want to see the maximum economic opportunity being brought to our city, as well as housing need being addressed. On the transportation front, too, using current data in the analysis would have helped to show how we need to change what has been proposed.
I want to focus on Bootham Park Hospital in York, which opened in 1777 and closed in 2015—the doors were shut only three days after the inspection. That caused much harm in our city. It was a mental health hospital, but I concur that the site itself may not be suitable for modern-day provision of mental health services. However, I would like the Minister to respond on what happened to that site.
The local authority was working with the local trust, the clinical commissioning group, the sustainability and transformation partnership and other public services, which came on board to formulate what opportunity that site could provide for our city. Analysis was undertaken, particularly looking at the opportunity around healthcare, but also wider services. For instance, the police and crime commissioner identified that this would be an ideal location to place a women’s unit in our city.
I have to say that the progress of One Public Estate in realising the site’s potential was slow, but the local authority was even slower in identifying, with NHS Property Services, that it wanted to utilise the site for the benefit of the city centre. Much of the site cannot be developed, because under its trust status it has to remain as parkland, but land at the back of the site can be developed. Needless to say, the beautiful building is listed, but in need of much repair.
The site for the clinical commissioning group costs £100,000 a year just to maintain and keep open. Those charges are to the detriment of the strapped-for-cash clinical commissioning group, which is one of the worst-funded in the country, so it is eager to move the process forward. However, the NHS Property Services timescales for the disposal of the site did not meet the One Public Estate process, so my plea to the Minister is to ensure that there is synergy in the timescales that are being executed in how sites are developed and the opportunity that realises for the city.
From my meetings with the former Health Minister, the right hon. Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay), it seems that NHS Property Services determined that it wanted to dispose of that site at the earliest opportunity. However, it would not wait for One Public Estate’s fully worked-up proposals. Therefore, it disposed of the site to a private developer, which is going to build—guess what?—more luxury apartments in the heart of our city. The developer is also looking to build a hotel and high-value older people’s accommodation, as opposed to addressing urgent need.
The site is uniquely placed next to our acute hospital, which is on a cramped campus without room for expansion. The hospital is bursting at the seams and has been challenged by winter crises. The only opportunity for that hospital to expand is the Bootham Park Hospital site. Indeed, it had ambitions to do so to provide better access to the site and to provide other vital services, such as physiotherapy. Furthermore, it proposed to extend hospital parking facilities and other services on to the site.
Vitally, the site was an opportunity to provide housing for key workers, which has been identified as a real need. We have more than 500 vacancies for NHS staff in the city, and that crisis is worsening. York’s expensive property prices are one reason for that, so the opportunity to provide key worker housing on a site in close proximity to the acute hospital was necessary, but the loss of another opportunity means that the acute hospital’s agency bill will be higher. As my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington said, the financing with respect to the disposal of such sites does not come back to the city; it goes to Departments, so there is no benefit to York. We will not see that money again, even though we have a real crisis around health services.
I have looked at the evidence base behind the One Public Estate bid. The York Teaching Hospital, the Humber, Coast and Vale sustainability and transformation partnership, Vale of York CCG, York Medical Group and the city council were looking at the opportunity to utilise the site for public benefit, but that has been denied and overridden, and it has been sold to a private developer. That will certainly not enhance our city, because it will put more stresses on the public services in our city, not reduce them.
The opportunity that has been passed up was for the development of 147 homes, which York needed; 52 key worker houses; a physio suite, which I mentioned; medical training; a research centre; a 70-bed care home; 60 assisted living and supported living apartments; a children’s nursery, which our hospital does not have and which would have been vital; public parking for use at the acute hospital; and a new public park for York in the heart of our city, where there is one of the highest levels of premature mortality in the city and where people should have the opportunity of some open green space.
Going back 100 years in York’s history to the time of Joseph Rowntree and others, there was real recognition of how to build a humane city and move it forward, but those opportunities are being passed up due to the greed of private developers that want to maximise their profits and cram the most expensive properties into the heart of the city. As I have explained, the people of York do not have the resources to purchase those properties, so they are being pushed further and further away from the city. Therefore, the social engineering that is taking place is to the detriment of local people across the city.
The city is becoming hollowed out, as private apartments are being built. Some people perhaps depend on utilising our public services at weekends, but we cannot afford the people to work in those public services. Therefore, the whole city is being put out of kilter and skewed with respect to needs. With the connectivity that I mentioned, it is clear that people now see York as being in the commuting zone of London and cities across the country, which puts more stress on our city.
My request to the Minister is that he look at the situation with regard to Bootham Park Hospital, where one Department is not talking to another and the local need is not being addressed. A massive public consultation exercise is happening about the Bootham Park Hospital site and on the York Central site, although we have not got to that point in the process with Imphal barracks. The Government say that they respond to and recognise the value of the voice of the community, so why is that voice being completely ignored through the disposal of such sites? I believe it needs to come forward.
In York, we have launched a “Public Land for Public Good” campaign. We need to ensure that there is a public good test in all planning decisions, so there is an enhancement of the way that land, which we know is incredibly precious, is utilised, as opposed to giving profit to developers. Frankly, the people of our city are angry about that, because they are losing out on the opportunity for vital jobs and services, and even a home. I ask the Minister to respond to those points, and I trust that he will take them back to his Department and that we will see real change.
It is a great honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) for securing the debate and making an excellent case, which stems from his vast experience in local government in his area and as a member of the Communities and Local Government Committee. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) and for York Central (Rachael Maskell) for their excellent contributions, which demonstrated the vast reach of the public estate strategy and its local effects.
On the face of it, the One Public Estate programme appears to be a positive, sensible strategy to reduce waste and get the most out of our public assets, as I expect the Minister will say. Its stated goal of unlocking land to increase house building is commendable, as estimates have put the number of new homes needed in England at between 240,000 and 340,000 per year, but worryingly, on recent estimates, the Government’s target of 300,000 homes annually is already under threat and could take 15 years to achieve. Let us not forget that over the last two years fewer new social rented homes have been built than at any time since the second world war.
To face that challenge, central Government must take a sustainable and transformational approach to resourcing local authorities to provide the homes we desperately need, but the Conservatives have comprehensively failed to do that. The strategy, which is effectively austerity by the back door, sells public land and property for quick cash under the illusion of helping to solve the housing crisis. It is not only disingenuous, but kicks the funding can down the road, rather than confronting the serious realities head on.
I say that the policy is disingenuous because the Government’s figures show that One Public Estate has released land for the development of just over 3,000 new homes, and the public land for housing programme has released land with capacity for fewer than 40,000 homes. That is some way short of the programme’s ambition to release surplus public sector land for at least 160,000 homes by 2020, just one year away.
The idea that this strategy and programmes such as One Public Estate are even scratching the surface of the housing crisis is total fantasy, yet the bigger question remains unanswered: why are public land and property being handed over to private developers in the first place and why are they being sold at a discounted price? Shockingly, analysis by the National Audit Office shows that of the 1,500 or so sites released by Government between April 2015 and March 2018, 12% were released for £1 or less. Let me get to the central point: such is the scale of the challenge, and the consistent failure of the market to tackle it, that we must look at empowering local authorities and housing associations to use public land to build the affordable housing this country desperately needs. Not only is that the best strategy for tackling the housing crisis, but it provides a way for the public to share in any rise in land value, as the Institute for Public Policy Research and others have pointed out. The Opposition oppose the strategy of flogging off public assets for developers to provide insufficient housing.
The Government must be called out for missing their own targets. I ask the Minister, how many of these homes built on public land are affordable? When it comes to central Government land sales, remarkably, the Cabinet Office does not analyse data at the programme level to assess the use to which the land is subsequently put, but let me help the Minister out. Thanks to research by the New Economics Foundation we know that only 20% of new homes built on public land will be affordable. That is simply not good enough.
We know that one of the main reasons that this figure is so low is the fact that developers are able to exploit section 106 loopholes and ride roughshod over desperate councils, leaving the public ripped off. We must also ask why local authorities are signing up to programmes such as One Public Estate, because they know such programmes will reduce the land and property they use for essential services, which are assets that might not be needed today, but may well be needed tomorrow. Indeed, much of the land and property sold under One Public Estate and other programmes is needed, despite the rhetoric around reducing waste. As the National Audit Office report said, many sites identified for disposal are still being used by public bodies to provide services.
How have we got here? Ultimately, because for almost a decade our hard-working local authorities have been forced to implement the Tory austerity agenda. Under the Conservatives, local authorities have faced a reduction to core funding from the Government of nearly £16 billion since 2010. That means councils will have lost 60p of every £1 that the last Labour Government provided to spend on local services. With a £3.1 billion shortfall in funding, many councils are funding essential services or redundancies by the quick sale of their property portfolio for good. The scale of this is staggering.
Research by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that £2.8 billion-worth of local authority-owned assets were sold between 2014 and 2018. In 2016, the Government said that they expected local authorities to sell assets with a value of £11.7 billion by the end of this Parliament. That same year, the Government passed legislation to allow local authorities to invest the proceeds of assets sold by April 2019 in transforming frontline services. Just how low will this Government stoop? They have decided that the right way to fund social care, youth series, libraries, bin collections and road repairs is not by reversing their tax cuts for millionaires or clamping down on tax avoiders, but by forcing local authorities to sell their assets—assets owned by the public—while further inflating private developers’ profit margins.
If we needed yet another reason to show that this is a Government for the few and not for the many, here we are. For the public, this is a ticking time bomb until the day local authorities have sold assets they will one day need. The housing crisis remains and local authorities have run out of family silver to sell to raise funds. The Tories know exactly what they are doing: forcing councils to implement austerity, leaving them no choice but to sell public assets such as libraries, youth centres and playing fields—assets our most disadvantaged people rely on—to fund vital services.
One Public Estate is part of a strategy that has been rumbling on for many years in different forms. Local government now owns just 40% of the land it owned a few decades ago and the NHS has seen its estate reduce by 70%. As our population grows, as demand is loaded on to local authorities and as our housing crisis deepens, what will this Government say when they have run out of public assets to sell, and their great housing remedy has produced only a few thousand extra affordable homes? I suspect they will not say much at all.
One thing is blindingly clear: this scheme and others like it do little for families who are desperate to exercise their right to an affordable home or for those who rely on public services. They do very little for our councils, which deserve fair funding, not schemes to encourage asset stripping. Our message to the Government is clear: stop messing about, confront these big issues head on, own up and admit that this strategy is really austerity masquerading as partnership and a house building strategy.
The public deserve far better. They deserve a Government on their side, standing up for the public good, building homes, funding and improving their public services, and unashamedly putting the many in this country first. We will make those honest, bold and fair decisions to fund our councils and build the homes we need. We have that plan; it is fully costed, fully transparent and exactly what the next Labour Government will deliver.
I call the Minister. You have lots of time to answer all these questions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. At the start of my response to a debate, I usually say that I will allow a couple of minutes at the end for the Member who secured it to speak, but I suspect I will be able to allow slightly more than that on this occasion.
This debate has been marked more by quality than by quantity of speakers. The speech made by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Leigh (Jo Platt), started so well. She made a point of saying that the scheme was a positive one, and that we share the goal of seeing the public sector work together. Few of us would think it was a good idea to spend money on bricks and mortar, rather than on delivering public services. Her speech went a bit awry after that, however.
Local councils have been doing a lot of these projects for some time, and we do not compel local councils to take part in them, as I will come on to say in a minute. The scheme that the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) has been particularly exercised about, which is being undertaken by his local district council, is not part of the One Public Estate programme. There is no compulsion to take part.
Some of the closing comments sit strangely with my memories of the period between 2008 and 2010, when I was the deputy leader of Coventry City Council and dealing with the Labour Government, which seemed equally keen on the idea that public land could be released. To be fair, the previous Labour council had released land to fund certain regeneration projects; we also saw that during preparations made by the then Department for Communities and Local Government, which sought to take about 20% out of local government funding following 2010. Most of us were not surprised when the spending review that was due in 2009 was kicked back to after the general election; we can all conclude the reasons for that.
I move on to the other contributions to the debate, and I have to start with the speech made by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard). As always, he made a passionate pitch for my home town and birthplace of Plymouth. He is right to say that moving Government jobs out of London does not just have an economic impact; it is about a change of perception. A civil service that is almost entirely based in London and the south-east creates a perception about issues and about the rest of the country; it may not give the idea of one civil service for one United Kingdom.
Over many years, various organisations have operated successfully outside London and the south-east, including the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in Swansea. We can see the opportunity that Government hubs bring. For example, while some operations are already located in Cardiff, the Wales Office is looking at how it can be part of a hub opposite Cardiff station, to show that the Government are at the heart of Cardiff, not on an estate outside the city centre. That says a lot about our ambition as well; I expect it is an ambition that will be shared by Governments, whatever their colour, over the next 10 or 20 years. To be clear, such a Government will govern the whole Union, and not just run the whole nation from London.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to cite the appetite of a skilled workforce in south Devon; it stretches into not just the PL postcodes but even into the TQ postcodes. He is right that, bluntly, the region offers the Government opportunities to get more money into delivery of service than into paying the exorbitant costs of property in central London.
In addition—this is a point that is sometimes forgotten—when Government buildings are released in London, within a short period of time there are usually more jobs and higher-than-average salaries being paid on that same footprint. Therefore, the process does not do London’s economy down; in many ways, it provides the opportunity that London’s private economy needs to grow, in the same way as public money benefits the regions. That is one thing that sometimes gets lost in the debate. Although there is the idea that jobs are going out of London, the space that is released normally provides an opportunity to create jobs in London.
Regarding the release of Ministry of Defence land, the hon. Gentleman cited Turnchapel—I am certainly looking forward to visiting it at some point, to see the automation there—and other places, such as Royal William Yard. My gran was a Stonehouse kid. Thirty years ago, Stonehouse was a shadow of what it had once been; it was a very sad place. Royal William Yard was coming to the end of its time as a victualing yard that was no longer needed by the Royal Navy. The release of Royal William Yard for redevelopment has not just led to its regeneration, but, as he will know, spurred a regeneration of the area around it. Gone are the days when semi-derelict industrial buildings made up the city’s red light district. Now the area is a real beacon of hope, aspiration and investment.
I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s concern about what will happen with Stonehouse barracks and, of course, the iconic Citadel. I think he will agree that although those facilities are historic and iconic, we would not want to run a modern war-fighting operation from them. As he mentioned, what our troops will accept in times of combat or conflict is very different from what we should expect them to put up with in times of peace. We are working to deliver a solution that works not only for the military but, as is the case with Royal William Yard, for the community that surrounds a base. Clearly, that is something that my colleagues in the MOD will only be too interested to continue talking to him about.
The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), as always, made a passionate case for her city. She made the point that, with modern connections, York is now 90 minutes from London, so the argument that moving jobs out of London makes them remote is no longer valid.
Ultimately, it is for local councils to make local planning decisions. I am aware that the hon. Lady is not the biggest fan of her local council; having listened to a number of her speeches over the last couple of years, I think it is fair to say that. She can use that point to challenge her local council both here and locally, and ultimately it is for local voters to make their decisions based on what they think of their local council.
I heard what the hon. Lady said about the hospital site that she referred to. I am happy to look at the site further to see how we can ensure that Government Departments work together. The goal of One Public Estate is to treat the public estate as one public estate, and not for different Departments to reach conflicting outcomes. The site that she mentions is probably one for us to look at, perhaps after this debate and perhaps with my colleague the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Oliver Dowden) —he is the Minister for implementation—who has direct responsibility for this policy area. If there are challenges, we can consider them. As the hon. Lady said, in this instance the sale has already been made and that is probably the end of that, but we can perhaps consider this issue for the future. We are keen that Government Departments view themselves as part of a whole, not just as individual operations.
I come now to the main part of my speech. I thank the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington for securing this debate on One Public Estate and giving hon. Members the opportunity to reflect on this vital programme. I particularly liked the fact that he gave the example of Devon and Cornwall, where we have the joint response hub. That project is about not just bringing different services together, but considering how they can work together with co-responders, and particularly looking at areas where the police and the fire service struggle. For example, the fire service struggles to recruit retained firefighters, which might have been easier 40 or 50 years ago but is now harder because of changes in employment patterns and in how people live their lives. That project considers how such services can work together and deliver a better outcome for all three emergency services, including ambulances, by uniting and working together.
As the hon. Gentleman touched on, that project combining police and the fire service saves £500,000 a year on running costs and it has released two sites for redevelopment. However, it has also enabled the emergency services to reach more people within their target response times. The process is not just about delivering a financial output; it is also about delivering better public services.
As has been made clear, One Public Estate has successfully forged new partnerships across the public sector, showing that collaboration is the key to achieving success. The strapline for the latest Government estate strategy is
“a public estate for public benefit”.
This programme demonstrates how property can be a catalyst for achieving a wide range of benefits, including housing, jobs and more integrated public services.
As I mentioned a moment ago, I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s campaign against Warwick District Council’s plans to build new offices alongside a new multi-storey car park and apartments, and to redevelop its current Riverside House site for private housing. I also recall him raising the issue in a previous Westminster Hall debate, in January 2018; on that occasion, if I recall correctly, I sat in the Parliamentary Private Secretary’s spot. In that debate, he said that One Public Estate was
“a genuine and sincere ambition to get authorities around the table to review all public assets and decide how they can best be used for the future delivery of services.”—[Official Report, 10 January 2018; Vol. 634, c. 109WH.]
The hon. Gentleman is right that One Public Estate has brought hundreds of public sector partners to the table. He is also right that partners review all public assets to identify opportunities to deliver additional new homes, jobs and efficiency savings, and that communities across the country are enjoying the benefits of this programme, which uses partnerships to yield greater results.
Currently, One Public Estate is supporting five projects in the Connecting Warwickshire One Public Estate Partnership. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, Riverside House was not put forward as part of the partnership’s proposals to One Public Estate. As I have touched on, One Public Estate is not a compulsory scheme for local councils. It is also important to note that the programme has never sought to override local or national statutory duties, governance or requirements. The programme is designed to have the flexibility to support proposals from partnerships within a broad set of programme objectives. One Public Estate’s ability to tailor solutions that work for all partners involved is central to its success.
One Public Estate is about helping partnerships to thrive, but it is also a partnership itself, between the Office of Government Property in the Cabinet Office and the Local Government Association. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, it began in 2013 as a pilot in 12 areas, testing a fairly novel idea for Government—working collectively on property. We set out to discover whether laying the groundwork for collaboration, and providing seed funding and practical advice for public sector partners, would unlock significant additional benefits for both local communities and the taxpayer. That has clearly been the case—each year the programme has grown, as organisations have seen what can be achieved, formed new partnerships and put forward ambitious proposals.
Central to the One Public Estate approach is its focus on partnership. As has been referred to, it is a partnership between central and local government, whereby the Office of Government Property and the LGA act together as neutral brokers among partners. Regional programme managers in the team also provide support and challenge. Those joining the programme must also form their own cross-public sector partnership, bringing together central and local government, alongside other national and local partners, including the NHS, the police, the fire service, local enterprise partnerships and others. Thirdly, projects must be delivered in partnership by multiple public sector partners.
The formula is already reaping rewards. Today, as the hon. Gentleman highlighted, One Public Estate collaborates with over 95% of English local authorities, 13 major Government Departments, and hundreds of wider public sector partners, working in 78 official partnerships. Together, these partnerships are delivering over 600 projects across England, ranging from co-locating services, so that they are under one roof, to releasing surplus land for housing and town centre regeneration.
These organisations have come together to achieve more than they could alone, and to make better use of the public estate for public benefit. So far, the programme has generated £163 million in capital receipts, saved taxpayers £24 million in running costs, created 5,745 new jobs and released land for 3,336 new homes.
However, that is just the beginning, especially when it comes to housing, which is the Government’s top domestic priority. The problem of insufficient housing in this country is not a recent one; it goes back decades and involves numerous contributing factors. We could debate the origins of the housing shortage for hours, with each one of us arguing about our own party’s record, but today I will speak about a few of the ways in which this Government have acted to address this crucial issue through One Public Estate.
With housing, One Public Estate helps to create a pipeline of land, de-risking projects and making them investment-ready. The projects may then secure finance from Government housing initiatives, such as the accelerated construction programme or the housing infrastructure fund, or from other sources.
One Public Estate also plays its part in promoting modern methods of construction to local authorities and across Government, and furthering knowledge of this emerging market. It has organised factory site visits, facilitated meetings between One Public Estate partners and offsite providers, partnered with the University of Liverpool to examine the barriers, and co-sponsored the offsite village at the Chartered Institute of Housing’s 2018 conference, to further public sector knowledge of this emerging market. The programme has also allocated funding to partnerships to take forward vital research on modern methods of construction in delivering housing targets.
In 2017, the programme partnered with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to deliver the £45 million local authority land release fund. This capital funding, coupled with One Public Estate’s regionally-based team providing practical support, is supporting councils to unlock land for an additional 7,000 homes.
I have seen the impact of this programme at first hand. In Torbay, three projects successfully gained nearly £4 million of funding from the land release fund and, between them, Victoria Square, Preston Down Road and Collaton St Mary will see hundreds of houses built, with some available for social rent. I want to be clear that the percentage of affordable housing on each site is a matter for the local council, with its plans and its planning consents. As with any other site, it will have to make its own local determination about what the challenges are, for example if a site is contaminated. This is about supporting local councils in delivering their ambitions, not the Government directing, top down.
Interestingly, One Public Estate is also supporting the development of plans for a new health hub in Paignton, providing a modern, purpose-built facility better able to meet the needs of the local community and releasing surplus land for enhanced public and community use. It is remarkably similar to the project cited by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport and, hopefully, in the spirit of things, there can be learning between the two. The project in Paignton is looking to release a hub that is currently based in the much-loved Victorian hospital there. I have spoken in support of the building several times, but it was constructed just after the era of Queen Victoria and is not the place for 21st-century medicine to be well provided.
In a health hub, we bring together different strands that come from very different funding streams—not only from the Department of Health and Social Care, but from social care providers and from across the Government estate—and it might be worth looking at whether there is a better formula or model that can encourage that great collaboration. At the moment, it works in some places, where partners are working together already, but not in others, where there is a greater distance. I think there is a model of best practice that could be encouraged, and I ask the Minister to look at that.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his constructive and instructive intervention. Because we have an integrated care organisation in Torbay, one of the advantages is that there is no difference between the local authority’s budget and the NHS budget for social care, but I agree that there is a need to look at how we can bring partners together. A particular issue is where there are not just NHS and local authority services but GPs who are independent businesses—the great compromise from 1948—who then have to decide whether to move their service, potentially from a building of which they have the freehold and in which they feel very confident. Even if the GPs accept that the building is not the place in which to be delivering the best examples of 21st-century medicine—for example, if it is a converted house that does not have a lift to the first floor, restricting the ability of an increasingly elderly population to access all the services provided—it is about the certainty that can be provided when they take the leap and come into a building of which they are a tenant or a leaseholder, rather than a freeholder.
Again, it is about being clear about the partnership approach and ensuring that the building is not seen as belonging to the council, in Torbay’s case, or to the NHS, in Plymouth’s, but is seen as one that all partners have a shared interest in, with the main goal being a better service for the public and for those who access the services, and providing a sustainable future.
The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington mentioned that One Public Estate has invested £665,000 to support the Connecting Warwickshire Partnership in his area to deliver five projects across health, regeneration and housing agendas: the co-location of services in Warwick town centre, the regeneration of Nuneaton town centre, a review of service provision from the site of the George Eliot Hospital, the transformation of Rugby town centre, and the development of a strategic housing pipeline to deliver affordable homes in north Warwickshire, utilising offsite modular construction. The Connecting Warwickshire Partnership expects the five projects to generate £35 million of capital receipts, cut running costs by £2 million, release land for about 1,000 homes and create 500 jobs.
Another example is in Brent, where One Public Estate is bringing together Brent Council, London North West University Healthcare NHS Trust, the University of Westminster and social housing provider Network Homes to redevelop the Northwick Park area, creating jobs and delivering affordable homes, including, crucially, given the comments made about key workers in this debate, for NHS staff. One Public Estate revived an earlier proposal to develop the hospital site in isolation, and provided support and challenge that could result in 1,600 homes, which is about double the number planned by the partners operating alone.
The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington touched on the project in Rutland, where One Public Estate has awarded £175,000 and facilitated a memorandum of understanding between the Ministry of Defence and Rutland County Council to develop 300 hectares of surplus land at St George’s barracks into a new garden village, including delivering up to 3,000 homes by 2032. It is right that we work in partnership with the local council.
Perhaps where I differ from the hon. Gentleman is that although I support the move to remove some of the caps—over the past few years we have started to see a slow revival in the building of council homes, compared with the period between 1997 and 2010—I do not necessarily think that it is for the Government to dictate that that construction should be the sort of mass-build estates we saw in the past. That is a choice for local councils, but certainly from my own experience in local government it is better when we have mixed communities rather than going back to the days when we built an estate on the edge of town as our pure provision of social housing.
Is not the problem that local authorities may have their plans—it is absolutely right that they lead—but there is a collision course with the national determination of Departments? That is the piece that needs to be fixed.
My response to the hon. Lady’s point is that I am certainly happy to look at the instance in her constituency of what I think was described as NHS Property Services operating to one timetable and One Public Estate operating to another. As I say though, One Public Estate is about co-operation rather than necessarily about the Government looking to direct that a council must be part of it, as we touched on with the Warwick District Council project—that is not part of One Public Estate. Speaking as someone who believes quite a lot in local government, I would be loth for this to go down the path of direction from the centre.
The other determinant, of course, is finances. Although Government Departments are trying to reap as much resource from the land as they possibly can, and that is why it is being handed over to developers, local authorities are really cash-strapped in how they can develop that land. Will the Minister also look at that collision course, when he goes back to the Department?
We have given a range of flexibility to local authorities to look at how they can develop, but ultimately they can act as a bank. My own local council is helping to bring forward a significant development, admittedly on private land but with clear guarantees and protections around the taxpayer interest in lending the money and actually making a profit. There are opportunities for local authorities to take forward developments; it is for each of them in each instance to decide whether they wish to use those opportunities. Regarding the idea that the programme is motivated purely by the need to make savings, I touch first on the fact that a plan was being formulated under the last Labour Government to make significant cuts to local government funding post-2010 and, secondly, on how the programme is helping to bolster local government finances by delivering the ability to work together with a view to saving money. Therefore, I do not necessarily recognise that the two are in conflict; in fact, the picture is quite the opposite.
Will the Minister give way?
I have given way twice to the hon. Lady, so I will do so again very briefly, but I will make this the last time.
The point I was making is that Government Departments are taking that resource into their national funds—into their own budgets—as opposed to delivering benefit to local communities. There are, therefore, different interests at play when it comes to the resourcing of developments.
The Government are spending significant amounts via, for example, the housing infrastructure fund, to which eligible sites can bid, and the land release fund. I have touched on how the latter is releasing local authority land where authorities do not have the potential resource, or where it would be uneconomical for them to develop it on their own. In the Paignton example, the fund is paying to put a sewer into a site that would have been too expensive to bring forward, or where social housing would have been taken out to fund the infrastructure.
The idea that money disappears off into a central hole is not accurate, but we hope that One Public Estate encourages the parties to work together for the wider financial benefit of the public sector. In many instances, that will mean delivering a co-operative plan in the long-term interest of the Government Department concerned. Again, I or the Minister with responsibility for implementation, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere, will happily meet to discuss the target timeline of NHS Property Services versus the timeline of the One Public Estate bid, and see whether we can make some progress on that issue in future developments.
The programme’s original aim was to deliver 45 co-locations for the NHS, the police and the fire service by 2020. Today, the Government estate strategy hopes to quadruple that goal, setting bold new ambitions to facilitate 200 co-locations by 2020 and 250 by 2022. We can therefore see that One Public Estate is already delivering. Partnerships with projects under way expect to generate £615 million in capital receipts and £158 million in running cost savings, create 44,000 jobs, and release land for 25,000 homes by 2020. That is a tremendous amount of success in a relatively short time. In February, my colleague the Minister with responsibility for implementation announced the outcome of the programme’s seventh application round, a total of £15 million in funding. That is expected to support a further 10,000 new homes and 14,000 jobs over the next five years.
Since it began in 2013, One Public Estate has awarded £60 million to support projects and partnerships. The programme does not fully fund schemes; however, it facilitates laying the groundwork for future projects through feasibility studies, options appraisals and master planning. It can also help projects deliver at a faster pace by funding dedicated programme management. At the same time, and as we have touched on, we recognise our investment can bring about significant savings for some authorities, so we have introduced an element of repayable grants. In phase 7, which was the most recent, about £3.5 million of the £15 million funding available was awarded as repayable grants. Those will be repaid within a three-year period and, crucially, reinvested to enhance the future impact of the One Public Estate programme.
I again commend the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington on having secured a debate on the One Public Estate programme. As we have discussed, that programme has developed rapidly and is already having a significant impact on collaboration across the public sector. I particularly thank the Local Government Association for their excellent partnership with my Department in leading the programme, and pay tribute to the 95% of local authorities and many other partners that have chosen to take part in the programme. I am sure that Members will join me in wishing the partnerships well as they collaborate to deliver new homes, jobs, and improvements to public services in communities.
For many of us, the greatest reward in many communities will be seeing people achieve the desire that the Government regard as a key ambition for so many: owning their own home—having a place that they call home and that is theirs for as long as they wish it to be. That will remain a firm aspiration of this Government. Of course, we will support the development of social housing and deliver as much as we can, but none of us should ignore the fact that many people still hold the core aspiration of owning their own home. Too many people feel that aspiration slipping away from them, and we want to see it brought back to them, so they can enjoy it in the same way as their parents did.
I thank the Minister; I was getting a little nervous that he was not going to give me enough time to respond. At one stage, I thought I might have a few minutes more, but it is no matter. I thank Members for their contributions, which have been of supreme quality. This has been a healthy and valuable debate, and I give my sincere thanks to my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) and for York Central (Rachael Maskell), as well as the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Jo Platt). I also thank the Minister for his comments.
It is quite clear that huge regional opportunities are being presented here; that is perhaps not an oversight, but something that there has not been enough focus on. That is one of the great learnings from this debate. This is also about the pace of what is being delivered across the various projects and the priority being given to the local economy, entrepreneurial development and opportunity, as well as the key priority of housing, whether social or other. As everyone will have heard this morning, my sincere priority, which is shared by Opposition Members, is greater social housing.
How have we got here? As has been discussed, there has been a 60% cut in local authority budgets, which have put those authorities under huge pressure. My thoughts are with all those who have had to endure those cuts and work to the best of their ability to deliver the services that our communities depend on.
What we have seen, not just through One Public Estate but more generally, is a huge sell-off of our public assets, the greatest since the 1980s. As someone who used to work in a finance department, my great fear is about the lack of scrutiny in the process provided for by the Government. There seems to be no central co-ordination, and I believe that this country is being asset-stripped on a previously unseen scale. The public are vaguely aware of what is going on; yes, billions of pounds are being released, but I am not sure that the Public Accounts Committee has got involved in this issue. The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee should also look at this topic to scrutinise what is happening, including the involvement of private sector developers and house builders, and who is actually benefiting from those huge sell-offs.
My hon. Friend the Member for York Central talked about the test of public good, which is a terrific idea; it is something that should be learned from this debate. Likewise, we need to learn what is best practice for the delivery of health hubs around the country, as there seems to be a mixed approach in what goes on. The Minister is right about the one public estate, or lack of one, in the work being done in my local area. As I said earlier, “one Warwickshire estate” was accepted unanimously in Warwickshire, but somehow it has not been delivered with my local authority. There has been a lack of consultation with the public, and—going back to the test of public good—when we see more than 9,000 people in our local area signing a petition to say they are against a project, we have to ask, “In whose interest is that project?”
We have land, and it is needed; the question is how the use of that land and those assets is prioritised. The fact that the land is being sold to private developers in a very opaque way, lacking transparency, is of the greatest concern to local people and communities. As I said throughout my speech and as others repeated in their contributions, there is a need for social housing, and the Government are missing their own target. Only 6,500 social rented properties were built last year in this country, which is a travesty given the huge housing crisis that we face. As was reported this morning, this country has the second greatest inequality in the world; only the United States of America is more unequal. As my hon. Friend the Member for York Central said in her speech, that inequality is evident in her constituency. There is no need for any more luxury apartments on the scale being proposed; we are denying ourselves social justice in our communities, and impacting on the economies of those areas.
We have heard that the Cabinet Office does not even monitor the delivery of these projects, or of the housing. We hear about hospitals existing on cramped sites. The Minister will be familiar with University Hospital Coventry and Warwickshire and just how cramped and unfit for purpose its site is. We should be thinking much more in the round, as we should when it comes to the provision of libraries in our communities.
Thinking back to 2010 and the years before, the Labour Government had a series of regional development agencies across the country that provided great joined-up thinking about the delivery of infrastructure, healthcare, hospitals or whatever, and saw the big picture. My fear is that One Public Estate is much more on the micro level. Likewise, the previous Labour Government had regional spatial strategies for the delivery of housing, linked to those services and the infrastructure. Those strategies were done away with, which I think was a huge error of the incoming coalition Government in 2010. This is all about the bigger picture, but what are the priorities? I have repeatedly stressed the need for more social housing.
Finally, I once more thank everyone for their contributions; it has been a terrific debate about something incredibly important. Billions of pounds of assets have been disposed of. I thank the LGA and the House of Commons Library for their help and their contributions, and I thank you, Mr Paisley, for chairing.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Immigration Applications: Fee Structure
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the fee structure for immigration applications.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. Rather than sitting in front of you as Chair, this time I am standing before you. I was first alerted to the subject of this debate after a constituent wrote to me about how a surplus charge was foisted on her when sponsoring her non-European economic area spouse’s application for settlement. Rather than simply charging an up-front fee of £388—that is the actual administration cost—the Home Office opted to slap on an additional arbitrary fee of £1,135. Effectively, the Government are making a 300% profit on my constituents’ “luxury” purchase of their right to live together in the place they call home.
I am grateful to my constituents for drawing the matter to my attention. Public politics is dominated by the superficial and bogus appeal of “Here today, gone tomorrow” braggarts, shysters and snake oil salesmen, but that is just part of what democracy is about. It is also about concerned and determined citizens taking an active interest in the workings of Government, taking their responsibilities seriously, working with their elected representatives and, when the Government are in their opinion wanting, holding them to account.
Significantly, a report by David Bolt, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, attractively entitled, “An inspection of the policies and practices of the Home Office’s Borders, Immigration and Citizenship Systems relating to charging and fees June 2018-January 2019”, published on 4 April this year, outlined the costs of different immigration applications, including short-stay visit visas and settlement schemes, which is the matter I am concerned with today. The report calculates the surplus for each application type. The surplus is the difference between the 2018-19 fee and the actual estimated processing costs. When applying from outside the country for settlement through the family route, the surplus stands at £1,135, as my constituent noted. That is the surplus, but the actual cost is higher. Anybody would understandably be angry to discover that they were being effectively subjected to arbitrary and to my mind unjustified taxation. They are paying an excessive fee that is very much over the odds for something that should be their right.
The report by the chief inspector also directly addresses the point that short-stay visitor visas are being subsidised by other immigration applications. Despite being higher in price than originally planned—the Home Office had initially intended a 2% increase in 2018—the fee for a tourist visa was £37 below the unit cost. My constituent was paying three times more than the unit cost. My constituent was even angrier about having to pay a spouse settlement fee of £1,523 on discovering that the unit cost was £388. That was apparently in order to subsidise the tourist visa system.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this issue for consideration in Westminster Hall. As he said, the increase in fees is astronomical. Does he share my concern on behalf of those who are already working to get a wage to bring their partner and their children to the country? These fees add extra financial stress to their capability and ability to bring their families to this country and reunite. Does he agree that we need appropriate fees that do not keep people’s families out of this country?
That is certainly the conclusion I have drawn in this particular case. I will refer later in my speech to the income threshold that is applied, which acts differentially in different parts of the country, and surely that pertains to Northern Ireland as it does to north-west Wales.
According to the Minister, the subsidy for the 2.5 million short-term visas issued each year for tourists costs in the region of £90 million per annum. While I accept that tourism is vital to the UK—it certainly is to Wales and my part of north Wales—and I understand the principle of making the UK as accessible as possible to tourists, I do not agree with making non-EEA spouses and other migrants shoulder the burden, particularly when the fee is four times what it should be, as compared with the real cost.
I was in business before I became an MP. Had I charged a fee for a service I was providing that was four times my costs, that would have amounted to profiteering, even allowing for a reasonable profit. Slightly tangentially, does the Minister have information to hand on where those tourists who apply for subsidised short-term visas end up visiting in the UK? Whose economy are we subsidising? Who benefits? Of course, the vast majority of tourists visit London. In fact—this will interest you, Mr Paisley, and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—there were four times as many visits to London as there were to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined. According to the Office for National Statistics and VisitBritain, almost 20 million tourists visited London in 2017. If we compare that with the 372,000 who visited Cardiff, hon. Members can see the point I am making. Who benefits from the subsidy, and who benefits disproportionately?
The Home Office has set itself the target of the immigration system becoming self-funding. Any below-cost offers would need to be balanced elsewhere within the system, either through fees that were higher than unit cost for other application types or through cost-saving efficiencies, or perhaps both. The principle of self-funding seems to disproportionately penalise some of those who interact with the system. After all, they are paying more than they would reasonably expect. The report recommends that the Home Office runs a wide-ranging public consultation on charging for borders, immigration and citizenship system functions to be completed and published in time to inform the 2019 comprehensive spending review, which I understand we are still waiting for. I wholeheartedly agree that an overhaul and a comprehensive review are needed to avoid the continuation of what I see as gross overcharging, especially if BICS continues with its self-funding ambition.
In response to the report’s recommendation, the Home Office has said it will be reviewing the ambition in the context of the 2019 comprehensive spending review. I understand that that is pending. I have no idea when it is due or, for that matter, when the Minister will be reviewing it, so perhaps she inform us. The Home Office expects there to be greater linkage on the basis of three key principles in the setting of all fees: providing funding stability, instilling fairness throughout the system, and promoting prosperity and UK interests. I have no problem with those principles; the problem is with the application of the system in instilling fairness, because I do not think it is fair.
I have written to the Minister asking for a meeting to discuss the charging framework for visa and immigration services, but perhaps she can answer a few of my questions in this debate and we can avoid using her valuable time for a meeting. What progress has she made on reviewing the self-funding ambition, especially in line with the principle of instilling fairness throughout the system? Will she commit to holding a comprehensive review, as the chief inspector recommends?
In a previous Westminster Hall debate, the Minister stated:
“The charging framework for visa and immigration services delivered £1.35 billion of income in the last financial year, 2017-18. That helped to fund more than £620 million of costs associated with other immigration system functions”.—[Official Report, 4 September 2018; Vol. 646, c. 20WH.]
It seems to my constituent, and I agree with her, that the British Government treat some parts of the immigration system as a profit-making wheeze, churning out and charging people according to their net financial worth, when what really matters is people’s rights and their dignity—people’s right to live together as a couple. If the Government are intent on using business-like jargon, what has the Minister’s Department done to promote cost-saving efficiencies—the other part of what I mentioned earlier—as a strategy for the future? It seems an obvious avenue worth exploring.
When constituents of mine are subjected to fees four times the unit cost, the system is obviously fundamentally flawed. For many people, the process of bringing over a spouse from abroad to live together here in the UK is complicated, arduous and costly. For the British Government, however, immigration bureaucracy has become quite the money spinner. Such a policy fits neatly with the Government’s unjust £30,000 immigration threshold, which I mentioned earlier in response to an intervention. It has a clear differential impact on areas of low wages, such as in my Arfon constituency. A £30,000 annual income might seem reasonable here in London, but in Arfon it is a small fortune that many people cannot even hope to achieve. The £30,000 threshold and the fee structure have been thrust on us by an Executive that know the price of something, but have no idea of the actual value, reducing everything, even the institution of marriage that they purport to support, to bean counting.
For the Government to charge spousal immigration applicants for administration costs is at best a burden, but to profiteer from it is unconscionable. The Home Office is pricing out couples who cannot afford an inflated charge of £1,523. The Immigration Minister must take a long, hard look at the visa fee structure system. We need an immigration system that abolishes arbitrary charges and instead treats people with the dignity that they deserve and to which they have a right.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) for securing this debate on the fee structure for immigration applications. I have listened carefully to his comments and can assure him that I am in no doubt about his strength of feeling on the topic, and I am of course aware of representations made by other Members, both in previous debates and in writing and through written questions. Before I respond to the specific points that he has raised today, I want to set out the current landscape for the fees that we charge for visa, immigration and nationality services.
The Immigration Act 2014 approved by Parliament set out the governing factors that must be given regard to when setting fee levels: the costs of administering the service; the benefits that are likely to accrue to the applicant upon a successful outcome; the costs of operating other parts of the immigration system; the promotion of economic growth; fees charged by or on behalf of Governments of other countries for comparable functions; and any international agreement. That is important because not only do those factors play an important role in our nation’s ability to fund the borders, immigration and citizenship system, but they are the only matters that can be taken into consideration when setting such fees.
In addition, there is a further layer of fees legislation by way of an order that sets the fee maxima that could ever be charged, which is laid in Parliament subject to affirmative resolution procedures. Finally, individual fee levels are then set out in regulations that are presented to Parliament and subjected to the negative procedure. I emphasise that as it is important to recognise that the Home Office cannot amend fee levels without first obtaining the approval of Whitehall and Parliament. A comprehensive system rightly ensures that there are a number of checks and balances in place to ensure that there is proper parliamentary oversight of the fee regime.
Fee levels are calculated in line with managing public money principles and the powers set out in the Immigration Act to reflect the value that people get from the services they receive. The powers that were agreed with Parliament in 2014 bring significant benefit to the borders, immigration and citizenship system and to the UK in the form of effective and secure border and immigration functions, reduced general taxation and the promotion of economic growth.
I recognise that there is significant interest in how fees are calculated, and we publish details of fee levels and estimated unit costs, as well as background information, on gov.uk to cover what is included and excluded from unit cost calculation. It is important to recognise the significance of the charging framework in funding visa and immigration services. For example, in the financial year 2017-18, £1.35 billion of income was delivered, which helped to fund the costs associated with other immigration system functions. That helped to maintain their effectiveness and security, and investment in ongoing service improvement.
Setting fees at such a level, putting the onus to pay on those who benefit from the services, reduces the burden on the Exchequer and on the general taxpayers of this country. A responsible Government have to balance the books. The loss of income resulting from any reduction in specific fees or drastic changes to policy would need to be balanced by rises elsewhere, or an additional taxpayer contribution. The Government remain focused on driving efficiencies throughout the system and on improving services. Our fee levels allow us to attract the brightest and best to the UK while enabling the Home Office to work towards its ambition of a self-financing borders, immigration and citizenship system.
Our fees are competitive. They compare favourably with key competitor countries and offer good value, particularly when considering the benefits and entitlements of a successful application. We expect future spending reviews—the hon. Gentleman referred to this—to influence our approach on fees, but we will want to ensure that, overall, we strike the right balance between funding the system, instilling fairness and promoting prosperity and UK interests.
The hon. Gentleman raised the chief inspector’s recently published report on the Home Office borders, immigration and citizenship system’s policies and practices relating to charging and fees. We certainly welcomed the recommendations made by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, and accepted the majority of them. Our published response sets out in detail which recommendations the Home Office has and has not accepted and why, so I will not go through them now. We recognise that improvements can be made across the system in increasing the transparency in how we charge and the service standards that our customers can expect where we charge a fee.
We expect the forthcoming spending review to influence our approach on fees, but we will want to ensure that, overall, we provide funding stability, instil fairness and promote prosperity and UK interests.
The hon. Gentleman raised some specific points. I will talk briefly about the income threshold. There is a level of confusion regarding the proposals in the Government’s White Paper, published last December, which spoke of the future borders and immigration system—not scheduled to come into play until January 2021—and which referred to a £30,000 threshold. That is not for a spousal visa, but for people seeking to come to the UK to work under the equivalent of our current tier 2 system.
That figure was not plucked out of thin air arbitrarily by the Government, or thrust upon us, as the hon. Gentleman suggested; it came from a long and detailed piece of research carried out by the independent Migration Advisory Committee. When the committee’s report was published last September and incorporated into our White Paper last December, we made it very clear that that would commence a year of engagement on this subject.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased—perhaps relieved—to learn that over the last five months or so, Home Office officials have undertaken more than 70 separate events, in every region and nation of the United Kingdom and across every sector of industry. I have taken the time to speak to Scottish and Welsh Ministers, and at meetings with members of the civil service of Northern Ireland.
When we consider the future border and immigration system, it matters that we listen to voices from across the United Kingdom and across industry, and understand how we can interact as between the suggestion of expert economists that a £30,000 threshold for a tier 2 visa was about right and the concerns of certain sectors of industry. Of course, different parts of the United Kingdom have average salary levels that are different from those in, say, London and the south-east.
That is an important ongoing piece of work. I am sure that Members will be delighted to hear—there are two Members from Northern Ireland and one from Wales in the Chamber—that this summer I will again spend time in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, listening to the voices of those devolved nations and industries operating within them.
Importantly, the salary threshold for those wishing to bring a spouse and/or dependants into the country is not set at £30,000. The eligibility threshold to apply for a spousal visa is set at £18,600. That is designed to ensure that families can support themselves financially, and we ask for evidence that the sponsor can meet a minimum income threshold. There are additional requirements depending on the number of children. If the spouse has one child, the threshold rises to £22,400, and then by £2,400 per additional child.
The principle was to ensure that there was no dependency on our benefits system, and the threshold was set at a level at which people could be expected to be able to participate fully in society, and integrate into our communities. We in the Home Office, alongside the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, continue to play an important part in ensuring that our system enables people to integrate into communities and play a full role in society. The principle has, of course, been consistently upheld by the courts, and has been tested rigorously.
As the hon. Gentleman alluded to, I have committed to keeping fees for visa, immigration and nationality services under review, and to take account of the issues raised in today’s debate and previous ones, in the light of the independent chief inspector’s recommendations. The Government are committed to ensuring that we have an effective border and immigration system that is not a burden on the Exchequer and the country’s general taxpayers. Decisions on how the system is funded are complicated and require a number of factors to be carefully balanced, as I have set out. However, I reiterate that the Government remain entirely dedicated to maintaining support for the vulnerable who come into contact with the immigration system, ensuring that they are treated fairly and humanely.
Question put and agreed to.
Shared Prosperity Fund
[Sir David Crausby in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the UK shared prosperity fund.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I am pleased to see so many colleagues present to debate an issue that will affect all corners of the United Kingdom and all our communities.
There has been considerable discussion and debate, especially within the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland devolved Administrations, about the shared prosperity fund. Many of us have raised it formally with Ministers in written and oral questions, meetings and correspondence with the Government over the past year. However, it is right that today we take the opportunity to lead a national debate that seeks to heal the divisions in our country—divisions that were laid bare by Brexit but whose seeds were sown long before. Today is an opportunity to look at an important issue through the eyes of our communities, rather than through the prism of party politics.
The Government must respond to three key challenges: to accept that they cannot leave local areas facing major financial uncertainty, to signal that they trust devolved Administrations, mayoral combined authorities and local authorities to know their communities best, and to commit to a clear timetable for action. I speak not only as the Member for Barnsley Central, but as elected Mayor of the Sheffield city region—a unique position that gives me a unique perspective.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate; I apologise that before too long I will have to leave it to chair a meeting. Is it not disappointing that, despite the promise to consult on the shared prosperity fund by the end of last year, we still do not know its terms or the amounts involved? Secondly, should the Government not make a simple promise that no area will be worse off if we leave the EU than if we had stayed in?
I agree. I will make those points later in my speech.
I have seen at first hand what local areas can do when they come together to drive economic growth, but also how they can be limited and constrained by the powers and resources available to them. European or Government funding can often come with limitations that inhibit creative thinking, making it difficult to deliver significant structural changes.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. When I was leader of Coventry City Council a long time ago, we badly needed regional aid, which at that time came from Europe. One thing that investors asked was what our skills, transport systems and so forth were like. If we could not answer those questions, sometimes we did not get the aid, and as a consequence we lobbied for regional aid for a couple of years. It is very important that we get some guarantees out of the Government, because whether we happen to live in Wales, Scotland or the west midlands, we need real answers. If we do not get them, investment will fall, costing us jobs. This is a very serious situation; I cannot stress that enough.
My hon. Friend speaks with great authority on these matters. He has put his finger on the nub of the issue, which is that decisions that will have an impact on local communities are best made by those communities themselves. Through the devolution agenda, the Government have a very exciting opportunity to devolve not just decision making, but the powers and resources required to deliver those decisions.
I was expressing frustration about the criteria that are sometimes applied to pots of funding. Central Government funding in particular can often be short-term or pit places against one another. Sadly, at times it can be driven by political short-termism, by pork-barrel politics or by who shouts loudest and longest. Under such circumstances, it is hard to plan for the future, and it can be more difficult to be strategic.
From 2020 onwards, the funding allocated to regions from the European Union will come to an end. From 2021, so will the funding allocated through the local growth fund programme. Together, the programmes have totalled billions of pounds of investment. The European funding element in the current programme alone has been worth €207 million for the Sheffield city region, €796 million for Yorkshire and the Humber, €513 million for Northern Ireland, €895 million for Scotland and €2.413 billion for Wales.
In the highlands, the European structural funds were awarded on properly assessed need for roads, harbours and suchlike. That funding was fantastic in halting continuing depopulation, that great curse of the highlands. If we get this wrong—if we do not get something proper in place of the funding—I fear that that ghost will haunt the highlands once again.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valuable point.
My hon. Friend mentioned the timing for the funding running out and the possibility of taking a strategic view of funding for the future. Does he agree that the delay in publishing the consultation makes it even more difficult for people throughout the UK to think about strategic funding for the future and delivering projects for our communities?
Yes, I do. My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point.
My hon. Friend rightly noted that in previous schemes that we have had in this country, assisted areas were pitted against one another. The European structural funds were just that—they were structural. They allowed us to invest in infrastructure, but also, importantly, in social projects. That dimension must not be lost.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I will address in just a moment.
If we remained in the European Union, research produced by the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions suggests that UK regions would receive €13 billion under the future EU cohesion programme.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He is making a powerful case, but as one of three Cornish MPs present, I have to note that he omitted Cornwall from his list of regions of the UK that have benefited significantly from regional growth funds and from European funds. It is important that we have this debate and that we encourage the Government to publish the consultation, but it is also important that we should work right now, as we are doing in Cornwall, on how to spend regional growth funds to the benefit of our communities. We do not have to wait for the consultation to come out; we can all work with our local authorities and businesses to shape the future funding arrangements. Will the hon. Gentleman encourage colleagues in this Chamber to work together to ensure that we learn from the lessons of the past and have funds that work for our areas?
Order. Interventions should be short.
I hope very much that this debate will provide an opportunity for hon. Members to make points that they have sought to make for some time. On Cornwall specifically, if the hon. Lady bears with me for no more than a few seconds, she will, I hope, be pleased with what I am about to say.
I was saying that certain areas with a specific interest in the work of the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions were due to get an even greater proportional increase: South Yorkshire, Tees Valley and Durham, Lincolnshire, southern Scotland, parts of outer London, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, west Wales and the valleys.
And Devon—I am grateful for that intervention.
Let me move back from Devon and Cornwall to South Yorkshire for just a moment. In South Yorkshire, we would have seen an increase from €117 per head to more than €500 per head. It is therefore my view that any future shared prosperity fund needs to replace the funds on the basis of what would have been received, had the referendum result been different.
On the question of how funds are allocated, does my hon. Friend agree that if there is any combination of needs-based formulae and competition, allocation on the basis of need should overwhelmingly be the most important factor to be taken into consideration?
I do agree. My hon. Friend makes a very important point, and I will say more about that later.
When it comes to the funding criteria for the shared prosperity fund, it is important to understand that resources previously received support some of the most vulnerable in our society, through projects delivered by charities from Mencap and the Salvation Army through to local and voluntary community organisations, such as South Yorkshire Housing and Sheffield Futures, in my patch—organisations rooted in our communities, born out of need and surviving in some cases by the skin of their teeth. The resources also support investment in high-profile, multimillion-pound research and innovation schemes. They unlock town and city regeneration. They provide business support and finance in urban and rural areas. They deliver sustainable development projects that support the low-carbon agenda. Taken together, these local growth and European funds have been the glue that holds our communities together.
I will be brief, as I know many others want to speak. Will the hon. Gentleman expand on that? Many of the areas he listed as the biggest beneficiaries of European structural funds were also areas that voted to leave the European Union. I was surprised to hear him say that we should have the same system, had the referendum result been different. Will he say why he thinks that people in many of those areas voted in such high numbers to leave?
I do not think that that is an unreasonable question. We can have a debate if we like, although perhaps on another occasion, about why it was that people decided they wanted to leave the European Union. For many, it was because they felt that their local areas were not receiving the benefits that other, more affluent parts of the country were. This is a very good opportunity for the Government to seek to heal some of those divisions and invest in some of the communities that feel left behind. The United Kingdom shared prosperity fund must be designed and delivered so as to deliver on the aspirations of the communities such as the one that I am proud to represent. Those funds have previously done an incredibly important job in providing the glue that holds some of our communities together, creating new jobs, and in supporting disadvantaged and hard-to-reach communities that have often been neglected.
The Employment Related Services Association has highlighted the very point that my hon. Friend makes—that these initiatives and organisations support people furthest away from the labour market. I used to be a Connexions manager and would draw down some of that funding to help young people who were not in education, employment or training. Does my hon. Friend agree that 2020 is just around the corner and people are getting desperate to plan and deliver those programmes?
I do, and furthermore there is a real opportunity to place these resources in town halls and in mayoral combined authorities—in people who have their own democratic mandate to take decisions and allocate the resources in the most effective and efficient way.
I commend my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He will know that, apart from Cornwall, the north-east and the Tees Valley are the areas that have received the most funding from the European regional development fund and social fund. He will also know that by the Government’s own economic analysis, those areas are also set to suffer most from the impact of any Brexit outcome, however delivered. Is it not incumbent upon the Government to take this opportunity not only to match up to the promises that have been made on that funding, regardless of our departure from the European Union, but to do that in a fair and properly targeted way, so that it gets to the areas that need it most—the areas suffering from poverty and low living standards—regardless of our patchwork of local devolution?
My hon. Friend is exactly right; she makes a powerful point. This is a big opportunity for this Government and the next Government to invest money in our regional economies. I said at the outset that I hoped we would see this debate through the eyes of our communities and what is in their best interest, not through the prism of party politics. There will be a range of different views about Brexit and what it may or may not mean for our country, but I hope there is a unanimity of view on wanting to do the best for our country, whatever happens. We want to invest money wisely and effectively in the regions and nations of our country. If we are serious about doing that, the shared prosperity fund is an incredibly important element and ingredient in it, but we have to design it in the right way. We have to get the criteria right. We have to make sure that the formula in place is agreed by the regions and nations. That is why we need to get on with the consultation and make some progress.
It seems to me that, for one reason or another, moneys that have come from Europe—or that we have put in and that have come back to us from Europe—and moneys that a number of Governments have allocated have not dealt with the inequity in our country between north and south or between cities and towns. Does my hon. Friend agree that, whatever else happens in the future, unless there is an offer for our smaller towns and communities, no fund will match the expectations of those communities, or the demoralisation that they feel at how they have been treated by national Government and, for that matter, city government?
As always, my right hon. Friend makes an important point. I hope that what is starting to emerge as a consensus in this place is that whatever happens over the next few weeks, months and years, business as usual and the way we have done our politics previously are not going to cut it. This is an opportunity to look at how we invest in our regional communities and to empower decision making at a regional and local level. That is not a silver bullet solution—it will not necessarily address all the challenges that we face—but it has to be part of the solution to many of the concerns that our constituents have.
My right hon. Friend provokes me to make another point. This country has one of the most centralised systems of public finance, policy making and political control of all the OECD nations. The Guardian—I am not sure whether the Minister is a regular reader—reported that local government in this country controls only 1.6% of GDP. That figure is 6% in France, 11% in Germany and 16% in Sweden, yet local government delivers around a quarter of all public services. The inevitable consequence is that decisions, however well meaning, do not always adequately reflect the needs or opportunities of local areas.
The issue is no more acute than in the way that successive Governments have decided where to prioritise investment. I have made this point many times before: when it comes to spending on transport infrastructure, the gap between more affluent areas, such as London and the south-east of England, and the north is particularly stark. Despite the work of the Minister and those in Government supporting the northern powerhouse, it is still the case that, since the northern powerhouse was introduced by the Government in 2014, public transport investment per person has been three times higher in London than in Yorkshire and the Humber.
It is no surprise that that is the case. However herculean the efforts of individual Ministers, the rules of engagement are stacked against us. The inequalities are built into the criteria of the Treasury Green Book model, which favours infrastructure development in more affluent areas, meeting existing demand rather than stimulating latent potential. In the words of my friend and neighbour, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham—himself a former Chief Secretary to the Treasury—the Government have
“a tendency to shovel more and more into the areas that are already doing well.”
We see that in transport investment and other Government programmes.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. Does he acknowledge that it is not just the north that suffers this problem? Some areas in the south-west have exactly the same difficulty. Does he agree that the Treasury should have other mechanisms, rather than looking at just the economic benefits? Perhaps it could look at the social benefits of putting money into areas such as his and mine.
I absolutely agree, and I always try to choose my words very carefully. Not for one moment will Labour try to pit the north against the south, or different parts of the country against each other. I absolutely accept that there are different needs in the remoter regions of our United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to make the point that there are areas of deprivation in the south, south-west and south-east, and indeed in London, just as there are in the north. That is why it is so important that we take this opportunity to get the design of this fund right, so that every corner of the country will be best placed to benefit from it.
I was about to make the point that in 1960 the UK had the highest levels of productivity in Europe. Now, though, a French worker produces, on average, more by the end of Thursday than a worker in the UK does by the end of the week. In the UK, the gap between the richest and poorest regions is around 150%, which is almost twice as large as in France and three quarters larger than in Germany. Such gaps in wealth distribution and productivity are neither normal nor inevitable, but for some of our most deprived regions they are increasing. The consequences of public policies and investment decisions entrench the economic and social divide. If we fix that, the prize will be huge.
Looking at the north of England, Transport for the North’s “Northern Powerhouse Independent Economic Review” suggests that we could add £97 billion to our economy by 2025, which is over and above business-as-usual levels. Over the same period, we could add 850,000 jobs, which is also over and above business-as-usual levels. We can do that by focusing on what we are good at. In South Yorkshire, the same qualities that fired the world’s first industrial revolution now power our 21st-century advanced manufacturing and engineering story. Companies such as Rolls-Royce, Boeing and McLaren have chosen our region because we are in the vanguard of developing new materials and solutions to real-life manufacturing and engineering problems. This must be the start of our economic transformation, not the end. To go further, we must have the tools and resources.
Many valuable points have been made, but the points the hon. Gentleman is now making refer to prosperity. One of his colleagues asked earlier whether we are looking at meeting need or at driving prosperity and productivity—those two things almost conflict. My concern is about how much of this fund will be delivered through local enterprise partnerships, which will be looking competitively at growth, and how much will be delivered through local government, which will effectively be looking much more at need. Is the hon. Gentleman also concerned about ensuring that both issues are addressed? This concerns not just the areas where we will drive productivity; we need to get other areas up to at least a basic level, so that the need is at least average.
The hon. Lady asks the right questions, and the point of the debate is precisely to flush out these kinds of question. That is precisely why we need to have this consultation, so that collectively we can have that debate and put in place an arrangement—a formula or criteria—that serves our country in the way that I hope we would all want it to be served.
I was making some observations about the challenges that specifically relate to poor connectivity, issues regarding skills, and productivity. Owing to devolution, and hopefully to the design of this fund, I am hugely positive about our ability at a regional and local level to address some of these challenges. Change is afoot, and there is growing recognition that the answers to these issues do not lie just in Whitehall or Westminster. The recent election of the North of Tyne Mayor—I know the Minister is quite enthusiastic about that recent election—means there are nine metro Mayors across England. They represent 20.7 million people, which is 37% of the population of England.
We are adding our voice to that of our friends and colleagues in devolved Administrations in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales in calling for greater freedoms and resources to help us do our jobs. This is a powerful voice and one that, to be fair, I believe the Government listen to. The Government have made place central to their industrial strategy, recognising that no one size fits all, that each and every part of the UK has a different set of opportunities, and that different approaches are required to develop them.
Over the coming months, many of us will be working with the Government to develop our local industrial strategies—joint agreements that set out how central Government and local government will work together to grow our economy. With the creation of powerful sub-national transport bodies such as Transport for the North, we increasingly have the capacity, capability and voice to effect real change. Taken together, these new models of governance, the growing recognition of the importance of place, and an acceptance that the status quo cannot be allowed to persist suggest a brighter future.
That brings me back to the shared prosperity fund, which has to be part of the solution. With some frustration, I say that despite many interventions in the House— through written questions and correspondence with the Department—and despite many promises that consultation would take place, we do not yet have clarity on how much funding will be available, what activities will be eligible for support or who will take the decisions about how the money is spent. We know that the new fund will be a central pillar of the Chancellor’s spending review, and that Departments will be working on the development of the fund. On that basis, we have not been sitting idly by, waiting to be asked. Indeed, I commend the work of the all-party parliamentary group on post-Brexit funding, and the analysis and contributions of colleagues in local and regional government who have been addressing these issues.
I have set out my four guiding principles on which I think the fund should be developed, which are as follows. First, the annual budget for the UK’s shared prosperity fund should be no less in real terms than both the EU and local growth funding streams it replaces. It must guarantee that regions will not be worse off because of Brexit, in the funding available for regional development beyond 2020. Moreover, that should be a baseline rather than a cap.
Secondly, there should be no competitive bidding element. Instead, an open and transparent process must be put in place that strikes a balance between targeting areas of need and rebalancing our economy, and supporting economies that have the greatest potential to grow.
Thirdly, the fund must be fully devolved to those areas that have in place robust, democratically accountable governance models, including devolved Administrations, combined authorities and mayoralties. It must be up to local areas how best to invest this money, be it on skills, helping the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, infrastructure investment, employment or support and education. Fourthly, the funding must be stretched over multiple years, beyond the vagaries of spending reviews and parliamentary cycles.
I want to take this opportunity to implore the Government to untie the hands of our local areas—to trust that we know our communities and can develop, appraise and deliver projects on time, on budget and in line with local need and opportunity. The year-by-year drip-feed of central Government funding for local economic growth has to end. The imposition of priorities and projects has to end. The competing against, rather than collaborating with, our partners for funding has to end.
The shared prosperity fund will be a litmus test for this Government on their commitment to devolution; it will be the proof of the pudding. The central question is whether we all have the courage and the conviction to let go of powers and resources that for too long have sat in Westminster and Whitehall. If we want to tackle the scourge of regional inequalities and create a country that works for all, let us be bold. Let us ensure that the shared prosperity fund does what it says on the tin: enable all our communities to share in this country’s economic growth, and prosper.
Order. I ask Members to limit their contributions to three minutes. That includes any interventions, so if Members do not want to lose time, they should not give way.
In my constituency of Newton Abbot, workplace earnings are 78% of the national average; we have a higher percentage of people on carer’s allowance or disability allowance; we have three lower layer super output areas, or neighbourhoods, in the 20 most deprived areas of the country; and 40% of our jobs are part time, compared with the national average of 32.5%. How will a shared prosperity fund address all that? In Devon more broadly, productivity is 17% lower than the UK average, fewer people go on to higher education, 24%—almost 25%—of people are over 65, and 5% of people live in the most deprived wards in the country. We are disproportionately endeavouring to support small and medium-sized enterprises, farming and fishermen. It is therefore very important that support for that type of community is there for us, as it has been in the past.
Since 2014, in Devon we have had 29,000 new homes and 28,000 new business accommodation sites, £183,000 has been invested in infrastructure for broadband, and 2,000 new start-ups and 5,000 new training places have been established. However, we need clarity about how each individual area will get its share of the “cake” and what the criteria will be. We must ensure that there is an appropriate balance between dealing with competition to increase productivity, and accepting that some areas will never reach the Government target. We need to address their need to get them to the base starting point.
We need to be clear. Are we delivering through the LEPs and their industrial strategy? The LEPs certainly think we are, but my concern with that is that it is very competitive, and I cannot see that it will focus on needs. Or is it going to go through local government? That is not my understanding at the moment, but I think that at least some of it should. Clarity would be very much appreciated.
Devon has EU transition status, and we have 11 neighbourhoods in the 25% most deprived areas of the country. My concern is that if we start measuring productivity in those areas, we are measuring economic contribution divided by the number of individuals, rather than the number of workers. That means that we will always do worse. It is crucial that we look at the productivity question differently in rural and coastal areas. My ask for the Minister is that there should be a ring-fenced pot for rural and coastal communities so that, when we focus on the need of SMEs, we look at farmers and fishing. In particular, we should look at raising education and skill levels, because without that we can never get pay up, and investment in infrastructure, which at the moment is well below the national average. The requirement is always for match funding. It is a nice idea, but it does not work in a poor area.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing this important debate.
The communities I serve are among the poorest parts of the European Union. According to Eurostat, we have a GDP ratio of only 68% of the EU average, whereas the corresponding figure down here in London—the richest part of the European Union by a country mile—is 614%. There are several reasons for that grotesque difference, but British Government policy is a key factor. Public spending per head in London is higher than it is in Wales, while infrastructure spending in London dwarfs the crumbs offered to my country. The trickle-down economics pursued by successive British Governments has failed the communities I serve.
Wales is not alone. Nine of the 10 poorest parts of northern Europe are within the British state. Every single nation and region within the British state, apart from London and the south-east of England, runs a deficit to the UK Treasury. The UK has a chronic under-productivity problem, as many hon. Members have already said. The easiest way to tackle that would be to target investment at the poorest parts of the British state.
My county of Carmarthenshire has hugely benefited from European structural funds. During the 2014-2020 programme, EU funds have so far assisted 611 enterprises, created 130 enterprises, generated 884 jobs, supported by 877 people into work and helped 3,557 people to gain qualifications. Of all the nations and regions in the British state, west Wales and the valleys has the most to lose.
In the absence of any commitment from the British Government, Plaid Cymru has produced its own model for post-EU regional funding. Our approach is based on a few simple principles. First, we should receive not a penny less than what would have been available through future funding, as the people of Wales were promised during the referendum campaign. Secondly, decisions about Welsh funding should be made in Wales. A power grab of any nature that undermines the Welsh constitution will be met with fury. I hope the British Government are alive to the problems that they are brewing for themselves in my country.
Thirdly, the new framework must be ready to take over seamlessly from the end of EU structural funds. Fourthly, funds should be pre-allocated and not subjected to a competitive bidding process, which would inevitably mean that the poorest parts of the British state lose out. Finally, we believe that the programme funding in Wales should continue to meet the goals of European structural funds, including streams relating to employability and economic development.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing this debate. There is no question but that European structural funds have played a huge role in many of our regions and constituencies—in fact, the building in which my constituency office is located was built on the back of European money—so it is really important that we get to grips with this new fund.
The hon. Gentleman drew out a lot of the difficulties and conflicting ideas very well. One of the difficulties is that we all have a slightly different idea of what the prosperity fund should be trying to target, how it should look and what sorts of projects would fit into it. That is one of the reasons why we need the Government to move much more quickly and set out their view of how it should look.
Although EU structural funds have some real benefits and strong points, we have an opportunity to do things a bit differently. The pre-allocation over a seven-year period is too inflexible for what we will need. We need more flexibility so we can react more quickly to what is happening in the economy and to local areas. We must also look at how funding is allocated, and we should have a discussion about exactly how we will do that. I do not want the UK prosperity fund to become effectively an England-only fund, with money passed on under the Barnett formula to the devolved nations under the current funding formulas, which are not ring-fenced. That money could be used for things that are completely unrelated to the aims and purposes of the prosperity fund or to plug holes in other budgets. That is not a political point about a Conservative UK Government and an SNP Scottish Government; that problem will exist whoever is in power in either location.
If we are serious about using the UK shared prosperity fund to reduce inequalities among communities across the four nations, we must ensure that each and every part of the United Kingdom can benefit from it fairly. The Barnett formula is a pretty good argument that the devolved nations would actually lose out, rather than gain, under that arrangement. I hope the Minister agrees that that means that the UK prosperity fund should be operated as a single fund, based on need and not on where people live in the UK.
The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) gave a good example of how European funds have been very good in the highlands and have been targeted. If that were just a block of money that went to the Scottish Government as part of the Budget, there is no guarantee that a penny of it would reach the highlands or be targeted at the initiatives that have benefited under European arrangements.
I hope we will get a few answers from the Minister about the timing, what shape the Government think the structural fund will be, and how much money might be put in. I look forward to the introduction of the fund, because it is hugely important, but we absolutely must get it right, for all the reasons that the hon. Member for Barnsley Central set out.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing this debate, which is, I hope, an important opportunity for us to influence the way billions of pounds will be spent.
I think the point about maintaining minimum levels of expenditure is absolutely right, but if we simply adopt a carbon copy of the old EU scheme, we will have failed. What is the point of replacing a bureaucratic, unaccountable system with another bureaucratic, unaccountable system? That means that we must move away from the current regional format. It most definitely should not be run by and from Whitehall. It needs to be embedded in local communities and run by people from and accountable to the communities, and that means the local councils.
Let us take one example of what is wrong now. My town centre in Ellesmere Port has been struggling for a long time. Like many other northern towns, the rise of the internet and changes in shopping habits have led to shops closing down on a weekly basis. We need a new approach that regenerates the town centre, restores civic pride and gives people a positive reason to visit their high street and spend their money there. I am pleased that my local authority has bid for funding from the future high streets fund, but, realistically, if every town centre that bids gets a slice of the pie, there will never be enough to go round. The sums that we need for a truly transformative approach will not come from one pot alone. When a lot of the town centre is in private ownership, as mine is, there is a limit to what the public sector can physically do, but if the shared prosperity pot was operated in tandem with other funding pots, as the LGA suggests, there would be an opportunity for an integrated and creative approach that could lead to better outcomes for both funds.
We have spent a lot of time in here talking about what people meant when they voted leave, but not nearly enough about why they voted leave. We talk to ourselves, but not to the communities who voted leave. When will they be asked for their opinion and what their priorities are? When will they truly be given the opportunity to shape their own destinies? When will they be able to take back control? People already feel as though they do not have the power to make decisions about the most important things in their lives—whether a local hospital should stay open, where a new school might go or even how often the buses run—and the consequences are there for us all to see.
We need to think big and empower local communities. We do not need more crumbs from the table. Can we not see that people are fed up to the teeth with the patronising approach, not least because it clearly does not work for the vast majority? Power flows towards London. Wealth flows upwards into the hands of the elite. A Westminster handout on Westminster terms will not change that, and the sooner we realise that business as usual is not going to cut it, the better.
Our country is undergoing massive changes now, but with future automation the changes will accelerate and impact even more on those who can least afford it. We need to find a way to give communities responsibility and the power to shape their own futures.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing this debate. I agreed with many of the points that he made in his very good opening speech.
I represent a Cornish constituency. It is well known—it has already been mentioned in this debate—that Cornwall has been one of the biggest recipients of European economic support funding. Yet as the Minister pointed out, Cornwall voted by a fairly substantial majority to leave the EU. There are reasons for that. It is largely because of the way in which European regional development funding has been spent in Cornwall, and there is a view that much of it has been wasted. During the past 20 years, Cornwall has received almost £1 billion of European funding, yet it has not achieved anywhere near what it was set up to achieve. In 2000, when the programme began, Cornish GDP was at 75% of the European average. The latest assessment is that we are at 68% of the European average, so despite three rounds of ERDF funding and almost £1 billion, we have fallen behind the rest of Europe.
There are good reasons for that: the European programmes are over-bureaucratic and difficult to access. In fact, the people in Cornwall who are most upset that we are leaving the EU are the consultants who have made a small fortune out of advising Cornish businesses on how to apply for European grants. They are the most upset people because their gravy train is coming to an end. Also, the programme has been far too prescriptive. We have been part of a centralised European programme that has not allowed people in Cornwall—the businesses and the local authority—to invest the money in the things that Cornwall really needs.
The shared prosperity fund is a brilliant opportunity for us to get it right. We can have a programme that is much more fit for purpose, less expensive to run, less bureaucratic and far more easily accessible to the businesses that need to access it in Cornwall. As many Members have said this afternoon, we have to grasp the opportunity to get a programme that is fit for purpose and delivers investment into our most deprived areas and really does the job.
Some things are absolutely essential, as other Members have mentioned. Whatever fund is put in place has to be locally administered, because local people know better what local areas need. It has to be more easily accessible and less bureaucratic, and there has to be a single dedicated pot for places such as Cornwall so that we are not put in a position where we have to be competitive and therefore miss out. I urge the Minister to do all that he can to ensure that the consultation is brought forward as soon as possible.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing this important debate. It comes at a crucial time, as we leave the European Union, but we must realise that the existing fundamental imbalance of investment, decision making and power across the country is a major reason that we saw the Brexit vote. For too long, Westminster has held the purse strings, made the decisions and held power over our communities. Is it any wonder that northern towns such as the one I represent feel isolated from the economic progress of our cities and isolated from the decisions that impact their daily lives?
For the constituents of Leigh, such isolation is not only metaphorical, but literal. My town has no rail connectivity. Decisions made in this place mean that my constituents struggle to access the employment, educational and social opportunities of our nearby cities, while outside investment is effectively blocked from flowing into our towns. My constituents in Leigh are left believing that, after nine years of Tory austerity, the country does not work for them. That is why it is important that the shared prosperity fund not only replaces vital EU funding, but restores their faith in our communities, gives them a voice, a stake in society and empowers them to transform local economies for the 21st-century economy.
At the heart of the debate is not just a matter of replacing funding, but instilling a sense of agency in our communities. We must therefore adopt a place-based approach, putting our constituents at the heart of transforming their areas and not leaving them to feel that they are receiving a pity handout. Gone should be the days when a selected elite decide what is best for our local area. We must instead empower and entrust those whom the decisions impact the most.
One great example of how the current system is failing can be seen in the digital and cyber worlds. The Centre for Towns has found that 55% of digital jobs are in the south-east of England, with just 12% in the north. It is a tragedy. The only way we will reunite our country after years of austerity and Brexit-induced division is by empowering, entrusting and investing in our communities. We in this place must let local areas take back control to make the decisions that transform their towns while restoring their damaged trust and confidence in a society that should work for them.
Cornwall has been a net beneficiary of objective 1 and convergence funding, as we have heard from other Members, for the past 20 years. If we step away from the coastal towns that many people visit on holiday, we find pockets of rural deprivation that successive Governments have found difficult to identify. Although the moneys that have flowed into Cornwall have been welcome, there have been challenges with how the money has been administered. I want to raise those challenges with the Minster today in the hope that we can avoid them when we allocate the shared prosperity fund.
Cornwall was a net recipient of almost £1 billion over 20 years. Although there have been some noteworthy allocations of the cash—probably the most important and successful was the rollout of superfast broadband across Cornwall—much of the money was allocated to buildings and industrial parks. Without a strategic investment plan, the net result over the past 20 years has not really moved the dial. Much of the failure came from the application process and does not reflect any lack of will by the people administering the funds. Most of the businesses in North Cornwall are small family businesses employing between five and 10 people. They generally work six days a week, 10 hours a day, and did not have compliance teams that could pore over complex and onerous forms. There was therefore a tendency for the bigger companies and charities to put in their bids, and because they had the time and the resources, they were able to make the applications that the small businesses were unable to.
One stat that struck me was in a recent cost-benefit analysis of the objective 1 funding: for every £250,000 that was spent, Cornwall was the net beneficiary of one job. That fundamentally illustrates why small businesses were unable to access the money when that is exactly where it needs to go. Can we simplify the application process to make the shared prosperity fund easier to access? The countryside productivity small grants scheme, a similar fund, is administered by DEFRA, which is simpler and much more straightforward.
We are still waiting. After assurances that the funding criteria would be in place, we are still in the dark. I encourage the Minister to lay out the fund as soon as is practical, so that Cornwall can benefit. Cornwall has seen historic growth over the last five years. Unemployment is at record lows and tourism in the county is booming off the back of great weather and the devaluation of the pound.
Many of the small businesses in North Cornwall are exporting for the first time, but we need to start investing in people. Young people growing up and going through secondary education and college will now work until they are 80 and will have at least four careers in their lifetimes. The Government need to invest in those young people in college and give them a future by moving the dial on their social mobility.
In summary, we need a more straightforward process, quicker allocation and the apprenticeships and investment in skills that our young people need.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on bringing this issue to the Chamber. I am sure that I am not the only one who longs for a prosperous UK. I, alongside 17.4 million others, believe that that means a UK outside the EU. The vote must be respected and if integrity, honesty and simple human decency have anything to do with it, we will leave.
To replace the EU structural fund, which is reputedly worth £2.4 billion annually, we must continue to reduce inequalities between communities. There must be wise consideration to decide how the UK shared prosperity fund will be formed and distributed. In the past, that was done by identifying the priorities and objectives, the amount of money to be allocated, the method of allocation between countries and regions of the UK—the hon. Member for Barnsley Central said that the fund should be driven regionally, which is correct—the model by which funding will be allocated, whether pre-allocating an amount for a country or region or inviting competitive bids from across the UK, the length of the planning period, and deciding who administers the funds and whether they are controlled from Westminster or by the devolved Administrations. Clearly, neither should be involved; it should be done by devolved authorities or local councils depending on the issue.
It is time for me to put my spoke in. I firmly believe that the fund must be administered at a regional level and, at the very least, to the same level of support as before. Brexit was not an attempt to save a single penny but to manage every penny to greatest effect. That is what we must try to do in the short time available.
The European structural investment fund consisted of four moneys coming from the EU: the European regional development fund, the European social fund, the European maritime and fisheries fund and the European agricultural fund for rural development. Of those, the ERDF and ESF account for over 60% of ESI funding over the programming period of 2014 to 2020—they are very important to my constituency of Strangford.
Strangford, through the fisheries fund and others, has certainly seen improvements to businesses and communities that would be left to languish were money distributed per capita. Although we received only 10% of EMFF money for Northern Ireland for our fleets and communities, clearly that level of support must continue at the very least.
Simply put, our fishing community, including suppliers, producers and all the rest, could not make the needed improvements to fleets or diversification in the communities to help sustainability without the fund. I believe that the same level of money must be delivered, and I stand today to speak for the communities who rely on the fund.
We need a regional hands-on approach that helps those in need to continue or enhance what they are already doing. That opportunity must be seized so that local people can make local decisions and local differences with their own funding. It is time to get the fund in place and make it accessible to those who can use it for business that will impact the local economy in the local community.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing this timely debate. Interestingly, we have had two debates on this matter in the last two weeks, and I feel that more will come.
My constituency of Ogmore relies enormously on regional development funding from the European Union, whether it goes towards supporting businesses, opening the new train station in Llanharan, or the future redevelopment of the much-loved Maesteg town hall. Those projects really matter to my constituents, so it is important that the Minister understands that all hon. Members across the House need decisions to be made. We need to know when the consultation will start and—as soon as possible—how much assurance we can give to our communities that those funds will continue and will not be means-tested or business-led, but distributed on the basis of need.
Some of the poorest communities, including my own, need the funding to continue beyond 2020. The Government’s austerity drive over the last nine years has meant that the Welsh Government have lost almost £1 billion in investment. That is £4 billion in real terms. The £680 million that is delivered to Wales through membership of the European Union is hugely important to communities up and down Wales.
Much of the work done with the European funding that is given to communities across Wales is done with the support of the Welsh Labour Government. Over the last 18 months to two years, we have been told many times that consultations will start, but they do not. We ask questions of Ministers, but they do not have the answers. I have asked Ministers in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Treasury and the Wales Office, and no one seems to have any answers about when the funding will start, how it will be allocated and, importantly, how it will be managed.
Every hon. Member here has made it clear that it is extremely important that decisions are made locally by devolved institutions, mayoralties, councils or whatever it may be. A key point is that the Tory Government must not use this matter to rewrite the devolution settlement of the United Kingdom. It is absolutely pivotal to any forward planning for a shared prosperity fund that future decisions are made by the Welsh Labour Government, so that they can provide certainty to business, local authorities and further and higher education institutions.
At the moment, nothing from the UK Government suggests that those decisions will be made locally. In fact, Conservatives Back Benchers frequently say that perhaps the Welsh Government can be bypassed and the money delivered directly to Welsh local authorities. That simply cannot be allowed to happen. We have a devolution settlement for Wales that must be respected. It is extremely important that those decisions are made locally, and that the funds target the most deprived communities across Wales and the United Kingdom.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing this debate.
In the 1980s, when the Thatcher Government broke the industries on which our economy was built—steel and coal—we faced really tough times in South Yorkshire. We sunk to become one of the poorest regions in Europe, and because of that, the EU stepped in with funding. In reply to some of the comments that have been made, I say that that funding responded to what we asked for locally and funded programmes that were delivered by local organisations.
European structural funds were key to rebuilding our economy. Objective 1 funding provided £820 million to more than 250 organisations and 650 projects, from major projects such as the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, which has become a national flagship for industrial innovation, to small community initiatives that reskill people. The economy grew by 8.5%.
Shamefully, under Government policy since 2010, regional inequality has grown again. We are back where we were before: below 75% of the average gross domestic product of the EU and one of the poorest regions in Europe—formally designated a “less
developed region” along with Tees Valley and Durham, Lincolnshire, west Wales and Cornwall, which have been mentioned.
On those regions, the February report from Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions of Europe, which my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central mentioned, stated this for 2021 to 2027:
“All five of these regions would stand to receive EU support in excess of 500 euros per capita for the seven-year period.”
That would mean £605 million for South Yorkshire.
I was puzzled by the Minister’s intervention, as he seemed to suggest that because those areas voted leave they should not expect to receive that funding. That is not what they were promised in the referendum campaign, nor was it what they were promised subsequently.
Nor was that what I said.
The Minister is chuntering from a sedentary position, but I hope he will respond to the question that I am about to ask.
To cast our minds back, we were promised that we would not be worse off, and in February I wrote to the Secretary of State, asking him to commit to providing the £605 million that we would have received had the country remained a member of the European Union. Replying on behalf of the Secretary of State, the Minister sidestepped the question and instead told me about a stakeholder event in Huddersfield—I am sure it was very useful. Today, I again ask that simple question: will the Government commit to providing regional development funding that is equivalent to the money we would have received from the European Union as less developed regions—yes or no?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on an outstanding speech and on securing this debate. As things stand, we still do not know how much funding will be available, how it will be divided across the country, what activities will be eligible for support and who will decide how the money is spent. But this is not just about money—there is a real fear that it will be not only a financial grab, but a power grab, and that the Westminster Government will use this opportunity to reduce funding for the areas that need it most, and to claw back powers that sit naturally with devolved Administrations and other local areas.
Those deep-seated concerns led to the creation of the all-party group for post-Brexit funding for nations, regions and local areas, which I am truly proud to chair. Our wide-ranging review of 80 organisations across the UK heard clear and unanimous representations that the UK’s shared prosperity fund must comprise not a single penny less in real terms than the EU and UK funding streams it replaces. Westminster must not use Brexit as an opportunity to short-change the poorest parts of the UK. Equally, the UK Government must not prevent local areas from having appropriate control over the funds.
Although it is disappointing that the Minister has so far refused to meet our group, last month officers from our APPG met the Secretary of State for Wales to make those points, and last week they met the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Both meetings were conducted in a positive and constructive spirit, but it is shocking that there is still no sign of the public consultation on the SPF being launched any time soon. In fact, there was a suggestion that the consultation may be delayed until the comprehensive spending review in the autumn. Given that the CSR will include information on the funding of the SPF, I am not sure how the relevant bodies are supposed to contribute meaningfully, when the horse will have already bolted. I assure the Minister, however, that our APPG will be watching carefully to ensure there is no sleight of hand from the Government on that point.
We need a guarantee that the SPF budget will not be a penny less than current and projected EU funding, and that the devolution settlement will be fully respected. We need clarity about when the SPF consultation will be published. The great advantage of the current system is that it is data driven and evidence based, thus guarding against pork barrel politics. There is a fundamental worry that the SPF will become a politicised slush fund, with a Conservative Government using it to buy votes in marginal seats. I hope that the Minister’s response today reassures us that our constituencies will not be left short-changed by a sleight of hand in Westminster.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing this important and timely debate. We have all been waiting far too long for details on this matter. The hon. Gentleman spoke about looking through the eyes of communities, and his challenges to the Minister were repeated by many others in the Chamber. We must respect the devolved Parliaments and ensure that badly needed regional aid is in place. The hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) intervened to speak about the dangers of listening to who shouts the loudest, and of pork barrel decision making.
The hon. Member for Barnsley Central mentioned data from the conference of peripheral maritime regions—I must declare an interest because, as a former leader of Highland Council, I am a former vice-president of that body—and the data were very detailed. He highlighted €895 million for Scotland in this spending round, including €180 million for the highlands and islands. For the Minister’s benefit, I remind hon. Members that both that country and that region voted in great numbers to remain in the European Union.
The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) spoke about the funding being used to challenge depopulation, as well as other issues that have gone unaddressed by Westminster Governments for many years. Indeed, one symbol of European funding joins our two constituencies. After decades of no or little investment in the highlands and islands, the Kessock bridge that now spans our constituencies was made possible only by EU funding—something people in the highlands are very much aware of.
The hon. Member for Barnsley Central spoke about supporting the most vulnerable, and he mentioned the need for regeneration and business support, and the low-carbon agenda that comes with such funding. In response to an intervention, he recognised that people are becoming desperate for information, which is true—people are desperate to find out where such support will now come from. The devolved Administrations must be told what the money will be, how it will be used and how it will work. Currently, they do not have clarity about how much money there is, when it will be allocated and to whom, or how the system will work.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about the guiding principles of there being no less money than already exists, that the regions must not be worse off and that the system should be fully devolved. This funding must go beyond parliamentary cycles and spending reviews.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not as there is not much time and I have a lot to say.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) spoke about Westminster’s failings, and the feeling in his communities about Westminster’s trickledown economics. He mentioned the benefits of EU funding in education, jobs and innovation, and said that his area requires not a penny less than was promised. There should not be a power grab. That would not be acceptable to the people of Wales, or indeed of Scotland.
The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) took great pains to try to support his Government—he even had to call for them to move on—and raised concerns about this being an England-only fund. For different reasons, I have the same concerns, because if we look back into history, we see what happened in the highlands and islands before we were members of the European Union.
The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) said that this must not be a Westminster handout on Westminster terms as that will not cut it, and I completely agree. The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), along with other Members from Cornwall, seemed to argue that European funds have somehow been negative for the area. I know they were talking about the details, but I think people will find that hard to understand.
The hon. Member for Leigh (Jo Platt) spoke about the imbalance of investment, and said that for too long Westminster had held the purse strings and the power. She is absolutely right, and that must be respected when the scheme is introduced. Although the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and I do not agree on everything, he said that this funding must be devolved and at the same level as before, and he listed the improvements that have been made in his constituency with EU funding.
The hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) spoke about how funding matters in his community, and how important it is across Wales, including the fact that it is devolved. This scheme must not be used as an opportunity to rewrite the devolution settlement; devolution must be respected. The hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) repeated the call for this not to be a power grab. It will not surprise you, Sir David, to hear that I agree with that sentiment.
Communities and charities have been waiting years to find out what funding will be available post Brexit, and we urgently need the details of this so-called prosperity fund. Since joining the EU in 1973, Scotland has benefited from European structural fund money to the tune of billions. Those funds have been used to support getting people into work and out of poverty, to improve their education and skills, and for investment in our infrastructure and communities. The European regional development fund promotes balanced development across the EU, and the European social fund invests in employment-related projects.
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has repeatedly promised to publish full details on the consultation. On 15 November 2018, Wales Office Ministers told MPs that a full consultation would be published before the end of the year. We are six months on, and there is nothing to be seen. If Brexit is drawing the Government’s business and long-term planning to a halt, they should revoke article 50—not the concept of long-term planning.
I do not have much time and I want to make sure that the other Front-Bench speaker and the Minister have the opportunity to contribute, so I will wrap up with these words, although there is much more I could say on this subject. Where is the post-Brexit funding? Communities and charities want to know where it is and they need the details urgently. When is it to be revealed? Will it respect the devolution settlement and prove not to be just another power grab?
It is not good enough that this Government are tied in knots and uncertain of the future. If the UK Government’s long-term planning has ground to a halt, they must get past that and get the details to people and communities of how the money will be distributed. We already know that Brexit will cost Scottish communities millions, so they need details on funding urgently. Our people cannot be left behind by a Government who are too chaotic to get out the details of how they will support communities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing this important and timely debate.
We heard from the Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), who expressed real frustration at the lack of a consultation. We expected that before Christmas but it is still not here. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), who restated a position that I firmly believe in: we should use this opportunity to reset and recast how that fund can be used. He spoke about the importance of town centres and how people feel about the future direction of their town, and the ability to include people in a more active way on decisions that affect their lives.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Jo Platt) said that far too often power is held away from local people. With the best will in the world, decisions made about what is right for local areas are for nothing if local people are not involved and feel that they have no agency or control over the future direction of the place where they live. My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) talked about the importance of targeting the fund on the basis of need, and the importance of respecting our devolved nations. They cannot be bypassed—they have to be front and centre in whatever new settlement comes forward. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) said how much regional inequalities have increased since 2010 because of successive decisions made by the current Government.
Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) spoke about the perception that this is not just about money, but is a power grab by Government to retain as much power as they can centrally and not distribute it anywhere. I congratulate him on his work on this issue in the all-party parliamentary group for post-Brexit funding for nations, regions and local areas, which holds the Government to account and works in partnership to try to create a new way forward that provides an alternative.
The importance of EU structural funds has been set out in the debate, but it is worth highlighting again the importance of the £17.2 billion of investment directed at some of the most significant regions that have not shared the capital’s booming fortunes. The EU regional development fund has focused £655 million on supporting small and medium-sized enterprises. It has supported research and innovation with £342 million and invested £197 million towards a low-carbon economy. The EU social fund tackles head-on the barriers preventing people in towns such as mine from accessing the labour market and decent, well-paid and secure jobs. Almost £1 billion has been spent on developing an inclusive labour market, with more than £333 million further to develop new skills that are vital for accessing jobs and vital for the future of our economy.
There are very real concerns about the Government’s intent in this agenda. We have heard not just concerns about the places that people represent, but a significant amount of distrust in the background motives of the Government. There is little wonder why: we have seen nearly a decade of austerity targeted at the most deprived communities, where vital public services have been taken away from areas that could least afford it and that have seen the biggest cuts. The evidence tells us that the Government are not in the game of sticking up for the most deprived communities—the very people we represent in this place. Left to their own devices, what would the Government do with the opportunity to recast the fund, and what might that mean for the communities we represent?
The same is true of education funding, skills funding and further education funding, all of which are under chronic pressure. The same continues to be true of UK capital investment spend, where our regions are held back by a failure to invest in growth. We have seen that on transport investment and housing investment; across almost every line of central Government, capital investment favours the capital of the UK. What about our regions? If we want the UK to be the best that it can be, every one of our regions must be the best that it can be—not just the cities and city regions, but our towns.
There is real fear that what might follow is a competitive process that pitches one area against the next, with rules dictated by a centralising Government who do not want to give power away and have always neglected our towns and our most deprived communities. We might see that the rules are doubly stacked up against getting the money to the very communities and people who ought to be beneficiaries.
Today, the Minister can put some meat on the bones. He can explain why there has been a significant delay in the consultation. He can outline what a future fund might look like: how will local people have agency and be involved? How will we make sure that our towns benefit as much as our cities do? How can we make sure that this is not a pot of money in isolation, but a wholly different approach to how Government spend their money—not just favouring the capital and doing it the easiest way possible, but making sure that every part of the UK gets the money that it needs?
Why has this taken so long? We are nearly three years in from the EU referendum. Had we left on 29 March, we would have been six weeks out of the European Union, but there is not even a programme in place for spending the money that should go to our regions post Brexit. The Government might have been saved by a temporary relief, but at some point they will have to put pen to paper and set out exactly what they have in mind, and make sure that local people are included. I hope that the Minister takes from this debate the fact that there is a great deal of interest, and that the MPs who have spoken are not going away. They will come back if answers do not come forward.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I start in the traditional way by congratulating the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on an excellent speech. As with so many things that we do together, with our shared passion to drive forward the economy of the northern powerhouse, there was very little I disagreed with in his speech, although there were a few things I will mention if I get the opportunity. Many Members asked similar questions, so before I deal with individual contributions I will address some of the more general points.
Let us be realistic about this debate: Members have picked me up on my saying that many areas that voted leave have been recipients of EU structural funds. One of my jobs in Government is administering many EU structural funds, and some Opposition Members may have done that job during the Labour Government. Those funds are hugely bureaucratic, and they do not target many of the things that we are desperate, across the Chamber, to drive in every constituency—including mine in east Lancashire, which is a deprived area in the north of England. Those funds are often inefficient. Although we have heard about some of the brilliant things they have done, such as supporting Mencap, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, they have been hugely inefficient in many places.
My hon. Friends the Members for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) and for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) made interesting points about how some of those funds have been wasted in Cornwall. I suspect that may be part of the reason—although I would be the first to accept that the picture is very complicated—why 68% of the people who live in Barnsley and 60% of the people who live in Oldham voted to leave the European Union. We in this place have to address some of people’s deep frustrations about inequality, which traditionally have not been addressed or targeted by European structural funds.
We keep referring to European structural funds as European money. Let us be absolutely clear: this is British taxpayers’ money, which is given to the European Union and then, after a large percentage of it has been removed, returned to our country.
Will the Minister give way?
I will not, sorry—there have been many interventions.
That is why, looking to the future, in our 2017 general election manifesto, my party—the Conservative party—said we would come forward with a new UK shared prosperity fund that would be designed to reduce inequalities between communities across the four nations of our United Kingdom and target productivity. That was reiterated by my right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary in a written ministerial statement in July 2018 laying out some of the foundations of the UK shared prosperity fund.
The Government accept that tackling inequality is absolutely something we need to grip in this country. The hon. Member for Leigh (Jo Platt) mentioned that Leigh, which I know well—it is just down the road from my constituency—does not have a railway station. It is not the case that there was a railway station there that was closed by a Conservative Government; that is a sign of decades of under-investment in northern transport infrastructure by successive Governments. The UK shared prosperity fund should seek to challenge some of the inequalities that we see north, south, east and west across the United Kingdom.
The Minister has mentioned inequalities several times. I want to be absolutely clear that the Government are committed to ensuring that the shared prosperity fund is led by need and, in respect of Scotland specifically, that the money is not Barnettised. It may be ring-fenced, but it must not be Barnettised.
I am not able to give that commitment today, because we are going to have an active consultation.
If Members give me the opportunity to say when, I may try to provide an answer. One of the points we heard was that we must respect the devolution settlement across our United Kingdom. For me, as the Minister with responsibility for the northern powerhouse and devolution, that means respecting the devolution settlements that this Government have brought forward, by which I mean mayoral devolution in England, which now covers 48% of the north of England.
I understand why the Minister does not want to go down the cul-de-sac of the Barnett formula, but can he confirm that no region will be worse off than it is under the current programme?
As the hon. Gentleman knows and I was just about to say, the quantum of the UK shared prosperity fund will be determined as part of the comprehensive spending review. That is the appropriate time for the Government to make commitments of the sort he seeks. However, he and the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) are correct that the Government must come forward with their consultation—I am clear that this must happen—before the comprehensive spending review to enable areas to contribute to that consultation.
We have not been sitting on our hands, as people who have listened to the debate may think. We have already engaged with more than 500 stakeholders. We have had 25 official-level engagements across the country, including with our counterparts in the devolved Administrations. In addition, in my role as Minister for the northern powerhouse, I have engaged with mayors. I have talked to them specifically about how we can work together to provide evidence to the consultation that demonstrates that, as so many people have said, the impetus for investment of the UK shared prosperity fund should come from our regions rather than being directed out of Whitehall.
Having listened to contributions to the debate, I think everyone believes that it would be nice if that happened. The point is that by working with our metro Mayors, our local enterprise partnerships and authorities across England—that is certainly my role as English Minister for local growth—to create the evidence base, we can move beyond thinking that it would be nice to proving that it is how we will get the biggest return on investment. There is work ongoing in my Department, in advance of the consultation, to ensure that that hugely important argument is made, and won, when my dear chums in the Treasury are making decisions about how the money should be distributed following the consultation. I hope that answers some of the questions that Members asked. My response to the main question is that the consultation will start very shortly.
Let me move on to some of the specific points that were made. On public transport investment, Members may not have seen the most up-to-date figures, which are available on the Treasury website. They show that transport capital expenditure is higher per capita in the north of England than in London. People often talk about total capital expenditure across the north of England versus London. There are some parts of the north of England where very few people live, so it is much more realistic to talk about capital expenditure per capita, and it is higher per capita in the north of England.
Many colleagues talked about the weakness of Green Book calculations for making investment decisions, which I think is acknowledged across the House. That is why the Government came forward with a rebalancing formula in the industrial strategy. That formula looks at areas that are less developed, depending on how we define that, and at factoring future growth into Green Book calculations. Changes have been made recently to ensure that community benefit is also included in such calculations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) commented on the ring-fencing of coastal money. By the end of the current spending period, the Government will have invested £200 million directly in coastal communities through our coastal communities fund, which is about driving prosperity on our coasts. The UK shared prosperity fund must not be viewed on its own as the only support the Government give to drive regional growth. We have contributed £53 million to part of the exciting growth deal in the highlands and islands, which has resulted in things such as the north coast 500 route, which I hope to visit this summer, prospering.
I will let the hon. Gentleman advise me about the best place to stay.
I am grateful to the Minister for raising that money for the Inverness city region deal. Will he go a step further and match 50:50 the commitment of the Scottish Government, who put considerably more money into that deal than the UK Government did?
We will have to look at how much new money the Scottish Government have committed. Since we have talked repeatedly about devolution, particularly from a Scottish viewpoint, I note that the Smith commission agreement, which was signed by all parties in Edinburgh, contains a commitment by the Scottish Government to look at further devolution to local councils in Scotland. Devolution does not stop in Edinburgh, but I understand that no progress has been made on that.
I could go on, and I would like to, but I want to give the hon. Member for Barnsley Central the customary time to conclude the debate. I hope that colleagues do not doubt the Government’s commitment not just to devolution, but to regional growth. The UK shared prosperity fund, which we will consult fully on shortly, will continue that commitment to driving productivity and growth everywhere.
I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this important issue, and I thank everyone who contributed; we heard from people representing every corner of the United Kingdom. The debate teased out some big and important, but in some cases still unanswered, questions. There is an urgent requirement for clarity about the design of the fund—how it will work and how it will be administered. There is also a need to guarantee that, at the very least, our communities will not be worse off. That is the right thing to do, not least because, at this very difficult time for our country, if we want it to be both successful and united, we need to ensure that we get rid of the systemic inequalities between our regions and our nations. If we are serious about doing that, the shared prosperity fund will have a very important role to play. Let us get on with it and work out how we are going to do it.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the UK shared prosperity fund.
Medical Aesthetics Industry: Regulation
I beg to move,
That this House has considered regulation of the aesthetics industry.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I am again grateful to lead a debate on this issue, which is becoming more pressing and may affect many of our constituents. The previous debate on this topic was successful, and I thank those who took part and contributed. I also mention my constituent, Rachael Knappier, who has been brave enough to tell her story and who initially brought this issue to my attention.
As some Members will remember, Rachael received a lip filler from an unregulated beautician, who accidently injected it into her artery, causing a trauma to her lip. In January, I raised this with the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s questions. Since then, some progress has been made by the Government and I welcome the announcement made today, but more progress is required. Following my championing of the issue, I am glad that the Government have begun to act. The Department of Health and Social Care is today launching a campaign to encourage consumers to seek professional advice when considering having procedures such as Botox, dermal fillers and cosmetic surgery.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. As he rightly says, there is need for a tightening of the regulations. In the media, there are children as young as 15 with botched lip fillers and injections; we need to do more to protect those children.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we must ensure that only medically-trained professionals, with a duty of care provided by their professional boards, carry out these procedures, under very strict regulations?
The hon. Gentleman is correct. We need to ensure that we have appropriate regulation with these procedures, or similar types of procedure. He is right to raise this issue on behalf of his constituents.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate. He will be aware of its importance as he is a vice-chair—along with my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and me—of the all-party parliamentary group on beauty, wellbeing and aesthetics. Does he agree that any new regulations that come forward need to consider non-medical regulation? We need to ensure we have properly qualified beauticians, with recognised qualifications, to carry out these procedures.
The hon. Lady is correct. I pay tribute to her and to the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for setting up the new all-party parliamentary group on beauty, wellbeing and aesthetics, along with me. I look forward to her interventions at meetings of that all-party group; I know she has a great deal of knowledge of this area. I agree that we do not want to stifle the beauty industry—we want it to grow and be successful—but we all want to protect our constituents.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on setting up the APPG. I am the chair of the APPG on the hair industry and I am keenly interested in this development. A possible solution to the problem has been put forward by the British Association of Beauty Therapy and Cosmetology. It appreciates the concerns about mandatory registration, but thinks that a regulatory framework, led by the Government, would be difficult to implement and that the voluntary self-regulatory framework is not working either. BABTAC believes that the time has come for the Government to institute a mandatory regulatory framework that would be self-governing and would include BABTAC and the Royal College of Surgeons. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with that?
I agree. The hon. Gentleman has been doing sterling work on behalf of his constituents in related matters with his sister-APPG, and we wish him every success with that. He is right that we have to look at the issue in the round and include professionals who are experts in the field, who contribute to our economy and who themselves want a properly regulated beauty industry.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; he is on a bit of roll with interventions.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work he has done. A professional from a skin clinic in Ribble Valley came to see me at my surgery on Saturday. He told me that somebody could administer Botox—actually inject something into someone’s face—without proper certificates and perhaps even without proper training. He showed me photographs of instances where, sadly, the treatment had gone badly wrong. It is the NHS that has to pick up the misery, and in some cases it is far too late. I congratulate him on what he is doing, but we must get change in the system before more tragedy and misery occur.
My hon. Friend is correct. I am sorry to learn of the incidents he heard about from his constituent at his surgery. I had a similar matter. Indeed, that is what prompted me to champion this issue, along with other hon. Members.
I pay tribute to the Minister at this early stage of the debate. The welcome moves that she has introduced today, by coincidence, are exactly the sort of moves we want; they are on the right path. Today, we are arguing for more, and I am confident she is in listening mode.
Save Face, a Government-approved register for accredited practitioners, highlighted in its audit report last year that it had received just under 1,000 complaints about unregistered practitioners. This register is not compulsory and there are thousands of practitioners who have chosen not to sign up. The mark of a professional is someone who is regulated, qualified and licensed. They do not need to be a medic or a nurse to be able to be regulated, qualified or licensed to practice in this field. In the private sector, professionals such as solicitors—I declare an interest, as I am a solicitor—are regulated, have to be qualified and have to have an annual licence. Most importantly, they are obligated to carry professional indemnity insurance. That marks out those who are professionals and those who are not. That is why we urgently need a professional regulatory body for this industry.
Let me give a simple example. As a nation of animal lovers, we would not consider taking a cat, a dog or even a hamster to an unregulated vet to have an injection. Therefore, why are we allowing our constituents to have the option of going to someone who is unregulated to have potential poison injected into them, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) mentioned?
My hon. Friend makes some good points about the need for better regulation. The challenge is about who we would be regulating, how we would set up a new body and how indemnity insurance would work for people working in the cosmetics industry. We know that healthcare professionals who do cosmetics have indemnity insurance; they have a regulated body they can be held accountable to. Would it not be better, as the Keogh review looked at, to have other practitioners responsible to healthcare professionals, so they had the oversight of healthcare professionals, who would make sure they were engaging in their practices correctly? Is that not an easier way to put into place quickly and effectively something that could actually deal with the issue of regulation?
My hon. Friend, in his time as the relevant Minister in this area, contributed enormously to this field, and I pay tribute to the work he has done in pushing for regulation of the industry.
I am not sure how to answer my hon. Friend’s point, because regulation takes many different forms. I think we would all argue that we want a healthy, thriving, competitive beauty industry. We do not want to strangle it or place an unnecessary obstacle before the business. We seek to achieve a safe beauty industry, where our constituents can approach any beautician of their choice, safe in the knowledge that these individuals have been properly trained and are qualified and regulated. I am certainly up for having the debate on whether they should be regulated by the General Medical Council, the overarching regulator of healthcare professionals or some other regulatory body, but regulation is the key.
I would also like to highlight the distinct difference between Botox and dermal fillers. Botox is a prescription-only medicine that can be prescribed only by a regulated healthcare professional, such as somebody regulated by the GMC. However, there is a loophole. At present, the prescriber is able to delegate the administration of the injections to another person, which unfortunately creates a way for people who are perhaps not regulated at all to administer the product. On the point my hon. Friend made a moment ago, if we were to have a regulatory body that somehow was able to delegate to others, we would have to ensure that those to whom the administration of the procedure was delegated were suitably trained to administer the procedures.
It is evident that these procedures are becoming more popular, and social media has an influence: so many young people are having procedures such as dermal fillers and Botox that that is almost normalising them. Given that the procedures are so widely seen on social media, they are being viewed by young people as equivalent to, for example, having one’s hair cut, as they are just as accessible. I have heard that people will say, “I’m just going out to have my lips done,” just as we might say, “I’m just popping out to have my hair done.” The normalisation of a procedure that can result in trauma should be looked at carefully.
Freyja Medical, in my constituency, provides an excellent service, but it also pointed out to me the important role that it sees Parliament performing in highlighting the impact and consequences of some of the very poor work that is carried out on individuals. I would certainly like to join the all-party parliamentary group, and I think one of the most important things we must do is get the message out to people on how dangerous the administration of these products can be.
I agree entirely, and I encourage the hon. Gentleman to join both the excellent APPG of the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally), and that set up by the hon. Members for Swansea East and for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) and me. They are complementary APPGs and we would welcome the hon. Gentleman’s interest and expertise.
I mentioned a moment ago that this debate should not centre on the conversation about medics or non-medics carrying out these procedures; I believe it is fine for properly qualified and regulated beauticians to be able to offer them. I also highlight the fact that people who receive botched fillers often end up having to go to our national health service to pick up the pieces, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley mentioned a moment ago, so that ultimately the taxpayer has to foot the bill.
As the Keogh review concluded:
“Dermal fillers are a particular cause for concern as anyone can set themselves up as a practitioner, with no requirement for knowledge, training or previous experience.”
In February 2014, it was made illegal to offer dermal fillers without training, but the training has not been clearly defined, and some of those who may be qualified to give lip fillers may not have the necessary training to be able to dissolve them or identify when something has gone wrong. We have met or heard from beauticians who would argue that they are properly trained or qualified, but in some instances they can be trained or qualified only for one part of the procedure, and not necessarily for when things go wrong. Surely, anyone carrying out these procedures should be able to identify when things have gone wrong and remedy them immediately.
The British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons would like to see the development of clinical guidelines on the use of dermal fillers. The Royal College of Surgeons has also expressed that it would like to see dermal fillers classified as a prescription-only medicine. Serious complications of cosmetic procedures can include infection, nerve damage, blindness, blood clots and scarring. That links to what the Government have helpfully announced today, as the campaign will help to inform consumers of those risks. They are also recommending that consumers go to a regulated healthcare professional.
The medical director at NHS England, Professor Stephen Powis, has said that professionals who provide procedures such as fillers should be encouraged to join the new Joint Council for Cosmetic Practitioners. That is very sensible, as it has been set up to assist members of the public, although it is not obligatory. We also face the surrounding issue of body dysmorphia and mental health. Professor Powis has also argued that practitioners should be officially registered and trained to identify people who may be suffering from a body image or other mental health-related issue.
Social media is a powerful tool for young people to look at and to share their experiences. Platforms such as Instagram and Facebook are often used as a principal source of information when people are researching fillers and Botox. I argue that that should not be the case: education on those matters should ideally be face to face when someone is having the procedures, with a trained and regulated practitioner.
Rather surprisingly, there is no age restriction on cosmetic procedures, and I argue that we should have one. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics recommended that children under 18 should not be able to have these procedures unless there was an overriding medical reason for them to do so. As a comparison, the law as it stands in England is that if someone wants to use a sunbed, they must be over 18. I mentioned unregulated vets earlier; we would not consider taking a valued pet to an unregulated vet to have an injection, so why would anyone let, for example, their 16-year-old daughter have someone unregulated inject something potentially poisonous into her face? I invite the Government to consider age restrictions.
The other point I will make is about the content of many dermal fillers. There is a total lack of regulation on the content—that is, the chemical ingredients. According to the British College of Aesthetic Medicine, there are more than 60 dermal fillers available in the UK market alone. It should shock us that we often do not know the content of those fillers and what poisons they may well contain that might have a negative impact on someone’s body.
I believe that urgent regulation is required to protect consumers—our constituents. The steps that the Minister and her Department have taken today are very welcome indeed, but we must do more. I look forward to the Minister’s comments, because I am confident that she is looking into this.
People who put their life savings into investing in their businesses need reassurance that their investment is protected and not undermined by poorly-trained practitioners, because we all make assumptions—seemingly unfounded ones—that those businesses all operate legally and above board. I must bring to the attention of hon. Members the fact that I have met with the insurance companies, which are deeply concerned about the lack of regulation in this particular business. I wonder whether the Minister will comment on how businesses could be better insured and how we could make this a viable business that would not be undermined by other people.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, because this goes to the heart of what professional indemnity insurance is. One of the principal points of regulation is that a consumer knows that, if the professional is negligent, as people often are—people make mistakes—they will not be suing a man or woman of straw; that professional will have professional indemnity insurance behind them. That is the right form of protection in our society, in addition to qualifications and training.
I am pleased to champion this issue, along with the hon. Members present. I once again encourage the Government to continue doing the right thing, and to lead us to a situation in which we have a properly functioning and regulated beauty industry.
It is a pleasure to be here this afternoon during Mental Health Awareness Week, for which the theme is body image, so it is particularly appropriate that we are discussing this issue again, thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for—I can never remember.
Thanks very much—my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa). I am pleased that the all-party parliamentary group has been established since we last debated the issue in this place, and I thank the hon. Member for Swansea West—
I thank the hon. Members for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris)—I never know my east from my west—and for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) for joining that group. It is great to have the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) here, who obviously takes a keen interest in these matters.
I apologise, Mr Owen; I tried to get here earlier. May I first congratulate the Department on today’s announcement? Our all-party parliamentary group’s inquiry is the first to assess the current regulation of non-surgical cosmetic procedures and its adequacy in ensuring customer safety. I offer the Minister the opportunity to come and to talk to us and hear the inquiry’s findings.
I accept that invitation most gratefully, and I look forward to hearing the conclusions. The time is right for us to take action on this, and I am grateful for the support of Members from across the House in wanting to do that and to do the right thing, with the intention of protecting consumers, which is obviously central to us, but also ensuring a system of regulation that is proportionate for the industry. We need to make sure that we balance both of those.
We have not really given the industry enough attention, given the speed with which it has grown. We increasingly see examples of consumers receiving poor treatment; my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire referred to his constituent, to whom I am grateful for sharing her story. We need to make everyone much more aware of the risk because, as he says, people think it is just like having a haircut; it is becoming extremely normal to have what are poisons injected into the face. We need to make sure that everyone is aware of the risk before they undertake such a procedure, so that they can make an informed judgment.
I am not taking exception to the idea of it being just like having a haircut, but I have been involved in the business of hair salons for more than 50 years and have run salons, and it is not just like having a haircut. There is a similarity in terms of the investment put into any business, which is long term in some cases. When somebody comes along who has not properly trained and has little knowledge, there will be consequences of what they practise. In my all-party parliamentary group’s inquiries, we have come across modern-day slavery, trafficking, money laundering and all sorts of things, which just builds the case for a mandatory regulatory framework.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, because when we talk about these examples, there is a danger that people can apply that prejudice to the entire industry. It is in the interests of everyone involved in this industry to welcome regulation, not least to celebrate the professionalism of what they do. There are some very reputable practitioners out there who are not actually in the medical industry. For example, semi-permanent make-up—a surgical procedure that does not involve any invasion—clearly does not require as strident regulation as what we are talking about with injectables, but it is the same industry, and we need to ensure an adequate registration system.
I very much welcome the Minister’s announcement today. On training and regulation for beauticians—non-medical people who constitute around 50,000 jobs in the UK economy—there is huge appetite and support within the industry for proper and appropriate regulation, and there is recognition of the urgent need for that. However, there are no regulated qualifications available for non-medical practitioners for injectables at the moment. Going forward, does the Minister think there will be some kind of progression route for beauticians to go into this kind of industry, so that we can guarantee proper standards for the consumer?
The hon. Lady is right, and I am grateful for the spirit in which she makes her comments. Anyone who establishes themselves in business as a beautician wants to deliver a good service, has pride in what they do and would not want to be accused of doing anything unsafe.
My first focus of activity is those organisations that train people in these procedures, because I can see a situation in which a beautician will have paid thousands of pounds to go on a course and will then think that they are qualified, but they might not be. That is where we need to bring the focus of regulation in the first instance, so that when somebody proudly displays their certificates, consumers can have some guarantee that they are legitimate. I welcome the opportunity to air these issues with the all-party parliamentary group as we move this system of regulation forward.
Sadly, we only have 30 minutes for this debate, so I doubt whether I will be able to get through as much as I would wish, but I will do my best. I am grateful for the interest of all Members here. We will continue this discussion. It is worth saying that Botox treatments and dermal fillers are increasing and, along with laser hair removal, now represent nine out of 10 non-surgical treatments performed in the UK. This is a major area of risk.
Hon. Members have referenced the campaign that we launched today. Clearly, consumers will be the best defenders of their own interest, but we must make sure that they have access to appropriate information with which to do so; we need to do much more to inform people about the risk. Just as in my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire’s example of his constituent, I am quite sure that many people who have had fillers—who have gone to have their lips done, like they do—would have no idea that there is a risk of their artery being injected with poison. We need to make sure that consumers are much more aware of that, which is why we are doing so much more in the next six weeks to try to raise public awareness.
We will focus on targeting our messages to women aged 18 to 34, on whom the majority of the treatments are undertaken. I am pleased that we are working with Bauer Media, which publishes Grazia, Closer and Heat, which I hope will be appropriate vehicles to reach that audience. We will make sure that the NHS information is kept up to date and remains a meaningful resource for consumers.
Would the Minister consider making it so that under-18s could not have this treatment?
Minister; you have less than two minutes.
Yes, absolutely. I am committed to bringing forward legislation to do that at the earliest possible opportunity. I would really like to engage with the all-party parliamentary group to see what other conclusions they can bring forward quickly, so that we can make use of that legislation, to strengthen the opportunities to have a meaningful register, and indeed to look at the whole issue of insurance and what we should expect everyone involved in this to do.
I am open for debate, and I am absolutely committed to bringing the age restriction in line with things like tattoos and sunbeds. Frankly, it is ridiculous that there is an age limit for getting on a sunbed but anybody can have poison injected into their face. That is clearly ridiculous, and we need to tackle it.
We will encourage consumers to look at choosing a reputable practitioner and to properly interrogate the person doing the procedure, asking them about the risks. I am pleased that Superdrug, which has moved into this field, is having pre-screening conversations with clients and giving them cooling-off time before embarking on the treatment. I think that is really good practice and is something we could encourage throughout the industry, not least because it encourages practitioners to think about how they engage with their consumers and to properly understand the risks themselves.
We are moving into a new period of regulation of dermal fillers. My hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire is quite right that they are completely unregulated at present, but they will become regulated by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency,[Official Report, 12 June 2019, Vol. 661, c. 5MC.] which will put them on a similar footing to Botox and will mean that they need to be given by the prescriber. He is right to highlight the risk of people being able to delegate that responsibility for prescribing, and again we should look at legislating on that. Clearly we could also ask the regulators of medics to look at that, because, frankly, delegating the responsibility for prescribing does not really seem consistent with patient safety. We need to look at that.
I am fast running out of seconds, so I will conclude by thanking my hon. Friend and all hon. Members for their interest in this subject. I hope that we all continue talking about this, so that we can take action quickly. This is massive area of risk for consumers and we need to take action to fix it.
I am grateful to both the hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) and the Minister for taking so many interventions.
Question put and agreed to.
Automatism as a Legal Defence
I beg to move,
That this House has considered automatism as a legal defence.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. We have met in these roles on previous occasions, and you know that I will try very hard to stick to all the rules and obey every indication that comes from the Chair. I can see you are smiling at that, Mr Owen.
This is a difficult subject. Let me first say, as someone who has been in the House a long time, that when we introduced the notion of a smaller debating Chamber—Westminster Hall—a lot of people criticised it and said, “Will it work?” In fact, it is a great asset to Parliament that we can use this debating Chamber for many of the issues that we have great passion about and that we care about. We may raise them in a parliamentary question in the main Chamber, but when we want to go into something in a bit of depth, this Chamber is the right environment in which to do so.
I am tackling today something that I care passionately about, but which is a little bit complex. I confess that although I have a couple of skeletons in my cupboard, in that I have a daughter and a son-in-law who are lawyers, I am not a lawyer, and it is quite a technical area that we are looking at.
Most Members of the House will know by now that I am a passionate campaigner for road safety and ending road deaths. I started the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety. Many years ago, my first private Member’s Bill banned children from being carried unrestrained in cars. Then I organised, with a cross-party group, the seatbelt legislation, which was aided a little bit by the Father of the House at the time; the Father of the House now was at that time a young Minister. I am passionate about stopping the waste of life on the roads, and many of the campaigns that I get involved in are about seeing things from the victim’s point of view. I am thinking of the knock on the door. There are several thousand of these cases even in this country today, but there are many more deaths worldwide—1.2 million a year. People will get a knock on the door to say that their daughter or son is dead, or their mum, dad, uncle or aunt is. It is the victim that I am really concerned about, so often, and my passion for this subject comes from the fact that once someone is a victim—once they are dead—they cannot speak for themselves, so it is for us to speak up for them.
Today, I want to talk about automatism, because it is concerning that increasingly we hear of road deaths and road accidents where someone who is driving a car ploughs into a number of people—I will give some examples as I make my case—several people die in this dreadful accident and then the person who was driving the car gets a very good lawyer who says, “Oh, you obviously were in a state of automatism. You weren’t responsible for your action.” That is increasingly being used by well informed and clever lawyers to represent people who get into such a situation, and I want to deal with some particular aspects of that.
I called for this debate because I searched Hansard and was not able to find any mention of automatism since 2008. Back in 2008, two private Members’ Bills were introduced; they related to different aspects of automatism. Automatism can be used in relation not just to road deaths and road accidents, but to rape and murder. The most familiar case of that is when people defend their action of rape or murder by saying that it was automatism; they were sleepwalking and were not responsible for their actions.
Today, I want to tackle this issue, because I believe that there is an injustice out there and I am speaking for the victims who can no longer speak. I have become familiar with many high-profile cases in which automatism has been used as a legal defence to avoid criminal prosecution, particularly in relation to incidents that occur on the roads, although concerns surrounding the use of automatism as a defence are, as I have said, not exclusive to driving offences.
Automatism is a common-law defence used by defendants in court. There are numerous definitions, which makes defining this state difficult, but I will try. An article in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine describes legal automatism as “a state of involuntariness” and says that it
“exonerates the individual because the criminal justice system only punishes those acting voluntarily.”
Automatism is broadly divided into two types: sane automatism and insane automatism. “Sane” relates to cases of sleepwalking, fainting and hypoglycaemic attack, whereas “insane” relates to schizophrenia and diseases of the mind.
I heard about this defence quite a long time ago, in 2002, because of the very high-profile case of Peter Buck, the guitarist in the rock group R.E.M. He was charged for air rage on a BA flight and he did not deny his behaviour, but he claimed that a zolpidem sleeping pill reacted violently with alcohol, turning him into a non-insane automaton—you could say that he was acting “Automatically against the People”. Does my hon. Friend think that in that sort of case, in which there is no injury, automatism is a valid defence?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I was going to mention the R.E.M. case, which, as he says, is a very famous one. Can I come back to that? He is absolutely right, and I will come back to it in a moment.
The requirements of a defence of non-insane automatism—I am not dealing with insane automatism—are that, first, there must exist an involuntary action arising from an external source or reflex action; secondly, the action must be completely involuntary; and thirdly, the automatism must not be self-induced. Some academic literature states that the automatism defence is increasingly being used, but the problem is that no statistics are kept on how often the automatism defence is pleaded or succeeds. The word I hear from the justice system more broadly is when a senior policeman or policewoman comes up to me and says, “Look, we’re in real difficulties prosecuting here, because the defendant is going to use automatism. It’s going to be very, very difficult, because the CPS will be very reluctant to bring the prosecution.” In a sense, what I am trying to bring to the public gaze today is this question: why do we not know how many cases are not proceeded with because the Crown Prosecution Service thinks that it is all too difficult, that the chances of getting a conviction are not good with a clever lawyer using automatism as the reason for the defendant’s behaviour?
I want to give a couple of examples. In 2014, there was the terrible accident in Glasgow involving a council-owned waste lorry that collided with pedestrians in the city centre, killing six people and injuring 15 others. The driver said that he had passed out at the wheel, and he was not prosecuted. Glasgow sheriff court was told that the driver had passed out at the wheel and heard evidence regarding his alleged failure to disclose a history of dizziness and blackouts in job applications and when renewing his licence.
Nicky Selby-Short, a solicitor in Access Legal’s specialist personal injury team, comments:
“There may be occasions when such a defence is entirely justified, but claiming automatism is likely to continue to be used by defendants since it is a good tactic; however, it is accepted it will leave innocent claimants with no award whatsoever for what are often very serious injuries”
and, of course, death.
The hon. Gentleman is of course raising a really important issue, but it is important not to lose sight of the fact that to make out this defence, the burden is on the defendant to advance evidence, which may be in the form of medical evidence. It would be quite wrong to give the impression that somehow a defendant could simply say, “I’m invoking non-insane automatism,” and get off scot-free. The burden is on him to prove it. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
Absolutely, I agree with that, but as I make my case, I think the hon. Gentleman will understand why I am worried about what happens at the moment.
The second case I want to mention is R v. Burton in 2007. An elderly motorist killed a married couple in a high-speed crash and was controversially cleared of all blame by a judge, after claiming that he may have been in a state of automatism at the time. Experts said that retired businessman Arnold Burton may not have known what he was doing when he smashed head-on into the couple’s car, while doing at least 76 mph in a 30-mile speed limit in his Jaguar X-Type.
Leeds Crown court was told that the 89-year-old, whose father founded the Burton clothing empire, could have been suffering from a lack of blood to the brain. Prosecutors decided to offer no evidence on two charges of causing death by dangerous driving after psychiatrists concluded that Mr Burton might not have been aware at the time. The recorder of Leeds, Judge Norman Jones, said that the elderly motorist was “driving automatically” and that his
“brain was not in control of his body”
when the crash happened.
In Glasgow, in 2010, two little girls were killed while Christmas shopping by a Range Rover that hit them on the pavement. The charges against the driver were dropped, because he suffered a loss of consciousness, owing to an undiagnosed medical condition.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for generously giving way. Where a road accident leads to someone losing a life, one’s heart goes out to the victims and those who are left behind. However, it is important that one injustice is not replaced by another injustice. If it really is the case that that individual was effectively unconscious, surely the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that he should be criminally culpable none the less. It may be that he should not have his driving licence, but that is another issue. If he is truly unconscious, surely he is not criminally liable.
I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. I believe in evidence-based policy. We have a great deficiency in the transport safety area that I keep nagging the Government about. In Sweden, every time there is a fatality on the roads, there is a thorough investigation. That does not happen in the United Kingdom. There is no highly skilled investigation of an accident involving a death. There is a real problem finding out what really happened.
I will whisk through the prominent case that highlights how automatism might be used too broadly. It involves Peter Buck from the band R.E.M., who was acquitted of charges of two counts of common assault and one count of criminal damage while being drunk on a plane. There was a good defence. What distinguished Mr Buck’s case from others of this nature was that he raised the defence of automatism in a Court of Appeal, which described non-insane automatism as
“malfunctioning of the mind of transitory effect caused by the application to the body of some external factor such as violence, drugs, including anaesthetics, alcohol and hypnotic influences”.
Mr Buck sought to establish that the commission of the offences he was charged with lacked a mental element due to a transitory effect caused by the external factor of red wine combined with sleeping tablets.
However, a defendant cannot simply absolve himself of all responsibility for his actions by blaming pills and alcohol. A self-induced incapacity will not excuse; nor will one that could reasonably have been foreseen, such as the result of taking alcohol against medical advice after using certain prescribed drugs or failing to have regular meals while taking insulin. However, Mr Buck produced his prescription bottle, which did not contain a warning about mixing alcohol, so he was acquitted.
While it is difficult to put forward a defence of automatism, once such a defence has been established—this is what legal experts tell me—it falls on the prosecution to disprove the evidence of automatism beyond reasonable doubt. I am not trying to turn the justice system upside down; I am merely shining a light on the increasing use of automatism as a defence.
Forms of automatism have also been used to defend people who have been accused of rape. Sexsomnia is being used internationally. In 2007, in the UK a man was let off for raping a 15-year-old because he claimed sexsomnia. Let us remember that, according to a 2002 London Metropolitan University study, just 6% of cases result in conviction, because of loopholes in the law such as automatism.
Dr Cosmo Hallström, a member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said:
“People do sleep walk and they do strange things in their sleep, but it is usually no more complex than grinding of the teeth or smacking the lips—at most they may get up and make a cup of tea. I would think it was extremely difficult to perform such a complex manoeuvre as having sexual intercourse while asleep—especially if the other person is unwilling.”
Harry Cohen spoke on this in the House of Commons only 11 years ago:
“Anybody up in court on a rape charge could get a few friends and family to claim that he sleepwalks, and he will almost certainly get off.”—[Official Report, 15 October 2008; Vol. 480, c. 801.]
Harry Cohen introduced the Rape (Defences) Bill in 2008 to address this. That Bill sought to prohibit the use of a defence of sleepwalking or non-insane automatism in proceedings relating to the offence of rape.
The hon. Gentleman is being extremely generous with his time. We all want to see more people who are guilty of rape convicted. We all agree that the statistics are shocking. However, on the example that he gave, if the prosecution were able to call evidence to suggest that what was being posited—namely that the defendant raped through non-insane automatism—was a complete fiction and entirely implausible, a jury should have little difficulty giving that defence short shrift and finding the defendant guilty. Does he agree that if it is a bad defence, the prosecution can call evidence to expose it as such?
The hon. Gentleman is right, but I am trying to get the balance right. There are so few successful prosecutions for rape and there is an increasing tendency worldwide to use this as a reason why the person—usually a man—was unable to know what they were doing.
In 2008, another good former comrade—sorry, colleague —of ours, Dr Brian Iddon introduced the Road Traffic (Accident Compensation) Bill, which sought to provide no-fault compensation for personal injury in road traffic accidents where liability cannot be established. This is the nub of the matter. However many people are killed or injured in an accident involving automatism, there is no compensation. How can that be just? In such cases, the victim is left injured or killed, but with no compensation for the family. Surely, the Minister would agree that it is time to consider introducing a no-fault compensation system in this area, as is used in other countries such as New Zealand.
We are coming to the end of the story. In 2013 the Law Commission undertook a review and produced a discussion paper called “Criminal Liability: Insanity and Automatism”. It produced a range of recommendations for reform of this defence. I hope that the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), who intervened on me two or three times, will be able to hear this, because it is germane to his interventions. Much of the report focused on the need for modernisation and reform of the law around insane automatism or the insanity defence. It recommended that the arcane criminal law be reformed by replacing it with the new defence of
“not criminally responsible by reason of recognised medical condition”.
However, it also proposed to abolish the less clearly defined common law defence of automatism in favour of a reformed automatism defence that was clearer and narrower in scope. To the best of my knowledge, the Government have not since acted on those recommendations. I ask the Minister what actions, if any, the Government have taken in relation to clearing up the legal problems identified by the Law Commission. Will the Government undertake to enact any of the proposed reforms recommended by the Law Commission?
This is about victims and justice. What is really going on in the undisclosed statistics from the Crown Prosecution Service? What is going on in the desperately underfunded justice system that we operate in this country? I co-chair the all-party parliamentary group on miscarriages of justice. How many more miscarriages of justice will happen, not because of ill-will or badly motivated, wicked people, but because of a lack of resources, investment and personnel?
There is no scheme in the UK to compensate victims of genuine automatism. A person who is injured through no fault of their own has no opportunity for compensation for what are often serious injuries or death. Sometimes an insurance company makes an ex gratia payment to an injured party, but that is rare. As it stands, the law offers no protection to the often entirely blameless victims of the automatism defence.
It is not surprising that this effective get-out-of-jail-free card is being used more frequently by defendants. Countries that operate no-fault compensation schemes include France—it has implemented a no-fault standard for serious and unforeseen medical injuries, and a fault standard—and New Zealand, which has also put in place a no-fault compensation scheme with the broadest eligibility criteria; the no-fault standard is applicable to any unexpected treatment injury.
On the Crown Prosecution Service and the police, an article in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry notes that in a criminal trial, it can be difficult to decide whether to hold responsible a defendant who did the act but claims that their mental state was abnormal because of the lack of objective evidence. There is no brain scan or blood test to measure responsibility. The best witness to what was in the defendant’s mind is usually the defendant, who obviously has an interest in what the court decides.
I have always said that we need good evidence-based policy, but we lack the evidence and statistics about how often automatism is evoked as a legal defence. As I talk to people in the police and the Crown Prosecution Service up and down the country, there is a suspicion in my mind that the defence is increasingly becoming a way for well-heeled people who can get the right solicitor to get off dreadful crimes on the road. We know that there is a group of solicitors who can find some defence to get rock stars or people in the public eye off.
Despite many high-profile cases, we do not know how often this occurs. How many cases are not being brought to trial because prosecutors have lost confidence that they can challenge the evidence? How aware are the police, while they are investigating a case, about people invoking automatism? We need evidence to evaluate whether clever lawyers are using the defence to get people off.
This is about justice for people who can no longer fight their own corner. This Chamber is the right environment for this debate, and I hope I have made a coherent case.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on bringing this interesting and important issue to the Chamber, and on the eloquent and passionate way that he explained the background. I also pay tribute to him for his work on road safety over the years.
I, too, apologise in advance to any criminal lawyers or criminal law academics who are watching the debate, as I am about to blunder into it with a few thoughts. In years gone by, I was a lawyer, for my sins, but not a criminal lawyer, so I am somewhat reluctant to wade in.
The debate allows us to consider whether the principles behind the defence of automatism are right and to ask whether there is evidence for the term being too broadly defined so there have been unjust acquittals or for it being too narrowly drawn so people have been convicted who should not have been. As has been explained, in simplified terms, the defence of automatism involves the defendant showing that his conduct was involuntary, so he cannot be held criminally liable for it.
Criminal law in England and Wales and in Scotland recognises versions of automatism. That has been developed case by case under common law. Its terminology and operation, in certain circumstances, can look a little strange and dated. There are differences, but both jurisdictions—of England and Wales and of Scotland—have historically made distinctions between, on the one hand, automatism caused by so-called internal factors, which can justify a plea of insanity, although that has changed a bit in Scotland recently, and, on the other, automatism caused by external factors where the defendant was not at fault for inducing that state.
The key point is that, as a broad principle—I do not think the hon. Gentleman suggested otherwise—the idea that someone cannot be criminally responsible for involuntary acts must be right. Convicting a person for involuntary acts would not serve the purposes of the criminal justice system. We cannot rehabilitate someone who needs no rehabilitation, because they did not choose to do wrong, and we cannot deter people if they have no control over what they are doing. It is fundamentally wrong to punish people where there is no responsibility.
The question that has been posed today, however, is whether that is working in practice and whether it is being interpreted too broadly or narrowly. As with any criminal defence, there will be individual cases where some people—sometimes many people—question whether justice has properly been done one way or another. The hon. Gentleman highlighted some difficult and heartbreaking cases.
The hon. Gentleman also flagged up concerns that the defence has been increasingly relied on by criminal lawyers. I confess that I have not picked up on that, but he is obviously far more engaged in the issue than I am. I certainly agree, however, that it would be good to have greater transparency about it. I am interested to know whether the Minister is willing to try to see whether there is a better method to record how often the defence is being used or seems to be a barrier for the prosecution. We need to know what is happening either way.
On the whole, from what I understand, the balance of case law seems to suggest that the courts will usually take a pretty narrow view of the scope of the defence—the word “scepticism” has sometimes been used. As the hon. Gentleman said, several cases involve drivers, some of whom are diabetic drivers. I found the example of Broome v. Perkins in the textbooks, where the defendant, although in a hypoglycaemic state, was found guilty of driving without due care and attention, because from time to time he apparently exercised conscious control of his car by veering away from other vehicles to avoid a collision, braking violently and so on. In the Court of Appeal, it was said that the defendant would need to show that he was totally unable to control his actions owing to an unforeseen hypoglycaemic attack, that he could not reasonably have avoided the attack and that there was no advance warning of its onset.
In Scotland, the jury manual published by the Judicial Institute for Scotland also seems to be strict in setting out the requirements for defending externally caused automatism. It says that
“the external factor must not be self-induced, that it must be one which the accused was not bound to foresee and that it must have resulted in a total alienation of reason amounting to a total loss of control of his actions in regard to the crime with which he is charged…the whole point of the defence is that the accused was suffering from a total loss of control over his actions in regard to the crime with which he is charged. Unless there is evidence directed to this essential point, the defence is not available. It is a point of such importance that it cannot be left to speculation, and a few casual remarks or feelings by the witnesses will not do. There must be clear evidence to support it, and this means that the evidence must be specific on all details which are material.”
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a real problem with medical evidence, if there is no charge, is that it is difficult for the victims ever to understand what the medical reason was? If there is no trial, there is no explanation of what kind of ill health caused the accident. The fact is that many drivers who are not charged continue to drive and may have the same medical condition. That is a real problem. In Scotland, however, there are more advanced laws on many of these issues than we have.
I would like to think so, but I am not absolutely convinced.
Certainly, on alcohol, we have taken the step to reduce the limit up to which people can drive to virtually nothing.
As I say, there has to be transparency. I am not aware that this has caused a problem for the prosecution services, but I am now alive to those concerns and I will perhaps try to establish whether that is the case. In some examples, however, when the burden is on the defendant to prove the case, I am not sure that it would stop a prosecution in the first place—the prosecution would proceed and the issues would come out afterwards. I do not have an easy answer, however, and this is something that I definitely need to look into.
Also, when we look at all these things in the round, the prosecution service has to be aware of what other action needs to be taken to stop such things happening again, even if there is not a prosecution subsequent to an accident of the sort that we have been talking about. There are other disposals or actions available, as the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) said, in relation to making sure that that person no longer drives, for example. However, we need reassurance that that is definitely happening.
In short, the point that I was making there was that what the courts have been looking for is
“a total destruction of voluntary control”,
to quote one case. The hon. Member for Huddersfield has rightly flagged up a number of other areas of controversy. This issue is not just about driving; there have been a number of cases where the defence of sleepwalking has been used in relation to accusations of sexual offences. However, the principle remains that the defence of automatism must be available if the evidence is there to justify it.
Should there be reform at all? In 2010 in Scotland, the internal-cause “insanity” defence was replaced by a mental disorder defence. This requires that an accused, at the time of the conduct constituting a crime, must have been
“unable by reason of mental disorder to appreciate the nature or wrongfulness of the conduct.”
Then there is a detailed definition of “mental disorder”. As I understand it, that reform has been broadly welcomed. That said, it is only fair to point out that some have criticised the Scottish Law Commission’s report because it ignored “external-cause” automatism, thereby arguably missing the opportunity to ensure that the law here is coherent and comprehensive in relation to what are really two closely related and even overlapping defences.
Of course, the hon. Gentleman referred to the Law Commission in England and Wales, and its report, which I think was done in 2013, when it carried out a similar review. It looked at both types of automatism defence and recommended a new statutory “recognised medical condition” defence, which I think is along the same lines as the Scottish defence. However, it also went for a new and more tightly drawn statutory automatism offence. I also understand that, so far, the Government here have decided not to act on that advice. They might have good reasons for that, but it is obviously up to the Minister to set them out today.
From my point of view, there may well be good reasons for looking at the two sides of automatism together, because it makes a significant difference which is considered, in terms of where the burden of proof lies and what disposals are available to a court if the defence is made out.
I do not come to any fixed conclusion on that, but on the whole I will just say finally that we need defences of this nature to be available to ensure that justice is done. For the most part, the current system seems to be working in practice and the courts have been justifiably restrictive in interpreting the scope of these defences. There will be controversial criminal verdicts—that does not necessarily mean that there is a fundamental injustice in the nature of these defences—but I absolutely take on board what the hon. Gentleman has said today about there being some concern that automatism is being increasingly relied on. That should be looked at. We need more transparency about what is going on—
Absolutely—the victims need to know what is happening in a particular case and they also need a full explanation of why any prosecution does not go ahead, including the nature of any medical evidence, if that is at all possible.
I am absolutely alive to arguments for improvement and reform. The hon. Gentleman also made some interesting comments about a compensation scheme. I had not considered that in advance of the debate, but I will go away and consider it too.
I thank the hon. Gentleman again for securing this debate. It has been very interesting and thought provoking, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under you as Chair, Mr Owen. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald); I congratulate him on his speech.
I also refer at the outset to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am a non-practising barrister now at Civitas Law in Cardiff. I was a practising barrister for a number of years before entering the House, but I practised in criminal law only for a few years at the start of my career at the Bar.
I also warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on his opening speech and on bringing this matter before the House. Although they are no longer in their places, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) and the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) for their contributions to the debate.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield about the utility of Westminster Hall, particularly for a debate on an issue such as this, which is very important but none the less quite technical in terms of how we deal with it. I share my hon. Friend’s passion for road safety, and he spoke movingly of a knock on the door bringing extremely bad news about a close family member.
My hon. Friend is also entirely right to say that the automatism defence is little understood, and I think that it is indicative that it has not even been mentioned in Hansard since 2008, which shows how long this House and this Parliament have gone without considering it.
On the issue of statistics, in the past I have argued about statistics in relation to a number of different offences. It is clearly an issue for the Crown Prosecution Service, superintended of course by the Law Officers, to determine what statistics are collected, when they are collected and for which particular offences. Particularly in cases where there are clearly victims who will be extraordinarily affected by the events, it is important that it is transparent as to what has happened at each stage of the process. If something does not reach prosecution in the first place, why does it not reach prosecution? There should be a full explanation. If the matter is discontinued at some stage between charge and trial, why is that? If there is a not guilty verdict in the end, why has that happened? Communication to victims throughout the process is vital.
On that point, I said that in Sweden there is an absolutely high-class specialist unit that examines every death on the road, whereas in England and Wales the fact is that there is only very patchy expertise when it comes to investigating such a death. A defence of automatism is quite an unusual thing to happen in a police area and the competences required to investigate it are very specific indeed. Does my hon. Friend agree that, given some of the recent cuts in the police of this country, that aspect of the investigative side of affairs has been badly hit?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the issue of cuts in police officers affecting things right across the board. Clearly, there are different levels of investigation. For example, if there is an injury in a road traffic accident, that triggers a certain level of investigation, and similarly if there is a death. However, in a sense, the fact that we do not have a body equivalent to the one in Sweden underlines the point that I am making about the need for transparency throughout the process.
By the way, I will also add, regarding the decisions made by prosecutors, that every prosecutor has to apply the code for Crown prosecutors. First, is there a realistic prospect of conviction? Secondly, is it in the public interest to bring a prosecution? If that process is not happening, that needs to be brought to light, and the superintendence by the Law Officers is absolutely vital to ensure that, right through the system, that process is happening. If there is anywhere where it is not happening, that should not be the case.
While I am on the subject of the Crown Prosecution Service, I will refer to the sleepwalking cases that my hon. Friend mentioned. The CPS has recently issued legal guidance about the sleepwalking cases, which should be available to everyone involved in the area, including the prosecutors, on how to challenge the automatism defence appropriately before a judge, if it is raised. If the defence uses expert evidence, which it is likely to, the CPS says this to its prosecuting lawyers:
“Such evidence should always be analysed by an expert for the prosecution.”
That is what we would expect to happen. Indeed, as long ago as 1958, Mr Justice Devlin, in the case of Hill v. Baxter, said:
“I do not doubt that there are genuine cases of automatism, but I do not see how the layman can safely attempt, without the help of some medical or scientific evidence, to distinguish the genuine from the fraudulent.”
We would expect there to be experts on both sides in such a case that came before the criminal courts, and for many of the reasons that my hon. Friend outlined during his fine speech that is how it should be, and I would hope to see that in the criminal courts.
My hon. Friend also referred to the comments of the Law Commission on this issue, and I will come on to them with the Minister. Actually, the Law Commission’s document was very useful, in terms of the need for reform in this area. Looking at the defence of insanity—I appreciate that there is a distinction between non-insane and insane automatism, and I will come to that in a moment—in essence, it goes back to 1843. Frankly, it has not changed much since then, which is a real issue.
The Law Commission accepted the principle of the automatism defence, but it made a substantial number of criticisms of it, regarding what has to be done to bring it up to date and make it fit for the modern day. The Law Commission said:
“We take the view that it is unjust to hold people criminally responsible when they could not have avoided committing the alleged crime, through no fault of their own. Put another way, a person should be exempted from criminal responsibility if he or she totally lacked capacity to conform to the relevant law.”
Of course, that excludes situations where the automatism is self-induced, or situations in which, given what someone did, it was foreseeable that they could end up in a particular state. It excludes that, and so it should, because the defence is very narrow in what it refers to.
The Law Commission has made many important criticisms of the law as it stands. First is the criticism that it is technically deficient. We are distinguishing between the mental and physical elements of the crime, but that is not always possible. It is not easy to see possessing something that is illegal to possess purely as an act; there must be the intent to hold on to it, and it is not easy to make that distinction. Secondly, has the law really kept up with developments in medicine, psychology and psychiatry in how we classify mental illness? No, it has not. It has not changed substantially for more than 150 years. Bizarrely as well, this is not available in magistrates court. Why should it be that the defence is applicable in our Crown courts but not in magistrates? That is clearly a loophole that needs to be dealt with.
There is an argument that defendants can find themselves acquitted but stigmatised because of the word “insanity”, which is still used as it is central to the defence. In addition, and as was at the heart of my hon. Friend’s speech, how does the defence sit with the victim’s human rights? Like everyone else, the victim in these cases is entitled to the right to life—article 2 of the Human Rights Act 1998—and where there has been a tragic death that article has been clearly violated.
There is also article 3 on inhuman and degrading treatment, and article 8 on the right to a private life. We really must ensure that the defence, as it is framed today with appropriate safeguards, is compatible with the victim’s human rights. One can understand the situation in the road traffic incidents described by my hon. Friend, where either automatism has ended up, it seems, with prosecutors not seeing the case as passing the evidence test or something has happened further down the line, with victims not being aware of why that had happened. That is a real issue.
May I make a cynical point? A road traffic academic expert pointed out to me that it is ironic that the number of cases in which people plead automatism has risen almost exactly in parallel with the use of mobile phones in cars.
There may well be a number of reasons for that; we may simply have more offences. However, I entirely take on board my hon. Friend’s point, and it would indeed reinforce the need for an understanding and an awareness of the defence and why certain cases are not being proceeded with or are not successful.
The other point I make to the Minister is about Parliament as it is at the moment. The Law Commission has papers about reform of the law—not just on automatism, but in many other areas too—that would not be partisan and would be likely to command widespread support. We have not had a vote in Parliament for the past month, so it seems that at this point in our parliamentary history, and when the Law Commission has made recommendations, there is room in the timetable for laws to be introduced. If this situation of so little substantive business continues, real thought ought to be given in Government to at least trying to use the time productively on matters that, while perhaps not partisan, would make a big difference to the lives of our constituents.
I remind the Minister that he might want to allow the mover of the motion to wind up the debate.
I suspect I will, Mr Owen. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on securing this debate on automatism as a legal defence. I am conscious of his work in this area and across a range of aspects of the operation of the law, particularly regarding the impact on victims. I know that he has taken a particular interest in a number of tragic cases. Although he will appreciate that I cannot comment on individual cases, especially where charging decisions are concerned, I know his work in the area.
Given the limited examples of the use of automatism as a defence, it might be worth elaborating a little, as other hon. Members have, on the current law and its operation. I will also seek to share the Government’s general approach to reform of the law in this area, and the Law Commission’s.
Generally, automatism is a defence to a criminal charge where the defendant’s consciousness was so impaired that he or she was acting in a state of physical involuntariness. It is more than not intending something to happen; it is not being aware of those actions. There are two distinct types of automatism. First, there is insane automatism, which stems from an internal cause or disease of the mind. Where this occurs, the proper verdict is not guilty by reason of insanity. Secondly, there is sane or non-insane automatism, which stems from a cause other than a disease of the mind, an external cause that leads to a loss of control. Where this occurs, the proper verdict is not guilty. The hon. Member for Huddersfield suggested, and I think I am quoting him accurately, that there was an increasing tendency by clever lawyers to seek to use this defence, but I have to say that there is no evidence of that. He himself mentioned the stats, and this comes back to the statistical point, which I will touch on shortly. As always, the hon. Gentleman makes his point forcefully, to highlight the issue that he believes is behind this.
How do we know how many times the Crown Prosecution Service does not prosecute because it thinks it will not be able to get a conviction because of the use of automatism?
I will come back shortly to the two tests that the shadow Solicitor General mentioned. On the statistics point, it appears that automatism is rarely used as a successful defence, and that sane automatism, which is what most people assume that to be, is extremely rare because it is very hard to prove. However, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) also made the point about the statistics. It is a matter for the CPS, but we can take back to that service and to other agencies the question of examining whether there are better ways to identify trends and the statistical evidence bases underlying them. I do not have an answer now, but that is something we can take away and look into.
This is an issue that I have raised before in other contexts. Sometimes we are told by the CPS that it has to look through the file of each case to pick up certain data, but in such cases, particularly where there are deaths, as there might be in a road traffic case, it would be useful to look at what data is collected and reviewed. I hope that the Minister will pass that on to the law officers who superintend the CPS.
I am happy to do that, not least because in her previous ministerial role the now Solicitor General would have been taking this debate. I am sure that having prepared for it in advance, as she usually did, she will be well aware of the issue, and I am happy to raise it with her.
The distinction between the two types of automatism is important for reasons other than the verdicts. In insane automatism, the burden of proof is on the defendant to show that he or she did not know the nature of the act committed. However, in the case of non-insane automatism, the burden remains on the prosecution to satisfy a jury beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant has not had a total loss of control and is, therefore, guilty of the offence.
To illustrate that further, there is the example of incidents that occur as the result of hypo or hyperglycaemia. If a defendant argues that the act was caused by the administration of insulin leading to hypoglycaemia, that is an external factor and the defendant will be acquitted unless the prosecution can show this to be untrue. However, if the defendant argues that the incident was due to diabetes causing excessive blood sugar hyperglycaemia, that would be an internal factor and the onus would be on the defendant to prove, on the balance of probabilities supported by medical evidence, that he or she was not guilty by reason of insanity.
The cause of automatism can understandably be confusing to many. I will give an example that is possibly a reflection of how the law is interpreted and the difference between what is, in legal terms, the interpretation and what anyone else might read it as. For example, epilepsy is a disease of the mind. When an epileptic seizure results in an assault, for instance, a successful defence would be an insanity verdict. Of course, most people would not consider that an epileptic seizure amounted to insanity, but that is how the law would be interpreted in a narrow, legal context.
Acts committed while suffering from concussion, sleepwalking—which we have touched on—amnesia, and even post-traumatic stress disorder may amount to an automatism defence. As alluded to earlier, such cases rely heavily on medical evidence as to the nature and causes of the loss of control. Perhaps the most famous illustration of automatism was in the context of an example given in one of the leading cases, Hill v. Baxter in 1958—that of a driver who causes an accident after being stung in their cab by a swarm of bees.
I will cover two final points before ending my survey of the current law and moving on to the future. I know that the hon. Member for Huddersfield has a particular interest in driving offences in the context of this debate, although his interest goes wider than that. Automatism is a defence even against strict liability offences; I mention that because although that defence occurs infrequently, it is most commonly reported in relation to driving offences. Significantly, that defence applies even when the offence does not require intent, such as with dangerous driving.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) and others have highlighted, when automatism arises from prior fault or voluntary conduct, that usually—but not exclusively—means that the defendant was taking illegal drugs, or that alcohol was involved, for example. When a person is taking substances other than in accordance with medical direction, and the crime is one of basic intent such as an assault, the defence should fail if the substance taken is known to cause aggression or the consequences that caused the offence. It is not a defence to be completely out of it on drugs or due to alcohol, and as a result commit an offence, however unknowingly. Those questions, though, will often be left to the jury or to magistrates. It is worth stressing that the defence is much more narrowly drawn than many people might imagine.
Let me turn again to why the defence exists and briefly touch on the Scottish situation, which the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East alluded to. I understand that in Scotland the context is different, in that an automatism plea is treated as a denial of mens rea. In other words, if acting as an automaton, a person lacks the essential mental element of a crime and as a result should be acquitted of an offence. However, the Scottish courts have clarified that, for the defence of automatism to succeed, there must be a total alienation of reason that is caused by an external factor that was not self-induced or foreseeable. The internal versus external distinction therefore applies as a test in Scotland as it does in England, albeit in a slightly different form, and the defence will also fail if the defendant’s state is self-induced. Although the test of what amounts to insanity is different in Scotland from that in the jurisdiction of England and Wales, the defence—although it takes a slightly different approach—is none the less very similar in its application and consequences for defendants.
As I believe all who have spoken today have also said, I do not think that anyone would contend that a person who commits an act because of loss of control and through no fault of their own should be held liable for that offence. In such cases, it is also unlikely to be in the public interest to prosecute, as a conviction would not be secured. If there is doubt about whether the defendant contributed to their loss of control, then those questions may be tested in court. Of course, it is very difficult for innocent victims of these acts, who may themselves be injured or bereaved as a result of them, to accept that in law no one is to blame. It is particularly difficult for families of those who are killed, again through no fault of their own, by a person who was not in control of their actions. However, it remains unjust to punish someone for something they genuinely had no control over.
As was rightly highlighted by the shadow Solicitor General, the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), the code for Crown prosecutors is clear about its dual test. The public interest, and the evidence and likelihood of securing a conviction, are the tests that Crown prosecutors will consider when assessing whether a defence is likely to undermine one or other of those factors. In that context, the hon. Member for Huddersfield mentioned transparency, as did the hon. Member for Torfaen. I think both will be aware that our system seeks to make the decision to prosecute as transparent as possible, including through communication with victims and those victims having the right to challenge and review the decision of the Crown Prosecution Service. In those cases, they will have information about what in those two tests caused the charge to not proceed.
Let me turn to the future, and the Law Commission’s report and proposals about this area. The lack of clarity on automatism to which the shadow Solicitor General referred, and the complexity of the outdated law on the connected defence of insanity, led the Law Commission to conduct a scoping study in 2012 and issue a discussion paper in the following year. The Law Commission did not, however, produce a full set of recommendations on automatism or complete its work with a final report. It rightly recognised that, in the context of its broader work on the law around insanity as a defence, this was an important but small part of a much broader piece. In taking that work forward, its focus was on the “unfitness to plead” aspect, and it is therefore yet to produce for consideration qualified legislative proposals on automatism.
Although the Law Commission’s comments and proposals in the 2013 discussion document would narrow the automatism defence slightly, as has been said, it would not remove it. The proposed reforms sought to simplify the law, replacing the common-law defence with a statutory one, and have one defence that, if made out, would lead to a not guilty verdict rather than the two possible verdicts previously mentioned. The Government considered the initial discussion paper’s proposals, but concluded that they would be a very limited reform to an already rarely used defence.
We have no current plans to bring forward legislative proposals. However, that does not mean that we have ruled out making changes to the law, including the wider and related law on insanity and fitness to plead; we keep that area under review. The shadow Solicitor General tempts me into saying that if the Ministry of Justice wishes to use any legislative time, that would be a good use of it. As a Department, we are productive in legislation; we have been, and I suspect we will continue to be.
To conclude, I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield on drawing the attention of the House to this issue. It is, as I think he said, the first time in 11 years that it has been properly debated, and I am sure there will be Members who are hearing about this issue today for the first time. I thank all who have contributed to the discussion of this complex topic, and I hope I have set out the law as it stands and where the Government stand on it. Finally, the hon. Gentleman knows that we already have a meeting scheduled on a different topic. I enjoy my meetings with him, and if he wishes to add specific questions about this aspect of law to our next meeting, I am happy to consider them.
I was lucky enough to have had my undergraduate and postgraduate education at the London School of Economics, whose motto is “To know the causes of things”. A few weeks ago, I had never heard of automatism at all. When it started cropping up in my consciousness, I thought, “This is the right place to bring it up, to see whether we can shed some light on it.” That is what we do well in Parliament.
I have been well served by the shadow Minister, the Minister, and those others who have contributed. We have shed some light on an important topic that many people knew little about, and I think this will go down as a historic debate. I hope we will come back to this issue, and that the improvements to the law that the Minister suggested might come about in the not too distant future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered automatism as a legal defence.