Tuesday 1 October 2019
[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]
Park Home Residents: Legal Protection
I beg to move,
That this House has considered legal protection for residents of park homes.
Thank you for starting the debate, Sir Christopher. I hope I will soon be able to resume my place and that you—you were originally going to move the motion—will be able to pick up and give the speech the House is looking forward to.
May I first pay tribute to you, Sir Christopher, for leading the all-party group on park homes? This is one of those areas where, for far too long, there was too little publicity and too little Government action.
I pay tribute to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, which looks after park homes, for the way it has picked up the initiative by Nat Slade, an officer in Arun District Council, and his colleagues, who have worked with the Ministry to get the Government to come forward with measures to deal with some of the appalling abuses. If I were a tougher Member of Parliament, I would name some of the rogues and crooks—some have left the park home business, but others continue. My belief is that, with publicity, they will be shamed into stopping the exploitation of some of the most vulnerable people in our communities.
Few people choose to live in a park home as their permanent residence if they have better options, but the fact is that many do not. Too often, people have taken on a home that is, in theory, licensed only for holiday use, but everyone, including the freeholder and owner and the operator, knows that they are there to make permanent use of it. If, by chance, the operator manages to get the licence changed to permanent, the innocent park home owners and residents are then told to pay a fortune to convert what was, in effect, a permanent residence into another permanent residence.
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
That is certainly true. Too often, the operator or owner has encouraged the park home resident to use a lawyer who works for or is recommended by the park home operator.
I shall now resume my place so that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) can start his debate.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I hope that in due course you will be correctly described on the nameplate that currently refers to the missing chairman.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) for moving the motion and ensuring that we got under way as quickly as possible, and I thank you, Mr Hollobone, for coming along at very short notice to fill the vacancy.
I welcome our new Minister. When he looks back at his career many years hence he will recall that his first debate was one with procedural irregularities that, with a bit of help from the Clerk, had to be overlooked.
When this debate was selected, I had the privilege of being able to speak to the Housing Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Ms McVey), who told me that she would have liked to be able to respond to the debate because the subject is close to her heart. She is, however, in Manchester doing a lot of other debates, but she said that in her absence her new junior Minister would be well briefed and able to respond, and she offered to meet me to discuss my concerns and said that she would attend an early meeting of the all-party group to discuss our concerns.
Sixty years ago, in 1959, Sir Arton Wilson produced a report for the Government that found that the legislation applying to people living in caravans was both unclear and insufficient. The Government’s response was quick, enacting the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960. The Act stipulates that occupiers of land must acquire a licence from the local council before using the land as a caravan site. The Act defines a caravan site as,
“land on which a caravan is stationed for the purposes of human habitation and land which is used in conjunction”
therewith. Section 29 defines “caravan” as including,
“any structure designed or adapted for human habitation which is capable of being moved from one place to another”.
Over the years the term “caravan” in relation to permanent residential accommodation has been replaced by the expression “park home”. In law and practice, however, park homes—and mobile homes—are caravans. They are chattels rather than real estate. Section 1(1) of the 1960 Act provides that
“no occupier of land shall...cause or permit any part of the land to be used as a caravan site unless he is the holder of a site licence”.
Section 1(2) provides that any occupier of land who
“contravenes subsection (1)...shall be guilty of an offence”.
Section 3(3) provides that a local authority may issue a site licence only if
“the applicant is, at the time when the site licence is issued, entitled to the benefit of a permission for the use of the land as a caravan site granted under Part III”
of the 1947 Act.
Local councils have the power to refuse, revoke or impose limitations on a site licence if it is deemed necessary. The conditions that can be attached to such licences are set out in legislation. The most recent addition was the Mobile Homes Act 2013, a private Member’s Bill facilitated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) when he was Housing Minster, which was brought before the House and ably carried through to enactment by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), whom I am delighted to see in his place today. He used his place in the ballot to ensure that such an important issue would be the subject of private Members’ legislation in the absence of parliamentary time for Government legislation.
The 2013 Act contained a power for the Government to introduce a fit and proper person test for anyone applying for a site licence. That provision has been the subject of a recent public consultation, to which I am sure my hon. Friend will refer in closing. There has therefore been extensive and growing regulation of those who own or operate sites for residential park homes, but none of the legal protections afforded to residents of such homes by the 1960 Act and subsequent Acts applies if the site on which the park home or caravan is situated is unlicensed. The main purpose of this debate is to raise public awareness of that issue, and to highlight the failure of local authorities to enforce the requirement for site licences.
The unwillingness of local authorities to protect vulnerable residents is leading to a proliferation of unlicensed sites on which residents are at the mercy of unscrupulous site owners. The problem has become even more widespread because of recent controversial planning decisions that have enabled many caravan parks that were previously used and licensed only for touring and for non-residential purposes to be reclassified as year-round fully residential sites.
One such decision is that of 15 February 2018 in respect of two appeals against the refusal of Christchurch and East Dorset Councils to grant a certificate of lawful existing use for the permanent residential use of 45 caravans on land on the north side of Matchams Drive. At the time of the appeal, the site was subject to a licence granted to the Bournemouth and District Outdoor Club for use by touring caravans, but following the appeal decision the site is being developed and used for the siting of permanent residential caravans, despite no variation of the original site licence having been granted and without any transfer of that licence to the new owners.
Paragraph 49 of the appeal decision in respect of Matchams Drive, which is now being renamed Silver Mists, referred to the fact that the site licence conditions would protect infrastructure with respect to issues such as hard standing and drainage. The inspector said that the council retained control
“by virtue of the manner in which the licence is framed. This might include the need for planning permission for certain works, as set out in the licence”.
He went on to say, in paragraph 58:
“Trees on the site are the subject to a Tree Preservation Order…and that would apply irrespective of the outcome of this appeal.”
In paragraph 45, he stated:
“The site is secluded with a perimeter fence and gates. When entering the site it is surrounded by mature planting. There is nothing in the LDC application that would lead to a finding that this would change.”
If you visited that site today, Mr Hollobone, you would see that it is more like a moonscape—devoid of vegetation, with monumental earthworks having taken place and most of the trees and vegetation having been removed, despite the site being in a protected heathland habitat. These issues should have been controlled by the local authority through the site licence process, but there has been a reckless failure to take action. One of the park homes that is currently being advertised on that site is 50 feet by 20 feet, with two bedrooms and two bathrooms, and priced at £379,950, but it does not say anywhere that it is on an unlicensed site.
Silver Mists is within 400 metres of protected heathland. Under the severe restrictions in the habitats directive it would never have been given planning permission as an ordinary residential development, but there will now be 45 new permanent dwellings on the site, making a mockery of the protections that Natural England seeks to enforce on environmental grounds. Paragraph 3.4 of the supplementary planning document, “The Dorset Heathlands Planning Framework 2015-2020”, states that
“caravan and touring holiday accommodation”
“likely to have the same effect”
on the heathland as residential development. That is not the opinion of Natural England, but that organisation seems unable to enforce its own rules against caravan sites, even though it imposes the same rules with total inflexibility and rigour on any new proposed residential development, however small.
Although the issues relating to Silver Mists are matters for the new unitary Dorset Council, the largest number of unlicensed sites in my constituency are in the new Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole unitary authority area. The property section of the current edition of the Christchurch Times, a popular weekly newspaper, contains two full pages of advertising that promotes park homes provided by RoyaleLife. These include New Forest Glades in Matchams Lane and New Forest Glen, currently known as Tall Trees, in Matchams Lane. Despite their names, both sites are well outside the New Forest. What is more serious, however, is the description of the homes, which are offered for sale as “single storey” and coming from “the UK’s largest bungalow provider”. They are not bungalows. The “Collins English Dictionary” defines a bungalow as
“a one storey house, sometimes with an attic”.
It also quotes the origin as coming from the 17th century Hindi word “bangla”, meaning a house of the Bengal type. To describe a caravan as a bungalow must surely be a breach of advertising standards.
The promotional material omits any reference to the fact that the homes are caravans or park homes—and, therefore, chattels rather than interests in land. It highlights one of the consequences flowing from such status—the exemption from stamp duty—but fails to mention liability for 10% to be paid on resale. Furthermore, it does not refer to the fact that, as caravan sites, they have to be licensed under the 1960 Act, but are not.
New Forest Glades, formerly known as Port View Caravan Park, benefits in planning terms from a certificate of lawfulness permitting the siting of caravans for residential use on the land identified in that certificate. An application has been submitted to Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council for a caravan site licence, but the land identified in the application is not co-extensive with the land identified on the approved plan. When I first complained to the council I was told that the applicant had not even paid the required fee for the application. The council is advising the applicants that unless their current application is amended it will be refused. New Forest Glades is, therefore, being heavily marketed as a site for expensive new luxury bungalows, some of which are, I believe, already occupied. The caravans are not bungalows and do not even enjoy the benefit of a site licence, and gullible members of the public are being seduced by sharp marketing and misleading advertising into buying homes that are no more than chattels on unlicensed and therefore illegal sites.
My hon. Friend highlights some of the poorer practice in the industry, but to shine some light on the situation I would like to highlight some of the better practices. I had an email from Mother Ivey’s Bay Holiday Park yesterday, telling me that it champions the real living wage on its park homes, gifts 1% of its hire fleet to families in need through the Family Holiday Association, and never permits residential occupation of its holiday parks. Is there a lot we can learn from holiday parks such as Mother Ivey’s Bay, which are industry exemplars?
Does my hon. Friend agree that those who seek to occupy a park home need the best possible advice, and some information about the law in the area, and will he join me in congratulating Age UK on preparing a wonderful factsheet—factsheet 71— explaining that law?
Absolutely. That is important. In that context, the Government have given new responsibility to the Leasehold Advisory Service to advise potential purchasers of park homes. I, and indeed the all-party parliamentary group, had a meeting with Anthony Essien, its chief executive. The trouble is that although it can give advice someone must approach it for advice before it can do so, and many people do not because they are seduced by the sort of information that I have referred to.
[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
I am sorry that a pre-existing commitment prevents me from staying for the rest of the debate.
It seems to me that the Advertising Standards Authority should get a complaint, and should quickly adjudicate, rule out of order and condemn the advertisements that my hon. Friend refers to. May I point out that Sonia McColl, the champion of park home owners, had her 40 foot, 10-tonnes mobile home stolen? My hon. Friend might join me in appealing to Devon and Cornwall police to find it and to find the people who stole it. Death threats are one thing; having your home stolen is another.
That last point is really important because Sonia McColl did an enormous amount of good work on behalf of park home residents across the country. She was the victim of a vendetta and a serious crime and I have seen recent correspondence suggesting strong evidence against two potential perpetrators, but the prosecuting authorities are not taking the action they should be taking in that respect. As always, my hon. Friend makes a very good point.
May I refer to another site in my constituency that is now called New Forest Glen but is better known as Tall Trees, in Matchams Lane? No application has been received by Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council for a caravan licence, despite more than 100 of my constituents living and having their permanent homes in Tall Trees park. I have been told by the council that officers from both planning enforcement and environmental health have met the site owners to try to regularise the situation on several occasions, but without success. They are now advising the site owners that they are considering formal action to secure the necessary permissions for both planning and site licensing. Although such promises of action are welcome, they must be considered in the context of many years of inaction during which residents of Tall Trees have been denied the rights and protection that would be available if they lived on a licensed park home site. These rights include the ability to form a recognised residents association and restrictions on the amount by which ground rents can be increased, and on service charges being imposed.
Silver Mists, New Forest Glades and New Forest Glen are owned by one organisation, RoyaleLife. In March this year, I requested through the representative of Mr Bull, the chief executive of Royale Parks, that he address the problem, especially on Tall Trees. I referred to the fact that despite being recognised by Christchurch Council as enjoying residential status for 12 months of the year, many of the residents of Tall Trees were still paying site fees of £4,750 per year as well as council tax. If they had the benefit of formal residential status through a site licence, their fees would be £1,900 rather than £4,750. By not even applying for a site licence, Royale Parks is benefiting by being able to charge much higher fees. Residents also suffer because they must pay VAT on those fees. That situation should have been brought to a head by the council taking enforcement action against Royale Parks for not having a licence, thereby forcing the company to comply with the law. In my letter to Royale, I suggested that a meeting between Royale and the residents—who have been trying to have such a meeting for many months—would be useful, and I hope that such a meeting will now take place on 11 October.
Last Thursday I received the latest word from the council’s corporate director for environment and community in response to the concerns that I have expressed on behalf of residents. It is not wholly reassuring. Although she says that she hopes the requirement for Royale Parks to regularise the situation and obtain the appropriate site licences or face formal action will provide some comfort to the residents, she could take action now to ensure that all those park homes for which residential use is recognised benefit from a residential site licence. I do not understand why the council has been so slow in acting against a site owner who is refusing to apply for a site licence. The site owner, unreasonably, is refusing to obtain a licence for the existing residential park homes, instead choosing to put pressure on residents to support his appeal in respect of other park homes on the Tall Trees development that do not currently have certificates of lawfulness or valid planning consent for residential use. Residents have been told that the site owner will address the issue only if the appeal against the refusal of certificates of lawfulness on other parts of the site are successful. In other words, residents are being held to ransom. Those appeals have been delayed inordinately, not least because the appellants want a full hearing.
I then got involved in writing to the chief executive of the Planning Inspectorate to see whether we could bring this matter forward. We now have an appeal fixed for 10 December, which is good news, but in the meantime, there can be no justification for denying Tall Trees residents, who are lawful occupiers of their caravans, the protection of a site licence.
People in Tall Trees who wish to sell their home are unable to get full price for it because of the constraints to which I referred. One constituent estimates that the value of his home has been depressed by £100,000 as a result of the site owner’s actions and the council’s refusal to take enforcement action.
So far, I have concentrated on cases where no site licence has been issued, but even where licences are issued they are often not enforced, leaving residents exposed to exploitation. One such site, in Ferndown in my constituency, is Lone Pine Park, which is owned by Premier Park Homes Ltd. Two of my constituents there have been harassed because their park home is old and regarded by the new owners as being out of keeping with the new image of Lone Pine Park, which is described in a brochure as offering
“bespoke homes…nestled within Millionaires’ Row in Ferndown …Dorset.”
My efforts to engage with Dorset Council on the concerns expressed by my constituents have largely fallen on deaf ears. I wrote to its chief executive, Mr Prosser, on 5 August, but despite repeated requests for a reply I received a response only very late yesterday evening. In my letter, I referred to: the failure of the owner to deposit new site rules; residents and the emergency services having restricted access to estate roads because of the construction of new homes; rodent infestation; the dumping of rubbish and waste; and the proliferation of potholes, which prevent the local general practitioner car service from accessing the site. The chief executive says in his answer that he understands
“that a new site licence has been issued”,
which provides the site operator with a number of permitted rights. He goes on to say:
“There are some outstanding matters which would require planning permission that are not covered by the terms of the site licence, and for this reason there is an open enforcement case on the site until such matters are regularised.”
Despite having had my letter for two months, he goes on to say:
“planning/enforcement officers will visit the site again to check the situation to ensure the site is not being operated in a manner that would breach the permitted rights under the provision of the site licence or the permitted development order”,
“the enforcement file will remain open until the site has been regularised.”
I refer to that letter at some length because it seems to show that the council has a very relaxed attitude to these important issues, which directly affect so many residents.
The hon. Gentleman makes a compelling case. One of the problems is that local authority officers have no experience in this area. It is vital that we give advice to residents nationally, because they are being penalised. Does he agree that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has to take this up as a matter of urgency?
Absolutely; the hon. Gentleman is right. Indeed, the British Holiday & Home Parks Association suggested that what we need in England is one centre of expertise that can not only give advice but take action on these matters, just as happens for trading standards and large companies that operate on many different sites. There is every reason for saying that we should do something similar in the park homes sector.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, which is timely from my perspective, as I visited Great Orton park homes last week. The main issues for the residents I met were the state of the park and the responsibility of the park owner.
I have two points to make. First, does my hon. Friend agree that introducing the fit and proper person test would go some way towards giving councils more powers to intervene where appropriate? Secondly, does he agree that it would be appropriate for residents to have the opportunity to acquire ownership of the park in certain circumstances, similar to the right that long leaseholders in blocks of flats have?
My hon. Friend’s second point is a suitable subject for a separate debate. One problem is that the land on which the caravans are situated is in separate ownership from the caravans, so to introduce a right to buy that land might legally be quite complicated. Having said that, it has been suggested that, to get round the site licence provisions, some operators are offering long leases on the small area of land on which each caravan or park home is situated, which leads to the situation where each separate park home on a site has to have a separate site licence. That is the latest way in which the law is being stretched. At my suggestion, Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council and the leasehold advisory group are interested in looking into the issue to see whether we will have a situation rather like the one we had with some Traveller sites, where an acre of field was divided up into lots of very small plots.
I am sceptical about my hon. Friend’s earlier point about the fit and proper person test. I will illustrate my scepticism by referring to the controlling director of Royale Parks Ltd. Robert Lee Jack Bull, born in May 1977, was appointed as the director of Royale Parks Ltd on 7 September 2018. Directly or indirectly, he holds between 25% and 50% of the shares and voting rights in that company, which is part of a complex group of companies. The information that I have seen from Companies House suggests that Mr Bull is the director of no fewer than 74 companies, which between them have assets of about £80 million and liabilities of about £110 million. Royale Parks Ltd controls 75% or more of the shares and voting rights in some of those subsidiary companies, such as Royale Parks (Dorset) Ltd. In marketing the properties, however, RoyaleLife describes itself as
“a family-owned business with a heritage dating back to 1945.”
There may be such a heritage, but what is probably not well known is that Mr Robert Lee Jack Bull was convicted at Cheltenham magistrates court on two pieces of information brought by the trading standards department, as described in the register for 10 January 2013. They are in similar terms, so I will refer only to the first one, which says:
“Between 13/08/2009 and 08/11/2009 at Gloucestershire, being a trader, engaged in a commercial practice which, by omission, was misleading under regulation 6 of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 in that its factual contract omitted material Information, namely by making representations to Phillip and Mary Bentall, being average consumers, with respect to a park home, 101 Cotswold Grange Country Park, Meadow Lane, Twyning, which representations caused them to take a transactional decision namely to sell their home at 32 Quay Lane, Hanley Castle and purchase 101 Cotswold Grange Country Park which they would not otherwise have undertaken if they had known that planning permission only existed for holiday homes at Cotswold Grange Country Park and that 101 Cotswold Grange Country Park was a holiday home, not a permanent residential property, contrary to Regulation 10 of said regulations and as a result caused or was likely to cause the average consumer to take a transactional decision he would not have taken otherwise.
Contrary to regulations 10 and 13 of the…Regulations 2008.”
Mr Bull was fined £4,000 on that and the other count, and ordered to pay costs and a victim surcharge.
If we go for a fit and proper person test, will Mr Bull fall foul of that test? I suspect that he would not, which shows the weakness of such a test. That is why I express openly my scepticism about it, but I think that if my constituents, certainly at Tall Trees, knew about Mr Bull’s background they would be very concerned, because many of them were the victims of mis-selling. They bought their park homes at Tall Trees around the same period, between 2009 and 2013, having been told that those park homes carried with them full residential rights over a 12-month period.
I am saying that I am not in favour of the fit and proper person test proposed by the Government. The alternative suggestion—I was going to refer to it, but I will now do so directly—is that the British Holiday & Home Parks Association, which is basically a trade body, should be given responsibility for introducing some policing in this area. The right hon. Gentleman will know that, as a result of the Parking (Code of Practice) Act 2019, which was introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire, rogue parking operators are no longer able to get access to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency database unless they belong to the British Parking Association, an organisation that ensures high standards in the parking industry.
Similarly, we could have a situation where an organisation such as the BHHPA was able to enforce the fit and proper person requirements through its membership code, so that it would not admit into its membership organisations that fell below those standards. That might be a much more direct way of addressing this issue, rather than going down the route of the fit and proper person test. Which of those 74 companies to which I referred would be regarded as an unfit and improper company because of one director? This is a complex area, but the main point I would make is that the fit and proper person test is not the panacea that some people are suggesting it is.
In my capacity as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on park homes, I am well aware of the laid-back attitude of many local authorities in discharging their responsibilities to park home residents. I have received lots of information from members of the public, including information on operators: the Elmstead Residential Park in Andover, Lakeview Residential Park in Romford and others frequently referred to in Private Eye. There are serious continuing problems. We will hear about some of them during this debate. Successive Governments have engaged in window-dressing gestures rather than taking effective action against the rogue operators.
The fit and proper person test may be just such an additional issue. I hope that the Minister, in his response to the debate, will be able to set out the Government stall in respect of what the Government will do to force local authorities to meet their statutory obligations, and to protect the many thousands of park home residents looking for a strong lead in this area. It is recognised that there are a large number of reputable park home operators, but there are still rogues operating in this industry.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) for introducing the debate. There have been a number of park home debates, questions, interventions and Adjournment debates in Westminster Hall and the main Chamber, and I have been there to participate in every one of them. That is because we have three park home sites—not caravan parks, but park homes—in my constituency in the area in which I live, and it is concerning to hear the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman and his tale of woe with park homes in his area.
For the benefit of the Minister, I will explain the situation in my constituency so that he can respond. There were many problems in the past with park homes, but a new business has been assisting people over the last few months. I met the business on two occasions—the week before the last week, and a month earlier. Ards and North Down Borough Council and Newry Bourne and Down District Council in my constituency have a responsibility in this area in conjunction with the business, and they brought forward legislative change and recommendations. The Minister will not have that information before him right now, but it would be beneficial for his Department to contact directly NILGA or Ards and North Down Borough Council to find out what those legislative changes are.
It only works if the councils have the knowledge. Some people, including the shadow spokesperson, have referred to the knowledge of councils and their staff. Sometimes that is not in place. In my constituency area of Ards and North Down, a change has been made that will bring benefits. Park home owners and site managers are important too. I would like to highlight the helpful meeting I had recently with a site manager and new owners about the changes they are introducing to enable park home residents and owners to participate fully in the process, and to have a say in what happens. They have introduced a new system whereby people with park homes will meet every second week, with an advice centre that residents can visit and where they can express their views, ask for things and take things forward, rather than having confrontation all the time. We heard about that in the introduction to this debate.
Some things are in place, so again I ask the Minister to consider whether it is possible to check those things and chase them up; if he does, he might find a system that works. By the way, it only works if the park homes people are committed to it as well, but the council has a legislative responsibility.
Protection for park home residents is an issue that has been in play recently at local council level, as the council has submitted responses to the proposed model licence conditions for caravan sites, and there were a few issues that made it clear that both the park home owners and the residents needed help and protection. As we have three park home sites in the Ards peninsula, this is essential legislation for our area. It is important that the Department understands the needs of both residential and tourist parks.
In particular, I commend one of the local councillors, Councillor Nigel Evans, who has been at the forefront in putting forward the ideas, with the park home sites, and ensuring that legislation and the change that comes through with the consultation process can end up in the right place.
The council would welcome the inclusion of a condition that permits cars to be parked between units—that is just one of the small things that people in park homes have concerns about—if there is no obstruction of access or egress to, from or between the units, particularly in the case of an emergency, and where, in addition, parking between units has the consent of the site owner. We believe that there should be no permanent fencing erected, due to fire safety rationale.
In the past, decking and planting of trees—the hon. Member for Christchurch referred to trees in particular—have become issues, where the park homes want to enforce things. However, there has to be a way of finding that middle ground, so that we can move forward and strike a balance, whereby both park home owners and the residents can feel that they are part of the process.
I am aware that regulations in corresponding Welsh legislation allow for a non-combustible temporary awning to be in place, as set out by the Welsh fire service, which is underlined by a Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service recommendation. I believe that we should have a similar approach to the issue of awnings. It is the same with decking; any permissible decking must be non-combustible, for fire safety reasons.
Not only are we doing all this in my constituency, and in my council area of Ards and North Down, but it seems that the Welsh authorities are taking some steps in that direction as well. Again, it is good to look about the regions and see what others are doing, because we can all benefit collectively from good process and good practice.
It is very difficult to have sweeping legislation that can adequately address the needs of a Traveller site, a residential park and a tourist holiday park, as they are polar opposites. I believe there must be a segregation within the legislation and that we should have segments for each individual main category, to which the hon. Gentleman referred in his opening speech.
At the heart of my concerns is the fundamental difference in the use and therefore the nature of such parks. Holiday and touring caravan parks offer the infrastructure and environment for holiday makers; private owners may not use their caravan as their main residence. There is a difference, because residential parks provide pitches for park homes where the homes’ owners make their permanent homes, with security of tenure. This is permanent housing. We have recognised that in Northern Ireland and in my particular area.
Although park homes, in rare exceptions, are sometimes found on mixed parks, where holiday and touring caravans are also located, the fact that park homes are housing while holiday caravans are used for tourism must not be overlooked. There is a balance to be struck, and the difference must be addressed. There must be a consistent application of model licence conditions for each type of caravan site, and it should be made clear that model licence conditions for holiday and touring caravan sites do not vary according to the length of time an occupier stays in a particular type of caravan.
The investment that individual owners make in their residential homes—in their park homes—can be £100,000-plus, which is a big investment. Obviously, prices have risen dramatically over the years, but that is the sort of investment that we are looking at in this moment in time. It is important that the people who have a caravan or a park home have security of tenure and know what they are buying into.
There must be consistent application of model licence conditions for each type of caravan site. It should be made clear that model licence conditions for holiday and touring caravan sites do not vary. That is very important, and I am not persuaded that the amalgamation of model licence conditions is helpful in achieving that aim. Therefore I do not believe that a consultation that requires residents or Travellers to comment on holiday sites, or vice versa, is fair or appropriate. The difference is important for holiday caravan and residential park home owners, to ensure that the holiday or residential character of the park they use is maintained, as well as for park owners, and I believe that any blurring of these lines is a step in the wrong direction.
I conclude with the comment that there are many issues that need clarifying in the law, to enable residents to have full protection, and as much power over their property as is possible. I look forward to hearing from the Minister; I welcome him to his post and wish him well. I hope he can and will implement UK-wide legislation to enshrine protection for those choosing to live life in park home communities, the needs of which are separate and distinct from tourism and travelling models.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I am aware that this is a sector you are interested in through your chairmanship of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee. I welcome the new Ministers to their places and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) on securing the debate.
In the past four years, there has been quite a lot of work done to assess the impact and effectiveness of the Mobile Homes Act 2013, much of which has been instigated by the Government. However, much of this activity has been taking place beneath the radar, elbowed out of the spotlight by the Brexit debate. It is therefore good news that we are using this unexpected opportunity to review the situation and to consider whether we are on the right course to ensure the sector is fit for purpose, that the rights and welfare of residents are properly and fully protected, that local authorities have the powers and resources to enforce legislation, and that site owners who play by the rules can earn a realistic return on their investment and are incentivised to carry out further improvements to their sites.
Generally, I believe we are moving in the right direction—though we should be moving quicker and there are some significant obstacles to overcome. The 2013 Act has been a qualified success. In saying that, I do not wish to damn it with faint praise; indeed, many would say I have a vested interest in not doing so. The Park Homes Working Group 2015 has come up with some welcome recommendations and the Government’s response to the 2017 review identified the issues that need to be addressed. The challenge will lie in securing their effective implementation.
In the remaining time, I shall briefly highlight the significant problems that need to be tackled and the potential pitfalls that need to be avoided. First, we have the rogue site owners. As we have heard, they still exist and are finding ways of circumnavigating the legislation that was intended to put an end to their intimidating and sharp practices.
I know the hon. Gentleman has done significant work on this through the all-party group and he is making an excellent speech. On that point, is it not true that people have been jailed for breaking the law while owning park homes and, after their release, have been able to purchase new park homes because we do not have a fit and proper person test and a proper legislative framework to prevent that?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is correct and we need to address those particular issues, but we need to make sure we do so in an effective way, with the desired consequences. The introduction of the fit and proper person test was provided for in the 2013 Act and is intended to eliminate these rogues. However, the feedback from Wales is that it has not done that and that a dispersed system with a tickbox approach, which has been pursued there, has not led to one application being refused. If introduced—I have no particular problem with that—the test must be properly co-ordinated and consistent across the whole country and it must plug the loopholes whereby a rogue site owner either puts forward a manager for licensing purposes yet continues to direct business themselves or pursues the type of dubious practices highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch.
Secondly, more needs to be done to ensure that local authorities have the necessary expertise and resources to enforce the legislation. From my own experience, I know that East Suffolk Council is very good and proactive in addressing a problem when it arises. However, there is more work to be done on day-to-day management and the guidance and advice given to both home and site owners. Such pre-emptive work will nip potential problems in the bud and ensure they do not develop into the major incidents that cause people so much distress and turmoil. I take the view that, if seen through, the recommendations of the working group and the Government’s response to the review will address many of the concerns.
Thirdly, we have heard a great deal today about the sharp practices that are blighting many people’s lives, but it is important not to lose sight of the fact that many site owners behave responsibly, fulfil their obligations and build good working relationships with the homeowners on their sites. It is vital that we do not create a system that forces them out of the sector to be replaced by the rogues who circumnavigate the arrangements and exploit the loopholes about which we have heard so much. In my experience, some good site owners are already deciding to leave the sector.
Fourthly, it is important to continue to distinguish between park homes and holiday homes and to guard against holiday parks morphing into park home sites, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch highlighted. The two sectors are completely different, with two different systems of protection against mis-selling and misuse. It is important that they remain as such and that we enforce the two systems fully and effectively.
My hon. Friend is correct to highlight the problem, and the situation has evolved and been allowed to develop at individual sites around the country. It may be like separating Siamese twins, but we must try, because the two sectors are completely different, serving completely different markets. If at all possible, they need to remain as such.
My final point relates to the 10% commission on sales. That is an anomaly in many ways, yet it has to a large extent underpinned the sector’s financial viability over time. The Government are right to be carrying out an assessment of the likely impact of a change to the rate of commission, and their findings should be fully scrutinised both back in this Chamber and, I am sure, by your Select Committee, Mr Betts. However, before making any changes we need to guard against and properly consider any unintended consequences, which could lead to a jacking up of pitch fees, for example.
Park homes have often been a forgotten part of the housing sector, but they play a vital role, particularly in certain seaside communities, such as those that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and I represent, and for people at or approaching retirement. The sector has been overlooked in the past, and it is important that that does not happen in the future. We must continue to scrutinise the sector to ensure that homeowners have peace of mind, good site owners receive a fair return and the rogues are sent a clear message that they are not welcome and that we will send them packing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) on securing the debate and on all the work he does via the all-party parliamentary group on park homes. I have been part of several of the APPG’s meetings, and I am grateful that he continues to push the importance of reform—albeit there is a debate to be had about what form it might take.
I have been an MP for two and a half years, and this is an area of which I had no real knowledge or experience prior to becoming involved in local politics. I am very proud to represent, though, a number of park homes across the constituency of North East Derbyshire—in Old Tupton, Staveley, New Whittington, Tupton, and Marsh Lane. Those are the large park home sites, but there are a number of smaller sites across the constituency. I come from north east Derbyshire and north Derbyshire, and when we were driving past these sites, they looked superficially quiet, tranquil and well managed. I do not recall ever thinking that there would be the issues that I can now see, having taken an interest in the work that has been done by right hon. and hon. Members sitting in this Chamber and elsewhere, and having had the opportunity to talk to local residents about the challenges.
Fundamental for me is the fact that, at the moment, the processes, procedures and frameworks around park homes are largely personality driven. If there is a good owner of park homes who is willing to engage with local residents and have good interactions, the park is generally well run and, on the whole, people like and enjoy living there. When there is an owner who is not interested in working through the niceties, people can get into great difficulty in a very short time and it can become highly problematic—particularly for local residents who perhaps have moved there to enjoy a quieter time in their lives—to manage that.
As happened in our local area, we can see the difference when park home ownership changes from owners who have not necessarily given a focus—rightly or wrongly, for good or bad reasons and whatever the underlying purpose—to somebody who wants to engage with local residents and manage the park in concurrence with them. There can be an incredibly quick turnaround in perception, management and actuality on those sites; we have seen one of those in the last year or so.
There is an immensely personal element to this. As somebody who is somewhat “small-state”, who traditionally ascribes to the principles of regulation where necessary but not everywhere, and good regulation rather than just chucking it out and seeing what happens, and who is reluctant to introduce new forms of regulation, I think this is an area where further attention is needed. As hon. Friends and hon. Members have done in the last few minutes, I acknowledge the work of the Government over the last 10 years. There have been successive consultations and legislation has been brought forward, which park home owners on the sites that I am privileged to represent say has incrementally improved things.
There is no panacea here; the situation will not be fixed at a stroke, but we must continue to find ways incrementally to improve it. When I arrived here in Westminster, I was pleased to see some of the Government consultations, and I am pleased also that the Government have followed through on them over the last few months and years. I held a park homes forum in my constituency for a number of residents a few weeks ago, where we discussed the fit and proper person test that the Government were consulting on over the summer. Like others, I welcome the principle of a fit and proper person test, or something equivalent, which moves us on from the challenges we have at the moment—particularly around the personal nature of the difficulties that park home sites can get into.
At that forum with local residents, we quickly saw some of the pitfalls, challenges and difficulties that can arise when trying to create a fit and proper person test. I acknowledge the difficulties of making such a test watertight and am interested in the suggestion from my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch around looking at alternatives.
The residents who came to talk to me can see holes in this proposal before it has even started: owners need either to take a fit and proper person test or to nominate somebody else to be a fit and proper person—which means that an entirely inappropriate person may be involved in park home site ownership. As long as they nominate somebody who nominally meets the local authority rules, they can continue to act, operate and manage with relative impunity. Furthermore, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch indicated, there are owners who refuse to engage with the regulations today, so they are therefore highly likely to refuse to engage with the regulations tomorrow, despite the threats that have been put into this consultation—if it is eventually turned into legislation.
We were also interested in the management order in the fit and proper person consultation. The logical extension could be that somebody was deemed not to be a fit and proper person and was, nominally, not allowed to run their own park, but the local authority might come along and nominate itself or somebody else to run the park, and the individual might still take the profits, even when somebody else was running the park.
There is then the additional question of how we apply the rules, which has been referred to. Enforcement is already incredibly varied across the country, and that is likely to continue. Even with some of the points in the fit and proper person test, it will be highly reliant on the local authority having not only the desire to make things better—I think most authorities do, and North East Derbyshire and Chesterfield in my constituency certainly do—but the resources and the willingness to fight what look like they could be incredibly long legal processes to resolve some of these issues, which are very vivid on a day-to-day basis.
There could also be these rather strange scenarios where, if I read the consultation correctly, one local authority could deem somebody not to be a fit and proper person and would not really have to publicise that information to a great extent, while another local authority somewhere else in the country where that individual owned a park could deem them to be fit and proper, and may not even find out that another local authority had suggested that they might not be.
Again, it is easy to take shots at legislation, and I mean all of what I have said in the positive spirit of recognising that these proposals have the potential to improve things, but I think Ministers will be giving them greater consideration in the coming months, as they consider the consultation.
The other thing local residents said when they came to the forum was that they were keen to see many of the other reforms that have been mooted over the past couple of years. Those relate to CPI and RPI changes, pitch fees and looking again at the 10% sale charge, although I absolutely acknowledge the challenge posed by the industry’s economic framework, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous).
I do not think we will ever achieve perfection in this area, given the structural problem of an extremely difficult tenure, management and legal framework that has the potential, through the interactions involved, to create tension and difficulties. I think most park home owners recognise that things will not be perfect, but they also understand—particularly when they deal every day with real and obvious difficulties in their local area and they just want to get on with their lives—that there are real challenges that need to be met.
I welcome the debate, and it is good that we have the opportunity to talk about these issues, which affect residents up and down the country. I welcome what the Government are doing to try to improve things, even if further consultation is required, as I have outlined. I hope we can make some progress in the coming months and years.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, as it was to serve under that of Mr Hollobone. Could you pass on our thanks to him? I enjoyed your team tagging at the start, just as I enjoyed the team tagging with the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) to get us under way. I pay tribute to him for securing the debate.
This is a significant issue. The hon. Member for Christchurch is the chair of the all-party group, which is industry backed. It is highly significant that we heard from him and others the detail of the way in which park home owners and residents are systematically ripped off by some site owners, as well as his call for legislation and tougher enforcement and sanctions.
I welcome the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall) to his place in what may be his first debate as Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, and I congratulate him. There were 10 Tory MPs present at the start of this debate—I had not realised quite how compelling the debate would be compared with the attraction of the Conservative party conference in Manchester. I just hope everyone got refunds on the rooms they booked and had to cancel.
We have heard again today why an estimated 85,000 park home owners require better protection, stronger rights and Government action. Many of the residents are older people on low incomes, and they are without the means of redress that we would expect to be available to residents in any well-functioning market. The speakers in the debate have listed some of the common problems: unlicensed sites; lack of rights and means of redress for park home residents; unfair pitch fees and unjustifiable increases, sometimes annually; mis-selling, with some site owners encouraging those buying a home on their site to use their lawyers in the transactions; indefensible rules that allow site owners a take or commission of up to 10% when people sell their home; rogue park owners resorting sometimes to bullying, thuggery and even criminality; and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) said, a lack of clear, independent advice from Government to park home residents and owners.
I say to the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) that, given the vivid and detailed descriptions we have heard of the deep problems in the market, a membership code for the trade body’s members is not sufficient to resolve those problems—it simply will not cut it. A fit and proper person test may not be the single solution, but it must be part of the system to deal with what he described as rogue operators in the industry. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), from his constituency experience, powerfully made the case why a fit and proper person test must be part of the answer.
I enjoyed the contribution from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). As you well know, Mr Betts, he is probably the most regular contributor to debates in this House on housing generally and to debates on park homes in particular. He encouraged us to look to Northern Ireland and the experience in his area to see that we can work through co-operation, rather than confrontation. I hope that Ards and North Down Borough Council and his three park home site owners have responded to the current Government consultation. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), who spoke about how the Welsh have implemented tougher steps and how we in England can learn from them. I hope that the Minister will heed some of the practical points his hon. Friend made.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), who has now left, and the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley) both pointed out that the best site owners are dragged down by the worst. The hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley), who has also left, said that for too long there has been too little action by the Government. I regret the fact that the hon. Gentleman is correct: no progress has been made in the past decade. As you will remember, Mr Betts, I was the Housing Minister in the Labour Government in March 2010, when we published the conclusions of a consultation we undertook on park home regulation, including proposals and plans for a new fit and proper person test as part of new licensing requirements for park home owners, and a range of new offences relating to licensing, with tough financial penalties when the rules were not observed. However, as with so much else to do with housing, the Government who came to office in May 2010 were concerned first and foremost with cutting regulation and investment, and from that point on they resisted any case for new regulation and new rules, which have since proved to be necessary.
We have had a lost decade for housing and for park home residents and owners because of the lack of action. The only legislation to be passed in the past 10 years was not Government legislation, but the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Waveney that became the Mobile Homes Act 2013. I pay tribute to him, but the fact is that, four years after that the passage of that Act—a qualified success, as he described it, but flawed—the Government had to undertake a consultation on what to do, and finally, in July, a full year after the consultation had concluded, they published their proposals. Will the Minister tell me today when the promised primary legislation will be introduced in Parliament? Will it be part of the Queen’s Speech in two weeks’ time?
With respect to the capacity of councils to do the vital enforcement job that all hon. Members have described, I say to the hon. Member for Christchurch that it is not necessarily that they are unwilling; given that the Local Government Association tells us that by next year councils will have lost 60p in every pound of their funding over the past 10 years, it is that at present they are unable. Will the Minister confirm how much will be available to councils to help to fund the new licensing role to accompany the legislation? Given that the problems that park owners face are part of the wider problems facing leaseholders who buy their home and find that they do not own it, will the Government back the plans that I have set out for Labour: ending leasehold on all new homes and giving existing leaseholders the legal right to buy their freehold for 1% of the property value?
This narrow issue, which nevertheless affects the day-to-day lives and prospects of tens of thousands of people, poses at a small scale the bigger choices that the Government face. The housing market is broken, and the Government must decide whose side they are on: whether they will remain, as they have been for the past 10 years, on the side of the commercial developers, the big landowners, the private landlords and the managers of park home sites, or whether they are—as Labour is—on the side of the hard-pressed homeowners, the first-time buyers, the leaseholders and the park home residents. I say to the Minister that it is “make up your mind” time, before the voters make up their mind at the next election.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) on securing this hugely important debate and on his work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group; I know that he has been and will continue to be a constant and powerful voice on these matters.
The park homes sector plays a crucial role in housing, particularly for older people; I say that not only as a Minister in my Department, but as a local MP who represents a number of park home operators and residents. Park homes provide a home for approximately 180,000 people across our country—mostly older people, many of whom are vulnerable, as has been referred to several times in this debate.
Some sites can be a dream move into the countryside, or by the sea in Christchurch, but we have heard too many examples today of that dream quickly becoming a nightmare. Hon. Members have raised numerous cases of exploitation, intimidation and coercion, and we know that some site owners exploit vulnerable residents financially through the use of complex ownership and management arrangements; I am aware of one case in which residents were asked to pay £40,000 per home for their written agreements to be renewed. Such practices are unjustifiable and unacceptable, particularly where the majority of residents are pensioners on low incomes whose park home is their only or main asset. All residents of park homes should be confident that they will be able to stay on their pitch as long as they choose to; they should not be worried about where to live or what unforeseen financial liabilities they may have in future.
We have seen vivid examples of the extreme misuse of variable service charges to extract ever more cash from those who may already be on low or fixed incomes, and I know of a case in which a resident lost their home and life savings as a result. There are examples of threats, intimidation and even violence to coerce residents into selling their homes way below the market price. Even at the less extreme end of the spectrum, there are examples of the market simply not functioning as it should. Some of them have arisen or been able to persist partly because the park homes sector is unique; over the decades, the sector has evolved much faster than the legislation we have passed to govern it, and there has been insufficient understanding of and information about the rights and responsibilities of park owners and residents. That has created a huge number of problems, which we are committed to resolving.
A unique aspect of the sector is the crucial relationship between the site owner and the resident. When it becomes unconstructive, as it has in the past, it leaves some residents exposed to unscrupulous site owners, which is why strong legal protections are necessary and why the Government continue to take the matter seriously. Legal protections are of course in place. The 1983 Act, which we have discussed this morning, gave residents security of tenure, which means the site owner can end the agreement only for certain reasons and with the approval of the courts. Although the legal changes were important, they clearly failed to address a lot of the overarching challenges in the sector. That is why the 2013 Act, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), strengthened the rights and protections of residents and gave local authorities more enforcement powers. There was a new process for selling mobile homes, which required the use of statutory forms to reduce the potential for sale blocking; the new pitch fee review process; and a new process for making sure that, when new site rules were introduced, residents were consulted.
We have also banned certain types of site rules that give site owners an unfair advantage. We have given local authorities more powers to issue compliance notices, which we have heard a lot about this morning, to carry out necessary work to the site, or face prosecution or an unlimited fine. To better tackle instances of harassment, the 2013 Act strengthened the criminal law by removing the requirement that acts of harassment have to be persistent before a prosecution could be brought by a local authority. Such measures have led to tangible improvements in the lives of many residents, although it has been highlighted again today that there is still a huge amount of work to do to improve the lives of park home residents and to really make the sector work.
The Government want to go further. In 2018, we conducted a review of the park homes legislation to understand how far the 2013 Act had gone towards addressing the overarching issues in the sector and to help expose what more can be done. We have been strong in our response. First, we said we would consult on the technical detail of introducing a fit and proper person test. There has been much discussion about that this morning. We are certainly committed to learning the lessons of what happened in Wales and making sure that the test is as thorough and fit as it can be. I certainly take on board the representations made about that by hon. Members in the Chamber this morning. The consultation closed on 17 September and we are now analysing the responses. We will seek to publish the Government response as soon as possible. We will certainly make sure that that is done by the end of the year. In answer to the question asked by the shadow spokesman, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), the statutory instrument will be laid before the House as early as possible next year, subject to parliamentary time.
Not at all. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will bear with me for a minute or so.
Secondly, we said we would establish a park homes working group, and we have done that. The group has been working since October last year to explore how rights and responsibilities can be communicated more widely and administrative processes improved. Thirdly, we said we would conduct research into the 10% commission charged on the sale of park homes, and I expect that to be under way by the end of this year. Finally, we will introduce primary legislation to address other challenges in the sector, including issues such as the definition of a pitch fee, the use of variable service charges and the use of complex company structures that can limit a resident’s security of tenure.
At the moment, the assurance I can give the right hon. Gentleman is that a statutory instrument will be laid before Parliament early next year and there will be legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows. I am sure the Minister for Housing will be happy to provide further clarity as soon as it is possible to do so.
I will briefly go into a bit more detail about two points I mentioned that are particularly pertinent. As we have heard, the sector is complex, highlighting the importance of the working group, which brings together local authorities, the British Holiday & Home Parks Association and the National Caravan Council, residents’ associations, LEASE and Age UK. A hugely important workstream for the group is on making sure that the communication of rights and responsibilities is as effective as possible.
We have talked about the age profile of a lot of people living in park homes. One of the important things for us to consider and remember and for the working group to ensure—certainly, it is in its recommendations to us—is the availability of information not only online, through the technological formats that we would use, but directly on sites and in paper copies. The working group has recommended that my Department should produce a single source of information and that all park home owners should be aware of it. The work is fully in train and will be made widely available, including paper copies.
I should like to give more detail about the introduction of the fit and proper person test. There was overwhelming support—not 100%, but overwhelming—for the introduction of such a test, in the review of legislation. We are committed to bringing it forward and putting it into effect, subject to the results of the technical consultation that closed on 17 September. We received 369 responses, 267 of which were from park home residents themselves—a good proportion. We also had representations from the legal sector, representative bodies, local authorities and the site licensing officers’ forum. We are looking at the responses now and will publish them before the end of the year.
During the debate, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) asked whether the Department could make contact with Ards and North Down Borough Council. I am more than happy to make sure that that happens and would like to pass on my thanks to Councillor Edmund for the work that has been done in his area. My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney talked about the availability of guidance and advice and about the importance of making sure the working group information is available as quickly as possible. I assure him that the Minister for Housing sees that as a priority.
My hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley), who talked about the importance of the fit and proper person test, made a pertinent point about the joining up of local authorities and the conversations that they should be having. I shall make sure that that point is taken away.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch raised some extremely pertinent points and I shall ask the Minister for Housing to investigate them all fully in advance of their forthcoming discussion.
Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the Park Home Owners Justice Campaign, and does he agree that one of the best ways to identify and deal with bad operators is publicity? Can I through him invite people to copy anything that they say to rogue operators to firstname.lastname@example.org, which is one of the great campaigners in this field?
Absolutely. Such debates are an excellent way to shine light on poor practice in the sector. Park homes represent about 180,000 households and can house some of the most vulnerable people in society. Too often, those people are exploited and suffer poor treatment. They deserve our protection and support, so it is right that the Government have given and will continue to give significant attention to the sector. Good progress has been made in recent years. We have heard this morning that there is still a huge amount to do. I trust that I can count on the support of the Members present this morning, as we press ahead with our vital reform of the park home sector.
May I give a warm vote of congratulation to my hon. Friend on his maiden speech as a Minister? Brilliant! He responded admirably to the shadow Minister, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), and he understands our frustration and said that he will pass on those expressions of frustration to the Minister for Housing when she gets back from the conference.
I am most grateful to everyone who has participated in the debate, because it has shown that we regard the issue as a high priority. In the end, government and legislation are all about priorities. I hope that, because of the debate, the Department will start to draft some legislation. As we know, when the current Transport Secretary was the Housing Minister, he was told that there was no space for legislation in the Queen’s Speech, but he had prepared the legislation and the drafting. One of the most depressing things that the all-party parliamentary group heard when we last met officials was that no work was being done on that. May I suggest that the Minister get draftsmen to work quickly on addressing the issues we have been debating today?
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered legal protection for residents of park homes.
Improving Healthcare: Isle of Wight
I beg to move,
That this House has considered improving healthcare on the Isle of Wight.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. It is good to see the Minister here; I thank her very much for attending. This is an important debate for the Island; I will demonstrate that to the Minister with an example from just yesterday, when, by coincidence, a friend of a friend went into St Mary’s A&E, on a doctor’s recommendation. They were seen and assessed quickly, within 15 minutes, which is great; but they then sat there for nearly 10 hours, with a cannula sticking out of their arm, and with “urgent” written on their paperwork. One o’clock, 2 o’clock, 3 o’clock and 4 o’clock came and went, and they left at 10 pm.
This is not a criticism of NHS staff—quite the opposite. I have friends and acquaintances who work at St Mary’s and in the NHS on the Isle of Wight; I know their dedication and professionalism, and I am very grateful to them for it. Nor is this criticism of the leadership at the trust under our new executive, Maggie Oldham; I am a big fan of her leadership and her team, who are doing good work. We need that leadership on the Island; frankly, we have lacked it in recent years. What I wish to discuss with the Minister is the NHS funding system and how that relates to the Isle of Wight as an island.
The broader context for this debate is my proposal for an island deal that recognises the additional costs––which are not massive; sometimes they are small—of providing on the Island good public services equivalent to those on the mainland. I have had several conversations with the Prime Minister about my proposal for an island deal, and I am delighted that he has agreed to it in principle; he most recently talked of it in the House on 25 September, when he spoke of
“the island deal that we are going to do—I can assure him that we are, do not worry.”—[Official Report, 25 September 2019; Vol. 664, c. 803.]
I am delighted with that.
This is not us asking for something that we think we deserve because we feel that our need is greater; this is an assessed case, based specifically on the fact that the Isle of Wight is an island and so suffers from issues to do with economies of scale and distortions in the market. The additional cost of providing public services on islands, with their limited markets and fewer possible economies of scale, has long been recognised. If the Minister wishes, I can send her an extensive list of academic research on the subject, the most recent piece of which was done for the Isle of Wight by the University of Portsmouth.
The Scottish islands have the special islands needs allowance, which gives additional funding of about £6 million per Scottish island to recognise the additional costs and challenges of providing public services to isolated island communities. We have no equivalent in England, and because of that, we have been structurally underfunded for generations, no matter whether Labour or the Conservatives have been in government; that is how the formula was designed. I wish to look briefly at three key aspects of this.
There are probably five or six elements to the settlement under the island deal that I am discussing with the Prime Minister, but today, I am looking specifically at healthcare costs. In July, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care said that the Isle of Wight is
“unique in its health geography, and that there are places in this country—almost certainly including the Isle of Wight—where healthcare costs are higher”—[Official Report, 1 July 2019; Vol. 662, c. 943.]—
by dint of isolation and, in its case, of being an island.
The 2019 sustainability plan of the Island’s NHS trust estimates the following costs, which I will discuss in slightly greater detail and then put some questions to the Minister. I know that she will want a decent amount of time to reply, so I will not speak for more than another 10 or 15 minutes, so I can listen as well. The trust estimates that the additional cost of providing acute services on 24 hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week wards is £8.9 million. It assesses the additional cost of providing ambulance services, including a coastguard helicopter ambulance, as £1.5 million and the cost of patient travel by ferry as £500,000, although I suspect it is slightly more, as I will come on to.
Those figures come from the need to provide a baseline service by law for a smaller population than average for the size of a district general hospital. As the Island’s NHS trust states,
“the Island’s population is around half of that normally needed to sustain a traditional district general hospital.”
Because of that smaller population, we do not have the throughput of people, which means that we generate fewer tariffs. To explain it to a layman, we have fewer people going through our hospital, so we claim less money for those procedures, but we still need to keep the wards open and up to the decent baseline standard that people expect.
It stuns me that I still have to explain this. I was having a conversation about the Island this summer with a friend of mine, a Secretary of State and someone I hold in high regard, who turned to me and said, “You have to get to it by ferry, don’t you?” The Isle of Wight is not an island like the Isle of Sheppey or Anglesey in the sense of being connected to the mainland and an island only in a quaint medieval cultural way. We are an island in a practical way: we are separated from the mainland.
We lack a fixed link, which would cost between £2 billion and £3 billion. If the Government ever wish to discuss that, I would be delighted, but until such time, we are separated by water, so primarily, almost exclusively, people travel to the Island by ferry, which changes the dynamics of the hospital and our economy in many different ways. For example, we need to run an accident and emergency service 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is the same with the maternity ward, because people cannot give birth on a ferry or in a helicopter, and the helicopters do not run in all weathers nor the ferries overnight.
We have a baseline legal requirement to have a hospital on the Isle of Wight, but we have half the usual population for a district general hospital, so everything costs more, because we do not have the tariff-per-head throughput. Our A&E runs seven days a week, but our income is based on a national tariff for a much larger population. We must have a four-cot special care baby unit as part of the maternity unit cover, but a lot of the time, I am delighted to say, it has no babies in it, because the births are healthy. That is wonderful, but we still need to run it, which costs quite a lot of money, even when it is empty, because we have half the population. The same applies to other wards, such as the dementia ward, and to intensive care.
For all those units and wards, we have to provide a baseline service with significantly less income from NHS England because we do not have the tariff, so it costs more to provide the same standard of service. Historically, therefore, we have been underfunded, which has had an impact on the quality of the service that we offer. For example, we are meant to have eight consultants in A&E, but we have four, which is why people wait for 10 hours rather than two—as happened yesterday.
It also costs more to attract permanent staff due to isolation, because of the island factor, so we tend to spend more on agencies and specialist services. Our use of agency and locum staff is frankly bad. We need to find solutions to it, and we are having to do so. To get a locum to come to the Island, we may have to offer to pay the ferry fare, because our ferries are probably the most expensive per mile on the planet. The use of locums and temporary staff also has a knock-on effect on training for our young doctors and nurses. The General Medical Council found issues with foundation training due to inconsistent supervision, up to and including earlier this year.
That is the first point, on acute services; I will speed up, because I want to get as much in as possible. Secondly, our ambulance service has suffered, too. Why? Because we cannot use an overlay of ambulance. When someone is taken ill and needs an ambulance and they are on the Hampshire-Sussex border, if there is not a Hampshire ambulance willing to take them, we can pretty much guarantee that there will be a Sussex ambulance coming along.
We cannot have that. We do not have that on the Island, because it would take an hour and a bit for a Hampshire ambulance to get on the ferry to come over. We cannot call on out-of-area ambulance services from Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset or Cornwall to support us. At busy times, when we are taking folks to the mainland, the additional overtime and manning costs stack up very quickly as soon as there is a slight pressure on our ambulance service. We estimate that cost to be £1.5 million, and I am very happy to discuss that, along with the £8.9 million and the £500,000 for patient travel. This is not based on people being poor and earning a bit less than the national average; they are specific costs associated with islands.
Finally, there is patient travel. In 2017-18, there were 31,314 episodes of planned care—sorry for the bureaucratic terminology—on the mainland relating to Isle of Wight patients, which translates to 44,608 related journeys from the Isle of Wight to the mainland. Through our plan to improve quality of care on Isle of Wight, with the use of telemedicine and better-integrated IT, we hope to reduce the amount of travel to the mainland, but I believe that NHS England should be funding some of that patient travel.
At the moment, the council funds £60,000-worth of chemotherapy visits; the ferries, to their credit, subsidise others, but I want the ferries to spend that subsidy money on other things and I want NHS England to pay for this. I look at the Scilly Isles as an example: the National Health Service (Travel Expenses and Remission of Charges) Regulations 2003 set out that any Scilly Isles resident not entitled to free NHS travel will pay a maximum of £5 for their travel costs. I ask for that £5 maximum return fare to be funded as part of this Isle of Wight settlement and for NHS England to take on the cost of patient travel to the mainland, such as for chemotherapy and other specialist services, which is estimated at £500,000 per annum, or maybe a little bit more, depending on how it is calculated. I would like NHS England to fund that cost. That would also act as a spur to improve IT integration and telemedicine, because the Island wants to become a model.
I am delighted that we got the £48 million from the Department of Health and Social Care recently—thank you very much indeed. It was a fantastic bid put in by Maggie and her team, which I was delighted to support and meet Ministers about. Some of that money is for improving A&E, but some of it is for telemedicine.
I have met some of the guys and girls doing the telemedicine work: we have 42 nursing homes on the Island, and in, I think, 18 we now have a little blue box so that residents in the nursing home can have their vital statistics checked on an almost daily basis, which saves money and time and means that their information is sent every morning to the GP or district nurse so that they can be checked up on. It is much more proactive. This is the future; it is really good and very exciting, and we want to be in the forefront of that. It would make not only ethical and medical, but economic sense for us to do that, because there would be fewer trips to the mainland, lower costs, fewer trips to St Mary’s and even fewer trips to GP surgeries.
Those are the three areas I am focusing on: the cost of acute services, £8.9 million; the cost of ambulance, £1.5 million, including coastguard and air ambulance; and the cost of patient travel. I stress that this is not related to wider problems. We have problems with deprivation on the Island, which sometimes surprise people. Areas of Newport and Ryde are among the 10% most deprived in England. Our disease prevalence is significantly higher than the national average for dementia, stroke, learning disabilities, arthritis and some cancers. I am not yet making a case for additional funding for those things, because the priority is for the Government to recognise the additional costs of providing healthcare on the Isle of Wight.
We are doing our own thing. I stress to the Minister that we are not covering up for a poor-quality NHS trust. It is in special measures, but we have new leadership, we are turning it around and we are going in the right direction. Again, I pay tribute to the leadership of the NHS team on the Island. We know that we need to do more to improve our productivity. We had 149 nurse vacancies earlier this year. By the new year, we expect that figure to be under 90—by getting Filipino nurses in, for sure, but also by training up Islanders and giving them jobs as nurses. We have new models of care, particularly in mental health and acute services, which in the past have been too—I think the word is paternalistic. We are significantly improving those fields, especially mental health, which is still seen to be inadequate and failing.
We are also sharing consultants more. This is the way ahead. We cannot afford specialists on the Island, given our size, but by working with Southampton or, more likely, Portsmouth, we can afford to share those specialists. We are about to sign a memorandum of understanding with Portsmouth, so that we make greater use of efficiencies, sharing consultants, specialisms and specialists, so that when they are not working in Portsmouth, they can jump on the ferry and come over to St Mary’s, or wherever they are needed on the Island, and support us.
As we know, there have been recent failings, which is why we are in special measures on the Island. Some recent episodes that concern me include patients leaving hospital without a discharge summary. That has been happening too often—it was raised in a coroner’s court recently—and it is not good practice.
I cannot make things in the past right, but I can do my utmost to make sure they do not happen in future. I am trying, in my role as Member of Parliament for the Island, to be a critical friend to Maggie and her team. When I hear complaints from my fellow Islanders about certain things, I will pass them on to her, in the hope that she can focus on them, while I understand the importance of supporting the new leadership team. What I ask in return from that team is honesty, to ensure that we are transparent about any past or current failings—not to lay blame or have a go at people, but to work collectively towards raising our standards and giving Islanders the quality of healthcare that, frankly, we deserve and that I want to see for the Island. Until that time, what we have will not be good enough, because the Government have never taken into account the additional costs of being an island.
Overall, things are getting better. I am delighted about the £48 million, and I have discussed telemedicine and IT, so I will not go over them again. To sum up, we face special circumstances—severance by sea—hence the need for an island deal, which I have discussed with the Prime Minister. In this debate, I am looking at healthcare and additional costs in three specific areas: acute, at £8.9 million; ambulance, including coastguard helicopter, at £1.5 million; and patient travel, at half a million. Those are what we accurately and honestly assess to be the additional costs.
I am hugely grateful to the Minister for being here. I hope that she is not missing conference on my account—or perhaps she is very happy to be; I am not quite sure nowadays. My questions to her, finally, are these. Will NHS England accept our costings for the additional costs of providing services on the Isle of Wight that are due to the requirement for baseline services, yet with fewer people coming through and therefore less funding? Or will NHS England provide its own costings, and if so, on what basis? I would like to know whether NHS England disputes our figures and when we can expect official comment. I am not trying to bounce the Minister into a decision today, as well she knows. The most important thing is that we get a considered response and that the conversation now begins, so that I can deliver what I need to deliver for my people.
Can the Minister please outline for the public record, or write to me if need be, a route by which the Island and NHS England can work together to identify the additional costs of providing healthcare on the Island and look at the timeframe for decision making? Finally, where does she feel the additional healthcare pressures figure in the overall funding for the Island? I ask that because we have additional costs that are associated not only with being an island, but with being slightly more deprived in some areas. We have higher dementia, cancer and arthritis rates on the Island, so we are not only dealing with some acute and chronic diseases that have rates higher than the national average, but we are dealing with the island factor as well. I thank the Minister for her time.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts.
First, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely) for bringing forward this important issue and securing this debate. I recognise his support for the trust and his desire, and the desire of others, to improve services. Today, however, he has highlighted three specific issues.
We recognise that the Isle of Wight faces different challenges from those on the mainland. As my hon. Friend said, the Island represents a very distinct healthcare environment. It is heavily dependent on acute services close by, but there is the difficulty of travelling across water and the challenges that that lack of accessibility brings to the Island.
I know that the local Sustainability and Transformation Partnership is considering how to put healthcare on the Isle of Wight and in Hampshire on a sustainable footing, with the high-quality care that my hon. Friend has asked for, in the interests of the system as a whole and for the long term.
The impact that those challenges have on local NHS systems needs to be discussed. I reassure my hon. Friend that we are committed to providing the high-quality care that he seeks to meet the needs of people across the Island and to accommodate people irrespective of where they live.
It is important that we do not let the NHS stand still, and my hon. Friend alluded to telemedicine and to making use of all such technologies in the future. We know that people are living longer, and the Island has an elderly population that is higher than the national average. That elderly population is living with multiple co-morbidities, which puts a higher pressure on the service, as he said. However, he also spoke about how the Island is beginning to address those challenges, using blue boxes and using the whole system to help the entire system to work better.
The long-term plan sets out how we will provide high-quality healthcare for all and ensure that people live longer, healthier and more independent lives, which is what we all want. The plan recognises that the NHS needs to change and implement new systems to meet 21st-century challenges, so we are actually at a point of opportunity.
We are committed to delivering high-quality universal care, irrespective of location. That is particularly important given the challenges that Island life brings and that my hon. Friend outlined. He knows that there are benefits of being on an island, but that there are also some constraints, which we must now sit down and work through.
We accept that there are additional costs for providing healthcare on the Island. It has individual challenges, arising from delivering care on the Island with the diseconomies of scale that my hon. Friend spoke about so well. Earlier this year, we committed £2.7 million in extra funding for the Isle of Wight under the fair funding review, to help to start working through some of these issues. This money is to support the plan of the clinical commissioning group, the NHS trust and the local council for integration of public services, which will improve the care that patients receive. I hear what he says about how we must work together to find solutions for the long term.
As my hon. Friend said, the Isle of Wight will also benefit from the announcement of the 20 hospital upgrades, and I am grateful that he mentioned the £48 million for the Island. This extra investment will lead to improvements in patient care, and hopefully will allow flexibility for Maggie Oldham, the trust’s chair, and the rest of the team to progress their ideas further, allowing the Island better to utilise innovative technology, improve efficiency and improve the quality of care, which he has highlighted is his key objective.
I pay tribute to all those who have been involved with the trust, given the difficult circumstances it faced when it received a rating from the Care Quality Commission of “inadequate”. It has begun the positive journey to make things better. I recognise the hard work that everybody has put in across the health and social care system in the area, which is a really positive start.
We will now look at the local system, supported by NHS England and NHS Improvement, to protect and build on those achievements. I have already spoken to the Minister for hospitals, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), who is more than happy to arrange a meeting at which he and his officials would be present, so that some of the specific questions may be given the proper and appropriate attention, because my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight would not expect specific answers today.
Moving forward, it is vital in the medium term that the Island develops a strong joined-up plan across its health and care system to deliver the vision of a person-centred, co-ordinated health and social care system that gives patients the support they need. That is a unique system that cares for people from birth to end of life. My hon. Friend highlighted the challenges around the ambulance service, for example, such as not being able to use the overlay ambulance services available more easily to those on the mainland. I have also heard his request about patient travel costs. I have been assured by my hon. Friend the Minister for hospitals that NHS England and NHS Improvement have been involved in the development of plans and will continue to work closely with colleagues on the Isle of Wight. I therefore hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight realises that we are all here to support both him and the development of the broader health system on the Island.
While I recognise the concerns of Members who represent island constituencies, I hope that they will be reassured by our ongoing work to ensure that appropriate NHS resources are available, both on the Isle of Wight and on similar islands, to support patients and to meet CCG obligations to commission the best possible care. The Government are committed to ensuring that all patients receive high-quality healthcare that meets their needs, irrespective of where they live. Whether it involves me or my hon. Friend the Minister for hospitals, I look forward this constructive dialogue continuing.
Question put and agreed to.
Social Care Funding
[Sir Charles Walker in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered social care funding.
I should like to introduce a discussion on the funding of social care and narrow that to adult social care and the specific areas covered in the admirable Library briefing around the Green Paper in its absence.
It is a relief to debate something that is not about Brexit, although there is probably some indirect connection. Attempts have been made to blame the delays on Brexit, but the Secretary of State was candid enough to acknowledge that deep-seated disagreements going back 20 years explain why we are at an impasse on the basic principles.
There are a couple of contradictions or paradoxes that we must try to unravel. We all say that the only way forward is to have an all-party consensus, but at the same time the issue is increasingly weaponised. We all say that this is an incredibly urgent problem, but it stays for longer and longer in the long grass. Until we get to the root of those problems, we are not going to make any headway.
Will the hon. Gentleman wait a moment? I will happily take interventions in a few minutes.
At the root of this—and trying to be generous to all parties—is a lot of public misunderstanding. This is a complex subject. To take just one point, half of the adult social care budget is not about old people; it is for younger adults. The public fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the means test—most people do not realise it exists until they encounter it. Consequently, people are frightened when they see proposals that are characterised on one side as a death tax and on the other as a dementia tax, apparently unaware that we have a death tax and a dementia tax now.
I cannot in my short contribution solve such a fundamentally difficult problem that has been going on so long, but we need to try to disentangle issues that are fundamentally different. My primary concern is social care—how we support people in the community so they can function with a proper life, preferably at home, outside of hospital.
A totally different set of problems—wealth, property and inheritance—leads to a lot of the emotional angst caused by what is sometimes called catastrophe risk: people landed with financial obligations as a result of having long-term personal care and the expense of £50,000 a year or whatever in a residential home. However, that is about wealth, distribution and assets. It has nothing to do with health and we have to try to separate the two.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. I am also grateful for the opportunity to discuss this matter on a cross-party basis. He mentioned a cross-party consensus earlier. Is he aware of last year’s joint report by the Health and Social Care Committee and the Communities and Local Government Committee on the future funding of social care? That report came to a cross-party consensus on how we can move forward, and one of the solutions was a social care premium.
Yes, there is a lot of joint thinking. We have the joint House of Commons Committees, and my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), as Chair, was critically involved in that. There is also a very good piece of work by the House of Lords, and the considerable brains of Lord Lawson and Lord Darling contributed to a cross-party consensus. A lot of think-tanking is going on in the vacuum created by the Government’s non-publication. There is no shortage of ideas, but we need to be clear what the problem is—and it is a very serious one.
If the hon. Gentleman lets me go through this, I will take an intervention.
The first point is the rapid growth of demand as a result of an ageing population. We all know that. As far as we can establish, because of ageing and the onset of dementia in particular, we have a growth in demand of about 3.5% a year. That is considerably in excess of the growth of the economy and the resources to fund it. That is the fundamental problem at the heart of all this. We have 800,000 people with dementia at the moment, which goes up to 1 million in 2025, rising to 2 million in 2030. At the moment, there is no clear picture of how this demand is to be met.
My second point, related to that, is that we have a large and growing hidden cost that is not quantified—unpaid caring. If we take dementia alone—just one dimension of adult social care—we have 350,000 carers at the moment, of whom 110,000 have had to give up their job, which is a cost to them, the Exchequer and their employers.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this timely debate. He refers to costs. The costs to families and individuals hit with dementia are 15% higher than they are for any other illness. They are about £3.5 billion because people have had to give up their jobs for all sorts of reasons. I hope that further assists him and I hope he agrees that we have to think about it.
Yes, that is quite right. We tend to use dementia, particularly the work of the Alzheimer’s Society and others, to illustrate the problems here but they are not unique. Many people with arthritis, diabetes and serious stroke conditions face the same set of problems.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. He rightly points out the importance of unpaid carers. Any new consensus, which must come, should make clear provision to support those who do the caring— 12,000 unpaid carers in my constituency alone. If they were to cease caring—if we do not care for the carers—the social care burden on the taxpayer more generally becomes even more unmanageable.
A constituent of mine raised the case of her father who had been assessed by the health service as needing 24-hour, one-to-one support. That was withdrawn when he went into a care home, because the burden fell back on social care. There was then the problem of who was going to pay. He immediately had a series of falls and became more frail and more vulnerable, causing him and his family enormous stress. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned Labour’s proposal that we will support particularly those with dementia and their families in paying for social care costs. In the spirit of cross-party consensus, does he agree with that?
I will come to that point later and to the heart of what I understand to be the Labour proposal—on free personal care—in not too polemical a way. It presents opportunities but also serious problems.
We have the growth in demand, the hidden costs, and the burden on local authorities. It is easy to score political points, and I will put my hand up immediately: after the financial crisis I was part of the Government and we cut—in real terms—per capita spending in this area by about 11%. It did not start then. The number of people with so-called moderate needs who were excluded in the previous five years rose from 50% to 75%. It is an old problem as well as a new one, and we are all faced with the challenge of how to finance local authorities. If local authorities are underfunded, we all know the problem gets passed back to hospitals in delayed discharge.
There is the problem of the labour force. It is horrendous. Until I saw the figures, I had not realised just how bad it is. There is an annual turnover of 450,000 care workers for a mixture of reasons, a lot of it to do with pay and conditions. We currently have 100,000 vacancies, and there is the potential for stricter immigration controls, which would create even more vacancies and make them even more difficult to manage. The business model for the companies involved, partly in residential care but also in domiciliary care, is just not viable; as I understand it, four of the leading providers are now up for sale and one is in administration.
The problem, as we all recognise from our constituencies, is that there is a two-tier system: on the one hand, luxurious and comfortable homes for those who do not need to worry about money, but on the other crumbling homes with minimal standards, overseas workers on minimum pay, and a nasty smell of urine—we have all seen them. An intermediate level of care that is attractive and affordable is simply not available.
Those are the problems, as I think we all recognise, but the question is: what can be done? As has been mentioned, a wide variety of brains in and outside this place have been contributing and thinking about it; one of the unintended benefits of the Government’s delay has been that others have filled the vacuum with ideas. The most useful ideas that I encountered seemed to be from organisations such as the Health Foundation and the King’s Fund, which have no political axe to grind that I am aware of. They suggest that rather than trying to deal with all these complicated problems together, we should deal with them in sequence, starting with those that are more manageable. Essentially, they suggest that there are four stages to dealing with them, which I will briefly canter through.
First, we should identify what we need to do simply to stabilise the present position, unsatisfactory though it is, because there is a real danger of going even further backwards as a result of lack of resource. The King’s Fund identifies a need for an extra £1.5 billion by 2021 and £6 billion by 2030 simply to keep the system at its present level, unsatisfactory though it is. I hope we can all agree that that is the absolute minimum that we should aim for.
The second level up is improvement. As the King’s Fund identifies it, that means going back to the standards that prevailed in 2009-10, although they were unsatisfactory even then, and filling in some of the holes in availability of social care. It costs that at approximately £8 billion a year, rising to £10 billion after five years—a significant sum. My party, including colleagues present, has come with up with one suggestion: creating a ring-fenced fund based on a penny in every pound of income tax. That would raise £6.5 billion, which would get us most of the way there. I do not want to be doctrinaire about the best way of doing this, but I hope that there can be some understanding that that contribution, which is very limited in terms of public funding, could get us back to a more acceptable standard. People have different views about which taxes we should use and how we should ring-fence the money, but that seems to me to be the minimum level of ambition—and it could happen without legislation if the parties agreed that we should proceed in that way.
We then get on to the more difficult level, which relates to charging. One thing that has come through to me from reading the various think-tank reports is the growing interest in the idea of free personal care in the Scottish model. I confess that I have always been sceptical about it—I have the traditional economist’s scepticism of free things—but its proponents note two practical attractions that have nothing to do with ideology or party thinking: it aligns social care and healthcare, if we are going to integrate the two systems, and it brings in a lot of people who are currently excluded from social care provision, so that they are more likely to stay at home rather than going into hospital. It has potential benefits as well as costs.
I am an ex-nurse. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is right to offset the costs of social care against what we would save the NHS? I regularly had eight patients, and probably three of them would be medically fit for discharge and did not want to sit in a bed, although they had to do so. When we consider the cost, we must also balance that issue.
That is the case, and I hope that when the Green Paper appears there will be a proper, objective look at free personal care. In the past this has been an ideological issue, but there is no reason why it should be. It is a practical proposition. As I understand it, the Scottish model has pluses and minuses—it is certainly very popular with the people who benefit from it, but there are much stricter tests for eligibility in terms of physical functioning—but at least let us consider it objectively. It is costly, however—about £8 billion a year over and above the other items I have mentioned.
This was a flagship policy of the coalition Government in which I served in the Scottish Parliament, and I am proud of that. One problem that we never got around—I think this also applies to rural English constituencies and Welsh constituencies—is the issue of sparsity and distance. How do we deliver this service when there are vast distances between the various old people involved? When there is a low population base, how do we find the number of carers that we desperately need to tend to those elderly people, who deserve dignity at that stage of their life? It grieves me to say this, but in north-west Sutherland in my constituency we have a distinct problem with finding those carers. People have come to see me in the last few weeks who have not had a carer for three, four or five days, which is terrible.
My hon. Friend is right to point out the practicalities of this issue. That links to one of the current difficulties with domiciliary care, which is that providers are often not compensated for travel. I imagine that in a remote constituency that would be accentuated many times.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that this could be done in a step- wise fashion? We could probably start immediately by introducing free personal social care for people at the end of their life, and we could then move forward to try to bring more people within that sphere. There is certainly a strong economic and moral case for introducing such care at the end of life.
That is a helpful and humane suggestion, and if we approach this whole question in terms of its practicality, rather than with abstract ideology, we might make some headway. What my hon. Friend suggests seems an eminently sensible way to start that process.
The last and most difficult issue is the one in which successive Governments have got hopelessly bogged down: the so-called catastrophe risk for the small number of people who are caught with prolonged expenses as a result of residential care. When I was in government the Dilnot report attempted to address that issue, but I think we have moved beyond that now. This is a classic problem of insurance, and it is now recognised in a way that it was not before—I think the current Prime Minister said this publicly—that the private insurance market cannot, and will not, deal with this problem. If there is to be insurance it must be social insurance, and large numbers of people will have to make a contribution to prevent the burden falling on a small number of unfortunates who contract long-term conditions, with all the costs involved.
That could be done in a variety of ways. One idea is a supplement to national insurance. Another idea from 10 years ago, which I had no problem with, is that if we are to solve the problem of people losing their inheritance, everyone who pays inheritance tax should pay a small supplement. That struck me as a good social insurance principle. Whether or not that formula was right, we have now got to a point of accepting that this is a social insurance problem, and there are different mechanisms for dealing with it. If we are reasonably grown up politically, we should find a way of closing that gap.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a fantastic speech on what we will all agree—Brexit aside—is the issue of the day. I visited Parkinson’s UK in East Kilbride, and Parkinson’s sufferers are particularly affected by social care catastrophe burdens because theirs is a degenerative condition that can start in their 50s, or even earlier, and go on for the rest of their lifespan. Does the right hon. Gentleman think the Government should look at conditions that particularly affect people and start by focusing on those as a priority, as the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), the Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, said?
The hon. Lady is quite right. We are talking about a variety of conditions. I listed some, and Parkinson’s is clearly one. With Parkinson’s, it is difficult to separate the health and the social element, which is one of the problems with a lot of these conditions and why the current distinction is so arbitrary and unsatisfactory.
Perhaps I could finish with a quotation from Her Majesty the Queen, although it does not relate to her need for social care. Two and a half years ago she made a speech in which she said:
“My Ministers will work to improve social care and will bring forward proposals for consultation.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 21 June 2017; Vol. 783, c. 6.]
That was two and a half years ago, and the basic question is: where are they?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles.
I think we all accept that there is an ever-increasing demand for social care. In fact, when I was looking at data for this speech, I found out that 5,000 people a day are trying to access social care, according to NHS Digital. However, we sometimes forget the human being behind the figures, and although I was not going to use this story in my speech, it has stayed with me, and I want to share it with Members.
A couple of weeks ago, I knocked on a family’s door. I was talking to the woman there, and she told me about her sister. She was really keen for me to read some research about why adults with learning difficulties die earlier than adults without, when there is no physical reason for that to happen. She told me that, despite being the younger sister, she had helped her older sister to learn how to speak and that, when she was younger, she had helped to look after her. She used to visit her, and they were very close, despite the fact that her sister had numerous learning difficulties.
Two years ago, however, the sister died, at the age of 51. The woman was clearly still very upset. She said her sister had died because there was no reason for her to get up any more. There was no reason for her to get out of bed; there was nothing for her to do. She said that her sister had been involved years ago in volunteer work placements, and that she would get really excited when she earned her money and was given a bit of a wage at the end of the day—she felt like she had a reason to get up. The woman told me there used to be activity co-ordinators in the care homes, who went in and did work and activities such as gardening and all sorts of other things. However, over the past few years, everything has gone. She said there was no reason for her sister to want to be alive, so she stayed in bed. Her condition degenerated, and she developed serious health conditions, which resulted in her passing away at only the age of 51.
We sometimes forget about those things. We talk about care, and we ask whether 15 minutes is enough to go and care for someone. It might be enough to stick a meal in the microwave, and it might be enough to give someone their medication, but is it enough to care? It feels like we have lost the caring from our caring system. We have lost the time to actually sit down and be with each other and to have that human contact and human care.
As automation increases, it feels like that human interaction could disappear even more. For example, there are fantastic new homes that are run by voice activation. People can tell them to open the curtains or the drawers. All these advances in technology are a reason to decrease the amount of human interaction, and I worry about that. I worry about where we are going as a society. We are replacing humans with automation, and we are replacing caring with just functioning. If feels like we have developed a system where people function but do not get cared for.
We need a fundamental rethink. The time for tinkering around the edges has definitely ended. I am obviously pleased with the Labour party’s proposals for free personal care. I hope we look at giving those free personal carers the time to care, and give the quality and status to carers, so that instead of their being dismissed as insignificant people on the minimum wage they are given that quality and status. We should view our carers in the same way as we view our nurses—as people giving a quality service and making a difference to our society.
It is time for us all to put the care back into caring, raise the status of the profession and give people the time they need, and I am very proud that that is exactly what the Labour party intends to do.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles.
It is also a pleasure to participate in this debate, albeit briefly, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) for her very well-founded comments and to the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) for securing this debate. It is indeed good to be talking about something other than Brexit.
This issue is the biggest piece of unfinished business not just of this Government or the coalition Government, but of the Governments of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, because the concept of social care reform has been discussed in this place and more broadly in the country for many years. The right hon. Gentleman was right to recognise that many care providers face serious structural and numerical challenges in providing adequate numbers of people who want to work in the care sector. He was right to highlight the funding challenges that the care sector faces, which began about 15 years ago but have increased over the last few years. He was also right to highlight the fact that there is often a vocalised mantra of political consensus in this area but that when it comes to legislation or any sensible, proposal being made there is a failure in practice to deliver that political consensus, so as to deliver reform to the people on the ground who actually need care.
The care sector faces short-term funding pressures. I know that the Government will want to address some of those challenges by putting extra money into the system and supporting local authorities in providing better care, because we know that we have put local authorities into a position whereby they, and indeed the care sector, have faced very straitened financial circumstances for many years.
At the same time as talking about extra funding, however, we should talk about what sort of care system we want to see, because far too often the debate boils down to the funding discussion, when the reality is that we should also talk about how we want to deliver care. We should understand and put right the commissioning of care services. It seems extraordinary to me, given that we often talk about the benefits for people with long-term medical conditions of better integrated health and social care, that we have two different commissioning systems: local authorities commission local care; and the NHS commissions the health service. In their interventions today, many contributors have made the point that we are dealing with the same people with the same problems, but they are being dealt with in a fractured manner by two systems.
We must fundamentally deal with that issue of how we commission services, and the only way we will deliver improved care—care that is centred on the whole person—and dispense with fractured care is by having one point of commissioning. Unless we have that, we will end up putting more money into a system that, yes, needs to continue doing what it is doing at the moment, but it will still be a system that fundamentally is not the right one to deliver the right care for the people whom we care about.
At the moment, social care often duplicates the functions of the NHS, even when we are dealing with the same person. It is very difficult for families to understand why, on the one side, someone has undergone a life-changing medical event such as a stroke or severe dementia, yet some of their care is delivered not by the NHS but by social care. So, yes, let us put more money into the system, but let us also consider how we can have a better commissioning system and unified commissioning for the benefit of patients.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I will start by talking a little about my experience as a nurse on an in-patient cardiac ward and the number of times we saw delayed discharges. Delayed discharges happened when a patient was medically fit for discharge, had had all their assessments, had received physio and had seen the occupational therapist, and we knew what they needed, but because there was no social care provision, they could not go. Dr Andrews or Dr Kelly would tell them on a Friday afternoon that they could go home, and I used to think, “I’m going to be the one who tells them that they can’t.” Patients really hated that. There was also a cost to it; in cardiology—an acute setting—people would be waiting for a cardiac bed. We might have to choose to outlie that patient in a non-specialty area. We just did not have the beds. It was a constant juggling act.
I was really pleased to hear the announcement last week at the Labour party conference about the national care service; it will play a huge part in relieving the pressures on the NHS. Our NHS is in crisis; the Conservative party will say that it is not, but I still meet my friends for supper once a month, and it is. Part of that crisis is the fact that we have so many people sitting in beds, waiting for social care.
If people get decent social care in their homes when they are discharged, they will not bounce back into hospital so quickly, because there will be someone going into their home every day and keeping an eye on them. I know this from my experience with my mum. If someone is keeping an eye on them, they get to a doctor more quickly, and they are not as acutely ill when they are readmitted, as they very often ultimately are.
Elderly people face significant challenges these days in accessing a general practitioner. The GP service in Skellingthorpe, a village near me, is to be shut; it will be really hard for elderly people there to get to a GP, so they will just get more and more ill before they get to hospital.
Another important point is that when people need increased support, it should be provided by staff who are properly trained, paid and valued. Someone mentioned staff on low wages earlier. I will not utter the dreaded B-word, but when that happens, how will we provide social care, given that none of the staff we are talking about earn £30,000 a year? Labour has come up with a way. Last week, we said that people who earn over £80,000 will pay a little bit more in tax. Surely it is right that the wealthiest in society pay a little bit towards keeping the most vulnerable people safe; I know that does not go down too well with some people, but I think that that is only fair. It is also good to hear that undervalued carers who are struggling will get proper financial support in line with jobseeker’s allowance. We will introduce a cap on care costs for catastrophic illness.
I agree with everything said by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy). I have a little grandson—I say little; he is 13 —who has Down’s syndrome, and one of the worries of my life has been what will happen to him when we are gone. It is really important that people with learning difficulties are provided for. I completely agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable); Joe used to go to all sorts of little clubs and things like that, and they have all gone. Things are really basic now. All that is viewed as a commodity. It is as though we do not care about people; it is all about how much things cost. I am sorry, I think my disgust for that view is probably apparent.
Providing social care for an increasing elderly population, as well as many others across our society, is one of the biggest challenges facing us. I am really pleased that my right hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham brought forward this debate. It is really important that we talk about the issue cross-party, because it is a problem that we all face, and we need to come up with answers.
I appreciate the opportunity to talk about something other than Brexit, and to talk constructively, to have a proper debate on the facts, to look at each other’s positions and, I hope, to try to find a middle way. I think it was Lord Tebbit who said that politics was about shooting the crocodile nearest the boat. This crocodile is about to swallow the whole boat. There are three big, ticking time- bombs, all connected to demographics: pensions, healthcare and social care. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, our national debt is about 80% of GDP. By 2060, unless we look at this issue strategically and change our taxes dramatically, our debt-to-GDP ratio will be 280%. This is not something that we can just put a sticking plaster over and hope it will be okay.
I do not mean to be critical of the Opposition’s policies, but they are moving down the road of free personal care. The difficulty with that is the question of its affordability. We have to understand the sheer scale of the problem. Perhaps, once they do, they will still have the same perspective. Another point is that there is no such thing as “free”, of course. If something is free, it is funded by the taxpayer. Taxes would have to go up significantly to do what is being suggested. The right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) talked about putting a penny on income tax, which will raise about £5.5 billion, but he acknowledges that the gap will already be about £8 billion in three or four years’ time. The scale of the problem is huge, and it will simply grow, so we need to look at the facts behind it.
The Health and Social Care Committee and the Communities and Local Government Committee held a constructive inquiry into all those issues and came up with a German-style social insurance premium. I felt that was the most sustainable, simple and scalable option that tackled the future as well as the past.
Germany introduced the system in 1995 and has already revised the level of contributions once. Since 2005, it has increased the percentage of total take from the premium by 56%, at a time when our resources have been decreasing. That shows that this can work on a cross-party basis. It is a simple system based on a percentage of somebody’s income. It is not actually put on national insurance, which I would not advocate, because we would go back, in a future Budget, to arguing about who could put the most on national insurance and who could spend the most on it.
It is an independent system in which people are categorised according to need, so it is possible to calculate exactly how much needs to be raised. In future, we can come to a cross-party agreement about by how much we need to increase the premium, because we will have to increase it. Everybody pays a small amount from their income—not just their salary, so it is for retired people as well. It is also mandatory, which tackles the insurance problem, because the insurance market will not work unless there is universal cover, and it is handled by not-for-profit insurance companies.
The key element in the system is that, when someone is categorised as needing care, they can pay for provision, ask their local authority or provider to give them care, or draw down the money and pay it to a relative or neighbour, so they get care from the people who care for them most and understand them best. That also helps to tackle the staffing element. If we have a system where everybody pays something, nobody has to give everything.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. Making sure that the sick and elderly are treated with care is the measure of any civilised society. I believe that we should not be judged by our personal wealth, but by our compassion for those in most need. Clearly, however, that ethos is not shared by our Government.
As we speak, 1.4 million older people are going without the care they need, which is totally unacceptable. We are faced with the huge challenge of meeting the increasingly complex care needs of an ageing population, yet as those needs have increased and intensified, state funding for those services has nosedived. Council budgets have been reduced by an average of nearly 50% since the Tories came to power. Those cuts have taken a staggering £7.7 billion out of social care funding since 2010.
In my constituency, Warrington Borough Council has had £137 million cut from its budget with another at least £22 million of savings to find by 2020. As a former new town, we are seeing a significant increase in our vulnerable older population—those who were drawn to Warrington for work and a better life in the 1970s and 1980s. Nationally, there are 8,000 fewer care home beds than in 2015, despite the kind of rising demand seen in my constituency. Reports indicate that, last year, almost 90 people a day died while waiting for care to be arranged for them at home. That is absolutely shameful. How can the Minister justify those figures?
The crisis in social care is felt by not just those in need of care, but their families and friends who must step in where the state has failed and where money is short. More than 5 million unpaid carers look after loved ones. Skills for Care has found an 8% vacancy rate in the social care sector, which is equal to 110,000 empty roles at any one time. Many who work in the social care sector are overworked and underpaid. Unison has documented at length the injustices faced by those who do such vital work: sleep-ins, impossible rotas, zero-hours contracts and unpaid travel time, to name just a few.
Make no mistake: this policy area is crippled by Government inaction and market failure, causing immense hardship and misery for those who need care and for those who provide it. It is high time our political leaders showed the courage necessary to rise to the challenge and fix this mess, ensured the safety and security of older generations and treated care workers with the respect they deserve. I am proud that my party has recently announced bold, radical plans to do just that.
Labour will introduce personal care free at the point of use in England funded through general taxation. Providing free personal care to older people will ensure that they will be able to live in their own homes for longer, providing them with dignity and the support to lead independent lives for as long as possible. I have seen at first hand from my mum, who passed away last year, how that is absolutely crucial.
I started the year encouraged by the 10-year plan and now by this weekend’s infrastructure investment. They are both welcome. Certainly, in Cornwall and on the Isles of Scilly, there is an ambition and enthusiasm for how they can use such opportunities to put right the challenges that we have. We all recognise, as has already been said this afternoon, that everything hinges on how we effectively and appropriately care for people in old age and people who need social care during their working lives.
The Minister might be interested to know something that I heard recently: care homes, including charitable care homes in Cornwall, have beds. Our urgent care centre closed its doors to new admissions not long ago because it had people in beds who needed to be elsewhere at a time when beds were available. However long we need to wait for the Green Paper—I really hope it comes soon because it is getting embarrassing now—I hope the Minister will ask searching questions of areas such as Cornwall, where beds are available in one place and individuals who should be in those beds. The system is under enormous pressure.
When it comes to the Green Paper—we have heard this already—there needs to be clarity and fairness. For example, why do we think that dementia is an issue for social care and not use NHS funds to properly care for people? As has already been said, it would lead to far better care and support for families and also reduce the burden in the cost of such care. Also, who pays? Why is it that someone who is funded by the state costs a certain amount of money, but if for some reason circumstances change and their family needs to fund their care, the cost of their care leaps by enormous amounts in just a weekend. Why, if it is state-funded, is it a matter of hundreds of pounds, but if it is privately funded, is it a matter of thousands for the same care?
Will the Minister look at some of the solutions that we are trying to bring forward in Cornwall? We have a health and care academy. There is an enthusiasm to train people in Cornwall to work in nursing and domiciliary care. Part of the challenge is that the cost of doing that, even using the apprenticeship levy, makes it not possible for everyone who wants to do it, but in Cornwall we need people to train locally so that they stay local.
Finally, I was on Scilly on Friday where urgent healthcare, GPs and social care have been brought together. A business case has been put to bring everything together in one place so that people do not need to leave the Isles of Scilly to get the care that can easily be provided at home. Again, it would reduce the cost and the pressure on the workforce, who at the moment are stretched all over the place. Will the Minister look at that plan to see how we can find some funding to make that integration become a reality on the Isles of Scilly?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) on securing this important debate. In the limited time that I have, I will concentrate on a couple of realities. Every colleague in the room knows that social care is on its knees and has been for a long time. I appreciated the intervention from the hon. Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee), who said that she was a nurse before she became an MP. My partner is a community matron. She works out in the community with patients alongside social care, and she sees for herself how bad it is, as every Member here does. I have had numerous bits of casework dealing with the profound challenges in social care, so we know that it is on its knees.
Politically, because of cuts over a number of years to the money it receives from Government, East Sussex County Council has been cutting meals on wheels, rehabilitation houses and much more. I pay tribute to my colleague Councillor John Unger, who has been lobbying, harrying and fighting the county council to stop the cuts, but it has not made a lot of difference. Why not? Because it is on its knees. Social care is a massive issue, and all of us in the Chamber know that the only way to deal with it properly is to depoliticise it—I have a view on doing that with the NHS, but that is for another day. If we do not depoliticise social care, we will be in exactly the same position in five years’ time.
The real frustration and challenge is that, as MPs, we know how difficult it is out there for people in receipt of social care—or not, as the case may be. The same is true for those such as myself whose partners are nurses and others. Similarly, one of our colleagues is a doctor and would have seen things for himself. The challenge is that normal, ordinary people out there do not realise how bad it is until they need social care, and then—my God, it is a car crash. They come into my office and say, “Stephen, I cannot believe the service, or the lack of it, that my mum”—or dad, or grandad—“is receiving.” They are in bits, and until we can find a way to inform the rest of the public—85% to 90%, say; I do not know—just how awful things are, I believe we will just keep getting stuck.
There have been good ideas—we had good ideas in the Dilnot report and the coalition; Labour has come up with some good ideas, and free personal care in Scotland has real mileage—but the truth is that we will need to depoliticise social care. I therefore urge the House to recognise that, after this bloomin’ Brexit and the election, whatever the hell happens—I hope that I will be here to continue urging—we will have to depoliticise social care, otherwise it will never improve and our people will suffer.
Today, we are looking at a question that is certainly as vexing as that faced by Nye Bevan when he looked at how we would fund health. As has been said, the need for social care is increasing across our population—for older people, younger people, working people and retired people. It is a good thing that we live longer, but we have to recognise that that fundamentally changes how we as a society might address that need. The answer, in my view, is not simply to throw money at it. Money is clearly part of the solution, but this is a complex puzzle, and when we consider that our system has remained largely unchanged for 50 years, I think it is time for another Nye Bevan moment.
We therefore need to identify the true scope of the issue. There is much hidden need, particularly in isolated rural areas such as mine in Devon. What is the best way of delivering? I chair a national inquiry into rural health and care. It is taking two years to deliver, and it is clear that there are issues with different geographies that can be dealt with more efficiently and effectively with different methodologies. We need to look at how technology can be better used. We should look at how we might train and motivate people across both health and social care, and there has to be parity of esteem between the two.
We need to look also at how the community can be engaged. That is not, in this case, just about money. Sometimes, it is not about money but about a willingness to be part of that community. North Devon was cut off during the extreme winter two years ago, but people survived because they pulled together as a community. That is the sort of resilience that we have to build in.
We have to find something efficient and effective. We have to be honest about the cost. I agree that we need to help society to understand that, and we therefore need to understand what the right contribution is from the individual, family, community and taxpayer. We talk about integrating health and social care, but right now the challenge is that we have two systems that are funded in very different ways. The five reports that we have had so far have looked only at the social care problem, but it is naive to think that we can look at it in isolation. What we need now is a report on integrating both the provision and commissioning of health and care. That we have not done.
Dilnot looked at one side of the problem, and we have had other inquiries looking at integrating commissioning and provision, but that is not enough. It seems to me that we need to commission an integration report across health and social care. We need to deliver parity of esteem. We need to identify the barriers to integrating those systems, and remove them. Duplication of regulators and organisations does not work. What is the true cost? What is the best way to share that burden? How do we look at insurance, savings and taxation? But that will take time, and I support the view that in the short term we need to look at domiciliary care. I believe that we could integrate that into primary care and that it should be free, whether it is funded through tax, savings or some other mechanism.
I thank the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) for introducing this debate. I will be talking about children’s social care, with the forgiveness of his introduction on adult social care.
In Plymouth, our children’s social care system is on its knees, not just because of the cuts that my colleagues have spoken about; it is down to a very small number of exceptionally expensive young people who have needed social care. The exceptional costs are not unique to Plymouth, but in Plymouth we have had a number of them at the same time, resulting in severe budget pressures. One of those young people cost £50,000 a week in social care and required six-on-one care as ordered by the court. I stress that it is not that young person’s fault and no blame should be attached to them or their family, but that level of cost, for small councils with small budgets such as Plymouth’s, is exceptional.
I have met some of the Minister’s colleagues to talk about those exceptional costs and whether there is a possibility that, in those exceptional circumstances, the Government might look at applying the Bellwin scheme, which covers exceptional costs in the event of a natural disaster, to extend to something that is not normally acceptable within the budget. I think there is a possibility here, and I would be grateful if the Minister thought about whether there is a point where we can look at the exceptional care costs—of others as well, but especially of young people—and say, “Actually, it is unreasonable to take resources away from other children in that locality to apply to this.” I am grateful for the Ministers who have looked at this before. We do not yet have the answer, but I think there is a possibility of working around this.
Young people are not only, in many cases, receiving the care here, but giving social care. In my last minute, I will mention young carers, because in every single part of the country they are providing tens of thousands of hours of care to young people, to elder folks and to people with learning disabilities. Their role in the overall social care scheme needs to be understood, because they are not getting the support. In many cases, they are giving up time when they could be doing homework, socialising, learning or just being themselves to care in settings that they are not trained or equipped for.
I would like to see the Government encourage schools to start counting who in their school is a young carer. Many of the schools in Plymouth have started to do so and, my word, the results are scary—they show just how many of our young people are taking on exceptional burdens. There is a question about how we can provide additional, wrap-around support for those families and in particular for those young people who are doing something really exceptional in supporting and caring for their loved ones. That is an area that I would like to see included in the Green Paper, whenever it comes out, because in the case of exceptional care costs for young people, and of young carers themselves, there is much work to be done.
We hold this debate against the severe cuts we have seen in local authorities, with £7.7 billion taken out of the budget. Of course, we had the Dilnot report in 2011 and the promise of a social care Bill in 2012. In 2015, we had a manifesto promise; in 2017, we had the promise of a paper and then a disgraceful offer in the manifesto. In 2018, we were promised a Green Paper before the summer, before the autumn, by Christmas, in the new year and then “soon”, and then it was summer again in 2019, and of course this Green Paper has not seen the light of day. Meanwhile, 1.4 million people are not getting the care they need and 87 people each day die before they get the care they desperately need.
I want to tell the story of Mr Stewart, in my constituency. The love of his life, Nancy—they have been married for more than 60 years—was taken into hospital and then discharged to a care home. He wanted her home, and it was refused and refused, and then an inadequate trial was done without the right care support in place. He longed to have her back at home, but she was permanently moved to a care home outside Harrogate, which is over 20 miles away, and each visit costs £88. City of York Council will pay for him to visit his wife once a week, but he wants to spend his whole life with her. He pays for two additional visits despite not having the means, but the visits are all too short. He cannot afford to go every day; he cannot afford to live with her; and he cannot afford to have her cared for at home. The system is broken, and poor Mr Stewart has been broken by the system. Hope came last week when Labour announced that it will pay for the personal care that people need, which would enable Mr Stewart to live with his wife. It is right that we reform our care system and turn it into a therapeutic system as we do so.
I praise our diligent careworkers, but we must end the pressure placed on them by zero-hours contracts and short visits. They need time to care and to apply their expertise. Training should be put in their hands, so that they can be at the frontline of delivering care with confidence. I worked as a carer, so I know what it is like to work under that pressure. I then moved on to be a physiotherapist, and trying to discharge people into the system was a massive challenge. We need to respect our careworkers and pay them well. No more talking; we will make it happen. It is the right thing to do. It is the Labour thing to do.
I begin by paying tribute to all the family carers and the care workforce, including those who looked after my mother-in-law Mary. It was only with their support that she was able to die where she wished: at home, surrounded by her loved ones. That support is not available to everybody, but it should be. For the want of good social care, far too many people unnecessarily end up in far more expensive hospital settings. We must act quickly, and I hope that the Minister will update us on when the Government will come forward with their consultative social care Green Paper, because it was promised two and a half years ago. Five publication deadlines have been missed, so when will we see that Green Paper?
I also hope that the Minister will confirm that she has looked at the Joint Select Committee inquiry by the Health and Social Care Committee and the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, because the proposals provide a blueprint for how to move things forward. It contains practical suggestions that have been road-tested for their acceptability through a citizens assembly. I hope that she will also confirm that the principles set out in the document will form part of the Green Paper.
I am afraid that I am going to disappoint my right hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable), who said that this debate provided an opportunity not to talk about Brexit, because Brexit poses a grave threat to a fragile sector. The Yellowhammer documents make it clear that smaller providers face going to the wall within two to three months and larger providers within four to six months. I hope that the Minister will be able to comment on what action will be taken to mitigate that.
The effects include not only the impact of an increase in inflation on a fragile sector, but the impact on the workforce. As the Minister knows, the vacancy rate is already at 8%, which amounts to around 110,000 positions across social care. Some 8% of the workforce come from our partner EU27 nations, and many workers are deciding that it is no longer economically viable for them to remain in the UK due to changes in the exchange rate. Several careworkers have told me in tears that they no longer feel welcome in this country, which is horrific and should make us all feel a sense of great shame, but that is the reality. People face racist remarks in our country today despite decades of service to the most vulnerable in society. We cannot afford to lose them. We need to set out what will happen to ensure that the people in this workforce, many of whom will not meet the income thresholds, will be able to come here, share their skills with us and be welcomed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) for securing what has been a well attended and thoughtful debate.
The Office for Budget Responsibility assessed the UK’s public finances as potentially £30 billion worse off each year in a no-deal Brexit scenario of medium disruptiveness. That sum is significant because it is more than the entire sum spent on adult social care, plus investment in NHS buildings and equipment, across the United Kingdom in 2017-18. Much of the responsibility for social care is, of course, devolved, with respect to Scotland. The Scottish National party Scottish Government are currently working with a range of partners to take forward a national programme to support local reform of adult social care support. Scotland continues to be the only country in the UK that delivers free personal care. That currently benefits more than 77,000 older and disabled people in Scotland.
In England since 2010 the number of people receiving publicly funded social care has decreased by 600,000, because of funding cuts. In 2019-20 the SNP Scottish Government are increasing their package of investment and social care support and integration to exceed £700 million, up from £550 million in the previous year. In England a boundary has always existed between the NHS and social care, contributing to fragmented and unco-ordinated care. In Scotland the SNP Scottish Government successfully integrated health and social care, which is the most significant change to health and social care since the creation of the NHS in 1948. Last month the First Minister announced that everyone diagnosed with cancer will have a dedicated support worker, provided through a new £18 million partnership fund.
Of course, the devolved Administrations do not operate in isolation. Policy decisions from Westminster continue to have an impact on social care. The independent expert advisory group in Scotland deems that changes set out in the UK Government’s immigration White Paper would reduce net migration to Scotland by between 30% and 50% in the coming two decades. That is extremely significant. It states that social care would be severely affected as fewer than 10% of those in caring personal service occupations in Scotland earn above £25,000, and almost no one earns over the £30,000 immigration threshold. Average earnings of adult social care workers are higher in Scotland than they are elsewhere in the UK, coming in at about £18,400 as opposed to £17,300. Yet people are thinking about a £30,000 immigration limit. Just let those figures sink in. Thanks to Scottish Government funding, staff can be paid at least the real living wage, but it is still nowhere near the immigration threshold. That is a serious worry in respect of future provision throughout the UK, not just Scotland.
The number of Scots over 80 with social care needs is set to increase by 68% by 2036. That is probably an even faster rate than the English figures that we have heard from some hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) called for an independent evaluation of the impact of Brexit on the health and social care sector, through his private Member’s Bill, the European Union Withdrawal (Evaluation of Effects on Health and Social Care Sectors) Bill. The Bill was supported across the House and by 102 organisations, but I wonder whether the UK Government are listening.
On 18 August The Sunday Times, citing UK Government planning assumptions under Yellowhammer, stated:
“An already ‘fragile’ social care system is expected to be tipped over the edge by a no-deal, with providers starting to go bust by the new year”.
The report quoted the document as saying that “smaller providers” would be
“impacted within two-three months and large providers four-six months”
after Brexit. The negative economic impact of a disorderly Brexit, including an increase in inflation and an economic recession, will augment the pressure on providers and will shift the burden of care work on to unpaid family carers, the majority of whom are women. I look forward to hearing the Minister address those points, particularly on the issue of migrant staff and the £30,000 immigration limit.
It is a pleasure to speak in a debate with you in the Chair, Sir Charles. I think that this is the first time I have done so. I join others in congratulating the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) on securing this important debate.
The number of Members contributing in this debate makes clear the appetite to speak on the matter, and it is a pity that more Government time—or even an Opposition day debate—has not been allocated. It is appropriate that on this International Day of Older Persons we have talked largely, though not entirely, about older people. That should remind us all that growing old with dignity is a fundamental right that we should all enjoy.
By my count we have heard 12 Back-Bench speeches and six interventions, and by the time we get to the Minister we will have heard three Front-Bench speakers. Many have rightly focused on the cuts to social care budgets and the harm caused to people who rely on and need social care. We have heard powerful examples of the impact of those cuts. That harm, however, is not inevitable. If social care is properly funded and delivered well, it can be life changing. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) gave an example of how life can be changed in the wrong way if social care is not available.
Social care can keep someone connected to their community rather than isolated and lonely. It can support people to live the lives they want to live, rather than just survive from day to day—sometimes not even that—when the care disappears. But that is not what our social care system looks like today. Over the past nine years nearly £8 billion has been taken out of local councils’ social care budgets as a result of cuts. Hon. Members have mentioned the swingeing cuts experienced by many local authorities. As a result, hundreds of thousands fewer people are receiving the care they need. That is the straightforward result of the cuts.
Age UK tells us that 1.4 million older people in this country are struggling with everyday activities. Whether that means getting washed or eating a meal, they are not getting the help they should be getting. Older people are being left trapped in bed all day and perhaps going unwashed all week because their children can visit them only on weekends. They are having only microwave meals, because that is all their neighbours or family friends have the time to buy in for them. That is not what this country’s older and disabled people deserve.
I am glad that many hon. Members have mentioned the immense pressure that the state of our care system puts on unpaid carers. Wherever the Government pull back from funding social care properly, the UK’s millions of unpaid carers have to step in. As we have heard, that includes young carers in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard). It is very important to identify and support those young carers. I have tried three times to bring in legislation, including to identify young carers. The Minister’s predecessor did not support it, but we could still do it. I might give the Bill to my hon. Friend so that he can resurrect it.
It is a dire picture, including for young carers. Half of unpaid carers now spend 50 hours a week providing care, while 38% spend 100 hours of every week caring. One quarter of carers have not received any support, either for themselves or for the person they care for. Two thirds of carers say that they do not get as much social contact as they would like with other people. More than eight in 10 say that they cannot spend time doing things that they enjoy or value, and 40% of carers say that they have not had a day off for more than a year. In fact, a recent Carers UK report noted carers saying that if they had a respite care break, they would use it to visit their own GP for a medical appointment, which is very sad.
Even for the smaller number of people who manage to get a social care package, cuts mean that the care provided will not be of the quality expected. One in five social care services has been rated by the Care Quality Commission as either “inadequate” or “requires improvement”. The number of complaints to the local government ombudsman about social care provision has trebled since 2010, rising to more than 3,000, and two thirds of those complaints are upheld. There is very much wrong with our system. I find it deeply concerning that one in five care homes, housing as many as 9,000 older and disabled people, are now rated as unsafe.
These are not services that any of us would like a family member to have to rely on. The situation can mean care homes that are so unclean that residents are at risk of infection, or residents being at risk of malnutrition because nobody is monitoring what they are eating. Care in one’s own home can mean visits by staff who have not been subject to basic checks or who have not completed any training. It can mean staff being so rushed that they do not have time to take off their coat while they are getting people up and dressed. The reality is that some care providers cannot provide high-quality services with the funding available; sadly, other providers choose to protect profit margins rather than the people who use their services.
That issue is clearest in the social care workforce. There are 1.4 million people—or there would be, if the vacancies were filled—working in social care. These people provide vital support day in, day out, but they simply do not get the respect they deserve for the work they do. More than a quarter of those care staff work for a minimum wage, and the same proportion of the workforce are on zero-hours contracts. It is no surprise therefore that there are 110,000 vacancies in the care sector. Those important issues have been touched on by many Members in this debate.
Rather than providing the empathetic care that they want to offer, care staff are often reduced to visits lasting 15 minutes or less. They must rush through their tasks with barely any time to talk to the person they are visiting. This deterioration in the quality of care is the result of nearly a decade of cuts, care staff stretched to breaking point and services that barely deserve to be called “care”. Hundreds of thousands of people have to go without basic support.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech and paints a picture of social care in this country. On 15-minute visits, does she agree that the issue is not just the time limit but the ever-changing individual presence? With vulnerable people, consistency of care and the ability to build up a relationship are equally important.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. For people with dementia and learning disabilities, seeing a familiar face every day can be crucial.
We cannot allow this crisis to continue. We must see action to ensure that everyone is able to access the care that they need to live with dignity. That is why Labour has announced that we would introduce free personal care for all older people who need it and expand such provision to working-age adults as soon as possible. That would end the scandal of people having to sell their home to pay for basic care. We will fund social care in the only fair, sustainable and understandable way—through general taxation. That is how we fund our NHS and our schools, and it is how Labour will fund our national care service.
Before we can build this new system, we must also repair the damage caused by years of budget cuts. We will invest £8 billion in more care packages, in improved training and in better community support. The apprenticeship levy is not enough for training; skills for care should be better funded.
I do not have time.
A few months ago, we pledged £350 million a year for community resources, aimed specifically at helping to bring autistic people and those with learning disabilities out of in-patient units—over 2,000 of them—in which they are trapped. It is a scandal that we do not have the social care and community resources that are needed to prevent people being trapped in abusive care. Time and again, the reason given for people being in those units is that there is no resource in the community. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport has spoken about the burden that falls on social care authorities if they end up with a very expensive case. We have to get round that.
We can fix the crisis in social care only by properly funding the system, as the Labour plans will do. Two years after the Conservatives’ disastrous 2017 manifesto plans, which were later dropped, we are still waiting to hear what they will do. The Government’s promised Green Paper has been delayed and delayed, and now it looks to many—including many in this Chamber—as if it has been dropped altogether. The hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) mentioned how embarrassing that was. It is not just embarrassing; people lose hope waiting for the care they need.
A cap on care costs, which would stop people facing catastrophic costs, and for which we legislated, was ditched by the Government in December 2017. I am sorry to say that instead the Government have provided only small, one-off cash injections—sticking plasters—rather than the long-term funding settlement that social care needs. Will the Minister tell us where the Government’s proposals on social care are? If the Government want to resolve the crisis that their funding cuts have created, as I hope they do, why have they constantly kicked social care funding reform into the long grass? It is time for a solution to the crisis that this Government have created. Labour Members have pledged a way to solve the crisis, which in itself gives hope to many people who need social care.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your stewardship in this important debate, Sir Charles, and I share the sentiment of many Members across the House in congratulating the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) on securing it. I also wish to highlight the incredibly constructive and collaborative nature of the way that he opened this debate. He was right to highlight from the outset that the only way to find a solution to this thorny issue, which is not unique to our country but a challenge faced by countries around the world, is by working in a co-operative, collaborative, and constructive way.
The right hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out that successive Governments have tried and failed to deal with this thorny issue, and despite everybody recognising the need for consensus, for too long it has been weaponised. We have heard expressions such as “dementia tax” or “death tax” used by all parties over the years. That has not been helpful, and it is one reason why different parties and Governments have placed this issue in the “too difficult” pile. He was also right to highlight the sense of urgency, because we no longer have the luxury of time to place the issue in that pile.
Over the past couple of years the Government have responded to huge short-term pressures, and funding for local government has gone up, as opposed to being cut, as outlined by Labour Members. However, we must set out our long-term plans, and consider how to solve the thorny issues of long-term funding for adult social care. At the moment, one in 10 people face what we might call catastrophic care costs in excess of £100,000, and potentially lose their home to pay for their long-term care.
I thank hon. Members across the House who have spoken with great passion and, in most cases, an enormous amount of collaboration and desire to work together to find solutions to these problems. I join them in recognising and paying tribute to the carers, nurses, social workers, and unpaid friends and families of those who require care. Every day, carers work tirelessly to ensure that people live dignified and fulfilling lives, regardless of how tough that challenge is. In doing this job and fulfilling this role, it has been my greatest privilege to meet those people on an almost daily basis and hear their stories. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) said that carers must be accorded the status that they deserve, and given resources to drive the right amount of quality, and she was absolutely right. She was wrong, however, to say that we have lost caring from the caring system. People may be driven to that point in some respects, but they care and they do so in the most beautiful way.
May I associate myself with what the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) said about young carers who go home and look after parents who may have an alcohol or drug dependency problem? In my constituency an organisation called The Young Karers East Sutherland helps to support them. My mother died four years ago, but she was cared for at home very well. The younger carers—those who had left school and gone into the profession for the first time—were the most amazing. They embraced this profession, and one could see they had a vocation. I suggest that one way to sort out this problem is to encourage the recruitment of young people by giving them taster sessions and letting them come from school and see what it is like. Often, we might get converts who will stay in the profession for life.
That is an excellent intervention, and the hon. Gentleman is right to say that we must do more to recognise and support young carers. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport said that we must do more to help schools to identify young carers, and that was a key part of the carers action plan that was announced last summer. A young carers’ takeover day of Parliament is planned in the months ahead: every MP across the country will be encouraged to invite a young carer from their constituency, which will give us a real in-depth understanding of what an amazing job young carers do.
We all recognise the challenges that the social care system faces. As a population, we are getting older: by 2040, one in four people in the UK will be 65 or over, as the right hon. Member for Twickenham pointed out. It is also important to understand that social care is not just a service for older people; the number of people under 65 who have carers is growing and accounts for more than half of social care spending. That can have quite a disastrous impact on local authority budgets, as the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport pointed out. I will certainly take forward the points that he made.
These long-standing trends put increasing financial pressure on local authorities. In response, we have taken steps to ensure that the social care system has the funding to meet urgent challenges in the short term. In 2017, we announced an additional £2 billion in grant funding for social care, which we supplemented with a further £650 million in the 2018 Budget. Councils have responded by increasing their spending on social care, which has risen in real terms in each of the past three years.
I will make some progress, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind.
As a result of our investment in social care, 65% of local authorities were able to increase home care provision in 2017-18. Local authorities have increased the average fee paid for older people’s home care by 4.7% in 2018-19, bringing some much-needed stability to the provider market. I am very pleased that the Care Quality Commission has rated 84.1% of social care settings as good or outstanding.
I am delighted to say that in our most recent spending round we announced further investment in adult social care. We will provide councils with access to an additional £1.5 billion for adult and children’s social care next year, including £1 billion in new grant funding over and above the £2.5 billion of existing social care grants. In the spending round, we confirmed that all the existing funding streams would be maintained next year—hard-wired into the Budget, if you like. The Government will also consult on a 2% adult social care precept that will enable councils to access a further £500 million. This increase in funding is part of the biggest increase since 2015 in overall core spending power for local government: it will increase by 4.3% in real terms next year.
The new funding from the spending round will support local authorities in meeting the rising demands that they face, while helping them to continue to stabilise the wider social care market. This additional funding is the first step towards putting adult social care on a fairer and more sustainable footing. We have already started preparing for the multi-year spending round due next year.
The challenges facing social care are not purely financial, as hon. Members across the parties, including my hon. Friends the Members for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) and for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris), have said. It is important to point that out, because stakeholders across the sector tell MPs: “Even if money were no object, we would not necessarily continue to provide this service in the current system.” The current system is not working in so many respects, and it is not working properly for some of our most vulnerable citizens, which is why we are continuing to support the system through a programme of sector-led improvements to help councils to make better use of funding to deliver high-quality personalised service, with more than £9.2 million committed by the Department in 2019-20.
We are also breaking down barriers to encourage much better integration of health and care, and we are looking at what more we can do to support the workforce and carers, as I have mentioned. In terms of integration, the better care fund has helped to enable much better co-operation between health and social care partners at a local level. It has also been instrumental in reducing delayed transfers of care, which has been mentioned: they have decreased by 2,147 since February 2017. We are looking at how we can use the fund to drive better integration.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) spoke about bed vacancies and people stuck in hospitals. There is a lot more integration going on between care providers and health settings that are using those beds to provide the step-down care and discharge to assess that we want to see.
The better care fund and how it is applied on the ground locally varies across the country. Overall, the impact has been disappointing in terms of the ambition for that fund. I urge my hon. Friend to look at why there are two different commissioning systems for the NHS and social care. Unless we get that right, we are not going to drive improved integration or more personalised care.
My hon. Friend is right to say there were teething problems, but in the most recent reporting cycle, 93% of local areas agreed that joint working had improved as a result of the better care fund. We want to use it to drive much better integration and to look at how we undertake more joint commissioning in future.
We are committed to working alongside all partners in adult social care to attract and support a growing workforce with the right skills and the right values to deliver quality and compassionate care. Earlier this year, we launched the “Every Day Is Different” national adult social care recruitment campaign to raise the profile of the sector. We have secured a further £3.8 million for the next wave of that campaign, which will start later this month. We fund Skills for Care to support the sector in recruitment and retention.
I do not have time. We also fund the workforce development fund, and social care employers can bid for this funding to pay for their staff to gain training qualifications at all levels.
There were lots of questions raised across the Chamber, and I want to deal with them all. The hon. Member for Totnes spoke about the impact of Brexit. As the Prime Minister has said, he wants our immigration system to help to attract the brightest and best talent from across the world. This includes delivering an Australian-style points-based immigration system as a first step. The Home Secretary has commissioned an independent migration advisory committee to review this and the appropriate salary threshold. Clearly, we want to attract people to work in adult social care.
We are aware that the system is already under pressure and recognise that EU exit could add to this. We have been working on this for a long time alongside partners, including ADASS, the Local Government Association and local authorities, to ensure robust contingency plans are in place. [Interruption.] I am going to have to make progress as I will have to sit down in a second.
There is still much more to do. The funding announced in the spending round is a down payment on much more fundamental reforms to social care that we need to introduce. As the Prime Minister said on the steps of Downing Street, the Government will set out plans to fix the crisis in social care once and for all, to give every older person the dignity and security they deserve. We want to ensure that nobody has to sell their home to pay for care. The Government will not shy away from the long-term challenges that face social care. Our proactive approach to funding and reform means that we will ensure that our social care system can respond to the challenges that lie ahead with confidence that the most vulnerable in our society will be able to live with dignity and respect and receive the care they deserve.
Sir Charles, thank you for safeguarding the last 10 minutes. I tried to approach this whole subject in a non-tribal way. I thank all the Members, including the Minister, who participated in that spirit. The debate was enriched by people drawing on professional experience, such as the hon. Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee), and those drawing powerfully on personal case experience, such as the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd), the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) and others.
The title of this debate included the ugly word, “funding”. However good our intentions, we do have to pay for this, and I commend the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) for setting out clearly and succinctly the financial constraints and a good solution through social insurance for many of these problems. I also commend the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) and the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) for pointing out that we are trying to reconcile two fundamentally different systems of funding and organisation. As we integrate the system, bringing them together is not an easy task.
Perhaps I tried too hard to be non-tribal. I thought we were trying to get a bit of respite from Brexit. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes, the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), and others pointed out, unfortunately we cannot get away from it. It has a major impact on resource availability and the labour market.
In conclusion, I wish to thank the Minister for her reply. She pointed out—and I should have acknowledged this at the beginning—that the Government have put in a little bit more in resource. However, that is growing at 2.5% while the demand is growing at 4% and the cruelty of compound interest is, I am afraid, rather powerful and painful over time.
Child Poverty: Leicester
[Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered child poverty in Leicester.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon.
It is a disgrace that in the 21st century, in one of richest countries in the world—Britain—over 4 million children are growing up in poverty. In Leicester, 40,000 children are growing up poor—up 3% in the last year alone—including almost 12,000 children in my constituency. When housing costs are taken into account, 40% of children in Braunstone are growing up poor. In Abbey, it is 41%, and in New Parks it is a staggering 43%.
Those statistics, however shocking, do not tell us what growing up in poverty really means for children and families in my city. Two years ago, Leicester City Council conducted a major survey of hundreds of children and young people. One in five said they worried about having enough to eat every single day. On one of my recent weekly school visits, a primary school head told me about a child who was struggling to concentrate in class. When the teacher asked what the child had had for breakfast, he said, “Nothing”—and he had had only a bowl of salad cream for his tea the night before, because there was nothing else in the house.
Ten years ago, the organisations in Leicester that work with disadvantaged children focused on helping parents to find employment opportunities, equipping them with new skills, and providing support with parenting or help to quit smoking. Now they say they have to focus on the very basics of decent human existence—keeping a roof over people’s heads, clothes on their backs, food on the table, and the gas and electricity on. The reasons for this change are clear. They include the Government’s welfare policies, including the freeze in working-age benefits, the introduction of universal credit, and especially the five-week wait for it. There is also the shift towards in-work poverty; we have had the longest pay squeeze in 200 years, and more and more people are having to hold down several insecure jobs just to make ends meet. Appalling cuts to local council funding have decimated children’s and youth services, and vital support such as welfare advice. There is also the rising cost of living, and especially of housing. Increasing costs in the private rented sector are pushing so many children into poverty in my city.
These things have a major, immediate impact on children, but growing up poor has long-term consequences, too. When children in the most disadvantaged areas start school, they are up to 18 months behind their better-off peers in their development. They can end up playing catch-up for the rest of their life. If they live in inadequate or overcrowded housing, they often struggle to get their homework done, and are more likely to suffer from health problems such as asthma, anxiety and depression. Poor children are also less likely to be able to go on school trips or to do the extracurricular activities that many families take for granted and that are so crucial for child development.
A combination of all those things means that children growing up in poverty are less likely to do well at school, less likely to go on to further or higher education and less likely to earn the same salaries or to go into the same professions or vocations as young people from more advantaged backgrounds. Child poverty damages their lives and life chances, and it harms our country as a whole because we all miss out on their potential, their talents, their hopes and their dreams.
I am proud of the work we are doing in Leicester to try to tackle these problems. To give just one example, I chair the Feeding Leicester programme, which is working to end food poverty in our city. During the recent summer holidays, we provided 32,000 free meals to around 2,200 individual children across the city, predominantly in the most deprived areas. That included fresh fruit, which went down a storm. There were also lots of activities, such as sports, arts and crafts.
Unlike in previous years, we did that without any funding from the Government. We pulled together £40,000 from the city council through crowdfunding with the national Feeding Britain charity and support from De Montfort University. We had incredible help from our amazing community groups, adventure playgrounds and volunteers, without whom the holiday food programme simply would not have been possible. I know that that programme is not within the Minister’s remit, but will he discuss with the Department for Education why we got no funding this year? In fact, the only place in the entire east midlands to get any Government funding was the county of Leicestershire. I am not saying that there are no poor children in Leicestershire, but the idea that the need is greater there than in Leicester, Derby or Nottingham is simply a farce. We have just heard some results from what happened in Leicestershire, and even though it got over £800,000 I am afraid that it delivered fewer free meals to fewer children than we did in Leicester. That cannot be repeated next year.
Tomorrow the organisations I work with in the feeding Leicester programme, and many others across the city, will come together to draw up a new anti-poverty strategy for people of all ages. We know we cannot tackle this problem on our own, and the Government must take action, but we are determined to do everything we possibly can.
One issue that will be raised is the serious risk that the already unacceptably high levels of poverty we face in Leicester will get even worse in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The Government’s own assessment—Operation Yellowhammer—says:
“Low income groups will be disproportionately affected”
by a no-deal Brexit because of the risk of rising food and fuel prices. In other words, people who are already struggling to make ends meet will face an even bigger struggle if no deal leads to price rises. Operation Yellowhammer also says:
“Certain types of…food supply will decrease”
and that this
“will reduce availability and choice of products and will increase price, which could impact vulnerable groups.”
Food banks in Leicester have warned that a no-deal Brexit could lead to substantial increases in demand for food because more people will be struggling to make ends meet and that that will happen at precisely the same time as the supply of food is reduced, because there will be less surplus food available from the supermarkets on which our food banks depend. And all of this could happen in the run-up to Christmas, which is the busiest time of year for food retailers anyway.
Leicester’s emergency food partnership is already getting through 16 tonnes of food a month—16 tonnes of food for people who desperately need it. Action Homeless estimates that we may need to find another 8 tonnes a month in the event of no deal, yet we have no funds whatsoever to pay for that.
The Government must act to prevent the existing child poverty crisis from getting even worse in the short term, and to take the action that we desperately need to reduce child poverty in the medium to long term. There are four things that they need to do. First, we need immediate action to support our food banks. I have already raised this issue in Parliament with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who is in charge of no-deal preparations. He said to me that he had seen no evidence that no deal would increase pressure on food banks, but I am meeting him tomorrow, along with Action Homeless and FareShare East Midlands, to raise our concerns directly with him and to ask for specific funding in the event of no deal. I ask the Minister here today: will he raise this issue with the right hon. Gentleman, too?
Secondly, the Government must make urgent improvements to help those who are already struggling on benefits and who face an even greater nightmare if Brexit leads to rising prices for food and fuel. In particular, the Government should lift the freeze on working-age benefits, which is currently due to last until April 2020, and end the five-week wait for universal credit. Leicester was one of the later places in the country to have the roll-out of universal credit. Ministers insisted that the lessons had been learned, but I can tell them that the evidence from my own eyes, from my own constituents and from our food banks is that those lessons have not been learned, and that families simply do not have the money or the savings to afford that five-week wait. If they lose their jobs or reduce their hours, they have to go on and off universal credit.
Thirdly, the Government must do much more to tackle the endemic low pay and insecure jobs that dominate too many sectors of our economy. I know they have just pledged to increase the living wage to over £10.50 an hour in five years’ time, but my constituents cannot wait for five years, especially if there is a no-deal Brexit, to get a genuine living wage to make ends meet. So I ask the Minister this question: what more are the Government doing to tackle this issue?
Lastly, we need serious and sustained action to tackle the cost of living. In particular, we need a long-term strategy to tackle this country’s housing crisis, with a massive programme to build more social and affordable housing, and to reform the private rented sector, the cost of which—as I have already said—is one of the major factors driving child poverty in Leicester today.
I realise that some of these issues are beyond the Minister’s remit, but let me just say this to him: the Government are spending over £6 billion on preparing for a no-deal Brexit. Imagine the difference that £6 billion would make to the lives of the 12,000 children growing up in poverty in my constituency. Imagine how their lives and the future of our country could be transformed if this money was spent on giving them the best start in life, and not on a damaging no-deal Brexit that the Government do not even have a mandate for. This is not a matter of necessity; it is a matter of political choice.
It is a disgrace that the Government are even contemplating a no-deal Brexit, which could make the poorest people in our country even poorer. They must change course—and now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon.
I thank the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) for securing this debate, and for her very passionate and compelling speech on this issue. I am conscious of the fact that we probably do not have enough time in this short debate to cover this important subject in the detail that both she and I would like, but I will stress that my door is always open and she is very welcome to come and see me to discuss this matter or any other matter at any other time—and that offer extends to all other hon. Members across the House. In the somewhat limited time available, I will do my best to answer as many of the points that have been raised as possible.
Tackling poverty will always be a priority for this Government. I have been in this role for just over five months, and my key priorities have been tackling poverty and the support we can give to vulnerable groups. I am pleased that poverty in the east midlands, whether on an absolute or relative basis, or before or after housing costs, is lower for all individuals and children than in 2010. However, the hon. Lady knows me well enough to know that I consider one child in poverty to be one child too many. I will continue to work with hon. Members on both sides of the House to identify and tackle the root causes of poverty and with counterparts in other Government Departments to ensure that our efforts to tackle poverty, particularly child poverty, are joined up.
Our ambitious welfare reforms are driven by a firm conviction that the benefit system must work with the tax system and the labour market, so it supports people into employment and higher pay. That is the only way to deliver a sustainable long-term solution to poverty. It is also the best way to give everyone the chance to succeed and share in the benefits of a strong economy.
Tackling poverty and disadvantage is not, however, something that the Government can do alone. The hon. Lady is passionate about the issue and I welcome the innovative partnership approach taken by Feeding Leicester. I understand that she was disappointed that the bid of Leicester City Council and Feeding Leicester to be part of the holiday activities and food programme this summer was not successful.
I am sure that the hon. Lady appreciates that we had a huge amount of interest in being part of the programme but have only a limited amount of money. Barnardo’s, which works in the east midlands, put together a strong bid—the highest scoring in the region, and it covered Leicestershire county, as she pointed out. Although it did not specifically include the city of Leicester, it operated in some parts of her constituency.
We will continue to build our understanding of how free provision can be co-ordinated, which will provide valuable information about what support works for the sector. The hon. Lady’s contribution is noted, however, and I will make sure that her words are shared with my counterpart in the Department for Education. I praise the excellent partnership work taking place between the Leicester JobCentre Pluses and Leicester City Council in support of care leavers in particular, which ensures that they move smoothly on to universal credit and supports them into work, including through bespoke civil service internships, which are truly excellent.
I try to get out of the Department as much as I can. In the most recent recess, I spent four days travelling around the midlands and the north-east. I visited several organisations that work in close partnership with our JobCentre Pluses. I am absolutely clear that I want to encourage more co-location and collaboration between our jobcentres, their staff and those organisations. Such coalitions of local organisations, including charities, community groups, local authorities, social enterprises and others, show us what can be achieved when we all come together to take joint action to help to eliminate hunger and its root causes in our communities.
The Government believe that tackling poverty requires a collaborative approach that goes beyond providing a financial safety net through the Department for Work and Pensions and addresses the root causes of poverty and disadvantage to improve long-term outcomes for children and families. That is why we have taken wider cross-Government action to support and make a lasting difference to the lives of the most vulnerable—people whose ability to work is frustrated by issues such as a disrupted education or a history of offending, mental ill- health or drug and alcohol abuse—who often face complex employment barriers. It is also why our jobcentre work coaches work with external partners to offer individualised specialist support to help some of the most vulnerable people in our society to turn their lives around.
The Government, and certainly I, take the issue of child poverty extremely seriously. The evidence shows that work is the best route out of poverty. There are 730,000 more children in working households compared with 2010. Not only are those children less likely to grow up in poverty, but they have significantly better life chances. The data is clear that a child living in a household where every adult is working is about five times less likely to be in relative poverty than a child in a household where nobody works. Children growing up in a workless family are almost twice as likely as children in working families to fail at all stages of their education.
The hon. Member for Leicester West mentioned Brexit. I am conscious of the fact that she is passionate about the issue and has spoken about it many times. The Government have been clear that leaving the EU with a deal is absolutely their preferred option. However, as a responsible Government, we continue to plan for a range of exit scenarios, including a no-deal. As part of the process, we continue to monitor the effects of EU exit on the economy. Rates and benefits continue to be reviewed in line with the relevant legislation for uprating. The Government have rightly put in place contingency plans for a range of exit scenarios. These contingencies ensure that the Department for Work and Pensions can continue to provide our vital services, and that individuals will continue to be able to access DWP benefits and services on the same basis as they do now.
The hon. Lady raised a number of other points—housing, food banks and universal credit in particular. I will touch on all of those, but I have to talk about this Government’s employment record, which is vital to our success in helping people out of poverty. We are rightly proud of it. There are now over 3.7 million more people in work compared with 2010, and unemployment is at its lowest rate since the 1970s, having fallen by more than half since 2010.
The hon. Lady raised the issue of in-work poverty. It is important to point out that around three quarters of the growth in employment since 2010 has been in full-time work. As the evidence shows, that substantially reduces the risk of poverty. Full-time work in particular dramatically reduces the risk of being in poverty. There is only a 7% chance of a child being in relative poverty if both parents are working full time, compared with 66% for two-parent families with only part-time work. The absolute poverty rate of a child where both parents work full time is only 4% compared with 44% where one or more parent is in part-time work.
The hon. Lady mentioned universal credit. Universal credit supports full-time work through smooth incentives to increase hours and a general expectation that lone parents and partners should work if not caring for young children or a disabled person. It also offers generous childcare subsidies. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has also reported that universal credit is likely to help out of poverty an extra 300,000 members of working families, the majority of whom will include someone who works part time. Over three-quarters of the growth in employment since 2010 has been in full-time work.
The hon. Lady also rightly mentioned support for working families. We have taken a range of broader steps to help families keep more of what they earn, including the delivery of another rise in the national living wage to £8.21, an increase in a full-time worker’s annual pay of over £2,750 since its introduction. This has delivered the fastest pay rise for the lowest earners in 20 years. The hon. Lady rightly referenced the recent speech made on 30 September by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, saying that the minimum wage would rise to £10.50 within five years.
That is not all. Tax changes have made basic rate taxpayers over £1,200 better off since April, compared with 2010. The most recent changes mean that a single person on the national minimum wage is now—from April—taking home over £13,700 after income tax and national insurance. That is £4,500 more than in 2009-10.
Considering universal credit more broadly, as rightly raised by the hon. Lady, we know that there is more to do to support working people. But we have already gone much further than previous Governments. In his statement, the Chancellor of the Exchequer set out our ambition to “end low pay across the UK.” Universal credit is at the heart of our reforms. It works alongside other policies introduced by this Government to promote full-time employment as a way out of poverty towards financial independence. We know that universal credit is working. It is getting more people into work, and more people are staying in work. It supports those who need it while providing a springboard into work, with every extra hour worked being rewarded, and each claimant receiving tailor-made support from a work coach.
There are lots of areas that I did not manage to cover in detail, and I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady to do so. She touched on food banks. I will, of course, raise the issue referenced by her in her speech in relation to food banks and Brexit with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
I will speak with the Trussell Trust, as I do regularly, and other food bank providers, to hear their thoughts on the issue.
On the point that the hon. Lady raised about universal credit and the five-week wait, I stress that, on day one, people are able to get a full advance payment of up to 100% of their indicative award. That is repayable over 12 months, interest-free. That is an important point.
The hon. Lady touched on housing, which is probably one of the biggest issues that we face as a country. We have an issue with providing enough low-cost, affordable homes for social rent. I am working very closely with my counterparts at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to ensure that housing for social rent, and in particular affordable housing, is firmly on its agenda. The Government have a firm commitment to delivering on house building, but when we look at our housing benefit bill and the number of people who are waiting for social housing we must not forget the importance of ensuring that we build sufficient social housing. Changes have been made that support the further building of social housing, but, yes, we absolutely need to do more.
In conclusion, I reaffirm our view that our long-term approach is the right one if we are to deliver lasting change and tackle poverty in all its forms. This Government believe that work provides economic independence, pride in having a job, and improved wellbeing. We want to empower people to move into work by giving them the opportunities that they need to make the most of their life, and to improve the life chances of their children. It is that belief, based on clear evidence about the value of work, that will drive us as we continue to reform our welfare system, so that it better supports working people, while continuing to support those most in need.
Question put and agreed to.
Adult Learning and Vocational Skills: Metropolitan Borough of Dudley
I beg to move,
That this House has considered adult learning and vocational skills training in the metropolitan borough of Dudley.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on assuming her new position at the Department for Education. I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) in his place as this debate is about vocational provision and adult learning in the borough of Dudley. Although I will focus on the provision in Stourbridge, we must assess the need for provision in my constituency of Stourbridge in a borough-wide context.
This debate takes place in the context of the very sad closure of Stourbridge College earlier this summer. Our college dates back over 100 years to the establishment of the Stourbridge College of Art in 1848. That institution merged with the Stourbridge Technical School in 1958. I first visited the college in January 2007 and found a vibrant and welcoming culture. Shortly after that visit, I found myself volunteering as a young enterprise course facilitator at the college, helping students learn about business through the experience of setting up an actual company. I then joined the college board as a governor during 2008-9 and remained close to the college after I was elected and after I stepped down from the board in 2010.
The closure of our college came as a real blow to me, as it did to thousands of other people locally, many of whom had a direct connection with the college. Clearly, those worst affected were today’s students, the teaching staff, the support staff and local small and medium-sized enterprises, particularly small retailers in the vicinity of the campus. When staff and students told me that the closure came as a terrible shock and something of a bereavement, they were not exaggerating. Although I do not want to dwell on the past and cover in too much depth the role played by Birmingham Metropolitan College, known as BMet, which acquired Stourbridge College shortly after 2010, there are a few points to make before I come to the main part of my talk, which is about the need for continued skills provision in my constituency and preferably on the site of the Hagley Road campus.
To cut a long story of mismanagement and financial woes short, by May of this year, BMet had outstanding debts to the banks of £8.9 million and to the Education and Skills Funding Agency of £7.5 million. Debts running out of control was not the only problem. The college had also received three “requires improvement” notices, but each time Ofsted rated the college a 3 and did not award it the worst rating of a 4, and that detail is very relevant to the bigger picture, as a rating of 4 would have triggered automatic intervention much earlier by the ESFA. The Department should learn from that crisis.
BMet now has a legal obligation to bring its debts down to a sustainable level, which of course means the sale of assets that has led directly to the closure of our college. Top of my list of current concerns, which I hope the Minister will take back to discuss with her Secretary of State, is the nature of the sale of the Hagley Road site. The site has been associated with education for many years, and it is the deep wish of our community that the site be protected in future for educational use, at least for the most part, for the generations to come.
When I hear that BMet is expected to realise red book value for the site, alarm bells start to ring and I urge caution on that endeavour and objective. Some colleges within BMet have sought to balance their books by selling off land assets for housing development. We have had experience of that already in Stourbridge; long-suffering residents who live near the Longlands site, which until eight years ago was the proud home of the college’s centre for the study of art and design, have endured years of antisocial behaviour and uncertainty as BMet has negotiated with a trail of developers and the local authority to effect the sale of the site. The ESFA should take note that it took from 2011 until the summer of this year to get planning approval for the residential development on that site.
The board of BMet and the ESFA should reflect hard on the fact that there would be huge opposition to selling the Hagley Road site for residential development and that it would take years to get the change of use and planning consent required. I know that educational providers are in serious talks with BMet about acquiring the site, and I hope those talks will reach a satisfactory conclusion.
That brings me to my main point: the need for vocational skills learning and, in particular, adult learning in Stourbridge. The first thing to acknowledge is that there has been a history of over-provision of 16-to-19 education in our borough of Dudley. Until the closure of Stourbridge College, we had four colleges in the borough, and the problem has been that the 16-to-19 population has been in decline from a high of 12,400 in 2009 to a low of 10,700 across the borough in the current year.
However, there are two points that must be borne in mind. First, if we take a 15-year horizon, 2019 is the low point. From this year, the numbers start to increase again to an estimated 11,800 by 2024. Secondly, it is harder to predict the numbers of adult learners. There were 280 adult learners registered at Stourbridge College in the year 2017-18, and it is that local provision for adult learning that concerns me most, primarily because so many people in adult learning have either part-time employment—sometimes full-time employment—or caring responsibilities, and travelling elsewhere in the borough can present a critical issue for them, such that it will deter them from the studies and upskilling that they acknowledge they need. As I say, it is harder to predict those numbers.
The importance of adult learning should be seen in both a social and an economic context. Indeed, the social and the economic are intertwined. When I was a Minister in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, I had responsibility for labour markets. It was a real eye-opener, and I got to see what lay behind the statistics. We now have close to full employment—a record that this Government can justly be proud of—but there are a great many people living with the assistance of tax credits on low-paid and insecure employment.
I was proud to be associated with the Taylor review of employment practices, commissioned by the previous Prime Minister. The Government accepted the vast majority of Taylor’s recommendations, which centred on improving the quality of work. The opportunity for people to improve their skills throughout their working lives was fundamental to achieving that goal, and nowhere is that improvement greater than among people who are stuck in low-skilled, low-paid employment.
The Government have presided over good and positive changes in the quality of vocational learning. The former Minister for Skills, my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), introduced much-improved apprenticeship standards and the Institute for Apprenticeships, which have been much to the good. However, the emphasis has been on 16 to 19-year-olds and not enough is being done for the huge need that exists for upskilling and lifelong learning among the working-age population.
The figures, I am afraid, speak for themselves: the expenditure on adult learning nationally has been reduced by approximately 40% since 2010. Skills devolved to our own region, the West Midlands Combined Authority. That has been well received, but I am informed that the adult education budget across the west midlands is £2.1 million, which would barely buy a bedroom in a luxury flat not a mile from here.
The funding reduction has been damaging both economically and socially. There are many groups in the working-age population who face greater barriers than most when it comes to securing employment at all and certainly better employment. I am talking about people who have been unemployed for a long time, people with poor literacy and numeracy skills, people who were brought up in the care system, people with disabilities, ex-offenders, sometimes even older workers, and parents who have had a career break. All these groups, and more besides, face significant barriers to improving their skills and getting back into the workplace so that they can progress their careers.
The social consequences of that are dire, but it is also bad news economically. I know the digital and technology sectors particularly well from my role as a Minister at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The skills gap in those sectors will not be narrowed or eliminated just by improving the quality of technical and digital education among the school, university and college-age populations. We need to look at the working-age population as well. The 2018 Lloyds survey found that 21% of people in the working-age population lack basic digital skills, while 8% have zero digital skills and 5.4 million working adults do not have the full range of basic digital skills. Unless we sort this out, it will delay the uptake of technology in industry and dampen the growth of the tech sector, and we can only sort it out through a commitment to adult learning.
This issue also accounts for some regional discrepancies, especially when we look at the five basic skills that people of working age need in the digital space. Some 71% of people in the north-east have all five basic skills, whereas in the south-east the figure is 86%. The ramifications of the skills gap and the inadequate response to it by adult learning are a key issue that needs to be resolved. I am delighted that the Department for Education’s resources have been increased going forward. I congratulate the ministerial team on securing that increase and appeal to them to use some of that money to go some way towards redressing the reduction in funding for adult learning that I have described today.
When it comes to the provision of adult learning in particular and vocational skills generally, I believe there is an economic case for continuing with such provision in Stourbridge, and I am delighted by the reaction of local colleges: the exemplary Dudley College, now rated outstanding by Ofsted, Halesowen College, rated good by Ofsted, and the brilliant King Ed’s—King Edward College—in my constituency. They are all committed to supporting the provision of vocational and adult learning on the Hagley Road site—assuming that it can be sold to an educational provider who welcomes that provision on a subletting basis.
There will need to be some new money, however. Dudley College and Halesowen College absorbed many students and staff from Stourbridge College at the beginning of this term. I commend both colleges for their amazing work on integrating our students and college staff into their new environment. Funding is tight for both colleges, and they will need new money in order to meet the needs of vocational skills provision and adult learners in my constituency. I have my eye on various budgets, including growth deal 3 funding from, I presume, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the underspend in the local enterprise partnership. Providers in the Black Country can also bid for funding from the almost £97 million skills budget. Local authority level budgets may also need reassessment, but my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North has been working on securing money from the stronger towns fund. Of course, the combined authority also has devolved funding for skills, and I am grateful to Mayor Andy Street for his close involvement in our bid to get adult educational provision and vocational skills in my constituency—ideally on the Stourbridge Hagley Road site.
I thank everybody involved locally thus far in the bid to secure the future of adult learning and skills provision in Stourbridge. I trust that this afternoon’s debate and my upcoming meeting with the Secretary of State and local colleges towards the end of October will lead to some real movement on this issue, so that my constituents, whether adults or young people, will still be able to access the training needed by both Stourbridge and, importantly, our economy.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. Before I begin, may I pay a big tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) and thank her for securing this important debate? She is a brilliant local MP and an asset to our borough and to her party. She has worked tirelessly to improve education for school pupils, young people and adults in Stourbridge, encouraging young people to aspire to study at top-level universities and supporting Stourbridge College, Old Swinford Hospital, King Edward VI College, and all the other local schools. It is therefore a great shame that, despite all her hard work and support for education in Stourbridge, the college has found itself in this position, but I know that she is working hard to try to address the situation and ensure that educational provision continues on the Hagley Road site.
My hon. Friend was right that the number of 16 to 19-year-olds in Dudley and the Black Country is increasing and that low levels of skills both among people who are out of work and among the working-age population is a long-term issue—the legacy of a traditional industrial economy. However, it is important to note that Dudley is the biggest place in the country with no higher education provision, so further education plays an important role in filling that gap and ensuring that people can get degree-level qualifications through further education—apprenticeships in particular—so that those working in local businesses can get the skills they need.
I will talk mainly about what is happening in the north of the borough and in Dudley itself. When I was first elected in 2005, Dudley College was failing and struggling to attract staff and students, with unsatisfactory results and a decrepit set of old buildings spread around the town that it had inherited from various schools or the University of Wolverhampton. Thanks to the brilliant leadership of Lowell Williams, who is now the college’s chief executive but who used to be the principal, and the new principal Neil Thomas, we now have officially the best college in the country—the first to be awarded outstanding status under the new Ofsted inspection regime. It has achieved record results, has more students than ever before, provides among the highest number of apprenticeships in the country, and has a brilliant, brand-new town centre campus. Right at the outset, therefore, I pay tribute to Lowell Williams and his team. They have done more than anybody else to transform opportunities for young people in Dudley, and to transform and regenerate the town centre. They have made a huge difference in Dudley. I was absolutely delighted when his work at the college and his contribution to further education in the wider west midlands were recognised last year by his being awarded The Times Educational Supplement further education leader of the year.
It is important to understand the context in which we are discussing education in the Black Country. Fifty years ago, Black Country manufacturing made the west midlands the UK’s richest region. Output in the west midlands outstripped even that in London and the south-east. Then came the huge loss of manufacturing in the 1970s and ’80s, and we faced a 40-year struggle to replace jobs lost in recessions or due to technological change or to competition from lower-wage economies abroad. As a result, output in the west midlands lagged behind that in the rest of the country for 35 years, during which we fell further behind. In the 1970s, manufacturing provided half the region’s jobs; the figure today is nowhere near that number. Instead, a high proportion of jobs are in low-productivity and slow-growth industries. We have had a higher proportion of public sector jobs and a smaller proportion in business, financial services and high-tech industries.
There are lots of brilliant industries and there has been major investment at companies such as Jaguar Land Rover, but I think everybody would accept that we have struggled to attract new investment and new industries to replace the jobs we have lost. As a result, unemployment has been a stubborn problem. Long-term youth unemployment is still twice the national average.
It is the need to respond to those big economic changes that has driven the transformation of education in Dudley. Over the next 20 years, there will be huge growth and millions of well-paid jobs in high-tech industries such as advanced manufacturing and engineering, technical testing, low-carbon industries and construction, digital media, biotech, healthcare technologies and the rest. This is literally a new industrial revolution. At the same time, there will be far fewer jobs for people with limited skills or no qualifications at all, and many of what we think are regular jobs for life will disappear.
We believe that young people in Dudley are as good as anyone, that they deserve the same chances as young people elsewhere in the country, and that with the right support and the best facilities they can do just as well as anyone else. We also believe that we have to make education and skills our No. 1 priority, to attract new industries and well-paid jobs to replace those we have lost in traditional industries, to help local business grow, to give youngsters a first-class start, and to help adults get new jobs as well.
Driven by that vision and those beliefs, Dudley College has increased the number of 16 to 19-year-olds in education by almost 2,000 learners—from 3,000 in 2008, to 4,900 by 2019. It has become one of the largest providers of apprenticeships nationally, increasing the number of apprentices from 600 in 2008, to an amazing 3,853 by 2015. These are high-quality apprenticeships, with 51% of all apprentices in programmes related to science, technology, engineering and maths, and 44% of all full-time learners in STEM-related subjects. Despite cuts to the adult education budget, the college maintained its adult provision, supporting more than 3,000 learners a year to retrain.
The college has invested—this is amazing—£60 million in a new campus, which has transformed the town centre. We now have a new academic sixth-form centre, a new building for creative arts and service industries, centres for advanced manufacturing, engineering and advanced building technologies, new specialist facilities for students with special needs, and a construction apprenticeship training centre. Almost all of those have been developed without any Government support, by selling off old land and buildings and, while maintaining a strong financial position, by borrowing resources from the banks.
I would like the Minister to come to Dudley to have a look at all that, because I think she will be amazed when she sees it. Everybody thinks, “Oh, I’m just going to go to another FE college,” but that is not the case in Dudley. Lots of FE colleges say that they do manufacturing and construction, but they do not do it like we do it. It is absolutely amazing. The phenomenal advanced manufacturing and engineering centre is working with hundreds of local employers.
Although the Black Country has a higher proportion of SMEs and manufacturing than anywhere else in western Europe, those small businesses cannot afford research centres. If a business is worried about how it will meet the payroll a week on Friday, it will not be able to develop links with universities, or think about big apprenticeship programmes, or new products and processes. That is the gap that Dudley College of Technology is filling. It is an amazing centre of advanced manufacturing. The state-of-the-art, high-tech construction centre is doing ground-breaking work on digital construction, using artificial intelligence, drone technology, and working on how to design and manufacture buildings in factories instead of on site—extraordinary work. It is the only college of its kind in the country to be doing that sort of work, and that facility was developed in partnership with leading construction companies in the country.
We are now moving to the development of new university-level technical skills and an apprenticeship centre, which will provide even higher level qualifications in Dudley. As I have said, Dudley is the biggest place in the country with no university campus, although we did successfully secure funding to open one of the country’s 12 institutes of technology. Last month, the Government announced that we will get £25 million from the stronger towns fund, which will be spent on the next phase of that campus, University Centre Dudley. That will transform an old rail terminal just outside the town centre. It has been an old rail terminal and a derelict site for as long as I have been alive, but it will finally be transformed. It will be developed by Dudley colleges, Dudley College of Technology, universities and local businesses, and they will train young people for jobs in new, growing and high-tech industries such as advanced manufacturing, digital technologies, low-carbon industries, autonomous electric vehicles, and health care.
The money from the Institute of Technology and the stronger towns fund is the best news that Dudley could have had. I have been saying for 14 years that we must make education and skills Dudley’s No.1 priority, and at the election I promised to campaign for that new high-tech skills centre. I am delighted that our campaign has paid off, and it is exactly what we need to give Dudley a bright future and make it a stronger town again.
The college has also established the Dudley Academies Trust, which is sponsoring four schools in Dudley. It has only been going for a year, but it is already possible to see improvements in aspiration, discipline, standards and results. The Minister will not be surprised to hear that all secondary schools in Dudley are finding that funding for special educational needs is inadequate to meet people’s needs, and all schools are under pressure in Dudley, as they are across the country—it is important to note that point in a debate such as this.
Ladder for the Black Country is an extraordinary local project, and over the past five years, thousands of people across the region have landed jobs or improved skills thanks to that scheme. It brings businesses and training providers together to take on young people and invest in their future. Young people gain the hands-on work experience that they need to start their careers, and businesses get a highly trained, well-motivated workforce, helping to breach the skills gap that many firms say holds them back. In recent years, thousands of people have landed jobs thanks to that scheme. It was launched in 2014, and was so successful in the Black Country that it was expanded to Staffordshire and Shropshire, and copied by communities across the country. It is backed by local authorities, businesses and training providers, and I pay particular tribute to the driving force behind it, Kevin Davis, chief executive of the Vine Trust Group, and to the Express & Star, whose support has been critical to the scheme’s success.
What Kevin Davis, together with Martin Wright, editor of the Express & Star, and his predecessors and colleagues have achieved is remarkable, and their work will make a huge difference to the lives and prospects of thousands of local people. We should imagine how much better off Britain would be if every local paper and the voluntary sector worked together to do that sort of important work in every community. It is a great example of how, over the past 15 years, we have brought together schools, colleges, local universities, local authorities, employers, training providers, the region’s media and the community as a whole to make educational skills our No. 1 priority so that we can attract new investment, new industries and well-paid jobs to replace the ones that we have lost in the Black Country, help local businesses to grow, give youngsters a first-class start and help adults to get new jobs, too.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, and to have heard two very upbeat speeches, which come out of what has obviously been a very traumatic situation in Stourbridge.
I welcome the Minister to her place—I say “her place”, but we are still in some confusion about what the final settlement in the Department will be. We know that the Secretary of State has taken overall responsibility, but that does not really address adequately the need for a full-time day-to-day representative. The Minister has gallantly stepped into the breach as the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mrs Badenoch) is on maternity leave, but we remain concerned about how further education will be covered permanently in the Department in future, especially day to day.
I give great credit to the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) for summating and taking us through the problems that there have been, but also for looking to the future. She is absolutely right to talk about the critical issue of adult learners. When policy makers and Ministers of whatever hue looked at further education colleges in the past, they sometimes saw them in silos: 14 to 18, 18 to 24, and post-25. Governments often forget, as I am afraid this Government have done on several occasions, that introducing policies that affect one sector—I am thinking particularly of the advanced learner loans’ failure to be taken up in any significant or meaningful quantity; about half of them go back to the Treasury unused every year—can affect the overall competence and ability of colleges to deliver. One of the strengths of the FE sector is the ability to put on courses that cut across the generations, and across other things too. That is a real issue.
The hon. Lady rightly said that adult learners are down 40% since 2010 and that skills gaps and digital gaps remain, despite her work as a Minister and that of others. Those things will be critical in the 2020s. She is also right to mention underspending local enterprise partnerships; when I was shadow Minister for regional growth, it was extraordinary to see the uneven way in which LEPs engaged with their local communities. It sounds as though the hon. Lady’s area has a plethora of overlapping organisations; one can only hope that the funding she would like to see will come out of that.
I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin), who was equally upbeat; given the statistics he cited, he was right to be. I am pleased to hear his apprenticeship figures, although sadly they are not reflected in many places across the country. He is absolutely right to praise Dudley College of Technology and to say how critical it is to engage with SMEs. The Government need to address the issues in the west midlands and the Black Country; as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, the region has an enviable tradition of producing highly skilled people, but nevertheless people are being left behind without traineeships and so on. Those things are an important part of what we need to do.
The hon. Member for Stourbridge took us through a little of Stourbridge College’s history, and I have been able to read about it in the excellent columns of the Express & Star, which the hon. Member for Dudley North mentioned, and in FE Week. I do not want to go through that blow by blow, but it is encouraging that the other local colleges have come to the fore, wanting to take students on board. Having looked at the history of what happened, I think the hon. Member for Stourbridge was right to be critical of the position in relation to the BMet takeover. It is important to pay tribute to all the people who lifted their heads above the parapet and kept the issue alive, including councillors of different persuasions, with whom I know the hon. Lady has engaged. There was a major protest against the closure of the college, at the end of June, which attracted hundreds of people to the streets, and that shows what pride there is in the historical position and what concern there is about what will happen in the future.
The hon. Lady is right, and in different circumstances I too have campaigned when councils and others have thought that a closed site should just be developed for housing. It is clear from what she says that that is not a good use for the site, and it is my understanding that interest has been shown by potential training providers. That should not be dismissed because, of course, seven out of 10 of the apprenticeships that are still delivered in this country come from training providers. They are a critical part of the local economy. All those things are of particular importance.
The hon. Lady has asked the National Audit Office to look closely at the situation at BMet. That has resonance not only in relation to BMet, but in relation to how we look at the stability of further education and whether we have got things right in terms of the early warning. It would be useful if the Minister shed further light on one of the things that have become a problem in this area—which, indeed, the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes), whom I shadowed as Skills Minister for several years, has always pointed out: the importance for FE students of adequate travel and financial capability.
I have two or three questions for the Minister, although it is with some diffidence that I put them to her, as she is new in her post, and was not in it when the legislation was introduced. I want to ask her about the implications of what has happened at Stourbridge in the context of the Technical and Further Education Act 2017, which I took through Parliament with the then Skills Minister, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), in 2016-17. It established the principle of having an education adviser in circumstances where colleges were closed or sold off. We know what the trigger was in the present case—the report of the Further Education Commissioner. I should like to know whether the case is technically an insolvency or a sell-off. Those are critical issues with respect to the Act.
Does the Minister know how many of the students were SEND students? I know that special educational needs and disabilities are among her day-to-day occupations in her role. Do we know how many of those affected were doing apprenticeships? Are there any other vulnerable groups, in any number? The hon. Member for Stourbridge gave an admirable list of the various different types of people who have been affected by the transfer process and who have not yet been accommodated as they should have been. In Committee in December 2016, we moved amendments to the Bill to the effect that in the event of potential closures there should be full consultation with bodies representing FE staff and students. The Minister at the time said that such occasions, when colleges became insolvent or were disposed of, would be relatively rare, but sadly that has not been the case.
I will quote what the University and College Union has said in its briefing note for this debate about what has happened in Dudley. It made some of the points that the hon. Lady has made about BMet, but it also said that it had been
“extremely concerned at the lack of meaningful consultation with staff, students and the local community about the decision to close Stourbridge College.”
It goes on to say it was
“essentially presented as a fait accompli… with no real chance to look at alternative options”.
Significantly, UCU has also carried out a survey about the issues around travel to Dudley or Halesowen. Some students—quite a number—said that that travel could make their studies more problematic; some said it would require them to take two buses; and several staff members raised concerns about the suitability of facilities at Dudley and Halesowen to deliver the required scale of provision following the transfer of Stourbridge students. I have no detailed knowledge of what is happening on the ground in these areas, but those issues should be looked at.
More broadly, UCU is—I think this is a fair point—critical of the experience of Stourbridge, seeing it as
“symptomatic of a more widespread failure by the FE Commissioner to engage effectively with staff and students”
who have been affected by his recommendations.
In my view, UCU is absolutely right to say that, because it shows up some of the inadequacies in the 2017 Act. Of course, the FE commissioner can only work to the remit that the Government and the Education and Skills Funding Agency give him, but this illustrates how flawed and disconnected that system for colleges can become. It has become far too casual about how it engages with people in the colleges, and apprenticeships have not been engaged with in any meaningful way.
Failures such as Stourbridge are not isolated. In May 2018, The Times Educational Supplement said that there were inadequacies and that one college in eight was in poor financial health. In recent weeks, the columns of FE Week have been littered with accounts of problems at other colleges. At Brooklands College, ESFA ignored a whistleblower nearly two years earlier; it is planned that a flagship national college will dissolve, despite Department for Education bailouts; and indeed, Lord Agnew himself has been brought in as an enforcer.
I am afraid that those things are not signals of a healthy eco-sphere in this area, and the Government fail—they have failed, despite yesterday’s announcements by the Secretary of State about new technology colleges—to understand that axing grants and offering loans has been a disaster. There is no strategy from the Government for the staffing crisis, with retirement depletions. Again, I am talking nationally, but since 2010 24,000 teachers have left FE. In real terms, pay has fallen by 25%.
These issues are really serious and there is not much point in promising more shiny buildings if there is no money on the ground to effect the sort of major transformations in the 2020s that the hon. Members for Dudley North and for Stourbridge talked about regarding training. Continuing professional development, decent salaries and decent conditions are things that we in our party have considered—across the silos—in our new lifelong learning commission, in the promises that we made in our 2017 manifesto about properly funding and nurturing the FE sector, and in our commitment to a green new deal.
Stourbridge College was not failing, but it was still put into this situation. It had those buildings, which the hon. Lady is so keen to preserve in another capacity, but that did not save it from being shut down. And before the Government get too cock-a-hoop about the promises of new shiny buildings, I urge them to look at some of the issues regarding the staff, the teachers and the students of the 2020s.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, and I welcome the comments from other hon. Members who have welcomed me to my post.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) on securing this debate. I know that she worked closely with my predecessors on this issue. I am delighted to have the opportunity to discuss it further today, especially given that we share a passion for further education and recognise the importance of adult education.
The closure of the Stourbridge campus is regrettable. I do not want to underestimate the impact that it has had across the community and the ripples that we have seen. As the hon. Member for Stourbridge noted, the site has been used for more than 150 years and is seen as part of the fabric of the community. We have heard a great deal about the closure of the campus, which is within Birmingham Metropolitan College’s provision. I assure her that we take the closure seriously, but it is important to keep in mind the fact that colleges are incorporated bodies and thus independent. Of course, the Government have a duty to protect the interests of the students and will do everything in their power to do so, but decisions about how an individual college is structured and how it operates remain the responsibility of the college’s corporation.
We have, however, been working closely with Birmingham Metropolitan College to ensure its sustainability and protect the interests of learners, who must always come first. Despite our efforts and assistance, the college has been in financial difficulty for some time and subject to intervention by the Further Education Commissioner since August 2015. It received a Government loan and emergency funding, but problems persisted.
Between December 2018 and April 2019, we conducted a structure and prospects appraisal of the college to assess the options. A range of options was considered but removing provision at Stourbridge was the best option to support the college’s financial sustainability and, crucially, to ensure that good-quality provision was available for current and future students. Students getting the best learning experience is the most important thing.
Affected students have been a topic in today’s debate. I reassure hon. Members that they have been relocated to Dudley College of Technology and Halesowen College, where they will benefit from high-quality learning experiences delivered by providers with better Ofsted ratings and will therefore have better chances of better outcomes. As I said, I do not underestimate the problems that the closure has caused the community, but I stress that, in the long term, it should leave the college in a stronger financial position and, crucially, enable learners to receive the high-quality technical education that they deserve.
There have been calls, in particular from the hon. Member for Stourbridge, for an inquiry into the financial problems of BMet College. The Further Education Commissioner is planning to undertake a capacity and capability review to assess its progress under the new leadership team. Furthermore, Dame Mary Ney will carry out an independent review of how the Government monitor college finances and financial management. The review will also look at their effectiveness in practice, including the work of the Education and Skills Funding Agency and the Further Education Commissioner’s team. It will recommend changes that will reduce the risk of such problems recurring.
I want to put it on record that I have listened to the proposal mentioned by the hon. Member for Stourbridge for the site to continue as an educational facility with some adult education. Although I do not have jurisdiction over that option, I encourage all local stakeholders to review and explore it. It is a matter for BMet, however, and its governors will need to demonstrate that they secure the best value from the sale of the asset to satisfy their legal responsibilities as trustees.
The hon. Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden) noted the issue of travel for students. I reassure him that no student will be travelling more than 10 km. In addition, in Dudley, there is a free west midlands travel pass, and Halesowen provides a coach that goes through Stourbridge. We are making our best efforts to ensure that those problems are minimised.
On the hon. Gentleman’s question about the number of students with special education needs and disabilities, I do not have those figures to hand, but I will certainly write to him. I will also write to him about those doing apprenticeship schemes. Throughout the process, all stakeholders have worked together to minimise the disruption to current students as a priority.
As Members will know, the West Midlands Combined Authority is now responsible for certain adult education functions and is funded by the adult education budget. It receives the second-largest share of devolved AEB funding, worth a total of £125.6 million for the academic year 2019 to 2020. It has provided funding for Stourbridge and Dudley residents, transferring funding to Dudley College and Halesowen College. I hope that that alleviates some of the concerns referenced by the hon. Member for Stourbridge.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who has been working tirelessly with the authority and the borough council to provide assurances on the continuity of provision. As I mentioned, students have been relocated to other providers, and I want to touch on what the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) said about the excellent Dudley College. It is one of the largest apprenticeship providers in the west midlands, with a total income of over £10 million between 2018 and 2019. Some 90% of the adult learners from Stourbridge go to Dudley College. It has a broad curriculum offer and hundreds of full-time and part-time courses. It specialises in engineering, manufacturing and modern construction technologies—perfect for local industry. It is also at the forefront of our plans for T-levels, being a pilot provider.
Dudley really is an area of focus and investment. As noted by the hon. Members for Dudley North and for Stourbridge, it will be home to the Black Country and Marches institute of technology, one of the first 12 IOTs announced by the Government earlier this year. Those will deliver high-quality, high-level education across the country, backed by £170 million of Government funding. That has been led by Dudley College, working in conjunction with the University of Wolverhampton and key employers, which is testament to the joined-up thinking across the borough. Dudley College is clearly leading the way in delivering and equipping people with the technical skills that employers need now and will need in the future.
I must also highlight the fact that Halesowen College has a strong reputation for standards and is ranked in the top 10% of colleges for examination performance. It offers a wide range of provision for young people and adults, and it has been selected to deliver the new T-levels, but from 2021. Two thirds of students aged 16 to 19 from Stourbridge have gone to Halesowen. It offers a broad choice, as well as quality, which must always be the focus.
It would be apt for me to touch on the wider importance of adult education. The Government are committed to ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to access the education and training they need, whatever their circumstances, background and age. Investment in skills is a priority, and we want to ensure there is high-quality provision that will lead to high-quality outcomes and better employment opportunities for all.
As noted by the hon. Member for Dudley North, we have an ageing population. People are working longer. There are also advances in technology and artificial intelligence—something touched on by the hon. Member for Stourbridge. That all means that the need for high-quality adult education that can upskill and reskill our population is increasing ever more. We therefore need to ensure not only that our young people leave school equipped with the skills that employers and industry need, but that adults can improve their skills and learn new skills. Our adult skills system needs to improve productivity, employment and social inclusion. It supports people who are starting out on their career, but also those who are continuing on that journey.
That is all paid for by the adult education budget that I have I referenced, and is in addition to high-quality apprenticeship schemes. It is easy to associate apprenticeship schemes with those who are young, but 41.4% of starts between 2017 and 2018 were for those aged 25 and over. For many, an apprenticeship opens up a new world of work and learning, and it builds their confidence and helps them to progress.
I will briefly touch on the launch of the national retraining scheme, which will help prepare adults for changes to the economy, including those brought about by automation, and help them to retrain for better jobs. It will focus on adults aged 24 and over, without a degree qualification, who are earning low to medium wages, as they have less access to existing support and so will be most in need of the ability to retrain. We are initially investing £100 million, and the first part of the service, “Get help to retrain”, has been launched in three areas, including the west midlands. The region really is helping to shape the scheme. Dudley College of Technology—yet again—was involved in the recently completed pilot of the flexible learning fund.
As was noted by the hon. Member for Dudley North, who is a big advocate of the fact, Dudley is one of the first 100 towns to secure funding under the towns fund—it is important to flag that up—and we expect there to be a strong skills component to that. I hope that all local stakeholders will make sure that these issues are a key theme in discussions on how to spend the money that is granted.
I thank everyone who has contributed to the debate. The closure of the Stourbridge campus will continue to cast a shadow over the area, but as I have stressed, there is so much to be positive about in our local area—a point echoed by the hon. Members for Dudley North and for Stourbridge. I would be delighted to accept the invitation to Dudley; I will arrange that as soon as possible. To recap, the area will boast one of the first IOTs, and one of the first T-level providers. It has excellent, wide-ranging provision in highly performing colleges that deliver high-quality outcomes for students. There is also the towns fund and the work of the West Midlands Combined Authority. These, taken together with our policies on skills and technical education, paint an extremely positive picture and will ensure that people of all ages in Dudley can get the education, training and skills that they deserve.
I must thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) for his extremely kind remarks about my work. They are fully reciprocated; I have seen at first hand what an incredible champion he is for his constituents and the wider borough of Dudley. I echo his praise for Dudley College. I, too, have seen its progress over the past 10 years; it has been truly transformational. I join in his tribute to the former principal, Lowell Williams. The Minister made the good point that Halesowen College is in the top 10% of colleges for results; it is a great asset to the wider borough.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North gave the very important context, which is that we need local improvement in skills to attract new industries, which will bring better-paid employment. That is central to the industrial strategy, in which I am a great believer; it is crucial for our borough.
The hon. Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden) showed great understanding of our local situation—I must thank him for that—and deep experience of further and adult education. He mentioned the survey done by locally by Stourbridge College staff and students, which revealed the issues to do with travel locally. The Minister says that there is a safeguard: no student should have to travel more than 10 km. However, that is a huge distance in our borough. As I mentioned, we should not underestimate the difficulty of travel, particularly for adult learners, but also for younger students who have particular needs.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned my dialogue with the National Audit Office. I was pleased to hear the Minister talk about the various inquiries that the Department has set up. I welcome Dame Mary Ney’s inquiry; I look forward to seeing the fruits of that. I thank the Minister for her support. She encouraged local stakeholders in Dudley borough to look for and find a solution to ensuring very local provision, particularly of adult learning. I welcome those remarks and thank her for setting out the funding opportunities at the combined authority level. I am meeting Mayor Andy Street to discuss those opportunities next week.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered adult learning and vocational skills training in the metropolitan borough of Dudley.