Tuesday 9 July 2019
[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Government support for active travel and local walking and cycling infrastructure plans.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I am delighted to have been granted this important debate on active travel, and I am particularly pleased to see so many Members from both sides of the House present to take part in it. I declare at the outset that I am a long-standing member of Cycling UK and a member of the all-party parliamentary cycling group. I also sit on the Transport Committee, and I am delighted to see our Chair, the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), present. We are currently preparing a report on active travel, and although I am not speaking on behalf of the Committee this morning, I suspect there will be strong agreement.
I have been a keen cyclist for many years for leisure reasons, but in recent years I have noticed a gradual but significant change in the way in which cycling is viewed in this country. No longer are we cycling and walking just as a way of getting from A to B. Increasingly, cycling is seen as a crucial element of our approach to not just transport and alleviating congestion, but town planning, public health, obesity, mental wellbeing, air quality, the environment and, of course, climate change. The range of benefits that active travel provides forms the basis of the debate and of my reasons for urging the Government, through the Minister—it is very good to see him in his place—to do more to promote cycling and walking in our cities, towns and villages.
My hon. Friend mentioned town planning. There is a crucial point on which the Government could be helpful. His constituency is very similar to mine: it has a lot of footpaths going across what is basically agricultural land. Does he agree that the Government should insist that, when development takes place, those footpaths are not allowed to be extinguished, so that we keep the network that allows us to walk and cycle?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and neighbour for making that point. He is right. Those of us who are lawyers know that expunging a footpath is, rightly, one of the hardest things to do in the law. Footpaths are protected, and I agree that they must remain so when new developments are built, to ensure that our latticework of footpaths continues to exist. I would extend that to bridleways as well, which similarly have an historical provenance. I ask the House to bear in mind that, although we tend to think of cycling and walking in the context of the strategy I mentioned, horse riders in areas such as mine and my hon. Friend’s are also vulnerable, and ought to be thought about in the context of active travel as well.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent case. On planning, he will be aware that the bidding process for the housing infrastructure fund is quite unclear on whether cycling infrastructure will be funded or is just viewed as a cost. Does he agree that, ultimately, that infrastructure should be viewed as something that adds to the attractiveness of schemes, and should be favoured within them?
I could not agree more—the hon. Lady makes an excellent point. The housing infrastructure fund is an important part of Government funding, and I would like cycle paths to be included. I am conscious that a great many Members wish to speak, but if time allows I will mention the B4044 community path from Eynsham in my constituency to Botley, which, although not in her constituency, is in the county she represents.
I have supported the path from Eynsham for many years; in fact, one of the first events I attended as a Member of Parliament was when I cycled along it on a cold winter’s morning, accompanied by many others in yellow jackets. As it stands, it is quite a dangerous little lane to cycle on, but the potential is enormous for Eynsham, and even for going as far as Witney—there is a cycle path along the A40, which I used only this weekend when I went out to stretch my legs. Increased housing growth will be unlocked, facilitated and made sustainable by the use of cycling paths, so I could not agree more with the hon. Lady.
We also have a lot of urban footpaths and ginnels. Would it not make sense to have funds for signposting, so that people know how to get away from the main routes and use the often hidden, beautiful routes to get from A to B? Often it is the lack of signposting that prevents people from using all those opportunities.
That is an excellent point. In rural areas such as mine, there are often such signposts. One of the joys of living in the country is that people can set out on those routes. I recommend to everyone the wonderful Ordnance Survey maps, which record everything down almost to the inch. However, in those areas where signposts are missing, I urge local authorities to look at installing them, because they make it much easier for those who wish to use footpaths.
We talk about infrastructure in urban areas, but one of the big complaints I receive is about infrastructure in rural areas. We are trying to encourage more children to cycle to school. It is not an easy problem to solve, but surely we should spend some money on infrastructure in rural areas to help children to get to school.
That is an excellent point. Again, I entirely agree. I represent a largely rural area, although it has significant market towns. Given the obesity crisis in this country and how we would like children, in particular, to build exercise into their day-to-day life, it is better if infrastructure is in place that allows them to get to and from school easily, quickly and safely. Again, I am conscious of how many people wish to speak, but if I have time I will mention a cycle path on the A44 that is off the road and therefore entirely safe for people going from Oxford up to Woodstock. Confidence is increased if parents know that their children are going to and from school on a path that is off the road.
My hon. Friend is being incredibly generous in giving way, and I congratulate him on securing the debate. Most of the funding the Government make available for infrastructure investment is through the ambitious cities programme, which means that rural areas such as Cornwall and many others cannot access funding for cycling infrastructure. Will he join me in pressing the Minister, as we approach the comprehensive spending review, to enable us to build on the huge success of the ambitious cities programme with an ambitious towns programme?
One of the main points of my speech is that I would like the comprehensive spending review to ensure that active travel is built into our infrastructure plans for the future, for urban areas, towns and, of course, rural areas such as those that many of us represent.
I will deal quickly with some of the benefits of active travel, though I suspect the House will not need a great deal of persuading. Active travel is not only safe, convenient and attractive, but a cost-effective way of delivering the benefits we would all like to see. Cycling and walking are healthy, enjoyable and flexible ways of making a local journey, or a longer journey in combination with a car or a train, and enable us to take cars off the road wherever possible. For wider society, active travel is clean, safe and attractive. It reduces the environmental costs, such as the congestion that I spoke of, reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
Investment in active travel is also cost-effective for the taxpayer, which I am sure the Minister is aware of and will celebrate. The Department for Transport estimates that investment in cycling and walking yields on average £5.50 of benefits for every £1 invested. That is a significantly higher benefit-to-cost ratio than many large road and rail schemes, which tend to have benefit-to-cost ratios of between £1.50 to £1 and £2 to £1.
I am a keen walker. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that some of the biggest benefits for those who cycle and walk are the personal health benefits, particularly in today’s climate of childhood and adult obesity? The active travel that he suggests, and which the Government will hopefully promote, will actively target obesity among young people and adults.
I could not agree more. The health benefits are some of the most important. I started my speech by saying that there are many benefits, and health benefits—both physical and mental—are pre-eminent among them. I am sure we all realise that, as people who do jobs that are sometimes slightly stressful and sedentary as well. Speaking as a keen hiker and cyclist, there is nothing quite like getting on a bike or putting on hiking boots at the weekend and shaking off some of the stress. It certainly kills a number of birds with one stone.
I am delighted that the Government recognised the benefits of active travel with the adoption of the cycling and walking investment strategy in 2017, which set out their ambition to make cycling and walking the natural choice for shorter journeys, or as part of longer journeys, by 2040. It sets out aims and targets for 2025, including doubling cycling activity from the 0.8 billion cycle stages made in 2013 to 1.6 billion in 2025. I understand that the Government have commissioned research into how the strategy’s aims for 2025 can be met and that the research, when published later this year, is likely to suggest that significant additional investment in cycling and walking will be needed to meet the targets.
I completely concur with the hon. Gentleman. Eastbourne is a town that has been built up over many years. We have a wonderful cycling group called Bespoke, which I and the council very much support. We want to put in more cycling infrastructure, but the challenge is simply lack of funds. Towns such as Eastbourne will need Government funding to do what they really want to do in support of cycling. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
The hon. Gentleman makes a valuable point, which is very much in line with my points. Investment in cycling and walking in England has trebled since 2010. We spent roughly £2 per person annually in 2010; the figure is now around £7.50. That is a significant increase, but it is still some way behind the world’s most cycle-friendly countries. The Dutch, for example, invest around £26 per person annually in cycling and have been doing so for around 40 years. That is probably the crux of the hon. Gentleman’s point, and it may explain why 26% of trips are cycled in the Netherlands, compared with less than 2% in Britain. We are looking to address that strategic funding over the months and years ahead, but that will not happen overnight. Realistically, it may not even happen by 2025, but we need to start moving in the right direction. I ask the Government to use the forthcoming spending review period to increase investment in active travel. No doubt the Minister will address that point in due course.
It is not just a matter of central Government funding. When I was at the Bar and working in the centre of Oxford, I used to travel from where I live in Bladon, near Woodstock, down the A44, which, as I mentioned, has a wonderful, almost completely off-road cycle path. I was struck by the fact that it was not as well used as it ought to have been. A lot of the difficulty is in what happens at the other end. I make no criticism of where I used to work, but the difficulty arises when a cyclist gets off their bike. In my case, working at the Bar, if I needed to go to court or to meet clients, I needed to be in a presentable state. That is not easy if there are no adequate changing facilities at the other end. Some organisations provide those facilities, which is wonderful—I know that Oxfordshire County Council does—but we need to see more investment in the public and the private sectors. Once cycling facilities are in, that is all well and good, but people also need the facilities at the other end so that they can make themselves fit and ready for the working day.
The cycling and walking strategy also encourages local authorities to develop what are called local cycling and walking infrastructure plans for high-quality cycling and walking networks and then to prioritise schemes to deliver them. The Government have supported 46 councils so far to develop their local infrastructure plans, but there is no dedicated funding stream to help them to do so. Without that, local authorities may not be able to plan and develop comprehensive cycling and walking networks with any confidence. I ask the Department for Transport to work with the Treasury at the spending review to develop a dedicated funding stream to enable local authorities to implement ambitious local cycling and walking infrastructure plans.
That appeal is part of the joined-up thinking that we hear so much about in the House and that we would like to see more of. I ask the Minister to press for greater joined-up thinking to ensure that all Departments are pulling in the same direction. I make that appeal with particular passion, because of the B4044 community path I alluded to earlier. I want to mention it in a little more detail, and I have raised it repeatedly with the Minister’s predecessor and the Secretary of State.
The B4044 is a key route between Eynsham, which will experience significant housing growth in the coming years, and Oxford. The path is the brainchild of Bike Safe, a passionate group of local cyclists who are campaigning for high-quality, safe, local cycle infrastructure. I commend the group’s passion and drive, and will never forget my visit to the project in its early stages. The group has done very well in giving it such a high profile. I ask the Minister to work with Oxfordshire County Council to explore what can be done to deliver this crucial project at the earliest possible opportunity, either through the housing infrastructure fund or as a stand-alone project.
I also want to mention the Hanborough pedestrian bridge in the context of integrated transport networks. It is all very well having great train services, roads that are quick and easy, and cycle paths, but they must link up. We need people to be able to get on their bikes and get to the train station. They may want to get on a bus to get to the train station. When they get there, they want the trains to be regular and reliable. We need to ensure that the journey from home to workplace can be undertaken on public transport and in an integrated fashion.
The Hanborough pedestrian bridge is a good example, and I fully support it. It has been energetically and admirably pursued by Hanborough Parish Council and will provide safer access for pedestrians and cyclists seeking to get to Hanborough station, which is vital to my constituency because it serves not just the villages of Long Hanborough and Church Hanborough, but also Witney and wider West Oxfordshire. People need to be able to get on the cycle path and the footpath safely at that narrow pinch point over the bridge, and they also need to be able to leave their bike at the train station if there is not enough space to take it on the train.
It is also vital that the schemes we are discussing are safe for all users—I think particularly of those who are visually impaired or who have other restrictions on their travel. Any infrastructure that is put in ought to cater for all users in the community, including the vulnerable.
I welcome the Government’s ambition to promote active travel, but I want to see further action to ensure that the encouraging words are joined by decisive action that will enable the targets of the cycling and walking investment strategy to be met and then enable us to go further still. That will require three things, which I look forward to hearing the Minister address in his remarks.
First, the Government should use the forthcoming spending review period to increase investment in active travel, with an eye to meeting, and if possible exceeding, the aims and targets of the cycling and walking investment strategy. Secondly, I ask the Department for Transport to work with the Treasury to develop a dedicated funding stream that will enable local authorities to implement ambitious local cycling and walking infrastructure plans to develop world-class local active travel networks. Thirdly, the Department for Transport should work across Departments, particularly with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, to ensure that its ambitions for active travel are supported and not undermined by other Departments. That way we can have an integrated strategy within Government to provide us with an integrated transport strategy in West Oxfordshire and all our constituencies.
Order. Before I call Back-Bench speakers, I calculated prior to the debate that I could allow Back Benchers 2.66 recurring minutes each to speak. Having negotiated with the Front-Bench speakers, I think I can allow a hard three minutes for each speech. I also make it clear that, as Chair, I cannot interfere with the democratic right of a speaker to take interventions. However, I can exercise my democratic right to put any interveners at the end of the queue of speakers. Will speakers please bear that in mind in order to facilitate the debate? I call Ruth Cadbury.
Thank you. I welcome this debate. I co-chair the all-party parliamentary group on cycling, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts), who introduced the debate, as well as the Backbench Business Committee, which allowed it.
I will try to make points that others might not make, which is difficult as I am speaking at the beginning of the debate. The reasons for active travel are many and have already been mentioned: better air quality, the reduction of CO2 emissions, less congestion and better health. I would add another: productivity. Many of us know schools that do the extra mile in the morning, and children who do that mile run or walk are better learners during the day.
It is no coincidence that a large number of City companies pushed the former Mayor of London, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), to go ahead with the east-west cycle route in London. They pushed for that because they knew that it would make their staff more productive at work, as more people cycling often reduces sickness and absence from work, and increases alertness during the working day. Since I have been more active over the last 10 years, I have certainly felt that I have higher energy levels.
When commentating on the Tour de France a few years ago, Chris Boardman made a YouTube video in which hundreds of people cycled behind him in Utrecht. He said that they were ordinary people going about their day-to-day life, and that he did not see “cyclists”, but normal people going about their life, dressed for their destination and not the journey. The Netherlands did not come by its high levels of cycling and walking by accident; it was a conscious change of policy in the 1970s as a result of parents worrying about their children’s safety. It took decades of serious financial support and leadership from the Government; that is what we need.
Issues in the justice system need to be taken on board. People will feel safe walking and cycling only when drivers are aware of more vulnerable road users and reduce risks such as close passing. We need training for professional drivers, sentencing for those who commit serious crimes, and, most importantly, investment from all Departments.
Cycling is a big part of the answer to the major issues that we are looking at across the House: climate change, congestion, pollution, obesity, poor physical health, poor mental health and social and economic exclusion. I am very excited about the possibilities offered by electric bikes, particularly for older people. For those who are frail or in poor health, who have longer journeys, who need to commute and look reasonably smart when they arrive, as my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) mentioned, and who live at the top of a hill, as I do, electric bikes are part of the solution.
I want this country to be world leading in cycling; I do not want us just to inch up the rankings. In the Netherlands, 25% of people cycle, while in Germany the figure is 10%. In the UK, only 2% cycle. Let us get to the head of the pack, not just improve a bit. We all know that it makes sense. To that end, every new housing estate that we build in this country should have cycle paths connected to the local schools and employment areas. When people get to those places, there must be enough parking for their bikes; it is not just motorists who need parking. If people cannot park securely and safely, or wash and freshen up if they need to when they arrive, they will not cycle in the numbers that we want.
I look forward to Central Bedfordshire Council completing the “green wheel” around Leighton Buzzard in my constituency. We have spent money on cycle paths, but they run out. When they come to a busy road, they just stop, and they are not as connected as they should be. We also need to ensure that when we build new roads, we put in cycling infrastructure, because it is much more expensive to retrofit later. Cycling needs to hold its own in business cases. I was concerned to hear about a recent road scheme from which the cycle scheme was taken out because it was viewed as a problem, and it was thought that it would reduce the power of the business case. That is nonsense. It is wrong and should not happen.
I hope that the Department for Transport’s review will be completed well before the comprehensive spending review, and will provide the evidence that we need to get the necessary increase in funding. We also want fairness and equity of funding. It is not right that only 46 council areas get extra money. This matters in the constituency of every hon. Member in the Chamber, right across the country. We need fairness and equity to ensure that every part of the country benefits from the coming cycling revolution.
This debate comes at an important moment for active travel. Congestion on our roads is growing; we are in the midst of a public health crisis; obesity is on the rise; and we face a climate emergency.
Most of us remember our first bike. I loved riding as a kid, and have enjoyed teaching my children how to ride their bikes. I believe that our passion for exploring the world on two wheels as youngsters does not leave us as adults. However, that passion has a tendency to be overtaken by practicalities, by a lack of safe cycling infrastructure, and by a lack of confidence in a world where the car is king.
It is my job as a mayor, our job as MPs, and the job of those with whom we work closely in local authorities to do all that we can to enable people to walk, cycle and run if they want to. I recently submitted a bid for £220 million from the Department for Transport’s transforming cities fund. If that is approved—fingers crossed—it will unlock major improvements in transport networks across South Yorkshire. I have also brought on board the brightest and the best talent; there is none better than my new active travel commissioner, Britain’s most successful female Paralympian, Dame Sarah Storey, who is already making a huge impact.
In the Sheffield City region, nearly 40% of car trips are under 1 km, which is the equivalent of just a 15-minute walk. It is no surprise then that our motorways and major roads are under great strain. If we are to safeguard our health, our environment, and our economy, now is definitely the time to act. That is why I have been working closely with other metro mayors, their active travel commissioners, and experts such as British Cycling, Sustrans, the Ramblers and Living Streets. I am also working with Transport for the North to create policy that will shape the North’s infrastructure.
I will rattle through my five asks for the Minister; I hope he will be familiar with them. First, commit to long-term devolved funding for cycling and walking. Secondly, commit to minimum quality levels to ensure that no more public money is wasted on infrastructure that is not fit for purpose. Thirdly, reform policing and enforcement. Fourthly, enable innovation by keeping road traffic regulations under review. Fifthly, ensure that transport investment decisions account for the true cost to society of car use.
This debate is about much more than encouraging people to get on a bike or put on their walking shoes. People do not need to be encouraged; they need to be enabled. That responsibility lies with us and with national Government.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) on securing this important debate. I would put cycling and walking into two broad categories.
First, there are established areas where we need to enhance and improve the facilities. We sometimes see green paint slapped on the ground to mark out a cycle lane, but that does nothing for the cyclist—it does not improve safety or their ability to navigate those roads. We have to be cautious about a council or an area being able to claim that they have more and more miles of cycle tracks when those tracks are of almost no value.
As my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) mentioned, often those tracks stop and start, which is of no value to the cyclist who wants to carry on their journey. It would be far better to focus on repairing potholes. That is what many people on their bicycles would like—smooth, open roads where they can carry on cycling.
There are opportunities in new developments. The largest housing development in Greater Manchester, the Horwich loco works, of 1,700 houses, almost connects Horwich town centre with Horwich Parkway railway station. That should have been a wonderful opportunity to connect the town centre to its local railway station with a superb walking and cycling route. There was a master plan for that development, but it included zero information about cycling or walking. We hear national Government, the Mayor of Greater Manchester and our town or borough council leadership talking about their ambitions for cycling and walking, yet in the plan for the largest single housing development in Greater Manchester of 1,700 houses, there were no details about cycling and walking. There is a huge mismatch between that and what some people say about this important agenda.
We want more people to cycle and walk, for the obvious reasons that have been given: it is better not just for physical but mental health, and we want people to have active lifestyles and be more part of the community. However, those ambitions must link up to the reality on the ground. I am pleased that Bolton Council will, under its new leadership, form a liaison group with the local community and Horwich loco works to make sure the development has the interests of local people at heart. I will champion the cause of cycling and walking.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) on securing this debate, and I thank him for his contribution to the Transport Committee, which I chair. It has been looking at precisely the matter we are discussing. The Government’s 2017 cycling and walking investment strategy—CWIS—is extremely welcome. As many Members have said, the economic, human and environmental cost of inactivity, climate change, air pollution and traffic congestion are huge. Active travel can help us to tackle all of those, if it gets the attention and funding it deserves but historically has not received. There are serious questions about the funding available for active travel and local cycling and walking infrastructure plans—LCWIPs, which we have been told are the main vehicle for delivering the Government’s strategy.
We have been told that the funding framework for active travel remains challenging, because the wider framework for local transport funding is complex, short term and under severe pressure. When the Government published the CWIS, they described it as a £1.2 billion plan, but only a quarter was ring-fenced funding for cycling and walking schemes. The rest was for local authorities to decide how to prioritise. We know all too well the pressures on local councils from adult social care and children’s services. Since the CWIS was published, the Government have stated that almost £2 billion is projected to be invested in active travel between 2016 and 2021. That is a good start, but it pales in comparison with spending on other modes, and equates to just £400 million a year, or 1.5% of the £26.4 billion that the Government spent on transport in England in 2017.
The Transport Committee has heard about the impressive ambitions of combined authorities and local authorities to increase cycling and walking in their area. I do not have time to go through them, but if they are to be achieved, as so many colleagues have said, dedicated funding is needed to deliver those improvements in LCWIPs to enable the Government to succeed in delivering their strategy. Phil Jones, an independent transport consultant who has been very involved in the development of the local plans, told us that if LCWIPs are just a plan and sit on the shelf,
“it has been a complete waste of time”.
He told us that LCWIPs have to lead quickly to actual schemes on the ground, and he is right. If the Government want to deliver their strategy, which is essential and not a “nice to have,” they need to consider how their funding will ensure that that happens.
Funding is not the only issue; the Government need coherent and consistent policy. People will not walk and cycle if their roads and pavements are poorly maintained; they will not feel safe if cars are parked on pavements; it will not be good if estates have no pavements, which I often see. People will incorporate walking and cycling into a longer journey only if the public transport element is up to scratch.
I have three points to make and, not surprisingly as a former Public Health Minister, I will begin with health. I very much enjoyed working with the Minister’s predecessor on creating some of the Government’s plans. Part two of the child obesity strategy, which I was responsible for bringing into place, was important for the obesity crisis that we face in this country. It was not all about the sugar tax, although I place on record how important that is. It must continue, despite protestations to the contrary. The obesity strategy was about moving more and giving children options for cycling. As the Minister’s predecessor said, it is about producing plans that mean a 12-year-old can cycle on the road with some sort of confidence.
My second point is on money and infrastructure. I was a vice chair of the all-party parliamentary cycling group when I first came to the House. We recommended in our “Get Britain Cycling” report, published in April 2013, that we should create a cycling budget of £10 per person. I pay tribute to the Government because, as has been said, investment in cycling and walking in England has trebled since 2010 from around £2 per person annually to around £7.50 per person. That is a success story. Another key recommendation of that report, which has been mentioned so many times since, is that local authorities should deliver cycle-friendly improvements to their existing roads. We will hear a lot this morning about new developments and how they must be connected up with cycle roads. They must, but just as most of our housing is existing housing, most of our roads are existing roads, and I want them to be transformed.
In Winchester we have a new local community action group called Cycle Winchester, which is campaigning to make the city better by bike. It is an excellent organisation that has arranged many mass cycle rides in the centre of Winchester, and it is working with the local council. We have something called the City of Winchester movement strategy, an important element of which will be a local cycling and walking infrastructure plan. Cycle Winchester is a very good, dedicated charity run by people who want cycling to be better in the area that I represent, but what support can the Government give to it? My hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) talked about the comprehensive spending review; surely, that is where we have to look.
We have talked about the carbon emissions net zero ambition in this Parliament, which is important, but local authorities will have to deliver so much of that. They only intend to produce an infrastructure plan; the Government want them to produce it, but they do not require them to. My council has declared a climate emergency, but what does that mean for cycling paths and dedicated cycle routes? We have to keep cyclists and cars separate. That means dedicated cycle lanes and investment, and making sure that local authorities carry through with their intentions to make that happen.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) on securing this debate. As a lifelong cyclist, I could speak for hours about why cycling has become so difficult in this country. We know the benefits of cycling, but what are the barriers to more people cycling? I think they are habit and road safety, and the two things are linked. If our young children start by cycling and walking to school, that will become a lifelong habit, as it became for me; I used to cycle to school every day when I was growing up in Germany. But when I became a parent in this country, I was terrified of sending my children to school on their bikes because it was not safe.
Let us concentrate on school travel plans, to allow children to travel safely to school and, therefore, embed a habit early on that people will continue into their later lives. What does that mean? As a councillor for 10 years, I was actively involved in trying to create meaningful, continuous cycle routes to get from A to B. That is very difficult, but as I said in my intervention, we can use existing infrastructure by signposting routes properly away from the main traffic.
Where we cannot get away from the main traffic, the Government could legislate for 20 mph zones in every town and city. In fact, studies say that a continuous 20 mph zone may make congestion much less likely because, as happens on motorways, traffic flow is much better if everybody travels more slowly. Why not go ahead and introduce 20 mph zones in all towns and cities? That would make cycling and walking so much safer, even if cyclists and pedestrians were mixed with motorised traffic.
We have many opportunities, and there are many good news stories. My council, which became Liberal Democrat in the last local election, is looking actively at walking buses: schools are encouraging parents to let their children walk with a dedicated person. Use of the Bath to Bristol cycle route increases by 10% every year. Where we have such cycling opportunities, they are used, but they have to be attractive. It does not help that a lot of money is spent on capital projects rather than on revenue, which can mean that where we create cycle routes we cannot maintain them. There are many things that the Government and local authorities could do, but we should start by looking at our young people and make walking and cycling to school the first priority.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) on securing the debate.
I would like to draw the Minister’s attention to an excellent opportunity to support an important cycling infrastructure plan in my constituency. The route would link Liskeard, Looe and Plymouth and is expected to bring up to £3 million per year into the important local tourism economy. A detailed feasibility study has already been undertaken for the Looe Development Trust. That had widespread support, having been funded by Cornwall Council, the LEADER EU funding programme, Cornwall and Isles of Scilly local enterprise partnership, Liskeard and Looe Town Councils, Liskeard Town Forum, and the Cornish mining world heritage site. I have a copy of the report, which I am happy to give to the Minister after the debate.
Tourism is massively important to my local economy. Research shows that the proposed scheme could generate millions of pounds in extra spend with accommodation providers, local restaurants and shops and many other services. I also anticipate new businesses, including cycle hire businesses, creating new jobs in my beautiful constituency.
In Cornwall, we know the benefits that such trails can provide. There is already a fantastic route in north Cornwall, between Padstow and Bodmin along the Camel Trail. Its success is clear from all the cycle hire businesses and other successful businesses along the route. It would be great if we could repeat that successful venture in my constituency. It would bring health benefits and allow people to get on a bike in beautiful surroundings and a safe environment, which we do not always get in our cities.
Simon Pratt from Sustrans, the UK charity that makes it easier for people to walk and cycle, said:
“These trails fill a missing link in the national cycle network, connecting with Plymouth and Dartmoor to the east and Bodmin and the Camel Trail to the west. The Looe to Plymouth section in particular has been on our radar for many years and I hope that the time has come when it can now be delivered. As well as the tourism benefits, these trail routes are well connected to the railway network at Bodmin Parkway and Liskeard and offer more sustainable travel options for commuters and local people”
in a rural location. I would appreciate it if the Minister looked at this thorough, well thought-out proposal and worked with local partners to ensure its completion.
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) on securing the debate.
Let me start by mentioning horse-riding. I have to say this, because my horse-riders have been on to me. Pat Harris of the Mid Cotswolds Tracks and Trails group tells me that there are 2.9 million regular horse riders and half a million carriage users. They do not like being left out of debates about cyclists and pedestrians, because they feel they are an important part of the group of non-motorists.
On cycling, a couple of weeks ago we had a very interesting session upstairs, which was led by members of the science community. They mentioned that the number of cyclist and pedestrian accidents had flatlined recently. That is sad—obviously, we want the number of accidents to reduce considerably—but they reminded us that there are ways in which side-on accidents can be prevented. If we “think bike” when we come to a road junction, we should always be looking to avoid anything coming into conflict with us.
I am a keen cyclist. The problem is that it is getting increasingly difficult to cycle, particularly during the winter. Sadly, our roads are deteriorating beyond all recognition. Potholes are a nightmare for cyclists, but my biggest bugbear is leaves. Because we do not sweep up leaves any more, they all get pushed to the side of the road, where cyclists cycle, and they get wet and freeze. I challenge anyone to stay on a bike while going over such a slippery surface. My plea to the Minister is to ask local authorities to undertake decent road maintenance so that cyclists are prioritised. I suspect that an awful lot of accidents involving cyclists—notwithstanding the even more serious accidents involving other road users—occur because people come off their bike as a result of the road surface.
The real reason why people do not walk nowadays—the reason they do not walk their children to school in particular—is air quality. Particularly in built-up areas, the quality of the air leads people to use their cars. That is counterintuitive and wrong. We have to get children back to walking as their main way of getting about; otherwise, we will have increasing issues with obesity, which has been mentioned, and all the things that come from that. We must ensure that the Government address and prioritise these issues.
We have heard the environmental, health and economic cases for cycling. I fell in love on a tandem and I am still cycling 40 years later, so perhaps I should add that there is a case to be made for cycling’s benefit to your love life, and for the sheer joy of cycling.
We need to focus on how to make cycling happen. We should look across the water to see how it is done elsewhere. There is a formula to it: it requires consistent, long-term political support both locally and nationally, and the right funding. We spend £7.50 per person on it, but other countries, where this works and cycling has been transformed, spend between £10 and £35 per person. Will the Minister therefore continue his predecessor’s commitment to the ambition of doubling per-person investment in cycling? That is what we need.
When we have that level of spend, we can go to the next stage: ensuring that councils can employ people to develop expertise in the long term to put these schemes in place. We need consistent rather than stop-start funding. One of the problems with competitive bids for funding is that some areas do very well, but others, such as mine, lose out altogether. We need much more consistency, so that we do not focus, as others have said, just on cities or even towns, but look at rural areas.
We need to spend not just on infrastructure, but on services and maintenance for our network, and to join up the network. Disgracefully, in my area there is still a gap in national cycle route 2, partly because of the prejudice cyclists sometimes face. For example, a bridge, half of which was paid for with public money, is still blocked to cyclists unreasonably by its owner, South Devon Railway. That prevents a critical join-up. I would like councils to have the power to sweep some of this nonsense out of the way, because this has been going on for more than nine years.
We need to fix those problems and join the network up, and look at links with other infrastructure, such as the rail network. We must also look at traffic calming. There are 20 mph speed restrictions on 75% of the network in urban areas, and they work. We should look at that, and at introducing traffic calming in rural areas where we have quieter routes for cyclists.
We know what works. Will the Minister look at the evidence base and assure us that we will implement what we need if we are really to have a revolution and get people to enjoy the benefits of cycling?
I join my fellow members of the Transport Committee in thanking the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) for bringing the debate. On walking, when we took evidence, it was clear that the original cycling and walking investment strategy was woefully unambitious in its targets. I hope that today the Minister will confirm much stronger targets for the future.
On cycling, I agree with the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), the Chair of the Select Committee, and the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) on the £1.2 billion figure, which is frequently wheeled out when in fact only a quarter of that is genuinely available for cycling. I also agree on stop-start funding; there is too much competitive bidding. Local authorities spend time setting up teams and then running them down after only a brief period of effectiveness.
I have two new points to introduce. However good a local cycling and walking infrastructure plan might be, our major strategic roads are run by Highways England, and sadly its relationship with cycling is not as good as it should be. We heard evidence from the Office of Rail and Road that that is one area where Highways England certainly needs to improve. Sadly, there are examples from my patch of Cambridge; one is from just a few days ago. People think of Cambridge as an exemplar, but Highways England does not seem to have noticed that if it shuts down a major cycleway but gives people only five days’ notice and does not provide proper diversions, people will be, quite rightly, very unhappy. Sadly, negotiations with Highways England over cycling-safe-and-friendly roundabouts and road junctions continue to be difficult. Although Highways England is good at building bridges and roads, it needs to be an agency not just for road building but for mobility. It really needs to improve its communications.
My main point is to echo the call by the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) for an electric bikes revolution. I have had my electric bike for four years, and it is transformational. I am grateful to Dr Lynn Sloman, the Transport for Quality of Life team and the Bicycle Association for highlighting how well other countries in Europe are doing, and how we are falling so far behind. A million electric bikes were sold in Germany last year; just 60,000 were sold in our country. By head of population, the Dutch are doing 25 times better than we are. Electric bikes are a simple solution to the transport crisis, so why on earth are we not doing better?
Although I welcome the improvements to the cycle to work scheme, that only benefits people who are in work, and many, many others need to be helped. The French offered a simple subsidy to encourage people and promoted it.
My mantra for many months has been revoke and remain. It is now revoke, remain and recharge.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. Active travel is an integral part of our arsenal when it comes to tackling climate change, but not enough people are involved. Cycling makes up just 2% of trips taken in the UK, and in a European Commission report on rates of cycling in 28 countries, the UK feebly features in 24th place. How can we change that? We must see widespread reform and structural overhaul.
With headlines this weekend showing that eight people were killed in London in five days, it is clear that better infrastructure is required. We need separated and dedicated cycle routes. We need adequate pedestrian bridges and underpass tunnels. As a colleague said, active travel should be for the many, not the brave. We need major reform that puts the UK on a level playing field and ahead of European leaders in active travel.
Following work undertaken with local organisations such as Portsmouth Cycle Forum, and from cycling around my city—I do not drive; I use my Brompton to get around Portsmouth—I have seen at first hand how disjointed infrastructure can be a major obstacle in getting people out and active. While the increases in funding for cycling and walking infrastructure are welcome, the problem faced in Portsmouth is that the local authority, which has seen unprecedented cuts under the Government’s reign of austerity, does not have the capacity to go searching for poorly signposted funding. As the Local Government Association said,
“Too often funding is provided in the form of short-term capital grants linked to bidding processes with strict criteria. This stop-start funding…doesn’t allow councils to develop long-term sustained plans.”
I ask the Minister: why have the Government not yet provided any dedicated funding to deliver local cycling and walking infrastructure plans? When will they begin to do so?
Portsmouth’s geography and conditions would make it an ideal trailblazer for active travel. It could be a world leader, as is demonstrated by the ambitions in our document, “A City to Share”, which I urge the Minister to read. It is clear that as a society we will be better, healthier and greener if we properly invest in walking and cycling infrastructure. I therefore urge the Minister to visit Portsmouth and meet with the Portsmouth Cycle Forum.
I thank the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) for setting the scene for us all. The main town in my borough, Newtownards, is classified as a central business district town or a commuter town. There have been recent moves to expand the Glider service into Newtownards and supply a park and ride for the area. There are also plans, though the city deal, to extend the greenway to enable people to avail themselves of cycle-to-work schemes.
I am fully supportive of the cycle-to-work schemes run in co-operation with Sustrans, which helps workplaces become cycle-friendly employers. That accreditation was developed with the EU project “Bike2Work”, with Cycling UK the recognised provider for the UK. Site auditing and advisory work is provided by Sustrans for organisations in Northern Ireland. Sustrans says:
“We support employers to encourage their staff to consider active travel in their daily routine. Being a cycle-friendly employer brings real benefits by promoting staff health and well-being, reducing absenteeism, increasing productivity and saves organisations money”,
so clearly there are benefits. I believe that in this kind of scheme, there should be funding—at least a token amount, as a gesture—to encourage employers to provide the facilities needed.
The Department for Infrastructure in Northern Ireland has shown that it practises what it preaches, as it became the second UK organisation to receive international recognition as a cycle-friendly employer. It is to be congratulated, but if funding was there, I honestly believe that more employers would help us to make the goal of carbon-neutral commuting a reality for many people. There are many benefits to this, yet when it comes to funding, we are not so forward-thinking. That needs to change. There is an appetite for change in our cities—and indeed in our lives.
“Bike Life”, the UK’s biggest assessment of cycling in cities, showed that 81% of people in Belfast want more protected bike routes to make cycling safer, even when that could mean less space for other road traffic. Almost three quarters of Belfast residents surveyed supported more investment in cycling, with 71% saying that Belfast would be a better place to live and work if more people cycled. There is a movement and a need for change.
Sustrans, in its mission to educate people, put it succinctly:
“Research shows that keeping physically active can reduce the risk of heart and circulatory disease by as much as 35% and risk of early death by…30%. It’s recommended that adults take part in 2.5 hours of moderate activity per week. But…activity levels in the UK are low: only 40% of men and 28% of women meet these minimum recommendations. One way to achieve this target is to do 30 minutes’ exercise at least five times a week—the perfect length of time for short, local journeys on foot or by bike.”
The charities and institutions are doing their part, but I believe we can do more in this place to make cycling a priority for health and the environment. That must come from increased funding. That puts the onus on the Minister to make the case to his colleagues in the Exchequer.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) on bringing forward this clearly important issue. Like him, I sit on the all-party parliamentary group for cycling. I am a keen cyclist; according to The Sun on Sunday, I am a “fanatic”—I am not sure how that came to be. I would say I am an advocate; let us leave it at that. In that vein, I put it on record that I am a member of my local Cycleways group, which I congratulate on its campaigning work, as well as Sustrans. It is important that we have such bodies who speak out and campaign in these areas.
We have heard about the generic benefits we can get from cycling: the great health advantages, both mental and physical; the reduction in congestion as a result of using existing capacity more efficiently; and the improvements to air quality from taking more polluting vehicles off the road. That is particularly relevant to my constituency, which sadly every few weeks registers the worst air quality in the country.
We have also heard about how the lack of safe provision on our roads is deterring new cyclists and road users from taking up a really important form of transport. Last week’s tragedy in Battersea, in which a young design student, Giovanna Cappiello, was killed, is a reminder of how vulnerable people can feel. Our thoughts are with her friends and family. The priority must be to make our routes, particularly routes to schools, safe, to encourage behavioural change, and to encourage the next generation to think about how they move.
Let me focus briefly on a scheme in my constituency and in Kenilworth, which adjoins it. The Kenilworth to Leamington scheme is a three-mile route that has been talked about for 20 years, although no progress has been made. I believe it would be transformational. It would cost just £3.5 million, including a bridge that would cost £1 million. A petition has been signed by more than 1,000 people. The route would enable students and academics to access the University of Warwick from the town of Leamington far more easily. That would reduce queues and congestion, particularly on the A425. I encourage Warwickshire County Council to look closely and favourably at this scheme, because its expenditure on cycling is a fraction of the £7.50 average.
Infrastructure is holding us back, but as we have heard, a revolution is coming, particularly through e-bikes. In Germany, 960,000 e-bikes were bought last year. That compares with 64,000 in the UK, which was up by just 1,000 on the year before. France has a subsidy of €200 for every e-bike. That is driving active travel, particularly among women, who make up 58% of participants, while 21% of those who use the scheme are retired. Half of e-bike trips replace a car trip; that is the advantage. We need a revolution.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Bailey, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) on securing this debate and on his passionate and articulate opening remarks. As the MP for Halifax, right in the heart of Yorkshire, I am truly blessed because our cycling routes and footpaths have so much to showcase. They featured in the Tour de France, and the now annual Tour de Yorkshire—my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) has been a passionate advocate for that.
Today I wish to advocate one infrastructure scheme—the Queensbury tunnel. The campaign proposes to convert a disused railway tunnel that was constructed in 1878 but closed in the 1950s into a cycle route to connect Bradford with Calderdale. The tunnel is a magnificent feat of Victorian engineering. It is about one and a half miles long, and at the time it was the longest tunnel on the Great Northern railway. We are the masters of up-cycling our heritage in Yorkshire, and restoring and repurposing that historic tunnel for the modern world as part of a regional cycle route would offer a positive environmental impact, as well as an economic one, as there would be yet another Yorkshire gem for cyclists, and visitors more broadly, to come and see.
Despite all that promise, however, the tunnel is currently slated for abandonment by its custodian, Highways England’s historical railways estate. The campaign therefore has a sense of urgency. We could soon find that the tunnel is lost for ever, and that that incredible example of Victorian engineering is scheduled to be filled in with concrete. To restore the route would cost around £16 million. That sounds like a lot, but the tragedy of the abandonment proposal is that such work is likely to cost in the region of £5 million pounds—money that would be funded by the taxpayer but provide no local benefit at all. Latest extensive research suggests that to invest in the tunnel’s restoration would return £2.31 for every £1 invested.
An alternative future for the tunnel would be transformational. Restoring the tunnel with a cycle path would place it at the centre of a cycle network that connects Halifax to Bradford and Keighley, and would boost sustainable travel. It would add another landmark structure to the Great Northern railway trail, making it one of the most spectacular foot and cycle paths anywhere in the country. It would further enhance our area’s cycling credentials, becoming both the longest continuous incline in England, and the longest re-used railway tunnel. I encourage the Minister to come and visit that tunnel if at all possible. I have no doubt that if he spends five minutes with the wonderful campaigners, Norah McWillams and Graeme Bickerdike, whose passion for the tunnel is infectious, he will be left with little option but to consider investing in it and in its future at the heart of Yorkshire’s cycling heritage.
Order. Many requests have been made to the Minister, and I am sure we all wish to hear his response. I want to give him the maximum time to respond, which is 10 minutes, so if the Opposition speakers can ensure that I am able to call the Minister at 10.48 am, that would be helpful.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey, and on behalf of the Scottish National party I congratulate the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) on securing this debate. I am grateful to my colleagues from the Transport Committee, and for the work of the Committee Clerks during our recent evidence sessions on active travel. Today we have heard about the health, productivity, environmental, economic and even enhanced love life benefits of cycling, and we all recognise the need for fair funding. We have also touched on the enjoyment of cycling. I have great memories of cycling as a kid; having a bike gave me freedom and independence—something that I have continued to enjoy throughout my life.
Let me speak about what is happening in Scotland and my constituency of Inverclyde. If we are to improve our cycling and walking infrastructure, we need an accurate understanding of people’s current patterns of travel. It is therefore helpful that Cycling Scotland’s annual cycling monitoring report examines trends and statistics at both national and local level. Such work gives us an important insight into current rates of cycling participation. There is significant potential for growth in cycling in my constituency. Nearly 60% of journeys made in Inverclyde are under 5 km, which relates in some way to the fact that 35% of households have no access to a car for private use. Some 24% of households have access to a bike, yet in 2015-16, just 0.4% of people usually cycled to work. A similar picture can be found among school students. In 2016 only 0.8% of primary school students cycled to school, while the average percentage of high school students who cycled to school was 0.1%.
Some will feel tempted to explain those statistics by highlighting the weather in the west of Scotland or the hilly topography of Inverclyde, but it is clear that a great many more people could start cycling if Inverclyde had a more suitable cycling infrastructure. Cycling Scotland is actively working to address that deficit through two main areas of activity in Inverclyde. First, Bikeability Scotland cycle training is a programme for schools that is designed to give children the skills and confidence to cycle safely, and to continue using that mode of travel into adulthood. Secondly, the Cycling Friendly programmes promote local cycling by making workplaces, schools and communities more cycling friendly.
Improving cycling infrastructure is undoubtedly part of the solution in reaching that goal. Locally, Cycling UK has worked with an associate group, the Inverclyde Bothy, on a range of actions related to cycling and walking. Such work includes delivering on road cycling training, working with health authorities to identify opportunities for people to ride a bike, establishing a walking network, liaising with local partners such as Sustrans to identify priority areas for cycling network enhancements, improving safety on the path network, and ensuring that new land and housing developments include plans to promote cycling.
Our local cycling and walking network is greatly enhanced by such work, and I wish to mention the efforts of Cycling UK’s development officer, Josh Wood, and project manager, Shona Morris, whose local expertise and passionate advocacy for cycling has made a real difference. Other organisations include Community Tracks, which is led by Stewart Phillips—the Phillips family and biking in Inverclyde go back generations—and Sustrans, which plays a vital role in supporting local initiatives.
If we were to design and implement a system to support cycling from scratch, I am not sure that we would design what we currently have. Across every constituency a patchwork of organisations, responsibilities and funding streams lobby on behalf of our cycling infrastructure, and that is before we even consider issues such as walking. Since we cannot turn back the clock, we have to live with our current circumstances, but perhaps we can envisage a more efficient way of delivering improvements and streamlining the work undertaken by that patchwork of groups.
More broadly, the Scottish Government committed up to £51 million for active travel infrastructure in 2019-20. In announcing that funding, the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity, Michael Matheson MSP, highlighted the importance of high-quality infrastructure in the Scottish Government’s ambitions for cycling. Representatives from Cycling UK, the walking charity Living Streets, and Sustrans, were united in calling for England to follow Scotland’s lead and allocate 5% of transport spending to active travel, with a view to increasing that to 10% in future. If we are serious about tackling climate change, air pollution, traffic congestion and the health ramifications of inactivity, we must show a commitment to our cycling and walking infrastructure. The long-term costs of not treating that issue as a priority will be significant. In conclusion, I thank those organisations that promote cycling and walking in my constituency, and I urge hon. Members to ensure that the relevant authorities, from local councils to the UK Government, allocate sufficient funding to match our ambitions for active travel.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I thank the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) and my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) for securing the debate and I commend the many excellent points we have heard this morning.
The Government have admitted, albeit under pressure from the Opposition, that the UK and the world as a whole face a climate emergency. We have just 11 years to dramatically reduce carbon dioxide emissions and we need to take practical steps now to protect the planet for future generations. Changes in the way we travel have a vital part to play in responding to this emergency and, as has been discussed this morning, walking and cycling can play an important role in that.
Were the UK to achieve the same cycling culture and levels of infrastructure as the Netherlands, we could reduce carbon gas emissions from cars by as much as a third, and that is not to mention the many social and economic benefits, such as tackling the air pollution crisis and reaping health benefits by reducing sedentary lifestyles, which in turn could save the NHS up to £9 billion per year. I will return to the central point about climate change later and outline some of the other many advantages of encouraging walking and cycling.
Before addressing those points, it is important to consider where we are as a country, so that we can fully understand the scale of the challenge. Mr Bailey, we need to be honest about this challenge; the UK quite simply has a poor track record of encouraging cycling and walking, and the Government are missing their own targets to increase walking and cycling. There are a number of reasons for that. The most fundamental point is the lack of investment. We have too much car-dependent development on the edge of cities or in the countryside, as colleagues have mentioned today. To make matters worse, the budget for the police has been cut severely since 2010, leading to a lack of traffic officers to tackle speeding and to educate motorists. It is hardly surprising, as colleagues have mentioned, that according to the British social attitudes survey, many people believe cycling is simply too dangerous to try, even though they are well aware of the health and lifestyle benefits.
Despite the Government’s failure, there are signs of improvement at a local level, and there has been real leadership from some mayors and local councils. I commend the imaginative mini-Hollands scheme in London, which has made a significant difference in a number of boroughs. I visited parts of Waltham Forest that have been transformed, with dedicated cycle paths, improved pavements and selective road closures, all of which have made a huge improvement in walking and cycling. More people are choosing active travel and there has been a real change in the atmosphere in the streets, which are now easier to get around on foot or by bike, after years of being dominated by cars. There are many other benefits. Trade has increased for local retailers as more people shop locally in these areas, which has encouraged further walking and cycling.
In Manchester, the Mayor’s cycling tsar, Chris Boardman, is focusing on reducing the risk of accidents at crossings, a point that was well made earlier in the debate, which are often the most dangerous places for both cyclists and pedestrians. He has also worked on joining up local routes. His emphasis on asking the public what they want and on low-cost paint and plastic transformation is leading the way; I believe that it is making it easier to introduce real change at a local level.
There are many more examples of this, not least in my constituency where a new cycling and walking bridge over the Thames at Reading has significantly increased active travel. Imaginative work is being done around the country. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), who is Mayor of the Sheffield City Region, and other colleagues about their local authorities. I commend this work, wherever it is occurring.
Encouraging active travel will also breathe new life into our towns, as I mentioned earlier, by reclaiming the urban realm and creating public spaces that are free from traffic and accompanying pollutants, fostering environments that are pleasant places to live and work. There is no doubt that this is a significant task, but we have the benefit of clear examples to show us how it can happen. Cities in the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark experienced steep declines in cycling until policy changes in the 1970s put them on a trajectory to become the most cycle-friendly places in the world. We must have the same ambition in the UK.
We should follow these examples and make a massive step change in funding to match the most successful towns and cities in Europe, as called for by organisations such as Cycling UK. There must be significant investment in infrastructure to develop dense, continuous networks of cycle paths that are physically separated from traffic, including building cycling and pedestrian bridges or tunnels, as we heard earlier. Cycling should be for the many, not the brave. People must also be encouraged and given the confidence to cycle, so there needs to be training and support for all who need it, including affordable bike access for all. Support for e-bikes is vital, particularly for those who are less physically able.
We know that cycling and walking are hugely important. They can play a vital part in helping us tackle climate change. There are health benefits and real benefits in terms of reducing air pollution. Yet, the Government are failing to meet the targets. Mr Bailey, I believe that we need a programme of concerted action with a step change in investment, which is why Labour would improve investment in cycling and walking, to encourage the sort of transformation we have seen and heard about on the continent.
We would take other practical steps, as referred to by other hon. Members. For example, we would encourage use of canal and river tow paths, safe routes in parks and quiet streets to create green ways into cities and towns. We would work with industry—a point that has not been discussed—to develop a proper industrial strategy for cycling, which is very important and would focus on both conventional and e-bikes. We would support cycling and walking by our wider transformation of investment in transport, bringing the railways back into public ownership to deliver better value for passengers and to encourage more people to walk to the station. More investment in bus travel would also encourage walking to bus stops. Encouraging brownfield redevelopment rather than greenfield building would encourage better access to towns and villages from new development.
I am conscious of time, so I will conclude. Walking and cycling are hugely important if we are to tackle climate change and lead healthier lives. It is clear that determined action can make an enormous difference, whether in northern Europe or closer to home in the UK. We need action now, not delay, and I urge the Minister to change the Government’s approach.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) on securing this popular debate about active travel, local walking and cycling infrastructure. I am delighted to have had the opportunity to hear the contributions of hon. Members from across the House, who spoke about how cycling improves productivity, health and even one’s love life, according to the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston). I need to do more cycling for all those reasons, all of which are acknowledged. I was also pleased that my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) mentioned equestrianism. Active travel includes horse riders and bridle paths—this debate includes them.
The good news is that the Government are committed to increasing cycling and walking and to making our roads safer for those who walk and cycle. That is borne out by the facts and the investment that has been put in.
Queensbury tunnel is a 1.4 mile long former railway tunnel in my constituency that links Queensbury to Halifax. This vital piece of infrastructure is threatened with abandonment by Highways England. Given the wide range of support from across the House, including from all five Bradford MPs, my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) and the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), will the Minister agree to meet us and to step in so that this can be stopped? It is directly at odds with the Government’s cycling and walking strategy.
I am happy to explore that issue. I will ask my officials to liaise with Highways England about it, and I will write to the hon. Lady.
Our ambition is to make cycling and walking the natural choices for short journeys, or as part of longer journeys, by 2040. That ambition will be realised through the statutory cycling and walking investment strategy. The strategy represents a shift in approach from the short-term, stop-start and spasmodic interventions of previous Governments, which were referred to by hon. Members, and towards a strategic, long-term approach up to and beyond 2040.
In the short term, the Government have set an aim to double cycling activity to 1.6 billion stages per year, increase walking to 300 stages per person per year, and increase the percentage of children aged five to 10 who usually walk to school to 55% by 2025. Far from a lack of investment, this Conservative Government have massively increased the budget and the ambitions for cycling and active travel generally.
We know what the benefits are, but it is worth rehearsing them. Increased levels of active travel have huge benefits, including for health, mental health and wellbeing; road congestion; air quality; economic productivity, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury); and increased footfall in shops. For society as a whole, it means lower congestion, better air quality and more vibrant and attractive places and communities. As a former tourism and heritage Minister, I recognise that attractive places help with wellbeing, but also help economies.
In relation to health, illness as an outcome of physical inactivity costs the NHS up to £1 billion per annum, with further indirect costs calculated at £8.2 billion per annum. As forms of physical activity, cycling and walking can and do provide particularly high benefits for physical and mental health. Walking or cycling for just 10 minutes a day can contribute towards the 150 minutes of physical activity that we want adults to do per week, as recommended by the chief medical officer.
I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Witney, who called this debate, recognises that our aims and targets are challenging, particularly that of doubling cycling activity within five or six years, by 2025. Achieving our ambitions requires co-ordination of a complex delivery chain comprising Government Departments, yes, but also agencies, third sector organisations and hundreds of local authorities.
We are looking, with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and other Departments, at a wide range of issues, including charging points and the like, so we will be able to address that question, and I hope to come back to it. As I say, achieving our ambitions requires co-ordination of a complex delivery chain, and we have made good progress.
I will just make some progress, if I may. Given all the contributions, I want to address the points that have been made.
We have made good progress in delivering the commitments set out in the strategy, and the overall number of cycling and walking stages increased in 2017. We recognise, however, that there is some way to go. We also face challenges in attracting higher levels of activity, particularly among certain socioeconomic groups and broader ethnic groups, and we want to work on that too. Those are challenges that we must address.
In the limited time available, I want to move on to the all-important issue of funding, which a number of hon. Members raised. This debate comes at a crucial time in the delivery of the cycling and walking investment strategy, as the Government prepare for the next spending review. As my hon. Friend the Member for Witney mentioned, that will be the vehicle for identifying the funding required across Government to meet the strategy’s 2025 aims and targets.
The Government recognise the scale of the challenge. When the cycling and walking investment strategy was published in 2017, it identified £1.2 billion of funding projected for investment in cycling and walking between 2016 and 2021. Since then, local authorities have added their part and allocated an additional £700 million to safe infrastructure and other active travel projects. Between central Government and local government, that is almost £2 billion being invested in cycling and walking over this Parliament. That is a good investment. Spending on cycling and walking in England has doubled from £3.50 per head to around £7 per head in this four-year spending review period alone. I will always accept that there is more we can do and that there is more to be done, but doubling investment is a good achievement.
Many of the decisions on the allocation of those funds will be made by the relevant local body, in line with the Government’s devolution and localism agenda. We do not want to centralise everything from Whitehall; we want to let local authorities make those decisions where possible. That is an important point in the context of this debate, and one that I will return to shortly, but I want to say something else about additional funding, beyond the £2 billion I have already mentioned.
The transforming cities fund of £2.5 billion is helping to improve local transport links, including cycling and walking routes, which will make it easier for people to travel between often more prosperous city centres and frequently struggling suburbs. Some £220 million of capital and revenue funding is available through the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs clean air fund from 2018 to 2020. That can be used by eligible local authorities to support measures such as improving cycling. There are funding streams coming from different quarters.
In 2019 alone, we have announced £21 million for Sustrans, which the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) mentioned, to deliver a range of activation projects to upgrade the national cycle network across England. We have also provided £2 million to support the Big Bike Revival and Walk to School programmes, launched a £2 million e-cargo bike grant programme and published refreshed cycle to work guidance, which clarifies the position in respect of employers providing cycles and equipment costing more than £1,000—we are helping them to do that for their employees. There are a number of schemes across Government, with different funding streams and pockets of funding that have been allocated—vast sums of money, and rightly so, going in this direction.
As we have heard during the debate, cycling and walking deliver a range of benefits, including for health and the environment. That is why Ministers and officials at the Department for Transport work closely with many other Departments to ensure that our policies are properly joined up—hon. Members have mentioned working across Government, and that does happen. I want to ensure that cycling and walking feature prominently in strategies such as the sports strategy, the childhood obesity plan and the “Prevention is Better Than Cure” approach involving the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and MHCLG. We want to work together.
I am afraid I have less than two minutes left, so I will have to continue.
I will just address the issue of safety, which I think the hon. Lady mentioned. We will achieve our ambitions only if people feel safe when cycling and walking, and that is something the Department has prioritised in recent months. I recognise that concerns about safety are a disincentive to a number of people. Following a major cycling and walking safety review, we published a Government response setting out 50 separate actions, including reviewing guidance in the highway code and encouraging local councils to invest around 15% of their local transport infrastructure funding on cycling and walking infrastructure.
However, it is not just about the scale of investment, although that is massive; it also has to be the right investment in the right places. This is why my Department is supporting the preparation of local cycling and walking infrastructure plans. We are currently providing a £2 million package of technical and strategic support to 46 local authorities, including Portsmouth, Oxfordshire and dozens of others. The support package will assist with the development of their plans, often made in partnership with the local enterprise partnership. Local cycling and walking infrastructure plans do not come with dedicated funding for implementation, but local bodies are able to channel investment for cycling and walking from a range of areas.
I welcome the contributions from hon. Members during our all too brief debate. I welcome the ideas proposed. As I stated at the outset, the Government are committed to increasing cycling and walking and to making our roads safer for vulnerable users such as cyclists, pedestrians and equestrians. As we start to develop the next phase of the cycling and walking investment strategy, I welcome all ideas for how we can achieve our collective ambition. In my view, there is a cross-party, non-political, collective ambition to make cycling and walking the natural choice for short journeys, or as part of longer journeys, across the country.
I thank all hon. Members for an outstanding debate and for all their contributions. I also thank the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) for co-sponsoring the debate with me.
I will not go through everything that everyone has said, but there are a few points I would like to emphasise. One of the great joys of these debates is that, no matter how many points we think we have covered when writing a speech, there are always some that we have not, and other hon. Members always come along and raise them. The hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) and my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) made an excellent point about school travel plans: cycling must be safe for a 12-year-old. I know how passionately my hon. Friend feels about that, having known for many years of his drive to promote environmental and active travel agendas in his city.
Dedicated cycle lanes were another issue that my hon. Friend raised, as did the hon. Member for Portsmouth South and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green). There is no point having a cycle lane if it is not safe and it conflicts with traffic. The hon. Members for Stroud (Dr Drew) and for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) rightly mentioned unsafe road surfaces. I will also put in a big plug for electric bikes and technology, as the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) and my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) did.
The hon. Members for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) and my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire mentioned enjoyment and health, as did the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury), who also mentioned the daily mile. Of course, it is the fun and exercise that are so important, and we should not lose sight of that.
I agree entirely with the point made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) about routine. I also very much agree with the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) and others on the importance of reusing old railway lines; I wish we did more of that in our countryside. Of course, an integrated transport—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Electrical Products: Online Sales
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the regulation of online sales of electrical products.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I am pleased to have the opportunity for this short debate. The Minister knows that this issue is of deep concern to me, especially given an incident in my constituency in March 2015, in which my constituent, Linda Merron, died in a house fire after buying an electrical product on eBay. Since then, I have campaigned to improve how the likes of eBay, Amazon, Alibaba and Facebook allow the sale of unsafe electrical goods directly to the public.
Does the hon. Lady agree that, with online marketplaces, it is much harder to trace supply chain operators? Transparency can be almost non-existent. Consumers may often be under the impression that they are buying from the marketplace directly, rather than from a trader. Does she agree that we must do something to regulate this online industry through enhanced legislation?
I most certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman; it is rare that I do not. That is exactly why I set up the all-party parliamentary group for home electrical safety: to help to find solutions, particularly for this wild west of electrical goods sales, whether the goods are fake, unsafe, second-hand or recalled. I pay tribute to Electrical Safety First, which helps with the administration of the all-party parliamentary group, brings together several important stakeholders, and campaigns tirelessly to prevent electrical fires in people’s homes.
I pay tribute to the full extent of the hon. Lady’s work in this area, for which, I am sure, we are all grateful. Does she agree that it is shocking that 80% of fires in Scotland are caused by faulty electrical goods? People who buy these goods are often not aware of the danger that they are bringing into their home. Does she agree that we need a public education programme as well as better regulation, particularly of online sales?
I certainly do. Anything that we can do to help to prevent any fire is of the utmost importance.
The Minister will be aware of the all-party parliamentary group’s recently published report, “The Problem with Online Sales of Electrical Products”, which I sent to the Department. It followed consultation with Electrical Safety First, the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, the Anti-counterfeiting Group, the Local Government Association, London Fire Brigade and others who attended all-party parliamentary group meetings. I also reached out to the online platforms Amazon and eBay, to request their input into the report. Only eBay responded, and I am grateful to it for doing so. Its representatives attended a session of the all-party parliamentary group, at which they gave a presentation. I am disappointed by the lack of engagement by the online sales platforms, and their total disinterest in helping to find solutions to these problems.
I will always remember the words of an Amazon executive who sat in my office and, when challenged, said, “We are just a landlord”, washing the company’s hands of all responsibility. So far as I am concerned, Amazon is totally disengaged, showing a complete disregard for consumer rights, safety and the work of the Office for Product Safety and Standards. The Minister needs to tackle these online platforms, just as she has tackled Whirlpool in recent weeks.
I thank my hon. Friend for the case she is making in her own inimitable style. Does she agree that more needs to be done not only on online platforms, as she mentions, but on second-hand sales between individuals, to create a much safer environment for the sale of electrical goods?
Yes. It terrifies me when I see second-hand shops selling electrical goods that we do not know the provenance of. That brings me on to a really important point about Whirlpool.
The Government say that they take issues of consumer safety very seriously, and recently took unprecedented action on unsafe tumble dryers. Overnight, Whirlpool issued a 21-page list of 650—or thereabouts—recalled models. Have the Minister and her Department looked at the list? This morning, I saw numerous listed machines on Amazon, Facebook and eBay. The TCFS83BGP is one example, and anybody looking on their phone will find numerous models on sale today, even after the recall.
The Minister needs to take immediate action to stop these sites selling recalled models. Will she commit to an immediate review of the list, and to stopping those online platforms selling those machines? Will she also commit to enforcement action against any company allowing the placement of unsafe products on the market? As Electrical Safety First highlighted in its briefing to MPs for the debate, many sites sell recalled and substandard electrical goods.
Despite eBay’s willingness to engage, there are many significant problems on that site. In recent weeks, Electrical Safety First informed me that was to intervene in a case involving an eBay listing for non-UK CCTV equipment. The product did not comply with the low voltage directive for CE marking, or the Plugs and Sockets etc. (Safety) Regulations 1994—the plug did not comply with BS 1363, as required by the regulation, making it illegal—and there were no manufacturer markings.
It was only as a result of the charity’s work that the consumer was able to get her money back, as neither eBay, nor trading standards nor Citizens Advice were able or willing to help the purchaser. The listings are still available, and the seller is still selling non-compliant products. I am of course happy to pass to the Minister the details provided to me by Electrical Safety First. However, the issue I go back to every time is: why do the online sales platforms not have basic checks and algorithms in place to proactively comply with the law? Why can their algorithms not prevent recalled and non-compliant electrical goods from being uploaded?
To prevent cases like this, the all-party parliamentary group report recommends five specific areas of action. First, online marketplaces enable the sale of counterfeit and substandard electrical goods with little effective oversight or transparency. The all-party parliamentary group and I believe that legislation should be introduced to ensure that online marketplaces take responsibility for what is sold on their sites. Sellers must be clearly identifiable and accountable, and there should be a legal responsibility on online marketplaces to remove counterfeit and unsafe products as soon as possible, and to co-operate fully with enforcement agencies.
Secondly, although enforcement agencies, on the whole, have sufficient powers, they need the resources to enforce them properly. The Government should ensure that all enforcement is adequately funded, reversing funding cuts where necessary, especially post Brexit. Thirdly, there needs to be improved co-operation and information sharing between different tiers of enforcement and with online marketplaces. Jurisdictional limits and the reach of the different tiers of enforcement bodies are insufficiently clear, and are a barrier to effective enforcement. Although the large organisations under discussion have primary authorities—an example is eBay working with Westminster—the OPSS should be given the task of co-ordinating and improving interaction between enforcement agencies and online marketplaces.
Fourthly, online marketplaces benefit from the UK’s product safety regime and so should contribute towards its operation, in a similar way to other industries. The UK Government should consider how online marketplaces could contribute to enforcement and should lead conversations with major marketplaces on the issue.
Fifthly, consumer education must be improved. It is key to reducing the risk from counterfeit and substandard electrical products. The UK Government should work with stakeholders to ensure greater consumer awareness through national advertising campaigns.
As part of the OPSS strategy, there is a workstream on combating unsafe, counterfeit electrical goods and second-hand electrical sales. I am aware that the OPSS is working on a funded project with Electrical Safety First on the latter, but I would be grateful if the Minister would inform the House of the following or, if she is unable to do that today, write to MPs to provide us with an update. Can the Minister tell us where we are in the OPSS strategy with implementation and preventing sales of unsafe electrical goods online, particularly in relation to the Whirlpool example that I have just raised? When did the Minister last meet representatives of the online sales platforms to discuss self-regulation? For example, why do the platforms not have systems in place to not allow people to upload listings of recalled Whirlpool tumble dryers, items with plugs that are not compatible with BS 1363, items that originate from abroad and so on? What action is the OPSS taking with the online platforms to immediately stop the sale of recalled Whirlpool tumble dryers on these sites? Had the Minister actually thought about that scenario? Will she take enforcement action against companies that allow the sale of recalled items, especially Whirlpool tumble dryers?
When will the Government commit additional resources to bodies such as Thurrock Council that are on the frontline in protecting the public from unsafe electrical goods being brought into the country and then sold via eBay, Facebook and Amazon? Will the Minister commit to new regulations on online platforms to prevent them from selling non-compliant, unsafe and recalled products online? Will she commit to attending the APPG to discuss the recommendations of the report in greater detail, and to discuss how we can go forward in resolving these problems, especially the persistent illegal activity of online sales platforms selling unsafe, non-compliant and recalled electrical goods?
The measures in the APPG report are the result of a combination of a wide range of stakeholders’ views. I hope that the Minister and her officials will now work with the group to bring forward solutions to ensure greater protection for consumers, and to ensure that online marketplaces act legally and, after today’s discovery, responsibly.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I thank the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for securing this important debate. She is incredibly passionate about this issue and, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for home electrical safety, has played an important role in keeping a focus on it. Her commitment to electrical safety is to be commended.
I want to make it clear from the outset that in my 12 months in this post, I too have taken electrical safety and the safety of British consumers extremely seriously. It has been a focus of mine; I have spent a lot of time working on it in my day job within the Department.
It is clear that there is considerable interest among hon. Members in this issue. They have personal, and in some cases tragic, reasons for that interest. I again thank the hon. Member for Swansea East, and I thank the hon. Members who intervened on her for participating in this short debate.
Our first duty as elected Members must be to ensure the safety of those we represent. It is important that consumers should have a choice when it comes to buying all kinds of products. In today’s world, more and more of us are turning to online retailers when we purchase all manner of things, including electrical products. The changing ways in which we consumers purchase goods, including online, pose specific challenges in relation to protecting consumers. For a traditional market, the law is clear: manufacturers and importers have a duty to place only safe products on the UK market, and distributors have a duty of care when it comes to the safety of electronic products. The online marketplace makes it possible for consumers to sell to other consumers. That clearly presents new challenges. We recognise those challenges and are working with the platforms to address the issues.
The OPSS is taking forward a number of strategic projects aimed at understanding and addressing cross-cutting safety issues to deliver better protections for British consumers. One of those is rightly focused on tackling the challenges of online electrical product sales. The OPSS, working closely with a number of key stakeholders—including Electrical Safety First, which the hon. Member for Swansea East mentioned, and major online retailers—is bringing together those with specific expertise in this area to make the system work more effectively. The project is at an early stage, but a first strand is focused on evidence gathering, so that we can really understand how and where electrical products are being sold online. That work will form the basis of ensuring that we have the best system in place to protect people when they buy goods in online or offline marketplaces.
In addition, the OPSS is working with local authorities to ensure that checks are being made by sellers on products being sold online to determine whether they are subject to a recall. If a business is found to be selling recalled products, the OPSS will inform the business of its findings, so that the business can take immediate steps to remove the product from sale.
When we are talking about such a wide brief as consumer product safety, there will always be pressures on budgets, but the OPSS is working with local trading standards, with scientific, technical support. It is providing support, through training, to trading standards, to enable local authorities to carry out the job that they have been tasked with doing.
The hon. Member for Swansea East asked a direct question about Whirlpool and the published list of recalled models, and I want to address that straight off. If products on the recall list are being sold on online platforms, that is absolutely wrong, and I will instruct our officials to ensure that those online platforms are made aware of those products, and that the products are withdrawn, as I have outlined. The hon. Lady will appreciate, because she knows this area very well, that this is ongoing work. Market surveillance—the identification of illegal and unsafe products—is not a job done today or tomorrow, with one list. Market surveillance is ongoing, and is how we continue to protect consumers. It is right that our policy and research evolves. This is work that we do independently as a Government to ensure that consumer safety is always our top focus.
The Minister has talked about fines and punishments for people selling illegal or unsafe products online. Does the product safety and standards unit monitor particular sites, or does it wait for the public to make representations about them? I am interested to know how the sites operate and how they are monitored. Where does the intelligence about illegal or unsafe products come from?
As part of the OPSS’s ongoing work, it has developed a database through which information is shared with online platforms when we are alerted to problems and particular safety concerns. That list is changing every day or every week, as new illegal products are registered. It is an ongoing piece of work, and part of what we are doing weekly to combat people who act illegally by putting illegal products on the market, and also to ensure that unsafe products that are being marketed are removed from sale. I have already outlined that this is a big challenge; it is something that the OPSS is very mindful of. That is why it is included in the first part of the workstream about understanding the extent to which such products are sold and how that can be moved forward.
A further strand of this work relates to online sales in second-hand electrical goods. OPSS is gathering evidence on the extent of the second-hand electrical goods market across the UK, so that it can provide advice to sellers on their responsibility when selling second-hand goods online.
That is a conversation that I did not have with my officials prior to the debate, so I am unable to give a direct answer. However, I have already outlined that the list has been published on the website and has been shared with our enforcement agencies. Where products on the list are being sold by online platforms, our enforcement bodies such as OPSS or trading standards—whoever is available or appropriate to deal with it—should absolutely ensure that they are removed from sale. That is a sensible thing to suggest, and I am sure the hon. Lady would expect me to say nothing less.
We have been running a series of campaigns to raise consumer awareness on keeping safe. This is being done in partnership with the leading consumer bodies, including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, Electrical Safety First, the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, Netmums and the Child Accident Prevention Trust. I was lucky enough to visit the CTSI symposium a couple of weeks ago, where I met many of those organisations. As part of the programme, OPSS and those organisations are planning a specific consumer campaign targeting issues that relate to online sales. I am sure that hon. Members agree that consumers are better able to protect themselves when they have the information and are aware of the risks.
OPSS is working to address the challenges posed by the operation of fulfilment houses. New types of businesses have emerged, and it is recognised that we need to do more online. They provide a range of services to online retailers. This work aims to combat the distribution of unsafe and non-compliant products in the UK supply chain via fulfilment houses. OPSS is working closely with local authorities and trading standards, and is targeting those businesses that choose to place unsafe or non-compliant products on the market without regard for the safety of their customers. This is an ambitious, two-year project. Our early work with national trading standards, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, Border Force and local trading standards has already identified targets.
The project is bringing together OPSS, local authorities, HMRC and the Intellectual Property Office to develop a multi-agency approach to tackling the new risks that the new model of sale and delivery poses to UK consumers. OPSS has been working to understand the scope of the challenge facing trading standards from fulfilment houses, and it has developed an up-to-date intelligence profile to ensure that activity in this area is targeted at the appropriate businesses. As I mentioned, the scale of this project is significant, and it has the potential to make a serious impact on the sale of unsafe products online. Projects on this scale bring together local and national bodies, and that is one of the reasons why OPSS was created. We now have the capacity and focus to identify and tackle issues on a national scale.
Although there are many challenges from online sales, a number of which the hon. Lady has outlined, many online sales businesses already have strong relationships with trading standards and work with them to ensure the safety of the consumers to whom they sell. Businesses with primary authority relationships with an individual trading standards department know that they have available to them an expert source of assured and tailored advice on complying with consumer product safety regulations. Working closely with trading standards can help online sellers identify and address at an early stage product safety issues that may arise. E-commerce marketplaces such as Amazon and eBay are uniquely well placed to play an important role in product safety. A significant number of electrical products are sold through these platforms, which have systems to track these products.
The hon. Lady mentioned that Amazon has yet to engage with her and the APPG, but eBay has. Amazon and eBay have strong primary authority relationships in place. In both cases, the partnership has established robust systems to monitor products and sellers. Should non-compliant or unsafe products be identified, there are arrangements in place to ensure that product listings are removed from those sites quickly. I want to make it clear that we are under no illusion about the scale of the task. Those companies are among the largest in the world, and we cannot afford to be complacent about dealing with them.
As this is a global issue, OPSS is encouraging major online retailers to sign up to the product safety pledge that was initiated by the EU Commission. Under the pledge, online retailers commit to taking specific actions on the safety of products that are sold on their platform by third parties. The aim of the scheme is to improve the detection of unsafe products before they are sold to consumers, or as soon as possible afterwards.
I have spoken about the work that OPSS is doing directly to tackle the risks from second-hand and online sales, but it is important to remember that local trading standards are the main enforcers of product safety up and down the country. They play a hugely important role, and OPSS has been working with them to provide the technical and scientific advice, data and intelligence that supports their work every day. OPSS has developed a new product safety database to capture and share information on unsafe goods, so that risks can be identified and action taken as quickly as possible. It is already being rolled out across trading standards, and OPSS provided £500,000 last year to fund the testing of products by trading standards. We have increased that sum to £600,000 for 2019-20.
The hon. Lady asked many questions on issues such as additional resources and changes to the law. She will appreciate that this is the first time such questions have been levelled at me. I am more than happy to attend a meeting of the APPG, as I indicated I would; unfortunately, diaries have meant that I have been unable to. I will happily write to the hon. Lady with further detail on that, or we can have a meeting to discuss the issues—whichever way she prefers to communicate with me.
I want to reiterate that this is “job not done”. This is about how we evolve in a changing market and ensure that importers, manufacturers and marketers place safe products on the market. The onus is on the companies to ensure that they place safe products on the market. We will do all we can to ensure that we continue to monitor products and try to protect consumers as best we can. That is something that I feel very strongly about.
I thank the hon. Lady for bringing forward this important issue. I understand her passion and am desperately sorry about what happened to her constituent. I look forward to constructive conversations with her in the future.
Question put and agreed to.
Immigration Detention: Trafficking and Modern Slavery
[Sir Gary Streeter in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the immigration detention of survivors of trafficking and modern slavery.
As always, Sir Gary, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairship. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this issue in Parliament today. Trafficking and modern-day slavery have been described by our current Prime Minister as
“the great human rights issue of our time”.
The Government have rightly committed to safeguarding and supporting those who are exploited in this way, yet new research published today by the charity Women for Refugee Women shows that Chinese women who have been trafficked to the UK are routinely being locked up in Yarl’s Wood detention centre, often for months on end. Instead of offering help and support, the Home Office is inflicting yet more distress and trauma on these women by subjecting them to indefinite immigration detention. I have stood in this Chamber and the main Chamber so many times to speak about this; sometimes it feels as if we are constantly repeating ourselves when we ask for the issue of vulnerable women in detention to be properly managed.
Women for Refugee Women’s research makes for very worrying reading. Since the summer of last year, it has received an increasing number of phone calls from Chinese women detained in Yarl’s Wood. The Home Office’s own figures show that since 2016, the number of Chinese women locked up in immigration detention has almost doubled. Women for Refugee Women has spoken to 40 women from China in total, and 29 of them have said that they have experienced some form of trafficking—often sexual or labour exploitation. For its research, Women for Refugee Women looked at the legal files of 14 of these women to see if it could identify patterns in their treatment by the Home Office. It found that the Home Office was deliberately refusing to protect these women and was knowingly inflicting further harm and trauma on them.
In four of the cases reviewed, women were detained directly from massage parlours or brothels—the very situations where they were being directly exploited and where there was a clear objective indicator that they were victims of trafficking. This is not to be questioned. These women were being taken directly from brothels. In spite of that, they were not given any help or support; instead, they were arrested and sent straight to Yarl’s Wood.
In eight of the cases, moreover, when women disclosed what had happened to them, they were referred to the national referral mechanism and the Home Office said that it did not believe them. What is more, in six cases, its reasons for refusing to recognise them as survivors of trafficking were in direct contravention of its own guidance on assessing credibility. It said that it did not believe them because they had not disclosed what had happened to them at the point when they were arrested—even though its own guidance explicitly says that delayed disclosure may be a result of the trauma and exploitation that they have been subjected to.
In some cases, the Home Office made obviously absurd assertions to justify its negative decisions. In the case of a woman who was encountered during a raid on a brothel, the Home Office said that it was reasonable to expect her to disclose her exploitation at that point, even though she was still in the situation of exploitation, and even though she thought that she was being arrested by the police.
Just take a moment to think about someone who is being exploited and is working in a brothel against their will, being forced to have sex with however many men it may have been that day. If that institution was raided by a group of uniformed officers, even I—a citizen of this country—would not be able to identify that they were the goodies, not the baddies I had been told about, who would arrest me if they found out what I was doing and who I had been groomed to be wary of. Yet we expect those women at that exact moment to say, “Yes, I am being prostituted.” It seems so unlikely and so inhumane.
Even when the Home Office recognised some of the women as survivors of trafficking, it still did not provide them with help or support. In one particularly shocking case, a woman who had received a positive reasonable grounds decision was not released from Yarl’s Wood to the safe house; she was actually sent back to the address where she had been sexually exploited before she was detained. I have worked in human trafficking services, and I understand what the pathway is meant to be once somebody goes through the national referral mechanism: safe houses, benefits and support should be available. It is a good system from the Government; it is well designed and kind, although it is not perfect. I have absolutely no idea why that pathway is not clear in situations where women are detained.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. She has done well to secure the debate and to highlight the excellent work of Women for Refugee Women. Does she agree that behind many of the problems that she describes is the way in which two separate responsibilities—for modern slavery and for immigration enforcement—sit uncomfortably within the Home Office? I declare an interest as a trustee of Focus on Labour Exploitation, a charity that works in this area; our research has shown that the conflict between those two responsibilities is repeatedly hampering attempts to protect victims. Does my hon. Friend agree that the only way to resolve the problem satisfactorily is to have truly independent decision making?
I could not agree more; it is clearly a problem, and not just in trafficking services. Sometimes I have to speak to the immigration wing of the Home Office and explain issues of domestic violence or sexual violence. I always sit back and think, “Hang on a minute—you’re the Department that is in charge of dealing with domestic violence and sexual violence. Why has it taken my explanation for your immigration officers to understand the nuances of the case?” I do not doubt that the Home Office is a caring and kind institution when it comes to tackling issues of trafficking, domestic abuse and sexual violence; I believe truly that its heart is in the right place, but while targets for immigration removal are maintained as high-level political targets, we will see vulnerabilities, and the care side of the Home Office will be completely swept aside. I absolutely agree that there needs to be a severing and an independence.
My hon. Friend is right to say that she has raised the matter many times; I have heard her do so in various debates. It strikes me that very often these women are not getting any legal aid or legal assistance. Organisations that could provide such support, such as CRASAC—Coventry Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre, which I am sure my hon. Friend has heard of—are totally underfunded. Once again, as they do in every mode of life in this country, women seem to be paying a price somewhere down the line, whether it is in dealing with the national deficit or in other issues—benefits, universal credit, the lot. Although women have equal rights in this country, it all paints a pretty grim picture of the way in which they are actually treated.
I completely agree. Paradoxically, the support services that the Home Office funds specifically for human trafficking are good and relatively well funded for those who have already gone through the national referral mechanism. The problem is the idea that a trafficked woman, a trafficked child or a trafficked anyone understands what the national referral mechanism is. There is a high bar to accessing services, and the community-based support for people to enter the system has been completely and utterly degraded by years and years of austerity.
Birmingham, where I live, is certainly heavily reliant on religious organisations for the low-level support of trafficking victims who have not yet got to the national referral mechanism stage. That support is incredibly patchy and there is no outreach element to it; it is only provided if people manage to find those services. So, good advice and guidance on the streets, and a change in the culture of how we help these people, are vital.
I will go back to the specific cases of the Chinese women covered in this report. The distress caused to these women by their treatment at the hands of the Home Office is immense. One woman who was forced into prostitution in the UK described her arrest and detention in the following way:
“One day men in uniforms came to the house. They dragged me out and took me to the police station. Later, I was put in a van. It drove for a long time through the night and ended up at Yarl’s Wood. I was taken from one hell to another.”
Shalini Patel, a solicitor at Duncan Lewis Solicitors who has taken on many of these cases, has said:
“There is sheer disregard for the safety of these women who have already been subjected to such horrendous sexual abuse and exploitation. These women are by no means fit for detention, but despite this they are detained for months at a time with no adequate support. It is only when legal representatives step in that they are eventually released from detention. I hate to think what is happening to those women who are not able to access legal advice”,
which is an issue that has quite rightly been raised here today.
The Home Office will say that this report looks at only 14 cases, which is an understandable retort. However, although this report is the first piece of research to examine the treatment of Chinese women who have been trafficked into the UK, it is just the latest report to document how the Home Office is refusing to help and support survivors of trafficking. Research by Detention Action published in 2017 and a report published by the Jesuit Refugee Service in 2018 both showed how men and women who had been trafficked into the UK were routinely being locked up in detention.
Also, new Home Office data, which was obtained by the After Exploitation project and released today, shows that in 2018 alone 507 potential victims of trafficking were detained under immigration powers in the UK. In fact, this figure includes only those who have received positive reasonable grounds decisions and whom the Home Office recognises as possible survivors of trafficking, so it really is just the tip of the iceberg.
In all the cases that Women for Refugee Women looked at, the women were detained for over a month and four of them were detained for more than six months. These long periods of detention caused a drastic deterioration in their mental health; half the women in the sample had suicidal thoughts and six of them were self-harming in detention. And, incredibly, 92% of asylum-seeking women from China who are locked up in Yarl’s Wood are not subsequently removed from the UK but are released back into the community, which prompts the question: what was the point of putting them through that horror? As well as being extremely damaging, even traumatising, the detention of these women serves no purpose.
As always, my hon. Friend is making an impassioned speech. Does she agree about one of the other disconnects that exists in the system? She has read out details of some traumatic cases of the long-term detention of individuals who need help, yet perversely some of us in this place have been arguing that the Government should extend the “move-on period” for those who have been given a determination past the 45-day mark, because 45 days is not long enough. The Government say it is sufficient time, even as they lock people up for months and months at a time in Yarl’s Wood. It just does not make sense to me.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it is ridiculous that the “reflection period”, as I believe it is called, is 45 days and is considered to be the reasonable amount of time that somebody who has suffered terrible trauma and horrendous abuse requires. Given my experience of working in one of the services that helps these victims, I know that often it is possible to make claims for longer periods, based on certain circumstances. It is like any local resident who says, “Gosh! If I paid my council tax with the same irregularity as the bins are collected, I would be put in prison!” It is one of those things where it seems that there is one rule for the state and one rule for others.
It is also important to remember that, in developing policies on helping survivors of trafficking, the Home Office has repeatedly promised that it will reduce the use of detention for people who are vulnerable. Following Stephen Shaw’s review of detention in 2016, the Home Office introduced the adults at risk policy, which it said would result in fewer vulnerable people going into detention. The AAR policy explicitly says that survivors of trafficking and gender-based violence should not normally be detained, yet the research published by Women for Refugee Women today shows that the Home Office is deliberately going against this policy.
In fact, the report by Women for Refugee Women adds to the wealth of evidence showing that, despite the Home Office’s repeated promises to reform its use of immigration detention, very little has changed since 2016. The number of people in immigration detention has fallen, of course, but Stephen Shaw’s follow-up review of detention, which was published a year ago, found that
“it is not clear that AAR has yet made a significant difference to those numbers”—
That is, to the numbers of vulnerable people in detention. And just a few months ago, the Home Affairs Committee found that the AAR policy
“is clearly not protecting the vulnerable people that it was introduced to protect.”
What is the Home Office doing about this constant hamster-wheel of our coming here and asking that trafficking victims and victims of gender-based violence in detention be looked at and properly managed? It seems like many years now, but in 2015, when I became an MP, I went with Women for Refugee Women to Yarl’s Wood, to meet some of the women there. While I was there, because I was fresh out of working for an anti-human trafficking service, I was able to identify within seconds that the first person who I sat down to talk to—a woman—was a victim of human trafficking.
As I say, when I was sitting in that room in front of that woman, it took me seconds to identify what had gone wrong in her life, so I cannot understand why it has already taken four more years for the Home Office to consider putting in place proper safeguards. At the very least, there should be a proper specialist who risk-assesses everybody who comes through the doors at Yarl’s Wood on the day that they arrive; I will volunteer my time and I will gladly go and sit there for a few weeks.
I have three key demands of the Minister. First, the Home Office needs to stop detaining survivors of trafficking and gender-based violence immediately. It is very simple for the Home Office to do this; in fact, it is simply a matter of putting its own policy into practice.
Secondly, there needs to be a 28-day time limit on all immigration detention. The harm and distress caused by indefinite detention is immeasurable, and the research by Women for Refugee Women shows how the Home Office is detaining vulnerable people for very long periods of time. We already have much a shorter time limit of 72 hours for the detention of families with children or women who are pregnant, so I do not see any practical reason why a 28-day limit for everyone else cannot be introduced.
Finally, the Home Office needs to recognise that immigration detention is harmful, costly and completely purposeless; quite simply, nothing justifies its continuing use. Immigration cases can be resolved much more humanely and effectively in the community. If I was the Minister, I would shut down Yarl’s Wood and end immigration detention.
Again, there is this idea of one Government Department with two heads. I sit opposite Ministers from the Ministry of Justice who talk about women’s justice centres and how everybody knows that what is needed is proper community voluntary-sector provision, rather than sending women to prison, especially when so many women in prison have been victims of sexual and domestic violence, and often of human trafficking as well.
The Government line on this is completely different to reality, as they recognise that channelling the money away from prisons and into women’s centres in the community is the right thing to do, yet here we have this blot on the landscape, which is immigration detention, that does exactly the same thing as before and costs the state far more than specialist voluntary sector providers, who would do the same work better and more humanely.
I do not understand why we have to keep on having a debate on this issue. I hope that this is the last time that we all participate in a debate on this issue, but I imagine that, if she is still in her current post, I will see the Minister who is here today—the Minister for Immigration —the same time next year.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I start by declaring an interest, which appears in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I co-chair the all-party parliamentary group on human trafficking and modern slavery, of which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) is also an officer. I congratulate her on having secured this debate.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. I started to write a few comments for this debate and then abandoned them, because what I really wanted to say is that I just do not believe, as my hon. Friend said, that the Minister, anybody in the Government or indeed anybody who works in the Home Office wants to deliberately harm these people. But as I sat writing, I got to the point that everyone knows this is happening, so how does it carry on? Why does nobody stop it? Over the last few months in particular, I have found myself in quite a number of debates thinking, “If we can’t stop it, where do the public go?” I know the Minister cares about this, which is why I wanted to start with it, but she is a Minister of the Crown, and she, along with others, is responsible for the policy and its implementation. When it goes wrong, as it clearly has in some respects, she will be appalled at the individual circumstances, but this is a systemic failure. It is a failure of public policy.
All of us here are frustrated, even more than we are angry, about why we cannot do something about this. I will make a couple of other points, but I wanted to stand up alongside my hon. Friend and others and to say to the Minister that she should use this debate as a further incentive—a further motivation—to say, “This is not made up. This is not according to the guidance that we have set. This is not what is supposed to happen, so why is it still happening?” The Minister has the authority to bring people together and demand that, if a contract is not being properly implemented, those responsible are held to account and something is done about it. The cry from everyone will be, “If the people who work in immigration are not following the guidelines, do something about it.”
Although the reports my hon. Friend referred to are outstanding, I am sick of reading them. I think we have all read the report that Women for Refugee Women has published today. It is a disgrace; there is no other word for it. It should be on the front page of every newspaper. In our country, in 2019, victims of modern slavery are imprisoned. That is not the sort of country we are. That is not the sort of country the Minister represents, or that any of us represents. But that is what is happening.
For goodness’ sake, can the system not wake up? Can it not regenerate itself and have a bit of passion and urgency in it? This is not a bureaucratic exercise; this is men, women and children detained, not for a crime, but because they are victims. Which other victims would we lock up? It beggars belief. As I say, I do not feel angry about it—actually, I do a bit—but I do find it unbelievable. Sir Gary, you will have been in the position, as we all have, of having somebody come to one of your surgeries and raising an issue where you just sit there—I know I am getting older—and have that “I can’t believe it” moment. You just cannot believe it. I say to the Minister that this is one of those moments.
Only today, a Sky News report—published alongside the Women for Refugee Women report about Chinese women—stated that 507 potential victims of modern slavery were locked up. The Government’s response did not dispute that figure; it was just the bureaucratic response of, “Well, they are only there for a little while, and most of them are released, so it is fine.” That is not good enough. There are 507 people locked up. Is that not unbelievable? Is it not incredible? In 2019, 507 potential victims of modern slavery are locked up. That is not good enough. It is not right, and it is not the sort of country that any of us wants to live in.
Going back to what my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley said, the heart of this is that these are victims of crime, not immigration offenders. Until the system gets hold of that fact, recognises it and runs its policy accordingly, we are going to lock innocent people up. We are going to lock innocent families up. We are going to put children behind bars. People say that is emotive, but that is the truth of it. These people cannot come and go; if they cannot come and go, and there are fences with people guarding them, what is that called? We get into propaganda if we are not careful. These are prisons, in which people are locked up.
I say again to the Minister that this has to be sorted out. I have been saying so for years, as have other people; some have been campaigning on this issue for years. Why is it that when somebody is brutalised, terrorised, forced into work or forced into sex—when a child is working umpteen hours, terrified that their family is going to be beaten up or killed if they co-operate with the police, and frightened of all the different threats they face—the first thing we do when we get most of them is lock them up? It is partly because we say that we do not believe them or that they are not co-operating with the police. Can I come clean here? If my family were threatened with being mercilessly killed, I am not sure the first thing I would do when arrested by a police officer in a country that I was not used to, that I did not know and that had a language I did not properly understand would be to say, “Quite right, officer. Take me down to the station. Let me help you out as best I can to bring before the courts the people who have been threatening me and who told me that if I co-operate they are going to kill my family.” That is not the real world. What do we do? We lock them up. I am not going to say much more, because in a sense, that encapsulates it.
I have bundles of things in my office—stacks of reports, of statistics, of this and that—but my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley has made the case that this is not good enough, and I am making that case as well. What are we going to do? I know the Minister does not want this to happen, but she is a Minister of the Crown; she is the person responsible. She has the opportunity, the chance and the power to do something about this. If she does not have the power in a democratic society, who does? She is part of Her Majesty’s Government—an elected Member of Parliament who is the Government official with responsibility for this issue, and she can do it.
Why are trafficking victims held? Is it public policy? If not, why does it happen? How long are these people held for? How many are there? Sometimes, we are not even totally sure of the data. How many children are among them. Is it none, or some? Are they detained only if they are with their family? What guidance is there, and how do the Minister or the Government check the guidance is followed? In evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, the Home Secretary himself said he was not totally sure that the guidance was put in place and properly acted on. As my hon. Friend said, Mr Justice Julian Knowles said in his judgment that the Government’s 45-day policy for someone found to have conclusive grounds was illegal and would have to be changed. Can the Minister clarify what the Government’s response has been? My understanding is that they have said they will no longer implement the 45-day policy for those found to have conclusive grounds. Will the Minister confirm that? Although it is a slight aside to the debate, that issue is important.
I will finish with this point. These women, these men, these children—these victims—have no voice. We are their voice; they are the voiceless. We are speaking up for them. We are crying out and shouting out for them. Is anyone listening and is anyone going to act on what is being said?
I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) for securing this debate and speaking so passionately and well on an issue that I know is a lifelong passion of hers. I am grateful for her continued pressure on this issue. I am also grateful to Women for Refugee Women for putting together a powerful report. The Minister would do well to read it and pay close attention to what is proposed in order to resolve the situation. As the new chair of the new all-party parliamentary group on immigration detention, which was set up just recently, I care deeply that this issue is resolved and that we are not holding people in immigration detention when they should not be there at all, for any length of time.
A good many of my constituents who I see at surgeries have been through immigration detention. All of them were released to continue with their lives. They were not removed from the country. The process was not taken any further, and they should not have been there in the first place. That happens again and again. A constituent was detained. He had a pregnant wife. Through intervention, we were able to get him released. A constituent who is Romanian was detained after being lifted by the police for begging. He had serious health problems, and he was released. A constituent who had been a victim of torture in the Central African Republic was held and eventually released. A constituent who was detained at a marriage interview was subsequently released. The Home Office goes through a modern-day cat and mouse act with some of the most vulnerable in society. They are taken in and out of immigration detention again and again. They are deeply traumatised, and that is on top of the trauma they already face because of the actions of the Home Office.
My good friend Linda Fabiani recently found that these things are happening at Dungavel as well. Through a freedom of information request, she found that, between 2014 and 2018, 19 children were detained at Dungavel. Between 2016 and 2018, six pregnant women were detained at Dungavel. That is in clear contradiction of all the things that the Home Office said it would do. What is being done to deal with the issue? I appreciate that the Minister might say that some of those are age-disputed cases, but that does not excuse the fact. Even if these young people are on the margins of that, they should be treated as children, not detained and traumatised.
Even when people get through the immigration detention system and through their applications, they face further difficulties. A constituent was in Glasgow for five years before her case was decided—she now has refugee status and was supported by the Trafficking Awareness Raising Alliance in Glasgow—and the Home Office continues to refer to her on her biometric residence permit by the name and date of birth under which she was trafficked. That causes her huge trauma and stress. I can provide the Minister with the details afterwards, and I ask her to intervene in that case. It is just not right that that woman has gone through so much trauma and is still being referred to by the name under which she was trafficked. That is just not acceptable, and it needs to stop.
Finally—I appreciate that time is tight—I want to talk about the costs of the system and the costs of detaining people. There is a huge cost in human lives, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley set out, but there is also a huge cost to the Department. In 2018-19, the Home Office paid out £8.2 million for 312 cases where people had been wrongfully detained. That was up from 212 people and a cost of £5.1 million in 2017-18. That does not even include all the costs of the immigration and detention estate, or the adverse legal costs and the cost of other compensation that the Home Office has had to pay. It is hugely expensive and traumatising, and it damages lives. As the Women for Refugee Women report points out, people are being denied their rights within the system. Will the Minister intervene urgently and ensure that no more women are held under the system?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Gary. Thank you for calling me to speak in this debate, which is close to my heart and that of many constituents. First, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) for bringing this debate on the immigration detention of survivors of trafficking and modern slavery to the House. She has clearly articulated the report by Women for Refugee Women, which looks at the plight of a sample of Chinese women who have been trafficked to the UK.
I have the honour and privilege of representing one of the most vibrant and diverse boroughs in our country. My constituents in Edmonton come from all over the globe. Many have arrived from Nigeria and they tell me at first hand of harrowing encounters while navigating from Nigeria to Europe. Many have been trafficked into domestic servitude or prostitution with false promises of a better life in the UK.
I will always remember the story of Julie—I have changed her name for her safety—who was chained for months to a bed in a house in Edmonton. She was forced to have unprotected sex with uncountable men. Her skin was burnt with cigarettes. She was beaten. Hot water was thrown on her naked skin. Julie eventually escaped her living nightmare because the cleaner entered the house, saw her battered body and hatched a plan to help her leave. Basically, she opened the door. Julie ran for her life and was helped by a kind passer-by and was taken to the local police station. My office got involved to help with her immigration application. Julie is now safe and has legal status, and she has started to unpack her mental trauma. Thankfully, because agencies worked together and listened to the victim, a positive outcome was concluded for Julie.
Since my election to Parliament in 2015, I have been campaigning against the immigration detention system in the UK. I visited Yarl’s Wood in November 2015 and had the honour of meeting and speaking with two women who had been trafficked to the UK, one of whom was pregnant. One of them had been in detention for almost nine months and had no idea when she was going to be released. She was at the mercy of the Home Office and its internal review system. That uncertainty was a great source of anxiety and fear for the women. Neither of them had access to adequate healthcare, even though the detention centre rules clearly stipulate that women in detention should receive the same care as the public.
Following my visit, I held my first Westminster Hall debate on healthcare in Yarl’s Wood. As many Members will be aware, Yarl’s Wood is the UK’s only predominantly female detention centre. Most of the women are victims of sexual violence and persecution in their own countries. The women I visited in Yarl’s Wood were from India and Nigeria—countries that are part of the Commonwealth family and with whom we share deep ties. It is disheartening to think that individuals from countries that have enriched our communities and culture, and who are rooted in countries we have close ties with, can end up in immigration detention. I will never forget that visit and the conversations I had there. Both as a citizen and as a parliamentarian, I was shocked, and remain so, by what goes on in Yarl’s Wood. It is scandalous to hold a pregnant woman in detention.
Like many of my constituents, it is difficult for me to reconcile our discourse on human rights, equality and justice for all as we continue to lock people up indefinitely. I am astounded that three years on, we are having a similar debate. The lack of progress should force us to reflect on our commitment to human rights and liberty, particularly as we have the boldness to encourage other countries around the world to follow them. Many will be aware that the UK has one of the largest immigration detention systems in Europe. Furthermore, we are the only country on the European continent without a statutory limit on the length of detention. This is the stuff of nightmares and reminiscent of practices seen in some of the most oppressive regimes in the world.
Human trafficking is a scourge on our society and must be properly investigated whenever it is suspected or reported. However, that has not been the case. According to Women for Refugee Women and Amnesty International’s recent research, many incidents of trafficking are missed by the Home Office decision makers, and even when they are accepted, detention is nevertheless maintained. In June this year, UK Home Office decision makers were using a country policy and information note on Nigeria for trafficked women. The policy was used to form a base of information on the UK’s analysis of Nigeria. However, on page 1 under the assessment, I found the following:
“Trafficked women who return from Europe, wealthy from prostitution, enjoy high social-economic status and in general are not subject to negative social attitudes on return. They are often held in high regard because they have improved income prospects.”
I understand that the July policy has removed that insulting text. I hope that the Minister can confirm that when she sums up.
I want to highlight a case from Amnesty’s research, which, all things considered, is very pertinent. It reported on:
“A Nigerian woman who was trafficked into the UK by her husband, who was physically abusive and forced her to engage in prostitution to provide funds for after their visas had run out. After escaping, she was fully compliant with her immigration reporting requirements, but was nevertheless detained. The sole reason given in her internal Home Office file was that there were ‘no barriers to removal’.”
Frankly, I find that inconceivable. Given the level of systematic abuse, how could the internal Home Office file attached to her say that there were “no barriers to removal”?
For Members to truly understand and appreciate the reality of immigration detention, it is necessary for all of us to critically examine the ethnicity and race of those impacted by the process. Immigration detention is a racist practice, and the policies used are racist and discriminate against certain groups. There is nothing controversial or novel about my statement. Just ask the many women and men who have been detained.
I ask the Minister to address four questions in her summing up. How does the Home Office ensure that victims of trafficking are recognised and supported? What is being done to stop indefinite detention? What medical assistance is given to victims of trafficking held in detention centres? Lastly, how are the Government implementing the adults at risk policy?
I will also take this opportunity to ask the Minister to ensure that the UK respects our responsibilities under international law and protects human rights for all of us and not just a select few.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Sir Gary. It is a pleasure to take part in this debate. The record of the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) stands in great esteem in this House. I apologise for missing the start of the debate; I was attending another pressing engagement. We have worked on this issue on numerous occasions and it remains close to my heart. Becoming a new Member of Parliament is extraordinary. We learn a lot very quickly. One of the first things that I learnt about was the huge indignity faced by so many people in our immigration and asylum system. The ordinary member of the public might not be aware of it.
I watched the TV series, “Years and Years”, recently and I was amused by the fact that it depicted a future dystopia in which people were arbitrarily detained. There is a creeping sense that an authoritarian regime is starting in this country, and I could not help but think of it as something that is fairly normal in this country today. The UK is the only country in Europe that has arbitrary detention without limit. Normally, that is associated with regimes and dictatorships that are not democratic. It is extraordinary that it happens in this country—the only country in Europe.
The statistics speak for themselves and of the extent of immigration detention: 27,000 people detained in one single year on average, and at any one time 2,500 to 3,000 people detained. As has been mentioned, the majority of those individuals are eventually released, anyway, so it seems to be an entirely vexatious exercise: not just one that harms those individuals and causes immense anguish and suffering but one that is hugely wasteful of talent and potential and massively financially wasteful. It costs this country £30,000 a year on average to detain those people. It is extraordinary that it happens. It is now clear that there is an emerging consensus that such a practice is no longer fit for purpose. Not only is it an affront to human rights and to every modicum of common sense in what should be a compassionate and civilised society with mercy at its heart but it is a hugely wasteful exercise.
Many people who are well qualified and in many cases have lived here for years have come to see me. People who have escaped the most appalling situations that one can scarcely even imagine have a sword of Damocles hanging over them. They do not know when a knock on the door might come. Indeed, it goes further than that. In many cases, the way in which our asylum accommodation system works is effectively an extension of the detention system. I have had reports from the Women Asylum Seeker Housing Project in Glasgow that women, terrified out of their wits, have woken up to find a housing officer standing over their bed, and of people getting out of the shower to find someone in their house. How can the Home Office possibly tolerate its contractors undertaking such behaviour? I call on the Immigration Minister to make sure that the report that I sent her about the situation in Glasgow is investigated thoroughly and that the practices of Serco and its successor contractor are thoroughly investigated and the guidelines implemented appropriately. That is just one thin end of the wedge.
Recently I visited the opening of the Saheliya childcare project in my constituency. It is a fantastic charity that works with asylum seeker women, who are often hugely disorientated when they first arrive in this country, especially if they have children and have to understand a labyrinthine system. The work that the charity does is incredible, but it is extraordinary that it is almost the exception to the rule. Unless we find people and charities willing to help, it is a lottery and the women can often fall between the gaps and can effectively be disappeared into the sinister system of immigration detention. That is just a flavour of what I have experienced in the two years or so since I was elected to Parliament. I have been aghast at the way this thing works. It is shocking, and I think I speak for everyone in this debate when I say that we are eager to see a change and we hope that the Minister will recognise our concerns.
Some of the examples that have been cited are not unfamiliar to me. However, not only women are affected. Many men are also affected. A Vietnamese gentleman in my constituency, Duc Nguyen, was trafficked to the UK to work in a cannabis farm, which was raided. He was charged and sent to jail, even though the Home Office recognised that he was a victim of human trafficking. He was released, but suddenly arbitrarily detained, even though the Home Office knew that he was a victim of trafficking. Trying to track down what happened to him was a nightmare. His friends realised he had disappeared when he was not turning up at the church where he was a volunteer. He had disappeared and nobody knew where he had gone. Trying to get legal aid and assistance was difficult because he was moved around from Dungavel to Colnbrook, where he was outwith the jurisdiction of the Scottish legal system. That is really difficult to deal with and must be addressed within the immigration system. The rules must ensure that people are not arbitrarily moved around within it to avoid giving them legal assistance. MPs are informed as a matter of routine when constituents are detained under the system so that we are able to advocate and provide assistance, rather than it being a matter of cat and mouse and hoping for the best when someone is detained and that someone knows that they have disappeared, that that is a common occurrence.
I had another situation with an asylum seeker from Sri Lanka who had managed to survive the Boxing Day tsunami. He broke out of the jail where he was held as a political prisoner and made it to the UK. When he went to a meeting to report and claim asylum, members of the Sri Lankan secret police were there. They threatened him, intimidated him and threatened his family back home, because he went to try to further his Home Office case.
This man was arbitrarily detained, even though he had the right to work and his case was still under consideration. It was only because his workmates realised that he had not turned up to work—everyone wondered where he had gone; they could not trace him, and he was not at home—that it was eventually uncovered that he had been detained. He was trying to reach his solicitor. He was saying to the officers at Dungavel that he should not be there, that he had the right to work and that his Home Office case was being dealt with. They mocked him, saying, “Oh yeah—we always hear that.”
The contempt in which the people who work in the system seem to hold very vulnerable people in is appalling. No wonder 10 deaths happened from November 2016 to November 2017. It is a very suspect and horrible system. It is high time that we ended immigration detention altogether. At the very least, we could impose a limit of 28 days. I fully support the campaign. Immigration detention is a waste of life, talent and money. We should invest in these people, bring them into the heart of our communities and unleash their potential. I would like to see that happen. I hope that the Minister recognises this opportunity, and treats it as such.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Sir Gary. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) on securing the debate and on a characteristically powerful and comprehensive introduction to the subject.
I pay tribute to all hon. Members who have contributed to today’s debate. They have pointed out how well timed it is, given that two new, excellent reports have been published in recent days, one by Women for Refugee Women and one by After Exploitation. I pay tribute to groups that continue to campaign for the rights of those who have been detained. As the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) said, this issue should be on the front page, but it is not. Immigration detention centres are often far out of sight and mind, and those groups do sterling work in keeping these issues on the political agenda.
As we have heard, we have had a large number of reports and expert inquiries into detention, including Stephen Shaw’s review and the reports by the Home Affairs Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights. There will be another report that touches on this subject in the not too distant future. Last week, the Home Affairs Committee continued to hear evidence on modern slavery, with some pretty damning evidence from three witnesses about the significant numbers of modern slavery and trafficking survivors being detained. A lot of excellent submissions have been made to the Committee.
All those submissions and reports highlight the same thing: the frustrating, systemic public policy failure that the hon. Member for Gedling referred to, which sees so many victims of slavery and trafficking detained. At the outset, it is important to put on the record that we remember the harm that is done by immigration detention. As Stephen Shaw explained in his first report,
“detention in and of itself undermines welfare and contributes to vulnerability”.
It is a hellish thing to inflict on anybody, especially victims of crime, and some cases were highlighted vividly and horrifyingly by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and the hon. Members for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) and for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney).
On the broader question of immigration detention, as I repeat every time we debate this subject, my party and I believe that the widespread routine detention of many thousands of people for an indeterminate period in what are effectively private prisons, simply at the discretion of immigration officers, is nothing short of a scandal. It has been fairly described as a stain on our democracy and an affront to the rule of law. The current system detains too many people. It detains people who should never have been detained, and it detains people for too long and without a defined time limit. The safeguards are utterly inadequate. The system is costly and inefficient, and does not even achieve what it is supposed to, with many people being simply released back into the community again.
I recognise that there has been some progress in cutting the size of the immigration detention estate, but there is a long way to go, and we need to go much further and much faster. In terms of the detention of vulnerable victims, including trafficking and slavery survivors, some of the evidence suggests that we have gone backwards in the last few years. In short, the systems and policies are not working as they should. The adults at risk policy, in particular, is not preventing many vulnerable victims of trafficking and slavery from ending up in detention.
Signs of trafficking or slavery are being missed at various stages. Even when such signs are picked up, they are either ignored, as we have heard, not acted on, or given less weight than factors relating to immigration control. We need urgent reform to stop that happening. Importantly, as I think my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central alluded to, we need to think about changing who makes key decisions and who has oversight of them. A host of changes could and should be made to help to eliminate the detention of vulnerable people. Our policy goal must be a bar on the detention of trafficking and modern slavery victims.
As a small starting point, we need to see significant improvements in awareness and understanding of the issue among those who are most likely to encounter victims in the first place. That includes police, most obviously, and staff in the Department for Work and Pensions or elsewhere. Treating victims as criminals or as illegal immigrants, rather than recognising them as victims, is a disastrous start to the process. If we can improve the response at that stage, problems further down the line could clearly be avoided.
We also need to look again at the precise processes that are supposed to stop detention after those first encounters occur. Gatekeeping is quite simply not working. Desk-based reviews of selective information will never achieve the sensitive and informed assessment that needs to be made. The Home Office should not be balancing vulnerability against immigration control requirements. If an individual is suspected of being a victim, detention should not happen at all.
Turning to the issue I referred to of who is making decisions, the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) mentioned the conflicting policy goals that the Home Office, as a Department, is wrestling with. A whole host of organisations have commented on that. Quite simply, looking after the interests of trafficking victims on the one hand, and relentlessly pursuing immigration enforcement on the other, are irreconcilable. To the greatest extent possible, we need to look at how decision making in trafficking cases can be removed from the Home Office altogether. For example, decisions about referral through the national referral mechanism for those in detention, or those being considered for detention, should be made by independent first responders or another independent body altogether.
Finally, I turn to the issue of oversight. As we know, a series of cross-party amendments have been tabled to the Immigration Bill that would introduce the time limit on detention I think everyone present seeks and that would strengthen judicial oversight. I very much hope that that becomes a reality. Given the experiences highlighted in the new Women for Refugee Women report, the report is accurately titled “From one hell to another”. We cannot have it on our conscience that, every year, we inflict that journey on hundreds—possibly even thousands—of people. I hope the Minister will listen to all the constructive suggestions that have been made, and the powerful arguments that have been made for reform, so that we stop inflicting that journey on so many victims of modern slavery and trafficking.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I, too, thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) for securing the debate and for the hard work she does on this subject—as a new MP, I have witnessed the tremendous work she does. I also pay tribute to all the organisations and individuals who work on this issue day in, day out.
Survivors of trafficking and modern slavery are being locked up in immigration detention. Before I examine why that is happening, or what the solutions are, it is important for the Minister to recognise that fact and to apologise for the unimaginable harm that it is causing people as we speak. The detention of survivors of trafficking is not an accident or an isolated mistake; it is the result of a deliberate policy to create a hostile environment and to systematically erode migrants’ rights. There is a fundamental contradiction between the hostile environment and the modern slavery strategy, made worse by the fact that they are both managed by the same Department. So far, the hostile environment is winning.
The solution to the problem cannot be piecemeal. We desperately need a wholesale change in the culture and rhetoric at the Home Office. If immigration detention were used less, fewer trafficking victims would be in detention. If we had judicial oversight and a time limit on detention, fewer trafficking victims would be in detention. If there were legal aid for immigration cases, fewer trafficking victims would be in detention. Flowing down from the abhorrent rhetoric at the top, failures at every stage of trafficking survivors’ interactions with Government have meant that people have ended up in detention.
Starting with how people end up in detention in the first place, there is no independent screening process when someone is detained for administrative convenience. The Home Office has a detention gatekeeper, but it only uses information that the Home Office already has about a person, and often such information does not prevent victims of trafficking or modern slavery from being detained. The Home Office is failing to communicate with itself or to pick up on clear indicators of trafficking. Thanks to the hostile environment, bodies such as the police have taken on the role of immigration enforcement.
Women for Refugee Women has encountered at least four women who were taken straight from raids on brothels and massage parlours to immigration detention. Amnesty’s briefing for this debate outlines the case of someone who was encountered during a raid on a cannabis farm. They were arrested and taken through the criminal justice system, and they served a prison sentence. On release from prison, they were taken directly to immigration detention. That happened even though the Home Office knew, and had accepted, that that person was a victim of trafficking and a survivor of sexual violence. What is striking about this failure of communication is that information-sharing works well when it comes to locking people up. It is just when it comes to trying to get people released, or not detained in the first place, that the Home Office cannot seem to communicate with itself.
Once someone is in detention, it is difficult for them to be recognised as a survivor of trafficking or modern slavery, and many people find it extremely difficult to disclose their experiences. Such experiences are traumatising, but detention is re-traumatising for many, which makes it a poor environment in which to disclose abuse. The Home Office does not create an environment that would be conducive to disclosure. Women for Refugee Women found that six of the 14 women it spoke to had their initial health screenings between 10 pm and 6 am, despite the chief inspector of prisons repeatedly recommending against that. In two cases, women’s initial health screenings were carried out by a male nurse, In another case, there was no interpreter.
Even when someone does disclose their experiences, the Home Office fails to follow correct procedure. When a rule 35 report states that someone has been a victim of trafficking, the Home Office does not always refer the case to the national referral mechanism. The quality of referrals to the NRM is poor, and there is a discrepancy in decision making both inside and outside detention. What does the Minister think is causing that discrepancy? According to the Jesuit Refugee Service, it is not uncommon for someone to be unaware that they have been referred to the NRM, and people need access to legal aid to prepare for an NRM referral in detention. A positive decision taken on reasonable grounds does not always trigger release. The Jesuit Refugee Service knows of at least three people who spent their 45-day recovery period in detention, and by all accounts, the adults at risk policy has made the situation worse for vulnerable people in detention. Caseworkers must now weigh vulnerability against immigration factors, which means that the bar for release is higher.
Some of the immigration concerns the Home Office has given to deny release are absurd. For example, the risk of abscondment is cited because someone will be released from detention into destitution, but it is the Home Office’s duty to provide support on release. Nowhere in the guidance does it say that, if a person is a victim of trafficking or modern slavery, they must be released, and such decisions are always weighed against other considerations. Will the Minister commit to changing that?
Once someone is finally released, support is often poor. Many people are released into destitution, and are at risk of being re-trafficked. If they have been refused asylum, they will be faced with study bans, have no access to English language classes, and live in isolation. Solicitors often fight to secure someone a place in a safe house. When asked to give an address for release, people may not provide a safe one. In one case, Women for Refugee Women found that a woman who had been forced into prostitution was released back to the address where she was sexually exploited before she was detained.
In conclusion, there is a basic contradiction between the Government’s modern slavery strategy and the hostile environment. If the Minister is serious about wanting to stop criminal gangs and protect survivors of trafficking, she must make it safe for people to come forward. At the moment, the traffickers’ threats that reporting abuse will get someone arrested are being proved right. We need legal aid and an independent body that makes decisions about detention. We need judicial oversight and a time limit on detention, and we must end the hostile environment. Labour would do those things. It would also close the Yarl's Wood and Brook House immigration detention centres, using the money saved to fund support for survivors of modern slavery, trafficking and domestic violence.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) on securing this important debate. I pay tribute to her tireless campaign work on the rights of women and victims of domestic violence. Many of us have heard her powerful speeches in the Chamber and Westminster Hall on several occasions, and we heard another such speech this afternoon.
I thank hon. Members for their contributions to this important debate. The hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) described becoming a Member of Parliament as a steep learning curve, and I assure him and others that becoming the Minister for Immigration is also a steep learning curve. I was as struck as other Members will have been when visiting immigration removal centres. One of my first visits was to Brook House, which the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) referred to, and my second was to Yarl’s Wood. Subsequently I have been to Campsfield House, Colnbrook and Harmondsworth, and I am conscious that our immigration removal centre estate provides a necessary service that remains part of our immigration policy. It is, however, important that when detention occurs, it takes place sparingly and in the most humane way possible.
As I said, my role as Minister for Immigration involved a steep learning curve, particularly when learning about the shocking exploitation of vulnerable individuals from overseas, who are duped by the promise of a better life in the UK. The hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) mentioned the false promises that some people are sold when offered a different life in the UK, and that is one of the most horrific things. In too many cases those people are not brought to the UK for a better life; they are sold into prostitution or forced labour, and tackling that abhorrent crime has always been a priority for the Government.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell) mentioned the report “Supported or Deported”, and as has been stated, Home Office correspondents in that report disclosed that 507 individuals who were believed to have reasonable grounds in their trafficking cases were detained under immigration powers in 2018, either before or after receiving an NRM decision. Although that number is correct, the statement is not, because those 507 individuals were not detained after getting a positive decision on reasonable grounds to remain. As clearly stated in the freedom of information response provided by the Home Office, that figure is for people who had a positive decision on reasonable grounds to remain when entering detention, or while in detention. Further analysis of the figures shows that of those 507 people, 479 received a positive decision on reasonable grounds during a detention period. Of those, 328 were released within two days of that decision, and in total, 422 people were released within a week.
I was asked about the availability of legal assistance in immigration removal centres. All detainees in immigration removal centres are made aware of their right to legal representation and how they can obtain such representation within 24 hours of their arrival at an IRC. The Legal Aid Agency operates free legal advice surgeries across the detention estate in England. Detainees are entitled to receive up to 30 minutes of advice regardless of financial eligibility or the merits of their case. There is no restriction on the number of surgeries a detainee may attend. If a detainee requires substantive advice on a matter that is in the scope of legal aid, full legal advice can be provided.
At all IRCs, detainees who already have legal representation may receive visits from their advisers by appointment. Those visits take place in private, in designated interview rooms within sight, but not the hearing, of custody officers. Of course, detainees are also able to contact representatives by telephone.
The hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) made reference to the recent judicial review. The Home Office is always trying to build its understanding of the complex needs of victims of modern slavery and to improve the support available. That case highlights the importance of tailoring support according to the individual needs of victims. In response to it, we will embed a more needs-based approach in our services.
It is difficult for me to comment on the application to individuals, but I will certainly come back to the hon. Gentleman with a fuller response to that point.
Several comments were made about the reform of the national referral mechanism and the importance of ensuring that the NRM gets victims of modern slavery the support they need. We have made significant progress in delivering that complex reform programme, including the launch of the single competent authority, which is an expert caseworking unit responsible for all NRM decisions, regardless of an individual’s nationality or immigration status. That unit has replaced the competent authorities previously located in UK Visas and Immigration, Immigration Enforcement and the National Crime Agency. To improve the decision-making process, we have set up an independent, multi-agency assurance panel of experts to review all negative conclusive grounds decisions, adding significantly to the scrutiny such cases receive.
The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) mentioned the detention of children. I wish to reassure her that the UK ended the routine detention of children in immigration removal centres in 2010 and then enshrined that in primary legislation in the Immigration Act 2014. There remain limited circumstances in which children may be detained, but that is usually in a family unit immediately prior to removal. That requires ministerial authority should a family be detained for more than 72 hours, and there is a maximum of one week. I reassure her that this year—in 2019—no children have been detained at Dungavel immigration removal centre. There was one age dispute case, but the individual was found to be an adult.
The hon. Member for Edmonton mentioned women in immigration detention, and we heard from several Members about Yarl’s Wood. On 6 June this year, the independent monitoring board published its Yarl’s Wood annual report for 2018. The IMB made positive comments about the continuing efforts at the centre to retain and recruit female staff and to improve healthcare provision. We have considered all the recommendations in the report and an action plan has been drawn up in response to concerns raised. We take our responsibilities towards detainees’ health and welfare very seriously. The provision of 24-hour, seven-day-a-week healthcare in all immigration removal centres, including Yarl’s Wood, ensures that individuals have ready access to medical professionals and levels of primary care in line with individuals in the community.
The hon. Lady also raised the specific issue of victims of trafficking from Nigeria. Last summer, or perhaps last autumn, I travelled to Nigeria and listened to harrowing accounts of people who had been trafficked. I also heard about some of the measures that the Nigerian Government were taking to address what is a very serious problem in that country. I am very conscious that there are significant numbers of Nigerians among victims of human trafficking found in detention in Libya or attempting to cross the Mediterranean. A disproportionate number of Nigerian victims of international trafficking come from Edo state in the south-west, where long-standing trafficking networks operate.
Modern slavery programming in Nigeria is a cross-Government effort, with each Department—the Home Office, the Department for International Development and the National Crime Agency—working co-operatively and focusing on areas of comparative advantage. The Home Office’s own modern slavery fund programme provides support and reintegration assistance to victims of trafficking and supports the judiciary to process trafficking. In addition, DFID funding has been directed to the International Organisation for Migration to rehabilitate victims returned from Libyan detention camps. That is a separate cohort of victims from those supported by Home Office funding. There is a real need for us to continue to work with DFID to help develop livelihood options for communities at risk of trafficking in Edo state and to help local government and civil society respond to trafficking there.
The hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton raised some issues with rule 35 of the detention centre rules. We are committed to ensuring that the rule 35 process operates effectively as a reporting system for removal centre doctors’ concerns about the welfare of detainees. In March this year, we launched our targeted consultation on the overhaul of the detention centre rules. The operation of rule 35 is a key element of that and is closely linked to the operation of the adults at risk policy. Input from non-governmental organisations, the independent detention oversight bodies and medical experts will ensure that the replacement for rule 35 better supports the identification, reporting and caseworker consideration of people with vulnerabilities. In the year 1 April 2018 to 31 March this year, 2,146 individuals were the subject of a rule 35 report made by a medical practitioner.
Various hon. Members mentioned the adults at risk policy. In September 2016, we implemented the adults at risk in immigration detention policy, a key part of our response to Stephen Shaw’s original review of the welfare of vulnerable people in immigration detention. The policy does not, as some have interpreted it as doing, mean an automatic exemption from immigration detention for any particular group of people. Under the policy, vulnerable people are detained, or their detention continued, only when the immigration considerations in their particular case outweigh evidence of vulnerability. Cases are reviewed regularly and also when new evidence comes to light.
I appreciate that there has been criticism of the adults at risk policy. However, as Mr Shaw said in his follow-up review last year,
“it would be folly to give up on the Adults at Risk policy. It is best thought of as an exercise in cultural change, and like all such programmes it will take time to reach full fruition. The focus on vulnerability that”
“has engendered is a genuine one”.
I believe that the policy will prove its full worth as it develops further and once it and the systems around it are in full alignment. Stephen Shaw made a number of recommendations for improvements in these areas and we are working hard, in conjunction with experts and in discussion with external organisations, to make the system as effective, protective and workable as possible.
It is worth remembering that the adults at risk policy replaced a policy that determined whether vulnerable people should be detained by reference to the concept of “very exceptional circumstances”. The difficulty with that approach was that nobody—caseworkers, legal representatives or detainees themselves—could interpret that in a consistent way. The adults at risk policy represents a much more coherent way of assessing the appropriateness of detention of vulnerable people and is a rational and proportionate approach.
Several hon. Members challenged me with the question, “What has changed?” That is a really important part of the comments I want to make and something I really wish to emphasise. We are committed to reducing the number of people in detention, to improving the welfare of those who are detained and to providing appropriate support to the most vulnerable in detention. Detention is used sparingly for securing the removal of individuals who do not have leave to remain in the UK, and people are detained for as short a time as possible.
We are detaining fewer people. At the end of December 2018, there were 30% fewer individuals in detention than a year earlier, and it is likely that that figure will be lower still this year. Over time, changes in legislation, policy and operational procedures will reduce the number of those detained and the duration of detention before removal, in turn improving the welfare of those detained.
The Minister referred to work done in response to Stephen Shaw’s follow-up review. Will she confirm whether the Home Office is looking again at the gatekeeper process? Those 400 individuals who had referrals made after they were put into detention will all have been through that process, yet they did so without anyone picking up signs that they were a victim of slavery or trafficking.
The gatekeeper function remains under close scrutiny. I and the many individual monitors who look at our detention system have scrutinised and continue to scrutinise the process of detention gatekeeping. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that if people have been through the detention gatekeeper function and still vulnerabilities have not been picked up, it is right that we continue to reinforce those processes.
When it comes to numbers, before 2015 there were about 4,200 detention beds in the estate. Since then, we have rationalised and modernised the estate. We have closed Campsfield immigration removal centre and reduced occupancy levels in the other IRCs, in turn improving staff-to-detainee ratios. There are almost 40% fewer beds—about 2,600 fewer—than there were four years ago, and they are of significantly higher quality.
I will have to get back to the hon. Lady with precise numbers on those in the prison estate. Of course, it is important to reflect that those in the prison estate will be foreign national offenders who have committed some crime, which has determined that they are worthy of a prison sentence.
Each time an individual is detained, there must be a realistic prospect of removal within a reasonable timescale. Those making detention decisions consider the likely duration of detention necessary in order to effect removal.
I turn to the Shaw reforms. The Home Secretary made clear his commitment to going further and faster with reforms to immigration detention with four main priorities: encouraging and supporting voluntary return; improving support for vulnerable detainees; greater transparency on immigration detention; and a new drive on dignity in detention. We are making real progress in delivering those commitments and have laid the groundwork for that progress to continue.
I emphasise a project that I am sure hon. Members will welcome and support: the development of a series of pilots of alternatives to detention. The first one started in December 2018 with our delivery partner Action Foundation in Newcastle. We have released more than 10 women from Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre to be supported in the community, and further recruitment into the pilot is under way. We want to divert women at the point of detention into the pilot to fill the remaining places.
I can report progress towards the second pilot. There is interest from several credible potential delivery partners, and we expect to have our chosen delivery partner by August, enabling the second pilot to commence in the autumn. All irregular migrants will be in scope of that project. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is independently evaluating the pilot series, and findings will be fed into the overall evaluation framework that is being developed to monitor progress across all of Shaw’s recommendations so that any findings can be examined within the context of the wider changes to detention across the Home Office. The UNHCR is also creating an independent external reference group to monitor progress and share expertise and best practice.
We are in the process of implementing other changes as a result of the Shaw review. We are introducing detention engagement teams in all IRCs, who are ensuring better induction and improved links between detainees and their caseworkers. We are also piloting the two-month auto-bail referral, which builds on measures introduced in the Immigration Act 2016 to refer cases to the tribunal at the four-month period of detention, and introducing a new drive on dignity in detention to improve facilities in immigration removal centres, including piloting the use of Skype and modernising the facilities. We are bringing greater transparency to immigration detention, and publishing more data, including on deaths and escapes from detention and on pregnant women in detention.
I reassure hon. Members that the Government are committed to providing those being considered for immigration detention with the necessary levels of protection. We have particularly stringent safeguarding arrangements in respect of vulnerable people in the immigration system.
I appreciate everything that the Minister has been saying, and some of those things show signs of improvement. There are two points I am not sure she has answered. My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) asked about the Nigerian issue. Is the policy of sending people home, saying basically that prostitution was making their home country a land of milk and honey, now over? Secondly, on the Minister’s point about the Government doing safeguarding in this area, how is it that women are being taken straight from brothels to Yarl’s Wood?
The quote, which the hon. Lady has somewhat misinterpreted, has been amended to give clarification. It should not have been able to lead to such a level of misinterpretation. None of us would ever say that prostitution leads to an ideal way of life. It certainly does not. However, there is much more that we can do, working with Nigeria and our partners to address the particular problem that has arisen there with trafficked women.
The hon. Lady spoke about the safeguards we need to put in place. I will be completely candid with her, and I will give her a couple of minutes to wind up the debate. It is important that we do more. She and I recently attended a roundtable with the Minister for safeguarding, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Home Affairs, the Minister for Countering Extremism, Baroness Williams of Trafford, and the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar). At that event, I said that we needed to do much better on safeguarding across Government. That was particularly in reference to victims of domestic abuse, but I am conscious that victims of trafficking are, in many instances, victims of abuse.
We must do better at safeguarding those individuals and treating them as victims. The hon. Lady and I may disagree from time to time, but we must ensure that when we share data, we do it for good reasons so that we can safeguard and protect people in vulnerable situations. There is more work to do across Government. I said at the roundtable and will repeat today: it is no good enough for just the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice to be involved; we need the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education involved, too. There is a piece of joined-up Government work there to ensure that we enable victims to be treated as victims, who are safeguarded appropriately, while at the same time recognising the important role of our immigration policies now and going forward.
I like that sentence, Sir Gary.
I thank everyone who spoke today. The strength of feeling in this House is clear: we wish to see the figure for people in our detention estate who have suffered any form of trafficking down to zero. Many of us wish to see the end of detention.
I am heartened by the Minister’s pilot projects. This system can be handled much better in the community with proper specialist partners. I hope we can go away with some sort of assurances that the Government can hear that the first thing we should do with anyone found in a brothel or clearly in a place of exploitation is care about them, not incarcerate them.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the immigration detention of survivors of trafficking and modern slavery.
Devolved Administrations: Borrowing Powers
I beg to move,
That this House has considered borrowing powers for devolved administrations.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I thank the House for allowing this important debate on the borrowing powers of the devolved authorities across the United Kingdom. People might be wondering, “Why have this debate?” We have a packed audience here to listen to it, which shows the importance of the powers and why they matter so much for our constituents. If people do not realise how much the powers matter, hopefully this timely debate will help them to see that.
Funding is often contested. Speaking as a Scottish MP, and as I am sure colleagues will attest, there is confusion about the powers available for tax raising and borrowing, as well as about where the funding comes from—Westminster, Edinburgh or a local authority. That stands in Wales and Northern Ireland as well. In my constituency of Ochil and South Perthshire, recently a Barnett consequential for the high street and towns fund was denied. Representatives of the devolved Administration in Edinburgh said that there was no Barnett consequential, and that the funding came from Edinburgh. It is important to have this debate to discuss exactly where the money comes from, and the powers that devolved Administrations have throughout the United Kingdom.
There is also some confusion on social media; I am sure cross-party colleagues will agree. When funding plans are welcomed or criticised, there are often such comments as “Scotland has no powers to borrow any funds”. Today’s debate will hopefully be an opportunity to demystify the borrowing powers of the devolved Administrations and some of the funding routes across the United Kingdom. I hope that it will make the situation clearer and will raise the debate to a higher standard right across the UK—in Westminster, Edinburgh and at local authority level.
I start with the facts. All devolved Administrations can borrow. That includes Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and even some of the devolved areas in England, although powers and the amounts vary across the devolved Administrations. I will attempt to make things clear for constituents and those who want to learn more about our financial settlements. Those powers will often be split into two parts: capital, going to assets, and resource spending, which is more cash-based.
My focus is very much on Scotland. I have some live examples, and I am sure colleagues will have interventions to make. In Scotland, local public revenue raises about £60 billion, which is about 8% of UK GDP. Expenditure stands at just over £73 billion, which is about 9.3% of the UK’s spend, so there is a gap of about £13 billion between what we raise in Scotland, including the oil and gas revenue that is often quoted, and what we spend. That gap is bridged by central Government, by other tax revenue raised in Westminster from across the United Kingdom.
What powers does Scotland have for additional tax raising and borrowing? Tax-varying powers have existed since devolution started. We had some flexibility over the penny on income tax. Obviously, our powers increased through the Scotland Acts 2012 and 2016, and we now have powers to vary the income tax bands—powers that the Scottish National party Administration in Edinburgh have used. They have lowered taxes for those earning under £26,990. If someone earns less than that threshold, they are now about £20 better off per year. That is about 38p better off per week—very helpful if someone wants to buy a Tunnock’s Teacake. Someone who is in the higher tax band will be charged about £1,500 more than other taxpayers in the United Kingdom.
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
That is a significant point. Not all the higher-rate taxpayers in Scotland—about 14% of Scottish taxpayers—are ludicrously wealthy; the people who fall into that tax band will be teachers, doctors—some will be nurses—and public servants, as well as some very hard-working private sector workers. They should have their hard work rewarded; they should not be penalised for being in Scotland.
We want to attract more people to Scotland. As my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) has brought up many times, this issue is especially important for our armed forces. Everywhere else around the world, they pay the Westminster rate of tax. It is only in Scotland that they are penalised and have to pay additional tax for being based there. Being based in Scotland is, of course, a benefit, and that benefit should not be eroded by the tax system imposed on them by Edinburgh. Thankfully, due to the work of my colleagues and the Government, that tax impact has now been neutralised, and members of the armed forces will now pay no more tax in Scotland than they do in other parts of the United Kingdom.
Devolved Administrations can borrow. Scotland can borrow about £3 billion for capital and about £1.75 billion for resources. What does “resources” mean? Breaking it down, it means that if we are a bit short in our cash flow in Scotland, we can borrow up to £500 million for cash. About £300 million is for forecast errors, and we see some of those coming through at the moment. There is a fantastic National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee report on devolved income tax collection in Scotland. It makes for fantastic night-time reading; it clearly outlines some of the difficulties and costs of having additional income tax rates in Scotland.
The hon. Gentleman is making a good point about the limited borrowing powers in the Scottish Parliament, which do not match the growing taxation powers. Yesterday, the Foreign Secretary ruled out more economic powers for the Scottish Parliament in his Tory leadership bid. Would the hon. Gentleman agree that the Scottish Parliament needs greater borrowing powers to invest in the Scottish economy?
In short, no. We should use the borrowing powers that we already have. The SNP Administration underspent by a reported £450 million in the last year; that shows that the proper economic programme is not being put forward for Scotland. They are not delivering for us. We have the power to vary tax rates, we have additional borrowing powers, and we do not have half the risks and responsibilities that the Treasury in London has to bear, yet in each of the next four years, we are forecast to underperform, compared with the rest of the UK. Going back a year, we were the lowest performing economy in the OECD and out of the G20 advanced economies.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the capacity for surplus borrowing. The Scottish Government have used only about half of the capacity in that borrowing envelope. He will also note the huge, disproportionate cuts to local government. I understand that Government funding has been cut in Scotland by about 2.8% in the last decade, but 7.5% cuts have been imposed on local government. That has had a huge impact on the provision of municipal services. Why on earth are all the borrowing powers not being used, including issuing bonds to maximise the capital capacity of local government and to ensure we minimise the negative effects of austerity on local government?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I could not agree more. What I cannot understand is the clamour and constant push for powers from the SNP, who have been saying, “We want more powers; we need them.” We have the borrowing powers. We have the tax-varying powers. We have flexibility over the business rates. We have flexibility over council tax. It is Edinburgh that decides how much our local authorities get. Just like the hon. Gentleman, I have experienced my local authority being underfunded in a way that has meant that education and general maintenance in our counties has suffered. I cannot understand it either. I wish a representative from the SNP was here to put the SNP’s case for those cuts and its economic programme. Unfortunately, the SNP is completely absent from a very important debate.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. These are the kind of debates we should be having to set the record straight about what is happening in Scotland and its fiscal position. He mentioned the Scottish Government’s underspend. I believe that they have returned more than £2 billion in the last four years in underspend. On the borrowing requirement, I understand that the Hong Kong dollar is an independent currency, but it is supported by reserves of double the GDP of Hong Kong. That means that if an independent Scotland were to set up its own currency, it would require somewhere in the region of £360 billion of reserves to support that currency. Where would Scotland get that from?
I wish SNP Members were here to say how they would meet those responsibilities. I will not speak on behalf of the Scottish Labour party or the Scottish Liberal Democrats, but we are parties who support and respect devolution. We are the parties who are trying to make devolution work more effectively. That is why we are having these debates and changing the machinery of government to try to make it work more effectively. The SNP is the only party that does not believe in devolution. That is why it is not involved in these debates and why its members are not here today. All they care about is separation.
As the hon. Gentleman rightly points out, the SNP has not faced up to some of the responsibilities and costs of that separation. That is illustrated by the underspend. Some £100 million is somehow being rolled forward as part of setting up a new social security agency. That was agreed in 2016. We want to look at how to best serve our constituents. We do not want to be state building; we want to make sure that our constituents get the benefits that they need. Rather than spending £100 million-plus on setting up a new social security agency, which means our constituents will have to stop at three or four places to get the benefits they require, I would prefer to use that money to top up the benefits, and use current Department for Work and Pensions systems to ensure that constituents get the money they need. Our constituents would benefit, but we would not have to go through state building, and we would not have to spend money when it is not required. As I am sure the Chair appreciates, welfare is an incredibly complicated area of policy, and the systems that have supported our welfare state have been in development for over 60 years.
On the borrowing powers that we have on the resources side, there is power to borrow up to £300 million for forecast error. That is important, because as Derek Mackay, the Finance Secretary in the Scottish Government, recently outlined, their income tax forecast is down by around £1 billion. Again, this might be something that we should be debating in Westminster and Holyrood. The forecast error borrowing allowance is around £300 million, and it already looks like there will be a £1 billion gap. How will we bridge that responsibly without increasing taxes for people in Scotland, or irresponsibly having to go back to Westminster?
The hon. Gentleman knows that I am certainly a staunch critic of this Government’s social security policies. However, he will be aware of the scope of powers available to the Scottish Government to deliver a system in Scotland that is qualitatively, as well as quantitatively, different. For example, ending the two-child cap in Scotland costs around £60 million, which is a fraction of the £500 million revenue underspend in Scotland, and would not even mean dipping into the available borrowing powers. What does the hon. Gentleman think are the motives behind not using those powers?
I would not be so bold as to speak on behalf of the SNP—I do not think the party would like it. I can theorise that the SNP has not prepared for some of those powers and is not ready for them. Looking at the recent Fraser of Allander Institute report on the welfare and tax powers being given to Holyrood, we see that there are significant structural and programme changes that need to take place before those powers can be used effectively. I am sure the hon. Gentleman appreciates and welcomes some of the changes that the new Work and Pensions Secretary has made to the two-child cap policy. It is an issue that I have debated since I was elected to this place, and certainly before.
Welfare powers are available, and I am at a loss to understand why the SNP has not used them when it is so critical of a lot of my Government’s policies in this area. If the party is so critical, and the Scottish Administration have the powers, I do not understand why they have not used them in the time that they have had them. They have been supported centrally by the Department for Work and Pensions in Westminster. The SNP told us in 2014 that it would take only 18 months to establish Scotland as a completely separate state, so I do not understand why it takes seven-plus years to try to get a basic social security system for our constituents.
The other £600 million that is available for resource funding is protection for a Scotland-specific shock. Should our GDP fall to 1% below the rest of the UK, we could borrow an additional £600 million to try to prevent any additional hardship for our constituents and to support our public services in the way they need.
As I touched on earlier, it is important to note that even with all those powers and the levers at the disposal of the devolved Administration in Edinburgh, we are still looking at an economic performance over the next four years that trails behind that of the rest of the UK. After more than 12 years of an SNP Administration, we have to ask why. It is not just that they disagree with policy coming from Westminster; it is that they have powers but are not making devolution work. This is not good or bad devolution; it is dysfunctional devolution. I hope every colleague in the House will work with me and MSP colleagues to try to improve that.
We have three tiers of government in Scotland, or four if we include community councils: our local authorities, the Administration in Edinburgh, and central Government in Westminster. As an MP, I am determined to ensure that they work as effectively as possible.
Further to the point on the possible motivation, does he share the view that if the Scottish Government were to deploy all those powers fully, it might in some way diminish the appetite for independence? After all, a majority of Scots agree that the United Kingdom is over-centralised, but if they were to see devolution fully deployed and fully activated, it might well address any dissatisfaction that they had with the current system.
It feels wrong to bash the SNP when its Members are not here to respond, but this is another clear example of the SNP putting the nationalist interest above the national interest. We could be using those powers to serve our constituents today, rather than deferring their use for years and years to further grievance and stoke the flames on social media.
Why is this important? Why did I apply for this debate on borrowing? It is so important because of the underspend that, as I said, has been widely reported. It was £450 million last year. It has certainly had a real impact in my constituency, which covers two council areas: Clackmannanshire, which is the smallest county in Scotland, and part of Perth and Kinross, which is in one of the largest counties in Scotland. We have seen impacts on frontline services. In Perth and Kinross, teacher numbers have reduced. We have had to increase waste charges, and we have had a 3% increase in council tax. In Clackmannanshire, we had the threat of closure of two primary schools, which I and council colleagues were against. We had the threat of closure of the Alloa Leisure Bowl, a reduction in our secondary school supplies and a 4% increase in council tax.
Given that the SNP argues for all those powers and makes such a stand about being stronger for Scotland, it cannot make such an argument in this place and then be absolutely weaker for our local authorities and let down our public services, children and communities in such a colossal way. As I said, the underspend could well be justified. If SNP Members were here—I was hoping to have a bit of a debate with them—they could justify it by saying they were carrying some spending forward to future years, as we said about the welfare and social security agency. We might disagree with that, but at least it could be justification. As colleagues will hopefully realise, and as I have argued, given the borrowing powers that exist, the development of the Scotland reserve, and the increase in block grant coming from Westminster, there is no need for huge underspends in the Scottish budget. We simply do not need them. We can use the borrowing powers when we need to. For example, should there be a Scotland-specific shock, we could access £600 million if we needed emergency cash for our frontline services. We can actually spend the money we need now, so why cut our local authorities when it is clearly not needed?
The hon. Gentleman is making a very powerful argument. I know he might disagree with the policy issue, but there is a principle issue. The Scottish Government have full powers to do something about issues that they talk about a lot, such as the WASPI—Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign—women and the rape clause in universal credit. They have the powers and a massive underspend, but they refuse to do anything.
That is exactly my point. It is one of the main reasons I wanted to have this debate. Again, it is one thing to criticise on social media, but another to write letters to a paper when it is a one-sided argument. I applied for this debate because I wanted all parties to be here, and to have the opportunity to justify underspending by nearly half a billion pounds and then standing up in the Chamber and criticising the Prime Minister, the Government and often Opposition party leaders for their lack of policy and lack of caring for our constituents. That is inconsistent, it is indefensible economics, and it is unbecoming of MPs and a political party that sits in this Parliament.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. Does he agree that it was quite telling that when there was word of the UK Government’s potential direct spending in Scotland, the Scottish National party was running scared? It is the only party I know that would run scared from somebody else wanting to deliver further funding in Scotland. It just shows that this is not about money. Everything the Scottish National party does is down to playing politics with policy and people’s lives; it is not about getting the best for Scotland.
I could not agree more. The whole point of being an MP is that we put people before politics. I have certainly been critical of my Government on issues of spending—I know my hon. Friend has, too—and Members of the Opposition have certainly been critical about getting funding for Scotland, be it in block grant or city deals. We have made the arguments and posed the difficult questions time and again in this place. As I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister appreciates, we will continue to do so in a future Administration.
We have had an interesting exchange of views on this matter. On the use of powers and the logical disconnect between the rhetoric in this place and how it plays out in governance in Scotland, the Daily Record has recently been reporting on the scourge of drug-related deaths in Scotland, which are at epidemic levels and are a real national emergency. How can the SNP reconcile the rhetoric about the need for the Home Office to change its views on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971—I agree with that—with cutting addiction services in Glasgow by a quarter? How can that possibly help?
The hon. Gentleman will have seen at first hand the impact of some of those cuts in his constituency, just as I have seen their impact on frontline services in mine. No Government are perfect and no party is perfect—I respect that—but the whole point of these debates is to discuss the issues, come forward with facts, put forward arguments, fight for our constituents and, at election time, convince them that we are the best people to represent them, and that we have the best ideas and arguments. That is why I secured this debate.
If an hon. Member or a colleague in Holyrood were Finance Secretary, rather than underspending by £450 million and putting £100 million into the social security agency, they could have invested £294 million, which is what COSLA—the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities—has requested for inflationary increases in council spending. They could have uplifted that by 10% or so to help close the funding gap in Clackmannanshire and Perth and Kinross, and they would still have had around £100 million left to put into a reserve for a rainy day, if that were genuinely their intention.
I will wrap up as I am conscious that the Minister wants to respond. I hope that he will support me and other colleagues in taking a more mature approach to funding and borrowing in our United Kingdom, to ensure that devolved parts of the United Kingdom are not separate, and to ensure that central Government engage with all levels of government, so that there is appropriate borrowing and spending, and funding goes directly to the frontline public services that need it.
As colleagues have mentioned before in such debates, balance sheets and borrowing do not sound all that exciting, but every single number on the balance sheet represents an opportunity for an education, or for investment in the NHS and social care. It is vital that we get the facts out there and have a mature and appropriate debate. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will support us in that.
It is a delight to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. This is an important topic that commands interest not only across the House but, more importantly, across the four constituent nations of our Union and among our constituents. I take my hat off to my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) for securing the debate and for the energy that he and his generation of Scottish Conservative MPs bring to the House of Commons. It has been a tremendous tonic and has been very good for the House as a whole.
Like my hon. Friend, I am surprised and a little dismayed that the Scottish National party is not present for the debate. That in itself tells a story that we need to explore more widely and that I will come to later. He raised a wider issue, so I will talk about what the Government are doing more generally before I address the question of Scotland that he raised so eloquently.
As my hon. Friend and everyone in the Chamber will know, the Government are committed to strengthening the Union, which is arguably the oldest and most successful partnership of its kind in the world. Only last week, the Prime Minister announced an independent review to ensure that Departments in Whitehall work in the best interests of the Union. Protecting the Union is also a priority for both candidates who are vying to be the next Prime Minister.
I do not think that they regard that as in tension with a proper unionism; they worry about the union with the EU. In their view, they are giving voice to a sovereignty that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland expresses and has done for more than 200 years.
As colleagues will know, I can never talk about the Union without mentioning my great hero, Adam Smith. He said that the 1701 union was:
“a measure from which infinite Good has been derived”
to Scotland. How right he was. The reason why that was true for Smith and is true now is that the Scots took advantage of the potential offered by that incorporating political arrangement. As the House will know, Scots spread out across the world, ran large chunks of it and were extremely effective and successful entrepreneurs and businesspeople. Their country and the United Kingdom as a whole greatly benefited.
Borrowing powers are one of the most important ways in which the Government are strengthening the constitutional settlement, by providing devolved Administrations with greater choice and responsibility. Greater resource borrowing helps to ensure budgetary stability and affords devolved Administrations the flexibility to manage volatility associated with their new revenue-raising powers—or tax powers, in Scotland’s case. Similarly, capital borrowing powers offer much greater control over infrastructure investment.
The Scotland Act 2016 increased the Scottish Government’s capital borrowing limit to £3 billion, with an annual limit of £450 million. The resource limit was also raised to £1.75 billion, with an annual limit of £600 million. Those are substantial sums that create a degree of responsibility. To have those powers is to be trusted to exercise them responsibly. If that means investing them in better services on behalf of local people, that is the responsibility that those Administrations face.
It should be clear that those individual borrowing powers come on top of the funding that devolved Administrations receive through the Barnett formula. The fact that devolved Administrations already receive a share of all UK Government borrowing under the formula explains the need for limits on their borrowing to ensure the sustainability of the public finances. Spending decisions taken by the UK Government continue to deliver growth and prosperity across the whole of the United Kingdom. As my hon. Friend and colleagues will know, last year’s Budget provided a funding boost of £950 million in Scotland, £550 million in Wales and £320 million in Northern Ireland.
By 2020, all three devolved Administrations will therefore have received a real-terms increase during this spending review. Before adjustments for tax devolution, block grant funding will have grown to more than £32 billion in Scotland, £16.1 billion in Wales and £11.7 billion in Northern Ireland. There has been further support through city deals and growth deals, including more than £1.3 billion for eight such deals in Scotland.
I reassure my hon. Friend and the House that the Government are also committed to devolving greater responsibilities on tax and welfare. Once the 2016 Act is fully implemented, more than 50% of the Scottish Government’s funding will come from revenues raised in Scotland, making the Scottish Government more accountable to the people they serve. That is surely the point—with power comes responsibility—so the fact that the SNP is not present in the Chamber is a token of the wider problem of the Scottish Government’s lack of accountability. It is unfortunate that, although one constantly hears that Government’s grievances, they do not spend to address the issues of which they complain—my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) is absolutely right to make the point about playing politics. However, the question at the heart of the debate and of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire is not one of disingenuousness or hypocrisy but one of public service and accountability.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire for securing this debate and for his important and eloquent speech. It poses a challenge to the Scottish Government to live by what they say and to do what they profess. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to speak for the Government and demonstrate our continued support for the sustainability and prosperity not just of the Scottish nation and economy but of those of Wales and Northern Ireland.
Question put and agreed to.
UK Steel Industry
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of the UK steel industry.
It is a real pleasure to serve with you chairing, Mr Hollobone. Two thirds of the types of steel around today were not around 15 years ago— proof positive that steel is a highly innovative, flexible and recyclable product that we need to make in the UK if we are serious about having our defence and infrastructure security in our own hands. The strongest economies have strong steel sectors: the USA, China and Japan are first, second and third in the steel league table, with Germany coming in at seventh, while the UK lags behind in 30th position. If we are serious about our place in the world, it is high time we took steps to move up that table. Scunthorpe and Port Talbot provide the UK’s independent steelmaking capacity for long and strip steel products, and we need both for our future security.
I congratulate my hon. Friend warmly on securing this debate on such an important issue. Does he agree that one of the obvious steps to take to get up that league table would be for the Government to commit to have the Royal Navy fleet solid support ships built purely out of UK steel?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. On the issue of procurement, does he agree that we need more regional support? In response to a written question, the Government admitted to me that defence spending is only £40 a head in Yorkshire, which compares with £1,000 a head in the south-west. Surely such spending should be spread much more evenly across the north and the south.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Certainly, steelmaking is predominantly in the north, and better investment in procurement pipelines would help to address the inadequacies to which she draws attention.
Sadly, British Steel is in liquidation, and Tata is determining the direction of its UK business in the light of the failure to progress the merger with Thyssenkrupp. We face serious questions about the sector’s future. Other steelmakers, such as Celsa and Liberty, also look to the Government to confirm their commitment to the steel industry.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate, which affects many of my constituents, who are just along the A180 from his constituency. Has he had any discussions about the impact of losing the steel industry in Scunthorpe and about the wider impact across the south bank, which has many of the jobs in the supply chain?
My hon. Friend makes an important point: there are 5,000 direct jobs in the Scunthorpe area, in Teesside and elsewhere in the UK, but also 20,000 jobs in the supply chain. Steel is a significant employer, as well as a significant strategic asset for the UK. All the work that everyone is doing is to ensure that the whole business progresses under a new owner, which is the direction we all need to remain focused on, across the House and across the country.
The British Steel workforce in Scunthorpe, the north-east and elsewhere has responded brilliantly at a time when everyone working for the company sees their future in the balance. Workers, trade unions, the management team and the supply chain must be congratulated on keeping the show on the road in such difficult times. The magnificent outputs that they are achieving show what a sound business this is, still producing world-class steel day after day. British Steel has a strong strategic plan in place, externally validated by top-tier management consultancy McKinsey.
The Government have made all the right noises. The Secretary of State and the Minister showed real leadership in putting in place the indemnity that allows the business to continue as a going concern. When local cross- party MPs met the Prime Minister, she made clear her Government’s commitment to finding a sustainable future. The Secretary of State’s chairing of the British Steel support group’s weekly meetings is valued by all stake- holders. However, we are now reaching a crunch time, when warm words need to be matched with further actions to close the deal with prospective buyers.
Assurances may need to be given about the environmental liability—a no-brainer, as the liability is likely to fall to the Crown anyway if the business fails. On future carbon credits, the Government will need to show the flexible thinking that they have already shown in their dealings with Greybull Capital. Other things for the Government to look at might include loans to support investment and so on. To be helpful, will the Minister confirm that the Government, while being mindful of the need to act within the law, will do all they can proactively to close the deal with those bidders the official receiver believes can take the business forward?
Over the past few years, we have bounced from one steel challenge to another. Too often, steel policy responds to the urgent needs of the now, but fails to set out a strategic future path for this crucial foundation industry. In 2015, Sahaviriya Steel Industries in Redcar closed, meaning that the UK’s strategic steelmaking assets there are now lost forever. The cost of cleaning up the site, alongside the human cost of huge job losses at the heart of the northern powerhouse, will be with us for a very long time.
Instead of lurching from one crisis to another, the UK needs a Government that will put a plan for steel in place by responding positively to the five strategic asks made by steel MPs, trade unions and employers with one loud, consistent voice. First, the threat of a no-deal exit from the European Union is what sparked the current crisis, and anyone who talks blithely of a no-deal exit risks steel jobs and livelihoods throughout the supply chain—no deal risks no steel—so we need a positive new relationship with the EU to give certainty on the timely provision of UK-specific quotas within the EU steel safeguards. That should be a major first priority for the new Prime Minister when he takes up his post.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this vital debate. I also pay tribute to him for his absolutely outstanding work as chair of the all-party group on steel and metal-related industries. He shows real leadership in this area. On the subject of the steel quotas, he rightly pointed out that, in the case of a no-deal Brexit, we potentially have the disastrous situation of UK steel being subject to EU dumping regulations. What steps should the Government take specifically to ensure that we are given those quotas, which UK Steel has said are the No. 1 priority in the short term?
It is about talking to the EU about the necessity of having UK-specific quotas. That could be part of a deal; it is a deal that can be done, and one that the new Prime Minister needs to put high on his list of priorities. That needs to happen, because steel is a strategic industry that is important not only to us in steel communities, but to the UK if it is serious about its place in the world. Ensuring that we get those quotas is therefore the first ask.
Secondly, a level playing field is still needed on electricity prices for UK steel. It is not good enough for the Government to say that they have given some of the “higher than our competitors” energy taxes back; we need some innovative approaches to level the energy-costs playing field. For example, we could put measures in place to maximise the level of relief on renewables levies, which is allowable under state aid rules, we could bring in German or French-style network cost reductions, or we could provide an exemption from the capacity market levy, as the Polish Government are doing. Those things happen in our competitor countries and, given the political will, they could happen here.
Thirdly, something needs to be done to tackle the much larger level of business taxes on steel in the UK compared with our competitors. It is bonkers that the site in Scunthorpe has higher business rates than the equivalent site, which is twice the size, at IJmuiden in the Netherlands. That is not a level playing field under anyone’s rules.
Fourthly, more could be done to maximise public procurement of steel, as my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) indicated. Progress on Government policy note 11/16 on procuring steel in major projects remains patchy. I was pleased to see the previous Minister with responsibility for the steel industry, the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), begin trying to make Departments accountable, but we have a long way to go to get real, effective traction, and we are three years on since the Government put that policy guideline in place. In answer to my written questions asking Departments if they have signed up to the steel charter, all confirmed that the current Minister is on the case and has written to them—but, in the main, the answers were hesitant and generic. The honourable exceptions were the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Work and Pensions, both of which confirmed that they will sign the charter. The next step for them will be implementation.
I thank the hon. Gentleman—my constituency neighbour—for securing this debate; he is a genuine champion of our local area and for steelworkers in particular. Would he encourage more local authorities to sign up to the steel charter? Last week, North Lincolnshire Council’s leader got the first London authority—Bexley, I believe—to sign up. It is really important that more councils sign up to that charter.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; to its credit, North Lincolnshire Council has shown strong cross-party unity and leadership on this issue by signing up to the procurement of UK steel. A number of local authorities across the country have done so, but many more could follow that lead, and he is right to call for that action.
All Government Departments, bodies and infrastructure projects that purchase large quantities of steel should sign up to the UK steel charter, committing to specific, ambitious actions to increase the amount of UK steel used in public projects. The guidelines should be extended to cover all major public procurement and infrastructure projects. The good practice exemplified by Network Rail and Heathrow airport should be the rule, not the exception.
The fifth ask is to use the UK’s €250 million share of the research fund for coal and steel, which is paid for by industry levies and will be returned after we leave the EU, to secure an ambitious programme of innovation for the UK steel sector. A practical use for that money would be investment in our steel sector’s future. The previous Steel Minister made a commitment on behalf of the Government to convene a steel summit to consider how to realise a steel sector deal that would take the industry, its supply chain and the country forward. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will take forward that commitment? Will he respond positively to the practical suggestions I have made about how the Government can act to back steelworkers, steelmakers and UK plc?
Order. The debate can last until 5.30 pm, and I am obliged to call the Front-Bench speakers no later than seven minutes past 5. The guidelines are that the SNP spokesperson may speak for five minutes, the Opposition spokesperson may speak for five minutes and the Minister may speak for 10 minutes, while Mr Dakin will have two or three minutes at the end to sum up the debate. However, our afternoon will be interrupted by Divisions in the House, which are expected at 4.58 pm, so the debate is likely to finish later than 5.30 pm. Six Members wish to speak—a galaxy of talent and knowledge about the UK steel industry. Therefore, each speaker may speak for no more than four minutes, beginning with Simon Clarke.
I will endeavour to stick to that limit; thankfully, I echo many of the comments made by the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin). I congratulate him on securing this important debate; the cross-party unity in this room is mirrored in the weekly meetings we have had in Doncaster since the crisis first began. It is important that we maintain that, and show united confidence in the future of the industry and the passion that we all have to retain those skills in our local economies. Huge praise is due to both the Minister and the Secretary of State, who understand the significance, on a social and economic level, of making sure that our communities continue to have a strong future.
I represent Skinningrove, known locally as the iron valley, where steel has been produced since 1874. The heritage runs deep, but this is very much about the future rather than the past. The huge capabilities of the British Steel special profiles division, producing bulb flats, forklift profiles, cutting-edge profiles for bulldozers and track shoes, are all capabilities that we must not lose from our economy. The fact that it is co-located with Caterpillar on the same site is a huge tribute to Anglo-American co-operation, which goes far beyond the intemperate comments of the President in recent years—this is the positive face of a union that has delivered huge benefits to our area.
The conduct of Greybull is well known, and I do not propose to elaborate on it today. It is a source of immense frustration that it has let the workforce down and that the company has been allowed to reach this sad situation. We all know that it needs to be replaced by a long-term, viable investor who is committed to the lasting success that the workforce deserve, who can deliver a profitable and successful industry. I emphasise that everybody—Government, management and the unions—stand united in pursuit of a positive outcome to the talks. Only thus can we secure a sale.
Looking beyond that, as we heard from the hon. Gentleman, we need to do more on issues such as energy costs. The average electricity price for UK steel producers this year is £65 per MWh. That compares with £43 in Germany and £31 in France. We need to take steps to allow our industry to compete on a level playing field. If the Government commit to do that, the industry has said that it will reinvest the estimated £55 million a year that it would save back into production facilities.
We need to look at boosting research and development. I place on record my profound admiration for the work of the excellent Material Processing Institute, which the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) knows all about. It submitted a bid, alongside Innovate UK, to unlock funding for issues such as the steel industry transition, the digitisation of the sector and the circular economy in rare metals. We should look to pursue all those things. I hope the Minister will touch on some of those issues in his remarks, because they confer lasting benefits to British steel.
Finally, we need to promote and celebrate our steel industry, as we touched on in Doncaster yesterday. The steel charter is immensely valuable, and it is crucial that we increase the percentage of British steel in Government contracts from its current 43%. The private sector needs to play its role, too, to make sure that it explores all available opportunities. If those longer-term opportunities can be seized, there is nothing standing in the way of British steel having a long, secure and prosperous future. We all want to see that, and I hope over the coming weeks the Government will do everything they can to make sure we deliver that.
It is truly a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) for securing this debate, again. It is truly dispiriting to be here again to call on the Government to act to safeguard the future of British steel production. It is a vital strategic industry, yet the Government’s record on steel is one of abject failure.
Time and again Members, many of them here today, have set out in clear terms what is required. Time and again, the Government have done nothing. They have failed to take action on high energy costs that have held the industry back against its worldwide and European competitors. They have failed to take action on business rates, which penalise investment and prevent the industry from shaping its own future. They have failed to commit to favouring British-produced steel in major state infrastructure projects such as HS2. Most damningly, they have failed to properly understand the industry, its importance and the unique challenges it faces. We find ourselves, once more, talking about thousands more workers with uncertain futures, and more communities that face having their hearts torn away.
It did not have to be like this. In Rotherham, Tata’s speciality steels division was taken over by Liberty House. While the collapse of British Steel has called into question the conduct and suitability of its owner Greybull Capital, Liberty has invested heavily in its Rotherham plant. Last year, I attended the refiring of a furnace that had been mothballed for two years. In Rotherham, steel is not losing jobs but recruiting for jobs. Yet it is reported that potential buyers of British Steel’s operations have been put off, not by the challenges common across the industry, but by our Government’s failure to commit to support investment and development in the sector.
The Government simply cannot continue to stand by and watch as the steel industry in Britain withers and dies. Promises are no longer enough. The Government must act now, in the national interest, to protect jobs in Scunthorpe and the north-east. They must do now what they should have done in 2016 and address the structural challenges that continue to place the wider industry in jeopardy.
It pains me to disagree slightly with the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion)—for whom I have a high regard and whom I consider a friend—but it is simply not the case that the Government have done nothing. It is also a little rich to take lectures from Labour, under whose last tenure in government the number of people working in the steel industry halved and UK steel production fell.
It is not the case that the Government have done nothing. This Government have acted to defend the steel industry in a number of ways, whether by creating the scheme that enables the company to be reimbursed for its high energy costs, by restructuring business rates, which have a direct beneficial impact on the site in Scunthorpe, through the millions of pounds that they made available shortly before the liquidation of British Steel to cover the EU carbon credits, or through the tens of millions of pounds that the Government were prepared to put in but could not do so because an arrangement on a commercial basis, as required by UK and EU state aid laws, could not be achieved. The Government have a strong record of supporting the sector and supporting steel workers in Scunthorpe.
It was the UK Government in the EU that led demands to change procurement rules within the European Union, just a few years ago, to make it easier for us to procure UK steel. Of course, those procurement rules are still a challenge for us. The Government cannot just turn around, as some people think, and say, “We are going to use UK steel in all Government contracts.” That would be illegal under UK and EU law, and—for those who think that a no-deal Brexit is the answer to all this—it would even be illegal under World Trade Organisation rules.
Having used half my speech to slightly disagree with my friend the hon. Member for Rotherham, I will say why we need the Government to act now and set out some things they need to do.
As the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) outlined, our area relies strongly on the steel industry. Scunthorpe is a steel town; north Lincolnshire is, in many ways, a steel district. Most of the workers—the lion’s share, probably—live in my constituency. We cannot underestimate the impact of steel workers on our local economy, because these are some of the best paid and most skilled jobs we have in our area. I am not prone to hyperbole—well I am, but let us pretend I am not—but to lose them would be devastating on our local economy.
My hon. Friend is, as always, erudite—that is the word I was looking for. His point about the northern Lincolnshire economy is well made, as it was by the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin). Would he also acknowledge that this issue spreads far and wide? Some 150 people are employed at the port of Immingham, either by Associated British Ports or British Steel directly. Speaking as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on rail, I can say that there are impacts not just on the supply of steel but on the movement of raw materials.
Absolutely. I do not need to repeat what my hon. Friend said; all that is true and demonstrates how important the industry is not just to our sub-region or region, but to the whole UK economy.
Where are we now? I thank the Minister and the Secretary of State for the positive way in which they have engaged with local stakeholders, unions, the councils and local Members of Parliament. I genuinely believe that this Government are trying to do everything they can to secure a future for the site. This is an independent procedure through the official receiver, but locally we do not want to see a partitioning off or a selling off of different parts of the business. We want to see the business sold in its entirety. For the reasons stated by the hon. Member for Scunthorpe in relation to the strategic importance of the industry, we have to continue producing steel in Scunthorpe.
The Government must stand ready to do all they can financially to support the industry. There are tens of millions of pounds that were available before the liquidation, which we have been assured remain available for any new partner on a commercial basis, as required by law. Can the Minister reconfirm that today? That would be appreciated.
We have to be honest about the situation if a buyer cannot be found. We know that we are down to a shortlist —it is good that there are number of buyers who are realistic prospects to purchase the business—but as I and other colleagues have repeatedly said, we must not be close-minded about any particular structure moving forward. Nationalisation does not get us over the problems of investment having to be on a commercial basis. That might or might not be an answer in and of itself, but it does not mean we should simply rule that option out, or the option of a public-private partnership. Every option should be considered by Government to ensure that the whole business can continue to operate.
We do not want the crumbs off the plate, as it were, and just a few hundred jobs saved if part of the business were sold separately. We want it to continue in its current form because it is so strategically important to UK plc.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) for securing yet another debate about steel, for chairing the all-party parliamentary group on steel and metal related industries, and for being such a thoughtful and passionate advocate for our steel industry, and particularly his steel community, in difficult times. Steel workers in my constituency will be feeling for the steel workers in his constituency as we wait to hear about British Steel.
I pay tribute to steel workers and unions in my area, who have such pride in their industry and have made such sacrifices over recent years in this cyclical business. The communities of east Newport and over to Caldicott have been built on that pride. Most people have family or friends who have worked in the industry, but the current generation of steel workers live with the constant threat that their jobs are uncertain. They look towards Bridgend and what happened to Ford workers; they are understandably concerned and worried about problems in the automotive sector. That is not just because of the bonds of working in that industry, although that bond is real—Tata Steel’s Zodiac plant at Llanwern and the auto-finishing line depend on securing work from the automotive sector. We need the Government to urgently do all they can to ensure that our steel and automotive industries are open for business.
It is often said in such debates, but it worth repeating that steel is a foundation industry and a national asset. For our manufacturing industry and our economy to thrive we need our own steelmaking capacity. We must not neglect this foundation industry and end up importing our steel. My hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe reminded us in a recent debate, and again today, that the strongest economies in the world—the USA, China and Japan—have the strongest steel industries. We currently come in at number 30, and we must not fall further down the table.
I want to talk about Tata Steel’s Cogent Orb works in my constituency, which has been making steel since 1898. The 350 steel workers at Orb make electrical steel that has the potential to be used as the high-quality grain-oriented steel required to build electric vehicle motors. The automotive industry has been calling on the Government to support the production of a high volume of batteries required to support EV production in Britain and avoid the risk of importing from abroad. [Interruption.]
A Division has been called in the House. The hon. Lady has one minute and 45 seconds to finish her speech when she comes back from the Divisions. I understand that there will be multiple Divisions, so we will resume 10 minutes after the last Division.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. I was talking about Cogent Power and the potential in the electric vehicles industry, because demand for electric vehicles is only going to grow and we have a fantastic opportunity with that company to get in on the cutting edge of that new industry and to develop a supply chain for it. But these are smaller companies and will need the Government to help to bring the supply chain together. The Orb works is the only plant in the UK capable of making the steels and is therefore a strategically important business that can support the Government’s industrial strategy in relation to electrification. We must take advantage of that new industry. I visited Orb recently and have invited the Secretary of State for Wales. I would be very keen for the Minister from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy also to visit when he is in Newport, which I think might be fairly soon. That plant must be able to take advantage of that opportunity, but we need the Government’s help for that.
As well as Llanwern and Orb, Liberty Steel is based in my constituency. Liberty bought the old Alphasteel plant in 2015, and Sanjeev Gupta has announced that it has now become one of the largest steel producers in Europe, with a global footprint employing 30,000 workers. It appreciates that steel is a cyclical business and needs investment to get it through the cycles in order to make money. It is working on a model of an exciting bright future for steel, but it too asks the Government to deliver on the industrial strategy with a delivery taskforce to support and drive the investment that we need, particularly in the green steel area.
On behalf of the steel industry and workers in my area, I will repeat the asks so often made in these debates. We have waited too long for a sector deal for steel. We need more and faster action on energy prices. We need more action on procurement. We also need more action on dumping and on what will happen with the trade defence instruments in Europe. I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate. On behalf of all those who work in Llanwern and at Liberty, I hope that we can expect action and not more warm words from the Minister.
As always, Mr Hollobone, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) not only on securing this debate but on the last few months, when he has been such a doughty champion for his constituents and for the steel industry in this country. We are very proud of him and I know that his hard work is going to pay off.
Of course, we know why we are here today participating in this debate, which is extremely timely and important because, yet again, here we are in another steel crisis, while steelworkers sit at home, hoping and praying that they have a future and a job and a salary to continue to provide for their families. Yet again they are in a precarious situation.
To be honest, it is depressing that we are here again, because a year ago tomorrow we had a debate in Westminster Hall, this exact same Chamber, which was three years on from the 2015 steel summit and all the promises that were made then, and all the asks that we made of Government. And here we are yet again, despite having seen the devastation that my constituents bore the brunt of. We can see what happens when we fail on steel.
My constituency is still struggling. I am here today, not just to fight on behalf of the 700 British Steel workers in my constituency today but because of what happened to us three and a half years ago in Redcar. We lost 2,200 jobs immediately in SSI and another 900 in the supply chain. I always say to people, “Imagine that in London, Manchester, or Birmingham. It would be devastating. Then put that in a seaside town, or a town like Scunthorpe, and imagine the effect of that on an economy, on a society, on a community, on families and on individuals.”
We are still not recovering; we are still not there. We know the average salary of those who worked in the steelworks; we know they are good jobs. They were the highest paid jobs in my constituency. The average salary is down by £10,000 a year. Many workers have had to move away to find other employment. Some are working in British Steel on Teesside or have even gone to Scunthorpe, where yet again they find themselves back in this precarious situation.
A month ago, I met a worker who had had 13 different jobs since he lost his job at the steelworks. That is the kind of insecurity and economic disaster that happens if the Government do not step in and stand by our steel industry, and that is before we even get on to talking about the reclaiming of the site, which stands there corroding and rusting. It will cost millions to get that ready for other businesses to come in, clean it up and bring jobs. I just raise that with the Minister to say that this is what happens—this is the cost of failure.
I pay tribute to the Secretary of State, who I am sure cannot be with us today because he is probably—hopefully—travelling the world and trying to secure a deal for British Steel. I pay tribute to him, because I think he gets that. He understands and, to be fair, things are different to what they were in 2015. The Government have stepped in; they have given the indemnity to the official receiver; they have bought us some time; and they have kept the workforce paid and the asset in place. So I pay tribute to him, but I have a few requests to make of him and of the Minister who is here in his absence today.
Obviously, we know that the official receiver is bound by his legal obligations. However, I will echo the sentiments that were expressed earlier today about keeping the business together. It is vital that the Government support bidders who bid for the whole business—no more cherry-picking and no more asset-strippers such as Greybull.
It is vital that we have the investment to deal with the environmental liabilities that are so important on the Redcar site, but the importance of innovation must not be forgotten either. We cannot beat China and others on price, but we can beat them on innovation, with lighter, stronger, greener steel. And I make a pledge again to—
I am extremely grateful to the Chair, because I was barely pausing for breath. I can get back into my stride.
Innovation is crucial. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke) mentioned the Materials Processing Institute, which is in my constituency. It is doing fantastic work. It has been around for 75 years; it was formed just after D-Day. It has a fantastic vision for innovation: new technologies, decarbonised steel, the digitisation of the steel and metals sector, and a circular economy for steel, alloys and rare metals. Those are really important innovations. If we do not support originations and businesses that are doing that work, I am afraid we will see more redundancies and job losses, and the loss of a huge amount of capacity and capability. Therefore, innovation must be at the cutting edge of productivity, and we must support innovation experts such as the MPI, which are at the heart of this.
Like other hon. Members, I want to highlight the importance of the long-term issues that we have raised time and time again in this place. We need action on energy prices, business rates and procurement. I hope that the long-awaited sector deal is not a figment of our imagination and that we will live to see one for the steel sector. Sector deals are as important for our sector as they are for the many other sectors that have had a response and engagement from the Government. That would send a clear signal that the Government are committed to the steel industry and want to do business with the private sector.
I will end on Brexit. The industry has been very clear that there is no Brexit deal that would bring benefits to the British steel industry. That is just a fact. Of course, the disaster of no deal cannot be underestimated. We would see 97% of our exports subject to trade restrictions, and 25% tariffs to the EU—£1 million per day for the steel industry in this country. We would lose access to £1.6 billion of research funds for coal and steel. As my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe said, no deal means no steel. The industry could not be clearer about that.
I pay tribute to the Secretary of State, and I am grateful to the Minister for coming to respond. I know that he gets it. I know that the Government are trying to do all they can for British steel, and that he understands the importance of this industry to our country, our defence, our manufacturing and our place in the world. Unfortunately, the future of this proud industry hangs in the balance once again. I look forward to the Minister doing his part.
We now come to the Front-Bench speeches, the first of which will be from the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows). The guideline limits are five minutes for the SNP, five minutes for the Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) for securing this important debate and for his outstanding work as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on steel and metal-related industries.
I came into this Parliament in 2015 and almost instantly got involved in steel because my constituency used to house Ravenscraig hot strip steel mill, and now houses the Dalzell works. We have had not our troubles to seek. What has been done in Scotland and in the rest of the UK has been different in the extreme. The hon. Member for Scunthorpe—I believe it was he—said that he was looking for another UK steel summit. I was involved in the first one and the one in Scotland. The one in Scotland started proceedings by saying, “We will save both mills”—there is also Clydebridge in the neighbouring constituency. That was the focus from the minute that the summit met. The steel taskforce worked tirelessly with that one aim in mind, and it succeeded by helping Liberty Steel to buy the mill from Tata, giving it as much work as possible, giving it compensation for electricity and a rates holiday, and doing all sorts of other practical tasks. It managed to do that within the EU rules. It has always been a huge puzzle to me why the UK Government cannot do what our EU competitors do, work within the EU rules and save steel in the UK. The industry should not be lightly disregarded.
Steelworkers are a special breed, as has been said. They have taken the decision time and time again across the UK to change their terms and conditions and rates of remuneration, and they have fought to save apprenticeships—all in the teeth of a Government who do not seem to care about what happens to anything other than the financial industry. No first-world country can run an economy without manufacturing, and steel is a foundation industry for any economy that wants to have manufacturing.
I feel passionately about this issue. I am not a native of Motherwell and Wishaw; I have only been there 32 years—I always say that. However, I know how passionately steel is intertwined with the very fabric of my constituency. It was a pleasure to be there recently when the Minister from the Scottish Government signed the UK steel charter. I was in a privileged position, because I was able to be at both signings, both here and in Scotland. That commitment by the Scottish Government needs to be matched by the UK Government, because there are things that are not within the competence of the Scottish Government. We have no influence on energy prices, dealing with steel tariffs or dealing with the President of the United States, so I ask the Minister to please take this issue seriously.
Many of us who take part in these debates are sick and tired of the same debates. It has been joked that we should just pull out the speeches we made before, rewind, and keep giving the same ones. There is a place for that, but we need this Government to make a commitment that we will not leave the EU with no deal and that we will save the UK steel industry in its entirety. We must save the jobs of people who have committed to the steel industry, and the unions that have worked tirelessly with management across that industry to make sure it is still here and will be here for the future and our children’s futures.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Hollobone, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) on having secured this debate. He is a champion for his community and the steel sector more widely, and I know he has been working hard on behalf of his constituents to press the Government for clarity during this time of crisis. I thank the steelworkers, the steel manufacturers, the trade unions—Unite, Community and GMB—and also UK Steel for their unwavering support for this fantastic industry. Such a coalition is rare, but it shows how important this issue is to our communities and our country.
On 22 May, British Steel collapsed, putting at risk 4,000 jobs directly and 20,000 jobs in the supply chain. That announcement came as a shock to thousands of steelworkers who worked against the odds to defend the company’s future, and I join the thousands waiting impatiently to hear some positive news about a new buyer. It is imperative that the Government prioritise a buyer for the whole steelworks, not parts, and I urge them to make every necessary support available so that we can secure the long-term future of the company.
For decades, the steel sector has been at the heart of communities, including mine in South Yorkshire. It has provided well-paid, well-skilled jobs, and over the years, through sheer determination and resilience, the sector has manoeuvred through some very choppy waters. When I joined the House in 2016, the steel sector was going through a severe crisis, which saw the collapse of the Redcar steelworks. My hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) has spoken eloquently many times in this House championing the steel sector, and I believe she will continue to champion it till her last breath. We must never let such a collapse happen again. We have to collectively value and appreciate the importance of the steel sector, and although there are global and domestic challenges, including global overcapacity, there are also enormous opportunities.
On that point about opportunities, my hon. Friend’s constituency was the cradle of stainless steel, and it now has ITM Power, which makes hydrogen. Does she agree that hydrogen steel furnaces are part of our commitment to address climate change, and could create a whole new steel industry in the UK, leading the world?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I absolutely agree, and I very much look forward to my home town of Sheffield taking up those opportunities, because it is well placed to lead a green industry.
As I was saying, we always need steel, which literally forms the fabric of everything we see. I sincerely worry that both contenders to be the next Prime Minister are advocating a no-deal Brexit. As UK Steel has clearly stated, that would be catastrophic for the sector. It could cost it £70 million and lead to further collapses.
The steel industry has many strengths and is able to thrive, but, for that to be achieved, we need the Government to commit to help. The future of UK steel can be bright, and the Government’s own analysis has identified a £3 billion opportunity by 2030, sustaining good jobs in the areas that need them the most. The news last week that Jaguar Land Rover will invest £1 billion in building electric cars in the UK was an enormous boost, with the company leading the way on electrifying the cars on our roads and signalling a commitment to a greener economy. The opportunities for end-to-end supply in that process—making the steel at home to support the building of those vehicles—could be enormous. That could support and encourage growth in the steel sector while spearheading a green revolution.
It is disappointing that the opportunity to secure a steel sector deal has never come to fruition. I am pleased to see the new Minister in his place, and I urge him to give that issue the greatest importance. The steel sector needs that deal for innovation, for user research and development, and to be there to take on exciting opportunities for the future. The steel industry is there and waiting to be helped with the challenges ahead and the opportunities to make it thrive.
UK steel companies pay 50% more in energy costs than their competitors in the EU. On procurement, we know that UK Government decisions are a hugely powerful policy tool to boost British steelmakers’ orders. The decision to use our steel for the royal fleet, mentioned, I believe, by my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), would be much welcomed. It would also make complete sense for our national defence. Please, Minister, look at that, because those are the opportunities that need to be put forward.
I commend the UK steel charter, which is aimed at enhancing and maximising procurement opportunities for UK steel producers. The Welsh Labour Government were the first to sign up to that commitment. They are leading the way, but Departments in Whitehall appear to be resistant to signing up. Will the Minister commit that all Departments will sign up to the charter?
On business rates, the perverse inclusion of investment in machinery, which increases a company’s business rates, is patently a barrier to investment. Some British steel companies have huge disparities in their business tax bills across their plants in Europe. For example, Tata pays a business tax bill in Wales that is 10 times that of its operation in the Netherlands. Will the Government join the Labour party in our pledge to remove machinery for steel companies from business rates to ease that burden and invite more investment back into the steelworks? I am not saying it will be easy, but what is a Government for if not to support our foundation industries and encourage their growth?
Our steel industry is fabulous, innovative, flexible and resilient, and it can thrive. Please help us to make sure it stays that way.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) on securing the debate and the opportunity to bring everyone together on a cross-party basis to discuss this topic. As a number of his colleagues said, he is an energetic and passionate advocate for the UK steel industry and for his constituents. I am pleased that so many Members were able to attend and speak. It is clear that there is a shared understanding of the important role the steel sector plays in our communities and of its critical place as a foundation industry in the national economy. I also acknowledge that, for the first time in my memory, I am joined in Westminster Hall by a Secretary of State. I had better watch what I say.
While everyone acknowledges there are considerable challenges, we believe that great opportunities remain for the industry to secure a successful, sustainable future at the centre of British manufacturing. The announcement on 22 May that British Steel was entering insolvency has caused great concern for its employees and their families and for contractors, suppliers and customers. I understand just how important steelmaking is to the whole town of Scunthorpe and the wider area, beyond the many people with direct links to British Steel. I saw that first hand the day after the insolvency was announced, when I visited Scunthorpe with my right hon. Friend to discuss with workers, trade union officials and management.
The Government worked intensively with British Steel, Greybull Capital and lenders to seek possible solutions to the financial challenges facing the company. That included the support we provided to help it meet its environmental obligations. We also provided the official receiver with an indemnity to ensure operations could continue while they carry out the insolvency process.
We are determined that we will leave no stone unturned in our efforts to secure a suitable buyer for British Steel, safeguarding jobs across the whole of the business, and many people have spoken passionately today about the need to find a solution for the whole business. We want to keep steel coming off the production line. The official receiver has confirmed that the level of interest shown to date is encouraging, and he is in intensive discussions with the potential new owners who have submitted the strongest bids for the whole business.
Clearly, the sales process is being run by the official receiver and his special managers, who are independent of Government. However, in parallel to those commercial negotiations, the Secretary of State is in discussion with the leading bidders to better understand their proposed business plans and explore how we can support them to realise their vision for the company. Each one of British Steel’s sites has a proud record of steelmaking excellence, and the Government are determined to do all we can to ensure that that continues.
I must also pay tribute to British Steel workers, who have responded to the uncertainty with the best response possible—by producing record levels of steel and continuing to supply its customers and to win new orders. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Scunthorpe for his tireless commitment to working with Government and other stakeholders to help secure the future of the business, both in his role as a local MP and as a member of the British Steel support group, convened by my right hon. Friend. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke) and for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) and the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) for the positive role they have played on the British Steel support group since it was established in May.
As the hon. Members for Newport East (Jessica Morden) and for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) said, steel is a foundation industry. It is important for any modern economy and plays a key role in many critical UK supply chains, including construction, automotive, defence and power generation. I have spoken to business leaders right across the manufacturing sector, who value having this expertise and capability here in the UK, and who—like all of us—want to see an innovative and sustainable steel sector that is able to compete with the best in the world.
The steel sector provides well-paid and skilled jobs in this country. The passion I have seen in Scunthorpe is replicated right across the industry, and I want to see the sector thrive and reward the staff, whose expertise and commitment is second to none. The Government have been working with the sector and trade unions to secure its future through difficult times, and we remain committed to working closely with the sector.
Since I took on this job, I have met UK Steel, Community, Tata and Liberty to understand their plans for the future and to explore the support they need to maximise the opportunities that are open to the sector. We are under no illusions that many challenges lie ahead for UK steel producers, but we should not forget, as the Opposition Front Bench spokesperson, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss), said, that there are also many opportunities for them in the UK. We have been encouraging the UK steel sector to strengthen its engagement with all existing and potential domestic steel consumers. That will help the sector benefit from the additional £3.8 billion a year by 2030 of high-value market opportunities identified in the research we published in December 2017, and it means that demand is forecast to increase by 3.1% a year in value terms.
The construction and automotive sectors offer some of the most significant opportunities, at £2.2 billion and £300 million respectively. Future demand in those sectors is likely to be for higher grade, higher strength steels, combined with innovative production methods. That raises the need to adapt current production, invest in new capital equipment and make a step change in research and development investment. As part of the automotive sector deal, the automotive sector stated its ambition to increase the share of UK content in the automotive supply chain to 50% by 2022. We have also signed a sector deal with the construction sector, and we expect steel to play an increasing part as we seek to substantially boost that sector’s productivity.
I am grateful for the opportunity to reflect on some of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for the sector. As we have offered through the Steel Council on a number of occasions, the Government stand ready to facilitate strategic engagement with other sectors, such as the Automotive Council UK and the Construction Industry Council, to ensure that efforts in the steel industry are targeted at the right market opportunities.
Several hon. Members have talked about research and development. Investment levels in the UK have been too low for too long. The research on future opportunities that I referred to earlier states:
“If the UK steel industry wishes to access these opportunities it will require investment to meet the new capability either from completely new mills, upgrades to existing facilities or R&D in products and services.”
As a proportion of value added in the sector, R&D expenditure has been low and below the average level in the manufacturing sector. It is vital that the level of investment is significantly increased, and we are committed to working in partnership with the industry to help to bring that about.
The Government will support the transformation of our foundation industries, including steel, by providing up to £66 million, subject to industry co-funding, through the industrial strategy challenge fund to develop radical new technologies and establish innovation centres of excellence in those sectors. The aim is to kick-start projects to make those sectors internationally competitive, securing more jobs and greater growth by 2025.
Several hon. Members raised the issue of procurement. We are working hard to ensure that UK producers of steel have the best chance of competing for and winning contracts across all Government projects. As a result of EU public procurement rules in place since 2015, which we negotiated and were the first country to implement, the social and economic impact on local communities, rather than just price and other commercial considerations, can be taken into account when the Government procure steel.
I was proud to sign UK Steel’s procurement charter on behalf of my Department to reaffirm our commitment to making sure that UK steel producers get a fair chance to secure public contracts. As the hon. Member for Scunthorpe said, I have written to the other Government Departments that procure steel to encourage them to do the same, on top of their existing obligations.
The charter is one element. For the first time this year, we published information from Departments and their arm’s length bodies on how much steel they have procured over the last financial year and how they have applied the steel procurement guidelines. Departments have confirmed that, where applicable, they have fully complied with the guidance when procuring steel for their major projects.
We have also published an update of the steel pipeline, which signals the upcoming steel requirements of national infrastructure projects. It shows how the Government plan to procure about 3 million tonnes of steel, worth about £500 million, over the next decade for infrastructure projects such as Hinkley Point C and the upgrade of the UK’s motorway network.
On industrial energy prices, which were mentioned by several hon. Members, I recognise the concern in the Chamber. The ability of our steel industry to compete globally and across Europe is a priority for the Government, and we will provide compensation and exemption support to maintain the UK’s reputation as an attractive location for businesses.
I fear I am running out of time, so, on the energy point, I will just say that, as many hon. Members know, we have supplied £295 million in compensation to energy-intensive industries since 2010, including £53 million in 2018. A £315 million industrial energy transformation fund has been announced, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are keen to ensure British industry accesses and benefits from.
On international trade, it remains the express ambition of the Government to leave the European Union with a deal, as has been stated by the two candidates running for the leadership of the Conservative party. We will do everything we can to ensure that unfair trade practices do not adversely affect the industry.
I look forward to continuing to work with all hon. Members present to ensure the continued presence of a dynamic, modern and competitive steel industry in the UK. My right hon. Friend and I will continue to work with all hon. Members to secure a good future for British steel. I conclude by once again congratulating the hon. Member for Scunthorpe on securing the debate and giving us an opportunity to air these issues.
I thank all hon. Members for their contributions to the debate. I particularly thank the Minister for his very solid response—not that we will not continue to press him for further action, since that is our job. Steel communities observing this debate will be heartened by the level of commitment and cross-party unity of purpose: 14 MPs have spoken, and more would have done so if their diaries had not prevented the attendance from being even bigger.
In the end, we will be judged on our actions. We all need to take a lead from the Secretary of State, who has joined us at the end of our debate to put a flag in the ground and say how important the issue is not only to him personally—as the Minister who leads on this issue on behalf of the Government—but to the UK. We take a lot of encouragement from that, and we are working together behind him to ensure that we deliver for steel communities, for steel across the country and for the UK, so that the steel industry can continue to perform well into the future, as it does now and as it did in the past.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the future of the UK steel industry.