Tuesday 3 September 2019
[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]
EU Settlement Scheme: Looked-after Children and Care Leavers
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the EU Settlement Scheme and looked-after children and care leavers.
Good morning, Mr Bone. It is nice to be back and a pleasure to see you in the Chair. May I take this opportunity also to welcome the Minister to her post?
I want to raise today an issue that has the potential to become a serious immigration problem, but one that there is still plenty of time to avoid. The EU settlement scheme is the largest registration programme that the UK has ever known and poses the challenge of regularising the status of about 3.7 million people, including about 700,000 children, 74,000 of whom live in the west midlands.
The quarterly EU settlement scheme statistics show that only 12% of the applications to the scheme received by the end of June 2019 came from children under 16. I am sure that we all want to prevent vulnerable children from falling foul of problems associated with these plans as we prepare to leave the EU. I believe that there is significant cross-party support in both Houses on this issue, and I hope that today the Minister can provide some reassurance.
The Government have estimated that there are currently about 5,000 EU children in the British care system and perhaps a further 4,000 care leavers across the UK. We do not know the exact figure, because local authorities do not record that information, so I am relying on Government estimates. The figure does not include children classified as “in need” and therefore in receipt of considerable support from children’s services, but where the Department has not assumed parental rights. The Minister will be aware, I am sure, that there is quite a fine distinction between a child in need and therefore in informal care and a child in the formal system. It really relies on the point at which intervention is required. Therefore, I would submit that all these children need to be registered.
If previous registration is anything to judge by, it seems impossible to believe that 100% registration can ever be achieved. If just 15% of children are not properly registered, we may find ourselves doubling the number of undocumented children in this country. Recent pilot exercises suggest that there will be significant problems for local authorities in obtaining critical documentation such as birth certificates.
My hon. Friend is making a very strong case on why we need to address this issue. I speak as the MP for one of the pilot areas, in Waltham Forest. One challenge was simply getting hold of documentation, because embassies will not release documentation to a child; they will release it to a parent, but of course if the child is in care, the relationship with their parent is strained. Does my hon. Friend agree that that means that we need a specific scheme and way of dealing with children in care who are EU citizens, if Brexit is to go ahead?
I entirely agree with the points that my hon. Friend has raised. That was part of the purpose of calling this debate: I do not think that the scheme as currently designed will cope with these difficulties. As my hon. Friend rightly says, the pilots demonstrated the difficulties of obtaining documentation—particularly birth certificates, on which the Home Office puts a very high premium when determining these cases. Like her, I am concerned that many children and young people will not be able to access these documents and, as a result, will be wrongly denied settled status.
The Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), did indicate that the Home Office planned to show a degree of leniency in this respect, but unfortunately she did not spell out what she had in mind. I do not know whether the Minister is in a position to enlighten us today. No doubt she will tell us that in these cases the children will be eligible for pre-settled status, but what that actually means is that they will get temporary rights and be denied their legitimate legal rights. That is why there is a problem and why we are raising it. As Members of Parliament, we have a duty to ensure that the most vulnerable in our communities are protected and that children for whom the state is responsible receive the highest levels of protection.
It seems to me that the issue is not just documentation; there are several challenges with the proposals. It is extremely doubtful that social workers will have the time, expertise or legal knowledge to register these children.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. His comments raise a number of questions. The first is the final status of these children—ultimately—because we have seen problems in that regard before, but in addition, because of a lack of social workers, it will always be difficult for local authorities to get the accurate documentation that is needed. The lack of social workers and of funding for local authorities has been raised many times in the House. Does my hon. Friend think it is about time that central Government showed a bit of humanity and did something about that?
I thank my hon. Friend for those remarks. I hope that, in the course of this debate, it will be possible to demonstrate that this is not scaremongering, that these are real issues and that there are solutions, but that does require the Government to recognise the problems that my hon. Friend has raised and to agree to act on them.
As I was saying, it seems unlikely that social workers will have the time, expertise or legal knowledge to deal with these issues, particularly if they begin to encounter problems in the process. The Children’s Society, along with other charities, has repeatedly highlighted the problems that this group of children is facing and the challenges that exist in trying to process an EUSS application. There is no evidence that I am aware of that additional support will be made available to local authorities—the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) raises.
During the pilot phase, every application that Coram Children’s Legal Centre made on behalf of a child in care or a care leaver included detailed nationality advice—nationality advice that requires expert legal advice and understanding—and social workers had to be supported at each stage during the process. That is the evidence from the pilots.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the case that he is making. The Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit has been working with directors of children’s services in Greater Manchester to try to offer the support to which my hon. Friend refers. Does he agree with me that we urgently need the Government to get the resolution currently before the House on extending legal aid to children in immigration cases through the House and on to the statute book? If the Government did that, social workers would be absolutely clear that legal aid was available for these cases and that they would not have to rely just on the chances of getting exceptional case funding.
My understanding is that that is an outstanding Government promise; as my hon. Friend says, there is a resolution to that effect. If there are any plans to curtail the time that we will spend here in the coming days, one good use of the time here would be in dealing with this simple issue. That would certainly raise the prospects of our being able to deal with the whole issue in a much more satisfactory manner, and I would certainly support it.
The current guidance states that local authorities can make applications on behalf of children where they have full parental responsibility, but, as I mentioned earlier, for care leavers or children in care under a section 20 order they are instructed simply to raise awareness or to signpost those young people to the scheme. Children in care under section 20 orders include children with disabilities, the children of prisoners, children involved in the criminal justice system and victims of child trafficking. It seems unrealistic to think that those children will be able to gather the correct documentation, make the application for themselves and challenge any incorrect decision the Home Office might arrive at.
Looked-after children are starkly over-represented in the criminal justice system, as I am sure the Minister knows. Around half of children currently in custody in England and Wales have been in care at some point. The Government have provided no clarity as to how these children will be treated when they apply for the scheme and, if they are offending, whether that will be used against them, as in the adult scheme. I raise that point because in this country we normally take the view that juvenile criminal behaviour should be treated differently from adult criminal behaviour.
Many looked-after children and care leavers may be eligible for British citizenship, but the social worker will need to know the law in order to recognise that. Local authorities would have to pay the application fee, which is currently £1,012 per child. That is a significant disincentive for cash-strapped local authorities. As I said earlier, we are working on estimates because local authorities do not record EU nationals who are in their care or classed as children in need, but the Government estimate that around 5,000 EU children are currently in care, and there are perhaps a further 4,000 care leavers across the UK, who need to be registered. At the present time, it is virtually impossible to estimate the number of children in need, which is a broader group.
My hon. Friend raised the important issue of citizenship fees. I hope the Minister has seen the fantastic work done by Citizens UK, particularly Anne-Marie Canning, who is my constituent in Walthamstow. We deal very closely with those children and having documentation opens up doors for some of them, but I am worried about cases where they do not have it.
If we have done the right thing as corporate parents, helped these children to achieve new goals and dealt with some of the damage that led to them being in care, then watching them be denied access to university or further education colleges because they cannot sort out their status would be a horrific blow. These are some of the most vulnerable children in our country.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this is about not just these children’s status, but their future, and that is why it is so important that the Government recognise that this particular group of vulnerable young people needs a specific scheme?
That is absolutely the point. If we do not deal with this now, there will be a whole host of young people wandering around this country, sleeping on streets and unable to get jobs or to travel. That is what we will be subjecting them to for the next few years. That is why it is important that we get on top of this and deal with it now.
I checked the figures kept by Birmingham Children’s Trust. It has around 50 children whom it believes are EU citizens and will need to apply for some kind of settled status. It also has about 24 care leavers, who also fall into that category. However, at this point, the trust has not made any applications and it was not entirely clear about how the process should operate. That is in the second largest city in the country; if that trust is not sure how to operate the scheme, what will happen elsewhere?
As my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) indicated, there are many future problems to consider, but there will also be some simple problems for children in the care system in the months ahead. Will they be able to go on school trips abroad with their peers after 31 October, or will they be stigmatised and refused that opportunity because they will not have access to proper travel rights? As my hon. Friend asked, what will happen to them when they are seeking housing, benefits and other support? They will be denied that support. We see enough problems on our streets at the present time; we certainly do not need to add to them by ignoring children for whose care we have taken responsibility. That seems the worst possible thing that any group of MPs could do.
The simplest and most cost-effective solution to these problems would be to grant automatic settled status to all looked-after children and care leavers. I do not think the number is so massive that it would impose great strains on the immigration system. However, it would tidy up one straightforward issue with one straightforward group of children. At the very least, the Government ought to extend the deadline for applying for the settled status scheme until we have really understood how some of these issues will operate in practice and what kinds of problems will arise.
If the Home Office is not willing to make changes of that order itself, it needs to instruct all local authorities to ensure that all eligible looked-after children are supported to make an application, not just children under a section 31 care order. If the Home Office is really serious about making this work, it will not leave those children exposed to such risks.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) said, the Government urgently need to bring forward parliamentary time for the amendment allowing looked-after children to have access to legal aid. That seems to be essential, if there is to be any sincerity to this process. The Government must communicate to all local authorities exactly how this legal aid will be accessed. It is not enough to place an obligation on the local authorities and then leave them with all the difficulties—we have seen that happen all too often in recent times; it is not good enough. The Home Office should also consider waiving the fee for citizenship applications for those children who qualify. As I said, the current fee is £1,012. That is a disincentive to local authorities. If the children are eligible and already in care, we should agree to waive that fee.
This issue has all the signs of a disaster in the making. Of all the people we are concerned about, I cannot believe that I am here talking about children in the care system—we say that we will look after and protect them, and give them a better chance in the future. This has all the makings of a disaster, but it is a disaster that could be avoided. If the Minister will agree to meet with those of us working on the issue and the relevant organisations, which have the knowledge and the advice, there is still time to stop it from happening.
Thank you very much, Mr Bone, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to be back and to serve under your chairmanship.
This debate is on a subject that I fear might be slightly overshadowed by other events in Parliament today and for the rest of the week, but it is no less important in the impact that it could have on a small group of very vulnerable children, and it is absolutely right that we should be considering it. I congratulate my co-applicant for this debate, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), on the way he set out the case and I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting time for this debate on the first day back.
I welcome the new Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy), and I hope that we will have as positive an engagement with her on these sorts of issues as we had with her predecessors. In the past, I had many discussions with those predecessors, and they recognised some of the practical implications of immigration policy on some of the most vulnerable children to whom we provide a home in this country. I am sure that dialogue will continue with the new Minister and I look forward to that.
In this country we have a great tradition of looking after children in the care system. There has been gradual progress on improving outcomes, but we need to go an awful lot further. Nevertheless, this is something that we in this country do well. One only has to go to a number of other countries that just do not have the sort of sophisticated and advanced children’s social care system that we take for granted, even with all the problems that we hear about, to realise that it is still one of the best such systems in the world.
Of course, we also have a great and proud record of giving safe refuge to vulnerable families and children from overseas, particularly unaccompanied minors fleeing from the most unimaginable danger, and it is absolutely right that we should continue to do that. Our recent record of helping those very vulnerable children from Syria and other conflict zones who have lost family, which includes participation in the family reunion schemes that I will allude to shortly, is certainly one that we should be very proud of.
I will just refer to the correspondence that the Home Affairs Committee had with the previous Home Secretary, now the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I do not think we take credit for this enough, but under the Dublin scheme there has been a significant increase in recent years in the number of children arriving in the UK to be reunited with members of their family who are already here. In 2015, just 24 children arrived in the UK under articles 8.1 and 8.2 of the Dublin regulation, but by 2018—last year —that figure had risen to 159.
It is also important that we are looking after those children appropriately, so I was pleased to hear from the Home Secretary that the Home Office, in partnership with the Department for Education, had developed and adapted its processes to ensure that Dublin transfers are conducted in a safe and secure way, and that there are new processes in place now that were not there just a few years ago.
The hon. Gentleman is right that Dublin has helped us to support some of the most vulnerable children in our communities. Does he share my grave concern about the reports that if there is a no-deal Brexit, that scheme will be abandoned, and about what that means for the children we already have in this country and indeed for some of the vulnerable children who we know may try to get safe passage to this country? Does he agree that it is important to protect Dublin and the principles that it espouses in terms of our ability to safeguard children in our own country?
I appreciate that very important point. It has been the subject of some of the discussions we have had with previous Home Secretaries. We have discussed not only what happens if there is a no-deal scenario but what happens if there is an agreement. If there is an agreement, the terms that should apply to children seeking to be reunited with families need to be at least as generous as those under the Dublin scheme, because under our domestic terms a range of family members are not included. We need to overhaul our own laws and increase the flexibility with which we can take on unaccompanied children who seek to be united with relatives who are often distant relatives but are nevertheless the only remaining members of their family, such has been the danger and the terror that they have had to escape from.
So, whatever happens in the next few weeks and months and goodness knows when, this issue needs to be looked at separately. As I say, I have had very positive discussions. When I and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport have approached the Home Secretary before, having been on trips to Greece with UNICEF to see some of the children who are applying for these schemes, we have had a very positive response and I very much hope that that will continue under new Ministers within the Home Office. But the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) makes a very pertinent point. Therefore, whatever happens, we need clarification under Dublin.
However, there is a problem closer to home, which is what we are discussing today, as a direct result of Brexit. It has not received the level of attention that many other aspects of the immigration scheme have, and it is a cause for concern. I have an interest in it, both as a former children’s Minister, and as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for children and vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for looked-after children and care leavers, which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak very admirably chairs. These sorts of issues come up with the children who we see.
As we know, the EU settlement registration scheme aims to establish the immigration status of EU citizens legally residing in the UK after we have left the EU. It grants settled or pre-settled status, with rights to work, travel, use public services, access public benefits and so on. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is the largest registration system ever planned in the UK. It has been a huge challenge and not without its problems, certainly early on. It needs to progress smoothly, to avoid another Windrush scandal, which has been mentioned. It has been subject to a lot of scrutiny and some criticism by the Home Affairs Committee, which I sit on. We produced a report in May on the scheme. In fact, we will take evidence again tomorrow—with the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) there, too—on how our preparedness for Brexit has hopefully improved since we last heard from witnesses on this subject.
Over a million people have now registered under that scheme; I gather that nobody has been refused. I myself have had just one complaint from constituents about the way it works, so things are better, if still not ideal.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that many people have been able to access the scheme successfully and it has been very helpful that the Home Office has begun to publish the data on the number of people going through the scheme. However, does he agree that we need one particular piece of data to be disentangled, which is in relation to 16 to 18-year-olds going through the scheme? Currently, they are being included in the number of adults going through the scheme, but nowhere in our law is a 16 or 17-year-old treated as an adult.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right; in fact, she has pre-empted what I will now not bother to say later. As she says, 16 and 17-year-olds have been assimilated with adults, but children in this country are those under the age of 18. So, it is absolutely essential that that definition is applied to all children, not least those most vulnerable of children. And as a result of schemes such as Staying Put, what is effectively the definition of the children who come within that remit will expand to include those aged up to 21, 23 and even 25 in the case of some, including those children with disabilities. Therefore, those figures that she referred to absolutely need to be disassembled, because these children are probably the largest group within the cohort that we are talking about today.
The Children’s Society has been very vociferous on the issue that we are considering today and it has done a lot of work on it; I pay tribute to that work, and the Children’s Society has also helped us to prepare for this debate. It has made a calculation—it is not about children in care, but it allows us to put things in context—that between the end of August 2018 and the end of June this year, 107,110 children under the age of 16 applied to the EU settlement scheme. So far, 86% of those children have had a conclusion to their application; 65% have got settled status and 35% have got pre-settled status; 180 applications were withdrawn, or were void or invalid; and no applications have been refused. However, that still leaves 14,510 children, who are presumably waiting for their applications to be concluded. So there is also a group of children coming through the normal scheme who are slightly in limbo.
Again, the whole point about the 16 and 17-year-olds is that we do not know how that group is broken down. So I repeat the call from the Children’s Society to see the ages of applicants broken down further, so that under-18s—as well as 18 to 25-year-olds, who are another potentially vulnerable subset of children not of “child age” but who are equally important and vulnerable—can be properly identified and, as a result, supported.
The Children’s Society also says:
“Additionally, only 12% of the applications to the EU Settlement Scheme have come from children aged under 16. But analysis from the Migration Observatory suggests that there were 700,000 EU children under 18 in the UK in 2018, meaning hundreds of thousands of children may still need to apply for settled status or secure British citizenship. If they do not, they risk being left without a lawful status in the UK which means being unable to access education, employment, healthcare, housing and other vital services.”
Therefore, this is still a big problem for those children in the care system and for those who, though not looked after, are unaccounted for in the applications that have come through so far. There is still an awful lot of work to do.
That group of up to about 5,000 looked-after children who will need to apply to the EU settlement scheme does not include care leavers—some of whom may be subject to “staying put” arrangements and other special support measures—or children who are classified as in need and who receive support services and vital help from local authority children’s services departments. That figure represents something like 6% of all children in care in this country—five years ago it was 3%, so there has been a rapid increase. Those individuals are an important part of the looked-after children estate and potentially some of the most problematic children to identify, support and register.
As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak mentioned, it is a sad fact of life that children in the care system are still much too disproportionately represented in the youth justice system. Many are victims of people traffickers, many have English as a second language, and many rely on being able to access benefits and other support that we take for granted. Our children’s services departments are hugely overstretched, and the all-party parliamentary group for children has recently produced a number of reports on the issue.
I welcome hugely the announcement of an additional £14 billion for schools. I hope it will be confirmed tomorrow in the comprehensive spending review, although goodness knows what will happen tomorrow. It will be very well received, particularly in my part of the world of Sussex and other shire counties, but I want to ensure that children’s social care services are not excluded. Those services are within the remit of the Department for Education and have faced huge funding challenges, yet it is the local authority departments that provide them that will be responsible for looking out for these children, for identifying and registering them, and for the legal expertise for cases that are not as straightforward as those involving other children. For example, if children are here with a French or German family, they will be able to make the application on their behalf.
My hon. Friend is making a fantastic and well-informed speech. Of the £14 billion going to education, £2 billion is due to go to Scotland, where the issue is devolved. I am concerned about how central Government will work with devolved and local government to ensure that no EU citizen, and certainly no child in care, is left behind, and I hope the Minister will clarify that in her closing speech. Scotland has only about 8% of the UK population but about 14% of the UK’s children in care. That is a problem for us, and every single level of government needs to work together to ensure that no one is left behind.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Although we are talking primarily about the looked-after children population in England and Wales, there is a particular issue in Scotland. I had not realised that the proportion was that high. It is really important that money going into education, which is also for the wider benefit of children in the social care system, is targeted at those children who need it most. If the issue is not dealt with, the problem in Scotland could be greater even than that in England and Wales. I hope that the Minister and the Scottish Administration are listening to my hon. Friend’s case.
Many of the children in this potentially most problematic group will have come here in difficult circumstances and gone into care, and it is highly likely that they lack birth certificates and passports and will find it difficult to prove their length of stay in the UK. They may have been moved around the whole system, as so often happens. Yet these children—I repeat that they are children—are expected to produce documentation in order to qualify under the scheme, even though they may not have that documentation. Moreover, the local authorities responsible for them could face huge challenges and detective work, requiring their buying in legal expertise and acting as advocates at a time when they are already hard pressed to look after the record number of children from the indigenous population who have recently entered the care system.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak pre-empted what I was going to say about the citizenship fees, which have been flagged up by the Select Committee on Home Affairs. The increase in fees over recent years, at all levels, has been extravagant, to put it mildly—the fees go well beyond recovering the cost of the service offered. In the past, it was always the principle that the charge should be equivalent to the cost of recovery, not that it should exceed it in order to subsidise services elsewhere in the Home Office. It is difficult to justify the high fee of £1,012 for a child to whom we have given safety and refuge. In most cases the cost will come out of local authority budgets—namely, children’s social care budgets, which are already greatly pressed—meaning less money to spend on social workers and on care placings for other children. Mr Bone, I should have mentioned my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Before I conclude with my asks, I wish to reinforce what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak said about the situation of children coming over from France. There has been recent correspondence between the previous Home Secretary—my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid)—and the Home Affairs Committee, because we were concerned about what was happening to children in very vulnerable and dangerous situations in some of the camps in France, in particular those with a claim to come to the UK through the family reunion and other schemes, the processing of which seems to be taking an interminably long time. Part of the reason for that, as I found out when I went to Greece, is that, while potential candidates are lined up by charities and authorities, the process relies on social workers back in the UK doing the investigative work to ensure that the placements properly take care of the children’s welfare. However, due to the current recruitment situation, social workers are being pulled in all directions.
The previous Home Secretary provided some reassurance in his letter:
“I am pleased to confirm that the vast majority of the cases involving children in France awaiting transfer to the UK have been resolved, with many of the children having already transferred, under either the Dublin III Regulation…or section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016, or shortly about to; others are pursuing their asylum claim in France.”
These are some of the most vulnerable children and, frankly, if they were in camps outside Dover our local authority children’s services departments and our Government would have taken care of them. It is extraordinary that that has not happened in other countries. I am pleased that we have now accelerated the process to ensure that those who qualify are brought to a place of safety.
In conclusion, I have two asks. The first is that automatic settled status be granted to all looked-after children and care leavers. The very fact that those children are being looked after by local authorities in what are recognised as legitimate placements, paid for by the United Kingdom taxpayer and the local council tax payer, is an endorsement of their legitimacy and of our responsibility to look after them in the first place. Surely, therefore, the assumption should be that they absolutely have a rightful place in this country. If there is a problem with that, we should argue the toss later on, but let us give them protection at the outset.
Secondly, the issue of fees needs to be looked at—an ask of the Home Affairs Committee to the previous Immigration Minister, the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes). It is such a complicated system, as the Windrush issue threw up, with many different avenues to qualifying for citizenship. It is a complete minefield that needs to be simplified and the charges need to be reduced. The complicated nature of the system also makes it very expensive. For goodness’ sake, on behalf of this small but vulnerable group of looked-after children and care leavers, I urge the Government to waive their fees for citizenship applications. That is essential, whether or not we have a deal to come out of the EU—which matters not a jot to those children. They need our help and support. This country has recognised their need and has provided support. Let us not let bureaucracy stand in the way of continuing to do the right thing by those children, as we have a proud record of doing.
I am grateful for the chance to contribute, Mr Bone. It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship. I welcome the Minister to her post and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) on securing this debate.
I share the concerns that have been expressed today. It is estimated that in the north-west there are around 700 looked-after children of European economic area or Swiss nationality, but we do not know the numbers for sure. It is vital that we gather the data, so I was pleased to see in a written answer to Lord Russell on 9 July that the Home Office will survey local authorities to benchmark the current uptake of the scheme and to baseline cohorts of EEA citizen looked-after children and care leavers, and that the survey will take place at set intervals throughout the lifetime of the European Union settled status scheme.
Is the Minister able to update us about progress on gathering the survey data? Will she confirm that it will include children in need—a vulnerable group not encompassed by the provisions of the settled status scheme and special help from local authorities, as my hon. Friend pointed out? Will she also confirm that there will be an opportunity to disentangle data from the statistics in relation to 16 and 17-year-olds?
As others have said, we are talking about the most vulnerable children in the country who may have suffered appalling abuse or neglect. As we have also heard, securing status for those children is absolutely vital for them to thrive and maximise their potential in adult life. I share the concerns expressed about local authorities only being required to ensure that applications are made for children under section 31 care orders. I invite the Minister to explain why other children looked after in the ambit of section 20 —or those, for example, who are privately fostered or are care leavers—are not also included within the obligation on local authorities: they, too, are very vulnerable young people and children.
The Government intended the application process for settled status to be straightforward and simple. However, as we have heard, that will not be the case for many looked-after children because of the difficulties they might have in accessing documentation to support their applications, because their carers might not understand the need for them to apply or because local authorities might be overstretched and not able to give them the support that they need to do so.
As I have said, many such children will be reliant on legal aid to support them in making a sufficiently strong application. Social workers do not have the expertise, training, capacity, or indeed the legal right to give advice on immigration matters; they would be in breach of immigration law if they tried to. So it is vital that the Government, having finally tabled, after a year, the order to bring immigration cases for looked-after children within the ambit of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, get the order put through in good time before 31 October. I hope the Minister will be able to commit today that the Government will ensure that that happens.
I want to mention a couple of other points: first, the issue of children’s best interests. I recognise that the Children Act 2004 requires that local authorities discharge their functions having regard to the welfare of children, and I also recognise that section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 requires immigration authorities to take into account the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in the UK. However, the lack of systems and processes to embed children’s best interests into the settled status decision-making process means that those issues might not be properly addressed. What guarantees can the Minister give us that the EU settled status scheme will operate so that children’s best interests are always paramount? Will it be made explicit in the settled status scheme, and will she undertake to carry out a child rights impact assessment of the operation of the scheme?
I, too, want to highlight particular concerns in relation to EEA and Swiss national looked-after children in the criminal justice system. As we have heard, looked-after children are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. Half of children in custody have been in care. As with local authorities, there is a dearth of data on the nationality and status of children in the criminal justice system. Will the Government put in place arrangements to collect centrally nationality data for children in youth offending services and in detention as a matter of urgency, so that where applications need to be expedited for those children, that can take place?
As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak has said, our criminal justice system recognises the difference between childhood and adult offending, for example, in sentencing or in the time that it takes for a conviction to become spent. However, that difference is not clearly recognised in the EU settled status scheme. Any child or young person over the age of criminal responsibility—in other words, over the age of 10— will be subject to criminality checks. Where checks reveal “serious or persistent” offending, a referral will be made to immigration enforcement for a case-by-case determination as to whether an applicant should be refused status on the basis of “suitability”. I recognise that the Government have stated that those under 18 will not be required to answer questions relating to suitability and that children under 18 will be deported only on imperative grounds of public security, but there is no single definition of what kinds of offences are likely to be captured in that exception. It would be useful if Ministers could guarantee to set out the higher threshold that will apply in guidance, and also confirm that both the non-disclosure requirements and the higher threshold applying to under-18s will continue after 31 October, even in the event of no deal.
The settled status scheme also fails to differentiate between adults and children in relation to the continuous residence criteria: the general caseworker guidance makes no distinction between adults and children in terms of resetting the clock on residence following a period of imprisonment or detention. Will the Government look at amending the scheme to ensure that a custodial sentence imposed on a child does not impact on the calculation of their continuous residence for the purpose of making an application for settled status?
Finally, may I invite the Government to publish specific guidance on children and young people applying to the settled status scheme from within the secure estate or the wider criminal justice scheme? Will the Government consider granting settled status to all children irrespective of their criminal history? I echo the calls made in this Chamber this morning and invite the Government to supply settled status to all looked-after children and children in care. We risk those children being left in a limbo that will affect them all through their adult lives if we do not make their status absolutely clear and safe now. As we have heard, those children have already demonstrated their right to our protection. We cannot afford to let them down as a result of a decision to leave the European Union, which was in no way any of their making.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green). I thank her for her contribution. I give a special thanks to the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and also the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), who secured the debate and set the scene so well. All their contributions have been excellent and I congratulate them. It is also nice to see the Minister in her place. She has had a tour of many ministerial positions over the last while, and I look forward to her response to this debate. If it follows in line with responses that she has given when holding responsibility for other portfolios, it will be a good one.
I was happy to support the application for today’s debate, and spoke to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak about it beforehand. I have been contacted by many people in relation to this issue; I will specifically mention The Children’s Society, which has real concerns that we must seek to address in this place, whether there is a deal—I sincerely hope there will be—or there is not a deal, which, speaking as a Brexiteer, will not be a disappointment either. The fact is that we are leaving Europe, and we must do the business for those looked-after children. We cannot ignore that. Whether we are in or out of Europe, this issue has to be addressed; everyone has said so, but it is important that we put it on the record. That is the reason for today’s debate.
An email sent to me by The Children’s Society expressed a very clear concern:
“the estimated 700,000 EU national children living in the UK are lost within public debate about the EUSS. The quarterly immigration statistics show that only 12% of the applications to the EU Settlement Scheme received by the end of June 2019 came from children under 16, meaning an estimated 600,000 EU national children still need to regularise their status before the deadline.”
Some of the background information that we have been given endorses that. The Migration Observatory’s report on settled status suggested that upwards of 661,000 non-Irish EU citizen children could be living in the UK, which indicates that at least half a million children who could be eligible to apply to the EU settlement scheme are yet to make an application. I ask the Minister what has been done to address that figure in relation to those who have not applied. That clearly needs to be looked at.
I also ask the Minister how many of those children are in local authority care. Among the European population, there will be thousands of children and young people who are currently looked after by local authorities. Although those children make up a fraction of the overall population, I believe that we owe that fraction a special set of responsibilities, so I endorse what The Children’s Society has said. There is a real concern that we are not meeting our obligations to that admittedly small number of children; another purpose of today’s debate is to highlight that issue to the Minister and hopefully receive a response that addresses some of our concerns. I am sure that she is aware of the issue and that her Department is working on it—perhaps the Minister will indicate the contrary—but I am anxious to hear how it is being taken care of. I am sure the Minister will be happy to outline that detail in her response.
Again from the background information about British citizenship, some concerns have been raised that although it might be more advantageous for eligible looked-after children to apply for British citizenship instead of settled status, they could be unaware of their rights or face difficulty paying the fee. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak referred to the £1,012 that it takes to register a child as a British citizen, and under the present system it is not clear how those who may automatically be British will be identified. There are likely to be significant numbers of European national children and young people who could fall under those nationality provisions, but who do not know their rights. Again, I look to the Minister for a response.
I hope that looked-after children are not completing settlement scheme applications on their own, without legal advice. However, it is quite possible that they are, and if so, they will not be fully aware of their options. That could result in an incorrect grant of pre-settled status, or their being refused outright or potentially missing another legal avenue available to them, such as applying for British citizenship. We must make sure that applicants have all the help they need to fill in those applications. Again, it is so important that we address these issues.
As Members know, I am a firm Brexiteer. I remain of that opinion, but that does not in any way diminish the sense of compassion or obligation that I have as an individual, or this Parliament should have. Although I do not agree with many parliamentary colleagues regarding the merits of staying in Europe, I sincerely agree that we must do what we can to ensure that those who need special status are able to access it, especially those who are children and not aware of what all this Brexit talk actually means for them. It may be lost on them.
Combined data from the four nations highlights that there were over 95,000 looked-after children in UK local authorities in 2017—a figure that has probably increased over the past couple of years. Although the Government do not currently collect and publish data centrally about looked-after children’s nationality, only their ethnicity, a recent parliamentary response highlighted that the Home Office has estimated that some 5,000 EU children are currently in care in the UK, not including care leavers or children classified as in need.
We must ensure that those children’s social workers are crystal clear about the steps that must be taken to ensure their place here post 31 October. Social workers have a key role, and it is important that they are enabled to carry out their responsibility on behalf of those young people. Again, there is no centrally collected and publicly available data about European national care leavers, although the Government estimate that 4,000 care leavers to age 25 are in scope. I believe that steps could be taken to ensure that this group of people are made aware of anything that they must do to ensure they remain post 31 October.
I have another quick question about care leavers, whom the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak referred to in his introduction, and others have referred to as well. Figures from across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are clear that in the year ending 31 March 2018, local authorities were in touch with 88% of 19 to 21-year-old care leavers. To be counted as “in touch”, there should be contact between the local authority and the young person about three months before, and one month after, the young person’s birthday. Local authorities therefore do not necessarily maintain contact with all care leavers, and it is possible that some will fall between the cracks. I ask the Minister, honestly and respectfully, what has been done to make sure those young people do not fall between the cracks; to address the 12% who have not been contacted; and to ensure that those young care leavers do not find themselves without the opportunity to advance their applications.
I ask the Minister to outline in her response what the current situation is in relation to the questions that I and others have asked, and whether she believes that more can reasonably be done to ensure that all the support that those vulnerable children and young adults need is available. To me, it is important that those who need help get it and that those who need support get that support. It is part of my responsibility as a Member of Parliament, and a collective responsibility of all of us in this House, to ensure that this issue is addressed. We look to the Minister for a response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I pay tribute to the hon. Members for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) and for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for pursuing this issue and securing this debate via the Backbench Business Committee. I also pay tribute to all hon. Members who have contributed today; a tremendous range of expertise has been on show. I was slightly surprised that no hon. Member wanted to pay tribute to, and thank, our munificent Prime Minister for giving us humble MPs the opportunity to actually debate a Brexit issue today, because apparently that is something we cannot take for granted anymore. Perhaps we can address that issue later today in the main Chamber.
Thank you very much for coming to my assistance, Mr Bone.
I join hon. Members in welcoming the Minister to her place, but I do have to start with a slightly cheeky question: is she actually the immigration Minister? This settlement scheme is being rolled out and huge reform of the immigration system is ahead, but we spent the summer not knowing who was actually responsible for immigration matters and where I should send my angry letters—or, indeed, my very constructive and helpful letters. If she is the immigration Minister, she can look forward to lots of correspondence in the weeks ahead.
Turning to the issue at hand, other hon. Members have eloquently and persuasively set out the significant challenges that looked-after children and care leavers will face in accessing either the immigration status that is in their best interest, or the citizenship status that they are entitled to and will be in their best interest. I have also heard concerns about the under-representation of children among those who have already applied for settled status.
On the settled status scheme, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak said, even though the Home Office is pulling out all the stops—I appreciate it is putting a lot of work and resource into it—hundreds of thousands of EU citizens or their family members will almost certainly not apply for or achieve settled status, or even pre-settled status, by the deadline. As we have heard, for some, that will be due to a lack of awareness or to legal complexities that mean that they do not understand that they need to apply; for others, there will be barriers in relation to the evidence that needs to be sent in.
Looked-after children, care leavers and other vulnerable persons will be over-represented in those groups and the consequences for them of failing to apply in time will be dire, as they will be for everyone affected. Overnight, they will be deemed to be in the country illegally and the full weight of the hostile environment will kick in: university, education, some healthcare, bank accounts, driving licences, employment and social security will all be put out of reach.
What can we do to stop that? From my party’s point of view, the solution is to keep the free movement of people by abandoning Brexit altogether or by securing a deal that includes retaining all the advantages of free movement. It would be brave and surprising if the new Minister were to announce that she accepted that proposition, so if that is not possible, the Prime Minister should do what he, the new Home Secretary and the new Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster promised during the referendum campaign, which is to enshrine the rights of EU citizens in law.
In a declaratory system, EU nationals would not be required to apply to retain their right to live here, but would be granted that right in an Act of Parliament. They would have to apply to the settled status scheme simply for a document to prove their position in future. Professor Stijn Smismans and the3million have worked extensively on proposals about how to do that; the Home Office should engage with them.
It is not a perfect solution because, of course, after the deadline, hundreds of thousands of people would still not have applied for the necessary evidence of their settled or pre-settled status. However, the simple truth is that they would have the right to be here, and would therefore still be able to provide proof of that right and to secure the necessary documents or other means of proof as soon as it became apparent to them that they were required to do that.
The Home Office’s refusal to listen or understand that simple fact is infuriating. It has made various nonsensical arguments about a declaratory system being responsible for the Windrush fiasco, but that is not what a single inquiry into that horrible episode has determined —it is simply not true. Under a declaratory system, those who missed the deadline would have a chance to rectify their position. Under the Home Office system as established, hundreds of thousands of people—thousands of whom might be looked-after children, care leavers and other vulnerable citizens—will be left here without legal status, which would be an absolute disaster. I call for a declaratory system for everyone, but if that is not possible, I absolutely join other hon. Members in calling for a declaratory system for looked-after children and care leavers. I hope that the Home Office will think about changing paths now.
In the meantime, has the Minister or the Department made any attempt to estimate how many people they expect not to apply before the deadline? Will she make it clear today what will happen to those who miss the deadline, including looked-after children and care leavers? How will they be treated? There has been an incredible lack of clarity on that. If the Home Office will not change tack, MPs should be allowed to debate and vote on the issue. We debated it during the passage of the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill. What has happened to that Bill and what will happen to it now?
Regardless of whether the Home Office chooses to change its fundamental approach, or, more likely, is forced to by legislation, or whether it presses ahead with its current model, hon. Members have raised other issues to address and actions to pursue. The Home Office must ensure that there is sufficient funding for awareness-raising programmes, with a particular focus on making sure that local authorities have a clear understanding of what is required of them in relation to looked-after children and care leavers, and the resources to ensure that those groups can obtain all the advice and support they need.
As has been said, the position of many of those youngsters is incredibly complicated. For a child, choosing the right application to make or whether to make an application at all, or knowing whether they might have a right to citizenship, is hugely complicated but has profound implications. We cannot expect social workers to do all that. All those young people must have access to specialist legal advice and support, which should be funded by the Home Office.
The duty of local authorities must be to do everything possible to secure that expert advice, not to provide makeshift alternative advice that they are not qualified to deliver. As other hon. Members have said, that duty must extend to all looked-after children and care leavers, not just those for whom the local authorities have parental responsibility.
I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) about legal aid. The announcement in July 2018 that legal aid for separated children with immigration issues would be reintroduced, including for children who need advice and support to secure EU settled status or understand their right to British citizenship, is yet to be implemented. It is essential that we know what will happen to that proposed change, given that Parliament may not be sitting for much longer. More broadly, immigration and citizenship should be brought within the scope of legal aid, as they are in Scotland.
The distinct issue of citizenship is relevant to many care leavers and looked-after children, because a significant number of them will be entitled to register as British citizens. The key barriers are, again, a lack of awareness and the extortionate cost of vindicating those rights via the registration process, as other hon. Members have said. I repeat, therefore, that we need measures to ensure access to legal advice and to address the outrageous fees being charged by the Home Office. The new Chancellor, when he was Home Secretary, acknowledged that the £1,000 fee was a huge sum of money to charge children; I would say it is disgraceful, particularly when we are talking about looked-after children and care leavers.
At the end of the day, those kids are every bit as entitled to citizenship as anybody in this Chamber and they should not be prevented from obtaining it by extraordinary fees. I urge the Minister not to do what other Immigration Ministers have done, which is to conflate the issue with migration fees or the adult naturalisation processes—they are completely different. We are talking about a group of children for whom Parliament expressly protected the right of citizenship when it ended the general provision of citizenship by birth in 1981. If Home Office officials demanded £1,000 from every mother leaving the maternity ward to secure their kid’s citizenship, there would rightly be outrage, but to charge those kids for theirs is as morally reprehensible. In the case of looked-after children and care leavers, at least, the Home Office must see how outrageous its position has been up to this point and act accordingly.
In conclusion, I congratulate the hon. Members for East Worthing and Shoreham and for Birmingham, Selly Oak on securing the debate. I support them in what they are trying to achieve and will happily work with them to attempt to persuade the Home Office to listen.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I, too, congratulate the Minister on her post and look forward to working constructively with her. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) for securing this important debate and bringing this serious issue to the fore. I also thank The Children’s Society, the Refugee and Migrant Children’s Consortium and the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit for their comprehensive briefings.
As we head ever closer to a disastrous no-deal Brexit, the rights of the 3.8 million EU nationals living in the UK are still in jeopardy. By a conservative estimate, 5,000 EU children live in care in the UK and a further 4,000 care leavers will be affected by the EU settlement scheme. Across the UK, our already stretched local authorities are now responsible for safeguarding the rights of thousands of European looked-after children and care leavers.
If that already vulnerable group of children does not secure their rights after Brexit, we could easily double the number of undocumented children living in the UK, which is a situation that none of us want to see, as I am sure the Minister agrees. Those undocumented children and young people would then be subjected to all the Government’s hostile environment policies: they will be unable to work, drive or open a bank account, and they will effectively be barred from college, university and secondary healthcare.
That is why Labour supports a declaratory scheme, as opposed to the Government’s constitutive scheme. A declaratory scheme would ensure that all EU citizens living in the UK automatically retained their rights after Brexit. I had many discussions with the previous Minister about the issue and I hope that the new ministerial team will look again at the proposal. Without reforming the system entirely, it is imperative that the Government look again at the problems faced by children in care and care leavers in applying for settled status.
I want to outline my three most pressing concerns about children in local authority care and care leavers who need to secure settled status. A number of other Members have also touched on these points.
First, many looked-after children and care leavers lack the documentation necessary to complete their application under the settlement scheme. Many children in care will not have the identity documents that the Home Office requires for settled status. If a child is born in the UK, they will more than likely not have a passport or identity card to prove their nationality. It is estimated that more than half a million children fall into this category.
As the largest-scale registration programme the Home Office has ever embarked on, the settlement scheme has brought into stark relief how little we know about the immigration status of the children in the care of the state. Does the Minister agree that we must ensure that these children do not fall through the gaps just because they are unable to prove their nationality?
My second concern is the lack of information available to local authorities. The Government have spent the last 10 years slashing local authority budgets and now they expect those cash-strapped councils to take responsibility for registering the thousands of EU national children in their care. Earlier in the year, following the roll-out of the settlement scheme, the Government issued guidance to all local authorities on how they should be supporting children in their care and care leavers, which stated that there is no general duty on local authorities to ensure that immigration status is secured for looked-after children. Does the Minister not consider securing a looked-after child’s immigration status to be a fundamental part of the state’s corporate parenting responsibilities?
Thirdly, I am concerned about the legal advice being offered to looked-after children. There is potential for children with the right to apply for British citizenship being advised to pursue settled status in the rush to ensure they are protected. Does the Minister agree that only those with sufficient expertise should be giving immigration advice to children in care and care leavers?
All looked-after children have the right to seek legal aid in applying for their settled status. What steps is the Minister taking to make local authorities aware of their right to apply for exceptional immigration case funding for children in their care? Will the Minister also guarantee parliamentary time in what remains of this Session for the amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 that would cement that right in legislation? Labour is committed to providing early legal advice for all immigration cases. Legal aid is not just a force for good, but could also save the Treasury millions in the long run.
As we all know, there are a multitude of problems at every stage in the immigration process for children in care, and for just about all other vulnerable groups in our society. That includes the cost of citizenship applications, the time it takes to apply and the hostile environment. There are many issues I have not had time to touch on today. I hope the Minister will answer the questions we have raised. It is vital that no vulnerable child or young person is allowed to fall through the gaps of the settled status scheme.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) for securing this extremely important debate on the EU settlement scheme and looked-after children and care leavers. The co-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group are great champions for children and it is right to discuss this issue today.
The EU settlement scheme is designed to deliver on the Government’s aim that EU citizens can obtain their status quickly and easily. The principle behind it is the presumption of granting status. The Prime Minister has made it clear that EU citizens living in this country will have the absolute certainty of the right to live and remain in this country. Ensuring that those who are most vulnerable, such as looked-after children, are supported to obtain status has always been and continues to be a core element in the delivery of the scheme, and I want to assure all Members who have spoken today, including those who have left their places, that that is a cross-departmental priority for the Government.
My Department has engaged widely, including with the Department for Education, the Local Government Association—my predecessor spoke at its conference, addressing this point—and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, as well as their equivalents in the devolved Administrations and in Northern Ireland, to understand and address the needs of looked-after children and care leavers and to ensure that they are supported. Guidance has been issued regarding the role and responsibilities of local authorities for making or supporting applications for looked-after children.
The scheme was first rolled out in the spring of this year. One million people have been granted status already—that is the figure from August. If we are in a deal situation, the scheme will be open until the middle of 2021. In a no-deal situation, people will have until 31 December next year to apply.
Members have rightly raised a lot of points about the scheme in general and about the specific cohort of children. I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak—he has great experience both from his work in this place and from before that—on the different strata of children that we are discussing.
The system has been designed to make sure that a successor of mine who stands here in 40 years’ time will not be dealing with a system where people do not have their status. That is why we have registration—so that EU citizens, particularly children and vulnerable people who have built their lives in this country—
Can I just finish this point? Then I will give way, to either an angry or a helpful comment.
The registration scheme exists so that citizens, particularly children and vulnerable people who have built their lives in this country, do not have difficulty evidencing their rights to live and work here. That speaks to a point made by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green).
The Minister speaks of her successor in a few years’ time being able to say that everyone has status, but only a declaratory system will do that. If we do not have a declaratory system, it is inevitable that tens of thousands—almost certainly hundreds of thousands—of EU citizens, including vulnerable people, will not have status. Does the Minister accept that? Does the Home Office have an estimate of how many people it expects not to go through the process in time?
I profoundly disagree with that point. The registration scheme ensures that those EU citizens who are here will have settled status. If not, there will be differences, because people will not necessarily be able to prove whether they were here at that point.
Focusing specifically on the cohort under discussion, hon. Members have quite rightly referred to the fact that many of those children do not have the same documentation as most of us in this Chamber, because of the life situations they have experienced. We share those concerns. They might have no identity document, as they might have had complex or chaotic lives.
It is absolutely right that local authorities and health and social care trusts in Northern Ireland should obtain the necessary identity documents for a child in care to ensure that they have uninterrupted access to services, but the Home Office guidance on this scheme makes it clear that applicants can apply without an identity document, as they might be unable to provide one because of family circumstances. As far as I am aware, local authorities vouching for the fact can be adequate documentation.
One of the critical lessons from the pilot schemes in my local authority was the difficulty in getting hold of documentation, because embassies in other countries want parents to be involved. It comes down to a very simple question: do we want social workers to be chasing up embassies and parents, or working with these kids? Is the Minister providing a guarantee that if my local authority simply said, “Yes, we believe this child is an EU citizen and therefore should be entitled to status in this country,” that will be enough? If she is not, she is asking social workers—who do not have a legal background—to go chasing information that they cannot get hold of, not because of rules in this country but because of rules in other countries, and that risks the children not getting the status they urgently need.
May I please finish my point? For some of the children we are talking about, the local authority is the parent. A second group might be the parents of section 20 children, and another group includes children in need. The problem is that some children still have their parents, who, perhaps at a later point, might come back in order to make the application for them. We are talking about three distinct groups of children. It is important that we recognise that, although some children might temporarily be under a section 20 order, they might return to their parents afterwards.
It is important to note that not all the children we are talking about have local authorities that are in loco parentis.
On the role of local authorities, a new burdens assessment has been made. It will take into account the important work of identifying the cohort of children and their parents. We have asked local authorities to return figures by the end of August—I think the hon. Lady referred to that—and we are currently co-ordinating those returns, which came in only a few days ago. That is how we are supporting local authorities.
We have given £9 million to 57 voluntary and community sector organisations across the country, to help us reach an estimated 200,000 vulnerable or at-risk EU citizens and help them apply. Of course, it is not only children who might be in a vulnerable cohort; the Home Office is very aware of that. Additional support is available to people who do not have the appropriate access, skills or confidence to apply online. There are more than 300 assisted digital locations across the UK, and there is an opportunity for a paper application in some circumstances.
I thank the Minister for giving way again—she is being very generous with her time. Charities are telling us that they do not have the resources to do all the work that is required. Has she put in a request to the new Chancellor for additional funding, so that we can leave absolutely no stone unturned in ensuring that we help each and every vulnerable person in this country who needs to apply?
The scheme is not designed to require a lawyer or legal advice, so it is simple to use. I recognise that there might be complications in some of the cases involving vulnerable and non-EEA dependents. However, the fact that more than one third of the eligible people have already signed up in six months is a testament to its design as a simple system.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. She might be right to say that the overall scheme was designed not to require great legal expertise, but the evidence of the Coram pilot shows that that is exactly what was required for the group of children that this debate is about. Surely that is the point she needs to address.
On the Coram report and the Department’s contact with all the important groups that assist vulnerable people, guidance has been published. Most importantly, guidance is being refreshed—this debate is part of that, to ensure the guidance is relevant. There has been a series of teleconferences for social workers and local authority staff, and they will continue monthly until next March. There is a designated telephone number for local authorities to call the Settlement Resolution Centre.
I will touch on an important issue that the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston mentioned, namely legal aid. She has quite rightly mentioned the fact that the order has not been debated, and I will speak urgently to my colleagues at the Ministry of Justice in order to bring that forward. Until then, applicants can apply through the exceptional case funding scheme.
The Minister is making earnest promises to work with local government to ensure that no child is left behind. Can she assure me and other colleagues that her Department will work with the devolved Administrations and local authorities in Scotland to ensure that all children are cared for, and that the opportunities provided in England are provided elsewhere in the UK?
I am very committed to working with my counterparts in the devolved Administrations. It is a testament to the importance of this debate that hon. Members from all four nations are present—well, not the Welsh, unfortunately—which shows how strongly we feel about protecting vulnerable children in this situation.
Colleagues asked what would happen should children fail to make an application by the deadline, which, as I have said, will be either the end of December next year in a no-deal situation, or the summer of 2021 under the withdrawal agreement. The Government have a special responsibility for these children and care leavers. With these measures in place, I am confident that we will ensure that they secure a permanent status under the scheme.
I will touch on citizenship fees, because all hon. Members who have spoken have talked about them. Settled status gives indefinite leave to remain in the UK, but some countries do not allow dual citizenship. It is a personal choice; citizenship is not mandatory. However, we have committed to reviewing fees for child registration applications and will keep the House updated.
On the issue of asylum, which I think was raised by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston or my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, the UK takes extremely seriously its responsibilities to unaccompanied children. As my hon. Friend mentioned, the numbers have been increasing. In the past 12 months, we gave protection to more than 7,000 children. Whether we have a deal or not, co-operation on asylum will continue with EU countries, which is why we have taken proactive action to ensure that, whatever the circumstances, Dublin requests that relate to family reunification and that have not been resolved on the date we leave the EU will continue to be considered under existing rules.
I will touch quickly on the issue of criminality thresholds. I, too, queried why there was a 16-to-18 gap. Applicants under 18 are now not asked about criminality, but a police national computer check is still conducted if they are aged over 10. Only serious criminality, which forms consideration of deportation, is taken into account—serious persistent offenders with extended custodial sentences.
This has been a very important debate. Highlighting the issue at this earlyish stage of the EU settlement scheme is very pertinent, and I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak for securing the debate. We will continue to engage with relevant stakeholders, to understand and address the needs of looked-after children in care. I reassure the House that the Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that we look after children and care leavers, and that they are supported to obtain their status under the EU settlement scheme.
I thank everyone who has taken part in the debate. I thank the Minister for her comments. I hope she will appreciate, as I said at the outset, that this is a cross-party matter. The hon. Members raising it are doing so not because of our views on Brexit, but because of the risk to this particular group of children. I ask her to focus on that. Although I recognise that the intention is not to make the scheme complicated, I implore her to look again at some of the legal complexities that local authorities are raising, because they look as if they will adversely impact on her good intentions.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the EU Settlement Scheme and looked-after children and care leavers.
Kettering General Hospital Urgent Care Hub
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the urgent care hub at Kettering General Hospital.
May I say what an unexpected pleasure it is to see you in the Chair, Mr Bone. I am sure that we will all benefit from your wise guidance and counsel. I thank the Speaker for granting me this debate and welcome the Minister to his place. We are joined today by Mr Simon Weldon, the outstanding chief executive of Kettering General Hospital, our very popular local hospital. Of course, you will know him as well as I do, Mr Bone.
Kettering General Hospital is an extremely popular and well-liked local hospital. It is 122 years old this year, and still occupies the site that it first occupied in 1897. There cannot be many hospitals in the country that are still based almost entirely in their original locations from more than a century ago.
Today, we are talking about the urgent need for an urgent care hub on the Kettering General Hospital site. We need the urgent care hub because the hospital is such a popular one that it simply cannot cope with the number of patients admitted to A&E at the moment. Everyone—all the local NHS professionals in every NHS organisation in Northamptonshire—agrees that the best solution to the challenges the hospital faces is £49 million for the development of an urgent care hub on the site, which the hospital needs.
An urgent care hub would basically be a one-stop shop for GP services and out-of-hours-care, an onsite pharmacy, a minor injuries unit, facilities for social services and mental health care, access to community care services for the frail elderly, and a replacement for our A&E department. The most crucial aspect of that is the A&E department, which was built 25 years ago in 1994 to cope with 40,000 attendances each year. Last year, 91,200 patients came through that very same A&E. This year, we are on track to pass the 100,000-mark for patient attendances, which is well over 150% of the department’s capacity. By 2045, 170,000 attendances are expected at the same site
It is not only Kettering General Hospital—A&Es across many constituencies suffer from similar problems. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we would all benefit if, in A&Es—particularly that of Kettering General Hospital, which the debate is about—there were better patient care and a better working environment for health professionals? In A&Es, it is important that health professionals are happy in their work and feel that they can move forward in what is possibly the most stressful specialty. In the long run, the investment to which the hon. Gentleman referred will pay for itself in better patient outcomes and better staffing capacity.
I am most grateful for that unexpected contribution from Northern Ireland—it is always a delight to see the hon. Gentleman in his place, and I thank him for his support. Of course, I agree that A&E facilities across the country are under pressure, but that pressure is particularly acute in Kettering, not least due to the number of houses that are being built locally, the increase in the local population and the fact that—thank goodness—we are all living longer. In Northamptonshire, there has been a particular increase in the number of elderly patients who are served by the local hospital. I thank the hon. Gentleman for attending and for his support.
In 2016, Dr Kevin Reynard of the national NHS emergency care improvement programme visited Kettering’s A&E and concluded that:
“The current emergency department is the most cramped and limiting emergency department I have ever come across in the UK, USA, Australia or India. I cannot see how the team, irrespective of crowding, can deliver a safe, modern emergency medicine service within the current footprint.”
Simon Weldon is also extremely concerned about patient safety. He said to me that unless we get the situation sorted, sooner or later there would be a patient death in Kettering’s A&E.
An impact of the incredibly cramped department is that staff do not have clear lines of sight on some of the most unwell patients to monitor their conditions appropriately. Privacy and dignity for patients cannot be maintained due to overcrowding and cramped spaces. Patients wait longer than the national limits, as there is physically not enough space to treat the numbers coming through the door. Children have to wait in open corridors and go through adult areas to receive treatment. A lack of space to offload ambulances often results in long queues and inhibits ambulance response times to 999 calls. The A&E rooms do not comply with many current health building standards and there is a lack of natural daylight.
The Care Quality Commission and other inspections have consistently raised multiple concerns, for both adult and paediatric patients, about the size and limitations of the estate. Most importantly, as I have described, the number of patients has now reached a critical point and staff need to manage safety daily, patient by patient. For health professionals who take pride in their job, the challenges of working in Kettering A&E are becoming unbearable.
In the next 10 years, local population growth is expected to far exceed the national average and our catchment includes the fastest growing borough outside London, in our neighbouring constituency of Corby. In the last census, out of 348 districts across the country, Kettering was sixth for growth in the number of households and 31st for population increase, while Corby has the country’s highest birth rate. Our local area has been included as part of the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford corridor, in which there is a commitment to build 35,000 new homes in the next 10 years.
Kettering General Hospital expects a 21% increase in over-80s and 10,000 more A&E attendances in the next five years alone. Despite some temporary modifications over recent years, including moving other patient services off the hospital site to accommodate delivering safe emergency care, detailed surveys show that there now remain no further opportunities to extend the current department and that a new building is required on the site.
Following those safety reviews and surveys, the hospital has developed a business case for a fit-for-purpose emergency care facility that will meet local population growth for the next 30 years. It was developed with all health and social care partners across Northamptonshire, so that patients can get a local urgent care service that meets all government guidance on good practice, ensuring that they get the care they need to keep them safely outside of hospital and that they are cared for by the right clinician at the right time, first time.
The urgent care hub would be a central cog in a whole-system approach to delivering urgent care services to meet the needs of the population, and it would work alongside GP, mental health, community and social care services. The hub continues to be identified as the highest clinical safety priority across the whole of the county by Northamptonshire sustainability and transformation partnership. It was also approved by the NHS Improvement midlands and east regional team as the highest priority submission for central capital funding.
We are talking about £49 million and about Northamptonshire being the only one of all 44 STP areas in the country not to receive any capital funding at all in the past four waves of such funding from the Department. Why is that the case? If the Minister were to agree to the urgent hub proposal, he would put that wrong right. The trust can access only £3.5 million annual capital through its own funding, and the county, Northamptonshire, has only £20 million, but that is used simply to maintain essential equipment and to repair heating and lighting systems. Kettering General Hospital therefore requires central funding or some form of private financing to build the facility.
A bid has been submitted as the highest clinical priority for funding across the whole of the NHS in Northamptonshire, and for NHS Improvement regionally, but Government capital allocation announcements over the past few weeks have not included the urgent care hub, nor any other moneys for Northampton or our local region. I simply do not understand why Kettering General Hospital has been missed off the list. The national NHS Improvement team has indicated that no further STP capital funding will be announced until spring 2020, although I understand that the Government are now reviewing all spending allocations across all Departments in the comprehensive spending review expected later this week. Local people will be very surprised if Kettering General Hospital is not included somewhere in that review.
Given the clear patient safety concerns at Kettering that have been recognised locally, regionally and nationally by NHS experts, what process did the Government follow to award schemes the central NHS capital allocations in recent weeks? Why was Kettering not included? Why were some awards made to areas with no apparent clear and worked-up business case, when Kettering has such a case? Given the lack of access to further NHS capital funding, what are the alternatives for Kettering General Hospital without a central grant of funding from the Department of Health? Furthermore, how are the Government correlating healthcare decisions with the locations of planned growth in housing?
I do my humble best as the local elected representative to express such concerns. The chief executive of the hospital, Simon Weldon, would have made a far better job in this debate than me, but I will quote some of the dedicated healthcare professionals in our local hospital. They will outline the challenges that they face far better than anyone else.
The head of children’s safeguarding at the hospital, Tabby Tantawi-Basra, said:
“Children have to wait in corridors alongside seriously unwell, drunk or mentally unwell adults. This causes a serious safeguarding concern as our staff are not always able to have line of sight on them.”
Sarah Parry, who is a nurse in end-of-life care at the hospital, said:
“When a patient is brought into A&E dying or already passed away, there is no space where relatives can sit quietly to receive the news and grieve. We can’t even make them a cup of tea—they have to share a facility with the staff room!”
Jacquie Barker, the head of adult safeguarding, said:
“We know from the Winterbourne View scandal that the lack of privacy and dignity for vulnerable adults seriously impacts their mental wellbeing. Sadly our facilities mean even our most vulnerable adults are looked after in very cramped conditions, sometimes next to disruptive or aggressive other adult patients.”
Claire Beattie, the head of nursing medicine at the hospital, said:
“Our staff work tirelessly to keep patients safe under the most difficult of conditions. The way the treatment areas are configured means they struggle to easily communicate or ask for help, and if patients are deteriorating then it isn’t always easy to see that quickly and give the urgent help they need.”
Leanne Hackshall, the director of nursing, said:
“Patients are so close together they can almost hold hands. And if someone is being sick or coughing badly in the next space then every other patient worries about who they are so close to.”
Polly Grimmett, the director of strategy, said:
“As Director on call in August, we had over 100 patients in the department for most of the night and it’s only safely meant to fit 40—there were 10 ambulances with patients queuing. This is meant to be our quietest month so who knows how bad it will be in December!”
Nicola Briggs, the director of finance, said:
“If we stopped spending any money at all on necessary things like replacing light bulbs or fixing equipment, then it would still take us nearly 15 years to save up enough money ourselves.”
The urgent care hub is, as far I am concerned, the No. 1 priority for local people in Kettering. The general hospital is much loved, and we need more investment to cope with the growth in the local population and to care for our increasingly aged population. I invite the Minister to visit the hospital and to see the A&E department for himself. If he does so, he will follow in the footsteps of two previous Ministers with responsibility for hospitals and the previous Secretary of State.
The problems are well known in the Department of Health, and I simply do not understand why £49 million—not very much in the context of the size of the whole NHS budget—cannot be allocated to fund the badly needed urgent care hub at Kettering General Hospital. All the local NHS bodies agrees that the hub is the answer to the difficulties and challenges faced by the hospital.
More patients are being treated at Kettering General Hospital than ever before. Their treatment is increasingly world-class, and I thank all the dedicated NHS professionals in our local hospital for their magnificent work. In order to help them face the challenges ahead, we urgently require £49 million from the Government for this badly needed urgent care hub facility.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, in my first debate as the new Minister of State for health.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this debate on the proposed urgent care hub at Kettering General Hospital. This is an important issue for not only my hon. Friend but his constituents in the wider Kettering community, and it is one on which he campaigns tirelessly. I congratulate him on his diligence and determination to continue that, bringing it before the House today.
Kettering General Hospital, as my hon. Friend mentioned, has stood on the same site for nearly 122 years. It plays a vital role in the community, and he set out eloquently the importance of the hospital to that community. In January this year, my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), discussed the urgent care hub proposal with my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering and visited the hospital, following the foundation trust’s unsuccessful £45.7 million sustainability and transformation partnership bid in July 2018. My hon. Friend set out clearly the need to cope with rising demand, with which the urgent care hub could assist.
Given the unsuccessful bid, I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that the sustainability and transformation partnership programme has been the main funding route for strategic capital development projects. Under that programme, capital has been allocated to more than 170 STP schemes since July 2017, which now amounts to about £3.3 billion. STP investments will modernise and transform NHS buildings and services across the country, including new urgent care centres, integrated care hubs that bring together primary and community services, and investment in new mental health facilities.
On 5 August this year, the Government announced a £1.8 billion increase in NHS capital spending, on top of the additional £3.9 billion announced in the 2017 spring and autumn budgets. Of the increase in NHS capital spending, £1 billion will allow existing upgrade programmes to proceed, to tackle the most urgent infrastructure projects. Some £850 million will allow 20 new hospital upgrades to start as soon as possible. Those hospitals were chosen because they applied for funding in tranche 4 of the sustainability and transformation partnerships, but narrowly missed out. I will set out the short process that we go through to designate the waves, whereby the 20 hospitals that narrowly missed out on upgrades previously will receive funding this time.
Kettering General Hospital narrowly missed out on previous funding allocations. Northamptonshire is the only one of the 44 STPs in the country never to have received any capital funding in the four waves that have taken place. I find that staggering, given the overwhelming support from the local NHS for the urgent care hub proposals.
NHS Improvement and NHS England follow an independent assessment process. Previous waves, and the allocation of the 20 hospital upgrades that were announced last month, were assessed on the following six criteria: deliverability; patient benefit and demand management; service need and transformation; financial sustainability that delivers savings to both the organisation and the sustainability and transformation partnership; value for money, including return on investment; and estates.
As well as the top-scoring schemes, a number of schemes of critical service importance have been included, such as mental health and learning disability schemes, drawing on the advice from sustainability and transformation partnerships and national and regional NHS leadership. Together, the schemes demonstrate that they will deliver clear improvements to services. That may not be the answer that my hon. Friend wants to hear, but let me reassure him that I am happy for NHS England and NHS Improvement to discuss how the process and the scoring of requirements operate in greater detail with the chief executive, Simon Welden, who is sitting in the Public Gallery. If the trust would like to have that meeting, I will happily help to arrange that feedback for the hospital and my hon. Friend.
On future capital funding, an extra £1.8 billion was announced in August. That money, to enable investments in critical infrastructure, was not previously available, and gives new spending power to the NHS to fund new projects. The £1.8 billion is a brand-new capital injection on top of money announced in previous Budgets and spending reviews. The Department’s capital spending limit has increased accordingly: following the announcement on 5 August, the capital spend on health for 2019-20 has gone up from £5.92 billion to £7.02 billion. It is important to make that clear, given some wish to look for bad news in any good news announcement. It is important to recognise that the £1 billion boost, and the £100 million of the £850 million allocated this year, will be spent on that capital allocation.
I join the Minister in welcoming the £1.8 billion of extra capital funding for the NHS and the £1 billion wave of funding at the end of 2018. That is all very good news, but given there is almost £3 billion of extra capital injection, we simply cannot understand why £49 million of that could not find its way to Kettering, particularly as there is already a worked-up business case, to get the project up and running quickly.
As a new Health Minister, I have found that the wave approach to the sustainability and transformation partnerships programme has highlighted a wider issue with NHS capital. My hon. Friend’s point about geographical distribution applies not just to bricks and mortar but to diagnostic equipment. We must make sure that our national health service is truly national, by giving every trust equal opportunities to apply for and receive funding. That is why the Secretary of State recently set out that, as a Government, we will establish a new health infrastructure plan. The plan will mean that we take a strategic approach when looking at hospitals that need upgrades, and how that will fit into a wider strategy that will be organised in the Department, taking into account local needs and NHS clinical requirements.
We will put in place a long-term strategy to upgrade and improve our NHS. That will deliver a major strategic hospital rebuilding programme that will provide the necessary health infrastructure across the country. I cannot go into any further detail, apart from to say that the shape of that will be confirmed in due course. To offer a comparison, the road investment strategy—RIS 1 and RIS 2—has a longer term process by which we can move away from a succession of waves. We have waves 1, 2, 3 and 4 of funding as part of the STP processes: some of those projects are further along and more developed than others; some have more advanced business cases than others, as my hon. Friend mentioned. It is important to take a strategic approach for the future.
I understand that my hon. Friend was disappointed that Kettering General Hospital was not selected for funding this time. However, as he mentioned, the trust secured £6 million in emergency capital funding this year, to deal with safety-related estates work. In addition, between 2017-18 and 2018-19, the trust received more than £14 million in capital to fund improvements to the hospital, including £12 million to tackle the urgent capital backlog and other essential capital expenditure. It received £2.4 million for winter pressures and £820,000 for electronic prescribing. That does not make up for what my hon. Friend recognises as an important development and improvement to the estate, but in Kettering the trust has improved enormously and has made great strides in recent years.
I note that while the Care Quality Commission rated the hospital as “needs improvement” after its inspection earlier this year, the trust has been taken out of special measures for quality following the CQC report published in May 2019. I am pleased that, despite the rising demand my hon. Friend mentioned, it is still providing patients with safe and good quality care and is focused on embedding a culture of continuous quality improvement. I am delighted that Kettering General Hospital is participating in a national urgent and emergency care standards pilot, and I await information and learnings on that this year.
I thank my hon. Friend for that invitation; I would be delighted to visit the hospital. I pay tribute to the staff at Kettering General Hospital, who continue to work hard and who contributed to the hospital’s receiving a good rating for care. I hope we will continue discussions during my visit.
I hope that, if my hon. Friend and the trust are willing, I can arrange the meeting to go through the criteria for STP wave 4 in finer detail. I hope that he understands that we are looking at setting up a new process by which capital infrastructure projects will be delivered. The Government have made significant investments in the NHS as part of their long-term plan. We recognise that we need to mirror that investment in NHS capital. I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue, and I look forward to working with him.
Question put and agreed to.
School Funding: East Anglia
[Mike Gapes in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered school funding in East Anglia.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. We are here to talk a little about why the £14 billion package of schools funding promised by the new Government is too little and too late for schools in my constituency and across East Anglia.
My constituency boasts many very good, often outstanding schools run by hard-working headteachers, teachers and support staff, but school funding has fallen by 8% in real terms since 2015. The workforce has been cut systematically year on year because funding has not been available to replace valuable staff members who retire or move on. That has resulted in bigger classes, teachers teaching out of specialism, and a fundamental reduction in the quality of the service schools can provide to both children and parents.
Nine out of 10 schools have suffered Government cuts to per-pupil funding since 2015, and a parliamentary petition calling for increased funding for schools received more than 113,000 signatures. In response, the Government stated simply that they recognised that schools faced “budgeting challenges” and were
“asking them to do more.”
That has been taken more literally than any of us could have predicted, with schools asking parents to donate hundreds of pounds a year to buy textbooks and equipment and to repair leaking buildings.
Only last week, a school in my constituency made a plea to parents and guardians to come in during the holidays to prepare the grounds for the school term because it could not afford a caretaker. The headteacher said contractors would usually work over the summer but this year there was no room in the budget to cover the expense. Thanks to the good will of those already hard-working parents, the repairs will be done in time and the school will be safe and ready to welcome its pupils. However, schools across my constituency and the whole of East Anglia have had to go cap in hand to parents and carers, begging for help to cover basic supplies, when they should be focusing their energies on providing the best possible education.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this timely and important debate. He and I have been working with Educate Norfolk and Norfolk heads over the past year or so. When we asked them what funding increases would make a significant difference, they came up with the sorts of figures the Government have just announced. I appreciate there is a long lead-in time, but does he agree that that is at least a welcome start to restoring funding levels?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for being supportive of the debate and for the work he has done with me and local headteachers. That money is welcome, but it is not enough. I will come on to the details of that. I agree that any increase is welcome, but we need to ensure that it is the right increase.
Does my hon. Friend agree—he probably does not—that although Norfolk faces a difficult situation, the situation in Cambridgeshire is even worse? Tony Davies, the headteacher of St Matthew’s Primary School, tells us that the school will run out of money at the end of this year so it, too, is seeking contributions from parents. How is it that fantastically successful schools are literally running out of money?
I thank my hon. Friend for his input. We have to accept that our schools are running out of money for the same reason that our public services are underfunded: because of a damaging political choice. I will come on to that, but let me add that one of the reasons I sought the debate was that, as I understood it, every school in Norfolk was potentially going to put in a cost-overrun budget—an illegal budget—because of the funding shortfall. That is happening across the eastern region, and definitely across Norfolk.
Only last week, a local trust in Norfolk announced that it had had to cut 35% of its teaching assistants. That means the ratio of children to staff is bigger, creating myriad potential risks and increasing exponentially the lost learning time for children who need extra help in the classroom.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the biggest problems we have with underfunding in education, certainly in Suffolk, is that there are not enough facilities and not enough staff to cope with children with special educational needs, especially attention deficit hyperactivity disorder? Some children receive no more than one hour’s education a day and are losing all their self-respect. We are storing up problems for the future in those cases.
I will address that in detail shortly, but there is indeed a crisis in special educational needs teaching.
Every parent and teacher knows how vital teaching assistants are to aiding our young people’s learning, yet a briefing meant only for Ministers and officials at the Department for Education, which was leaked last week, was clear that the Government still intend to slash the number of teaching assistants. The briefing stated:
“We recommend we continue to push No 10 not to include this publicly.”
Can the Minister tell us whether that is true? If it is, why do the Government not recognise the value of support staff in helping our children to learn and thrive?
Headteachers across the country have not been able to balance the books. It is no wonder they have had to make cuts: the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that if it were not for the sudden promise of new funding, school funding would have been £1.7 billion lower in real terms in 2020 than in 2015. The newly promised figure is not additional funding; it is to plug a hole that appeared due to the fact that total school spending per pupil fell by 8% in real terms in 2017-18. Even if headteachers trust the Government’s motives, that funding will go only a small way towards repairing the damage caused by years of continued cuts. In the face of such damning statistics, will the Government concede that the past nine years of austerity—a political choice by consecutive Conservative Governments—have crippled our schools?
The alleged new money for schools announced this week is something of a confession in itself. I happily acknowledge that that money—£14 billion over three years from 2020—is a significant and welcome change of direction. Finally, we can stop listening to Ministers continually claiming that schools have more funding than ever before. The centrepiece of the announcement was a one-off £2.8 billion cash injection, but I am sorry to say that that does not even come close to reversing the cuts made by the Conservatives over the course of this decade. The Institute for Fiscal Studies believes that to do that, £3.8 billion would need to be shared out among schools across the country every year.
This is where things seem to get even more controversial. Sadly, following the analysis in The Sunday Times this weekend, I am forced to question whether any schools in my constituency will receive any increase in funding at all. The supposed cash boost is nothing more than an election bribe, with the overwhelming majority to be spent on grammar schools and schools in Conservative MPs’ constituencies, helping the party target marginal seats as we build up to an almost inevitable general election in the coming weeks, months or perhaps even days.
Do the Government really believe that this is how our children’s future should be decided? Is this really the best way to educate the next generation and close the gap between rich and poor? From where I am standing, it simply plays into the same old Conservative rhetoric that sees inequality increase year on year. This is not sorting out our schools crisis; it is neutralising an electoral image problem. It is retrofitting policy to suit the polling objectives. Most of all, it is feigning concern while failing children.
Over this decade of cuts, our classrooms have been turned into the new frontline of the welfare state, with staff filling in for councils in financial collapse and for parents in precarious jobs or inadequate housing. Any serious attempt to fix our schools must be combined with money to rebuild our public services and our welfare state. I am afraid that the new Government do not seem interested in that.
To put the situation in perspective, a headteacher from my constituency recently told me that on top of the inescapable loss of teaching staff due to budget cuts, the school has had to cut back on support for students, reducing or removing core support in the form of counselling, behaviour support and mental health support. That, alongside the significant cuts to external support services such as child and adolescent mental health services, social services and special school support, has been disastrous for many vulnerable students in my constituency who have nowhere to turn for help. That, somewhat inevitably, has resulted in an increase in the number of permanent exclusions that schools have had to make, a pattern sadly replicated across the UK, leaving both students and parents desperate and with nowhere to turn.
Consider also the renewed focus of the new Government on headteachers being encouraged to use “reasonable force” on misbehaving students. Education officials caution that such a policy will
“impact disproportionately on children in need of a social worker, children with special needs and...Black Caribbean Boys”.
In other words, as summarised by The Guardian,
“it will be state-led discrimination against minority groups. Ensuring that more kids are excluded will simply feed them into pupil referral units or lead to them getting schooled by gangs.”
So much so that police and crime commissioners worry about rates of exclusion driving knife crime even higher. I would say, “Don’t worry—the Home Office has a plan: anti-knife crime advertising on fried chicken boxes,” but we will not go into that. Is this really the big society that the Government want to create? Does the Minister really believe that these devastating cuts and archaic forms of punishment will impact positively on our children?
The Prime Minister recently stated that there should be no winners or losers when it comes to our children’s futures, but I find it hard to see how the decimation of state school funding and the services it pays for helps to level the playing field between students educated in our state schools and those who can afford to be educated at elite private schools such as Eton and Harrow.
I turn to an issue of huge local importance. The funding crisis in East Anglia has had huge knock-on implications for our children with special educational needs. In Norfolk alone, there are 21,000 children with special educational needs and disabilities. Of those, 15,000 children with SEND are in mainstream schools and only 6,000 have an education health and care plan. Only 1,000 referrals for EHCPs are received by Norfolk County Council each year, and 150 children with SEND are still waiting for a special school place. Nationally, that figure is 8,500, and only 3% of children in England have SEND statements or EHCPs.
I recently met a group of parents who have been severely affected by the lack of provision for their children. I have constituents whose children, despite having EHCPs that clearly state that they cannot cope with mainstream schools, still cannot be provided with places in specialised schools. Staff cuts in mainstream schools have had a significant impact on all pupils but particularly those with SEND. The cuts have seen a reduction in specialist teaching assistants, counsellors and speech and language therapists, all of whom pupils with special educational needs and disabilities rely on for their needs to be properly met.
I also know of children who have been forced to stay at home due to lack of staff and spaces in specialised settings, meaning that they are effectively excluded through no fault of their own. There is nowhere else they can go, and the impact on their families is catastrophic: parents have to give up work and livelihoods are lost. Sometimes, even homes are lost and marriages fail.
Specialised schools provide invaluable support and education that these children are legally entitled to, but, without sufficient money from central Government—I assure the Minister that the £700 million announced for SEND children is not sufficient—they cannot get that, and there is nothing that parents or teachers can do. More parents are taking Norfolk County Council to tribunal over SEND provisions, and winning, because they are right: their children are not getting the education they have a right to as set out in legislation. Does the Minister accept that unless there is a significant increase in high-needs funding, the Government will fail to deliver on the reforms they introduced in the Children and Families Act 2014? These devastating cuts have, to quote my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), brought services for children with special educational needs and disabilities to a “dangerous tipping point”.
Last year, I met headteachers at the Educate Norfolk annual conference, and some of the statistics they gave me were staggering. Eighty-two of our schools have reported that they have cut their support staff budgets and 39 had to reduce SEN support for no reason other than funding. In real terms, that means teachers having to administer medicines to children with medical needs and perform other tasks usually carried out by support staff. Can the Minister answer how those same staff can also adequately support children with special educational needs?
It is not just about provision for SEN. Overall, changes to the benefit system have resulted in a reduction in the number of households eligible for free school meals. That, in turn, reduces the amount of pupil premium funding that a school receives. Increases in staffing costs from increased national insurance and pension contributions and pay increases, which are not fully funded by central Government beyond 2020, come out of school budgets. That will get worse, with staff having to work longer and retire later.
This is completely unsustainable. We need a better strategy, based on inclusivity—not a theoretical idea of inclusivity—that ensures that there is more SEND training for teachers and non-teaching staff, so that staff, children and parents are properly supported. Labour pledges to deliver a strategy for children with special educational needs and disabilities, putting more money into those services while working more strategically with schools and SEND providers. We want to introduce a fairer funding formula that leaves no school worse off.
The years that children spend at school should not just be time that they must get through. They should be a wonderful time of learning. We know so much more about the psychology of childhood and what makes children thrive in education. That must apply to all children so that they can leave full-time education with a real chance in life, not a chance restricted by Government cuts. Joint general-secretary of the National Education Union, Mary Bousted, said:
“Teachers know that their working lives would be more fulfilling and less conflicted if fewer of the children and young people they teach were not themselves suffering from the devastating effects of increasing child poverty caused by…deliberate policies.”
In 2015, I campaigned against the academisation of some of our Norfolk schools, which is yet another example of the mismanagement and greed of the Government, with reports of headteachers and executives being paid five-figure sums. Money is floating to the top, with schools left in deficit, and spending on buildings and learning resources is being cut. Similarly, free schools, aimed at the middle classes, and which the Government want more of, are diverting money from existing state schools and are being run like private companies.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is also a problem in Norfolk with some schools that went into major building programmes under PPI? We heard at one school that we visited in Taverham that after 6.30 pm the school does not belong to the teachers and that they cannot have outside events there because it is in the hands of PPI managers.
I might get my figures wrong, but I get my acronyms right. I think we are talking about the private finance initiative. I was with the hon. Gentleman at a fantastic school in Taverham where the PFI contract stated that its vast resources, including the gym and the swimming pool, could not be used by the local community. Once the school gates were locked, that fantastic resource could not be used by the rest of the community. Given that taxpayers’ money from that community is paying for that school, that is a complete outrage and I agree with the hon. Gentleman.
In 2017, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith) won her seat as a result of a campaign based on school funding, not Brexit. That was the issue her constituents were up in arms about because it was their children, jobs and livelihoods at stake. The Prime Minster is in trouble on schools, and he knows it. When, last week, the Government announced that they would be providing £14 billion in one-off funding between now and 2022, headteachers responded by saying it was not enough. As I said earlier, we will continue to need an extra £3.8 billion every year to keep our schools afloat and £12.6 billion to reverse the effects of austerity altogether, not a one-off pre-election bribe.
The National Education Union says that headteachers are unlikely to
“trust the motives, or the professed support, of ministers who have, time after time, voted through measures that have made families poorer. Teachers deal every day with the effects of increased child poverty in children’s inattention and distress and know that it is these causes that need to be addressed if pupils are to behave better and achieve more in schools.”
The Government need to stop their panicky pre-election promises to increase school finances and give schools the funding they need, when they need it, not because there is a general election looming. A whole generation of young people have already been failed because of cuts to education funding, and simply announcing a specialist academy trust in the north of England does not count as trialling a new approach. We have already been there and done that; it did not work.
Here is a suggestion: rather than prorogue Parliament to get a no-deal Brexit through, let us ensure that that does not happen, save the £2.1 billion it is said that we will spend in the event of a no-deal Brexit and spend that on education. We can put that hard-earned taxpayer money towards keeping our schools open and our school buildings safe and maintained, and giving our children the education and the childhood that they deserve.
Thank you, Mr Gapes. I made exactly the same mistake when I was chairing in here the other day, so I have every sympathy.
Once again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich South. He and I have worked closely on this agenda. We may differ in our outlook on various matters concerning education, but we have a shared sense of complete and utter respect for the teaching profession in Norfolk, and for the hard-working headteachers and teachers in schools across the county; they have an incredibly important task.
This debate is timely because, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, we have had an ongoing dialogue with Educate Norfolk, which is a group of secondary and primary headteachers. Those meetings have been excellent and have given MPs first-class briefings on most aspects of schooling in Norfolk. As my colleagues from Norfolk and elsewhere in East Anglia will know, one of Educate Norfolk’s consistent demands was for more funding—not just in penny packets, but as a significant uplift in school funding.
I slightly disagree with the hon. Member for Norwich South on this point. We have a new Prime Minister who has a new agenda and has his priorities, and he has made it clear that school funding is one of those priorities.
I join my hon. Friend in congratulating my parliamentary neighbour, the hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis). Would he agree with me that to say that the new Prime Minister is in trouble on schools is an exaggeration at the very least, if not a distorted caricature? With other Norfolk MP colleagues, I have attended meetings with the excellent headteachers at Educate Norfolk. They were making a careful and balanced case for more funding, which was well explained. The Government have responded by giving the education budget more or less what they asked for.
There is a lot of truth in what my hon. Friend says: Educate Norfolk asked for a significant real-terms increase. I made a note at the time that one of the figures they pointed out was that the schools budget in 2017-18—that is two financial years ago—was £41 billion. They felt that over the next four financial years it should go up by at least £10 billion. As we know, under the announcement made a few days ago, the increase will be £2.6 billion next financial year, £4.8 billion the following year and £7.1 billion in 2022-23. That brings the schools budget up to £52.2 billion in 2022-23; the Minister may correct me on this, but I think I am right. That is not just some increase in the future; it is an increase next year and the following year. It is extremely significant given the context that we still have a budget deficit and a national debt, which will carry on going up in actual if not real terms.
We all agree that any money is welcome, but it is not right to say that our schools can wait for one, two or three years. There is a school in south Cambridgeshire—admittedly not in my constituency, but that of the hon. and learned Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer)—that now has to close on one day a week; it cannot open its doors every day any more. Accepting that money will not flow so freely—particularly if we have a no-deal Brexit; we all know we will be short of cash then—is it appropriate for the Minister to look at an interim solution? For example, did the hon. Gentleman know that schools across the UK are sitting on surplus reserves of £1.7 billion? To balance the deficit between schools that are underfunded, in counties such as mine, and where they should be, we need £223 million; that figure is more than covered. Would the hon. Gentleman accept that perhaps that is an interim solution, while we are waiting for the money to flow through?
The devil will be in the detail, but it is incredibly important to get the money flowing quickly. The Minister can look at that, but, as I understand it, this is new money coming into the Department. It will mean that every school will get a real-terms funding rise next year, and hopefully that will have a significant impact on our schools. Secondary schools will receive an increased minimum of £5,000 per pupil and primary schools will get the minimum of £3,750, going up to £4,000 per pupil in 2021-22. There will also be an extra £700 million for special educational needs and disabilities. It is significant and I welcome it.
I also welcome the announcement made by both the Education Secretary and the Chancellor regarding teachers’ pensions. As the hon. Member for Norwich South pointed out, having high morale in the profession is crucial in terms of retention, managing mental health, the welfare of teachers and making sure we get the absolute best out of all our pupils.
I welcome the announcement on pensions and the pledge to meet the £4.5 billion requirement from outside the education budget; maybe the Minister can clarify that. I look forward to hearing what he says about this, as my understanding is that it will not impact on the extra money for schools. The employer contribution of 23.6% will be on top of the salary, which will ensure that the scheme is fully funded. One can link that to teachers’ pay, which again is crucial to morale and retention.
I agree with a lot of what the hon. Member for Norwich South said, but I hope that many of his concerns and the examples he gave will soon be historical, because they will be overtaken by the new funding that will become available. It is important that teachers are well rewarded. A starting salary of £30,000 by 2022-23 will help to make teaching salaries among the most competitive in the graduate labour market.
I have a specific question for the Minister: in July, he announced that teachers would have a 2.75% pay increase, but that his Department would only fund it to the tune of 0.75%. The understanding was that schools would have to pick up the rest. Can he clarify the situation? Obviously, we do not want school budgets to have to in any way subsidise the increase in teachers’ pay. I very much hope that the announcement made last week will cover that key point.
As I mentioned, the devil will mostly be in the detail. How quickly will the funding reach the schools? I am optimistic, on the basis of what the Minister has said in his interviews; I congratulate him on his performances in the media over the past week or so. He has been very clear and upbeat about this, and very passionate as well, because this funding will enable him to move forward in some of the key areas of priority within his portfolio.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the majority—more than half—of the promised money will be paid after the next general election, even if the next general election takes place at the latest possible time, and so this is a promise of money that the current Government have no way of controlling?
I will just say to the hon. Gentleman that, yes, it is not all coming in one go, but there will be a £2.6 billion increase next year in 2020-21 and, if this Parliament goes its full five years, in 2021-22 it will be £4.8 billion and then up to £7.1 billion.
This is new, real money, now. It is incredibly important that we recognise that point. We can argue that it will not be enough, but I have also heard hon. Members talking about social care, the health service, the A47 and other priorities. It is a question of balancing priorities, and I am pleased that this Prime Minister has recognised that schooling and our young children are a key priority.
I suppose the question I have is: what on earth are my schools supposed to do now? Compared with, for example, a Westminster school, we get roughly £1,600 less per head per year, £400 less than the average across the UK. What on earth are we supposed to do now?
What I would say to the hon. Lady is very simple: the fairer funding for schools formula did indeed discriminate against a lot of small schools. I will come on to that in a moment, because what we need to know is whether the small schools in my constituency, in her constituency and in the constituencies of my right hon. and hon. Friends will see significant benefits. I would suggest, on the figures being put out by the Department, that that definitely will be the case. It is exactly what different teaching groups have been asking for.
I would also like the Minister to comment on one announcement that he made, which is relevant to the small schools that the hon. Lady has mentioned: the £700 million extra for special educational needs and disabilities, the so-called SEND pupils. There is a shortage of special educational needs co-ordinators in Norfolk and a significant lead-in time to get more in place. How quickly does the Minister think this extra money will be available? What impact will it make, and when will it make that impact?
I also ask the Minister another question about small schools, because we have in Norfolk—as I am sure we also do in Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and other counties in the country—the sparsity factor, which is designed to assist very small rural schools in areas that are sparsely populated. In my constituency, I have a number of federations of small schools, which have been a great innovation, because they can leverage their success and capabilities in different areas and put extra resources into individual schools when they need it. Working together in a federation is often a really good way of going forward, rather than closing a small school. However, we have a situation in which some small schools in a federation get the sparsity factor money, but schools nearby, in next-door villages, do not. I have never yet heard a satisfactory explanation of why.
My hon. Friend makes some good points on the challenges faced by smaller rural schools, particularly on special educational needs. I am sure that we all welcome the extra £700 million being put into special educational needs funding nationally, but it is important that that money gets to the frontline and to pupils. Does he agree that it is important that there is a mechanism in place to ensure that county councils such as Suffolk give that money rapidly to schools that need it, and to ensure that there is no delay in allowing those schools to recruit the extra number of SENCOs that they need to recruit?
I agree with my hon. Friend. Maybe the Minister can comment on how quickly we can get those extra SENCOs in place and what extra support there will be for their training.
Like the hon. Member for Norwich South, I have come across many schools around my constituency that are extremely concerned about the problems and challenges they have faced. Quite a few of the extra financial challenges have been on the back of Government-imposed costs—for example, the teachers’ pay increase awards in 2017 and 2018, which had to be partly funded by schools, the apprenticeship levy imposition and additional human resources, pension and rural bus costs. Hopefully, many of those costs will now be taken on board by the Department and therefore not imposed directly on schools. Can the Minister also confirm that?
We hear from dedicated headteachers—I have heard from many in my constituency—who have had to make savings by, for example, increasing class sizes, reducing teaching hours, cutting pastoral support, asking parents to contribute to the running costs of their children’s school and so on. No teacher should have to face that type of challenge. I am confident that this funding, which we should not be churlish about, will really make a fundamental difference, so I thank the Minister for that and look forward to his comments.
Finally, I was going to say something about further education colleges, but I think that that is a story and a subject for another day. I will say something about mental health in schools, because there is a real issue with both teachers’ and pupils’ mental health. This has been a recurring theme in the meetings we have had with Educate Norfolk. A number of headteachers have said to me that even though the Government talk quite a positive story about helping teachers with mental health, not a great deal actually happens. For example, there is no Government data on mental health problems among teachers, or indeed among pupils.
I ask the Minister whether, when he moves forward with the teacher recruitment and retention strategy, there will be specific measures in that strategy to help teachers with mental health. As far as pupils are concerned, does he agree that every single school should have a lead individual who can give mental health support? Can he tell the House what percentage of schools, both secondary and primary, have a lead person in place to handle this important matter?
I am grateful to the Prime Minister for making this announcement. We should recognise it as not a penny-packet sum, nor a sum that is way out into the blue sky in the distance, but a sum of money that will be available next year, the following year and the year after that, and that, if properly spent—and if the framework around it, addressing some of the issues that I have flagged up, is got right—can make a fundamental difference, both to the schools across our constituencies and, above all, to the future of those children in the schools.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) on securing this debate.
East Anglian schools have had a raw funding deal for many years. The Government’s announcement last week of an additional £14 billion for schools nationally provides an opportunity to put right that unfairness, which so wrongly penalises pupils in Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire. It is important that that money is spent wisely, in a pinpointed and targeted way, and that priority is given to underfunded areas such as East Anglia. To be fair, the Government do recognise the latter need.
Time is short, so from a Waveney and Suffolk perspective I shall briefly highlight the four issues that I believe need to be addressed. First, the national funding formula needs to be made fairer, simpler and more transparent. Suffolk is a member of f40, a group of education authorities that receive the lowest per-pupil funding settlements. At present, the formula does not give enough basic entitlement to schools and allows too much for add-ons, resulting in big funding differences between different local authorities and schools across the country. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that, as local authorities have faced ever tighter budgets, schools have been asked to take on more and more work traditionally undertaken by others, including youth work and parental and mental health support, as we have heard.
Secondly, it is also necessary to ensure that pre-school early years funding gets through to those organisations and groups—often from the private and voluntary sectors—that do great work in deprived areas where there are gaps in the provision of primary schools. A good example is Little Buddies in Lowestoft, which has suffered significant funding cuts at the same time as incurring additional costs. We have heard about the pension scheme costs, and it is important to welcome the Government’s announcement that the £4.5 billion required for teachers’ pensions will be met from outside the Education budget. I urge the Government to work with local education authorities and, through them, with pre-schools such as Little Buddies, to ensure that they receive a fair share of the additional funding now being made available.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about early years funding—which is notoriously complex, it is fair to say. I am not sure about the pattern in Waveney, but certainly my area has some fantastic maintained local nursery schools, which incur additional costs and have been under considerable financial pressure. Does he agree that it would be helpful if the Minister could confirm that this additional funding will flow through to those excellent maintained nursery schools?
The hon. Gentleman’s point is well made. A lot of the problem is that, although the Government announced the additional funding for early years two or three years ago, the money is not getting through to several establishments, such as Little Buddies and the Rainbow Day Nursery in the Harbour ward in Lowestoft. We had meetings with the then Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), and the county council, and we had a lot of difficulty working out where the problem arose and why the money was not getting through to those schools. The urge for simplicity and transparency in how this money is spent is very important.
The third point, as we have heard from a number of Members, is about special educational needs. This is a problem throughout the whole country, but I sense that it is a real problem in Suffolk. The county faces—I will not call it a perfect storm; that sounds awful—an imperfect storm of factors that create a real problem in SEN provision in Suffolk. The first is obviously rising demand: there is a yearly doubling of requests for education, health and care needs assessments. Secondly, complexity of need is rising, particularly for children with autism. Thirdly, the council receives historically low levels of funding for high-needs learners, compared with other local authorities.
A lot of the problem is caused by funding for specialist placements coming from the dedicated schools grant. As Suffolk is an f40 authority, its overall funding for schools is lower, and therefore its funding for higher-needs learners is also that much lower.
The hon. Gentleman is right. I was coming on to my fourth point, which might broadly coincide with his. An historical issue in Suffolk, probably for the best part of 20 years, is the low number of special schools and special unit places in the county itself, meaning that Suffolk has to buy more places—both in the independent sector and out of area—at enormous cost. This problem needs to be put right. It has happened over a number of years and, I suspect, over a number of different administrations running Suffolk County Council. It will not be put right overnight. To be fair, the council recognises the problem, but I sense that it will be with us for a few years to come.
The fifth point, as touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham), is about the need to ensure that sixth forms and further education colleges are properly funded. The 16-to-19 age group has been overlooked in recent years. In a town such as Lowestoft, it is important that funding for this group is put on a financially secure and long-term footing.
Colleges and sixth forms provide an important bridge from the classroom to universities and the workplace. In a coastal town such as Lowestoft, where there has been long-term economic decline, these schools, sixth forms and colleges are the cornerstone on which we can rebuild the local economy and give young people the opportunity to realise their full potential and, in doing so, to increase social mobility. The additional funding that the Government provided for sixth forms and colleges is a welcome step in the right direction, but at £200 per student, it falls short of the minimum £760 per student sought by the Sixth Form Colleges Association in its “Raise the Rate” campaign.
As we know, a lot is going on at present, but whatever the outcome of Brexit, nothing is more important than investment in the next generation. The Government have recognised this with the extra funding provided. They now need to work with schools, the regional education commissioner and the local education authorities to ensure that this money is spent prudently and properly on tackling the unfairness that has built up in East Anglia over many years.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. Unfortunately, this is not a forum where we can indulge in our usual conversation about football. However, I will try to introduce some elements.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) on securing this important debate on funding. Straight out of the gate, I join him in saying that we should all praise teachers and hard-working staff, which we sometimes forget to do in our debates. I wish the best of luck to all schools, many of which went back to work yesterday or today. He mentioned his love of history, but not so much his love of mathematics. He said that austerity had been going on for nine years, but I have to pick him up on that. Actually, school budgets were protected under the coalition Government until 2015, so the slashing and burning of budgets that we have seen has happened in only four years, not nine. That is why it has had such a huge impact.
My hon. Friend also raised the hugely important issue of off-rolling across our country. We know that this has significantly led to gang violence, county lines and, yes, the rise of horrific knife crimes under this Administration’s watch. We know that, in 2016-17, nearly 10,000 children were off-rolled by schools in our nation, and the Government did not know where those children went on to. That is a disgrace in this day and age.
I have to say that it is a joy to see the Minister, my opposite number, in his place. He has survived more regime changes, and now a change to a minority regime after the events of today, than you could shake a stick at. He must be the little-known fourth member and brother who, along with Barry, Robin and Maurice, made up the Bee Gees. The Minister’s motto, which he sings in the bath every evening, is “Stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive”. I want to know whether his superhuman power of being Minister for six years, under so many regimes, comes with tights and a cape, and will he confirm that he does wear his pants on the inside of his trousers?
I loved the Augustinian notion that the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham) came up with about the world as it was and the world as it should be, but all we know is the world as it is currently. Let’s just go around the counties, shall we? I have figures for Norwich school cuts between 2015 and 2019. I will be giving my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South statistics that he already knows. Tuckswood Academy?
It had a £516 loss per pupil and is £430,000 down on where it should be. Clover Hill infant school had a £757 loss per pupil; it is £276,000 out of pocket. But let us go around the Chamber. Let us look at the East Anglia county average—the loss between 2015 and 2019. In Norfolk, there was £279 less per pupil. It has lost £66.6 million-worth of spending power in the last four years. Suffolk—let us go there. It had a £178 loss per pupil. It has £40.3 million less spending power since 2015. Let us go a little further south, to Essex. It is £257 down per pupil. In Essex, £134.4 million has been taken out of school budgets since 2015.
We can be in no doubt, after all that we have heard again today, about the impact that this Government’s continued austerity in our schools is having across East Anglia and the whole country. The new Chancellor of the Exchequer, the new Secretary of State for Education and the long-standing—as I have pointed out—Minister for School Standards have announced over the last few days more funding for schools and teachers. Unless or until we see that new money and the magic money tree that it is coming from, we can only assume that it is business as usual for this regime.
I was pleased to be at the Bury-Cambridge game last year. What a sad indictment it is that Bury has now left the Football League. I forgot to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South that I am visiting his beautiful city in just a couple of weeks to see Manchester City play and to spend some time. I can see the Ipswich Members getting a bit edgy, but we will not go there.
After sitting at the Cabinet table agreeing to years of real-terms pay cuts for teachers, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Education have finally admitted that austerity has failed our schools. The announcements prove the veracity of what we have heard today. Statistics from the Department for Education show that the number of children and young people with special educational needs or education, health and care plans in England rose by 34,200, an increase of 11% from 2018. The hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) spoke articulately about SEN provision and how it is currently failing young people in his patch and across the country, yet research by the National Education Union has found that special needs provision in England is down by £1.2 billion as a result of shortfalls in funding increases from the Government since 2015.
The Government’s own data shows that, as of January 2018, 4,050 children and young people with an education, health and care plan, or statement, were “awaiting provision”. In other words, they were waiting for a place in education. Pupils with special educational needs and disabilities are struggling to get the help that they need, yet last week, in the school spending announcements, the Secretary of State did not even offer to cover half the funding shortfall, and not for another year. But as the hon. Member for North West Norfolk articulately pointed out, mental health is severely impacted when young people cannot get the provision that they need.
The shadow Minister makes the basic point that the challenge with special educational needs is actually a challenge in getting the educational support, but the reality for many schools in Suffolk and elsewhere in the country is that the slowdown is very often due to an inadequacy of child and adolescent mental health services, or NHS resource, to address the needs that have been identified. I hope that he will agree with me that if we are to address the problem, there needs to be significant investment, which has indeed been promised by the Government, in CAMHS, to help young people with learning disabilities and mental health problems who have special educational needs.
I suspect that most hon. Members’ constituency surgeries on a Friday are now full—mine certainly is, and I hear the same when I talk to colleagues across Greater Manchester—of parents trying to get special educational needs provision for their children. The hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) rightly mentions CAMHS, but again the promises are of money in the future. This is the unicorn; this is what will happen. We can only see what this Government have done to education funding since 2015.
The hon. Member for North West Norfolk also mentioned class sizes, but there are now half a million children in super-size classes. There is an unquestionable recruitment crisis in our schools. It is almost a case of one teacher in, one teacher out. And it is not just because of the money. The Government have promised £30,000. I would like to hear that that will apply to all new teachers’ starting salaries and that there will not be differentiation between subjects. The Government have missed their own recruitment targets for six years; every year on the Minister’s watch, they have missed their targets, and teachers are flooding out of the classroom. We need urgent action to retain the most experienced teachers and to recruit new staff. But even now, as we have heard the Education Secretary announce higher pay, teachers will have to wait years for the promised pay rise, and there is every chance that they will never see the fruits of this Government’s promises.
On top of that, despite the Work and Pensions Secretary’s claim that no child would lose their free school meal eligibility, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that 160,000 children who were eligible under the legacy system will not be eligible under universal credit. We regularly hear stories of teachers buying essential supplies for their classes. We heard earlier today that schools are having to shut for a day. Even schools in the Minister’s own constituency are threatening a four-day week. The curriculum is narrowing: we see schools cutting subjects such as drama, art and music, restricting our young people’s horizons.
There is a crisis in our schools, and beyond, to which this Government are turning a blind eye. In fact, there has been a concerted effort by the Government to fudge the figures and deflect attention away from the cuts. If funding per pupil had been maintained in value since 2015, school funding overall would be £5.1 billion higher than it is now. That means that 91% of schools are still facing, as we speak here today, real-terms cuts.
Hon. Members here today know all too well the impact on the ground already. Headteachers tell us every day. The Government need to stop their sticking-plaster approach to school finances and give schools what they need. Although I am pleased to hear the Government announce more money for schools, I hope that the Minister has truly removed his head from the sand and begun to hear the voices of schools, teachers and parents. I joke that I see more of the Minister than I do of my wife—because it is not just East Anglia that is the subject of Westminster Hall debates. We are here almost weekly or twice a week. We spend hours having to debate what is happening in all our regions—the exact same problems that schools up and down our country face. I have lost count of the number of debates that there have been.
With the economic uncertainty of Brexit, and especially a no-deal Brexit, which the new Prime Minister seems so keen to pursue, it defies all logic to have a Government who are failing to invest properly in education and skills—particularly, as the hon. Member for Waveney pointed out, in our coastal towns. Further education is vital to their regeneration; it will be the silver bullet for regenerating our coastal towns. We are struggling to find the teachers to go and work there.
I have said this before and will say it again. As a former primary school teacher, I know the difference that a good teacher makes. With the right support and resources, they can raise a child’s attainment and aspiration. We go into teaching because we believe in the value of education. Our schools do not want to see one-off, headline-grabbing handouts; our schools need fair funding now.
Labour’s national education service will change this situation when we come to power. The national education service will create social mobility; it will create ambition for all. Our national education service will pay teachers what they deserve. The national education service will provide the investment that our schools so desperately need.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) on securing this debate in the week that many schools are starting the new academic year and just days after the Government announced a giant cash boost for schools across all parts of the country. I add my thanks and admiration to all teachers and teaching assistants starting the new term this week.
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will set out in a statement to the House just after the statement on preparations for leaving the EU, we have committed an extra £14 billion of funding to schools throughout England over the next three years. That delivers on the Prime Minister’s pledge when entering Downing Street to increase school funding by £4.6 billion over and above inflation, levelling up education funding and giving all young people the same opportunities to succeed regardless of where they grow up or go to school.
We have been able to do this because of our balanced approach to the public finances and careful stewardship of the economy, which has resulted in the lowest level of unemployment since the mid-1970s and record levels of people in employment, a state of affairs that would be wrecked by any Labour-led Government. This funding settlement means that we can continue to build a world-class education system, helping to continue to raise standards in our schools.
The funding package includes a cash increase of £2.6 billion to core schools funding next year, which increases to £4.8 billion and then £7.1 billion in 2021-22 and 2022-23. That is in addition to the £1.5 billion per year that we are injecting into the school system to cover additional pensions costs for teachers over the next three years, ensuring that employer contributions to teachers’ pensions—equivalent to 23% of gross salaries—is fully funded. That addresses the concern raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham), who asked whether that teacher pension employer contribution would be fully funded. The answer is yes and it will be in addition to the £14 billion that we have announced.
This is a three-year settlement. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) criticised it for going into a period beyond this Parliament, but schools are seeking a three-year settlement; most schools with which I discuss school funding have been asking for a three-year settlement. In total, across the country, core funding for schools and high needs will rise to £52.2 billion—my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk was right about that figure—by 2022-23. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, this funding will reverse the reductions in real-terms per-pupil funding for five to 16-year-olds since 2015. That should address the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Norwich South.
As part of this significant investment, we will also deliver on the Prime Minister’s pledge to level up funding, providing increases for our lowest funded schools. Every secondary school will be allocated at least £5,000 per pupil next year, and every primary school will be allocated at least £3,750 per pupil, putting primary schools firmly on the path to receiving at least £4,000 per pupil in the following financial year. In East Anglia this means that per-pupil funding for 46% of secondary schools in the region—160 secondary schools—will level up to at least the minimum of £5,000 next year. In addition, per-pupil funding for 30% of primary schools in the region will level up to at least the minimum of £3,750 next year—that is 594 primary schools on the path to receiving at least £4,000 per pupil. We are also allocating funding so that every school’s per-pupil funding can rise at least in line with inflation and to accelerate gains for areas of the country that have been historically underfunded, with most areas seeing significant above-inflation gains.
I challenge the hon. Member for Norwich South on his characterisation of this year’s school funding. Even before this major announcement, funding in Norfolk has increased from £460.3 million in 2017-18, to £482 million, which is a 4.7% rise and equates to a 3% per-pupil rise.
The hon. Gentleman will have to wait, because we have not made the announcement for early years funding. If he can be patient a little longer, we will be making that announcement.
We will continue to distribute this money through the national funding formula, which is our historic reform to the schools funding system that continues to ensure that funding is based on the needs and characteristics of schools and pupils, rather than on the accidents of history or geography.
Today we have reaffirmed our intention to move to what is called a hard formula, whereby all school budgets are set on the basis of a single national formula, guaranteeing equity among all schools, wherever they are in the country. Moving to this approach will mean that neighbouring schools that happen to sit on different sides of a local authority boundary will be funded on the same basis, and it will no longer be the case that different decisions made by different local authorities mean that similar schools receive different budgets. We intend to move to this hard formula as soon as possible. Of course, we recognise that this will represent a significant change and we will work closely with local authorities, schools and others to make this transition as smooth as possible.
The hon. Member for Norwich South said that he was opposed to academies. He has publicly expressed what I would regard as unwarranted hostility against the Inspiration Trust—a multi-academy trust that is doing huge work to raise school standards in his part of East Anglia. That probably explains why he failed in his speech to congratulate Jane Austen College in his constituency, a free school, which this year published its first GCSE results. Its provisional Progress 8 score places it in the top 10% of schools nationally. Some 75% of pupils achieved grades 9 to 4 in maths and English, and 30% of students at that school achieved a grade 8 or 9, which are the top grades that can be achieved in a GCSE. I offer huge congratulations to Jane Austen College and all the staff and teachers at that school.
My hon. Friends the Members for Waveney (Peter Aldous) and for North West Norfolk raised the hugely important issue of special educational needs funding. We are absolutely committed to supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities to reach their full potential, and we expect all schools to play their part. That funding increase therefore includes more than £700 million of extra funding to support children with special educational needs and disabilities to access the education that is right for them. We recognise that local authorities have pressures on these budgets for next year, and alongside that additional funding we will continue to work with local authorities and schools to ensure that this investment is working well for those children in greater need. My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney also raised the important issue of funding for 16 to 19-year-olds.
I will look at that point. Ultimately these are matters for the schools themselves. The schools have an autonomous system, but we want to ensure that they have the funding they need to employ sufficient numbers of sufficiently well-trained SENCOs and teachers who are trained in helping children with special educational needs.
Despite all the positive announcements and the extra Government funding that will be passed on to local authorities to give to schools for special educational needs, there is a challenge. As we have raised previously, in many areas there is a lack of provision in the local NHS, particularly for children with moderate to severe special educational needs, and a lack of CAMHS and learning disability psychiatrists and nurses. What conversations will the Minister have to ensure a renewed focus from the Department of Health and Social Care, to ensure the recruitment of these important healthcare professionals, without whose expertise many young children will not get the extra help they need?
My hon. Friend raises a very important issue. We take the issue of mental health very seriously. He will also know, given that he is in the medical profession, that very significant extra funding was announced last year for the health service, with £20.5 billion more per year by 2023—these are huge sums of money—which will help to address many of the issues he has raised.
We also take mental health issues seriously in schools. We have published the Green Paper on the mental health of children and young people, which will put a mental health lead in every school. I think that issue was also raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk. At the moment, I think—this is off the top of my head, but I think my memory is right—that about half of secondary schools have such leads. We want every school to have them, supported by a mental health support unit. That is part of the Green Paper’s proposals and it will be very significantly funded as well. We also, of course, want to reduce the waiting times for children who need more specialist help with their mental health issues through CAMHS. We have given a commitment on reducing those waiting times.
On the issue of 16-to-19 funding, in addition to the schools and high needs blocks the investment also includes an additional £400 million to provide better education in colleges and school sixth forms in 2020-21. This means a 7% uplift to overall 16-to-19 funding, in addition to funding for staff pensions. We will also protect and increase the 16-to-19 base rate with funding worth £190 million, and provide a further £120 million for colleges and school sixth forms so that they can deliver those crucial but expensive subjects, such as engineering, that are vital for our future economy. This investment will help to ensure that we are building the skills that our country needs as we prepare to leave the European Union.
Of course, there are no great schools without great teachers. That is why this settlement offers a pledge to the members of this hard-working profession to put teaching where it belongs—at the top of the graduate labour market. Subject to the School Teachers Review Body process, this latest investment will make it possible to deliver the biggest reform of teacher pay in a generation, lifting teachers’ starting salaries to at least £30,000 by 2022. I reassure the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) that that will apply to all teachers; it will not differ by subject.
My hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk raised the issue of sparsity funding. The national funding formula includes support for small schools, especially in rural areas, and provides a lump sum of £110,000 for every school as a contribution to the costs that do not vary with pupil numbers. That gives schools certainty that they will attract a fixed amount each year in addition to the pupil-led funding. Last year, the sparsity factor in the formula allocated additional funding of £25 million specifically to schools that are both small and remote. Last year, therefore, 161 schools in East Anglia attracted a combined total of £3.2 million of sparsity funding.
With other schools in East Anglia that do not attract sparsity funding, either because they are not among the smallest schools nationally or because they are not far enough apart to meet the distance threshold, we have been clear that we want all schools to operate as efficiently as possible, and we believe that there is scope for rural schools in close proximity to work together to get the best value from their resources. However, we of course keep the formula under review and we are always prepared to change approaches to how we calculate sparsity. For example, should it be calculated based on as the crow flies, or should it be based on the actual distance travelled between schools?
While this additional funding will provide a crucial foundation on which to continue to build an excellent education for every pupil, it will also be vital to make sure that we get the very best value from every extra pound. Therefore, the Department’s support stretches much further than providing additional funding. Our announcements sit alongside our efforts to drive greater efficiency in school spending, and the Department’s school resource management strategy, which was launched last year, supports schools to make the most of every pound of their budgets. It includes deals to help schools to save money on the things they buy regularly, such as printers and photocopiers, and the roll-out of a free teacher vacancy listing website to help schools to find teachers and drive down recruitment costs.
In conclusion, I thank Members for their contributions to this debate and I am sure that many will want to know what the recent announcement means for their area and the schools in their own constituency. This information will be published early next month, once illustrative school-level allocations and provisional local authority-level allocations through the national funding formula are announced. I will end by reaffirming that this Government are committed to ensuring that all young people get the best possible start in life, and that includes ensuring the right funding for our schools. The substantial investment that we are making in our schools, the fairer distribution and levelling up of school funding, and the support to use those resources to the best effect are proof that that commitment is being delivered on in full.
I thank the Minister for his response, and I thank all those who have contributed to this timely and interesting debate.
On the issue of Jane Austen College and the Inspiration Trust, I have always been supportive of the teachers and the pupils in such schools. My issue has never been with them; it has always been with the philosophy behind free schools and academies, and sometimes with their leadership. We should understand the philosophy of free schools, which is—to quote a member of the Department, although I am not sure whether they expected their words to go public—to bring the chaos of the free market to our public state school education system. That has been one of my key concerns about free schools and the academy system.
I will make a last couple of points. The question that many of us have now is about this new money. It is welcome, but we ask ourselves, “Will our constituencies actually see any of this money, or will it be used disproportionately and cynically in key Tory marginals?” The answer remains to be seen.
Labour Members have always claimed that cuts to public services have been a political choice. Having listened to the Minister today, I think it is quite clear—now that this money has been found—that the last four years of cuts to our education system have been a political choice. We are glad that the money has been found, but the past four years have been very difficult for schools and they are still struggling.
Regarding pupils with special educational needs, we need to understand that £700 million will simply not be enough. This is a problem that goes far and wide and deep. It is systemic, and far more than £700 million will be needed if it is to be tackled properly. I think the Minister understands how severe this problem is, so I hope that more money can be found for children with SEN, their families and the support that they and their schools need.
Finally, no amount of new funding can ever make up for the lost opportunities—the lost childhoods—of those pupils who have been failed by successive Conservative Governments for these past few years, after billions of pounds of cuts have led to underfunding. No new money can ever make up for that.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered school funding in East Anglia.
Hull’s Maritime City Bid
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Hull’s bid to become a maritime city.
It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. The Hull: Yorkshire’s Maritime City project is underpinned by three key bodies: Hull City Council, which works to secure the ongoing prosperity of the city; Hull Culture and Leisure Ltd, which operates the city’s museums; and Hull Maritime Foundation, an independent registered charity that aims to support, protect and promote Hull’s maritime heritage through the project.
As one of the UK’s busiest ports, Hull has come a long way since the second world war, when it was referred to only as an “unnamed costal town” despite being hit harder than any other city outside of London during the blitz. Our port industry was hit, 95% of our houses were destroyed or damaged, and more than 1,200 people were killed in air raids on the city. Becoming the UK city of culture in 2017 put Hull on the map for all the right reasons, and in 2019 the scale of our ambition has not diminished.
The UK city of culture 2017 was an inspirational year: one of building confidence, showcasing our city, changing people’s minds and laying foundations for the future. Following from that success, the Hull: Yorkshire’s Maritime City project is a heritage-driven, city-wide cultural regeneration and place-making project that will continue to catalyse the remarkable transformation and momentum initiated by the UK city of culture 2017.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks. He is absolutely right that this project’s benefits will be felt far wider than Hull; they will spill over into east Yorkshire as well.
The project will take Hull to the next level as a destination renowned for its maritime heritage and culture. Hull’s rich maritime story will take centre stage, creating a long-term legacy for decades to come. The city has already surpassed expectations and changed the perceptions of many by presenting as proud, brave, confident, and outward-looking, transformed by investment in culture, people and place.
Our connection with the sea has shaped our landscape and our culture; it touches every piece of our identity and shapes the way we see ourselves. Our fighting spirit, determination, and desire to resolve injustices has been evident through the ages, from William Wilberforce and his campaign to abolish the slave trade to the headscarf revolutionaries and their battle against the powerful establishment to change fishing safety laws. The story of those women revolutionaries is quite extraordinary: their campaign started after the triple trawler disaster in 1968, when 58 fishermen based in the port lost their lives in three separate trawler sinkings in the space of less than a month. Those women collected more than 10,000 signatures on a petition calling for reform, led protest meetings, and even came down to London to lobby politicians. Among the measures the campaign secured were safety checks before vessels left port, radio operators for all ships, improved safety equipment, and a mother ship with medical facilities for all fleets.
Today, our connection to the sea continues to define Hull’s culture and economy. Maritime images dominated the city of culture opening ceremony; The Deep aquarium remains one of our tourist hotspots; and thousands of people travel through our port each month to European cities such as Amsterdam or Zeebrugge, reflecting the European movement of the late 19th century, when trans-migrants made their way through Hull on their way to North America.
Our future economic prosperity remains tied to our future as a port and the green energy estuary. We are creating wind turbines with Siemens that will help drive forward the green energy agenda, and are developing advances in battery storage to store the energy we produce. We are not always great at advertising our achievements, and it often comes as a surprise when people learn that the Humber is Britain’s busiest trading estuary. Our maritime endeavours continue to this day.
Knowing our history roots communities and creates a strong sense of identity; it gives people pride and drives community engagement. The city’s proud maritime heritage is central to our vision, and the Hull: Yorkshire’s Maritime City project will restore and re-interpret our maritime treasures so that they can take centre stage and be celebrated by the community. The project is based around five key elements of our maritime heritage, which are Hull Maritime Museum, the dock office chambers, the North End shipyard, and two ships: the Arctic Corsair, the sole survivor of Hull’s distant-water sidewinder trawler fleet, and the Spurn Lightship, which played a key role in Hull’s inland trade by guiding vessels as they navigated the Humber estuary. Both those ships will receive a full restoration, increased opening hours, a new interpretation and new displays, while the Arctic Corsair will also play host to a variety of training events and opportunities.
The extent of the renovation of the buildings is even more exciting. The project in the North End shipyard will commemorate how that site once contributed to Hull’s status as a global maritime port by housing the Arctic Corsair in a permanent dry berth, creating an additional attraction near the already successful museum quarter, and highlighting the Queen’s gardens—formerly the Queen’s dock—and their significance to the maritime story of Hull. The Maritime Museum will receive an additional 390 square metres of museum space, new public access to one of the building’s domes with superb rooftop views, improved education and visitor facilities, and new displays that will tell Hull’s maritime story in a unique and immersive way. That will lead to a 50% increase in the number of items available for public view, and better conservation of those items so that more of Hull’s people can benefit from them for longer.
However, Hull: Yorkshire’s Maritime City is so much more than a heritage project. By taking a heritage-driven approach to place-making, it will redefine the city for residents and visitors alike and transform the life chances of its citizens. Across the city, the project will promote ambition and civic pride, and raise aspirations by working with young people, older people, unemployed people, people with disabilities, and people and communities facing isolation. The project will benefit 150,000 people through informal learning and outreach programmes, while 10,000 pupils and students will benefit directly from engagement with our formal learning programme.
The activities available through the Hull: Yorkshire’s Maritime City plan will offer people the chance to gain practical skills through volunteering that will boost their employment opportunities and build confidence in a variety of employment settings. Skills-building opportunities will include heritage opportunities as well as transferable, public-facing skills such as oracy, developed through opportunities such as guided tours and event stewarding. By boosting confidence and increasing civic pride, the project will help to build strong, resilient communities that are motivated and inspired by their local heritage, fostering a strong and positive sense of place.
The Hull: Yorkshire’s Maritime City project will also boost our economy. A new economic impact assessment commissioned by Hull City Council to look at the benefits of the project concluded that it represents a positive return on investment and good value for money in high, medium and low-impact scenarios. It will create 121 jobs in the local economy through its construction, operation and supply chain, and as a result of visitor spend. The transformational reach and impact of the project will far outreach the sum of its parts, fulfilling its vision of being a truly heritage-driven, city-wide cultural and place-making project with people at its core. I am sure that the Minister will agree that it is a fantastic way for Hull to utilise its history to provide opportunity for the future.
Today, I ask the Minister to recognise the ambition of Hull City Council in supporting such a project, and to encourage the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to work with the council to deliver this ambitious and aspirational project, which embodies much of the thinking in the 2016 White Paper on culture and the 2017 Mendoza review. I also ask her to encourage cultural and tourism institutions sponsored by her Department to freely lend their expertise, and to offer their support and commitment to the project and engage with the team in Hull.
Finally, will the Minister ask the Secretary of State for Transport to work with the chief executive of Highways England, Jim O’Sullivan, to explore ways of unlocking the Highways England designated funds process at the earliest opportunity—to allow consideration of the A63 footbridge Spurn Lightship proposal, which would add so much value to this project? I hope the Minister feels she will be able to work with me to achieve this step in securing Hull’s future.
It is a delight for my ministerial debut to happen under your auspices, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) for bringing such a fascinating subject to the Chamber. As she knows, my Somerset constituency is a long way from Hull, but as a Back Bencher I always tried to champion it, as she is championing Hull. It is the right thing to do. We learned a great deal about Hull. I have not been there myself, but she whetted my appetite, because there seems to be so much going on. The plans for the Maritime City are interesting and exciting and I look forward to seeing them progress.
Few cities have had the recent dramatic transformation that Hull has had. The hon. Lady mentioned its history and how devastated it was after the war; it has undergone a massive transformation. As she also mentioned, it was a hugely successful city of culture in 2017, during which time more than 5 million visitors came to the city. That really enhanced the pride of its residents. More than half the city’s businesses reported an increased turnover because of all the effort that was put into that year. It is heartening that the city continues to capitalise on that success, so that it was not a one-off year. It has sparked something that will continue, which is very much the thinking behind the city of culture. We are thinking about the next one now, Coventry, which I hope will be as successful as Hull.
As the hon. Lady said, the Maritime City project will champion Hull’s eight centuries of fishing history, which will be encompassed in some of the projects that will come forward. I was interested to read about that history, particularly the trawlers. The fishing industry went as far afield as Iceland and the White sea, which is something that the city is proud of and that we should be proud of as a nation. The two historic ships, which are both on the national historic ships register, will be part of the project, as will the world-class maritime museum, which sounds fascinating.
The project will maximise the potential of those existing assets to bring visitors to the city, celebrate its history and use that history to enhance the future, which is the essence of place-making. The project will accomplish several milestones for the city. The investment in the Hull Maritime Museum will constitute its first major refurbishment in 40 years and will hugely expand it as a centrepiece for the city. The hon. Lady referred to the Mendoza report, which highlighted the value of our museums, the benefit they can bring and how much we should celebrate them. In Taunton, a great deal of investment was put into our museum and the number of visitors increased from 30,000 to 120,000 in the first year, which is phenomenal.
The Arctic Corsair trawler is the last vestige of the trawler industry and a real flagship. It is the last surviving sidewinder trawler—I have learned something—and it will receive a fitting final home in its own dry dock in the North End shipyard, as the hon. Lady highlighted, which will allow it to remain open and accessible to the public. The Government are keen to support that and have already provided £50,000 through the coastal revival fund. That pot of money, which came from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, already supports conservation and restoration work on the ship.
As hon. Members present are aware, my portfolio encompasses not just arts and heritage, but the tourism agenda. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) mentioned the wider benefits of the project. Indeed, there will be real benefits across the board for the wider area of increasing the offer in Hull. There is real evidence that demonstrating and doing more with the UK’s historic sites can draw in many more tourists.
That is a lovely offer. I love Yorkshire anyway—I think it is very close to Somerset in its feel—and I would very much like to make a trip and visit all these places, particularly Hull, to see what has been gained from being the city of culture and learn the lessons for the next city of culture. I am sure my team will take that offer up.
Tourism in the wider East Yorkshire region contributed £878 million in 2017 and provided almost 20,000 jobs, so it is a valuable part of the economy. In the past two years, overseas visits to East Yorkshire and Hull have hit new heights; there were 113,000 in 2018. The region’s forthcoming tourism strategy will build on that trend, because there are great opportunities.
I am particularly excited that several elements of the Maritime City project address the issue of improved access for disabled visitors. I strongly believe that our heritage sites and visitor attractions should be accessible to everyone. It is a growing sector. As Tourism Minister—I hope it lasts—I am particularly emphasising that in the tourism sector deal. For the first time, disabled visitors will be able to get aboard the Arctic Corsair following its restoration.
It is encouraging that, when the DCMS/Wolfson Museums and Galleries Improvement Fund expert panel decided to award £150,000 to the Hull Maritime Museum refurbishment, it specifically noticed the emphasis placed on better access for visitors with disabilities, which was one of the reasons for its success. The project should be highly commended for prioritising and integrating the needs of all Hull’s visitors.
Hull’s potential was recognised by Historic England in 2017, when it was announced as one of its first heritage action zones. Through advice and financial support, that initiative aims to create partnerships that will improve economic growth and the quality of life in Hull’s old town. Ultimately, it will secure new uses for historic buildings, increase affordable housing and seek better links with the waterfront to better exploit that maritime heritage. That all chimes well with the Maritime City project.
Hull’s upward trajectory has been facilitated and enhanced by a flood of investment in arts and culture over the last few years—lots of places would be quite jealous of how much Hull has achieved. Grants from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the Arts Council, many of which have focused on the importance of getting communities engaged and involved, have had a huge impact. Engaging communities in that way is so important in making a success of a place.
There has been a raft of events, such as the Freedom Festival, the Big Malarkey Festival—we would not have been allowed, Mr Hollobone, because it was a kids’ event, but it was all about books and stories, so I was interested to hear about it as I am also the Libraries Minister—and the Creative People and Places project, which have had great success in attracting new audiences to become engaged in and inspired by the arts.
I am also pleased that the Maritime City project has taken note of the need to involve people across the board. It has staged roadshows across the city to showcase the project and foster community buy-in. More than 10,000 residents have already taken part and been reached as part of the council’s integrated work that has already been referred to. Together, the Heritage Fund and the Arts Council have given more than £2 million to Absolutely Cultured to build on the legacy of Hull’s UK city of culture year, which shows a universal desire for the city not to rest on its laurels.
What has been achieved in Hull with the help of grants from those two organisations really demonstrates the importance of national lottery funding for major UK projects, which is to be particularly celebrated in this, its 25th anniversary year. Hull could be used as something of a model for funding. The Heritage Fund has given more than £7 million to projects in Hull in the last five years and its £1.4 million development grant for the Maritime City project has been catalytic in getting it to the current stage.
Of course, as a Minister, one cannot second-guess the outcome of the second round bid the project has put in to the Heritage Fund. The decision will be taken by the north area committee, which I believe has visited the site already, or is to do so later this month. However, whether or not the application is successful, there is reason to be confident that the city of Hull will find a way to bring the ambitious plans in the bid to fruition.
The Maritime City project is perfectly placed to capitalise on the momentum generated by Hull’s year as city of culture and the other factors I have mentioned. The legacy of that year can be keenly felt throughout the city. There are some truly impressive statistics. To name just a couple, in 2018 the city’s employment rate and number of businesses reached their highest ever recorded rate, including more than 550 new cultural jobs. That is a pretty extraordinary outcome.
I note with interest the opportunities in the project bid for training and skills, which I was very pleased to see. Those are particular elements in the new tourism sector deal, which hopes to build skills and apprenticeships so that our young people feel that there is a future working in tourism and such sectors in these areas. The developments in Hull will surely offer opportunities that will keep younger people there and stop them from thinking they need to go somewhere else to get good employment. I was pleased to see that as part of the bid.
As a result of all the work in Hull, I believe that civic pride is at an all-time high, with three in four residents reporting that they are proud to live in Hull—perhaps the others will be got on board with all the new projects coming to fruition! Recent VisitEngland findings show that Hull Maritime Museum has had the greatest growth among all museums and galleries nationally, with an almost 400% increase in visits. That is absolutely phenomenal and has happened even before the refurbishment of the museum. It is a great demonstration of the role that museums can hold.
As has been outlined, the Maritime City project, which involves five different sites, including the two historic vessels, will attract a further 300,000 visitors to Hull and potentially bring an additional £2.86 million to the local economy. It will be a huge boon for the city, continuing its upward trajectory to become a must-visit destination in the UK.
We want UK visitors to go to places such as Hull. We also want to attract international visitors. With our new airport links, building on, for example, the special deal in Manchester to encourage inbound tourism, or with Newcastle Airport, perhaps we can get people to use those routes—these are all good selling points for people who are going up north. We want to strengthen that, and tourism, arts, heritage and culture really help. I was so pleased to hear there is cross-party support for this project. Things are often successful with cross-party support as it demonstrates very wide interest—not, of course, that I can influence the decision.
The hon. Lady raised a point about Highways England. I will ascertain what might be holding that particular aspect up and how it might be moved forward, and report back. I urge the hon. Lady to continue championing the cause, which helps a great deal; it is always good to have a champion.
Hull has a unique place in the UK’s maritime history. We discussed the two ships in Hull—I have knowledge of the SS Great Britain in Bristol, which has very good disabled access; Bristol has an interesting maritime history as well. The SS Great Britain is a huge tourist attraction in Bristol, visited by a great many people. It is a beautiful place to visit, and so I know how attractive such ships can be to the public, who are intrigued about their history. It makes perfect sense to build on that heritage for the future.
Should the bid be successful, I am sure that Yorkshire’s Maritime City, Hull, will continue to grow and develop and maintain its unique position, that more people will hear about it, that businesses will benefit, that more visitors will come and that we will all be reminded of our glorious seafaring past, which is so much part of our history in the UK.
Question put and agreed to.
High-income Child Benefit Charge
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the high-income child benefit charge.
It is always a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
One might ask why I have brought this debate; it is a fairly obscure area of tax and benefits. I have done so out of the frustration felt by a number of constituents who face the high-income child benefit tax charge and its after-effects and, as a chartered accountant and chartered tax adviser, anything tax-related always rattles my bell. This is a topic of great interest on mumsnet.com and moneysavingexpert.com, which have covered the issue in some depth.
I suppose we must start at the beginning—always a good place to start. Why did we implement this high-income child benefit tax charge, when child benefit had been a universal benefit, enjoyed by all, for very many years? The issue was first raised in October 2010 by the then Chancellor, George Osborne, and it was one of the measures used to try to get some more savings for the Treasury after the simply appalling state of the nation’s affairs that we were left with after the 2010 election.
The legislation was first mooted in the 2012 Budget, and it came into effect on 7 January 2013. That in itself was a bizarre date to choose, and one might ask why it was not simply started on 6 April in the next available tax year, which might have made life a little simpler. I have not found figures for how much the clawback and the lack of take-up of child benefit have saved the Treasury, but I estimate it to be somewhere in the region of £2 billion to £3 billion a year—certainly a very useful amount to fill up the hole left by Labour in 2010.
The charge applies above an adjusted net income of £50,000. Adjusted net income is not the usual measure of what we anticipate to be our taxable profit or income; it is the gross income from all sources, less gift aid and pension contributions. It does not include personal allowance. In very simple terms, if a pay-as-you-earn employee has a gross income of £50,000 before personal allowance, they would start to feel the effects of the high-income child benefit tax charge.
The way it works is that there is a clawback of 1% of child benefit for each £100 of additional income over the £50,000, so by the time someone has an adjusted net income of £60,000, all that child benefit is tapered away. It sounds complicated even trying to lay it out in the simple terms that I have, but one thing that comes out of this is that it is a salutary lesson in how not to withdraw a universal benefit through the tax system. What we have on the statute book, which runs to many tens of pages of tax law, is the truly mad basis of trying to claw back a benefit. It is not related to overall family income, which many people describe as one of the real drawbacks of the system.
Let me give an example. Family income is recognised as the measure for most other Department for Work and Pensions benefits. For instance, there is no withdrawal of child benefit for a couple both earning £50,000—the high-income child benefit tax charge does not apply, even though the family income is a generous £100,000. In another family, in which only one parent is working and earning, say, £60,000, and the other is not working, there would be a full claw-back of the child benefit given. That makes life complicated for people on pay-as-you-earn, who can do nothing about their income, and there is also the issue of fairness. Family businesses, or people in sole trade, perhaps have a greater opportunity for sharing income, splitting income or indeed creating a partnership to split the income down to the golden £50,000, so that there is no loss of child benefit.
I feel that this situation has led to an inherent unfairness in the system, which is one of my concerns. My other concern is the means of collection, and there lies the problem that we have faced. People who recognise that they will not qualify for child benefit can choose simply to disclaim the benefit and not receive it at all. That has been on the rise over the years since the charge has been in place. In 2013, 397,000 people were not claiming the benefit, and the number has now increased to 516,000. That is due to two issues, one of which is fiscal drag—the level has not been raised since January 2013, which is something I will raise later.
Some people are happy and feel that it is to the family advantage to maintain their cash flow—get the money into their bank with the monthly receipt of child benefit, then simply pay it back at the end of the year. Some people do that. However, the real madness in the system—we should have tax systems that make things easier—is that the implementation of these measures forced 500,000 more people into the requirement to fill in a self-assessment tax return. It is a huge bureaucratic cost to taxpayers, and managing the system must also be a significant cost to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. It is the root of the problem of collection.
Many PAYE employees have had never had to touch the tax system or fill in a self-assessment return. Luckily for them, they have been merrily ignorant of anything to do with tax. It is all done at source by their employers—if they have no further complicated tax affairs, they need do no more. The current situation has been a particular hardship for these taxpayers. They might not have spotted the advertising that was fairly extensive at the time. They perhaps received less than £50,000 at the time, but over the years their income has crept over that figure due to wage rises and better business.
I have raised this issue for a couple of my constituents and pursued it with great vigour. I have argued with HMRC that the information about which PAYE employees would face this charge is well known to Government through the real-time information system of payroll that bigger employers have had to implement since April 2012, and was rolled out gradually over time to all employers, even the smaller ones, running a PAYE system. The information was available—primarily to the DWP, so that it can assess whether people in receipt of benefits should not be, but HMRC had access to the system.
I have failed to agree with HMRC’s stance on this. It claims that the arm of Government dealing with the DWP has got no relevance to their arm, which deals with tax. The data has not been shared, even though the arms of Government had the information at their fingertips and could have advised people that they were potentially falling foul of the system. In my arguments to HMRC on behalf of my constituents, I argued for extra-statutory concession A19, which is often used when HMRC makes a mistake—often with the elderly. I saw this very regularly when I was one of the volunteers for Tax Help for Older People in Kent. HMRC has had the information and applied the wrong code across different pensions. Three years later, an assessment turns up. Extra-statutory concession A19 makes HMRC give up that tax if it has been in receipt of information but has not used it properly.
Of the constituents who have been found not to have done what they should have done—registered to do a self-assessment return, possibly for the first time in their life—they have been, well, not happy, but comfortable enough, even given what ESC A19 says: that they should pay the money back. They are quite happy with that. However, many of these people have faced a tax-geared penalty under section 97 of, and schedule 24 to, the Finance Act 2007. That penalty has generally been at the lowest rate of 15% under the careless but prompted regime, under HMRC’s fines regime. However, they have also faced statutory interest, which is currently at 3.75%. Many people understand that, if they have been in receipt of child benefit for a few years and should not have been, they should pay it back, but they feel particularly aggrieved about a 15% penalty and the statutory interest.
I argued with HMRC, for my constituents, that the suspended penalty regime, under paragraphs 1 and 14 of schedule 24 to the Finance Act 2007, should be the equitable solution. This is a procedure by which HMRC, with discretion, is allowed to put those penalties on hold and effectively say, “If you are good taxpayers for the next couple of years, this will disappear”; the penalty is then discharged. HMRC responded to me with, I must say, an innovative obtuseness that I rarely see. It responded that schedule 41 of the Finance Act 2008 applies, as the taxpayer had failed to notify, in accordance with section 7 of the Taxes Management Act 1970. They had failed to notify, so that penalty suspension, which is allowed for other taxpayers, does not apply. The taxpayer is also in some difficulty should they wish to go to the first-tier tribunal as well, which would always result in failure on a statutory basis.
I think the pressure of mumsnet.com, moneysavingexpert.com and, hopefully, myself has made HMRC use a degree of discretion in its ability to interpret “carelessness”, which is always a vague term. My thought of carelessness might be different from yours, Mr Chairman. However, HMRC has gone back and reassessed many penalty assessments. Over the time of this new charge, there have been 97,405 penalties across 37,406 customers. As ever, thanks to the Library for pulling out that type of detail for me. The charge has raised £15 million of penalties, which is not a vast sum. A recent review—I think the Daily Mail was very much behind this, with pressure from some of its readers—shows that, of those 35,000 cases involving a failure to notify, a penalty of 15% had been charged because a reasonable excuse was not accepted. HMRC has actually recanted on that and allowed quite a number of thousands—6,000, I believe—of these penalties to be waived, with £1.8 million of penalty refunds.
As part of its work, HMRC has designed a helpful flow diagram showing two events for which penalties could be refunded. The first is for when income has increased from below £50,000 to above £50,000 since the start of the high-income child benefit tax regime, and the second is for when a taxpayer has started a new relationship, since the introduction of the charge, with a partner who is in receipt of child benefit. Those are the two cases for which HMRC has given in and agreed to the suspension of penalties, and that is to be very much applauded.
What do people do when they have a new child and make a claim? If they know that their income is over the limit, they may not bother at all—they might think, “We just won’t get involved.” For other families there is the CH2 form, which I will mention in more detail shortly. As I have laid out thus far, we have dragged half a million people into the self-assessment net. We have raised penalties under a system that I do not agree is reasonable on statutory grounds. We are learning a lesson: should we seek to withdraw universal benefits in some other field—that suggestion is not on the Conservative agenda, but it is raised from time to time, for example with winter fuel allowance—this has to be a salutary lesson in how never to use the tax system to withdraw benefits.
I will conclude by addressing five areas, which might take a little time. We have fiscal drag, because the thresholds at which the full benefit is withdrawn—namely £50,000 and £60,000—have applied unchanged for six years. We now find that as wages rise, more people are dragged annually into self-assessment. Since its inception in 2013, 370,000 more families have to fill in a self-assessment return.
I am very surprised that the House did not pick up at the time on the fact that the system completely blows away the independent status of taxation for couples. Even up to 1990, women were deemed to be the chattels of their husbands, and there was a single tax return. In 1990, that was thankfully blown away, having been overdue for a long time. I think the groundwork was laid by Geoffrey Howe and seen through by Lord Lamont. After that date, people were treated as they should be for tax: as individuals.
The system blows that away because one partner now needs to ask the other, “What do you earn, because I need to determine whether it is you or I who pays the high income child benefit tax charge?” The partner in receipt of the child benefit might not be the one paying the charge; it always falls on the higher earner. Whereas before there was decent independence and secrecy between partners should they so wish, that was blown away by the legislation, and I do not feel that could ever be right.
Subsequent tax legislation has also had an unusual and, I think, unforeseen impact, including, particularly, on buy-to-let property. At the start of my speech, I mentioned the concept of adjusted net income, which is income from PAYE, rents, dividends and whatever else one might receive. Changes to buy-to-let allowability of mortgage interest, however, have had an unforeseen impact. Years ago, rental income less expenses and mortgage interest would give a net figure, which would form the top end of the tax return and be part of the creation of the relevant net income. With the gradual restriction of the allowability of mortgage interest—I will not expand on whether that is right, wrong or indifferent—the tax return looks different. Net relevant income for rental purposes does not include the deduction for mortgage interest, which now comes at the bottom part of the tax return. Instantly, the net relevant income at the top part of the tax return is now bigger for many people with mortgage interest, even though the net effect for cash flow and everything else might be the same. There is now some relief for mortgage interest at the bottom part of the tax return, by way of a credit of tax.
I did not see the full shortcomings of that piece of legislation at the time, even though, at that Budget statement some years ago, I raised concerns about changing the whole deductibility regime, which is fundamental to tax. That legislation has caused another group of families, who are doing nothing particularly exotic, to be dragged into the high income child benefit tax charge, as their income has pitched into the £50,000-plus bracket because of the deductibility of mortgage interest, even though nothing has changed.
A real concern shared by all hon. Members in the Chamber is that of the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign. They have been active because they have an axe to grind and I think that many of us have sympathy with some of what they have to say. We are potentially building another problem for the future—thankfully, I might be long gone from this place before it has to be solved.
Earlier I described what people might do when they have a new baby. If they have earnings of more than £60,000, they might think, “I just can’t be bothered to fill in the form. I’m not going to get anything; why would I bother?” The CH2 form is not unreasonable or too complex—it is actually quite free flowing and easy to understand—but a lot of people do not bother at all.
The other choice they have, by filling in form CH2, is to take the child benefit and then pay it back annually through their self-assessment return, or to register for a nil award so that they are in receipt of child benefit but at nil value. That is really important for those who do not follow that route. They do not want the hassle of a self-assessment return, so they decide to do nothing. The partner in that relationship, who is perhaps not working, will not be building up a national insurance record, because if someone fills in form CH2 and decides not to take any child benefit, they will at least be crediting up a national insurance contribution under class 3. My concern is that people do not know that this is there for them and are saying, as many of us do, “I can’t be bothered to fill in another form. I don’t think I will get anything. I won’t do it.”
We are potentially building up a problem of people—let us be frank, it is probably predominantly women—who will find in the future that they do not have the national insurance record that they thought they had. When they get their DWP statement with details of the award they will receive with the new state pension some six months before retirement age, they will find it is rather less than they thought.
We have to ask ourselves why we have dragged 1.2 million families into the system—and that figure is rising, due to fiscal drag and the measures for buy-to-let property mortgage interest. It is worth mentioning the perversities in the whole tax calculation. I do not know how Parliament missed that. I was not here in 2013, but had I been I might have spotted it. It is an unusual situation, but when dealing with tax systems, I think it best to flex the edges to find out where the problems are.
This is an extreme case, but it is catered for on the gov.uk website: in 2019-20 a family with 10 children—there are not too many of those around—would be in receipt of £7,500 of child benefit. Anyone earning £50,000, including a self-employed person, would be in receipt of £7,500 in child benefit, but if they had the opportunity of a great new contract to get their income up to £60,000, under this system they would have to pay back that entire £7,500. In my view, tax lost—tax paid—and benefit lost are the same thing. What lands in someone’s bank account is the same thing, whether that is through losing benefit or paying more tax. In effect, therefore, for that extreme example of a family, there would be a 75% clawback charge, because they would pay back the £7,500 child benefit owing to that £10,000 in additional income.
That is not where the matter ends, of course. People who earn £50,000 are higher-rate taxpayers, paying 40% tax and, if employed, 2% national insurance. We therefore have the perversity, which I am sure is not always seen, of a 117% tax charge and benefit loss. For that extra £10,000, that taxpayer will actually be worse off by £11,700. There should not be such perversities in the tax system.
I like a debate to end with a solution, but there is no easy solution to this one—I grant the Financial Secretary that great problem. I would like to extend the penalty suspension to all, because I think HMRC has been rather obtuse about this one. If people start to do the right thing, past penalties should be suspended and, if they do the right thing for the following two years, those penalties should disappear.
The easier option would be to restore the universality of child benefit. Nothing is simpler than that—everyone gets it without means testing or complication—but the Government and the Treasury understandably want to claw back that benefit from people in receipt of higher income. A complicated solution—or, rather, a politically difficult one—would be to reduce the personal allowance for those with children. They would get their full child benefit but pay a little more in tax. At least that could be coded out—they need not worry about the self-assessment system—and for the PAYE taxpayer with simple affairs, things would be just as they are. However, that would be a difficult way to do it.
It would be simpler, perhaps, to make a higher universal child benefit payment, which this year is £20.70 for the first child and £13.70 for subsequent children, subject to the benefits cap. Any increased child benefit, however, should be made a taxable benefit. Therefore, through coding, the Government could claw back 20% from a basic rate taxpayer, and 40% from a 40% taxpayer. For those with complicated tax affairs, adding the layer of clawing back the high income child benefit tax charge is no great difficulty. Something similar happens already. The retired have a simple coding adjustment for private pensions to reflect the level of their state pension.
We need a new and elegant solution, and to learn the lesson that whenever Governments in future claw back benefit, they should not do it in this way, through the tax system. It has created bureaucracy and angst, and I am worried that normal, law-abiding taxpayers now feel that they have done something very wrong because of those levels of penalties. That is my appeal to the Financial Secretary.
The debate can go on until 7.30 pm. I am obliged to call the first of the Front-Bench spokespeople at no later than seven minutes past 7 o’clock. The guideline limits are five minutes for the SNP, five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister to respond. Mr Mackinlay will then have three minutes at the end to sum up the debate. Until 7.7 pm, therefore, we will still be in Back-Bench time. I see that Mr Jim Shannon wishes to contribute.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I thank the hon. Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) for setting the scene with such detail, informationally and correctly. I am here not because I feature in Westminster Hall so regularly but because the issue is important to me and my constituents. I deal with it regularly in my office.
The hon. Gentleman set the scene well with examples of what has happened to his constituents. I would mirror those examples, and I will express similar concerns. It is unfortunate that more Members are not present for the debate, but obviously there are enticements elsewhere and reasons for people’s attention to be committed to the main Chamber. That does not detract in any way from the importance of this issue. I am pleased, as always, to see the Minister in his place. We look forward to hearing his comprehensive response.
The child benefit payments issue is of great concern to many of my constituents. Although many might not qualify for good reason, I will give examples of those who probably should qualify but for the paperwork, the potential penalties for getting it wrong and then having to catch up. That applies not just to child benefit but to tax credits—people fill in a form, their circumstances change in the year and they find themselves owing money back. Tax credits are not the subject of this debate, of course, but I make that comment about what puts people off. When a system is going well, it is marvellous, but when it goes wrong, it can be a real stinker.
Child benefit makes a difference to many families in my constituency. From the outset, I must say that I am an advocate of the current threshold and the importance of having that system. I know of many women who gave up their jobs or went part-time to mind their child and therefore rely almost entirely on the wage of their partner. The weekly child benefit supplement helps with the day-to-day bills that need to be paid. Without that, households would simply not function. The Government might argue that that is not the purpose of the child benefit system, but I think that its purpose is to enable parents to look after their children in whatever way they feel is right.
I am concerned about some cases in which one partner is just over the threshold and has to start to do self-assessments. I know of a few cases in which couples earn well below the £99,000 that they could earn when taken together—for example, one partner on £50,000 and the other on £15,000—but decide to forfeit their child benefit. Over-cautious, and in fear and trepidation, they would rather that than face the hassle and possibly do the paperwork incorrectly. That is wrong—people losing the benefit rather than have the hassle. I am therefore keen to endorse what the hon. Member for South Thanet said and to seek ministerial guidance on how we can help such people.
Something is wrong with a system that sets out to help people genuinely, sincerely and honestly, but fails those who could qualify. How do we enable those people to fit into the system? Some might say that they can afford to live on what they have, but as they put it to me, “We are firmly middle class.” Over the past few years in this House, I have often said that one of the categories of people to suffer greatly in society, because of everything that has happened during recent times, is the lower middle class—the ones not far enough up to qualify. For that squeezed bunch of people, the child benefit system is there to help, but unfortunately it does not. One constituent said:
“we are firmly middle class. We will never be able to afford to pay all our bills and also help our children with buying a car, or tools for their trade, or books for university”—
or student grants—
“so we attempt to save from child benefit so there is money for the child when they need it.”
They use that system with the clear and singular purpose of benefiting their children. That is an example from my office; the hon. Gentleman referred to similar examples, and I suspect that once I sit down, other hon. Members will do too. I fear that the self-assessment mechanism precludes their getting that money and, in the long term, that that disadvantages the child and the family. But that is not its purpose, so the system must improve.
HMRC issued around 97,500 penalty assessments to around 37,500 customers, amounting to almost £15 million. When people consider the penalties, the self-assessment and the amount of money, they must think, “I’m not going through that. I don’t want to get it wrong inadvertently.” People do not set out to get it wrong, but they start the process, get it wrong through no fault of their own and end up with a large bill. Those figures show that some people are paying very large bills. Although it is not the Government’s intention, people decide not to pursue their claim.
I believe there is a different way of ensuring that high earners can have access to what they are entitled to. People whom the Government say are entitled should apply. How do we help those who are entitled? Every year, the Government tell us that so much money is returned to the Treasury because it is not taken up. It could be all kinds of benefits, not just child benefit: attendance allowance, personal independence payments, employment and support allowance, community care grants or pension credit—all the things that people may qualify for. If the money is not used, it goes back. I always say to the person, “You know something? You’ve worked hard all your days. You’ve paid your national insurance stamp; you’ve paid your tax every year; you’re a contributor to society. If you qualify for something, for goodness’ sake, apply for it.” It is important that we encourage people to do that.
Some people feel that they need to see an accountant. That is fine for those who have an accountant for their business. For those who are employed with a set wage and cautious of the penalty notices, if they make overtures to an accountant to see what they can do for them, there is a cost factor that can be off-putting. People are looking at whether they can be better off; they do not want to pay a cost for something that may lead to nothing. What has been done to enable those who would qualify to receive their money?
I will conclude, and well in advance of the end of the speaking time that you indicated, Mr Hollobone. Will the Minister indicate how we can streamline the process, bearing in mind that families are entitled to this benefit? I see families who are entitled to something but do not pursue it because they are uncertain, cautious or worried that it may disadvantage them somewhere down the line. While the money may not necessarily go on nappies or similar, it does go to providing for children, which is what the Government are determined to do.
The Minister has committed to ensuring that everyone who wants the benefit can apply for it, but in my constituency, that of the hon. Member for South Thanet and the constituencies of other hon. Members, there are many examples of people who do not pursue it because of the uncertainty. The current system is overly onerous and off-putting. I believe we can and must do better.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the chair, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) for bringing this debate on an important issue that highlights a real gap between the Government’s intention and their delivery, which is failing a lot of people. He laid out the limitations of the policy, which was headline-grabbing but has proven to be almost entirely ineffective and bureaucratic. It takes a benefit that ought to be one of the simplest—child benefit, paid to help children as an important universal benefit—and whittles away at it until it becomes a complex bureaucratic system that people will find difficult to access.
Organisations such as the Women’s Budget Group have long argued that the UK Government’s approach to balancing the books is gendered and does not stand up to the most rudimental scrutiny from an equality perspective. This policy is a key example of that. Budgets and spending reviews come and go, but we are yet to see any real strategic direction in tackling gender inequality. The hon. Member for South Thanet mentioned that it removes the independence of individuals in the tax system. In doing so, it sets the scene for universal credit, which also removes independence by treating people as a household rather than individuals, and damages women’s financial ability in a relationship. In many cases, women are left in the grips of financial coercive control, and they do not have the financial ability to get out of an abusive relationship.
Looking at this policy, it is no surprise that women, particularly mothers, are disproportionately affected. The UK Government have failed to make it clear to stay-at-home mums that even if they are not eligible to receive child benefit, they should still claim it and subsequently fill in a self-assessment tax return and pay the money back, in order to receive those national insurance contributions. This is not an intuitive process; in fact, it is quite the opposite. Self-assessment is complex and stressful. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, people get lost in the complexity of the system. They are worried about getting it wrong, and they might have to get accountants involved. That should not be the case for something as simple and basic as child benefit—the money should follow the child.
When I was elected, I knew vaguely about the child benefit process. I panicked, phoned up and cancelled the child benefit I had previously received when I was a local government councillor earning considerably less than I do now. If MPs are led to panic, what chance does anyone else have? It is absurdly convoluted and beyond the reasonable expectation that most people would have of such a system. It is a very concerning prospect that this policy could store up significant problems for the future, as the hon. Member for South Thanet set out. Many of my constituents are suffering now from previous derelictions of duty in long-term pension planning. We have all heard horror stories of the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign; women were not told that their pensions had changed until 14 years after the policy was introduced. There is every chance that a new generation of women will run into similar problems.
The child benefit form that is issued to parents is not particularly simple. It includes a statement that claiming child benefit can help to protect someone’s state pension, but it is not clear enough what that actually means and what the future implications will be. The Treasury believes that 200,000 parents may be affected. It fails to make it clear that a non-working parent—usually the mother—should be the one to fill out the benefit form in order to build up those credits. It has been suggested that an easy short-term fix would be to change the form, but we need to look at long-term solutions. Would the Minister consider a review of the policy in the round, to actively look for cases of error where people may have unknowingly built up a gap in their pension contributions? We need to alert those affected. The Government have a duty to make sure that people get the money back, because they have not been clear enough.
It has been suggested that a claim should be triggered automatically when a birth is registered; that may be worth exploring in more detail. Will the Minister make an interim change to the wording on the form, and order a longer term review of this whole bourach of a process? Most parents will say that when they have a newborn baby in their arms, the last thing they want to do is fill in an extensive form about incomes. Of course, incomes will change—sometimes dramatically—over the course of a child’s life. Those kinds of things have happened again and again, and now we have the effect on the economy of the chaos of Brexit coming in.
As I mentioned, it is a distressing thought, but the reality for many women is that their partners seek to exercise financial control over them. That small amount of money can be incredibly important to a woman making plans to leave an abusive relationship, so child benefit must not be removed by making it more difficult to access. The higher earning person in that household—often the father—may say, “Don’t you worry about it; you stay at home and I’ll earn the money. You don’t need to worry about this”, which removes the woman’s chance of being financially independent. The notion that a woman has to know her partner’s intimate financial details is quite unusual. My husband and I have separate bank accounts. I have no idea what he earns, but I was expected to phone up and give intimate details to someone over the phone. That will be all the more difficult for a woman in a situation of financial coercive control, and it will give the male parent a huge amount of control.
The Minister must look at this in significant detail. He must try to assess the issues and put them right before we end up with another situation like that of the WASPI women. We cannot have another situation in which women are disproportionately affected by an ill-thought-through Government policy from Westminster.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate with you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) on securing the debate, which has been very good and detailed. I will not repeat all the points he made, or indeed all those made by the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), because I agree with very many of them, but I want to underline some of the questions that I hope the Minister is able to answer, or at least some of the issues that his Department needs strenuously to take on board.
As was rightly mentioned, new research on the high-income child benefit charge indicates that much larger numbers of people are being drawn into the system than were initially. The Institute for Fiscal Studies indicated that since the £50,000 threshold has not shifted upwards, about 36% more people—370,000 more families— will lose child benefit in 2019-20 than in 2013-14. The system is now also interacting with changed tax systems for other sources of income, such as the system for those who eventually rely on rental income.
The Labour party has consistently objected to the removal of the universal nature of child benefit. Clearly, however, there are also practical reasons why the high-income charge is unfit. It has added unnecessary complications, many of which we have already heard about, and it has had a significant impact by requiring up to around half a million people to engage in self-assessment, which is not an easy process.
The hon. Member for South Thanet mentioned that about 6,000 cases of supposed over-claiming of child benefit have been written off by HMRC, which has handed out refunds of about £1.8 million. It would be helpful to hear from the Minister what work is being undertaken to ensure that all those who might benefit from some kind of refund of additional charges levied because of alleged over-claiming—I am not sure I like that term, to be honest—are aware of that.
I hope the Minister also deals with the suggestion the hon. Gentleman rightly made that the real-time information system could proactively be used to try to identify those who might be in danger of falling into this kind of trap. I am concerned to see yet again what appears to be a lack of co-ordination on what are often viewed as Department for Work and Pensions responsibilities but in practice are delivered by HMRC or in some other way by the Treasury. I was concerned just before the recess that the Minister’s Department did not seem to want to take responsibility for the clawing back of alleged overpayments of working tax credit from universal credit. It said that was a DWP issue. It is not; it is a Treasury issue. Yet again, we have a lack of co-ordination. That needs to be dealt with.
The high-income charge increases the complexity of the already incredibly complex tax system HMRC is expected to deal with, and having to deal with appeals arising from the charge increases the enormous burden that HMRC staff already face. We all know that HMRC has been cut more than any other European nation’s tax department aside from that of Greece, which I suspect is not an example we would want to follow. We see the burden on HMRC staff increasing all the time, not least given the prospect of a no-deal Brexit—we could hardly have ignored that at the beginning of the debate, given the noise from outside. Will the Minister say what resource HMRC is being given to deal with that?
I share the concerns about the impact of the high-income charge on families with sole earners, which was rightly emphasised by the hon. Member for Strangford and others. I also share the concerns about the impact of the charge on independence. It is part of what we might call a triple whammy of a whole range of measures, including what we have seen in relation to universal credit.
This debate has echoed many of the issues with childcare tax credits, where there has been a lot of confusion about things such as the relationship between parents’ incomes and who loses out as a result. The hon. Gentleman described how families often use child benefit to create an asset for their children. That has become increasingly important and relevant, as of course we no longer have the child trust fund.
It is important that the Minister explains what is being done to deal with the long-term problem of people inadvertently becoming unable to accrue state pension credits because they do not qualify for national insurance contributions or indicate that they want to be part of the system. Obviously, that disproportionately discriminates against women. There is already a huge gender pension gap. What are the Government doing to ensure that those who might be caught by this issue are not? I absolutely agree, having been through that process myself—I suppose I should declare an interest in that regard—that its impact is not obvious. There is no clear indication that it will result in a big reduction in a person’s retirement income.
It would also be useful to understand any possible disincentive effects of this measure. I am not sure that the case the hon. Member for South Thanet mentioned is as unlikely as all that. I remember from my childhood a family up the road who suddenly, very sadly, dropped down to a sole earner. They had nine children, and the father, as the sole earner, had to bring them up. What will the impact be in such cases if there is suddenly this kind of cliff edge? We have seen the impact of cliff edges with the overall family benefit cap. We are in danger of replicating that here.
I hope the Minister answers those questions. Obviously, I hope the whole high-income child benefit charge is abandoned. I do not expect him to make quite as dramatic an announcement here, but I hope he rules out any reduction in the availability of other universal benefits, given the kinds of issues we have discussed and the impact on equity.
It is a great pleasure to serve in this reconvened Parliament under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) very much for calling this debate and drawing attention to this important issue, and for his thought-provoking and expert speech, which very much reflected his professional experience as well as his political commitments. I very much welcome that. He raised a lot of issues, and a wide range of issues were raised by the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds). I will come to all those. Let me address some of them in my opening remarks and then come to the specific questions that were raised.
As you will know, Mr Hollobone, child benefit was introduced in 1977. It has always been, and it remains, a universal benefit payable to individuals who are responsible for what is referred to as a qualifying child or children. Before 2013, there had been significant growth in the use of the benefit—rightly and importantly so; of course, that is why benefits exist—but it was recognised that, at a time of austerity, there was an anomaly, in that more than £1 billion a year was being spent in child benefit on higher-rate taxpayers. That was felt to be not merely imprudent from a financial standpoint but morally problematic. It would mean, as it were, taxing working people on low incomes to pay for the child benefit of those who earned considerably more.
If it is true that, as the hon. Member for Oxford East said, it is now Labour policy to remove the high-income child benefit charge—she was perfectly clear about it, so I think it is true, but she is welcome to correct me if it is not—the Labour party needs to ask itself whether it thinks it appropriate to tax the wider population, including working people on low incomes, to pay the child benefit of those who earn considerably more. We also note that the cost to the Exchequer of such a policy is of the order of £1 billion to £1.5 billion.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving away. He is well aware that we opposed the measure at the time, as we did many other elements of the Government’s programme. We also criticised the tax cuts given at the same time to the highest earners and to profitable corporations, which in their magnitude over time were more substantial than what we are talking about now.
That is an ingenious attempt to link two issues that, in and of themselves, are not connected. One can have a policy on high income tax earners and the payment of child benefit to them and one can have an entirely separate policy about other aspects of the tax system. The question remains whether it is morally appropriate to give the benefit to those people, and the judgment in 2013 was that it was not the right thing to do. That was an important consideration.
If the hon. Lady is concerned about the wider picture, I remind her that—I think I am right in saying this—the top 1% of taxpayers pay a higher percentage of tax now than at any other point in our history.
The judgment made in 2013 was that it was appropriate to claw back some of the money paid to people on higher incomes and that everyone should make a fair contribution to removing the deficit while supporting those on the lowest incomes. I think that was the right judgment. Of course, for a minority of claimants where either they or their partner earn more than £50,000 in adjusted net income, there is a requirement to pay the tax charge or to opt out of receiving child benefit payments and therefore not pay the charge.
It is a fair criticism, made eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet and others from across the House, that the charge does not take into account overall household incomes, so it is possible—and it does happen—that a single parent earning more than £50,000 is liable to the charge while a couple each earning up to £50,000 is not. That is because, as he said, the charge is a tax, calculated in accordance with the principles of individual taxation at the individual level alongside other tax policy. Here we have one of those difficult decisions for the Government about what is the right thing to do. The judgment made in 2013 was that it was better to take that approach than to base a charge on household incomes, because that would require HMRC to assess annually both household composition and the incomes of everyone in the 8 million or so households eligible for child benefit, which would effectively introduce a new means test, creating a substantial administrative burden on both the state and families. That is the dilemma.
The effect of the charge is to introduce a high marginal tax rate. That is an unattractive aspect of the policy; we should be clear about that. If I may say so, it is not a salutary lesson in how not to withdraw a benefit, because the alternatives of not levying the charge at all or levying it on a cliff edge rather than by gradual withdrawal are worse. It is open to others to take the view that one of the alternatives is better, and my hon. Friend may do so, but not subject to the fiscal constraints in which we have operated.
A series of questions were raised about HMRC communications. As my hon. Friend recognised, the Revenue and Customs took considerable steps to raise awareness of the higher income child benefit charge. It wrote to about 800,000 affected families when the charge was introduced. It also ran a high-profile advertising media campaign and included a prominent message about the charge in 2 million letters to pay-as-you-earn-only higher rate taxpayers. There was a considerable communication process.
Today, to respond to the question from the hon. Member for Strangford, information on the charge is included in packs for new parents telling them how to claim child benefit. The front page of the child benefit application form includes a prominent message about the charge to help people make a decision on whether they should claim and be paid child benefit, about the importance of claiming even if they do not receive payments, and about the important issue of eligibility, which was rightly highlighted in the debate. Guidelines are available online formally through gov.uk and through innumerable organisations and groups.
As my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet mentioned, individuals who pay the charge need to make a self-assessment tax return and may face a failure to notify penalty if they do not. I think he will know that HMRC announced a review of cases where a failure to notify penalty was issued for three tax years. It reviewed 35,000 cases and responded by reviewing the amount for over 6,000 people.
There are many other points to cover in the short time that remains. My hon. Friend said that 500,000 people have been forced into self-assessment. I am happy to write to him on that. As he will be aware, the current number paying the charge through tax returns is 293,000. Of course, there are some 40 million people in pay-as-you-earn. He also said that the charge has dragged 1.2 million people into the system. I am not quite sure about that, but if he wants to contact me, I will be happy to assist him further.
The hon. Member for Glasgow Central said that the charge is a gendered policy. I do not think that is true at all, and many other aspects of Government policy do not reflect anything like that position, as she will be aware. For example, there is extensive work in supporting women as entrepreneurs and women in business.
I really cannot; I have two seconds left.
The hon. Member for Oxford East mentioned fiscal drag. That is an important issue, but I do not think she is right that the charge has removed the universal nature of child benefit; it merely allows for a charge against it.
I am delighted to have the final say. I thank hon. Members who attended the debate. There were contributions from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), as ever, as well as the hon. Members for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and for Oxford East (Annelise Dodds). We spar regularly on tax matters across whichever Chamber we are in, but I think we are broadly in agreement that the system is complex, that it could have been made easier and that there are problems that need to be solved.
I am pleased to receive a degree of assurance from the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. He accepted that the charge was a measure of its time, when urgent measures were needed to respond to the state of the country’s finances. It has not been part of my argument that such a clawback should not exist. My observation has been that, if we are to have methods of clawback, we need to design systems that are more elegant than this one. I hope he will pass on to HMRC my issues regarding the penalty regime. Perhaps this can be the last of it, with people made aware that, yes, if they do wrong in the future, a penalty regime may apply. However, I would like to see a softer touch, given the modest amounts involved, for those stuck in cases at the moment.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the high income child benefit charge.