Tuesday 21 May 2019
[Sir Henry Bellingham in the Chair]
Financial Exclusion: Access to Cash
[Relevant documents: Nineteenth Report of the Treasury Committee, Household finances: income, saving and debt, HC 565; and the Government response, HC 1627; Oral evidence taken before the Treasury Committee on 12 March, on the Access to Cash Review, HC 2011; Twenty-ninth Report of the Treasury Committee, Consumers’ access to financial services, HC 1642; and Correspondence with the Chancellor of the Exchequer relating to Access to Cash (dated 13 March and 2 May).]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered financial exclusion and the future of access to cash.
It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Sir Henry. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting our request to hold the debate. I also thank the Access to Cash Review panel, Joe Fortune from the Co-op party, the RSA, Responsible Finance, Hounslow Council, UK Finance, the Payment Systems Regulator, the Treasury Committee Clerks, Visa, Mastercard, the Financial Inclusion Commission, Citizens Advice, the Money Advice Service, Age UK and many others for their help in preparing for the debate. I mention them as an indication of how widespread the concern is and how much of a contribution many stakeholders are making. I also declare an interest as a recent nominee to become a new commissioner on the Financial Inclusion Commission.
There is considerable interest in the debate, so I will try to keep my remarks to about 15 or 16 minutes. I will set out some of the context; where progress is being made, which we should recognise; opportunities that we should seize, including a particular mention for credit unions; and the importance of joining up to move forward together. I will also cover the potential for and importance of future legislation, which the Government have so far resisted and I am sure the Minister will mention.
As the map of stakeholders shows, access to cash is an important and complex issue that can no longer be primarily led by industry. We need a joined-up plan led by the Government that looks at the cost and effectiveness of our wholesale cash infrastructure, programmes for digital inclusion and incentives to diversify services based on complex customer needs. We need to ensure that those services can reach people, and that we both maintain free access to cash for those who need or choose cash as their method of payment and ensure that cash remains accepted.
There is clear cross-party interest, which the Chair of the Treasury Committee referred to in her recent correspondence with the Chancellor. That gives me hope and confidence that we are setting the right foundations for moving forward and addressing the challenges ahead.
Fundamentally, the bigger picture is inclusive economic growth and flexibility, security and choice in personal and family finance. Cuts to welfare, stagnant wages and economic instability in the last decade have exacerbated the precarious position of millions of people in the UK. The Money Advice Service estimates that 22% of UK adults have less than £100 in savings, which makes them highly vulnerable to a financial shock such as job loss or an unexpected bill. Some 8 million people rely on high-cost credit to pay essential household expenses, and may frequently turn to alternative forms of finance such as high-cost lenders or illegal loan sharks to make ends meet. Recent Financial Conduct Authority data shows that the number of high-cost short-term credit firms has decreased, but the volume of lending has increased.
Ten years ago, six in 10 transactions were made in cash, but by March 2019, that number had halved to three in 10. The combined number of banks and building societies is falling steadily, and in 2018, the number of free-to-use ATMs fell for the first time in 20 years.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. The issue of free-to-use ATMs is particularly acute in rural areas, and especially among elderly and more vulnerable communities, which should be at the forefront of the debate.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does she agree that when banks, such as the Yorkshire Bank in Royton, close with an agreement to relocate a cash machine in a convenience store, the agreement must be that it will remain free to use? In Royton, just a year into that agreement, a charge has been introduced.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the situation in his constituency, and that is why regulation is increasingly important. In future, the issue will be maintaining not just access to cash but free access to cash.
There has been a renewed focus on the issue of the last bank standing in a community. As Sian Williams of Toynbee Hall pointed out, however, when we get to that point, it is often too late. There is an urgent need to join up, particularly in areas that are more likely to be left behind. Financial institutions have not tended to talk to one another, so towns and communities have been left with piecemeal and inaccessible financial services.
The change has not been orderly. In the RSA’s excellent report published earlier this year, “Cashing Out: The hidden costs and consequences of moving to a cashless society”, the situation is described as a “disorderly dash from cash” with
“a misalignment of incentives between individual banking institutions seeking to shed their costly physical infrastructure…and the needs of…thousands of communities that remain reliant”
on what, for them, are essential financial services. The report finds that substantial numbers of people rely wholly on cash and that access to bank branches is about not just the older generation but the younger generation, small and medium-sized enterprises and increasing numbers of self-employed people, who all have an important stake in the debate.
This year, the Access to Cash Review’s significant report found that 17% of Brits say that they would not cope without cash. As has been said, they are the most vulnerable people, such as the disabled, the poorest and the elderly, who are unlikely to be early adopters of contactless technology. Figures from the Financial Inclusion Commission suggest that they are also more likely to be among the approximately 700,000 people in the UK who want a bank account but, for various reasons, cannot open one.
There are significant regional, area-based and income-based disparities. More than 15% of people with an income under £10,000 rely completely on cash, in contrast with only 2.5% of those in the highest income bracket. People who have less access to cash are already subject to a poverty premium; they have been left behind by contactless and digital payment technologies and cannot shop around to get the best deals.
There are also difficulties for disabled people. Eleanor Southwood’s evidence to the Treasury Committee recounted how people who are blind or partially sighted can struggle to use a taxi driver’s touch screen PIN pad, and then often need to give away their PIN. It is important to think about the role of assistive technology in this space. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for assistive technology, I understand the potentially transformative impact of accessible technology and why it needs to be part of the debate about how financial services move forward.
The gaps in broadband provision, including in rural communities, can make access to cashless payments more difficult. Indeed, broadband notspots are not confined to rural areas; an estimated 1,000 households in my constituency do not have access to decent-speed broadband. Hounslow Council’s work to help to end notspots is a key part of the jigsaw, which will take years to deal with.
The question is how we are going to respond to the drivers of such changes, including new technologies, lifestyles and uneven economic progress, and the consequences of the increasing cost of our nation’s wholesale cash infrastructure, alongside the need for better financial education and financial inclusion. I thank the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) for being here and for his work on the all-party parliamentary group on financial education for young people.
I will say a few words about supporting the cash infrastructure. We know that The Telegraph reported last year that there were about 123 cash deserts—postcode areas that do not have a single ATM in their geographical coverage—and there are more than that now. A further 116 areas have just a single ATM, 36 of which are fee-paying ATMs. The Association of Convenience Stores also highlights how convenience retailers and ATMs enable financial inclusion, but they are also under threat from high business rates bills and cuts to interchange fees.
In addition, research by the University of Bristol on the distribution of ATMs in that city has found that the provision of cash is almost opposite to the geographical need for it. Lower-income communities are poorly served by current cash infrastructure. ATMs are changing from free to fee-charging, with deprived areas disproportionately hit. Of the 16 ATMs in Bristol that changed from free to fee-charging between October 2018 and March 2019, 11 were located in deprived areas.
My hon. Friend is making a characteristically passionate speech. We have heard about the provision of cash machines in rural areas and in deprived areas, but does she agree that another consideration is the provision of cash in market towns? When the last bank closed in the small market town of Sowerby Bridge in my constituency, taking the cash machine with it, there was a detrimental impact on the market, and on its traders, who deal exclusively in cash. We really need to reflect on that problem as, I am sure, it is replicated all over the country.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I agree that this whole debate also needs to be part of a strategy for towns, which are often left out of how progress is made, how policy is implemented and who is the first to benefit when new resources are rolled out. The provision of financial services and ATMs is absolutely vital for ensuring economic progress and the viability of businesses.
The banks are closing down everywhere and are using the excuse that we can use post offices to access cash. Yesterday it was announced that 1,000 post offices are to go and more to follow. Sub-postmasters are not making the same money as the banks. That is now going to lead to a more cashless society. That, to me, is what the banks are heading for.
My hon. Friend’s extremely important point is one I was about to go on to. We have seen this debate previously in relation to post offices, and have then seen post offices become an important part of the strategy for maintaining access to cash—Mastercard and others are also working with them. Research from the Post Office shows that about 44% of small businesses believe that the convenience of cash is essential to their business, and also that they use post offices. Yet, alongside this debate, we see these warnings, and alongside the challenges that the post office network faces, deprived and rural communities will have even poorer access to cash.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that the change in the post office contracts, particularly in the local and local plus contracts, meaning that post offices get only £12 for handling £1,000 of cash, is driving down the provision of post offices in rural communities and towns in particular?
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Should we also not look at what I see as the opportunities to improve the situation, including the opportunity to ensure more free cash machines supported by the banking system, which I hope the Treasury will take on? There is also an opportunity to require retail businesses to accept cash. The other day I walked into a Vodafone shop and they said that they did not accept cash—they had gone completely cashless. I thought, “What about vulnerable people? What can we do for vulnerable people?” Does the hon. Lady not agree that it is really important to do that as well, and to maximise the opportunity for the post office network to ensure that vulnerable people can still access cash and financial services in their often rural communities?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Indeed, he has made similar important contributions in his work on the Treasury Committee. He talks about the acceptance of cash needing to be part of the debate, and I know that other hon. Members will be speaking on that issue later. It is an important part of the jigsaw.
I want to make a few points about our policy response and about how we need to move forward. The report from the Access to Cash Review made five broad and important recommendations: to guarantee access to cash, to ensure that cash continues to be widely accepted, to create a more resilient wholesale cash infrastructure, to make digital payments an option for everyone and to ensure joined-up regulation of cash. Within that, there are important roles for national and local government, banks, regulators, FinTech, building societies, payment systems operators and others. I also want to mention credit unions and their role, and I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to this important issue, as we plan for the next decade and beyond.
There are 1.9 million members saving £2.4 billion in the UK’s 500 credit unions. Credit unions are financial co-operatives and are therefore member-owned and democratically run. They have huge potential to play much more of a role, but that will need support and Government leadership. The Treasury Committee recently raised concerns about credit unions either going bust or having to consolidate to survive, and there is an urgent need to consider how we better support them. I want to make a few suggestions about how we can support the expansion of the UK credit union sector. A response from the Minister today on that would be helpful, and perhaps we can continue the discussion after this debate, which is only an hour and a half long.
The first suggestion is to appoint a Minister for credit unions [Interruption.] Yes, but I hope that the Minister has a cross-cutting responsibility and is committed to placing credit unions at the centre of retail financial services to ensure more competition and choice in banking. The Minister will know that the Treasury is responsible for credit union legislation and that other Departments also have an important stake, especially the Department for Work and Pensions and the Cabinet Office. I hope he can discuss how, in his role, he will continue to join up that work across Government and where we might see faster progress.
The second suggestion is that all workers be given the right to save in a credit union directly from their pay. Some 39% of the population have no savings, and to counter that we believe that all employees should be given the right to save directly in a credit union, by payroll deduction and at no cost to them.
Thirdly, all schoolchildren ought to be given the right to join a credit union school savings club. Good savings habits for life should be encouraged at an early age. All policies in this area should reference credit unions as able to take such deposits, in the same way as banks and building societies can.
Fourthly, early changes should be introduced in the new legislative programme, to take the opportunity to build on the pre-election Treasury consultation on credit unions and dismantle obstacles that prevent the transformation of the UK credit union movement into a player with the significance of its international peers. Elsewhere, although there are market differences, credit unions are significant players: in Ireland 73% of the population are members of credit unions and in North America the figure is 43%.
I am pleased that, following the publication of the Access to Cash Review report, there were moves to respond to it very quickly. The Bank of England announced that it would convene relevant stakeholders to design a new system for distributing cash on the basis of the concerns that had been identified. The Treasury Committee took evidence and produced an important report on consumers’ access to financial services, which was published last week. The Treasury announced that it was commencing a new joint authorities cash-strategy group, involving the Treasury itself, the Payment Systems Regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority and the Bank of England. There will indeed be much work for the new body to do.
I would be grateful if in his response, the Minister updated Members on strategy formulation, and how the work of the group will operate alongside the work being done by the Bank of England. There needs to be more joined-up working, rather than silos, overlap and duplication. I would also be grateful if he told us what progress he expects to be made by the autumn, when I understand the Access to Cash Review panel plans to meet and review its progress; which consumer bodies will be involved in the development of the strategy, particularly co-operative institutions; and how the group will respond to the individual recommendations made by the Access to Cash Review panel.
We face unique challenges in the modern world, and we need to make sure that both Parliament and the Government are responding to those challenges. Access to cash is not a problem that is unique to the United Kingdom, and neither is the need for robust legislation—as and when necessary—and regulation to ensure it. The Swedish legislature was recently forced to create a cross-party commission on access to cash, due to a public outcry after hospitals announced that they would no longer accept cash payments. Swedish bodies and representatives repeatedly told the Access to Cash Review that we needed to act now, as it is much harder to re-establish cash infrastructure than to preserve it.
Local authorities are an important part of this jigsaw, and of our response. My local council in Hounslow, led by Steve Curran and Lily Bath, is taking steps towards financial inclusion, which is vital as local authorities are at the forefront of helping local citizens deal with a lot of changes. Those changes have come through welfare reforms, but also from the housing crisis that we face—a number of people are in temporary accommodation, and may have been waiting for a long time—and are affecting people’s access to services in many ways, as well as their resilience.
I am pleased that there are more innovations in communication and that better research into segmentation is under way, including understanding the financial capabilities of council tenants. A higher than expected number of those tenants do not have bank accounts into which payments can be made, whether welfare or other payments. That is why it is important that we all, including local authorities, revisit the idea of closer working with credit unions. Given the importance of this work, Parliament and Government must act to promote the role of local government in making sure that we preserve access to cash and financial services.
To conclude, joining up how we move forward together is increasingly important, because of the complex map of the stakeholders involved. We are not going to get multiple chances at this; change is going to take time, and it has to be done right. It has to be done with the right research, the right underpinning and the right policy frameworks, with confidence, and with the message that if all those involved in financial services who have a stake and a role, including banks and those involved in cash infrastructure, do not play their part effectively, there will be regulation and legislation. We also need considerable programmes for digital inclusion, and incentives to diversify services within the industry. We need to make sure that those services continue to reach the people who need them, and to make sure that cash continues to be accepted.
I also hope that we can have a discussion about how this issue forms part of wider economic strategies, including industrial strategy. Labour has talked about regional banks providing an opportunity to ensure financial inclusion; there are examples from abroad that we can learn from, including the Sparkassen, and the Mann Deshi bank in India—I have been looking at whether we can do some reverse learning from that bank in my constituency. Mobile technology, which some of our financial services have already begun to use, has been vital in supporting women, particularly in rural areas—to set up their own businesses and manage their household finances.
I thank organisations such as City Pay it Forward that make an important contribution to increasing financial education in our schools; as I mentioned before, I consider that to be extremely important. Our new local charity, Hounslow’s Promise, is working to make sure that we have financial understanding and financial literacy, which are vital to ensuring that people can take advantage of new services that are on offer.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry, and I thank the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) for bringing this important debate to the House. This issue has been debated many times, and I see many familiar faces in the Chamber today.
We are moving towards a cashless society far too fast, and a number of our constituents are simply not ready. As the chair of the Access to Cash Review stated:
“If we sleepwalk into a cashless society, millions will be left behind.”
Between 2015 and 2017, I have lost 12 banks in my constituency. Since I was elected, I have lost the Royal Bank of Scotland, the Bank of Scotland, the Clydesdale Bank and Santander, and my TSB branch has reduced its hours. That acceleration is concerning, and we cannot continue to sit back and let it happen.
In the short amount of time I have, I will raise three issues. First, rural areas are suffering most, because when those areas lose a branch, their communities cannot simply adapt. They have poorer transport links to get them to the next branch; they have poorer connectivity in terms of digital options; they are scared of using phone banking, and sometimes do not have the mobile signal that they require; and they have fewer cash machines. Quite simply, those communities are an easy target for our banks. Like many Members present, I have a higher number of older people—those over 65—living in my constituency, and those people rely heavily on that banking provision. Some 20% of the population lives in rural areas, yet only 12% of bank branches are in those areas. Banks exist to serve all consumers, but what we are seeing is banks serving urban consumers, with rural consumers losing out.
Time and again, the banks say that the solution is digitisation. However, in Angus, only 83% are covered by superfast broadband, so they immediately alienate the other 17%. We have lost a number of Post Office branches, and—as has already been mentioned—for viability reasons, that is not going to pick up. Quite frankly, the numbers do not stack up. Post offices do not provide the same service: many services are missing, and we do not have privacy in our post offices. As we all know, when we go in to post our letters or a parcel, we are often waiting in queues. It is not particularly private, and often this is taking place in a small shop as well.
There is a whole host of issues; I do not have enough time to cover them all in three minutes, but one obvious issue is access to cash. We cannot continue to suggest that everybody is turning to digital, because we have small shops; my high streets are struggling, and we need to ensure that they have access so that they are not penalised every time somebody makes a card payment. We need that continued access to be able to secure the future of our high streets.
My final point, which I have made to the Minister several times, is that we must look towards banking hubs. We have to look at alternatives to ensure our consumers continue to have choice.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) on securing this debate. I will echo one of her points, and then throw in two other issues.
First, credit unions represent a potential solution to financial exclusion, but they suffer from regulatory handicaps at the moment: they cannot offer a series of products that are clearly in demand, including car lending, insurance and credit card services, and they often cannot offer services to small businesses. It would be helpful to hear from the Minister what action the Government will take to sort out the problems in this area, which I know he is familiar with. Credit unions have been lobbying for some time for legislative changes, and to get a more sympathetic regulator. From what I can see, nobody on the FCA board has any credit union experience whatever. There was someone in the past, but there does not seem to be anyone with any awareness of credit unions, and that may explain why the FCA has interpreted the Credit Union Act 1979 in a particularly restrictive way to date.
We have to accept that there is a significant market failure in the provision of financial services, but we should also accept that the big banks still have a responsibility to help tackle the problem. They should be held to account for who they are lending to and in which districts. In that sense, they should support a campaign that the Centre for Responsible Credit is particularly vociferous in. It demands that banks publish what they lend down to postcode level in an anonymous way. Through that, we could track the areas that are genuinely being supported by the bigger players in the financial services industry and the areas with a need for charitable activity or more support for credit unions.
Lastly, if someone is looking for financial services products in media and advertising terms, they are deluged with services offered by the big banks or the payday lenders. Credit unions and other charitable and not-for-profit lenders are not given anything like the same attention. There needs to be a significant effort by Government at all levels to promote alternative sources of lending, with a particular focus on credit unions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I draw attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am also the chair or vice-chair of various all-party parliamentary groups that are pertinent to this debate and discussion. I congratulate the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) on securing this debate on a hugely important issue that needs greater consideration than it has had in this place. The issue affects us all, as we have outlined already, and I am sure Members will continue to do so.
In my part of the world, our local newspaper the Derbyshire Times reported only last week that the number of ATMs available in my constituency has reduced by 20% over the past couple of years, from 137 to 111. We have had the usual bank branch closures and changes. We lost another branch in Dronfield just a few months ago. That was the Royal Bank of Scotland. We have lost our Lloyds branch in Clay Cross, and we continue to see reductions in ATMs and the like.
We have to deal with those challenges, however, rather than just moaning about them. There is a conundrum in front of us. People’s habits are changing, as is how people want to bank. The numbers of people going into bank branches and using cash are decreasing. Cash is now being used in three in 10 transactions—10 years ago, it was six in 10—and that number will reduce further. We have to find a way to balance the challenges that have been rightly articulated by Members this morning with recognising that we cannot and will not stop progress.
We also have to recognise that there is a cost to the provision of cash. That cost may not be obvious to consumers, but it is built into the infrastructure and the costs of financial services already. Essentially, we are dealing with a classic long-tail problem. We have early adopters. The majority of the market and a majority of consumers can deal with this issue and are happy to do so, but we rightly identify a group of vulnerable people and customers who we need to ensure are supported. Those consumers live in my constituency, as they do in everyone else’s.
In the brief time I have available, I will make a couple of points and a couple of suggestions for things to consider or where it might be useful for the debate to go next. We should be careful about explicit legislation, but I agree that there may be a case for it in certain places. We should celebrate, as the hon. Lady outlined, alternative forms of saving and lending, such as credit unions, which I am personally very supportive of. If there is an argument for legislating, it may be around equalising the premium in accessing cash and the poverty premium that goes on top for vulnerable people in accessing various things. We should foster competition and celebrate those institutions and building societies, such as Metro Bank, that are expanding their networks. We should also look at how we expand the number of bank accounts available for people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) on securing this debate. It might seem counter-intuitive to suggest that access to cash is vital for financial inclusion, because everyone says the future is in FinTech, but my local authority did a survey two years ago to see how many people in Wigan use the internet regularly, and it found that 30% have never even accessed the internet. That is below the national average. Many who do not access the internet are on lower than average incomes or are disabled or old. Some 93% of those over 80 have never used internet banking, and we need to think about those people when we promote digital by default. It does not have be online and cashless.
Clearly those without internet access cannot bank online, but with the pace of bank closures, neither are they able to do it face-to-face. Not only are the physical branches going, but the ATMs are going, too. In Wigan, we lost one in nine cash machines in less than two years. Yes, that is the cashless society, but many prefer to use cash, particularly those on low incomes. If their income is tight, they need to be able to check every penny that passes through their hands, and cash is a tangible asset. People cannot go overdrawn with the money in their purse.
It is not just a few people who say it is important to have that access. A survey of more than 1,200 Which? members found four in five saying that access to the free-to-use network was important to their daily lives and for paying for goods and services. It found that removing free-to-use access would leave one in 10 struggling to make payments. We therefore have to question the closure of so many ATMs and bank branches. As the hon. Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) said, we also need to ensure that shops and businesses remain cash-friendly and customers are not forced into paying by card.
There are many issues with paying by card. People do not always trust online transactions, and I congratulate the TSB on its fraud repay scheme, which creates more trust in financial services. Access to banking and financial services is at the heart of the inclusion and exclusion debate. We need to be careful not to be drawn into saying that FinTech will be a universal panacea. It is vital that consumers have the freedom to pay for goods and services however they choose. If we sleepwalk into becoming a cashless society, it will have grave consequences for our most vulnerable people. I am not anti-technology; we need to encourage people to face the future and to embrace the advantages of technology, but we should not run before we can walk. For the foreseeable future, cash and digital have to exist side by side and as complementary tools in increasing inclusion and improving people’s lives.
I thank the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) for bringing this debate forward. I speak as chair of the APPG on credit unions and as a fellow member of the Financial Inclusion Commission. When I first came to this place two years ago, I visited a credit union just outside my constituency that serves several of my constituents. A lady there said something very important to me. She said, “Bim, it is very expensive to be poor.” I really thought about that, and everything I have seen in the past couple of years has confirmed my sense of the facts. We have already heard that 39% of people have no savings. When people have very little cash—or, should I say, money, resources, or assets—it can often cost them so much to do things and to borrow money. They can quickly fall beneath the waterline. That is one reason why credit unions are so important, and I echo the things that have already been said about promoting credit unions.
Financial education has not particularly come up in the debate. I lose track of the number of times that people have said over the past five, 10 or 15 years, “We need to promote financial education in schools. People need to learn better habits. They need to be able to manage their money more effectively. They need to understand how mortgages work, how credit cards work, what APR is and what interest is”, yet we never do anything. Will the Minister respond to that in his remarks? I know he is not the Education Secretary—at least, not yet.
I am happy where I am.
That is good. I hope that the Minister will tell us what work he can do across government to champion financial education, which we all agree needs to be improved significantly.
The Minister wrote to me on 20 February about things that the Government were doing to promote affordable lending and credit unions, and about the affordable credit challenge fund, a no-interest loan scheme. Those are all very good things, but I simply say to him: we want more. There is a need for legislative change to allow all types of credit to be provided by credit unions. If he pushed that through Government, he would be a hero not only on the Government’s side of the House but on the Opposition’s side as well.
The last thing I will say about the cashless society is this: I was on a trip to China a year or so ago and I was in a city called Wuhan, a long way away from Beijing, and I could not use cash. Things are moving very fast. I could not use cash. We need to enable people to adapt to the new society and not try to hold back the tide. The Government need to help people achieve that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry.
In my hometown we have an excellent fish man called Steve who comes all the way from Buckie to flog his fish, and his smoked haddock is to die for. Steve is also a political sage. When he predicts that an MP will lose their seat, he is usually right, so I am very careful of him. Steve takes cash for his fish. You could no more present your mobile or your card to pay by contactless than fly to the moon. For many years, having ready cash in one’s purse, wallet or pocket has been fundamental to a civilised society. If we do not have it, we might as well go back, at least where I live, to bartering and swapping a salmon for a bag of peats or something like that.
With the best will in the world, we cannot go entirely digital or contactless in a constituency such as mine. As the hon. Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) has said, there are many areas where the iPhone and iPad simply do not work. In the case of my own Bank of Scotland card, it is already playing up, so it does not always get money out of a hole in the wall or work when I go contactless.
In my constituency we already have precious few ATMs. There has been talk of safeguarding them, but that is time limited. If a retail premises with a cash machine shuts, the shop goes, the cash machine goes, and no safeguard in the world can stop that happening.
That is absolutely correct. I compliment the hon. Gentleman on his very good point.
There is a nasty parallel, as other Members have said, between the closure of ATMs and the closure of bank branches. In just a short time—can you believe this, Sir Henry?—we will have only one bank branch in the whole huge county of Sutherland, which is 2,028 square miles. Imagine what that means for my constituents. There are, however, already examples of banks working together to form one-stop shops in southern conurbations in England. I call on the Government and the Scottish banks to do something similar for rural areas such as mine in Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross.
I must give due credit to the Minister. We had a constructive meeting care of the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) the other day. I believe that the Minister is on to the issue and is working well towards sorting it out, so I wish him godspeed. If we do not get it right at Government or bank level, it will be a fundamental failure and we will be letting down the poorer, as other Members have pointed out, and the elderly who absolutely rely on having 24/7 access to cash.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) on securing this debate on an important issue. I agree with her point that there is widespread concern across the country about access to cash. It is hugely important to us all. We all need cash to varying degrees for incidental purchases, giving children money for school, paying the milkman and so on. Access to cash is often, though not always, easier in cities and towns, but our country is also made up of lots of smaller towns, villages and communities.
There are 2.2 million people in the UK almost entirely reliant on cash in their daily lives. We know that the use of cash is in decline, but, as we have already heard, the UK is not ready to become a cashless society, and sleepwalking into one will leave millions, including many people in my constituency, behind.
The communities that I represent in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney are ranked in the Welsh index of multiple deprivation as some of the most deprived in the country. Deprivation is measured by a range of statistics, including health inequalities, educational attainment, income levels and access to services. In my constituency, some of the economically deprived areas are also geographically isolated communities such as Bedlinog, Ponsticill, Fochriw, Butetown, Abertysswg, Pontlottyn, Phillipstown and Aberfan. Those communities have a strong community spirit and breathtaking views up or down the valley, but they are often isolated from services and support. The Access to Cash independent review established in July 2018 concluded that around 17% of the UK population would struggle to cope in a cashless society. I welcome the recommendations in the review to ensure that consumers can get cash wherever they live or work, and I look forward to the further work to consider the report’s findings.
In the south Wales valleys, as in many other parts of the country, we have seen banks closing, with a 38% reduction in the number of banks since 2010. In the Upper Rhymney Valley part of my constituency, the last bank closed in January. On the Merthyr Tydfil side, the only banks that remain are in the town centre, leaving huge parts of the county borough without access to bank facilities. There are ATMs throughout the area, but many impose a charge for residents to withdraw their cash. As an example, Aberfan has three ATMs that all require a fee to be charged, and Bedlinog has two machines that are both chargeable.
Along with my Welsh Assembly colleague, Dawn Bowden, I am currently working with the company LINK to identify communities that have little or no access to free-to-use cash machines. We hope that shop owners will convert to free-to-use machines. As we know, subsidies are available for cash machines located in deprived areas, with the first ATM to convert to free usage receiving the subsidy.
Geographically isolated communities often experience issues with digital inclusion because the broadband is not as strong as it is in other areas. The report and the attention that it has received is welcome. However, it must be part of an ongoing awareness campaign to ensure that we move at a pace that does not leave communities behind.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) on securing the debate. In my constituency we are fighting two bank branch closures: Santander at Parkhead Forge, and, just recently and most unhelpfully, the Clydesdale Bank, which has announced that it plans to shut the Shettleston Road branch. The Government and the banks would say that the Post Office network can provide support, but there is a flaw in that argument when we look at the Tollcross post office in my constituency, which has had a temporary closure for two years now. I leave that point with the Minister. We are due to meet tomorrow to discuss it a bit further.
One thing that has most angered me has been that Santander and the Clydesdale Bank both proposed to remove the ATMs as well. Santander had the absolute barefaced cheek to contact me to say, “This is a very well-used ATM machine. Can you help us find someone else to take it on?”, which is laughable. However, ATMs are hugely important to a local economy, and any moves to remove them from the high street or to add charges to them has an impact on people from low-income areas such as my own. In Cranhill and Sandyhills we already see ATMs that now have a charge, which we are taking up with the ATM providers.
Some Members have already touched on the issue of credit unions. Before I entered politics I worked in a credit union, and only last month I chaired the summit of a lot of Glasgow’s credit unions. It is no secret that in Glasgow we have had two credit unions go bust recently: most recently, Parkhead Credit Union. It is all well and good for us in this place to talk about the importance of credit unions, and I would absolutely encourage people to join a credit union. I should at this juncture declare an interest as a shareholder in Cranhill and Baillieston credit unions. There are, as I am sure the Minister knows, issues relating to capital ratios and the governance of credit unions. More often than not when I visit my local credit unions, most of the members of the board are well over retirement age, so if we are talking about the sustainability of credit unions, we need to look at that as well.
The hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) touched on the important issue of financial education. He is absolutely right to point out that it is an issue we have spoken about for a long time. If I reflect on my own experiences, it was only in my late teens that I started to really understand budgeting and the importance of financial education. I very much commend Christians Against Poverty, which does really good work supporting people with budgeting. If we are serious about ensuring that young folk make informed decisions about their finances, we need to teach them about such things as annual percentage rate and the importance of ethical lending. One way of doing that is through credit unions. What discussions has the Minister had with education Ministries across the UK to ensure that we put pressure on Governments across these islands to invest in financial education?
This has been a good debate, and there is clearly an appetite for lots more debate. I hope that the Minister will take the points raised on board.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) on securing the debate, and the Backbench Business Committee on facilitating it.
The banking situation has changed substantially over the past 20 years. Indeed, some of the traditional banks would say that the playing field is unfair as it stands. New incomers do not have the fixed asset responsibility of our traditional banks, yet they pick up none of the responsibility for the financial exclusion towards which we are seemingly heading. Work is needed to ensure that all those that benefit as new emergent banks are responsible for the traditional side of banking, which forms such an important part of our communities, particularly our high streets.
Scotland has suffered more bank closures than many areas. Over the last eight years, the number of branches has fallen from 1,625 to 1,015. Indeed, more than 400 have closed since just 2015. In East Lothian, virtually all our towns—Tranent, Prestonpans, Gullane, North Berwick and Dunbar—have suffered bank closures and changes to ATMs and branch opening hours.
We have heard about many important things, including credit unions and education, which has thankfully opened the space for the use of hubs, to which the hon. Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) referred. The Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds and Barclays have started business hubs in England. Companies that have large amounts of cash to deposit and want to transact business can go into such hubs and deal with them, irrespective of which bank is theirs.
Similarly, in Edinburgh and Glasgow an entrepreneurs’ hub has been formed, orientated towards new businesses. That model will work on our high streets. The challenge for banks is that, in essence, two separate software systems are operated. However, that can surely be overcome. The advantage of a hub, shared by branches, is that when someone goes in they are dealing with their bank. The challenge facing post offices is that often the employees on the other side of the counter, employed by the Post Office, do not have the banking experience or knowledge to deal with sometimes significant problems, and it is basically unfair to expect it of them.
Through legislation and Government and local authority work, the facilitation of hubs would allow people to continue to deal with their bank. The asset cost would be shared, and it would keep footfall on our high streets so that there is cash for our markets and for people who want to deal in it. Problems will be solved, and hopefully banking on our high streets will have a future.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) on introducing the debate and setting the scene. Building a relationship with staff enables trust to be built, and with that comes a better working relationship. Although I am obviously of an older generation, I understand that it is a lot simpler for my staff to log on to online banking on their lunch and pay their credit card bill than to spend their entire lunch in the queue at the bank. That leads to better working relationships between employer and employees.
Notably, although the bank is still busy, it is not failing or empty. There are always queues in my local branch, because its presence is necessary. There is a need for the ease that online provides, but there is an equal need for a bank on the high street to service people. That is the argument for retaining cash in our society. Technology is great for those who do not want to use cash, but not so great for those who cannot use that technology, as hon. Members have mentioned.
An estimated 17% of the UK population—more than 8 million adults—would struggle to cope in a cashless society. A decade ago, six out of 10 transactions were cash; now it is three in 10. On a number of occasions in my constituency there has been a glitch in the car parking payment system. Such glitches mean that a 30p payment can lead to a £45 fine in the post that is impossible to query, as other payments are supposedly logged as successful. There is a fear among an older generation that if they cannot see or touch something, they cannot really have it.
I have also heard from several shop workers who have had to chase customers after their card payment did not go through due to connection errors. Those are things that happen every day, and are real issues with cashless options. They show that we are nowhere close to being able to do away with money. People want it all. For me, that does not mean that we should do away with cash; we should embrace all payment methods. I hear the banks crowing about how online banking is thriving, but sometimes signs tell us that we cannot lift money in a bank unless the cash machine is broken, or that there is a charge for paying a bill in the bank that can be paid for free online. Many such things annoy people, pushing them away from frontline banking and cash.
Hailing from a mixed urban and rural constituency, I fear that we are leaving behind too many isolated people who cannot rely on technology and an internet connection. Some 60 bank branches and 250 ATMs across the UK close per month. The Countryside Alliance has suggested that the regulator take action to stop further closures of ATMs, that an access to banking protocol be introduced so that when a branch moves customers are made aware of the banking services at the nearest post office, and that the Post Office and banks standardise the banking services over the post office counter.
The move towards a cashless society risks creating vulnerable customers and exacerbating financial exclusion among those who cannot access those services. We have a duty to ensure that both forms of payment and transaction are available. If that means Government intervention, I believe that that is what we must do.
This is not a minor issue, particularly in constituencies such as mine with a large rural area and market towns. The LINK Access to Cash Review found that cash is an economic necessity for 25 million people, and that 8 million adults—17%—would struggle to cope in a cashless society. In my constituency, as in others that have been mentioned, banks, post offices and ATMs have closed, making it more difficult not just for ordinary people to go about their everyday lives and make transactions, but for market traders, those wishing to hold community events, and charities—[Interruption.] I hope that we can all recover from that cry for attention from the alarm system.
I was speaking about the problems faced by market traders and charities in holding events, fundraising and bring communities together. Such events rely on cash to make them happen. It is already becoming much harder, with insurance premiums and regulations governing them. That means that people are less and less able to hold such events to bring people together. A lack of cash also means that people in rural areas who need it feel that they have to take out larger sums when they travel to a town. That makes them more vulnerable to crime and to people seeking to prey on them. The Government have to be mindful of that.
Post offices are expected to pick up the pieces of access to cash, as well as the lack of banks. As I mentioned, post office contracts are extremely important. Sub-postmasters across my constituency on all different types of contract tell me that they are struggling, but particularly those on the local and the local plus contract. However, it is not possible to scrutinise those contracts and how the changes have affected the profitability of post offices. I urge the Minister to speak urgently to colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy about that much-needed review.
Convenience stores must not be left to carry the load. As chair of the all-party parliamentary small shops group, that is certainly close to my heart. At the moment, 62% of convenience stores provide ATMs, almost three quarters of which are free to use. Interchange fees have been reduced twice already, resulting in cuts worth more than £1,000, split between the operator and the retailer. In spite of the delay in next year’s cut, ATM operators serving 73% of free-to-use ATMs not hosted by banks are now implementing or considering a decision to switch to pay-to-use machines. They are also penalised by business rates; I call on the Minister to look strongly at the fact that average ATM rates add £4,000 a year to the bills of a small retailer. That seems punitive, certainly for free-to-use ATMs at a time when we need to encourage them.
LINK says that we need
“a clear government policy on cash...market forces alone won’t make any of this happen.”
Besides looking for a joined-up policy on cash in rural areas, towns and hard-to-reach areas, I encourage the Minister to look at the review of the interchange fee and at enabling banking in all areas, reviewing post office contracts and profitability, and exempting free-to-use ATMs from business rates. If he wants some practical methods to look at, I hope that that gives him a start.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Sir Henry. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) on securing this critical debate at a time when our financial system is in flux. A decade ago, six of every 10 purchases were made in cash, but that figure has now halved and in a few years’ time it will be only one in 10, so there is a clear transition. Sometimes it catches me out; when I was in church a couple of weeks ago, I realised as the collection plate came round that I did not have any cash on me. The fear suddenly struck me that I would be humiliated in front of the congregation, so I am heartened to see that the Church of Scotland proposes to introduce cashless collection plates, which will save me that embarrassment in future. That is just one example of how the transition to a cashless society can catch us out suddenly and at the most unexpected moments, in a very public way.
The picture in my constituency is of a rapid removal of banking services. I represent one of the poorest constituencies in Scotland, which has seen a disproportionate decline in the number of bank branches and free-to-use ATMs. Indeed, one in five of Scotland’s 6,000 ATMs will soon be fee-charging, while ATMs are closing at a rate of one day. That significant decline is disproportionately affecting the poorest communities in Scotland, so it is critical that we address the issue.
I raised that very point in the main Chamber just a few weeks ago. Ferguslie Park is the most deprived community in Scotland, yet it has two ATMs that charge 95p and £1. That goes to show that LINK’s financial inclusion programme is not worth the paper that it is written on. I am still awaiting a reply from LINK after a month. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that its inclusion programme needs to be improved?
I completely agree. My constituency, like the hon. Gentleman’s, has had a disproportionate number of closures. I commend and thank the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Ged Killen), and the hon. Gentleman for their work on the issue. The LINK cut is critical, but we need legislative backing to safeguard provision. Many small businesses, including postmasters, are saying that they will not pay punitive business rates to maintain free cash access.
The discussions about credit unions are pertinent, and I commend the hon. Members for Glasgow East (David Linden) and for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) for speaking about their work on the issue. As a result of the closure of the Greater Milton and Possilpark credit union, 4,212 members have had that facility taken away. Santander is threatening to close and remove its ATM, just as in Parkhead. This is a critical issue, because banks do not feel any sort of obligation to maintain their provision. In America, Santander has a £1.9 billion community reinvestment fund because the American Government have forced it to do that in poorer communities, but there is no equivalent legislative obligation in the UK.
We need legislative teeth to back up the provision of banking services in our poorest communities. I urge the Minister to recognise that urgent need in our communities, particularly in Glasgow North East.
I thank the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) for securing this important debate. As we have heard today, there are serious concerns that too many people, including some of the most vulnerable, are being left behind.
Every one of us needs a viable way of paying for goods and services that meets our needs and circumstances. For some people that may be card payments, but we need access to cash for goods and services if that is most appropriate to the way we live our lives and if it suits our circumstances. Digital payments have become easier, but research shows that more than 8 million adults would struggle to cope in a cashless society.
It is important to remember that many people pay for goods and services in cash because their circumstances mean that they do not have the option to pay in any other way. The biggest factor in paying for goods and services in cash is where someone is on the income scale: the lower someone is down the scale, the more likely they are to rely on cash transactions, regardless of their age. Importantly, approximately 9% of those who rely on cash transactions do so as a budgeting strategy because they fear that if they do not use cash, they may overspend and fall into debt. Using cash helps them to keep track of their spending.
There is no doubt that cash allows many people a degree of control that digital transactions do not offer, as we heard from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). They can hold it and count it—and when it is gone, it is gone. It is a real and physical aid to budgeting. Indeed, debt advice charities actively encourage people in debt to cut up their cards and deal only in cash, for obvious reasons. That goes back to the points that have been made about financial education.
We have heard much about the decline of ATMs, but that is merely the tip of quite a significant iceberg—it is a symptom of a wider trend. The underlying issue is that some businesses prefer payments to be made digitally, because of the costs of handling and banking cash; we heard today that Vodafone no longer accepts cash payments at all. We have also heard much about access to high street banks. In my constituency, North Ayrshire and Arran, the banks are stampeding out of our towns with alarming and eye-watering speed. In the past eight years, Scotland has lost one third of its banks, and closures continue apace, as the hon. Members for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) and for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) described.
Driving consumers towards digital payments clearly excludes those consumers who do not want—or simply do not have the option— to pay for goods digitally. If we want businesses to continue to accept cash, we have to make it easier for them to do so, and to bank and deposit it in a way that works for them. Post offices have been suggested as an alternative to banks, but post offices are in crisis. Many postmasters are finding their business increasingly unsustainable, and they often work for less than minimum wage—an issue that I raised with the Treasury and with Post Office Ltd almost two years ago.
For those who need to use cash, we must keep it viable. It is important to remember that 1.3 million people in the UK do not even have a bank account, for a whole variety of reasons. Problems with ATM access are both a cause and a symptom of society that is moving closer to being cashless. That should give us cause for real concern.
I am worried about time, so if the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will press on.
Consumer organisation Which? has found that cashpoints disappeared at a rate of 488 per month between June and December last year, with more than 250 free-to-use cash machines closing monthly and 3,300 UK bank branches closing their doors since 2015. One in five cash machines in Scotland will impose charges by the end of this year. It is self-evident that charges for using ATMs hit those who are much less affluent much harder, because those people are more likely to make regular smaller withdrawals rather than occasional larger ones. Quite contrarily, pay-to-use cash machines are most often found in poorer areas—yet another poverty premium that punishes the less well-off.
It is clear that we need urgent regulatory action to protect the right of consumers to use cash. Otherwise, as the Minister will know, we will exclude many of our constituents from buying goods and services that they wish to access. I therefore fully support the Which? campaign “Freedom to pay. Our Way.”, which is supported by the Federation of Small Businesses. The campaign calls on the Government to appoint a regulator with sole responsibility for cash infrastructure, to ensure that consumers and businesses can continue to access cash. It should not be an uphill struggle for people to access the cash on which they rely, because it means that they struggle to go about their daily business.
The drift towards digital has not been without its problems, including IT glitches such as the high-profile problems suffered last year by TSB, which caused chaos for consumers. As the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston reminded us, aside from IT glitches, people living in rural areas can find digital access extremely problematic, with poor broadband reliability. Of the 5.3 million adults who never use the internet, 70%—some 3.7 million people—live in rural areas. They do not rely on cards and digital payments. We must not overlook the challenges of relying on digital payments for consumers and businesses in rural areas, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone).
It is essential that consumer interests are front and centre in this debate—the customer must be king. The way we bank and the way we pay for our goods and services must meet the needs of all customers, and banks and financial institutions must have a legal duty of care for their customers.
I hope the Minister will indicate the Government’s willingness to appoint a regulator with sole responsibility for the cash infrastructure, to ensure consumers and businesses can continue to access cash. I hope to hear what he will do to ensure a duty of care in all our communities so that they are not financially excluded and can access the goods and services that they need. It is clear from this debate that there is a financial exclusion crisis. I am sure we are all keen to hear what measures the Government will take and are willing to take to address the matter.
I thank you, Sir Henry, for giving me the opportunity to respond to the debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) for securing this debate on such an important issue. It is good to see such a significant turnout of colleagues. There has been a fair degree of consensus in what has been said.
As shadow City Minister, I spend a great deal of time thinking about how financial services can be changed to improve financial inclusion and how we can remove the poverty premium that we know exists in the UK and that so many Members have referenced. For me, it is impossible to build a fair society—the kind of society we all want—without guaranteeing a degree of access to basic financial services. It always confounds me that we are one of the most advanced global financial centres in the world, yet there are 1.6 million adults in the UK who remain unbanked, and thousands more who are denied access to the basic levels of credit that many of us take for granted.
When I look to the future, I see the challenge as making sure that we can use new technology to tackle financial inclusion, rather than compound the problem. Some new financial technology companies are doing brilliant work to break down historical barriers in banking, such as providing easier access to bank accounts or using rental payment data to help build up credit scores, but technology risks leaving people behind if we do not protect and equip them along the way. That has been evident in the trends surrounding the use of cash.
As many Members have said in the debate today, our use of cash as a nation is declining. According to figures from the British Retail Consortium, cash accounted for just 22% of retail transactions in 2017, which is an inevitable consequence of the rise in popularity of contactless and mobile payments, but there is a significant danger of sleepwalking into a cashless society without giving careful thought to what that will really mean. Some communities, especially vulnerable ones, are still reliant on cash and their ongoing access to cash must be protected. I unreservedly commit the Opposition to that position.
Some poorer families and individuals need cash to budget effectively, a point that was well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue). There is no solution that compares with cash for people who are reliant on, for example, a carer to carry out tasks for them—it is quick and easy to see how much change there is when a carer has done the shopping for someone—and, of course, for the unbanked, cash is a lifeline without which participation in society would simply be impossible. It is up to us to carefully consider access to cash and to create a system that protects more vulnerable individuals.
Natalie Ceeney’s Access to Cash report, which was commissioned by Link and has been referenced quite a lot in the debate, outlined the situation we face and made some sound recommendations for consideration. The Chair of the Treasury Committee noted at the time that
“leaving the future of cash to be determined by market forces will not work.”
The Opposition certainly agree with that.
Establishing cash as a utility will be central to protecting consumer access. I have heard quite a lot of support for that in my initial conversations with the big UK banks, with ideas such as how they could share cash-centre facilities—the sort of back-office function that underpins much of the cash system.
Bank branch closures form a critical part of this debate. In the Opposition’s view, the reduction of the bank branch estate has been too severe. Under a Labour Government, there would be mandatory consultation on bank branch closures, given the negative impact they have on communities, which many Members have referenced. I am mindful that we have held quite a few Westminster Hall debates on this topic recently, and Members will have heard our views then, so I want to focus on the ATM estate.
We know that the number of ATMs has dropped significantly. There are complex factors at work that we must be mindful of. We should focus on protecting ATMs in communities that would end up being stranded long distances from free access to cash if they were to close. Link’s offer to pay a subsidy on those machines of up to £2.75 is an important step towards preventing cash deserts from emerging.
In other places, especially city centres, we will ultimately see that there is an excess of cash machines. It is inevitable that there will be closures in areas of high concentration. For example, I am planning to go home today and when I get to Manchester Piccadilly station, there are at least six free-access cash machines on the station. I think that will probably decline over time.
I add a word of caution. We must be alert as politicians and regulators not to be seen as being there to protect the incumbents from the consumer change that we have seen. We can protect access to cash at the same time as recognising changing consumer habits.
We must also must be open-minded about creative solutions that will help to safeguard choices for everyone in how we pay. Lloyds Banking Group, for example, has launched a pilot scheme to incentivise cashback by paying retailers a small fee per transaction. We will have to see the results to ascertain whether it is effective, but at face value it seems like an interesting addition to the provision of cash. Cash can be expensive for shops to process and handle securely, yet keeping a small cash float that can be passed on to consumers would help address that problem. It means they can still accept some cash from customers who want to use it, and it would encourage visits to the high street. The point about business rates raised by my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Ruth George) must also be addressed. There will not be one panacea that regulators can impose to solve access to cash. The solution will lie in deploying a mix of such co-operative tools that see banks and shops working together.
The Opposition urged the Treasury to open an urgent review into access to cash when Natalie Ceeney’s report was published. I am pleased that those calls have been heeded with the establishment of the Joint Authorities Cash Strategy Group, which must act quickly to ensure that the future of cash can be safeguarded. I am particularly keen for local communities to be given the right to demand a review of access to cash in their areas, which the regulator will then have to respond to if necessary. For our part, the Opposition are ready to support any effort that moves us towards treating cash as the essential utility it is, guaranteeing access to it for all and protecting cash for those who really need it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I thank the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) for securing this important debate. I commend her for encouraging us to consider the issue across multiple areas, because it is in understanding how things fit together that we will find some of the solutions that the 15 speeches that I have carefully listened to in this morning’s debate have drawn attention to.
To improve financial inclusion, we need to be firing on all cylinders, bringing together regulators, civil society and industry—from the big banks to credit unions—to ensure we create a financial services landscape that offers something for every consumer. I am keen to engage with the points made. I will have further conversations, including with the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) tomorrow; I have attended the all-party parliamentary group of the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) and met a number of other colleagues, who are here today, on specific matters. I will try to attend to all the points in my response.
It is undeniable that the retail financial landscape is changing, as more consumers and businesses opt for the convenience, security and speed of digital payments and digital banking. At the end of 2017, debit cards overtook cash for the first time as the most frequently used payment method in the UK. It is also true that increasing digitalisation and technological innovation is changing not just the way we pay for things, but every part of our society—from communications to shopping, and from transport to healthcare. It is an exciting but disruptive time. I acknowledge that it is a confusing time for some of our constituents, as they struggle to keep pace with the rate of change.
The Government recognise that there is a need for cash and traditional face-to-face methods of banking. Although financial firms take operational resilience very seriously—indeed, last Monday I visited Barclays Joint Operations Centre to see how the bank is keeping its customers safe from cyber-attacks—we cannot guarantee that IT systems will never fail. Cash is therefore a crucial back-up system that many people continue to rely on.
We have heard that cash remains some people’s preferred, or only, method of payment for a variety of reasons. I am sensitive to that, and it is important that the Government act. We have expressed our commitment to safeguarding access to cash for people who need it. As the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston acknowledged, we have set up the Joint Authorities Cash Strategy Group, which brings together the Bank of England, the Payment Systems Regulator and the Financial Conduct Authority to provide comprehensive oversight of the UK’s cash infrastructure, from supply to customer access. The announcement was made a couple of weeks ago, and the group’s work will complement the Bank of England’s work to reform the wholesale cash industry, so that it encourages innovation and guarantees resilience, even in a lower cash usage environment. As cash is used less, we need to refine the way it is distributed, because the existing method is too expensive and needs to be improved.
Industry has a central role to play in maintaining access to cash, because with industry innovation we can do more at a lower cost. As the Access to Cash Review showed, creative industry initiatives are already being developed. In conjunction with PayPoint, Link is exploring a new service that offers cash and balance inquires through PayPoint’s convenience store terminals. In response to the hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George), I make the following observation on an initiative by Square, a digital payments company that recently did a trial in Holywell to help small, independent retailers take card payments. It found that 55% of shoppers in Wales would be more likely to shop locally if businesses took cards, which has led to more than 95% of the town’s independent shops now taking cards. It works both ways, and FinTech provides new opportunities.
The shadow Economic Secretary mentioned the important initiative by Lloyds, in partnership with Visa. I note his reference to the Post Office, which provides for cash withdrawals and cash and cheque deposits at each of its 11,500 branches across the UK. Indeed, a sub-postmaster in Devon, whom I met last year, recently contacted me again to say that banking transactions have really boosted business at his rural post office, which is hosted in a library. I will meet him next week to look at that and at what lessons can be learned across the country.
I am sensitive to the points raised by the hon. Members for Feltham and Heston and for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) on credit unions. I want to update the Chamber on that matter, which I take very seriously. There are 440 credit unions across the United Kingdom, and it is a question of distilling exactly what they want to happen. When I spoke to a number of CEOs of credit unions at the Association of British Credit Unions Limited conference on 9 March, it was clear that they have initiated a national call for evidence and will come back in September with a clear ask of Government about what legislative action needs to take place. As the hon. Member for Glasgow East helpfully pointed out, there credit unions have a whole range of experiences. It is not a question of the Government’s mandating them to be set up, because that would not work. We have initiated a pilot for prize-linked savings, and I hope that will actually increase the use of credit unions. I note the suggestions about getting schoolchildren involved in the use of credit unions, and I am open to looking at how that could be advanced.
I spoke to John Lyons, who runs the Carntyne and Riddrie Credit Union. He made it clear that the reason the Greater Milton and Possilpark Credit Union failed my constituents was that credit unions were previously allowed to share resources between each other. Owing to punitive restrictions on regulations, that is no longer the case, which is why individual credit unions are more vulnerable to failure.
I am always sympathetic and listen carefully to credit union chief executives and their experiences. I have been in the Treasury for 16 months, and rarely does a week pass without my receiving notification of a credit union that could be in difficulty. If we are to loosen the regulatory reform and enable more transactions and more functions of credit unions, we need to ensure that we have the governance in place, so that people do not fall foul of credit unions that go the wrong way. It is a complex area. I am not trying to be patronising, but it is important that we get a joined-up policy solution that pays attention to the sector’s requests.
Although maintaining access to physical banking and cash is important, there is another, equally important side to this story: ensuring that the benefits of new technology are felt by all, and that everyone has the ability to participate. For people who need to keep tight control of their money, and for those who cannot afford to lose a penny, the ability to check their bank balance on the go, or to freeze a card instantly, is critical. We know that too many people are currently excluded from such benefits.
Recognising that the advantages of digitalisation should be felt by all, the Government’s digital strategy commits to enabling people in every part of society to access the opportunities of the internet. We have established the digital skills partnership to bring together the public, private and third sectors to address the digital skills gap in a more co-ordinated and collaborative way. From 2020 we will introduce an entitlement for adults who lack basic digital skills to undertake fully funded basic digital skills training. This new entitlement will mirror existing entitlements for adult literacy and numeracy training.
I want to address the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami). The new Money and Pensions Service will simplify the current public financial guidance landscape and offer a more holistic approach to financial education. I am talking to representatives of UK finance and the voluntary sector to look at how we can get a more co-ordinated approach to financial education, which is always raised in these debates.
The Government recognise that access to the internet depends on being able to connect to it, and we are making progress with this problem. Superfast broadband, providing downloads of at least 24 megabits per second, is now available to 96% of UK homes. Hon. Members will have seen that last Sunday we launched the Rural Gigabit Connectivity programme, a £200 million investment that will enable communities that have not previously benefited from broadband to leapfrog to the most advanced fibre technology. I hope that will be a solution for colleagues who represent the most rural constituencies.
I will conclude, in order to give the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston an opportunity to respond. We all agree that vulnerable customers must not be left behind as digitalisation changes the way we bank and pay for things. Of course, part of that is about ensuring that physical banking and cash remain available to people who need it—the Government, regulators and industry are already taking action to ensure this. However, it is equally important that we redouble our efforts to ensure that all our constituents benefit from new technology. We cannot reverse digital innovation and nor should we, given the benefits they bring to our constituents.
I want to end with a call to arms to industry to think about all consumers—not only when they are considering the future of cash and physical banking, but when they design new digital products and bring new innovations to the market. I will keep pushing industry to achieve this, and I hope hon. Members will join me in doing so.
I thank the Minister and the shadow Minister for their remarks. I also thank the Minister for recognising that this is a confusing time, that the rate of change is faster than we had predicted, and that cash is required. He made a very important point on cash being a back-up if a system of technology fails. I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate, including the hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami), who helped me pitch this subject to the Backbench Business Committee.
We absolutely cannot sleepwalk into a cashless society. Equally, we cannot turn the clock back on progress. However, the market is failing and we need to intervene. We also need to ensure that it continues to be affordable to accept cash, requiring joined-up action to reduce the cost, reform our cash infrastructure and ensure efficiency and resilience. Where needed, we must also incentivise joint industry working in the design of consumer services and products that are based on need. If that requires further supply-side reforms to enable hubs and provide more opportunities to work together, we need to grasp that challenge—both in terms of policy and of shifting our culture. I recognise some of the interesting ideas coming from Mastercard and Visa—including jam-jarring to help with savings, and support for credit union infrastructure—but there needs to be so much more.
I thank Natalie Ceeney and her panel for their work on the Access to Cash Review. Government action is welcome, but it cannot be on a slow burn—for example, the no-interest loan scheme pilot, which was announced last year, has not yet progressed. We need to continue working together on this issue, and I look forward to doing so.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered financial exclusion and the future of access to cash.
Secondary School Standards: East Cleveland
I beg to move,
That this House has considered secondary school education standards in East Cleveland.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I was prompted to seek this debate by recent Ofsted reports about two of the large secondary schools in East Cleveland in my constituency—Freebrough Academy in Brotton and Laurence Jackson School in Guisborough. Both were rated “inadequate” in every measure of their assessments, and that is rightly a source of huge concern for pupils, parents and teachers alike. The report on Freebrough, in particular, was damning beyond words. Pupil progress was rated “very poor”, and there had been a dramatic decline from the high standards set under the previous head, Linda Halbert. Even more seriously, leaders are unsure where pupils are for extended periods of time, and instances of bullying are not rare.
When I visited the school earlier this year, I was genuinely shocked. It was the week when the Northern Education Trust had come in to take over the management of the school, with a new headteacher, Mr Michael Robson, poised to take charge the following Monday. The scenes were like a caricature from “Grange Hill”, with gangs of pupils wandering the school during lesson time, flaunting their total lack of respect not just for teachers but for the whole concept of learning. The team from the NET has been working very hard to turn that around, and I am looking forward to visiting Freebrough again this Friday to see what progress has been made.
The situation at Laurence Jackson is not in the same league, although that is clearly a low bar. Ofsted explicitly recognised that the appointment of Mrs Juckes as headteacher last September had started the process of improvement, although at the time of the inspection in February insufficient progress had been made for anything other than an “inadequate” rating to be issued. Thankfully, the school has commissioned external advice on how best to deliver services such as special educational needs funding and the pupil premium. I hope that that will make a real difference to the quality of the offer that it makes to children in Guisborough, although things will clearly need to be kept under close review.
Both schools shine a light on the systemic challenge that we face in the north-east of England, and in the borough of Redcar and Cleveland in particular—namely, the gulf in performance between primary and secondary education outcomes. We also need to talk about why that occurs and move beyond the superficial debate that sometimes characterises this issue. In 2018, pupils in the north-east ranked second only to London for the percentage of pupils reaching the expected key stage 2 standards in reading, writing and maths. That is to say that we rank second of the nine regions of England. The think tank IPPR North specifically singled out the high performance of Redcar and Cleveland in its 2016 report “Northern schools”, highlighting how it excels at primary education and achieves results outstripping most London boroughs, which are widely regarded as the benchmark for high performance. However, by the end of key stage 4, the north-east ranks ninth out of the nine regions: we are bottom of the pile when it comes to the average Progress 8 and Attainment 8 schools. Pupils in London achieve an average of a fifth of a grade more than the average for pupils with similar starting points, but those in the north-east achieve an average of over a fifth of a grade less. Only 57% of secondary schools in the north-east are rated “good” or “outstanding”, compared with the national average of 75%.
In last December’s Ofsted annual report, fully 10% of secondary schools in the north-east were classified as “stuck”, compared with just 3% in the south-east and 2% in London. In 2015, Sir Michael Wilshaw spoke of a divided nation beyond the age of 11. That is a concept that really worries me and my constituents, and speaks volumes about the way in which social justice issues need to be addressed in this country. What makes this particularly painful is that we know it does not have to be this way. Across our country as a whole, 2 million more children are now going to schools rated “good” or “outstanding”, compared with when the Conservatives came to office nine years ago. Only 4% of schools are rated “inadequate” today, but someone who lives in East Cleveland now has about a 50% chance of going to an “inadequate” secondary school. That, of course, directly affects life chances.
The proportion of 16 to 24-year-olds not in education, employment or training stood at 15.2% across the north-east at the end of 2018—by a distance the worst statistic of any English region. When it comes to the proportion of 18-year-olds starting higher education, in 2018 the north-east had the second lowest rate at just over 29%. By contrast, in London the figure is 42%. To fix this, we need nothing less than a moral crusade not to allow the north-east to continue to spin away from the rest of the country in that fashion, like a probe receding ever further into space. The point is that behind every one of these statistics lies a child, like my own three-year-old—a young person for whom opportunities are being slammed shut almost before they become aware of them, and for whom adult life is that bit less likely to deliver the fulfilment, both economic and emotional, that it is our duty to help promote to the utmost of our ability. I know that the Minister cares very deeply about that, but we simply have to do better.
I meet my local headteachers every term to talk about their issues and concerns, and I always come away inspired by the men and women I meet, by their determination not to make excuses, and to offer blood, sweat and tears to do the right thing and deliver the best education they possibly can. The same spirit drives the great majority of the teachers they lead. I promised them that I would bring their concerns directly to Westminster and give them a voice, which brings me to the central theme I want to address today. If we are to turn this around, we need to think much less about geography and how the north-east compares with other regions, and more about the socioeconomic profile of the young people who live in the north-east. We need to end the situation whereby demography equals destiny. If my local headteachers were here, they would rightly say that we simply cannot ignore the impact of deprivation, both material and in terms of aspiration, on the challenges facing our local schools.
Redcar and Cleveland is a place where great natural beauty and pockets of affluence mingle with the grittiness of one of England’s last great centres of heavy industry. Communities like Skinningrove, Carlin How, Loftus and Liverton Mines typify the rural and coastal communities that have attracted a lot of analysis and attention from the Government and think tanks in recent years. They are places where life can be really hard. Although my constituency shares much of the geography and appearance of neighbouring North Yorkshire, which is a stone’s throw away, the reality is quite different and at times the gulf feels much more than just a couple of miles. As Professor Becky Allen has shown, if we factor in measurements of “contextual value added”, which truly take pupil demographics into account, we can draw a very different picture of the relative success of north-east schools.
Accounting for that deprivation is not to accept what President George W Bush memorably called
“the soft bigotry of low expectations”.
Like me, local school leaders reject that utterly for their pupils. People from Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland are no less talented than young people from elsewhere, and should settle for no less. One of the greatest challenges of life in the north-east more generally is ensuring that we have confidence in our region and our strengths and are willing to go toe to toe with other areas. The confidence of the wider region was shaken severely during the 1980s. With the decline of much traditional heavy industry, we lost a lot of our sense of place and purpose in the world. That has had lasting and complex consequences. In focusing on these issues in the context of education, the real problem is not that secondary schools in my region are worse as a group than those elsewhere but that they face particularly serious challenges in terms of the profile of the pupils they educate.
Research by Mike Treadaway for Education Datalab, which I will share with the Minister after the debate, finds that the impact of disadvantage varies according to the number of times that a pupil has been entitled to free school meals throughout their time in school. More specifically, the attainment gap of pupils who have been eligible for free school meals just once in six years is about half that of pupils who have been eligible on every occasion. Regions with lots of entrenched multigenerational disadvantage, such as Middlesbrough and Redcar and Cleveland, therefore face a particular challenge.
What does that mean for policy? First, we have to deliver a fair school funding system, which is a matter of broad agreement, and was a Conservative manifesto commitment in 2017. The north-east is not penalised as grotesquely as some parts of the country by the broken system built up over the last several decades, but I simply cannot explain or justify the scale of funding disparity between different parts of our country.
I know that establishing an objective and empirical formula is fiendishly complex, but we now have to wait until 2021 for a rational formula to be brought into full operation. I urge the Minister to ensure that her Department accepts no further delays to the roll-out of fair funding, and to go in to bat for a more generous school funding settlement in the comprehensive spending review.
Secondly, and more importantly, we need to look at how that education funding can be distributed to best effect, and I will talk about the pupil premium. Mike Treadaway, who I mentioned a moment ago, has highlighted how additional funding received by schools is the same for every pupil premium child. When he wrote his analysis in September 2017, that was £1,320 each year for primary schools and £935 for secondary schools. Surely, there is a strong case for differentiating the funding according to the percentage of time that each pupil has been eligible for free school meals, or, in other words, to focus the most resources on the most deprived, even within the pupil premium funding envelope. Treadaway has shown that that could be implemented in a way that would result in an overall funding change no larger than 5% for each region of England. That would benefit areas such as the north-east, the north-west and the west midlands, where poverty is the most densely clustered.
Thirdly—to move beyond funding—we need to align incentives properly to attract the best teaching talent and leadership to our region. Will the Minister set out how she thinks we can best address the vicious circle whereby poor Ofsted reports, such as those for Freebrough Academy and Laurence Jackson School, can make it harder to attract and retain good teachers and school leaders in the schools where they are most obviously needed?
We must have such hard-edged accountability, which is one of the reasons why I totally reject Labour’s new policy of abolishing SATs, but equally, we must ensure that the system supports teaching professionals who are brave enough to get stuck in where they are most needed. Frankly, we do not need the most inspirational people in strong schools. We need them to bring their talents to bear in the north-east of England. Whether we attract them through salary incentives, professional status, the honours system, or anything else, we must be more creative. How does the Minister think we can achieve that?
Beyond funding, my fourth priority is to adopt policies to tackle the catastrophic decline in the self-esteem and motivation of white working-class children over recent decades. That goes back to my earlier point about the lasting impact of de-industrialisation on my region. Children from other ethnic backgrounds perform far better than their white peers. Astonishingly, that happens almost regardless of whether those minority pupils are rich or poor. We must not hide away from that. My constituency is made up of about 98% white people and the predominant number of them are working-class.
Anyone who watched last year’s BBC documentary “The Mighty Redcar” will have seen what a brilliant, amusing and inspiring set of young people we have locally, some of whom, I have no doubt, will set the world on fire with their achievements in the years to come. What is the Government’s plan to engage those young people as a cohort, and to challenge the all too prevalent culture that often sets little store by academic attainment, or, at its worst, sometimes takes a perverse pride in shunning it altogether?
In particular, can we target budgets for pedagogical research into how best to reach young people from really deprived backgrounds? Can we tackle questions such as how best to teach an 11-year-old boy who comes from a home where he has never had a discipline structure? That leads to the awkward point where schools find themselves playing the role of parent or social worker, and large amounts of time and resources—both emotional and financial—have to be devoted to looking after those children. It is simply not the case that those schools inherit intakes of pupils who are all ready and well equipped to succeed at the point of entry. Consideration of how to tackle that systematically and fairly needs the closest possible engagement by Government and civil society.
I look forward to meeting the inspirational Loftus martial arts group in the next few weeks. They are a really good example of how the voluntary sector can play its part in establishing boundaries, purpose, teamwork, and all the values that are needed to succeed in life. It is important that Government play a role, too. Highlighting the problem is not to downplay what is already being achieved but to recognise that across the north-east, we have to do more and do it better.
I would not want my speech to suggest that there are no hugely positive things under way in East Cleveland. There are schools that show just what can be achieved in our area, such as Outwood Academy Bydales in Marske, which was rated “outstanding” last year, or Nunthorpe Academy in Middlesbrough and Huntcliff School in Saltburn, which were both rated “good”.
I was genuinely delighted in particular by the £24 million announced by the Government last October for the Opportunity North East initiative, which has a specific focus on closing the gap between primary and secondary outcomes. We know that we can do it at primary level and that what we are doing works, so we need to ensure that the right lessons are learned about how to extend that culture into secondary level.
Opportunity North East came about in part because the Secretary of State for Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), joined me in Guisborough last spring to meet local headteachers at Prior Pursglove College. He heard directly from teaching professionals in our area about the challenges that they face, their concerns and the priorities for putting things right. As part of the package comes a very welcome £12 million, to provide more support for newly qualified teachers in the north-east. I really hope that the programme, which seems to target precisely the right issues, will make a huge difference.
With that in mind, will the reports from the executive board of Opportunity North East be made publicly available, so that we can provide scrutiny, support and challenge? If successful, will the programme be maintained so that its core elements endure beyond the initial three years that are earmarked for funding? If it is to achieve lasting good, Opportunity North East must not be simply a flash in the pan, but must be part of a new and higher baseline of long-term support. I believe that raising education standards in the north-east, and in my constituency specifically, is a generational challenge.
I pay huge tribute to Tees Valley Careers, the £3 million initiative announced last year by the excellent Mayor of the Tees Valley, Ben Houchen. It is an excellent programme of careers and enterprise education, which tackles all the Gatsby benchmarks for a really inspirational and effective set of principles. The headline feature is that every young person in the Tees Valley, during their seven years in education between ages 11 to 18, will have seven meaningful employer engagement encounters, both internal and external to the learning environment. Every academic year, they will also attend at least one externally organised fair or workshop that highlights the skills needed for the workforce. That is exactly what we need. It speaks to the wider mission beyond our education system, namely, to ensure that our young people can go on to thrive in the world of employment and that they are not just educated but employable, and have the right skills, modelled for the local labour market, to ensure that their aspirations are achievable.
Last Friday, I visited Easterside Academy in Middlesbrough, in my constituency. We witnessed personal, social, health and economic education lessons for a year 6 group, who played the Game of Actual Life. It was a really thought-provoking session, which was brought in externally by expert Simon Carson, who is also a constituent of mine. It tried to focus young people growing up in one of the tougher parts of an industrial town such as Middlesbrough on what they want to do with their lives and how they can achieve that. Such programmes demonstrate exactly what we need to do. When I asked the boys, many—too many, frankly—said that they would be footballers. I absolutely hope that many go on to achieve those dreams, but we also need to ensure that realistic, understandable and equally exciting opportunities are open to them.
Measures such as that should give my constituents real hope that things will get better. As we create thousands of jobs on Teesside over the next few years, the next generation of Teessiders will be well equipped to take them. That outcome lies at the heart of my plan for my constituency, and at the very heart of my wider political philosophy. People across Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland do not want to settle for second best; they do not want to be at the bottom of league tables; and they do not want their children to be written off. All branches of government in the north-east and here in Whitehall need to support my local secondary schools to become “good” or “outstanding”. For as long as I have the honour to represent my home constituency, that is a cause I will continue to champion until we achieve it.
It is a pleasure to serve under you this morning, Sir Henry.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke) on securing this debate. I was struck by the account of his visit to Freebrough Academy, and he mentioned Laurence Jackson School. He also mentioned bullying, which is a worry and often goes hand in hand with poor discipline and poor educational outcomes in a school that is generally not succeeding in its primary responsibility, which is to get its children to a state where they can learn with sufficient discipline in the class. My hon. Friend broadened the debate to encompass the wider inequalities of which the north-east is a victim. He is right about the moral imperative—demography should not have an impact on young people’s destiny. I say frequently that it should never matter where people are born, who their parents are, who they live with or who they know; everyone should have a chance to get on in life.
We want to—we have to—change the fortunes of those living in my hon. Friend’s region. As he said, confidence is critical, and in focusing on educational outcomes it can be a difficult balance to recognise where they are poor while also building the confidence of the area. I am sure that he will have danced around that difficult issue: it is right to call out a school when it is performing badly, but the impact of doing so on the wider community can be devastating. He emphasised the poor Ofsted report, and the problem with that is that the school then might not attract the pupils it needs, despite the successful efforts of new leadership teams. School reputations are won and lost with devastating effects, while turnaround can be slow and difficult to achieve.
My hon. Friend mentioned the visit of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education, who is proud of what he is starting in the north-east. As my hon. Friend said, Opportunity North East is an investment programme of £24 million over three years, which will deliver a widely shared ambition across the north-east to achieve rapid—“rapid” is important—and sustainable improvement in outcomes for young people. The ONE programme is overseen by Lord Agnew. He will focus on five clear cross-cutting challenges: raising attainment and outcomes for pupils at the end of secondary and post-16 education; recruiting and retaining great teachers for north-east schools, because another problem with a school getting a poor Ofsted report is that the teachers go elsewhere; increasing progression of pupils to university, including top institutions; and supporting young people to secure great jobs.
My hon. Friend asked if the report would be made public. I am afraid that I do not have the answer to that, but I strongly suggest that he meets Lord Agnew, because he will be impressed with his approach to such issue—Lord Agnew is a man in a hurry, and will not rest until he sees things turn around.
A key priority for the ONE programme, which I do not think my hon. Friend mentioned, is to unlock the potential of secondary schools in the region. Through the ONE Vision programme, a key part of Opportunity North East, 30 secondary schools across 11 local authorities will be partnered with high-performing school leaders and given bespoke support to raise standards. The ambition is to support those 30 schools to move towards at least an Ofsted good rating to improve outcomes, and to help schools sustain that improvement—sustainability matters.
The ONE Vision programme will benefit up to 25,000 young people and help them to learn the skills and knowledge to unlock their potential. I am pleased to report a total of 12 ONE Vision schools in the Tees valley, with five in Middlesbrough, and Redcar and Cleveland. Both Freebrough Academy and Laurence Jackson receive ONE Vision support. Schools have already begun to receive an analysis of need across governance, finance, teaching and learning, and leadership —leadership is so important in schools.
Officials have consulted extensively with Redcar and Cleveland Council and Middlesbrough Football Club on their programmes to help local children from those communities thrive in their transition from primary to secondary education because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland rightly pointed out, there is a stark difference—let us hope that does not result in more people wanting to be footballers, because not all of them can be. We intend to commission activities to test robustly the impact of the most promising approaches to improving that transition. My hon. Friend is probably aware of a number of other regional programmes, but I will not go into detail. Again, I thank him for his contribution to the debate and for raising so well the issues that affect his constituents.
I remember standing in this Chamber, probably eight years ago, as a Minister with responsibility for public health. We had a debate on health inequalities in the north-east, and I cited some of the figures that demonstrate the appalling health inequalities in the north-east, but I was slated in the press for doing so. I think that the quote was something like, “Public Health Minister says that everyone in the north-east smokes too much, has too much sex”, and whatever. That is a difficult tension: first, we have to recognise the problem, to face up to it and to tell the truth; but at the same time, secondly, we have to put confidence into the community, and the support it needs to change the outcomes for young people.
I also have ministerial responsibility for further education, and FE colleges do a fantastic job. Those young people who have not done well at school—for whatever reason, whether disorganised and chaotic backgrounds, a lack of discipline in the schools or any of a variety of reasons—have low aspiration and often minimal social capital. FE colleges pick those kids up and give them their second, third, fourth or fifth chance. I am pleased about that with the apprenticeship programme in particular, but a similar move has been made by many more employers, who no longer focus on qualifications but on young people’s skills. They might not have done well at school, but that is not to say that they do not have real skills that, when developed in the workplace, can mean a good career and a successful future. I hope that all such programmes will have an impact.
As I said, I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland to meet my colleague Lord Agnew, the man in a hurry—as he rightly should be. The figures are not new, and I urge my hon. Friend to look at the correlation between poor health outcomes and educational attainment. I think that he will see that close correlation, which does not stop at what qualifications people get and the job they get; it leads into later life. We need to do a great deal, but the Secretary of State is fully behind ensuring that we make a difference to my hon. Friend’s constituents. I thank him for raising this important matter.
Question put and agreed to.
Intimidation in Public Life
[Sir Gary Streeter in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered intimidation in public life.
I start by declaring an interest as a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which has expressed some views on this topic to which I will refer. On 12 July 2017 I brought this subject to the House’s attention. At that stage, most of us had just returned from what we thought was an especially toxic and divisive general election campaign, in which abuse, intimidation and criminal damage appeared to be commonplace. In that debate, colleagues gave numerous examples of their experiences during that election campaign; no doubt, we will hear a few more today. At the time, we said that they were not just examples of the rough and tumble of a lively general election campaign, which we should encourage and welcome. Death threats, rape threats, misogyny, antisemitism, racism, homophobia and criminal damage all featured somewhere in colleagues’ recollections after the 2017 campaign.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. In addition to events during the election, my constituency office was very recently vandalised with graffiti, stickers and threatening messages. That was concerning for me because the office is meant to be a secure place that my constituents can visit. We must ensure that staff work in a safe, abuse-free environment. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is wholly unacceptable in a democracy for some people to resort to violence, aggression, intimidation and vandalising the property of democratically elected officials?
I am sure that the Minister will have some thoughts on that, but from my point of view, the answer must be yes. It is worth reminding anyone who might think that such a course of action has some purpose, it is generally self-defeating. If we learn anything at all from such events it is how it stiffens our resolve to make sure that democracy is not damaged as a consequence of the thuggery that we have come to see as a fairly regular feature of our lives.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend. He is right to refer to the 2017 election. I spoke in the last debate about what happened in that election; my staff were spat at, and there were threats and damage to property. Perhaps the most sinister thing was damage to the properties of my constituents who simply put up a poster in their gardens and windows in support of me as a candidate. It is their democratic right to do that, but their properties were damaged, attacked and vandalised for daring to express their democratic will. That is not acceptable in a democracy. It happens to all parties—let us not pretend that it happens only to one party—so we must all work together to ensure that people are free to express who it is they wish to support in an election, without thinking that their garden, windows or property will be damaged.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and I will come back to it in a little more detail in a minute. I restress the point I just made: in the end, such action is self-defeating, although it might not feel like that at the time.
The accusation quite frequently levelled at us is that, really, we deserve everything that we get as MPs and we are quite thick-skinned so we need to grow a pair.
I thank the hon. Gentleman sincerely for bringing this important debate. A lot of the abuse goes under the radar. I was slightly hesitant even to stand up and talk in the debate, because it will bring a new torrent of abuse. Somebody left swastikas at my offices on a number of occasions, and no action was taken, despite the person responsible being found. On occasions, I have received more than 500 abusive messages a week. It is important that we are not scared to come forward and talk about what is happening.
The hon. Lady makes a very good point. I have been told by colleagues only in the last few days that they do not want to draw attention to their plight in this debate for exactly those reasons. At home I have a shed full of election boards with swastikas and various other semi-artistic contributions that people put on them. The hon. Lady and I may be able to stomach that kind of thing, but it is about the effect on our staff, families, volunteers and voters.
When MPs are accused of being thin-skinned, it sometimes strikes me that Parliament would be a terrible place if it consisted only of the thick-skinned, because with thick skin comes occasionally the temptation to dismiss or be somehow unsympathetic to the causes that are brought to our attention. I commend thin-skinned Members of Parliament. Although none of us will ever admit to being thin-skinned, there should be no harm in privately admitting it to ourselves.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) said, it undermines the fundamentals of democracy that people who want simply to exercise their democratic right in public by expressing a voting preference, making a donation that might appear on a register or engaging in some other quite modest and discreet way, should not be allowed to do so free from prejudice and discrimination. If nothing else, we owe it not to Members of Parliament but to all those who make the democratic wheels turn to make them feel that they can do so free of that risk.
Going back to 2017 when we lasted debated this issue, everybody in the room, including the Minister, agreed that something must done. The Minister commented:
“The Government are determined that no candidate—regardless of their party, background, race, ethnicity or sexuality—should be forced to tolerate abuse, online or offline, whether it is physical abuse or the threat of violence or intimidation. It is utterly unacceptable in our modern democracy, which we believe is an inclusive and tolerant one, for the incidents of abuse discussed today to be allowed to go on unchallenged.”—[Official Report, 12 July 2017; Vol. 627, c. 168WH.]
That was in July 2017. Are we in a kinder and gentler place than we were then? Is politics a more refined profession? There will be many views on that. We may expect another electoral event coming down the tracks some time in the next few months or years. There could be another referendum, God forbid. There could be another general election. We may have thought that 2017 was bad, but unless we do something by the next wave of electoral events, this time it could be really bad.
The Government will no doubt explain their position, and they have made a lot of progress, but not much has changed since 2017. If things do not change by the next opportunity that people have to engage in a campaign of one sort or another, we will have only ourselves to blame. The reason for that is simple. In the past 12 months alone, reports of threats of this nature have doubled. The head of UK counter-terrorism policing said that 152 crimes had been reported by MPs between January and April this year. That is a 90% increase on the same period last year. The number of offences reported by MPs in 2018 increased by 126% on the previous year.
Despite the best of intentions by us all and the Government and other agencies in 2017, the facts speak for themselves: we are in a worse position than when all this last bubbled to the surface. In the last year we have seen Members pilloried as Nazis as they make their way to Millbank for media commitments and journalists subjected to precisely the same abuse, to the extent that the media operation, which used to be a regular feature down the road in the open spaces between here and Millbank, has been driven slowly but surely into the more secure confines of this building. I suspect that that is not a forward step for democracy. Crown Prosecution Service guidelines have been rewritten to account for the current situation. The Deputy Speaker has had to write to MPs about security arrangements in their constituency offices and in their own homes.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his generosity in giving way. Given that my experience is very recent, hon. Members will forgive me if I am not entirely accurate about the current rules. Last year, there was an attempted break-in at my office, and I asked the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority whether it would cover CCTV. It refused to do so. When the same office was vandalised with threatening messages, I asked for guidance from the police and counter-terrorism officers, who both said there should be CCTV. However, IPSA continues to refuse to cover it. What does my hon. Friend think about that?
It is a tragedy that we even have to raise the fact that the taxpayer should be asked to fund security measures of the sort my hon. Friend outlines. However, we have a duty to ensure that everyone—not just MPs but our staff and families—is protected. It is important that IPSA acknowledges that. What is more important is that we crack down on the reasons why intimidation happens in the first place. It depends which end of this problem we want to tackle it from.
I apologise for arriving a little late, Sir Gary; there is a debate in the main Chamber relating to similar areas of interest.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I agree with the hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) about CCTV. My offices were attacked this weekend, with “traitor” painted all over them. That word is a common feature of the debate at the moment. Does the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) agree that there are no traitors in this House? Every single Member of Parliament is a full patriot; we just disagree about where that patriotism takes us. Being able to disagree openly, honestly and fairly, and to exercise freedom of speech, is a fundamental aspect of being a Member of Parliament in a free democracy. If that means that the House authorities have to step in to ensure that there is CCTV on Members’ offices, where our staff are often far more vulnerable than we are, that is what they should do.
The hon. Gentleman makes an unarguable point. It is tragic that those fundamental beliefs are in jeopardy and that so few people in society are prepared to tackle intimidation, for fear, ironically, of retribution. There are numerous ways in which we can approach this problem, and proper security is one of them. However, I regret that constituency offices, from which people could previously come and go freely without fear of consequence, have been converted almost into high street banks in terms of the security around them, making us more inaccessible and remote than we have ever been, at a time when the opposite should be the case.
The point is not that any of us is intimidated by this behaviour. None of us is going to shy away from our full beliefs just because somebody paints something on a door or shouts something at us in the street or says something stupid on Facebook. We simply want to ensure that our staff and families are safe—and, for that matter, that constituents who come to see us are safe in the exercise of their democratic rights.
As I said, this behaviour strengthens people’s resolve as much as anything. On the hon. Gentleman’s earlier point, the accusation that is bandied around that people are traitors is the most ridiculous and absurd accusation that can be made. Whether people like it or not, democracy is being played out, in a rather old-fashioned and very visible way, in exactly the place it should be played out.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this issue forward for debate, and I acknowledge his consistent work on it over the years. I think we all agree fully with what he says, the propositions he puts forward and the context in which he places them. This is not just criminality against individuals; even more importantly than that, it is a fundamental attack on our democracy.
How does the hon. Gentleman think we should address this issue? Obviously, there are actions the Government need to take, and we know they are concerned, but in a way the issue is wider than that. It is an issue for all the parties and for the House as a whole, not just for the Government. What does he think about the mechanisms for taking action? One of the things I have considered—I do not know whether he thinks this is a good idea or whether he has an alternative proposal—is that we should have a Speaker’s conference on this issue. That would need the Government’s support. It would bring together the CPS, the police, the political parties—
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady for her intervention; I hope she is given a chance to finish off her comments. If she will forgive me, I will come to some of the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and how those might go some way towards finding solutions.
I am going to press on for two seconds and address the question of the Deputy Speaker’s role in this respect, which is relevant to the interventions of both the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant).
Some of this clearly has a cost implication. IPSA has not necessarily been overly helpful with that over the years, although arguably its job is to scrutinise these things with great care. Any colleague who read the Deputy Speaker’s comments should be perturbed by the fact that, for probably the first time in living memory for everybody here, a Deputy Speaker was obliged to take that action at all. He has made it very clear that this issue is as much about the welfare and wellbeing of staff and volunteers as it is about us.
I want to raise the international picture. Last year, the Inter-Parliamentary Union conducted a study of the impact of the abuse of women parliamentarians in 45 European countries. It found that more than eight out of 10 women have suffered psychological violence, and nearly half have been threatened with death, rape or beatings. There is serious evidence that that puts women off standing for Parliament, thus directly impacting our democracy. Does he agree that this is an area in which the UK needs to lead the rest of the world? This is a problem not only for our democracy but for democracies across the world.
I agree, as does the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which would go a bit further and mention the negative impact on diversity as a whole, in this Parliament and others. That point is well made, and it has been acknowledged by relevant Committees here. We will hear from the Minister in due course whether that will translate into immediate action.
In the last few days alone, one person has been jailed for life for making a death threat against one of our colleagues, and the hon. Member for Rhondda and numerous others have had their own experiences. A number of other cases are currently live and therefore sub judice, so we probably should not mention them. There are quite a lot of ongoing incidents at various stages of the legal process. Only yesterday, somebody of the name of Ruth Townsley, who is unknown to me, casually tweeted about the recent incident involving Nigel Farage that she would
“prefer acid but milkshakes will do for now”.
I am not here as an apologist for Nigel Farage, but he is as entitled as anybody to be out on the campaign trail. Although he may easily be able to deal with milkshake attacks, it must be the height of irresponsibility, if not criminal, for people casually to take to social media and bandy around such suggestions as if they were some kind of joke.
This matter has been looked at by a number of parliamentary Committees. I mentioned the Committee on Standards in Public Life. It has also been looked at by the Select Committee on Home Affairs. The Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has looked at it, but mainly in the context of online abuse, and the Joint Committee on Human Rights has touched on it in various capacities.
With the next wave of electoral events possibly heading our way, what can be done? In answer to the question from the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham, there are the party codes, which started slowly and have proceeded at a reasonably gentle pace. Perhaps this is the time to put our foot on the accelerator a bit. Whether those codes are joint or individual, whether they are visibly enforceable and whether they involve parties not currently represented in Westminster are matters that may be resolved in the coming days or weeks. However, the idea that the political parties are free from responsibility is unsustainable. Parties have a responsibility to deal with their members and supporters robustly and visibly, sending a positive message to others who may be tempted to go down that route.
I am therefore pleased it was announced today that the Jo Cox Foundation will work with the Committee on Standards in Public Life and political parties to draw up a common statement of principle on intimidatory behaviour to encourage cross-party consensus to recognise and address this issue. That is the first point. Secondly, the Committee’s recommendations should be adopted as quickly as possible, including the three actions outlined in the recent “Protecting the Debate: Intimidation, Influence and Information” report. The first is to develop a new electoral offence of intimidation of candidates and campaigners, which is already a crime.
I agree that it is important that we reflect on the internal processes we have in this place to deal with such abuse, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to see a much more consistent approach from our police forces, the CPS and other justice agencies? I have spoken to many colleagues and it appears that currently the police response in particular is disparate and patchy.
The hon. Lady is right. That is on my list of actions. I should say that we have probably all witnessed closer engagement and greater recognition of the dangers of such activity from the police and the CPS. My police force has been faultless in its attention to detail as far as I am concerned, and I know that the Met has been doing its best as a central co-ordinator. However, the reality is that, particularly during an intense, short election campaign, some of the issues in 2017 that might have had an impact on the outcome for individual colleagues were not addressed in that four or five-week period. It was too complicated, they were crimes that rarely come up and police officers did not necessarily have an immediate knowledge of them.
I had one case in the 2015 election where electoral offences were being committed. I went to the police and was told that it had to be referred to the serious crime unit in York. I asked how long that would take and was told, “It will take six weeks.” I said, “That’s not a lot of use to me, because there is an election in two,” so they said, “Okay, we will book him for a traffic offence, then. That should sort it out.” I think that is what the police did. The hon. Lady makes a good point, and rapid action is vital.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. I am ever mindful that when we in Northern Ireland take on the job of an MP, we take on the transparency of that job in meeting the general public and what comes with that. Many of us in Northern Ireland, including my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) and me, have had direct threats on our lives because of the stand we take politically on issues, but—this is always at the back of my mind—public life does not mean signing up your spouses or children to be intimidated or bullied or threatened or murdered, whatever the case may be. Does the hon. Gentleman feel we need to raise the level to zero tolerance? Privacy for our families is important.
The hon. Gentleman has more experience in this field than most, and I agree with him. We are ultimately attempting to avoid a situation where the gene pool from which our political representatives is drawn gets smaller and smaller Whether that is for local authorities, a devolved Parliament or this Parliament, if we do not address this intimidation soon, for the reasons he points out, we will attract fewer and fewer people, and arguably the standard we expect of our politicians will go down and down and the frustration of our electorate will go up and up. We therefore must deal with it now. It is not one for the slow burner, because whether we like it or not we could face a very angry electorate within months. I mentioned the Jo Cox Foundation, and I do not need to remind the House why it was created. We do not want to find ourselves in a position that gets anywhere close to the reason why that was set up.
The Government are taking a welcome step in the form of the Online Harms White Paper. I do not want to get into the detail of the relevance of that; we are all aware of it, and there is a huge responsibility on social media companies to play their part in ensuring that democratic engagement can continue without people feeling they are driven off social media or off the political stage altogether. The White Paper is a welcome step forward, and we hope it will be converted into legislation sooner rather than later. I heard a rumour—it must have been inaccurate—the other day that part of the reason we have not moved faster is down to insufficient parliamentary time. I do not know whether hon. Members agree, but I think we could possibly squeeze it in somewhere over the next few weeks.
We simply cannot allow this thuggish behaviour to intimidate the democratic rights of our voters, and we cannot allow the culture of fear to deter good people from stepping on to any political stage, whatever it might be. I leave the last words to the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Lord Evans, who is the former head of the security services and therefore some expert on the corrosive impact of such behaviour on democracy. He said:
“If the decisions MPs make start to be altered as a result of threats and intimidation, that amounts to subversion of the democratic system and would be a dark day for our country.”
I agree with him implicitly.
It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. Some of the testimony we have heard from the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart), whom I congratulate for bringing the debate to Westminster Hall, and others, has been truly shocking. I applaud colleagues who have stood up to this behaviour for their bravery.
The issue I wish to raise is not at all comparable, but it is pervasive and insidious: the bullying, harassment and intimidation of women MPs, often from within their own parties. It feeds into a culture of contempt for women that we see online and in other areas of our lives. At best, a blind eye is often turned to it. At worst, they are accused of provoking it, somehow, by being there. I have put up with this for my 22 years in Parliament and have never spoken about it until now. My mind has been changed by seeing some of my younger sisters going through the same thing. If someone like me, who has been here for a long time, does not call it out, who will? If not now, when?
Our problem is not in Parliament—I have had sterling support from both male and female colleagues over the years—but while we have changed the culture of this place and brought in more women, particularly in 1997 with that landmark election of 101 women MPs, we did not sufficiently tackle the culture in our own parties, where there are still people who believe that women do not belong in the public sphere and, if they are to be there at all, they are there to do as they are told.
That is the problem; I have seen it since I was selected. There were people in my constituency who did not want a woman MP. They considered the seat the rightful property of some favoured son. I have never come across a favoured daughter, by the way; it is always favoured sons. It started immediately. A man I had never met went on “Election Call” to denounce me. Untrue stories were fed to the press and I was labelled a militant, which at least gave my union colleagues a laugh because their nickname for me was “the hammer of the Trots”. I was accused of gaining the seat by some carefully unspecified chicanery, despite the fact I won on the first ballot and the count was supervised by the regional director of the party. One semi-literate bully even said that he was thinking of taking legal action; I responded that legal action cannot be taken simply because someone has more votes than their favoured candidate.
However, what did my party do? It invited these people in and recounted the ballot in front of them. You do not treat bullies in that way; if you keep paying the Danegeld, the Danes keep coming back.
After I was elected, I found that council officers had been given an instruction not to bother too much responding to my letters, because I would be a one-term-only candidate. That instruction could have come from only the leader or deputy leader of the council. Even worse, the officers accepted it, rather than saying it was an improper instruction, which it was. I found that my next-door neighbour was frequently invited to council events in my constituency, but I was not. Each time they apologised, and said it was a terrible mistake, but they kept doing it.
I discovered that there was a little clique in Warrington of the self-appointed great and good, who decided most things between them—usually with little reference to the people I represented—and if they were challenged they would react. I started doing mobile surgeries and found that people had been told not to contact me about their problem, because I was not any good. Through the years, I realised that there were more untrue stories leaked to the press—printed without checking, as in most local newspapers—from our friend, the senior source. A “wanted: dead or alive” poster with my picture on it was put through my door and I received a number of pretty vile anonymous letters, which were sent to me and to senior Ministers in the Government.
When I was shadow Minister with responsibility for local government finance, a particularly vile poison-pen letter was sent to leaders of local authorities. I am grateful for the support I received at the time from my colleagues in the shadow local government team. A similar thing was sent to anyone who had the temerity to come and do a fundraiser in my constituency.
By themselves, these events may seem slight; it is their cumulative effect that is the problem. They are not unique. If we are honest, there seems to be a problem with some male councillors who are used to being big fish in a little pond, and do not like having a woman MP. I know of several council leaders who deal with the male MPs in their borough, but not the woman. I know of one council leader who would not speak to a female MP in his borough, even if he were sitting in the station waiting room with her, waiting to go down to London.
In fact, I had a council leader who would not speak to me. Once, when I dragged him to a meeting, he sat in his chair tapping on the arm and refusing to engage. I know of one colleague who was shouted at for writing too many letters, which is known to the rest of us as doing our job on behalf of constituents. I know one colleague who was yelled at because she dared to suggest that the local MPs might convene a meeting on a particular local issue; apparently that was a threat to a councillor. I know of one woman who has been bullied almost beyond endurance by the men in her constituency; she has been shouted down at meetings, her campaigning has been sabotaged, and a group would not contribute funds to her general election campaign.
I know of instances where MPs’ relatives have been sacked by the council, under some spurious pretext. Each time one MP meets a certain councillor she is asked, “How’s your auntie?”, because he sacked her. I know of another MP who held a mobile surgery in a place where there had been very little work done in the past, only to have the councillor for the area ring up and say to her staff, without preamble, “Tell that effing bitch to keep out of my ward.” Was anything done to him? No; no action was taken against him at all.
I have an ex-parliamentary candidate in my area—not in my constituency—called Nick Bent. He is the outwardly respectable chief executive officer of a charity called the Tutor Trust and a trustee of the Oasis Academy. He has sent me so many abusive texts and emails that I have a thick file of them. Among his little gems—there are a lot—were calling me “poisonous and useless” and
“not fit to tie my bootlaces”,
not that I would want to. He usually says that I am going to be deselected:
“You should step down and make way. There are plenty of good candidates. After the election you will almost certainly be deselected, so it might be the only way to preserve a bit of dignity. Just some friendly advice.”
It does not seem very friendly to me, I have to say.
This man has not only abused me: he has abused my staff, my family and my constituency chair, who is well-respected in the area and has done a lot locally. Women councillors in his constituency have been on the receiving end of abusive emails and messages from him. He reduced a young woman organiser to tears during a general election. In 2016, I submitted a bullying and harassment complaint; I had been pretty patient for six years. What happened? It was mysteriously lost. I resubmitted it, but I am still waiting.
Last week, I learned that a whole cache of emails and letters, which are stolen data, have been selectively leaked to the local press. The leak is selective: they have put in the complaints that were made, but not the fact that they were dismissed. People like this constantly make complaints about women MPs; they are spurious, but they do it to try to grind them down. There are letters that I sent in reply, but not the original correspondence. I do not know who has done this, but I know why: it is payback, because I have been supporting constituents trying to defend the last green space in north Warrington from development, and because I have said that the local council was wrong to buy a business park through an offshore trust that meant it avoided paying tax. All these things are clear. They are meant to silence women MPs and to ensure that our voices are not heard in the public sphere at all. They are meant to prevent us from speaking, not for ourselves but for our constituents.
Why do we carry on doing it? In my view, we do it because my constituents deserve it—they deserve my standing up for them. They have returned me at six general elections, so I think I must be doing something right. We should never, ever accept this behaviour as normal, in the same way that we should never accept threats of violence as normal. It is part of a continuum aimed at women MPs. It is time it stopped and it is time political parties made sure it is stopped.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on bringing this debate to the Chamber. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), who made some important comments.
A lot of people have raised the subject of intimidation in connection with the UK, but I would like to raise it from an international perspective. It is absolutely essential that MPs have a role in foreign affairs; it is essential that we play that role. I have taken a stand against Russia, for example, that has not led to any intimidation yet, but I have also taken a stand in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has led to intimidation and a series of more than 30 emails threatening me with death. The conversations that generated them started with a UK boy, who was clearly pro-Palestinian, asking me what I made of the Israeli bombs falling on Palestine. I replied, “What do you make of the Palestinian bombs falling on Israel?” For that I was put on a death list and my name was not taken off it. When I told the Serjeant at Arms, I was told to queue up with the 180 other MPs who had received death threats, which goes to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire made about our needing to make sure that our own system here for dealing with such issues takes them seriously and provides a good service for MPs.
In contrast was the reaction of my own chief constable, who told me that she would give the case to a chief inspector who normally dealt with these things, and if he saw something there, he would take further action. I said no more about it to my family. I went away, forgot it and got on with my work, but at 2 o’clock in the morning my house had a panic alarm installed by the police and I was given a telephone number that I could ring from my mobile or my home address that would scramble a helicopter from the local base and set in train a response unit from the Thames Valley headquarters in Kidlington. If I dialled it now, of course, it would take two days for the response unit to reach us, which would probably be too late, so I suppose there is a small mercy in that.
The death threat was supposed to intimidate me into taking a position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on which I had actually taken a very even view throughout. It made me want to go out to the region to see what was happening. I have now been out to the region 10 times in the past seven years to see for myself what is happening, and I have had discussions on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides to be able to take the matter forward.
The really frightening thing has been mentioned by others. I run my office in a large and long constituency on the basis that it does not have a physical location. It has a PO box, an email address and a telephone number, and that immediately put at risk my staff who work there. In fact, it is somebody’s house and it is possible to find out from the PO box address where the house is. To find that my staff were equally threatened was a stage too far.
The intimidation did not work and there is a very good reason why it did not work, apart from my own attitude to it. I do not think that such intimidation should ever work. We all have to stand up and make sure that our voices are heard. We need to stand up to bullies wherever they come from and make sure that we are true to ourselves and to our own intelligence and logic in assessing such situations.
On standing up to people, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is important that in the wider discourse we make it clear that, whatever our views are on somewhat controversial issues, we can express them clearly, directly and even vehemently, but there is a line that Members of Parliament, other elected representatives or people outside must never cross: violence, the threat of violence, the use of violence or the endorsing of violence? If everybody understands that, we can have a much more measured debate in future.
I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. I agree with every word. The problem is that not everyone outside understands what that line is. That is the difficulty. We in this room can understand exactly where that line is, but there are those outside who do not understand it, and that is a source of great regret to me, as I am sure it is for him and for all others in this room.
We need to stand up to bullies wherever they are. We need to be true to our own views, however we have come to them and however different they might be from other people’s. I certainly was not going to be intimidated by the group, and I have not been, regardless of my views, ever since.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Streeter. I thank the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) for securing this debate. His constituency has a beautiful name. I would definitely like to visit. I thank him for setting the scene so well and for all his work in this area, in which he has been assiduous.
I want to start by thinking about where I was at in July 2017 when this debate last came to the Chamber and about whether things have improved. In many ways things have got worse. I will mention briefly, because the case is ongoing, Councillor Graeme Campbell in my constituency. Yesterday we heard on the news that his garage and house had been petrol-bombed, which he believes, and has said in public on the news, was linked to a planning case in which he was discharging his duties as a councillor. Our thoughts are definitely with him and his family. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] We stand with him across parties. We have to make sure that councillors are also protected.
In my own recent case, a man pleaded guilty to sending me abusive messages. He had previously come to my surgery and asked for help. I had tried to help him by writing to the Government on his behalf, but unfortunately they said they could not take his case any further, and, following that, I appeared to become a target. He has now been given a four-year non-harassment order after quite a lengthy court procedure. Two other cases are ongoing. In one, my office was attacked and in another, I had death threats cut out from newspaper words, put together and sent to me. When I worked as a doctor, I could not have believed this would happen to anyone in public life. It certainly does not in any other form of public life that I am aware of, but it is becoming the norm nowadays in our society in respect of political discourse and actions towards politicians.
I contributed to Lord Bew’s report in 2017. What is happening with the recommendations? Some good things have been done. The issue of social media has been taken forward by the Government and by the Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries, who really gets it and gets that it is very difficult. If someone thinks they are anonymous, it is almost as if they have carte blanche to say and do what they want, and then they are emboldened to abuse, but that work is going well.
Some of the recommendations were specifically for political parties:
“Political parties must...work together to tackle the issue of intimidation in public life.”
That recommendation was meant to be taken up immediately. What has happened? Have political parties worked or come together to discuss the issue? I have not heard anything. The report also stated:
“Political parties should set clear expectations”
about Members’ conduct.
They should be,
“consistently and appropriately disciplined in a timely manner.”
In my experience, that has never been the case. I am on the appeals committee for my own party and have not heard a single appeal all year since being elected, so I am not sure how things are processed, but they certainly never get to appeal. How is that being followed up? There is to be a joint code of conduct for elections. What has happened to it, and how will it be brought forward? It must be done quickly.
With respect to Lord Bew’s report, I notice that parties provided an overview of their codes of conduct, but there was not one for my party. I am not sure whether that is because Lord Bew did not contact them, or whether he did not have a response. I shall be following that up with the party, to try to find out.
In 2017, there were instances when I had to attend meetings as a candidate in the election and I knew I would face verbal abuse, but I did not get a response from the party. When someone thinks there is a high risk, and highlights that, they should get support and guidance. I attended those meetings with my children at times, because they were local meetings, with party members. No advice or support came in 2017, and there is still none in 2019. It is disappointing, and it emboldens individuals to carry on as they have been doing.
There has been no disciplinary follow-up since I complained. I want to make the point that that emboldens people, and I know it led to other incidents that I experienced. Individuals tried to prevent me from attending a Remembrance Day service last year, for instance. I was the only MP to have a campaign meeting called at exactly the time when the service was due to take place. It was to try to stop me going. When I complained, the meeting went ahead and those involved said they did not know 11 November was Remembrance Day. That seemed to be accepted, although I do not know how it could possibly be the case. It was the centenary of the end of the first world war, and was all over the media.
In 2015, way before that incident, the same individuals called me to a meeting to ask me to explain why someone had said online that I was an agent of Israel and was among
“shameless British parliamentarians willing to sacrifice freedom of expression to please their paymasters”.
The message went on:
“British politics must cleanse itself of this corrosive influence…Zionist corruption which has implanted its roots in pretty much every British Parliamentary party.”
I was asked to explain that. I was not asked how I or my family felt about it, or whether I was okay and whether we were coping. I was asked why the individual had said it. Obviously, I have a Jewish family background, which gives a link to why I was targeted; but I experienced no support.
I am describing these things not out of pity for myself, but because we need to look at democracy and to think about women in politics and people from ethnic minority and religious minority backgrounds who want to come into politics and represent people to the best of their abilities. We must work together. We must come together on a cross-party basis, show leadership, and ensure that such things are dealt with appropriately and that people coming into politics get support rather than abuse in the future.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron). I have travelled with her on a trip about antisemitism and I know some of the things that she has gone through. It was a brave speech, and I hope she will not now be called in to explain that; such treatment is unacceptable. I also want to praise my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) for securing the debate. The most important point, I thought, was that MPs are not asking to be treated differently from anyone else. It is not a meeting of the national union of MPs. It is simply Members of Parliament asking to be treated in the same way as other professionals in their jobs.
I did not come into politics or this House with any soft view of what the job would involve. I cut my political teeth in Humberside politics. I was one of two Tories on Hull City Council and to be called “Tory scum” was fairly usual for me in my 10 years there. We all, to an extent, probably grow a thick skin as a result of such things, and I am not asking for special treatment. However, when I was elected in 2010 I did not expect a situation in which, because of death threats and various other incidents, including some public incidents, I would have restraining orders against people, my house would have panic alarms, and court cases would be brought against people who had done things to me. The police have generally been very good, but the sole reason for the collapse of the case against two people who were twice involved in incidents against me in the street, in Doncaster and Scunthorpe, was the failings of Humberside police, and I have not yet received a satisfactory response on that. Despite their racist and antisemitic abuse, those two individuals continue to walk around scot-free.
I never expected any of that to happen, and we must do something to try to address it, within parties but also more broadly. We need to consider whether the offences in place are acceptable, to protect not just ourselves as parliamentary candidates but those around us, including our families—my dad has been subjected to threats in the pub—our staff and, of course, our constituents who want to share their political views. As many colleagues have said, the issue is getting worse, not better. It almost does not matter what the subject is. I have a few examples of comments I received after speaking in debates. After a Holocaust Memorial Day debate I received the message:
“What a piece of utter Scum you are. Keep on lying and living a Lie”.
It was not just an email. It was followed up with telephone calls to both my constituency offices and my Westminster office, saying exactly the same thing: “Tell Andrew Percy he’s a piece of scum and he’s perpetuating a lie.”
I had another comment following the appearance of an article. A particularly insidious source of a lot of the abuse is the sites that purport to be news sites and that are effectively partisan fake news sites. Some have been set up to support particular political leaders and people spend much of their time abusing Members of Parliament of a particular party. An article went up on one of them. I do not read those things, and cannot remember which one it was. The immediate response came in, beginning “Double chinned hypocritical tosser”. It went on:
“Why the problem eating your own words? It’s not like your gormless flabby face can’t fit them.”
I look in the mirror and see a perfectly proportioned, good looking, handsome young man, but that does seem to be a theme.
Another message came as a result of a campaign when my local Labour party retweeted something about me. The first message that came in said:
“Wow nice to see a fat slop Tory twat voting to”—
blah, blah, blah. Now, I can look at that and laugh about it, but actually it is personal abuse based on someone’s personal appearance.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we can laugh, but in a way that is normalising the abuse, which we should not do? One of my colleagues was called an agent of Mossad, to which I said, “Don’t deny it—let them think you’re Mossad,” but we should not do that.
That is absolutely right. While I say I can laugh at it, and I do so because I will not allow those people to get to me, the fact is that that sort of highly personalised abuse would not be tolerated in any other working environment. It would not have been tolerated when I was a school teacher. I certainly would not tolerate it from the pupils, and they would not get it from me. Nor would it be tolerated among other staff or professionals. So, yes, we can laugh about it in one respect, but all that that does is desensitise us to the stuff.
Social media and fake news websites are of course part of the problem. Some of the fake stuff goes on Facebook, and social media are a particularly insidious source. The reason I left Twitter was that after a visit to Israel I was accused of being an agent of Mossad, being paid in shekels, wanting to murder Palestinian children, and all the rest of it. So I decided to leave Twitter, and it was the best thing I ever did for my mental health. The serious point is that with social media we invite this stuff into our home. Reading it sitting at home on a Friday or Saturday night, having had something to eat and a glass of wine or some beer, it starts to have an effect. I realised it was affecting me, and I was obsessing over what was being said. I decided to leave Twitter and social media altogether at that point, and have been happier as a result.
The downside of that, of course, relates to the good I was able to use Twitter for. We have a lot of flooding in my area, and we could use it to get messages out quickly. I lost that direct contact with some of my constituents. That relates to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire made, that the unintended consequence of continued abuse is its potential to distance Members of Parliament from their constituents and the public even more.
Brexit is, of course, a particular source of such abuse, and one tweet that I received recently contained a very rude word. Following an appearance about Brexit on “Brexitcast”, one of the first responses I received was:
“Utter, utter cunts the lot of you, even more stupid than a cunt.”
That is the sort of abuse we are receiving, and it is happening in both directions on this issue. I do not agree with Nigel Farage about many things, but I do not agree with him being abused. Today, however, Chorlton Brewery tweeted to say that, quite apart from throwing a milkshake,
“Hit them over the head with a brick”
instead. That is not acceptable. Whatever we think of people such as Mr Farage, or anybody else in politics, encouraging people to commit acts of violence, and hoping to trend on Twitter—that might be the result if anybody is watching this—is not acceptable. We must toughen up the law, but the parties have to act as well. We have all failed to deal with some of our own party members who have been involved in some of this behaviour, and we must get tougher and quicker at addressing that.
I thank the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) for securing this debate, which is ultimately about the nature of our democracy. When disagreement is expressed in a hateful, vile manner that is intended to intimidate, it is a threat to the very foundations on which democracy is built. There can be no doubt that the poison, hatred and abuse faced by almost every serving elected representative in the House must give anyone who might be considering entering public life pause for thought. The sad fact is that I genuinely hesitated before participating in this debate, since there is a view out there—I do not suggest it is universal, but it does exist—that serving elected representatives should not be debating this issue. We should just suck it up, because that is politics.
For some, engaging in politics in an abusive and intimidatory way is the new normal, and if someone does not like it, they should go and do something else. Sadly, even the value of democracy has become open to question in some quarters. All hon. Members understand that the mere fact of participating in this debate may open us up to more abuse being heaped on us, and for that reason my colleague, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), withdrew her name from those due to speak in the debate. With the exception of Scotland’s First Minister, she is the most abused female politician—if not the most abused politician—in Scottish politics.
Much online abuse—perhaps not all—is facilitated by the mere fact of anonymity. Online someone can pour abuse and intimidation on to whoever they decide they do not like. They can send abusive Facebook messages and retain their anonymity, or they can hide their identity behind a Twitter handle. If someone’s identity is not revealed, the theory goes that they can say whatever they like. They can move on from disagreeing with the views of an elected representative in a vile and hateful manner, and slip easily into threats that are designed to intimidate. They can comment in any way they like—after all, elected representatives are fair game, are they not?
If we do not agree with a political party or politician, democracy demands that we take them on through argument in a constructive and respectful manner. I have absolutely no time for Nigel Farage, but like many others, I do not think for one second that what happened to him yesterday was acceptable. If we cannot challenge our opponents with arguments, respectfully, we have already lost. I am deeply concerned by the examples of abuse that we have heard about today. Sadly, however, for too many the poison, abuse, and attempts to intimidate are what pass for political discourse in some quarters.
Where does all this hatred and poisonous bile come from? It comes from a variety of sources—we could probably have an entire debate on that—but there is no doubt that, as I found out to my cost, it can be stirred up by some sections of the tabloid press. Recently, a freeze frame photo of me in the Chamber, which lasted about one second, was published in a way to suggest that I was asleep on the job. I am sure that when the journalist printed that story it seemed like a jolly good wheeze, but as a direct result of that story—it was categorically untrue, and if someone had watched the film for another 30 seconds they would have seen it was untrue—I encountered, entirely predictably, the most horrific abuse, which was designed to intimidate me for having seemed to do something I had not done. Given the toxic nature of our politics, that shamefully bad and dangerous piece of so-called journalism was not worthy of the name. Over time, however, such pieces diminish, denigrate and belittle all elected representatives, and corrode the basis of democracy itself.
No one should be abused and intimidated simply for doing their job, yet it is now unusual to come across an MP who has not received a death threat. Some of my colleagues have suffered the most appalling abuse, as have others across the House. We could say that that is because politics has become polarised, toxic and so on, but it is also because we who serve in public life have become fair game. Apparently, tolerating intimidation and abuse has become part of our job description.
It has been said that we in public life have a duty to uphold the standards that we wish to see, which is correct, and we must also be careful with our language. Disagreement—including robust disagreement—is absolutely fine and the lifeblood of political discourse, but when it turns into personal abuse or hate-filled rants, it has become something else entirely. Studies have been carried out into abuse in public life and much has been written about it. We know that the police take it seriously, but in reality it is not just respect for elected representatives that has declined; it is respect for the democratic process itself.
Somehow—I do not pretend to have the answers—we need to help the public rediscover and rebuild their respect for the political process and those who serve in public life. If we fail to do that—I appreciate that it is a huge task—I fear that more elected representatives will come to harm in the course of doing their job. Even more than that, I fear that the very essence and value of democracy will continue to decline in the long term. The press also has a part to play. Of course those serving in public life should be held accountable, but let us make that about the arguments, not about tittle-tattle and gossip.
My own fear—I hope I am wrong—is that the Rubicon has been crossed and there is now a subculture in which someone can say what they want, and threaten whoever they want if they are standing for public office. Someone does not even need to be elected—just putting oneself forward for election is enough, apparently, to merit the most intimidatory behaviour. A culture of abuse and intimidation of elected representatives has been carefully cultivated in some quarters. It has gone unchecked and continues to be so. We can pass as many laws as we like, but the culture has to change. Where we are today is the culmination of that cultivation, aided and assisted by the apparent courage that anonymous postings on social media create, and whipped up by some sections of the tabloid press. This issue is bigger than any one individual; it is about the survival of our democratic system.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on securing this debate. He posed the question of whether the levels of intimidation in public life that we all face have got better or worse since the last time we debated this issue. I reflected that since we last discussed this matter, I took some time away from this place because I had a baby. I was shocked that the abuse that is received not just by politicians but by their family members extended even to a baby who was just a few days old, because somebody on social media decided that it was okay to wish that my baby would die. I felt that was very shocking. I had got used to the idea that, because I stood for public office and was a Member of this House, such abuse was almost part of the job and sort of expected. I did not, however, expect a tiny baby to be on the receiving end of such abuse, so I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate today. I know he will continue to champion this issue until we rid ourselves of this scourge and the way that political debate has gone in this country.
Intimidation, including death threats, criminal damage, sexism, racism, homophobia and antisemitism, has no place in our democracy, but all those kinds of abuse have been raised in our debate. On behalf of the Opposition, I condemn any action that undermines the integrity of our electoral process and our wider democratic values. It is clear that no Member of the House, and certainly no Member taking part in the debate, will be intimidated by these people; regardless of the abuse scrawled on our offices, written on social media or screamed at us in the street, we will continue to do our job as parliamentarians and stand up for the values that we believe in and that the vast majority of our constituents obviously elect us for.
Unfortunately, violence against politicians is not particularly new. In 2010, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) was stabbed at an advice surgery, and the phenomenon was certainly brought home for us in 2016 with the tragic murder of our friend Jo Cox. In recent days, we have seen the conviction of a man for a credible plot to murder my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper). These cases are probably quite prominent in the public mind, but Members who have taken part in the debate, and many Members who were too afraid to take part, have experienced many more.
Candidates are often targeted because of their gender, sexuality or ethnicity, which reflects the wider context of discrimination that targets individuals on the basis of their identity. Particularly concerning is the scale of abuse experienced by women MPs and the emergence of an organised far-right presence on the streets of British cities and across Europe.
The exponential growth of social media has caused the level of abuse to rise in recent years, with online platforms creating unprecedented levels of transparency in political discourse but reducing the perceived barrier between the electorate and politicians. The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) really brought that home to us when explaining how he has come off social media, which in many ways disadvantages him as a local politician as he is not able to have direct contact with his constituents. There is no easy, single solution to address this problem, and the Opposition welcome the package of recommendations outlined by the Committee on Standards in Public Life for the Government, social media companies, political parties, the police, broadcast and print media, MPs and parliamentary candidates.
Turning to potential cross-party actions, it is worth prefixing that with the recognition that many abusers, particularly anonymous trolls on the internet, may not be members of a political party. This complex issue requires those across public life to work together, and the Opposition welcome the cross-party action taking place in response to the committee’s inquiry. On 27 March, representatives of the Labour party, the Green party, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National party attended the second meeting held by the committee, during which Labour put forward our initial proposal for a joint code of conduct, providing a suggested framework that could be adopted by political parties. That was one of the committee’s recommendations, and we await feedback from other parties.
In response, the committee’s chair, Lord Evans, said:
“It is clear that political parties have done a great deal of work internally to address intimidatory behaviour and improve their own processes to call out and address unacceptable behaviour where they can. Building on that, there is goodwill and commitment from those political parties who attended our meeting on 27 March to make further joint progress.”
Although representatives of the Conservative party and Plaid Cymru were not able to attend that meeting, we are pleased that those parties have confirmed their commitment to making further joint progress. I thank the Minister for that. I am sure that Members across the House welcome the Jo Cox Foundation agreeing to act as independent support for that cross-party work.
The Labour party’s rules make it clear that abuse, bullying or intimidation of any kind are considered grossly detrimental or prejudicial to the Labour party, and that members engaging in such behaviour can expect to be subject to our disciplinary procedures. In September 2016, our national executive committee agreed a members’ pledge and a new social media code of conduct to further address concerns about bullying and harassment. We are considering ways in which our existing codes of conduct can be strengthened in response to the Committee’s inquiry, and we are reviewing the ways in which we use digital media and communications to clearly communicate to both existing and new members our party’s rules and expectations about the standard of behaviour that we expect to be upheld.
The Cabinet Office has a key role in ensuring that sufficient safeguards are in place to protect parliamentary candidates and party campaigners from intimidation. I thank the Minister for making moves to ensure that, for the very first time, home addresses were not on ballot papers for local election candidates this May. I know he looked into doing that for candidates in the European parliamentary elections, but unfortunately it was not possible due to the very tight timeframe. This is a good step in the right direction. I am sorry that it has come to this, but it is right that local election candidates have the same protections as those who stand for this House.
That is all very well and good, but there are obviously particular problems on the hon. Lady’s side at the moment, which have led to members of her party leaving. From her position, which is important to the debate, will she condemn absolutely—as we all should—people who address rallies at which people call for Members to be lynched or hold signs of a decapitated Prime Minister?
The hon. Gentleman is right that parliamentarians should expect to be held to a higher standard than ordinary party members. That is why I am planning to follow up with my party the issues raised in the debate—particularly those raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones). I am happy to look into cases raised by any Member who takes part in the debate.
On the electoral consequences, I look forward to hearing from the Minister about his recent announcement about barring people from running for office if they have been found guilty of intimidating or abusive behaviour. The Government moved away from their initial proposal to create a new, specific offence in either the general criminal law or electoral law, which we and various legal commentators would support. Instead, as set out in the recent consultation paper, “Protecting the Debate: Intimidation, Influence and Information”, the Cabinet Office indicated that a conviction for the prescribed offence of violence or intimidation committed in the context of an election would be treated as a “corrupt practice” for the purpose of imposing penalties such as disqualification from seeking elected office.
The Opposition agree that electoral law should deal with the consequences of this kind of serious misconduct. However, it is widely accepted that comprehensive reform of electoral law is needed, and that grafting these new provisions on to the existing outdated, inadequate and inconsistent body of law on electoral misconduct would simply compound the problems associated with the law as its stands; an hon. Member raised the complexity of electoral law and how difficult it is for the police to take action during tight election periods. I am sure the Minister agrees that the very fact that the Government propose to treat intimidation as a form of “corrupt practice” underlines the archaic nature of the terminology used in current electoral law.
It is a matter of concern that the Government have still not responded to the Law Commission’s 2016 joint interim report, which calls for the introduction of a single legal framework for UK elections. Will the Minister inform the House when his Department intends to respond to that important report? The Law Commission recommended that all electoral offences, including “undue influence”, should be reviewed, redrafted and set out in a single set of provisions applying to all elections. Labour supports that proposal, as simpler and more modern provisions would secure greater compliance among campaigners, the public, the police and prosecution services. Appropriate electoral sanctions for violent, threatening and intimidatory conduct in the course of election activity should be addressed as part of that wider package of reforms.
It is important that the police have the resources to make sure that the law is upheld. Many parliamentarians have told me that investigations have been cut short because of a lack of police resources; indeed, I have CCTV footage of people vandalising my office, and I can identify one of them, but the police are not pursuing it. What actions does the Minister think the Government should take to make sure that the police have the resources to ensure that the law is upheld?
Thank you, Sir Gary; it is a particular pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on securing this important debate and thank him for his work on this issue, particularly as a member of the Committee on Standards and Public Life and the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. I also note the presence of Lord Bew, a former chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, who has played a pivotal part in work in this area.
Unsurprisingly, this debate, in which we have heard about the personal experiences of many Members of Parliament, has been very powerful. I welcome the fact that, although we may disagree on many other issues, the main parties—the Government, the Opposition and the Scottish National party—have spoken as one in making it clear that argument, not intimidation, should determine what happens in our country and that we cannot allow our democracy to be undermined by those who wish to use practices that are actually criminal offences and are totally unacceptable in order to skew debate.
It was certainly interesting to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), who outlined some of the issues that he has had with fake news sites. I think that, also, some of us need to reflect on how we react when things are put online. Do we react immediately? There is a culture of putting out a quote when actually it might be better to allow proper investigations to take place. We also need to think about how we upskill people to identify what is fake and what has some credibility to it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) pointed out that we should not be silenced because we wish to take a position on an international issue, just for fear that someone may send abusive mail.
The two speeches that particularly stood out for me were those by the hon. Members for Warrington North (Helen Jones) and for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron). Both of them bravely shared very personal stories of what they have experienced just for wanting to stand up and be present. I make it clear that standing up, getting involved, wanting to be part of debate and being passionate about the issues that we believe in is not a provocation; it is what democracy is inherently about. It is right that when people decide, for reasons of jealousy or whatever else—misogyny is sadly all too common still—that they cannot accept a democratic result, they cannot then behave in a manner that goes totally against the spirit of democracy and living in a free society.
This debate is a timely review following another debate that my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire previously led in this Chamber almost two years ago, when, sadly, Members from both sides of the House also recounted some truly appalling abuse that they and their colleagues had been subjected to. As my hon. Friend rightly said in a recent article, this is not about “brittle political egos”, but about dealing with crime—dealing with behaviour that we and society believe should be criminal.
My hon. Friend’s previous debate came on the same day as our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced that she had asked the Committee on Standards in Public Life to carry out a review of the intimidation experienced by parliamentary candidates. I shall focus my remarks on what the Government have been doing in response to that review to play our part in building a democracy in which every voice can be heard.
Recently, we have witnessed a worrying rise in the levels of violence and abuse in our public life and across political debate. That risks not only putting voters off politics but putting talented people from all backgrounds off wanting to stand for public office. As a couple of hon. Members have said, a thick skin cannot become the most important prerequisite for taking up a role in public life or standing for election, particularly if we want the most diverse range of people to be represented in our politics and if we want representatives to be able to be open about who they are and not feel that they have to hide away or keep things in a closet for fear of abuse and intimidation.
An atmosphere in which threats of violence and abuse are normalised also risks lives. We saw the worst manifestation of that when our dear friend and colleague Jo Cox was tragically murdered in 2016. She rightly said that we have
“more in common than that which divides us.”—[Official Report, 3 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 675.]
I was therefore pleased to read the letter and joint statement that have gone out today from the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the Jo Cox Foundation about the work that they will be looking to do together to continue her legacy.
As hon. Members mentioned, we also saw this type of behaviour more recently, with a neo-Nazi plot to murder the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper), for which a man was sentenced and imprisoned for life just last week.
Those, though, are the headline and most serious cases. As today’s debate has shown, there are too many examples of abuse and intimidation that Members of this place have been subjected to. Freedom of speech is a human right, but it is not an excuse for people to break the law by threatening or abusing a candidate or campaigner whose views they do not agree with. Let me say clearly and with no equivocation that such abuse is wrong and unacceptable and must be addressed.
We must also think beyond this place. The toxicity extends beyond Westminster to the lives of hard-working teachers, nurses, doctors, judges and police officers, who are also too often victims and targets of toxicity, intimidation and violence. All those in public life have a responsibility to challenge and report intimidating behaviour wherever it occurs. We must all seek to uphold the highest standards of conduct and we must set a tone in our own discourse that is neither dehumanising nor derogatory.
[Sir Graham Brady in the Chair]
In 2017, the Committee on Standards in Public Life considered this issue as well as the broader implications for other candidates for public office and public office holders. I thank the members of the Committee, including my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, for their thorough consideration of this topic. The committee subsequently published its report, “Intimidation in Public Life”, in December 2017, and concluded that intimidation in public life presented a threat to the very nature of representative democracy and that electoral law needed to be updated better to reflect the challenges that we now face.
In the Government response to the Committee’s report, we committed to a series of actions based on the Committee’s recommendations. In March of this year, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), issued a written statement updating Parliament on the work that the Government had done in response to the report. It may be useful if I briefly update the House on that.
The recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life included two that fall within the remit of the Cabinet Office. I am pleased to say that the recommendation on removing the requirement for local government candidates to publish their home address has already been implemented, and the recommended consultation on the introduction of a new offence in electoral law of intimidating candidates and campaigners has also been completed. I can confirm that we will move to do the same for the elections due to be held in May of next year for the Greater London Assembly and police and crime commissioners.
Will my hon. Friend the Minister look again at this matter? It is absolutely right to remove the addresses of local government candidates, but some candidates said to me that there was a bit of a political risk in that. The ballot paper just showing the address as, in my case, in the East Riding of Yorkshire could be, given that some people have a local address on, a bit of a disadvantage.
It could be by the ward rather than by the district. It will always be a debate and a decision for candidates to make, but this is a step that we have taken. The alternative was to be compelled to put one’s home address on the ballot paper. But of course the Government will be interested to hear further feedback about how we can improve and refine the system.
We have also committed to legislating on the introduction of a new electoral offence of intimidating a candidate or campaigner during the run-up to an election, either in person or online. Under the new measure, people who intimidate candidates or campaigners in the run-up to an election will be banned from running for public office for up to five years. To be clear, that will not extend the offence as such, but it will give the courts a new deterrent to such behaviour in relation to those in the political world. In response to a point made by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith), I should say that this is about being clear that we are not in any special category. The law will apply the same. It is about how the penalty could be applied in relation to the political world.
We will also legislate to clarify the electoral offence of undue influence of a voter. That offence, which includes acts or threats of violence to manipulate someone’s vote, will cover intimidation inside and outside the polling station. Clarifying the offence in electoral law will enable enforcement agencies to enact sanctions more effectively, to protect voters from undue influence.
The Government have consulted on our “Internet Safety Strategy” Green Paper and published a White Paper on online harms. In addition, we have held discussions with social media companies and the Electoral Commission about how a pop-up social media team for elections could provide support for users who report inappropriate behaviour online.
Over and above the recommendation in the Committee’s report, the Government are considering what further steps are necessary to ensure the safety of parliamentarians and their staff. Crucially, that will apply not only to the vicinity of the parliamentary estate but to our constituencies and online. There are already opportunities through the parliamentary liaison and investigation team. This is about being clear that we must ensure that arrangements are proportionate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire said, our offices should be places where we welcome the majority of those we represent and should not become like a mini fortress.
I hope that I have been able to reassure not only my hon. Friend but other hon. Members present that the Government are taking this matter seriously and wish to act on it. Ensuring that we tackle intimidation is about making sure that our democracy is the vibrant one that we all wish it to be.
I thank colleagues and particularly the Minister and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith), for their contributions. Obviously, numerous people are interested in this topic. Perhaps we can look at devising a mechanism by which all the disparate views and proposals can be tied together. It has been suggested to me that a Speaker’s Conference would be one way forward, but the Government would need to sanction that. Finally, on the question of leadership, party political leadership is absolutely crucial. Codes of practice are all very well, but they have to be enforced and seen to be enforced, and that is just as applicable to senior Members, such as the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, as it is to anybody else.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered intimidation in public life.
Debt Collection Letters
[Sir Graham Brady in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the content of debt collection letters.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I have been working with the charity the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute. I sit on its advisory board, along with hon. Members from other parties, including the hon. Members for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) and for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger). It was set up in 2016 by Martin Lewis from Money Saving Expert. Money and Mental Health has been conducting valuable research into the link between financial difficulty and mental ill health, and leading campaigns to bring about reform where it identifies a problem.
The link between debt and mental ill health is striking. People with mental health problems are three times more likely to be in problem debt as those without mental health problems. Half of adults in problem debt have a mental health problem. Research by Money and Mental Health found that in England each year, more than 100,000 people in problem debt attempt to take their own life and more than 420,000 people in debt consider suicide. This is an incredibly serious issue.
Several factors contribute to that link between financial difficulty and mental ill health, but one important issue—the subject of this debate—is debt collection letters. They are written in a way that can make people feel that there is no way out of their financial problems, sometimes leading to disastrous and fatal consequences. I will give a couple of brief case studies.
Paul lives with bipolar. Throughout his life he has suffered from mental ill health, which has been compounded by debt problems. When he was on a high, he would go out on spending sprees funded by loans; during periods of depression, he would struggle to pay his bills and often spend money to make himself feel better—it was a sort of escape from the nightmare and trauma he was going through.
Paul said that being hounded by creditors left him feeling trapped and helpless. He tragically made attempts on his own life. Like so many others in debt, Paul received letters from lenders, which are intimidating, often written in complex language and can feature threats of court action right at the top, very prominently. Sometimes people receive such letters from multiple lenders on a daily basis, leaving them feeling trapped in the nightmare engulfing them. Paul says,
“the letters that you get from creditors are horrendous. They were like someone standing in front of me with a knife, so I wanted to get rid of them. I’d just put them straight in the bin or burn them…You feel trapped by your debt, and that you can’t get out—that’s what can drive people to feel suicidal”.
Thankfully, Paul is now in a much better place with support from his family.
I have witnessed people who, when confronted by letters demanding payment, hide away and do not confront the problem, because of the state of their mental health. Sometimes they put letters into cupboards, hoping that the problem will go away. Of course, it does not go away and in many cases the debt escalates, making the situation even worse.
Jerome Rogers sadly took his own life at the age of 20 after receiving two £65 traffic fines, which escalated to £1,000 of debt after the council passed on his debt to aggressive bailiffs. Jerome’s mother Tracey believes that a big factor in his death was a combination of the threatening bailiffs who came to the door and the intimidating letters he received from lenders. Tracey says that if the letters had not been so frightening and Jerome had been able to get the right support when he needed it, he would still be here today. That is one life tragically lost, but there will be many others.
The right hon. Gentleman gave two powerful examples. This is reality. This is life. People are getting these letters and thinking about committing suicide. After a decade of austerity, things are not improving. Does he agree that it is time that the Government gave new guidelines to stop these letters coming through the door and threatening people? We need to examine this more and I therefore welcome this debate.
The hon. Gentleman goes to the heart of what I am proposing. I will expand on the point he made.
Debt collection letters, like the ones received by Paul and Jerome, often include complex text, which is capitalised and put in bold. The language can be intimidating to someone experiencing mental ill health. The letters often start with threats of court action. They do contain advice—the purpose is well meaning in terms of the legislative requirements.
However, the wording they are required to use is inaccurate and out of date. It was devised before free debt advice was widely available. Recipients are told to get help from a solicitor, from their local trading standards department or a citizens advice bureau. However, trading standards can only help someone when a company’s behaviour is illegal, not in an ordinary civil situation. Therefore, that advice, in wording required by the Government, is inaccurate and should not be there.
The idea that someone in problem debt should be told in official advice to seek out a solicitor is outdated and frankly ridiculous for many people who would just assume that going to a solicitor is impossible, due to the cost involved. The advice is so out of date because, outrageously, the content of these letters is dictated by legislation that has not been updated for decades. Lenders are legally obliged to include certain pieces of prescribed content, as is laid out in the Consumer Credit Act 1974 and the Consumer Credit (Enforcement, Default and Termination Notices) Regulations 1983.
The Money and Mental Health Policy Institute’s “Stop the #DebtThreats” campaign calls on the Government to amend the Consumer Credit Act and the associated regulations, to put a stop to the threatening letters. First, the Government should change the prescribed content of lenders’ letters, exactly as the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) suggested. The Government should make these letters more accessible, easier to understand and clearer for people in problem debt.
If the Minister is tempted to say that he is supportive of the principle involved here, but it involves a comprehensive review of the Consumer Credit Act and the whole thing will take a long time, I do not buy it. There is clearly a case for a review of the primary legislation, but the wording of the letter, which is out of date and inappropriate, could be changed quickly through regulations. There is a real danger that we overcomplicate this. Those regulations could be made in a straightforward way quickly, pending a wider review of how we deal with these issues. One sensible idea is to refer the matter across to the Financial Conduct Authority. The step could be taken immediately to get rid of the inappropriate and inaccurate prescribed wording, which simply should not be there and makes things more difficult for people.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that putting the threat of court action first puts people off reading the rest of the letter? What should be first is the fact that help is available for people to get debt advice, and that it does not have to be face to face—advice is available online and on the telephone. There is a wide range of support that was not there before, which needs to be highlighted.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The guidance we had from organisations before the debate makes the point that the letters are often lengthy. People in a state of anxiety and distress will give up reading something complex before they reach the helpful advice, which might be right at the end. There needs to be clear information up front about seeking advice. It is in the interest of the creditor to refer people to that advice straightaway and put it up front, and the Government’s prescribed wording could require that, which is what we are calling for.
There is also a danger that the Minister might say, “People nowadays can just google it and get access to good advice online,” but when people google for debt advice, the options at the top of the list are for paid-for advice, which is inappropriate. The information that people need should be in the prescribed wording of the letters that creditors have to send. The Government could do something about that quickly.
The Government should stipulate that creditors should signpost people to sources of support, which is really important, as the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) said. People should be directed to the free specialist debt advice provided by charities such as StepChange and Citizens Advice. Exactly as she said, that should be at the start of the letter and should take precedence over threats of court action. Jerome’s mother Tracey and Paul are backing the “Stop the #DebtThreats” campaign.
Last week, the Treasury Committee made a welcome intervention in its report, “Consumers’ access to financial services”, which recommended that the Government amend the relevant legislation and reform the content of debt collection letters. It also recommended that debt collection letters contain
“a form of words that would be clear and understandable for an individual with a low level of literacy, and mandate the inclusion—with equal prominence to the demand for payment—of information within such requests of how an individual can seek help with their debts.”
The pressure on the Treasury is mounting and we hope that there will be a constructive response. We are calling on the Government to amend the legislation and regulations that govern the content of debt letters. As I said earlier, they should do what is necessary, which they can do quickly by making the wording on the letters more helpful and by getting rid of the inappropriate and inaccurate wording, and then look to wider reform later.
As I indicated, another way to achieve change in the longer run would be to delegate the control of debt letter content requirements to the Financial Conduct Authority. There is an opportunity here, as the FCA recently completed a statutory review of the Consumer Credit Act, which acknowledged several concerns about the rules on content. The review highlighted the possibility of the FCA taking control of and updating the rules. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response to that suggestion.
Debt collection letters from lenders is just one of many problems that people in financial difficulties face. I also support an initiative that proposes bailiff regulation, which has been put together by the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves). We and other hon. Members have signed a joint letter to the Minister with responsibility for bailiffs to call for the behaviour of bailiffs to be regulated.
The behaviour of bailiffs is another key problem for people in debt, as Jerome Rogers experienced. According to Citizens Advice, more than 100,000 people have had bailiff-related problems in the last 12 months, which is an increase of 16% from the previous year. Some 40% of Citizens Advice clients with issues about bailiffs also had some sort of health condition, including mental ill health, but they often faced completely inappropriate behaviour by bailiffs. In its briefing for the debate, Citizens Advice highlights a number of highly inappropriate actions by bailiffs that have come to its attention.
The argument is that there needs to be a regulator for bailiffs, alongside reform to the wording of the letters. We believe that the Minister can act quickly and I hope that he will give a constructive response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I thank the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) for raising the important issue. I read his article in The Times Red Box today and I have looked into the matter in some depth. I hope that I will be able to respond to his core request.
The right hon. Gentleman is committed to helping to improve the lives of those with mental health problems. In particular, his efforts alongside those of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) during the passage of the Financial Guidance and Claims Act 2018 have ensured that those in mental health crisis have an alternative access mechanism to enter breathing space, which is a policy I will touch on later.
I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the content of debt collection letters. I have an example here, and he is right to draw attention to the language used and its intimidating nature. I share his concerns regarding the impact that such letters can have on vulnerable people, as he set out clearly. I understand that 6,000 individuals have signed a petition by the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute to call for the prescribed content in debt collection letters to be updated.
If hon. Members will permit me, I will set out the Government’s overarching objectives for the consumer credit market, then get to the core point. The Government’s vision is for a well-functioning and sustainable consumer credit market that can responsibly meet the needs of all consumers. Of course, that vision extends to how firms treat consumers when they encounter financial difficulties. That is why we fundamentally reformed the regulation of the consumer credit market by transferring regulatory responsibility from the Office of Fair Trading to the Financial Conduct Authority just over five years ago, on 1 April 2014. When that transfer took place, 82 sections of the Consumer Credit Act 1974 were repealed and replaced by FCA rules, but 167 sections could not be easily replicated and remained in the Act, including the sections that dictate the prescribed content of debt collection letters.
The information requirements in the 1974 Act aim to protect consumers by reducing the information asymmetry between firms and customers. Where there is a requirement for information to be reproduced using prescribed wording, that is intended to highlight important messages on a consistent basis and to ensure that firms give consumers the information that they need to make informed decisions, across the wide variety of consumer credit products.
The FCA had a statutory duty to review the retained sections of the Consumer Credit Act by 1 April 2019. Its review considered whether the remaining sections could be transferred to FCA rules, as the right hon. Gentleman suggested, without having an adverse impact on consumer protection, and whether those sections remained appropriate for today’s market. On 25 March 2019, the FCA’s final report was laid in Parliament. It is a substantial piece of work, as I am sure he knows. I welcome the report and the significant and extensive analysis undertaken by the FCA during the review.
The Government are undertaking a programme of work to review the FCA’s findings and consider whether further reform of the consumer regulatory regime is needed. Indeed, a few weeks ago, I had an extended session with officials to discuss the programme of work relating to the Consumer Credit Act and better understand the breadth and depth of the issues that are manifest in it.
I acknowledge the point that the right hon. Member for North Norfolk made about, essentially, a quick win with respect to the reform of the letter, leading to more a substantial and extensive piece of work, and I will examine carefully what he said and take that back with me, to try to understand what could be possible. As any financial services lawyer will attest, the Consumer Credit Act 1974 is a complex and technical beast, and we want to ensure that we take an holistic view of it, considering it in its entirety so that further complexity is not created and no adverse and unexpected outcomes arise. However, I recognise that changing the wording on a letter would not appear to be a significant issue with respect to the wider implications.
I appreciate the Minister’s constructive response. As an ex-lawyer, I think it is perfectly possible to address the real mischief here by adapting the letter using more constructive and up-to-date wording without undermining the broader objectives of the 1974 Act.
The right hon. Gentleman rightly reiterates the challenge, and I take it on. At this point, I should also mention the reference he made to the work of the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) on bailiffs. There is absolutely no excuse for aggressive tactics from enforcement agents, and that is why the Ministry of Justice has launched a call for evidence, looking at the need for an independent regulator. The call closed in February 2019 and the Government will respond in the summer. I am meeting with the relevant Justice Minister just after the recess to press for robust action, so that is very much on my agenda as well. I recognise the right hon. Gentleman’s portrayal of how deeply wrong some of those behaviours are.
Sometimes a letter gets passed on to another debt collection agency and then another, so pressure is being put on individuals all the time. If I remember rightly, each time a letter is passed on more money is added on. I ask the Minister to have a look at that.
The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point, and that is something we need to examine carefully when we consider what needs to happen in this area. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.
Stakeholder views will be essential to inform the Government’s decision making, and I would welcome the opportunity to meet the right hon. Member for North Norfolk and any other interested colleagues across the House to better understand how this important issue should be addressed as our policy thinking progresses. During my time in office, I have encountered many individuals who have been in financially vulnerable circumstances and I have compassion for the unique challenges they face. Indeed, only last week I welcomed to the Treasury some individuals with lived experience of financial difficulty, to hear in more detail how they had got into those situations.
I would like to take this opportunity to assure the right hon. Member for North Norfolk that reviewing the mental health aspect of the prescribed content in debt collection letters will be top of my list of priorities during this programme of work. The issue requires continued dialogue to understand what the best outcome for these vulnerable individuals would be, and how best to deliver it. Given the letter’s rather terse words referring to a solicitor, which are really not appropriate and could have been written a long time ago, I will reflect on the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the changing nature of debt advice and about how best it can be presented.
That does not mean that those most at risk will not see benefit in the near future. I draw attention to the significant work that has been undertaken to meet the Government’s manifesto commitment of implementing a breathing space scheme, which I alluded to earlier. The scheme will give the most vulnerable consumers 60 days of respite from creditor action, to access debt advice and put their finances on a sustainable footing.
I will come on to that point in a few moments, but my instinct, as I think the hon. Lady knows from my visit to the all-party parliamentary group on debt and personal finance, is that if the breathing space does not contain the maximum amount of public sector debt it will not be meaningful. At this moment, however, I cannot formally confirm how the scheme will work, but I will say a few more things in a few minutes.
The Government set out the detailed policy for the breathing space scheme in a consultation launched in October 2018. As part of the scheme, firms will not be able to communicate directly with consumers to request repayment of debt. In particular, the consultation paper set out the design of an alternative access mechanism for those in mental health crisis. The mechanism would enable those individuals to enter breathing space without having directly accessed debt advice. I feel very strongly about the mechanism, as those suffering from a mental health crisis may find it particularly difficult to engage with debt advice services in the way that people without mental health challenges do.
The consultation closed in January 2019, and the Government will shortly publish a response to set out their approach to the whole scheme, before laying regulations to implement breathing space before the end of the year, which is when a comprehensive answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) will be provided.
In conclusion, I share the concerns raised by the right hon. Member for North Norfolk and recognise that, in certain cases, the content of debt collection letters can increase consumer harm. I hope I have assured him that the issue will be at the top of my list of priorities when considering further reform in the consumer credit regulatory framework. I take the point about whether the letter issue can be expedited separately, and I look forward to working with the right hon. Gentleman to better understand the most timely and effective way of remedying the problem. I thank him very much for bringing the matter to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Arthritis and Employment
I beg to move,
That this House has considered arthritis and employment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham.
I am delighted that my application for a Westminster Hall debate has been successful, as it provides an opportunity to highlight arthritis, a condition with which we are all familiar. It is estimated that, in its various forms, it will affect approximately one in five individuals in the UK by 2050. Arthritis disrupts the body’s locomotor system, which is the bones, joints and muscles that facilitate a person’s movements. There are many types, and most people will have heard of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, but there are other forms of inflammatory arthritis, and other inflammatory conditions such as lupus and polymyalgia rheumatica.
Arthritis is a frequently debilitating condition and does not, as some assume, affect only the older generations.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate on a very important subject. Like many Members, I have constituents and family members who are affected by arthritis. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when we consider people with arthritis and employment, and the benefit system as well, it is important to take into account the fact that some days people are able to work and on other occasions that is not the case? That needs to be reflected in how we treat people with arthritis.
Those three elements are indeed linked. Flexibility is the key. Employers and managers have to understand that those suffering from arthritis have good days and, as I will come on to later, bad days. We need to adapt the workplace and be flexible.
The symptoms may be identified in very young children or occur at any time in a person’s life. More than half of the 17.8 million people in the UK with arthritis and related conditions experience daily pain. The condition severely impinges on their lifestyle, whether it be their ability to live independently, to care for family, to work, to travel or to take part in sports and hobbies, all of which, in some instances, may lead to social isolation. I recall at an event trying on a tight-fitting gauntlet with the purpose of experiencing the restrictions caused by arthritis of the wrist and hand. I was concerned to note how I lost my fine motor skills for even the simplest of tasks. It must be so frustrating to be faced with such difficulties on a daily basis.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on such an important subject. He speaks about social isolation; many people who suffer from arthritis have not been able to work for years, such as my constituent Russell, who came to my surgery. One of the things he does is volunteer: he is an ambassador, who goes out and helps other people in his community in a really positive way. However, he and potentially others have found that when they get expenses for helping out, they are charged as if they were in employment. Does my hon. Friend feel it is important that we make sure that people who want to volunteer when they can are able to do so without that fear?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I wholeheartedly agree with her. The modest expenses of somebody who makes a special effort to go and volunteer should not affect any other income that individual may have.
In my constituency of Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock, the second most common reason for awards of personal independence payments was musculoskeletal disease, including osteoarthritis, inflammatory arthritis and chronic pain syndrome, which accounted for some 20% of awards in the constituency. That is similar to the UK average of around 21%. Those of us who attended Versus Arthritis’s recent event in Parliament heard about new research, illustrating that some 43% of people with arthritis struggled with tasks at home, and some struggled for in excess of two years before sourcing equipment that could assist them.
It is not just about struggling at home. About a quarter of people with disabilities who are employed said that they did not get the right sort of support: their employers had not got advice from Access to Work to try to make their lives easier. Does my hon. Friend think that is something we can tackle?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Access to Work is important, but as I will come to later in my speech, it is not widely known about. The Government and Departments have more to do to promote that scheme and make people aware of it, so that workplaces can be made that bit more acceptable to individuals with particular disabilities.
Versus Arthritis’s “Room to Manoeuvre” campaign has been set up to improve access to aids and adaptations in the home and—I would hope—in the workplace, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) has suggested. Apparently, a remarkable 94% of people with arthritis said that those aids and adaptations had immensely improved their life. That independence is valuable to a person’s overall wellbeing, and reduces the strain on our NHS and local authorities.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. What Versus Arthritis is doing is fantastic, but does he agree that workers are now having to work longer, which they cannot do because of arthritis? This is not only about adaptations; there is a financial burden on them. What will this Government do for the people who have been forced to work longer for their pension?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and to a degree, I accept his criticism. Consecutive Governments have made pension adjustments in 1995 and 2011 to reflect the equalisation of the pension age and people living longer, although I think we have plateaued in that regard. However, those who have disabilities and conditions such as arthritis will be impacted that bit more. For those who plan to continue a career but are impacted in extreme cases by disabilities such as arthritis, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Maybe we need to think about how we can assist those people’s allowances more when they have to retire early, before their planned retirement.
The MPs who attended the “Room to Manoeuvre” event heard from Maureen, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis. She said:
“I use aids at home, they help to keep me independent. However, I didn’t realise I could get them through the local authority and it’s not clear what to do when you need support. It’s important that MPs learn about the problems people with arthritis have accessing aids and adaptations, so they can make sure the right help is available.”
Arthritic conditions can be a drain on medical resources, requiring regular medication, blood checks, bone scans, and occasional time off work to attend appointments. They are often lifelong conditions, and remissions or flare-ups may occur. As was said earlier, we need to be flexible in our places of work to host and accommodate the issues that affect these individuals.
Being able to work is often seen as beating the challenge that such a condition presents: a person taking control of their condition, rather than the condition being in control of them. It allows that person to have dignity and pride in their personal achievements, which I think we would all agree they are entitled to. Versus Arthritis includes in one of its publications a quote from Dr Carol Black, the expert adviser to the Government on health and work:
“The evidence is clear that most people with these disabling conditions want to work. Indeed, with the right support and working arrangements, usually with modest adjustments, they can do so and be valued employees”
or continue to be valued employees in a company.
Let us endeavour to ensure that we do not unnecessarily lose talented and hard-working people from the workforce. The Equality Act 2010 requires an employer to make reasonable adjustments to support job applicants and enable an employee with a disability, or physical or mental health condition, to in effect wholly fulfil the duties of their post. I am aware that the Department for Work and Pensions has published guidance on employing disabled people with health conditions, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission has provided, or cited, examples.
Additionally, the Government’s Access to Work scheme affords an opportunity for funding extra assistance, bespoke to an individual’s specific needs, to help that person start work, stay in work, or move into self-employment. I will refer later in my speech to the work, health and disability Green Paper that resulted in the announcement of the personal support package, through which people with health conditions including arthritis will be able to receive employment support that is more tailored to their specific or individual needs. Such funding is available to both employees and the self-employed, and may be provided for specialist equipment, support workers, transport needs, or training for colleagues to ensure that they fully understand the needs of their fellow employee and how best to assist them with their day-to-day workplace activities. There is a maximum amount, which is uprated annually. The Government’s “Improving Lives” White Paper stated that the Access to Work scheme would be “significantly enhanced”; hopefully, the Minister will provide an update on that point.
It is certainly of concern that employees may not be aware that assessments under that scheme are free, and some people may not even be aware of the qualifying criteria. Although I am not overly well informed, I am aware of some of the available support and of the employer’s responsibility, as I have signed up to the DWP’s disability confident scheme. That scheme improves how employers attract, recruit and, importantly, retain disabled workers. I am pleased to note that some 5,000 businesses in the United Kingdom are already on board.
I employ a person with osteoarthritis, osteopenia and polymyalgia rheumatica. Reasonable adjustments feature in my constituency offices. New chairs were purchased to ensure appropriate lumbar support, and a document stand for copy typing was subsequently purchased at a low cost, for occasions on which stiffness restricts movement—a stiffness that, when untreated, my staff member describes eloquently as
“at times, a living rigor”.
Other staff are observant, supportive, and undertake heavy weight-bearing tasks; in other words, they are collaborative and work as a team. That involves permission, sharing information about the condition, and—as I said—teamwork. My staff member also has fantastic support from her general practitioner and practice nurses.
People with arthritis and related conditions can often experience a greater than normal degree of tiredness, stiffness, or the side effects of medication for the condition. Indeed, certain necessary medication such as steroids may deplete the calcium levels in the body, putting people at further risk, in that they may potentially develop osteoporosis in addition to their existing condition. It is also important to note that symptoms will often fluctuate, with the sufferer having good days and bad days. I understand that even the weather may have an adverse effect on an individual, particularly temperature changes.
Arthritis and related conditions are the biggest cause of pain and disability in the United Kingdom, and result in over 30 million working days lost per annum. The British Society for Rheumatology highlights the need for multidisciplinary teams, and the considerable cost of rheumatoid arthritis to the UK economy. I am pleased that as part of the work, health and disability Green Paper, Ministers have explored ways to improve support for people with conditions such as arthritis, so that they can find and remain in work.
The ministerial foreword stated:
“This government is determined to build a country that works for everyone. A disability or health condition should not dictate the path a person is able to take in life—or in the workplace. What should count is a person’s talents and their determination and aspiration to succeed…We are bold in our ambition and we must also be bold in action. We must highlight, confront and challenge the attitudes, prejudices and misunderstanding”.
That message is still relevant today, and I hope this debate will reinvigorate discussion and capture the wider public’s attention.
The work, health and disability Green Paper proposed a 10-year plan to remove employment barriers for disabled people, and the Fit for Work scheme is being reformed to focus on what people can do, not what they cannot. I welcome the fact that the Access to Work scheme is being expanded to help more disabled people into work. However, at present there appears to be a lack of knowledge about the scheme and it is crucial that the Government proactively promote that valuable opportunity. When Versus Arthritis conducted a survey between May 2018 and June 2018, it found that of those who responded, 59% had never even heard of the Access to Work scheme. A proactive promotion of the scheme would, I am certain, assist the Government in meeting their ambitious and commendable aim of having 1 million more disabled people in employment by 2027.
There is a degree of comfort in knowing that since 2013, some 600,000 disabled people have moved into employment. We must build on that with a sense of urgency. In addition, according to Versus Arthritis, it has been discovered that many of the people who qualify for assistance from the Government’s Access to Work scheme face problems with how it is operated. Administration processes can on occasion be cumbersome, and it may be that the Government could carry out a review to ensure that things are more user-friendly. I am sure the Minister will take note of that. That is a concern with a number of issues with the DWP.
One of my constituents felt that the DWP did not fully comprehend the consequences of her osteoporosis when asking her to attend a course, particularly as she relied on others for transport. I for one appreciate that the DWP has been increasing its advisers, including its community partners, small employer advisers, disability employment advisers and work coaches, as well as providing training for them. It may be that that needs to be further enhanced to provide greater awareness among some of the DWP’s frontline staff of the various arthritic and associated conditions and to adequately address the needs of service users. I do not say that with any intention to be unkind to those staff, because they do a wonderful job on our behalf on a daily basis.
I am not a medical expert—arthritis may or may not be related to the workplace—but where issues can be identified, such as repetitive work that might affect the musculoskeletal system of an individual, we can change it. We can automate it without losing the job, but we need to be conscious of what staff are subject to through 10, 20 or maybe 30 years of work. I agree with the hon. Gentleman: if those issues can be identified, they should be removed and we should mitigate the risks as best we can. Where possible, we should assist employers in doing so.
Spending on the Access to Work scheme has increased by 8% in recent times, supporting more than 25,000 people. Around £54 billion per annum is spent on benefits to support people with disabilities, equating to some 6% of all Government spending. Nevertheless, I make a plea to the Treasury to consider further increasing the allocation of funding for the scheme and introducing incentives to encourage employers to consider health and wellbeing initiatives to assist those with arthritic conditions. The benefits of physiotherapy have been recognised. In Scotland, the public may self-refer, but that may not be the case throughout the whole United Kingdom.
Finally, there is a problem that action does not always follow post-assessment recommendations. Will the Government consider what they can do to address any negative attitudes on the part of employers or managers, whether that be by further legislative provision or some other means? By sharing and encouraging best practice and putting the right support in place, we can make it easier for people with arthritis who want to work, helping to achieve the Government’s laudable ambition of getting 1 million disabled people into work.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) on securing this debate and on his excellent and informative speech. Several constituents requested that I attend this debate, but I was particularly encouraged to be here by Danielle Swinney. Danielle suffers badly with ankylosing spondylitis, an inflammatory form of arthritis that causes the vertebrae in the spine to fuse. Despite being in constant crippling pain, Danielle works full-time in a pressurised job as an accountant.
Danielle told me how her condition affects her. It differs from day to day, but every day she sets her alarm for 4 am, two hours before she needs to get up, because her joints and back are so stiff that she has trouble moving first thing in the morning. It takes her an hour to get to work. Once she is there, she works from 8 am until 4.30 pm, and some days even longer. None of that helps with the symptomatic chronic fatigue she experiences, like so many others with arthritis. Danielle wants to work, however, and like everyone she needs to work, but she says that some days are so hard that even just to put on her own socks and shoes is a problem.
Danielle is just 25 years old. I salute her for her determination, her professionalism in her work and her frankness in talking about her condition. On her behalf, I ask the Minister to ensure that the Government do more to make employers aware of the effects of arthritis and to ensure that courageous people such as Danielle, who puts many of us to shame, can get into and be supported to remain in work. People with arthritis do not want their condition to keep them out of employment, and we owe it to them to make sure it does not.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) on securing this debate and on his outstanding speech, which showed his passion and enthusiasm for this topic. I listened carefully, and I do not think he declared an interest at the start, so the spring in his step that we see from him every day around Westminster is perfectly natural and his interest in this debate comes not from any self-interest, but is for his constituents, who have rightly raised the issue. It was good to hear what he has done in his office to accommodate a member of staff.
I want to briefly give some figures from my constituency of Moray. Nationally, 63% of people of working age who have arthritis are in work. When we look at the figures more closely, in Moray, people over 45 with osteo- arthritis of the hip number 4,757. There are 7,848 people over 45 with osteoarthritis of the knee. There are 653 people with rheumatoid arthritis. There are 15,526 people in Moray with back pain. Had it not been for my hon. Friend’s debate today, I would not have known that such a large number of people within my community suffer day in, day out with this condition.
We heard from the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) about a young person who lives with arthritis. It is testament to them that much of the time when we see them in our communities, they put on a very brave face. They work hard to live with their condition while in excruciating pain. This debate has shown that there is support for them, and we have to do all we can to encourage them to take up that offer of support, but we should also realise how many of those we work with day in, day out in our communities suffer from arthritis.
Arthritis and related conditions are the biggest cause of pain and disability in the United Kingdom, and account for 28.2 million working days lost each year. Nearly half of all work-related illnesses in Scotland are related to arthritis and joint pain, so it is a considerable issue, both in Scotland and across the United Kingdom, and something that we really need to tackle.
I welcome the presence of the Minister, who I am sure will speak about the access to work scheme. It is an excellent scheme that we should promote, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock said, we need to promote it because there is not enough awareness of its benefits. As he said, between May and June 2018 Versus Arthritis surveyed 15,082 people with arthritis and related conditions. Those people live with it, day in, day out, and are acutely aware of the need for assistance and support. Yet almost 60%—59%—had never heard of the scheme, so the people we are trying to target are unaware of a scheme that is designed to help them.
Worryingly—I would appreciate the Minister’s response to this, if he is aware of why it has happened—the number of people with arthritis who benefit from the scheme has fallen each year.
That was from a briefing that I received ahead of the debate. If the Minister does not believe that to be the case, it would be useful to clarify that on the record. Certainly the campaign group supporting the debate and briefing MPs says that it has fallen, year on year, over the last five years. I welcome any update from the Minister on that.
I welcome the debate, which is an opportunity for us all to raise awareness of this crippling condition, to support those in our communities who live with arthritis, and to try to get them better services to allow them to work. They all want to be part of the community, and part of the working community. We can support them as a Government and as MPs. Today, because of my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock, we have done that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) on securing the debate, which is of great interest to me, both in a professional capacity as a former employment lawyer, and in a personal capacity as the husband of a fibromyalgia sufferer. I have seen at first hand the impact that invisible conditions such as arthritis and related conditions can have on an individual’s daily life. We do not talk about it enough, because the hardest symptoms for any of us to understand are those that we cannot see. Symptoms such as fatigue and pain, which are common in arthritis and related conditions, can be invisible to the outside world but no less debilitating for that.
As a former physiotherapist, I share my hon. Friend’s interest in this important subject. Anna Lockey, a young woman in my constituency, has psoriatic arthritis. She is planning on going back to work following her maternity leave in September. She is one of many who want to work and contribute to the wider economy. Does my hon. Friend agree that utilising the access to work scheme and the aids and adaptations, which are often inexpensive, can be really helpful?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, and welcome her to this place. She will clearly have a great deal of professional expertise to bring to bear. I will talk a little about some of the barriers that people with such conditions face in getting back to work. It is an important point, and central to the debate.
In my constituency, it is estimated that more than 16,000 people live with back pain, and that more than 4,000 and 8,000 people live with osteoarthritis of the hip and knee respectively. Versus Arthritis tells us that 17.8 million people live with arthritis or a related condition across the country, about half of whom live with pain every day. That is a staggering number of people coping with that in their everyday lives. Just because we cannot see their pain, it should not be ignored or written off as part of the ageing process. That can negatively affect the support that they receive.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that many arthritic conditions can fluctuate in severity, leaving people unsure how well they will be able to cope from day to day. That can make it difficult to hold down a regular job, but equally it should not be used as cover for discrimination. Many people with arthritis want to work if the right support is in place. As has been touched on, that help is available through the access to work scheme. However, there are concerns that the scheme is not working as well as it should.
Not enough people who would benefit from the scheme are aware of it. We know that 60% of people surveyed by Versus Arthritis had never heard of the access to work scheme or were unaware of what kind of help it could provide, and nearly 70% had never accessed support through the scheme. Clearly, there is a lot more to be done to promote it. In a debate on disabled people and economic growth last year, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) made the point that the scheme is probably one of our best kept secrets. When we hear the figures about the lack of awareness, it is hard to disagree.
With the Government’s own figures showing that access to work was approved for only 25,000 people in 2016-17, it is clear just how much room we have to make up. The scheme can provide invaluable practical and financial support to meet the needs of disabled people, but only if it is actually accessed. If the Government are serious about meeting their aim of getting 1 million more disabled people into work by 2027, the scheme must be better publicised and actually work for its users.
A quarter of those who have applied for support from the scheme did not receive all the support that was asked for or that was recommended by their assessor. A tenth of respondents reported that they did not receive any support at all after applying to the scheme. Has the Minister looked at those alarming figures, and has there been any kind of research on why that is the case?
As we know, the major arthritis charities are calling for the Government to commission research on the meaning of “reasonable adjustments”, and for support to be put in place to help people who challenge employers who do not act on access to work recommendations. Employers are obliged to make reasonable adjustments, but if someone is in work and not in a trade union, who will help to argue for them? If someone is applying for a job, just how easy is it to introduce that issue at a job interview? If an employer still refuses to make adjustments, just how realistic is it to expect people to take their employer to tribunal, especially without support, and what comfort do they have that putting their head above the parapet will not rebound on them?
Do not forget that the coalition Government introduced employment tribunal fees, putting another hurdle in the way of those who seek justice. I make that point because having rights is one thing, but being able to enforce them is another, whether through support in the workplace or through access to the tribunal system. Too little protection is given to workplace rights in this country. If we are to change the hire and fire culture, those with disabilities need extra support, and we need to understand the real barriers that they face not only to accessing support but to enforcing their rights. Without doing that, we will not do them the service that they deserve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) on introducing the debate, and on his excellent speech.
I am grateful to have a few minutes to reflect on this topic, because I witnessed at first hand, through the life of my late mother-in-law, Joyce Ferguson, what such conditions can do, in terms of daily pain, and what an encumbrance the condition is to people trying to lead what we would consider a normal life. I saw the benefit of the aids and adapters available to people with such conditions, and I hope that more people will have the opportunity to take advantage of what is available, such as grab rails, electric tin openers and lever taps.
We should take some satisfaction from the fact that, since 2013, 930,000 disabled people have been able to return to work. It is a noble goal that another 1 million people who suffer from disability should return to work by 2027. As has been mentioned, only 63% of working-age adults with any kind of condition affecting muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones and joints work, compared with 81% of the overall population with no health condition, so the Government must do everything that they can to continue helping those with such conditions back to work. Given that 17.8 million people suffer from such conditions, half of whom live with pain every day, this subject should concentrate our minds.
The motivation for helping people back to work is not just about statistics. In fact, it should be a long way from them. Work is ennobling. It can bring independence and financial security to someone’s life. It can also lead to social interaction and a more fulfilling life, creating opportunities to develop skills and so on. Allowing people, regardless of their background, the opportunity to work and reap the benefits that work brings should motivate us to give even more support to those with conditions such as arthritis and help them into work.
We must recognise that there are many different types of arthritis, which affect individuals differently, and some are more severe than others. The pain experienced is constant with some forms and less so with others. It is important that the Government continue to recognise that those differences exist and that we should not try to apply a one-size-fits-all approach. We should take that variance into account when we design policies to encourage those who suffer from arthritis to come back into work.
Rheumatoid arthritis is one of the forms in which the pain can vary. One day, an individual may be considered fit to work, but the next day they will struggle to get out of bed. Some will argue that those who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis should work on the days when their pain is relatively lower, but that is unrealistic; flare-ups are unexpected and can occur at any moment. The Government must ask themselves why any employer would hire a worker who cannot guarantee that they are fit enough to go to work the next day. The Government need to intervene.
I ask the Minister to answer some questions. Will the fit for work forms be adjusted to make it easier for people to express the fact that they suffer from flare-ups? What role can GPs and rheumatologists play in giving a correct and detailed medical update about the health of a person? Does the Minister agree that both of those things would not only give taxpayers greater value for money but make those who suffer from medical conditions that affect their ability to work feel that they are being encouraged, treated on a more human basis and welcomed by a Government who are intent on serving their needs?
I am delighted to participate in this debate; I thank the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) for securing it. I applaud the work of Versus Arthritis on behalf of those who live with the condition.
Approximately 10 million people in the UK live with arthritis and other musculoskeletal conditions. Only 60% of working-age people with persistent musculoskeletal conditions are in work, and those people account for a fifth of all working days lost through ill health in the UK. According to the latest figures that I have seen, approximately 30.6 million working days were lost to absence in 2013 because of those and similar conditions. There are 44,000 people who live with rheumatoid arthritis in Scotland, and they often suffer considerable pain.
If we are to halve the disability employment gap, it is important to stem the flow of disabled people leaving employment because of discrimination or lack of support. People with arthritis want to work, and the majority can, so I echo the calls for greater promotion of the Access to Work scheme among employers and employees who could benefit. The task before us is to support those who live with these conditions into work or support sustained employment for them. I urge the Minister to ensure that the Department for Work and Pensions system is fully cognisant of the fact that some people with these conditions simply are not able to work. That is our task, and I hope that the Minister will fully echo and endorse those goals today.
We know that the challenges posed by these conditions are significant, since those who live with them are less likely to be employed than those in good health and are more likely to retire early. That also has implications for the wider economy. The combined direct and indirect cost to the UK economy of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis is estimated to be about £21.6 billion. In addition, there is a loss to those who are affected by those conditions when they find that they have to give up their work.
I echo the comments of other hon. Members that those who live with these conditions do not just lose out financially; they lose a sense of wellbeing, personal fulfilment and social contact. As well as promoting the Access to Work scheme more widely and robustly to those who can benefit from it and to employers, I urge the Minister to consider the DWP’s response, the expertise that people who present with these conditions require and the level of support that they need. I look forward to his reassurances on those issues.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) for setting the scene so well and for his obvious expertise.
From January to March 2019, 7.6 million people between the ages of 16 and 64—18% of the working-age population—reported that they had a disability. Some 3.9 million of those people were in employment, which represents an increase of 150,000 on the previous year. The Government have set a target for 4.5 million people with disabilities to be in employment by 2027. Where does that leave those people with disabilities who live with pain every single day, such as the 17.8 million people in the UK with arthritis and related conditions?
Arthritis can have a huge impact on mental health. It is all very well to look at the physical aspects, but we also have to look at the anxiety and depression that they can lead to, as well as the limits on the ability to stay connected and keep active. There are real physical, emotional and mental pressures. I know many people who work in local shops who are literally crippled with arthritis. Notably, they include women from the generation whom we have let down by changing their retirement plans with a sharp rise in pension age—the WASPI women.
We are pushing people to work with crippling pain every day, yet we have nothing in place to make life easier for them except stronger and stronger drugs. I am ever mindful that many of the people I know who work with arthritis have said that they cannot take the drugs because they make them fuzzy and unable to concentrate, among other side effects. Of course, being in pain also makes concentration incredibly difficult.
Many arthritic conditions fluctuate in severity, as the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) pointed out. People may feel good one day, but bad the next day—or even later the same day. People are left unsure how well they will be able to cope every day. In 2015-16, half a million people had a musculoskeletal disorder that was caused or made worse by work. Sometimes being in work does not make their condition any easier.
The estimated cost of rheumatoid arthritis to the UK economy is between £3.8 billion and £4.8 billion. Some 33% of people with rheumatoid arthritis stop work within two years from onset of symptoms, and almost 45% stop within five years. It is very clear that working sometimes significantly worsens the pain and the symptoms.
It is also clear that arthritis is a large-scale issue that needs a large-scale solution. I agree with the arthritis charities that more needs to be done. If we expect people to make their way to work regardless of the pain, we need to make it easier for them, but that can be done only with a co-ordinated approach and response.
The British Society for Rheumatology has been very clear about the steps that need to be taken. The joint work and health unit, collaborating with professional bodies, provides a guide for health professionals that outlines their responsibilities to their patient’s employer, what the employer is required to provide for their employee, and other outcomes to allow those who wish to continue working to do so. The Minister always responds well to questions that we put to him; if at all possible, I would like him to set out how the joint work and health unit will look after employees and address the responsibilities of employers.
A diagnosis must not be the death of working life for those who want to work through it and find a different way of working. This House and the Minister must play their part by helping businesses to understand that small changes can allow staff to continue working in a way that will not adversely affect the business. There are ways and means in each case, and we must connect them to help people.
I support the ideas that the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock and other hon. Members have put forward. I look forward to the Minister’s response, because I believe that he will give us the answers that we want—no pressure at all.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) on securing this debate, on speaking from personal experience and on advocating for his constituents. He rightly highlighted that in many ways, the simple solution for those who want to remain in work is to broaden awareness of the Access to Work scheme. I reiterate that point, which has been highlighted by all hon. Members today, including the hon. Members for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon), for Moray (Douglas Ross), for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson).
Many hon. Members have highlighted the fact that arthritis is an invisible illness with a profound effect on many people’s lives. When people think of arthritis, the stereotype is often of someone in their later years, but many people are now being diagnosed in their 20s and 30s; the hon. Member for North Tyneside mentioned her constituent Danielle, who is 25.
As well as highlighting the Access to Work scheme, it is essential to address the fact that there is too often a stigma around declaring an illness, especially at a younger age. Too many people, especially those who are in insecure or part-time work, do not declare their health issues or seek workplace adaptations. It is crucial for support to be distributed not just to large employers, but to small and medium-sized enterprises. Too many people in insecure work are afraid to highlight their health condition, but it is essential that they get the support that they need.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran highlighted the statistics for Scotland. The majority of people can and do want to work. As the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock highlighted, we want to support people into work. We want to make it possible, particularly for young people who suffer from arthritis, to remain in work. Many who are diagnosed will continue to work, and we rely on employers to offer the flexibility, understanding and the adaptations that people require.
Employers who do not support their staff are breaking the law. According to the Equality Act 2010, employers must make reasonable adjustments. Many people, however, may not tell their employer. Ensuring that disabled people can overcome this significant disadvantage relies on a workplace culture change, and attitudes to disability in the workplace changing.
The UK Government can play a role, including through the Access to Work programme. I urge the Minister to promote the scheme more and to enhance the benefits, both for the employer and for employees, specifically for people with arthritis, fibromyalgia and other long-term conditions. The Government could also undertake work to clarify the meaning of “reasonable adjustments”, so that it is clear what employers should provide for those who may suffer from such a condition, and consider what steps they can take to ensure that employers comply with the 2010 Act and carry out the recommendations of the Access to Work scheme.
In closing, I thank my senior caseworker, Rhona. She is probably one of the hardest working people that I know. Despite having arthritis, she has turned her experience and her disability into a positive. She is one of the most empathetic, uplifting and passionate staff members that I could ask for and has provided an invaluable service to so many of my constituents—I am indebted to her. I am so grateful. She is one of many people who have a massive contribution to make, who want to manage their condition and who want to remain in the workplace. I call on the Minister to improve the focus to ensure that today’s figures are drastically improved, and to help support people with arthritis to work for as long as they can and as long as they want to.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I thank the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) for securing such a vital debate, which has been informed by a number of charities, which work so hard for the benefit of people with disabilities and those who suffer with arthritis and related conditions.
As we have heard through the very powerful contributions from the 13 Members present from across the House, living with the condition can be debilitating and have a negative impact on quality of life. Arthritis and related conditions are the biggest cause of pain and disability in the UK. As a result, 28.2 m illion working days are lost annually. Every year, one in five people—20% of the UK population—consults a GP about musculo- skeletal problems. More than half of the 17.8 million people in the UK with arthritis and related conditions live with pain every single day. My hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) highlighted that with the stark case of Danielle. Her condition has a huge impact on her life, slowly intrudes on everyday life, and affects her ability to work, to sustain work and to live independently.
Arthritis can also have a huge impact on an individual’s mental health, as hon. Members have highlighted. Living with a painful condition can lead to depression and anxiety, as well as placing limits on a person’s ability to keep active and to stay connected within communities and society.
We should pay particular attention to the disturbing fact that people in the most deprived areas of the UK are much more likely to report arthritis or back pain than people in equivalent age groups who live in less deprived areas. Some 40% of men and 44% of women in the poorest households report chronic pain, compared with 24% of men and 30% of women in more affluent households. There is a real social class and inequality issue here.
Versus Arthritis, the charity whose excellent work is dedicated to changing the lives of people who live with arthritis and related conditions, estimates that 10% of the UK population aged over 45 suffer with osteoarthritis of the hip, 17% suffer with back pain and 18% suffer with osteoarthritis of the knee. Many Members have highlighted the higher prevalence in their constituencies, which is also the case in mine.
This Government’s apparent antipathy and lack of regard for those who suffer with arthritis and related illnesses has been demonstrated in their limited approach to the promotion of the Access to Work scheme, which has been highlighted by Members across the House. The charity Leonard Cheshire has argued that there has been no significant extension of the programme over the last nine years.
The Minister shakes his head, but that is from the Government’s own figures.
Will the Minister tell the House what plans are in place to help people with musculoskeletal conditions in the workplace? Arthritis sufferers, who have applied to the Government’s Access to Work scheme, said they have faced problems with how the scheme operates. In a survey of people with arthritis and related conditions carried out by Versus Arthritis in 2018, 59% had never heard of the Access to Work scheme, with many more unaware of what help was available. It is almost the best kept secret, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) said.
Some 25% of respondents said they did not receive all the support that was asked for, or that had been recommended by the Access to Work adviser, with a further 10% saying they did not receive any support whatsoever after applying. Will the Minister tell the House what the Government are doing to ensure that recommendations made by the Access to Work scheme are enacted?
The Equality Act 2010 placed a legal responsibility on employers to provide reasonable adjustments to support people with a disability in the workplace, so that they would not be disadvantaged. However, the Equality Act does not define what those reasonable adjustments are. As a result, it can be difficult for someone with arthritis to know exactly what their employer should be doing to help them, especially if they are not unionised, as was pointed out. Will the Minister tell the House whether the Government plan to undertake work to clarify the meaning of “reasonable adjustments”? Would he agree to work with Versus Arthritis on that?
One in eight of the working-age population has a musculoskeletal problem, but only 63% of that group are in work, compared with 81% of people with no health condition. What steps are the Government taking to close the disability employment gap for people with arthritis and related illnesses?
The Government have pledged to see 1 million more people with disabilities and long-term health conditions in work by 2027—just 100,000 people per year. Curiously, the Office for National Statistics reports that the increased number of disabled people in work has not been matched by a reduction in the number of disabled people who are out of work. We are now two years into the Government’s 10-year strategy for supporting disabled people into work. However, the National Audit Office reports that they have yet to develop a full implementation plan to achieve their goal.
Through whatever kaleidoscope of smoke and mirrors we look when measuring our employment figures, facts are facts: the disability employment gap remains stubbornly at 30% and this Government are failing to get a grip on that dismal statistic. I ask the Minister to listen to the concerns raised by all the Members here today and to commit to addressing and rectifying the unacceptable existing inequality of support for those who suffer with arthritis.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I pay tribute to all the speakers—perhaps with the exception of the last one—for their very proactive and constructive speeches on this incredibly important subject. It reflects well on the brilliant opening speech given by my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant), who demonstrated a real passion, knowledge and interest in this area, that it was picked up and reflected in each and every speech. People who have listened to the debate will be encouraged at the great level of interest—it is not as if nothing else is happening in Parliament today. It is brilliant that this issue has captured so much interest.
My hon. Friend was spot on when he quoted Dame Carol Black, who said:
“The evidence is clear that most people with these disabling conditions want to work. Indeed, with the right support and working arrangements, usually with modest adjustments, they can do so and be valued employees.”
He made the powerful point that there is a misconception that this impacts only on older people. In fact, it can affect people throughout their lives. One in six people will develop a disability or long-term health condition, and many of them will be of working age. This is a common challenge and barrier that people need to overcome. I welcome the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones)—with her expertise in this area, I am sure that she will be a valuable addition to Parliament.
Despite the previous pre-written speech, the reality of the disability stats is that there are now 947,000 more disabled people in work in the past five years. We have taken disability employment from 44.2% to 51.7%, which is a record high. For the first time, more disabled people are in work than not. However, it is not enough. We are an ambitious Government, and we set out two years ago our ambition for a further 1 million disabled people to be in work. In those first two years, over 400,000 more disabled people are in work. We are ahead of schedule, but it is still not enough.
We will continue to do everything we can to empower businesses to have the confidence to tackle the barriers and take advantage of the huge amount of talent that is all too often overlooked. I do not just preach as a Minister; I say that as an employer. Before I became an MP, my own business benefited from employing disabled people and having the confidence to make small changes. Actually, I benefited. I have been in a series of stakeholder meetings and events today, and everyone was united in saying we have to ensure it works for everyone.
The majority of today’s speeches focused on Access to Work, and I recognise that it is right to challenge the scheme. However, we must recognise that 33,800 people were helped last year—up 13%, and a record high. My hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) asked whether funding had been increased or decreased in this area. We do not record that specifically, but people who listed conditions that relate to the arms and hands, legs and feet or back and neck—we would expect those to be covered predominantly in this area—as their primary medical condition accounted for about 10% of our spend, which was up 2% on last year.
I recognise hon. Members’ broad point that more people need to benefit from the Access to Work scheme, especially in this area—particularly as technology plays an increasing part in removing barriers and creating opportunities, which I have seen on visits. The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) discussed her caseworker and explained how she is benefiting from small changes that can be replicated right across the board.
The key is improving the awareness of Access to Work. We are looking at improving awareness in jobcentres, so that in the initial conversation we take into account everybody’s unique opportunities and challenges, particularly on health, and that it is ingrained in all our frontline staff that this is an option to help unlock barriers. That goes right to the core of the principle of the Joint Work and Health Unit. I had a meeting about that earlier, and we recognise just how important it is. We need to work more closely with stakeholders to promote this to their members as something that can be utilised. We should work with GPs and health professionals to ensure that they are aware of the opportunity.
On fit notes, GPs can highlight the fact that there are fluctuating health conditions that can limit the amount of work someone can do. I understand the point that was made, and we are working with medical professionals to look at what more can be done in that area. We need to look at our health and work providers and ensure they include it—it should be embedded in their options. Through the Disability Confident scheme, we are now at 12,000 businesses—a record high. We have ambitions to increase that rapidly and are looking at putting additional requirements on the highest level of Disability Confident. We should perhaps look at signposting from general benefits. If we have identified people with health conditions through disability benefits, we could perhaps signpost people for additional local support. It is not something that they must have, but providing such information could be helpful for people.
There is one area where I think we can make a real difference. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) made a really good point: how can we be sure that businesses have an understanding? For many, particularly small and medium-sized businesses, this is not necessarily a common occurrence, and they like to have confidence. There is an opportunity through the Health and Safety Executive. It is a pretty good given. As part of the Health and Safety Executive, we lead internationally on safety. We have just recruited a new chief executive, and I made it very clear to her that the real priority going forward has to be looking at health. The HSE is brilliant at engaging with businesses of all sizes as part of those assessments, and they can identify areas of improvement within working environments. A one-stop shop can be a portal to signpost additional support, particularly on not letting people slip out of work. It is a darn sight harder to get people back into work than it is to keep them in work in the first place.
I was very interested to talk to my Access to Work team about ways in which we can help. Initially, I thought it was perhaps simply about technology. I was looking at some case studies—we cannot give names, for obvious reasons—and in some cases it is about technology. It is sometimes about making adjustments to the equipment that people use. Access to Work will talk to an employer and perhaps suggest changing the working hours or recognising that there might be times when they will have to limit them. Perhaps they could even look at changing people’s roles, which is incredibly important. If someone works for a big employer that has HR and personnel teams, we would expect them as a given to get this right. However, 40% of private sector jobs are in small and medium-sized businesses. They do not necessarily have bad intentions, but they do not have the confidence or expertise. Through organisations such as the HSE we can do a lot more.
I pay tribute to Versus Arthritis, with which I will definitely be working very closely. I will be speaking at its event in July. It is one of our key stakeholders in the Access to Work scheme, which goes through, line by line, how we are doing and what improvements we need to make. The Versus Arthritis report was very proactive and helpful.
I was genuinely impressed by how proactive and constructive the speeches we have heard. There is a real cross-party commitment to get this right—it is such an important issue. Not everybody is looking for a full-time job or career. I have met young disabled people for whom simply being able to do one hour is a life-changing opportunity. Wherever there is a barrier, we as a Government are absolutely committed to remove it. We want businesses to have the confidence to take advantage of the huge amount of talent that, I am afraid, is all too often overlooked. We are heading in the right direction, but we are ambitious to do more. I thank each and every hon. Member for what they are doing to highlight all the opportunities that people can take advantage of.
I thank the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon), and my hon. Friends the Members for Moray (Douglas Ross) and for Stirling (Stephen Kerr), for their valuable contributions to the debate. Clearly, hon. Members understand the challenges we face and the need for means to mitigate them.
I thank the Minister for listening intently and responding to the concerns that have been raised, and I thank the shadow Minister for his welcome contribution. I also thank the charities that campaign tirelessly for, and offer support to, my constituents and people throughout the United Kingdom who suffer arthritic conditions. I thank people in science, medicine and the care services who undertake research and treatment and provide care packages—in doing so, they greatly assist and support people to live their lives. Last but not least, I thank the Commons staff, who worked behind the scenes to enable the debate to take place. I give special thanks to the Library staff.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered arthritis and employment.