Wednesday 24 July 2019
[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]
Local Housing Allowance and Homelessness
I beg to move,
That this House has considered local housing allowance and homelessness.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I am raising this issue because our constituents are in pain. A series of cuts, including the freeze in local housing allowance rates since 2016, has led to an increasing number of people across the country struggling to keep a roof over their heads. In the worst cases that is leading to homelessness and rough sleeping. The last 10 years of Tory rule have given us rising levels of homelessness in England. Rough sleeping alone has more than doubled in that time and in London in the last year it increased by 18%. The number of people in temporary accommodation has also increased. At the end of last year there were 83,700 individuals and families living in temporary accommodation, which is a 74% increase since 2010. It is unacceptable and we cannot allow it to continue. We must reverse it. We must look at the availability and affordability of housing.
Local housing allowance rates relate to housing benefit, which is now part of universal credit. They were introduced just over 10 years ago and are meant to give support to people on low income who are renting privately, including people who are working, so that they can keep up with paying their rent. However, in the last 10 years rates have been cut repeatedly and are now frozen, leaving people who need the support struggling to pay their rent. Research by Crisis and the Chartered Institute of Housing found that in 92% of areas in Great Britain, fewer than one in five homes were affordable within local housing allowance rates last year for single people, couples or small families. The cut has an impact on a huge number of people in most parts of the country, even when they are working.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that Shelter’s figures provide an even starker illustration than the picture he paints? They show that 31% of renters in receipt of housing benefit had to cut back on food for themselves or their partner, and two in five, or 37%, were forced to borrow money just to pay their rent in the last year. That indicates the scale of the problem. Does he agree that it proves that what is needed is not only the unfreezing of local housing allowance rates next year but their restoration to a realistic value?
I quite agree with my hon. Friend and am sure the Minister will take note. It is not a political argument. All the charitable and voluntary organisations express the same concerns, and we need to do something about it.
Too many people are at risk of homelessness as they struggle, month after month, to make up the shortfall between their rent and the support they get from local housing allowance. There is a huge problem in my constituency; it is staggering. From 2011, local housing allowance rates were meant to cover the most affordable third of local rents, but in my constituency, for single young people, just 1% of shared properties were affordable within the shared accommodation rate last year. For a family with one or two children, just 6% of two-bedroom properties were affordable. To give an idea of how far behind rents the rates now are, that family would have had to find more than £150 extra a month to rent a property in the cheapest third of the private rental market. That is not an amount that can be made up from better budgeting. It is two and a half weeks’ worth of food shopping for the average family in London. No wonder that in too many cases it is almost impossible for people to cover the cost of their rent when they face such shortfalls. The ending of a private tenancy is one of the most common reasons why people become homeless today. What is more, when people lose their tenancy, it is equally impossible for them to find somewhere else to live within local housing allowance rates. They are left facing homelessness.
That is not the experience of a few people. Charities deal with people in that situation far too often. One woman I heard from is long-term sick and unable to work. She has to move out of her home because the landlord is selling the property, but as her local housing allowance rate is only £350 a month she cannot find anywhere else to live and is at risk of becoming homeless. That is having a huge impact on her severe anxiety. I heard from another woman, who has worked almost continuously since she was 16. She is now in her 50s. Four years ago she was made redundant, and she has struggled to get another job since. She is now struggling to find ways to manage a £300 monthly shortfall between her housing benefit and her rent. After years of work, the housing benefit system is failing her when she needs it most. She needs security and to get back on her feet. Another person who faces a huge shortfall between rent and housing benefit after having to stop work last year said, “It just feels like you are being kicked when you are at your lowest.”
Visitors to Ealing soup kitchen have the same stories. Gert was failed by LHA when he was made homeless because he got a tiny increment in wages and his housing benefit help stopped, which effectively made him homeless for over a year while he was still trying to work. LHA also failed a volunteer at Ealing Soup Kitchen, Simone, who has been asked to leave a property and is unable even to bid for band D properties despite having a disabled child and working full time. On her low wage she cannot pay for high-rent properties, and there is a good chance that she will be made homeless by the system in September. She works in a care home and spends her spare time volunteering at homeless shelters—and she may end up having to use them.
Andrew Mcleay, the manager of Ealing Soup Kitchen, says:
“We try to help these people that slip through the cracks—however LHA is making our job almost impossible”.
Ealing Soup Kitchen and other organisations in my constituency do amazing work, and help people move from homeless to hopeful. They save lives. I am confident that the Members attending this debate, and every Member of Parliament, will have groups doing equally important work in their constituencies, but I particularly want to thank St Mungo’s, Hope for Southall Street Homeless and Ealing Soup Kitchen for their amazing work. No-one should be in that desperate situation, and no one should become homeless or be at risk of it simply because the help they need is not there.
For years, social housing has been ignored and sold off, driving rising rents and falling housing stocks. Social rented housing is key for providing people on low incomes with secure, decent and affordable housing. But the Government are woefully behind in building enough homes to address the scale of need. Just 5,000 social rent units were built last year. Research from Crisis and the National Housing Federation has shown that we need to build 90,000 homes a year in England for the next 15 years to significantly reduce the worst forms of homelessness, such as rough sleeping and living in unsuitable temporary accommodation.
It will take time to build the social rent homes that are needed. That is why we must act now to ensure that people on low incomes can afford their rent in the private rented sector. We simply cannot afford to wait for more than a decade and, in the meantime, watch the numbers of people facing homelessness rise and rise. Right now, more and more people on low incomes are having to turn to the private rented sector to find homes, only to struggle to pay their rent because of cuts to local housing allowance rates. In reality, we need to fund both. We need to invest in increasing the supply of genuinely affordable housing, as the most effective long-term solution and the best way to manage the housing benefit budget, but that must not overshadow the urgent need to invest in an immediate and effective solution to help people to keep their existing home and avoid altogether the trauma of becoming homeless.
Unfreezing the rates and ensuring that they cover at least the cheapest third of local rents will significantly help people at risk of homelessness in the private rented sector. That will also help to reduce the number of individuals and families experiencing homelessness now. It will help those stuck in temporary accommodation or hostels, living on the streets, hidden away on people’s sofas or sleeping at the back of buses to find a home and have the immediate means to keep it.
As I mentioned, we have seen a huge rise in the use of very expensive temporary accommodation. That is a result of fewer and fewer affordable housing options for councils to prevent and resolve homelessness, as per their statutory duty. That not only sustains people in insecure situations, but is a huge waste of taxpayers’ money. As a country, we are spending almost £1 billion on temporary accommodation, rather than helping people to move into safe, stable and affordable homes. That money could be better spent on services to prevent homelessness from happening in the first place and save both the economic and the human costs of homelessness.
That is why I, along with many of my constituents, are supporting the Cover the Cost campaign launched by Crisis. That campaign has the support of thousands of people, several leading organisations in the area of housing and homelessness, councils and landlords. Those organisations include the Local Government Association and the Residential Landlords Association. The campaign calls on the Government to restore local housing allowance rates so that they cover at least the cheapest third of rents.
We are due a spending review, and I am sure the new Prime Minister will at least deliver that. It is a prime opportunity to unfreeze local housing allowance and put sufficient investment into the rates so that they cover at least the cheapest third of rents. That will give an immediate and much-needed lifeline to so many people who right now cannot cover the cost of their rent and so are at severe risk of homelessness. The investment will also have an immediate impact on homelessness, helping people back into the housing market rapidly, and will make a significant difference to many of my constituents and many people across the country. If the Government are serious about ending rough sleeping, as their manifesto says, then we need an immediate investment in local housing allowance rates so that the system is adequately resourced to support people as intended.
Order. Let me advise hon. Members on how I will manage the debate. I intend to start calling the Front-Bench spokespersons by 10.28 am. That provides roughly six to seven minutes for each of Back-Bench speaker. If they could stick to that sort of timeframe, I would be grateful; if they exceed it, I will start getting very fidgety.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey, in this really important debate. The hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) is absolutely right: this is a very key issue. Unless we get housing right, it will not be possible to deal with so many of the other issues that concern us, in the context of eradicating poverty, improving life chances, improving education and dealing with poor health. Housing is the absolute foundation of the decent, civilised society that all of us in the Chamber want to see.
What have we seen over the last few years? We are starting to see a rise in home ownership in the younger generation—35 to 44-year-olds; that is starting to inch up. Last year, we managed to build more homes than were built in all but one of the last 31 years. As my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing says, we need to build more and better-quality homes and we need to do that much more quickly than we have managed so far.
We also want to see longer-term tenancies. I am pleased with the moves that the Government are making in that direction. It is absolutely right that we also crack down on rogue landlords, because they should have no place in a decent society.
It is very welcome that the Government accepted the calls from the Local Government Association and others to scrap the housing borrowing cap. The Local Government Association advises that that will lead to the building of up to 10,000 new homes a year. That is a significant contribution towards the estimated 100,000 new social homes a year that are desperately needed.
I support councils in wanting to encourage home ownership, but we must do that without a corresponding decline in the number of social rented homes. That is why it is so important that councils be able to keep 100% of the receipts from right-to-buy sales to invest in new affordable housing.
I am sure that all of us in the Chamber have frustrations about the planning system and the way in which we build houses in this country. I understand that in April the Local Government Association advised that there were 423,000 homes for which permission had been given to build but which still had not been built. The issue of slow build-out rates has gone on far too long. In my own constituency, up to about 13,000 homes in total are being built to the north of Houghton Regis and part of Luton. The end date for that development—for the final houses—will not be until some point in the early 2030s. That is simply too long—and unacceptable, given that there is desperate housing need now.
I wonder whether we need to be more imaginative about what we do on the big sites for which planning permission has been given, to which houses have been allocated—the houses are going to come—but which are left empty for years and years, even though there is desperate housing need. When I have taken my family away on summer holidays, we have stayed in a luxury-type chalet caravan park on various weeks away. Would it be possible to look at having that type of housing, on a temporary basis, on those huge sites where there are no houses but houses are planned? As the permanent houses were built, we could move those units off to other sites where we were waiting to build. That is not a long-term solution, but this is a really urgent issue—it is an “Action this day” issue. We need new, fresh, more imaginative thinking about how we meet the very urgent housing need that the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall set out very clearly and vividly for all of us in his speech.
If we build zero-energy-bill homes, the people who need these new homes will have more money for food, clothes and the household budget in general. It is possible to build houses that have no net gas and electricity bills; they are no more expensive to build than conventional homes. British architects such as Bill Dunster are building such homes now. I hope to have some in my constituency shortly. We are all asking why all new homes are not zero-energy-bill homes. That would help us to meet our net zero target and help poorer people to live within their means: if they do not have to pay gas and electricity bills, they will have more money for food and clothes, and to take their children on a family holiday.
We can do this; we just need to get on with it. To see how we can do it, hon. Members can visit the Building Research Establishment in Watford. We pay £23.5 billion a year in local housing allowance. The real answer is to build more. If we build more, we can solve a whole range of problems that concern us all.
It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey.
Central London, which includes my constituency, is the largest private rental market in the country. There is not one property for rent in the entire borough available to people on the local housing allowance rate. That includes not only some of the high-value property in Knightsbridge and Belgravia, which I would not expect to be accessible to those on local housing allowance, but some of the poorest wards in the country, such as Paddington. It includes hundreds—probably thousands—of properties that were council flats, have been sold under the right to buy and are now rented back to private tenants. Flat 3, say, which is socially rented, costs £150 a week, yet the property next door, which is privately rented, costs £500 a week.
What does it mean that not a single person in my constituency can afford to rent in the private rented sector? It results in cases, such as one I received the day before yesterday, of a mother who has been privately renting for many years and whose landlord has evicted her through a no-fault procedure—no doubt, they will get more money from another tenant. The local authority has put her in emergency accommodation on the other side of London, as is often the case. That rent for emergency accommodation, incidentally, will be around £500 a week.
That woman has a child with a statement of special educational needs in the borough. The borough has now said that the care plan cannot be moved to another borough, so her child cannot get the 20 hours of educational support that they need in the borough where she is currently in emergency accommodation. She has to go through the whole statementing process again, but she will not be able to do that before September. Her child is clearly in need. I would say the local authority is in breach of its statutory duties. The mother is totally desperate.
Another mother has two children who are blind. She has been in the private rented sector a long time. She wanted to stay in the same area, because her two blind children know their routes to their school and college. However, the shortfall in her benefit payments is now so severe that she has to use all her children’s disability allowance to meet the shortfall. That is probably legal, but it is clearly not what that benefit is intended for.
The situation is even worse for young people: under-25s can only get a single room and under-35s are also constrained. I am currently dealing with the challenge of trying to get a number of young people away from serious gang violence. One young man was sleeping with a machete under his pillow, because he was so terrified. For seven months, we have been trying to find somewhere he could afford to rent in London—in London, not just in the borough. There was not one property available in my constituency that was affordable, and only 0% to 15% of properties in the whole of London are affordable.
I am sure the Minister will refer to the targeted affordability fund, which has, thankfully, stood between us and total meltdown, but those complicated additional top-ups into schemes are not the answer. They are bureaucratic and complex, and they do not last. Similarly, discretionary housing payment is cited, as if it could plug the gap. Arithmetically, we know that it does not. DHPs are intrusive and complex. One woman was absolutely howling with grief to me because when she was filling out the form for a DHP, to fill the gap on her private rented property, she was told by the officer that in her budget breakdown she could not include taking her disabled child to the cinema—that expenditure was considered to be unacceptable if she was going to make a discretionary housing payment. I am sure we all have many examples of such untenable situations.
We know that for the foreseeable future we have to place in the private rented sector people whose incomes are too low to pay the rents and who will not be able to get into the social rented sector because there is such a catastrophic shortfall of socially rented properties, given that the right-to-buy scheme was not replaced and new building has not happened. It is all very well talking about meeting new targets, but we know that there has been a 90% fall in construction of social housing in the last nine years.
If people will be in the private rented sector, we have to act on quality and security. The Government are making some noises on that, which is good. We also have to act on affordability. I have been working with Sadiq Khan; I am pleased that the Mayor is bringing forward proposals to look at rent control. For the foreseeable future, we cannot just pour public money into supporting rents, which are rising again after a short levelling off. We cannot just expect public money to fill that gap, so we do need that. In the meantime, while we are trying to build and while we are waiting for the Government to act on control of rents, we urgently have to close that gap.
That means ending the freeze and restoring the housing allowance, so that at least the 30th percentile of renters in every single rental market, not just a few, can afford housing—and we need to keep it there. Without that, we will find more and more people, such as my constituents, swelling the ranks of the homeless—we already have 58,000 homeless families in London alone. They will be driven deeper and deeper into poverty, which will scar their lives forever and from which it will take them many years to recover.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. It is also a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), of whom I am quite a fan, because the Act she introduced—the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018—is an essential piece of legislation. I am delighted that the Government supported it. I frequently agree with her.
I felt the need to speak in this debate because I was concerned that too many Opposition Members would make it seem like a world of doom and gloom, as if the Conservative party was doing nothing to support homeless people—I understand it to be the opposite. Immediately before coming to Parliament, I had been with YMCA Birmingham for three years. Just before I left to become an MP, I was the assistant chief executive. Those were three of the most fulfilling years of my life, working for an organisation that provided accommodation to previously homeless young people. During my tenure, how did things look when it came to what the Government were doing?
When I joined, the YMCA had funding for £500,000 through the empty homes programme, which offers the opportunity to find buildings that are vacant—it is not just a question of building new things—and use them for accommodation, and in this case for previously homeless young people. Harry Watton House was previously used by Birmingham City Council to provide social care, but it had not used it for some time and we converted it into 34 flats.
Also during my tenure the Government, through the HCA, gave us a £1 million contribution towards a building in Erdington, where we were providing 34 extra units of accommodation. We had accommodation of different types, because someone’s journey from street homelessness to sustaining a tenancy of their own goes through many stages. We had a 72-bed direct access hostel, where people were provided with just a room with a sink, plus shared shower and kitchen facilities. That property is currently undergoing a £3.6 million renovation with money from this Government. It will mean that people can come in straight off the street, straight out of prison or, sadly, from military service—they are frequently former members of the armed forces who just find life too chaotic when they leave.
“Chaotic” is how we could describe those people’s lives. When we were servicing their rooms or doing repairs, we would frequently find machetes or other items under their mattress—that was the type of world that they had been involved in before coming to us, and they felt safe and secure only when they had such weapons with them. Our job was to stabilise their lifestyle and get them ready for the next stage: supported accommodation. In 2015, I was terrified when the then Chancellor announced that he would cap housing benefit at local housing rates, and that that might apply to supported housing. However, YMCA campaigned vigorously against that proposal and made a powerful argument to the Government, and fortunately it was not imposed on us.
As I say, we had direct access accommodation, we had Harry Watton House, which offered supported accommodation, and finally we had our building in Erdington, thanks to £1 million from the Government; it must have been a fine building, because Princess Anne turned up to open it. All YMCA’s work—offering support and counselling, bringing in third parties and third sector organisations to help people who were on drugs or had other lifestyle problems—was supported by the Government through supported housing funding or capital funding.
The hon. Member for Westminster North mentioned the Mayor of London. Well, in the West Midlands Combined Authority we have a Mayor of our own, Andy Street. His first priority on becoming Mayor was to tackle homelessness across the region. It is far from being the case that Conservatives or this Government are not aware of the homelessness problem, not doing everything they can to address it, not taking the matter seriously or not working hard to support those in most need.
I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the work of YMCA. However, given that 12,000 households are on Birmingham’s housing waiting list and 2,500 households are in temporary accommodation, does he feel that the first priority that the Mayor set for himself is being achieved?
It would not have been the Mayor’s first priority if it were not a substantial problem, as the hon. Gentleman rightly sets out. We all recognise that it is a substantial problem in the west midlands, but the Mayor is certainly putting all he can into tackling it. He is one man with limited powers, but often a Mayor’s power is a subtle one—the power to convene. One of the great things that he did was get a lot of housing associations across the region to work together to decide where they would be best placed to develop land, build new houses and so on, and engage them with the idea of tackling homelessness.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on leading the debate so thoroughly. I shall be brief.
The Minister will not be surprised to hear my usual plea for a redesign of the local housing areas. Stroud was put in the same local housing area as Gloucester. That had nothing to do with this Government—a previous Government did it—but because Gloucester’s rents are traditionally much lower than Stroud’s, it has affected us particularly badly. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us some good things, because it has had two effects.
First, people on lower incomes in my constituency are now being forced towards Gloucester, because it is the only place where they can pick up private renting. Secondly and more particularly, there is a huge shortfall. Private landlords are increasingly refusing to take anyone on benefits in the Stroud area, because they know that there is a shortfall. It has undoubtedly pushed rents up—it is difficult to prove, but that is the word on the street—which has put my local authority, Stroud District Council, under even more pressure as a result of homelessness, even though it is trying to build more houses and bring more social housing into play.
The best illustration is the horrifying figures that I and other hon. Members received from Shelter when preparing for our debate. In the Gloucester-Stroud local housing area—I suspect the figures for Stroud alone are much worse—only 9% of four-bedroom properties are within the local housing allowance.
My hon. Friend is making a very good speech. Although the problem may be most acute in London and the south-east, it applies right across the UK, as he points out. In my constituency there is not a single four-bed, three-bed or two-bed property that fits within the LHA, and the only one-beds are caravans or the odd sheltered housing flat. It applies everywhere.
I agree. My hon. Friend’s example shows, in a nutshell, what it is like out there. It is not only that housing is not available, but that the limited amount available is of such poor quality that families in a desperate state are being forced into even greater poverty. They then almost certainly have to top up.
The figures in the Gloucester-Stroud area show a shortfall of £27.24 for a single room, which rises to £112.46 for a four-bed property—if there even are any, which I suspect there are not. I make a heartfelt plea to the Minister that this cannot go on. Such is the difficulty we face with the dislocation in the housing market. We have to accept that private renting is there for people who do not stand a chance of getting a council property or any other form of social housing, because they are so far down the band system as a result of whatever may have happened in their past, their inability to pay the rent or their not being local to the area. They end up renting in the private sector; they get penalised because they cannot find anything; if they do find something it is poor—and then they have to top up.
Please, Minister, can we look at this as a crisis and start doing something about it?
It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate. I thank the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) for setting the scene so well, and all hon. Members for their substantial contributions. As always, I will give a Northern Ireland perspective on the matter and give an idea of what is happening there.
It is good to see the Minister in his place. He has not been in post long, but hopefully he will continue in it long after today. I know that he has a deep interest in this subject, and we look forward to hearing his response to the genuine questions that we have, because I know that he will do his best.
Despite targeted affordability funding, less than 10% of the local housing allowance rates now cover the rent of the cheapest 30% of private homes. That is a chasm of difference, which is very hard to equate, as other Members have said. Many people who cannot get on the social housing ladder and who have no family to take them in realistically have to resort to sleeping on the streets. It is not by choice; it is almost by design that they are unable to find accommodation.
I have had a number of such cases in my constituency. Entering the private housing system is not an option for many benefit claimants, given how high the cost of rental is in the private housing sector. People without a partner who are benefit claimants cannot realistically get a one-bedroom flat through social housing and cannot afford to get one through private rental under the current allowances, because the two figures just do not equate, as I have said.
The hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) mentioned a mother with two children who are visually handicapped, who has to use the money that should be purposely set aside for their disability to pay the rent, so that they have accommodation and the children can get to school. That is a supreme example of the problems that people have, and I am sure that the Minister will respond to it specifically if he can.
Given the issues, why should we expect people to try and get suitable accommodation? I know the difficulties in my area. My staff and I were working with a young man who was literally sleeping in a garage. He was 40, so not entitled to homeless points, despite our efforts on his behalf. We all tried to get him into accommodation in the area, but he could not get a one-bedroom flat in his price range. His elderly mother—very often, family members step in—ended up paying the difference, but when she passes away, hopefully not for a long, long time, I do not know where this troubled young man will be. He will certainly not be in a private rental.
Nobody should have to sleep on the streets in this day and age, as I think all of us—the Minister, the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), and all right hon. and hon. Members here today—realise. I believe that we must try to bring more people into employment, so that they do not have to rely on benefits to provide them with a stable home. I will make some comments and ask some questions about that shortly, because this issue is not just the Minister’s responsibility; other Departments have a role to play as well.
The local housing allowance should be a safety net for people, so that they can find a job to provide them with a bit more stability. Yes, some people may undoubtedly seek to take advantage of the benefits system as an excuse not to find a job, but I have to say that, from my evidential basis, I do not see that. I am not saying that it does not happen, but I do not see it in my constituency.
There is a genuine lack of housing at these prices, and private rental landlords are sometimes loth to take universal credit or housing benefit tenants, and especially not at a discounted rate. There is a very difficult balance to strike between a rental that is correct and a housing benefit or universal credit system that helps people to stay in the accommodation they are in.
The hon. Gentleman is making an extremely powerful and important speech. He seems to be making the case for much-needed and industrial-scale social rented housing, which would provide people with basic security of tenure for their home, so that they can then get a job and enter the workplace with that assuredness. I think he is also saying that there is such a big gap between housing costs and local housing allowance provision, particularly for one-bedroom accommodation.
I have been a great believer in social housing. I have supported it all my life, and I regularly have people coming to me trying to access it. It is incredibly important for those who cannot afford to buy their own home—even more so today. Alongside that, when it comes to social housing, we must provide a benefit system, and the LHA enables people to stay in their accommodation, so the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I totally agree with what he said.
I have sympathy for those experiencing difficulties and recognise that people may be experiencing difficult times that prevent them from finding a job. I believe that help should be available to them, but there is another aspect of this issue, and that is getting the right qualifications to find a stable job—a reality that some people fail to face up to in school. In 2017, 16.6% of Northern Ireland residents aged between 16 and 64 had no qualifications. I believe that these problems are intrinsically linked, which is the point I made earlier. It is not just the Minister’s Department; the Department for Education, the Department of Health, the Department for Work and Pensions and others all have a role to play. To tackle homelessness, we must tackle the problem of people having no qualifications, as low-skilled jobs are becoming harder and harder to come by nowadays.
Unfortunately, homelessness and deaths are linked, and I will give hon. Members some statistics—I cannot say that they are exactly linked together, but the stats may just tell us something. In Northern Ireland from October 2017 to the end of August 2018, an average of 13 homeless people per month had their housing applications closed due to death. Of the deceased, 63% were aged 60 or younger and the youngest was only 18. The majority, 93, were male. Their cause of death is unknown; I make that comment clearly. This is a problem, and I believe that these people should be helped. These figures are distressing, and it is horrendous that people cannot get a helping hand to lift them out of the difficult situation they are in.
A new strategy is required if we seek to solve the homelessness problem across the UK. Getting more people into work and getting people with the right qualifications would be steps in the right direction.
To conclude, support should be available to those in need, and certainly used as a springboard to get them into employment and keep this fine nation going forward, but in the short term we need affordable housing—the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) referred to social housing. That housing simply is not there at present. We need funding to build affordable housing, and for rent control as well. We simply should not have people on the streets in this nation, and we need to do all we can to ensure fit-for-purpose allowances in areas with a lack of one or two-bedroom accommodation, as compared with those on the housing stress list.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Bailey.
A stone’s throw from St Philip’s Cathedral, on the steps of the House of Fraser, in the heart of Birmingham’s business district, there is a shrine. It is marked with flowers, photos and expressions of feelings. Here, in the wealthiest quarter of the second city of the fifth richest country on Earth is the latest memorial to a man who died homeless on the streets. “You are unforgettable, Miguel”, reads one dedication. That is right. It is right that we remember this man in our city. It is right that we hear and remember his name in the House of Commons. And it is right that we remember the names of the 90 people, along with him, who have died homeless in our city since 2013, many on the streets of the second city in this country.
Those people are the citizens who we collectively have failed, so I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma). I personally believe that we should be debating every day the deadly doctrine behind this death toll, because be under no illusion: this is now a moral emergency and it requires from the new Prime Minister today an emergency response.
In Birmingham, rough sleeping has now risen by almost 1,000% since 2010, yet that is just the visible crisis that we can see. The invisible crisis is just as bad. In total, 20,000 people—the size of a small town—along with 5,000 children are now lodged in temporary accommodation. They are cursed to move every couple of weeks, when it is time to rebook. Be under no illusion: these are futures that are now being sacrificed, as every single one of us who has had to support children taking their GCSEs from a Travelodge will now know.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a very powerful and moving speech. Of the 90 people who died, is he aware how many had drug issues at the same time? I absolutely accept that decent housing helps people to get over drug problems, but does he know the proportion that were involved with drugs?
We do not know, because obviously there is not a safeguarding adult review for everyone who dies. There should be a safeguarding adult review for everyone who dies, because my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall made a sensible but crucial point: that local housing allowance is absolutely part of this crisis. He is absolutely right. The average LHA in Birmingham, which is £132 a week, covers only two thirds of the cost of a median home in our city. However, it would be delusional to pretend, as our current Mayor has tried to do, that local housing allowance is somehow the nub of the changes we need to make.
The truth is that to fund tax cuts for the lucky, this Government have reduced social insurance for the unlucky to a clutch of shreds and patches. This Government have now cut back so hard that social insurance in this country is now in systems failure. I know the Minister will say that it was a hard choice, but the truth is that it was the wrong choice. The tax cuts that have been handed out to British corporates now total £110 billion. Overwhelmingly, that money has either gone back to shareholders or is lodged in those corporates’ bank accounts. It was the wrong choice, because rather than strengthen the hand that helps, this Government chose to feather the nests of those who already had plenty.
I will illustrate the systems failure that we now face. From all my interviews with homeless citizens in Birmingham through the long nights, what has become clear is that three systems are needed: a benefits system, a health system and a housing system. All three are now in crisis. Mental health caseloads in our region are now rising four times faster than funding. Addiction services in our region have been cut back by between 12% and 20%. The University of Birmingham has concluded that the health services provided to homeless people are now so bad that those people are actually being denied access to basic health services. Housing benefit hands cash to the landlords of houses in multiple occupation in a way that is completely unregulated, with no obligation on them to provide much-needed counselling or support. There is no regulation of private landlords worthy of its name, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) said, the conditions that we now contend with are absolutely disgraceful.
We are building affordable homes in our region so slowly that it will take us until the 2050s to clear the council waiting lists across the region, which now number well over 50,000. Just to add insult to injury, although the Government promised £211 million to build new homes, according to parliamentary questions they have handed out only £2 million. That means that £209 million is left in the Treasury when we have people dying on the streets of our city.
My right hon. Friend is making a powerful and important speech. Does he agree that there are two issues: that the Government are hiding behind statistics about housebuilding that are inflated through permitted development rights and in other ways, and that we are seeing an increase in HMOs? The provision is completely inappropriate for the housing and social needs in our communities.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are hiding behind definitions of “affordable housing” that are frankly meaningless in the real world. What we need to be doing is building houses for social rent—what used to be called council houses. Let us again build council houses that communities can be proud of.
This systems failure is now killing people, as should be obvious to all of us in this House. I pay tribute to the incredible coalition of kindness in my city that is trying to turn the tide, particularly Councillor Sharon Thompson, who knows a thing or two about homelessness, Jean Templeton, who is chairing the Mayor’s taskforce, and the 14 or 15 different outreach groups that make sure that the homeless people in our city are not actually starving on the streets. However, what those people need is a Government who are on their side, and are prepared to make sure that the Mayor does not spend £1 million on secret consultants, but puts that money into ensuring that there are more emergency shelter places than there are rough sleepers.
We need a hard duty on all public services to act together and collaborate to prevent homelessness from happening in the first place. We need a region-wide private landlord licensing scheme. We need to expand accommodation in refuges. We need a universal offer on all public services for vulnerable people. We need to double the pace of council house building. We need to end the Vagrancy Act 1824 and reintroduce housing benefit for the under-25s. We need to end the lunacy of the “no recourse to public funds” rule, and we need an urgent review of the exempt accommodation rules.
George Dawson, the founder of the civic gospel in our city—the precursor of municipal socialism—once asked his congregation,
“Are you prepared to vindicate the enormous wealth of some men, side by side with the extreme poverty?”
I am not prepared to live in a city where we have cranes in the sky, but homeless people dying in the doorways. We need an emergency response to this moral emergency, and I hope the Minister will drive it through with today’s new Prime Minister.
We now come to the Front Bench spokespersons, who normally get 10 minutes. There is a little in excess of that, but given the number of questions that have been asked of the Minister, could the Opposition Front Bench spokespersons be disciplined and give him adequate time to respond to them?
As always, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Bailey. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on securing this hugely important debate and thank everyone who has contributed to it, including the hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) who, with his hands-on experience from the YMCA, shone an interesting light on this issue based on his own background.
As we have heard so often this morning, there is an inescapable and undeniable link between the paucity of affordable rented property in the private rented sector and the increased risk of people becoming homeless simply because they cannot afford to meet the cost of living in private rented accommodation. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) was absolutely right when he described the “chasm of difference” between what those people are expected to pay and what they can afford to pay. To back up what the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall said, local housing allowance should be there to help those on low incomes meet the cost of renting a home, and provide stability and security in their housing situation and prevent the risk of falling into homelessness.
The hon. Members for Westminster North (Ms Buck) and for Stroud (Dr Drew) were also right in what they said. They gave all-too-real examples of what happens to people, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, who are told that they can no longer afford to live in the areas where they have grown up and in which they have roots and families. It is little wonder that social problems follow as people are moved further and further away from the areas in which they have those roots.
However, let us be absolutely clear: this housing crisis, particularly in England, as well as the rising levels of homelessness and rough sleeping, did not happen by accident. There has not been some unforeseen set of circumstances that has led to the number of households living in temporary accommodation in England rising by 60% between 2012 and 2018. There has been no unexpected or unforeseen quirk that has led to the number of rough sleepers in England nearly doubling over the past five years—far from it. This housing crisis was all too predictable, because just about every stakeholder warned the Government right from the start about the inevitable consequences of pursuing their austerity agenda. When they froze local housing allowance and failed to meet their targets for building social housing, what did they expect to happen, other than a rise in homelessness and the number of people sleeping rough on our streets? That is exactly what has happened, so let us call this what it is: a crisis entirely of the UK Government’s own making.
It is incontestable that the UK Government’s austerity agenda has had a hugely negative impact on people’s ability to rent private sector accommodation. Research from the Chartered Institute of Housing shows that many LHA rates now fail to cover even the cheapest third of rents as they were designed to do, and a survey carried out by the National Housing Federation and the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations found that tenants on universal credit were more than twice as likely to be in debt than other tenants.
This year alone, the Scottish Government will spend in excess of £125 million to mitigate the worst impacts of those cuts and seek to protect those on low incomes. That will include £50 million to mitigate the bedroom tax and £63 million in discretionary housing payments, of which £1.3 million will be used to directly offset the impact of the LHA freeze. However, it is not the responsibility of the Scottish Government to foot the bill for the Tories’ austerity programme; that is the UK Government’s responsibility, and theirs alone. By lifting the benefits freeze, the Scottish Government will no longer have to plug those gaps caused by austerity, and those funds can be spent on other vital services that benefit the people of Scotland.
The freeze to local housing allowance has had a devastating impact on the poorest people in our society. Removing the freeze and reinstating its true value would be an enormous help, but that is only part of the answer. Only by increasing the supply of affordable housing will long-term, sustainable solutions to the crisis be found. Last month the Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince), admitted exactly that in reply to an urgent question, saying that a lack of new housing was a major factor in the rise of homelessness, and that,
“successive…Governments…have…not built enough affordable…social …housing.”—[Official Report, 13 June 2019; Vol. 661, c. 833.]
We have heard from others this morning, including the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), that the shortage of housing, particularly for social rent in England, is a major contributory factor to the rise of homelessness. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) was absolutely spot on when he said that it was fuelling both the invisible and the visible housing crisis.
The Centre for Policy Studies reckons that England is on course for its worst decade of house building since the second world war. It has calculated that the total number of completions between 2010 and 2019 will average out at 130,000 a year, which is down 20,000 from the figure of the 1990s and 2000s, and is at only half the level seen in the ’60s and ’70s—a successive pattern that has continued for almost half a century. As I said at the start, the issue is about political choices and Governments deciding what their priorities are and what they deem to be important. That is why I fully commend the work of the SNP Scottish Government, who have delivered 76,500 affordable homes since 2007 and are investing more than £3 billion to deliver another 50,000 affordable homes by the end of the current parliamentary Session in 2021. That figure will include 60,000 homes for social rent, 7,000 homes for affordable rent and just over 20,000 homes designed for affordable home ownership. In addition, the Scottish Government continue to support the empty homes partnership, which has brought 3,200 empty homes back into use since 2010.
To put the figures into perspective, between 2007 and 2018, the supply of affordable housing per head of population in Scotland has been a third higher than in England. In the four years to 2018, the Scottish Government have delivered 50% more affordable housing units per head of population than the UK Government have for the people of England. In those four years, the Scottish Government have delivered a remarkable five times more social rented properties per head of population— 84 units per 100,000 compared with only 13 for the people of England. That is not because the Scottish Government have a magic wand and are able to do things that this Parliament cannot do. It is simply that the Scottish Government have prioritised housing as a fundamental of any decent society and, despite a shrinking budget, have invested accordingly. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the Scottish Government have stopped the right to buy in Scotland. We have protected social rented homes and prevented them from entering into the private sector to the tune of up to 15,500 houses in the past 10 years.
In conclusion, as I said earlier, what we are witnessing, particularly in England, is a crisis entirely of the UK Government’s own making. Knowing full well the consequences of their actions, the Government steamed ahead, creating a perfect storm where punitive, arbitrary and deeply damaging cuts to welfare, coupled to a devastating under-investment in building social housing, have led to soaring rents in the private sector and caused a spike in homelessness and rough sleeping. It is the UK Government’s own mess. When will they wake up to the crisis that they are creating?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Bailey. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on securing this important and timely debate and on spelling out the reality for so many of our people. I also congratulate him on the 12th anniversary of his election to Parliament yesterday, which we were pleased to celebrate last evening.
As my hon. Friend said, we know that rough sleeping in London has hit a record high with an 18% rise on last year, but it is not limited to London. Since 2010, when the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition Government came to power, rough sleeping has more than doubled across England, and there is no one reason for that. There are ways that it could have been prevented, but successive Governments since 2010 seem to have been content to allow the numbers to escalate. Even when they have admitted that there is an issue, the Government have failed to act. Two Prime Ministers have seen the numbers grow on their watch. I wonder what the new one, due to be installed later today, will make of such a terrible legacy and what he will do to sort it out.
Our Governments and Prime Ministers have been too preoccupied with Brexit and internal warring, meaning that people across this country have been let down and forced on to the streets because they simply have no other option. It is not that the Government do not know what is happening to people who are being made homeless. Ministers are quite happy to turn up and spout at events like the recent one hosted by Crisis, but we know that for all their rhetoric and plans, rough sleeping has dropped by less than 2% in the past year. If it is to be eradicated, at that rate it will take 50 years to sort it out, so I am left with no other conclusion than to ask whether they simply do not care enough to act.
Let us look at what the Conservatives have done—the decimation of social housing up and down the country over recent years, a failure to build the social housing needed, and the erosion of the welfare state. Such failures have been major factors in generating a worrying rise in homelessness, and it is across the piece. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is always in his place speaking up for the people of Northern Ireland. He made it very clear that the crisis here in the UK is reflected in Northern Ireland, too, and it is families that suffer as a result.
There is ultimately one root cause that must be tackled if we are serious about ending homelessness. We need to increase the availability and affordability of housing. Stable and secure homes will give people the best chance of moving on from homelessness, or preventing it altogether. Unfortunately, we are in a position where having housing for every person is seen as an ambitious goal when it should be the standard and the bare minimum. The Government have moved the goalposts of what is seen as reasonable and turned adequate housing for all into the unachievable.
We know that many people live on low incomes. A person could work 40 hours a week on the minimum wage and not be able to afford the cost of renting privately in some places in this country, especially if they have children. We should not have a race to the bottom where only those with higher incomes can afford adequate housing. Those on lower incomes deserve secure, decent living conditions with affordable rents, but that is not the situation in Westminster North, as my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) said. Not a single home is available for low-income families and we have the lamentable situation where former council homes are now out of reach of the poorest people because of rents of as much as £500 a week.
On the need for social housing, the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) spoke of the need to build more homes more quickly. He talked about energy-efficient and bill-free homes, and he is entirely correct about that—no doubt about that—but the Government have built fewer than 7,000 new homes provided at social rent in England in 2017-2018, when what we need is 90,000 each year for the next 15 years just to tackle the backlog of housing need. People are being forced to turn to private rented housing. Although some positive moves have been made regarding tenant fees, affordability is still a major problem, even if people can find a property in the first place.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) spoke of private landlords refusing to take people on benefits. What does the Minister have to say about that? Is he surprised that private landlords are not always accommodating and understanding when their tenants are late with their rent payments? The reality is that families are being evicted because they cannot keep up with rent payments, and they enter undesirable living arrangements—sleeping on the floors of other family members, at best, and sleeping in cars and on the streets. We have heard other examples as well. Often it means that families are split up, leading to more pain and suffering.
Research from Crisis—we have heard much about its research—and the Chartered Institute of Housing has shown that cuts to local housing allowance rates mean that in 92% of areas in Great Britain, single people and couples or small families who need local housing allowance to pay their rent will struggle to find somewhere to live that they can actually afford. Until social housing can meet demand, people on low incomes must be able to find secure and stable housing in the private rented sector. Shelter has said that targeted affordability funding is not alleviating the problem. The top-up grant for areas most affected by the freeze in local housing allowance—just a 3% increase—has not worked.
Yes, and what is happening in response? Very little. So much more needs to be done. The housing allowance is not allocated or based on how many areas are in need, just distributed to areas in a ranked order until there is no more money. In Shelter’s words, the affordability funding is
“not even close to plugging the gap.”
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall proved that the housing crisis is very real with a series of case studies of real people and families in crisis. They are not just numbers in a table of statistics. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) told us that we need to remember the names of some of the people who never found a home, and spoke of the memorial to Miguel in his constituency. He also spoke of children in his area who are taking their GCSEs while accommodated in the local Travelodge. I understand why he is asking the new Prime Minister to take action on that systematic failure.
I hope that the Minister remains in post, and can do something. As I mentioned, we will get a new Prime Minister today, and there will be a lot of shuffling around, but whether the Minister remains or provides a handover to his successor, I urge him to work to restore local housing allowance rates back to the 30th percentile of the market, as others have called for. We need to address homelessness with immediate effect, and provide a lifeline to people on a low income. We simply cannot afford not to.
I know that it can be easy to sit in opposition and criticise those making the decisions, but Labour has made some bold pledges that we will deliver when we win a general election. We will define affordable housing as linked to local income, and scrap the Conservatives’ so-called affordable rent home price, at up to 80% of market rates. We will stop the sell-off of 50,000 social rented homes a year by suspending the right to buy—I am pleased that the Scottish Government have done that already—ending all conversions to affordable rent, and scrapping the Government’s plans to force councils to sell their best homes.
We will back councils and housing associations with new funding, powers and flexibilities to build at scale. While we work to provide 8,000 homes for rough sleepers, we will provide local authorities with £100 million to deal with winter pressures and ensure that no one sleeps rough. We will also tackle the scandal of empty homes, many of which need upgrading to be habitable, and many more of which investors simply buy and leave empty, believing that the value will go up and they will make a financial killing.
The crisis is leaving families homeless because of the Government’s failure to act. Successive Conservative, and Lib Dem coalition, Governments have failed on housing and failed to end homelessness—no wonder people have no confidence in their housing policies. There is no doubt in my mind that it is time to act on house building and, in the meantime, on the local housing allowance, before even more families are shown the door and thrown out on to the streets.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I, too, thank the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) for securing this important debate, and colleagues from across the House for sharing compelling accounts.
I have been in post for only three months. It will come as no surprise to Members that both housing and, in particular, tackling homelessness and rough sleeping are passions of mine, as I have co-chaired the all-party parliamentary group on ending homelessness. I will start by saying that I get it, and I share Members’ passion for fixing it and getting it right. I work very closely with stakeholders in the field, including Crisis, St Mungo’s, Shelter and many others. Even in just the past three months, I have met with most of them and have been on several visits to see and experience the lived experience of some of those they support.
I recognise the issue, which, although I accept it is largely now nationwide, is particularly acute in certain parts of the country where there is very high demand and limited supply. I am also aware that too many people have to top up their housing from their benefits, which are designed for the cost of living. We have to put that right. I am determined to address it, and I am working very closely with the Secretary of State, who has been hugely supportive of the moves that I have made in this area.
Currently, there are no plans to extend or maintain the benefits freeze after March 2020, but specific decisions on how to uprate local housing allowance from April 2020 will form part of the discussions in support of fiscal events later this year. I will address as many points raised as possible, but I am conscious that we have a relatively limited amount of time, and that a number of them are more appropriate for a Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government colleague. I will certainly raise those points with my counterparts, subject to my still being in post tomorrow or the day after.
Reform to housing support was a central part of the Government’s plan to create a welfare system that supports the most vulnerable and is fair to taxpayers. To help to ensure a balance between those two elements, LHA rates are not intended to meet rents in all areas. The intention behind the welfare reform programme is that the same considerations and choices faced by people not in receipt of benefits should also be faced by those claiming benefits. The LHA policy is designed to achieve that.
It was not so long ago that, at about 2 am or 3 am, I met a man who goes by the name of “Ginge”. He sleeps in the Barclays bank lobby at Colmore Row, and has schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Is he supposed to find the money to cover the entire rent of a home that he could move into?
The right hon. Gentleman refers to rough sleeping. Often people lump homelessness and rough sleeping together, but there is a huge difference between them. The Government are taking considerable action on rough sleeping. I will happily meet him, or arrange for the Housing and Homelessness Minister to do so, in order to discuss it in more detail. I know that he cares hugely about this issue, and contributes to debates on it. I share his passion. The Government are taking significant action, but he is right that we must look at LHA rates. I hope I made it clear at the outset that I am doing that with the Secretary of State, and ahead of the next fiscal event we are looking very closely at what more we can do.
Between 2000 and 2010, housing benefit expenditure rose by more than half in real terms, reaching £25 billion in today’s prices. Left unreformed, by 2014-15 housing benefit would have reached £29 billion. That was clearly not sustainable. The measure to freeze local housing allowance rates for four years from April 2016 built on reforms introduced in the previous Parliament, which saved £6 billion in total by 2015-16. Savings from freezing LHA are estimated to be around £655 million for Great Britain over the four-year period of the measure. Our reforms are part of our wider goal to move people from welfare and into work.
We recognise that some places have seen higher increases in rents than others, and have made provision to help people further in those areas, as the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) mentioned. We have used a proportion of the savings from the freeze to reduce the gap between frozen LHA rates and the 30th percentile reference rent in the areas of greatest rental growth. Initially, 30% of the savings from the freeze were used for targeted affordability funding, but we invested an additional £125 million in that funding for the final two years of the freeze. That was based on 50% of the savings rather than 30%.
Has the Department conducted any kind of cost-benefit analysis of the measure’s overall impact? In practice, it is leading to additional health and education costs, and to huge impacts on families that have to be sucked up by already strapped local authorities. Has there been any kind of 360° review of the measure’s overall impact across Government, including local government, and not just on the benefits bill?
I have been a Minister for only three months and I keep all the policies in my remit at the Department under very close review. I regularly meet and have conversations with key stakeholders in policy areas such as this, to ensure that we are aware where policies are and are not working, and that we are alive to the issues. It will not come as a surprise to the hon. Lady that stakeholders in this area have flagged LHA rates as an issue. That is why we are looking at it very closely indeed.
The additional funding enabled us to increase 213 LHA rates—there are 960 rates in total—by 3% last year. This year, a total of £210 million has been made available: the highest amount of targeted affordability funding since its introduction in 2014. That has enabled us to increase 361 LHA rates by 3%. As a result, it is estimated that 500,000 households this year will benefit from an increase of around £250 a year.
In addition to that targeted affordability funding, the Government have provided more than £1 billion in discretionary housing payments to local authorities since 2011, which the hon. Member for Westminster North referred to. Discretionary housing payments allow local authorities to protect the most vulnerable claimants and support households affected by different welfare reforms, including the freeze to the LHA.
Not necessarily. They have been available since 2011, and more than £1 billion has been made available to local authorities. Quite intentionally, we allow local authorities discretion on how it is used, and they use that money and use it well. There is an underspend in a number of local authorities, but it is a tool used by many local authorities to prevent homelessness. Where individuals or families are at risk of homelessness, local authorities will use DHPs to protect tenancies.
The hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) has raised the point about broad rental market areas a few times; I note his concerns about the broad rental market area boundaries in Stroud and the wider area. As with all policies, we keep that under review, and I am looking at this very closely. I hope the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that any reform of the policy would be a significant and complex undertaking, given that there are 192 broad market rental areas across England, Scotland and Wales. We should be aware that any changes to the BMRAs and their boundaries are likely to create both winners and losers, so I have to give very careful consideration to the potential impact.
The hon. Gentleman also raised a point about “No DSS”—landlords not renting to those in receipt of benefits. The Prime Minister and No. 10 have taken that issue very seriously. I attended a recent roundtable with a number of stakeholders and we are working very closely with the Residential Landlords Association. Part of the issue is mortgage lenders and insurers. More and more mortgage lenders are now reducing or removing their restrictions on renting to those in the receipt of benefits—Metro Bank is the most recent addition to that list. There are a few still to go, and we still have to tackle the insurance market, as some insurance policies still do not allow people who buy to let to rent to those in receipt of benefits. We are looking at that area closely and are working with key stakeholders, because we very much want to fix this—to break the myth and challenge the ignorant belief that those in receipt of benefits are riskier tenants than those who are not, because it is absolutely untrue.
The hon. Member for Ealing, Southall also raised temporary accommodation. With other Government Departments, we are working to assess what more can be done to address the number of people in temporary accommodation. Time spent in temporary accommodation means that people are getting help and ensures that no family is without a roof over their heads. The Government have targeted funding streams focused on reducing the number of households in temporary accommodation as part of our £1.2 billion spending plan.
While the Minister is being constructive and generous, and before he finishes, could he undertake to try to secure an explanation as to why the £211 million promised to the West Midlands Combined Authority when it was set up has not yet been paid over? Could he do that before the reshuffle?
The right hon. Gentleman tempts me down a road that is wholly outside my remit. That is a question for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and my counterpart or the Housing Minister in that Department. The right hon. Gentleman knows that he has tools in his arsenal—he can write to that Minister or secure an Adjournment debate, or he could catch the Minister around the Estate later on to ask that question. If I see him, I will raise it, but I think the right hon. Gentleman might be able to find his own salvation by raising it personally with the relevant Minister.
Can I take the Minister back to the point about mortgage lenders and difficulties in lending to people on benefits? Will his officials have a look at what has happened in France recently? My understanding is that, certainly in previous years, the French Government set up a system for people on benefits and low incomes to get on the housing ladder in association with a number of French banks. We should study that to see if there are any lessons for us in the UK. Would he undertake to ask his officials to have a look at that system?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention; I was not aware of that scheme and will certainly look at it—it sounds very interesting. Subject to being in post in 24 or 48 hours, I will certainly commit to looking at that and to coming back to him with my thoughts.
Numerous Members, including the hon. Members for Ealing, Southall, and for Westminster North, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara), all raised the issue of housing for social rent. This is also an area that I am hugely passionate about. Local housing allowance rates and debates such as this are only half of the story. We must look at how we can increase the supply of housing that is affordable to people on low incomes to create a more sustainable system over the longer term.
I am keen to continue my work with colleagues in MHCLG to support them in looking at how we can increase the supply of housing for social and affordable rent and what more my Department might be able to do to achieve that. I urge my hon. Friends and hon. Members—not that I am supposed to—to address the issue of housing supply with my counterparts in MHCLG and to lobby accordingly. It is a hugely important issue. I share the thoughts of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire when he says that at the heart of the route for tackling poverty, improving health outcomes and improving educational attainment and employability is a secure and stable home, and that is something that we should prioritise.
It is going to take some time to build the houses required. In the meantime, we need the local housing allowance to be properly addressed. The evidence has shown that it is inadequate, yet in some areas there is an underspend. What is the Minister going to do to review that and to transfer the money to where there is a greater need?
I made it clear at the beginning that this is an area that I am looking at very closely. We are committed to providing a strong safety net for those who need it and that is why we continue to spend more than £95 billion a year on welfare benefits for people of working age. There are no current plans to extend or maintain the benefits freeze after March 2020. As I said at the beginning, specific decisions on how to uprate the local housing allowance rates from April 2020 will form part of the discussions in support of fiscal events later this year.
Looking at the time, I do not think I will be able to respond to each and every point, so I thank collectively all right hon. and hon. Members who contributed to the debate. I am glad to see the passion and commitment that the Minister has shown for the subject, and I hope that he will retain his position tomorrow and carry on. Otherwise, there are other routes he can follow to make sure that we carry on fighting for the rights of those who are vulnerable in our society. I thank you, Mr Bailey, for your chairmanship.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered local housing allowance and homelessness.
Flitwick Station: Step-free Access
I beg to move,
That this House has considered step-free access at Flitwick station.
Nineteenth-century engineers thought very little of laying a railway line in a cutting through the centre of an old market town; that was no obstacle. Sadly, they thought even less about how disabled people could access the platforms in that cutting. I thought that our modern attitudes had changed and moved on, and that we were more considerate of the less able in society, but I am afraid that there is no evidence of that at Flitwick station.
My constituent Darren, who is a severely disabled man and a wheelchair user, is one of the worst affected. He cannot hope to get on a train from a station that is only a few hundred yards away from his home. I will explain a bit about Darren, who I think might be watching. Darren was a very able professional man who used Flitwick station every day to commute to work. In an act of generosity, he once helped somebody to move house, and an obstacle fell off the back of the flatbed lorry they were using while Darren was tying his shoelaces. He broke his spine and has been a paraplegic ever since, but he would still like to use Flitwick station.
I felt incredibly humbled when Darren turned up one day here at Westminster. In his mobility wheelchair, with his suction and everything else, he had decided to bring himself to Parliament to see me. The effort it took him to get here is possibly the reason why I will never give up fighting for people such as Darren to have the disabled access that they need in order to live as normal and able a commuter life as possible, so that they can get to shops and do the things that they used to do before they were unable to access Flitwick station.
I am also talking about older people, young mums with prams and people with suitcases visiting the Centre Parcs in my constituency. The local campaign to get step-free access at Flitwick station has been determined in the face of seemingly endless delays and prevarication. Particular mention has to go to Arthur Taylor of the Bedfordshire Commuters Association, to the cross-party Bedfordshire Rail Access Network and to the efforts of Flitwick Town and unitary councillors, who are sitting in the Public Gallery. I also want to mention an honourable and good friend of mine, Fiona Chapman—her successor from the ward is in the Gallery.
The hopes of so many people in Flitwick and its surrounding towns and villages were focused on the Access for All funding, but they were dashed in April when the scheme announced its results. We all thought the case for step-free access at Flitwick was strong. Over 1.5 million people use the station each year, with 4.5% growth as the local area goes through a period of sustained house building. Much more is still to come. We have seen investment in lengthening the platforms, which has happened during my time as an MP over the past 15 years, and the purchase of new trains. In fact, it is very rare for a train that does not have 12 carriages to pass through Flitwick station. However, nothing has been done to enable the disabled and elderly to use the station, despite the upgrading of platforms and train carriages.
In addition to the number of passengers, Flitwick’s case for step-free access is strengthened by the lack of alternative means of travel. Disabled people who wish to travel from Flitwick must call 24 hours in advance, which is exactly what Darren did. A taxi will be booked to take them to the nearest step-free station—at least, that is how it should work. More often than not, there will be no taxi waiting when my disabled constituents arrive at Flitwick station, despite their having telephoned 24 hours in advance. There is occasionally a taxi waiting, but it is unable to take wheelchairs. There are unfortunately few buses from Flitwick, and most of them are not wheelchair-accessible either. For a large number of people, transport options are either strictly limited or absolutely non-existent.
For all those reasons and more, Flitwick station was the top priority for Govia Thameslink Railway, the relevant train operating company, in the last round of Access for All funding—or so it said. However, the funding was not enough. Govia Thameslink Railway said Flitwick was its priority station, but apparently it is not. By comparison with Flitwick, Cricklewood station has lower footfall, lower growth and better alternatives for less-able passengers, but it was awarded money from the Access for All funding. I do not know anybody who understands the rationale for that, other than it costs less money to adapt Cricklewood station. The train operating companies and the Department for Transport decided to go for the lower hanging fruit. For them, it is a numbers game: how many stations can we adapt for how little money?
We all know that Flitwick is a geographical challenge because of where it is situated—the elevations and the number of steps that one needs to go down to reach the platforms at the station. It is obviously an engineering challenge and would therefore be slightly more expensive. However, it would not be an obstacle to the Victorian engineers who built the station—they would think nothing of being asked to make the station accessible for wheelchair users or disabled people. It would not be a challenge to Victorian engineers, who would just get on and do it, but it is apparently too much for us to adapt a station that is slightly challenging in terms of its elevation, geography and current accessibility. We all know the reasons why.
The train operating company directs all inquiries to the Department for Transport. The Access for All administrators have refused to answer any questions put to them by my constituents and other people— believe me, there have been a lot—who have inquired about why Flitwick was missed out of the programme. The fragmentation, lack of information and lack of communication between the Department of Transport, the train operating companies and the relevant interested bodies in my constituency, including Flitwick Town Council, have led to bad feelings. There was absolute frustration in my constituency, because the one station that everyone—not just in Bedfordshire, but in the entire eastern region—thought required funding and adaptation was Flitwick, due to the house building and established growth. That is not growth that we are predicting: 4.5.% growth is happening right now.
Look at our local plan and the aspirations of Central Bedfordshire Council for inward investment already deciding to come to the area, close to Flitwick station. A great deal of house building will take place close to Flitwick station. A number of new commuters are about to come and live close to it. A number of businesses are about to relocate to areas such as Henlow and others, close to Flitwick station. It is not imaginary growth. Central Bedfordshire Council was able to confirm the level of growth that we will have going forward, but the one station in the entire region that requires funding was left off.
I have spoken to the Minister about this issue in the past, and there is some confusion. The Department for Transport blames the train operating companies, and the train operating companies blame the Department for Transport. The Department says, “We adapted the stations that the train operating companies told us to adapt,” and the train operating companies say, “You were top of our list, but the Department for Transport decided not to do it.” That is the problem facing us at the moment.
I would like a clear response that my councillors, who are sitting in the Public Gallery, can take back to Flitwick, saying, “This is the situation with regard to Flitwick station. This is why it didn’t happen. This is why it is going to happen in the future, and this is when it is going to happen.”
We all understand the logistical challenge of adapting Flitwick. We all understand that we would have to go through a period when the station might even have to close for a while, and I have been told that the civil engineering problem there might even mean that the centre of Flitwick would close for a while. I do not think that we regard that as a problem, because the eventual outcome would be worth it. It is something that we could explain easily to my constituents, our residents, because the equality of access has to be there for people such as Darren.
Everyone has a right to be able to travel, in particular in an area with poor transport links—bus links and the whole transport structure are poor. Flitwick station and that Bedford-to-St Pancras line—known as “the Bedpan line”—offer a life-giving artery for people to access work, pleasure and travel in all its aspects. It is such a well used line, but an entire group of my constituents is denied those ordinary daily rights of employment, pleasure and travel that people such as me and my councillors have access to and enjoy.
At the start, I said that I would always see access for disabled people through the eyes of Darren—the eyes of a man who worked and lived the commuter life, a professional life, that is now denied him because he is unable to travel. This is not a man who wants to sit at home; this is a man who wants to get out, to go to the train station, to travel to London and to enjoy things that every able-bodied person is able to enjoy. But that is all denied him because of lack of access at Flitwick station. That is the truth of the matter. I have also seen women struggling up and down the steps with babies in prams. Despite the bus, sometimes I see people struggling up with suitcases to get taxis or on to the main street. This cannot go on for much longer.
Flitwick station is 50 miles outside London, most of my constituents are commuters and most of my disabled constituents want to work, so I now ask the Minister for some specific answers. When will it happen? Why did it not happen before? That is the question everyone is asking—why did it not happen? We need to have communicated to us today a clear trajectory towards a situation in which those people can access the travel rights that the rest of us have. At the moment, all we have is a lack of communication, as well as confusion, frustration—and, from some people, a certain amount of anger.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries) on securing this important debate, which gives us the opportunity for us to discuss accessibility. I want to acknowledge on the record her passionate and ongoing campaigning not only on behalf of her constituency but for accessibility across our rail network. I was moved to hear her talk about her constituent Darren, and I hope that my hon. Friend will never give up campaigning on behalf of her disabled passengers. As I continue, I hope that she will believe the evidence that we are committed to assuring accessibility across our transport system. I am committed as she is, and I will try to explain what happened in her particular case and what we are doing throughout the country.
My hon. Friend is aware of the Department for Transport’s inclusive transport strategy, and she has campaigned incredibly hard to ensure that her constituency gets as many resources as possible. The strategy is incredibly ambitious, and I believe it to be the first national strategy determined to deliver accessibility by 2030, which is the United Nations goal. She is right that we are dealing with very old infrastructure, which remains a barrier to disabled people accessing our rail network. We need to work with them, Network Rail and the train operating companies to ensure that accessibility is a priority.
We are discussing Flitwick station, which was nominated for the Access for All programme, but was not successful. My hon. Friend found that decision difficult to accept because she had worked incredibly hard on the best bid possible, but the funding was heavily oversubscribed. We had well over 300 nominations for the programme, and significantly more stations required our support—I will go through the reasons. The Flitwick nomination was good, and I hope for another round of funding in which she can secure a new bid, but it was not successful in the previous round.
We could compare Flitwick with lots of other stations, but I do not want to confuse my hon. Friend or her councillors, who are listening to the debate. They must put the best bid together in future. It is a competitive process, with criteria. Train operating companies also have the opportunity to nominate their top priorities—for example, Biggleswade was a top priority for Great Northern—although that is not the only criterion.
We also have to look at the broad spectrum of accessibility in a region. Twenty-one stations were nominated by Thameslink with a priority rating. The train operating company’s second priority was Mill Hill Broadway, with two other stations nominated, Catford and Cricklewood, which were more successful in the bidding despite being lower ranked than Flitwick by the company. There were, however, other factors, which I will explain. My hon. Friend will want to work as closely as she can with the train operating company and the local authority to ensure that the next bid is successful.
At present, I am told that six of the eight stations in my hon. Friend’s constituency are step-free, which is no doubt a great deal down to her campaigning. As we have discussed, a lot of that infrastructure is Victorian, but 75% of journeys are already step-free. We want to increase that figure, which is why the inclusive transport strategy had funding of £300 million available to help stations improve. A lot of those stations were deferred from the 2016 Hendy review to the Network Rail delivery programme, and new stations were accepted as well. In total, therefore, 73 stations will receive funding to ensure that they are step-free.
Nominated stations were selected on the basis of annual footfall, weighted by the incidence of disability in the area. We considered other local factors such as proximity to a hospital and, fundamentally, the availability of third-party funding for the project. It was also important to ensure a fair geographical spread of projects across the country. All those points are noted when a grid is put together.
Third-party funding is especially important in weighting a business case. Many of the selected stations had bids that included significant match-funding contributions, which often came from the local authority but also from the train operating company. I hope that my hon. Friend will take on board the fact that we have released a new tier of funding—£20 million now available for the Access for All mid-tier programme—which was launched on 8 July and is open to nominations right now. I urge her to put in another bid, ensuring that she works with the train operating company and the local authority. I cannot emphasise this enough: significant third-party funding for the project would help.
A few weeks ago, I wrote to all right hon. and hon. Members, encouraging them to contact their train operating companies if they wanted their stations to be included in that programme of work. I can only apologise if my hon. Friend is getting mixed messages from my Department, and I am disappointed that the train operating company has not made it clear how the whole package has to be presented, not just nominations. However, we—not only I—look forward to the train operating company nominating Flitwick station, and I hope that she can go back to her constituency and put together a package of support from the local authority, to ensure that the station gets a higher rating than it did previously.
I will now reflect on some of the points made by my hon. Friend on behalf of her constituent Darren. Within the inclusive transport strategy, we have ambitious plans to ensure that disabled passengers are dealt with with the care and dignity that they deserve. My hon. Friend mentioned taxis being called, which is part of the disabled person’s protection policy. It is absolutely right that a person should be able to carry on their journey. It is illegal for taxis not to take disabled passengers onboard, to take umbrage at taking wheelchairs or to charge any extra for taking on disabled passengers. I urge my hon. Friend or her constituent Darren to write to me—immediately, considering where we are right now—so I can keep an eye on the taxi firm and how that could have occurred. She closely follows the issues of her disabled constituents.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, but the facts remain the same: all operators have a disabled people’s protection policy, and it is their duty to ensure that disabled passengers can continue their journey and to provide the right sort of taxi for them to continue that journey. But who wants to complain religiously when they are being let down by a service? That is why we are working with the Rail Delivery Group to ensure that Passenger Assist becomes a far more interactive, real-time application and to make it easier to make complaints, so that we can hold train operating companies to account.
Passenger Assist is a service that does good work, but it is not as real-time as my hon. Friend and I would like it to be. Hopefully, that will be delivered by the end of the year. We are working to make sure that the rail network is more accessible, and I have supported the industry’s establishment of an independent rail ombudsman with powers to deal with unresolved passenger complaints. I have made it clear to the Office of Rail and Road that it needs to ensure that disabled passengers’ complaints are heard and their expectation of services is met. Through the inclusive transport strategy, we will have a grading system to look at the train operating companies that do well and those that fail to deliver a standard that the rest of us enjoy.
I hope that my hon. Friend can take on board all the advice that I have given and will take it back to her councillors, to ensure an even stronger bid. She has worked incredibly hard, even before I was the Minister for rail accessibility; her reputation is very strong in the Department for Transport, thanks to her campaigning on behalf of her constituents. We will look forward to the bid coming in, but my hon. Friend must not forget to ensure that it is nominated strongly by the train operating company and the bid has some matched funding.
I hope that my hon. Friend will agree with me that even though the infrastructure is not perfect, and even though we have a long way to go, with the inclusive transport strategy and the £300 million that we have made available recently, we are doing everything we can to ensure that accessibility is not a barrier to people with disability accessing our rail network. I could talk about many other commitments that we have made through the inclusive transport strategy, but they will not necessarily affect the rail network.
Can the Minister give some further clarification? Obviously, we will reapply for the fund—I think that is already underway. We are having discussions with Central Bedfordshire Council about third-party matched funding. I am aware that we need increased matched funding in place, and I am sure that Flitwick Town Council will make that case, too.
I hope that the Minister will still be in post at the end of this week, if not in a more elevated post, but I am sure there will be continuity of her work. She mentioned matched funding and the other elements, but I do not take the case of comparability with other stations, because ours tops all the lists. If she is in post, can she ensure that the considerable engineering challenge of adapting Flitwick station and the cost of that does not preclude us? The Department could probably adapt five stations for what it will take to adapt Flitwick, but I do not want that to be a barrier to the rights of our disabled passengers.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Let me be clear: when we put together the grid to see which stations to support, we do not look at the complexity of transforming those stations to make them accessible. At that point, we do not know the cost. That is why we do not say at the beginning that the £300 million will support 50 stations. We try to make sure that it supports as many stations that get the most points according to the criteria: high footfall, levels of disability in the area, accessibility issues, other concerns such as local schools and hospitals, whether there is a disability centre or an old persons’ home nearby, or whether there are events throughout the year where the footfall increases incredibly. All those factors are taken into account.
In my experience as Accessibility Minister, I have not been in a meeting in which we have thought that something was too difficult to do. That is not the point. We are trying to do as many stations as we can that are accessed by a high number of people with disabilities, as well as all the other added elements. My hon. Friend can take that back to her constituency and tell them that the complexity of the station is not the key. In the next round of funding, the key is to be nominated top by the train operating company, to put forward a proposal that is supported by both the town and council and any other local authority that will be involved in planning, and to have some matched funding. It is about putting the best, most robust case forward, with all the added elements of people trying to access that station—with or without a wheelchair—and any other accessibility issues, whether parents with a buggy or persons with sight loss. In the last round of funding, there was a remarkable number of stations that had substantial amounts of matched funding. I would like her to take that away.
I hope that my hon. Friend will continue to campaign for accessibility in her constituency and will hold my Department to account, regardless of who the Minister for accessibility is, to ensure that the inclusive transport strategy continues to roll forward. Even though 75% of journeys are step-free, we will not be satisfied until 100% are. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend in her next bid for a round of funding.
Question put and agreed to.
Female Offender Strategy: One Year On
[Joan Ryan in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the female offender strategy one year on.
It is a pleasure to open this debate under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I start by thanking the charity Women in Prison, which visited Parliament earlier this month to lobby MPs and to speak about its #OPENUP campaign, along with my own women’s centre, WomenMATTA, the Howard League for Penal Reform, the Prison Reform Trust, Crest Advisory, the Magistrates Association, of which I am a life member, and women who have told me stories of their experience of criminal justice over the years. I also thank National Prison Radio, which is carrying a report of this debate because it knows that women in our prisons take great interest in the policy decisions we make here that affect them.
The House has long taken an interest in female offenders, especially since the seminal report by my noble Friend Baroness Corston in 2007. That report highlighted the special circumstances surrounding women’s offending behaviour and the fact that many women who offend have a history of trauma and are vulnerable. The Government’s female offender strategy, published last year, recognised that these important factors underpinned women’s offending and that custody should be a last resort. It was welcome, if late in coming. The strategy included a number of positive measures to encourage the use of alternatives to custody and to help to address the causes of women’s offending, with a focus on early intervention.
Thanks to the Corston report, we already know a lot about the characteristics of women offenders. We know that their needs are often highly complex. Issues include substance misuse and poor levels of education and employment, and many have been victims of abuse themselves. Some 60% of women offenders have experienced domestic abuse, according to the Prison Reform Trust. Many have a history of self-harm and 49% of women prisoners report mental health needs, including anxiety, depression and psychosis. Crucially, many women in our penal system are mothers; over half the women in prison have dependent children. The Prison Reform Trust says that that means around 17,000 children a year will be affected by having a mother spending time in prison.
How do these women come into the criminal justice system? The obvious route is that they will be arrested by the police and taken through the process. Indeed, 103,000 women were arrested by the police in 2017-18. Strikingly, black women were twice as likely as others to be arrested. The most common offences include theft and fraud; shoplifting accounts for 43% of those sentenced for indictable or either-way offences.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on the speech she is making. On that point, women are disproportionately represented in the prosecution of offences such as non-payment of council tax or TV licences and truancy. Does she agree that we need to end the punishment and prosecution of poverty?
I do agree, and indeed my hon. Friend makes the important point that not all cases that come into the criminal justice system come via the police. They might come via other prosecution routes. Women are disproportionately likely to be represented in those routes. For example, 70% of those sentenced for TV licence offences are women. That disproportionality is also seen in relation to offences such as council tax fraud and truancy.
Most important of all, in terms of the characteristics of women offenders, is the fact that the vast majority are not violent. Crest Advisory has shown that 83% of women in prison are imprisoned for non-violent offences.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way, but that is clearly not true. According to the Ministry of Justice figures, of the 3,294 women in prison, 943 were imprisoned for violence against the person. That is almost a third, and over a third of that number were in prison for homicide. Quite clearly, the figures she cites are invented and they are not actually true, are they? Can she stick to the official figures, please?
It is important to recognise the circumstances in which women commit offences, the nature of the violence and offences against the person for which they may be convicted, and the level of violence and threat that these women present to society. I will certainly look again at the figures that I have been given, because clearly they are widely different from the figures the hon. Gentleman quotes. I am not disputing his figures; I will check my source. In my experience, the women I have met in prison are more of a danger to themselves than to anybody outside custody.
Has my hon. Friend seen another set of statistics, which are taken from work done at Drake Hall women’s prison in Staffordshire? Some 64% of women prisoners who had been screened for brain injury showed up as having had a brain injury before their first offence. Their brain injury was likely to have been part of what led to their offending behaviour in the first place. Some 62% of those brain injuries had been caused by domestic violence. Is there not a real danger that the original victim of the crime is ending up in the criminal justice system quite unfairly?
My hon. Friend makes a good point; we know that traumatic brain injury is one of the routes by which women come into custody, and we see disproportionate representation of women with brain injury inside our prisons.
What sentences do women receive? Fines are most common and their use has been increasing. They are often seen by criminal justice practitioners as an effective and swift means of justice. But as the Magistrates Association points out, many women cannot afford to pay the fines that are imposed, which leads them into debt or pressures them into reoffending.
By contrast, the use of community penalties has been falling since 2015, with community penalties representing only 5% of sentences received by women, which is half the rate we saw a decade ago. While there has been a welcome fall in the number of women sentenced to custody, three quarters of those who received custodial sentences were imprisoned for a period of less than 12 months. I believe that short custodial sentences have been shown not to be effective and not a good use of money. Some 70.6% of women receiving a custodial sentence of under 12 months in the period from April to June 2016 went on to reoffend. Such sentences are not achieving a reduction in reoffending.
Many women are in custody now as a result of being recalled to prison following release and during a period of post-release supervision. That has been exacerbated by transforming rehabilitation changes, which introduced post-release supervision for those who had served short custodial sentences. In practice, the failure of such supervision arrangements to recognise women’s caring responsibilities, their lack of access to transport and their anxiety about leaving the house is leading many women to miss appointments. They are therefore in breach of the terms of their release and find themselves going back in through the revolving door of recall.
I contend that our system is clearly not working for women or for wider society. That was understood by the Government too, because the 2018 female offender strategy sought to address a number of those concerns and issues. What specifically did the strategy introduce? It introduced some £5 million over two years for investment in community provision, including £2 million for programmes to address domestic abuse, and a pilot to introduce five residential women’s centres. The strategy was explicit in its ambition to reduce the number of short custodial sentences served by women. It introduced new guidance for the police on dealing with vulnerability, and guidance on whole-system approaches, such as we have had for a number of years in my home city of Manchester. It also sought to introduce a national concordat on women offenders.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the £5 million is wholly inadequate? I have heard from Nottingham Women’s Centre, which provides the CHANGES—Creating Hope, Achieving New Goals, Experiencing Success—programme for women who are leaving prison, or to help women to avoid prison. It says that
“we had a total of 12 days to bid for the money with a partner. We ended up being funded for a six week pilot project.”
The total amount that it received was just over £11,000. The representative of the women’s centre said:
“The evaluation was so huge for a tiny piece of work…we are being asked to track the women after the end of the project for the next 6 months too. I would say if anything it detracted from our work rather than increased our offer and certainly hasn’t helped to shore up what we already have.”
It simply is not fit for purpose.
WomenMATTA, which is my local women’s centre, has also spoken of the inadequacy of funding, which I will come on to, and of the complexity of the application procedures. As my hon. Friend rightly suggests, spending time on preparing the applications detracts from the good work that the centres could be doing in working directly with women offenders.
On 27 June, in a written ministerial statement, the Government set out progress to date. I am grateful to the Prison Reform Trust, which has produced a helpful and comprehensive matrix to track progress against the strategy. It is fair to say that both documents show a mixed picture, although I acknowledge that there has been some good progress. For example, we have recently had the Farmer report on maintaining family links, which makes many welcome suggestions. We have had changes in housing policy so that a tenancy can be maintained for up to six months while a mother is in prison. More police forces are developing and using trauma-informed approaches. Liaison and diversion schemes now cover 90% of forces in the country, and the ambition is to achieve 100% coverage next year.
I was very pleased to hear the right hon. Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Gauke), the last Lord Chancellor—and, if I may say so, a much-missed Lord Chancellor—speaking positively about his intention or wish to see a presumption against the imposition of short custodial sentences, as already applies in Scotland. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) says, women’s centres still lack sustainable funding. Will the Minister say what has happened to the proceeds from the sale of Holloway Prison? That delivered some £80 million into the Treasury’s coffers, but only £5 million appears to have been released to go towards services for women.
It is welcome that the Government, in their strategy, called a halt to the building of new women’s prisons. Many of us had spent much time urging them to take exactly that step. But what evidence can the Minister show for the efficacy of residential women’s centres? Surely priority should be given to funding core women’s centre provision in the community. No prison has to wonder whether it will have the funding to exist after 2021, but that is the case for most women’s centres, with Lord Farmer himself describing their funding as “desperately precarious”.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work in this area, on which she has campaigned over many years. With regard to the location of women’s centres, she will be aware that Wales does not have any women’s centre; it does not have a women’s prison. To be clear, we do not want a women’s prison, but we are in desperate need of a women’s centre, because the closest place that women can go to, in terms of custodial sentences, is Gloucestershire. Does she agree that, in addition to her list of questions for the Minister, he might want to consider the fact that a women’s centre is desperately needed in Wales and would be an important part of improving outcomes for female offenders?
May I build on what my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) said? For Eastwood Park Prison—it is just outside my constituency, but I visit regularly—the problem now is that because there are a number of women’s centres growing up in the west, there is a disparity with those places that do not have women’s centres, particularly south Wales. It should be remembered that that prison covers the whole of the south-west as well as south Wales. There is such a difference in the ways in which women being released are now treated. We have to get some continuity in the way in which they are looked after, but more particularly some certainty that women’s centres will develop all over the country. Does my hon. Friend agree?
I agree both that we need women’s centres to develop all over the country and that they need certainty of funding so that they are sustainable.
We have seen other problems with delivery of the strategy. I hope that the Minister will forgive me if I describe the transforming rehabilitation programme as a total failure. It has not been able to deliver, for example, specialist provision for women through community rehabilitation companies, and at the moment we do not know what the new probation model will look like for women. Through the Gate simply has not happened as envisaged.
There are even basic things such as women not being able to apply for universal credit in advance of their release date, or to apply for housing. They will not get a house because they do not have their children living with them, which means that they cannot have their children living with them because they do not have a house when they are released. It is the case that 13% of women are released to no fixed abode—a truly terrifying prospect—and only 22% to secure permanent accommodation, according to Her Majesty’s inspectors of prison and probation. As a result of the lack of a safe destination to release women to, many will be forced to return to the abuser, who may be the root cause of their offending, and will turn to alcohol, drug or other substance misuse and to reoffending.
Pre-sentence reports are still being prepared without full information and without being informed by gender considerations. Sentencers are not always taking account of the interests of children when sentencing a mother to or remanding her in custody, yet the impact on children of a mum going to prison is absolutely dire. Fewer than 10% of children remain in their family home when a mother is imprisoned.
What do we want to happen, and will the Minister offer us assurances that some of these suggestions will happen? First, will he look at what can be done systematically to ensure that the police, wherever possible, divert women away from arrest? That is being considered now by the all-party parliamentary group for women in the penal system, which I have the honour to co-chair with Baroness Corston and the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), whom I am very pleased to see present at this debate.
Will the Minister say what the Government intend to do to spread retail diversion schemes such as we have in Bury, in Greater Manchester, across the country? Will he say how the Government are working with non-police prosecutors, so that we can end the use of custody for TV licence offences, truancy offences and so on?
Crucially, what will the Government do to secure sustainable, adequate funding for community provision and particularly for both women’s centres and the range of partners that work with them? Can the Minister say what role he envisages for the new probation service? How will it develop women-specific programmes, or will women’s centres become the default model for provision? What can be done to build sentencer confidence in community provision? I would argue that one step that the Government must take is to ensure proper information for sentencers and proper training for them on the outcomes from community and custodial sentences. Will the Minister ensure that gender-sensitive, gender-informed, pre-sentence reports are made mandatory and that there is suitable training for report writers? Will he say what the Government can do to put more emphasis on, as part of community sentences, treatment orders, including, as the Magistrates Association has suggested, financial planning support?
All stages of the process must take account of the best interests of children, so will the Minister ensure that sentencers do follow the guidance, which exists, that they should consider the impact on children in sentencing a mother and that they should ensure that arrangements are made for them prior to sending any mother into custody? Better still, in my view, would be ensuring that alternatives to custody are considered in all cases for primary carers.
Will the Government now move forward to legislate for a presumption against short sentences as a matter of urgency? Will they also adopt the suggestion, from the Committee that scrutinised what is now the Domestic Abuse Bill, to introduce a statutory defence in that legislation?
When transforming rehabilitation was first proposed, I thought that post-release supervision was a good idea, but having seen it in practice, I have changed my mind. In 2017, about 1,000 women were recalled to prison while on supervision following a custodial sentence of under 12 months. In the context of the female prison population as a whole, that is a lot of women. Its use appears to be ill judged, disproportionate and harmful.
Will the Minister consider ending post-release supervision and replacing it with holistic support, including housing, education, mental health and employment? No woman should ever be released into homelessness—can the Minister guarantee that that will not happen? Can he guarantee that no woman—or man—will ever be released on a Friday, when services are not available on the weekend to receive them? Will he once again press the Department for Work and Pensions to expedite the ability to start the universal credit application process before a woman is released from prison? Finally on my shopping list, will he ensure that a women’s centre link worker is placed in every single women’s prison?
I urge the Minister to continue the roll-out of the full-system approach across the country, because it works. In Cleveland, where they do not have it, 67 in every 100,000 women offenders are imprisoned, in Greater Manchester it is only 25 per 100,000. A whole-system approach should not be criminal justice driven. We need place-based, gender-informed, holistic preventative services in every local authority accessible to every vulnerable woman. That is the women’s strategy I would like to see; I urge the Government to embrace it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), who has long had a passionate interest in the area of women’s justice. I lost count of the number of times that I sat in the Minister’s position listening to her make as good a contribution as she has just made.
For those who do not know, I was the Minister responsible for commissioning the women’s justice strategy. I held on to that position as long as I could, to see the strategy published before resigning over Brexit. In the end, I could not hold on any longer and it was published two weeks after I resigned. It had been ready for a few months. I was fighting hard—I lost the fight—internally for the funding that the hon. Lady alluded to. I do not blame anyone in particular for that; I blame the broader political scene and its short-termism, in which it is believed to be better to fix a few toilets in a prison than to invest long term to try to reduce the number of women in prison.
In response to likely challenges from my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), I viewed the women’s justice strategy as a Trojan horse. The principles underpinning it are applicable to men, but the political reality is that doing it for men is much more difficult, because there are more prisoners in the male estate, and given the types of crimes that men are committing, with a few obvious notable exceptions, managing the media and public opinion is more of a challenge, so I thought it was sensible to concentrate on women first.
In the main Chamber there is currently an urgent question on a youth institution for which I was responsible for two years. The youth justice system is also crying out for a revolution in the way it manages people in custody. I tried to do that, too. I have a deep understanding and respect for the Minister, who faces challenges of trying to reform this area. It is difficult, because it only takes one headline in the newspaper for everyone to get the jitters. As a consequence, it is a tough Department to work in and in which to bring about reform.
This strategy went quite some way towards achieving reform. I would like to put on record my huge admiration for the civil servants involved in the process. We worked extremely hard on this. I view this as the biggest piece of work that I achieved in two years. It involved a hell of a lot of evidence gathering, and I had to visit every women’s prison and a number of women’s centres across the country. The strategy, which was published last year, was the culmination of a sizeable piece of work and everyone involved in writing it should be congratulated.
When I became a Minister in 2016, the first thing I read was the Corston report. I had already booked a summer holiday when I was appointed Justice Minister. I did not expect to be a Justice Minister, although I am glad that I was, because I think a doctor in the Ministry of Justice was exactly what was required. I took away a lot of things to read that summer. Most people are currently looking at their phones waiting for news of ministerial appointments; I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley is doing so. Those who are appointed should go away and think, and spend two to three weeks reading before immersing themselves in the Department. The problem for Ministers is—with the greatest respect to the civil servants present—that the Department sucks them in and they cannot think, and work out what they want to do and what should be a priority.
When I came back after that summer recess, I decided on three priorities, including women’s justice. I inherited a challenged relationship with the women’s justice lobby. It took time to work on that. Everyone in that group, which used to meet quarterly, worked extremely hard, because we could see that this was the right thing to do on a number of levels. Anyone who visits a women’s prison and speaks to prisoners—whatever they have done—is immediately struck by how often they are vulnerable. They often have tell-tale signs of self-harm on their wrists, poor eye contact and a history of coercive relationships, domestic abuse and drug use. Often, as has been alluded to, they tend to be those who are charged for not paying utility bills because they are the homemaker, so their name is on the account and they are disproportionately affected when those bills are not paid.
Visiting those institutions, one thinks, “If they have done things wrong, there needs to be a punitive element.” In fact, I have never met a female prisoner who has not admitted that they have done something wrong and accepted that there should be a punitive element to their sentence. However, prison and custody must be a road back to not offending, and that is quite clearly where we fall down, not just in the women’s system but in the men’s and, particularly, the youth system. Every time I came away from visits to those institutions, I thought to myself, “Continuing to do the same thing is the definition of madness.” We have to try to find a way of making these women law-abiding citizens, supporting them in that process and breaking the cycle that means their children are disproportionately likely to become offenders too.
The idea that came about was residential women’s centres, which is within the strategy; suffice it to say that it was going to have a more prominent place there. The original plan was to build 10 women’s centres, including one in Wales—I say that for all the Welsh Members of Parliament who are present. We recognised that there were some regional disparities in the provision of services for women offenders, which the strategy sought to address.
We also wanted to explore a different way of funding public services, and we got some way with that idea, but it never made it into the strategy. I think private finance initiatives are a disgrace. I was responsible for one particular PFI contract as a Minister—there is a former Minister present who knows which contract I am referring to—which was signed under the Labour Government 12 or 13 years ago. I did not want to go down that path of a quick fix and building some new buildings. Rather, I wanted to put in place something that was sustainable. I had some pretty detailed conversations with charities and philanthropic donors about them covering the capital investment, while the Government would have been responsible for the revenue costs. The idea was that if I could persuade various institutions to build or to extend existing institutions that are often charitable, the Government could step in and guarantee the maintenance costs. I think the idea has merit across Government and I was frustrated at how difficult it was to get people in the room to discuss the concept. The original plan was to do some match funding across the country and to commit revenue. We thought we could create a virtuous circle—starting with 10, moving on to 15 buildings—and, at the same time, selling off prisons that would have been released, as the number of people in prison was going to fall away.
Okay. Forgive me; I was not aware of that fact. My point is that a hell of a lot of thought went into the strategy, most of which made it to publication.
If we could make progress in this space with women—reducing the prison population by half by 2030 was my internal private target—and if we could make a success of it, we could move into the male estate and apply exactly the same approach and principles and reduce our prison population across the board. That requires some thought on sentencing, tagging and various other punitive in-the-community options. It is difficult because of an uptick in violent and sexual crimes among men and women in recent years, which we obviously must address, but if we were to do this, we would get to a situation where our prison system, for men, women and young people, would be functioning, and doing what it should be doing—rehabilitating. Then we would get to a society with reduced crime and, more broadly, a society that we could all be proud of.
I welcome this debate, which has been sponsored by my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green). There is a cross-party dynamic here today and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), who progressed this issue during the two years that he was in post. I also pay tribute to the right hon. Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Gauke), who I am reliably informed has just resigned. Their approach got buy-in from across the political divide.
I had the fortune, although perhaps “misfortune” is the word, to visit a women’s prison, at Eastwood in Gloucestershire, with the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs about 10 or 12 years ago. It was a depressing experience. The women in the prison freely gave evidence through their dinner time; they were rewarded by getting leftovers for their meal. We sent them a box of House of Commons chocolates as a reward, and they were not even allowed to receive that present. We need to treat all those who are in the criminal justice system with respect.
There is compelling evidence to indicate that custodial sentences of six months or less do not work. The Government have, at last, recognised that and have proposed to do something about it.
All women in prison are disadvantaged, but women in Wales are doubly so. Throughout 2016, 62% of sentenced women entering prison across England and Wales were serving sentences of six months or less. The comparable figure for men was 45%. In Wales, a massive 74% of women prisoners are serving sentences of six months or less. The cost of keeping a person in jail is a massive £50,000 a year. Some of those women are in jail for not paying their TV licence. It is £154 for TV licence; it costs £150 a day to keep that woman in jail. Women are put in jail for not paying their council tax. I am really pleased that the Welsh Government took the initiative earlier this year not to pursue people who have not paid their council tax for a custodial sentence.
I pay tribute to the women’s centre in Rhyl, run by the wonderful Gemma Fox: it does fantastic work on a shoestring budget. She only has about nine volunteers at the moment, and they look after 300 women a year. One hundred of those women have gone through the penal system. The women’s centre is not given the resources it should be, and more women are ending up in custody; in fact, North Wales is the worst police authority of the 43 in the country for sending women to prison.
Some 80% of austerity cuts have ended up on the shoulders of women. That has a consequential effect on their world view and on their ability to provide for their families. As a last resort, many of them have committed crimes, such as shoplifting or not paying their bills, and they have ended up in prison because of that.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that one of the reasons why women end up in such positions is that they are not receiving the benefits that they are entitled to? Nottingham Women’s Centre told me that, in the last 12 months, its welfare rights adviser recovered £463,000 in benefits that had been lost to women. Would it not help if we sorted that problem out?
Absolutely, and I will finish on this note. The women’s centre in Rhyl is not just for female prisoners or women going into or coming out of the criminal justice system. It has a holistic approach to giving advice to women on parenting, domestic and sexual abuse, housing issues, finance and employment. Women go there to recover their confidence. There is a social mix there, with middle-class women as well as working-class women and those who have no job. These centres should be funded by central Government, not least with the £80 million that was saved from Holloway.
It says in the Bible that people should
“beat their swords into ploughshares”.
We should be turning our women’s prisons into women’s community centres.
I will be brief. I want to urge the Minister to preside over a system where the courts are blind to the gender of a defendant and blind to their race or their sexuality. I was brought up with the belief that everybody was equal before the law, and that is the system that I want the Minister to preside over. It quite clearly is not the case at the moment. For every single category of offence—every single one, according to the Ministry of Justice’s own figures—a woman is less likely to be sent to prison than a man, is likely to be sent to prison for a shorter period and will spend less of their sentence in prison.
We have today a “belief in equality only when it suits” brigade. They do not want equality in sentencing or how the courts deal with people. They want to plead for special circumstances. All the things that the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) said at the outset about women in prison with trauma, mental health problems, domestic abuse or self-harm issues apply to many male prisoners in exactly the same way. This is not unique to female prisoners. Many male prisoners have exactly the same troubled backgrounds. She also talked about children—when sentencing, the impact on children should be considered when sentencing mothers. What about considering the impact of sentencing fathers on those children? Men have children too. Many women, it has to be said, have already had their kids taken off them before they are sent to prison because they are unfit to be mothers, according to the Ministry of Justice.
Well, they have already had their kids taken off them, so why on earth is that a factor in whether they are sent to prison? They are deemed to be unfit mothers. We cannot have a get-out-of-jail card for people to say, “Oh, I’m a mother; I can commit any crime I like, but because I am a mother I shouldn’t be sent to prison.”
No. I was in Bradford Crown Court recently, where a woman was convicted of a serious offence. Between being charged and her appearance in court, she had deliberately got pregnant in the hope that that would stop her from getting a custodial sentence. [Interruption.] The judge, who pointed out to her that she had deliberately got pregnant in order to avoid a custodial sentence, was not taken in, thankfully. [Interruption.] I want the Minister to make sure that we have equality in sentencing.
I recently made a complaint about Judge Buckingham, who, when sentencing a woman, said that if Miss Parry was a man, he would have been “straight down the stairs”, serving a custodial sentence. The judge decided not to send that woman to prison, even though she made it clear that if it was a man he would have gone to prison.
I will end with a check on the females in prison at the moment. This is a snapshot from the Ministry of Justice of 3,300 prisoners: 943 are in prison for violence against the person, including 338 homicides. Should those people not be in prison? There are 480 in prison for violence with injury; 21 are in for rape, the victims in all cases being other women; 87 are in prison for other sexual offences; 284 women are in for robbery; and 229 for burglary. Which of those should not be in prison? Who will say to their local communities that they want those people out of prison, free to commit crimes? It is an absolute disgrace.
Why can we not have the principle that whether someone is a man or a woman, the court will treat them exactly the same? That is what British justice should be about, and I hope the Minister will preside over that system.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) for securing this debate and I add my tribute to hers. Mine go to the women’s centre, Eden House, in the neighbouring constituency of Bristol East, and to the women who generously told me about their experiences. I will try to concentrate my remarks on my reactions to the written statement and will cut out the bits that hon. Friends have already mentioned.
The vision, established a year ago, stated that the Government wanted to see
“fewer women coming into the criminal justice system, fewer women in custody, especially on short-term sentences, and a greater proportion of women managed in the community successfully;”
“better conditions for those in custody.”
However, a recent response to my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston shows that the total number of women in custody has increased slightly over the past year. It also shows that the number of women coming into prison for the first time has decreased slightly. A report by the Prison Reform Trust last December showed that the number of women recalled to prison has more than doubled in the past year, and that has happened since the introduction of the Government measures supposedly designed to support people on release. The report reveals that more than 1,700 women were recalled to prison in England and Wales in the past year and that reforms are making things worse, trapping women in the justice system.
I will group bundles of questions together for the Minister; I am also happy to report to him in writing because I understand that he is covering for a colleague. First, what comments does the Minister have on the numbers? Why has the number of women increased in the past year, contrary to the aim of the strategy? What are the numbers of women coming into the criminal justice system as a whole? That is also important if we are to evaluate success. How is the Minister learning from the lessons of the very welcome decrease in numbers of women entering prison for the first time? How is he using that information to inform the ways of reducing the numbers of women coming into the criminal justice system in the first place?
We all want to prevent more crime. That also means we would prevent more women coming into the criminal justice system. What is the Minister doing to reduce the numbers of women returning to prison owing to lack of support? What progress can the Minister report on in providing them with better conditions while they are in prison?
The statement also mentions the new policy framework. I was glad to read that that was to include duties, rules and guidance and so on, particularly on issues such as caring for perinatal women in prison. I am pleased about that, but I want the Minister or a colleague to tell us how many babies have been born in custody since the policy framework was published and the extent to which their care followed the policy framework and guidance. What was the impact and what lessons can we learn? I apologise to the Minister, but I still have a lot of questions.
Another action is Lord Farmer’s review for women, a welcome development commissioned by the strategy and published recently. It looked at how supporting female offenders in custody and the community to engage with their families lowers recidivism. Whatever anyone says about why we might treat offenders in a particular way, if it lowers recidivism and crime, why would we not want to do it?
Our noble Friend in the other place, Jean Corston, already made those arguments 10 years ago. The Women in Prison report reiterated the case recently in “Corston + 10”. The recently published research evidence briefing, “Why Women’s Centres Work” by DMSS Research, also summarised the research evidence on the benefits of women’s centres to female offending, which is surely something we all want to promote. Why did that review take so long, and why are we not able to see a clear timetable for when the Government will consider the recommendations and the findings? Perhaps it is because we are between Governments.
The statement goes on to say that there should be a women’s residential centre pilot in at least five sites across England and Wales. It also mentions partnerships with other agencies, multi-agencies and whole-system approaches. But why only a pilot? Why all the scoping and consultation? The implementation of the Corston report and the evaluation of Corston projects has provided us with all the piloting we could possibly need, especially in a time of low funding. The cuts and the privatisation imposed by the Liberal Democrat-Tory coalition Government really undermined the sustainability of the Corston project in Bristol, Eden House, which was once a great example of a holistic service.
I know I need to close, Ms Ryan, because I have had my four minutes, but I want to urge the Minister and his successors, whoever they may be—perhaps the Minister will be among them—to work with the women’s centres, because what we really want to see is the gender and trauma-informed work across the country, with a proper national network of women’s centres. They do such great work. We want engagement with the members who have experience of such work so that we can do it as well as possible for all of our sakes, but particularly for the women and children.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, I should say that I am sure everybody has noticed that four Members—from the Labour Benches, sadly—have made interventions in the debate and have now left the Chamber. That is not acceptable. I hope that the Whips in the room will take up the matter.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate, Ms Ryan. In the short time that I have, I want to place on the record my support for the female offender strategy. It builds strongly on the work of the Corston report, which I had the honour of receiving as Minister in the then Labour Government in 2007-08.
We accepted 40 of the 43 recommendations. We appointed my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) as the champion to see the issue through, but then we ran into the blockage of democracy: the Government were removed from office in 2010. I fully support the efforts of the hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) to bring together a strategy to reduce the number of women in custody where possible. I take on board the comments of the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies)—that some crimes demand custody—but, where possible, we should reduce the number of women in custody, look at early interventions to support women in avoiding custody in the first place, and tackle some of the causes of offending with drug and alcohol services.
Only last week, I mentioned that the number of drug and alcohol treatment orders in the community has been halved in the past four years by the Government.
Some 62% of women in prison are serving short sentences. My right hon. Friend talks about drug and alcohol programmes and early interventions. Does he agree with me that it would be better to invest in early intervention and community sentencing, and introduce a presumption against short sentences to make sure that women get the support that they need, rather than custodial sentences?
It is very important that we try to support women who have committed offences. Sometimes they have committed them because forces have driven them to it. We need to find an appropriate way to remove them from prison because prison has an impact on family life as well as on them. I welcome the efforts of the right hon. Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Gauke) on short prison sentences, and I hope the policy will continue with any new Minister in due course.
If I may focus on my own area of north Wales, there were 37 women on any given day last year in Styal Prison—40 miles from the border, and perhaps 100 miles from the north-west of Wales. I was asked last year by the Welsh Assembly Government to do an inquiry into the treatment of prisoners with regard to education and other services. It is important to note that in the female offender strategy, only four of the 179 paragraphs deal with Wales. It establishes a need for a blueprint. A female offender blueprint is being published by the Welsh Government, and it has very good aspirations. I would welcome an update on progress from the Minister, either in writing or when he responds at the end of the debate.
For example, in the work that I did last year in Wales, I found that there was limited access to Welsh language education for women whose first language was Welsh. There was limited understanding in the Welsh Government of how many female offenders would return to Wales, how many were linked into the labour market of Wales, and how many dependents people had. There was limited understanding of how much would be needed in the way of ongoing support requirements, to reintegrate women back from custody into the community in due course.
My hon. Friends have demanded a women’s centre, and my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) will reiterate that. Wales is one country, but north and south Wales are two regions, where there are different demands on people. We need, as my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) said, to look at what provision there is for a women’s centre in Wales. Those 37 women need to return to the community in due course.
I welcome the document overall, but I hope that the Minister can provide some clarity about a one-year update to the female offending blueprint, and a six-month update to the implementation plan being worked on by the Welsh Assembly Government in conjunction with his Department.
I thank the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) for setting the scene, and for her contribution. We live in a world where “equality” is a buzzword. We should strive for equal pay for equal labour, for the right person to get the job regardless of their gender and for all jobs to be open to any gender. However, being equal does not mean being the same. That is why we need a dedicated strategy for female offenders. That is what I want. The pressures and outcomes are vastly different and need specialised attention.
The issue is complex and I can see where difficulties arise in a family scenario. Whether we like it or not—we probably do—there is a need for compassion and understanding in the process. There is the option of a curfew. That causes difficulties if an offender’s child gets sick and needs to go to hospital. Another issue is the burden of fines and the effect that they can have on the child. It is difficult to find alternatives to prison, but we must look for them. However, I firmly believe that if dependent children are a factor, we must strive to do what we can for the family unit while still ensuring that the duty to justice is met. We do not say it should not be met; we are saying it needs to be looked at differently. We must ensure that any punishment dished out to female offenders affects their children as little as possible.
Figures show that 54% of female offenders have children under the age of 18. Having their mother in prison can be a difficult experience for children. Those are complex issues, but some families have to face them; that is what the debate is about. However, we can and should explore alternatives to prison to ensure that children are affected as little as possible. I agree with Lord Farmer’s report citing the importance of maintaining family ties for female offenders to ensure that they do not reoffend. He says that prisoners who receive family visits are 39% less likely to reoffend and that that is even more important for women than men. Women make up just under 5% of the prison population in England and Wales, yet they are more likely than men to reoffend. For that reason it is paramount that we focus, in the time they are in prison, on trying to prevent female offenders from reoffending.
There is a problem that needs attention. Serving short sentences could cause women to lose their jobs and could have other big effects on their lives. Reports indicate that in that situation inmates are more likely to be exposed to mental health issues and to self-harm. Those issues are specific to the female population. I do not say those things do not happen to men, but the numbers I am aware of through the stats and information we have indicate to me that we have to do something for them. If we want to stop them reoffending, we must ensure that prison does not seriously damage female offenders to the point where they do reoffend. Damaged people are more likely to break the law, owing to a sense of hopelessness. That is a fact.
It is, however, striking to read the stories of women finding prison an experience of being treated better inside than outside. According to the Prison Reform Trust, 57% of women prisoners have experienced domestic abuse. Prison can therefore be both a positive and a negative experience. It is important that the Government work to stamp out domestic abuse in the UK and help women escape from their abusive partners and find an alternative to resorting to prison to escape the abusive partnerships they are trapped in.
I concur with the Magistrates Association, which has highlighted the importance of making appropriate community sentences available for all. It has said that the justice system must be part of the process of early intervention, by supporting proper signposting or diversion where appropriate—not simply for women, but for all of those for whom it is suitable.
Time has beaten me, so I shall say only this. We have to do better at intervention, especially when statistics tell us that there is less chance of reoffending and more stability for children with the approach in question. I sincerely believe that the punishment must fit the crime regardless of gender, but there must be a red-line standard that is not crossed for female offenders.
I thank you for your chairmanship, Ms Ryan, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on securing the debate.
It is 12 years since Baroness Corston published her review, which looked at the vulnerabilities of women in the judicial system. In that review she highlighted the disproportionate and inappropriate sentences that women face for minor, non-violent offences and the chaos and disruption experienced by their families. She spoke about the many women who were, and still are, victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse, addiction and childhood neglect and who end up in prison because of a lack of support. In 2017, 10 years after the Corston review, 74% of Welsh women in prison were serving sentences of less than six months—double the number serving such short sentences when the report was published. With no female prison in Wales—and we do not want one—those women serve their sentences an average of 101 miles from their family. What help is that to a woman who is in turmoil, or to a child who desperately misses their mother? In April, the Welsh Labour Government scrapped outdated and disproportionate prison sentences for those getting into council tax debt, who more often than not are women. It was clear that sending those women to prison for perhaps 12 weeks because they could not afford to pay the money they owed was going to be of no benefit to anyone.
One of the key necessities is an increase in the number of women’s centres as an alternative to prisons; it is essential. Earlier this month, I visited the Nelson Trust in Gloucester. It was like a breath of fresh air for me. Women offenders were being supported, educated and counselled in a suitable environment, enabling them to remain with their families and preparing them for a future away from the criminal justice system.
The Government have committed in the strategy to developing five more women’s centres as a pilot across England and Wales. I ask them please not to forget Wales. Women’s centres are central to the success of the female offender strategy. They make financial sense and will benefit society as a whole. Not only will female offenders be supported in a trauma-informed environment, but when they complete their sentence they will be in a position to move on with their lives with a positive outlook for their future. At the moment, too many women leave prison in dire straits after serving short sentences. They are often homeless, unemployable and desperate, which is why reconviction and recall rates are so high for female offenders.
The key to all that I am describing and to the strategy as a whole is, as with most things, funding. None of the recommendations or promises in the strategy can happen if the Ministry of Justice does not commit to them financially. We know that there will be money available from the sale of HM Prison Holloway. That should unquestionably be used to improve specialist services for women across the criminal justice system, such as the Treasures Foundation, founded by Mandy Ogunmokun to provide a safe female-only recovery environment to support women to overcome their issues and equip them with the tools needed to live a healthy and happy life. We need further settings like that, across the UK, to transform women’s lives. We urgently need the Government to make a commitment showing that they are serious enough about the strategy to make the funds available. We have to get it right. We owe it to society and to the women we should be supporting.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan, and to follow the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris). I want to compliment the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on securing the debate and on all the work she has done in the area for many years.
The Scottish Prison Service is of course devolved. This afternoon I will say a little about the female offenders strategy in Scotland, but in response to the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), I want talk about the good international evidence base for treating women offenders differently.
I am glad to say that Scotland has come a long way in its approach to female offenders in recent years. Until the mid-2000s, women found guilty of failure to pay fines for non-payment of television licences could face a custodial sentence to be served alongside women who had committed far more serious crimes. We do not do that in Scotland any longer. There are far more options for dealing with female offenders, and the procurator fiscal, the prosecutor, has the option of a fixed penalty.
More generally, in 2011 the former First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, recognised that Scotland needed a new female offender strategy, and he commissioned my former boss, then Lord Advocate for Scotland, Elish Angiolini, to look into the position of women offenders and the prison estate in Scotland. Her commission reported in 2012, and recommended major changes to the way we deal with women offenders in Scotland.
There was only one exclusively female prison in Scotland. It is a big prison outside Stirling called Cornton Vale, which I visited in my previous profession. It was described by the commission as “not fit for purpose”, and I would agree with that. It was designed to house approximately 300 women, but there were often far more women than that, and they were not getting the services and support they needed. The commission also said that a significant number of women who were sent to prison on short sentences reoffended after release. It pointed out that women offenders tend to have complex issues and needs, with many having experienced domestic abuse, mental health problems, and drug and alcohol addictions, most of which were not getting treated during their incarceration. Importantly—this refers to what the hon. Member for Shipley said—the Scottish commission did not completely condemn the use of prison for female offenders, which it recognised is necessary for serious offenders, but it highlighted the need for prisons to try to rehabilitate female offenders. As a result of that commission, plans to build a new women’s prison in Scotland with the same capacity as Cornton Vale were ditched, and my friend and colleague, the former Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Michael Matheson, opted for a different approach in light of Elish Angiolini’s recommendations. He based that approach on the fact that short sentences do nothing to stop reoffending by women, and said that we needed to consider a more effective way of addressing the problem.
Instead of building a large new prison, he decided that the existing Cornton Vale would be knocked down, and that a small new prison with the capacity for 80 women should be built. Work on that has started already. In addition to that new prison, it was decided that five community custodial units should be built across Scotland, each able to house around 20 women offenders, and with a focus on addressing the underlying issues that they faced. The first two custodial units were commissioned in Glasgow and Dundee, and it is hoped they will be operational within the next two years. That will introduce a more personal and intensive approach that is more relevant to the needs of the individual. Interestingly, the BBC reported that women in Cornton Vale supported those plans, recognising that there is still a need for a custodial estate.
Let me deal with what the hon. Member for Shipley said by returning to Elish Angiolini’s report and the international evidence base that supports the view that there should be a distinct approach for women offenders. As Elish pointed out, such an approach is compliant with domestic and international law and obligations. Her commission identified three broad areas that support the case for a separate approach: the profile of women offenders, the predictors of reoffending by women, and what works to reduce reoffending among women.
For the profile of female offenders, the evidence base shows that, compared with men, women are more likely to pose a lower risk to public safety and to be in prison for dishonesty offences. They are more likely to be placed on remand and to have higher rates of mental health or drug problems. They are also more likely to have histories of physical and sexual abuse and victimisation, and to have dependent children. The commission did not say that such factors do not exist for male prisoners, just that, compared with men, women are more likely to experience them.
Scotland is down the road on this. Can the hon. and learned Lady assure me that the Government in Scotland are auditing everything and building an evidence base for doing this? If one thing might move the dial south of the border, it is if the Ministry of Justice reads the evidence. I looked at this issue in Scotland when I was a Minister, and I was deeply impressed. Is it possible to guarantee that we collect the right evidence so that we can change things in England and Wales?
I have no doubt that my colleagues in the Scottish Government are doing that, and I know that in his former role the Minister visited the prison service in Scotland. We have done some things well in Scotland. I do not say it is perfect or that we have got everything right, but it is internationally recognised that the presumption against short sentences in Scotland is changing patterns of reoffending.
I have dealt briefly with the profile of women offenders, but the predictors of reoffending for women are different. For example, research shows that certain factors are much stronger predictors of reoffending for women than for men, such as dysfunctional family relationships—especially family or marital conflict—and poor parent-child attachment, especially for young people. Poverty, deprivation and debt are also bigger reoffending predictors for women than they are for men.
The Angiolini commission found that to improve outcomes for women offenders it is crucial to understand what works to reduce reoffending. Although at the time, due to methodological constraints and the small numbers of subjects, there were few rigorous outcome evaluations of interventions in Scotland, international evidence showed that a number of factors were critical to reducing reoffending by women. One of those was effective intervention, including the thinking skills that need to be in place to challenge antisocial attitudes among women. Another was empathetic practitioners who develop good relationships with women offenders and provide practical and emotional support. The evidence base also supported holistic, rather than stand-alone interventions, and basic services to address women’s needs while in prison. That is just a taste of the international evidence base. It is not discrimination to treat women offenders differently; it is a recognition of the different factors that contribute to women ending up in prison, and that is my answer to what the hon. Member for Shipley had to say.
I look forward to the position in Scotland developing and improving. It is good to know that the Government for England and Wales and the Scottish Government are on a similar track and recognise the clear evidential basis for a different approach to dealing with women offenders.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Ryan, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) for securing this important debate on the first anniversary of the Government’s female offender strategy. She and other members of the all-party group for women in the penal system do excellent work in this field. They are tireless campaigners for a better, fairer, justice system, and I pay tribute to them.
I suspect that my neighbour, the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), will disagree with a lot of my speech, but as the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) pointed out, numerous reports and studies recognise that female offenders face several additional complex challenges that are separate to those faced by men and that act as drivers of offending and reoffending. Those drivers are key to understanding how we can deliver a criminal justice system that is fair and just and that acts in the best interests of society.
As Members have said, both today and in the past, a woman in prison is more likely to have experienced domestic abuse or to be homeless before entering custody and after leaving. She is more likely to suffer from substance misuse and to experience mental health issues. She is also more likely to have committed a non-violent offence—most probably an offence due to poverty, where meeting a need rather than material gain was the objective—and to be serving a short sentence. The vast majority of those women are not dangerous. They are deeply troubled, and it is clear that, for many, prison is not the best place to address their needs and challenges or the drivers of offending. That is particularly clear considering the high level of reoffending by women released from prison compared with those serving sentences in the community.
I have some stuff to put on the record, so on this occasion I will not.
The Corston report and others have stated that prison is rarely a necessary, appropriate or proportionate response to women who offend, and I completely agree. There is no reason why we should be locking up so many vulnerable women who have committed non-violent offences that are, in many cases, crimes of poverty.
Prison, regardless of the length of sentence, even if it is just a matter of weeks, takes away a woman’s job, home and family—everything that has been proven time and time again to reduce the likelihood of reoffending. For those who have committed dangerous offences that leave them a danger to the public, of course, custody is still necessary, but for many, many women, that is simply not the case. Indeed, the Government themselves have recognised the complex challenges that women face and acknowledged the need for change, setting out in their much-delayed female offender strategy that criminalising vulnerable individuals has broader negative social impacts, that short custodial sentences do not deliver the best results for female offenders and that good community management works.
To address those issues, the Government set out three main objectives in the strategy: fewer women coming into the criminal justice system; fewer women in custody, especially on short-term sentences, and a greater proportion of women managed in the community successfully; and better conditions for those in custody. However, despite their warm words in the female offender strategy, we have seen little from the Government about turning vision into reality.
At the end of June, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), who is not here today, issued a written statement on the progress that the Government had made. While he stated that he wishes to celebrate what he calls “improvements”, he should be doing anything but celebrating. What the Ministry of Justice has achieved is simply unacceptable for a year’s worth of work. It just is not good enough.
The first problem that the strategy encounters is woeful underfunding, setting out just £5 million over two years in community provision for women, including an initial £3.5 million grant. Not only is that money already earmarked and allocated elsewhere as part of the violence against women and girls funding, but it is well short of what experts have said is needed.
The Government’s own Advisory Board on Female Offenders told the Justice Secretary that the strategy requires at least £20 million, a view shared by the hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), himself a former Minister, who has confirmed that the strategy is £15 million short. We often disagreed on things when he was my opposite number, but on this issue he had passion and vision, and I thank him for that.
Nor have we seen any progress on the development of the promised residential women’s centres, despite their forming a core part of the female offender strategy. The hon. Member for Charnwood told the House in his written statement that the Ministry of Justice has
“recently concluded our first phase of consultation with local voluntary and statutory agencies”,
“We will continue to consult with partners as we refine…the pilot.”—[Official Report, 27 June 2019; Vol. 662, cols 54-55WS.]
That is far from good enough.
The Corston report of 2007 made the recommendation to deliver the first network of women’s centres, and the Labour Government delivered it. We acted. We helped to develop and nurture that network, which has proven itself time and time again as a real, productive alternative to custody and has been met with praise by all those working with it.
Yet despite this body of evidence and the fact that their proposals are just a revision of the last Labour Government’s policy, the Government still feel that there is a need for an extended trial. They do not need to conduct a trial. We know that women’s centres work. Instead, they should either be getting on with their residential centres, or investing back into existing women’s centres and those who operate them to expand the network. Over recent years, it has been devastated following a series of cuts imposed by the Government’s reforms to probation, which led private probation providers to see their obligation to women as a requirement not to provide holistic support, but just to provide the option of a female supervisor.
Despite their stated desire to see fewer women in custody and on short-term sentences, the Government have also made little progress on reforming sentencing for female offenders. Women are still being sent to prison for non-violent offences where they are absolutely no danger to the public. They are still being sent to prison for poverty-related offences such as shoplifting or, quite disturbingly, for petty offences such as TV licence evasion—a point made earlier. The hon. Member for Shipley will want to know that women are sent to prison for that at a greater rate than men are.
Is that the society we want, where vulnerable women are sent to prison for petty offences such as TV licences? The Government are also still locking up vulnerable women whose needs and challenges cannot be addressed in prison. In particular, they are still locking up women who are homeless, and at a greater rate, with the number of homeless women sent to prison rising 71% from the 2015 figure.
In conclusion, last year we were promised a strategy that we were told would change the way women are treated in the criminal justice system, building on the highly influential Corston report. But a year on—a year in which the MOJ could have radically transformed the criminal justice landscape for female offenders—we have seen nothing of the sort. The Government should be ashamed of the lack of progress that they have made in the past 12 months. There is an overwhelming consensus among those who work with women and among hon. Members here today that we should be doing more to help female offenders. If this Government will not do it, a Labour Government will.
Of course, Mrs Ryan. I am grateful for the reminder, because the mover of the debate, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and I served on the Justice Committee together for some years. I pay tribute to her for this debate and for her work.
I will just address the remarks by the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), for whom I have very high regard. I think he is a little unfair when he suggests that all the work that needs to be done under this strategy, or the progress that he envisages, could have been achieved in just one year. Those of us who have worked closely with the criminal justice system for many years know that the best and most sustainable reforms take time. We are dealing with a developing cohort of prisoners—men, women and children—who have differing needs and who need to be managed sensitively. It is not an easy task.
In saying that it is not easy, I am not shying away at all from the nature of the responsibility that I and the Ministry of Justice have to get this right. That is why, in the strategy, there was a refreshing frankness about the need to acknowledge the issue and to get not only the language but the approach right.
[Ms Karen Buck in the Chair]
Today’s debate has been, in great measure, mature, sensible and evidence-based, and I welcome the contributions from all right hon. and hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) is right, by the way, in his figures when it comes to sentenced women offenders; about one third of them are in custody because of offences of violence against a person. He is correct about that. He is also right to remind us that justice must be equal, and that there will be plenty of occasions when, regardless of the gender of the individual before a judge, that person will have to go to prison for serious offences. I think the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson), a former Prisons and Home Office Minister, acknowledged that.
We should not shy away from the reality facing judges and magistrates: there will be times when custody has to be the option, bearing in mind the seriousness of the offence. What I want to see from the criminal justice system—I speak at a time of change; we have an interregnum in my Department—is a system that is smart, not just in the use of resources, but in the administration of justice and our penal system, in a way that means that, when people have served their punishment and are released from custody, we end up with fewer victims of crime, not more. That is what reducing reoffending is all about.
There have been a lot of important pieces of information today; I agree with hon. Members who made the point that most custodial sentences for women are short. In 2018, 77% of custodial sentences for women were less than 12 months, compared with 62% for men. Over the same period, 55% of female offenders were sentenced to a custodial sentence length of up to and including three months, compared with only 35% of male offenders. To balance out the correct statistics that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley cited, last year just over one third of immediate custodial sentences for women were for shoplifting offences, compared with only 11% for men, and the average custodial sentence served was just under two months.
I went to Eastwood Park women’s prison a few weeks ago, and the average sentence length there is about 10 weeks, which is not enough time to do much with a convicted prisoner or to do meaningful work, other than to provide as much support and help as possible for women who are often in a very difficult position. We must all understand the point about vulnerability and the evidence base about the female cohort in order to get this strategy right.
Female prisoners are more than twice as likely as male prisoners to report needing help for mental health problems. The figures are stark: it is 49% of women and 18% of men. About 60% of female offenders have experienced domestic abuse. Female prisoners are more likely to have been taken into care, experienced abuse or witnessed violence in the home as a child. Clear evidential facts rightly underpin our strategy.
The figures relating to custody for non-payment of television licences are, I am glad to say, low. Four women were admitted to custody for non-payment of television licences in 2018, and in the same year three women were admitted to custody for non-payment of council tax. It is important that I put that on the record for balance. Sadly, too many people in our country are living in very straitened circumstances, and plenty of people in those circumstances do not end up in the criminal justice system. We must be very careful when we talk about the cycle of poverty and what it means for offending. Having represented many women in very difficult circumstances as counsel, I know the challenges that many of them face. The lives that they have led are not lives that anybody here would choose to lead. I have seen it for myself. Eastwood Park was familiar to me because some of my clients served sentences there. That is why I was particularly interested in seeing its excellent mother and baby unit and talking to the women, some of whom were in for longer periods. Their experiences and what they had to say were profoundly interesting. Some of the younger women I met were in for only a very short period, but even to my unclinical eye some were clearly vulnerable.
The strategy recognises those facts. It recognises the range of women’s need. In setting out the three-pronged aims, it reinforces and embeds what Baroness Corston found in her groundbreaking report of 2007. The aims are that fewer women should come into the criminal justice system in the first place, that fewer women should serve short custodial sentences, and that we should create a positive environment that supports the rehabilitation of women who need to be in custody.
Hon. Members have spent much time rightly examining the work that has been done. Some criticism has been made of the £5 million multi-year funding. Of course, that is not the only part of our response to support women who are themselves victims or in a cycle of offending. I am sorry that an hon. Member who intervened in the debate but is no longer present found the system to be unduly bureaucratic. We must ensure that the way the funding is spent is based on sound evidence, and that it has a positive effect. That funding is being rolled out effectively, sustaining and enhancing 26 services to develop new women’s centres and to pilot innovative specialist services across England and Wales.
I make no apology for piloting initiatives. We have to get this right. The Government were rightly criticised for jumping the gun when it came to transforming rehabilitation and making assumptions that sadly could not be sustained. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar)—who sadly could not be with us today because he is addressing the House on an urgent question—and I feel very strongly about that. This is also about the work that is being done more widely.
Many hon. Members mentioned the £80 million that was raised through the sale of Holloway. That huge sum of money could transform the number of women going into prisons across the United Kingdom. That would save the Government money in the end, too, so it would be a win-win situation. Will the Minister say something about that before he concludes?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding me about that. As the Prisons Minister, I am responsible for a very large estate, and it would be difficult to hypothecate that money in the way that hon. Members desire. Having said that, some of the funds that were raised have provided a women’s centre there, and the money is being ploughed back into the estate anyway. It is being used to make our prison estate safer, more decent and much better. It is difficult to hypothecate that money purely for these particular purposes.[Official Report, 9 September 2019, Vol. 664, c. 6MC.]
Hon. Members asked many questions, and sadly I do not have all the time in the world to deal with them. I want to talk briefly about the important work of Lord Farmer’s review and the vital issue of family ties. Women are more likely to be primary carers than men when entering the system. Of course, the innocent children of those relationships are the ones who suffer. We are very grateful to Lord Farmer for his review, and we will take his work forward. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley is right that the fact that someone might be a carer should not always be a reason for a court not to go down a particular sentencing path. Judges have to have discretion, and it would be bad sentencing practice for one issue to trump everything else.
I will try to deal with the questions asked by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston. I feel very strongly about pre-sentence reports, and I have asked questions of my civil servants. There is an improved new checklist to make sure that the probation officer is asking the right question about women offenders, and we will roll it out nationally. Part of my aim is to see PSRs used more widely throughout the criminal justice system. I will write to the hon. Lady on all her other questions, because I appreciate that she needs time to respond.
I am grateful to all colleagues who have participated in this very good debate. There was widespread, if not entirely unanimous, recognition that the experiences of women offenders are different. Their motivation to offend, their vulnerabilities, and the impact of sentences on them and their families are different. The risk that women present is lower than that of men. Although I accept the figures that the Minister and the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) cited, I am happy, now that I have found my figures, to share the analysis carried out by the Prison Reform Trust, which led me to the 83% figure. I am afraid that I wrongly suggested that it was a figure from Crest Advisory. It was, in fact, analysis by the Prison Reform Trust. I will write to them, and indeed all Members who participated in the debate, to share that information.
The real lesson that we should take from this debate is that holistic, community-based provision is the most effective way to deal with the vast majority of women offenders, through dedicated, specialist provision. The one message that I want the Minister to take away from the debate is that we must have certain, sustained and adequate funding for a network of women’s centres right across the country. I hope that if he continues as the Minister, he will pursue that agenda. I hope he remains in his role, but if he sadly does not I hope he will pass that message on to his successors.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the female offender strategy one year on.
Workplace Deaths: Scotland
I beg to move,
That this House has considered workplace deaths in Scotland.
I know there are helicopters above us waiting for this speech, so I will just get started. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck, in this important debate. I thank the Scottish Trades Union Congress, Unite the union, Scottish Hazards and Families Against Corporate Killers for their time and assistance ahead of the debate.
There was a nearly 5% increase in workplace deaths in the UK last year, and a staggering 70% increase in Scotland. The Health and Safety Executive suggests that the increase was not “significant”, but as a trade unionist I firmly disagree. The death of any worker is significant for their family, friends and workmates, and the increase in workplace deaths across Scotland is significant for us in this House. It highlights that something is going wrong in sectors of the Scottish economy when it comes to the health and safety of workers. Working people look to us, their representatives, to raise and address their concerns. That is why I sought the debate.
According to the Health and Safety Executive, Scotland has the highest rate of workplace deaths per 100,000 workers in the UK. It also had the most recorded workplace deaths in the UK last year, at 29—higher than the annual average for Scotland of 19. I know the HSE will highlight that Scotland has fewer workers in low-risk industries than the other regions and nations of the UK, but surely that highlights why we must get workplace health and safety right in Scotland. Scotland has more workers in high-risk industries, who are more likely to be exposed to greater dangers in their workplace.
Both across the UK and in Scotland, the highest number of workplace deaths occur in the agriculture, construction and manufacturing sectors, but differences start to emerge between Scotland and the UK when we look at deaths by employment status. Across the UK, the self-employed are more than twice as likely as employees to suffer a fatal workplace injury, but in Scotland, the rate of fatal injury per 100,000 workers is higher among employees than among the self-employed. That greatly worries me, because it means that an increasing number of employees are being failed by their employers when it comes to health and safety in workplaces across Scotland.
The causes of those workplace deaths in Scotland also alarm me. Most of them were preventable if employers had properly enforced health and safety in the workplace. Workers should not operate machinery without appropriate protection, they should not fall from heights and they should not be struck by vehicles in the workplace. All those issues could be dealt with through proper enforcement and oversight of current health and safety regulations.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the increasing casualisation of the workforce—in particular the decline in trade union membership, which enforces appropriate standards in the workplace—is a contributory factor? I recall from my experience of working in a shipyard that the close relationship between management and trade unions was critical to ensuring a rapid and major reduction in lost work day incidents and accidents in the workplace.
Yes. I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. Trade unions have a vital role in health and safety in the workplace. We have health and safety reps, and any worker joining any place of work should join a trade union. Trade unions are not just there for pay; they are there for the protection of workers.
That brings me to enforcement and oversight. The TUC estimates that the HSE’s budget has reduced by more than 40% since 2010. That means it has £100 million less in its budget this year, which undoubtedly impacts its ability to enforce and oversee health and safety in workplaces across the UK. Concerns have been raised by groups such as Families Against Corporate Killers that those cuts to the HSE have already hampered its ability to undertake health and safety inspections.
Ahead of today’s debate I spoke to Scottish Hazards, which has researched staffing levels in the HSE. It estimates that the HSE lost more than 1,000 staff between 2010 and 2018. That means we have lost inspectors and other specialists capable of enforcing and overseeing health and safety in the workplace.
Does the hon. Gentleman share the concerns expressed by National Farmers Union Scotland that the number of deaths in the agriculture sector increased by five to 13 in 2018-19? That happened despite the best efforts of the Farm Safety Foundation, the Health and Safety Executive and the NFU itself. In the UK as a whole, agriculture, forestry and fishing have the worst fatality figures of the main industrial sectors. Does he agree that the UK and Scottish Governments need to assist—
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who makes the point very clearly. A lot of migrant workers come over to work in the agriculture business. One death is too many, never mind five.
There has not been a single prosecution in Scotland under the UK Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007. It is clear that it is not fit for purpose. It has failed to make our workplaces safer, as highlighted by the increase in workplace deaths in Scotland last year. My colleague Claire Baker MSP presented a Bill in the Scottish Parliament that seeks to strengthen the law. It would create two kinds of statutory culpable homicide—where death is caused “recklessly” or by “gross negligence” on the part of an employer. That is the kind of change in the law we must seriously consider if we are to deter employers from action that may jeopardise the lives of their workers.
Yes, I will always see it as a missed opportunity. I will always support the STUC, which I have known for 30 years and does a fantastic job. I urge the Minister to review the effectiveness of the existing UK corporate homicide law and to reflect on whether there must be changes such as those proposed by Claire Baker in Scotland.
I heard one consistent theme in my discussions with organisations ahead of the debate. There is a feeling that HSE figures do not accurately reflect the number of deaths caused by work-related injuries and diseases. The Hazards campaign believes that the HSE’s figures for work-related deaths do not include workers killed in road traffic incidents or deaths from work-related diseases such as cancer, or those who took their own life because of work-related pressures. It also highlights that the HSE fails to account for work-related ill health such as heart disease and mental health issues. That certainly raises questions about whether the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 and other reporting tools are fit for purpose.
There are clearly issues with under-reporting if the labour force survey estimates that work-related injuries are at least 2.5 times higher than those reported through RIDDOR. The Hazards campaign has also raised concerns that recent changes to RIDDOR have led to a nearly 30% reduction in incidents being reported. There are clearly issues with RIDDOR failing to account fully for work-related deaths and ill health. I urge the Government to review the effectiveness of RIDDOR and other reporting tools currently used by the HSE so that we can ensure that the full scale of work-related deaths and ill health is being accurately reported.
A 70% rise in workplace deaths in Scotland is staggering. There is clearly an issue with health and safety enforcement in some sectors of the Scottish economy. I urge the Government to reflect on the issues I have raised today and to look again at the cuts made to the HSE since 2010. I call on them to review the law around corporate homicide to see whether it can be strengthened, and ask them to re-examine the effectiveness of RIDDOR and other reporting tools currently used by the HSE.
International Workers’ Memorial Day is held on 28 April every year. I thank North Lanarkshire Trade Union Council for the work it does at the memorial at Summerlee Industrial Museum in Coatbridge in my constituency every year. The gates at Summerlee are marked with the motto of the North Lanarkshire Trade Union Council:
“The past we inherit, the future we build”.
That makes us remember all those workers who have lost their lives and motivates us to campaign for better health and safety in our workplaces.
The loss of 29 lives last year in workplaces across Scotland should make all of us in this House reflect on the purpose of International Workers’ Memorial Day, which has the slogan:
“To remember the dead and fight for the living.”
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I thank the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) for securing the debate. He spoke with real passion on a subject on which he has campaigned tirelessly for a number of years.
On 3 July, the annual workplace fatality figures for 2018-19 were published. Sadly, they showed an increase in workplace deaths in Scotland—particularly in agriculture— which is a tragedy for everyone involved, including family members and friends left behind. My sympathies and thoughts are with them. As the release of the statistics each year shows, we must continue to strive to do better. I welcome many of the constructive suggestions that the hon. Gentleman made.
Great Britain consistently has one of the lowest rates of fatal injuries in Europe and is recognised as among the best performers for occupational safety and health worldwide. Our health and safety system combines goal-setting legislation and a risk-based approach to health and safety management, to enable businesses to assess and control the risks relevant to them. That allows health and safety controls to adapt as work processes and practices change, and it enables risk management to keep pace with technological change.
Businesses know that effective health and safety management allows for innovation, enhances productivity and enables growth. That, combined with Great Britain’s long-established tripartite approach of businesses, workers and Government working together, has established our world-class health and safety record. However, we must not become complacent. We must continue to work with all involved to secure lasting improvements.
The Minister talks about Britain’s record on workplace safety. Given that, does he agree that when contracts go out to procurement, particularly in the green jobs sector, we must look at what we can do to support jobs staying locally, so that such jobs are good, local and unionised, and we can ensure that workers are protected?
It is absolutely clear that we must have that three-way approach through the Health and Safety Executive, workers and businesses to ensure that we are in the best place to maintain our proud record in this area.
In Scotland, there was an increase of 12 deaths compared with the previous year, mostly due to an increase in fatalities in the agricultural sector from three to 13. The figures for 2017-18 were particularly low, so care must be taken in drawing conclusions from those annual figures as numbers from one year to the next are subject to fluctuation. The increase is within the bounds of natural variation because of the low numbers involved.
Three of the five deaths that related to the use of all-terrain vehicles were in Scotland. Has the Minister had an opportunity to consider what might be done to better reinforce the message that people using such vehicles for farm business should be wearing helmets? What more can be done to get that message across?
My hon. Friend makes a typically constructive suggestion. As these terrible incidents happen, lessons are learned and shared and best practice is promoted. That is exactly the sort of lesson that we can push, and I know he will be a strong advocate on that.
Any death is unacceptable, so we must emphasise the importance of continuing to focus on working with businesses, workers, trade associations and others to prevent deaths by improving risk control. The primary responsibility for managing risks to people’s health and safety from work activities lies with the business or the person who creates the risk. HSE evidence shows that the key drivers of health and safety risk are industry sector, occupation and duty-holder attitude, rather than geographical location.
The regulator also plays an important part in improving standards. In cases of workplace deaths, investigation is a priority for the HSE. Through investigation, inspection and enforcement the HSE can: ensure individual businesses are managing risks properly; hold to account those who have failed in their statutory duties; and learn the lessons that play into industry to ensure that health and safety management continues to improve across the country. In practice, that means that during an investigation the regulator may take enforcement action to address conditions found on site. Following an investigation, there may be prosecution action in England and Wales, and in Scotland a recommendation to prosecute may be presented to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service.
Outcomes of investigations and prosecutions form the base of communications activity to highlight our expectations and have an educational and deterrent effect across businesses. Finally, lessons learned are discussed with industry stakeholders and, as necessary, fed into new or existing guidance to drive future improvement.
Analysis of incidents shows us that the main causes of fatal injuries to workers by industry sector are the same whether in Scotland, England or Wales. In agriculture, they include workplace transport, falls from a height and being killed by cattle. In construction, over half of all fatal injuries to workers over the last five years across Great Britain resulted from falls from a height. Factors contributing to fatal accidents across all industries include a lack of planning, training, maintenance and understanding of risk as well as poor risk management. The sad thing is that, as the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill mentioned, those causes are well known, as are the steps that can be taken to prevent them. There is much good guidance available from the HSE and industry that cover them.
In February 2016, the “Helping Great Britain Work Well” strategy, aimed at improving health and safety across Great Britain, was launched. I was pleased to write the foreword, which highlighted that we need to act together and help businesses to manage their risks well. The regulators cannot do it all, but the HSE will continue to work with businesses, workers and stakeholders to promote better working practices to protect workers.
The Minister is being generous in giving way. In agricultural deaths, there has been a demographic shift towards people aged over 60. Is that true generally of reported workplace deaths? What does he believe might be a root cause of that startling statistic?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I will have to write to him to give more details. As I said earlier, we cannot stand still. Industry innovation, technology and workplace demographics are changing and we must always be on the front foot. The improvement of working practices has included the development of specific sector plans to drive improvements across agriculture, construction and other industries.
I turn to the key work taking place in Scotland to improve health and safety at work outcomes, particularly in agriculture. Industry-wide, the HSE chairs the Partnership on Health and Safety in Scotland, which brings together Scottish business and trade union representatives with the Scottish Government to work to improve businesses’ management of health and safety. The HSE’s agriculture sector plan recognises the challenges in changing attitudes and behaviours in the industry. A reduction in fatal injury rates is one of the three outcomes identified, through securing effective management of risk.
As part of Farm Safety Partnership Scotland, the HSE is working with the National Farmers Union Scotland, NFU Mutual and the Scottish Government to ensure that partners focus their activities on driving improvements in the management of risk. The HSE will continue to work with stakeholders to find opportunities to reduce fatal accidents in Scottish agriculture. I urge all parties involved in Farm Safety Partnership Scotland to really step up to the plate and deliver the further cultural change required to improve health and safety on Scottish farms.
We are already world-leading, and the new Prime Minister will continue everything that is great about this country. I am sure that he will take particular interest in how we are recognised for our achievement in the area, and rightly so.
The HSE has commissioned research to gain a better understanding of farmers’ attitudes to risk and risk-taking behaviour. From that research, a programme of interventions has been developed, including HSE-funded training known as agricultural compliance events. The training includes management of the risks of the most common causes of fatal injury on farms. The events are followed up by inspections to ensure compliance. To date, approximately 500 Scottish farmers have attended the events.
The HSE has also developed new guidance targeted at influencing those farmers who are unclear about how to manage risk and are most likely to have an incident at work. From that work, the key actions that the HSE is taking with the agriculture sector to improve standards are challenging the industry to take ownership of issues, developing shared solutions to known problems, and delivering consistent actions and messages.
In the construction sector, performance has improved over the past decade, and the number and rate of fatal incidents shows a long-term downward trend. An important vehicle for driving continuing construction improvements is Site Safe Scotland, a well-established tripartite partnership that works on improving health and safety on Scottish construction projects. Trade unions, major construction employers, training providers and the HSE support campaigns and initiatives across the country, such as the Scottish Working Well Together group.
The HSE wants to see a continuation of the downward trend in fatal accidents in construction, which will be tackled by embedding the principles of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015; supporting small businesses to achieve improved risk management and control; reducing the likelihood of low-frequency, high-impact catastrophic incidents such as fires or structural collapse by making early and strategic interventions in major projects; and developing clear standards of construction risk leadership and leading performance indicators.
The HSE works with Police Scotland, the Scottish Occupational Road Safety Alliance and others as part of a national campaign on the causes of fatalities in the transport sector, such as during loading and unloading, when workplace fatalities and injuries may occur as a result of poorly loaded and poorly secured goods.
I am pleased that we have been able to debate this important issue and highlight some of the common causes of workplace fatal injuries. The HSE will continue to engage with businesses and stakeholders in Scotland, as it will in England and Wales. It uses a range of regulatory actions, from influencing behaviours across whole industry sectors to making targeted interventions in particular sectors and activities. It will continue to hold to account those businesses that fail in their responsibilities to protect workers. While the increase this year in workers’ deaths in agriculture is troubling, it is time not to change direction, but rather to continue to work together to reinforce the changes needed to safeguard workers’ lives.
Once again, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill for securing the debate, and to other hon. Members for their excellent contributions. On any points that I have not been able to address during my speech, I will write with further details. I remind all colleagues that the HSE takes the issue incredibly seriously. Speaking in a personal capacity, having worked with the HSE for several years, I have been really impressed with how willing it is to engage with individual MPs. I have attended meetings of a number of all-party parliamentary groups that focus on particular areas of its work, where I have seen its technical knowledge and its willingness to challenge, adapt and work with all organisations, businesses, trade unions, stakeholders and Governments. In this area, we are world-leading.
The figures are disappointing, and I genuinely feel for all the families, but there is a real cross-party commitment to continue to do everything we can in this important area. I thank the hon. Gentleman again for his very constructive speech.
Question put and agreed to.
Access to Pension Credit
I beg to move,
That this House has considered access to pension credit.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I am grateful that this important issue has been selected for debate before the parliamentary recess, and pleased to see so many hon. Members present from many political parties to discuss this crucial issue. Their presence, along with the large number of colleagues who have voiced real concern about the problem in recent weeks, clearly illustrates that it is by no means constituency-specific; it affects people in every constituency in the UK and in all parts of the communities that we represent. My argument is a simple one, but the solutions to the problem are far from straightforward.
Pension credit is failing. It is failing the ballooning number of pensioners who are living in poverty across our communities, and the Government’s broken promise on free TV licences could be about to make things much, much worse. It is perhaps fitting that on the day the Prime Minister leaves office, we are here discussing just one of the numerous “burning injustices” that she failed to tackle—and that actually got worse on her watch. More of the same will not cut it. We must end this moral emergency.
The backdrop to our debate is simple but shocking. After nearly a decade of Tory austerity, almost 2 million pensioners are now living in poverty—a statistic that should not only shock us, but utterly shame us. In the now sixth-richest economy in the world, I am truly saddened and alarmed that the UK Government have allowed pensioner poverty to soar to such an extent. Indeed, I now believe that the situation is a moral emergency. To any Government Member who seeks to counter that claim, I simply ask: how can it be right that by this time tomorrow another 226 older people will have fallen into poverty? That is more than 80,000 pensioners per year—more than the number of people in most of our constituencies.
The frankly staggering rises that we are seeing will be difficult to reverse, but the Government’s continuing paralysis over Brexit must not mean that the issue is allowed to slip further down the new Prime Minister’s in-tray. If we do not address this moral emergency—if we allow this deeply damaging trend to continue—we have to ask ourselves what we got into politics for.
The issue does not affect just older people. The decisions that we take today to support older generations will have a real and marked impact on the future of young people across our country and on people of working age. If the Government continue to turn a blind eye to pensioner poverty, they will be sending one message, and one message only: “You can work hard all your life, pay into the system and try your best to get on and do well. But even if you do, there will still be a real risk that you will not be able to enjoy a dignified and comfortable retirement.”
No responsible Government should allow the situation to continue. One thing we could do to address it over the summer recess is take real steps, rather than just speaking warm words, towards making people properly aware of their pension credit entitlement. The Government’s appalling decision to break their 2017 manifesto commitment to protect pensioner benefits has, rightly, caused hon. Members across the country to shine a light on the low uptake of pension credit across the UK.
Under the new BBC licence fee rules, as hon. Members will be aware, only households with someone over the age of 75 who is in receipt of pension credit will be eligible to continue having their licence fee waived.
In Scotland, £300 million goes unclaimed in pension credits, including £7 million in my constituency. Surely that £7 million would help with those TV licence fees.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. My point is that if all our constituents claimed the pension credit they are entitled to, it would cost more than providing free TV licences, so surely a good option would be to get better take-up of pension credit and to continue with free TV licences.
The new approach, when packaged in a Government press release, might at first look to some like a logical step to take, but when we unpack it and look at how many people are not accessing the financial support to which they are entitled, we see how utterly disgraceful the policy is and how much of a backward step it is. Put simply, the Government need to stop outsourcing their welfare policy to the BBC.
Of course, the Government provide a range of measures to protect the most hard-pressed pensioners, many of which are welcome and needed, yet their flagship policy to lift pensioners out of poverty—pension credit—is failing.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that the Government need to launch a major awareness-raising campaign about pension credit? There are more than 2,000 households in Blaenau Gwent that could be missing out on a total of £5.6 million every year. They have the right to this money, so let us make sure that they get it.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I completely agree with him that the Government need to do a lot more to encourage pensioners to claim pension credit and make them understand that there is no stigma in their gaining pension credit. However, even in my constituency of Ogmore there is more than £5.1 million that is not being claimed by pensioners, so I completely agree with him, and I hope that the Minister will respond to some of these points at the end of the debate.
Further to that point, does my hon. Friend agree that it is quite concerning that the figure nationally for those entitled to pension credit but not claiming it is 40%? Meanwhile, in my own constituency of Barnsley East, more than 4,000 pensioners are due to lose their free TV licences. The combination of these two factors is really concerning. Does he agree?
I do agree with my hon. Friend. Her intervention re-emphasises the point that this issue affects pensioners right across the United Kingdom, and the Government need to deal with it, starting by better advertising what is available and making sure that pensioners are able to access the money that they need and that is rightly theirs.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my shock and disbelief that pensioners tell me that when they phone up the helpline or claim-line for pension credit, they find that it is not properly staffed? Indeed, some of my constituents have been left on hold on the phone for up to an hour, even though there is no option to apply for pension credit using an application form. Barriers are being put in the way of pensioners claiming this money, which might explain the lack of take-up.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention. As I will set out later in my speech, the parliamentary service here has been able to have some interaction with constituents from across the UK, and I have some examples that will almost confirm her view that the Department for Work and Pensions is being deliberately unhelpful when it comes to allowing pensioners to claim pension credit. I will refer to those examples later.
The Government’s flagship policy to lift pensioners out of poverty—pension credit—is failing, and it has been for some time. Pension credit is not working for up to 1.3 million pensioner households that are eligible for this vital support, which could be the catalyst they need to lift them out of poverty, but they do not receive it. In my constituency, I find it completely staggering that there is £5.1 million of pension credit going unclaimed each year, and I know that there are many, many constituencies across the UK where the situation is even bleaker.
By the time the new TV licence rules come into force in 2020, pensioners across the UK will have endured 10 long years of Tory austerity—10 long years of austerity that none of them caused; 10 long years of austerity that many of these pensioners did not vote for. Indeed, 10 long years of austerity have had a devastating impact on the living standards and quality of life of hundreds of thousands of pensioners across the United Kingdom.
In 2003, pension credit was introduced under the new Labour Government. It was created to ensure that all older people received a minimum amount of income and has played a major role in previous reductions in poverty. Indeed, the last Labour Government lifted 2 million pensioners out of poverty as a result of policies such as pension credit.
What have we seen since? Over 400,000 more pensioners have been plunged into poverty, and two in five of the pensioner households that are entitled to pension credit currently do not claim it. That shows that it is not that the policy itself is not working; instead, it is that people who might need this money are not accessing it. The Government have to change that.
Parliament’s brilliant digital engagement team asked people on social media and on the MoneySavingExpert.com forum over the weekend about their experiences with pension credit. It was clear from that research that although many respondents were aware of pension credit, there was much more confusion about what the benefit actually was, who is eligible to it and how it can be accessed. Several of the respondents criticised the way that the DWP promotes pension credit to those who are eligible for it. For example, Joanne Stannard said that
“there are some over-75s who don’t even own a computer…make their lives easier”.
Susan Brady said:
“I worked for the DWP for over 30 years in operational delivery, so I am well aware how unfair our welfare system is. We seem to despise our older people in the UK. It’s wrong, totally wrong.”
I could go on, but what was clear from the responses is that the system is not fit for purpose. People do not know whether they are eligible for pension credit and many are struggling to get by, despite working hard throughout their lives.
I thank everyone who responded to the questions posted online or shared their views about them, and I pay tribute to the digital engagement team for again helping us to have as informed a debate as possible.
My hon. Friend is making a great speech, with lots of very salient points. Recently, when it was announced that over-75s would get their TV licence free only if they are on pension credit, I wrote to all the over-75s in my constituency, so I will just add a response that I received to those that he has cited. One constituent said that he not only received his pension credit but now also gets
“council tax credit, help with…glasses and dental, and a premium on…carer’s allowance.”
He was forced into poverty because of a lack of information that only I, as his representative, could correct. Is that not something that the Government should do?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The point that I will make later in my speech is that there seems to be this assumption that increasing publicity does not necessarily work or that trying to get cross-benefits, for example around housing benefit, would not solve the problem. However, his intervention shows that where Members of Parliament are proactive—arguably, the Government could be proactive instead—they can gain more support for their constituents. I pay tribute to him for doing that already; perhaps the Government could follow his lead.
Over the last few weeks, I have been working closely with the older people’s charity Independent Age, which has put forward some sensible recommendations that could help us to improve this situation. Indeed, its “Credit Where It’s Due” campaign has already made waves across the country, and I am proud to support it in its entirety.
Working with sector stakeholders and with all levels of Government, it is essential that the Government act to ensure that everyone who is entitled to pension credit receives it. To achieve this, I impress upon the Minister the need for him to make three clear commitments today. The first is to ensure that at least 75% of eligible people receive pension credit by the end of 2020. The second is to ensure that that figure is at least 95% by the end of 2022. The third is to ensure that it is 100% by 2025.
Independent Age estimates that if measures are put in place to achieve a 75% take-up target by 2020, half a million pensioners could be lifted out of poverty by putting an additional £1.25 billion into the pockets of our poorest pensioners. To reach those targets, the Government must put in place a comprehensive action plan that is ambitious about the full range of improvements that can be—indeed, need to be—made. Simply continuing previous approaches, such as focusing merely on new awareness-raising campaigns, will not allow us to make the progress on this issue that is desperately needed.
Of course, the voluntary sector plays a vital role in supporting older people to access pension credit, but such support cannot be relied upon to improve uptake across the country if used in isolation.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech with some excellent points. In Cardiff North, nearly 1,400 older people are missing out on a combined total of £4 million of pension credits. That has a huge impact on my constituency. I am reaching out to those older people. He has secured this important debate to reach out to the Government to do more, and his points are very salient. Does he agree that the Government need to be far more proactive in this area?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. She makes a strong case as to why the Government should do more, because, as I have already said, this issue is clearly affecting every constituency right across the UK.
Previous Government attempts to work with older people’s groups and charities to raise awareness of pension credit have made a positive difference in the short term, but they have not been enough to achieve the longer-term change that we need. For the record, I have no problem at all with the Government engaging with and working with the voluntary sector to support pensioners. There are many reasons why voluntary groups do extraordinary work in supporting pensioners’ groups and older people’s groups to tackle loneliness or offer support. I take nothing away from any of that work, but the Government need to take responsibility for the fact that there are millions of pensioners who are not receiving the pension credit that they should rightly receive.
The four stages of Independent Age’s action plan are a clear and decisive way to turn this around. First, the Government must take responsibility for getting pension credit to older people. Previous research has generally focused on the failure of older people to respond in the way that the system demands. Barriers to claiming pension credit can include confusion about the application process and the stigma associated with claiming benefits. Many people do not apply because they think they are ineligible. At times, there has been more ambitious thinking. In 2012, the Department for Work and Pensions ran a small trial in which pension credit was paid to people without them having to apply. However, that approach has not been fully explored or rolled out. The Government need to use the information and techniques they have at their fingertips to significantly simplify, or even remove altogether, the application process for pension credit.
Secondly, the Government should consider the trigger points affecting pensioners on low incomes and explore cross-referral across agencies. They should look beyond retirement age and explore the role of other services at those trigger points, such as the role of GPs, or ensuring that applicants for disability or carer benefits are notified about pension credit at the point of award. The DWP should explore its role in notifying such individuals about pension credit; for example, Tell Us Once is a service that lets a person report a death to most Government organisations in one go. That could be a route to notifying the bereaved about the support they may be entitled to.
Thirdly, the Government must explore the role of housing benefit. Some 80% of households take up housing benefit, compared with as few as 58% for pension credit. We know that over half of the 330,000 pensioners who have moved into poverty since 2013 are renting. Some of those people will be entitled to, but missing out on, pension credit. Currently, the Department for Work and Pensions passes on the information received for a pension credit assessment to the relevant local authority, so that the applicant is able to claim housing benefit. However, the reverse does not happen. There is therefore an opportunity to ensure that when housing benefit has been awarded, the information used in that assessment is passported from the local authority to the DWP for a pension credit assessment.
Lastly, the Government should explore options for using behavioural insight. The Government should ensure that every element of the action plan is developed in partnership with older people. For example, they should explore co-producing communications with older people to maximise the likelihood of getting a response. This is about focusing less on assumptions and more on actually understanding the needs of older people.
I will briefly highlight some of the fantastic work being done to support pensioners in my constituency of Ogmore, including by the various older people’s groups that I meet with on a regular basis in Cefn Cribwr, Llanharan, Brynna and Maesteg, as well as the men’s sheds in Tondu, Ogmore Vale and the Garw Valley. Those organisations do an extraordinary amount of excellent peer-to-peer work to support older people by trying to tackle issues such as loneliness and secure the support that pensioners are entitled to. Nothing makes me prouder to be the MP for Ogmore than seeing different parts of those communities coming together to support one another. However, it is now time for the Government to step up and support the valiant efforts of those organisations by delivering the changes we need to stop any more pensioners falling into the dangerous cycle of poverty.
We stand at yet another turning point in our politics. Tomorrow we will likely have a radically different Government from the one that is before us today. While he has only been in office a matter of hours, the new Prime Minister’s in-tray must have more issues in it than the number of positions he has had on Europe over the years. However, this issue must not be parked until after we do or do not Brexit. The Government have to start realising that constitutional issues must not trump the real-life impact that their failures are having every day on our communities up and down the UK. Therefore, in all sincerity, I ask the Minister to not come back to us with warm words, but to give pensioners a real action plan that will deliver the poverty reduction that we need.
If austerity really is set to come to an end, it is time that this Government give back to the communities that have felt the brunt of the pain their policies have caused over the past 10 years. The first big but important step towards doing that is to ensure that older people receive the money that they are legally entitled to. Surely that is not too much to ask.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) on securing this afternoon’s debate, and thank him for the case that he has outlined.
As we have heard, pension credit is not working. Over £200 million of pension credit is not reaching older people in Wales each year, including almost £6 million that is not reaching people in my constituency. As many as 80,000 people in Wales, and over 1 million in total across the UK, are currently missing out. The financial support that pension credit provides would be a life-changing event to a great number of those people, who are finding it harder and harder to get by due to years of Tory austerity. That is certainly the case in constituencies such as mine in the south Wales valleys, where it can often be easy for geographic isolation to cause older people to suffer from loneliness and poor mental health. Pension credit can enable people suffering from loneliness or isolation to take part in a range of social activities they would not otherwise be able to, not to mention make shopping and other bills affordable.
I also want to mention free TV licences for the over-75s. Following the Government’s cruel decision to offload responsibility for that concession to the BBC, there is a policy to means-test pensioners’ eligibility for free TV licences through pension credit. That is not a suitable test, since the current take-up of that benefit is so low. Not only will about 3,220 pensioner households in my constituency and many thousands more across the UK continue to miss out on that essential benefit, but they will now be hit by a bill of over £150 for a TV licence.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore said, almost 2 million older people in the UK are living in poverty. It is shocking that more than two in five pensioner households are not receiving the pension credit to which they are entitled, an average of £49 per week. That money would make a huge difference to some of the poorest people in my constituency, across Wales and across the UK. Those pensioners have paid into the system their entire working life, but that very system is now letting them down.
The Government must now act to improve the take-up of pension credit and launch a campaign to create wider awareness of it, in order to lift pensioners out of poverty and give them the quality of life that they deserve. I plead with the Minister to consider the real and grave concerns that have been raised during today’s debate, and come forward with answers, not words, to address an injustice that is causing hardship to those who can least afford it.
I will speak briefly, because I know a lot of Members want to speak. I thank the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) for having secured this important debate.
It is a disgrace that pension credit—the support in place to help our poorest pensioners—has been under-claimed by £7 billion since June 2017 across the UK. In my constituency, that figure stands at £7.4 million. While many pensioners often have to choose between eating and heating, they are unaware that other support has been set aside for them. I have raised this issue on the Floor of the House, and asked what the Government were going to do to publicise that support and ensure that our poorest older people were aware of it. Predictably and disappointingly, the answer I received was rather dismissive.
It seems to me that unacceptable obstacles have been placed in the path of those who might claim and benefit from this support. In my constituency, as I said earlier, I have been told by old people that when they call the pension credit claim line, it is not properly staffed. After being kept on hold, sometimes for up to a full hour, the would-be claimant gives up and hangs up. On hearing that, I advised my constituents to apply for pension credit via post, but guess what? Only those living in Northern Ireland can do so. I wonder why that is; perhaps the Minister can explain why there is more concern for constituents in Northern Ireland than for those in North Ayrshire and Arran.
Why does this matter? It seems to me that by not informing older people that pension credit exists, and then making it as hard as possible for them to claim, the less it costs and the more can be clawed back by the Treasury. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of pensioners in my constituency and across the UK are robbed of vital support that could make a material difference to their circumstances. That is before we talk about those who may miss out on pension credit and, as a further blow, will lose their right to a free TV licence when those are cut by the Government, not to mention the fact that pension credit is often a gateway benefit to other support.
The cuts in pension credit for mixed-age couples were sneaked out under the cover of the Brexit chaos. Add to that the betrayal of women born in the 1950s, who have been robbed of their state pension, and we have a UK Government breaking their manifesto pledge to protect pensioner benefits.
The hon. Lady is not the first representative from her party to complain on behalf of the Women Against State Pension Inequality campaign. However, there is devolution in Scotland. If she really cared about the issue, should the Scottish National party Government not put their money where their mouth is?
The WASPI women are not stupid, and they have heard that myth peddled repeatedly. There is a particular section in the Scotland Act 2016, which I recommend the hon. Gentleman reads, that forbids the Scottish Government from providing benefits
“by reason of old age.”
If he were to read the Act, he might learn a thing or two before peddling that myth. I also remind him that the Scottish Parliament does not exist to clear up a Tory mess.
It is clear that the Government are no friend, supporter or protector of our older people. It is time for the Government to get a grip, stop punishing our older people, stop punishing people for being poor, get on with the day job and properly address pensioner poverty.
It is a pleasure to speak briefly in this debate under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), and congratulate him and his new wife on their wedding last weekend. I wish them many happy years together; hopefully they can draw their pensions together in years to come. I will say a word about the level of pension credit take-up in Wales, and I commend my hon. Friend for raising the issue. I know that a couple of other things are happening in this city today, but although minds will be focused on the new resident in Downing Street, I hope the debate gets the focus and attention that it deserves.
As all colleagues will know, and as my hon. Friend indicated, pension credit is the main means-tested benefit for pensioners. For those people reaching state pension age before April 2016, pension credit has two parts—guarantee credit and savings credit. Guarantee credit provides financial help for people aged over the qualifying age for pension credit whose income is below a set amount. Savings credit is an extra amount for people aged 65 or over, who have made some provision for their retirement.
As we have heard, in 2016-17 up to 1.3 million families who were entitled to receive pension credit did not claim the benefit. That equates to about £3.5 billion of available pension credit going unclaimed. On average, that amounted to about £2,500 per year for each family, and in Wales in 2016-17 more than £170 million went unclaimed by some of the poorest older people in our part of the United Kingdom.
I have been an MP for only a few months, but before my election to this House I worked in the NHS for more than 30 years. It was clear to me then, as it is clear to me now in my new role as the Member for Newport West, that food poverty and fuel poverty are on the rise, and that there is a homelessness crisis. In this House, and in all four parts of the UK, we need to do more to assist those eligible to apply and we need to ensure that people know that they are eligible.
There is a communication issue here. We need to do more, go further and be clearer about the fact that pension credit is there to help those who need it. The Government’s welfare policies leave a lot to be desired. Frankly, the Government should be ashamed of much of the last nine years. However, for all that shame there is support and we should encourage our constituents to seek it. I will use my role as the Member for Newport West to champion the issue, and will continue to work with and support my hon. Friend to raise these issues.
I do not know whether the Minister has been notified, but I would like him to address two questions. First, the take-up of pension credit by couples continues to be lower than that of single people. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that the rate at which couples claim pension credit increases? Secondly, according to the Older People’s Commissioner for Wales, £170 million of pension credit went unclaimed in 2016-17. What steps are the Government, alongside other Departments, taking to increase pension credit take-up rates in Wales?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) on an excellent introduction, in a comprehensive speech about a great injustice.
Recently, I visited the Alive and Kicking project in my constituency, which was a great organisation to discover. It was set up in the year I was born, so it is 30 years old. It has been an amazing charity—a stalwart in the Springburn area in helping to involve older people in the community in social activity when otherwise they might be isolated on the fringes of our communities.
Such organisations, the length and breadth of Britain, are the backbone of ensuring that social isolation and alienation are not a more common occurrence. We often underestimate the capacity of those organisations. Yet, sadly, they face significant financial pressures due to local government cuts. It is an onslaught on every front that many such organisations—the infrastructure that supports older people—face.
The people at the Alive and Kicking project were very hospitable. They gave me my lunch and we had a game of bingo. I had a great time with them, but we also had a Q and A session. There was so much anger from the older people about the TV licence being taken away. I could not believe the anguish that it was causing a lot of people—the feeling that they had done so much for their country over the years, working all the hours that God sends, as one lady said, to be greeted with that. She was recently widowed and the television is a critical part of her social existence. When she is not at the social club she is just alone at home and she communicates with the world through that television.
That is an insight into the hardship that the change is causing. It is not good enough to pass the buck to the BBC. We know the true reason why it has made the cutback; there is no point in trying to sugar-coat it. In my constituency, 1,400 people who currently qualify for the TV licence will be denied that opportunity. That adds extra impetus to the issue of pension credit under-claiming. We have to focus on the barriers to access, which have been referred to.
Many people spoke to me at the club about issues that they have had in accessing the benefits, their lack of awareness and even organisations’ lack of knowledge of how to assist users and maximise benefit claims. [Interruption.] Perhaps the Minister is confirming the details of how people claim those benefits. It is clear to me that the interface for normal people dealing with it has been deliberately designed to deny access.
We know for a fact, as a result of freedom of information action, that deflection scripts are practised for universal credit. There is an insidious ethos within the Department for Work and Pensions to deflect and deny access to rightful entitlements. That is utterly shameful and is a fact—an example was alluded to earlier. In my constituency, just 56% of those who are eligible to claim pension credit do so, according to the recent Independent Age study. That means that about 4,610 people claim it but 3,648 do not, leading to a cumulative total of £11 million a year that is unclaimed in my constituency.
That is not good enough, I am afraid, in a constituency that faces some of the worst social challenges in not just Scotland but the United Kingdom. It is a mark of shame on the DWP that the figure is as high as it is. There is a clear correlation between levels of social deprivation and the under-claiming of benefits that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. We currently have a regressive system, because the onus is on the individuals with the least capacity to claim the benefits. That must be fixed. The dice are loaded against them and it is not good enough.
That was just a simple insight into one example of when I went around my constituency and discovered the hardship that this issue is causing. I think that the people at the Alive and Kicking club would appreciate it were the Minister to commit to sending a DWP representative to visit the club, speak to the service users there and talk to them about how they can maximise their rightful entitlement. I think that that would be received very well. I look forward to the Minister committing to give at least that measure of reassurance to my constituents. The figures as they stand are shameful, and I hope that the Government will address them with due urgency.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Buck. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) on an excellent speech. It is noticeable that the Celtic nations have dominated the debate so far, with one honourable exception in the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock). I have noticed something else in the debate, and we should show sympathy and solidarity with our Conservative colleagues, who are all nervously watching their telephones as the reshuffle begins. If social media is to be believed, we are looking at an episode of “Game of Thrones”—“The Red Wedding 2”—but we will see what happens in the next few hours.
As I said, the hon. Member for Ogmore made an excellent speech on access to pension credit and pressed home the statistics that he read out. The Independent Age charity informed me that there is an unclaimed £9,664,000 in the Glasgow South West constituency on a yearly basis. Frankly, that is an astonishing figure. It is outrageous that the Department for Work and Pensions is allowing billions in benefits to go unclaimed by poor pensioners. As the hon. Member for Ogmore said, four in 10 pensioner households that are entitled to pension credit are not receiving it. When we add that to the TV licence proposals, which I will come to, it looks very much look like poorer pensioners are missing out on many aspects of state support that they should receive.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) and others have rightly invited DWP to try to sort out the situation, but some of us feel that, as Members of Parliament, we have to address it as well. I am organising a pension credit event for pensioner clubs and other organisations—bowling clubs, for example—during the summer recess, to show their members what they are entitled to and highlight that they will have friends and neighbours who are entitled to pension credit but are not receiving it.
We have other decisions on pension credit. The outrageous decision to cut pension credit for mixed-age couples could cost some couples £7,000 a year. It really is not good enough for the Government to say that a decision was made in 2012. There have been two general elections since then, and the make-up of Parliament is a lot different. There really should have been parliamentary scrutiny before 15 May, when the Government decided to put that forward. It is unacceptable, and just another addition to the long list of policies that are hurting older people.
I want to touch briefly on TV licences, because I think a number of hon. Members have suggested, and I agree, that it could end up being a false economy for the Government—[Interruption.]—I am obviously getting agreement from outside, as I am being cheered. It is a false economy because what could end up happening is that we will have people claiming pension credit to try to keep their free TV licence, which will cost the DWP a lot more than if it had kept TV licences under its domain. There is also the issue of the 1950s-born women, many of whom were not properly informed of the changes. Some have been affected by the mixed-age couple rules, and some single 1950s-born women could be eligible for pension credit, but they will have to wait longer to claim it because of the increase in pension age.
I want to close by emphasising that any suggestion that austerity is over is absolutely farcical. The Government have continued to target austerity at the most disadvantaged. The changes they are making to pension credit, and the fact that they are not proactive in ensuring that poorer pensioners know they are entitled to it, emphasises the point very well indeed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. The people who built Britain are entitled to expect but the best in retirement. As my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) put it, they paid in throughout their lives in the expectation that they would be supported in the twilight of their years. The sense of grievance was brilliantly brought to life by the outstanding speech given by my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore). I pay tribute to him for securing this debate and for everything that he is doing.
Let us look at the history of pensioner poverty. In 1994-95, 28% of pensioners lived in poverty. That fell to 13% in 2011-12 as a consequence of action taken by a Labour Government: a fall achieved by offering extra help for poorer pensioners. However, that progress has been slammed into reverse, partly because of the chaos over pension credit, but also because of the changes to welfare policy. Pensioner poverty is now rising—back to 16% in 2017—suggesting that the previous progress has indeed been slammed into reverse. The sense of grievance about that was encapsulated by the excellent contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones).
Some 14 million people now live in poverty in the UK—over one in five of the population—and they include 1.9 million pensioners. Reference was made to the excellent work done by Independent Age. I pay tribute to that remarkable organisation, which found that a more than a million pensioner households across Great Britain are forced to live in poverty owing to the Government’s failure to act on pension credit—these are the pensioner households missing out, or PHoMOs. Since the last general election, that has meant that the Government have held on to a staggering £7 billion—£3.5 billion each year—in unclaimed pension credit that should have gone to pensioners, a figure that will increase to a staggering £17 billion by 2022, equating to £10 million every day.
That is why my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) was absolutely right to point to the sense of anger at the situation. His is an organisation called Alive and Kicking and mine is called Elders with Attitude, but the message is the same. In fact, I have their T-shirt.
Getting pension credit is all the more important now because of what is happening with TV licences, about which I will say more later on. Forgive me if I stress once again that, as an initiative, pension credit was a landmark achievement of the last Labour Government. They cut pensioner poverty consistently, and at the heart of that achievement was the strategy relating to pension credit, but it has been slammed into reverse.
As hon. Members will know, the origin of pension credit was as an income-related benefit specifically designed to lift pensioners out of poverty. Introduced in 2003, it was created to ensure that all older people receive a minimum amount of income and has played a major role over the years in the reduction of pensioner poverty, until now. It is all the more important that pension credit is paid and that the people who deserve it get it.
On the one hand, there is a stereotype that all older people own their own homes, but, sadly, this is against a background of decreasing home ownership and rising rents in the private sector. Independent Age’s research shows that more than half a million older people in England now live in private rented accommodation, and that more than half of the 330,000 pensioners who have moved into poverty since 2013 are either private or social renters. Pension credit is all the more important for them.
On the other hand, pension credit is essential—for example, to pay for transport costs. Particularly in rural areas and for people with health or mobility issues, a car or taxi can be the only way to reach necessary services. Pension credit can also mean that older people are able to take part in social activities, reducing the risk of loneliness.
Pension credit is important for all those reasons and an additional one, which my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) mentioned: it is a gateway to accessing other benefits. People missing out on pension credit could also be losing out on up to £7,000 a year in additional help. Pension credit can act as a gateway to housing benefit up to £5,020, to council tax support up to £1,670, to the warm home discount at £140, and to NHS costs, including dental treatment or eye care, up to £296. So it is all the more important that people who are entitled to pension credit get it.
To add insult to injury, it was announced earlier this month that free TV licences for the over-75s will now be means-tested. Several hon. Members have referred to that, and rightly so. The Library’s research shows that more than 3 million people will be affected by that move. It is estimated that 1.3 million poorer over-75s are eligible for pension credit but do not claim it. They will lose their free TV licences due to the proposal to tie licences to pension credit.
It is also estimated that 1.6 million pensioners living alone will lose their free TV licences in a means-tested system. That is absolutely wrong. In my experience, television can indeed be a friend to a lonely pensioner. The Tories’ idea to increase take-up of pension credit is, as is often mentioned, an “online toolkit”, but the problem is that its track record of achievement is lamentable. Pension credit is an online toolkit, but that has shown drastically declining usage since 2014. More than half of over-75s in the UK say that they have not used the internet in the past three months, and the amount of people accessing the toolkit fell by 84% between 2014 and 2018, with only 2,078 people using it last year. The fact that more than 1 million households in the UK are not claiming the pension credit to which they are entitled shows that the Government’s efforts simply are not working. It was therefore right that my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore secured this debate to focus on that.
I will refer to one other outrage, to be frank: the changes to pension credit slipped through on the same night as the first Brexit meaningful vote: from 15 May, new pensioners whose partners are younger than the state retirement age of 65 may no longer claim a means-tested top-up called pension credit. Instead, they will be forced to claim the much less generous universal credit alongside their younger partner. The couple rate of universal credit is £114.81 a week, compared with £255.25 a week for a couple on pension credit. That amounts to a potential loss of £7,320 a year—an absolute outrage.
The crucial question is what the Government will now do about that. I strongly support my hon. Friend’s recommendations on targets and his call to hear the Government’s action plan to right an undoubted wrong. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) said, the aims set out by Independent Age are eminently achievable over a five-year period, with targets being incrementally increased to get us to a position where 100% of those entitled to pension credit actually get it.
I will close with the point that I started with. We have a sacred duty to those who built this country. They endured so much not only in the world of work, but in conflict defending this country. The scale of the problems they had to overcome throughout their lives is sometimes unimaginable. They paid in throughout their lives. In retirement, they expected to be looked after for the rest of their years. It is absolutely wrong that pension credit is not working and, as a consequence, hundreds of thousands if not millions of pensioners are not getting that to which they are entitled. I say to the Government in all earnestness: Ministers should be ashamed of that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) on securing this important debate, which I accept addresses significant and real issues. I must also congratulate him on his marriage. He will agree with the Prime Minister—bear with me—when she made the point at Prime Minister’s Question Time today that those who choose to marry a Member of Parliament do so with great bravery. It is an honour and privilege to get married, but choosing to marry a Member of Parliament is a bold thing. I wish Mrs Elmore well, and I wish them both well for the future.
It is also a great privilege and pleasure to welcome the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) to this place. This was the first time I have heard her speak; she spoke most eloquently. I congratulate her on her win, and wish her good fortune and enjoyment of this great privilege to hold a position in this House, where she will hold Government to account and possibly, in about 30 years, have a Labour Government—obviously under a new leader, as everyone in the House of Commons seemed to agree today.
Before I get into the nuts and bolts of the debate, I will make a point that is fair across the board and yet matters. It is entirely right for the hon. Member for Ogmore and the Opposition parties generally to hold Government to account, but it is also right that we all celebrate, support and talk glowingly about the various voluntary and charitable organisations that do such great work in all our communities.
I am grateful to the Minister for making that point. Does he agree that organisations such as the Gloucestershire Older Persons’ Association, which helps with everything from digital technology to benefits and so on, are precisely the ones that Government ought to be supporting to ensure that those who are entitled to pension credit or any other benefit get them? Supporting those charities is something that, respectfully, the Government could do.
Much though I am urged to do so by the hon. Gentleman. The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) asked if my phone was turned on, but it is most definitely turned off—with respect and due deference to the Chair—and it is not for me to make new tax or incentives policy.
A perfectly legitimate point, however, can be made in two ways in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) and several other speakers. Voluntary organisations do a fantastic job of explaining to our older community—some of whom are digitally challenged and some fully up to speed online—the opportunities to claim and the things out there that the Government will provide, and that applies to any Government down the years. Basically, those organisations should have all our support, and anything that individual Members of Parliament, local authorities and local organisations can do to assist their efforts is entirely right. In my constituency, I have visited the Men’s Shed in Hexham and various support organisations, such as Age Concern in Corbridge. I fully accept that they do a fantastic job, as similar organisations do in Cheltenham and as does my hon. Friend. If we have the ability to use them more, I am happy to take any suggestions on board.
I accept that Government actions are criticised and I understand that it is for us to make our case, but I make a further point that the pension credit toolkit that we reissued in April, with two versions this year, provides copious advice not only to the individual who wishes to claim but to the voluntary organisations out there. I urge any voluntary organisations without access to the pension credit toolkit—which gives guidance, advice, assistance and recommendations of how to disseminate vital information to our constituents—to take it up, because it is of great importance.
All those things having been said, I want to make it clear that part of our case is that we would love pension credit take-up levels to be higher. The benefit is specifically intended to provide support to some of the poorest and most vulnerable pensioners in our community, and there is no question but that we are already committed to ensuring economic security for people at every stage of their life, especially when they reach retirement.
We are forecast to spend more than £120 billion on benefits for pensioners in 2019-20, which includes £99 billion on the state pension. As a result of the triple lock, from April 2019 the full yearly amount of the basic state pension is about £675 higher than if it had been uprated just by earnings since April 2010. That is a rise of more than £1,600 in cash terms.
In respect of pension credit, the value of the standard minimum guarantee this year is the equivalent of more than £1,800 per year higher in cash terms for single people, and more than £2,700 for couples, than it was in 2010. As a Government, we also spend £2 billion a year on winter fuel payments, which are payable to all pensioners, including those on pension credit.
The overall trend in the percentage of pensioners living in poverty has been a dramatic fall over recent decades. Rates of material deprivation for pensioners are at a record low. In fact, between 2009-10 and 2017-18, material deprivation for pensioners has fallen from 10% to 7%, and rates of relative pensioner poverty before housing costs have halved since 1990. We want to maintain that achievement. It is important that hon. Members understand that more than 1.6 million people already claim pension credit. That equates to £5.4 billion of claims. Indeed, as of November 2018, there were 2,450 pension credit claimants in the constituency of the hon. Member for Ogmore, and over 100,000 in Wales as a whole.
Moving on to the point about the BBC—
I was going to come to that at a later stage, but I will address it now. I am told that there is no evidence that not enough people are manning the phone line, which is a freephone number. However, if the hon. Lady provides me with the specific information by letter, I will look into it and respond to her. She also raised the issue of the ability to communicate by post. Anybody can make an application by post; it is not restricted to Northern Ireland, as I think she seemed to suggest. There is a difference because Northern Ireland is a devolved Administration and is dealt with in a different way, but 20% of the population make a paper claim by post. As I understand, postal applications are possible—I will be corrected if I am wrong.
I will not give way again, because I have a lot of points to cover.
I want to deal with the point that the hon. Lady and other Members made about the state pension age increase. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) is married to a former Minister, now Mother of House, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who was in favour of the state pension age in the dim distant past in 1997, when she was Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Hon. Members will understand that I am the latest in a long line of Ministers who have continued the policy of successive Governments to increase the state pension age by reason of equality legislation and the increase in life expectancy, which is light years away from the three score years and ten of our grandparents.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) raised the situation of the Scottish Government in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham; I refer the House to the letter of 22 June 2017 from my opposite number Jeane Freeman to my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), in which she explains the section 26, 28 and 24 powers under the Scotland Act 1998, which provide opportunities for the Scottish Government to intervene should they so choose, particularly in respect of the section 26 discretionary payments.
I now turn to the issue of the BBC. Its decision to limit free TV licences only to those aged 75 and over and in receipt of pension credit is disappointing. We expected it to continue the concession, and we want it to look at other options to help more elderly people who rely on TV to stay connected to the world. The BBC has indicated that it will write to all existing TV licence holders, advising them of how the new policy will work and when they need to act.
The Government look forward to hearing more from the BBC about its detailed plans for communicating and implementing that change. That is clearly a matter for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport; Government officials continue to engage with the BBC, but it would be wrong not to point out that in 2015, when the decision was made, the director-general at the time stated:
“I think we have a deal here which is a strong deal for the BBC. It gives us financial stability...The government’s decision here to put the cost of the over-75s on us has been more than matched by the deal coming back for the BBC…I think being in control of our income…is a very grown-up response for the BBC and a grown-up response for any organisation”.
The House can draw its own conclusions from what Lord Hall said in 2015 and the consequent decision that it has made. I hope that the BBC will think again once it has reflected on the comments that it made in 2015 and the nature of the pushback that there has been.
No; I was quoting what the BBC said about the fiscal settlement, which made it clear that it was a strong deal that gave the BBC financial stability, and that the decision to put the cost on the BBC had been
“more than matched by the deal coming back for the BBC”,
which it then decided to take a differing approach to. Officials will continue to monitor the position.
I want to talk briefly about historical activity. Successive Governments have tried to promote pension credit, yet the take-up has remained stubbornly at around 60% for some considerable time. When pension credit was launched in 2003 there were higher figures, of up to 74%, but the Office for Budget Responsibility’s fiscal risk report from May 2008 stated that
“experience from 2003 to 2008, suggests that very large increases in take-up are unlikely”.
The Department for Work and Pensions under the Labour Government commissioned and examined that report. Successive Governments have put forward a variety of innovative approaches, but research in 2010 indicated that the most common reason given by those identified as eligible, for not claiming pension credit was that they believed they would not be entitled, typically because they had savings or other sources of income.
I will not give way because I only have a minute before the hon. Member for Ogmore will make his closing remarks. There are other reasons, and I urge hon. Members to publicise pension credit. I urge the voluntary organisations, which are the most trusted organisations in a community, to support the processes. We use a variety of channels to communicate information about benefits, whether pension credit or other benefits. People can check whether they are likely to be entitled using the online calculator on gov.uk, or they can make a claim by calling a freephone number.
We engage with people who may be eligible for benefits at pivotal stages, such as when they are approaching state pension age. An accompanying leaflet contains information about pension credit and advice on how to check eligibility, and a freephone telephone number if they wish to discuss their pension credit entitlement. We also target those who report a change of circumstances. We know that the best way to reach eligible customers is through trusted stakeholder organisations, which may be best placed to understand the local circumstances and needs in their communities. That is why I strongly recommend the online toolkit for the agencies and individuals, but I welcome the opportunity to discuss this matter.
The Government are committed to increasing the number if at all possible. I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the debate, and I wish him very well in his future married life.
I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate today. There seems to be a bit of a Celtic theme coming from across the Scottish and Welsh nations, but I also thank all those colleagues from across the House who represent seats in England.
I thank the Minister for his response—it would be churlish of me not to—but it is disappointing, because there is a real need not just to rely on the voluntary sector to increase the use of pension credit.
I can see the Minister nodding, and I am sure he would acknowledge that. The reality is that pensioner poverty is increasing. The Government need to do more, not only in advertising; they need a constructive way, through other DWP benefits such as housing benefit, which I mentioned, to try to increase the uptake. They should be talking to Independent Age about how the Government can finally start to increase the access to pension credit.
I do not think it is just a case of the Minister’s saying that he wants to do this; the next Minister or the next Secretary of State, whoever they may be in the rolling hours, needs to take this on as a real task, to ensure that pensioners get the benefits that they are entitled to. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) said, those pensioners built this country; they deserve our support and it is crucial that they get the benefits they are entitled to. I am grateful to everyone who made a contribution, and to the Minister and various hon. Members for their congratulations on my recent marriage on Saturday. I can confirm that my wife is a good advocate for marrying an MP; she ensures that I behave myself and everything else.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).