Wednesday 30 October 2019
[Caroline Nokes in the Chair]
Building Out Extant Planning Permissions
I beg to move,
That this House has considered building out extant planning permissions.
It is a pleasure, albeit a surprise, to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes.
I am here to talk about planning, which is often a contentious issue for our local councillors, and particularly for local authorities that are developing local plans, especially in constituencies with significant areas of green-belt and other protected land. Some 89% of Guildford borough and 60% of Waverley borough is in the green belt; and 36% of Guildford and 53% of Waverley is in an area of outstanding natural beauty.
In Guildford, we are very short of homes. We have around 3,000 people on Guildford Borough Council’s waiting list, with thousands more unable to buy a home due to excessively high prices, and we have correspondingly high rents. However, in Guildford and Cranleigh we need to build more homes in the right areas, with good transport links and all the necessary infrastructure, without increasing the risk of flooding, while protecting our green belt. To do that, we need investment from Government and developers.
I am sure that many Members of this House and I could spend several hours discussing the need for more homes, including more social housing and more homes that people can afford, and where those homes should be built, but I asked for this debate on a narrower area. Once local authorities have had the arguments about local plans and planning permissions—and they do have torrid arguments about them—and permission has been given, what powers do local authorities have to get the homes built? How can they get the much-needed infrastructure?
In Guildford in 2018-19, the number of homes built was 284. There is a requirement for 518 this year and 928 in 2021-22. In simple terms, that will only cover the backlog of unmet need. There is also a need, year on year, for 570 so-called affordable homes—although what is called “affordable” in Guildford is not affordable in many other parts of the country, or even in Guildford itself, so the word is open to some debate. However, taking into account that development will provide 40% of the overall housing figure, year on year, Guildford will be short of affordable homes until we reach more than 1,000 new dwellings a year.
Schemes such as Weyside urban village are subject to a housing infrastructure fund or HIF bid, which we are still waiting to hear about. We were told by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government that this was an oven-ready scheme, but still we have not heard back on that, and the Government have recently put up interest rates on local authority loans from the Public Works Loan Board from 0.8% to 1.8%.
Despite my having had numerous meetings with Ministers from the Department for Transport and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, Guildford’s infrastructure, both road and rail, is under extreme pressure, as is the two-lane stretch of the A3. That affects many more constituencies than just mine; it affects everybody south of Guildford. Developers will build only where there is a commitment to the delivery of infrastructure. Builders simply will not build without it; they go elsewhere, where it is easier to build.
In Cranleigh, in Waverley borough, a total of 7,640 permissions have been given since 2013, but only 1,906 homes have been built. Cranleigh is required to build 1,700 new homes over the local plan period, which is from 2013 to 2032. Of those, 1,600 have been granted permission. The largest sites in Cranleigh account for 1,348 of those dwellings, of which only 168, or 12%, had been built as of 4 September.
The figures are pretty shocking. A permission for 425 dwellings was granted in 2016, but only eight of those plots are complete; 136 dwellings were given permission in 2014, and only 69 of those plots are complete; 75 dwellings were granted permission in 2017, and 38 of those plots have been developed; 265 dwellings were given permission in 2015—four years ago—and none of those is complete; an application for 54 dwellings got permission in 2017, and of those, we have only one show home; of 125 dwellings given permission in 2015, none is complete; and on one site, where 149 dwellings were given permission in 2016, and 119 in 2018, only 52 plots are complete. As I say, developers will build only where there is infrastructure, but these permissions are crippling Cranleigh.
Cranleigh is in the countryside, beyond the green belt, and although I do not want to see building on the green belt—none of us does—we end up with development pushed on to the countryside beyond the green belt, with no account taken of sustainability, environmental protections or feasibility. Cranleigh is a wonderful village, but it has precious little transport infrastructure and no realistic means of achieving it. That has an impact on housing delivery, and developers want to keep prices high, well beyond the reach of many. Build-out is slow. I could talk about the inappropriateness of the development in Cranleigh, but that would take me into another Westminster Hall debate.
Local authorities simply do not possess enough tools to force the hand of developers. The housing delivery test is based on the completion of new dwellings, rather than planning permissions granted. In granting planning permission, local authorities can set shorter time periods in which the development must be begun, but as starting a development can mean as little as commencing an access road, or creating a hard-standing for the parking of vehicles, those time periods mean precious little. Local authorities have no carrots and no sticks at their disposal.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I will come on to exactly that; I have a few ideas.
There are numerous options available to Government to make a real difference in getting the homes that we need built. We need houses that people can afford in areas such as Guildford and Cranleigh, where prices are eye-wateringly high—the average house price in Guildford is more than £550,000—and socially rented homes. However, it sometimes feels as if successive Governments are simply unwilling to do anything that will upset the developers’ apple cart.
The options that could be available to Government include requiring developers of strategic sites in local plans to come forward with a full permission application. They already have the benefit of being in the local plan—a factor that carries significant weight when it comes to granting permission. They should have to come forward with a full application. The pretty development pictures that we see at the outline stage, which are generally in watercolours and made to look a bit like something out of a storybook, are rarely carried through into reserved matters.
Phased development on larger sites should be agreed in advance between the developer and the local planning authority and written into the section 106 agreements, so that the LPA has a more realistic idea of what will be delivered. Currently, provision of affordable housing is written into any agreement, but if all housing is viewed as a social benefit—I think all housing is a social benefit—we could include phased development targets, particularly on strategic sites, in local plans.
Starting a development should involve completing a dwelling, not just putting a bit of concrete on the land. Once the developer has committed money to laying on services and so on, they are more likely to continue. Council tax could become due on every dwelling, whether completed or not, based on agreed delivery rates. There could be compulsory purchase by Government of sites that had not delivered over, say, 10 years. There could be a higher rate of tax on land banking by non-building companies that push up the value of land. We could apply heavier taxes on developers’ land banks that contain more than five years-worth of house building, based on their current build rate. Developers can make money selling on plots rather than building houses; we need to capture more of the uplift value of the land, so that house building becomes the better option. We could decide not to sell public land to developers. Land capture value should be captured for the benefit of the public, not for plugging funding gaps.
Local authorities face significant sanctions for not building homes in housing development targets; developers that do not build have none whatever on them. The only cost that they bear is the cost of interest on loans that they acquire to buy the land. In fact, it is not uncommon for developers to build out just short of their targets but not up to the trigger points. For instance, I recently heard a story of a developer from whom significant amounts of money were due when it reached the 300th house—money that was critical for the infrastructure for a large site. But the developer stopped at 299. None of the other developers building on that strategic site was prepared to go ahead without that infrastructure.
I cannot see, despite protestations from many people, any real action from Government. You, Ms Nokes, raised with me an interesting point about Romsey brewery. This is a long-running case in Test Valley. The last brew was on your 11th birthday on 26 June 1983. Every time it looks like development is about to make progress, it stalls. There are residents on a site that has been partially developed for years and years. There is a similar site in Guildford; it was demolished in, I think, the 1980s. It stands right in the town centre—minutes’ walk from the station—but nothing is being built on the site. In an area such as Guildford, where, as I said, 89% of the borough is green belt, it is criminal that people who need homes—socially rented homes, homes to rent, and homes to buy at prices that they can afford—see that site sitting empty.
If we want more homes, at the very least Government need to help local authorities to deliver the infrastructure and penalise the developers, or give them significant incentives to get on and build the houses that are needed. We need the Government to take action so that we get truly sustainable development—not just development anywhere, but development that allows rewilding of our countryside, for example, and enables building on brownfield land. I am thinking of sites such as the Romsey brewery and the Plaza site in Guildford.
Guildford will remain unbuilt on for years and years unless Government do something. I know that this Government have, and previous Governments had, the best intentions. What I would like to hear from the Minister and perhaps the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) is some ideas about how we get things to happen in the foreseeable future, not five years down the line.
It is also an unexpected pleasure for me to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I thank the right hon. Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) for securing the debate. There is no doubt in my mind that the failure of developers to get on with the job and build the homes for which they have permission is a major factor contributing to our failure to meet the needs of people in this country.
The right hon. Lady talked about high demand for property in Guildford and real shortages. That is reflected across the country and even in the north of England, where land prices are of course less expensive. She made a comprehensive speech, and my speech will reflect much of what she said. There were interesting comments particularly on affordability. Of course, we have very different markets across the UK. I do not know what it costs to buy a three or four-bedroom house in Guildford, but if someone comes to Stockton-on-Tees, they can buy a brand-new four-bedroom house for under £200,000.
There we have it—the absolute difference between different marketplaces. If someone wanted to buy a small, two-bedroom apartment in my constituency, they could buy one brand-new for under £90,000.
[Geraint Davies in the Chair]
My point is that if we had investment in the north of England similar to what there has been in the south—investment in infrastructure and in business development —perhaps people would find tremendous advantages in heading north and living there, where the standard of living can be much higher and people have so much more disposable income even after they have paid their mortgage.
The problem is that this country is facing a housing crisis. There are 126,000 children without a home to call their own. Rough sleeping has more than doubled since 2010. Home ownership among the under-45s has fallen by 900,000 since 2010. More than 1 million people are on council waiting lists.
Labour has made many commitments on how we will address the housing crisis. We will launch the biggest council building programme for a generation. We will build for those who need it, including the very poorest and the most vulnerable, with a big boost to new social rented homes. We will stop the sell-off of social rented homes by suspending the right to buy. We will look closely at how local authorities deal with land—how they sell land if they need to sell land. The right hon. Lady talked about that, and we will look closely at how we contain the value and the price of land. We will transform the planning system with a new duty to deliver affordable homes.
We also want to encourage greater use of brownfield sites. I mentioned the site in Stockton where someone can buy a four-bedroom house for £200,000. I visited that just last week. It was a brownfield site—a big joinery company used to be on the site. People are starting to build there, so I hope that the centre of Guildford might see a similar development in the near future.
I think that you might be a little indulgent, Mr Davies, if this is quite a long intervention. The hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) has spoken about brownfield sites, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) mentioned, on my behalf, Romsey brewery. Our big challenge there is that that is the only remaining brownfield site in the centre of Romsey, yet because the developers have started the build, there are no additional powers to force them to build it out. Would the hon. Gentleman like to expand a little on how he sees a future in which levers can be applied to developers where they have the permission and have started the build and where compulsory purchase is not possible, for a wide variety of reasons, including the fact that every time the council comes close to compulsory purchase, the developer simply starts building one more unit? Does the Labour party have any great suggestions on how we might resolve such situations?
I will develop that point later in my speech, but we believe that we could impose penalties in that situation. If developers were failing to develop the land, we could tax the land in a particular way so that they could decide either to pay the tax or to get on with the development.
A Government can take many actions to alleviate the housing crisis, but of course the real answer is to build more genuinely affordable homes. To truly address homelessness of all kinds, we need those affordable homes for people to live in. To enable more young people to buy a house, there needs to be the stock available at a price that they can afford. My researcher, Kerri Prince, lives in Greater London and is saving desperately to buy a house, but she needs £40,000 or £50,000 to put a deposit on a house, so it is almost an impossible task for her.
The answer to high prices is to provide more homes and drive the prices down, and our ambition is to do that, and not just for younger people. We need to ensure that older people have adequate housing; it should be designed specifically for them so that it is suitable. We need to build more for the elderly as well.
Unfortunately, it is not as simple as giving developers planning permission, as the right hon. Member for Guildford outlined. We have situations where planning permission has been given and building has begun, but residents in the locality are left with an eyesore of a building site for many months, or even years, due to the project being suspended or halted. There is no requirement for developers to finish the building and bring the project to completion, and there are no deadlines for the building to be completed. She gave lots of examples of developers failing the people they are meant to be providing for.
Does the hon. Gentleman concur that the imperative, therefore, is to have deadlines by which development must not only begin, but be completed? It affects not only residents in the locality but, in many instances, residents who are already living on the site.
I concur with that. We see this tremendous race by developers to acquire potentially lucrative land, yet they might not be equipped or ready to develop it. They might not have the resources or labour to get on with the job. They have complied with the planning permission by starting to build. As the right hon. Member for Guildford said, that could just be an access road. They know that they can simply pause the project indefinitely. This is not how our processes should work. We desperately need that housing for people to live in.
Some developers get their hands on the land and then fail to build even one house within a reasonable timescale. The developers always get what they want but, for many reasons—probably related to their projected sales, income and profit generation—they chose to go at a pace that suits them, not the need for new homes. We believe that councils should be given “use it or lose it” planning powers. They should be able to levy the tax that I mentioned on sites where planning permission has been granted but it has not been built out in a reasonable timeframe, or where the building has begun but been halted for the long term, so the homes do not get built because it is not convenient for the developer to do so.
At the planning permission stage, we could place more stringent timetables on when parts of the development should be delivered. That would result in a minimum number of homes being developed within fixed timescales and would not leave the early inhabitants living on a building site for years on end. I know that major developments can face uncertainty and setbacks, but I am under no illusion: some developers enter the process in the full knowledge that they will abandon the land for a time, depending on their own needs and processes. For me, that is not on.
Local authorities grant planning permission in good faith, to provide homes for their residents. Some developers may hold up the delivery of the houses for the sake of profit, as prices may have dropped, or they have been unable to increase them as much as they claim they need to. For too long we have tolerated profits for developers being put ahead of housing for the many. We should be much stronger on regulations and the planning system for delivering new affordable homes.
Last week, during a visit to Sheffield, the Minister spoke about a corridor of prefab house building factories across the north of England—a bold and welcome vision—yet it was a shame to hear that most of the £38 million to boost construction went to councils in the south. That seems to be the story with this Government: investment for the south while the north continues to be disregarded and discounted. I hope that the Minister will have tough new measures to announce.
The hon. Gentleman lives in a very different part of the country from the constituency I live in and serve. He may be interested to hear that we in the south-east, particularly in Guildford, feel that all the money goes to the north of England, particularly the infrastructure money.
That is a fascinating comment. Just look at Crossrail, investment in the Underground or investment in HS2, which is supposed to go to the north—we do not know when it will reach Leeds, never mind the real north, which is Teesside, Durham, Newcastle, Berwick-upon-Tweed and then my homeland of Scotland. When we see Crossrail-type investment in infrastructure in the north, perhaps I will be able to come around to the right hon. Lady’s way of thinking.
I hope that the Minister will announce tough new measures that outline how she thinks we can bring these housing developments to completion within a reasonable timescale. That must include measures to support councils in getting the required level of affordable housing to ease their waiting lists; measures to be firm with developers who are sitting on developments with no completion date in sight; and measures to be tougher during the planning permission process, to give councils the assurances they need to grant the green light.
Our housing and planning systems are long overdue an overhaul. Over the past decade, this Government have failed on housing on all fronts, so it will fall to the next Labour Government, in a few weeks’ time, to deliver the change that is needed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship now, Mr Davies. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) on securing this debate on building out extant planning permissions. I thank the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) for adding her contribution to this important debate.
The right hon. Member for Guildford raised many important points: the shortage of homes, unmet need, future need, green belt protections, and the fact that we need to be building homes of all types—social, council or private, to rent or to purchase—and we, as a Government, agree with that. We are tenure-blind, because everybody will need a home at some time in their life—of course they do—whatever type of home that is at that time. We know from surveys that 87% of people would rather own than rent, so we know that people ultimately want to own a home, because they feel it gives them security and a stake in society. It is about providing all those homes, with a view to helping people on to the housing ladder.
Before I entered politics, I worked with social housing providers in inner London for 15 years. I disagree with the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham). I think the right to buy gives people an opportunity. I know more than one person who has been able to build a life and meet many of their dreams and aspirations, because they could buy a home. The problem is not the buying but the fact that another home must be built in its place for people who want to rent. The right to buy inherently gives people an opportunity and allows them to get on in a way that other things do not.
The right hon. Lady is spot on; people do want to be given the opportunity to buy their home. She is also correct that we need to build more homes, to continue that cycle—to enable people to get on the housing ladder at whatever stage in life it is plausible for them to do so. I say that as someone who has been in every type of tenure.
I remember only too well the opportunity afforded to people who bought their own home in the 1980s and earlier. It worked as well for local councils and the Government as it did for the individual because at that time, when council homes were not necessarily being kept in the condition that they should have been, a person living in a council home could take over the property to maintain it, and bought it at a price that worked for them and for Government; and they then had a home.
As the right hon. Lady said, we need to keep that cycle going so that there are more homes coming forward, and that is what we must continue to do. So many people have said, and continue to say, that the opportunity afford through the right to buy fundamentally changed not only their lives, but those of their children.
The Minister will be as aware as I am of the vast number of homes sold under the right to buy that have ended up in the private rented sector because people have sold them and moved on. Many of those people have ended up back in the rental sector, so vast numbers have not really benefited from the right to buy. The important thing is to have more homes, but the Government have failed over many years to provide new homes for each one that they have sold.
There are many life stories, and the hon. Gentleman may well be right that sometimes, for whatever reason, people might not have stayed in the home that they bought. People do not know what will happen in their life’s journey. However, for the vast bulk of people who took the opportunity, buying their home was transformational: it meant the security of having the home that they wanted and of being on the housing ladder. Opportunities are what the Government can give people, and we will continue to offer them to others because our party believes in social mobility as well as self-empowerment. That is key.
I thank the Minister for indulging me, since we have quite a bit of time. I would just like to mention to the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) that when I was on Reigate and Banstead Borough Council I knew a Conservative councillor whose family had been homeless. He had had an abusive father who used to beat up his mother. His mother bought her flat under the right to buy; they sold it and bought a pub, and that was the making of the family. I could tell many more stories along similar lines. It gave the family an opportunity to come from being homeless to owning their own business, running a pub and giving their children all the benefits that they wanted to. That was why he became a Conservative councillor.
The right hon. Lady is quite right. So many people have said what a support the right to buy was. That is key for the Conservative party: how do we help people to achieve what they aim for in life, whether that is a home or a business?
When we talk about the number of homes coming forward, we all agree that there have been many decades of not building enough; demand has outstripped supply for many years. In the past year, however, more than 220,000 homes have been built—more than in all but one of the past 31 years. We need to do more, and more is being done—but a significant amount has been done already. We are going in the right direction. The Government are putting another £44 billion into home building.
What I will say is that we are still on the way to our target of building up to 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s. We have been building more; as I said clearly, we built more homes this year than in all but one of the last 31 years. That is key.
We have helped people in various ways. Some 560,000 people have benefited from our Help to Buy scheme, and we are helping 310,000 first-time buyers. We have the highest number of first-time buyers in a decade, and there was an increase of 84% between 2010 and 2018, so we are helping people to get on the housing ladder. Local authority waiting lists went down by about 40% in that time. We are helping people across the board, whether they are on housing waiting lists or whether they want to buy homes, but I agree that there is more to do.
The Minister’s statistics may sound impressive, but does she share my concerns? I live at Chelsea Bridge Wharf when I am in London, and each night I pass all the huge new developments and properties that have been built. Although they have been there for several years, most of the lights are off all night. The properties that the Government boast have been built are not occupied, but owned by overseas developers and others who just want them for their value. That does nothing to put people into properties.
I cannot agree. I am giving the hon. Gentleman figures that show that waiting lists have come down by 40%, that we have the highest number of first-time buyers in a decade, and that we are supporting people into homes, so I cannot agree with what he says.
We all want sustainable development. We want homes that are fit for the future and future-proof. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that in Sheffield I talked about the fact that the Government are setting up a centre of excellence across the north. Our vision is that the north will be the centre for engineering and modern methods of construction. We will be building homes for people to live in, so the UK can be a global leader in modern methods of construction and in safe homes, technological homes, green homes, modern homes and beautiful homes. That is our goal and ambition; if we achieve it, a mature market will be worth £40 billion a year to this country. That industry will be led from the north, as it needs to be. We selected the north because of the vision that it already has. We need to capitalise on the arc that stretches from Liverpool right across to Sheffield. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman shares my vision and view of the opportunities.
On sustainable developments and homes for the future, the Government are paving the way for a green revolution with eco-friendly and affordable homes. We are looking in the round at how to have homes with considerably reduced heating costs, so that they are affordable in every way, but also good for the environment. We need homes that give the people in them value for money, that are good for the environment and that reduce carbon emissions.
Does the Minister agree that building eco-homes and homes fit for the future will sometimes take real imagination? It is not just about building regs; it is about looking at ways of developing really imaginative and forward-looking homes that fit into the landscape. We need to provide beautiful homes in a way that does not necessarily plaster our countryside with bricks and mortar, but that uses imaginative building materials, so that they are not only environmentally friendly and cheap to run, but sit well in our landscape.
That is exactly what we have to do: open up the whole building sector and industry. We continue to have traditionally made homes—the latest figures from 2015 show that 90% are built in that way—but a new market is emerging. The modern methods of construction and different materials that the right hon. Lady refers to are being used in 10% of homes, or about 15,000. How do we develop and expand that industry to give people a choice of where to live?
Some of these homes can be built off-site, using modern methods, in a couple of weeks, and can then be put on-site in a couple of days. That stops the disruption for everyone living close by, which stops some of the opposition to planning permissions and building out, because it is very considerate to everybody living close by. That is key, and it is exactly what we are doing.
The companies coming forward in this area include Urban Splash, up in Manchester, which is engaging in a joint venture with a Japanese company, Sekisui, that is coming over to England. In Speke in Liverpool, there is a new, emerging company called Ideal Modular Homes, and in Yorkshire there is Ilke Homes. This new development is happening, and these new products are coming forward. The Government are getting behind that, and supporting these new and emerging industries, because that is the future of housing in this country. However, housing is all about choice, and that is what we will always push; we will not only back industry, business and creativity but ensure that houses are built and delivered to local neighbourhoods in a considerate way.
It is great that we agree on so much across Parliament as far as housing development is concerned, particularly on the greenhousing issue. I have met developers recently, and I keep pressing them on ground source heat pumps, air source heat pumps, solar and everything else, asking them why on earth are they not starting to adopt these new technologies. They tell me that it is because the market is immature, and they cannot get the quality of product that they require, and even if the quality of product was there, they could not get it in the quantity that they require. The Minister talks about encouraging the development of these industries, but what will the Government do to encourage that development, so that these industries have the supply chains that they require?
There is an element of the developments having to be done at a scale that then brings down cost and adds to affordability. That is what we are addressing through schemes such as the home building fund, through which we are putting £2.5 billion into the sector and providing innovative ways for small and medium-sized enterprises to come forward. We are backing up what we are talking about with significant support from Government.
The right hon. Member for Guildford and the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North talked about brownfield sites. They are key, especially when we consider that possibly 1 million homes could be built on them across the country. Once again, through the home building fund, the Government are putting more than £2 billion into supporting work on brownfield land that is coming forward, which is key.
I go on visits around the country, looking at what is happening with housing. I went to Northstowe, the biggest complete new town since the 1950s. It was built on public brownfield land. We have to make sure that there is a steady supply of brownfield land coming forward, and we must provide support to make sure that people do the remediation work on that land and build on it. They must not only start building on that land, but continue that building until completion.
What we are doing is bringing forward an accelerated planning Green Paper. There will be not just a single solution that ensures that developers build out; there will be an array of solutions, using both carrot and stick approaches. Those methods will be set out in our new Green Paper, which is coming forward.
The right hon. Lady is correct to say that after developers receive planning permission and start building, we need to see the end point. We are working with our strategic partner, Homes England. If we are selling off public land, we will make sure that we divide the plots up, so that we can have small, medium-sized and big builders involved, and can ensure a path to completion, with companies of different sizes building properties with different types of tenure. That matters, because a lot of research we have done shows that a lot of the difficulty is not about people land banking; it is about the need for variation in the types of tenure coming forward. Obviously, we need people to want to buy properties, so we must understand the marketplace, and bring through the array of types of home wanted; that is key.
We have talked about the number of homes that will be needed in the future. The Chartered Institute of Housing has reported that we need around 340,000 new homes a year to meet unmet need, although KPMG and Shelter project that there will be future demand for a minimum of 250,000 homes per year. That is why we are looking to increase the figure to 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s.
We must ensure that new homes fit in with the demands and wants of local communities. Obviously, we live in a democracy; we have to take everybody’s views into account. We have to make sure that people are happy with what is being built; that is why we brought in the national planning policy framework, and it is vital that we keep such things updated, which will help us as we work towards establishing communities that people want.
We have helped to cut red tape while making it quicker to plan and build new developments of homes that people want. That is how we have managed to increase building rates this year. Furthermore, I am delighted that in the year to June 2019, new build dwelling completions—not permissions, but completions—increased by 8% from the year to June 2018. Indeed, in the year ending June 2019, the planning system granted permission for 375,200 new homes, which is a positive step, so we have planning permissions in the pipeline for the future. That means things are going in the right direction, but we recognise that more needs to be done, and more homes need to be built out.
I do not want the Minister to give away any surprises from the Conservative manifesto, which I am sure will be brought forward soon, but perhaps she could reassure me that it will have some highlights from the planning Green Paper. I also hope that she will address the point that in Cranleigh, which has to build 1,700 homes by 2032, some 1,600 planning permissions have been given. Perhaps she can give me some insight into what powers local authorities will be given to ensure that these properties are built, so that local authorities are not penalised when unmet need is looked at.
I am glad that the right hon. Lady did not want me to reveal what is in the manifesto, particularly as I am not writing it, which would make revealing what was in it difficult. She is quite correct that housing is key going forward. How do we ensure that we get the homes we need?
Key measures will obviously include the housing delivery test: what is needed in an area, how do we work towards meeting that need, and how do we get the local plan working in the way that is needed? Also, we will look at the independent review of build-out rates. What is inhibiting development? What is stopping people building out? I have mentioned the answer: it is ensuring that the right tenures and types of homes are built, so that there is variation.
In the meantime, permissions have been given, but the homes have not been built and the local authority is penalised. That does not seem to be quite fair, so local authorities urgently need a tool that they can use to ensure that properties for which permissions have been granted are built, or local authorities should not be penalised.
That is where the accelerated planning Green Paper will come in, because it will provide the blueprint to overhaul the planning system to create a simpler, fairer system that works for everyone, from homeowners to small and medium-sized businesses, local communities and housing developers. It will also ensure that people who want to build for themselves have the right to do so.
This point is absolutely crucial. I have listened with enthusiasm to the Minister’s comments about the accelerated planning Green Paper, because there is much to welcome there. However, on the retrospective point, the power going forward is pointless when it comes to the Plaza site in Guildford or the brewery site in Romsey. We want something that has been outstanding for the best part of 40 years to be tackled now.
As we look at what is in the local plan, we will ask how we need to build it out. I mentioned that there will be carrots and sticks, but we have to make sure that it is feasible and workable going forward. I agree with the right hon. Lady. How do we build these out and prioritise the brownfield sites before we move on and do other things? What are we doing that will give the council significant strength to ensure that these are built out? Tackling unnecessary delays in planning permission and building out has to be key. She asks about the additional strengths that a council could have to ensure that land is developed and built out. All of those things will be considered in the Green Paper, because we intend to achieve those goals and get homes built. We have started off well.
The housing infrastructure fund of £5.5 billion will ensure that the correct infrastructure is in place and will unlock about 650,000 homes. Marginal viability funding will help people to unlock the land. We will probably need to understand a little more about why some of the brownfield land has not been built out and perhaps help people apply for viability funding. If it is about remediation or infrastructure, we could provide support to make sure it is built.
I thank the Minister for giving way again. I want to reassure her that in sites such as the Romsey brewery and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford, it is not about remediation, infrastructure or any outstanding obstacles; it is about a developer who simply finds it more economically convenient not to build than to build. I am very frustrated that what we are hearing from the Green Paper is that there will be lots of carrots and sticks for future development, but nothing that helps now.
But if those sites have not been developed, they will be. We will speed those up. If they are not built, there can only be a future development. We will look at those sites, understand why they have not been built out, and look at what we need to do to ensure that it happens.
I feel that we are giving the Minister a rather hard time, with only a few people speaking. However, I mentioned in my speech the housing infrastructure bids that Guildford has for the Weyside urban village. Interestingly, it has around 1,000 homes and nobody objects—it is one of the few large sites that nobody objects to. When the bid went in, officials in the Minister’s Department said that it was oven-ready—ready to go—yet Woking has got £90 million of HIF money on a scheme that is not ready, so can she perhaps write to me in the days before Parliament is dissolved to let me know whether Guildford is getting the bid and, if not, why not, because the scheme is oven-ready for around 1,000 houses?
I will take that away and look into the scheme to see where it is and I will write to the right hon. Lady with an answer. The HIF is all about unlocking developments and finding the extra funds needed for the infrastructure for a site. As she says, it will unlock 1,000 homes in her area. That is why the money was put aside. It is 1,000 homes in her area, but 650,000 across the country. So far we have not delivered on that, but we have to make sure that we get value for money and that homes are built out in a speedy and safe way. I will write to her on that matter and see where her HIF bid is.
It looks as though the Minister is moving towards the idea that we should have retrospective powers for local authorities to ensure that the sites are actually built out. Perhaps we could find a way to compel them to work in partnership with other organisations, such as housing associations, in order to allow them to develop a site if the developers are not prepared to get on with it.
We are supporting housing in all different ways in order to get the homes we need. As I said, we have done a considerable job so far. How do we work with people? We are not statist like the Labour party, which might tell people what to do. We understand that we have to work with the local community, local councils and developers to get the best outcomes for the local area. We do it through consensus, understanding what is needed and providing support. The Government set up the housing infrastructure fund to do just that. We ask where the pinch points are, where the difficulties in developing something out are, and then we ensure that it works successfully. But how do we build on that and analyse what works to take it further?
We have heard examples this morning of sites sitting totally empty for donkeys’ years with nothing happening. People have tried to work with developers in the examples that we have given, but nothing has happened. Surely, eventually, you have to remove the carrot and apply the stick.
This Government have helped support the building of more homes in the past year than all but one of the past 30 years, so I do not want the hon. Gentleman to paint an untrue picture of what is happening across the country. If we drive across the country, we see significant home building. When I talk about the biggest ever complete new town in Northstowe, with 10,000 homes being built on brownfield public land, we can see it happening. Sites are being built out, working with the local community, and that is what we need to do. Do we need to do more? Yes, and I think we can all agree on that.
How do we make sure that brownfield sites or sites that have planning permission come to fruition and get built? We have been doing that all across the country. I have travelled to Gosport to look at a new significant size building there, partnering with Homes England. I have looked at what is happening in Cambridgeshire and Northstowe. I am looking at a new development in Manchester and bringing back into play what I call unloved land, or we are renovating old buildings. That is exactly what we are doing, but each part of the country wants, and requires, a different type and style of home. We must have solutions for all of them, to ensure that we keep to the character of different areas.
The Government also want to bring back many small and medium-sized businesses. A third were lost in the financial crash of 2007-08. How do we stimulate the marketplace and ensure that we bring those builders back into it, so that the big builders do not dominate? That is key, because we are the party of small businesses, and of innovation and aspiration. We can bring those elements back in by working with our strategic partner, Homes England, which has increased in size considerably and is stretching out across the country. We are looking at how we can subdivide land to bring in new developers, so that they too can get building. Equally, if those developers are from the local area, the local area benefits too, in terms of jobs, the survival of businesses, and understanding the character of an area.
Another key point is how to get the skills and the labour force. That involves working through the industrial strategy, and working with the Department for Education to ensure that we will have a workforce that can build the homes that are needed. We are doing significant work and putting significant funding behind that too.
It is not quite relevant to the debate, but I am sure that the Minister will agree that the Government’s changes to the apprenticeship system have had a significant impact. I could not agree more that we need a lot more smaller builders. They can now get the apprentices they need and train up the workforce they need by using the apprenticeship levy, 25% of which can be passed on to them by those who pay it.
The right hon. Lady knows much about that, and I pay tribute to the work that she has done in that sphere, getting the apprenticeship levy and working on high-calibre apprenticeships. Construction provides a wonderful career path and wonderful opportunities in an array of areas. We have put money into construction hubs to support young people, and we have worked with the Construction Industry Training Board on traditional build—although I return to the idea of modern methods of construction and getting young people excited about going into that career. At present, we have an ageing workforce, and we must ensure that young people are coming through.
The Minister is of course right that we must encourage young people into the construction industry, but that takes time. What meetings has she had with the construction industry to discuss how they will manage to fill the gap that there will be in construction when free movement ends, to ensure that the current impressive rate of build will continue?
The right hon. Lady is correct. I have meetings all the time to discuss that, as I did when I was Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, when I was constantly working on how to support various sectors. She will be pleased to know that the Government have got 3.5 million more people into work—a thousand more people every day since 2010. There are also millions more in apprenticeships, so we have looked at the full flow-through of how we support people.
European citizens who are here, working with us, will remain here. We support them and thank them for the work they have done. Looking forward, how can we ensure that our workforce is homegrown as well as including those we need for the time being? The right hon. Lady is correct to mention those issues, but I have not just thought about them today; I have been working on them for nine years. That is why our country has such robust employment figures. However, she is right to mention those concerns.
Unemployment in the north-east is up by 15,000 in the last year, which just shows the imbalance in Government investment. The Minister managed to answer a previous intervention that I had planned before I could make it, but I am interested in what she said about how much we can agree on regarding bringing small builders back into the industry. We have heard about other sites this morning. There are sites across the country that are not being built out, so surely there is an opportunity for small builders to work in partnership with larger companies. Alternatively, larger companies could release the parts of those sites that they are not prepared to develop, in order to let small builders enter the market, build homes and satisfy the housing crisis.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I will not let an unfair representation of what is happening in employment go unchecked. We are at record low unemployment in this country, and at record high employment. The Government have brought down youth unemployment by 50%—under the previous Labour Government it sky-rocketed. We are the ones who ensure that people are in employment and have the careers they want, as well as opportunities for their future, and we will continue to do so.
It has been hard work for the Government to turn around the economy and get people into employment. That is the truth, and it has to be on record. I am particularly pleased that the Government have reduced youth unemployment by 50%. When we started in 2010, meeting young people who thought that they might never get a job was shameful, yet we have turned that around, ensuring that there are opportunities for everyone in this country.
With regard to ensuring that people work together, including big companies giving work to smaller companies, people do that on site anyway, ensuring that small, local companies work on site. That needs to be pushed even further. We are working with our strategic partner, Homes England, to ensure not just that there is a single big developer, but that the land is subdivided so that small and medium-sized enterprises can come forward. I am also working closely with Homes England on ensuring that smaller sites are given to SMEs to build on first.
We agree that it is key that local people benefit from the house building that is needed, not only through places to live, but through jobs. Some 300,000 homes will have to be built every year from the mid-2020s. Look at the size of the opportunities, and at the workforce that needs to be created. They will be very good jobs with very good career prospects. That needs to be planned for, which goes back to the question the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North asked about the workforce. Significant planning needs to go into that, which has been done and continues to be done. Again, that is why we are looking at modern methods, so that we can cater for a highly skilled workforce.
I think that we are coming to the end of the debate. We have covered an array of issues. I will take various matters back and will write to the right hon. Member for Guildford, particularly on the HIF fund that she is working for. However, I want people to be reassured that we are building more homes, and we will continue to do so. We have incentives and support to ensure that people are building on brownfield sites, and where they are not, we will look at what levers we can pull to make sure that people build out those sites, whether using carrots or sticks. I will take that question back and consider it. We are also talking about how we make the planning process easier, making sure that we are working with local communities.
I will give the final word to the right hon. Member for Guildford.
I thank the Minister, who has been very patient. Having been a Minister, I know that debates are generally more difficult when there are lots of Members present, but it is also quite tricky when there are only two Back Benchers contributing.
The key point is that we want to protect our green belt, but that does not mean simply pushing housing on to the countryside beyond the green belt, which is the case in Cranleigh. It is not sustainable; it is not the right place to build homes. All these planning permissions are being given but the homes are not being built, and unless something happens soon, Waverley Borough Council will be penalised for that.
I appreciate that the Minister is going to be bringing forward a Green Paper, but I, like many members of the public, get so frustrated: “A Green Paper? Goodness gracious me, when is something actually going to happen?” It feels like a long way ahead, so I urge the Minister to look at some small things that could be done. I know that the housing market is complex, and that Governments have to be careful about where they interfere in it because that can have unintended consequences, but council tax on undeveloped planning permissions is one small thing that might alter the balance of the economics for developers, and get them building.
There is another thing I urge the Minister to do. Governments always talk about joined-up working, but they never join anything up. That is not a criticism of the Minister, but she and her colleagues in the Department for Transport need to work closely together, because in an area such as Guildford—I am sure this is the case in Romsey, too—we have to get transport and housing lined up.
I can reassure the right hon. Lady that we have set up an inter-ministerial group. She is quite right that we should not, and do not, work in silos. All of these things need to be aligned so that we are getting the transport and the infrastructure, and homes are built in the right place. We are doing that, and making sure there is a timetable and a clear path for the transport and homes needed in communities such as hers.
Turning an inter-ministerial group into actual action can be quite a frustrating business, but it is a start. I would also include the Treasury in that. The Treasury looks only at income, but it is quite important that it also takes account of the social benefits of certain things it does. If that were put into the mix, the Treasury would look at its figures in a different way, because there is a clear social benefit.
I thank you, Mr Davies, for your patience, and I thank the Minister and the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham). I look forward to receiving the Minister’s letter about the HIF bid within the next couple of days.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered building out extant planning permissions.
Leaving the EU: Integrated Foreign Policy
I beg to move,
That this House has considered integrated foreign policy after the UK leaves the EU.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am grateful to the Minister for attending; I am aware that he is newish to his brief, so I hope he is not too put out. I also hope that we can use the debate not only to set out ideas, but to explore some themes and thoughts that I hope will be of benefit to global Britain post Brexit.
Integration should be a key theme in foreign and overseas policy, because it is a natural way to increase our power. It is good to have more power, which we hope to use for our own good and for the defence of the international liberal order. Having power also prevents others from shaping the world to our detriment. All powers need to integrate, and arguably the problem at the moment is that our potential adversaries are doing rather better than we are. Indeed, the commonly used term “hybrid war” is in part a reference to permanent and hostile competition using not only conventional tools of military force, but non-conventional forms of state power. One of the things that worries me about the new world is that, arguably, modern autocracies have adjusted to it rather better than we have.
More broadly, Brexit—if it happens—requires a renewed commitment to global engagement. It should not imply a shrinking from the world, but an embrace of it. I want the Government’s vision of global Britain to have meaning. James Rogers from the Henry Jackson Society and I produced a study entitled, “Global Britain: A Twenty-First Century Vision”. The foreword was written by the current Prime Minister, who I hope appreciated some of the ideas—I am not saying that he would recommend them all, because we were trying to suggest some quite radical thinking. Perhaps there are hon. Members present who would question that, and they are welcome to do so.
My hon. Friend is making some very wise points. When I was a Minister, I was certainly impressed with the integration that we see in post. I appreciate that he applied for the debate before the general election was announced, but is he as shocked as I am to see that there is not a single Labour Member present to discuss this crucial issue?
It is disappointing that they are not here, but we have a former Labour Member, the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), as well as an esteemed Democratic Unionist Member, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). There is at least some cross-party interest.
What is the UK’s status in the world? The 21st century is likely to be defined by two superpowers: China and the United States.
Thank you for that point, Chair.
A series of major powers will sit alongside the two superpowers: Brazil, Indonesia, economic powerhouses such as Germany and Japan, and former superpowers such as Britain and France. Britain is not a superpower and has not been since the 1950s, but it remains a great power—perhaps the foremost great power. Talk of the UK as medium-sized and middle-ranking is pointlessly deprecating and contributes little to the debate.
What is the state of the world? Conventional wars are generally in decline, and much of humanity enjoys more enriched lives than ever before.
The hon. Gentleman has brought a very important issue to Westminster Hall for the half-hour debate. Does he agree that it is important for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to be a member of NATO and to play its part in that excellent organisation when it comes to foreign policy that collectively joins us together to have a global influence?
It is critical. One of the points that I would like to touch on in the debate is the importance of the UK’s engaging multilaterally through not only, hopefully, a leading role in NATO, but a re-energised role in the United Nations. If I have time, I would like to ask the Minister about that.
What is the state of the world? Conventional war is in decline, but the world is becoming a more challenging place. There are new forms of integrated conflict and competition being developed by rivals. The international rules-based system set up since world war two has not broken down, but it is under threat and is being bent in several different directions.
A global Britain implies the use of something that perhaps we have not had enough of in this country—strategy, which is the reconciling of ends, ways and means. For the UK to be better able to achieve its ends, it has to marshal its means and ways—its resources, and how it uses them in the most effective way possible. Hence the need for integration across Government Departments, in a strategy that includes all overseas Government Departments and perhaps sometimes domestic Departments, too.
Russia and China do not have foreign policies that we should copy, but they show the worth of integrating power. Does Britain have what the great 20th-century strategist Basil Liddell Hart would call a “grand strategy”—the combination of the great tools of state power? I would argue that we do not yet have that—the Minister might disagree—but we are working towards it. We do not have it yet because, apart from anything else, although Sir Simon McDonald, the permanent under-secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, pledged to the Foreign Affairs Committee to produce “something” in early 2019, I am not aware that the work has yet been produced. What has happened to the report that was promised to the Foreign Affairs Committee?
The tools of national power and influence exist on a spectrum, ranging from hard power through to soft power. As I have argued, they should not be seen in isolation from each other. British state power sometimes becomes less than the sum of its parts because our overseas engagement has come to be divided between so many competing Departments.
I will now make a point with which some colleagues may disagree. For me, there is no reason why we should not look closely at the Australian and Canadian models, whereby overseas aid and trade Departments are integrated as agencies within the Foreign Office.
That is not the evidence that I have read, but I look forward to reading it. If the hon. Lady would care to send it to me, I would love to have a look at it. From my conversations with Australian and Canadian diplomats and people who know about these things, I understand that their system—the integration of trade and the international development into their Foreign Offices—has actually worked quite well. This is not a criticism of DFID, which does many things very well. It spends public money considerably better than the Foreign Office does. It is not about trashing or diluting DFID, but about its full integration into an integrated overseas policy. I am also not arguing against 0.7% of national income being spent on aid, but I would change its definition.
My hon. Friend and I have a difference of opinion on this matter. Let me be very clear: no one who has studied these things closely thinks that the Canadian and Australian model that he describes is superior to the British model. I can reassure him on this point. When David Cameron set up the National Security Council in 2010, he did so directly to address the point that my hon. Friend makes. The National Security Council provides for the co-ordination between defence, diplomacy and development. With the greatest of respect, that makes my hon. Friend’s proposal to put those Departments back into the Foreign Office entirely redundant, because the new mechanism delivers precisely the goal that he and I want to see—better co-ordination of policy in Government.
My hon. Friend makes a compelling point. He has done a huge amount of work on this issue, and I have a lot of respect for the work he has done with the Henry Jackson Society. One of the problems that he might crash into if we were to merge the Department for International Development with the Department for International Trade, albeit within the Foreign Office, is that there would potentially be the criticism that we are tying trade to aid, and that therefore our objectives might be impure. Would not our interests be best served by being more influential with the OECD Development Assistance Committee, and making the rules work better for those we serve?
There are various ways to do this. I do not expect to succeed in merging the Department for International Development and the Department for International Trade back into the FCO. It is an option that we should explore, and we should look honestly at whether it is the best, but if it is not—I suspect the Minister will argue that—I would very much like to explore ways to increase joint working, because it works at a strategy level.
I take issue with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) said about the National Security Council, because I am not sure it works as well as it could when it comes to setting strategy. We need a national strategy council because the National Security Council’s role is still too reactive. It is moving towards integration and looking at strategy, which I will come to if I do not run out of time—I want to make sure the Minister has time to respond.
There are many different ways of doing this, but at a departmental level, the integration to achieve greater effect and greater power sometimes breaks down. Arguably, it can also break down at an ambassadorial level; I will develop that argument in a second. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield and my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) for their interventions and their important contributions to the debate, which I take in good faith.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems that we face in integration and influence is that our senior leaders travel far too little in places of importance, such as the whole of the African continent? In the time in which President Macron has visited the African continent more than 10 times, our Prime Minister has been able to visit only once. It was the first time a Prime Minister has visited Kenya—one of our strongest allies—since the days of Margaret Thatcher.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and I would love to see Ministers do that more—I hope the Minister will not then blame me for jetlag if he ever has it. That is an absolutely sensible point. I will crack on, because I do not want to run out of time.
We have a tendency towards reactivity. We have a National Security Council, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield articulates. We have an Africa strategy, and we are developing a China strategy, so we are integrating more, but I would argue that we need to turbocharge it, push it and institutionalise it to greater effect. One way to do that is to change the nature of the National Security Council and turn it into a national strategy council. It would have two roles: it would have the reactive role that it has at the moment, and it would institutionalise and formalise a strategy role to set up whole-Government policy towards different parts of the world. That is beginning to happen; the National Security Council has within it committees that look at different parts of the world and themes. However, for me it is not institutionalised enough. There has been a lack of political leadership, as there often is nowadays—this relates to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) made about travel—to integrate Departments so that we maximise the value of our power.
What my hon. Friend is saying about strategy is very good, but the National Security Council tends, to a very large extent, to be the creature of the Prime Minister. All I can tell him is that, when David Cameron was Prime Minister, the point that he makes about strategy was understood, and perhaps pursued more than it is today.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention and for being present; it is a great privilege for me that he is. He makes the point well about the need to normalise and institutionalise the strategy element so that, regardless of the Prime Minister’s determination to push through a strategy, the setting of strategy five, 10 or 20 years ahead becomes the norm. The Army does it when it looks at strategic threats out to 2045—I was listening to the Commandant General of the Royal Marines yesterday—but we are not doing it at a political level. I am worried that our excellent FCO diplomats and soldiers lack political leadership because we have become too parochial in this House. It is a pleasure that so many Members with a broader vision are in the Chamber. I will crack on, because I am about to run out of time.
Here are some ideas for the One HMG agenda. I want it to remove barriers to joint working so that, whatever system we have—whether or not we keep DFID and DIT, and whatever their relationship with the FCO is—we maximise the integration factor. I was painfully aware of some of these ideas when I was overseas and deployed in my former life as a very accidental soldier. We need clear, integrated governance structures. We need integration of more levels of Departments, potentially through the use of what I call joint effects teams. I have seen their worth, and their absence in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq.
We need integrated line management through ambassadors. Ambassadors cannot manage DFID staff in the same way as they can with the FCO. An ambassador in a country should have control over the whole staff. There should be a common set of pay and conditions, which, frankly, means giving the FCO staff pay rises to bring them in line with other Departments and ensure that they are treated in exactly the same way.
Critically—especially for military operations in which the military are in the lead but DFID is very well represented and other international agencies fall under the British chain of command—there should be a single legal chain to speed decision making. Among the many things that slowed down decision making in provincial reconstruction teams in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq were the multiple legal chains that stretched back to individual Departments. If DFID is leading an operation in Africa and other Departments are supporting, DFID should supply the legal chain and there should not be parallel legal chains elsewhere. If the military are leading and DFID is supporting, the military lawyers should likewise have the legal remit. That speeds decision making and gives clearer and firmer political direction without too much infighting. That is an example of integration at a practical level that does not require great structural changes—I still want to see them, but I accept that they may not happen.
I would like to see the UK push for significant reform to DAC, the OECD committee. To colleagues who think that I am hostile to DFID, let me say that I am genuinely not, and I am genuinely not hostile to 0.7%. Some people in this House, like Nigel Farage outside it, say, “We should pretty much scrap it. It is a disgrace that we spend more on overseas aid than on policing.” Actually, that is an embarrassing figure for us. I am not against the 0.7% figure at all, but we need to change the definition in some way that helps us. I suggest 0.5%, with 0.2% that we spend how we like, without reference to DAC. We could do two things in particular. All UK peacekeeping should come out of development money, because it is a fundamental building block to development. That would save the Ministry of Defence £300 or £400 million a year.
Yes, and I congratulate the former Minister on her excellent work and that of the Department. We can spend 15% now, but there is a big difference between 15% and 100%. I would like to see all UK peacekeeping counted, either by changing the rules of DAC or rearranging how we spend our aid money.
The second thing I would like to see is a reinvigorated BBC World Service TV and radio, with significantly increased funding, and I would like that to come under aid and development. Increasingly, aid and development will be seen not just as keeping people alive, as important as that is—I would not touch, but increase the life-saving element of DFID’s budget. However, I would reallocate some of the economic support, where there is no discernible evidence of its effectiveness, either to the BBC World Service so that it can take on global fake news, or peacekeeping.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point about the BBC World Service. In fact, when I was Secretary of State, I increased by nine times the amount of money spent on the BBC World Service Trust. On the OECD DAC, if we make a promise to the poorest people in the world—Archbishop Tutu described that as a sacred thing—we should stick to it. The promise was 0.7%, and I am very proud that a Conservative Government introduced it. My hon. Friend is perfectly right to say that we should always review the nature of the definition. What he says about Britain’s peacekeeping effort is absolutely relevant, but the OECD DAC works very well for Britain, because it brings countries that do not spend their aid as effectively as we do up to the standard that Britain expects, so we gain from that.
I will wrap up in the next minute because I want to give the Minister time to respond. I do not accept that final point, because so few countries spend anything like the same amount on aid, and I think it just washes over most states. There is clearly a conversation to be had there.
To sum up, we have a National Security Council, we have had changes to increase integration and we should have three global themes—free trade, free thought and freedom from oppression. We could wrap up so much of what we do by championing free trade under the WTO, freedom of thought with the BBC, and freedom from oppression, by championing UK anti-slavery measures at the UN and in this place. All that implies a commitment to a renewed multilateralism, not only through NATO, as the hon. Member for Strangford pointed out, but through the UN. I would very much support a much more powerful role for the UK in the UN, both in committing more resources, funding and support for its reform, and in being a critical UN power. That will also mean giving the UK’s UN team a better building to work in, so that they become more of a hub for the diplomatic community at the UN, increasing our power and influence.
Although I had other points to make, I will leave it there because I want to give the Minister time to respond. I thank him for listening and look forward to his response.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely) on securing this timely debate. I mean “timely” in the broader sense, as we are nearly out of time in this Parliament, but I am sure that the ideas that he adumbrated will form part of the election campaign, in which parties and candidates of all stripes will be able to put forward their views on our foreign policy—views that may well be taken up by the next Government. I pay tribute to him for all that he has done to inform and challenge the Government’s foreign policy making, both as a member of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and through his thoughtful contributions in print, of which I have two submissions to hand. I also congratulate all colleagues who are present. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) said, not every political party is represented, but those who are here are respected across the House.
There is no doubt that we face a world of increasing uncertainty. The rules-based international system is under challenge. Trading tensions, climate change and growing populations mean greater competition. New technologies need to be properly harnessed to ensure that cyberspace cannot be hijacked for malign purposes—my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight made that point cogently and eloquently. Those challenges involve threats to our interests that we need to identify and overcome, but they also offer opportunity, from the economic potential of innovating to tackle climate change to the commercial possibilities offered by the dynamic economies of Asia, or the growing populations of Africa.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) mentioned Africa, and I agree with him: Ministers should travel more. I draw his attention to the current rather challenging parliamentary arithmetic, which means that the most powerful person in the House of Commons is not the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Foreign Secretary, but the Government pairing Whip, who allows us to travel. Perhaps in a new Parliament with a different arithmetic, Ministers will be able to travel much more.
Our system is beautiful but imperfect. I acknowledge my hon. Friend’s point, but we have a fantastic diplomatic service, Members of the House of Lords, who are often able to travel more, and trade envoys from across political parties, who contribute to our diplomatic effort.
Once we have left the European Union, we will continue to be guided by our core foreign policy priorities: protecting our people, projecting our influence and promoting our prosperity. Those priorities align with the three freedoms mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight: freedom from oppression, freedom of thought and expression, and freedom for trade. I am sure he will agree that those are important elements in delivering our core priorities.
We will remain a pragmatic champion of our values, a steadfast defender of our interests, and a global force for good. We will work with, and through, the global network of multilateral institutions—as a permanent member of the United Nations, to which my hon. Friend referred; as a leading member of the G7, the G20 and the Commonwealth; and as an independent reformist voice in the World Trade Organisation. That commitment extends to our neighbours in Europe. We are leaving the EU, but we are not leaving Europe. We remain steadfastly committed to the security and welfare of the continent, remaining a vital partner in the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Council of Europe, and of course, NATO, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and others mentioned. We will lead by example. The Foreign Secretary has announced our intention to establish a global human rights sanctions regime, which will reinforce Britain’s role in the world as a good global citizen.
I had a good sense of the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight would raise today from the report he produced in February. He referred to the Prime Minister’s foreword to it, and it will form an important part of my respite reading during the general election campaign. If I am here on the other side of the election and appear before the Foreign Affairs Committee, of which I trust he will be a member, I am sure that we will refer to the report when we joust.
I am pleased to advise my hon. Friend that many of the suggestions made in the report, and by hon. Members today, mirror lines of work that this Government are already delivering. The United Kingdom has considerable strengths and world-leading capabilities, including a renowned military, of which he was once a part, an attractive economy and one of the largest and most respected diplomatic, development and security networks. Our extraordinary soft power generates a huge amount of opportunity and puts us in the top two of Portland’s soft power index. To leverage those assets to maximum effect, we must work across organisational boundaries. If global Britain is to be successful, our systems must be fit for purpose.
I agree with my hon. Friend that a well-integrated foreign policy is critical. He mentioned the National Security Council, which has proven an excellent vehicle for bringing together the work of different Departments to focus on the more immediate issues and threats that we and our allies face. The NSC’s role has been enhanced over the last year by the adoption of the fusion doctrine, which strengthens Her Majesty’s Government’s collective approach to national security, drawing together all the United Kingdom’s security, economic and diplomatic capabilities in pursuit of our national interests. Members of the NSC, be they Cabinet Ministers, junior Ministers, officials or experts, speak with authority and as equals. That is one of the key components of the NSC’s success.
Of course, there is always room for improvement. That is why at home, the Government’s collective approach to international work is strengthened through the creation of national strategy implementation groups, which meet monthly and bring together officials from all relevant Government Departments to formulate collective responses to opportunities and challenges. We encourage effective co-ordination between Departments, but there is also a great deal to be gained from the development of dedicated expertise in specialist departments. I will ask my officials, who my hon. Friend is meeting later, to give him further detail on that.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. I appreciate that a 30-minute debate on the integration of foreign policy is hardly enough to integrate it, but I am sure that there will be future opportunities for him, me and other hon. Members to debate it more fully.
Question put and agreed to.
Child Poverty in Scotland
[Sir David Crausby in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered child poverty in Scotland.
I thank all Members who have taken the time to come to this important debate. We all came into the House seeking to improve the lives of children and young people. That is why some of our most passionate debates are about childcare, education and apprenticeships. We often share the same goal, but perhaps disagree on the policies needed to achieve it. That is why I am holding this debate.
None of us wants any child to live in inadequate housing, or to be stuck in temporary accommodation. None of us wants to see any child going hungry to school or during the school holidays, or having to rely on food banks. None of us wants to see any child fall behind in their education and be denied opportunities as a result. We all agree that no child should live in poverty or be denied the best start in life—but too many children live in poverty across Scotland. I hope that the debate gives us the chance to reaffirm a sure commitment to eradicating child poverty, and that we are able to have a serious discussion about which policies work, which policies need changes, and which new policies need to be implemented to achieve our shared goal of ending child poverty.
One million people live in poverty across Scotland, and 240,000 of them are children. That means one in four children in Scotland now lives in poverty. It is truly staggering to think that so many children in our constituencies live in poverty.
I compliment my hon. Friend on achieving this debate, and on the importance of the subject. As he said, one in four children in Scotland lives in poverty. That is a shameful figure, both for the Tory Government here in Westminster and for the SNP Government in Holyrood, and one that we must all strive to reduce. Since the 2016 Holyrood election and the 2017 Westminster election, the number of children living in poverty in East Lothian has gone up by 2%, which means that 16% of the young people in my constituency live in poverty, facing all the challenges that brings.
That is true. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has estimated that two thirds of children living in poverty are in households where at least one adult is in paid work. Almost 30% of children live in households where three or more children are classed as living in poverty.
My hon. Friend mentioned the key fact from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation: much of the debate tends to focus on people being out of work, when in fact most children living in poverty in Scotland are from families and households who are in work. The previous Labour Government took 120,000 children in Scotland out of poverty through measures such as tax credits and the national minimum wage. Now, we must do a lot more. Also, child poverty is not restricted to deprived areas. My constituency is seen as quite affluent, but in some parts of it, more than a third of children are being brought up in poverty. This is an issue for us all, in every single community, and the way to tackle it is to improve working conditions and pay in the workplace.
I could not agree more. People used to think they were working to get out of poverty—not so nowadays. The figures highlight the fact that we have a real crisis with child poverty in Scotland. The Resolution Foundation has projected that child poverty across Scotland will likely rise to 30% by the mid-2020s, despite the target to reduce child poverty to 18%.
One in four children in Scotland lives in poverty, but is not the real shocker that the figure is the lowest of those for the four UK nations? Child poverty was down at 21%, but has now risen, not because of the financial crash but, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) said, because of changes in welfare. The rise started in 2012, and that was owing to policies made here in Westminster.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Is not one of the biggest reasons for children going into poverty the two-child limit on tax credits? Does he agree with the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, which is to publish a report before Dissolution that says that the policy should be scrapped?
Yes. I will come on to two-child cap poverty.
History shows that we can tackle child poverty in Scotland. The largest falls in the poverty rate recorded in the past 20 years were among pensioners and children. From the late 1990s, child poverty across Scotland fell significantly because of the policy choices made by the Labour Government. The Labour Government redesigned the welfare state with the purpose of tackling child poverty, which is why policies like child tax credits and the national minimum wage were introduced. Those policies were designed to target the underlying causes of child poverty, such as low pay. The success of the Labour Government in reducing child poverty highlights the fact that it can be done when there is the political will and the right policies.
We need to show that political will, because the impact of poverty on children is simply unacceptable. Children living in poverty suffer greater health and social outcomes than their better-off peers. Children living in poverty are much more likely to suffer health problems, such as poor mental health and wellbeing, and obesity. They are more likely to lag behind in reading, writing and numeracy. Child poverty affects not just childhood, but individuals throughout their whole life.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. One of the most shocking figures that I have heard in my time in Parliament was through the all-party group on health in all policies. We heard from the UK Faculty of Public Health that 1,400 children a year die before they reach the age of 15 as a direct result of poverty. As he has said, those who do not may still face blighted lives thereafter.
I thank the hon. Lady for that staggering fact. How sad is it that, in this day and age, children are dying from poverty before they are 15?
If we are to tackle child poverty in Scotland, we must look at whether current policies help us to do so. Since 2010, the Government have implemented a series of welfare reforms, such as universal credit. As we all know from our surgeries and constituents, universal credit is having a negative impact on families. In particular, it is hurting low-income families, pushing more children into poverty. Universal credit could be considered a success only if its aims were to push up rent arrears, increase food bank use and drive people deeper into poverty. That is the success that some think universal credit is creating.
Earlier this year, I led an Adjournment debate on food poverty in Scotland, after it was revealed that more than 210,000 food parcels had been distributed by the Trussell Trust last year. Nearly 70,000 of those food parcels were issued to children. That means that about one in three food parcels distributed in Scotland last year was for a child. What a shameful situation we are in. The UK is meant to be the world’s fifth largest economy, but we have children going hungry in our constituencies.
Rising food bank use is linked directly to the Government’s welfare reforms. Trussell Trust figures reveal that almost 50% of all food bank referrals are the result of a delay to benefit payments to claimants. Almost 35% of all emergency food supplies are distributed to those individuals who find that their benefits regularly fail to cover their cost of living. In areas where universal credit has already been rolled out, the Trussell Trust observed a 30% increase in food bank use after a year of the roll-out.
I recall the hon. Gentleman’s Adjournment debate on food poverty. Does he agree that one of the main issues is that people wait five weeks to get their benefit entitlement? The advanced payment really should be the first payment, and people should not have to wait five weeks to get state support.
I totally agree. That is a change we can make today.
The Government decided to implement a two-child limit policy, despite warnings from this House and charities that it would worsen child poverty in Scotland. What was warned about has come to pass, and almost 4,000 low-income families in Scotland are affected, with a loss of £3,000 per year for each family. We cannot ignore the impact of other welfare reforms introduced by the Government. The benefit cap affects over 3,000 households in Scotland, 92% of which contain children. The benefits freeze has impacted low-income families, further fuelling child poverty across Scotland.
It would be fair to say that the Government’s welfare reforms have worsened the child poverty rate in Scotland, but we cannot ignore the fact that the Scottish Government have gained greater powers, which would enable them to better address child poverty. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlights that in areas of Scotland such as Edinburgh, where the private rent sector is bigger than the social sector, private rent growth has outstripped inflation over the last decade. Higher rents impact on the incomes of families, meaning that they are less able to cover essential costs such as food and heating. Undoubtedly, that fuels child poverty across Scotland.
The hon. Gentleman will know that 16% of benefits have been devolved to Scotland. He says that the Scottish Government should do more; what does he think the Scottish Government should do that they are not currently doing?
The Scottish Government should use more of their powers to help children. They have the powers; we are asking them to use them. The Scottish Government’s own figures reveal that there was a 4% increase in the number of children living in temporary accommodation last year. Nearly 7,000 children now live in temporary accommodation in Scotland, and last year, 38 children were made homeless every day. It is clear that the failure to provide permanent, high-quality accommodation for children is increasing child poverty across Scotland.
Are those houses social housing? Are those houses council housing?
Although the Scottish Government have introduced a £10-per-week child support payment, it will not be fully in place until 2022. My good friend Mark Griffin MSP highlighted that nearly 60,000 children will lose out on the child support payment because initial applications will be restricted to children who are five and under. How will such a restriction truly help to tackle child poverty across Scotland? We need real policy changes that will eradicate child poverty in Scotland. We must scrap universal credit, because it has absolutely failed to address child poverty.
I thank the hon. Gentleman again for being generous with his time. We are all on the same side; we all believe that child poverty is bad, and we all want to do whatever needs to be done to eradicate it. Again, 16% of benefit powers are devolved to Scotland. He talks about policy changes; what specific policy changes does he want in Scotland that we have the power to deliver but have not yet delivered?
I said at the beginning that we are here to get the right policies. I want the right policies in the Scottish Government.
The Government should end the five-week wait that claimants must go through, as the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) said, before they receive their initial universal credit payment. I was also concerned to hear that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions refused to rule out a further extension of the benefits freeze. I urge the Government to bring the benefits freeze to an immediate end, rather than looking at extending it. An extension of the benefits freeze means an extension of child poverty across Scotland. I urge the Government to end the benefit cap and the two-child limit policy.
Ahead of this debate, the House’s digital engagement team undertook a public engagement exercise and received over 700 responses. Respondents called on the Government to look again at their damaging welfare reforms such as universal credit. I hope that the Government will reflect on that.
The Scottish Government must also look at the policy changes that they could make. They could introduce a Mary Barbour law to cap rents in the private rented sector, in order to help low-income families. They could build more social and affordable housing to end the disgrace of children being trapped in temporary accommodation, or finding themselves homeless. They could look again at the child support payment, which the Resolution Foundation found would still leave more than 25% of children in Scotland living in poverty—the Scottish Government’s own target of 18% would not be close to being met. I also urge them to listen to the calls of Scottish Labour for a child benefit top-up of £5 per week to support those affected by the two-child limit policy.
I started this debate by saying that all of us in this House share the goal of eradicating child poverty in Scotland. That goal will be achieved only through serious policy change of the kind that I have suggested today. I put on record my support for North Lanarkshire Council’s Club365 programme, which helps to tackle holiday hunger among children in my constituency. That shows that local councils can take action to address child poverty, despite the budget cuts imposed on them by central Government.
Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown was right to say that Scotland now has a full-blown child poverty emergency. In emergencies, we expect rapid and decisive action. I hope we will see that action from both the UK and Scottish Governments.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my parliamentary neighbour, the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney), on this debate.
Let me begin by quoting a community activist in my constituency, Derek Kelter:
“Poverty destroys everything in your life. A low for me was last Christmas, when I had no money to buy my son a Christmas present. The situation we have today is unacceptable. We should all be able to live a dignified life but too many people are trapped in poverty. I’m blind and I’ve been locked out of employment since I had a brain injury five years ago. It doesn’t have to be this way though. Social security benefits should be enough so that people can live a dignified life and disabled people should be given support to access employment.”
We can call agree that that is a damning indictment on the state of a 21st-century first-world country. It is appalling.
I am not here to blame people, but to represent the people of Motherwell and Wishaw and to fight for the best possible life for them. That evidence was given to the Poverty Alliance. The Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland also has damning indictments of child poverty in Scotland. However, it noted the introduction of the Scottish child payment by the Scottish Parliament in 2020, which will start at £10 a week for each child, no matter how many children are in the family. In Scotland, we do not believe that families should be penalised by a two-child cap; that is an abomination. It is almost incredible that the Tory Government in Westminster have tried time and again to justify that cruel, callous policy.
I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman said. We are all against child poverty. I, too, would like the Scottish Government to eradicate it tomorrow. That will not happen while they do not have the levers of all the tax and benefit systems that the UK Government currently have reserved to them. However, in the circumstances, the Scottish Government continue to do what they can with the limited resources they have.
The hon. Gentleman says that Labour has pledged to scrap universal credit, but the Joseph Rowntree Foundation does not necessarily agree that that is the best way forward. Introducing two separate types of benefit payments would further confuse people, and more people would probably fall between the cracks with two benefit systems. We all know what is wrong with universal credit. We have said time and again, in this Chamber and the main Chamber, that we should look at making it work for those who have to use it.
Many people in my constituency are reliant on universal credit, and it is the single biggest casework issue I deal with. This Government should end the five-week wait. The five-week wait should be a thing of the past. The fact that people have to repay advances at an enormous rate leaves them even poorer and means they have to use food banks even more. I should pay credit to the Lanarkshire food bank, which operates in my constituency; it is a source of real help to many in Motherwell and Wishaw.
Labour actually has a good list of things it wants to do, most of which are based on things the Scottish Government have already asked for and introduced. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should have fortnightly payments and split payments for couples. That should be the default position. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) has made that point in numerous debates.
I also think this UK Tory Government are wrong to charge single parents to apply to the Child Maintenance Service; again, I have debated that many times with the Minister. Notwithstanding years of austerity in the United Kingdom, it seems that this Tory regime want to make people who are poor even poorer, by charging them more and more for services that their children need.
The UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights—someone from whom the Minister normally would not like to hear—praised the Scottish Government for their
“ambitious schemes for addressing poverty, including the Fairer Scotland Action Plan and the Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan”,
and for using their
“newly devolved powers to establish a promising social security system, guided by the principles of dignity”
and respect. I believe that is another thing the Labour party wants to introduce.
We have good ideas in Scotland for ending child poverty. We actually have a plan to do it. We measure child poverty. It gives us no comfort that child poverty increases under the watch of a UK Tory Government who say they are absolutely committed to ending austerity but show no sign of doing so.
I do not want to stand here and quote stats—we can all do that—but when a constituent of mine gets to his lowest ebb because he cannot find the money to buy his child a Christmas present, there is something seriously wrong with the state of this United Kingdom. As far as I am concerned, the sooner Scotland exercises its right and gives the people the choice to leave it, the better.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) on bringing forward this debate. He always speaks passionately on behalf of his people, and on this occasion he did so on behalf of all children in poverty.
I am here to support my colleagues and friends. Although the debate is about child poverty in Scotland, the fact is that child poverty is not specific to Scotland. It is also rampant in other areas of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—particularly Northern Ireland—so I want to say a couple of words in support of colleagues who have already spoken and those who will speak after me. Much of what we say will be very similar.
I am a proud Ulster Scot. I love my heritage. I come from the Stewarts of the lowlands of Scotland, so my heritage goes way back to Scotland. I share a cultural identity with the hon. Gentleman and other friends and colleagues in the Chamber, and my values are very similar to theirs.
Unfortunately, the children in my constituency face the same difficulties as those in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. Official estimates published by the Northern Ireland Department for Communities—the figures are a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly—show that in 2017-18, 19% of children in Northern Ireland from birth up to the age of 16, including dependent children aged between 16 and 19, lived below the poverty line, in households with an income of less than 60% of the UK average. I suspect the figures are the same in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and in those of the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) and the hon. Members who speak after me.
In 2017-18, the poverty threshold in Northern Ireland stood at £19,016 of annual income for a single person with two children, and £24,245 for a couple with two children. The Minister knows that I am very fond of him and what he does, and I believe he will answer our questions to the best of his ability, but I say to him that we need a UK strategy and additional funding to tackle child poverty. The situation in my constituency is the same as the situation that the hon. Members for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill and for Motherwell and Wishaw described. Society, the Government and elected representatives are marked by the way they respond to those who are less well off. I do not believe for one second that we can ignore them; the Government must reach out and help.
During Northern Ireland questions today, an hon. Member—in fact, it was the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw; I should have recognised her name earlier—asked the Secretary of State:
“What economic assessment he has made of the potential effect of the Government’s proposed withdrawal agreement on Northern Ireland.”
In a subsequent question, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) asked about
“legislative proposals to maintain welfare mitigation payments in Northern Ireland after March 2020.”
The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) and the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) tabled the same question.
My party—the Democratic Unionist party—and our Minister at that time were instrumental in achieving those welfare mitigation payments. At the end of March 2020, those provisions will end, and members of the public from all communities and of all political and religious persuasions across Northern Ireland will be disadvantaged because of Sinn Féin’s intransigence. We have an opportunity because my party put on the statute book legislation that enabled welfare mitigation payments to be made. Those payments came out of the block budget, by the way, but we agreed to that and acted accordingly. I did not get the chance to ask Northern Ireland Office Ministers directly earlier, but I ask this Minister: what can be done to mitigate the impact, which will be severe?
I will make a final comment about food banks, Sir David. Food banks are often talked about, and have probably been mentioned by everyone who is present here. The first Trussell Trust food bank in Northern Ireland was in my constituency. It came to Strangford because a number of church groups got together and recognised the need to reach out as faith groups, in order to help others who found themselves in difficulties making payments or paying bills, or when everything seemed to turn against them.
On the television this morning there was a discussion about debt organisations; I have not had a chance to watch it yet. It is not always a person who has benefit delays or benefit short payments who needs debt management; more often it is people who do not fit into the normal category. Minister, when it comes to addressing child poverty, what has been done to help those who need debt management? It is always better to try to address debt management early on, rather than let people get to the final moment, when letters are coming through their door, they are under pressure, their credit cards are over-egged and they find themselves in difficulties. People who are in employment, have a mortgage and who own a house may also need help.
There are people who come to my office who use the Thriving Life food bank in my area. I highlight the DWP and the changes that have been made to benefits, as referred to by the hon. Members for Motherwell and Wishaw and for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill. There is a follow-on that is down to benefits being reduced or, when the issue of housing benefit is looked at, delayed. It is also down to employment issues, such as shorter hours and changes to minimum pay.
The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of food banks. There is hardly an area that does not now have a food bank. My local area is supported by churches that have a rota to collect goods. Recently, our food bank has often had to put out crisis calls because its shelves are simply empty; it cannot keep up with demand. As the health spokesperson for his party, does the hon. Gentleman recognise the impact on life expectancy and on long-term physical and mental health that comes from growing up in poverty?
I thank the hon. Lady; she is always good in this House when it comes to bringing forward issues that are pertinent to the debate. She again excels today in bringing forward this issue of food banks and the needs they address. The people who use them are under pressure emotionally and mentally, which transfers to physical issues. When that happens, the problems that the hon. Lady refers to become real for them.
I recognise, as I know the hon. Lady does, that those who have set up the food banks are genuine, interested people who bring the best of people together. They reach out to those who need help, as their faith tells them to do, which is a great motivation. I almost feel encouraged by the food banks and those who are motivated to make them happen, but calls go out to ensure that people bring in more stock, because demand is sometimes high.
We appreciate what the food banks, the volunteers and the churches do when they work together. When it comes to child poverty, whether it be in Scotland or Northern Ireland, we all want the same. We want children to have a good quality of life and we want their families to be able to look after them in the way it was designed in life that they should. For that to happen I believe, with great respect, that the Government must look genuinely at what they do.
The issue of debt management is important to child poverty; it is crucial. Nothing disturbs me as much as seeing children in difficulty; there are two or three such children who come to my office. The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw mentioned Christmas. As Christmas comes, the child who lives three doors down will probably get almost anything he or she wants, but the child living in poverty will not get anything. There is a terrible injustice in society when we come to Christmas, a time of giving and good will, that those who are in poverty will not be able to have the same as everyone else.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) on securing the debate. In my constituency, one third of children live in poverty, and it has the third-worst statistics in the whole of Scotland for child poverty. That is shameful in this day and age, and it matters, because I grew up in abject poverty and I know what it is like. Poverty is not just about a lack of money, although clearly that is the foundation on which all poverty is built. It bleeds into every single area of life, and it is hugely damaging for the children affected. It does not just mean a cold house, or going to bed with an empty, hungry tummy, which is bad enough and completely unacceptable in this day and age. It also brings with it a poverty of hope, aspiration, self-confidence and self-belief.
Material poverty reduces and lays waste to the things we want all children to have. It is life-limiting, and too often leads children into a pit from which it is hard for them to escape. Even if, on growing up, they manage to drag themselves out of poverty, it leaves scars behind that do not vanish on reaching adulthood.
I have spoken in the past about how poverty brings isolation. When people live in poverty, there is no money to access local services. Parents cannot take their children out for a treat for the day; they cannot go to the pictures or visit the local café. They cannot have the everyday pleasures that ought to be part of every child’s life. It means that their life is limited and their horizons are not broadened. Many things are out of reach for them. That life limiting brings another kind of poverty, which arises from material poverty. That is a shocking indictment of a country as rich as ours.
My hon. Friend was a teacher in a former life, before she came here. I am sure that she recognises the impact of the cold house and the hungry tummy on trying to concentrate and study. These children will struggle at school, which will impact on all their opportunities for the rest of their life.
Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The fact is that unless child poverty is addressed, raising aspiration and attainment is like working with one hand tied behind your back. Children who are hungry or go home to a cold house tend to find it much more difficult than other children to attain their goals at school, whether those are academic or vocational. Their life is limited in ways that are difficult for people who have not experienced poverty to imagine.
The Scottish Government are doing what they can to tackle child poverty. Their Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill sets tough targets to reduce child poverty levels. A £50 million fund will support innovative approaches to tackle child poverty. Free early years childcare has been expanded to 30 hours per week, and there is a new best start grant to provide financial support to low-income families. The popular baby box gives practical support to new parents. An initiative that has been unveiled recently is the Scottish child payment, which provides £10 per week for each child.
These measures are welcome and can ease the scourge of child poverty, but they cannot remove it. We need to use all the levers of tax and benefits to make the inroads required to remove it. The Scottish Government have power over 16% of social security spending, and that is better than 0%, but it is far from what is required to tackle this scourge on our society.
It is no accident—the Minister has heard this—that the roll-out of universal credit brings with it a spike in food bank use. In my constituency in the past year, 8,173 people relied on food bank assistance, of whom 2,192 were children. That is an absolute disgrace in this day and age, although I pay huge tribute to the food bank organisations in Ardrossan and Largs in my constituency, which do tremendously good work against challenging odds.
Just a minute. The hon. Gentleman was not here at the start of the debate, so I do not know if am allowed to.
People are punished for being poor. Their children are punished as well, and left without the support that they need. That damages the life chances of children and their parents. Benefits must reflect people’s need—it is as simple as that.
We have heard today about the five-week wait for universal credit, which is unacceptable, but I have something very specific that I want the Minister to take away and think about. I have raised it before—to no avail, as far as I can see. When people have a five-week wait for universal credit, they are offered loans—it does not matter what they are called—by the Department for Work and Pensions to help them through that five weeks. We might think that that helps ease the pain of waiting five weeks for a proper assessment and proper universal credit payments to be made, but I say this to the Minister: if anybody seeks to take out a loan in the normal course of events, they go to a bank and ask for a loan. Their creditworthiness and ability to repay is assessed, and that determines whether they will be given the loan. People on universal credit waiting for the five-week payment are not assessed. They are given loans when it is clear that they are not able to repay them. Attempts to repay the loan shove them further into poverty and despair, and that pushes them further away from the world of work. It is simply not on. It is not working. The Government really need to look at the transitional payments, which are actually loans. Those payments should not be loans. People need support during those five weeks.
The Child Poverty Action Group has said that it is time—I am sure the Minister is aware of this—for the UK Government to use their powers, as the Scottish Government have done, in an equally positive way to develop a wider UK child poverty strategy, so that both Governments can work together to make child poverty history across the UK. I cannot understand why anybody would object to that. I am sure the Minister will want to think carefully and reflect on that.
We have the phenomenon of in-work poverty. The Scottish Government support the real living wage, and many employers, with the Scottish Government’s encouragement, have signed up to paying it in Scotland. The Minister will be interested to hear that employers who have decided to pay the real living wage have reported increased productivity and reduced sick leave, so valuing people is important. It gives me no pleasure to say this to the Minister, but the UK Government have sought to deceive with their pretendy living wage. Nothing should be called a living wage unless it is based on the cost of living. The Government’s pretendy living wage is not, so it should not be called that. This pretendy living wage has led directly to the scandal of in-work poverty, which is absolutely appalling.
The cruel and austere policies of the UK Government are deeply damaging and dangerous for children in my constituency, and they must not go unchallenged. I recently participated in a debate in the Chamber on— I cannot believe I am saying this out loud—childhood hunger. The fact that that is even a thing, that it even exists, is embarrassing and shameful. I do not know how the Minister feels, but if I was part of a Government who presided over childhood hunger and had the ability, as a member of the Government, to do something about it, I would not hesitate. I cannot understand the reluctance. The Government really need to get their act together and take real measures to support children, instead of punishing those who need support. Eradicating child poverty needs to be a priority; it is as simple as that. It cannot be an afterthought or an add-on. It needs to be a priority, and it cannot be considered inconvenient. If we cannot invest in our children, and cannot go to bed at night safe in the knowledge that children are not going to bed hungry, we are doing this all wrong.
I want the Minister to tell us today what serious attempts he is prepared to make, as a member of the Government, to address what can only be described as a scandal. I will make a commitment to him today. Any measures that he takes to tackle child poverty in the UK will find support on the Scottish National party benches. Scotland’s children need and deserve better.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) on securing this important debate on child poverty in Scotland. The scourge of poverty and the effect that it has on our children, as well as the knock-on effects that it will have into future generations, is an issue that unites us all, and I am sure that many in this place, if not everyone, share much of the anger and frustration that he articulated in his opening remarks. Of course, he knows that child poverty is not confined to the central belt of Scotland; rural poverty is a blight as well. I know from personal experience in my Argyll and Bute constituency how awful it can be.
I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate this afternoon. Notable by their absence have been the Scottish Conservatives. Some 21 minutes after the debate started, the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) rolled in, but no one from the Scottish Conservatives was here to contribute to this vital debate on an issue of importance to their constituencies, as it is to every other constituency in Scotland.
I am grateful to you, Sir David, for your judgment, and to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I tried to make a contribution during the previous speech. The hon. Gentleman’s attack on my colleagues and I, the Scottish Conservatives at Westminster, is all too typical of the antics that the SNP gets up to in this place. In relation to grievance, no one can match the SNP. It was said in the previous speech—I am sure that this will be the hon. Gentleman’s position as well—that if they had the ability to do something, the Government should do something on child poverty. Who is for child poverty? We are not. We are trying our best to eradicate it. The Scottish Government have the power to top up reserved benefits, so they could do something about this if they wanted to, but they do not want to because it is a convenient grievance.
Had the hon. Gentleman wished to make a speech of that length, he would have turned up in time and perhaps brought one or two of his Scottish Conservative colleagues with him.
As we have heard, there are 1 million people living in poverty in Scotland, and almost one in four of them are children. In 2019, 250,000 children living in one of the world’s richest nations are growing up in poverty. That is nothing short of scandalous. Poverty is not inevitable. People not having enough money to feed and clothe their children is not something that happens by accident. The existence of poverty in a country as rich as ours is a direct consequence of political choices.
The decade of austerity was a political choice. Massive long-term cuts to the social security budget were a political choice. The widening of the holes in the social security safety net so that more families and children would fall through was a political choice. The ill-conceived and hopelessly financed introduction of universal credit was a political choice. Making the poorest, weakest and most vulnerable in our society carry the can, and bear the brunt of a financial crisis that had nothing to do with them, was a political choice.
No matter how we look at it, it is an inescapable fact that the Tory Government, and indeed the Liberal Democrats, who were in the previous coalition Government—they, too, are conspicuous by their absence today—are directly responsible for plunging children and families into poverty across Scotland and the UK.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and will touch on that in a moment.
There can be no doubt that, as we have heard this afternoon, one of the main drivers of child poverty in Scotland has been the Government’s package of welfare reforms, which by any measure has been an abject failure. How else could one describe a package of reforms whose result is that 65% of all the children who live in poverty come from households where at least one adult is working? There is no need to take my word for it. The United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty said:
“Changes to benefits, and sanctions against parents...are driving the increase in child poverty”.
Some would still have us believe that it will take decades to turn things around and lift children out of poverty, but that is simply not true. There are measures that the UK Government could take right now that would immediately stop children and their families falling into poverty. One of those, which my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) just mentioned, would be to end the benefits freeze immediately. The Government should then immediately stop the roll-out of universal credit, take their time, and find the money to fix the major problems in the system, which they are only too well aware of but choose to ignore.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) said, the scrapping of the five-week minimum wait for a first universal credit payment must come to an end. The idea that poor people who are given advances need to pay them back serves only to plunge people further into debt. I congratulate the Select Committee on Work and Pensions on today’s report recommending putting an end to the two-child limit and its despicable rape clause. The idea that sanctions work for people has been proven untrue.
There is therefore a package of things that the Government could do immediately to stop the situation and turn it around. Of course, none of what I say will come as a surprise to the Minister, as we and others have been making the argument in this place for some time. We will continue to make it until the UK Government do something about it, or until the Scottish Government are given full powers over welfare or, better still, until they have them as an independent nation within the European Union.
My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) spoke passionately and eloquently about the situation in her constituency, but her most powerful words came at the start of her speech when she quoted her constituent, Derek Kelter, who said:
“Poverty destroys everything in your life.”
Consider that. It is all that politicians need to hear, because it cannot be unheard.
As always, I am delighted that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has taken the time to be here. He made the powerful point that, although the debate is about Scotland, child poverty is not confined to Scotland but is rampant across every part of the United Kingdom. If it is a disgrace in Dundee, it is a blight in Belfast. If the UK Government cannot or will not do something about it, they should give the devolved Administrations the power to do so themselves.
My colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), gave a powerful and moving personal testimony about poverty in childhood and how it leads to poverty of hope, aspiration and opportunity. Most movingly, she said that even though one might escape material poverty as an adult, the deep scars do not easily go away even in adulthood.
We have heard much this afternoon about what the Scottish Government are doing, and I am extremely proud that they are using the limited powers at their disposal to tackle child poverty. What sets them apart from the United Kingdom Government is the fact that they are determined to use every possible way to eradicate child poverty. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation recently reported that the building of 87,000 affordable homes since 2007 was a huge help, and that enshrining essential child poverty measures in statute is having an impact on how Scotland tackles child poverty.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran was right to praise the new Scottish child payment, which will mean that £10 is given to every child in a low-income family that is in receipt of qualifying benefits. Initially, 170,000 children will be eligible for the payment, which will lift 30,000 children out of poverty by putting £1,000 a year into the pockets of their parents. John Dickie, director of the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, described the new payment as a “game-changer”, and he is right. The Scottish Government care about people and, despite the meagre resources available to them, will do what they can. Just think what they could do if they had full powers to create a more progressive, economically healthy and socially just welfare system.
It is worth recognising that the achievement of the Scottish Government in tackling child poverty has been singled out by the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty, who praised their
“ambitious schemes for addressing poverty, including the Fairer Scotland Action Plan and the Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan”.
The rapporteur also praised the Scottish Government for using their
“newly devolved powers to establish a promising social security system, guided by the principles of dignity”.
Perhaps the Minister should take note of what the United Nations has said about Scotland and encourage the UK Government to follow our example.
It is a pleasure to follow so many passionate and thoughtful speeches. My reflection on the debate and Members’ contributions—particularly that of my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney), whom I congratulate on securing the debate—is that poverty is, fundamentally, probably the worst evil in our society. It is particularly pernicious, because it is a cruel and indiscriminate denial of opportunity to many people who have great potential.
My constituency has some of the highest child poverty levels in Scotland—and in the UK as a whole. When I go round it, I am constantly reminded of the denial of opportunity to many young people, particularly children. There was a turn of phrase used by Jimmy Reid when looking at high-rise tower blocks in my constituency—the infamous Red Road flats, which are now demolished and being redeveloped. He said that behind every one of the windows could be a Nobel prize-winning chemist, or a great Formula 1 racing driver, a fantastic doctor, engineer or perhaps Prime Minister, but—you know what?—they will never get the opportunity because of where they were born and the circumstances in which they were brought up. From birth they have been denied their potential. As a nation and as a community, that sabotage of young people’s lives is the greatest loss to us all, and in many cases it is literally a life sentence.
In the early 1990s Jimmy Reid made a documentary in Scotland, and he was filmed standing in a field between Milngavie and Drumchapel. The camera panned across the field, and he said that a child who is born on one side of the fields will live 10 years longer than a child born on the other side of the field, in Drumchapel. The average sentence for murder in Scotland is not far off 10 to 15 years, so for many children born in those circumstances, that is literally a life sentence. That destroyed potential is a great tragedy for us all.
Child poverty can be solved through political means—it is not inevitable, as many speakers have suggested; it can be solved. Child poverty has been both demonstrably reduced and demonstrably accelerated at the behest of policies of various Governments, and if there is one thing I can be proud of about the previous Labour Government, it is their efforts to reduce child poverty. When Labour came to power in 1997, child poverty stood at 3.6 million in the UK. When Labour left office in 2010, that figure had been reduced to 1 million. That was still too many, but it was a significant and demonstrable reduction. Today child poverty stands at 4 million—more than a reversal of those achievements—and we must address that generational tragedy.
We should not get too bogged down in the minutiae of Brexit; instead, we should focus on what we could be doing. What motivates me—and probably most Members—to get out of bed in the morning, is thinking about how we can leave a legacy that will improve lives for future generations. That certainly motivates me, my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill and other Members of the House, yet this Government have demonstrably, deliberately and consciously implemented policies that have permanently damaged lives.
It is true. Those policies will have a material effect on children born in this decade of austerity. We are visiting huge destruction not just on their lives, but on a whole community that has been denied those opportunities, and when we reflect on what Members have said today, that is the greatest tragedy.
One of the most moving aspects of this is the fact that child poverty is driven primarily by insufficient income, yet 65% of all children living in poverty in Scotland live in working households. Parents are trying to do what they can. They are not feckless or idle; they are trying to achieve what they can, but the capacity of the economy to meet their basic income requirements is not there. That is a legacy of this Government, their failure to address the 2008 financial crash, and their entire counter-productive austerity agenda, which has retarded economic growth in this country and caused one of the most regionally unbalanced and slow-paced recoveries of any major economy in the western world.
Does the hon. Gentleman welcome the fact that this Government have lifted the threshold after which people start paying tax to £12,500? That really helps people. Combined with that, we have increases in the national living wage. Does he not welcome those as well? Does he welcome the fact that the Government have introduced policies to allow people at the lower end of the income scale to keep more of their own money, so that they can spend it on their families? Does he welcome any of the policies that the Government have introduced to tackle child poverty?
The hon. Gentleman makes a point about tax, but the tax threshold was never met by people on the lowest incomes in the first place, so that measure does not deal with people at that end of the scale. People who already rely on social security benefits have been crushed by the two-child welfare cap that has been mentioned. Those are the things that affect people.
One searing example of that can be found in a recent report by Oxfam, Child Poverty Action Group Scotland and the Poverty Alliance, which addresses the issue of hunger in Scotland. It is an inspiring and chilling report, and the thing that strikes me most is the testimony that it contains. One example is from a lady called Alison. She is typical of many people—usually women—who turn up to my constituency surgeries in horrendous circumstances. A person might be born and brought up in a constituency and live there their whole life, as I have, but they never know the half of it until they become a Member of Parliament and realise what is going on behind closed doors.
Many people are too proud to come and demonstrate that they are suffering and have problems. They do not want to make a spectacle of themselves, and they are upset about having to speak to a Member of Parliament about their circumstances. The example from Alison is particularly egregious. Speaking about the whole issue of food insecurity and the wellbeing of our children, she said:
“My son, throughout the whole of this, was scared to put the heating on. He was scared to put the light on. He was sitting in the dark. He’s not playing his computer. What else is he meant to do when he’s socially isolated? When there’s no money to go on a bus, never mind take him out for the day…When things were on a level, it’s very, very sad to even say, he was just happy that we went for a hot chocolate and a muffin. Now that’s a simple thing. That is not doable anymore.”
Another parent said:
“Me and my daughter used to go everywhere. But now, I don’t have nothing like, so we can’t do anything.”
One mother said:
“I’ve felt suicidal more times than I’ve had hot dinners and that’s no joke.”
That is a true testimony from someone suffering in Scotland now.
To me, it is offensive at a very fundamental level if the great achievements of the welfare state have been rolled back to the extent that people are suffering in this way. Not only is there the shaming need for people to go to food banks and prostrate themselves in front of authority figures to demonstrate that they need help, but we have also removed the social floor that was there for many people. We created the idea that there was a floor beneath which no one would fall and above which everyone could rise. That is how my family progressed, and how I was able to have opportunities that my parents did not have. To think that that has been reversed under this Government is offensive.
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that part of that has been the change from what used to be “social security”, to what is now called “welfare”? In the past, no matter whatever happened to someone, we knew that they would somehow be safe, but that has been removed. I served on a committee with the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) to consider the children’s future food inquiry. We took evidence from children about the hunger that they suffered from at school—I kept having to put my glasses on to hide that I was crying. That is ridiculous in a country such as this.
It is ridiculous. The scourge of things such as people having no recourse to public funds is a particularly horrific example of that. A couple of weeks ago a lady came to my surgery. She looked emaciated. I asked if she was all right, because she looked as if she was going to faint. I brought her in, sat her down, and we gave her a plate of shortbread. She scoffed it in front of us in a couple of minutes in a way that otherwise would have been impolite, but under the circumstances we were horrified that she could be so hungry that she was grabbing food in front of us. I could not believe that someone was in that situation because of having no recourse to public funds. She was destitute; she had left an abusive relationship with her child, and she was trying to find somewhere to shelter. There was no availability of homeless accommodation in Glasgow at that point. She was being helped by a women’s refuge charity, but it did not have long-term accommodation. That she was driven to that sort of desperation is just one example of the circumstances in which people find themselves.
The case of Alison in the report that I mentioned is typical. The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) mentioned the concept of social security as a system that would save everyone, and the change from that to a welfare system—it is almost like a return to the poor laws of the Victorian era, with the idea that this involves some sort of virtue and vice.
My constituency has seen the biggest loss of anywhere in Scotland resulting from the change from the disability living allowance to the personal independence payment—£1.9 million a year out of the pockets of my constituents, and behind that figure is a lot of pain. This is about how fragile people’s lives are, not just about immediate need. Most people’s finances are delicate, and one unexpected crisis in their life—a failed relationship or job, an unexpected cost because their central heating has failed, or whatever it might be—could push them into relying on welfare. The truly horrendous thing is when they get into that spiral. Alison says,
“I vowed I wouldn’t take out credit cards or loans. But you find you get gobbled up, you have to do it because there’s no other way”.
People end up in the debt spiral, compounded by this Government’s universal credit policies. Instead of focusing on the immediate need for cash and income and the ability to bridge finances, there is the initial loan, which creates a spiral of decline as people dig themselves into compounded debt. That is the biggest tragedy.
In the case of Alison, we can see the build-up of debts. The milestones are indicated in the report. She is a lone parent with two sons, both of whom have disabilities. Alison loses her personal independence payment. Her son’s DLA is downgraded. Alison loses the carer’s allowance. Her son attempts suicide. As we all too often see, after she went to her Member of Parliament for help, the PIP and the higher-rate DLA were both reinstated—so it was an injustice from the start. But where was the pain? The pain was that her son tried to take his own life.
That is someone in Dundee. I cannot believe that it is happening in 2019. This is what we are up against, and it is seen as socially acceptable. All of it has been clouded out and displaced by the squabbling over Brexit and the high-level stuff that we have been consumed by. Going into this election campaign, I think most of us want to get down to saying, “This is a choice between death and life for so many people in this country.”
That is what is on offer here. It is not about what flags are where, what borders are where or what is going on in the constitutional sense; it is about whether we can get money into people’s pockets quickly through political decisions made here and elsewhere in this country, to improve lives. That is the priority for us all, I think; let us hope we can achieve that as best we can and make those arguments out there.
There is a multifaceted approach. Many hon. Members have talked about different aspects of child poverty. It is fair to say that it mostly tracks decisions made at a UK Government level, because the primary driver of the social security system, the dynamic in this country, is the Department for Work and Pensions. That is the primary driver, and the behaviour of incomes will track the decisions made there.
I will point out that there is a big opportunity in Scotland now, with the changes in devolved policy. I welcome the measures that have been taken. There has been a divergence between Scotland and the rest of the UK in terms of poverty after housing costs, but there is an interesting aspect to that. The reality is that that happens because more people in poverty in Scotland live in the social rented sector than in the private rented sector, and the larger social rented sector has long been considered a key reason why poverty after housing costs is lower in Scotland than in the rest of the UK.
We can see why that would happen. It is all about income. The rents are lower in social housing because there is more opportunity to control them—but that is still not going far enough. My hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill mentioned house building; I do not want to get into the quibbles over it, because I find them a bit tedious, but I point out that the records have been fairly consistent. If we look at completions per year, it was 3,617 units per year over the eight years of the Labour-Lib Dem Government in Scotland under devolution. Since then, it has been 3,316 per year under the 12 years of the SNP Administration from 2007.
However, there has been a significant drop-off in the rate of completions since 2010-11, which we need to address. Let us work together on this, because there is an opportunity to recapitalise Scotland’s social housing capacity, which is a key driver of bringing down poverty. Not only must we do that, but we must focus on rent controls. I am very proud of the idea of a Mary Barbour Act. Putting rent controls on not only the social rented sector but the private rented sector is a huge opportunity to reduce the overall cost burden on families living on the breadline. That is a major impact and we can make it now. Those policies are devolved. We can have an impact on that front. We can also improve aspects of poverty and access to work through transport improvements; removing the costs of transport and commuting can help families. However, we must also utilise the great capacity of financial powers to top up and enhance welfare benefits wherever we can.
The introduction of certain benefits has been positive, but we are seeing some teething problems. We know that the Scottish child payment is generally a great thing—it is a good idea and I congratulate the Scottish Government on it—but we also know that 58,000 children face losing out on the £520-a-year benefit on their sixth birthday, because their low-income families will stop getting the payment.
I know that that is to do with the transfer of information and so on between the DWP and Social Security Scotland, but we need to get a grip of it quickly. We need better management and better collaboration between the two Governments to get that sorted out, to ensure that we can lift another 30,000 children out of poverty more rapidly. I hope that that can be achieved, and that we can really make some inroads on it.
We must also look at the aspect of childcare—I will finish on this issue. One of my constituents, who I went to school with, wrote to me and said:
“My second child arrived in April this year. He is a very healthy child who I hope will go on to great things when he is older. However for the moment he is only 6 months old and when he is 9 months old my wife is to return to work after 9 months on maternity leave.”
They are a typical working-class Glaswegian family, with only relatively modest incomes. His wife is currently receiving the bare minimum statutory maternity pay, so as a family they are struggling financially, and have been since their first child was born. He states that he is,
“extremely dissatisfied with this mediocre maternity pay amount in what is supposed to be 5th largest economy in the world”.
My constituent’s main issue is how this new 30 hours of free child care scheme is being applied. His argument is that it is essentially
“robbing Peter to pay Paul”,
as resources for nursery are being pulled from the baby stage, from nought to two years, and reallocated to the toddler stage at two years-plus. He goes on to say:
“For a long time this government have been woefully inept at providing sufficient support to families, who particularly during the 9 month to 3 years stage…where the mother is required to return back to work as state/employer benefits stop at this point. How this 30 hour free scheme is being applied is just the icing on the cake.”
My constituent’s argument is that we cannot continue to allow this gap of nearly two years to continue. As it stands, his boy cannot get a place in nursery, because the cheaper ones are full and cannot take more, and the ones that are available charge a hefty day rate of £50 a day. It is completely unfair, and certainly does not make work pay for his family, so he wants that looked at. Access to childcare liberates people to get to work as well, so that is a critically important point in tackling this, and it cuts across Government, so let us hope something can be done.
I will not take any more time, but I think we can see that the problem is multifaceted. I hope that all Governments can work in collaboration to solve this intractable problem in our society. We know it can be done through political action, political agency and political choice, so let us make it a priority in this election campaign.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) on securing this important debate. There is no doubt that he is a passionate campaigner on this issue, and he knows me well enough to know that I share his passion for tackling poverty in all its forms.
The hon. Gentleman said that there are too many children living in poverty. I agree entirely—in my view, one child in poverty is one child too many. It is absolutely a priority for me, as it is for this Government. As he will know, I have not been in this role for very long—and, who knows, in six weeks’ time I may not be a Member of Parliament, let alone a Work and Pensions Minister—but I stress that I have made this a priority from day one in the Department, and I have been looking at all sorts of options that we could take up to tackle child poverty.
Hon. Members across this Chamber will recognise that very few of the figures that cross my desk end with an “m”; they end with a “bn”. They tend to be very expensive measures indeed, requiring a fiscal event, but I hope that hon. Members will rest assured, knowing me as they do, that I have been exploring those options and making submissions to the Treasury accordingly.
A number of issues have been raised, and I am conscious that, as always with these debates, we have very little time to address them in the level of detail and granularity that I would like. However, I stress to colleagues that—subject to my being back here in six weeks’ time—as I have always said, my door is always open and I am happy to discuss these matters with a group or on an individual basis. The hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill raised topics including in-work poverty, universal credit, food insecurity and food banks, housing and temporary accommodation, and homelessness; I will try to address as many of those issues as possible in a very short period of time.
On the question of housing, I kindly ask the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill to make representations elsewhere. Although I have responsibility for the housing benefit budget, which is some £23.5 billion—with regard to his representations to me, he is largely pushing against an open door when he raises the need for more affordable housing and homes for social rent—I encourage him and hon. Members across the House to make such representations to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and to the Treasury, because in my view secure and stable housing plays an important part in tackling poverty at its root.
We also heard powerful contributions from the hon. Members for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), whom I have huge respect for and have worked with on a number of other issues. I take their representations very seriously indeed. I do not agree with every point that they made—they would be surprised if I did—but I thank them for the constructive nature of their contributions.
As the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill said, we all have the same objective: to tackle child poverty and wider poverty at its root causes. We do not want to see any children in poverty. We have different ideas about the journey and how to get there but, ultimately, we all want the same thing. I am absolutely determined to work as closely as I can with the Scottish Government, working hand in hand where we can and learning from each other about the different measures that we try, to ensure that we have the best approach to truly tackling child poverty. I will talk about that a little bit.
Delivering a sustainable, long-term solution to all forms of poverty remains a priority for me and the Government. Our welfare reforms are driven by our firm conviction that the benefits system must work with the tax system and the labour market to support employment and higher pay, so that everyone has the chance to succeed and to share in the benefits of a strong economy. Supporting employment is also key to ensuring better long-term outcomes for disadvantaged children, because we know that children in working households do better at every stage of their education.
We are proud, as a Government, of the progress that we have made. We now have a near record-breaking labour market, with more than 3.6 million more people in work across the UK compared with 2010. The unemployment rate has more than halved since 2010.
I will talk about in-work poverty, because that issue was raised. We take child poverty extremely seriously. I raise the additional 3.6 million people in work—around 1,000 per day since the Government came into office in 2010—because of the clear evidence that children in working households are not only less likely to grow up in poverty but have significantly better life chances.
To give the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw the statistics, a child living in a household where every adult is working is around five times less likely to be in relative poverty than a child in a household where nobody works, and children growing up in workless families are almost twice as likely as children in working families to fail at all stages of their education. It is important to note that 44,000 fewer children are in workless households in Scotland compared with 2010, and that child poverty in Scotland remained the same or decreased across all four main measures in the three years to 2017-18, compared with the three years to 2009-10.
It is important to stress that the Government believe that tackling poverty requires an approach that goes beyond providing a financial safety net through the Department for Work and Pensions. That requires a collective approach that addresses the root causes of poverty and disadvantage to improve long-term outcomes for children and families, which is why we have taken wider cross-Government action to support and to make a lasting difference to the lives of the most vulnerable, who often face complex employment barriers. That is people whose ability to work is, for example, frustrated by issues such as a disrupted education, a history of offending, mental health issues, or drug and alcohol abuse. That is 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.
It is not the case that we have just pushed people into low-paid and insecure, part-time work—I do not know whether that is the point the hon. Lady is making. However, it is important to stress that around three quarters of the growth in employment since 2010 has been in full-time work. We know, because I shared the statistics, that being in full-time work substantially reduces the risk of being in poverty. There is only around a 7% chance of a child being in relative poverty if both parents work full time, compared with 66% for two-parent families with only part-time work.
Several hon. Members raised universal credit, which I do not think I have time to touch on in the detail I would like. However, universal credit supports full-time work through smooth incentives to increase hours, a general expectation that lone parents and partners should work—unless caring for young children or a disabled person—and generous childcare subsidies. It is important to note that we have also gone much further to support working families than previous Governments.
I thank the Minister for giving way; I know he is short of time. He touched on universal credit. Will he commit to looking at the five-week wait and people having to take out loans, which pushes them further and deeper into persistent poverty? People’s ability to repay them is not considered, and families and children suffer tremendously as a result. Will he commit to taking that up with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions?
I look closely at all elements within my portfolio. Universal credit is probably the largest element of my portfolio, newly added in the most recent reshuffle. On the first assessment period, it is important to stress that it is not a loan but an advance of the first indicative award, and it is interest-free and repayable over a 12-month period. We are already going further, because that will go up to 16 months, and I am exploring ways in which we could potentially increase that further. At present, around 60% of people take that up. The issue the hon. Lady raises is often raised with me by a number of the stakeholders and organisations that the Department works closely with. I am looking at it, of course, but fundamentally we can have a system based either on advances or on arrears.
We now also have a two-week roll-on of housing benefit for those moving on to universal credit, and as of 2021 that will include a two-week run-on of income support, jobseeker’s allowance and employment support allowance. This month we are reducing the maximum level of deductions from 40% to 30%. We are listening and we do make changes, but those changes can only be made within fiscal events. Of course, as I mentioned at the beginning, it will come as no surprise to the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran to hear that I am looking at a number of measures ahead of the next fiscal event to improve universal credit, because we do listen to Members from across the House and to the stakeholders that feed into the Department.
I am conscious of the time, and I want the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill to have an opportunity to wind up the debate, so I will conclude. I reaffirm our view that the long-term approach that we are taking is the right one if we are to deliver lasting change. However, we are not complacent; this is an area of real focus for me and the Department. The Government believe that work provides economic independence, pride in having a job and improved wellbeing. I look forward to continuing to work with colleagues from across the House, the Scottish Government and other devolved Administrations and charities to tackle poverty in all its forms.
I thank everybody who has spoken, including my hon. Friends the Members for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield), for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) and for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) and the hon. Members for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Stirling (Stephen Kerr), and the Minister. I also thank the Library for the information that it supplied, as well as the Poverty Alliance, Shelter Scotland, Oxfam, all the food banks and, more importantly, all their volunteers. Finally, I thank all parents who do their best to feed and look after their children; I know that some of them starve themselves just to do that.
As I said at the beginning, we all care about our children. After all, they are the future adults who will, hopefully, care for us later in life. I thank all Members again. Hopefully, whoever returns to the House after the general election will pick up what we have said and, more importantly, will eradicate child poverty, not only in Scotland but across the UK.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered child poverty in Scotland.
Bus Passes: 1950s-born Women
[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered bus passes for 1950s women.
Thank you very much for chairing the debate, Sir Christopher. You and I have known each other a long time, and this is probably one of the last debates in which I will take part in the House of Commons. I thought that I might end my political activities by raising an issue that is very important to about 4 million women in this country. But I should make it clear right at the beginning of the debate that providing bus passes would not be a substitute for putting right the wrongs in relation to these women’s pensions; it would only ease the situation for them.
Everyone in this room will know of the tireless campaigners fighting for justice for the nearly 4 million women born in the 1950s who are affected by the pension changes. They are particularly active in Coventry, but are also active nationally, and I will take this chance to congratulate them on their work so far, because it has been a long, hard road for many of these women. Many have written to me, describing how helpful a bus pass would be to them. I recognise that every little helps, but a free bus pass would not be the solution to the issue as a whole, as I have already stated.
The pension changes were rushed through the House, and the impact of the legislation has been colossal. It gave those affected no time to plan for their retirement. Women who were expecting to retire in a few years began to wind down at work, working fewer days, or left their career entirely, knowing that they could afford to take time off, as they would soon be in receipt of their state pension—or so they thought.
I appreciate all the work that the hon. Gentleman has done on this issue; I have often been with him in the Chamber. He is making a very important point. Does he agree that the cost of providing bus passes would be negligible, but they would make a difference to a lot of WASPI women—Women Against State Pension Inequality? The reality, however, is that the Department for Work and Pensions needs to be investigated by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, because of its lack of adequate communication all those years ago, in the 1990s.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. As I understand it, a number of WASPI women or women born in the early 1950s have submitted complaints and given evidence to the parliamentary ombudsman, but we do not know the outcome of that yet; we will have to wait and see.
The state pension is not a benefit, or a lottery win that people get once they retire. The state pension is the return of money that people—in this case, women—have paid into the system throughout their working life. The worst-affected women have lost out on tens of thousands of pounds and will retire six years later than they expected.
Last month, the High Court was sympathetic to the 1950s women, but ultimately ruled that they had not been discriminated against. However, the pace at which the changes have taken place certainly puts them at a particular disadvantage compared with men. These women have already suffered considerable inequalities and, in some cases, sexism in the workplace. They would have entered the workplace in the 1960s and ’70s. At that time, women were openly discriminated against. They were refused promotions and refused adequate pay for skilled work. In some cases they were refused maternity rights, and in other cases those rights were non-existent. Those factors mean that many of these women are already at a financial disadvantage.
My hon. Friend is a true champion of this cause. Does he agree that it is a great irony that many of the women who are suffering hardship as a consequence of the pension inequality will themselves be working in organisations such as bus companies, when they should be benefiting from a free bus pass from them?
I fully agree. The factors that I have set out mean that many of these women are already at a financial disadvantage. The Conservatives’ changes to the state pension age only add to that.
The WASPI women have put up an excellent fight against the injustices, but the Government have refused to admit their mistakes or address the problem. The May Administration and now the Johnson Administration have refused to compensate these women for the money that they have lost out on. I note that the Prime Minister, when he was campaigning to be Prime Minister, acknowledged that there was an injustice there, and that it should be put right, but so far we have seen no action. Instead, we have a general election. It will be interesting to see what he does afterwards.
My hon. Friend is being very generous about interventions. He is making an excellent case. Does he agree that one of the biggest injustices was that this was supposed to be a gradual change, yet in reality it is a cliff edge? People either get the bus pass or they do not. Many people are having to wait five years for something that, if they had been born a few months earlier, they would have got automatically. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a problem?
It is a problem, but an additional point is that central Government could fund the bus passes and not leave that to local authorities. We all know that at the moment local authorities are cash-strapped, to say the least. I will not go down that road, but I emphasise that the Government should compensate local authorities for the bus passes.
My hon. Friend is making a very sound, thoughtful and definite call to Governments, of whatever hue, to do something to ameliorate these things now. Obviously, there are issues to do with misinformation and all the rest of it, but does my hon. Friend agree that one thing that this Government could seriously consider—there are precedents for this in other areas—is the proposal from the Opposition Benches to return eligibility for pension credit to the state pension age timetable of the Pensions Act 1995, but with the qualifying age continuing to increase to 66 by 2022? Hundreds of thousands of women would benefit from that offer. I am thinking of the WASPI people who have come to see me in my Blackpool constituency and who have been on low incomes or had to dial down their work to support an aged relative. Of course, eligibility for pension credit takes them into other areas of credit. That would be a modest but very significant improvement on their position.
I agree with my hon. Friend on those credits, but I think that what he refers to can only be an interim measure. We have to look at the longer term and putting the injustice right. Interim measures are all right, provided that they are not permanent. When they become permanent, we perpetuate the injustice, frankly.
That is why today I call on the Government to give these women the small compensation of free bus travel from the age at which they were meant to retire before the 2011 changes. Right now, bus passes are given to those in receipt of their state pension at the discretion of their local authority. I have just said that there should be adequate funding, and I once again draw hon. Members’ attention to that point.
The Government must provide the necessary funds to ensure that all 1950s women can enjoy a free bus pass. This concession is small, and by no means replaces the tens of thousands of pounds that 1950s women have lost. However, constituents have written to me to describe the benefits that it would bring them. Many of these women are now unemployed, living off savings or supported by their spouse—and that is not to mention the women who are widows and do not have a spouse to support them.
This is a really important issue for WASPI women. All we are asking for on their behalf is a bus pass. It seems to me that there are comments attacking the older generation now. People want to take their free TV licence off them, for example. The WASPI women are suffering financial hardship. These people have worked and paid taxes all their life. They do not ask for a lot, and I fully support the provision of free bus passes to the WASPI women.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s amazing contribution, and thank him for his tutelage. I wish him all the best in his retirement.
On the point about working-age women who will not get this benefit at the age when they expected to get their pension, many of those women, including in my constituency, still have to work, because they have no other option, even though they may work in manually intensive jobs and suffer from disabilities. They cannot walk great distances and they do not drive, so they rely on public transport, which is a cost to them. They have to work for extra years. Surely this would help them, and is better than letting them suffer further financial detriment while the fight for justice goes on.
I agree wholeheartedly. For women who are isolated, live on their own and do not have children, the bus pass is a means of communicating with the outside world. Without it, they find themselves trapped at home, friendless in some instances. People living on their own is a major issue in this country.
There are 8,000 WASPI women in Plymouth, but many doughty campaigners will not get a free bus pass, even if the Minister agrees to one, because they died before they received pension justice. A lot of WASPI women in Plymouth need medical attention, and public transport is their only way of accessing it. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister could do a good deal for the WASPI women in the general election by assuring us that they will get a free bus pass? That would be a step towards getting pension justice.
I agree. We could go a step further. I do not know if the Minister has any input on the Conservative manifesto, but if he has, my hon. Friend has just given him a good idea to put in it. Free travel around their towns and cities would allow 1950s women to save a great deal of money on travel while in the limbo period between their working life and the point at which they will receive their state pension.
There are many benefits to bus passes for pensioners. A bus pass combats isolation and tackles loneliness, as I have mentioned. The cost of childcare is so high that many 1950s women in Coventry South and across the nation have become daytime carers for their grandchildren, and in some instances they care for their spouse, too. A free bus pass would allow them to give their grandchildren meaningful and exciting days out. In my constituency, these women will benefit from taking the bus pass to medical appointments, as my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) just mentioned, to avoid astronomically high hospital car park charges. Car park charges are another big issue; they affect not only the WASPI women, but medical staff. At some hospitals, the staff have to pay their own car parking charges, which has an impact on their salary.
Everyone will benefit from giving the 1950s women free bus passes. Pensioners’ cash-spending power is a powerful tool in combatting the loss of high street stores and banks. The use of buses ensures that services remain in place and of a good standard. Public transport is important for tackling air pollution caused by cars.
In summary, I call on the Government to provide local authorities with the necessary funds to ensure that the 1950s women, who have been treated so badly, receive the small concession of a bus pass at the age at which they were due to retire before the 2011 changes. The Government do not seem interested in providing that. However, when the Minister replies, I am sure he will tell us that he is putting the idea in his manifesto. While the Government refuse to compensate the 1950s women, I hope that they will afford the 1950s women the small compensation of a bus pass. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
On behalf of all hon. Members, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on what is perhaps the last debate he will initiate in this House. He has been a faithful servant in this place since 1992. I have had the privilege of serving on Select Committees with him. I know he has also served on the Panel of Chairs. Along with other hon. Members, I wish you a very long, successful and happy retirement.
Thank you, Sir Christopher, for the chance to serve under your chairmanship. I echo your justifiably warm comments about the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham). It is a pleasure for me to make my first appearance as the newly created Minister for the Future of Transport, but it is also a real pleasure to pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman. In my 10 years here, I have seen the quality, calibre and tenacity of the representation that he has given to the people of Coventry South. I am aware that this may be his last debate. He has given 50 years of public service, including as a city councillor leading the council and as an MP since 1992. Whoever returns in December, this House will miss the hon. Gentleman for his contributions.
My constituency is affected by the pension changes. It defies the stereotype of Norfolk as the playground for the golden Range Rovers from Chelsea to go to the coast. Mid Norfolk is a low-income, largely blue-collar, rural constituency. I well appreciate and understand the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised, and the importance of concessionary fares on public transport and these pension reforms.
I want to set the scene by reminding everyone why these reforms were necessary. First, they reflected changes in average life expectancy. When the pension system was created, life expectancy was decades younger than today, when it is going up by about a year every decade. These are substantial changes to our workplaces and in the demography of our nation.
Changing the state pension age was a difficult but, in my view, necessary decision. It was necessary not least because we had to deal, in 2010, as a coalition Government, with the horrendous Budget deficit that we inherited. To remind those who are not familiar, the Government at the time were borrowing £1 of every £4 they were spending. Some very tough decisions had to be made. It is worth remembering that these changes were part of recognising some incredible and welcome changes in the workplace of modern Britain. Women now rightly enjoy—it is long overdue—the chance to fulfil careers based on equality in the workplace and to work long, healthy lives, and to enjoy the opportunities that have been dominated by men for too long. That is part of what the reforms were about. However, I totally accept, as I have with my constituents, that where there is a change or threshold in any benefit, concessionary travel or pension situation, there will be people who are caught at the margins or the cut-off point. That is what has happened in this case.
I would not be doing my job if I did not point out that women who reached the state pension age in 2016 will have received, on average, more state pension over their lifetime than women ever have before. Furthermore, if we had not equalised the state pension age, women would be expected to spend on average more than 40% of their adult lives in forced retirement. There are two sides to this coin.
On the suddenness of the change, although many women in my constituency were surprised in 2010-11—as I am sure they were in the hon. Gentleman’s—the changes have been coming. The Pensions Act 1995 included plans to increase the women’s state pension age from 60 to 65, to align with men. The Pensions Act 2011 moved the state pension age for both men and women to 66. As he signalled, the High Court ruled in favour of the Government in its judicial review ruling of 3 October.
There may well be an appeal, but I obviously cannot comment on it. I simply make the point that the appeal will be against the ruling in favour of the Government.
On concessionary travel, we all know that for many people the concessionary bus pass can be an absolute lifeline, providing access to work, public services, healthcare, education and, particularly in rural areas, to the very fabric of community and the fabric of active and healthy societies. That is why the Government continue to support concessionary bus travel to the tune of £1 billion a year through local authorities in the UK, to try and ensure that no older or disabled person in England is prevented from travelling by bus for reasons of cost alone. However, I accept that we must go further, and I will set out shortly what the Government will do.
As the Minister knows, one of the challenges with bus passes is that there is a bit of a postcode lottery: they vary between cities and rural areas. In the spirit of positivity that the Minister spoke about, will the Government make any proposals to ensure that people get the same level of bus pass across the piece, so that WASPI women in rural areas will not suffer more than they would if they lived in London?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very interesting point; will he drop me a line about it? As he knows, I am a champion for rural areas and tackling rural inequality, and I will be looking at what we need to do in our new bus package, which I will describe shortly, to ensure that rural areas do not suffer.
In April last year, we announced a change in the legislation to protect the concessionary travel scheme in its current form so that it can continue to provide free travel for eligible older and disabled people for years to come. I should point out that equalising the age difference between men and women removed the anomalous situation in which non-disabled citizens of working age received free bus passes.
To mitigate the effect of the state pension age changes on the people worst affected, Parliament has already legislated for a £1.1 billion compensation package, which reduced the proposed increase in state pension age for more than 450,000 of the hardest-hit men and women. That means that no woman will see her pension age change by more than 18 months relative to the 1995 Act timetable. I accept that that does not deal with all the issues that the hon. Member for Coventry South raised, but for me that is really important. Some of the constituents I have spoken to are among the most seriously affected, and the idea of the package is that it will help at least to substantially mitigate the impact on them.
In addition, the Government are committed to improving the outlook for older workers. We are helping many of the people who had planned to retire but now work, to get back into work, including by removing many of the barriers that they may face. To enable older people to work for longer, as many want to, we have reformed the legislation to remove the default retirement age, which means that people are no longer forced to retire at an arbitrary age. We have also extended the right to request flexible working to all with 26 weeks’ continuous employment, which means that people can propose and discuss a flexible working requirement to suit their needs.
Alongside those significant legislative reforms, we have been successfully challenging negative perceptions about older workers through a major programme, Fuller Working Lives, which is led by the Department for Work and Pensions. We have appointed Andy Briggs as the business champion for older workers, to spearhead the Government’s work to support employers in retaining, retraining and recruiting older workers, to actively promote the benefits of older workers to employers across England, and to influence them both strategically and with practical advice. I am not being pat when I point out that the hon. Member for Coventry South is a walking embodiment of the agility, impact and leadership that people can provide in their senior years. There are many people in this country who have a lot to give, in Parliament and in society, and we want to help and encourage them.
There is strong demand and competing claims for concessionary fares. There are many calls on the Government for extensions to the statutory concessionary bus travel scheme for important groups, including young people in search of work, jobseekers and carers, as well as those who are affected by the changes in the state pension age. Each of those groups may have a different and engaging case for access to cheaper travel, but if the Government are to protect the current scheme, which costs £1 billion a year, we must ensure that it is financially sustainable. With that in mind, I will shortly announce, as part of my reforms in my new role, a series of changes to the way in which we tackle demand-responsive bus travel in rural areas.
Concessionary travel legislation gives all local authorities in England the power to introduce local concessions in addition to their statutory obligations, so that authorities that have a particular problem can deal with it. I am delighted that that has happened in the west midlands, which includes the constituency of the hon. Member for Coventry South: the West Midlands Combined Authority, led by its excellent Mayor, Andy Street, has introduced a women’s concessionary travel scheme that gives free off-peak bus and tram travel to women who live in the west midlands and were born between March and November 1954. More than 9,000 women across the region are set to benefit. Lest anyone should think that I am being politically partial, let me say that a similar scheme has been put in place by Mayor Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester, and that schemes that offer free bus travel to residents aged 60 and over exist in London and Merseyside. Local leaders can, and in some cases do, put additional measures in place.
I am grateful that the Minister has set out the fact that that can happen, and that it is a good thing when it does. Has he considered carrying out a cost-benefit analysis, looking at the benefits to society from giving WASPI women the free bus pass that he so praises in the west midlands and in Manchester?
I am grateful for that excellent question. In my new role I am looking not just at that issue but at the costs and benefits of widening access to bus and public transport for people in areas where it can tackle disconnection and help to drive up productivity. In my constituency, and possibly in the hon. Gentleman’s, many communities are quite cut off and isolated from the very exciting areas that are creating jobs and have zero unemployment. Cambridge is 40 miles down the road from Mid Norfolk, but I have many constituents who cannot get there, so they cannot get those jobs. As part of my role, I am looking at the cost-benefit ratio for the Treasury of having better travel, better training and better skills.
The Government have committed to seriously transform bus services across the country for the first time in a generation. I therefore welcome, as I hope colleagues across the House will, the announcement of our £220 million package, “A better deal for bus users”. Whatever else one might think about politics in this country at the moment, I welcome the fact that we have a Mayor as Prime Minister—someone who not only gets buses, has designed them and paints them in his spare time, but deeply gets the importance of public transport and interconnected transport for modern connected places. That is, in no small part, why we are introducing our major bus reform, with £50 million to deliver Britain’s first all-electric-bus town or city; £30 million in extra bus funding, paid directly to local authorities to enable them to improve bus services and restore lost services; and £20 million to support demand-responsive services in rural and suburban areas.
On the point that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) raised a moment ago, as Minister for the Future of Transport I am working actively on whether we can take a more intelligent place-based approach. When we look at a county—Norfolk, in my case—or a city, instead of asking how best to spend our money on subsidising bus services, we should ask a different question: “How best can we help the people in this area who need help to get to work or to get access to public services?” I am absolutely sure—indeed, I have seen it working—that by using digitalisation or simple telephone demand systems, we can make it easier for people to log on and signal where they need to go the next day, and we can ensure that we provide for a mixed economy. Whether it is for two or three people in a car-share, 10 people in a minivan, or 20 or 30 people on a bus, we can do much better in using technology to provide smarter public and community-based travel and support services.
I genuinely thank the hon. Member for Coventry South for raising this important matter, for the chance for us all, at the end of this Parliament, to signal that we need to get this right, and for allowing me to highlight what the Government are doing to get it right. As this Parliament winds up, I congratulate him on his very, very distinguished parliamentary career.
Question put and agreed to.
Gujarati Community in the UK
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the contribution of the Gujarati community to the UK.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Sir Christopher. I am deeply grateful to the Chairman of Ways and Means for allowing the debate; I believe that the House of Commons has not debated the subject before, although the House of Lords has. I welcome the Minister to his place, congratulate him on his appointment and look forward to his speech. I also welcome hon. Members present, who probably have substantial Gujarati communities in their constituencies and will no doubt wish to participate.
The reality is that the Gujarati community in the UK is sizeable but at the moment we have a severe shortage of data to measure both the size of the community and the contribution that it makes. One of the asks that I have of my hon. Friend the Minister is whether we can start to compile some of that data in future, so that we can measure what the Gujarati community provide. It is important that we recognise their contribution. However, we can say without question that over about two and a half generations the Gujarati community have integrated fully into the host community.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate, on a subject that has so far been missing in the Commons debate structure. Does he agree that although we do not have much data, in our constituencies and our local communities we can identify Gujarati individuals, as well as the Gujarati community at large, contributing effectively in different spheres in our society, and that we should respect that?
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is the chair of the Indo-British all-party parliamentary group, for his intervention. As the chair of that group, he would naturally raise such a subject and I also know full well how much work he does in his constituency to integrate the various different communities, and I recognise what he has said.
The Gujarati community has integrated so well in Britain because of their religious/spiritual leanings and their ethos of hard work and networking across the community, which we should celebrate.
Most of the Gujaratis in the UK—not all, but most of them—are of Hindu origin and practice Hinduism. All of us who celebrated Diwali last Sunday know that it lasts from about 1 September to 31 January, given the celebrations that go on over that period, but of course last Sunday was the holy day. And we just celebrated the Hindu new year on Monday, so a new year gives us a new opportunity to celebrate what Gujaratis have done here. I wish all those who have been celebrating, “Noutan Varshna Abhinandan”, which is Gujarati for “happy new year”.
First, perhaps, we should consider the state of Gujarat. It is obviously a state in India, which is located on the western coast, near the Arabian sea and bordering the south- eastern tip of Pakistan. It is comprised of 33 districts, it covers just under 76,000 square miles, and its population is approximately 69 million people.
The state, as we know it now, came into being in 1960, when the state of Bombay was revised, and then divided into Gujarat and Maharashtra. So it is a relatively young state in India. The capital city is Gandhinagar. The city of Ahmedabad, which is also in the state, is clearly one of the economic powerhouses of India right now. It is a major population centre and, of course, among the most crucial textile hubs in India.
Figures from the relevant Indian ministry suggest that Gujarat produces 7.69% of the entire GDP of India, so that Gujarat is ranked fifth of the 33 states and union territories of India in that regard. In terms of religious breakdown, which I mentioned earlier, the latest figures show that about 89% of the population are Hindu, 9% are Muslim, 1% follow Jainism, 0.5% follow Christianity, 0.2% follow Sikhism and 0.1% follow Buddhism.
It is fair to say that when Gujarat was created as a state, it was very run-down; in fact, it was a desert. It did not have the economic power that it now has. In fact, it is now recognised as being the economic powerhouse of India, not least because its chief minister between 2001 and 2014 was none other than Narendra Modi, who went on to become the Prime Minister of India and is now delivering for the whole of India what he delivered previously for the state of Gujarat. Under Modi’s premiership in Gujarat, the finances and wellbeing of the state were rapidly improved, in terms of the economy, the lifestyle enjoyed by its citizens and the other indicators that show Gujarat is a vibrant state. And clearly he is doing the same thing for India as a whole.
Most of the Gujaratis in the UK came here in the 1970s; there were Gujaratis who came here before that, but in general Gujaratis came here from east Africa in the 1970s. That started when Idi Amin became dictator in Uganda. Although the Gujarati community in Uganda were delivering the economic benefits of the Gujarati people to the country, Amin took against them. That was because, as a despot, he persecuted ethnic, religious and political groups with whom he did not agree. He deliberately went after the Asian and European communities in Uganda, and approximately 80,000 Asians who had come to Uganda, who were mainly Gujaratis, became the prime target of his blitz on minorities.
Of those 80,000, around 30,000 moved to the UK. I am very proud of the fact that when Idi Amin decided to evict the Gujaratis and other Indians from Uganda, it was Ted Heath, a Conservative Prime Minister, who took those people in and welcomed them. At the same time, Indira Gandhi, who was the Prime Minister of India, refused to take them back. I think that demonstrates how this country has always welcomed immigrants who will participate fully in our country.
Nevertheless, we should remember how some in Britain welcomed those people who came here. In particular, I think of Leicester City Council, which chose to put adverts in the Ugandan newspapers, saying, “Please don’t come to Leicester”. The result is that the Gujarati population now in Leicester is about 15,000, so that advertising was clearly not very effective. And good on the Gujaratis who went there, despite what they were being told.
I was at school when the first of those people arrived and I remember that most of those I met were—I have to say—a bit disorientated. They arrived in snow, which they were not used to. However, they had better English than we had, they were better educated than we were and they were very smart. But they were bewildered. None the less, many of those people I met then are still my friends today. That demonstrates how they came in, participated in the work of the UK and moved ahead straightaway.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that the decision by Idi Amin was certainly his country’s loss and our country’s gain? At the time, people would often criticise and even abuse Gujaratis for being shop owners. However, the reality is that they not only contributed to the economy, looked after their families and paid taxes, but had a significant impact on the rest of society, by bringing about the changes to the trading laws—particularly the Sunday trading laws—that we all now enjoy.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Remember, when these people were expelled from Uganda, they were told to leave everything behind; all they had was literally what they could carry and about £50 in their pockets. They were not coming here with riches and they were not necessarily able to enjoy the fruits of their labour in Uganda. Equally, this movement of people happened not only in Uganda but in Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia and other parts of east Africa, where people recognised that such treatment was going to happen.
When Gujaratis arrived here, the host communities were not always welcoming; I have already mentioned Leicester. However—this demonstrates one of the great characteristics of Gujaratis—they spotted an opportunity. If people remember, back in the 1970s our shops would open at 9 am, they would shut at 5 pm or 6 pm, they would close early on Wednesdays, and they were certainly not open on Sundays. Those Gujaratis clearly saw that there was an opportunity, and they went in and bought those shops, borrowing money to do so, and they ran them from about 6 am until 11 pm. They worked hard and they saved money. They wanted to save that money so that their children would have a better life than they had, which is another of the great characteristics of this community, which we have in our presence and do not recognise enough.
That work also meant that the Gujarati community very quickly got to learn the language. If they were not abreast of English already, they certainly came up to speed quickly. That meant that they could provide, as an extended family, a home for their brothers, sisters, wives, children and so on within one home and continue that process. I am glad that the process continues to this day. One of the key characteristics of the Gujarati community is their extended family ties.
I will go through what I consider to be some of the great characteristics of the Gujarati community. They believe in hard work and effort. In other words, they do not rely on state benefits; they get on with the hard work, earn their money and then use it for their families and communities. They believe in enterprise and free-market thinking. It does not get much more free-market than taking over a corner shop and turning it into an outrageous success, which has happened for a number of UK businesses.
I mentioned integration. Gujaratis have ultimate respect for authority, as we can see from their obedience to the rule of the law. According to the latest statistics, released at the end of March 2018, only 343 Hindus were in prison—Gujaratis are predominantly Hindus—out of a total prison population of nearly 83,000. That demonstrates that Gujaratis are far more likely to be victims of crime than criminals. It is their obedience to the law that often means that their contribution to the community goes unnoticed.
Gujaratis also have a great habit of looking after mum and dad. Rather than putting them in a home or saying, “Sorry, we can’t cope,” they will look after them in their own home and ensure that they are looked after in their old age. The whole of society can learn from that. Around 37% of my constituents are from the Gujarati community. Often when I am going about, particularly during the daytime, the grandparents will be looking after the children while mum and dad are at work. That is a great symbol of the extended family and how it helps mums, dad, grandparents and children to stay together as one big family.
I mentioned the desire for education and how important that is. It is very clear that where there are Gujarati families the standard of education in schools shoots up, because they are demanding. They insist that their children get the best possible education. Equally, where Hindu and other faith schools have been set up, demands for improved education are made.
The Gujarati community add value to our community at large, and I am delighted that they have done so, but often they do not speak up enough. My one criticism is whether they have learned the lessons from their forefathers and foremothers of what happened in east Africa, where their positions were taken for granted and ignored. I often say, “You must speak up and speak out for the contribution that you make, and make sure that your hard work achieves recognition.”
We should also pay tribute to the number of Hindu temples—mandirs—that have been created by the Gujarati community in the UK. At the last count, there were some 150 mandirs in the UK. I am pleased that in my short time in politics I not only was able to attend the foundation stone laying of Neasden temple, but enabled the community to buy the site for the Ealing Road temple. I was present at the inauguration of both those fantastic UK mandirs. I have also been to many other mandirs that have been set up over the past 30 years. It is important to recognise that the mandir is not just a place of worship, but a community facility where the whole community come together to learn about religion and to celebrate it.
There are enormous numbers of Hindu festivals throughout the year—hon. Members will know that because we get invited to them, and we celebrate with the community. It is important that during those times the community is warm and welcoming, and brings people in. That is a message for all religions across the country. If they are welcoming, people will understand their religion, and that will end the myths that often build up about particular religions.
The hon. Gentleman is making some excellent points. I do not know whether he has yet had the pleasure of coming to the Glasgow Hindu mandir, which recently had a celebration that epitomised what he was saying. Worshippers were celebrating in Kelvingrove Park, with the bands and drums, really bringing people in to enjoy it and embrace it. Does he welcome that kind of community activity?
I do. The hon. Lady may not know that there is a bagpipe band that celebrates and is normally present at the Kingsbury mandir. It comes to a range of functions. In fact, I was with the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) only recently where that band led the parade.
It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman has raised one aspect of the community. The community also includes very skilled craftsmen and women who bring their professions into better repute. As he said, there is a focus on education, and families encourage their children to go into professions such as accountancy, medicine and the law. However, the community are not only in Wembley or Harrow; the hon. Gentleman has visited temples in my constituency to see the services that they provide and the community centres that they have set up. Those temples are not only for worshiping deities; they have an integration aspect, with different cultures brought together to provide services to society—social services. He mentioned some of those services, but does he agree that temples provide other social services too?
I do. It is clear that the first generation had to do the difficult jobs of taking on the economy and building up their family economies. Subsequently, all the families I have come across want their sons and daughters to be doctors, dentists, accountants or lawyers. They want their children to be professionals and to go on and succeed in life—and, in the main, they do. Gujaratis have become some of the most successful businesspeople across the United Kingdom, and some of the most important professionals, be it in our national health service or in other guises.
I will also mention the Gujarati community’s contribution to charity. All the mandirs and community centres are created through voluntary contributions. If they borrow money, they pay it back, but they do not depend on taxpayer money for the creation of any of those centres. That is another thing for which we can be grateful to the Gujarati community. They do not demand money and they do not expect it, but, boy oh boy, do they manage to raise it in their communities.
Let me end with a couple of questions for the Minister. I mentioned that we need a clear way to capture data to measure the immense contribution made not only by the Guajarati community, but by others. There have been debates in this place on the Sikh community and others, and we must ensure that we capture the data in an appropriate way. Several of us have campaigned to get Gujarati as a language retained on the national curriculum for those people who want it. Having that data enables us to demonstrate the importance of having that language in our schools, if people want to raise that point. Equally, retaining Gujarati as an A-level and GCSE qualification is important to that process.
The Gujarati community can be used as a prime example of how a community can come to this country and integrate. We should highlight the contribution it has made, possibly to show other communities that this is the way that they can not only come to this country and make a success of it, but organise appropriately; to have their own religion and celebrate their culture, but still integrate within the host community. The Gujarati community is a shining example to all communities that they can do so. In his reply, could the Minister shed some light on how we can use their example as a means of saying to different communities who come to this country and make it their home that this is an ideal way of doing so, and how we can celebrate what those people have done and the contribution they make?
I am sure it will not last beyond today.
On behalf of the Gujarati community that I am proud to represent, I wanted to add to the list of requests made of the Minister. The first is about flight links to Gujarat. There is a direct flight from Heathrow to Gujarat, but given the scale of the travel needs of Gujaratis in the UK—as I understand it, we are the third largest home for the Gujarati diaspora worldwide—anything that the UK Government could do, perhaps on the back of discussions about the third runway, to encourage more direct flights to Gujarat would be extremely helpful to many of my constituents.
Turning to the issue of visas, many of my constituents still experience difficulties helping their relatives who want to visit, particularly at Diwali. Perhaps the consulate in Ahmedabad could offer advice sessions to the family members of our Gujarati community about what they need to do to have a decent chance of their applications being processed. The last figures I saw suggested that over 60,000 applications for visas from India were being turned down, and given the size of the Gujarati community, I suspect that many of those—the vast bulk of them— are from people hoping to come from Gujarat to visit relatives here.
The hon. Member for Harrow East mentioned the teaching of Gujarati. It is time that we considered providing some funding, through Government or lottery sources, to support the many Saturday schools that are key for those children who take Gujarati at GCSE and, crucially, A-level; relatively speaking, A-level Gujarati has a very small number of applicants. Many of the mandirs that the hon. Gentleman mentioned facilitate those Saturday schools at considerable expense, but other community organisations often have to provide the teaching, and in these hard times, it is increasingly expensive to provide that teaching and book the facilities for it.
The last of my main asks is this: I do not understand why there are not more trade missions to Gujarat, to take advantage of our substantial business links with it. Gujarat is the economic powerhouse of India, and we should not be frightened of turning to the talents of British Gujaratis to unlock further business opportunities for our country in Gujarat.
I was disappointed at the Government’s unwillingness to support the campaign for Diwali, and indeed Eid, to be recognised as a national holiday. If the Government are not willing to reconsider their opposition to making those days public holidays, they should, at the very least, have conversations with business organisations to encourage businesses to be sympathetic to requests for time off on those days. Those are the most important spiritual days for the Gujarati community, so that would be extremely helpful. As the Minister may know, the Jains and Zoroastrians who form part of the Gujarati community in the UK do not get proper recognition on the census. Both have been running campaigns to get those faiths on to the 2021 census, so that their religion can be properly respected, and it would be good if the Minister would use his influence to unlock a more common- sense response from the Office for National Statistics.
I view the Gujaratis in my community through the businesses and services that they provide, beginning with the garage directly opposite my office, which is run by the Halai family, who came over from east Africa but had a home in the Kutch area of Gujarat. They have provided jobs to people in my constituency and provide a much-appreciated service through their garage. They are active in the Shree Kutch Leva Patel Community, which does so much in north-west London; I wish its premises were based in my constituency, but sadly, they are in Northolt. The SKLPC has secured planning permission for a fantastic new India Gardens project, and I wish its trustees well in turning their vision into a reality.
Also linked to SKLPC are the Vekaria family, who run the Vascroft business—contractors that build temples, hotels and many other things. They employ huge numbers of people and are well known in the building community. That business was set up by two brothers from east Africa, but again with huge links to Gujarat, in January 1977. It is a family business still; it has great values, and it is based in Park Royal. All us Members from north-west London have constituents who work for Vascroft.
There is also Sandip Ruparelia, who has links to the International Siddhashram Shakti Centre in Harrow—which, I suppose, is my home temple in my constituency—and to the ISKCON Foundation at Bhaktivedanta Manor. His family, too, was originally based in Tanzania, but had strong links to Gujarat. He arrived in the UK in March 1980, and now runs a huge business, providing banqueting facilities among other things. Perhaps crucially, in the context of the debate about the future of our public services that we will have over the course of the next six weeks, he also runs an important care home service, providing much-valued services to the elderly in my constituency and beyond. He employs 2,500 staff and generates substantial tax revenues for our economy. He is another example of a member of the Gujarati community who recognises his responsibilities to the country in which he lives, but has also kept his links to Gujarat and is hugely proud of them.
The Dhamecha family are part of the Lohana community. Again, they have strong links to Gujarat and have helped the Lohana community in the UK, which is part of the Gujarati diaspora, to set up two centres, both of which, I am pleased to say, are in my constituency. That is much appreciated. Pradip Dhamecha and his family run a huge cash and carry business, which generates substantial tax revenues for the UK economy.
The Solanki family are a north-west London Gujarati family who originally came from east Africa. The father, Mr Solanki, came over in 1964. They run the Asian Media Group. The business is now run by the second generation, with a third generation of Gujaratis actively involved in taking that successful media business forward. All the individuals I have referenced are fiercely proud of their Hindu faith and have links to many of the mandirs, be they part of the Swaminarayan family or other temples in the area.
I also acknowledge the contribution of Gujarati Muslims in my constituency. The superb Dr Merali, a local GP and entrepreneur, is a trustee of the Mahfil Ali mosque in north Harrow. He provides hugely important public services as a GP and through his work with nurseries. He is also engaged with a series of other fundraising projects to support those in need in the UK and back home in Gujarat.
I am privileged to host the headquarters of the Zoroastrian community in the UK in Rayners Lane in my constituency. It is hugely proud of its links to Gujarat, and the fact that the first MP from an ethnic minority background was a Gujarati Parsi. Again, we should acknowledge the huge contribution that the Zoroastrians have made, as part of the Gujarati community, to life in the UK.
All those Gujaratis, in different ways, support my seven reasonable asks of the Government, which I hope the Minister will take seriously in his response.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) in the warmest terms on securing the first ever debate in the Commons about the role of Gujaratis. The story of the Gujarati community in Britain is inspirational. He has already mentioned the Gujaratis’ incredible get-up-and-go enterprising qualities. Many of them, particularly in my constituency, fled here from the murderous Idi Amin with nothing but the shirts on their backs, and they have built incredible businesses and transformed the local economy. If I were to name all of them in my constituency, we would be here for days.
The Gujaratis have made an incredible social contribution to our area—they are social entrepreneurs. As part of the wider Indian community in my constituency, they run countless voluntary groups, community groups and charities, with a particular emphasis on helping and caring for older people. It is always wonderful, when I go to Gujarati homes, to see the grandma and grandpa seated with great respect at the end of the table. That is a wonderful part of the culture that we could all learn from.
The Gujarati community is a patriotic community that has become integrated and part of the great tapestry of this country. I enjoy the cultural contribution that it has made to my constituency; there have been huge Diwali celebrations in recent weeks in Leicestershire. I particularly enjoyed dancing at the Navratri celebrations at Gartree High School in my constituency. As hon. Members might imagine, I am a terrible dancer, but it is a warm and forgiving community, so it was wonderful to be there.
I pay tribute to the Surrey Hindu Cultural Association, which is based in Woking. It is not a huge community, but it puts on the most amazing Diwali festival every year, for which all the citizens of Woking are grateful. That also takes place across many other constituencies, and we pay tribute to the community for that.
That is extremely nice to hear.
What more can we do? I am always working to make sure that everybody is looked after in our community, which is one reason I support drives to get more tissue and blood donations, which we are desperately short of, from Gujarati and other Indian communities. I also work to improve community life and relationships between the different communities in my constituency, which is why I am pressing my local councils to try to find space for a Hindu community centre. We have lots of churches, a great mosque and a wonderful gurdwara, but people still have to go into the city to go to a temple. I would love to find something to house all those wonderful voluntary groups in my constituency.
To summarise, the story of the Gujaratis in Britain is a story of enterprise, strong family life, charity and strong voluntary commitments. It is a story about a group of patriotic people who have come to this great country and put down deep roots.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas), it is unusual for me to agree with the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), but I thank him for securing this timely debate.
I have a small, minority Gujarati community in my constituency, predominantly of Muslim heritage. I take this opportunity to acknowledge the contribution of the Gujarati community to my constituency, and to associate myself with the comments about the community’s contribution, regardless of faith, to Great Britain. As the hon. Gentleman said, there are lots of inspirational stories about the community from across the country, and it is no different in Bradford West. The community makes up almost half the Indian community by size; it is diverse in religious belief, but united by language, heritage and history.
Many of the Gujarati community came to the UK as migrants from not just India but east Africa. Some were tragically forced out of countries such as Uganda by the likes of Idi Amin. Many overcame struggles and challenges on their journey to the UK, as well as the racism that was often faced by first-generation Gujaratis on their arrival, to become leaders in our community. Many hon. Members have mentioned the huge economic contribution that the community makes. Its long history in trading was transformed into entrepreneurial efforts, as we have heard. There was a revolution in the way that Gujaratis turned corner shops into empires, and built on that success to become business leaders in the UK.
Second and third-generation Gujaratis treat our ill in hospitals, teach our young people in schools and work at the highest levels of the public and private sectors, which shows just how important a contribution the community makes to the UK. Whether Hindus, Sikhs, Khojas, Ismailis, Dawoodi Bohras or Sunnis, they have often been at the forefront of charitable work across the UK, especially to support those most in need in the cold winter months.
Leadership and the fight against struggles are attributes woven into the rich history of Gujarati communities. Two of the most prominent leaders who fought British colonialism in India—Muhammed Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan, and Mahatma Gandhi—have roots connected to Gujarat.
Gujaratis in the UK have held firmly to the lessons of standing up to injustice. One of the best examples of that is from my aunties in the Gujarati community, Jayaben Desai and Yasu Patel, also known as the “strikers in saris”. In 1976, in the face of inequality, poor working conditions and low wages at the Grunwick film processing factory, they took to the streets. When even those who were meant to be supporting their cause had abandoned them, they led a campaign joined by almost 20,000 people.
Jayaben Desai quit her post in the factory in solidarity with her sacked colleague. As she left—I love this bit—the line manager compared her and her colleagues with chattering monkeys. She replied, “What you are running here is not a factory; it is a zoo. But in a zoo there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips; others are lions who can bite your head off. We are the lions, Mr Manager.”
Like those lions, many of us have fought within the Labour movement to make the Labour party the vehicle of change that we see today. I want to show my gratitude to the Gujarati community, because their contribution to the UK makes it a better place for all across this great nation. I particularly thank the Khalifa Centre, which always welcomes me, and the communities in the Quba mosque in my constituency for their contribution to not just business, but faith, humanity and wider society. We are better for it.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Christopher. I pay huge tribute to the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for again bringing us a debate that allows us to think about the many cultures that bring us together as a society, and about their contribution and the special place that each of them has. I thank him very much for his efforts to do that. He set out very well the contribution that the Gujarati community have made and the challenges they have faced.
It was also good to hear from the hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas)—we are stuck between Harrow East and Harrow West in this debate—and the hon. Member for Harborough (Neil O'Brien), who spoke about the Gujarati community’s social and economic contribution. We had a beautiful contribution from the hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah), who spoke so nicely and powerfully about lions of the women’s movement in her part of the world—it was a very interesting and profound story of the contribution that women have made, because that is often not recognised well enough among the good contribution made by the Gujarati community. She also reminded us of their mixed Muslim and Hindu heritage.
Gujaratis are a small but significant part of the communities in Scotland. The 2011 census showed that there were only 878 Gujarati speakers in Scotland, but we value each and every one of them. Some perhaps did not complete the census last time—when we get the new census, it will be interesting to see whether that has changed and whether there are issues of language, as other hon. Members mentioned, and whether there are issues where we have to support the community more to ensure that the younger and older generations do not lose their links with their past and to their original countries of origin, be it east India or parts of Africa from which they fled in the 1970s or came earlier in the 1950s and 1960s, because they are incredibly important in allowing those communities to tell their own stories of where they have come from.
The Gujarati people have made an invaluable contribution to life in Scotland and the UK. We must remember, as the hon. Member for Harrow East mentioned, the challenges that the community faced in coming here. The Gujaratis came at a time when the UK economy was faltering and provided a significant boost to the economy. It certainly undermines any myth that the UK was doing them a favour by allowing them to come here. In fact, it is the other way around—the Gujarati community, and the many communities that make up the UK, have actually done us a huge honour and favour by choosing this country as their home, or by coming here if they had to. We welcome them and say that this is their home. We look forward to future generations building on the great success that the original generation had made.
The hon. Member for Harrow West mentioned visas, which are a huge issue in my constituency. I have many constituents who struggle to get visitor visas, spousal visas or visas to stay if they have come to study. It is a huge issue, and I urge the Minister to look in more detail at the impact that has on community relations and on the way Britain is perceived in the world. Although Scotland has no choice about our immigration system, we are bound by it. We are done down by it, because we cannot welcome people as we would want to. The hostile environment is a huge issue for many of my constituents, who turn up at my constituency surgeries in tears week in, week out, because they cannot get their granny to come and visit, or they cannot have family members come and stay for a while so that they can show off the place they now call home and say, “This is Scotland; come and visit.” It is a huge disappointment every time that happens.
The hon. Member for Harrow West also mentioned the important links to Gujarat and the importance of having flights and facilitating travel the other way as well. As I mentioned in my intervention, the wider Indian community in my Glasgow constituency is growing and vibrant. They are very keen to do things such as have cricket contests in the west end. They had me out playing cricket, which was terrible—I really should not do that, because I am not very good at it. They were very encouraging of that. They had women’s and men’s teams, and they had all kinds of people involved. It is really positive on the whole, and it is good to see such a vibrant community.
I particularly want to mention Piush Patel of the Gujarati Society of Glasgow, which is a non-profit organisation run entirely by volunteers. There was originally a Gujarati Society in the 1970s, but that committee retired and the new generation have picked it up. They have held a Dandiya celebration for the past seven years, and Navratri is one of their biggest festivals. They said that, during the nine days of Navratri, each night was celebrated with prayers and dancing. Their Facebook page has pictures showing some of those celebrations, which look like a lot of fun. I hope to join them at some point soon, if we are not going to be here so much. The committee has been holding such events and has had a huge turnout. Despite it being a small community, they have sold out, with 250 to 300 tickets for each night when they run the event. They could probably get more people in if they had a bigger hall in which to hold the events.
The influx and number of Gujaratis in Scotland is significant, and they feel as though more people are coming and joining the community. They feel that they have a huge contribution to make, and that having these celebrations is also a good way to reach out to teach people about Gujarati culture, the festivals and, of course, to enjoy the food when they come together.
I welcome the debate that the hon. Member for Harrow East has introduced, and I hope that the Minister will pick up on some of the concerns that have been raised.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing this really important debate. I also thank him for giving me one last opportunity to respond to a debate from Labour’s Front Bench.
It is really a pleasure to speak to the importance of recognising the contribution that the Gujarati community makes to the UK. I had an opportunity to see this for myself last year when I visited the community of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma). We had an absolutely wonderful experience, and I thank him and his constituents again for that. I thank all hon. Members who have spoken in the debate, including my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford West (Naz Shah), for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) and for Ealing, Southall. They spoke so passionately on behalf of their Gujarati constituents.
As has been said, our country and Gujarat state in India have close historical connections. Almost half of the Indian community who now live in the UK are from Gujarat—a population of around 600,000. As we have heard, the journey to the UK for many Gujarati families has not, historically, always been easy or direct. Some Gujaratis came directly from India in the 1950s and 1960s, but most came from east Africa in the 1970s and 1980s, as a response to the terrible events that took place in Uganda and their expulsion. They came here for a better and safer way of life. It is interesting that they settled in a number of places of opportunity in the UK: Leicester, Coventry—the midlands—northern textile towns and here in Greater London.
It is hugely important to recognise the contribution that the Gujarati community has made to the UK in all manners of life—cultural, social and economic. Although the community is diverse and vibrant, with many different traditions and faith backgrounds, including Hindus, Muslims and Jains, they have brought great diversity to our own culture in the realms of music, festivals, dance, quizzing, dress and architecture. Autumn festivals such as Navaratri, which have just passed, bring vibrancy and vigour to our communities, and festivals such as Diwali, which many in the Gujarati community take part in, have become a staple in the British calendar. Gujarati cuisine, with its fantastic use of spices and range of vegetarian dishes, has enriched the shops of many UK high streets.
Buildings such as the Neasden temple—Europe’s first traditional Hindu stone temple, painstakingly carved in Gujarat by more than 1,000 dedicated craftsmen and built by a team of international volunteers in London—have brought a magnificent diversity, too, to our architecture. They have also brought much to our economy and industry and, as has been said, they are well known for their entrepreneurial spirit.
I have heard it said many times that Gujaratis have contributed greatly to the revolution of the British corner shop. That entrepreneurial success is even more commendable when one considers the often severe racism that many migrant communities faced in the 1970s and ’80s. The hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) made that point well.
At a local level, Gujarati mosque and Hindu temple networks continue to contribute to the UK’s charitable sector. Gujaratis and people of Gujarati descent continue to achieve great success in all manner of industries, from film and television to sports and politics. Picking just a few prominent people of Gujarati descent in the UK highlights the great breadth of the impact that they have had. They include: Jayaben Desai, who, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West said, led the strikes in the 1970s against the working conditions of south Asian women in the Grunwick factory, and was chosen for the “Woman’s Hour” power list in 2016; the actor Dev Patel; the cricketer Sameer Patel; and, of course, people here and in the House of Lords with specialisms in political theory and economics. We are very well served. It is paramount that we recognise the unique and special contribution that the Gujarati community makes to this country.
In concluding, I want to raise some quick points with the Minister. We clearly need more information and data about the community, and much better documentation of its positive impact and huge contribution to this country. We also need to solve some of the problems that Gujaratis face in travelling and getting visas for their families.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. In particular, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for securing the debate and giving me the opportunity to reflect on the significant social, economic, political and cultural contribution made by the Gujarati community in the United Kingdom. Nobody in this House has been a more tireless advocate for the Gujarati community than him. It takes only a visit to his office to see the accolades and gifts of thanks from the community in acknowledgement of his hard work on their behalf in his near decade as a Member of Parliament. I offer him my sincere thanks.
I want to take this opportunity to send my best wishes to everyone who celebrated Diwali on Sunday. The festival of light is a special time for all to come together, to share gifts, food and memories, and to draw confidence from the knowledge that, ultimately, good will triumph over evil. That is a message for all time, and Diwali’s enduring values of duty and service resonate with people of all faiths and none.
It is a huge privilege to represent the Government in this debate. There has been such consensus about the issues facing the community and its contribution to British society. It has been fascinating to learn so much from hon. Members. The Gujarati community is renowned for possessing some of the most prized qualities in British society: a formidable work ethic, a strong sense of charity and an unbreakable bond of community. I am delighted to be celebrating its great achievements and contributions to our country.
The Gujarati community has had a long history with Britain, dating back to the 17th century. Trade between Britain and the Gujarat region stretches back centuries, and I am sure it will continue to flourish and strengthen in the decades ahead. The Gujarati community is also responsible for a phenomenal degree of trade within the United Kingdom. Throughout the country, the Gujarati community can be found running businesses at all levels, from hotels to tech start-ups and international conglomerates, but it is at the most local level that the Gujarati community has had its biggest effect on UK business, through many thousands of local shop owners. I remember from my time working in retail, from leaving school to coming to this House, the phenomenal impact that that famous work ethic had on changing opening hours around consumer need in many retail businesses. It helped to transform a quite old-fashioned set of retail laws in this country forever.
Away from the world of numbers and money, it is important to acknowledge the community’s impact on injecting colour and vibrancy into our country. Consider how much duller our country would be without the kind of celebrations that we have seen in recent weeks at Diwali, or the festival of colour. The Gujarati community has helped to transform our social lives and our community through fashion, music and, predominantly, as the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) said, food. There are 10,000 restaurants in England and Wales alone that serve Indian and Gujarati food. That accounts for two thirds of all the dining experiences in the United Kingdom, so it is hugely important to acknowledge that contribution. I agree with what the hon. Lady said about vegan and vegetarian food. The community has injected some spice and diversity into food in this country.
It is important to acknowledge the immense contribution of the Gujarati community, which goes far beyond its cultural flair and entrepreneurial spirit, and extends to the world of charity, as a number of hon. Members have acknowledged. The Shree Prajapati Association is a charity that grew up in east Africa, and when its members were forced to flee because of political oppression, it came to the UK and was re-established here. It now has 13 branches that support causes in India, as well as UK charities such as Breast Cancer Now and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. It is strongly dependent on the amazing support of the Gujarati community in Britain. Sangaam, a charity in north London that many Members will be familiar with, is dedicated to supporting Gujaratis and non-Gujaratis alike with issues such as domestic violence, and it provides legal advice and counselling. Some 6,000 people went through its doors last year alone.
It is also important to acknowledge that the impact of this community is felt not just at a social level. Some individuals have changed our way of life, and arguably even our world. The towering figure in UK-Gujarati history is, of course, Mahatma Gandhi—a man who employed non-violent resistance to lead the successful campaign for India’s independence, and who has been held up as a role model for civil rights leaders.