Wednesday 5 June 2019
[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
Industrial Strategy: North-East of England
I beg to move,
That this House has considered industrial strategy in the North East of England.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I am delighted to have been granted this debate on such a crucial subject for our region. There are two local enterprise partnerships in the north-east, so we have two local industrial strategies: one for seven north-east local authorities, and one for the Tees valley. My area is covered by the North East LEP, which leads on the creation of the local industrial strategy, as its footprint includes two combined authorities: the newly created North of Tyne combined authority and the North East combined authority. As the North of Tyne combined authority has a devolution deal that specifically refers to the LIS, the picture is a little more complicated than elsewhere, as the Minister will appreciate. However, both combined authorities are working together, and with businesses and partners and through the LEP board, to make sure the local industrial strategy makes sense for residents and businesses in the north-east.
I will not talk about the north-east’s fantastic industrial and inventive past, because we see that backward look too often in the region, and although it is important to recognise that we have been passionate, ambitious and innovative for hundreds of years, looking back does a disservice to the brilliant people and businesses that we have today. It does not highlight the fact that the north-east has proportionally more businesses in manufacturing—10.5% against 7.7% nationally—or the fact that in 2018, the growth in the number of businesses massively outstripped what was happening nationally; we had 14.2% growth, versus a national fall of 0.5%, and we have seen a growth in productivity since 2014. Those are positive things, but that is not to detract from the less positive things happening in the region that I think my colleagues will talk about.
Looking back would not highlight the fact that the north-east is a brilliant place to live; I am sure all of us in this room agree on that. It is way more affordable than significant parts of the country. As of March, our average house price—for a very nice house—was £123,000, whereas the national average was £227,000, so I urge people to look at relocating to our area.
Not too many.
Perhaps not too many, but all are welcome.
I want to talk about what is strategically important to the north-east today, and what will make a difference to our future. For the north-east, the industrial strategy and the local industrial strategy will be about our ambition, the sectors in which we are strong, and the infrastructure that will lead to growth, and they have to be about turning strategy into action. The LIS is seen as building on the north-east strategic plan, which was agreed with businesses and communities of all shapes and sizes. It has an ambition for more and better jobs—100,000 jobs by 2024, with at least 70% being what are termed better jobs in managerial, professional and technical roles. We have already seen more than 64,000 new jobs created, of which 77% are classed as better jobs, but we need more investment and support from the Government, so that more can be achieved, and we need the right infrastructure put in place.
Yesterday, some of us went to the drop-in held by Highways England. I was pleased to go and congratulate it on the fantastic new Silverlink interchange on the A19, which has massively improved access to the Tyne tunnels. It was done on time, through collaboration between the council, businesses, and Highways England—a great feat for the region.
I also visited the Highways England drop-in yesterday; my hon. Friend and I were there at the same time. I was told that the project to widen the A19 between Wynyard and Norton will go ahead in May. Will she join me in welcoming that, and an end to the terrible noise that the people of Billingham suffered as a result of the project?
That is fantastic news. I hope that the project is done in the same timely way as Silverlink was, and with minimum disruption.
I hope the Minister is aware that a team from the north-east has been talking to the Government about how to make real the industrial strategy’s grand challenge on ageing, by working with local businesses of all sizes and with our universities. There is an opportunity to meet that challenge in our region. There is definitely a commercial opportunity and benefits for society in working with a population that is living longer. There are benefits for expertise, too. In my constituency, Procter & Gamble’s research and development team is focusing on what its older customers will need to live happy and independent lives. We know about a lot of projects that would influence that.
Across our region, there is groundbreaking work in health and life sciences. I am sure colleagues here will expand on that. The north-east has real strengths in the offshore renewables sector, and our region is ready to take advantage right away of any changes in that environment. Shepherd Offshore, Smulders, WD Close and SMD are all top-class, world-renowned companies in my constituency making a difference across the sector, but they could do even more with the right investments; I will continue to go on about that in Parliament.
One of the main things that hinders the development of those industries to some degree—this is important to South Tyneside, Gateshead and Newcastle—is the need to find a way to secure a significant investment to re-route the National Grid power lines that cross over the Tyne. That would make such a difference in how the Tyne is viewed by companies from around the world. I have been pursuing the issue for a while locally, with National Grid and with another Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Minister, and I am pleased that all four local authorities, the port of Tyne and the North East LEP are working together to look at how the power lines can be diverted to secure further contracts and local jobs for companies up and down the Tyne. I know it is a vast sum of money—around £20 million—but where there is a will, there is a way, and that is what we are working on.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on making a powerful, important and positive speech about our region and its opportunities. She makes the case for the power of public investment and private sector partnership. Does she agree that it is not only large business that should invest in our region? So should small and medium-sized businesses, which are the lifeblood of our economy. For example, Sage, which is headquartered in my constituency, is working really hard to develop a strategy for a public-private partnership, so that through our public sector organisations, there is more support for growth, investment, productivity and exporting. However, it needs a clear industrial strategy to back that up.
That was an excellent intervention, which the Minister must have heard. I can only agree wholeheartedly with everything my hon. Friend said.
On digital and data, the north-east’s history of engineering excellence continues in the digital age. North Tyneside was recently judged to be a hotspot for digital growth. In my constituency, and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Sir Alan Campbell), our residents work in world-class digital businesses, such as Accenture and DXC Technology. There is also groundbreaking public service digital work in the Department for Work and Pensions and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and work in local companies such as Perfect Image and Infotel UK.
The most important strength in our region is our people. We have thousands of skilled, passionate and hard-working people who drive our economy, creating and leading businesses, large and small, and working together to serve the region. Although the devolution of the adult education budget to the North of Tyne combined authority is a start, and the national careers strategy gives some important pointers, we need to ensure that we leverage the capabilities of local people.
The industrial strategy and local industrial strategy needs must be backed up with deeds. We need sector deals, which make a real difference, and clear support and investment in skills, with joined-up thinking across Government. I ask the Minister to commit to working closely with colleagues in the Department for Transport to ensure that the east coast main line upgrade is prioritised, and that our north-east transforming cities bid gets solid backing.
In both cases, there is a compelling economic case for investment. Colleagues right up the east coast of England and Scotland know that the east coast main line is as critical as investment in HS2. On the transforming cities bid, we are all working together to continue to secure investment to upgrade the metro, to reopen the Northumberland-Newcastle line to passengers, and to ensure that people and businesses can make the right connections in Sunderland, South Tyneside and Durham.
As the north-east is the only region that exports more than it imports, we will be hit hardest by Brexit. I had not mentioned Brexit up until now, but it had to come in somewhere. For 2014 to 2020, our region received £437 million from the European structural investment funds, which will be replaced by the shared prosperity fund post Brexit. The consultation was expected last year, but we know that the Brexit timetable has changed.
The consultation has been postponed, with as yet no further date announced. Worryingly, it has been said in response to recent parliamentary questions that the final decision on the fund’s design will be taken during the spending review. However, the spending review report will be published only with the Budget in the autumn. I hope that the Minister can tell us a bit more, and assure us that the consultation will begin soon. We do not want any gaps in replacing the loss of European funding.
I will be quiet now, because colleagues wish to talk about the industrial challenges in their constituencies. Those challenges are many, and influence the current and future prosperity of our region. I hope that the Minister has listened to what I have said, and will listen carefully to everything that my colleagues ask of him, and that he will give us clarity and reassurance that the Government are prepared to commit adequate support and resources to our great region, so that it can flourish for everyone in the north-east.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) for securing this important debate and for her excellent speech. She has laid out why a proper industrial strategy is so important, especially for us in the north-east.
The north-east strategic economic plan has been active for five years. In that time, the region has seen some great change and investment, despite the uncertain times in which we find ourselves. I am proud to be the Member of Parliament for Washington and Sunderland West, which is home—as all Members know, because I bang on about it enough—to Nissan’s UK car plant. There has also been exciting development around the International Advanced Manufacturing Park, known as IAMP, which I am sure Members will become equally sick of hearing me talk about.
Meanwhile, a bid to unlock a potential £33 million in funding is under way with the Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Advanced Manufacturing. That hub will provide advanced manufacturing solutions to many businesses across the market in the region, such as Driving the Electric Revolution, which is based in Sunderland. I am certain that that will attract innovation and investment across the region, to benefit both the local and national economy. Those developments have the potential to transform the north-east.
The north-east strategic economic plan has been successful to a certain extent. It has helped towards the creation of 100,000 more jobs by 2024, as we heard, and the economic gap between the north-east and the rest of the country has narrowed. Some 71,600 jobs have been created so far, of which 70% can be described as “better jobs”. That is an excellent feat for the region and its long-term planning. However, we can be certain that the gap still exists between the north-east and the rest of the UK.
If performance, enabled by investment and infrastructure, had matched that of the rest of England except for London, we would have 93,000 more jobs in the north-east and 25,000 more businesses. The north-east still lags behind in the majority of areas of economic performance, despite, as we heard, securing more foreign investment than any other region. That suggests that the Government’s economic plan is failing us. It has held back the economies and communities of Washington and Sunderland, and those of many other ex-coalfields and post-industrial northern towns.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we have two economies in the north-east: an economy with well-paid jobs, which allows people to go on foreign holidays and enjoy their lives, and poverty that afflicts tens of thousands of people in our area? We have done extremely well as a region; if we just had more investment, we could take so many more people out of poverty.
Inequality and the wealth gap still exist, probably in all regions—we see it here in London too. Prosperity has never reached some parts of our region, which has led to disenfranchisement in some of our communities. We are now feeling the brunt of that in how they are voting.
Growth is good, but it is important to know where that growth comes from. The quality of communities and how they are sustained by the economy is an important part of keeping the fabric of society vibrant. The role of the Government in the economy must be more than simply growth and redistribution; they should aim to ensure that the country’s growth is responsible and has a social value, so that everyone lives a better life. That is something that the Labour party is committed to, with the introduction of a Minister for manufacturing.
The hon. Lady makes some really important points, especially on the wealth gap, which I, as a Yorkshire MP, would say is between the north—rather than the north-east—and the south. Skills and education play a key role in improving the lives and opportunities of everyone. Does she welcome the technical education offer, and the announcement of 12 new technical institutions? Two are in the north-east and Yorkshire: one, York College, is in my constituency and the other is New College Durham. Surely we have to grasp that opportunity to ensure that we improve skills and technical education in our region—I say “our region”, as a Yorkshire MP—as the north moves forward.
I am happy to say that I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Skills are so important. We hear from employers all the time that they often cannot find the necessary skills in the local workforce, which is heartbreaking when many young people are desperate to acquire those skills. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) mentioned, we need to ensure that prosperity is shared among everyone. The rise in the number of apprentices is also welcome, and the technical colleges that the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) mentioned play a huge and important part in that.
The Government often point to low unemployment figures as proof that their approach is working, yet in-work poverty is on the rise. It is at its highest for 20 years, with 4 million people living in poverty despite being in work—it is not just me saying that; the figure comes from Joseph Rowntree Foundation research. One in four workers in the north of England is paid less than the real living wage, after a decade of stagnant wages and the rise of zero-hours contracts. That leads to the two-tier workforce that my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North mentioned.
Although we are on our way to closing the gap and making businesses in the north-east a more valuable prospect, we are still recovering from the catastrophes that the region has faced in the last 50 years. Those catastrophes have made our communities resilient, but to ensure that we endure, one thing must be at the heart of any strategy: the environment. We must invest sustainably in our economy to ensure that future growth does not come at the expense of our environment. It is essential to confront the climate crisis in every Government strategy, especially an industrial strategy. I am proud that the Labour party has committed to do that, having already forced the Government to declare a climate emergency in May.
Nissan’s investment in battery technology and electric vehicles has put Sunderland at the forefront of the European market. It is the only plant in the UK that makes a purely battery electric vehicle, the LEAF. Nissan’s expansion on the back of the worldwide move to electrification offers the UK the chance to be a leader among European manufacturers, and our local communities will benefit most.
Sustainability should be at the centre of all sides of development. For example, with the expansion of IAMP, which I mentioned, I would like the local transport network to be developed to ensure that in years to come, the staff who work there will have an alternative to private motorised transport when going to work. An excellent way to do that—another opportunity that I never cease to mention—would be to expand the Tyne and Wear metro to Washington and IAMP.
Economic development is another concern in these turbulent times. The ongoing uncertainty of the Brexit process—I have mentioned it as well—may damage investment and businesses in the north-east, as 55% of Nissan’s exports go to the EU. We need a solid and sensible deal for exiting the EU to give businesses certainty. Parliament has made it clear that it rejects the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, yet the idea of reintroducing a no-deal option has been used numerous times by candidates in the Conservative party’s ongoing leadership campaign—I will name no names; I do not want to give anybody more publicity, not that anybody would take any notice of me—in a reckless attempt to bolster themselves. That is worryingly irresponsible and gives no assurance to UK manufacturers, some of whom described the idea of leaving the EU without a deal as “economic lunacy” this week.
The potential for a bright future in the north-east is high. Our region is growing well, and as my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside said, it is a great place to live, work and have leisure time, but there are more steps to take to ensure that its development can be sustained and work for everyone, which I hope the Minister will consider.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) on securing this important debate. Unlike her, I will refer to the past.
The area that I represent has a rich history of industrial innovation, from the Stockton to Darlington railway, which was the first in the world and will celebrate its 200-year anniversary in a few years’ time, and which laid the foundations of the Tees Valley’s rapid growth, to our world-leading chemical and pharmaceutical industry, John Walker’s invention of the friction match, and Sheraton furniture, which some of us sit on in this place. We have always been an area that leads the way, although our business and industry have changed substantially over the years and we still lament the loss of Tees shipbuilding and the thousands of well-paid jobs it once provided.
Even if we do not always receive the funding and investment we need from national Governments, the Tees Valley has demonstrated again and again that it can change and attract investment, although more could be done to help it to reach its full potential. That said, we are the third best place in the UK for business expansion and the fourth for business innovation, and we are part of the only continuous net-exporting region in the UK—north-east England.
Our Tees Valley combined authority was one of the first, and it has the powers to make the decisions that affect our area in our area. It has a plan for boosting economic growth and creating thousands of jobs. We also have a thriving and innovative industrial sector that we should celebrate and support.
We have much to be proud of, but, sadly, the decline of some industries and the failure of the Government to act mean that unemployment in our area continues to increase—it has gone up month by month in my constituency. The plight of British Steel is a case in point. I was saddened and disappointed to learn that while the Government stand on the sidelines waiting for the official receiver to try to sell the business, our elected Tees Valley Mayor has no power to intervene to protect the hundreds of jobs in steel directly and in the supply chain. I hope that the official receiver can sell the business as an integrated going concern; failure to do so will have huge ramifications for our area and others across the country in terms of jobs, and will mean that we lose a large part of a foundation industry that is crucial to the UK’s manufacturing economy. Perhaps the Minister can update us on where the official receiver is up to in trying to sell the business.
The high cost of energy is a major factor in the steel crisis and for many other industries in our area. That is one reason I have been focusing on the needs of energy intensive industries not just on Teesside but across the country, from chemicals to cement production and from steel to ceramics. They also include the companies developing wind turbines and related products, which have exploited the skills of our talented engineers to produce the goods for offshore and onshore wind farms. All those industries exist in the face of the highest energy costs in Europe, but there is no plan from the Government, or anyone else, to address that or the high carbon taxes.
Our region has a huge advantage when it comes to expanding low-carbon generation through hydrogen production, in which Teesside is the bigger producer in the country; the development of energy storage; the opportunity to develop smart grids to better support our industry and communities; and, of course, carbon capture, use and storage. I set up and chair the all-party parliamentary group on carbon capture and storage, and I was pleased to lead the demands that Teesside should be the first place to utilise its skills and knowledge in that area. CCUS has the potential to create thousands of jobs and protect thousands more. It is also important in meeting the grand clean growth challenge that the Government face and, crucially, in delivering a long-term sustainable future for the other industries based in our region.
We have heard some kindly noises from Ministers but, unfortunately, the Government have been slow to support CCUS. They talk the good talk—we have had statements, ministerial visits and news releases by the dozen—but we await the concrete commitment that will make the Teesside project roll. That is why it is vital that our local industrial strategy really counts in its support not just for CCUS but for our existing industries, and the new ones, that are critical to our future. We need a strategy that provides certainty and direction for local industries, a sound base to attract funding, and support to help the industries to grow.
A local industrial strategy would benefit our chemical and steel industries, which have been hit by Brexit, particularly the prospect of a no-deal Brexit. The chemical industry needs the EU registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals—REACH—regulations, which govern the manufacture of chemicals, to apply in the UK after Brexit, but despite a considerable amount of work by Ministers and officials, the outcome remains far from perfect and we all know how nervous the industry remains. If there is no deal, what happens to the regulations such as those for chemicals? Will we be able to sell the chemicals and every other piece of manufactured kit that relies on common standards with the EU?
I mentioned earlier the collapse of British Steel, which leaves 700 direct jobs under threat on Teesside, not to mention the impact the closure would have on the local supply chain. British Steel made it clear that the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit was a major factor in its collapse. Put simply, a no-deal Brexit means no steel industry, and that would have huge negative implications on Teesside and beyond.
Surely we cannot have another repeat of the SSI fiasco, which saw an end to steel production from what was probably the country’s most efficient blast furnace in Redcar. Let us not forget what the Government’s failure to act has meant for people: thousands thrown out of work, many of whom are still seeking work today. Since 2015, the SSI site has seen little progress or interest from the Government.
We know that trying to put land parcels together to redevelop the area is complicated, but it is now years since the closure. Sadly, despite my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) leading Teesside’s charge for investment and raising the issue of the site at every possible opportunity, we have been told the site will get £14 million—nowhere near the £200 million needed to bring the site back into proper use. What we have instead is a plethora of news releases from the Tees Valley Mayor. If we had a million pounds for every news release that has made promises and delivered nothing, we would have the £200 million that is so desperately needed on Teesside.
That said, I am pleased that the Tees Valley combined authority is currently working on a draft industrial strategy that will sit alongside its strategic economic plan. It identifies our local strengths, as well as our weaknesses, and will set a strategic direction for our industries, but our local efforts need to be backed up by the national Government—a Government that have, so far, fallen short in safeguarding our industries.
I am certain that everybody here wants to see our region prosper and thrive. I am sure we all want to reverse the increase in unemployment in our region, but it needs to be backed by more than words and news releases from the Government. I urge the Minister to stand back, look at Teesside carefully and make the right decisions as we go forward.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) for introducing this debate.
Sedgefield is home to the largest business park in the north-east. Between 10,000 and 12,000 people work there, in about 500 companies, from small sole traders up to massive manufacturers, such as Gestamp, Husqvarna, 3M and, obviously, Hitachi, which is now producing the rolling stock for the east coast main line. Trains for Darlington, Durham, Newcastle and Edinburgh will enter service in August this year. Everybody is looking forward to that—we have been waiting about 40 years for it.
Another manufacturer, Roman, produces showers and bathroom furniture and is now the biggest supplier in Europe. We have a very good story to tell. We are home to a university technical college, which opened two or three years ago. It has been graded good by Ofsted and is going from strength to strength. It has a great future. It is sponsored by Gestamp and Hitachi, who want to see a throughput of apprentices, and it is bringing young people into engineering and electronics and all the manufacturing industries that we want to see maintained in Sedgefield and the north-east.
I want to talk a little about the past, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) did. We have a sound tradition of manufacturing and industry in Sedgefield. About 500 yards from Hitachi’s base is Heighington crossing, where George Stephenson assembled Locomotion No. 1 so that it could enter service for the Stockton to Darlington railway back in 1825. The platform has a nice plaque about that. Next to it was the Locomotion No. 1 public house, which is now closed, but was the original ticket office and waiting room —the first ticket office and waiting room. It is there for anybody to go and see. The original platform is there as well—the oldest in the world. We can trace our manufacturing and industrial heritage back at least 200 years.
I am surprised that my hon. Friend would claim that the first ticket office is in his constituency, because there is a plaque on a wall in my constituency that declares the first ticket office in the world to be there. Perhaps we need to meet outside of this room to consider the matter further.
We do. All I can say is that that is where the train was assembled, where the ticket office is and where the train set off from.
Order. I hope you will not be asking the Chair to rule on that.
No, no, but I know that Stockton had the first passenger railway in the world. We have a lot to be proud of in our area.
NETPark, a science park just outside Sedgefield village is leading the way in all kinds of technologies, including light-based technology. It produces masks that people with diabetes wear when they are asleep, which helps. It is also a catapult centre for the space industry. It is the home of technology for the future. The park overlooks the site of the old Fishburn coke works and pit, where my dad worked all those years ago. If he could only see the technologies that are now on the doorstep of where he was brought up. I am really proud of it all.
There are 9,000 manufacturing jobs in Sedgefield, which is second only to those in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), where there are 17,000 jobs and tens of thousands in the supply chain. We have a supply chain of about 16,000. Manufacturing is a key industry for the north-east of England. Make UK, the manufacturers’ organisation, is now saying that it is very worried about a no-deal scenario, as it is “economic lunacy”. On this side of the House, we can all agree. Make UK’s key findings are that domestic and export orders are continuing to weaken, the gap between output and orders has increased, export orders remain at their weakest since the referendum, there is growing evidence of European companies abandoning UK supply chains, investment intentions are paralysed, and the manufacturing forecast for growth is just 0.2% in 2018 and 0.8% in 2020. These are dire figures. We need to think about those indicators as we further consider in this House what to do about Brexit.
I have deep concerns about Brexit. The north-east is the only region that exports more than it imports, and more than 60% of our exports go to European markets. Being part of the EU, the single market and the customs union is vital to the north-east of England. If there is a no-deal Brexit, it is estimated that GDP will fall by 16%, which could mean the loss of something like 200,000 jobs. Those are dire figures, and we should be broadcasting them all the time.
Between 2014 and 2020, the European structural investment fund invested £437 million in the north-east economy. The aim of EU structural funds is to rebalance our economy through regional investment allocated according to need. Will the Minister tell us where that money will come from when it stops coming from the EU? The Government’s stronger towns fund, launched in March this year, consists of a £1 billion fund allocated to English regions and £600 million available under competitive bidding after Brexit. That is less than 10% of what UK regions would receive if the UK remained in the EU; the north-east alone was projected to receive £1 billion over seven years. The shared prosperity fund, which was designed to reduce inequalities between communities, has released no details on the level of funding, the funding model, the length of funding periods or the fund’s administration.
Another issue that I want to raise with the Minister, which he might not be responsible for, is the high street fund, which was announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer a few months ago. We all agree that we need to see improvements to our high streets. Newton Aycliffe in my constituency has a high street that is owned by Freshwater. The environmental area has been vastly improved—something for which the town has won awards—but there is still the problem of empty units and shops closing, which affects not just Newton Aycliffe, but our high streets up and down the country. If the likes of Darlington and Durham are losing their branches of Marks & Spencer, I really worry about the future of high streets in new towns such as Newton Aycliffe. What can we do to remedy that?
I want to make one or two other points. The north-east is one region, but we do not act like one region. If we did, we would become a true powerhouse. The regional development agency, which was abolished by this Government back in 2010-11, was a key asset to the north-east of England. I think it is fair to say that investment was from the public sector to the private sector in the north; in the south-east, it might be from the private sector to the private sector. The regional development agency was therefore a key contributor to bringing investment to the north-east.
My hon. Friend is making a very good point, which I want to reinforce by putting it on record that, from my recollection, the regional development agency in the north-east was the only one that really worked as it should have. For every £1 that the Government invested in the north-east through the One North East RDA, the return was £7. I might have it wrong, but that is the figure from memory. Does he agree that we should have certainly been able to keep One North East, because it worked?
That is right, and to abolish One North East was an act of economic vandalism. It was a kind of ideology gone mad—“If it is public sector, we should abolish it.” We now see the impact of its loss, to the detriment of the north-east of England. We have got rid of the regional development agency, and we do not act as one region. We have two Mayors and three combined authorities competing with each other, whereas we need to be one region—the north-east of England—talking as one for the benefit of the whole region.
I will finish by discussing the issue of Brexit. I remember when the news came out a few months ago about the manufacturing loss of Nissan models such as the X-Trail. I remember people from the region saying on the television, “Well, if Nissan goes, we’ll be okay. We survived the closure of the pits. We survived the closure of the shipyards.” Well, we might have done—we might be starting to come out of that period—but it has taken years. How did we survive that? Why have we got a big upturn in car manufacturing? How have we as a region been able to attract foreign direct investment in the way that we have, with Nissan and Hitachi in my constituency, and with other manufacturers around the country? How were we able to survive the closures of the pits and the shipyards? The reason is that we were in the single market and the customs union, and we had access to the biggest trading bloc—the biggest economic bloc—in the world. My view is that it is absolutely wrong for the region, and for this country, to close the door on that.
We were able to come round from the closure of the pits. I grew up in a pit village, and I know what happened back in the 1980s. We managed to get through the catastrophe of the closure of the shipyards because we were in the single market and the customs union. If we close the door, what will it do for the future of manufacturing and the economic wellbeing of my region and the country? Should there be a no-deal Brexit, GDP will fall by 16%, which is not in the best interest of the people of the north-east of England. We need to be saying that loud and clear from this day on, until we get a resolution to the issue of Brexit. In my view, there is no deal that is better than the one we have now. I have asked the Prime Minister whether the deal she brought forward is better than the one we have now, but I have yet to receive an answer.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) for securing this important debate. It is really apposite that we are having this debate now, as later this month the North East LEP will publish its evidence base, which will contribute to developing our north-east industrial strategy.
As hon. Members have said, we have some difficulties in the north-east. Like others, I am hugely proud of our communities, businesses and places in the north-east. They have real strength, real history and real power, and I want to see us build on that. We need to recognise the issues we face, if we are to have any chance of addressing those difficulties. In my constituency, we have both industrial and retail sites, which I will come to later. We have the Metrocentre, which is still the largest indoor shopping centre in the UK. We also have the long-established Team Valley trading estate, which houses over 700 businesses. Not all of it is in my constituency of Blaydon—some of it is in the Gateshead constituency—but a significant part is. It is really important that we keep our links with the people trading on the estate; they are an important part of our local economy.
As I have said, we need to recognise the issues that we face, if we are to address them. We need to ensure that the north-east can grow and develop its economy, creating more and better jobs. Sadly, unemployment in the region is still 5.4%, compared with 3.8% across the UK, and many of the jobs that have been created are part time and low paid and do not represent the best jobs that we could have for our communities. That is where the industrial strategy is important. It must reflect our current strengths and also grow new sectors. We have heard about the digital sector, and there is also a growing video game sector in Gateshead that we need to develop. Any industrial strategy must consider those new sectors and present new opportunities.
I want to touch on a few of the things that should go into the strategy. The first is infrastructure, which hon. Members have mentioned. Connectivity is a real issue in the north, especially in the north-east. It needs to be addressed if we are to have a positive industrial future. We know that Transport for the North, which covers the whole of the north rather than just the north-east, has submitted a request for industrial funding under the “Rail for the north” strategy. That is a £39 billion development proposal. Many of us in the north-east want to see much more of that rail development in the region, and we will continue to argue for that. We certainly must address that infrastructure issue, and the others that hon. Members have mentioned, if we are to have a positive future industrial strategy.
The issue of European funding was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) and others. As we have heard, the north-east is the only region that is a net exporter. We have heard that it will be hit hard by Brexit, especially a no-deal Brexit—there would be an estimated 16% fall in GDP growth. It is important to ensure that we have the right conditions and the right deal for the north-east if we are to avoid real problems.
Hon. Members have already referred to the shared prosperity fund. The north-east currently benefits from EU structural investment funds that are designed to address regional imbalances, receiving £437 million between 2014 and 2020. It is vital that businesses know the size and the terms of the shared prosperity fund as soon as possible. It has been kicked down the road in the years since the initial announcement was made. It is absolutely vital that our businesses know what is coming so they can plan accordingly.
Let me touch on education and skills. As we have heard, the north-east has some excellent universities and further education colleges, including Gateshead College—the outstanding and high-performing college—yet employers still struggle to find workers with the right skills, so we need action to close the skills gap and identify our future skills needs. We must address that in the strategy, and local input—the local power to have a say on skills—is really important when we do that.
The retail sector provides nearly a quarter of the jobs in my constituency. We know that the retail sector, high streets and shopping malls are going through a tough time, so we need a retail strategy. That is one of the weaknesses of the Government’s national industrial strategy. We need a greater emphasis on retail, because it is such a significant part of our economy. We need a proper strategy to deal with the problems on the high street. The Government need look no further than the excellent report on the future of the high street that the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee produced earlier this year. We must also address the wider problems in retail and issues relating to pay, skills and retail sector workers’ personal development and training, so that they are able to develop, enhance their skills, improve the services they provide and add value to the sector.
I congratulate the Select Committee on its excellent report. It visited my constituency to see Stockton high street. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the local authority, which is bringing international athletics to the area? International athletes will be running down the widest high street in England, bringing people into our town centre and boosting our local businesses.
I am very happy to congratulate Stockton on those innovations—while of course mentioning that Gateshead, which is not to be outdone, has a strong record in international athletics.
The north-east has a rich and proud industrial history, but we need support. Positive steps must be taken to put in place infrastructure. We must recognise and address the particular issues that we face in the north-east.
It is a real pleasure and honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon), on securing this important and timely debate. The industrial strategy in the north-east does not receive the attention it deserves, so I am grateful to her for bringing this debate to Westminster Hall and for making such a passionate and comprehensive opening speech. She combined in-depth knowledge of her constituency and region with real lived experience. In that, she was joined by my hon. Friends the Members for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson), for Blaydon (Liz Twist) and for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), who all grew up and have lived in the region, and spoke with such knowledge. It is a pity that that knowledge is not reflected by the presence of Government Members from north-east constituencies, but Labour Members have done well and have spoken with in-depth knowledge about our region.
Like other hon. Members, I will talk a little about the past. We are very proud of our industrial heritage. I grew up in Newcastle in the shadow of industrial greats such as Armstrong, Stephenson and Parsons—that, by the way, is Rachel Parsons, the world’s first female naval engineer, who inspired me to become an engineer. I always like to remind colleagues from across the UK that the north-east literally drove the first industrial revolution. There might be some debate about where the first ticket office was—you were wise not to rule on that, Mr Betts, but perhaps we can have a parliamentary inquiry on that important subject—but there is no debate about who invented the railways. George Stephenson built the locomotive in my constituency, and our region mined and built many of the industrial riches that flowed from the first industrial revolution.
Today, as we have heard, manufacturing makes up approximately 15% of the north-east economy, and we have more than 63,000 specialist workers in our successful advanced manufacturing sector. We have a 126,000-strong workforce in wider manufacturing, and an average of 51,000 science, technology, engineering and mathematics students come through our universities every year. We are in the top five UK regions for advanced manufacturing. We have world-class universities and growing strengths in science, digital, energy, healthcare and business.
Years of deindustrialisation, and chronic underinvestment in infrastructure and education have left the north-east with significant economic challenges. No one who lived in the region in the 1980s can forget what forced deindustrialisation did to our region, the economic livelihoods that were lost and the talent and potential that was lost with them. The financialisation of our economy that followed centred on London and the south and meant that thousands of manufacturing jobs in the north-east were lost. As leading economist Mariana Mazzucato has argued, the “two faces” of financialisation are at the heart of capitalism’s fundamental failure. The first is that the financial sector has stopped resourcing the real economy. Instead of investing in companies that produce stuff, finance is financing finance. The second is how financialisation changes the motors behind economic activity, giving investors with short-term interests more control over firms. That disproportionately affects the north-east—a region that still takes pride in making and building things. Its legacy is low productivity and low pay.
As we heard from many of my hon. Friends, Brexit adds more uncertainty. The north-east exports more than it imports, as my hon. Friends the Members for Sedgefield, for Washington and Sunderland West, and for Blaydon highlighted, and more than half of that goes to the European Union. No matter what deal there is, there will be negative economic consequences for our region. A no-deal Brexit would be absolutely catastrophic. I ask the Minister to rule that out personally.
As my hon. Friends emphasised, the north-east received almost £0.5 billion in European structural investment funding in the period 2014 to 2020. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield said, projections for the next seven years suggest that we would have received up to £1 billion in EU funding, but the Government’s paltry stronger towns fund repackages existing money to the tune of £1 billion for all UK regions. As my hon. Friends said, we have no details about the supposed shared prosperity fund. Labour has committed to matching European Union regional development funding for at least the next decade, so will the Minister take this opportunity to commit to tackling regional inequality by guaranteeing the continuation of the current and projected future levels of regional funding?
At the heart of tackling the challenges that our great region faces needs to be a strong, positive industrial strategy capable of building and rebuilding the economy to meet the needs of the future. Until very recently, the Government were incapable of saying “industrial” and “strategy” in the same sentence, so their acknowledgment of the need for local industrial strategies is a step forward. Unfortunately, we have no evidence that the Government’s industrial strategy is anywhere near sufficient for the north-east’s needs. Their industrial strategy is sectoral, favours sectors that are already well organised and can push to the front of the queue, and focuses on what I, as an engineer, would call “sexy science”. Last year, Sheffield Hallam University researchers found that the Government’s industrial strategy pledges would impact only 10% of our manufacturing base and only 1% of the whole economy.
The north-east’s five universities make a huge contribution to our economy—they contribute £750 million directly, and £1 billion more through other industries—yet the golden triangle of London-Cambridge-Oxford attracts the lion’s share of research funding—more than £17 billion, compared with only £600 million for the north-east—despite the north-east’s many research-intensive universities, such as Newcastle University. Cambridge, with a population of just over a quarter of a million, has as many private research and development jobs as the whole of the north. Does the Minister agree that innovation should deliver high-skilled jobs across our country, and how will he ensure that local industrial strategies from our local enterprise partnerships and the North of Tyne Mayor have the resources that they need to deliver high-skilled and high-productivity jobs?
Labour’s “innovation nation” mission would raise R&D to 3% of GDP, and would democratise science and technology, so that they benefit the whole country, as well as the whole region. It would also be certain to benefit the north-east’s growing tech industry. We need to maintain our current centres of excellence, but we must ensure that every region can benefit from innovation and growth. That is why we are committed to putting technology and innovation at the heart of the lowest-paid and least-productive sectors. My hon. Friends the Members for Blaydon, and for Stockton North, mentioned the importance of retail. We are committed to creating a retail catapult, which will support the 3 million people who work in retail across the UK, making it the UK’s largest private sector employer.
Much of our additional R&D spend would be drawn on by our industrial strategy missions, such as investing in carbon capture and storage, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North also mentioned, as part of our commitment to decarbonise our economy by 2050 and to deliver hundreds of thousands of green jobs in the process. The Government’s refusal to commit to funding a carbon capture and storage facility on Teesside is another example of their unwillingness to invest in the green technologies of the future.
The regional disparity and unique issues that the north-east faces are the reason that we need the £250 billion national investment bank—a network of regional development banks—to which Labour is committed. That would properly put regional needs first and restore regional decision making. Labour’s national education service will address some of the challenges highlighted by my hon. Friends, by delivering education, free at the point of demand, from cradle to grave, and ensuring that we have the skills that our regional businesses need.
As my hon. Friends also highlighted, improving infrastructure is critical to raising productivity. Under the Tories, infrastructure spending in the north-east is five times lower than in London, which is why Labour’s £250 billion national transformation fund would invest in our transport and digital infrastructure. We have already committed to a £1.4 billion investment in north-east transport, which would renew rolling stock on the Metro and build a Crossrail for the north. Would the Minister like to do the same?
Labour would also establish a new materials and metals catapult centre on Teesside—that is supported by UK Steel, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Confederation of British Industry—to help secure the future of UK steel by encouraging innovation in the materials industry. Will the Minister secure the future of UK steel with a commitment to support it?
As we have heard, the north-east is a fantastic region that offers a quality of life that is second to none, with sun, surf, castles, coasts, rolling landscapes, history—including the Romans—excellent local produce and excellent industry. We need a real industrial strategy to support the north-east, realise its potential and deliver an economy that ensures prosperity for everyone across our region. Labour’s industrial strategy is positive, practical and visionary enough to know the future that we want, while focusing on addressing our present challenges in productivity, skills and wages. Will the Minister commit to doing the same?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) on securing the debate. I thank hon. Members, who have given very considered and generally good-natured speeches.
I will now start to get controversial. My father was born in Shildon, County Durham, which is of course the home of the railways, and I still have family living in Wylam, Northumberland, which is the birthplace of George Stephenson, the father of the railways. He did much of his pioneering work in Killingworth, in the constituency of the hon. Member for North Tyneside. I am delighted that his work was mentioned by the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson), but I will not pass judgment on where the first ticket office was. Sadly, even though I am Andrew George Stephenson and my family descend from that part of the world, I cannot claim to be a descendant of the great man, because George Stephenson had only one son, Robert, who had no children. If we look far back enough, though, who knows?
My father’s first job in the north-east was for British Rail in Shildon, before he moved permanently to Manchester, where he worked in the aerospace sector for Avro, the famed manufacturer of the Lancaster and Vulcan bombers. I know that the pride my family felt at working in vital industries across the north-east of England is still deeply felt by people in the region today.
Our industrial strategy is about ensuring that that heritage of excellence is translated into future success and prosperity. We want to grow productivity and prosperity across all parts of the country, so that whenever young people decide to leave a place such as Shildon for opportunities elsewhere in the country, they do it through choice and not because they feel forced out by a lack of chances closer to home.
As we have heard, the north-east has a proud tradition of innovation, creativity and technical skills. We know that from the histories of railways, mining, shipbuilding and electronics, as well as from today’s leading businesses in the region, such as the cutting-edge offshore energy companies that have moved into the region’s old shipbuilding areas and one of the world’s most productive automotive clusters, based around Nissan. The industrial strategy is about taking that existing strength and blending it with the future-facing technologies and skills that emerge from our knowledge-intensive centres, such as those at Newcastle’s £350 million Helix site, Sunderland’s Software City or Durham’s NETPark.
The industrial strategy focuses on strengthening the foundations of productivity: skilled people, thriving places, ideas, innovation and support for the business environment. The industrial strategy is also about taking on the grand challenges of clean growth, the future of mobility, our ageing society, and artificial intelligence and data. Those are society-changing opportunities and industries of the future in which the UK can build on its strengths and truly lead the world.
Since the publication of the industrial strategy, we have made significant progress across the country. We have committed to the biggest ever increase in R&D, an extra £7 billion by 2021-22, which includes the £1.7 billion that we have already allocated to innovative programmes to support industries and researchers through the first two waves of the industrial strategy challenge fund.
The first wave of the strength in places fund, which supports industrial strategy with a place-based approach to research and innovation, has awarded seedcorn support to two north-east projects to enable them to develop full bids this year: the Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Advanced Manufacturing, led by the University of Sunderland; and the north-east cluster for healthy ageing and independent living, led by Newcastle University. In the neighbouring Tees Valley, strength in places support has been awarded to a project to establish the UK hydrogen corridor, which aims to reduce carbon usage dramatically by producing, using and storing hydrogen energy.
Any investment in the north-east is great news, in particular if it encourages innovation, but does the Minister also recognise that we need to support our existing industries? British Steel is a particularly important one at this time. As I asked in my remarks, will he update us on his understanding of the progress being made in that area?
Certainly. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of British Steel. Since I was appointed, it has probably been the one thing that has taken up more of my time than anything else. The one point of contention in what he said was his suggestion that the Government were standing on the sidelines as British Steel went into liquidation, waiting for the receiver to act.
The hon. Gentleman was in the main Chamber when I answered an urgent question by saying that no stone was being left unturned. At that point, I think that the Department was up to 87 meetings about British Steel. The £120 million bridging loan that we extended to the company earlier in the year showed the Secretary of State’s willingness to think innovatively and to act with regard to British Steel. We considered all sorts of proposals made by the company but, unfortunately, none of them proved compliant with state aid rules—we took legal opinion on that—so the company went into liquidation.
The Government acted immediately by providing the liquidator with an indemnity for the cost of keeping the site running, so that the blast furnaces could be kept running and we would end up with British Steel in the best possible situation to be sold as a going concern. The very next day after the Secretary of State made his statement to the House about the unfortunate news of the liquidation, he and I went up to Scunthorpe to meet trade union representatives and other people on the site to discuss how to work together to ensure that it can be sold as a going concern. I remain hopeful that that will be the case, and I will continue to leave no stone unturned, working with the trade unions, the workers and others on site to ensure that it is sold as a going concern.
I might have been a little unkind to the Minister—that is a hell of a lot of meetings—but talking does not get us far when real funding is needed. If this integrated part of the steel industry cannot be sold as a going concern, just as we nationalised the banks, will the Minister consider nationalising part of the steel industry, even on a temporary basis, to ensure that we do not lose this critical foundation industry?
I think that I am correct in saying that the Secretary of State has not ruled that option out. However, the thing to bear in mind about nationalisation is that, even if British Steel were nationalised, the same state aid rules apply: the company has to be run on a commercial basis in order to be compliant with those rules. Therefore, nationalisation is not a simple solution; it might be the solution, but it is not an easy option.
Lots of steel companies in the UK and across Europe are doing great work, and I hope that we can find an experienced company in the sector that wants to invest in British Steel. If we look at the steel sector pipeline—orders and infrastructure projects across the UK, such as Hinkley Point, High Speed 2 and various other big projects—there is sizeable domestic demand for products made by British Steel. I think that the company has a strong future. I am therefore very hopeful that over the coming weeks and months we will find a good buyer who will want to invest in the site and, most importantly, its workers who have such skills and knowledge of the industry, to ensure the future of steelmaking in that part of this country.
I thank the Minister for responding to questions about the key strategic asset of British Steel and of that capability. He cited state aid rules as a crucial concern in providing the right level of financial and other support. Does he agree that different countries interpret state aid rules in different ways? Other countries within the European Union have been, shall we say, far more innovative, creative and supportive with their strategic industrial capacities, despite the same state aid rules environment. Will he commit to publishing parts of the legal advice on the possible infringement of state aid, so that we can see whether there is a way to provide British Steel with the support it requires within the European Union and, indeed, World Trade Organisation state aid rules, which other countries do manage to achieve?
The shadow Minister makes a valid point about the interpretation of state aid rules. The challenge of the rules in relation to the steel sector is that they are particularly rigid. A lot of the global overcapacity was created by illegal subsidies around the world for domestic steel producers.
We received legal advice from within the Department and, on the Secretary of State’s instruction, we sought a second opinion, because we wanted to ensure that there was definitely nothing more that we could do. The accounting officer’s advice has, I believe, been laid in the Libraries of both Houses, so it is available to all hon. Members who wish to see it. I hope that it sets out how the Government looked at the issue in a detailed way.
The reason I mentioned the 87 meetings is that we were meeting morning, evening and night about it, in order to find a way through. The Secretary of State, whom I have the pleasure of working with and serving under, has a real commitment to the north-east. Originally, he is from that part of the world, and he really wants the British Steel site to remain a going concern. Through the number of meetings he has had, the £120 million bridging facility provided to the industry and other things, he clearly demonstrates a commitment to finding a way through, but it has to be legal and compliant with both UK domestic law and EU law. I look forward to continuing to work with him, hon. Members in all parts of the House, trade unions and others to ensure a future for British Steel.
Returning to research and development spending, we have committed record investment in UK infrastructure: £37 billion has been committed through the national productivity investment fund, including £2.5 billion for the transforming cities fund to improve transport, £5.5 billion for the housing infrastructure fund and £740 million for digital infrastructure. That infrastructure investment has been of direct relevance to the north-east of England. In March, the Government announced that £10 million from the first tranche of the transforming cities fund will be allocated to the north-east, and £35.9 million of housing infrastructure funding has been allocated to the region.
Aside from that national work, all places will produce local industrial strategies, setting out how the quest for prosperity will come to life in our cities, towns and rural areas. The first local industrial strategy was published on 16 May in the west midlands. I was delighted to join local councillors and others in Coventry to launch that strategy. The north-east and the Tees Valley areas are both in the second wave of places to produce their own local industrial strategies in collaboration with Government. In the area of the hon. Member for North Tyneside, that work is led by the North East local enterprise partnership, which has a strong history of evidence-based delivery and is well placed to develop a powerful and distinctive local industrial strategy for the region. So far, a number of critical local drivers have been identified to improve productivity in the north-east: from the need to grow small businesses and to improve start-up rates, to improving the skills base of the local workforce.
The north-east boasts a cutting-edge technological and knowledge economy, based on its four leading universities and its fast-growing digital and tech sectors. On the doorstep are tremendous opportunities in east coast offshore energy, as well as deep expertise in advanced manufacturing. I am particularly interested in the contribution that the area could make to the ageing society grand challenge, which was cited by the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson). The north-east is home to the £40 million National Innovation Centre for Ageing, which reflects Newcastle University’s longstanding leadership in that field. There is a powerful story to tell about how the north-east, with its large rural area and expertise of the transition away from heavy industry, is ideally placed to lead the response to this national and global challenge.
The north-east local industrial strategy will be empowered by the recent North of Tyne devolution deal, which covers three north-east authorities: Newcastle, Northumberland and the home authority of the hon. Member for North Tyneside. I congratulate the three councils on their successful pursuit of devolution, and Jamie Driscoll for his recent election as the first North of Tyne Mayor. The Government have a strong track record of working with the elected mayors, including Ben Houchen in Tees Valley. Alongside specific powers such as control over the adult education budget, the deal includes a total investment fund of £600 million over 30 years, to be used by the area to pursue its local growth goals. Local estimates are that the investment will generate £1.1 billion for the local economy and create 10,000 new jobs.
The north-east local industrial strategy will build on a strong track record of investment in the wider North East local enterprise partnership area. Over the three rounds of the local growth fund, £379.6 million will be invested in the North East LEP area. That includes £1 million for the Ignite centre for engineering and innovation in North Tyneside. I look forward to visiting the north-east and Tees Valley—shortly I will visit the Centre for Process Innovation, which has bases in both areas. That centre has a strong record of collaboration with Government, including a £38 million grant from UK Research and Innovation to establish a national biologics industry innovation centre in Darlington.
I am sure we will welcome the Minister when he comes to the Tees Valley. Will he bring some good news on carbon capture, use and storage?
I am very keen to see the UK move forward with carbon capture, use and storage. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the report by the Committee on Climate Change, which suggested that we could move towards a target of net zero in the same cost envelope as our current target. It says that carbon capture and storage has to be part of the mix. That will accelerate what the Government are doing in this area. I will certainly pass on remarks from today’s debate to the Minister for Energy and Climate Change, as I am sure she will want to focus on this area. When I am in the region, I will be keen to see some of the work in the renewables sector, and I will also pay close attention to carbon capture, use and storage now that the hon. Gentleman has raised it.
I will visit the CPI’s Redcar centre to discuss its achievements and ambitions and the development of the industrial strategy. I look forward to attending the northern powerhouse SME roadshow in June, to discuss investment opportunities and links to the industrial strategy across the whole of the north. Through local partnerships with Government and the impact of national investments, we expect the north-east and Tees Valley to play a full part in the industrial strategy agenda.
I was pleased to hear a number of hon. Members support various Highways England projects in the region, including Silverlink and improvements to the A19. I take on board the point made by the hon. Member for North Tyneside about power lines; she has raised that point on numerous occasions and has met my ministerial colleague about this issue, who wrote to Ofgem about it, and we are looking at possible ways forward. I am sure we will continue to push the point, and I assure her that her remarks today have not gone unnoticed.
Members rightly raised the importance of the east coast main line. At the Cabinet meeting in Newcastle in July 2018, a £780 million investment in the east coast main line was announced, which hopefully will mean faster journey times and more frequent services. That builds on the £337 million that was announced to upgrade local transport through a new fleet on the Tyne and Wear metro.
I strongly agree with the comments by the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West about the importance of Nissan and its huge strength in battery technology. I agree that the company is incredibly well placed to benefit from schemes such as the Government’s £246 million Faraday battery challenge, which is supporting the development of new battery technology in a market that will be worth £5 billion to the UK by 2025.
As the Minister responsible for the automotive sector, I recognise that the sector will go through more change in the next 10 years than it has in the last 100. We need to work closely with car manufacturers based in the UK to help them with that transition and to ensure that they decide this is the best country in the world in which to invest in new, cleaner modes of transport.
The Minister speaks about the importance of battery technology, and Nissan’s strength in particular, but does he recognise that while the five-year fund supports investment in battery technology, it does not support investment in battery manufacturing? In this country we need a battery manufacturing base, so that batteries are not simply imported. Will he speak to that? I also hope he will not forget to respond to the concerns about a replacement for European regional development and structural investment funds.
The shadow Minister is correct; that is one of the reasons that we have the industrial strategy challenge fund. I mentioned my being in Coventry to launch the west midlands local industrial strategy, which was the first to be launched. On that day, I was delighted to visit the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre and to announce a further £28 million for that facility, which will be about production. It will take technologies being developed in places such as the Advanced Propulsion Centre and see how to produce batteries here in the UK. Some existing companies that have already done incredible work, such as Nissan, have the potential to bid for some of the Government funds that are already available, as well as future funds. That is fundamental because of the number of petrol engines we produce in the UK: to keep the UK as an automotive hub, we need to ensure that companies across the board invest in battery technology and production in the UK.
Questions have been asked about the £675 million high streets fund, the £1.6 billion stronger towns fund and the UK shared prosperity fund. More details of all those funds will be published in due course. They show the Government’s commitment to addressing the challenges raised by Members today. We need to invest more in renewable technologies, as was raised by several Members. The offshore wind sector deal is a great example of that. The Government’s commitment to the sector is underlined by the £92 billion of public and private investment in renewables since 2010. We have just finished an 18-day coal-free run in our power supply.
Lots has been done, but there is lots more to do, and lots of great ideas have been suggested today. I look forward to working with all Members who spoke in the debate and to visiting their constituencies and some of the projects they talked about.
I neglected to congratulate the Minister on his appointment. We are all pleased to hear that he has roots in the north-east and a personal knowledge of it, and we will call on that—he has dropped himself right in it.
I hope that the issues about British steel, which have been stressed over and again, will be carried forward because they are so important. Will the Minister take on board and pass on the message that a no-deal Brexit is no good for the north-east in any shape or form? It would be catastrophic.
Members in the debate have shown the pride of the north-east today. We want an industrial strategy that works for everyone—as the Minister said, to get prosperity in every region so nobody misses out and everyone can flourish in the north-east through a good industrial strategy. We will push the Minister as we move towards the publication of our industrial strategy. Thanks again to everyone who has participated in this debate and to you, Mr Betts.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered industrial strategy in the North East of England.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered transport in Cheshire.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I am glad to see you here, and I thank the other hon. Members present for attending.
The debate is about transport issues in Cheshire, but we could not possibly deal with all the issues in the time available, so I will talk about two issues with a common element that has been causing much anger, frustration and consternation in my constituency and beyond. I refer to the River Mersey and the tolls my constituents face to cross it, be it by the Mersey tunnels or the Mersey Gateway. There is now no way they can cross the river for work, for family reasons or for medical treatment without paying a fee. Of course, there have always been fees for the Mersey tunnels, but not ones that discriminate against people because of where they live.
Let me start with the principle of the tolls. The fact that the Mersey tunnels have always had tolls does not make the tolls’ existence any more defendable. Indeed, it is difficult to understand why they are still in place, given that we have heard repeatedly from Ministers how the removal of tolls can improve an area’s economic performance—an argument that seemingly won in south Wales, where the Severn crossings had their tolls abolished; in Scotland, where the new Forth crossing is not tolled; and in the true blue Tory shires of England, where plans for the A14 upgrade to be tolled around Huntingdon and Cambridge were scrapped.
Would there not be a considerable outcry if just one of the 36 bridges over the River Thames in London were tolled? Is this unfairness not a case of a real north-south divide?
I agree, and London seems to do better than the rest of the country in terms of per-head transport investment, too.
None of the crossings in Northern Ireland is tolled, none in Scotland is tolled and, as we have heard, London is equally blessed. In fact, more than 90% of tidal crossings in this country are toll free. The argument that tolls harm economic growth seems to be accepted everywhere, except on the River Mersey.
As I said, the tolls on the Mersey tunnels have always been with us. They are not popular, but they have always been part of life. However, an unconscionable decision earlier this year by the Liverpool city region metro Mayor has made them far less acceptable. Regular tunnel users can apply for a fast tag, which gives a discount on the normal fees. From 1 April this year, the fee for those who live in the Merseyside area was reduced from £1.20 to £1, but the fee for those outside the Merseyside area was increased by a whopping 50%, from £1.20 to £1.80. That decision was made with little notice, no consultation and complete disregard for the economic impact on those living outside Merseyside.
Although my constituency is in Cheshire, we are very much in the hinterland of Merseyside—the number of Liverpool shirts I saw over the weekend is testament to that. We are less than 10 miles from Liverpool city centre, and our economic, cultural and family connections mean that people travel there daily. When my constituents ask me whether it is right that they have to pay nearly twice as much as someone who lives just down the road from them to go to work or visit their elderly mother, I tell them, “No, it isn’t.” It is discrimination by postcode, and it is not something I believe anyone who wants fairness in this country can support.
To be fair to the metro Mayor, he would like to be able to get rid of tolls altogether. I am happy to work with him and anyone else who wants to join me on that campaign, but that is a longer-term aim. In the short term, he has defended his decision robustly. He rightly points out that the Liverpool city region has experienced the largest Government funding cuts anywhere in the country, and that the people he represents cannot be expected to shoulder the burden of austerity. His conclusion is that he cannot have non-city region residents’ travel being subsidised. I understand what he says, but he is simply wrong about subsidy.
The Mersey tunnels, for which I understand the tolls are the third highest of their type in the whole country, are operated under the Mersey Tunnels Act 2004, which permits any operating surplus to be used by the transport authority to achieve public transport policies in its local transport plan. In 2017-18, the surplus from operating the tunnels was £16.7 million, so my constituents, far from asking for a subsidy, clearly subsidise the rest of the Merseytravel operation—indeed, all tunnel users do. Given that level of surplus, the decision to increase the costs for my constituents by 50% cannot be said to be critical to Merseytravel’s operations. There is no room for doubt about that. It feels much more like racketeering.
One might argue that the surplus is used to provide good public transport services across Merseyside and beyond, which of course benefits my constituents, albeit to a lesser degree than Merseyside residents. However, a closer look at rail fares suggests that when my constituents use cross-border Merseyrail services, they are again subject to indefensible price differences. For example, a day return from Eastham Rake on the Merseyrail line—the first stop in Merseyside when travelling from Cheshire—to Liverpool is £1.50 cheaper than a day return from Little Sutton. That is 25% extra for just two stops down the line. Although Capenhurst station is not in my constituency, it is used by many of my constituents and it is also just two stops down from Eastham Rake, but a day return to Liverpool from Capenhurst costs more than £3 extra.
It feels like the residents of Cheshire are seen as a soft touch—a cash cow. Sadly, I feel there is a bit of reverse snobbery here, the implication being that people who live in Cheshire are a bit better off, so they can afford to pay more. That just is not the case for the majority of people. My constituency has some pockets of wealth, but it also has some of the most deprived wards in the country. Some of the examples constituents have given me of the hardship they have suffered demonstrate that they are not people with loads of spare cash floating about, waiting to be squeezed until the pips squeak.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Although he feels his constituents are discriminated against, does he accept that the same applies to people from Knowsley, parts of Liverpool and St Helens, for whom there is no public transport option that makes sense? They have only one option: the Mersey Gateway. In some cases, it costs them £20 a week extra to travel to and from work in his constituency or that of my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury). Surely that is not acceptable.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will talk about the Mersey Gateway later, because we have another very difficult situation there.
As my right hon. Friend says, many people have no option but to cross the Mersey to get to work. Many of those people work in public sector organisations such as the police and the NHS, and have not had a real pay rise for almost a decade. They often work shifts. The only way they can get to work is with their own transport, because public transport does not operate on the routes or at the times they need to get to work.
For example, an Ellesmere Port resident works as a physiotherapist specialising in treating head and neck cancer patients from across the north-west at Aintree Hospital. She pays at least £400 more per year than Wirral residents to get to work. What about the band 5 staff nurse who recently began working at the Royal Liverpool Hospital and, due to her shift times, has to drive from Ellesmere Port to Liverpool? She says she finds it financially crippling to pay tunnel tolls and car park fees. She also makes the point that colleagues who live down the road from her on the Wirral and in Liverpool can pay the lower toll, but they have better public transport options anyway.
We know how hard it is for the NHS to recruit and retain staff, particularly nurses, but this policy seems to be forcing them out. One nurse told me that
“the individual cost of the Toll fees on my current wage may force me to leave my nursing post at the Royal Liverpool NHS Foundation trust and seek employment elsewhere. I find my situation ironic due the desperate need for nursing staff at the hospital but am being forced out by unfair and discriminatory postcode politics.”
I could not have put it better myself. Then there are the people who have to travel across the Mersey at both crossings to get treatment at more specialist healthcare services, such as Broadgreen and Alder Hey. Why should people with the most serious conditions be treated in that way?
I have been given dozens of examples of people who use the tunnels for work and who are thinking of taking their talents elsewhere. Ultimately, this is an economically damaging policy. There are also those who go to visit their family, including elderly relatives. I have a constituent who travels over the Mersey nearly every day to care for her 80-year-old mum, who has dementia. She saves the council a fortune in social care costs, but her contribution does not appear to carry any weight. There are others, including the British Sign Language interpreter, the paramedics, the teachers and the Leahurst veterinary school students. None of those people have been considered, because there has been no assessment of the impact of the decision.
Those are just some examples of the hardship faced by my constituents and others who have no choice but to cross the Mersey—hardship the metro Mayor actually appears to recognise. Last year, he said:
“The introduction of additional tolls has proven to be a significant imposition to many from lower socio-economic groups, who are already struggling to make ends meet.”
He was talking about the Mersey Gateway tolls, but it could just as easily have been the Mersey tunnels tolls. I agree, and his argument applies to both crossings. I also agree with him when he said:
“The economic wellbeing of our city region is a joint responsibility between the combined authority and Government.”
I ask the Minister to set out what he will do to ensure that my constituents no longer face these rip-off charges.
If the Minister does not think it is the Government’s responsibility to ensure citizens of this country do not face postcode discrimination, he must agree that they do have responsibility for promises made by members of the Government. I refer specifically about the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, who made promises about the Mersey Gateway that have not materialised. In a tweet on 23 April 2015 he said:
“Confirm we’ll extend free bridge tolls to residents of Cheshire W & Chester + Warrington”.
One of my constituents was understandably a little sceptical about that comment, so he emailed the Conservative party candidate for Ellesmere Port and Neston in the 2015 election, who responded in unequivocal terms:
“If we get a majority it’s a firm commitment and applies to all of Cheshire West Council including us. I’ve been involved in making the case to the Chancellor and he’s listened and acted.”
As we know, the Conservatives did win a majority, but the promise was reneged on. As my constituent said, it was a clear and simple promise on which they have totally failed to deliver in any way whatever.
While we are on the subject, I draw the Minister’s attention to a statement by the then Chancellor during the 2015 election regarding Mersey tunnel fees. He said:
“They will definitely be cut. I think we might be able to go further. I’m quite optimistic that we might be able to go further and abolish them altogether”.
Please, Minister, do not say in responding that this is for local operators to determine. When the Chancellor of the day makes clear statements—promises, no less—it is incumbent on the Government to deliver them. The reputation of this place has had a real shaking in recent times, and no wonder when unambiguous, incontestable promises are made just before an election and jettisoned without a second thought. It destroys the very essence of what politics should be about—honesty and integrity—and replaces it with cynicism and callous disrespect for the public.
I turn to our continuing problems with the Mersey Gateway, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) referred. According to the local campaign group, hundreds of thousands of fines have been issued, and so far about 7,500 penalties have been appealed to the Traffic Penalty Tribunal, which I understand have all been allowed. If that is correct, it must surely encourage the Minister to make enquiries about what on earth is going on. I urge him to look into how these fines are arising. It is clear there are regular issues with people seeing the signs and paying in time. It is far from clear when people have to pay by and how they should pay. Why does it have to always be online?
Many of my constituents have been affected and are deeply upset, getting continual fines after they thought they had paid when there was a problem with the system. Paying online is immensely difficult for older people who do not have access to online facilities. Why should they have to go to a shop somewhere to pay? It should not be up to them to find that; it should be up to toll operators, if a toll is to be charged, to make it as easy as possible for people to cross.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. The system seems to have been set up to make it as difficult as possible to pay the tolls, which is probably why there are so many difficulties and so many fines. It is the major route to John Lennon airport, and how realistic is it to expect people going on their holidays to pay a toll online by the following day? It is not living in the real world.
There are real concerns about the tactics used by the debt recovery firm once a fine is issued, and about the way costs can escalate to nearly £400 in no time at all. A minimum bailiff charge of £380 for a £2 crossing seems totally disproportionate; it is yet more racketeering. I have heard too many stories of bailiffs turning up unannounced and clamping vehicles before they have spoken to anyone to be confident that they are operating reasonably.
I ask the Minister again to consider that those in the public sector in particular travelling in both directions over the bridge face four-figure increases in their costs just to get to work. I have heard many difficult stories about how people have been affected, including one from a young mum whose husband had a stay in Broadgreen Hospital. It was costing her £15 extra a day just to visit him. She had more than enough to worry about at that time.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent case. In view of those issues and the Conservative party’s promise in 2015, does he agree that now is the time to scrap the Mersey Gateway toll? At the end of the day, the people of the whole region are affected immensely.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The injustice of the situation will get worse in the near future, because when the old Silver Jubilee bridge reopens, it will also be tolled. Can the Minister tell us of any other previously toll-free bridge having tolls introduced in such a way? The bridge was partly funded by Cheshire County Council when Halton was part of it. Should not the successor authorities—Cheshire East Council, and Cheshire West and Chester Council—get some sort of refund, or will my constituents have to pay three times over for the crossing, having paid for the original construction, having paid their road tax, and paying every time they cross the river?
My constituents are absolutely fed up with being considered the soft touch of the north-west. They are fed up with being discriminated against because of where they live, and they are fed up with living in a country where the authorities apparently condone a postcode lottery. Most of all, they are fed up with being treated like fools, through promises made that are never kept and not being treated the same as residents of other areas because it cannot be afforded. Minister, it is time to bring back some fairness and equity. Give these people some hope that they will be treated the same as everyone else, and hope that when there is injustice, the Government will step in to correct it.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) on securing this debate on transport issues in Cheshire. As it happens, I intend to visit his constituency tomorrow—[Interruption.] It is already scheduled. I will visit Argent Energy’s biodiesel-from-waste production facility, which is an example of the vital importance of Ellesmere Port to the local and national economy. It will be my first visit out of London since becoming Transport Minister, and I am delighted to do that.
Cheshire is a powerhouse of the northern economy and the UK economy. It is the gateway to the north. It links strongly to its neighbours, the large city regions of Liverpool and Manchester, as well as to the engine of the midlands and, vitally, to north Wales. I recognise that. With its £29.3 billion economy employing over 488,000 people in more than 42,000 businesses, Cheshire is an economic success story and home to almost 920,000 people. The region has particular strengths in advanced manufacturing, science and innovation, and professional services. In fact, Cheshire’s economy outperforms the UK average on a number of measures. The local enterprise partnership’s strategic economic plan is entitled “Cheshire and Warrington Matters”, and I absolutely endorse that view.
The north matters, and transport matters in and to the north. Transport in all its forms and modes is essential for the prosperity, growth and wellbeing of the whole nation. I therefore commend the hon. Gentleman on raising these matters on his constituents’ behalf. The Government recognise that good transport infrastructure is essential for productivity, which is why we are investing significantly across the country to deliver sustained economic development.
On 1 April 2018, Transport for the North became a statutory body, according the north powers and funding not seen in other areas to develop and drive forward transport plans, which will support economic growth. The Government have also committed to creating a northern powerhouse to rebalance our economy. Northern Powerhouse Rail, the flagship scheme within TfN’s strategic vision, will provide the east-west rail links that the north needs. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to unlock the full potential of the region.
That is part of our long-term economic plan—one that we share with the north. As Transport Minister, I am committed to improving journeys for passengers in the north. We are carrying out the biggest investment in transport in the region for a generation. Between 2015 and 2020, the Government will have spent over £13 billion improving and modernising northern transport.
Does the Minister agree that it is unfair to ask the public to pay those tolls when that bridge has been untolled for decades?
I will come to tolling in a moment, but it is a long-established principle that goes back to the 1930s that those roads and tunnels are tolled. Figures from the Infrastructure and Projects Authority show that in the three years to 2021, central Government’s planned transport capital investment per head for the north-west, the north-east, Yorkshire and Humber will be higher than for London, the south-east and the south-west. Each year we will invest an average of £248 per person in the north, compared with £236 per person in the south.
We are investing in a smart motorway from junctions 6 to 8 of the M56, which serves Manchester airport, and from junctions 21A to 26 of the M6, which links Cheshire, Merseyside, Greater Manchester and Lancashire. Those are important additions to other localised improvements such as tackling congestion on the A55, which I understand is a major factor, as well as at the Posthouse roundabout. Improvements at junction 8 of the M62 are designed to support the rapid and significant expansion of the Omega employment site, which now employs more than 5,000 people. In the 2018 Budget, the Government published their objectives for the second road investment strategy for 2020 to 2025, and we intend to make available £25.3 billion to further develop the strategic road network. My Department is developing an affordable, deliverable investment plan for that, which will be published in a few months.
I am sorry that I missed the start of the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders). Does the Minister agree that the delivery of HS2 is essential for achieving that vision in the north and opening up that capacity?
As the hon. Lady knows, we are investing significantly in rail. The reinstatement and reintroduction of services on the Halton curve means that from last month, after a gap of more than 40 years, a direct rail link between the west of Cheshire, north Wales and Liverpool Lime Street now connects those important areas together, unlocking business and opportunities, and providing improved access to the airport. HS2 is, of course, very important, as is the construction of a new station at Warrington West to serve new housing growth. The Northern franchise will lead to the removal of pacers, and brand-new trains will operate on the new Northern Connect service between Liverpool, Warrington Central, Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester airport, as well as a new direct service between Leeds and Chester via Warrington Bank Quay.
I am conscious of the time as I want to address the issue of tolls, but I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.
For every £4 of investment put into London and the south-east, the north gets £1—those are the Government’s own figures. The Northwich area in my constituency was promised two trains an hour to Manchester, but that has not been delivered by the failing Northern franchise. On tolls, there was a clear promise, as outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), that a local discount scheme would be extended to Cheshire West, Chester and Warrington, but that promised has not been delivered. Will the Minister answer that point?
I will come to that in a moment, as I want to talk a little more about HS2. Despite speculation and claims that we should scrap HS2, our commitment to the full HS2 network remains. From 2027, high-speed trains will begin serving Cheshire at Crewe, and the legislative process is under way to extend HS2 to Crewe by 2027—six years earlier than originally planned. For Cheshire, Crewe offers a significant opportunity. We are working actively with local partners to maximise the potential of an HS2 hub at Crewe, both for the wider connectivity to HS2 that that will offer, and for its potential as an agent of change and a significant driver for regeneration and development in and around Crewe, Cheshire and the wider region, including Stoke and Staffordshire.
With Transport for the North we are developing a business case for northern powerhouse rail, and exploring the best options to ensure that the huge economic potential of Warrington and the north Cheshire science corridor is served. Through a £200 million-plus growth deal, we are supporting a significant number of local transport improvements that are vital for people going about their daily business. Those include a new bus station in Chester, bypasses for Congleton, Middlewich and Poynton, and a new highway infrastructure in Crewe, Warrington and Birchwood to alleviate congestion. There is a huge amount of investment. We are also supporting the construction of the new Mersey Gateway crossing, which is the largest local transport scheme in the country and benefits residents of Cheshire, Liverpool city region, and beyond.
We have just five minutes left, and I wish to get on to tolling. I acknowledge that tolling to support the estuary crossing, and other crossings, is controversial, and it is clear that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston has a major disagreement with the Labour Metro Mayor in his region, who changed the hitherto existing position. He is understandably upset about that, but it is a matter for the Mayor, Steve Rotheram. The hon. Gentleman called the tolls “unconscionable” and “racketeering”, and I have noted his comments.
For the Mersey Gateway we were able to ensure that all eligible residents of Halton Borough Council can use the new bridges for free through the local resident discount scheme. It has been the policy of successive UK Governments—both Labour and Conservative—to place tolls on major estuarial crossings, so that those schemes help to pay for the benefits that people receive in those areas. The Government decided to provide free access for the residents of Halton because of their unusual position, given that the existing bridge connects the two parts of the borough on either side of the River Mersey, and that is the only practicable way of travelling between those areas. We looked at the case for extending free tolling to residents of councils beyond Halton, but decided not to do so because the cost to the Government and local authorities would have been disproportionate and substantial.
Since their construction in the 1930s—I think it was 1934—and again in the 1960s and early 1970s, the Mersey tunnels have always been tolled. This is not new. Those tremendous feats of engineering were developed, funded and delivered by the local authorities in the area. The Queensway tunnel, which links Birkenhead and Wallasey with Liverpool, opened in 1934. It cost £8 million at the time and ranked financially as the biggest single municipal enterprise ever undertaken in this country. The Kingsway tunnel, which links Wallasey and Liverpool, opened in 1971 and saw the first example of a giant mechanical “mole” being used in this country. These have always been locally owned assets. Both tunnels have been financed by tolling since they opened, with the toll revenue used to cover the costs of operating, maintaining and enhancing the tunnels, as well as repaying the debt accrued during their construction. Decisions on toll levels rest with the Merseyside local authorities and are now vested in the Liverpool city region mayoral combined authority. They are not a matter for Ministers of the Crown; they are matter for the Liverpool authorities.
The former Chancellor of the Exchequer may have commented on local tolling in a tweet, or whatever it was, as part of the 2015 general election campaign. [Interruption.] Recognition should be given that my Department worked closely with the combined authority on its review of tunnel tolls, which resulted in a reduction of the fast tag toll for motorists. That was good news, and that is what the Department for Transport did at that time. As hon. Members are probably aware, the process for setting tolls for the Mersey tunnels is set out in the Mersey Tunnels Act 2004, which requires the toll charge to be increased annually in line with inflation, and allows—subject to certain conditions—some of the revenue to be used for wider transport objectives in Merseyside. I hope I have assured hon. Members of the Government’s strong commitment to transport in Cheshire.
The Minister is speaking about millions and billions of pounds of investment in the north but he contradicts himself. Part of that investment should come from the national infrastructure fund, rather than from private investors and tolls, including on an existing bridge that was not previously tolled.
If the right hon. Gentleman can make his point in 20 seconds, I will give way to him.
Does the Minister accept that having to pay an additional £20 a week just to go to work is unacceptable for my constituents and those of my hon. Friends?
I suggest that all hon. Members work actively with their regional Mayors and with Cheshire West and Chester Council to explore what may or may not be possible.
Question put and agreed to.
Universal Credit and Debt
[Sir Henry Bellingham in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered universal credit and debt.
Universal credit affects a huge proportion of our population already. As of April this year, 2 million people were on universal credit, and in the last three months more than 200,000 extra households each month have started a claim. By the time it is fully rolled out, around 7 million households, comprising around 15 million people, will be on universal credit—almost one quarter of the population and 28% of people under pension age—and around 38% of our children will be growing up in households on universal credit. It will affect a whole generation.
The impact of universal credit is felt not only at an individual, but at a societal level, so it is incredibly important that we get it right. That is why I set up the all-party parliamentary group on universal credit, to collect evidence and make recommendations. I thank all those parliamentarians here today on both sides of the House who have contributed to that very productive group, alongside our colleagues in the Lords, charities and researchers. I must especially mention Holly in my office, who has been running it as a labour of love.
Most of all, I thank the individuals who are claiming universal credit, particularly all those who responded to the social media outreach that I and Parliament have done for this debate, telling us about their often very personal experiences. The amount of money we have affects not just our bank balance, but our ability to look after both our physical health, in terms of affording housing and enough to eat, medication and travel to health appointments, and our mental health, particularly when we get into debt.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Does she agree that until relatively recently there was a broad political consensus on the need to revise the labyrinth of welfare dependency and the bureaucracy surrounding it, but that that should be done in a way that minimises the impact that she has just been outlining and that many of our constituents are suffering from?
I agree; it was a laudable aim, but unfortunately it is not happening in practice, as shown in some of the evidence. That is why I secured this debate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. We have had numerous debates on universal credit, and I have said this before and will say it again: we should call a halt to universal credit, and if it cannot be reformed we should disband it, because people are suffering as a result. We also now have the working poor, including in cities such as Coventry, where last year 20,000 people used food banks. When we think about it, the impact that that is having on people is incredible.
I hope the evidence I will bring today, and the evidence colleagues will bring from their own experiences, will help to make that case without my having to make it explicitly. There are certainly many changes that should be made. The evidence I have heard from people who say that it is not just the amount of money they have on universal credit, but their powerlessness against a system that takes deductions seemingly at random and with no recourse to justice, that leaves them feeling absolutely hopeless and in despair.
One man from Wales told me on social media:
“It is very difficult to manage on universal credit, payments are very low…I’ve had to go without food to have heat and vice versa. This with my health condition has led me into depression & despair at times. Universal credit are always deducting monies eg carers allowance etc which has left me worse off. It’s very difficult to get through to talk to anyone via phone and very often treated as a second class citizen.”
The hon. Lady is making an excellent case for changes to universal credit. Pertinent to what she is saying about people being left unable to pay, does she share my concern that 51% of the food parcels that the Salvation Army distributes are to people who come as a result of having insufficient support from the universal credit system? Does she agree that maybe we should put back the money that was taken out of the budget?
Absolutely. My local jobcentre also tells me that the major reason why people are seeking support with food parcels is that they simply do not have enough to get by on, often because of the deductions.
A mum from East Anglia told me that she has had to resort to loan sharks, and she almost got involved with a man just so that he could buy some food for her and her daughter. Now she has had letters saying that money will be deducted for her debts. She has lost jobs because she could not afford a bus pass and she has friends who resorted to selling their body for food because of their children.
I will go across the House first.
The hon. Lady is making some good points, and she is right to draw an association between adverse life events, debt and poor mental health. On the issue facing many of the people she is using as examples, who are experiencing difficulties with universal credit, is it not the case that the wait of five weeks to receive universal credit exacerbates debt issues and the challenges facing people in sometimes very difficult circumstances, and that the Government perhaps need to look at that as a priority in helping to improve the system?
The hon. Gentleman has pre-empted part of my speech. The five-week wait for payments is doing a tremendous amount of damage, putting people into debt right at the start of their claim.
That is not to say that universal credit has not improved—I am sure we will hear a lot about that from the Minister. I pay credit to the Department for listening, and especially to the current Secretary of State, who has made changes beyond those forced on her by High Court cases. However, there is still an enormous amount to do to help people to get by and feel secure with universal credit.
A number of my constituents are living below the poverty line, because that is what their universal credit calculation assesses them as being entitled to. It is not surprising that three quarters of those who are in rent arrears are on universal credit, while only one quarter are not. Does my hon. Friend agree that the way we calculate welfare payments to the most vulnerable must be looked at again?
Absolutely. As I will come on to discuss, the problem is not only welfare payments, but the deductions made from those welfare payments. People who are already in poverty are having huge deductions taken from their incomes with almost no recourse to justice.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will take one final intervention, then I must make progress.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. This is a point that I imagine the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) will elaborate on, but the Highland Council’s budgets have been hit to the extent of £2.5 million just from dealing with universal credit. That money is money that we could be spending on classroom assistants, who are facing swingeing cuts not of their own making. Should that money not really be repaid to the Highland Council to make up for all this?
All councils need an uplift in their budget, but if the Department for Work and Pensions was to give money away, I would say it should go into the pockets of the people who are suffering at the sharpest end of universal credit.
We have already seen four years of a benefits freeze that has cut more than 6% from those benefits. That is on top of the three-year freeze in 2011 and the 1% benefit cap from 2014. On housing, the impact of those freezes, together with limiting local housing allowance to the lowest 30% of rents, means that now tenants in 97% of areas must make up a rent shortfall out of their universal credit. In one in five areas, that shortfall for a family with children in a two-bedroom home is at least £100 month, Shelter has calculated. That is a huge amount taken out of an already low income, but universal credit will mean even more reductions.
With managed migration having been delayed, most people will transfer on to universal credit due to a change in circumstances—anything from having their first baby, losing a job or moving to a different local authority area. Those 5 million or so households are not due to receive any transitional protection if they were better off on legacy benefits. Contrary to what Parliament was promised when the cuts to universal credit were pushed through in 2015 and 2016, most people will immediately be worse off.
Even after the changes to universal credit, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has calculated that, although 5.6 million people in working households will gain an average of £3,000 a year, 5.1 million working people will lose an average of £2,300, including 1.7 million who are already in poverty. Of non-working households, 1.9 million people will gain an average of £2,000 a year, but 2.6 million people will lose an average of £1,400 a year, with half of those—1.3 million—already in poverty. Overall, even after the changes, 7.5 million people will gain from universal credit, but 7.7 million people will lose out, including 3 million households already in poverty. While the Government may state that more is being spent on universal credit, which may well be correct, that does not change the fact that the majority of people already on very low incomes, many of whom are in poverty, will be worse off.
Even those who are supposed to be better off on universal credit often struggle because of the deductions from their payments. According to yesterday’s written answer from the Minister, who I thank for responding in time for the debate:
“Of all eligible claims to Universal Credit Full Service due a payment in Feb 2019, 57% (840,000 claims) had a deduction.”
An answer to a further parliamentary question showed that an average of 10% of all universal credit is now deducted from people’s claims. Almost everyone seeing deductions took the advance payment introduced to help people get through the minimum five-week wait for their first payment. Some 60% of people take that advance, mainly because rent is payable in advance, whereas universal credit is payable in arrears. That advance has to be paid off over 12 months, so people are paying 13 months’ rent out of 12 months of income. With a system that in 97% of areas does not even give enough money each month for one month’s rent, it is not surprising that people are struggling, and that five-week wait is absolutely part of that.
On top of repayments for advances, another 440,000 households are also repaying at least one other debt for benefit overpayments, social fund loans or other advances. That does not include third-party debts such as rent arrears, utility bills or council tax debt. The Department does not keep data on those debts that it also deducts. I question why not, as it clearly has the data on the deductions being made and should monitor the impact on vulnerable people. Of those 840,000 households seeing deductions, half were of up to 20% of the standard allowance in universal credit, 170,000 were between 21% and 30%, 238,000 were between 31% and 40%, and 13,000 were above 40%.
With 40% of the standard allowance as the current maximum deduction supposed to be permitted under universal credit, that means deductions of £127 a month for a single person’s claim or £200 a month for a couple. Of the 3.3 million couple-parents already losing an average of £2,500 a year under universal credit—more than £200 a month—a majority see deductions on top of those losses of up to another £200 a month, plus their rent top-up of around £100 a month, so many will be £500 a month, or more than £100 a week, worse off.
It is not surprising that we see such an increase in people going to food banks and struggling with debt, like one of my constituents, Gareth, who is struggling to keep his head above water. He suffers from anxiety and depression. His mother died recently and he split from his partner so had to move into his own place and claim universal credit. He had been working as a cleaner but had to give up his job. He was awarded universal credit of £692 a month, including £374 for housing, although the lowest rent he could find is £500 a month, so he has to make up the shortfall of £126 a month. Some £58 a month is being deducted for his advance payment, and £46 a month for an earlier budgeting and crisis loan, leaving him with £588 a month, of which his rent is £500, so he is left with just £20 a week for all his bills and food. He is experiencing extreme poverty, which is obviously impacting on his health.
Those deductions are things he knows about, but many are not. The second highest number of deductions are for tax credit overpayments, and two thirds of people migrating on to universal credit from tax credits are seeing deductions for an overpayment. The Treasury states that £6.9 billion of tax credit overpayments will be transferred on to universal credit. The reduction in the excess earnings limit in one year from £5,000 to just £1,000 in 2012 has meant that constant overpayments are now hard-wired into tax credits, but in many cases these are historical.
Only 29% of that £6.9 billion relates to 2016-17 onwards. More than half relates to between 2011-12 and 2015-16, and 16% is even older. Many people just were not aware of these overpayments and are not given the opportunity to challenge them. Locally, I have the case of Mrs G, who has a disability. She migrated on to universal credit because she had to move into accessible accommodation, which happened to be in the neighbouring local authority. Only after she had claimed was informed that she had tax credit overpayments of around £450 from 2011 and £850 from 2005. She had not claimed tax credits since 2015, and had paid off the only overpayments of which she had been informed over the next two years. She challenged the overpayments through Derbyshire County Council’s welfare rights service, which is marvellous at handling these cases, but was told that she had been informed about them in 2011 and 2006, and as the Inland Revenue had not received a dispute within three months of those letters being sent, the overpayments could not be challenged.
After losing her disability premiums, Mrs G was already £43 a week worse off under universal credit—almost £200 a month. She was having £42 a month deducted to repay her advance payment and was left with only £169 a month. A further £48 a month was then deducted for her tax credit overpayments, which she faces for years to come. Faced with having to live with a serious disability on just £121 a month, and with no one in government prepared to look into her case, the welfare rights service told me that Mrs G’s mental health deteriorated rapidly and that, on new year’s day, she attempted to take her life. Fortunately the attempt did not succeed, and she is now being supported by her GP, but five months later the issue is still not resolved, even with expert advice and her local MP contacted. Mrs G says,
“it’s on my mind all of the time”,
and it is still affecting her health.
The inability to challenge deductions—or even, in some cases, to find out about them—leaves people feeling utterly helpless and either angry or hopeless. People often receive a note on their journal saying:
“We agreed to pay a fine from your universal credit”,
but they are not even told how much the fine is, where it comes from or how to challenge it. I have seen cases of much more than the 40% limit being taken from people’s standard allowance, leaving them with practically nothing to live on. Advisers on the universal credit helpline have been unhelpful and aggressive, even to Citizens Advice and the welfare rights service.
Real examples like those from in and around my constituency, where limited numbers of people are on universal credit, bear out the problems illustrated in those answers to parliamentary questions. They are key drivers for the increase in food bank use and debt and rent arrears, and are a significant reason for the huge increase in depression and anxiety.
The Government must act. It will not necessarily take anything very radical. Many of the actions have already been agreed, but they need to be brought forward and done now. We need to look at the five-week wait, as I think is agreed across the House, and at the very least, as a first step, bring forward the two-week run-on of jobseeker’s allowance, employment and support allowance and income support from July 2020 to July 2019. The maximum 30% cap on deductions needs to apply now, not in October, when another 800,000 people will have applied for universal credit and be suffering 40% reductions. And people suffering hardship should be able to reduce that.
The extended repayment period for advances from 12 months to 16 months should apply now, not in October 2021. Historical tax credit overpayments should be written off, as the Government stated they were doing back in 2011. Later overpayments should be proved and the opportunity given to challenge them properly before they are collected. The benefit freeze needs to be ended and the cap on rents restored at least to the 30th percentile. And the monthly assessment period should be reviewed, as the High Court has stated it should be.
Just the measures that I have listed would be an enormous help for the hundreds of thousands of people—almost 1 million—suffering already under deductions from universal credit. If this is test and learn, those people are the guinea pigs that this Government are experimenting on. The Government can make changes. We in Parliament get a second chance at legislation, but the people who are suffering this system now are left with spiralling debts, to which they can see no end. They are driven by the unresponsive system even to try to take their own life. They do not get a second chance at living a better life. Their children do not get another chance at a childhood not marred by poverty. Another 60,000 families will apply for universal credit next week. That is why it is not just our job but our absolute duty to get it right.
Order. In addition to thanking the hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) for her exemplary and moving speech, I point out that a lot of right hon. and hon. Members are hoping to speak, so we will have a limit of between two and three minutes on speeches—voluntarily, at the moment.
I hope that as I am the only speaker from the Government side, you might show me a little leniency, Sir Henry, but anyway, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) on securing the debate.
The full roll-out of universal credit in Lowestoft started in May 2016. The process has not been straightforward. Many of the most vulnerable in society have been put under enormous pressure and have faced real challenges in getting by day to day. The situation has improved: the Government have listened and introduced changes. However, much more needs to be done if universal credit is to achieve its goals of transforming people’s lives in a positive way; encouraging and supporting them into work; and simplifying the welfare system.
I sense that at the outset, the sheer scale of the task of introducing universal credit was not recognised. It is a mammoth task that requires a complete change of mindset by everyone involved and the implementation of an enormous IT project. Some of the assumptions on which universal credit was based have been shown to be idealistic and could not be implemented in a fair way in the real world.
Jobcentres, citizens advice bureaux and councils have stepped up to the plate and really worked hard to get the new system working fairly and properly. As I said, the Government have been listening, and have introduced changes to improve the roll-out. They are right to adopt the test and learn approach, but more needs to be done to ensure that debt, which burdens people, causing distress and worry, does not unnecessarily build up. I shall quickly highlight five areas in which action is required to alleviate the albatross of arrears.
First, serious consideration needs to be given to abolishing the five-week wait for universal credit. The think-tank Bright Blue has concluded that the initial waiting period is a design feature that is inherently flawed. Secondly, the feedback that I am receiving from constituents is that the lack of transitional protection for former recipients of the severe disability premium is pushing claimants into debt. The Government need to get on with addressing that.
Thirdly, universal credit needs to be adapted to address the needs of those on zero-hours contracts. Quite often, such work is heavily affected by the weather, and during lull periods, in which people claim universal credit, the delay in payments leads to an inescapable spiral of debt, which is never paid off from one season to another.
Fourthly, there is compelling evidence from organisations supporting those facing domestic violence that the single payment arrangements are putting the victims of domestic violence at added risk, with perpetrators having universal credit payments paid into their own bank accounts. That means that they can use the money as a tool for coercive control. To address that, universal credit payments should be separate by default.
Finally, East Suffolk Citizens Advice has advised me that the Department for Work and Pensions does not provide it with feedback when it makes a request for assistance with the journal of a client whom it is supporting. I appreciate that there are data protection requirements, but that issue needs to be fully addressed if universal support is to be fully effective.
I commend both the Minister and the relatively new Secretary of State—I hope that she stays in her post—for listening and responding. I acknowledge that theirs is a difficult task, but I urge them to take on board the further feedback from this debate. For the sake of the vulnerable people who rely on universal credit, we must get it right.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Ruth George) on an absolutely outstanding opening speech. There is not much more that one can say. However, I will pick up on a few points.
To understand the rise in poverty that people are facing across the country—not in isolated areas, as some on the Government side would like to say—we need look no further than social security policies, unfortunately, and universal credit is a key aspect of that. The Child Poverty Action Group said back in 2015 that an additional 1 million children would be living in poverty. Just a couple of weeks ago, Policy in Practice estimated, on behalf of the Children’s Commissioner, that half of low-income households would lose nearly £3,500 a year, which will see child poverty double. The figure is already at 4 million—three quarters of the children living in poverty are from working families—and it is set to double. That is down to three social security policies: the two-child limit, the benefits cap and universal credit—particularly, as my hon. Friend said, the five-week wait, and the repayment not just of the advance loan but of other debts.
We recognise the intervention in last autumn’s Budget, but it is paltry compared with the £12 billion that was cut in the 2015 summer Budget. It did not go even halfway to restoring what was cut. It is still the case that 40% of people on UC will be and are worse off—this applies especially to disabled people; 1 million disabled people are worse off under universal credit—by nearly £2,000. It also applies to the self-employed and single parents; they are all worse off as a result of universal credit. We have touched on the natural migration that is happening, separately from managed migration, as a result of a change in circumstances.
The UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, said last month that the UK’s poorest people face lives that are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. He accused Ministers of being in a state of denial about the impact of policies, including the roll-out of universal credit, and referred to the “systematic immiseration” of a significant part of the British population. I know that his comments have caused some consternation on the Government side, but we have only to look at Westminster tube station to see our homeless people. Two thirds of those in homeless refuges are people who have issues with universal credit. We all have constituency cases—I shall mention a few if that is okay, Sir Henry—of people who are really suffering.
Sally is a single mum who moved out to escape an abusive relationship. Due to her change in circumstances, she has lost £400 from her universal credit. Katie’s employers made a mess of their returns, and she was left with £67 to live on. It was her employer’s error. She said:
“Every time I call they just say there’s nothing they can do and I just have to wait for a decision. Please help me as I’m at the end of hope!”
June was in receipt of employment and support allowance with a severe disability premium. Again due to a change in circumstances, she lost £300 a month. Karen works for the Greater Manchester police and has a two-year-old daughter. She was told by the jobcentre that universal credit would pay for 85% of her childcare. She had to pay it up front, but she was still waiting six months later. That is unacceptable, and it is happening up and down the country.
The Minister will be aware that universal credit has a bad press. In debates such as this, it is our job to draw attention to the dire circumstances that people are facing. There are also rumours, based on leaked emails, that there is a planned propaganda exercise to try to restore the public’s faith in universal credit. I would be grateful if the Minister could address that. I have gone over my time, so I will end there.
I am afraid we will now have to move to a two-minute limit on speeches.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I congratulate the hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) on securing this debate.
In Inverness and the highlands, we have had universal credit for six years. Thanks to the Tory-Lib Dem coalition, we were already suffering from austerity. There was one food bank in Inverness. With the addition of universal credit, problems rocketed. We now have a food bank in every quarter of the city and beyond. My constituents face choosing between buying clothes for their children, switching on the heating and putting food on the table.
Other hon. Members will recommend changes, but given the extremely limited time that I have, I will focus on the debt accumulated for every single household in Highland, and give a warning to hon. Members who are dealing with universal credit in their constituency case-loads. Highland Council has incurred debts, directly attributed to universal credit, of £2.5 million. Of those debts, £600,000 is directly due to administrative costs resulting from universal credit. The details of those costs have been provided to the Minister and the UK Government. They have said in written answers to questions that no council should bear an additional burden or debt as a result of universal credit, yet it is a fact that this debt is out there.
It is incumbent on the Minister and his Government to sort this out now for the people of the highlands, to repay the money that those people are due, and to ensure that councils across the rest of Scotland, and the other nations of the UK, are not similarly burdened. This shambolic roll-out of universal credit continues to cause harm in people’s homes and to their health, and to harm those who are not directly involved in universal credit.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Sir Henry. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Ruth George) for securing this debate, and for her excellent speech setting out the issues. In the time I have, it is not possible to repeat the arguments, but it is clear from the experiences hon. Members have related, from all parts of the United Kingdom, that universal credit is not working.
The Trussell Trust is heavily involved in this debate, and it supports the points put by my hon. Friend, particularly regarding the five-week wait. This subject comes up frequently. In both Houses in the past year, there have been 1,858 references, 70 debates, seven written statements and two Divisions on universal credit, yet we do not seem to be any further forward.
The overwhelming majority of experiences quoted in debates and put forward in questions about universal credit are negative. There is no doubt that it is increasing hardship. The Government must recognise the problems being caused. It has been suggested that it is a flexible and personalised system offering unprecedented support, but that is clearly not the case. We need firm action from Ministers, not just assurances about mitigating the worst effects.
In the few seconds remaining, I ask the Minister whether he thinks it is reasonable, when people are facing such dreadful financial hardship, for the Department to spend over £23 million advertising universal credit in a single newspaper, the Metro? I feel that is a shocking waste of money. [Interruption.] I have received a written parliamentary answer from the Department showing that it is true. I would welcome the Minister’s comments on that.
I thank the hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) for bringing this debate. As I often do, I will give a quick example. A troubled young man from my constituency, from a good family, is unable to deal with his social situation and finds himself sleeping rough. As he is a new claimant, he has to move on to universal credit. He goes to the housing executive, which tells him that he is not a priority, and to self-refer to a hostel. He depends on his family.
I want to put on record that the staff at the Ards benefits office—Frances, the manager, Lee and Donna—are tremendous and exceptional. If every person had such people to respond to them, it would be very helpful. They do their best to help, but they can only do what the system allows them to do.
Due to problems in the past, my constituent is already paying £10 a week out of his jobseeker’s allowance, and £40 a month comes off his housing benefit, which leaves him with £30 to live on. Internet is essential for those making online claims. What if somebody cannot use the library or another place with wi-fi? He waits five weeks for a claim that is not even back paid. What if he did not have a loving family, doing what no one would expect them to do for a 40-year-old man? Is this system working? I say to the Minister: it is not—far from it.
I meet people with severe and immediate financial hardship every day. Nearly a quarter—24%—of all universal credit claimants have a deduction of above 20% of their standard allowance. Research by StepChange found that even a deduction of 5% would push nearly half of StepChange clients on benefits into a negative budget. When a 40% deduction is applied—these are serious figures—70% will be pushed into a negative budget.
I ask the Minister: can we give staff such as Frances, Lee and Donna in the social security office in Newtownards the opportunity to read a situation, and allow them the discretion to allow past bad debt to be repaid at a nominal rate? We should understand that the private sector does not understand the bedroom tax, and rent does not come down to what the Government say it should be. It just does not work.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Ruth George) on her speech. It is a fact that more people who go on to universal credit are seeking debt advice. In my constituency, 90% of new claimants in social housing go into rent arrears. Of those, 60% go into arrears of over £600. Those who can least afford the benefits freeze have been hit the hardest by it. We have talked about the five-week wait and the advances. [Interruption.]
Order. We have a Division. I will suspend the sitting for 15 minutes, assuming there is one Division. We can resume with the hon. Lady when we come back.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Order. The debate will now conclude at 12 minutes past 4.
Thank you, Sir Henry. I was talking about the five-week wait and advances. Even with a 30% payment back, 65% of StepChange clients who are in debt will still have problems paying. They will still have problems paying their gas, electricity and other bills. I want to ask the Minister how advisers ensure that repayments are affordable. I believe that there are safeguards, but I have never heard what they are. Do they use a single financial statement, as most creditors do? Do they look at other debts? We know that many people on universal credit who have had the five-week wait have other debts. They have gone to high-cost lenders and owe on the gas and electricity.
I also want to ask the Minister whether the debts to Departments are included in the proposed breathing space scheme. That would be a help. At least it would give people time to work it out, but unless the DWP accepts affordable repayments, even that will not help people on universal credit who are being forced into debt. I have always said that simplifying the system was a great aim, but people’s lives are not simple, and the people I am talking about are the ones who can least afford a bump in the road. Throwing people into debt makes life more complicated. It makes more people go to the doctor with mental health problems and depression, and eventually it costs the state more.
This is a great opportunity for the Minister—a valuable chance to hear from different constituencies about the situation of those claiming benefits through universal credit.
Gloucester’s experience broadly mirrors that of the country over the past 18 months. The roll-out has steadily expanded. By February, just over 4,000 people were on universal credit. That represents 26% of our population—slightly more than the 24% figure for Great Britain as a whole, and marginally less than the figure for the south-west region, which is 27%. The figures have continued to rise and I suspect in Gloucester it is now close to 5,000 people.
I pay tribute to the staff of Jobcentre Plus, especially the work coaches, who are implementing the policy and working closely with my office when constituents have difficulties. It is of course true that there are difficulties, and 117 of my constituents have been in touch with me and my office about issues. The vast majority of them are having difficulties with application forms. One of my staff, who is dyslexic, did the form herself. It took her seven minutes. I have tested it myself and it took me marginally longer, but broadly the application form is challenging only for those without personal internet access or much experience of digital processing. That, of course, is why the contract with Citizens Advice is so important.
I shall briefly share the Citizens Advice experience of UC inquiries, which is important. First, the calculation of benefit entitlements is more transparent than under legacy benefits, which is, of course, a significant improvement. Secondly, with the exception of those in receipt of disability benefits, it sees little difference between UC and legacy benefits. Thirdly, the increased availability of advance payments has improved the situation, but further flexibility would, it is noted, be beneficial. The last comment is that it is fairly commonly recognised that those in receipt of disability benefits are worse off than they would be under the previous system. Perhaps the Minister could comment on that. In my experience the situation is varied. People suffering from multiple sclerosis have quite often received greater benefits than previously, so there seems to be a little variation from disability to disability.
Clearly, debt is an important issue. Large numbers of our constituents have debt issues. More research is needed on how those debt issues arise and why so many people have so much debt when they come on to universal credit. That is, of course, a wider issue than universal credit itself.
I shall be very brief. I know that there are many aspects to universal credit, but I want to focus on the in-built five-week wait, which is pushing people into severe hardship and is cruel in the extreme. To say that advance payments address that is simply disingenuous, since those payments are unaffordable loans by another name, offering claimants the Hobson’s choice of hardship now or hardship later. That must urgently be addressed.
The loans have to be repaid and take no account of people’s ability to repay them. That is how other loans work, but the DWP advance payment loans have repayments set at a fixed level, which can be hard to challenge even if people fall into financial hardship while trying to repay them. Renegotiating repayment levels is rare but even if someone manages it, they are by that time already likely to be in serious financial difficulty with other bills.
The debt that people are pushed into can sometimes overwhelm them, or can undermine them so much that entering or sustaining employment becomes a much greater challenge, as people are forced to rely on food banks. The only way to deal with that pernicious aspect of universal credit is to remove the need for bridging loans by ending the five-week wait. There should be a single, non-refundable assessment payment for all claimants during the five-week wait period, with immediate effect.
If the Minister does nothing else today, or during his time with his current portfolio, he can and should do one thing: abolish the five-week wait. By doing so, he could make life much easier for many households who are struggling under the system as it is currently designed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Ruth George) on securing the debate.
There is an argument for a simplified benefit system, but what we know of universal credit is that it has led to many cases where people are trapped in further poverty owing to the way the system is administered. In its current form, it is causing too much hardship and stress. Every week my constituency office, like many others, supports local people who have been placed in difficult situations. I also work closely with the citizens advice bureau, providing support jointly to constituents in need of advice and support. According to my local citizens advice bureau, the issue of universal credit was raised with it on 1,882 occasions last year. I think that that highlights the scale of the need.
I want to mention advance payments. Because of the wait before people get their first payment, many fall into debt. People clearly need the advance in the initial period, as they have no money to live. However, the repayments are often too high and that leads to continuing debt problems, which cause anxiety and stress. There is much confusion about the repayment period for advance payments. In my constituency, although the maximum period is 12 months, I have heard of cases where repayment is expected within three months. Again, that causes further debt, anxiety and stress. Claimants have a choice of repayment period up to a maximum of 12 months, and up to 40% of their claim.
As we have heard this afternoon, the Government are planning changes to the repayment period, which will be a maximum of 16 months, with deductions of no more than 30% of the claim. Those changes are in the right direction, but they do not go far enough. We have heard more today about looking at other debts, and that is an avenue that it is important to explore. The disappointing thing is that we have to wait until the end of the year for the changes to take effect.
I ask the Minister to give us clarity about the changes and to make them a lot sooner. People need help now, because they are in debt now. They are using food banks more than ever. Will the Minister and the Government take note and take action as soon as possible?
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Henry.
This debate is in stark contrast to the advertisements for universal credit that we see in certain newspapers. Those adverts should not include a DWP or universal credit logo; those advertisements would not look out of place in an episode of “Jackanory”. As a constituent pointed out to me yesterday, one advertisement mentioned the advance payment, but did not say it was a loan. Does that advance come in wrapping paper and ribbon? The advance payment is a loan, and the Government cannot keep denying that or saying that it is something else. That loan is adding to universal credit debt, as is the five-week wait. As has been said, many of those leaving work were paid weekly or fortnightly, and they then have to wait five weeks. People are refusing the advance because it is a loan.
Some 60% of those with debt reductions are not getting the help they need from creditors, so they are borrowing more money. Those with deductions on universal credit are becoming more reliant on foodbanks, and Scottish Welfare Fund crisis grants are increasing all the time as a result. Some 40% of those with deductions are also behind with other household bills, such as food or fuel—it is a circle. My great fear is that the Government are not following Cabinet Office guidelines on debt collection, and that this is become a loan shark’s charter. This is a serious issue, and I hope that the Minister and his Department will get a grip on how they deal with debts and universal credit.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Ruth George) on securing this important debate. With the best will in the world, this seems to have become a state-devised system that, by its design, drives people into gross financial hardship. We have heard about the difficulties of the five-week wait, and about the 40% repayment rate on any debt that occurs. We have not talked about the advance up-front costs of childcare payments and the 85% payment that can be obtained through universal credit.
My constituent is 21. She is a single parent and has an apprenticeship in a doctor’s surgery. She is paid the lower apprenticeship rate, and takes home just £111 a week. She has to pay her childcare upfront. The element of childcare provision in her UC was suspended, and because she obviously required that childcare, she ended up with more than £2,000 of debt. Only the fact that her parents could bail her out helped her through that difficult situation, and an intervention from my office subsequently got that money repaid.
How can we have a system that drives people into debt? There is undoubtedly a link between the two things. It could be rental debt; a local housing association stated that after the launch of universal credit its rent arrears increased immediately, and that as of June 2018, UC claimants accounted for 40% of its overall rent debt. That cannot be allowed to continue. In 2009-10, 350 people used the local food bank, but recent figures suggest that that number is now 2,525. That food bank is now so overburdened that it will have to close to focus on its core system—something has to change.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I also wanted to mention childcare payments, but I will write to the Minister separately and concentrate my remarks on tax credit debt.
Three weeks ago, I was told in an answer to a parliamentary question that 255,000 claimants—one in six universal credit claimants—had received a deduction for alleged historical tax credit overpayments. Last week, in widely reported coverage, Citizens Advice stated that the figure was actually 410,000, which is closer to a quarter of all claimants. Will the Minister clarify that point and say which figure is most accurate? Even the lower figure of a quarter of a million overpayments and the associated debt, as a result of problems within HMRC that are perhaps years old or involve arbitrarily fixed rates that do not reflect people’s wider circumstances, are a real problem. Crucially, many people do not know that they can challenge that overpayment, and its impact is considerable.
I urge the Minister to put in place a new minimum repayment threshold for all non-fraud overpayments or other DWP debt. That threshold should genuinely reflect living costs and not discourage claimants from seeking work. There must be flexibility to consider individual circumstances, and claimants should be encouraged to complete income and expenditure forms, and only be asked to pay what they can afford. No family should ever receive less than their standard allowance or be worse off in employment, and no family should be forced into greater debt by the actions of the DWP.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Ruth George) on securing this debate. Leigh has been a pilot area for universal credit since 2013, so as a representative of a northern town with extensive experience of universal credit, I can say with certainty and after countless surgeries that it is driving people into poverty, into food banks, and into debt.
We know that universal credit is not working because a recent report by the Association of Retained Council Housing found that in the north of England, 75% of universal credit households were in arrears, compared with 39% of non-universal credit households. In our local authority, universal credit tenants have £1.9 million of rent arrears, which is a shocking £534 per tenant on average. Those are not isolated cases; that is caused by the failing system. With a 97% likelihood of local universal credit claimants falling into arrears, only a total and fundamental overhaul of our welfare system will suffice.
The hard reality facing those going on to universal credit is a choice between a lengthy delay for the first payment or an unaffordable loan that only kicks the can of financial hardship further down the road. Since universal credit was introduced in Leigh, my mailbox has been full of individuals desperate to receive assistance because, through no fault of their own, they have found themselves let down by a system that is so complicated that they struggle to navigate it. How do the Government respond? The Minister can take one of two paths: either he will listen to the facts, stories and experts, or he will follow the Chancellor’s example and claim there is no crisis. For the sake of my constituents who are tackling mounting debt, I sincerely hope he will choose the former path.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Ruth George) on securing this debate, on her fantastic speech, and on her fantastic, dedicated work on welfare. She is a tireless campaigner.
As many of today’s contributions and evidence from Citizens Advice Scotland have shown, debt is built into the universal credit system. My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) spoke about survivors of domestic abuse, and I too wish to focus on that important area. Survivors of domestic abuse often flee relationships with little or no resources, and often after being subjected to economic abuse. For them, the five-week wait is particularly damaging. Although advances are available, that is a loan that must be paid back.
The charity Refuge recommends that survivors of domestic abuse be exempt from repaying advances, as the initial period after fleeing an abusive relationship can be costly. People often have to buy a lot of possessions and set up a new home and a new life. If they have to repay an advance, their future income will be heavily reduced. I hope the Minister will consider that issue and tell me his thoughts.
As I have highlighted previously, single household payments can easily be used by coercive or abusive partners to trap people in an abusive relationship. Rent arrears accumulated under single payments mean that survivors have restricted options when they are fleeing, and it is common for landlords to refuse to accept tenants who have arrears, even if those arrears were accrued due to domestic abuse. That huge issue must be ironed out.
I wanted to talk about some constituency cases today, but I do not have time. The constituency cases that we raise time and again in respect of universal credit are not unique; this is happening everywhere. This issue is raised on the doorsteps, in our surgeries and with our neighbours. It is such a huge issue and I am fed up with speaking about this cruel system that does not work. The Government must take their fingers out of their ears and stop defending it. They must work with Members across the House who have spoken up about this issue, stop this system and rehaul it once and for all.
Before I call the SNP spokesman, I thank right hon. and hon. Members for showing so much restraint. The Opposition spokesmen can now go from eight minutes to 10 minutes. I call Mr Neil Gray.
Thank you, Sir Henry. It is a pleasure to serve under your astute chairmanship, which has allowed a bit of latitude in the debate and for so many voices to be heard. I am very grateful to the hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) for securing the debate. She covered a lot of ground in her speech and I will try my best to sum up her contribution and the other important contributions that have been made.
The hon. Lady spoke about deductions being taken, apparently at random. I totally agree. She also mentioned carer’s allowance. She may not be aware that in Scotland we have looked to do something different on carer’s allowance. We are uprating carer’s allowance to better acknowledge, in some small way, the great work that carers do in our society. I encourage her to look at that.
The hon. Lady was right to say that universal credit has improved. There have been some improvements of late, and I am sure she would agree that the changes appear to acknowledge some of the problems that we have all been campaigning on, but do not go the full distance in terms of resolving the problems that are clearly still there—for instance, the two-child policy, the benefit freeze and the five-week wait. I will come back to some of those. She was also right to highlight the so-called major budget interventions that were made by the Government on universal credit. They do not come close to making up for the cuts that were made to it in the 2015 Budget, which made it almost unrecognisable from what was originally envisaged. I commend the hon. Lady on her speech.
The hon. Members for Waveney (Peter Aldous) and for Midlothian (Danielle Rowley) touched on the issue of separate payments. The Scottish Government and the previous Administration in Northern Ireland have looked to try to resolve that, and I would encourage the UK Government to look at that again and to stop insisting on charging for that.
The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) is an authoritative voice on the subject, and it was good to see her here. She was right to draw on the evidence put forward by Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty. The UK Government have chosen to attack him personally, rather than to address the issues that he has quite legitimately raised.
My hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) has possibly the greatest experience of us all on the impact of universal credit. He was right to raise the issue of the £2.5 million debt that Highland Council now finds itself in, and the £600,000 in administration costs that the UK Government should be paying up for. Of course, it is a triple whammy: UK Government austerity on public finances, UK Government austerity on personal finances and now the local authorities have that added burden on their services.
As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) did, I commend DWP staff, who try to resolve the issues we raise with them. They do their best to deal with those issues within the stringent policies implemented by UK Ministers.
The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) was absolutely right about advanced childcare costs—I have had many similar cases. I find it incredible that universal credit is paid in arrears, yet the bills that people have to pay on childcare must largely be paid in advance.
The hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) looked to paint a particular picture on universal credit. I encourage him to look at the Citizens Advice Scotland report and briefing that was available ahead of the debate. I think it would contradict and enlighten him greatly.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) pre-empted much of what I have to say on the five-week wait. I appreciate her intervention. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) dissected the DWP’s propaganda regarding universal credit that has been out of late.
I also commend the hon. Members for Easington (Grahame Morris), Bristol South (Karin Smyth), Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue), Leigh (Jo Platt) and Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones). This has been a very broad debate, with many good contributions.
As has already been highlighted, there are a number of issues at play on universal credit and debt. I am grateful to Scope, Shelter, the Child Poverty Action Group, StepChange and Citizens Advice Scotland for their briefings.
The first issue is the five-week wait. I appreciate that the Government have at least partially acknowledged that there is a problem, by looking to extend certain legacy benefits and to expand advance payments. However, much of the run-on for legacy benefits will not happen until next year, and no run-on help is available for those who are in touch with universal credit for the first time. Those fixes are not in themselves going to solve the problem, as the evidence from CPAG and Citizens Advice Scotland confirms. That is why I have asked Ministers to look at making what is now the assessment for an advance the first UC assessment, and making the advance essentially the first payment. If the recipient is shown to need the money at that point, why would the Government deny them that as part of universal credit, rather than financially penalising them for months after? I do not think there would be a major cost implication, other than to shift payments to the front end of the claim instead of further down the line.
Payment of housing costs to landlords is a major issue for both tenants and landlords. My local authority, North Lanarkshire Council, is having serious problems with the inflexibility of the current system on when rent payments are made. That means that I have received loads of cases where council tenants are getting chased for rent arrears, when the delay is in fact caused by the DWP. The DWP has acknowledged that issue, but there is no date for when it will move from a four-weekly to a monthly payment system. I encourage the DWP to work with local authorities and other housing providers to establish a more flexible system that enables them to know for certain when rent is to be paid.
The benefit freeze has already been raised. It is having a major impact on indebtedness as part of universal credit. While most working-age benefits have been frozen for four years, living costs have risen sharply with higher than anticipated levels of inflation. There is not an expectation that the freeze will continue beyond this financial year, but the Treasury is going to more than recoup its estimated savings from the policy this year. Quite frankly, low-income families have paid more than their fair share towards this Government’s policies and the benefit freeze should have ended this year. What estimate have the Government made of the impact that their benefit freeze has had on low-income families and poverty levels? What other detrimental impacts has it had?
Direct deduction rates must be looked at again. The hon. Member for High Peak was right to focus on that issue. If only DWP policy were to match that of the Cabinet Office, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West said, which advocates fairness in debt collection and an understanding of the impact that debt collection processes have on people. As the hon. Member for High Peak said, that could start with the DWP understanding what debt repayments are actually for, so as to better understand the circumstances that the DWP Ministers should have a duty of care to support.
Does my hon. Friend not think it absolutely shocking that if a terminal patient accrues debt, that passes on to their family? People should be defined by their medical definition and not the arbitrary six months that exists at the moment.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course, she will know that a different system is being created for that in Scotland. I ask the Minister to look at the definition of terminal illness that has been adopted by the Scottish social security agency, which I think would help to deal with some of these problems.
Currently, deductions for indebtedness can be up to 40% of the standard allowance, and the Government are looking to reduce that to 30%. If we accept that the standard allowance is barely enough for anyone to live on in the first place—figures from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation show that adults without children on UC receive only 40% of the minimum income standard, while adults with children get just 60%—reducing that by a third is just going to exacerbate indebtedness. Most people would struggle if their income was reduced by a third without warning or negotiation, but I also acknowledge that there is a debt, so some effort must be made to repay it. There should be an affordability test and discussions in advance of a deduction being applied, and the recipient should be afforded expert advice and advocacy during that process. That surely has to happen if the DWP is going to give people help and breathing space for indebtedness.
As part of the summer pilot, the Government should consult extensively with key stakeholders, the devolved Governments and the expert charities, and those in receipt of universal credit themselves, particularly disabled people, to make sure that the system is got right and that no one is further impoverished as a result of universal credit.
Speakers from across the House have demonstrated in this debate, once again, that universal credit is still not working. It is time for the Government to listen, to restore and expand the funding available to universal credit and to fix the inbuilt technical issues and flaws that have been raised today and previously, which are contributing to a rise in food bank use and the impoverishment of those both in and out of work.
I call Mike Amesbury.
Thank you, Sir Henry; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
[James Gray in the Chair]
Well, it was—very briefly.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Ruth George) for securing this vital debate on universal credit, and for all that she does. The debate’s importance has been powerfully illustrated by the presence of 26 Members in this Chamber.
As my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, universal credit was supposedly designed to be the flagship policy of a reformed welfare system that would protect the most vulnerable in our society, support people into work and act as a safety net for those who needed it most. However, as hon. Members’ speeches today have shown, the experience for hundreds of thousands of our constituents has been chaos and hardship, sometimes resulting in tragic circumstances.
What was once hailed as a simplified, holistic and supportive social security reform has become nothing more than a vehicle for cuts. The political choice of austerity has taken more than £37 billion from the welfare state, while giving more than £110 billion of tax cuts to the wealthiest individuals and rich corporations. While the Chancellor looks around and claims to be blind to the poverty that many of us witnessed as we walked into Westminster this morning, the record £1.6 million emergency food parcels that were given out last year alone and the 4.1 million children who are in poverty tell a different story—one that should shame every single one of us in this House.
Riverside, a major social housing provider nationally and in my constituency, has provided me with a case study that illustrates the systemic failure of universal credit on the frontline. The couple involved, who do not wish to give their names because of the sensitive circumstances, said:
“Me and my partner have had so much Universal Credit taken off us, that we are struggling to get gas, electric and food, on a monthly basis, we have tried weekly and that was even worse, the money that we are on makes having a home difficult…so we are having to visit the food bank more regularly.”
That is just one among many cases that have been highlighted in this Chamber today. The changes and cuts to the local housing allowance have helped to drive rent arrears up to alarming levels. According to Shelter, two in five renters in the private sector are having to borrow money. Minister, that needs to change.
It would be easy for the Government to try to dismiss such cases and statistics as cherry-picking from Opposition MPs; in fact, a previous Secretary of State referred to them as “fake news”. But what about the findings of the United Nations rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, who last month published his third and perhaps most damning view of the Government’s welfare policies, stating that our country’s poorest residents face lives that are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”? What about the independent End Child Poverty coalition’s finding that child poverty is the “new normal” in some of the most deprived parts of Britain, with half a million more children living in poverty now than in 2010?
The Trussell Trust has found that when universal credit goes live in an area, food bank demand increases by a massive 52%. The trust’s figures show that a fifth of all referrals to food banks last year were linked to delays in receiving benefits, almost half of which related directly to universal credit. The Minister will claim that advance payments are available to universal credit claimants, so no one should go hungry for lack of cash. However, it has rightly been pointed out in this debate that those are loans that have to be paid back, which means debt on top of debt for the 60% of claimants who are forced down that route.
The five-week delay in payments must end. The system must be reformed. Will the Minister listen to the plethora of organisations that hon. Members have cited today, such as Shelter, Mind, the Child Poverty Action Group and the Riverside housing association? The monthly payments design of universal credit does not reflect the reality of many people’s lives or how they manage their money. A Resolution Foundation study found that most people moving from employment were paid either fortnightly or weekly in their previous job. The research highlighted the fact that people who claim universal credit are often not made aware of alternative payment arrangements to help people who are struggling to manage their own money, and do not always receive them when they apply.
In January, the Secretary of State announced her intention to improve the provision of alternative payment arrangements, make it easier for private renters to have payments made directly to landlords, and test ways to make more frequent payments to more people who struggle with monthly budgeting. Will the Minister tell us what progress has been made on that?
As we have heard today, it is not just advance payments that can lead to deductions from universal credit, but other bills too. Indeed, up to 40% of the universal credit monthly standard allowance can currently be deducted for repayment of advances, utility bill debts and rent and council tax arrears. More than half of universal credit claims had a deduction; as my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak pointed out, that is 844,000 people. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of debt repayments on levels of hardship among universal credit claimants?
According to Citizens Advice, a single person over 25 who claims universal credit can see £127 deducted from their benefits every month to repay existing debts. If the Government are determined to help people to manage their debts, why is their own Department making deductions that often push claimants into hardship?
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. In a recent roving surgery, I visited a constituent who was suffering so much with mental health problems that he was unable even to face opening the letters that he received. He therefore did not receive the information about his situation and was subject to severe sanctions and reductions. He could have challenged them because of his situation, but the DWP was unable even to engage with him to assess the risk that he faced. As a result, he was suicidal. It is absolutely shocking what is going on.
My hon. Friend makes a very powerful contribution that shows the need for more compassion and flexibility in the system. It is clear from the evidence and from this debate that initial decisions to apply deductions follow rigid rules and rates and do not include an affordability test. Will the Minister introduce an affordability test for deductions, particularly multiple deductions, to ensure that nobody is pushed into poverty or destitution?
The Government’s stock response to criticism of their welfare policies is to deny that there is even a problem, but their talk of a jobs miracle is nothing more than a mirage to many people who struggle on zero-hours contracts or in low-paid and part-time employment, with wages not even at 2008 levels. The same attitude is on display again in the new “Universal credit uncovered” propaganda campaign, with newspaper ads—seemingly designed to look like journalism—that aim to explode what are perceived to be media myths about universal credit and set the record straight, as my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) pointed out. It is perhaps telling that one charity has already reported the campaign to the Advertising Standards Authority. As we have heard today, these are not myths. They are facts, which illustrate a social security system that is failing—a system hollowed out by cruel cuts.
In conclusion, I call on the Minister to halt managed migration in its entirety, end the five-week wait, stop punitive sanctions, introduce split payments, restore the local housing allowance to at least the bottom 30th percentile, pay 85% of childcare support up front, stop the benefits freeze and the immoral two-child limit, and properly fund a compassionate social security system.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, in this very important debate secured by the hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George). Whatever our political differences, I am happy to acknowledge that she and indeed all the hon. Members who have spoken care very deeply about their constituents. I want to be clear that I want to ensure that every single person who is claiming universal credit gets the support that they absolutely deserve.
Let me start by setting out where we are with universal credit. Last year, universal credit completed its roll-out to all jobcentres across the country. We now have just under 2 million people claiming this benefit, and all new entrants to the benefits system now claim universal credit.
I entirely agree that we must ensure that we provide support through the welfare system to the most vulnerable. I am pleased that colleagues from all parties, including the hon. Member for High Peak, have acknowledged that changes have been made. My hon. Friends the Members for Waveney (Peter Aldous), and for Gloucester (Richard Graham), talked about the fabulous work being done by work coaches in our jobcentres.
As colleagues will know, in the last two Budgets, we announced changes to universal credit worth an additional £6 billion. I do not like to introduce rancour into this type of debate, and I am always open to discussion, but I gently point out that on those occasions, Opposition Members did not vote to support that extra money going into the system.
In the 2017 Budget, we announced a two-week run-on for those on housing benefit, the removal of the seven-day waiting period, and the ability for a claimant to get up to 100% of their estimated first-period payment as an advance, on the same day if needed. In last year’s Budget, among other measures, we announced increases to work allowances worth £1.7 billion a year. Colleagues touched on the additional run-on; from July 2020, there will be a two-week run-on of Department for Work and Pensions out-of-work legacy benefits for existing claimants who are being moved on to universal credit.
The Minister lists the changes that have been made of late; does he acknowledge that none of them make up for the cuts made in the 2015 Budget?
The hon. Gentleman will know that we inherited dire financial circumstances from the Opposition—I know that colleagues will not be happy at my mentioning that—and that is why we had to make difficult decisions. However, if Labour Members want more money introduced, then when that money is made available in Budgets, they should support those Budgets.
I will go back to the point about payments, including advance payments. I highlight that advances are interest-free.
I am sorry that the hon. Lady is unhappy, but that is a statement of fact.
They are still loans.
Also, individuals will receive that money as an advance to their universal credit payment, so they will receive 13 payments over a 12-month period. I make it absolutely clear once again that, as I hope colleagues will acknowledge, these are interest-free advances. Of course, from October this year, the Government will reduce the maximum rate—
Will the Minister give way?
I will not, as there is quite a lot to get through.
From this October, the Government will reduce the maximum rate at which deductions can be made from a universal credit award from 40% to 30% of the standard allowance. By the end of 2019-20, it is forecast that around 290,000 universal credit households will have had deductions reduced, by an average of £295 over the year. It is already possible to extend the period over which advances are repaid to 15 months in certain circumstances, and of course, as Members have acknowledged, from October 2021, the maximum period will be extended to 16 months for all claimants.
One issue not touched on in the debate was payment timeliness, but it is worth pointing out that it has been raised in previous debates, certainly during my time as a Minister. Payment timeliness has improved significantly. We now pay around 85% of new claimants of universal credit in full on time. In addition, 95% of claimants are paid in full within five weeks of their payment due date. If there are delays in making the first payment, that can be due to outstanding verification issues, such as the need to provide bank statements or proof of rent. It can also be due to a claimant not signing their claimant commitment. For ongoing claims, payment timeliness is around 98%.
The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), raised the issue of employment. The whole point of simplifying the welfare system is to remove the cliff edges and the disincentives to take on work and extra hours that existed under the legacy benefit system. We now offer claimants one-to-one support to help them to move into work.
I hope that colleagues will acknowledge that we are seeing record rates of unemployment, month after month. The shadow Minister talked about zero-hours contracts, but he will know that less than 3% of people in employment in the UK are on zero-hours contracts. That figure has fallen this year. Indeed, those on zero-hours contracts are doing about 24 hours of work a week on average.
We have recognised that we need to provide a consistently high level of support to those who may have difficulties in making a universal credit claim. That is why we announced our partnership with Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland, which are now funded to provide the “help to claim” service for claimants.
In the past, a number of colleagues have spoken about debt advice. They will know that debt advice is now fully funded by the financial services levy, and that service delivery is commissioned by the Money and Pensions Service, which was launched in January this year. In 2019-20, MaPS will provide around 560,000 sessions of debt advice in England. It is also worth noting that in addition to the funding that Citizens Advice receives for the “help to claim” service, it will, like other organisations, receive additional funding from MaPS to provide debt advice.
A number of colleagues raised the issue of rent arrears. I point out that a report published in July 2018 by the National Federation of ALMOs, or arms-length management organisations, showed that over three quarters of their tenants who had started claiming universal credit were already behind with their rent prior to commencing their claim. Also, research that we have carried out shows that the proportion of universal credit claimants who were in arrears at the start of their claim fell by a third after four months. In the universal credit full service claimant survey, which was published by the DWP in June 2018, 84% of claimants said that they felt confident about managing and paying their housing costs.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester raised the issue of rent arrears and asked what further work were doing on it. I can confirm that we are carrying out further analysis with a number of housing providers to investigate and understand the true level of rent arrears among their tenants, and what is causing those arrears. Of course, when we have that information, we will publish it.
A number of colleagues raised the issue of tax credit debt. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs already seeks to recover overpayments of tax credit debts. When a claimant moves on to universal credit, any outstanding debt is transferred to the DWP for recovery. This does not include debt that is subject to ongoing disputes or appeals, and HMRC tells the claimant the amount of debt that is being transferred to the DWP for recovery. HMRC and the DWP continue to work closely to improve the claimant journey. This includes having a joint inquiry team to handle any issues that tax credit customers might experience during their move to universal credit. Of course, if claimants are struggling with the rate of repayment applied, they can ask the Department to review that rate.
A large number of points were made during the debate, so I say to hon. Members that if they want to meet me separately to discuss any points in more detail, I am very happy to do that, or they can write to me. However, in the remaining couple of minutes that I have, I will try to cover off some of the points made in the debate.
On the discussion about poverty, I point out that income inequality and absolute poverty are lower now than in 2010, and indeed the number of children—
Will the Minister give way?
I will not, because I literally have just a couple of minutes left. As I was saying, the number of children in workless households in the UK is down by 665,000 since 2010.
There was a discussion about homelessness. Since 2011, the Government have provided local authorities with about £1 billion in discretionary housing payments to protect the most vulnerable claimants. The hon. Member for High Peak raised the issue of how people know what deductions are being applied to them; that is shown in their statement, separately from the journal, and is available online. She also raised a point about deductions. I point out that if a claimant is subject to deductions to repay an overpayment, and those deductions are causing financial hardship, they can request a review of that rate by contacting the Department. Claimants have had their repayment rate lowered, temporarily suspended, or indeed both.
A number of colleagues also asked why we were not able to bring forward the 30% deduction rate on the standard allowance. The delivery date was chosen to achieve the best balance between continually improving universal credit in order to respond to claimant needs, and ensuring that the service is technically and operationally scalable as the volume of universal credit continue to rise. The hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) raised an issue about the breathing space scheme; the Department is supportive of that scheme, and officials are reviewing it to see how it could be applied to DWP debts. I would be very happy to sit down and talk with her further when more information is available.
A number of colleagues, including the shadow Minister, raised the issue of the Metro campaign. The whole point of the “Universal Credit Uncovered” campaign is to tackle common myths about universal credit. The Department has consulted the Advertising Standards Authority, and our adverts reflect its advice. To those Members who talked about the amount of money being spent on this campaign, I advise them that it is certainly not £23 million.
The issue of split payments was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney; as he knows, those are already available. The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) raised the issue of Highland Council. He and I have met a number of times about this issue, and as he will know, my officials continue to engage with Highland Council about that point. Finally, the Scottish Government have themselves cut funding for Highland Council.
In conclusion, we are making changes that are benefiting claimants, but I am always happy to talk to colleagues about how we can do better.
I called on the Minister to bring forward some of the changes. I do not know whether he understood the waffle that his Department gave him to explain why that will not happen, but I would be very grateful to hear his proper explanation for it.
I thank everyone who has contributed, and the organisations for all their research and briefing. To anyone who is watching who is suffering under universal credit and the deductions that are being made, I say this: get advice, challenge those deductions, and come and see your MP about them. Let us get them sorted.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10 (6)).
Authorised Absence from School
Would Members leave the Chamber as quickly and quietly as they can, avoiding private conversations if at all possible? The level of interest in the absence from school debate is proved by the absence of Members from the Chamber.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered authorised absence from school.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.
I have raised this issue with the Minister many times, both in debates and directly. I have campaigned for the Government to review and change their policy for some time. I remain of the view that it is not the role of the state to dictate to parents what is right and best for their children; that should be decided in partnership between parents and the school. I wanted to raise the issue again today in the light of a number of recent developments and cases that have been brought to me, both by constituents and by parents elsewhere in the country.
Part of the problem is that although the Government say that absence from school should be authorised by headteachers only in exceptional circumstances, they do not provide clear guidance as to what constitutes an exceptional circumstance. That has led to a degree of confusion and complicated situations, as was highlighted recently by the climate change protests, during which thousands of schoolchildren took time away from school to attend the demonstrations. I am reliably informed—it has been reported—that many of those children were given authorised absence to miss classroom time in order to attend those protests. Leaving aside the point that I do not see how something can be called a strike when people have been given permission to be absent, parents should be able to expect some consistency in the application of the policy.
I do not have a problem with children missing time from the classroom to attend those demonstrations. Education is about far more than what takes place in our classrooms, and attending such events broadens children’s experiences and knowledge and gives them a wider view of the world, so it is incredibly beneficial to their education. However, I need to challenge the inconsistency. Headteachers have granted leave for children to attend those demonstrations, yet in many other cases that I am aware of, parents have requested authorised leave from school from headteachers for what most reasonable people would consider to be equally good reasons and have been denied.
I know of children who had been selected to compete at international level in their sport, yet their school refused to grant them leave to go and represent their country. I know of one child whose parent requested one day off school—the day before the school broke up for Christmas—so that he could fly to see his father who he had not seen for a year, yet the school refused that request for leave. There seems to be huge inconsistency in applying the rules, and I do not believe it should simply be down to headteachers to determine for which events or experiences it is appropriate for children to miss school. Making that decision should primarily be the responsibility of parents, in conjunction with the school.
The current policy came in in 2013. It was brought in through a statutory instrument and no impact assessment was carried out. As I have said many times to the Minister, the lack of an impact assessment was an oversight or a mistake by the Government. Until that time, a common-sense approach allowed headteachers discretion to decide when it was appropriate for children to be given leave to be absent from school for a number of reasons. I still argue that headteachers should be given that discretion, because they know the pupils, the families, the communities that they are part of, and the particular pressures and challenges that such a community might face. They are therefore best placed to make the decision in conjunction with the parents, rather than be dictated to centrally.
The rules are applied inconsistently across the UK. Fines are not imposed in Scotland or Northern Ireland, and even though fines are imposed in Wales, a report commissioned by the Welsh Government showed that they are not working. The number of unauthorised absences has gone up since 2013, particularly for family holidays, so the rules have not reduced the level of unauthorised absence in the way that was expected.
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has secured this debate on an extremely important subject. At Timothy Hackworth School in my constituency, there are real worries that if it falls below 96% attendance, because a contagious disease or another perfectly valid reason pushes the number of absences up, Ofsted will mark it down. Will the Minister address the question of whether Ofsted is so inflexible that every school has to achieve 96%, irrespective of circumstance?
I am grateful for that intervention. I will probably elaborate further on the hon. Lady’s point, but she is absolutely right that the drive to attain an attendance level above everything else, with no recognition of the welfare of the children involved, seems to be overriding common sense. One headteacher told me recently in a meeting, “If our school was outstanding in every other respect, but we fell short of the attendance target, we would deemed as ‘requires improvement’ simply for missing the attendance target.” That situation seems bonkers to me. Rather than looking at the wider picture of what is right and best for our children, schools are being driven by the Ofsted inspection regime to focus on an attendance target above all else. I will cite a few examples showing how that has been detrimental to the wellbeing and welfare of children and families in our communities.
We now have a situation where parents who for perfectly legitimate reasons are unable to take a family holiday during the school holiday period are basically subject to an arbitrary tax imposed by the local authority for taking their children out of school. Is the Minister’s Department aware of how local authorities are spending that money? As far as I can see, literally tens of thousands of pounds is being collected by local authorities through these fines, yet no one seems to know how that money is spent. It would be reasonable for parents to know how the extra tax they are paying is being spent.
For many families, the fines are no deterrent, because they are less than the money they save by taking their children on holiday during term time. If having a cheaper holiday is their motivation, facing a fine is not a deterrent. What it does do is penalise the poorest families in our society. It is a regressive tax. In my constituency, many simply cannot afford a holiday in peak season. We are saying to those poorer families, “Because you cannot afford it, you cannot have a holiday unless you face this additional fine.” It is a regressive situation.
Additionally, the fine hits small business owners the hardest. I have many small business owners in my constituency, particularly in the tourism industry, who are simply unable to take time away from their business during the peak season. That is where they make their money. They are faced with either taking their children on holiday out of peak season when business is quieter and they can afford to have a week away, or not having a family holiday. I say respectfully to the Minister that any policy that hits the entrepreneurs and small business owners of our country in particular should have no place under a Conservative Government. We are targeting the very people we say we stand up for.
A key point that I want to make is that the policy is clearly incredibly unpopular with parents. I am grateful to the parliamentary digital engagement team, which put out some public engagement on social media ahead of the debate. We have seen literally tens of thousands of responses. Mumsnet posted it, and it was the post that attracted the most attention in the whole month of May.
Many parents clearly feel strongly about the policy, but my key point is that it damages the relationship between parents—the family—and the school. It pits one against the other. I was a school governor for 19 years. Sadly, I had to step away from that when I was elected to the House, as I simply did not have time to do it any longer, but I know from that time that at the heart of good education is a partnership between the home and the school. We have got to get away from the concept that education takes place only in the classroom. Education is about the whole of life, and parents have a crucial and central role to play in any child’s education. When that works well, it works in partnership with the school.
Time and again, I have seen this policy break that constructive and positive relationship between parents and the school. Constituents have told me that, because the school refused to give them authorised leave and they were then fined, they refuse to fundraise for the school or volunteer to support it. The policy is counterproductive. We should be encouraging positive relationships between parents and schools, but our policy is damaging that relationship. Whatever gains the Department for Education may feel it is making in education by getting children to be in the classroom more often, I would suggest we are losing out from the loss of good will between parents and the school, and the breakdown of that positive relationship.
Perhaps I can trespass for another couple of seconds on the hon. Gentleman to say that he is absolutely right. Furthermore, we see rising mental health problems among children and young people, and this kind of stress is exactly what families do not need.
I think the hon. Lady has read my notes; I am slightly worried. The next point I wanted to raise was that one of the unintended consequences—I do not believe anyone in the ministerial team or the Department for Education intends it—is the impact the policy is having on some of the most vulnerable children, including those with special needs and particularly those with mental health challenges. Several parents from my constituency have come to see me because they are at their wits’ end. Their children have severe mental health challenges, yet the school will not authorise them to miss any time off school, when they are not able to attend school regularly because of the mental health challenges they face.
In one case the school said, “We will not authorise your leave until you have a diagnosis for your child,” but we all know that it takes months and months to get a mental health diagnosis for young people. Parents are getting warning letters from the school because their child is missing school, even though it knows that the child has mental health conditions. All that does is aggravate the issue for the child and the parents.
The way the policy is being driven by Ofsted and some of our schools is incredibly detrimental to the wellbeing of some of the most vulnerable children in our communities. I therefore believe that we need to take a serious, long look at the policy. The policy is putting schools and headteachers in an impossible situation. The drive to raise attendance levels above all else is having an incredibly detrimental impact on some families and children.
Part of the problem—this was alluded to earlier by the hon. Lady—is that there is a sense of buck-passing. The DFE says that heads have discretion to exercise their judgment on what is an exceptional circumstance, but headteachers tell me that when they exercise that discretion—correctly, they believe—if the attendance level drops, they are criticised and marked down by Ofsted. When I meet Ofsted staff and challenge them, they tell me that they are only doing what they are instructed to do by the DFE.
There seems to be a vicious circle that no one can break out of. We need to be clear about whether headteachers have discretion to exercise their judgment. If they do, they need to be allowed to do so and not be criticised by Ofsted. If taking discretion away from headteachers is a clear policy being driven from the centre, let us be honest about that so that the headteachers are not put in an impossible situation.
Before winding up, I want to mention the impact on the holiday market and holiday businesses. Many firms get criticised for raising their prices during the peak holiday season, which is basically the school holidays, but the reality is—I have literally hundreds of such businesses in my constituency—that is now the only time of the year in which they get to make money. Parents are prevented from bringing their children outside the holiday season, so all that demand gets condensed into six or seven weeks in the summer season, and that is when those businesses have to make their money. We cannot blame them. If the demand is there, and they need to make their money in those few short weeks, clearly prices will go up. However, we are exacerbating the issue through this policy. By making the demand so condensed in those few weeks, we are making holidays even more unaffordable for many families, so they have to choose to take their holiday at another time. It is another case of the policy being counterproductive.
I have many examples. When word went out that I had secured this debate, literally thousands of people across the country contacted me with examples of how the policy is negatively affecting their family and children. I do not have time to read many of them, but there are many cases of families struggling to live with the consequences of the policy.
I do not think that the policy is working, and we are not achieving what we actually want to, which is better outcomes for children. We have to take a wider view and understand that education is about more than the classroom. The policy is counterproductive, because it damages the vital, constructive, positive relationship between families and schools, and it hits some of the most vulnerable in our society. Once again, I put it to the Minister that we really need to review the policy and consider a better way of applying the right sort of expectations on parents with regard to having their children in school regularly. We must ensure that we are not damaging children and families as a result of the policy, and look at whether there is a better way of doing this.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) on securing the debate. I know that this subject is of close interest to him. As he mentioned, it is one that we have debated on a number of occasions over the years.
We can all agree that children’s education should not be disrupted by preventable absences. Regular attendance at school is fundamental to ensuring that every pupil, no matter their background, can meet their full potential. It is about social mobility. That is why I welcome this opportunity to reiterate the Government’s commitment to improving school attendance and ensuring that schools tackle all forms of absence as part of our ambition to create a world-class education system. I will set out the Government’s overall policy on reducing school absence before turning to the issue of term-time holidays.
There is a correlation between time absent from school and attainment. Pupils with higher overall absence tend to do less well in their GCSEs, even after taking their prior attainment and some other characteristics into account, as set out in the report by the Department for Education, “Absence and attainment at key stages 2 and 4: 2013 to 2014”. A pupil who has been absent is also liable to interrupt the education of other pupils and to increase the workload on teachers, as schools seek to ensure that an absent pupil catches up with the work that he or she has missed.
The Government have made the rules clear: no child should be taken out of school without good reason. We have put headteachers back in control by supporting them, and local authorities, to use their powers to deal with absence. We secured changes to the Education (Pupil Registration) (England) Regulations 2006, to which my hon. Friend referred, to reduce overall absence.
The persistent absence threshold was changed from 15% to 10% in September 2015 to encourage schools to act earlier in dealing with patterns of poor attendance. Persistent absence from school remains a society-wide challenge. We recognise the need for further action in this area, following a small but consistent increase in the number of pupils missing 10% or more of sessions in recent years; that figure is up from 10.8% in 2016-17 to 11.2% in 2017-18.
In 2013, we also clarified the law to address the widespread misconception that parents were entitled to take their children on holiday during term time. No such entitlement has ever existed in law. In clarifying the law, the Government ensured that headteachers retained the discretion to authorise a leave of absence when they were confident that the request constituted an exceptional circumstance. The Department has not specified to schools what constitutes exceptional circumstances. Schools know their pupils better than the Department, and can consider the specific details and relevant context behind each request for a leave of absence.
My hon. Friend will agree that what constitutes exceptional circumstances will differ enormously depending on individual and local circumstances. That is why it would not be appropriate for the Government to dictate what exceptional circumstances would warrant authorised absence across the country. We are clear that children should not be absent from school unless the circumstances are genuinely exceptional.
I agree with my hon. Friend that a positive and constructive relationship between parents and schools is essential. That is why we encourage parents to talk to their child’s school to make their case when they require a leave of absence. If parents wish to take their child out of school, the onus is on them to apply to the school in advance for a leave of absence, demonstrating in their application why they believe that there are exceptional circumstances.
I disagree with my hon. Friend that the Department’s attendance policy is counterproductive. Despite a very small increase in overall absence from 4.7% in 2016-17 to 4.8% in 2017-18, overall absence has fallen significantly from 6% in 2009-10. Parents have a duty, under section 7 of the Education Act 1996, to ensure that if their child is of compulsory school age—five to 16—he or she receives an
“efficient full-time education…either by attendance at school or otherwise”.
We have ensured that schools and local authorities have a range of measures to support or sanction parents when their child’s absence from school becomes a problem. The law gives schools and local authorities powers to offer parenting contracts and obtain parenting orders in relation to attendance. The law is clear that if parents register their child at a school and the child fails to attend regularly, parents may be guilty of an offence under section 444 of the 1996 Act, and may be given a penalty notice unless statutory exceptions apply, including where leave has been granted by the headteacher.
The penalty notice offers parents the opportunity to avoid any conviction for the offence, if the penalty is paid in full and within the timescales. Prosecution of a parent is available to local authorities as the ultimate sanction under section 444 of the 1996 Act. Penalties are therefore a way of avoiding prosecution, although of course local authorities can go straight for a prosecution.
Since we last debated the issue, the Supreme Court has clarified that regular attendance in section 444(1) of the 1996 Act means attendance
“in accordance with attendance rules”.
The Court also recognised the disruptive effect of taking a child out of school during term time, both on the child and on the work and study of the other children at the school and in the class.
Turning to my hon. Friend’s point about term-time holidays, the Government recognise the value of family holidays in providing enriching experiences that can indeed have educational value. However, the school year is designed to give families the opportunity to enjoy breaks and holidays without disrupting their children’s education. Schools are in session for 190 out of 365 days, leaving 175 days in a year on which parents can take their children away on holiday. I recognise that the cost of holidays is a frustration for parents, and the Secretary of State and I encourage travel operators to do what they can to provide value for money to families.
The Government do not set term and holiday dates. Decisions around term dates are best taken locally, especially where the local industry—for example, tourism—creates a compelling reason to set term dates that differ from those of the rest of the country. Local authorities are responsible for setting term dates for community schools, community special schools, and voluntary-controlled schools.
Variation in school holiday dates between local authorities already exists. That was seen over the recent Easter holidays. Sheffield City Council, for example, has a fixed Easter break at the beginning of April, which this year fell outside the official Easter peak. Similarly, in 2017, Nottinghamshire County Council took the decision to shorten its summer break and extend its October half term to two weeks, following consultation with parents.
All academies and free schools, which account for about 36% of state-funded schools, have responsibility for setting their term and holiday dates. Other schools, where the governing body is the employer of staff, such as foundation or voluntary-aided schools, also have that power, which some have already used to adapt their term dates to suit the needs of their pupils and local areas. That is an important freedom that the Government have encouraged schools to use. If parents and schools want different term dates, so they can take their children on holidays outside the more expensive peak holiday season, they should discuss that with their local authority, or with their child’s school, if it is a foundation, voluntary-aided school or academy.
Will the Minister address the question of whether Ofsted is failing schools if attendance is below 96%? If 96% is the wrong number, will he tell us the right one?
I am about to come on to Ofsted, which was also raised by my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay, and its role in influencing schools’ decisions.
Ofsted’s inspection framework makes it clear that it will consider an up-to-date attendance analysis for all groups of pupils. Inspectors will make a judgment about the behaviour and attitudes in a school. The inspection framework specifies that in doing so, they will look for a strong focus on attendance and punctuality, so that disruption is minimised. They will expect to see clear and effective behaviour and attendance policies, with clearly defined consequences that are applied consistently and fairly by all staff. They will also consider how well the school meets the needs of all pupils, including those with special educational needs and disabilities, and pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and other hon. Members for highlighting the issues around school attendance. To answer my hon. Friend’s question about how the money is spent, the requirement is for it to be reinvested in the attendance system in the local area. The system is intended to be cost-neutral. Many areas spend it on supporting projects to improve school attendance locally.[Official Report, 10 June 2019, Vol. 661, c. 3MC.]
The Government take the issue seriously and have put in place a number of measures to prioritise and incentivise school attendance. We will continue to monitor progress and encourage schools and local authorities to use their powers to stagger term dates where appropriate.
Question put and agreed to.
Crime and Antisocial Behaviour: Small Towns
I beg to move,
That this House has considered rising crime and antisocial behaviour in smaller towns and communities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I thank hon. Members for coming to this important debate. I am grateful to have the opportunity to hold the debate, because crime is one of the most important issues that my constituents face.
My constituency is a collection of small towns and villages perched just outside Leeds in West Yorkshire. As such, we fall under the responsibility of West Yorkshire police, which covers an enormous area—more than 2,000 sq km—that is home to upwards of 2 million people. Its jurisdiction includes the big cities of Leeds and Bradford and the large towns of Wakefield and Huddersfield. With those big bustling urban centres, it can often feel like a competition for the smaller places that I represent, such as Batley, Birstall, Liversedge, Gomersal, Heckmondwike and Cleckheaton, to get the attention they deserve.
There is a perception that the serious crime happens in big cities, but that could not be further from the truth, which is why this debate focuses specifically on towns and smaller communities. I will use examples from my constituency to demonstrate my concerns. Before that, however, it is important to put the cuts that have been forced on West Yorkshire police on the record. Since 2010, it has lost £140 million in central Government funding and more than 1,000 officers.
My hon. Friend and constituency neighbour is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that it is often the low-level antisocial behaviour that is an absolute blight on neighbourhoods? The police have so many competing demands, largely because of the reduction in their numbers, that it is difficult for them to respond to everything that they might like to.
I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting antisocial behaviour, which I will come to. The cuts certainly have an impact on our streets.
The funding cuts to West Yorkshire police would be worse were it not for the action of the Labour police and crime commissioner, Mark Burns-Williamson, who raised the police funding element of council tax to stem the loss of officers and restart recruitment in the face of cuts to the central grant. I am not a spokesperson for the police, and, let us be honest, many people in my constituency are frustrated with police services, but it is important to acknowledge the context of what they have faced in recent years, because it has an impact on their ability to respond to and deter crime.
As a fellow West Yorkshire MP, I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I strongly agree that West Yorkshire police has faced major cuts, which are hitting our towns. Does she agree that towns have often been particularly heavily hit by austerity, because overstretched police forces have been forced to concentrate many of their resources in the bigger cities? In Knottingley, there have been recent reports and challenges regarding antisocial behaviour, and in Normanton, there have been attacks on shopkeepers in the town centre. We need neighbourhood police officers in our towns, as well as the crime prevention work, to keep people safe.
My right hon. Friend makes a fantastic point. We need the community presence, as well as the intelligence that comes from relationships with communities. That can stem the flow of antisocial behaviour, because the police know where it is coming from and because they know the families.
It is also important to appreciate that police community support officers—an excellent Labour initiative that contributed to neighbourhood policing while Labour was in power—have faced reductions too. The decline in their number is important, and the reduction in Wrexham town centre is having a noticeable impact on antisocial behaviour.
That is an excellent point. I pay tribute to those officers who are increasingly asked to go beyond the call of duty and attend what are sometimes quite violent situations that they may not have the resources at hand to deal with.
It is not an exaggeration to say that there is a crime epidemic in my constituency, which my constituents are sick to the back teeth of. I, too, am completely fed up and exhausted from hearing from constituents who are at their wits’ end and frightened to leave home after dark because of the menace of nuisance bikes and mopeds.
It is commendable that my hon. Friend has brought this debate to Westminster Hall. I also commend my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) for her work on towns. Like many hon. Members, I have two towns in my constituency. People feel not just a sense of loss, but fear and worry when there is no visible police station. Great Harwood and Haslingden in my constituency have lost their police stations, for the reason that my right hon. Friend stated—the cuts take place in the small towns—and criminals can see that there is an opportunity to commit crime, so people live in fear.
I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. Certainly, in Batley, the police station has gone up for sale. It is disconcerting for communities when they see that “For sale” sign appear. People wonder, “If I was in a crisis, how long would it take for the police to arrive?”
To return to nuisance bikes and mopeds, the problem goes beyond antisocial behaviour; it is extremely dangerous, not just for the bike owners, but for other road users and pedestrians. The bikes keep people awake at night, which has a serious impact on health, wellbeing, stress and anxiety. It is also a difficult crime to clamp down on, as the perpetrators are on fast-moving vehicles, and most bikes are being used illegally, so simply taking them off the streets is a time-limited hindrance rather than a solution. Equally, we do not necessarily want high-speed chases to happen in built-up areas and little villages.
I am pleased to say, however, that West Yorkshire police and Kirklees Council, working with me, have been able to provide protective equipment for a couple of police motorcycle riders, so that officers can be trained to safely catch those who cause havoc. We know that we need a proper, nationwide response to tackle this problem, rather than piecemeal solutions when an MP gets concerned about something. We know it is going to involve the police, along with schools, youth services and local authority outreach teams. Sadly, those are all things that the Conservatives seem to have no problem cutting.
Let me turn to burglaries. What is happening in my constituency is truly shocking. When I visit the shopping centres in my towns and villages, the frequency of burglaries never fails to shock me. The towns of Batley and Birstall have been particularly badly hit. Burglaries affected almost every shop in Birstall town centre, one after the other. What is most frustrating is that in many cases the crime seems completely brainless—money is not kept on-site and items of high value have been removed. The criminals break in, wreak havoc and usually leave empty-handed. In some cases, they take the charity box. There was a break-in at the Chaiiwala café in Batley. The charity box was taken, and the café reached out on Facebook and said that that person must be very hungry or struggling financially, and that if they contacted the café, it would give them a week’s free food and perhaps support them financially. The shop owners should not have to do this to try to solve a problem that is not necessarily of their making. It is almost as if causing damage is for its own sake.
Last Saturday was Small Business Saturday, and I was really taken aback when visiting business owners. One said they were seriously considering leaving their door open, having been a victim of so many break-ins on numerous occasions, given that it is almost cheaper to leave the door open than have it repaired every time they are broken into. I could go on highlighting such cases, but we need solutions. Town centres are struggling enough; they should not have to contend with repeated break-ins.
The reality in smaller towns is that there usually will not be a police car round the corner during late evenings and through the night, and response officers are prioritising urgent cases such as domestic abuse or violence. So what can we do? Can the Minister tell us whether the Government have given consideration to crime prevention measures as part of plans to support high streets? Perhaps central funding could be made available for co-ordinated alarm systems or even high-quality CCTV, which can be too expensive for smaller shops acting on their own. If criminals are to be caught and prosecuted, surely that is the greatest deterrent possible.
I have used a number of case studies, but Members should be in no doubt that the figures more than back them up. I will come to that shortly.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. On actions, the police in my area are concerned that when a person commits an offence on an estate, it is not standard for an injunction to sit alongside the prosecution, banning them from the area and imposing curfews that do not allow them to go out at night. That should be part and parcel of what is meted out to individuals who cause such havoc for businesses and residents in our communities.
That is a very well-made point. By working with Safer Kirklees and Kirklees Neighbourhood Housing, we can have a joined-up effect on the most persistent burglars and try to get them out of those areas. Our communities do not want such behaviour. However, when we move people on, they can always stay with friends or on people’s sofas. It is important to ensure they are restricted in their opportunities for criminality, so my right hon. Friend makes a very good point.
I now turn to one of my deepest concerns: violent crime. We have seen an escalation in violent crime in our towns and villages. I recently went to our local pub in Cleckheaton, where a couple had been attacked violently with an axe while the pub was open. Although traumatised, the staff, landlord and landlady have been very brave in continuing to open their pub, and they have been overwhelmed by the community response to support them. A pensioner was also brutally attacked on a popular walkway by a gang of youths. A serving soldier was mowed down while celebrating the new year—luckily, the perpetrator is now behind bars. Guns are being discharged far too often in our community.
West Yorkshire police have recently been judged outstanding for reporting crime, for which I celebrate them. Their website breaks down the figures by parliamentary constituency, and I am afraid that it does not make for happy reading. Between April 2018 and March 2019, 2,686 incidents of antisocial behaviour were reported in Batley and Spen. There were 2,700 incidents of burglary, criminal damage or arson. More disturbingly, there have been almost 4,500 reported incidents of violence and sexual offences. Not a month has gone by when fewer than 1,000 crimes have been reported. This is a constituency of just over 100,000 people. Those numbers are shocking and wrong, and we deserve better. For each of the examples I have given, there are literally hundreds of other cases that people felt too demoralised or jaded even to report. We simply must stop crime continuing to rise.
Batley and Spen sounds a bit like the wild west, but it is a wonderful place to live and work. We cannot allow our lives to be blighted by the minority.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does she think that, at the very heart of this, the concern of people in constituencies such as Batley and Spen and Great Grimsby is that quality of life is severely affected as a result of crime, be it violent crime, which has increased in my constituency, or the antisocial behaviour that she has been discussing?
I absolutely agree. In comparison with cities, the quality of life in some towns is being diminished because services are going out to cities—infrastructure and so on. We should not have to put up with the increase in violent crime and antisocial behaviour in nice backwaters; we should have a proper quality of life and choose to live in communities such as ours because they are safer, the quality of life is better and they are great places to bring up children.
We have to be frank: the rise in crime is not just about a couple of bad apples, a family or a gang of kids. The Conservatives used to be the party of law and order—they used to pride themselves on it—but they have done their absolute best since 2010 to destroy that reputation. Police-recorded violent crime has more than doubled since 2010. Knife crime is at its highest on record. Arrests—the currency of deterrence—have halved in a decade, and the number of unsolved crimes stands at an unthinkable 2 million cases. Nine years of austerity has led to 20,000 fewer officers on our streets. The National Audit Office estimates that police funding fell by 19% between 2010-11 and 2018-19, and direct Government funding fell by a staggering 30% over the same period.
Police are not the only force for resolving, and preferably deterring, crime—no hon. Members present would argue that they are. However, they provide a vital service. When the police are seen on the streets less or take longer to respond, or when a crime goes unsolved, trust is diminished and fear creeps in.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent case about her constituency, which is very similar to mine—a rural area with lots of towns and where crime is rising. Our police have almost halved in number. Our police stations have been shutting, our magistrates court has shut, and now our custody suite is shutting as well. Police officers will have to travel almost an hour to take people who have been arrested into custody. Does she agree that those cuts, and austerity more widely, lead directly to the rise in crime?
I absolutely agree. My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about the reduction of police officers on the streets. If an officer has to travel further with a prisoner, they will be tied up for longer and less available to respond to emergency 999 calls. It is a powerful point.
I said at the beginning that there is a crime epidemic in Batley and Spen. I know that that is strong language, but I think my speech has proved that it is justified. I very much look forward to hearing the contributions from other hon. Members and the Minister, so I will not take up too much more time but finish with this. The challenge is that cities, towns and rural areas are often very different, but the ambition should be the same. Crime ruins lives, and citizens should not be blighted by it or live in fear of it. The purpose of this debate is not to say that towns and smaller communities are more important than other places; it is simply to get a better understanding of the issues and to kick-start the debate about the solutions.
Does the Minister have plans to undertake an audit of crime in towns? My office staff and I tried hard to find data about crime in towns compared with cities, and it is not available. Will she and her Government produce a report that shows the difference in the levels of reported crime and crime that has been resolved in towns, compared with cities? We also need a greater understanding of where money is spent. Most police force areas include towns, cities and rural areas. Perhaps the Minister can work with police forces on that and update the House at a later date.
Order. The hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) was not here at the beginning of the debate, so I will not call her. Incidentally, I do not think that she or her hon. Friends should really have arrived in the middle of the debate and intervened straightaway, not having been here throughout the speech of the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin). The hon. Member for High Peak will have to forgive me for mildly ticking her off.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) on securing this important debate. It is great to have the opportunity to talk about policing and to commend our policemen and women, who do a fantastic job in difficult circumstances. There is no doubt that they face difficulties. We have fewer police and police community support officers, and that has created problems. I remind hon. Members and everyone who is listening that if Labour had not left the finances in such a state, perhaps that would not have happened. [Interruption.] Labour Members can argue about that, but the bottom line is that if the money is not there, we cannot employ the police we need. I have not met a politician on either side of the House who wants fewer police and to make the environment more difficult for them. Difficult decisions had to be made because the money was not there. We have to accept that and work together to make our communities safer.
I meet my police a lot and spend a lot of time with them. It annoys my police and crime commissioner that I have such a close relationship with them. They tell me not just that there is a lack of cash—there certainly is—and that they have lost lots of police officers, although that is certainly the case, but that crime has changed dramatically in the period we are talking about. They have to spend a huge amount of resources on counter-terrorism, even in west Cornwall and the far south-west. Hon. Members might think that it is not an issue there, but people come in through our ports and harbours, and they need to be followed, arrested and dealt with.
The police also say that they are spending a lot of time and money investigating historical sex crime and abuse. We must recognise that this debate is about not just money but attention being needed elsewhere.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, as usual. Does he agree that we hear a lot about rurality in this place, but sometimes towns next to large conurbations have resources sucked out of them? Police stations are closing in Solihull, yet resources are going directly to Birmingham all the time. That is sometimes a huge challenge for those towns.
I welcome that intervention. I assure my hon. Friend that every person in Cornwall knows that argument. For a long time, including before we came to power, resources have been concentrated in Exeter and Devon, rather than in Cornwall, and that has always been a bone of contention. We have argued strongly that resources are needed right down as far as Penzance and the Isles of Scilly.
There is no doubt that in towns in Cornwall, there has been a rise in crime—sometimes violent crime, but certainly drug-related crime. I have talked about the change in the way that things are happening, and certainly drugs are moving around differently. The Government and the police and crime commissioner have made resources available, and have concentrated them in areas such as Penzance and elsewhere in Cornwall where people just did not feel safe. Things were going on in broad daylight that would not have gone on in the past. I completely accept that as we reduce numbers and the visibility of the police, other things are allowed to happen, which much be addressed.
Money has been poured in, and we have seen improvements, although there is still lots to do. The key thing is to communicate to the public that they must report every incident they see, even if they sometimes feel that that is not acted upon. The police tell me that the intelligence they collect is really useful in helping them get to the root of the problem, rather than just deal with the individual on the street corner causing a problem.
I pay tribute to Cornwall Council, the safer communities teams and the police in Cornwall for working together effectively over the past 18 months or so to address these problems, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) said, that has sucked resources from other parts of my constituency. I ask the Minister to consider the audit that the hon. Member for Batley and Spen recommended. As resources have been reduced and focused on areas with particular problems, we have begun to see low but concerning levels of crime, antisocial behaviour, and alcohol and drug misuse in our very small towns, and people are not used to that. I represent a town that was always awarded the title of safest town in the country, but now people come to me because they are concerned about things going—at night, but also in the daytime—that they are not used to seeing. When that happens, it does not just make life uncomfortable for people, but harms the individuals who are caught up in that behaviour. There are opportunities that were not there before.
I ask the Minister to have a look at what is going on in very small towns where we are seeing problems. She should speak to police chiefs about how they will address that, and about what resources they can be given to put people on the street and to engage with the community. I have hosted meetings in St Ives and Helston with businesses, local communities and the police to talk about how communities and businesses can know when to report stuff, what to report and who they should report it to. It is really important that the police know where their resources are needed.
No one in this Chamber would deny that people deserve to feel safe and live in a place they can feel proud of. When they see concerning levels of antisocial behaviour and drug and alcohol misuse, their feeling of pride and safety is significantly compromised.
Will the hon. Gentleman also consider the impact that antisocial behaviour has on local businesses and restaurants? After a stabbing in Mitcham town centre only two weeks ago, the restaurateur of the local Italian restaurant said that his business dropped by 20%. Even though the stabbing was linked to gang issues that were of no consequence to the rest of the community, it made people feel unsafe, and they no longer wanted to go to his restaurant.
I welcome that intervention. High streets are in big enough trouble as it is without all this stuff going on. In St Ives and Penzance, people started to put stuff on Facebook. People who know St Ives will know that it is a massive tourist attraction, as are Helston and the Lizard. I am concerned about what the people putting stuff on Facebook are doing to their local economy by suggesting that those towns are not places to visit. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that there is a real impact on the local economy, which we must obviously work to support more effectively.
We do not want our families and children to be confronted by these problems or—dare I say it?—dragged into them. Policing is obviously important, but keeping people safe is about much more than how the police do their job and how visible they are. Will the Minister also look at what can be done to support local initiatives, often in the voluntary sector, that work with the police and the local authorities to nip these issues in the bud, and to support people who would otherwise be drawn into the criminal justice system or engage in behaviour that can be a slippery slope? We have all seen that in families that we represent.
Can the Minister talk to police chiefs about what is going on in rural areas? There is growing concern, and it is absolutely right that we nip the problem in the bud. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the issue; it is the right debate to have. Hopefully, we can work across the House to make our constituencies safer, and to make them places of which we can be proud.
Hon. Members now have two minutes. I call Mike Hill.
Thank you Mr Gray; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) on securing this debate.
I confess that Hartlepool is not a small town by any means, but the constituency is made up of small and distinct communities, such as the Headland, and villages, such as Greatham, Newton Bewley, Dalton Piercey, Hart and Elwick. Although we are part of County Durham by nature—Hartlepool is its historic port—we are in reality one of four local authority areas in the Tees valley that are covered by Cleveland police, which is one of the smallest forces in the country.
The Government’s austerity agenda means that Cleveland police force has suffered a 37% reduction in its staffing budget since 2010, which has resulted in the loss of 500 frontline officers and a substantial number of police community support officers since then. The net effect of policing cuts on Hartlepool was made clear to the nation when my constituency became the focus of a BBC film that was broadcast on the national news; it brought home the stark reality that in a town of 92,028 at the last count, only 10 police officers were on duty on a Saturday night.
Understandably, the reaction of my constituents was a feeling that streets and communities had been abandoned, and that the film was an advert to criminals, showing them that Hartlepool lay unprotected. To compound that, local police cells had been mothballed because of budget pressures, meaning a 30-mile round trip to the custody cells in Middlesbrough for officers depositing offenders.
We have just recruited a new chief constable, Richard Lewis. One of his first jobs was to come to Hartlepool to witness for himself the strength of feeling in our communities. Hartlepool and its outlying villages have never been abandoned by the police—far from it. We have one of the best multi-agency crime prevention teams in the area, and a strong neighbourhood policing ethic. Resources are so stretched, however, that there is a distinctive lack of bobbies on the beat, and because of increased demands on police officers’ time, some of the basics are beginning to suffer. It is sad to say, but the number of incidents that the police have failed or not had the capacity to deal with is increasing, according to my mailbag. That includes break-ins, burglaries, damage to vehicles and even assaults.
Cleveland police force is doing what it can by trying to refocus on emergency calls and increasing the number of special constables in its ranks. It is clear as day, however, that without proper funding, the force is fighting with one arm tied behind its back. For our rural communities—villages in particular—the thinner the blue line is spread, the more difficult it becomes to maintain proportionate policing cover. Rural crime is as much an aspect of life in my constituency as urban crime is in urban areas. This situation simply cannot continue. It is imperative that the Government act now for the good of my constituents.
I will make two points to end my speech. First, single-crew policing, which correlates with crime, presents a threat to individual officers attending violent crime scenes. Secondly, only this week, a 48-year-old man was held down by two men and robbed in broad daylight, at half-past one in the afternoon, outside our local hospital. That is not Hartlepool.
My mistake; we have slightly more time than I thought. The Front-Bench speeches will start at 5.22 pm.
Thank you, Mr Gray; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) on securing this important debate.
Perhaps more controversially, I would say that most people do not see themselves as living in one city or town. Even within a city, they see themselves as living in towns. In my constituency of Mitcham and Morden, people live in Mitcham. They do not live in the borough of Merton or in London, but in Mitcham. That is the area that they are concerned about.
Although Merton is regarded as the fourth safest borough in London to people living in Mitcham, that does not wash when they see escalating antisocial behaviour in the town centre and how petty crime quickly becomes serious crime if left unchecked. If I have time, I will also talk about the sale of air guns in high street shops and the desperate need for more school police officers.
Mitcham town centre is unfortunately a hotbed of antisocial behaviour in the heart of the suburbs. Unchecked antisocial behaviour is the first step on a very slippery slope to the level of crime that we have heard described in the debate; the gulf between antisocial behaviour and serious crime is not as large as many of us allow ourselves to believe. There are small steps between noise and nuisance, drinking and drunkenness, and inconvenience and illegality.
When such antisocial behaviour goes unchecked, it begins to foster and grow. That is about what becomes normal and acceptable, and what goes unchallenged—for example the drug takers who routinely gather outside my constituent Alberta’s backyard in Mitcham, or the street drinking and urinating that has become commonplace in the town centre, or the atmosphere of noise and nuisance that street drinking encourages. All of that often goes unpoliced.
Why does antisocial behaviour go unchecked? It is because we no longer have enough bobbies on the beat to control it. The simple truth is that there is no substitute for a visible police presence in the community. Is it any wonder that Merton alone has lost 90 police officers since 2010, when the Met has been forced to make more than £700 million in cuts in that time, with a further £325 million to be cut by 2021? So much for the end of austerity. The challenge that that depleted force faces is alarming. It simply does not have the support or resources from this Government to challenge the crime that is frightening our streets.
Mrs. B wrote to me to describe how understandably terrified she was when she looked out of her kitchen window and saw a group of young men on bikes with 40-inch machetes. Mr. G wrote to me in horror last month after seeing a man attacked with yet another machete, less than 24 hours after multiple stabbings nearby. He said:
“I’m angry that this has happened where I live and in such a blatant way. I feel sad at how cheap life would seem to these people. And I’m absolutely frustrated with the disintegration of any real responsibility from the state on this issue.”
How many more people need to die on our streets? How many more families need to grieve the tragic loss of a loved one? How many warnings need to be given? We simply need more police on our streets.
In the light of the spread of violent crime across our country, we in this Chamber all have a responsibility to ensure that our streets are safe. That is why I am so furious to report that a store in my constituency is selling guns—yes, guns. Cash Exchange is—legally, I must say—selling airguns in my constituency. We do not have rolling fields; we do not have a rural culture. We have airguns masquerading as sub-machine-guns, which are sold to people who want to look intimidating and frightening on our streets, and it is done legally. Why is the display of those weapons permitted by law? Why is their sale not licensed by the police? Why are the Government not taking active steps to ensure our safety? We do not need those guns in shops in suburban south London.
This is not just about our streets, but about our schools. National funding cuts and high vacancy rates have led to the decline of our treasured school police officers. My local headteachers wrote to me describing school police officers as instrumental to building relationships within their school communities, breaking down the barriers that some families have with the police, and ensuring that more youngsters leave school with a positive view of the police. Sessions and workshops led by officers are important, but they simply do not provide a like-for-like alternative for the school police officer who those youngsters get to know and trust.
Two of the secondary schools in my constituency now share just one school police officer; the other secondary school shares an officer with a school at the other end of the borough. There is a total of just seven officers for Merton’s secondary schools and further education college. That is simply not enough. This is not about point scoring but about the safety of our young people. Adequately funding our police force so that school police officers can be retained is essential to ensuring the safety of those young people.
I ask loud and clear: bring back bobbies on the beat; stop the sale of airguns on our high streets; and stop the loss of schools police officers from our secondary schools. The first duty of any Government is to ensure the protection of their citizens. By that measure, the failure of this Government is devastating.
There are two minutes for Mr Jim Shannon.
Thank you, Mr Gray. I also thank the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) for securing the debate and the opportunity for us to participate.
I am conscious that the Minister does not have responsibility for policing or antisocial behaviour in Northern Ireland, but I want to make a contribution to describe what we have done in Northern Ireland and in my constituency in particular. That might add to the debate and help us see how we can move forward.
The issue of antisocial behaviour, of misbehaviour, causes concern. Our force, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, has had its numbers reduced. Rural community policing has not existed since the closures of the village police stations. Some seven have closed over the years—Portaferry, Greyabbey, Donaghadee, Saintfield, Carryduff, Killyleagh and Ballynahinch—with one on the edge of my constituency and the other six in it. No longer is a police officer in a position to take a call, go round to the problem area, lift the children and bring them home to their parents to be dealt with—we simply do not have the police numbers to do that.
Unfortunately, groups of young people can, perhaps inadvertently or unknowingly, cause hassle. Music playing in a field behind someone’s house at midnight is not okay, because it affects a mother and her children who are trying to sleep. Throwing cigarettes and matches into a farmer’s field in a dry spell might cause a fire. Those are all important issues for many people. To the parents who do not know where their child is or what their child is doing, that should be a concern.
Many people try to address antisocial behaviour by creating church groups in their areas. A local church group runs an event on a Saturday night in Newtownards. That helps for part of the time, but not beyond 10 pm. For years, community workers, the PSNI, the council antisocial behaviour team and street pastors have worked together to build up relations with the children and try to find a way forward. What really helped make the change, however, was when planning permission was granted for a development in the area they went to, so the misbehaviour did not happen any longer.
Churches and volunteer groups do a tremendous job, but they cannot run half the night, and antisocial behaviour teams are challenged. What is the answer? We have to put in a foundation. That means more bodies—
Order. Sadly, the House will never know what the answer is. It is time to call the first of the Front Benchers.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Gray, and to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—I am sorry he was cut off in his prime.
I thank the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) for securing the debate and for her passionate and eloquent introduction. As she said, we all want to feel safe in our homes and communities. That is as true of constituents living in smaller towns as of those who live anywhere else. It means safety from the full range of offences, from serious violence to antisocial behaviour. As she and other Members have illustrated with some pretty horrifying examples, too many people are impacted by all that. I will briefly set out what the SNP sees as the key strategies for driving down crime and antisocial behaviour.
My starting point is slightly different, because in Scotland, thankfully, we have continued to see a significant and sustained fall in crime over the past decade. Yesterday, for example, we saw analysis showing that attempted murders and serious assaults are down by about 38% on 10 years ago. We have also seen a long-term sustained reduction in experiences and perceptions of antisocial behaviour. I pay tribute to and thank all who have been involved in setting that downward trajectory. None of that is to say that there will not be bumps along the way, that the trend will continue in one direction every single year, or that we take the trend for granted; there is always more that can and must be done.
On that note, as the hon. Member for Batley and Spen said, the work includes not only policing—though that is a focus of this debate—but prevention. It is not simply the police who have to be involved, but every single Government Department.
The hon. Gentleman and I share North Lanarkshire Council. We have heard stories from around the country, and it is exactly the same in Scotland—that is what we are hearing. This year in North Lanarkshire, 900 formal warnings have been given for antisocial behaviour, and 200 have been prevented from going further with mediation. Will he congratulate North Lanarkshire Council on its work?
I am happy to congratulate North Lanarkshire Council on that work, which emphasises the role that local authorities have to play. Among the statistics from yesterday was the 35% fall in serious violence and attempted murder in North Lanarkshire, so pretty much every part of Scotland is benefiting from some of that work. The point that I was making, however, is that it has to be a whole-systems approach; it is not just about policing, but about local authorities and every single Government Department being involved in the challenge.
On prevention—or nipping things in the bud, as the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) pithily put it—a lot has already been said in recent debates about the work of the violence reduction unit in Glasgow, which has also been rolled out elsewhere. The “No Knives Better Lives” campaign and programme have complemented other youth-diversionary interventions and activities. The mentors for violence prevention programme is designed to lead young people to more positive destinations and has 140 schools across 22 local authorities taking part. Another initiative, under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, is the cashback for communities fund, through which almost £100 million seized from criminals over the past 10 years has been invested directly in partnership organisations that put on free activities for those who might be at risk or who live in areas with higher than usual crime rates.
Policies need to address head-on the causes of offending behaviour. We know that deprivation is linked to higher crime rates, which is why in years ahead there will be additional investment and focus in the next phase of cashback for communities to raise the attainment of young people from areas of deprivation across Scotland, or those who are at risk of exclusion from schools or of unemployment. That mirrors education policies such as pupil equity funding and the Scottish attainment challenge, which are all designed to improve the life chances of those from more deprived areas of the country.
From another angle, we know that alcohol is a significant factor in all sorts of offences. Again, policies must be directed at that, and in Scotland we have seen the introduction of minimum unit pricing, which studies suggest can deliver a significant fall in some types of crime. I urge Members to consider engaging in that debate.
The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) raised the issue of air rifles. Again, the experience in Scotland has been pretty positive. We introduced licensing two or three years ago, and so far crime involving air rifles is down significantly.
I will finish on policing, which was at the crux of the debate for most Members. To cut to the chase, over the past 10 years police numbers in Scotland have gone up by about 5%, which contrasts with the cut in numbers of about 14% elsewhere in the UK. The Home Secretary himself has acknowledged that that is a crucial factor, so while I recognise that budgets are tight, it can be done. Policing in combination with all that work on prevention must be the way ahead.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) on securing this vital debate.
Since records began, violent crime has never been as high as it is today. Knife crime has never been as high—homicides involving knives increased by 22%—while arrests, the currency of deterrence, have halved in a decade. Unsolved crimes stand at an almost unthinkable 2 million cases. Each of those numbers represents victims, families and friends who have been scarred by violence, and together they represent a national crisis.
Two key things cause rising crime: cutting police numbers and slashing funding for youth services. What have this Government done? They have cut police numbers and slashed funding for youth services. To begin with the police cuts, it is important to remind the House that the Conservative party promised the public that its cuts would not hit the policing frontline. One week before the 2010 election, the previous Tory leader, David Cameron, said:
“Any cabinet minister…who comes to me and says ‘here are my plans’ and they involve front-line reductions, they’ll be sent straight back to their department”.
Five years later, the current Prime Minister claimed that the frontline service had been protected, but we now know that that was not true.
Police numbers are at their lowest for 30 years. We have lost 21,000 officers, more than 6,000 PCSOs and more than 15,000 police staff, including crime investigators. My own police force in Greater Manchester has lost 2,000 officers since 2010. No Government in post-war history—none—have cut police numbers in every year that they have been in office.
The public instinctively understand that cutting police numbers causes rising crime. After all, as the Home Secretary said recently, it is “not exactly rocket science”. Under-resourced police are forced to focus purely on reactive policing. Hotspot policing is known to reduce crime in areas where there has been a surge. Far from simply pushing it away into other areas, evidence suggests that the benefits are felt in areas outside where the hotspot policing is focused. It should therefore concern hon. Members that Chief Constable Thornton, the chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council says:
“I am utterly convinced that intelligence-led policing with a focus on prolific offenders and hot-spot locations makes a real difference. But few officers and staff are able to do less policing.”
Local policing has been shown to increase the legitimacy of the police, which encourages the local community to provide intelligence and report crimes and suspicious behaviour.
Last year, as part of the national initiative to spend a day with the police, I spent a day with my old force, Greater Manchester police. The officers told me that they no longer had the resources to go into schools and talk to students about what the police do and how to stay safe—a vital part of building community links. There is no doubt that the Tories have cut frontline policing, which is driving rising crime.
The second driver of rising crime is cuts to youth services. Our social safety net has been steadily unpicked by this Government. The most vulnerable are struggling to get support, starting at the very first stage of life. Sure Start was a lifeline for many vulnerable families, but it has been cut back and the support it can provide has been reduced. Schools have been crushed under the weight of punitive funding pressure. Cost cutting has hit teaching assistants and special educational needs—just the kind of targeted support that is needed by young people who are falling behind.
Chronic underfunding of the NHS means that young people are routinely denied the mental health support we know can reduce aggression. For those who set out on the wrong path, the Government have ensured an almost total lack of provision for those involved in gangs. Even at this late stage, education, training, employment and health services can reduce violence, including homicides. The sad truth is that, despite the research showing that specialist services for vulnerable youngsters and families can fundamentally alter outcomes, there is not the political will to create a system that will support them. Those decisions taken together have precipitated the crisis we face today.
The Government have cut police numbers to a historic low and cut youth services at every stage of development, and they are now surprised by record crime levels. The most despicable criminals are exploiting the space where well-run and effective early intervention, prevention and diversion strategies once existed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) on securing this interesting debate, which looks at the issue from the perspective of smaller towns and communities—we call them villages in my part of Lincolnshire—and I am pleased to take part in it. I thank hon. Members from across the House for the examples they have given of crime and antisocial behaviour in their constituencies. There have been some particularly moving examples, and I am sure the whole House is united in hoping that those who have been devastated by those crimes get the help and support they need.
This Government are committed to tackling and preventing crime and antisocial behaviour, and we recognise the particular challenges that smaller towns and communities may face, including in Northern Ireland; we may not have heard all that we wished to hear from Northern Ireland, but I am sure the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) will tell us what is happening there.
Will the Minister give way?
If the hon. Gentleman promises that he will be brief, I will.
Let me give the Minister some examples of what we have done: antisocial behaviour officers are in the councils; the PSNI work alongside street pastors and churches; and local community groups organise events to take young people away. Those are three things that make a difference. Also, it is not down to the police only, but the parents.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that it is a community effort, in spite of the importance of law enforcement. That is why, in our Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, we put in place six powers, some of which can be exercised not just by the police but by local authorities. We appreciate that there will be different solutions to different problems in different areas.
The debate is about “rising crime”. I fully recognise the concerns that Members have raised, but I must remind them of the analysis by the independent Office for National Statistics, which sets out that most people are not victims of crime, and that the likelihood of becoming a victim remains low. We also recognise that there has been a genuine rise in serious violent crime, and there is a range of actions under way to tackle that.
Does the Minister realise how maddening the comment, “You are not likely to be the victim”, is to our constituents? If somebody is stabbed in their street or there is a drunk and disorderly person in their shopping centre, they are the victims, and that has an impact on their behaviour.
That is the finding of the Office for National Statistics. We have to work on the evidence; that is the way in which we formulate policy. It is a great shame that the hon. Lady was not able to join the briefing session I held yesterday for colleagues from across the House, to update them on our actions to tackle serious violence. She would have seen the range of activity going on, not just in London but across the country, to tackle crime and the causes of criminal activity. Although the statistics are very worrying at the moment—that is why we are acting as we are—it was acknowledged yesterday in the meeting that there is a cyclical element to them. We saw similar spikes in serious violence in the mid to late 2000s. We bore down on them, and we need to ensure that our actions have a similar impact.
In our serious violence strategy, we put a much greater focus on steering young people away from crime while continuing to promote a strong law enforcement response. We are investing in early intervention projects—my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) made that important point. I am delighted to tell the hon. Member for Batley and Spen that West Yorkshire is receiving more than £1 million until March next year to allow the police, community safety partnerships and others to work together on a programme of early intervention projects to prevent serious violence in the county.
We have also launched the national county lines co-ordination centre, and its work has produced huge benefits; in a single week in May, there were 586 arrests, and 519 vulnerable adults and 364 children were engaged with for safeguarding purposes. I am sure that many colleagues are conscious of the exploitation of young people by criminal gangs. On serious violence, we are looking at how gangs communicate in the 21st century and helping the police to tackle gang-related activity on social media.
We recently passed the Offensive Weapons Act 2019, which tightens up the law on the sale of knives and corrosive substances. We are in the middle of a consultation, to which I encourage hon. Members to respond, on a new legal duty to underpin a public health approach to tackling serious violence. We have introduced a new £200 million youth endowment fund that will be delivered over 10 years. It is locked in. That money will be invested, and it will support long-term interventions with children and young people at risk of involvement with crime and violence. We are conducting an independent review of drug misuse, which will report its initial findings to the Home Secretary in the summer.
As colleagues have mentioned, we have established vehicle theft and burglary taskforces to bring together Government, the police and industry in order to improve our response to those crimes. With reference to burglaries, we are looking at building standards and whether we can design out crime, as has happened in the past with vehicle theft. We continue our work with moped-enabled crimes; in London there has been a heartening decrease in that type of crime. That shows that working across civil society, industry and local authorities can really bring dividends. Colleagues will also be aware of the announcements about retail crime we made recently with regard to the Offensive Weapons Act. I very much hope that we will be able to announce the results of that consultation in due course.
Hon. Members also mentioned the impact of antisocial behaviour. We absolutely recognise the impact that forms of antisocial behaviour can have, which is precisely why we introduced the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. The point of the six powers in that Act is that they are flexible and give local forces and local authorities discretion in how they deal with instances and patterns of antisocial behaviour in their areas.
In summary, we very much recognise the impact of crime on not just big cities, but market towns, urban towns, if I am allowed to use that phrase, and villages. That is precisely why, as well as putting in place the suite of measures that we have touched on in this important debate, we have secured an extra £1 billion of funding for the police. That is already enabling police and crime commissioners, including in West Yorkshire, to increase the recruitment of police officers.
As always, I thank hon. Members for their contributions. I very much look forward to debating this issue again in the future. I think we all recognise that concerns about the safety of our constituents and our communities are central to our work here, and to our taking a collegiate approach across the House to ensuring that our country is a safe and comforting place in which to live.
I thank colleagues across the House for their contributions. It is really interesting to know that I am not alone in representing a community that feels that crime has got out of hand. I congratulate West Yorkshire police on the work it does. The Minister talked about money for the police, but the money for West Yorkshire comes from an increase in the precept—the precept is increased in order to increase the number of police officers—so we are paying for it.
I was happy to attend the serious violence strategy meeting, at which I learned a lot. It was really interesting, and a lot of initiatives seem to be going on. However, those initiatives feel focused on knife crime, which is the sort of violent crime that comes at the end. I asked at the meeting what is being done to intervene right at the beginning, and in our communities, to ensure that people do not feel abandoned or that crime is their only hope of getting money, having status or whatever, and are not vulnerable to gangs and so on. As my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) said, early intervention is so important.
Although I understand why it was said, there is an element of complacency around this, in that—
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady in full flow. We all wanted to hear it, but the rules are strict, and we must stop at precisely the right second.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10 (14)).