Tuesday 23 July 2019
[Philip Davies in the Chair]
UK Trade and Investment Strategy
I beg to move,
That this House has considered UK trade and investment strategy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and to see some colleagues here; I must admit that, with all the anticipation of the morning, I was expecting to see tumbleweed rather than MPs in the Chamber.
By the time the morning is out, we will know who has the honour of being our next Prime Minister. The challenges ahead of that person will be profound, but so will the opportunities to reshape this great nation. Precisely 100 days will lie ahead of them until 31 October, when the extension to our EU membership expires. Each of those days will have to be used to prepare the UK’s people and businesses for any eventuality and to move forward with confidence, intent and gritty resolve into our next chapter. In so doing, we must articulate a clear vision of our place in the world, at the heart of which must be both a coherent global trading strategy and a package of measures that demonstrate to international investors our determination to be one of the most dynamic, stable, open and innovative democracies in the world.
I intend to use the debate to press the Minister on what he sees as the Department for International Trade’s role in those 100 days; to present some thoughts about our trade and investment strategy from the two years I have served on the International Trade Committee; and to raise the profile of DIT as it prepares to take on a more central role after three years in the back room, showing how the right trade and investment strategy can deliver prosperity to the people we represent.
Formed straight after the referendum as one of the new Brexit Departments, DIT has faced the ongoing challenge of being excluded from the Brexit process, which has been driven by the Department for Exiting the European Union, the Cabinet Office and No. 10, leaving it vulnerable to the decisions and delays of others. That has stifled proper debate about the extent to which any terms agreed with the EU will limit our ability to devise an independent global trading strategy. Accounting for the threat of the backstop and the long-term view to mirror the EU’s rules via a so-called common rulebook, the Department has had to plan for everything from protracted EU negotiations that limit our room to manoeuvre to the complete freedom and vulnerability of a no-deal situation.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way so early. I may have misheard her, but I think she referred to the need to counter the threat of a backstop. The backstop is there to guarantee the Northern Ireland peace process. Unless I misheard her, can she explain why she sees that as a threat?
No party wants the backstop to come into place, because we hope there will be a free trade agreement in its place, but the hon. Gentleman will be well aware that there is much concern that the backstop will tie us into rules and regulations that hamper our ability to achieve the aims that the Brexit process was intended to achieve.
Inevitably, the dilemma I outlined has constrained DIT’s ability to determine what might be offered to non-EU trading partners in any roll-over agreements or future negotiations. Perhaps all that is understandable and to some extent inevitable, given the complexity of extracting ourselves from a 40-year relationship. However, in the absence of a strong DIT voice in the Brexit process, there has been a failure to understand the potential trade-offs in the withdrawal agreement and how rapidly the rest of the world is moving on. There has also been a vacuum of informed parliamentary debate on our global trading future, leaving MPs to veer wildly from visions of chlorinated chicken and the bargain basement sale of the NHS to naïve declarations about the speed, value and impact of new free trade agreements.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this timely debate. She mentioned that Parliament in particular has not really debated these issues. Actually, we have. I put it to her that the Government have not been clear about what sort of trade deals, and how many, they have agreed around the world. Perhaps she can give us an answer.
Well, at the moment the Government are not able to enter into negotiations on FTAs, but they are able to try to agree roll-overs of those deals. As I set out, the problem for the Department has been that it does not quite know what scope it has to negotiate those roll-overs, so partners have been waiting to see what is eventually negotiated with the EU to know what negotiating leverage they have over us. That leaves the Department in a rather difficult position, and that has had an impact on our ability to roll over trade agreements.
I am not entirely sure I heard that—I do apologise.
The state of unreality we have got into in our trade debate must end now, not least because it undermines our credibility as a negotiating partner. It is time to decide our desired trading destiny, work out how we get there and then determine how to maximise our leverage along the way. If we are honest, we all want trade with the EU to remain virtually untouched at the same time as we open up new market opportunities. We want to acquire the right to regulate and tax as we please, and we would like to stop club membership rules such as freedom of movement. That is what the EU would term a “cake and eat it” strategy.
Boiling down the last three years, they have largely been about what price tag the EU wants to place on that goal and whether such a prospect is even for sale. In effect, the EU’s answer has been that no such deal is on offer and that we must instead pay to leave, tie ourselves into the EU’s regulatory sphere without a place at the table and wait to see whether we are granted any freedom to diverge. Unless we can find a middle ground between those positions, we will be walking away from the counter, which will introduce trade frictions and potentially tariffs into our relationship. It is important that we deal rapidly with the consequences of doing that, and DIT will have to be put front and centre of that task.
Earlier this month, when the International Trade Secretary appeared before the Select Committee, I was staggered to learn that DIT had apparently played so small a role in advance of the 29 March and 12 April deadlines for our leaving the EU. Overnight, we could plausibly have been left with no formal trading arrangements with the EU to allow for the continuation of tariff-free exchange. Indeed, that remains a very real prospect. Yet when I asked whether DIT had had any discussions within Government about drafting a simple framework for a future FTA to offer the EU at that juncture, the Secretary of State advised that the responsibility was DExEU’s, and that there would be little point in tabling an offer because the EU would simply reject it.
I do not want to open a debate about the contentious World Trade Organisation article 24 process and the likelihood of the EU agreeing to such a mechanism to maintain tariff-free trade. However, surely we can at least agree, because both the EU and the UK have said so, that at some point in the future—either immediately or after some time—the two parties will want to strike a free trade agreement. Why, therefore, have the Government not yet drafted an outline of how they would like such an agreement to look, and why is DIT being squeezed out of this important conversation? I have also heard surprising reports about how little the Government have utilised our expensive chief trade negotiator in our Brexit negotiations. The under-utilisation of DIT’s resource has been a strategic mistake.
In the next 100 days, we must prioritise the close working, if not the merger, of DIT and DExEU, such that our future relationship with the EU is seen in the wider context of what we are trying to achieve in trade. EU-UK trade, of course, will be a vital strand of our future prosperity, but it will not be the only strand. The past three years have been defined by aggressive lobbying by companies and organisations that would benefit most from everything staying the same. That is understandable, but we are not giving equal airtime to the costs of ongoing alignment.
To give a couple of examples, the Select Committee has heard from experts that the EU regulation concerning the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals is so onerous and expensive that all the fastest-growing developing markets are looking at adopting the non-EU model of chemicals regulation. Other experts advise that the EU’s hazard-based approach to farming standards excludes important technological advancement that could reduce the environmental impact of farming.
We must seek immediately to draft a generous framework document for an EU-UK FTA alongside a series of explicitly temporary stop-gap continuity agreements with third countries that would allow diagonal cumulation of rules of origin with pan-Euro-Mediterranean countries. At the same time, we need to return to DIT’s proposed no-deal tariff schedule and think carefully about how it can best provide leverage in any negotiation with the EU.
The Secretary of State assured our Committee that his Department would have adequate resource on 1 November to begin simultaneous negotiations on FTAs with Australia, New Zealand and the US. There is no doubt that that could introduce useful pressure and urgency to maintain a good relationship with the EU. However, we must be careful not to fetishise FTAs or to oversell what they can achieve and how quickly.
I was particularly pleased last week to see my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) manage expectations about a US deal. The US are notoriously tough trade negotiators, with in effect two negotiating partners in the Administration and in Congress, and there is a limit to what can be achieved given the breadth of matters decided at sub-federal level. None the less, as the Minister for Trade Policy, my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery), advised our Committee last week, given the breadth and depth of our trading links with the US, even a relatively shallow agreement could reap substantial rewards.
Our North American trade commissioner, Antony Phillipson, set out to the Department this month his strategy for US-UK trade. I would be grateful if the Minister gave us an overview of what was said, particularly on how we intend to build a strong relationship at state level and whether we have the right resources to do so. The parliamentary mandate for opening formal US-UK trade talks and ongoing parliamentary scrutiny of negotiations will be critical if such a deal is not to fall at the final hurdle or to be brought down by misinformation campaigns.
The Secretary of State is proud that the public consultation on the deal was one of the largest such exercises ever undertaken. However, I noted that of the158,000 responses on a US-UK FTA, 152,000 were individual campaign emails and only 234 responses came from businesses. I fear that that may be indicative of a 38 Degrees-style effort to cause alarm about the future of the NHS or reduced animal welfare standards: two matters on which Ministers have already offered countless assurances.
We can do plenty beyond the US-UK FTA that will be less contentious and arguably reap benefits more quickly. Amid the important debate about the future of our fishing industry and sheep farmers, we overlook the fact that our economy is most heavily dependent on our world-beating financial and professional services. The FPS sector remains key to our ongoing prosperity, with its exports more than double those of any other sector. Our strength in this area far exceeds that of any other European financial centre. Meanwhile, over 30% of the trade value added in the UK’s manufacturing sector comes from services.
There are no guarantees in the withdrawal agreement of preferential access to the EU market for our critical service industries, and many in the City are now questioning whether we really want an enhanced equivalence deal that would leave us subject to the whims of EU regulators. The EU should have understood some time ago that growth in financial services is beyond Europe, with London business as likely to be lost to Singapore and New York as to Frankfurt, Paris or Dublin if it tries to diminish the City’s competitiveness. Nonetheless, it seems likely to impose tougher recognition requirements on us. Instead of responding with mercantilist reciprocity, we must seek quickly to demonstrate that markets can trade with one another without needing to regulate each other.
The best way of testing such a model could be an ambitious global financial partnership with Switzerland, which is having plenty of its own difficulties with the EU following the expiration of its equivalence regime. A dynamic Swiss-UK agreement including right of market access, mutual recognition and regulatory co-operation could set a gold standard in future services agreements that could in time be rolled out to other important financial hubs. That will require a more involved regulator, the active co-operation of the Treasury and the engagement of professional bodies to allow for recognition of qualifications.
That is where DIT’s role as convenor will become so important. The Department has established a network of new trade diplomats who sit within embassies to identify market access issues, build commercial relationships and triage problems among relevant Departments. I recommend that in key services markets we add to their number representatives from our own financial regulators, copying the example of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, which has offices around the globe, in recognition of the fact that services deals are as much about regulator-to-regulator as Government-to-Government co-operation.
A gold standard financial services agreement could be complemented by gold standard FTAs with New Zealand and Australia. I have said many times that these are not the biggest markets, but in both we have willing partners who can help advance our wider global trading agenda. They have experience in big and growing Asian markets. There is complementarity of language, culture and legal systems and an appetite to co-operate on quality food production, retail, healthcare, FinTech, defence and education. Meanwhile, at the WTO we can work together to embed important work on e-commerce and reinforce the multilateral rules-based system.
Plenty of diplomatic work can be done to enhance other trading relationships without needing an immediate FTA, though FTAs can be incredibly useful in providing momentum and focus. The Minister for Trade Policy talked at the Select Committee about the staggering size of the Chinese cosmetics market, which we find hard to access due to Chinese rules that require animal testing. If work could be done to demonstrate the quality and provenance of UK goods, such additional market access could be worth in the region of $10 billion. That would overshadow the benefits of most FTAs with smaller countries.
The Institute of Directors talked of similar barriers to trade for UK engineers, architects and planners over Chinese design licences. Seemingly intractable market barriers in China can sometimes be lifted quickly in response to citizens’ concerns, particularly in areas such as food and healthcare, where a demand for high-quality international products followed a series of consumer scandals.
DIT can not only flag such barriers and work with diplomats to remove them but highlight to our domestic businesses what kinds of opportunities are out there. The Secretary of State spoke last week about how DIT has helped a Cumbrian milk producer attend a trade fair in China that opened business to him worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.
It is important that we spot legislative developments, too. To give one example, Indonesia is to demand sharia compliance of financial products by 2025. With London one of the few financial centres with expertise in the field, our insurers and financiers could steal a march in this huge market. At the latest belt and road summit in April, the Chinese state pledged to put no more capital into belt and road initiative projects, capping the level at which Chinese banks can fund each project. That change of approach could open new opportunities to UK legal advisers, financiers and construction firms.
We need to empower the Department to do even more of that work. That will require skilled personnel. I was delighted to see the launch of DIT’s new training scheme last week for trade negotiators and diplomats. We need to leave them in post long enough to develop the long-term relationships and market knowledge that reap dividends. There is currently too much churn, which is particularly problematic in markets such as China, where guanxi—relationship building with provincial governments—is key.
In advance of this debate, I was sent a briefing by the Open World Research Initiative, a collaboration between 15 UK universities, which is calling for a chief Government linguist to embed language policy across Government. That is a great idea. Technology is moving on at pace in this area, but to understand a language and its nuances is to gain deeper cultural understanding and stronger relationships in future markets of importance.
I would also like us to soup up the work of our international chambers of commerce as well as long-term, party-to-party political relationship building. I have spoken before about how good Germany is at that through its Stiftung model, which operates almost as a political diplomatic service, and its very activist chambers of commerce have presence not just in capitals but in important regional centres. We must bear in mind that some of these big Asian cities are prominent economic actors in their own right, often larger than small European countries.
Going forward, I want to see DIT work much more closely with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development to merge our international output into a coherent strategy. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands) highlights frequently, the strength of our voice on trade is fundamental to our relevance as a respected actor on the international stage.
I was pleased to see yesterday the announcement that DIT will be able to access the overseas aid budget to link our trade and aid work much more closely. In that vein, the Government should work with and challenge the City of London to become the sustainable development finance hub of choice, cementing its position as the go-to financial centre for Africa and south Asia’s gateway to global capital markets.
DIT also has a big role to play domestically. One of the problems facing UK business is not a lack of demand for their products but a reticence in bidding for international contracts and a real nervousness about exporting. DIT has been addressing that with energy and creativity, but such work is not given the prominence it deserves. The export toolkit launched last week is an attempt by the Department to give MPs responsibility for identifying businesses and projects in their constituencies that could benefit from export and inward investment opportunities.
DIT is uniquely placed to know how to make our domestic market attractive to the kind of inward investment that creates jobs, adds value and increases tax take here in the UK. Its end-to-end service for international investors is important, but we must also look at a single window for business registration and investment information. Similarly, it is vital that we keep an eye on the competition, because the trade promotion bodies of France, Germany and Spain are stepping up their game.
There is already a business environment advisory team that flags barriers on skills, migration, tax and development, and I would like to see its work given more prominence so that we can make the UK one of the most attractive, tax-competitive markets in the world. It should also look at how we give our financial regulators an explicit competition mandate to embed our dominance in financial services. Work must be done with the Home Office to break the link between long-term labour migration and mode 4, so that our desire to control immigration numbers does not hamper the ability of companies to move key personnel.
We must be equally alert to investment that is against our national interest. There is a big difference between greenfield foreign direct investment that creates jobs, embeds skills and generates long-term tax revenue in the UK and speculative investment—the use of these shores to park dodgy money or the strategic purchase of critical assets accelerated by the cheap pound.
I was horrified to see the exposé in The Sunday Times of the tier 1 investor visa, and I am similarly concerned about the security implications of allowing critical infrastructure to be foreign-owned. Our Committee is likely to recommend improved modes of data collection on FDI, so that we can better sort the wheat from the chaff and get a more accurate sense of investment trends.
We have perhaps suffered from the naivety in recent years that all inward investment is good investment, fearful that if we clamp down on flows into the UK, people will think we are closing in on ourselves. Australia and Singapore take a much more robust approach to property and infrastructure investment—particularly that affecting national security—and that does not seem to detract from their reputations as open economies. I ask that we look at the Australian model of a foreign investment review board, which rarely sees sales blocked but can add conditions to any investment, and which applies caution over foreign influence. I am pleased that the Government are already reviewing our approach via the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy White Paper on investment that was launched in July 2018, and I would be grateful if the Minister updated us on that work.
As I said in my introduction, the next 100 days will be critical in addressing some of the strategic errors made in the Brexit process over past three years, and the Department for International Trade must play a full role in that work. It is frustrating that so little progress has been made in determining the future EU-UK trading relationship, but DIT has now had three years to establish opportunities, expand networks, and increase trade expertise, so that it is ready to go. Now is the time for the Department to be unleashed so that we can draw up a trading strategy that will grow our economy, entrench our values on the world stage, and deliver exciting exporting and value-adding investment opportunities to each and every corner of our United Kingdom.
I thank the hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez) for introducing this debate with so much detail, commitment and interest. Even as all eyes are on the race to become leader of the Conservative party and Prime Minister, our focus must remain where it should be: on formulating and implementing a trade and investment strategy. Whatever one’s take on Brexit, people agree that it creates numerous exciting trading opportunities. I am excited by the idea of Brexit—as I know you and other hon. Members are, Mr Davies—and by the opportunities it will bring. We will gain access to a pool of countries, with which we will decide our own trade deals.
The food and agriculture sector plays a major role in my constituency. I have been consistent and vocal about the worldwide opportunities on offer, but work, effort, commitment and interest must be put in to secure them. Our farmers will be free from the chains of the EU, and able to decide their own future. The fear-mongering associated with the future of farming, post Brexit, has been another attempt by the political élite to avoid implementing the result of the 2016 referendum. The time for that has passed. It is now time to work together and prove that we can, and will, move forward. I am excited for my constituency and its opportunities. It was a great day in our country’s history when our citizens decided that they wanted to remove the EU’s shackles, and displayed their faith in their own abilities, their country’s abilities and free-market economics.
As the hon. Lady said, a free trade agreement with the USA, China or India—all major importers—is an exciting prospect. We are not currently allowed to negotiate such trade deals while we are, unfortunately, still in the EU, but we can look to the future with optimism as we open so many new doors.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be to the advantage of the United Kingdom and the EU to reach a mutually advantageous and agreeable free-trade process? The new Prime Minister and his Cabinet must have that as the centrepiece of their strategy for a trade and investment approach once our membership of the EU has ended.
I absolutely believe that. It is time to support the new Prime Minister and that strategy, to look to the future with optimism, commitment and focus, and to ensure that we deliver what is important.
My constituency contains agri-food industries, such as Lakeland Dairies, which has a factory in Newtownards—indeed, it has two factories in Northern Ireland and two in the Republic of Ireland, and it is knocking on eastern doors. The International Trade Secretary was instrumental in securing a substantial contract worth £250 million over five years for milk products. I was also involved with that deal, but the Secretary of State pulled it over the line. We must knock on all doors with our reasonably priced and superior-quality produce. The chief executive officer of Lakeland Dairies, Michael Hanley, is clear that although he, I and others want a deal with the European Union, whatever happens—deal or no deal—Lakeland Dairies will still trade in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and across the world. In reality, things go on. Life does not stop; the sun does not stop shining. The roof will not fall in, and many things will continue as always.
Strangford is a large rural community with towns in the middle, and together with many dairy farmers I look to the future with both optimism and, in some cases, scepticism. Although I am ecstatic and very happy that farmers will have access to a greater market, we must solve the Republic of Ireland problem, stop the grandstanding of Varadkar and others, and get down to the business of a mutually beneficial deal. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) said, it is in all our interests to work towards that goal, and the quicker a bit of reality creeps in, the better.
The backstop must be removed. I am happy and pleased that both potential leaders of the Conservative party—the future Prime Minister—are committed to the removal of the backstop, which the Democrat Unionist party welcomes. The Good Friday agreement is never in danger—people throw that cherry into the mix all the time, but the agreement is never under pressure. There is no need for a hard border. Interestingly, Varadkar has said there is no need for a hard border, as has the EU and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We are all agreed that there is no need for a hard border, so why bother having one? There are technological ways to solve the problems if there is the willingness to do so. It is now time to get behind the new Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative party, and support the process to get that deal. Perhaps the cold reality that comes with new leadership, new commitment and new fervour will take us over the line.
With a US-UK trade deal in the mix for when we eventually leave the EU, farmers in Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom should look ahead with optimism because such a deal may include dairy imports. Agri-food businesses in my area already export to the USA, and that can be expanded if the right links are created, as the Minister is doing. A trade deal with China—the largest food importer in the world—will place our farmers in a position of optimism and opportunity. China has a population of 1.4 billion and its food imports have increased from approximately $6 million in 2005 to $300 million in 2015. Such levels of food imports are likely to continue as the country’s economy grows, and that is a potential market for us to build on. Such links offer our farmers an exciting opportunity to export their high-quality products to China if a trade agreement is reached. Again, we need optimism and to look forward in the correct way.
It is important that Northern Ireland’s interests are protected in any future free trade negotiations, and we must reach a compromise on the future of trade on the island of Ireland between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. We must ensure that the Union is not weakened—that must never be allowed to happen—and that our economy has access to the pool of opportunities that Brexit creates, rather than being cut off from the rest of the UK and trapped in the customs union. The Irish backstop must go, for the sake of both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, as that will suit both countries.
Trade must continue as normal between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland—I believe anything other than that is suicide for the Republic of Ireland, which relies on the UK through Northern Ireland as a solid trading partner. None of that should be new to anyone in the Chamber, as such issues have been debated clearly for the past two and a half years. I seek to renew focus and remind people of where we should be headed, rather than become distracted by all that swirls around us.
In conclusion, if we are as focused and hardworking as businesses throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland can be, we cannot help but succeed. If we continue to be distracted, the blame will lie not at the feet of those who voted leave—the majority of people in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—but with those in this place who refused to honour that referendum result and work towards the best leave deal possible. I thank again the hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster for securing this debate, and I look forward to hearing contributions from other hon. Members and the Minister’s response.
I confess to being a bit surprised at being called so soon, but I am grateful for the opportunity to sum up. I commend the hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez) on securing the debate and on the measured and well-researched way that she presented the case.
A number of the hon. Lady’s comments—this may be a misinterpretation on my part—seemed to be about the place of the Department for International Trade in the Government and its relationship with other Departments. I do not care which Department sorts out this mess; I just wish that one Department, somewhere in Government, would understand that we are in a mess. It is, despite the protestations of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), a mess of our own making. It was not created by bad people in the Republic of Ireland, France, Germany or anywhere, but by a Government who presented people with the opportunity to make the wrong decision and who proceeded to make that wrong decision as wrong as it could be.
Everybody who campaigned for leave before June 2016 promised that we would leave with a deal. Most of those who bankrolled the leave campaign are now actively and aggressively pursuing a no deal—contrary to what they promised would happen if people supported the no campaign—but we are where we are.
The Prime Minister negotiated a deal, which the hon. Gentleman had the opportunity to vote for. He is suggesting that the campaign was based on the offer of a deal, but one was offered and he chose not to vote for it. Surely, he is trying to thwart the outcome of the referendum, whether he accepts the result or not.
I have been absolutely consistent, before, during and after the referendum, that I will continue to campaign for the best trade deal that we will ever have, which is membership of the most successful trading partnership the world has ever seen. As I have said before, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman was not there—
I will deal with one interruption before I take another.
I accept the verdict of the people of my nation and of this nation. I demand—I do not ask, beg or plead—that the sovereign will of the people of my nation to remain in the European Union be respected. In return for that, I will undertake to respect the sovereign will of the people of this nation who voted to leave.
The hon. Gentleman talks about the sovereign will of our nation, but we sit in the United Kingdom Parliament. Our country is the United Kingdom and the people of our nation voted to stay part of the United Kingdom. Why does he not respect the will of the people in Scotland from 2014, but suddenly respects it from 2016? He talks about the best and most successful trading partnership in history, but of course, that is the United Kingdom, of which I hope we will always be proud to sit as part.
I am puzzled as to how refusing to respect a referendum that said that Scotland should continue to elect Members of Parliament to sit in this place could be consistent with the fact that I am in this place carrying out my responsibilities as an elected Member of the United Kingdom Parliament for a Scottish constituency.
The hon. Gentleman has forgotten to mention, again, that the single biggest argument of the no campaign in the 2014 independence referendum—I am ready to have a further full discussion about independence whenever he wants—was that if we leave the United Kingdom, we are out of the European Union, so if we stay in the United Kingdom, we guarantee Scotland’s membership of the European Union. That promise has been shown to be utterly worthless.
We have a democratically elected Parliament and Government in Scotland with a mandate to give the people of Scotland a choice to decide on our future. It would be a democratic outrage for anybody to attempt to usurp that, especially considering that this Parliament, not long ago, unanimously and without a Division agreed that sovereignty over the nation of Scotland resides with the people of Scotland. Anybody who did not like that view had the chance to oppose it when it was put to the House; nobody did.
I want to get back to the topic that the hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster diligently set out. As I said, when the starting gun is fired, I will be ready to debate why Scotland’s future is not as a part of the United Kingdom, but that is not why we are here. We are here to debate how the United Kingdom, with or without some of its constituent parts, can find a new place in the world of international trade, having taken a mistaken decision to cut itself off from the biggest and most successful trading partnership the world has ever seen.
Three or four months after we should have been implementing our future trade strategy, we do not know what the aims and ground rules will be; what importance will be given to other trading partners’ respect for inter- national environmental standards; or what requirements will be set in respect of workers’ rights in the countries that produce the goods that we are going to start trading in. Some of our trading partners do not have a good track record on looking after workers in their factories. Nor do we know what weight if any will be attached to the human rights records of the countries that we are chasing for international trade deals.
Since the 2016 European Union referendum, one area of British exports that has done well is weapons sales, because the number of arms licences to sell British weapons to countries that are on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights watch list has doubled. In the last 10 years, the United Kingdom has agreed to the sale of weapons to every single country that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office regards as having a bad track record on human rights, with the exception—I wonder for how long—of North Korea.
Is the purpose of our world trade strategy of global Britain not so much that Britain is great, but that weapons are great? Do we intend to continue to expand the policy of selling weapons with little or no regard to their real purpose? Will we start importing goods without any concern as to the conditions that were imposed on the workers who manufactured them? That would be consistent with an independent trade strategy, but I think it would be unacceptable. I hope that the Minister will confirm that it would be unacceptable and that the trade deals that the United Kingdom will enter into to replace the 40 trade deals that we enjoy through the European Union will insist that standards of environmental protection, product safety and workers’ conditions and rights are at least as high in our trading partner countries as they are under those existing trade deals.
In 2017, the Secretary of State for International Trade promised that the Government would
“replicate the 40 EU free trade agreements that exist before we leave the European Union, so we’ve got no disruption of trade.”
Will the Minister take a second or two of his summing up to list exactly which of those 40 trade deals we have replicated? I suspect that it will not take him long. Again, a promise that was made before and after the referendum—that all those trade deals would be replaced before we left the European Union—has been shown to be utterly worthless. Of course, that promise was not painted on a bus by somebody who claimed that they were not acting as a Minister, but was made by a serving Minister of the Crown.
The hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster mentioned the concern that the price of a trade deal might be to open up parts of our services to privatisation and outsourcing where domestic Governments would not have permitted that.
The Government have been very careful to say, “We’re not going to allow the NHS to be privatised.” That is good, but in this part of the United Kingdom, far too much of the NHS is already privatised for my liking. A lot more of the NHS is privatised in this country than would ever be permitted in my country. That is fair enough—if the people of England want to vote for Governments who choose to outsource more and more of their NHS and NHS support services, good luck to them. That is their right. However, the people of Scotland have voted for a Government who have explicitly said, “There will be no privatisation anywhere in our NHS.” As a statement from a national Government, that is something that must be respected.
As the hon. Gentleman is talking about privatisation within the NHS, perhaps he can inform the Chamber now of the percentage increase in privatisation in the Scottish NHS and the increase in expenditure for temporary, locum and non-NHS workers used within our devolved NHS back in Scotland?
The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the NHS in Scotland, like the NHS throughout the United Kingdom, has a serious shortage of expert, professional specialist staff. Part of the reason for that is that his Government are making the United Kingdom a less attractive place for people to come and work. They have created a hostile environment. The hon. Gentleman can snigger up his sleeve behind me, but I have cases in my constituency where a healthcare provider had to terminate the contracts of two professionally qualified healthcare specialists because they did not meet the United Kingdom Government’s salary level requirements to be allowed to stay.
If those specialists had worked in London, where everything—prices, rents, wages—is higher, they would have met the threshold. The same provider is allowed to provide services to people in London, but the people providing services to my constituents had their contracts terminated and had to leave the United Kingdom. That is not the fault of the Scottish Government or the European Union; it is the fault of an immigration service that is based on numbers, not on human beings or the need to continue to attract the best talent and the best people we can into our NHS. It is a simple fact that there are aspects of the NHS in some parts of the United Kingdom that are run for profit that, under the policy of the Scottish Government, will not be allowed to run for profit. They will be owned directly and provided for by the public sector.
We can all have different opinions about the best way to run a health service, but it would be utterly unacceptable for a United Kingdom Government or a Scottish Government to impose a way of doing things on health authorities in England that they believed was not in the best interests of their people. It would be equally unacceptable for any Government of the United Kingdom to enter into a trade deal, without the consent of the Government of one of the devolved nations, that would undermine the devolved authority that those nations have. I have not yet heard a categorical, cast-iron guarantee, so I will give the Minister another chance to give an absolute guarantee in his summing-up that there will be nothing outsourced in Scotland’s NHS without the explicit consent of the Government and Parliament of Scotland.
One of the arguments used for our leaving the European Union—I am pleased that the hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster did not use it today, because it is completely ridiculous—was the claim that, as the United Kingdom has a trade deficit with the European Union and a trade surplus with the rest of the world, the answer was to leave the European Union and only trade with the bits of the rest of the world that we have a trade surplus with. If we only trade with people who we have a trade surplus with, the only people who are going to trade with us are those who have a trade surplus with us, so nobody can trade and it does not get us any further forward.
That argument also completely fails to recognise why it is that, particularly in manufactured goods, the United Kingdom has struggled to trade as an equal competitor with the rest of the European Union. It is because other parts of the European Union take the profits of their industry and put them back into the industry, to make it more efficient, cost-effective and competitive. For too long in the United Kingdom, the profits of industry have disappeared to a tax haven somewhere in the Caribbean or Mediterranean. Because of the way that United Kingdom businesses have run their businesses, they have not kept up.
If we look at the productivity of businesses in the United Kingdom compared with their equivalent direct competitors in parts of the United Kingdom, there is nothing in European legislation that means that Europeans sell more stuff and more profitably than the equivalent companies in the United Kingdom. That happens because they can often do it more efficiently and reliably, sometimes even in industries where the UK previously had a record as one of the best in the world.
In fact, we have seen significant manufacturing growth in this country in the past few years under Conservative rule. We saw rapid decline of manufacturing industries under the Blair and Brown Governments, but under the Conservatives we have seen significant growth in the manufacturing industries in this country.
The fact remains that industry in the United Kingdom is not nearly competitive enough compared with industry in some of the countries that we should regard ourselves as seeking to match. I will not get into an argument about whether the previous Labour Government or the current Conservative Government are more disastrous for the people of Scotland, because frankly neither have delivered any of the things they promised to Scotland. I am aware that the hon. Member for Strangford wanted to intervene; I apologise for forgetting and I am happy to give way to him now.
We obviously have a difference of opinion, but I had an opportunity last week to go to one of the Department for International Trade’s breakfast presentations. It was clear to me from that presentation that, while the promotion says, “Great Britain is great” or “The United Kingdom is great”, it does not mean just that England is great. It means that Scotland is great, that Wales is great and that Northern Ireland is great. Therefore, together we are all doing well. I gently suggest that if the hon. Gentleman has an opportunity, he should contact the Department for International Trade and he will see just where we feature. We are third in the world when it comes to promotion, and some of the things we are doing in this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are beneficial for everyone.
I do not doubt what the hon. Gentleman says, but that leads on to something else I was going to mention. If anything is seen to be quintessentially British, I do not have a problem with our sticking a Union flag and a picture of Big Ben—the Elizabeth tower, as it is now—on it and selling it to the world on the basis of its Britishness. I do not have an issue with that. We sell according to the strong point.
But who in their right mind is going to market British whisky with a Union flag on it? Who on earth thinks that that is a strong brand? Who is going to talk about selling British haggis? Haggis is not British; haggis is Scottish. If we stick a saltire on it, it sells better and more quickly. Who came up with these ideas? In the same way, to sell Cornish pasties we put “Cornish” on them; we do not call them “British pasties”. We might put a wee British flag on it, just to remind people the Cornwall is still part of the United Kingdom.
There are a lot of national and regional identities, particularly associated with food and drink, in the United Kingdom, and the producers rightly are intensely proud of the reputation that Welsh lamb or Irish dairy products have, for example. Why on earth would anybody want to stop marketing Irish butter and Irish cheese as Irish and start trying to invent a different brand for it as British? Why would people choose to sell quintessentially English products as not being English?
One of the most wonderful receptions I went to when we were on a trade trip to the WTO in Geneva was the British ambassador’s reception, where they promoted and showcased all the wonderful produce of Scotland—particularly whisky, but also other things. What positive strategy can the hon. Gentleman set out for how the Scottish National party’s devolved Administration and the SNP representation here in Westminster will try to participate in the trade promotion of their own products?
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman replies, let me say that Front Benchers traditionally have 10 minutes in these debates. Because of the time allowed, I have given quite a bit of latitude, but he is now up to double that time. Can I urge him to wind himself down so that we can move on to the other Front-Bench speeches?
I apologise, Mr Davies.
I say briefly to the hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster that the Scottish Government and previous Scottish Executives run by other parties have done that. One of the biggest obstacles is that every time the Scottish Government try to promote Scotland abroad or the Welsh Government try to promote Wales abroad, the UK Foreign Office says, “Hold on a minute. That’s our job.” Look at the snide comments every time a Minister of the Crown from the Scottish Government goes overseas to promote Scotland.
The negative, patronising, sneering attitude—not from the hon. Lady—that the national Governments of the United Kingdom all too often experience from the UK Government must finish. The United Kingdom Government have a job to do in selling the United Kingdom abroad, and the national Governments have a job to do in selling their respective nations abroad. That does not mean that they have to get in each other’s way or fight with each other about it. It is disappointing when attempts by the devolved nations to market themselves abroad are undermined by the UK Government, simply because, as a matter of democratic reality, the Scottish Government and the Welsh Governments have different views and a different political life from the UK Government. That is what devolution is for.
I realise that I have taken more interventions than I would normally in such a short speech—
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Before I let the Minister intervene, I ask him to confirm that the United Kingdom Government recognise that although the United Kingdom has a trade deficit with the European Union, Scotland has a trade surplus with it. Anything that damages or even temporarily interrupts Scotland’s successful trading relationship with the European Union will be deeply damaging to the Scottish economy and therefore to the United Kingdom economy.
I am disturbed to hear about this pattern of behaviour whereby the UK Government are allegedly inhibiting the Scottish Government’s promoting Scotland. We perhaps do not have time to discuss that right now, but I would be delighted if the hon. Gentleman wrote to me setting out instances of that. I promise to investigate them fully. I have never heard such allegations before, and I would be interested to hear about them and investigate them, if he can provide them.
I seek your guidance, Mr Davies. An incident has been mentioned regarding the First Minister of Scotland, but there are no facts to back that up. She was supported on the trip to New York to speak to the UN, which I believe the hon. Gentleman was referring to. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office facilitated that. There was a lot of discussion afterwards, but we should stick to the facts. I seek your guidance on that matter, Mr Davies.
I want Scotland to continue to be a successful trading nation. I want the United Kingdom to go back to being a successful trading nation, as it once was, but on completely different terms. Some may think that we are going back to the days of empire, when everybody else worked for nothing in hellish conditions to keep a handful of people in the United Kingdom wealthy, but that is not going to happen. The individual nations of the United Kingdom have the talent and ingenuity to succeed and compete successfully against almost any other nation in the world, but the first thing that the United Kingdom must do to achieve that is to recognise that it is no more than an equal with the rest of the world. Nobody owes it a living or is beholden to it anymore.
The hon. Member for Strangford mentioned the Republic of Ireland, which used to do 90% of its trade with the United Kingdom; today, it is about 10%. I wonder what the Irish have got right. Perhaps it is something that the United Kingdom could learn from.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez) on her thorough speech. In her stout advocacy for the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), whom she mentioned more than once in the course of her remarks—
Was it only once? It felt like so much more—I cannot think why.
The hon. Lady called for the merger of the Department for International Trade and DExEU. I wonder where the Minister might fit in the brave new world of the new combined Department—whether, indeed, he has a place in it. I wondered also whether the hon. Lady’s challenges to him were part of his job application for one of the roles among the new Ministers. Perhaps how well he does in that job application will depend on his responses to her questions.
I agree with the hon. Lady about the need for a coherent and global world trade strategy that is attractive to investors. We probably diverge a bit after that point, but we agree about the importance of a strong trade and investment strategy.
The folly of the Government’s strategy—or lack of one—was shown in the comments of their Canada trade envoy, who set out the stupidity of publishing zero tariff schedules. It is now pointless for the Government of Canada to spend time negotiating an agreement with us, as it will not be better than the deal that we have already unilaterally given away. Zero tariffs mean opening up to importers with no guarantee of anything in return. An effective strategy would, of course, ensure the best market access to our main trading partners and build confidence among investors.
We are about to have a new Prime Minister—I am assuming it will be the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip—who advocates a no-deal Brexit and is keen on the idea of undermining our economic relationship with our nearest neighbours and a trading bloc that accounts for well over half of our trade, either directly or through agreements with 70 countries to which we are party through our membership of that critical trading bloc. It is madness to be considering no deal. It is the opposite of the robust, considered and credible strategy that is needed. It is an act of economic self-destruction, and Parliament must do all in its power to prevent such an outcome.
Investors want us to have the best access to the EU, and so does the Labour party. Businesses need frictionless trade and regulatory alignment, and so do workers. The prospect of no deal is causing enormous damage, as businesses and investors wait or decide to move elsewhere while we delay. No deal must be ruled out. It is in our strategic interest to do so, and it is what business organisations and trade unions are calling for.
The fall in inward investment shows what is happening as a result of the lack of certainty. There has been a massive fall in investment projects and new job creation, while the number of jobs saved through investment has fallen by nearly 80%. The number of foreign direct investment projects has also dropped sharply. On the point about uncertainty, Kent County Council said in its evidence to the International Trade Committee that there is no doubt that the UK’s reputation has been significantly damaged by Brexit-related uncertainty.
The British Chambers of Commerce says that we lack consistency in provision of trade support for both imports and exports, and ADS draws attention to the poor funding of the British presence at trade shows; other countries have much larger pavilions and a more coherent national offer to prospective customers. They also give a strong signal that the Government back their domestic sector. The Society of Maritime Industries made the same point in its evidence to the International Trade Committee. It submitted a photograph of the German pavilion, which was much larger than the neighbouring British pavilion. It asked: which country’s message is more effective—the simple “Made in Germany” in large letters or “Innovation is GREAT” in much smaller letters? It also asked which pavilion made the companies more attractive to visit. It was in no doubt that its German competitors had better support. Our reputation has been damaged through Brexit incompetence. There is a lack of support for exporters, and no sign anywhere of a strategy for trade and investment.
To succeed in international trade, we must align our domestic and international strategies. That means delivering on the Government’s stated aim of moving to a zero-carbon economy. Labour recognises the benefits to be had in jobs and prosperity from investing in the $26 trillion global opportunity of moving to a zero-carbon world. That figure comes from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The Government say that they are committed to net zero by 2050. However, that does not stack up when we remember that we are funding fossil fuel development overseas; 99.4% of UK Export Finance provision in the energy sector went on fossil fuel development in places such as oil refineries in Bahrain. Just £1 million was spent on renewables, but £4.8 billion went on oil and gas. Raiding the international development budget—something announced yesterday by the Secretary of State—is not the answer. We should use aid to help developing nations, not to give further support to the fossil fuel industry.
UK Export Finance should be helping with the development of renewables; otherwise, we are just exporting our emissions to the developing world and elsewhere, as of course is the case when we do not include emissions from shipping and air freight in our carbon reduction targets. The emissions do not go away as if by magic just because we pretend they are not part of our carbon footprint. Christian Aid rightly says that the support for fossil fuels is incoherent. We have world-leading marine technology in tidal energy. Where is the focus on renewable energy at the heart of an exciting and financially rewarding export strategy?
Under article 2(c) of the Paris agreement, the Government’s policy priority should be:
“Making finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development.”
The figure of 99.4% going to fossil fuels from UK Export Finance is the exact opposite of the stated policy of our Government. As Global Witness told the Select Committee, UK Export Finance should measure the greenhouse gas impact of the projects it funds. The US Overseas Private Investment Corporation adopted a greenhouse gas cap for its projects in 2007, and it is no surprise that it has shifted towards clean energy investments. If the private sector in the United States can do that, why cannot we? Labour believe we can.
Global Witness says that, for trade and domestic policies to match, UKEF should no longer invest in fossil fuel projects. Ministers like to remind us that UKEF is an award winner—but why should it not win awards for its low-carbon policy? The Canadian and French export credit agencies have more stringent controls on fossil fuel support. One of the two Swedish agencies did not lend to any fossil fuel projects in 2015 or 2016. If they can do that, why cannot we? Global Witness also says that the Department for International Trade should realign export support to renewable energy. There is an export opportunity for us, if we want to grasp it, in what it describes as floating offshore wind. Why not? UKEF has stopped investing in businesses that rely on child labour. Why not take the same approach to global warming?
The Government have woefully underprepared the UK for operating an independent trade policy. Trade remedies legislation is still not ready. There is no sign of the Trade Bill passing through Parliament. Existing trade deals are vulnerable to lapsing without replacement, not least because of the incompetence of the International Trade Secretary in announcing zero tariffs, as the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) reminded us in his resignation statement as the Canada trade envoy. He described it, let us remember, as “cack-handed” planning and felt patronised by the Secretary of State when he warned of the dangers of a no-deal tariff schedule and its impact on the prospects for the roll-over of trade agreements. As the hon. Gentleman has asked, why would those who are already getting 95% of what they want rush to sign up to what the UK want in the event of no deal? It does not bode well when a Back Bencher has a better grasp of international trade policy than the Secretary of State.
Labour will align our trade and industrial strategies to promote sustainable low-carbon export growth. We will introduce a transparent and consultative framework for the development of trade agreements, and be a strong and supportive partner of our small and medium-sized enterprise exporters. We will use trade policy as a tool to elevate rights and standards domestically and with our international partners, to ensure that the benefits of global trade are shared through society—whether that is in moving to a zero-carbon world or in enhancing the achievement of the sustainable development goals.
Trade must not be used to lock future Governments into a deregulatory agenda or to erode the capacity of Governments to legislate in the public interest. Neither can trade strategy be a series of controversial arms sales. In stark contrast to the present Government and their new Prime Minister, it is only Labour that is committed to delivering the robust trade strategy that our country needs. We will play a leading role in demonstrating that trade can be the force for good that it should be.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez) on securing the debate and on her excellent opening to it. The subject, as we heard in many excellent and some peculiar contributions, is an interesting one. Our success in trade and investment will be crucial to delivering a more prosperous, stable and secure future for the country as we leave the EU.
There has been a massive change in the importance of trade and investment in the global economy and in the UK economy. That is one of the things to be grasped. In 1990, exports constituted a little more than 20% of GDP, but now they are more than 30%. We have the aspiration of reaching 35%, making us one of the greatest exporting nations in the G7. If we look at foreign direct investment, the stock value of that represented as a percentage of GDP was a little over 20% in 1990. Now it is more than 66%. As we have just heard from the Opposition spokesman, it is worth noting that, as we neared the end of the last Labour Government, France came up nearly to meet the level of foreign direct investment stock held in this United Kingdom; whereas, I am pleased to say, on last year’s figures from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the UK’s stock of foreign direct investment—with the hundreds of thousands of jobs that result from it in the United Kingdom—is now greater than that of France and Germany combined. That may be one element in explaining how we have gone from a youth unemployment rate that was 45% up by the time the Labour Government left office to one that is now at the lowest level since records began.
While we talk about trade and investment we must remember what it is all about, which is the quality of life—the living standards, prosperity and security—of this nation. That is why this Government and Conservative Prime Ministers since 2010 have had such priorities. The numbers are there. People can give all the speeches they like, but if we follow the numbers, we will see the transformation that has been brought about. That is reflected in outcomes—the reduction in unemployment and increases in employment.
I am glad that the Minister mentioned numbers and outcomes. Let us look at some. Jobs saved through investment fell, from 2016 when they were 28,000, to just 6,000 in 2019. That is an 80% fall. Those are numbers. They are not exactly encouraging, are they? They are not exactly a sign of the Government’s success. Meanwhile, 13% of Asian investors have reduced their investment and 14% have put activity on hold, and there are similar figures for north America—slightly lower for western Europe. How is that a record of success on the numbers?
I am grateful to the shadow Minister for that intervention. The danger is in selectively seeking those things. On every possible measure, we see the UK—[Interruption.] I hope the hon. Gentleman will stop barracking; he knows what is coming. Even though he pretends not to, he must have seen the UNCTAD numbers—the official UN numbers—for 2018. What did they show? They showed that in 2018, according to the UN, the global stock of foreign direct investment—the yearly amount of total flows—fell.
The overall stock fell. The hon. Gentleman is talking about flows; he should try and get to grips with this. Maybe this will be a useful seminar for him to do so.
If the hon. Gentleman looks at the stock line for Europe, which is the accumulated level—not at the flow line, as flows go up and down year by year and are essentially volatile; they always have been and I project they always will be—he will find that it fell in Europe too. The net amount fell; there was net disinvestment in Europe and in the world. What happened in the UK? It went up again, but not quite as quickly as it did before. It is the global context. By every possible measure—flow, stock, greenfield, mergers and acquisitions—we lead Europe.
We have strengthened our position in Europe. Why has that happened? It is because of the business-friendly policies that we have put in place. As the shadow Minister is feeling so aggressive, I put it to him: in what possible parallel universe in which there is increasing competition for mobile global investment, with the massive number of jobs and the prosperity that brings, would jacking up corporation tax rates lead to more jobs, more opportunities and more prosperity for people in this country? That is the trade and investment strategy of Labour.
We do not need to think just about what Labour’s current policies will do; we can look back at every previous Labour Government. By the end of the 2000s, France was just about overtaking the UK; now we have more than twice as much as France. Just think of the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of jobs—I am most interested in that number. While the hon. Gentleman and his party play politics, we deliver the investments that lead to prosperity and jobs. If he is interested in going further into the subject, he should look at Ernst & Young and the pattern over the last few years. What have we seen? We have seen an increase in investments outside London and the south-east, and an increase in the share of the FDI going into manufacturing, which has been maintained and strengthened in this country.
That is the exact opposite of the picture that the hon. Gentleman tried to lay out. It is there in every figure—from the OECD, UNCTAD, the Economist Intelligence Unit, Deloitte and fDi Markets. That is a fascinating one. Some people say, “If you include mergers and acquisitions, and you include intra-company transfers, that is not real FDI. We should look at greenfield and new start-ups, not someone buying a factory. What difference does that make? What about creating a new one? Let’s look at that.” Who looks at that? That would be fDi Markets. What did it show last year? From memory, it showed that the UK got 1,268 projects, that France temporarily overtook Germany, with 580 projects—well done President Macron, who has put a lot of work into that—and that Germany had 560 projects. In other words, despite Brexit uncertainty, in 2018 the UK had more greenfield investment projects than Germany and France combined. On what basis would anyone other than the most devout and misguided socialist try to suggest that those figures are not good?
Does my hon. Friend agree that the manufacturing figures referred to demonstrate exactly the picture of this Government and show the investment in exports that is going on? In the Blair and Brown years we saw a dramatic decline, with factories in manufacturing industries closing up and down the country. Under the Conservatives, we have seen a massive growth in manufacturing industries, clearly in part because of the exporting success and the support for exporting in this country.
My hon. Friend is a particular champion of industries in his area, not least ceramics in Stoke. I thank him for speaking in my constituency last Friday and talking about the success that has come from the effort put into that local economy to help to turn it around and strengthen it.
Since 2010, we have been working to turn around the toxic economy legacy bequeathed by the last Labour Government and to support the pioneering, innovative, entrepreneurial brilliance of British business once again. Success has come from policies designed to promote the dynamism, openness and flexibility of our economy. A further important step was taken by the Prime Minister when she established a dedicated trade Department for the first time in British political history. The Department for International Trade has just celebrated its third birthday and is crucial to the delivery of trade and investment success.
Given that this could be a valedictory performance by me, as we get a new Prime Minister later, I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for International Trade and President of the Board of Trade, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), for the brilliant work he has done leading and establishing this Department of State. Its work will become even more vital after we leave the European Union. We must build a global, outward-looking Britain that is a dynamic and independent champion of free, fair, rules-based international trade.
Our trade and investment strategy seeks three basic things: higher exports, greater foreign and outward investment, and reduced trade barriers. Contrary to what we have heard, exports are booming. Total UK exports now stand at a record high of £647 billion, bearing out exactly what my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) just said. They are up in real terms—[Interruption.] Maybe the shadow Minister only looks at numbers that suit his narrative? They are up 25% in real terms.
In 2017-18 alone, the Department for International Trade helped UK businesses to export goods and services worth around £30.5 billion, which is a year-on-year increase of 4%. We are proud of our work in encouraging more companies to export, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster said in her excellent opening speech. A lot of the difficulty is in overcoming the timidity and the concerns that companies have in exporting. Nearly 111,000 firms exported goods in the first quarter of 2019, which is 5,000 more than in the same period last year.
I have talked about the foreign direct investment numbers, but the latest figures from UNCTAD show that the UK hit a record high of almost £1.5 trillion in FDI stock by the end of last year, which is more than Germany and France combined, creating 76,000 new jobs and safeguarding 15,000 more. That was in one year and in marked contrast to 2010, when France was close to overtaking us.
To put the FDI numbers into further context, UNCTAD’s figures show that FDI flows—flows not stocks; I hope the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) knows the difference—fell by 19% globally in 2018. [Interruption.] I am now talking about flows as opposed to stocks, so it is repetition, but about a different aspect of something that I hope the hon. Gentleman would take an interest in. FDI flows fell by 19% globally and by 73% in continental Europe. What happened to FDI into the UK? The flows increased by 20%. So much for the negative effects of Brexit uncertainty.[Official Report, 3 September 2019, Vol. 664, c. 2MC.]
The pace of change in the global economy is increasing but, for the agile, opportunities abound. The Department for International Trade provides the platform to give the UK a unique trade advantage, by locating export promotion, trade finance, trade remedies, export licensing and international negotiations all in a single Government Department.
I want to respond to some points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster. She asked about the 100 days. We will continue to prepare for no deal to be the outcome, which is not the avowed intent of either of the leadership contenders for the Conservative party. We prepared and were in a good position ahead of 29 March, and we are working with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to be able to meet questions coming in from businesses. We are ready to meet any surge in demand at that level.
My hon. Friend asked about state-level engagement with the US. The Secretary of State and I met with Senators from Florida and Texas the other day. As we expand and strengthen the Department’s reach, we recognise that it is not all about working at the national and federal level, whether in the US or elsewhere, such as in Brazil. I was pleased to meet the Governor of São Paulo, which itself has more than 30% of the GDP of Brazil. There is a lot more to be done at that more granular level in order to identify barriers and overcome them.
My hon. Friend made an interesting point about language. Given our national weaknesses on foreign languages, I hope that officials may be able to follow up on that point. She also touched on the DIT working more closely with the FCO and DFID. We are absolutely trying to do that. I am delighted that we are becoming an official development assistance Department. We have to bring trade and development together. That is how people get out of poverty. This involves so many countries. There is now the Ghana Beyond Aid initiative; I visited Ghana’s investment conference in London last year. These countries do not want to be seen primarily as aid recipients. They want to be seen as countries with great entrepreneurs, great technology and great capability. That is why, after the Prime Minister’s speech last year in Cape Town, I am helping to organise the Africa investment summit on 20 January 2020. It is precisely to ensure that, cross-Government, we are able to support increased investment in Africa and take advantage of the opportunities there.
My hon. Friend touched on the subject of regulators. Whether further changes are required in their missions as defined by Government is something that I will leave for others to wrestle with, but I can say that our regulators really are stepping up to the mark. The Financial Conduct Authority, with whose representatives I have met, is making a major difference. People can look at our FinTech bridges. We lead the world on FinTech—financial technology. It is enormously valuable, and we are creating FinTech bridges with a number of other countries. For instance, we are deepening our engagement with Hong Kong and Australia. In both cases, the FCA has been a fundamental part of the team as we try to ensure that start-ups there can more easily come to the UK, and vice versa. It is precisely that kind of opening up of markets that is so important.
I am not sure that I have ever given a speech from my iPad before. When the screen goes blank—
It is better to have your screen go blank than your mind go blank, as may have happened to the hon. Gentleman when he started to talk about FDI, on which we are doing so well.
Last year we launched a new export strategy to encourage, inform, connect and finance businesses of all sizes, with the goal of increasing our exports from 30% to 35% of GDP, which would move us to the top of the G7. We are committed to working with the devolved Administrations in doing that. I will follow up on any suggestions. I hope that, if there are problems, we can immediately sort them out. It is certainly not this Government’s policy in any way to inhibit the effectiveness of the devolved Administrations in trying to promote business in their areas. We work together hand in glove. I remember that at MIPIM, the world’s largest property conference, last year, I launched the Scottish capital investment portfolio. We worked closely together on doing so, and we can do so again. That is very important, particularly in the Scottish context, because, if my numbers are still correct, exports as a percentage of GDP in Scotland are only around 20%, whereas for the United Kingdom as a whole the figure is 30%. That shows the importance of helping the Scottish Government to do a better job in promoting Scottish exports, because there is huge capacity there.
I am proud of what we have done with UK Export Finance. We have doubled its appetite since 2010 and we have revolutionised its performance as a world-leading export credit agency. It now has a capacity of £50 billion and its offer has been extended; it is now available in 62 international currencies, so when support is provided, that can be done in the local currency, thereby reducing risk. That has helped too. We have run it at no cost to the taxpayer, lowered its cost ratio since 2010 and ensured that no UK export fails for lack of finance or insurance. Earlier this year we went further. Now, companies that are not exporters themselves but are part of the supply chain of companies that do export can access UKEF finance too.
We have convened the Board of Trade for the first time in 150 years to promote a culture of exporting and investing, spreading the benefits and prosperity of international trade to every corner of our United Kingdom. Whether I have been in Stirling or Belfast with the Board of Trade, I have been delighted to see the local response and people’s enthusiasm for what we are doing at the DIT to promote trade from those areas.
Time has passed, and you would probably like me to bring my remarks to a close, Mr Davies. If I may, I shall continue just briefly. We have created an overseas network of Her Majesty’s trade commissioners, the most recent one being for Australasia. There are 10 of them and they have been selected for their expertise in particular markets. They are building our regional export plans and working to secure market access across the globe.
Whether it is on promoting exports with our export strategy or promoting foreign direct investment—for which we remain the No. 1 destination in Europe, well ahead of our competitors; in fact, we are third in the world, behind only the United States and China/Hong Kong—we are determined to go further. And of course in the area of trade policy, there is not only the issue of free trade agreements; my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster was right to say that we should not fetishise them. As our second permanent secretary and chief negotiator has noted, for every one person working on FTAs, we want three or four working on market access.
Therefore, whether it involves opening up Taiwan’s pork market, cosmetics in China or lowering duties on Scotch whisky going into Latin American countries, we are, across the piece, upping our game. Having a dedicated trade Department—this might be my last speech while a member of it—was a significant and important step forward, particularly given the growing importance of trade and investment to the prosperity of this country and the world. The Department—with or without me—will continue to be an advocate for an open, rules-based, liberal trading system. It will continue to work to reverse the negative impacts on manufacturing and so much of our other trade and investment performance that happened inevitably—it happened in almost all cases—under the last Labour Government. We must ensure that Labour never comes into government again, and that this Government can go out there and continue to strengthen the DIT and strengthen our prosperity in the world. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster very much for securing the debate today.
I thank all hon. Members and the Minister for engaging in this very important debate.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked of the vital agricultural interests in his constituency and the freedom that they might have in the opening up of new markets in India, the US and China—a market that is growing particularly rapidly. He says that the sun will not stop shining if we leave the EU, and he is quite right.
The hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) has a notoriously upbeat and sunny disposition. I do not want to be impish by saying that I was very interested to learn of his intense respect for the will of the people, given the simultaneous passion that he expressed for overturning the results of both recent referendums. It is a curious world in which we live.
Scotland will play an even more important role in the future in attracting regional investment and boosting exports of in-demand products such as whisky to growing markets such as China. It would have been helpful to have had a better understanding of how the devolved SNP Government wish fully to participate in what is a very exciting project.
I appreciate that the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) finds himself within a party that perhaps now welcomes only newspeak from its comrades, but I am fairly certain that my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) is not advocating no deal as his primary objective. I would like to reassure the hon. Gentleman that his dystopian imaginings about the DIT’s work and the trade figures are rather wide of the mark. He expressed concern about an absence of green objectives in our trade work. He might be reassured by some of the exciting things that we are doing on green finance initiatives with the likes of Singapore, and might be interested to know about some of the work that we saw with the Select Committee in South Korea—in particular, on renewable energy and how that is helping it to reach its targets.
The Minister reminded us of what trade and investment is all about, which is the delivery of prosperity and prospects to the people whom we represent. On every single investment measure, we lead Europe. We are spreading wealth not just to London and the south-east, but to every region of the UK. My hon. Friend unashamedly peddles optimism, and my goodness this country is ready for it. My constituents and local businesses have so much to offer, and they expect the Government to facilitate their hopes and ambitions—for themselves, yes, but also for our great nation. Let us learn from some of the errors of the past few years, but be grateful for the strong foundation that the DIT has laid and that will allow us to go forward into this new chapter with confidence and energy and find global trade opportunities that deliver for those whom we represent.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered UK trade and investment strategy.
Roadside Recovery Vehicles: Red Lights
I beg to move,
That this House has considered roadside recovery vehicles and the use of red lights.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and to speak under the watchful eye of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning), who is the chairman of two all-party parliamentary groups looking at this important issue.
In September 2017, a roadside recovery worker and constituent of mine, Steve Godbold, was hit and killed by a lorry on the M25. He was assisting a driver at the side of the road, wearing high visibility clothing and with amber lights flashing on his vehicle when he was struck. This tragedy has caused unthinkable pain to Steve’s family and partner Sam Cockerill, while the driver of the broken-down vehicle, Nathan, has suffered with post-traumatic stress disorder after the experience.
Many would have given up after the loss of their beloved, but Sam, who is here in the Gallery today, became a spokesperson for the Campaign for Safer Roadside Rescue and Recovery: a group that has provided a united voice within the roadside recovery industry to lobby both Government and Highways England to improve safety for roadside recovery operators. The campaign is calling for greater recognition of the dangers faced by roadside recovery operators, identifying four key areas that could prevent further fatalities in the future.
The campaign is calling for a halt to the current roll-out of smart motorways, until Highways England can prove they are safe; for the Department for Transport to collect data on the number of accidents specifically involving roadside recovery workers, to provide greater understanding of the problem; and, following the success of the “Slow Down, Move Over UK” campaign, for a change to the highway code that makes clear to road users what to do when approaching a breakdown. This has been implemented in all 50 states in the US, treating drivers who disobey the safety rules of the road the same as drunk or reckless drivers.
I thank the hon. Lady for securing this debate; I spoke to her before it started. Does she agree that roadside recovery workers would be much safer if red lights were used, as opposed to amber ones, given that they portray a greater sense of danger? That might change how drivers react. Pilots of these schemes could be tested in a short space of time, thereby providing the long-term benefits that she and other hon. Members wish to see.
That will be the focus of my speech. There are nearly half a million roadside recovery operators, in a variety of guises, who deserve protection. There are many parts to the wider campaign, but I want to focus on one specific call: to allow the use of red lights by the roadside recovery industry. We are simply asking for recovery operators to be permitted to use prominent red warning beacons while attending accidents and breakdowns on the hard shoulder or on other roads; I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead has particular concerns around countryside roads in his area.
This campaign is supported by the wider industry of both independent firms and nationwide operators such as the RAC and the AA, and I am grateful for their briefings. Evidence given by the AA suggested that although UK motorways are the safest roads to drive on when calculated using serious accidents per billion miles, they are also the most dangerous to work on as a breakdown patrol or vehicle recovery operator; there have been at least three known fatalities of operators in the past 18 months.
There is a firm view within the industry that the use of red lights while attending a breakdown would alter behaviours enough for drivers to become more cautionary in their approach, and there is enough science to back this up. In a previous speech in the House on the wider campaign, I referenced the Rayleigh effect, which means that red can be seen from further away. With significant help from Stephen Westland, a professor of colour science at Leeds University, and Hugh Barton, from Opticonsulting Ltd, I have learned a lot more on this, including regarding the neurological response to red.
Mr Barton helpfully points out that red light as a danger signal can be traced back to the 1820s, when the first passenger trains were signalled using red, green and white flags, which were later replaced by red and green semaphore signals. Red is a useful colour for long-range warning signals, because it suffers from atmospheric scatter to a lesser degree than other colours, due to the effects of Rayleigh and Mie scattering processes: at the limit of visual detection red lights are seen as red, whereas other colours are seen as lights with no specific colour attribute.
Professor Westland provided me with some comments regarding the psychological aspect of red and its association with stop and danger. In a traffic situation, everyone knows that red means stop and danger. He kindly forwarded me an interesting paper in an ergonomics journal, which provided some interesting data on this. In one experiment, for example, the researchers presented words on a screen in one of three colours: red, grey or green. Participants had to categorise the words as being danger words or safety words. The reaction time to identify the words in the danger category was quicker when the words were red than when they were green or grey. The same sort of effect was found with danger symbols rather than words: red danger symbols are more quickly categorised as danger symbols than, say, green danger symbols. In other words, although this is a psychological effect, there are implications for performance. One could rightly surmise that a driver noticing a red light on the hard shoulder would be more likely to slow down than if they saw an orange light, and their reaction times would likely be quicker.
With that science in mind, I ask the Minister to review the Road Vehicles Lighting Regulations 1989, which currently prohibit roadside recovery vehicles from using red lights. This change in policy can be easily implemented. Highways England vehicles have recently joined the fire service in being exempt from these regulations via a statutory instrument; they are permitted to use red lights in their regulation of traffic around accidents and other road incidents. The Campaign for Safer Roadside Rescue and Recovery argue that the work that roadside workers do on the side of the road, whether a motorway or a country lane, is dangerous and ought to receive the same level of protection. I would argue that, too. The issue is not just their safety, but the safety of those they are there to help.
Before I conclude, it would be remiss of me not to mention that one in 12 men and one in 200 women are colour blind. Although the primary purpose of this debate is to call for a change of use from amber to red beacons to protect recovery workers, for some it would make less of a difference. Perhaps part of a review could be to consider how we support colour blind drivers too, perhaps through shaping or flashing techniques within the beacon.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. When I was the Minister with this portfolio, sitting where the Minister sits today, one objection to this deregulation, which could save lives, was that the police did not support it. I am sure that my hon. Friend and the Minister have seen the evidence that the police now support this measure, which will save lives.
I agree. Now that the police have lifted that objection, I see absolutely no reason why roadside recovery operators should not have that same level of protection. At the end of the day, they help the police and Highways England to open up the network, so that our roads can continue to operate and provide the great economic value that having an open and flowing network brings to the country. I hope the Minister has seen that evidence suggesting the police have lifted their objection to this and will bear that in mind in his response.
This debate was borne from tragedy, and I pay tribute to Sam for the campaign she continues to champion. This is just one part of the wider campaign but it is also the simplest to achieve. As the baton passes from one Administration to another, and we all consider what we want to be remembered for, maybe this is something—a small thing—that will make an enormous difference in protecting those who come out, rain or shine, when we are at our most vulnerable on the side of the road.
I will only make a short speech. As I mentioned a moment ago, I had the honour and privilege of being the Roads Minister. That portfolio allows the Minister to make a massive difference to people’s lives—in this case, to save lives. I held the road safety portfolio as well as the roads portfolio.
The roll-out of smart motorways was an integral part of the previous Government’s programme as well as this Government’s, but an unintended consequence of some of that has been that some roadside recovery workers have been seriously injured and others have lost their lives. In a parliamentary question to the Department, I asked how many roadside workers had been seriously injured or killed on managed motorways. The answer came back that the Department did not hold that information and that this was a matter for the police. I completely disagree with that. This is a matter of road safety on a managed motorway.
I do not really understand why Highways Agency—now Highways England—workers should be any safer or less safe than roadside recovery workers. In other words, are their lives worth more? Of course not. No one wants to see the people who help us in our daily tasks, whether in commerce or in getting away for the coming recess, become injured. They come to rescue us, just as I did when I was a firefighter in the fire and rescue service. I saw the sorts of work and skills that the recovery industry has when it delivers them at the roadside. It does not matter whether we are in a 44-tonne artic or in my little Morris Minor that comes out of the shed every now and again: when they come out to rescue us, they rescue us, and their lives are as important as anybody else’s.
I saw the Minister turn round to his advisers when I suggested that the police had been supportive, based on an evidence session with the all-party parliamentary group. I have submitted a letter to the Secretary of State and had extensive correspondence with him about the matter, so I hope that his thoughts will be reflected in the Minister’s reply.
Our suggestion, which I think is picking up credibility in the Department, is that we could pilot something and work it out on the evidence base for what could happen—although it could also be done very quickly by regulation. The vehicles would not be moving with a red light; they would be stationary, which would make it so much safer and much more tangible for the motorist that it is a danger area for them as well as for the people working at the roadside. I had a meeting with the Secretary of State only two days ago and followed it up with letters, which I am sure the Minister has seen.
People in the industry do not want special preference. They just want to be treated exactly the same as any other person working for the Government on the roadside. Their lives and families are just as important as anybody else’s.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) on securing this important debate about roadside recovery vehicles and the use of red flashing lights. I would like to take the opportunity, if I may, to express my sympathy for those affected by the individual, tragic case that she referred to and that provoked the debate. I am also grateful for the intervention and speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning).
I very much admire the work performed by the men and women of the roadside rescue and recovery operations. They provide a crucial service to stranded motorists and motorists in danger, and they do it 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, in all weathers including severe weather conditions. As well as providing comfort and relief to those who have broken down and having a substantial positive impact on the individuals they rescue, they support the wider economy by getting goods moving and preventing the build-up of congestion on our very busy road network. A report published by Highways England in 2017 noted that business sectors reliant on the strategic road network contributed more than £314 billion to the UK’s economy, while current projections suggest that the cost of congestion to the freight industry will be £14 billion in 2040.
It is clear that the work of recovery operators can be hazardous, particularly when they operate on roads with fast traffic, such as motorways and other parts of our strategic road network. It is important that we do all we can to provide a safe environment for operators to work in and for people who use the network to travel through. I am sure it has not gone unnoticed that the United Kingdom has some of the safest roads in the world, but the effect of every death and serious injury on our roads is devastating for the individuals involved and for their families; I absolutely recognise that.
The Government will continue to lead the way in improving road safety. This is a major national issue that demands close co-ordination across government agencies, the devolved Administrations, local government, enforcement authorities and a range of other bodies. We therefore published our road safety statement very recently. The road safety action plan last week outlined no fewer than 74 actions to reduce the number of people killed and injured on our roads.
I commend the document to my hon. Friend. I cannot give her the exact number at the moment, but perhaps she will allow me to write to her about it.
Highways England is the Government company charged with operating, maintaining and improving England’s strategic road network of motorways and major A roads. It therefore has a key role to play in moving broken-down vehicles to a place of relative safety to await recovery or in closing a lane to make it safe, in exercise of its powers under the Traffic Management Act 2004 to stop and direct traffic.
I am fascinated to hear that Highways England is now moving vehicles and pulling them off the motorways. When I was the Minister, I asked how many vehicles it moved and the answer was zero, so I do not know quite where the Minister’s information is coming from.
What I said was that Highways England has a key role to play in moving broken-down vehicles. Of course, it is all part of a team effort, including the blue-light emergency services as well as Highways England, when it comes to closing roads to improve safety after a road traffic collision or other breakdown circumstances.
Highways England is part of the SURVIVE group, which has developed and sponsors a detailed national standard to improve the safety of breakdown operatives, employees and customers during breakdown and recovery operations. Certification to the standard demonstrates that management systems are in place, with procedures established to meet safety standards, legislation and best practice for the industry and help road recovery operatives to carry out safe and rapid recovery of vehicles with minimal risk. The SURVIVE standard was introduced in 2015 and amended in 2018, and more than 500 organisations are currently accredited to it—a significant achievement that demonstrates real professionalism within the industry, which I congratulate.
The Government also recognise the benefit of improved vehicle construction standards. The road vehicles lighting regulations were amended in 2010 to require all new goods vehicles over 7.5 tonnes, including those used for road recovery purposes, to be fitted with conspicuity markings to the rear and side to illuminate the vehicle at night. Fitting such markings is optional for smaller vehicles, including the smaller recovery vehicles, but vehicles over 7.5 tonnes must have them. That requirement was brought in by this Government in 2010.
Amber warning beacons can be a valuable tool for conveying important information to other road users. The road vehicles lighting regulations restrict the fitting of amber warning beacons to vehicles with a specified purpose—including recovery vehicles, as well as vehicles used for highway maintenance, refuse vehicles and so on. Additional requirements limit the use of amber beacons to specific functions in order to avoid proliferation; for example, recovery vehicles may use the amber warning beacon only when attending an accident or breakdown, or while towing a broken-down vehicle.
Despite these existing measures, I realise that there is a call from the industry for the use of red flashing lights, because it sees added benefit in them. The police and some fire service vehicles are legally permitted to use red flashing lights, but even those blue-light services must use them under additional guidance issued to their trained drivers. Highways England traffic officer vehicles, which patrol our strategic road network of A roads and motorways, are permitted red flashing lights, but only when operating on live carriageways, not on the hard shoulder. I am aware that comparisons are often drawn between the operations of traffic officer vehicles and those of road recovery operators. Both traffic officers and road recovery operators perform incredibly important work, but as we know, recovery operators should not operate in live running lanes. To emphasise an important distinction, Highways England traffic officers should only use red flashing lights when operating in the live lane to control traffic. They, too, should use amber lights when stationary in other situations.
I humbly suggest that after the debate, the Minister looks at some of the additional briefing papers that have been sent to him in advance of it, because the roadside recovery industry is not calling for the use of red lights in live carriageways, nor is it calling for the operation of red lights while its vehicles are moving. It is specifically asking for the use of red lights while stationary, attending a vehicle, because as I pointed out in my speech, the neurological and psychological response to a red light is very different from the response to an amber one. The industry is not calling for anything that is difficult to achieve.
I am not suggesting that it is—I know it is not—but I am making an allusion to Highways England traffic officer vehicles and what their rules are, so as to differentiate between the current rules for traffic officer vehicles and those for recovery vehicles.
The evidence that we have is key, and I have noted what my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford has said about the Rayleigh effect and the scientific evidence about colour. Research into the effectiveness of red flashing lights on vehicles was also carried out in 2010 by the respected Transport Research Laboratory for what was then the Highways Agency, in support of its traffic officer services, so some work has been done on this topic in the recent past. In that study, drivers’ responses to the display of amber and red lights, both on the hard shoulder and in a live lane, were considered to identify which configuration produced the lowest risk to traffic officers. It concluded that flashing lights may make something more visible by attracting attention, but also that too many lights or lights of too great intensity may cause distraction or obscure pedestrians in or around a stationary vehicle.
Assuming that drivers are paying attention to the lights on a stationary vehicle, it is vital that they identify what the hazard is and what action might be necessary while they still have reasonable time to act. That requires early recognition of whether the hazard is in a live lane or on a hard shoulder. Permitting the wider use of any restricted lighting function, including red flashing lights, needs careful consideration, because the warning message they are intended to give will become diluted if they are used too often. Ultimately, that will be to the disadvantage of those who currently use them.
I was the Minister in 2010 when that report was done, and I questioned whether it was a defence of the Highways Agency—as it was at the time—or was trying to improve what the regulation was doing all the way through.
I was out on patrol with the police on the M1 only six or seven weeks ago, and the concept that only Highways England traffic officers use their red lights in a live lane is tosh. They were sitting on the hard shoulder with us, and thank goodness they did, because we had some very near misses while we were waiting for a recovery vehicle. Telematics are available, so that could be stopped, and that is exactly what the industry is offering now, but we are not talking about live lanes; we are talking about the hard shoulder, where these people—I am sorry to use emotive language, Mr Davies—are frankly being wiped out. I am sorry, but the Department for Transport is not looking at this with an open mind; I will say that the Secretary of State is, because this debate is completely different from the conversation I had with him.
I assure my right hon. Friend that the Department is looking at this with an open mind, as I hope will become clear as I continue my remarks.
Apart from recovery operations, there are many other legitimate reasons for vehicles to operate on the roadside. We have to bear in mind that any move to extend the use of red flashing lights will need to consider those additional purposes and the broader effects. However, I emphasise that I am aware of the work of the all-party parliamentary group for roadside rescue and recovery and the Campaign for Safer Roadside Rescue and Recovery, and the excellent work they have been doing to engage with stakeholders and witnesses from across the industry to develop an evidence base to support the call for a change in regulation that my right hon. and hon. Friends have referred to.
I understand that the APPG’s call for evidence resulted in a number of detailed responses, including from the AA and RAC, two of the largest recovery operators in the UK. Responses were also received from the National Police Chiefs Council and several other organisations representing the interests of those involved in the industry and supporting those injured during their work. We will need to properly consult the blue-light emergency services on their views about the use of red lights on recovery vehicles, and I am conscious of the fact that this campaign has attracted the support of many right hon. and hon. Members of this House.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has raised this issue with me, in light of the conversation he had with my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead. I have discussed this matter with my officials, and I know that the Secretary of State has raised this point as well. In light of the work by this campaign, by my right hon. and hon. Friends and by the APPG and others, we have asked officials to carry out a review of the available evidence in the context of existing policy on red flashing lights, and seek advice on whether a more flexible approach might be appropriate. I think that is the principal wish of my right hon. and hon. Friends, and it is something that we can agree to. That review is expected to take several months, and it will be done efficiently.
In the meantime, I draw the attention of the House to the measures that recovery operators can already take to improve the conspicuity of their vehicles beyond amber warning beacons, within the existing regulatory framework. Those include the use of retro-reflective materials to increase conspicuity at night or under low-light conditions, and the use of fluorescent materials to improve daytime visibility. It is also possible to use additional rear position lights, brake lights and hazard warning lamps. Work lamps may be used to illuminate the working area for the operator when the vehicle is stationary, and illuminated signs reading, for example, “recovery vehicle” may be used.
In the longer term, the Government recognise the need for better evidence and are currently undertaking a review of the national casualty data that we collect. As part of that review, consideration will be given to the merits of collecting specific casualty data for personnel performing roadside recovery or repair. I heard what my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead said at the beginning of this debate, and we will look into that issue.
I would certainly expect, and will require, that my officials have the fullest possible reference to the work of the APPG on this subject.
My Department has awarded the RAC Foundation almost half a million pounds to pilot new ways of investigating road crashes. It will trial a different approach to identifying and understanding common themes and patterns that result in death and injury on the public highway, and can help to shape future policy.
I believe that operators using the broad range of measures available to them and following the best practice guidance set out by the SURVIVE group should be able to recover stranded vehicles in relative safety. However, as I have mentioned, the Department for Transport is very conscious of the excellent work that that group does. We will be reviewing this issue over the coming months, and will undertake a review of existing policy and report back.
Question put and agreed to.
Child Maintenance Service
[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effectiveness of the Child Maintenance Service.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank everyone for attending, and the House of Commons Library and the digital engagement team for their contributions to the debate.
Members are likely all aware that the Child Maintenance Service, which administers the 2012 child maintenance scheme, is frequently raised by various means in this place. This year alone, up until the end of last week, 28 cross-party MPs, including me, have asked a total of 109 parliamentary questions directly related to child maintenance. On the Floor of the House, three MPs have suggested holding a debate. All those instances correlate to the processes and the performance of the Child Maintenance Service, which is failing many constituents across the British Isles—both paying and receiving parents.
No problem—I appreciate that.
The last request for a debate on improving the Child Maintenance Service was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley), who secured an Adjournment debate on the Child Maintenance Service some 20 months ago, to highlight concerns about the inadequacies of the service that she had become aware of through her constituency work. Those concerns include the struggles and inconsistencies faced by constituents dealing with the Child Maintenance Service, as well as sensitive safety issues faced by domestic abuse survivors.
I commend my hon. Friend’s efforts to remove the 4% charge that parents with care who have survived domestic abuse have to pay when they are left with no option but to use the collect and pay service. Besides effectively meaning that 4% of children’s maintenance entitlement goes to the Treasury, it is also a means for an abusive paying parent to perpetuate their control over the receiving parent, thereby continuing the cycle of abuse. As my hon. Friend highlighted in November 2017, it is commonly known that one of the biggest impediments to domestic abuse survivors achieving independence from the abusive relationship relates to financial control.
All those months ago, the Minister responding to my hon. Friend’s debate, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), advised that the Government aimed
“to take immediate action to re-establish compliance wherever a parent fails to pay what they owe”
and that one of their priorities was ensuring that action was taken
“to maintain compliance in the statutory scheme, so that…children can benefit from maintenance payments.”—[Official Report, 16 November 2017; Vol. 631, c. 701-704.]
It will shortly become evident that that prioritisation is not happening, certainly in the cases that I will raise.
Another way the Child Maintenance Service has been raised is through a private Member’s Bill sponsored by my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows). The Child Maintenance Bill aims to remove certain fees charged by the Child Maintenance Service, and to make provisions for child maintenance payment calculations. The Bill was read the First time on 6 November last year, but still awaits its Second Reading. Perhaps the time has come for it to make some progress.
Furthermore, just last month the Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2019, which amend child maintenance legislation to enable the delivery of the child maintenance compliance and arrears strategy, were approved in the House. The then Minister, who is also present today, announced that the Child Maintenance Service was working well, and pointed to the
“tough new sanctions for those who evade their responsibilities”.—[Official Report, 11 June 2019; Vol. 661, c. 583.]
However, I called for today’s debate because, as its regular appearances in parliamentary matters, which I have just highlighted, clearly show, the Child Maintenance Service might be working well for some but is certainly not working well for all. The debate requests that relate in particular to the processes and performance of the Child Maintenance Service show that many constituents across the British Isles, both paying and receiving parents, are being let down by the current system.
I warmly welcome the introduction of tough new sanctions for those who evade their parental responsibilities, but if the enforcement actions are not applied they are a blunt tool that does nothing to encourage paying parents to meet their obligations. We must not see a repeat of the National Audit Office report of March 2017, which noted that, compared with 2012-13, in 2015-16 there had been, with regard to the use of some types of collection and enforcement action in respect of arrears due for the 1993 and 2003 schemes, a 69% decrease in the use of deductions from earnings orders; a 73% decrease in bailiff referrals; a 77% decrease in liability orders, which allow enforcement powers to be used; and a 98% decrease in prosecutions.
Today’s debate will consider the difficulties faced by so many of our constituents and the reasons why the Child Maintenance Service is failing them. In doing so, our discussions will hopefully also consider what can be done to remedy those failings, so that all children can benefit from receiving maintenance payments that are consistent and compatible with the paying parent’s income level.
In my constituency alone, I have been contacted by 55 people who have essentially reached crisis point due to the treatment that they have received because of the Child Maintenance Service procedures. Those 55 cases represent the tip of the iceberg in my opinion. It has an impact across extended families as well. A father of one parent with care felt compelled to speak to me independently to describe the financial and emotional devastation that his daughter and grandchildren were experiencing because the paying parent was doing everything in his power to dodge his responsibilities.
I will momentarily discuss that case in more detail, and others in my constituency, but there must be a fundamental deficit in any system that allows that to happen. We must do all that we can to address that deficiency. The numbers that I am seeing suggest hundreds of detrimentally affected family members in my constituency alone, and tens of thousands across the UK. Clearly, the ineffectiveness of the Child Maintenance Service has a negative impact on a significant number of people.
That is certainly supported by the nearly 1,000 people who responded to the House of Commons Facebook post and the Mumsnet thread that invited comments ahead of the debate. I thank each and every person who made the effort to share their experiences on those forums —many of them were quite traumatic tales. Unfortunately, time limitations restrict me from disseminating individual accounts, although I will highlight the stories of my constituents, which mirror many of the issues raised on those forums. However, I can state that almost none of the paying and receiving parents who responded had had a positive experience in dealing with the Child Maintenance Service. Recurring themes included problems arising from payments being calculated on gross income and on incorrect and out-of-date information, and how calculations result in poverty and debt, which lead to mental health impairment and even suicidal tendencies. Additionally, users experience inconsistent information and standards of service.
My constituent Susie first approached me nearly four years ago, in September 2015, after the father of her children moved to self-employed status and dramatically decreased the maintenance he paid for his children’s upkeep. Indeed, during the non-resident parent’s change of employment status he paid nothing towards his children’s upkeep for almost a year. Susie suspected that he was not being truthful about his declared earnings, as they did not equate with the lifestyle he enjoyed. She approached the Child Maintenance Service to investigate but was duly advised to contact Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which in turn told her to contact a private investigator—an unlikely financial priority when someone is struggling to provide for their children. HMRC procedures are arguably another matter for debate in this place, but that will have to wait for another day.
Before the 2012 child maintenance scheme was introduced, the resident parent could apply for a variation if a non-resident parent had either a lifestyle inconsistent with their income or assets of more than £65,000. In May 2017, the Work and Pensions Committee called for those provisions for parents to challenge child maintenance awards on the grounds of assets and lifestyle inconsistent with income to be reinstated—a call that I reiterate and support—and two private Members’ Bills have been introduced since April 2017 that have, thus far unsuccessfully, sought to implement such a change. However, although the Government’s position is that they have
“no plans to reintroduce this provision”,
they have, since December 2018, introduced a new notional income criterion that they say would
“be useful in a range of scenarios including where we believe paying parents have made an effort to use complex financial arrangements to evade their responsibility.”
At least one step has therefore been made in tackling that type of liability dodging, but it needs decisive action to back it up, not the decrease in action that I have witnessed.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for setting out the issues so clearly. I have a constituency case at the moment in which the absent father’s business is clearly doing very well—we just have to look at his Facebook page to see how much business is coming his way—yet his employer and the director of his business, who happens to be his mum, claims that the business has no income at all. That is not an uncommon situation. Does my hon. Friend agree that more has to be done to punish those who would try to get round the current system to get out of paying for their own children?
I agree with everything my hon. Friend says. That type of scenario is one of the recurring themes that I have seen repeatedly in the 55 cases that my office is dealing with.
After five months and numerous interventions, it was eventually accepted by the Department for Work and Pensions’ financial investigations unit that the paying parent did have additional unreported income, yet my constituent’s hardships continued when she was asked to complete a variation form that would start an investigation, as there had been no record of contact before 12 February 2016. My office forwarded a complaint that was finally responded to 10 months later, in December 2016.
Six months after that, Susie found herself in a similar situation and had to make another formal complaint to the Child Maintenance Service because of its inefficiency, which resulted in a second conciliatory payment being made to her. Then, in October 2017, she won an appeal that the paying parent had raised, and wrote to the Child Maintenance Service with some queries about the award. However, despite numerous calls and letters, she received no response until January 2018, after seeking my intervention again.
I could continue to relay the consistent and ceaseless catalogue of errors that constitutes Susie’s case; suffice it to say that, currently, the paying parent has raised yet another appeal, while Susie is still waiting to receive the award from the first tribunal and has had to make another formal complaint, due to the Child Maintenance Service again ignoring her correspondence and thereby not complying with its own guidelines. Four years down the line, and around 90 recorded interventions on my constituent’s case later, there is no conclusive resolution to her difficulties.
Despite the availability of a spectrum of collection actions and enforcement powers to collect arrears, they are seldom used. Indeed, the single parent charity Gingerbread has contended that there can be
“a lot of prevarication and foot dragging”
before the CMS uses its powers to collect arrears; the Work and Pensions Committee said in May 2017 that the data published by the Child Maintenance Service
“reinforced the impression provided by stakeholders that the CMS is reluctant to use its enforcement powers.”
Sadly, Susie’s is not an isolated case. Another constituent, Anne-Marie, contacted me last August after enduring three years with no financial support from her child’s father. In this case, the paying parent had been so unco-operative with the Child Maintenance Service that he had been put on to a deductions from earnings order, where his employer was obliged to make maintenance payments directly from his wages to the Child Maintenance Service. However, to avoid the 20% charge that that method of payment incurred, the paying parent requested to go on to the direct pay system, cutting out both his employer and the Child Maintenance Service, and leaving the receiving parent dependent on his sense of fairness. Without my constituent’s permission, his request was granted.
Anne-Marie eventually received an apology from the Child Maintenance Service for doing that, but the admission of regret did not prevent her difficulties from escalating. The Child Maintenance Service did not tell the paying parent’s employer that it had changed the payment method, resulting in another payment being sent to it that it refused to pass on to the receiving parent. By August, when Anne-Marie contacted me, she had not received any child maintenance for nearly six months and that continued, despite the deductions from earnings order being reinstated, for another four months. By the time she finally received a payment, nearly 10 months had passed.
The reinstated payments were short-lived and they lapsed again after a payment on 25 January 2019. Instead of the service complying with the evidence given by the DWP to the Work and Pensions Committee in 2016 and 2017 that
“all cases move across to enforcement immediately after the first missed payment was missed”,
Anne-Marie had to contact the service herself on 4 March. She discovered that, once again, no action had been taken. On 11 March, she wrote to me again, explaining the reality of her frustrations. I quote from her correspondence:
“I am finding it difficult to get in constant contact with them as I am on hold for at least 20 minutes before I even get through to someone then I need to explain the whole case to a stranger which then takes at least 30/45 mins. I cannot always do this during my work time and after work they are reduced to skeleton staff at CMS and are unable to help. I am at my wits’ end and do not know how I can progress with this.”
This was a common sentiment in many of the cases.
One of my staff members contacted the Child Maintenance Service on 26 April to try to understand the failings in this case. When she asked why immediate action was not being taken when the deductions from earnings order was not being complied with, she was told that although the CMS is alerted as soon as a payment is missed, it does not have the resources—the staff—to deal with it immediately, as the staff work chronologically. When she further enquired why no enforcement action had been taken against the employer, despite it not complying three times, she was told that any court action raised is stopped if there is subsequently compliance, which means the whole cycle has to start again if the employer makes another payment and then it stops again. It is a constant stop/start process. My staff member was ultimately advised that the procedures for enforcing the payment of arrears in child maintenance were not being adhered to because the operational powers laid out in legislation fall short in practice.
Speaking to Anne-Marie again on 10 July revealed that, after all this time and despite my involvement, things have still not improved for her. That is hardly surprising. During the Adjournment debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East, the Minister said:
“We are continuing to increase the operational resources allocated to enforcement, with 290 full-time enforcement case managers in place as of September 2017.”—[Official Report, 16 November 2017; Vol. 631, c. 701.]
In answer to a written parliamentary question, I was advised last week that the overall head count of part-time and full-time enforcement case managers on 30 June 2019 equated to an overall full-time equivalent resource of 220.91, with 104 being employed full time. Clearly, operational resources have not been increased; they have actually decreased. It is therefore also unsurprising that Department for Work and Pensions figures show that arrears owed in respect of child maintenance rose by more than £7 million in just three months, between December 2018 and March 2019.
It is not only the receiving parents who are being failed by the Child Maintenance Service. One of my constituents, Craig, had a shortfall of direct payments due to work circumstances. The shortfall amounted to about £90, which he paid after the Child Maintenance Service contacted him. He contacted me in February, because even though he provided proof of payment to the CMS several times, it continued to arrest his wages without any warning. Three weeks later, the Child Maintenance Service found the evidence that Craig had in fact paid the outstanding amount that he had been contacted about. However, he was not refunded the 20% charge that had been incurred, or even offered an apology.
It has been well documented that the 2012 child maintenance scheme was designed to encourage parents to work together following separation and, where possible, make private, family-based arrangements for the child. That premise was reiterated in the Commons Chamber when the statutory instrument to the child support regulations was commended to the House last month. Yet, although both Craig and the receiving parent in this case agreed that direct pay would work best for them, that option was not facilitated by the Child Maintenance Service.
On 6 March, a payment breakdown was requested to clarify what payments were to be paid and when they were to be expected and, up until yesterday, that had still not been received. Craig’s experience has been that he was not listened to and was, in fact, harassed; it made him feel that the system was biased against the paying parent. That feeling has been echoed in correspondence that I have received over the last four days from people in other constituencies all over the British Isles—one of whom actually said that the Child Maintenance Service
“encourages parental alienation and assists financial abuse and coercive control.”
I find it deeply regrettable that the situations I have highlighted here today, and those I have very recently become aware of but have been unable to highlight due to time constraints, indicate that the Child Maintenance Service is not fulfilling its charter commitments to keep the interests of children at the heart of everything it does, by being responsive, reliable and respectful of the best ways to manage individual cases.
In each of the three constituency cases that I have highlighted, and in others beyond, the lack of communication between the Child Maintenance Service and the paying and receiving parents has been a significant factor. That could be so easily remedied, yet would be an important amelioration for the service users. I hope the Minister will take that on board.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. For the past four to five years, I have been the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on alternative dispute resolution. I am also an associate of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, with a professional interest in mediation. I pay special tribute to all those who carry out mediation in the difficult circumstances of a family break-up. It is far better for parents to come to their own arrangements than have a one-size-fits-all approach imposed on them. I have seen that in my professional and personal experience.
The Child Maintenance Service sets out a process for reaching an amicable agreement. It is not a naive, buddy-buddy approach for trying to get people to work together. It recognises that there are fundamental differences and difficulties that have arisen as a result of the break-up of a marriage. It encourages civility in the way people address each other and take forward their discussions, which leaves the CMS to deal with the really difficult cases—the ones in which there is a tremendous amount of acrimony. Indeed, I would suggest that most cases we face, and the cases that the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) has described, fall into the category of difficult cases that do not lend themselves to amicable agreement.
Despite the times we live in, we recognise that it is usually the mother who has custody of the children, but that is not always the case. Fathers can face crisis because their circumstances have changed. However, each case is unique and takes time to work out. To go back to what I said earlier, they cannot face a one-size-fits-all approach. All such cases are emotionally charged—they have to be, given the circumstances in which they occur. When they are emotionally charged, there is enormous potential for complaints. I have come across many mistakes made by the CMS that have left people with very little disposable income.
Under the previous Secretary of State or the one before her, I put forward a complete list of things in the benefits system and CMS—not to complain about them, but to help her focus on how to improve them. It is a great shame that nothing has come of them. If I forward to the Minister the list of things that I had already forwarded to the Secretary of State, will he take them up to ensure that we can deal with these problems as we go along?
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that on many occasions—certainly in my constituency case load—the cases are primarily about a change in circumstances that has been notified to the Child Maintenance Service, but for some reason the notification has not been acknowledged and acted on? It is only months later, after a lot of trauma and difficulty, that it is rectified. It could all too easily have been resolved if it had been investigated at the time when the information was forwarded.
The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly legitimate case for the sort of example that he gives. I agree that speed is of the essence in dealing with these things, but the CMS has simply brushed over some cases. The system has not been fully explained to either party so that they understand exactly what will happen, what their rights are, and how they can deal with the case. In my experience, it is also true that many of the individuals involved in these difficult cases have not had explained to them in detail what information is required of them. There is a tremendous amount of going back to the beginning and helping people through this process.
The CMS has plenty of powers to ensure that people do not disguise their true income, and that we fully take into account unearned income—for example, income from property and land. The CMS has the power to remove passports, to cope with the situation in which an errant former spouse might have gone off to sun himself on the beaches of Monte Carlo and is not paying his child maintenance.
This whole situation is quite new, and we need to wait a little time to allow it to work itself out, so that we can see whether the CMS can be made to work better. However, it is showing itself to be slow and, as the hon. Gentleman described, failing to take action when cases have been brought before it. That means one thing: it is not the other parent, but the child, who loses out. That should be at the centre of all our thoughts and all that we are trying to do with the CMS.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) on securing this important debate, and on his comprehensive introduction to the subject. Like him and other hon. Members, I receive many complaints about the Child Maintenance Service. It is one of the constant themes in constituency surgeries—so much so that I recently took the opportunity in business questions to call for a debate on whether the service is meeting expectations. In my view, it often falls short. Following that request, the Minister’s predecessor invited me to come and meet him—to his credit, he took an active interest in the issues I raised, and I was impressed by his commitment to refine and update the system. It is true that there is a very difficult balance to be struck, and there are always examples of where the system is not working, so I welcome the opportunity to raise certain issues.
My constituents feel that the system is not doing as well as it could do. It is no exaggeration to say that the issues I will raise are matters that my caseworker and I were progressing through only last Friday. It seems to be a common theme that issues arise very frequently. It is not good enough, for a service that is supposed to support vulnerable people at their time of need. In an ideal world we would not need such a service because parents could reach an agreement between themselves, with no third-party involvement, and stick to those arrangements. However, we do not live in an ideal world, and it is quite often necessary for the Child Maintenance Service to get involved. It hopefully ensures, at least in theory, that the parents contribute to the cost of bringing up their children after a relationship has broken down.
Meeting the needs of children should be the most important thing. The reality is that child maintenance is a vital source of income for many families, especially those on low incomes. Gingerbread reports that child maintenance lifts a fifth of low-income, single-parent families out of poverty, so we cannot underestimate the impact that a good system has on improving children’s lives.
It is deeply concerning that we have several cases of non-payment at the moment. Of course, constituents do not come and see us to say that the payments are all going through smoothly. I am sure that hon. Members have very similar experiences—I am particularly talking about cases in which the paying parent has been on the collect and pay service, but after six months of compliance they request a move to direct pay, to avoid the fees that the collect and pay service incurs. Unfortunately, we often find that payments are not received once the paying parent has moved back to direct pay, leaving the receiving parent having to chase the matter through the Child Maintenance Service until it refers the case back again to collect and pay. That whole process can often result in several months of no maintenance payments being received; obviously, that can leave parents financially vulnerable. That is not just the case for my constituents; Gingerbread said in its survey that receiving parents are often forced into lengthy, time-consuming efforts to recover late payments.
Much more consideration should be given to the history of payments before it is agreed that someone can leave the collect and pay service. A history of many years of non-payment or late payments should not be disregarded just because of six months of compliance where compulsion is involved. Non-payment leads to arrears, which in the worst case can run to thousands of pounds and can add additional difficulties in getting regular payments made on time.
Although the Government have introduced measures to improve enforcement and collection of arrears, I am concerned that the level of arrears is creeping up. The lack of effective enforcement could be a cause, which would not surprise me since some of my constituents feel that the Child Maintenance System is often more concerned about meeting the priorities of the paying parent than the receiving parent. It seems to take the view that some payment is better than no payment at all, and it does not want to push the paying parent too hard for fear of losing everything. I understand that anxiety, but it can be interpreted as a desire to limit the number of cases administered through the collect and pay service. That view is bolstered by the Department’s evidence to the Select Committee on Work and Pensions in 2017, in which it said that it knew that some parents were staying in an ineffective direct pay arrangement rather than moving to collect and pay.
The 25% threshold for changes in income that has to be reached before payments are recalculated is artificially high. If someone gets an annual cost-of-living pay rise each year, it could be a decade before a recalculation is needed.
My constituents are experiencing unreasonably delays with the complaints resolution team. In one case, we have been waiting two months for a response from the Child Maintenance Service. Despite regular chasing in another case, we have been waiting three months for a decision on reimbursement that was referred to the service by the Minister’s predecessor some time ago. Such long delays cause unnecessary emotional and financial stress, leaving the parent without the day-to-day support that they are trying to recover.
Finally, I would like to say a little about my caseworkers. We all benefit from the hard work of caseworkers, and I pay tribute to those who, day in, day out, work very hard for the people for Ellesmere Port and Neston. When they raise child maintenance issues, they usually use the MP correspondence unit in the first instance. However, there are occasions when the issue is more about the way the legislation works. In that case, it is appropriate for me to raise those matters with the Minister directly. However, my caseworkers find that even in those cases, they are sometimes referred to the director of the Child Maintenance Group rather than the Minister. That leads me to question whether the Minister sees the issues raised. I hope that the Minister, if he remains the Minister—he could be elevated to much-deserved higher office very shortly—will investigate those concerns.
I should make it clear that the Child Maintenance Service is operating far more effectively than the Child Support Agency did. I have an example of how poor the old system was. A constituent’s income had significantly increased but the CSA did not carry out any recalculation, so he assumed that he did not need to increase his maintenance payments. When his son reached 18 and his case was closed, it decided to recalculate and found that he owed £17,000. He clearly owed that money, but because the system did not work properly, he is now paying his ex-wife a considerable amount every month for the care of his son who is now an adult and living with him. That is an absurd situation, which I hope we will not see under the new regime.
With child benefit and child tax credits frozen since 2016, child poverty on the rise and nearly half of all children in lone-parent families in poverty, it is vital that we get this right. The Child Maintenance Service must deliver, and it must do so promptly, reasonably and fairly.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) on securing this important and timely debate.
My constituents continue to bring me their concerns and issues with the Child Maintenance Service. I am grateful for the way that my exceptionally capable casework team at Borestone Crescent in Stirling, Rachel Nunn and Euan Blockley, deal with them. There are undoubtedly good people at the Child Maintenance Service—I pay tribute to them for their hard work and service—but I am concerned about what my constituents and my caseworkers tell me when they come to my office to get help.
People understandably already feel fraught and upset—they are in a situation that they never anticipated, and feel vulnerable and sometimes deeply hurt and angry. That means that communication on these sensitive matters must be clear and understandable. Too many vulnerable people caring for children feel that the system is less than transparent and too confusing. Sometimes, for good reason, they feel lost or trapped in a process they do not fully understand, and they are frustrated and upset.
The good people at the CMS often deal with very sensitive cases; I can only imagine how hard it is. That said, I know too many constituents who feel they have been treated unfairly—being left hanging on the phone for ages, as has been mentioned; not being able to speak to the relevant people despite repeated attempts to contact them directly; being accused of lying and cheating. I am not saying those cases are typical—the Minister knows that—but they are the examples that are brought to my attention by my constituents, who have contacted me because they feel they are being failed by the CMS in some respect. I want to give them a voice.
I mentioned clarity of communication. When my constituents come to see me and my caseworkers, they usually bring the correspondence they have received from the CMS. The feedback I get, and my own experience, is that those letters are hard to read and even harder to understand. Notices of changes to payments come with little or no explanation. That is upsetting to people who already feel very insecure. There is the matter of backdated payments, which was also touched on. Sometimes it is just not clear to my constituents how a calculation has been made. People feel confused about what they are reading, but there are no immediate answers because communication with the CMS is not easy.
There is too often a problem with conflicting advice. My constituents say that they are told one thing on one day by one person they speak to at the CMS, and something different the next day when they speak to someone else. That concerns me, as I know it will the Minister. Quite rightly, the CMS tries to get parents to sort things out between themselves—that is a good principle—but when that fails, the CMS needs to take prompt action to give support to families with children. It is often slow, for some unfathomable reason, to escalate its support and to use collect and pay.
I am sure the Minister has heard this many times before, probably from me: I understand the 20% collection fee on the paying parent, but I still do not understand why the receiving parent should have to pay 4% on an ongoing basis. I can fully understand the principle of encouraging both parents to sort things out for themselves, but on an ongoing basis, where there is obfuscation on the part of the paying parent and where the receiving parent most often needs every penny they can get their hands on, why should they have to go on paying a fee on what is collected for their children?
I acknowledge the challenges of collection. There are challenges when the paying parent’s income is not evident or is disguised or hidden, or the person is self-employed, and through some invisible support they declare little or no net income year upon year, or they keep changing jobs and cannot be tracked down. But what difference have the measures announced a year ago made to the performance of the CMS in limiting child maintenance avoidance? What has been the impact, for example, of beefing up the financial investigation unit at the DWP? Is the Minister, a man I greatly admire and respect, satisfied that the current set of enforcement powers is adequate? Is it now beyond question in the Minister’s mind—because the question arises in other people’s minds—that the CMS is fit for purpose? May I seek assurances in respect to the actual day-to-day delivery of the CMS client services? I want to be specific about this.
First, does the client system that the CMS uses flag outstanding action points? My constituents have to go through the whole story every time they phone up. Why does not the system alert the CMS managers when actions and feedback are due to go to clients? In my experience, in just about every setting, too much communication is a bad thing. Secondly, is there a standard for answering calls and speaking to clients? Constituents tell me that they wait a very long time to get a call answered and then are kept waiting before they can speak to the relevant contact. Cutting waiting times on the phone alone will reduce the levels of frustration that people who need the help of the CMS experience.
Finally, is there a searchable system of frequently asked questions that CMS managers and officers can use to answer routine questions, so that the advice is not only correct every time, but consistent? Consistency in advice to vulnerable people is an undoubted virtue, and greatly desirable. We have put in place a system because it is essential for the sake of the people whom we should keep in focus—the children in families that have split up. It is no fault of the child if their parents decide to end their relationship. We should therefore move heaven and earth to support the welfare of our children. In most cases people will stand up to their responsibility and provide for their children, but where they do not, we must take all steps to see that support is paid. We have a duty to get that right and to be as fair as possible. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply.
I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for setting the scene so well, with lots of detail. The thrust of the issue is this: no matter what constituency we hail from, I can guarantee that questions have been raised over the effectiveness of the Child Maintenance Service. Each of us who has spoken so far, and the others who will speak after, will reinforce that.
On the news I have read numerous reports of single parents being left with thousands of pounds of debt because of the loopholes that the scheme is cluttered with. In my own office, not a month goes by without several Child Maintenance Service cases, and each one is unbelievably annoying and frustrating for my staff and me. They are even more frustrating for those trying to get the money that they are owed. There are issues with non-resident parents finding a loophole through being self-employed.
The biggest issue is with the self-employed. My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) referred to how their circumstances change. I will give a couple of examples, without mentioning any names. When we understand the resources that somebody had three months ago and what they suddenly have today or maybe a year later, we wonder what happened. Did they lose it all on the horses? Where did it go? I am talking about people who own properties and cars and so on. There are many such cases because of the complicated financial arrangements required, which raises the issue of the effectiveness of the Child Maintenance Service alone. We know that the Minister is really interested in his subject matter and is committed to what he does. I appreciate that, but there needs to be change, especially for the self-employed.
My constituents tell me that another problem is that when they phone up the Child Maintenance Service, they get a different person every time and have to tell their story again. There must be a methodology. I understand that there is a high turnover of staff in the Child Maintenance Service, probably because of the complications of the job. Some people stay, but not enough. I suspect that that is because of their knowledge of the subject. Despite the legal requirement for the ex-partner to help cover the expenses of the single parent, the majority of whom—not all—are women, it has been reported that that is not the case. According to a National Audit Office report in 2017, the DWP acknowledged that 75% of alleged arrears were impossible to collect. Are they impossible to collect? Perhaps some might be. It is possible that people could be out of work or could be ill, but I suggest they are trying to avoid making their child maintenance payments.
Some figures show that the DWP does not track compliance for the monthly payment scheme for seven in 10 cases. With respect, I say to the Minister that tracking compliance seems elementary for the DWP and should be done without any nudging or requests from anyone in this debate today. Clearly, the Child Maintenance Service has far to go before we can extol the work being done. I am also mindful of the civil servants working in one of the most highly pressured situations. They do their best, but are tied by what it is becoming clear to me is ineffective legislation and regulation. Some of the staff members tell me that we need better legislation, better regulation and resources as well. If that is the case, let us see whether we can do that.
Figures from UK law firm Slater and Gordon have identified that 11% of mothers have been forced to depend on food banks to provide food for their children. This is factual. It is a fact in my constituency and is a fact for the mothers as well. We have food banks in my constituency of Strangford. I have seen the mothers come in. A self-employed person who has a fairly high standard of living has left the mother with the children, and with the mortgage as well, because they have walked off and left it. They probably had a joint credit card and the male partner has run up the debt. I must be careful with my language and remember we are in Westminster Hall in the House of Commons. They have cleared off—I was thinking of another word, but I cannot use it—and left the credit card debt for the mother to find. It makes me, and I suspect others, very angry. The aim of the scheme was to ensure that that did not happen, and it is very sad that some parents—I stress the word “some”—will not play their part in feeding their family after they have left the home.
Other husbands who have left their wives have made payments voluntarily, so some people do the right thing, but then we come to cases such as the one I had in the office a month ago. The guy had multiple properties and a six-figure sum in the bank, and all of a sudden, within less than nine months or thereabouts, it was all away. Where has it gone? Why are the wife and the children not being looked after when clearly there were resources there? Again, circumstances change. He moves house and it seems to be a game of cat and mouse to try to get him, but it goes on and on.
Department for Work and Pensions figures show that CMS arrears rose in the three months between December and March by £7.4 million. Clearly, the DWP is not getting the money that it should. If the figures rise, it tells me that more cases are coming in, but it also tells me that the DWP is not being effective. The problem is not getting better or being fixed, which is why I support this matter being discussed in this House today and the call for action to be taken. At the end of the day—the Members who spoke before mentioned this; this is the real issue for me—it is the children who miss out, caught in the middle of this mess. It is grossly unfair. They deserve better, and it is up to us as Members of Parliament, and I gently say to the Minister it is up to the DWP, to ensure that they are given better. Those poor children should not have their parents turning to food banks to feed them when there is a parent in work, who should be doing the right thing by them. The system needs to be either reformed or completely reworked.
I have given examples, and there are others, with people who drive around in flashy cars. I know how the system works, and it is possible; but I will say this: it takes diesel or petrol to fill the car up. If someone is living in a fancy house, whether rented or not, and is going out to dinner at least twice a week, that is an over-indulgent lifestyle if there is an ex-wife down the road with children who is not getting the money. Those are the things in the stories I am told, and sometimes I see such things from people I know, never mind anyone else. I am pleased that the majority of people make their commitment and pay their money. There is another example fresh in my mind, concerning a guy who had a very successful business. He and his wife had parted company; it was not her fault, by the way. He decided one day to close the business, and had no resources. Yet he left her with a debt and the children to feed. People sometimes engineer circumstances to ensure that they do not have to make any payment.
The figures I referred to are outrageous. It is pretty clear from them that the CMS is not as effective as it could be. That is no fault of the staff. According to what they tell me, there is a need for better legislation, regulation and resources. The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk mentioned someone being told to hire a detective to do a private investigation and to come back with the details. I know that it takes time to get together the detail and information, especially if someone is deliberately trying to avoid paying for their children. I know how difficult it becomes, but I stress that it is the children who miss out.
If not for the sake of the single parents out there, act for the sake of the children. The least that they deserve is a system that ensures their parents get the money they are entitled to, to feed and water them, and look after them. The cases of missed payments and the lack of action from the CMS need to disappear. We need a better system and a better way of handling things, before the next batch of children reach their teens and look back to see that their mothers have slogged and sacrificed and never got a penny of help. It is not only figures in a bank account that we are discussing; it is the quality of lives of children in the UK. Change is needed to get things right and make people accountable for their children, as they should be. As to those who deliberately try to avoid paying, we must catch them and make them accountable.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) on securing this important debate.
The question of the effectiveness of the CMS is one that my team and I frequently discuss in the office, after yet another case is brought forward. I suspect that all of us in the Chamber could have used up 90 minutes ourselves, talking about our experience. I am grateful that we have the opportunity to air some of the issues today. I want to focus on two cases that my office has been dealing with that sum up the issues that both paying and receiving parents often face.
One case that I have been working on for a long time, of which the Minister is aware, concerns a paying parent who has gone through much adversity throughout his life. Following the breakdown of the relationship, the receiving parent took the case to the CMS, which contacted HMRC and obtained the most recent income information from 2015. My constituent at that time had a well-paid job, so the maintenance calculation was substantial, but he had left that employment in the previous tax year and, combined with the breakdown of his relationship and the sudden death of his brother, who was killed in a hit and run, he struggled to cope mentally. Nevertheless, the maintenance calculation would obviously remain until he could prove that he no longer earned that income. He phoned up many times to start the process but could never follow it through because of a chaotic lifestyle and deteriorating mental health. He frequently went AWOL and would be uncontactable even by his family, who were having to help him with his rent and bills to try to get him back on his feet.
My constituent found the CMS unapproachable and difficult, and simply could not deal with the situation he was in. He did what many people do when they feel that they are at the bottom of a rut in their lives, and shut the whole situation out, not responding to or even opening letters. Despite a P60 the following tax year proving that he did not earn anywhere near the income on which the maintenance was based, the CMS refused to reconsider the decision. The paying parent was out of time to appeal, because he lacked the knowledge, capacity or support to do so, and is now thousands of pounds in arrears that are entirely incorrect, based on the CMS’s rules, and completely unpayable, owing to the dramatic decline in his income.
Of course, MPs frequently see receiving parents who have an incredibly difficult time getting the money they are owed. Recently, a receiving parent asked the CMS for a variation, as their ex-partner was earning about £100,000 per annum. As is common for someone on such an income, that paying parent had a rather good accountant and was able to disclose to the CMS an income of less than £400 per week—a completely bogus figure. The maintenance calculation was minuscule as a result. Other receiving parents have highlighted issues with their former partner diverting money into pension schemes and other arrangements, to reduce their income and hence their maintenance contributions.
While the CMS is there to ensure that paying parents pay their liabilities, it should have a responsibility to every person involved in the claim—the parent who is paying maintenance but in many cases is unable even to see their own child; the receiving parent who has lost a household income and is supporting a child, often on their own; and of course the child or children at the heart of the whole thing, whose family has broken down and who may now find themselves at the centre of an angry battle between their parents over maintenance. It is not right that some of our constituents are paying wrong amounts and incorrect arrears, and it is certainly not right that parents are not getting the money they are entitled to and are left struggling because of loopholes. The CMS has an incredibly difficult task, but while things have undoubtedly got better than they were under its predecessor organisation, it is not in my experience effective in handling particularly difficult or complex cases.
Relationship breakdowns are never easy on anyone, so it is essential to have a functional system, with an understanding that it is dealing with real people, who may be going through the most difficult times in their lives. Too often, dealing with the CMS can feel robotic and impersonal, with neither parent feeling properly listened to or supported. We can do better.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship again, Sir Edward. I sincerely congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) on securing this important debate.
Children living in single-parent families are at almost twice the risk of poverty of children who live with both parents. Tory austerity cuts, coupled with the rise in living costs, mean that maintenance matters even more to protect children from poverty. Victims and survivors of domestic abuse should be protected by the UK Government, not punished financially for their inability to engage with their abusive ex-partner. We have heard from hon. Members about various issues to do with the CMS. Indeed, I suggest that almost all Members who have spoken today could have exchanged speeches and still felt that what they said was their own.
My knowledge of the CMS comes from speaking with and helping both non-resident parents and parents with care who are let down by the system; however, it is ultimately children who are being let down. I am sure that many Members taking part today who advocate more effective enforcement will no doubt have received messages from non-resident parents who think that MPs are not standing up for them. I should like to put the record straight right now: the CMS is failing all parents and there are indeed ways in which it could be reformed to be fairer to everyone.
There are many non-resident parents who meet their full responsibilities and more. Everyone involved in this debate, and those watching it, should bear in mind that the CMS is about ensuring the welfare of children. I have been campaigning for its reform for some time. Indeed, I introduced a private Member’s Bill, the Child Maintenance Bill, based on the many issues that were highlighted as I tried to help constituents. The CMS has been roundly criticised by all parties in this place, which should signal to the Minister that it is time for sweeping reforms and an urgent root-and-branch review. The Government have a clear responsibility not just to parents or Parliament, but to the children whose lives can be changed for the better.
A cultural problem with enforcement exists in the CMS, which allows parents to evade their responsibilities, and arrears to build. Between December last year and March this year, arrears under the CMS rose by £7.4 million, from £966 million to £973.4 million. During the same period, £58.5 million was owed under CMS’s collect and pay service, through which the CMS monitors and pursues collections, yet only £40.6 million was paid. Some 33% of parents referred to the collect and pay service have paid nothing, and the remaining 67% can be guaranteed only to have paid “some” maintenance.
The UK Government wrote off £2.5 billion of arrears that had built up under the former Child Support Agency—money that still rightly belongs to children. The new CMS is now going down the same path because arrears are building up. The UK Government must crack down on enforcing payments to ensure that children receive their rightful maintenance. When £973.4 million of arrears have built up and that number is increasing, it is obvious that the CMS requires a full and thorough review.
Recent powers to confiscate passports look good on paper, but passport confiscations are seen as a PR stunt designed to scare parents into payment rather than direct enforcement. The Department for Work and Pensions estimated that approximately—wait for it —20 passports would be confiscated each year. Those are token powers, as well as being costly and time consuming to pursue. Greater emphasis must be placed on collecting arrears, and I hope the Minister will commit to ensuring a cultural shift within the CMS.
In Australia, departure prohibition orders are in use for those evading maintenance payments. The UK currently uses DPOs for tax evaders and those who have been dubbed “NHS tourists”. Unlike confiscating a passport, which takes time and lasts only for two years, DPOs can prevent people with two passports from leaving until their arrears are paid. Strict criteria could be applied before triggering a DPO, and I ask the Minister to consider such a provision. In most cases it is difficult to legislate to improve maintenance collection. We need an institutional willingness, both within the CMS and from Ministers, to crack down on non-payment.
Many hon. Members have already mentioned customer service, and from my experience, parents often testify that the quality of service offered by the CMS is extremely poor. My staff and I have also experienced that. The CMS uses an extremely complex system full of caveats. More must be done to inform parents about how it works. Common themes that emerge from my casework include a lack of explanation, differing explanations, a lack of consistency between caseworkers and a lack of written communication. More must be done to lift the standard of service generally.
Parents should be encouraged to make their own maintenance arrangements, but where that is not possible, parents with care should not be subject to the 4% maintenance tax. It is not right that a child is deprived of essential support because of their parent’s persistent non-payment. The UK Government have rightly waived the £20 application fee for victims of domestic abuse or violence, and the maintenance tax must also be waived. That tax is incurred by a parent through no fault of their own and exists as another act of harm against a non-resident parent’s ex-partner and their children. Will Ministers commit to looking seriously at the fairness of the maintenance tax on families?
On one particular point—the income change threshold —the law is unfair to non-resident parents. I agree with the former Minister that there must be a balance between financial stability for both parents and the operational efficiency of the CMS, but the 25% threshold can disproportionately benefit wealthier parents and impact on poorer parents when incomes change. We should not return to the 5% threshold of the CSA; instead, we should set a more reasonable threshold of between 15% and 20%. Will the Minister consider that proposal?
Many non-resident parents keep to their maintenance calculations and make the payments required of them to support their children. We should focus on improving the situation of those who are being let down by their ex-partner, the CMS, and the UK Government. A parent with care might find it difficult to find work that is flexible enough to accommodate caring for their child, or to afford childcare without giving up something else. They could be hit by the two-child tax credit cap, and might struggle to access the personal independence payment or see their income decrease under universal credit. They might find that a family-based arrangement is not possible, but if they approach the CMS, they are charged £20 for it to provide a calculation.
A parent might move on to the direct pay scheme, but find that their ex-partner refuses to meet payments. They might frequently report that to the CMS, but have to explain their situation to a new call handler every time. It is months before any action is taken, during which time the parent is unsure about what is going on because written communication is minimal—we heard from the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) about how difficult it can be to understand a written communication from the CMS.
The CMS may eventually use a deduction from earnings order, but perhaps the ex-partner earns much more and hides their income and fails to be properly assessed. Because the ability to request a variation for unearned income must be prompted and the parent with care might be unaware of that, maintenance calculations are frequently lower than they should be. Through no fault of their own, by having to rely on state help to force their ex-partner to pay for their child, the parent with care is charged a 4% maintenance tax when payments are eventually collected. That might be the worst-case scenario, but it is what many families experience.
We have heard from Members of all parties about the ways in which the CMS fails parents with care, non-resident parents and ultimately the children who rely on it. When discussing child maintenance, people often lose sight of why the CMS exists in the first place. We should all try our best to put party politics aside when discussing this issue—you will agree, Sir Edward, that we have achieved that today—but if there is continued inaction, then the party in government should rightly be held to account, especially if it is ignoring advice and views from its own members who have passionately advocated for reform through action.
As arrears under the CMS near £1 billion, the UK Government have been lucky that this issue has not received the public attention it deserves. People are right to criticise the Conservative party’s austerity agenda—universal credit, the two-child cap, the bedroom tax and all those other policies implemented by this Government. The growing debt owed to children in Scotland and the rest of the UK deserves to join that list. When the charity Gingerbread says that maintenance can lift one in five children out of poverty, the UK Government must sit up and listen.
Will the Minister conduct a full root-and-branch review of the Child Maintenance Service that must consider the 4% maintenance tax, lowering the income change threshold, the standard of service and an institutional shift to crack down on maintenance arrears, both current and historical? Children are at the centre of this debate and they should be at the centre of CMS and UK Government priorities. I hope the Government will listen to the concerns of Members and parents, and start to take radical action to secure the support that children truly deserve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for securing such an important debate and for his continued work on this issue.
Before I address the substantive and specific issues about the Child Maintenance Service, I want to start by recognising the timing of the debate and the context in which we are having it. This week, many schools across my constituency break up for the summer holidays, and of course, in the constituencies of Scottish Members, many have already done so. Summer holidays should be a time for fun, activities, rest and relaxation, but for far too many children, their experience—and, tragically, their future memories—will be of hunger, hardship and sadness.
A recent report from the Trussell Trust showed that food banks experienced a 20% rise in demand for emergency food parcels for children last summer. More than 87,000 food parcels went to children in the UK during the summer holidays in 2018, which was an increase of one fifth on 2017. Shockingly, the Trussell Trust is concerned that the summer holidays will be even busier this year, as overall demand continues to rise across the UK.
Whatever the challenges or otherwise of the administration and technicalities of the Child Maintenance Service, it is important to recognise, as hon. Members have argued, that it does not operate in isolation from the wider pressures and challenges on children and families. When we discuss it, we do so with the objective of ensuring that those children, who are often the most vulnerable, can access the support that every one of them deserves, as rightly argued by the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr).
Child maintenance payments can be vital for families, especially those on low incomes, to protect children from poverty. As my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), highlighted, research shows that they alone lift a fifth of low-income single-parent families out of poverty. We must remember that lone parents are particularly vulnerable to poverty. One in four is in persistent poverty, twice as many as in any other group, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The inadequacy of social security arguably makes child maintenance an even more vital source of income for struggling single parents.
We recognise the importance of ensuring that families and children receive what they are entitled to. However, as we have heard today, it is fair to say that there is limited evidence that the system is achieving that aim. A recent report from the charity Gingerbread has shown that there are major problems with the system of direct pay and, worse, that the Government are not doing anything to effectively address them. The Department for Work and Pensions does not track whether payments are made, which means that it cannot report on compliance in two thirds of cases.
According to Gingerbread, collect and pay charges are not sufficient to deter parents from not paying in full and on time, nor is there any evidence that it encourages collaboration between parents. Furthermore, it found that
“arrangements are prolonged by unclear thresholds for enforcement”,
with the Department experiencing a 69% decrease in the use of deduction from earnings orders,
“with inconsistent follow up from caseworkers and poor communication”,
as many hon. Members have highlighted. That is despite a previous ministerial pledge that the Department would act within 72 hours of a missed payment.
The Gingerbread report continued:
“The hands-off approach, compounded by poor administration, places the burden of responsibility for pushing for Direct Pay enforcement onto receiving parents”.
That will sound familiar to many hon. Members, who have constituents with similar stories from many other areas of the DWP’s responsibility. The fact that it feels so familiar suggests that the problem lies not with individual professional members of staff, but with the culture and leadership at the top of the Department. Indeed, some of the testimonials make it abundantly clear that the system is not working.
We must not forget that this is not simply a question of processes or systems; it is about children, relationships and emotions. A system that divorces itself from the realities, or ignores the consequences, is not fit for purpose. Parents interviewed by Gingerbread said:
“The balance of power is completely wrong. I have to basically keep him sweet so that he contributes”
“We had no other option…it’s just unbelievable that the child would have to pay 4 per cent out of their money when they’ve never done anything wrong.”
If the Government’s objective is to ensure that children do not become the victim, financial or otherwise, of relationship breakdown, it seems clear that that is not being met by the current approach. As we have heard, 33% of paying parents were non-compliant in the first quarter of 2019 and by the end of March 2019, cumulative arrears under the CMS were £275.3 million. That is £275.3 million that should be going to children. The cases that we have heard leave even more gaping holes in a system that should be supporting children.
We have several clear asks of the Minister. First, does he accept that the current system—not just the Child Maintenance Service, but many other aspects of social security, such as the five-week wait for universal credit, the benefits freeze and the two-child limit—is not fit for purpose and needs to change? Secondly, will he introduce tighter monitoring of direct pay compliance, so that we have a clear picture of its effectiveness? Thirdly, will he commit to introducing an improved and more transparent service so that we can ensure effective enforcement for late payments and offer hard-working staff the appropriate guidance, training and, importantly, as highlighted by hon. Members across the Chamber, resources? Fourthly, will he review the effectiveness of collect and pay charges for receiving parents?
There appears to be little evidence that the current arrangements encourage payment or communication between parents. The result is that many children end up paying a further penalty and some parents are forced to collaborate with a previous partner, which can create a toxic environment for the children.
I look forward to the Minister’s response. I very much hope that if we return to this subject in 12 months’ time, we will have an improved picture that fundamentally puts children centre stage.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time—and hopefully not the last, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) on securing this important debate on the Child Maintenance Service. I also thank hon. Members from both sides of the House for their contributions, which have been passionate, compelling and based largely on constituency cases. I know that, at the heart of it, everyone is driven by doing the right thing by the children involved.
I have met several hon. Members present to talk through some of the issues that their constituents have raised about the service. I have committed to making sure that we get things right first time. I also had the opportunity to hear directly from single parents during a recent visit to Gingerbread, where I heard at first hand about some of the important issues that they face.
Many points have been raised, so we have a lot to get through in a limited time. I stress that I hold regular surgery sessions, as many hon. Members present know, and I am happy to take offline any of the questions that I cannot cover in my response. I stress that I have been in post for just three months, and I would urge hon. Members across the Chamber not to underestimate my determination, while in this role, to improve the service.
I will start by setting out the Government’s approach. My Department is currently delivering a new child maintenance system, run by the Child Maintenance Service, which is designed to specifically address the shortcomings of the CSA.
My constituent understood that his case with the Child Support Agency was closed on agreement in 2003, and there had been no attempt to collect any moneys for the past 16 years. It is only as part of this closure programme that my constituent has been contacted and asked to pay £30,000. Does the Minister share my concern that there has been such a big gap and no attempt to collect the money? There is also conflicting guidance implying that some CSA arrears incurred before July 2006 can be statute-barred. Will the Minister clarify that and meet me to discuss the matter further?
My door is always open to colleagues from both sides of the House, and I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss that particular case in detail.
I mentioned the shortcomings of the CSA, which did not provide the right support to parents and was expensive to run. We have learned from mistakes of the past: where the previous system often drove a wedge between parents by taking away their responsibility and choice, the new system encourages collaboration at every stage. We know that a constructive, co-operative relationship between separated parents has a direct positive impact on child outcomes such as health, emotional wellbeing and academic attainment—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell). That is why, wherever possible, we support separated mothers and fathers to work together in the interests of their children and set up their own family-based maintenance arrangements.
Private family-based arrangements allow families to create flexible arrangements that work for their individual circumstances. Such flexible arrangements can include sharing of care, agreements over who will pay for essentials and treats, and financial transfers. They can change as the children grow and can help children to experience having both their parents take an active role in their lives.
We recognise that, post separation, the majority of parents want to continue to do the right thing for their children. We want to ensure that as many families as possible have an effective arrangement for maintenance in place; for those who are unable to make a private arrangement, the Child Maintenance Service provides the support of a statutory scheme. The Child Maintenance Service delivers a simplified statutory system with increased levels of automation, which allows cases to be processed much more quickly and with higher levels of accuracy than was achieved under previous schemes.
The CMS provides an effective, efficient service, to be used as a last resort where parents are unwilling to meet their responsibility to financially support their children voluntarily. This means that cases in the statutory service tend to be more difficult and relationships between the parents in these cases are often fraught and conflicted. While we continue to use all the tools at our disposal to maintain compliance and recover arrears, it is sadly inevitable that some arrears will accrue, as some parents go to great lengths to avoid their responsibilities. That is not acceptable and we are taking action to tackle it. Last November, this House approved regulations tackling a number of issues—closing down loopholes, introducing tough new sanctions for those who evade their responsibilities, and dealing with the historic arrears that built up under the Child Support Agency.
The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk and my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) raised questions about the CMS’s performance. The Child Maintenance Service is performing well. The most recent statistics show that 94% of new applications were cleared within 12 weeks and 79% of change of circumstances actions were cleared within 28 days. We are seeing unprecedentedly high levels of compliance, with 67% of parents due to pay child maintenance through the collect and pay service having paid some maintenance in the quarter ending March 2019, up from 60% one year earlier.
Although the case load on the service has been growing steadily since it opened in 2012, the number of complaints and appeals received still represents less than 1% of that case load. We have continued to refine our processes to maximise compliance and debt recovery. Debt as a proportion of all maintenance arranged by the service has fallen since the launch of the 2012 scheme, from 17% in March 2015 to 11% in March 2019.
A number of colleagues, in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling and the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), rightly mentioned customer service. The focus so far has largely been on tackling arrears and on recovery of debt, but my clear steer to officials is that I want the focus to be on customer services. We know that more than 80% of calls are answered, although I still think the 20% that are not is too many, and I want them answered in a timely fashion. My focus, while I remain in this role, will be on customer service.
A number of hon. Members raised the issue of enforcement, and we are taking far more action in that regard. We now have several court-based powers, including the use of enforcement agents, otherwise known as bailiffs, to seize goods, forcing the sale of the paying parent’s property. Approximately 7,100 paying parents in England and Wales are currently being pursued by civil enforcement agents for unpaid maintenance following a referral by the CMS.
Hon. Members also mentioned that the service can apply to have the paying parent sanctioned—by being committed to prison or disqualified from driving, for example. In addition to that, in regulations in November last year we launched the ability to disqualify non-compliant parents from holding a UK passport, which we believe will act as a strong deterrent. The service initiated 900 sanctions in the quarter ending March 2019 as a last resort against non-compliant paying parents.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised the question of complex earners. We are aware of a small number of parents whose maintenance liability is inconsistent with their financial resources. Some choose to support themselves via a complex arrangement of assets rather than taking a salary. We are taking action to address that.
Parents can request a variation so that most forms of taxable income can be taken into account in the maintenance calculation, which will make it harder for individuals to avoid their responsibilities by minimising the amount of child maintenance they pay. The new powers that we introduced last year allow us to target complex earners via a calculation of notional income based on assets. In addition to the gross annual income provided by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, we can capture income derived from property, savings and investments, including dividends, and other miscellaneous income. We also have the Financial Investigation Unit, which can investigate those parents who declare suspicious earnings or, where appropriate, refer to HMRC for tax fraud.
The FIU was first introduced in 2014, and since 2017 we have tripled the number of staff in that unit. It will look at any case where the receiving parent raises a concern over income and provides basic evidence to support it. I should stress that around 60% of FIU cases show no evidence of suppression of income. Nevertheless, it is an important part of the service. The hon. Gentleman also referred to the self-employed, which I suppose is similar to the situation of complex earners. We have new powers, enabling us to do deep-dive exercises and get to the bottom of cases where individuals are trying to suppress or disguise income. Perhaps I will meet him separately to go through that in a little more detail.
My hon. Friend the Member for Henley raised a number of points about the accuracy of CMS assessments. The accuracy of maintenance assessments has significantly improved; our annual client fund account shows that it is at 99%. Furthermore, the National Audit Office has not qualified CMS accounts for the past two years, which represents a significant improvement.
The hon. Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) and for Motherwell and Wishaw brought up the 25% threshold. I understand the concerns that they have raised. The point of the 25% threshold is to ensure that maintenance calculations are relatively stable, so both clients know what to expect in terms of payments. It also ensures that both parents are able to budget with certainty and provide ongoing maintenance for the child. I have met with the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw to discuss this, and it is important to stress that most people’s income does not change to that degree over the course of one year.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) and the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston—
I am sorry, Sir Edward. I am conscious that I have not been able to cover many of the issues raised, but I hope hon. Members can see that the latest statistics show that the reformed Child Maintenance System is already making a big difference to the lives of separated families. We are seeing progressive improvements to the efficiency of the service. Our priority remains ensuring that this service is fit for purpose and, while I am in post, I will continue to ensure that it is.
I am grateful to all the hon. Members who have come along and taken part today. There were many common themes, and, although I have no doubt that the system works for many, there remains a significant minority for whom it does not. We heard repeated themes of a lack of communication and of problems requiring faster action, greater use of enforcement powers and more action against those who are self-employed and are hiding their income. I am grateful for some of the points the Minister made, but the fact that the Financial Investigations Unit has existed since 2014 suggests that clearly there are still problems. I hope that, with the additional staffing it has gained, we will see further action in the future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the effectiveness of the Child Maintenance Service.
Vanessa George: Early Release from Prison
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
That this House has considered the early release of Vanessa George from prison.
It is good to see you in the Chair for such an important debate, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful to hon. Members from both sides of the House who are here to stand in solidarity with the parents and children affected by this case. I am here to speak on behalf of the children who attended Little Ted’s nursery in Plymouth, their parents and their families. I hope to give a voice to their fears, anger, pain, horror and genuine concern about the early release of convicted serial child abuser Vanessa George.
Vanessa George was sentenced in December 2009 and charged with seven offences—two of sexual assault by penetration and two of sexual assault by touching. She was also charged with making, possessing and distributing indecent images of children. She was given an indeterminate sentence for reasons of public protection, and was to serve a minimum of seven years for her crimes against toddlers and babies.
The judge—Mr Justice Royce—said to Vanessa George on sentencing:
“I cannot emphasise too strongly that this is not a seven-year sentence. It is emphatically not. It is, in effect, a life sentence. Many, and I suspect everyone so deeply affected by your dreadful deeds, will say that would not be a day too long.”
The parents were let down twice: first, by the lack of a robust system to protect their children, whom they entrusted to Vanessa George and Little Ted’s nursery; and secondly, as they have told me—some through tears—as the woman who abused so many children will be released early. I will return to this in a moment, but it is worth noting that most of the parents I have spoken to found out about the early release through the media, not from the Parole Board or the authorities. As soon as I heard about the release, I wrote to the Secretary of State asking him to intervene, and personally and urgently to review the decision to release Vanessa George. The more details that emerge, such as the fact that she still refuses to name all the children she abused, the more I am sure it is still too early for that woman to be released.
We are here today because I—we—believe that Vanessa George should not be released early. I believe that the decision should be reviewed urgently, and that every step should be taken to keep her behind bars. I believe that she should be in prison for the entire childhood of the children she abused. I believe that she should not be released or considered for release until she has named all the children she abused. I believe the police should reopen investigations into cases not on the original charge sheet but for which she is the sole or principal suspect. I believe that any criminal justice system that carries such a low bar for remorse that she is not required to name her victims to be eligible for early release is a system that is not working properly in the public interest. I believe that there needs to be a greater role for victims in early releases.
I believe all that because I want every child that George filmed and photographed being sexually assaulted to live for the rest of their childhood in safety. I want their parents to know that the woman who committed those unspeakable acts is locked away and out of reach of their kids until they become adults themselves. She robbed those children of their childhood, and we should protect what remains of it. She has refused to confirm the extent of her actions and the total number of her victims. That leaves every parent who sent their child to Little Ted’s nursery living with a life sentence of not knowing whether their child was one she abused and whether images of their child being abused still exist in some rotten corner of the dark web or on a pervert’s hard drive somewhere. She should not be released until she has named every single one of the babies and toddlers she abused.
I have been made aware of legal precedent whereby additional charges have been investigated, and further charges put to gain justice for those crimes, which would have the effect of keeping that woman behind bars. I want the police to reopen investigations into these crimes, so that George can be kept behind bars if she is guilty of them in addition to the offences of which she was convicted.
Furthermore, the victims need to be given more information and the reports that they are currently denied. They should receive more appreciation for their brave and courageous advocacy—especially the parents who gave evidence and submitted testimony to the Parole Board. The Parole Board acts under the direction of the Secretary of State and Parliament. This debate is necessary and timely in helping to update that direction.
I feel so strongly about this because over the past few weeks I have taken the time to listen to the parents of the children Vanessa George abused. These are some of their comments.
“How can I tell my child that I don't know whether she was abused or not?”
said one. Another said:
“I do not know what I will say to her if she were to ask me about the offender.”
Another told me:
“She will be out soon, but it doesn’t end for us.”
“I told them what releasing her early would mean and they ignored it.”
“I gave the police my email address and phone number as I wanted updates about her! I’ve had no email or phone call from them whatsoever!”
“It seems to me she is saying the words but if she had real remorse then she would have shared more information to help the families”.
Perhaps most simply and brutally, one said:
“I found out on Facebook that the woman who abused my child was being let out. We were supposed to be told, but we weren’t.”
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case, albeit one that is difficult to hear. One of the challenges is that we do not know the true extent of this individual’s offending, and therefore the true number of victims. Does he think that changes ought to be made so that people can be attached as people of interest to the case, so they are not missed out and do not find out through Facebook, which is abysmal?
I do. There is a difficulty in this case in the difference in the definition of a statutory victim and a discretionary victim. My hon. Friend’s suggestion is a good one, because regardless of the official tick-box definition of the victims, the people connected with the case must be kept informed, especially about the release of the offender.
I am grateful to the Minister for the time he spent with me ahead of this debate and for his professional, non-partisan and sincere support for the victims in this case. On behalf of the parents, I have a number of questions. Will the Minister review the Parole Board’s decision to release Vanessa George early? Will the powers that the Government have taken following the case of serial rapist John Worboys apply in the case of Vanessa George? The Minister has told me those powers have not yet commenced. Will he tell me whether that is true, and whether Vanessa George’s legal team argued for consideration of her case ahead of those powers commencing? Did she try to get out early, knowing that she would not be able to if she left it any longer?
The serious case review into Vanessa George found:
“Although she was not senior in her position, other factors such as her age, personality and length of service could have created an illusion of position of power and encouraged a sense of trust...It is also the case that George is of the ability to behave in a highly manipulative manner and hence gain high levels of trust in others”.
May I ask the Minister for the strongest possible assurances that the manipulative nature of Vanessa George has been properly assessed by the Parole Board?
Furthermore, I have been made aware of legal precedents from similar cases that may provide a chance, no matter how slim, to keep Vanessa George off our streets. It would ensure that there is an investigation of additional crimes that were not on the original charge sheet but for which she was the sole and primary suspect.
On how many counts was George originally charged? How many of those remain on file with her as the principal suspect? I understand that she was charged with just seven, but that scores more remain on file. Is the Minister aware of any recent cases when it was brought to the Parole Board’s attention that the main suspect due for release was the main suspect in many other cases that were not on the charge sheet? Was that considered in this case? Did the police make representations to the Parole Board where cases in which George was suspected were not proceeded with? I realise that the police and the CPS do not always send the full charge list to the courts for fear that juries may be confused, trials may be too long and other charges may be put at risk. Are there cases where George was the sole or primary suspect in which charges have not been laid but could be?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The fact that my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for South West Devon (Sir Gary Streeter), and I are both here demonstrates that we have cross-party support and is testimony to the fact that all of Plymouth stands in revulsion at what has happened and in support of the families.
I turn to the broader issue of how parents were informed about the early release of Vanessa George. The vast majority of the parents I have spoken to told me that they found out from Facebook and local media. I know that in cases where the identity of victims is uncertain it is hard to identify statutory victims for ongoing communication, and informing everyone can be hard, but more effort should have been made in this case to tell victims ahead of Vanessa George’s release that that would be happening. Will the Minister therefore ask the Parole Board to look again at how it communicates with victims, both statutory and discretionary, in particular in cases of extreme child abuse?
That is not just relevant to this case: the all-party parliamentary group on adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse found that most survivors were not informed of their abuser’s release. That poses a particular risk where the abuser is settled in a town or city close to the survivor. In this case, I believe restrictions will be in place so that Vanessa George cannot settle in Devon or Cornwall, but victims should be told in a timely and respectful manner of the release of an offender. Surely, that is even more important in cases of extreme child abuse.
Will the Minister join me in extending an invitation to the new Victims’ Commissioner to come to Plymouth and meet the parents in order to feed into a stronger and more robust victims code, which I know the Minister’s Department is currently consulting on? If the victims code is to be better understood and supported, cases such as that of Vanessa George must inform how the Parole Board better communicates with and informs, listens to and engages with victims; otherwise, the Minister’s ambition for the victims code to be a living statement of rights will not be achieved.
Finally, will the Minister look at what constitutes adequate remorse for parole in extreme child abuse cases such as this one? All offenders released early must show remorse for their crimes. They have to take steps to show that they understand the severity of the crimes they were convicted of and their impact on the victims, and to show genuine contrition. I cannot reconcile that with Vanessa George’s continued refusal to name which babies and toddlers she abused and which she did not.
That we do not know who was abused denies those children tailored help for the consequences of that abuse and leaves each parent with a life sentence from which there is no early release. Not knowing whether their child was one of the babies Vanessa George penetrated and filmed must eat away at them every waking moment, and being forced to live with that trauma is unimaginably devastating. Will the Minister set out what guidance is provided to the Parole Board and whether he believes the terms around remorse are sufficiently robust? Currently, I do not think they are. Vanessa George should not be released until she has named every one of her victims.
In conclusion, I want to say something directly to the children who attended Little Ted’s nursery in Laira in Plymouth and their parents. Most of the children who were abused still do not know about it, but that does not mean they do not carry scars from the assaults. The accounts I have heard from parents of how children lived with the consequences of assaults on their tiny bodies will haunt me for a long time, and I can only imagine the weight of that on the families who deal with it on a daily basis. The system let those children down once. We must not let them down a second time.
The parents have shown so much bravery and courage throughout all this. News of the early release has reopened old wounds and brought back horrors that no parent should experience. I am in awe of their tenacity. Plymouth is very proud of them. I have heard parents explain the emotional torment of deciding whether to tell their child that they may have been abused but they are not sure whether they are a victim. Parents have told me that this early release came out of the blue and they were not told by the Parole Board. That took them back to the horror and shock of hearing about the abuse for the first time back in 2009.
Parents, especially single parents, have told me they feel so alone, but I say this to them: “You are not alone. You are believed. And whatever happens with this release, you have my commitment, and I imagine the commitment of all Members present, to stand with you to demand better for your child and for every child in this country.” I can only consider the news of Vanessa George’s early release to be a kick in the teeth, not just for those babies and toddlers she abused but for their families and friends, for the whole of Plymouth and for all those impacted by the ripple effects of her actions across the country. I hope the Minister will be able to give some hope to the people I am here to represent.
I commend the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) for raising this issue and for the commitment and passion he showed on behalf of his constituents, which does him credit. He made a very powerful speech, and I thank him for graciously allowing me to speak for a couple of moments before, importantly, the Minister responds.
I endorse all the hon. Gentleman’s comments. Although the appalling crimes committed by Vanessa George took place in his constituency, the shockwaves caused by that atrocity impacted the whole of our city and the country as a whole. I remember it only too well; it is probably the worst, most traumatic event in my 27 years in this place. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), who is currently at the Invictus trials in Sheffield supporting injured servicemen, I have supported parents caught up in this scandal for many years. Of course, it is not going to be resolved in just a few years.
I am deeply disappointed by the decision of the Parole Board to release Vanessa George on licence. I have had reasons to doubt its robustness several times during my years as a Member of Parliament. Of course, in the case of John Worboys, which the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport mentioned, the Parole Board misread the public interest and the courts had to intervene. The Parole Board does not always get the balance right between the interests of the perpetrator, and the impact on victims and the public interest. In this case, it has fallen well short. I also agree with the hon. Gentleman that the way some of the victims found out about this early release is appalling.
Nine years is not enough of a punishment for the trauma that this woman inflicted on many lives and families in Plymouth, the true depth of which will not be known for some years yet. In my opinion, she should serve at least another 10 years in custody before being released on licence. I join the hon. Gentleman in asking the Minister to ask the Parole Board to think again.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I add my thanks to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) for securing the debate. I am grateful to him for his remarks. He has approached this issue very constructively, because he seeks a higher degree of justice for the constituents he represents. That is absolutely right and proper.
I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Sir Gary Streeter) for his contribution. He rightly reminded us that, although my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) is not with us today, they have worked with people affected by what were heinous and wicked crimes.
I well remember the commission of these offences because my children were of that age at that time. I think there are very few of us, either in the House or outside it, who do not remember our revulsion and shock when we heard about these appalling acts. It was a shocking abuse of trust. It was a series of offences that left us all shocked. The remarks of Mr Justice Royce, the trial judge, summed it up very well. I have read the transcript of his remarks and obtained at least one version of the indictment to understand fully the offences to which this offender pleaded guilty. There were 11 in all: five counts of sexual assault, one count of making 124 indecent images, and five counts of distributing a range of indecent images of children, not alone but with others. That brought home to me the dangers of the internet for the first time and how this level of abuse can be magnified by people who stop at nothing to satisfy either their own dreadful compulsions or the lusts of others. It is a particularly horrible case.
Vanessa George was sentenced in December 2009 and received what was then still available to the court: a sentence of imprisonment for public protection—an IPP, as we call it—with a minimum term of imprisonment at seven years. The judge calculated the seriousness of the offending to mean this: had George contested the trial, she would have received a determinate term of 21 years. The judge, as the law requires, had to give her credit for a guilty plea of one third, so she would have received a determinate term of 14 years if she had pleaded guilty. The calculation of the seven-year term was in accordance with the law as it then stood.
It is important to understand that, because from my reading of the judge’s remarks and my understanding of the indictment, it seems to me that the full extent of the criminality was reflected in the indictment. There do not seem to be any other offences that were left to lie on the file. I have conducted a preliminary investigation, which I will conclude, and if there is any change in that position, I will write to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport.
That is an important distinction between this case and the John Worboys case. Hon. Members will recollect that Worboys had been made subject to a similar IPP sentence and the Parole Board had directed that he was to be released on licence in January 2018, but in March the High Court quashed the decision and ordered the Parole Board to take a fresh one. It did that and concluded that the public could be protected only by keeping Worboys in closed prison conditions. As a result of that important case, the Government introduced a number of new safeguards to ensure that the mistakes made then should not be repeated. We need to view the Parole Board’s decision to direct the release of George in the light of those safeguards and, indeed, the more robust system now in place as a result of the action taken by the Government.
I will answer as best I can the hon. Gentleman’s questions. The new regime came into force on Monday of this week—22 July—just after he and I spoke about the case. That does not have a retrospective effect, but it will affect cases from now on. I also assure him that, from what I am told, there was no attempt by the legal team to try to expedite the hearing to avoid the new rules.
An oral hearing in the George case took place over two days. The first date was 21 May. On 2 July, another day was set aside for the Parole Board to hear statements from the victims who had been identified and to take fully on board their concerns and position. After that two-day hearing, a decision was made. The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s first question about the review is that because it predates the change, the only course of conduct open to me or the Department is a judicial review, and I have to say that on my examination so far of the procedure, I do not see the sort of flaw that would justify a court giving permission for judicial review.
I think the hon. Gentleman knows what I am talking about when it comes to the test that has to be applied for judicial review. In reaching any release decision, the parole board must follow a detailed process. It must comply with the statutory rules in place, which include the panel considering a dossier of evidence sent by Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service. New checks were introduced by the Government on that procedure after it was discovered that, in the case of Worboys, the dossier had not included the important sentencing remarks to which I referred, because that will tell the Parole Board, as it did in this case, what the judge took into account in terms of the sentence. In the case of Vanessa George, the judge rightly took into account her refusal then to reveal the full identities of the children she had abused. He made specific and important acknowledgement of that. Just as he took into account her guilty pleas, he tempered that with what was obviously an aggravating factor at the time. I confirm that those remarks were very much in the dossier in this case.
There were also deficiencies in the Worboys case to do with the reports themselves, which did not deal in sufficient depth with the considerable evidence of wider offending, even though Worboys had not been prosecuted for all the offences he was alleged to have committed. It was then that HMPPS issued guidance to report writers on how such evidence should be addressed. Indeed, as I have said, it seems that, on my reading of the indictment, there is not evidence of wider offending in this case.
We know that an oral hearing was held, and I confirm that at that hearing a representative of the Secretary of State was present. Unlike in the Worboys case, in the George case all the report writers recommended release.
I have spoken about the victim contact scheme. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there was a problem there, in that because of the lack of identification, we did not have a statutory basis on which to operate. However, the National Probation Service did offer the victim contact service on a discretionary basis to the 18 parents who responded to the initial contact in 2009 and said that they wished to be kept informed of developments. Eight victims responded to further contact, of whom six submitted a victim personal statement. Representations were also made about licence conditions, which would be imposed should George be released, including an exclusion zone for the entirety of Devon and Cornwall, which has been agreed to. Further, the panel has left it open to any other victims to make representations regarding licence conditions should they wish to do so in future. I invite the hon. Gentleman to ensure that that happens—we have spoken about it already—and I will do everything I can to facilitate the process. I absolutely understand the widespread concern about the decision, but as I have explained, on the information that I have been given, it seems that there are not the grounds for me to make a legal challenge.
Before the hon. Gentleman comes back, let me say a little more about how the offender will be managed in the community. George is barred for life from working with children. She is on the sex offenders register for an indefinite period. She will be supervised by the National Probation Service, working with the police via the multi-agency protection arrangements, and there is an extensive set of licence conditions. If she fails to comply in any way, and in such a way as to indicate a heightened risk, she will be recalled; that means further incarceration behind bars.
The hon. Gentleman also asked me about the position with regard to the victims code. I readily agree to the suggestion, and I am sure that the new victims’ commissioner, Dame Vera Baird—I know her well—will be interested to speak to him and to victims to feed into the important process on strengthening the code.
The question of remorse is a subjective one. That, in my view, is not really where the Parole Board should direct its attention; it should look to the question of acknowledgment and whether it can be satisfied on what it hears that the offender has really started to acknowledge, or has acknowledged, the gravity and impact of her offending. Remorse, frankly, is a subjective matter, and I would be very concerned if that became the only or major criterion by which a Parole Board assessed the risk of an offender. It has to be about risk rather than mere words that can be said in a hearing.
With those assurances, I hope that the hon. Gentleman has received at least some answers to his important questions.
Transport Links: Nottinghamshire
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered improving transport links in Nottinghamshire.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I thank colleagues who have come to speak in today’s debate.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to debate this issue. I am glad to see Members from neighbouring constituencies in Nottinghamshire here for this important discussion, which is perhaps taking place at a helpful time, given that tomorrow we will see a new man in No. 10. There may be an opportunity to make the case afresh for better transport infrastructure in the regions of the United Kingdom and to rebalance our economy.
I will open with the comments and suggestions passed to me by my hon. Friends the Members for Sherwood (Mark Spencer) and for Newark (Robert Jenrick). Because of their Government positions they are unable to speak in debates such as this, but they have been involved in discussions about the issues that I will raise. I plan to cover railways, road junctions, congestion and other issues that all require Government support and funding, as well as various other issues to add to the great list for the Department for Transport to deal with.
Mansfield is the largest town in Nottinghamshire. It requires improved transport links to neighbouring areas if it is to flourish and we are to boost the local economy. Many people see Mansfield as a commuter town for Nottingham or Sheffield, but we do not have suitable transport links to make that possible.
I start by discussing the extension of the Robin Hood line as part of the East Midlands franchise. I am pleased that the new franchise holder will have to make a business case for extending the line; that is a big step forward after a long campaign. Local lines need to be upgraded and extended, rather than there just being a focus on big national projects. Regardless of the value for money argument, I fully recognise the potential positive impact of HS2 on Nottinghamshire, particularly if we can link up the north of the county with the hub at Chesterfield, as well as the city and suburbs with Toton. Without the east-to-west connections, which we discussed in a debate here just a few weeks ago, we will not make the most of the economic potential of HS2.
If the Robin Hood line were extended to Ollerton, with trains calling at Shirebrook, Warsop and Edwinstowe, there would be huge economic benefits locally. Extending it would mean improved links for my constituents to jobs and tourism across north Nottinghamshire. The ability to attract new employers to old pit sites at Thoresby and Welbeck comes from efficient access to major motorways and railway services. In the longer term, it would end just short of the HS2 hub at Chesterfield and potentially offer huge growth and jobs to all north Nottinghamshire.
While I am talking about rail, I will take the opportunity to highlight the Midlands rail hub to the Minister. It is championed by Midlands Connect, who I met just this afternoon. The Midlands rail hub is a £2 billion package of smaller improvements that would lead to more passenger and freight trains across the midlands in key areas. It works in a collaborative way with Network Rail, which is unusual and pleasing to see. It needs just £25 million to continue to drive that forward and make the proper business case. I hope the Government will support that as we go forward. The Robin Hood line is the most significant railway project that would help improve links for my constituents.
When it comes to roads and junctions, I am afraid I have many more asks of Government. We all know that many towns across Nottinghamshire, and elsewhere, are gridlocked by a huge growth in housing and traffic, on roads that simply were not meant to take it. There are pinch points that cause chaos. One example is the A60 Sainsbury’s junction in Mansfield, where at key times people can sit for literally hours queuing to get out of the retail park. Residents have complained for years about that congestion.
I have been working with Nottinghamshire County Council for over a year to get plans and costings in place to improve that junction. Final proposals have been submitted to the Department for its views. I hope Ministers will look favourably on them when they are submitted to the new funding scheme that I understand opened this weekend. Hopefully, the Minister will touch on that in his closing remarks. A relatively small amount of funding would have a huge impact on that area. There are many bottle necks like it—far away and abstract from Westminster, but important for the local areas that they affect. This particular one is set to get worse if we do not deal with it and do something effective in the short term, with the building of some 2,000 homes nearby.
With new housing developments being built around Mansfield, Warsop and across Nottinghamshire, improving transport infrastructure and links between areas has never been so important. Last month I visited the site of proposed developments at Spion Kop, which lies to the north of Mansfield before Worsop. It was good to see the proposals, including infrastructure and new facilities, but unless there is support there for congestion on the A60, which is already an incredibly busy road, it is going to cause problems.
There needs to be an overall collaborative approach, working with Highways England and Government to deliver improved transport infrastructure. The congestion on the A60 is a very similar challenge to that of Newark, which I will touch on shortly on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Newark. Solutions have been put forward to that Newark congestion and the Mansfield challenge is a similar one.
There are economic opportunities from road investment in the region, including the A617, which is known as the Mansfield and Ashfield regeneration route, or the MARR. It has grown steadily to accommodate new housing, and it could expand further to support new jobs and provide a route for the increasingly heavy traffic around Mansfield. We would benefit hugely from dualling the rest of the MARR, particularly in light of the positive announcement of 1,800 new jobs to be created there at Summit Park commercial site. We can unlock more of that economic potential with improved transport links. There is an opportunity to divert some traffic around the town rather than plough through the middle of it. That would also help reduce to reduce air pollution in the town.
I want to take a bit of a whistle-stop tour around some nearby issues. They are not in my constituency but this debate is about Nottinghamshire transport links and I want to touch on a wider range. I am pleased that Nottinghamshire County Council has been working to unlock the economic potential of the A614, upgrading that route and reducing congestion at Ollerton and other junctions on the route. My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood has been campaigning on that for a long time. The Department for Transport announced last October that £18 million of funding would be allocated to the council for those improvements, which cover six junctions along the A614 and A6097 between Ollerton and Lowdham. The scheme aims to support planned housing developments along the route.
In Newark, serious accidents on the A1 and the A46 can cause frequent delays. The interchanges there, including with the A17, are particularly busy at peak times, which has a knock-on effect on the town and the Cattle Market roundabout, especially when the Nottingham to Lincoln train crosses and everything gets stopped, sometimes for prolonged periods. The A46 Newark northern bypass project will see the widening of that route and the creation of a dual carriageway, raising the last section of the A46 between the A1 and M1 to expressway standard. That will make a huge difference to the town and, more broadly, to north Nottinghamshire. Again, it is something that my hon. Friend the Member for Newark has campaigned about for many years, to improve the network and reduce congestion in the town.
The county council has been working on several important improvements, including the introduction of CCTV at 12 sets of traffic signals on the A38 in Ashfield to enable traffic to be actively managed in real time. That is Mansfield’s key route to the M1 as well, and can be a bit of a nightmare. Junction 27 is also an issue. One of the features of Mansfield as a town is that, although we are close geographically to the M1, it can sometimes be a struggle to get there, particularly for commuters. I would like to see more funding and support for projects that can review things such as traffic light phasing and tackle localised gridlock.
My hon. Friend makes a valuable point about the wider road network. He will know that, inexplicably—it was unexplained at the time—a previous Labour Government detrunked many roads in Nottinghamshire, where I was a county councillor, and in Lincolnshire, where I am an MP. It is critical that the roads that remain trunked—Highways England roads—interface with the roads for which our county councils are responsible in as efficient and effective a way as possible. Will my hon. Friend join me in calling on the Government, the Department for Transport, to ensure that that connection is central to their plans?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the key challenges, as I mentioned, in getting from Mansfield to the M1 is precisely how the M1 and the junctions there interface with the A38 and those access routes. Bringing together people such as Midlands Connect, which oversees the regional infrastructure, with those proposals in the future will be vital to make sure those things fit together and we can get the best possible efficiency from our local transport system.
As I mentioned, we have new commercial building at the Summit business park and we need to look to make further improvements on the A38. The area around Kings Mill is already struggling and additional traffic could, if not managed properly, cause problems. As my right hon. Friend said, the need for forward planning and collaborative working around such areas is important.
Unlocking the economic potential of not just Mansfield but all of north Nottinghamshire would be of huge benefit and can be done with some fairly simple solutions sometimes, but it requires that forward planning.
I wanted to mention bus services. I have had complaints from constituents about the early finish of bus routes in the Mansfield area. Staff working late shifts—or even after 6 pm, in many cases—are unable to use buses to get home again. Those living in Forest Town, Oak Tree, Bellamy or Rainworth—areas outside the main rail route—cannot use trains as an alternative, so I would like to see more frequent and later bus services in those areas. I hope the council will work with my constituents to deliver.
The council spends £3.6 million to financially support more than 60 contracts on bus routes across Nottinghamshire. Many support services operate on fixed routes at peak times, to get people to work, education and doctors’ surgeries, but we also need to look at other issues, such as social integration, isolation and ensuring that people can get to work at other times.
I was pleased to see that two new routes have been created in Hucknall, to serve new developments. The C1 and C2 Connect services will go across Harrier Park, near Rolls-Royce, and the Vaughan Estate. From Sunday, those buses will join the existing routes to create better local infrastructure in Hucknall, to serve the train station that connects to Nottingham and the east midlands train services. That is a good example of public transport connecting up with good planning and offering residents a good local service. Funding for those routes has been supported by developers of new housing schemes, which shows the importance of those funding arrangements and creating the transport infrastructure to support new developments. I hope the residents will use those services and it will be viable to increase them in the coming years.
To sum up, Mansfield is well situated to act as a commuter hub for Nottinghamshire and Sheffield. We have relatively affordable housing, some great small businesses and a historic town centre, which I hope will receive funding from the future high streets fund and the stronger towns fund. I have been pleased to see Mansfield’s bid to the future high streets fund taken forward. That is positive news. We could develop locally as a commuter hub, bringing in affluent young professionals who want to get on the housing ladder and enjoy the benefits of having Sherwood forest on their doorstep. With the right infrastructure and support, Mansfield could offer an incredible lifestyle.
We have huge potential to make the most of tourism. The Robin Hood line could connect us closer to Sherwood forest. We are making good progress, with new hotels being built. Improving the road and rail network will encourage more visitors, which will in turn boost our local economy and support our brilliant local shops. We are, after all, at the heart of the old Sherwood forest, with countless attractions scattered across the county.
It is important to aid the economic growth of post-industrial towns more broadly across the UK, to reverse the trend of aspirational young people feeling that they have to leave our towns. I want people who finish school in Mansfield to see the great potential of living and working in such a beautiful part of the world, and improving transport links is an important factor in their future decisions.
Increased funding to improve transport links across Nottinghamshire is a key requirement to drive that change. I hope that the potential for a focus on regional infrastructure will come good under a new Prime Minister. It is unfortunate that this debate coincides with the new Conservative party leader’s speech to the 1922 Committee, which I am sure has distracted many colleagues this afternoon.
I thank all my constituents for their engagement on this debate. Many commented on my Facebook post this week, when I asked them to raise their key transport issues. From the responses, it was clear how important these issues are to people in Mansfield and how incredibly frustrating they find some of the issues that I have raised. I hope that the Government will focus on the benefits of improving transport in our towns and across Nottinghamshire. I look forward to hearing the views of colleagues from other parts of the county about their priorities.
Order. The debate can last until 5.30 pm. I am obliged to call the Opposition spokesperson at around 5.7 pm and he has up to 10 minutes to speak. The Minister will have 10 minutes to respond. Ben Bradley will then have three minutes at the end to sum up.
We are blessed with a galaxy of talent from Nottinghamshire and a former Minister of State for Transport from Lincolnshire, who, if we are really lucky, might give us an erudite, literary reference with a well-timed intervention as the debate continues.
It is a great privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. If I knew what erudite meant, I would try to do it. I congratulate my colleague from Nottinghamshire, the hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley), on securing this important debate. He raised many important issues, which, as he pointed out, affect not only his constituency but the whole city and county of Nottinghamshire. The interrelationship between all of our constituencies and the surrounding counties is very important. It is also significant and of benefit to us that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) chairs the Transport Committee.
I have some general remarks and then I will come on to some specific points for the Minister. I serve on the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, where we have increasingly been discussing climate change and other green issues. We have heard from David Attenborough, Extinction Rebellion and a number of other fascinating witnesses. They have signalled the importance of transport in reducing our carbon emissions. I know that the Minister and the Department are aware of the contribution they have to make, so it is not a political point, but I ask the Minister to continue the work that he and his Department are doing, and to put that at the forefront of what he says. Clearly, many of our younger constituents, who cannot yet vote, are demanding that we do more in that area. Things that were once regarded as a bit off the wall, such as cycling, are now regarded as mainstream policies. I ask the Minister to reflect on that and continue the Department’s work.
In Nottinghamshire and the midlands as a region, we feel that we miss out. Both Conservative and Labour Members feel that our area of Nottinghamshire does not get its fair share, whatever the amount of public spending. That is why I welcome the contribution from the hon. Member for Mansfield. Whatever the arguments about the size of the cake, there is an agreement to be made for a fairer distribution of funds. I ask the Minister to ensure that those funds are fairly distributed.
There is, quite rightly, a lot of talk about London and the south-east—much of that is the engine of our economy. There is a lot of talk about the northern powerhouse, which is significant. There is a lot of talk about north-south connectivity, which is also important. But there is a bit called the midlands—as the Minister and you, Mr Hollobone, will know. The Minister is responsible for this. All I am asking—all the region is asking—is that people making decisions in London do not always choose those who shout the loudest or those with the most compelling brand, so that we in Nottinghamshire and similar areas get a fair share of the existing cake.
As the hon. Member for Mansfield ably said, the Midlands Connect demand on rail services is a hugely imaginative project, but it will require Government money. If the Government mean anything by devolution, they will see that these are local decisions, which local people want to make for their own benefit. Importantly, as the Minister will know, it talks about not only north-south connectivity, but east-west connectivity. For Nottinghamshire, the ability to get to Sheffield or across to Birmingham—even to get to Leicester and Coventry—is significant. The rail services there demand a huge amount of investment at a regional level, to ensure that that happens. I ask the Minister to ensure that that is contained within the Government’s future investment decisions.
I will also make a plea for local stations—as the hon. Member for Mansfield did regarding the Robin Hood line, which is of benefit to all of us. In my constituency there are three local railway stations. Those stations—Netherfield, Carlton and Burton Joyce—could and must be used as a much more significant way for people to move from the suburbs to the city centre and beyond. Building on the existing framework is very important; again, I ask the Minister to look at that point.
I thank the Department for its work with Gedling Borough Council and Nottinghamshire County Council on the Gedling access road, a very complicated project that will be of benefit to the local community. All partners—including Nottingham City Council, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) knows—have contributed to bringing it to fruition. I ask the Minister to keep an eye on it and ensure that it moves forward as swiftly as possible.
I have a couple of specific asks to benefit Gedling. The city council and others have developed the tram network, which is a brilliant investment in the city and its surroundings in the Nottinghamshire County Council area. The Minister knows the geography and the organisation of local government in Nottinghamshire, where the county council’s area is very close to the city centre. The tram has made a big difference, and people have worked together to deliver it. Discussions are ongoing about the feasibility of extending the tram into Gedling. I ask the Minister to work with the borough, city and county councils to create a feasible project and bring it to fruition.
The hon. Member for Mansfield was right to say that something that often gets missed out, along with cyclists, is buses. Indeed, when I spoke about railways in a debate last week, a couple of people said, “Vernon, don’t forget the buses.” People in my area understand the importance of the investment in HS2 and the rail network to economic growth and prosperity, but the vast majority of them are more interested in whether the buses run properly and conveniently. It must be said that we have a very good bus service in Nottingham, but it is really important that it should run properly and to time and be reasonably priced, which overall I think it is.
To be fair to the Minister, there are challenges with respect to transport. There has been investment in the area, but as with everything, we would like that progress to accelerate. The green aspect of transport will play an ever-increasing role in future—that is certainly something that young people have demanded in my area, where transport is an issue. I know that the Minister understands this, but Nottinghamshire deserves more of a share of the national cake than it gets. So does the whole midlands region, particularly the east midlands. I hope that he will bear that in mind in future investment decisions.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate; I congratulate the hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) on securing it and on his powerful and detailed case. It is also, of course, a pleasure to follow the erudite contribution of my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker).
As an east midlander, Mr Hollobone, you know that I am making a brave decision by wading into the age-old debate about whether the city of Nottingham is part of Nottinghamshire. I suspect that it is slightly in the eye of the beholder, but I am chancing my arm by speaking in the debate. We have time, so I hope the hon. Member for Mansfield will be generous in allowing me to make a couple of points.
First, the midlands rail hub is an excellent scheme. I know that Transport Ministers and Treasury Ministers have had the details for a while now, because I secured a debate last month on east-west rail connectivity that focused on it. In the context of infrastructure schemes it is relatively cheap, but in bang for buck it is exceptionally impactful. It would mean 24 extra services an hour east-west, 36 more freight paths and 6 million more rail journeys per year. It would be a very good project not only for business in our community, but for the environment. Its pricing makes it a really good investment case for this country, so I am very interested to hear the Minister’s reflections on it.
Brian Chesky said:
“Travel is a new experience that can transport you out of your everyday routine”.
However, that is only true if people can get to places quickly and conveniently. In respect of rail, the hon. Gentleman is right that further investment is necessary in Nottinghamshire—and in Lincolnshire, by the way. It is vital that our smaller railway stations have regular services into the evenings and at the weekends, to allow people to enjoy those new experiences and be transported beyond the routine. I hope that he will support my call for the Minister to confirm, today, that he will make that extra investment in Lincolnshire, in places such as Spalding, and in Nottinghamshire.
I have learned a veteran lesson about how to get Spalding into a debate about Nottinghamshire, but I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s point. The hon. Member for Mansfield made the case very strongly for the Robin Hood line; I would say the same about Bulwell station, and my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling talked about Netherfield and Carlton stations. Our stations are critical, and we know that our constituents value them. When we talk about nationwide projects, we have to understand that our communities access those services through local stations, so they need to be of high quality. I will say more at the end of my speech about the importance of connecting towns to big cities.
The arguments for the midlands rail hub are very strong, and I hope to hear the Minister’s reflections on them in due course. I will also be writing to the new Prime Minister, along with other hon. Members—I encourage colleagues present to sign up—about the hub, in the hope that we can give it the best possible airing as soon as possible. A lot of the arguments for it are also strongly true of HS2, which I also wish to mention because I believe that it will have a transformative impact on our community.
There are a lot of similarities between Mansfield and Bulwell, and the north and west of Nottingham in general. We know that successive decades of deindustrialisation have meant deep-rooted social challenges in both our communities, and that work is the way out of those challenges. Projects such as HS2 at Toton, the expansion and support of East Midlands airport—now the biggest pure freight airport in the country—and the development of the power station site when it comes on stream with green energy and green technologies have real potential to add tens of thousands of skilled jobs to our communities. We need to come together to support them.
I hope that the Minister and his civil servants recognise that the east midlands is speaking with one voice. Pretty much everything that the hon. Member for Mansfield said, other than his references to Mansfield, could have been in my speech two weeks ago. We in the east midlands used to be criticised for not getting out of one another’s way; it was said that one of the reasons why other areas got investment, but we in Nottinghamshire did not, was that we could not agree between ourselves so we gave a non-verbal cue that we were not serious. I hope it is recognised that that is not the case now. We have significant plans, we have broad buy-in and we are ready to go.
I emphasise to the Minister, and to his civil servants who are listening, that what my hon. Friend says was demonstrated only last week when the all-party parliamentary group on the east midlands reached cross-party consensus on the importance of the area around Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station and East Midlands airport and the new industrial development there. There was cross-party agreement that it can be a hub and a driver for the whole region, both through transport links and through industrial development.
That cannot be stated enough. That triumvirate of sites is the future for my community. In the future, my constituents—my neighbours—will look to Toton as much as to Nottingham city centre. The time for these projects is now, and they portend a very exciting future for our region, which I am proud to be part of through the all-party group and beyond.
Let me finish by returning to a central theme of this debate, which all our speeches have mentioned—the idea that we ought to have high ambitions for infrastructure at a national level. We ought to be really robust about those projects, because they are not only good at stimulating the economy in the short term; they are the building blocks of a thriving and productive country.
When we talk about those projects, when we understand them and design them, we have to link them up to the communities that they are there to serve. If it is just about connecting city centres, whether in Derby or Nottingham, to somewhere like Toton we will have missed the point. We will have lost the full financial impact of those projects, and we will have lost the hearts and minds case as well, because people in Bulwell, Bilborough, Aspley or Bestwood will rightly say, “Hang on a minute. What is the value to me if I have to go 20 minutes into town to then go out again?” There is a real challenge there, and we have to be really creative.
That could be through light rail, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling has mentioned; we have a great light rail network in Nottingham, with real scope to develop it further. It could be through buses, which as we have heard are the mode with which the majority of people will engage. It could be on foot or by bike, but we have to link up those big projects with our towns. In that way, people will get the benefits from those projects and support them, and we will all get the growth that we are seeking.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken today, and in particular thank the hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) for securing this important debate. I recognise his commitment to his constituency and his interest in the lack of affordable, high-quality transport that his constituents face.
Transport is obviously a central issue in Nottinghamshire, as it is for the country as a whole. Before tackling some of the wider points that have been made, I urge the hon. Gentleman to continue to press the issues that he has identified this afternoon, both on his colleagues in the county council on which he serves and on the Minister. I also commend the effective approach to transport taken by Nottingham City Council, which has an award-winning, council-run bus and tram service, and where investment in public transport has improved the lives of passengers and is creating an attractive environment for businesses to invest in.
A lack of affordable public transport and, indeed, transport as a whole has a huge impact on many people. It makes travelling to work difficult, and potentially limits access to vital services such as doctors or local shops. For young people, a lack of affordable transport can limit access to apprenticeships, college or university. Investment in transport is an important driver of economic growth; we have heard about the effect that regional imbalances in investment can have on growth. Most of all, in our interconnected world, cutting carbon dioxide emissions from transport is central to tackling the threat of climate change, something that is only too evident today.
Labour would take a much more strategic approach than the current Government, based on the public interest and the needs of the economy as a whole, and would take urgent action to avert a climate crisis. That is in contrast with the current state of much of our transport system, part of which the hon. Member for Mansfield has described, as have colleagues on the Labour Benches.
It is important to consider the scale of the crisis. First and foremost, Britain depends far too much on its roads as a mode of transport. The pollution, choked high streets, terrible congestion and carbon dioxide emissions caused by cars and lorries are unsustainable. I am afraid that at the moment the current Government’s policies are making that problem worse with more traffic, a lack of action on congestion and pollution and, on local roads, a huge backlog of potholes. The Government’s priority should be to invest in public transport and deal with that range of issues, taking traffic off our roads and reducing congestion for those who have to drive.
Under this Government, our railways are also expensive, both for the passenger and the taxpayer. The current franchising system is both expensive and ineffective, and has repeatedly failed. Quite simply, there is a need for much greater investment across the whole country, as we have heard today with particular reference to Nottingham and Lincolnshire. Fares have risen dramatically, and the ticketing system is far too complicated. A Labour Government would bring the railways back into public ownership, saving huge sums that are currently wasted on bailing out franchise holders. We would reduce fares and tackle the regional inequality that has so badly affected areas such as Nottinghamshire.
A Labour Government would also tackle the serious issue of local transport, which my colleagues referred to when they mentioned the problems with buses. Our bus services have been cut by 45% since 2010, leaving older and disabled people isolated, younger people unable to get to work or education, and commuters let down and ripped off by increasing fares. There has been a chronic lack of investment in walking and cycling, with just 1.5% of the Department for Transport’s budget spent on those two modes of transport, despite their importance. If Britain had the same levels of cycling as the Netherlands, our carbon dioxide emissions from cars would be cut by a third, because of the large number of journeys of around a mile in length currently made by car. It is also worth noting the importance of the link to public health, which I am sure the Minister is aware of. If we all walked a mile a day, we would be significantly healthier. There would also be a knock-on effect of freeing up valuable road space for those who have to drive, such as the emergency services and some businesses.
We should invest in delivering high-quality local transport, restoring cuts to bus services. An incoming Labour Government would introduce a new young person’s bus pass. All local councils would be allowed to regulate bus services and set up new council-run companies, such as the outstanding one in Nottingham that we have heard about. We would also raise investment in cycling and walking to reduce emissions and improve health.
As we have heard today, we face serious transport problems in this country, including in the east midlands. The Government should be taking much more urgent action to address those serious problems. A Labour Government would tackle the issues of pollution, congestion and poor infrastructure, with a clear strategy and programme of investment for the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) on securing this debate on improving transport links in Nottinghamshire.
Her Majesty’s Government—this Government—are investing vast sums in cycling, pedestrian access, equestrianism and all forms of active travel, and have invested many billions of pounds in road maintenance. When this Government created the national pothole action fund and invested in it some years ago, I played a part in that. This Government have made significant investments in transport, because good transport links are a key enabler of growth, employment, access to education—all aspects that are doing extremely well in this country—skills training, and seeing our friends and family. Transport is a key link in all those areas.
Nottinghamshire sits within a region that is at the heart of the United Kingdom’s transport network. The east midlands has been alluded to; my constituency of Northampton North is also within that region. We know that investment is not just crucial to regional success but key to national success, which is why we are building HS2, the new backbone of the national rail network. We are improving capacity and connectivity and building on growth, and the midlands will be the first region to benefit from that new railway. Nottinghamshire will be served by a new hub station at Toton.
That is also why we are investing £1.8 billion in the region’s motorways and trunk roads, including in vital improvements to the M1 motorway, which I, along with many millions of others, use regularly. It is why we are investing £1.7 billion from the local growth fund, including through investments in transport schemes across the midlands region.
I thank the Minister for the start that he has made to his remarks. It would be of real interest in Nottinghamshire if the Minister could say a little more about what he expects the Government’s policy to be with respect to HS2, given the commitment of the man who is now to be Prime Minister, who has said that there will be a review of HS2. My constituents and local authorities have asked what that means, so could the Minister elaborate on that for us?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s question, but at this point he will have to wait and see. The Prime Minister at the moment is my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), and we will have to wait and see what happens in the next few hours and days. However, the Government have invested, and continue to invest, in HS2, as I have said. His point about the east midlands is a very good one, which he should continue to pursue.
Today’s debate is very timely because Nottinghamshire stands on the cusp of getting a new train operator. East Midlands Railway, run by Abellio, will take over the franchise on 18 August—only about three weeks from now. Under the new franchise, passengers will benefit from new trains with more peak-time seats, reduced journey times and more than £17 million in station improvements. Abellio will oversee the introduction of brand-new, more comfortable and more reliable trains, including the replacement of the entire existing inter-city fleet, so this is a vast investment.
Passengers will benefit from an 80% increase in the number of morning peak seats into Nottingham, Lincoln and St Pancras. East Midlands Railway will also be at the forefront of the Government’s commitment to deliver a cleaner and greener rail network, which we are very focused on. It will trial hydrogen fuel cell trains on the midland main line and run zero-carbon pilots at six stations along the route. There will also be more car parking spaces, more ticket-buying facilities, more flexible smart ticketing options, free wi-fi, high-quality mobile connectivity, improved Delay Repay compensation and £9.4 million of investment to deliver commercial and customer service improvements at stations—all positives.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield mentioned the Robin Hood line. I know that the start of the new franchise will be of great interest to him and other Members. I recognise his work as a tireless campaigner for improvements to the Robin Hood line between Nottingham and Worksop, on which his constituency sits. Under the new franchise, the Robin Hood line will benefit from a later evening service on weekdays and a new Sunday service. It will also get refurbished, modern trains providing a more reliable and comfortable service with free on-board wi-fi, USB points, at-seat power and increased luggage space. I know I sound a little bit like an advertising guru here, but—[Laughter.] Or maybe less of the guru. The fact of the matter is that those are very positive things that will help vast numbers of passengers.
My hon. Friend and other Members in the region are campaigning for the Robin Hood line to be extended to Ollerton via Shirebrook, Warsop and Edwinstowe. As he will know, the new operator of the east midlands franchise is required to submit a business case for that extension within the first year of the franchise. That business case will be reviewed to decide whether the line should be extended, mitigating the risk of reopening a line that might not be financially and economically beneficial. One of the many ways in which we differ from the Opposition is that we are always focused on ensuring a financial and economic reality to our plans.
Moving from rail to road, I recognise that my hon. Friend is keen to see improvements to the key roads serving his constituency—he has that in common with Members across the House. I know that the key roads serving his constituency include the A60 and the A614. In particular, he highlighted congestion issues at the A60 Sainsbury’s roundabout, as I believe it is referred to colloquially. I note that Nottinghamshire County Council has produced a high-level appraisal of the options for improvements. It is now for the council, as the local highway authority, to develop a more detailed case for investment.
My Department has just announced £348 million to boost the quality of local highways over the next four years. As part of that, the local pinch point fund totals £150 million and will ease congestion on some of our busiest roads. My Department also provides nearly £4 million—to be precise, £3,916,000—to Nottinghamshire County Council each year for small-scale transport schemes, including road safety measures and reducing congestion. However, I emphasise that it is for each local authority to decide how it allocates its resources and which transport improvement projects to support.
I hope that my hon. Friend will welcome the fact that the stretches of the A617, the A60, the A38 and the A614 that serve Mansfield are now classified as part of the major road network. That means that they could in future be eligible for improvements funded through the national roads fund, which is subject to regional prioritisation decisions. The major road network is a new programme that will make substantial amounts of new investment available for road enhancement schemes on a network of the most important local authority roads. It will improve co-ordination and targeting of investment to reduce congestion, unlock housing delivery, support all road users and support economic growth.
As my hon. Friend will know, a package of six junction improvements along the A614 and the A6097 corridor has been chosen for early entry on to the major road network programme, after being identified by Midlands Connect. That is good news for his area because, subject to a satisfactory assessment of an outline business case, including a value-for-money analysis, funding will be available from the national roads fund from 2020 to 2021 for construction of that scheme.
I think my hon. Friend spoke about the Newark bypass and the A46. I know that he understands the clear and uncontroversial importance of the A46, which provides an important regional, and indeed national, link. With Government funding, Midlands Connect, which is the sub-national transport body for the midlands, has been working hard on a route study for the whole of the A46 from the Humber to the Severn. Midlands Connect regards the route as of key strategic importance and believes that targeted improvements to it could really help to unlock growth.
The first road investment strategy—RIS 1, as it is called—said that we would develop the A46 Newark northern bypass scheme during the first road period, which is 2015 to 2020, for delivery in a future RIS period, subject to the work showing that the scheme offered value for money. The scheme would involve widening the A46 north of Newark in Nottinghamshire to a dual carriageway, bringing the last section of the A46 between the A1 and the M1 to expressway standard and improving the A46/A1 junction to allow for better traffic movement to Newark and Lincoln. Work to develop the scheme has been undertaken by Highways England to inform decision making about the second road investment strategy, which will cover the period 2020 to 2025. We expect to announce our decisions on that later this year, so watch this space.
Moving to the issue of local roads as opposed to the A roads and strategic roads, it is not just enhancements to key local roads that are vital to local people and businesses, but proper maintenance—ensuring that the local highway network is in good condition. That is why the Government are investing £6.6 billion in local highway authorities in England outside London between 2015 and 2021. That includes £296 million for a pothole action fund, which is being allocated to local highway authorities between 2016 and 2021 to help to repair potholes or preferably stop them forming in the first place.
That funding is not ring-fenced; its use is entirely at the discretion of highway authorities, based on their local needs and priorities. Between 2015-16 and 2019-20, Nottinghamshire, which is a great and beautiful county, which I know from my previous role as tourism Minister has a great deal of attraction for visitors as well as residents, will have received £85 million to help to maintain the local road network and more than £19 million for small-scale transport improvements.
Businesses regard good roads, both strategic and local, as vital to commercial success, and having them in an acceptable and safe condition is hugely important to us all—especially to me as road Minister—whether we are car users, lorry drivers, bus passengers, cyclists, pedestrians or equestrians. Let us face it: most of us are many of those things. That is why investment is so vital.
Let me turn to the measures that the Government are putting in place to improve local bus services, which my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield mentioned. Each year, my Department provides a quarter of a billion pounds in direct revenue support for bus services in England, via the bus service operators grant scheme. Of that £250 million, more than £43 million is paid directly to local councils outside London to support buses. That particularly supports buses that are not commercially viable, but which local authorities in any given area may consider socially necessary. The rest of the money goes to commercial bus operators. Without that support, fares would increase and marginal services would disappear. Nottinghamshire County Council is receiving more than £1 million from that scheme this year alone and has been successful in securing almost £1.5 million to fund six new electric buses and the supporting infrastructure.
Government funding supports the approximately £1 billion spent by local authorities on concessionary bus passes every year.
Some local authorities have completely cut support for socially important buses—I think of another midlands county, Oxfordshire, where there is no support at all. Has the Minister considered that it might be worth ring-fencing some of that money? He has talked glowingly about what is a very diminished pot, yet some of his colleagues on Conservative-run local councils are taking money away.
The Government have committed to protecting the national bus travel concession, which is of huge benefit to around 10 million people, allowing free off-peak local travel anywhere in England. Local authorities have a responsibility in this area, and we ask them to exercise their responsibilities and their discretion in this matter, because the concession provides older people and those with disabilities with greater freedom than they might otherwise have, greater independence and a lifeline to their community. I think that local authorities of any political hues would want to look very carefully at these areas.
I might add that the Government recognise that although the deregulated bus market works well across much of the country, in some areas the deregulated market has not always responded effectively to the changing needs of the population, which is why we introduced the Bus Services Act 2017. It contains a range of options for local authorities to improve local bus services and drive up passenger numbers. In addition to franchising, there are new and improved options to allow local transport authorities to enter into partnership with their local bus operators, to improve services for passengers. We want local authorities and bus companies to work together to make bus travel more attractive, and we hope that the new powers in the 2017 Act will make that more feasible.
I have highlighted the work of my Department on many modes of transport. In addition, by integrating housing and transport policy and talking across Government and across Departments, we are accelerating the delivery of homes by improving transport and are creating well-connected and liveable places. I am pleased that we are working jointly with counterparts at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government on a broad range of activities, including the housing infrastructure fund and housing deals.
The Minister is just about to come to his concluding remarks. As he was speaking, one transport issue did occur to me. We know that it is Government policy to drive towards the end of combustion engines and the provision of more electric cars. In terms of transport in Nottinghamshire and across the country, can the Minister say what the Government are doing to ensure greater provision of electric charging points?
If I may say so, the hon. Gentleman makes another very good point. That is something that the Government are working on, and my Department are investing in it, including in innovative companies, to assist in developing new ways of creating charging points—for example, contactless charging. My Department and this Government have also been investing in improving the charging infrastructure and are working with companies, including the industry, on how to do that. It is a key priority going forward, because we want to encourage electric vehicle use; in fact, we are leading the way in that area. If I may, I will write to the hon. Gentleman in more detail on the issue of charging points.
In conclusion, I hope I have gone some way towards assuring my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield of our strong commitment to transport in Nottinghamshire. That strong commitment is also one for Northamptonshire, which you, Mr Hollobone, may have an interest in—in fact, I think you do, as do I—and one for all counties throughout this country, because we recognise that transport is fundamental not only to the economy, but to quality and wellbeing of life.
I thank the Minister for his remarks. I thank the hon. Members for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) and for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) and, of course, the shadow Minister for their contributions. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Sherwood (Mark Spencer) and for Newark (Robert Jenrick), who, as I said in my speech, cannot contribute to this debate because of their roles, but who have had many a conversation with me in the build-up to this debate about their own priorities, which I mentioned in my speech.
I welcome the discussion about consensus from Opposition Members. It is absolutely correct that every time we debate and discuss these issues—in the House or locally—we all broadly agree, across the parties in Nottinghamshire, on the key priorities that we need to deliver, and agree that Nottinghamshire needs the fair slice of national investment that I hope we will see.
I thank the Minister for his response, especially his comments about initial improvements that we will see on the Robin Hood line, in terms of the quality of the trains and the regularity of service under the new franchise. I also thank him for his comments on the pinch-point funding for congestion. I can assure him that his Department will be receiving the bid for the A60 at Sainsbury’s as soon as humanly possible, to try to get that over the line. I am sure he will not be surprised to know that I will continue pushing not only that cause but many other Mansfield and Nottinghamshire-related transport issues. I look forward to the Government’s support for the foreseeable future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered improving transport links in Nottinghamshire.