Tuesday 5 November 2019
[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
Retail Crime Prevention
I beg to move,
That this House has considered prevention of retail crime.
Welcome to the Chair, Mr Betts, for the final day of activity in this Parliament. I wanted to raise the issue of retail crime today because it is still an important one that the House needs to consider. I shall discuss a number of matters that I hope will give the Minister food for thought but also provoke responses on some of the key issues that hon. Members collectively have raised in the House during the past couple of years.
I am raising retail crime because it is an important issue—indeed, a key issue—and sadly is often overlooked. The British Retail Consortium, one of the major organisations representing retailers, estimates that the cost of spending by retailers on crime prevention and of losses to the industry as a result of crime is a staggering £1.9 billion each year. That £1.9 billion cost is passed on to us as consumers and is having a major impact on the ability of retailers, at a challenging time on high streets, to make a profit and ensure that they have a profitable and valued business.
Let us consider crime as a whole. More than £700 million has been lost through shoplifting—customer theft—an issue to which I shall return. That represents a 31% rise in shoplifting on the previous year.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend both on securing this debate and on all his campaigning on this issue. He is rightly highlighting the economic cost of retail crime. Does he agree that there is also a human cost to retail crime and that we must do all we can to protect those who work in shops from threats of physical violence?
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate. I draw the House’s attention to my membership of and support from both the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers and the GMB, which represent shop workers in my constituency. My right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) have mentioned attacks on shop workers. In the Trafford Centre in my constituency, there have also been physical attacks on shoppers—gangs were threatening them with knives. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is not just protection of shop workers that is a crucial factor in this debate, but the wider protection of the public?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. I had not intended to refer to it in this debate, but self-evidently, in a big shopping area such as the Trafford Centre, policing and security for shoppers, particularly in the run-up to Christmas, is a critical issue, and my hon. Friend is right to raise it today.
As I said, £700 million has been lost because of customer theft alone, and that represents a 31% rise. Some £163 million has been lost via fraud and £15 million via robbery. That is the very hard end of retail crime whereby people walk into shops with shotguns and knives and engage in physical violence—attack shop staff—but also threaten and take valuable resource from shopping. A further £3.4 million has been lost via criminal damage, which can involve people vandalising shops both in the evenings and during the daytime. That is a staggering amount of resource.
The Association of Convenience Stores, which represents 22,000 small shops, estimates that there is a £246 million cost to its sector from retail crime. That is £5,300 per store. Interestingly, there is in effect a 7p crime tax on the cost of an average shop in a convenience store. The cost is being passed on to the consumer—the customer.
My purpose today is to look at three issues. The first is progress on the consultation that we secured from the Home Office earlier this year to look at shop theft generally and at serious crime. Self-evidently, we are in an election period, but, if re-elected, as a Back Bencher I will continue to raise this issue, whoever is in government after 12 December, because it is important.
Let me start with the very important point that my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) mentioned—attacks on shop staff. Today and every day, 115 retail staff will be attacked in their workplace while protecting the shopping offer on their retail premises, upholding the legislation that we in this House have passed—on solvents, knives, alcohol and tobacco—and preventing shoplifting in their stores. As my hon. Friend suggested, that is a traumatic event for members of staff. It puts pressure on their mental and physical health. It is not acceptable that 115 colleagues are attacked each day, particularly given that knives, for example, are increasingly a significant weapon on the streets. The industry itself is doing all it can to protect its staff in their workplaces by spending about £1 billion on crime prevention measures, but we are still in a position whereby we need to look at what measures we can put in place to support the staff who are upholding the legislation that we have passed in this House.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about crime prevention measures. Does he not see that there is a difference between the large shops—the Sainsbury’s and so on of this world—and the smaller shops, the small businesses, which have great difficulty in coping with the costs of retail crime? Do we not need a differentiated approach for the two?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Everybody who runs a shop wants their staff to be protected. Large multinational retailers such as Tesco, the Co-op, Sainsbury’s and Asda are caring for their staff, but everybody who runs a shop, be it a corner shop, a one-person shop, or another kind of small shop, wants their staff to be protected at work. That is particularly important when those staff are upholding the legislation that we have passed. When they are threatened by people who want to buy alcohol late at night or early in the morning, when they are threatened for refusing cigarette, solvent or knife sales and when they are threatened for taking action to try to stop shoplifters, it is imperative that we, as the society as a whole, look at what measures we can put in place to help support them.
The Co-op Group recently produced a report entitled “‘It’s not part of the job’: Violence and verbal abuse towards shop workers”. It shows clearly that violence against shop staff has long-term consequences for them and their communities. I know the Minister will know that this is a key issue, but it is one that we need to raise, recognise, and highlight, and we need to give a commitment to those staff on the ground to ensure that they are protected as a whole.
USDAW, which, like my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), I am proud to be a member of—I declare my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—runs annually the Freedom from Fear campaign, and in the run-up to Christmas it will again run the Respect for Shopworkers campaign. Of the 6,725 shop workers surveyed by USDAW in the past year, 64% faced verbal abuse at work, 40% were threatened by a customer, and 280, on average, were assaulted every day. That is not acceptable.
I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), who previously deal with this issue. We raised it during proceedings on the Offensive Weapons Act 2019. We tabled amendments and called for action in the form of a review of attacks on shop staff. The then Minister agreed to that review during a roundtable meeting with the Co-op, USDAW and other trade unions, the British Retail Consortium, the Association of Convenience Stores and the National Federation of Retail Newsagents. That review has been undertaken; it has taken evidence. There has been an awful lot of consultation responses. The previous Minister promised to respond to that evidence in the course of November. It is now November, so I wanted to put that on the record and get some feedback from the current Minister as to where we are with that action. We are in a politically divisive time, but I hope the Minister and his team see this as an important issue on which we can have cross-party co-operation. If he can tell us what he intends to do, if the Government are re-elected, that would be welcome. I know what I would like to do if Labour is elected as the next Government—we would take action—but it is important that we discuss these issues today.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be helpful to understand, should the Minister’s party be returned to government, what its view is on the use of facial recognition technology, which has been tried in the Trafford Centre, but is controversial? It has the potential to address crime, but we need to know what protections would be in place for personal privacy.
My hon. Friend has put an important issue on the table for the Minister to respond to.
In June, 50 senior retail figures, chief executives of the UK’s most recognisable retailers, the general secretary of USDAW, the chief executive of the Charity Retail Association and the chief executive of the British Retail Consortium all signed a letter calling for legislation in response to the Government consultation. Can we hear about the consultation and the potential legislation, and about what the Government intend to do, so that we can make a judgment about that? Whoever wins this election—that is for the British people—we need to know what measures are in place to take this issue forward.
I met with the Charity Retail Association—not just retail shops as a whole—which wrote to me on 5 June:
“We look forward to joining your list of…organisations in your fight for better protection for shop workers from violence or abuse.”
I wrote to the Minister earlier this year on the consultation that he is now considering. He responded on 3 September:
“Early analysis suggests that, as you highlight in your letter, the vast majority of respondents believe that violence and abuse toward shop staff has increased in recent years and that many respondents are unaware of the measures and tools available to tackle it and provide support for victims.”
My challenge to the Minister is this. Given that those respondents believe violence and abuse has gone up, and they want to see action from the Government, what will the Government do?
I thank my right hon. Friend for securing such an excellent debate. Having worked for USDAW for nearly 20 years, I have spoken to thousands of shop workers who have suffered abuse. They often felt that their employer was not doing enough to be on the side of their staff who were facing abuse. That has happened over decades. Does he agree that the Government should take a lead on this and make it clear that it is never right to abuse or threaten staff on the front line?
I absolutely agree, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s efforts in this area. It is right that the Government should do that. I am looking to the Minister to show political leadership on this. For example, 98% of the current police and crime commissioners’ policing plans make no reference to shop theft, 63% make no reference to business crime, 72% make no reference to prolific offending and 79% make no reference to addiction, drug treatment or drug recovery, which are key to preventing shop theft. What pressure will the Minister put on police and crime commissioners for their actions?
The Minister will probably have received a letter today, dated 1 November, from James Lowman, chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores, supporting the broad thrust of this debate and the consultation, and asking for legislation. The key point from Mr Lowman’s letter that I want to put on the record is this. Since the Government’s consultation began—back through the autumn, summer and spring, to when it was launched—200,000 assaults have taken place on people working in the retail and wholesale sector, in their place of work, because of the issues that we have mentioned around shoplifting and shop theft, and the lack of prevention of those activities.
Mr Lowman makes the valid point that his organisation represents 33,500 shops, including the Co-op, BP petrol stations, Spar, Nisa and Londis—a whole range of shops. They are united in their wish for a Government to take issue on this issue and introduce legislation on shop theft and attacks on shop staff. I hope the Minister will give some indication on that in due course.
I also want to raise the issue of shoplifting as a whole. In the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, the definition of shop theft was revisited. At the time, I was the shadow Police Minister. I objected to that change and we pressed the matter to a Division. “Stolen goods from shops” was defined as goods worth £200 or less, which meant that such cases would therefore not necessarily go to court. That has had a dramatic impact on shop theft. Someone could walk into a supermarket today and steal £199-worth of goods and potentially not face court, but instead face an out-of-court disposal. I happen to think that it is important that people go to court and face the consequences of their crime. We need to review the threshold.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and her colleagues will be in the Minister’s position shortly. After this election, whoever the Minister is, they should review the £200 limit on shoplifting. It is causing, potentially, increased shoplifting, because people know there are few consequences to face, and the police do not follow up on that type of activity, because of their stretched resources—which is something we might come to.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has done so much in this area. I agree that reducing shoplifting to the status of a parking offence has sent entirely the wrong signal. Does he agree that one of the perverse effects has been on the insurance industry? The police will say, “You have insurance.” If a small retailer makes a claim, its insurance goes up and the customer pays more. The shoplifter is the one person getting away with it, but everyone else is paying for the crime.
That is another knock-on consequence of retail crime and emphasises the point I want to make to the Minister. This is not an inconsequential or victim-free crime. The victims of shop theft and shop retail crime are the staff on the frontline, who are upholding the law, the shop owners and businesses, who take a hit to their profits, the customers, who pay more, and the insurance companies and other businesses, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) mentioned, which face the consequences of those actions.
I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on his brilliant work over the years to support shop workers and the way that he has tried to get the Government to change their approach to the law. The wider damage done by crimes against shop workers affects staff, businesses and, at a time when retail is struggling, communities. Does he agree that, for all those reasons, if this Government are re-elected, they must act? If the Labour party is elected to Government, we will take the action required.
I am not a Front Bencher. My Front-Bench days are over by choice. I did the Minister’s job at one point. We had 21,000 more police officers, at that stage, who helped to protect victims from crime. I cannot speak for a future Labour Government, but I know that my hon. Friends the Members for Swansea East and for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) will put in place measures to improve policing and legislation to protect shop staff, and to reduce retail crime, which impacts badly across our community and remains a hidden crime.
I have mentioned the policing plan and the policing response. I make no criticism of the police for being unable to respond at the same level as in the past, because when there are 21,000 fewer police officers than there were 10 years ago, that puts pressure on the police. The Government have said they will introduce 20,000 new police officers. I would like to know from the Minister how many police officers have been recruited since that pledge was made. What is his plan for when those 20,000 will be recruited? Why is he still putting forward proposals to have fewer police officers than when I held his job 10 years ago? What priority will he put on ensuring that police forces tackle retail crime, supported by legislation? These are key issues in any forthcoming discussion on this subject.
I, too, commend my right hon. Friend for the immense amount of work he has done over the years on this topic. Does he agree that policing is particularly relevant in rural areas, where we are seeing a massive loss in coverage by shops, particularly little independent shops? In my constituency of Warwick and Leamington, we have communities with a single shop—the one shop in the village—and they are the ones that are most vulnerable to retail crime.
They are, and as the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) said earlier, the additional costs of CCTV, head cameras, recording equipment or protective measures such as shutters fall disproportionately on smaller shops. When I was doing the Minister’s job, we had a scheme to support small businesses to prevent shop theft and other types of theft. I would like to hear what he proposes to do, should he be re-elected, on those issues.
I want to see the response to the consultation, I want to see more police officers on the street, and I want to see help and support to raise awareness of the importance of tackling this crime. However, much shop theft is also driven by alcohol or drug abuse and mental health issues. There is a real challenge for the Minister and the Government—again, I compare and contrast previous Governments with the current Government—in supporting those who face difficult challenges and whose shoplifting and shop theft, and maybe even their consequential violence, is linked to a problem that is solvable and that can be dealt with by society as a whole.
I simply make the point that in 2014, for example, there were 8,734 drug treatment orders in the community, but in 2018 there were only 4,889. The number of drug treatment orders given to serial offenders has almost halved in the five years between 2014 and 2019, while alcohol treatment orders have gone down from 5,500 to 3,300. People who needed a criminal justice outcome to their criminal activity—a community-based solution of a drug or alcohol treatment order—have seen the number of those orders fall dramatically in that period. That might mean that more people are in prison, which certainly takes them off the streets but does not necessarily rehabilitate them. Nevertheless, it is important that the Minister looks at how we can increase drug and alcohol treatment orders and the use of mental health orders for people in the community who are undertaking shoplifting because their treatment for alcohol or drugs is not being provided to the extent that it was. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East, the shadow Minister, will look at that.
Again, in my time as Police Minister—I am going back 10 years—we had a prevention strategy as well as a policing strategy. The strategy was about trying to deal with the alcohol and drug problems that were driving offences, in addition to liaising with police in the community who knew who the prolific and serial offenders were locally and taking action accordingly. It is quite possible to find someone who is involved in 10 shoplifting events a month. Reducing those 10 to one through a drug treatment order has a massive impact on the crimewave in a local community. The Minister needs to explain what the Government’s future plans are.
Finally, I want to touch on the issue of serious crime. We have talked about shoplifting, which is serious; we have talked about violence against staff, which is serious. Sadly, however, there has also been an upswing in armed robberies at petrol stations, post offices, shops and supermarkets. I believe that the National Crime Agency should be focusing on this issue, driving down armed robberies, breaking up gangs and working hard to identify perpetrators.
Although I do not have time to go into that issue in detail, I simply put to the Minister three final points. First, he needs to give us the Government’s response to the consultation. Shop staff, shop businesses and shop organisations are unanimous on the need for legislation and a Government response. He should now say what he is going to do, because I am sure that my hon. Friend the shadow Minister will say that Labour will act if we are in government. Secondly, the Minister needs to review the £200 shoplifting threshold—as will my hon. Friend, if she holds his post in future—because it is having a damaging effect on shoplifting as a whole. Thirdly, we need a review to look at the number and type of organised criminal gang attacks on shops, because they are rising, causing fear among staff and damaging our communities as a whole.
This is an important issue. Today is the last day of our parliamentary Session, but I wanted to raise this issue because it matters to the people who work in shops, to the businesses that run those shops and to the consumers who spend their money in those shops. And it should matter to the Minister, as it matters to me and my hon. Friend, the shadow Minister.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts.
It is typical of the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) to approach this subject in the way that he has; he has stressed the need for cross-party action. I am not anticipating—unusually—that he and I will be returned here at the general election, but if we are then I would very much like to work with him on sorting out some of the issues that he has raised, and I praise him for securing this debate.
Going shopping should be a pleasure; it should be full of the excitement of trying to find a bargain or being able to negotiate with a shop owner, and I do not think we should do anything that takes away that pleasure. Whatever we do should be seen within that context.
The point that I made in my intervention earlier is crucial. The measures that we can suggest as the solution for companies of the size of Tesco or Waitrose will be completely different to the measures that we can suggest for smaller businesses. In my constituency, although we have a Waitrose and a Tesco, we also have a vast array of smaller businesses. In fact, the majority of the businesses in the high streets in both Henley and Thame are small shops, many of them family-owned, and they are my greatest concern in how we tackle this issue. I am not questioning anything that the right hon. Gentleman has said today, but I am merely pointing out that we need to consider the best approach.
For example, if we consider some of the suggestions that have been made, such as using CCTV or some of the other more developed techniques to control retail crime, we see that they are quite expensive for small and medium-sized businesses. I do not think that a strategy that just takes the whole of the retail sector and applies solutions right across the board is at all appropriate for smaller companies.
We all know, and the right hon. Gentleman made this point very acutely, that shoplifting affects the productivity and competitiveness of smaller shops. A few years ago, a study showed that even the smallest amount of shoplifting can have a major impact on the profitability of these shops. The effect is much greater than the percentage suggests, and that is particularly so in smaller shops where the margins are tighter. That is where we need to concentrate on tackling this crime.
I want to highlight several other issues. It could be said that credit card fraud is a problem just for the credit card companies, but it is not; it is also a problem for small and medium-sized retailers, and a much more joined-up approach to tackle that is essential. Allied with that is the use of mobile payment technologies. I know there are huge benefits to mobile payment technologies, and I acknowledge that I have taken advantage of those benefits in my own shopping, but we have to take a firm line in mitigating against the risks of mobile payment technologies when it comes to the proposed solutions.
The points that have been raised about attacks on staff and shoppers are valid. We must do everything we can to protect those individuals. I have no experience of being attacked while out shopping, and I would like to keep it that way. I would like that not only for me, but for everyone who goes shopping. As the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, drug-related cultures have a keen impact on this issue, and that ties in with the statement he made about attacks on shops to get alcohol and cigarettes. The two are often linked, and we need to tackle them together to sort them out.
My final point is that it is despicable that anyone should target charity shops, which exist for charitable purposes, for theft. We should try to do anything we can to help them. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to take forward a cross-party approach to the issue, then I am in. I am happy to work with him. He is a colleague of mine on the Justice Committee, so we have worked together enormously on these matters, including some of the justice issues he raised in his speech. I thank him for bringing this debate to the House.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson), who is a great parliamentarian and a great champion of shopworkers. Like him, I declare the support I receive from USDAW and the GMB.
The first cost of violence against shopworkers is the cost to shoppers. My right hon. Friend was right to refer to the work done by the Association of Convenience Stores, which suggested that 7p of the cost every time anyone shops is a consequence of violence against shopworkers.
The second cost is the human cost of violence against shopworkers. I will tell a story about when I was walking in my right hon. Friend’s giant footsteps as shadow policing Minister four years ago. I addressed the USDAW conference as part of its Freedom from Fear campaign, and alongside me was a shop manager who had worked for 15 years in a particular shop. One night, a group of youths came in and were very abusive towards a black security guard. The manager went over, managed it and they left. The following night, yet more of them came back. When the manager went to the security guard’s aid, because he was being attacked, he was himself attacked so violently that he died. Mercifully, he was resuscitated on the spot by the ambulance service. What was so heartbreaking was that he told a story about how he loved playing football with his son and loved going mountain biking. He said, “Jack, I’ll never be able to do that again.” He is a fine young man, and he is never able to do that again.
We see the consequences nationwide, including on Erdington high street, where there are increasing problems of violence against shopworkers and crime and antisocial behaviour. One of the impacts of that is that I get people saying to me, “I am reluctant to shop locally because I fear going down the high street.” That cannot be right.
What can we do? My right hon. Friend has focused on the need for action. First, shopworkers are public servants. They are entitled to be treated with dignity and respect. Secondly, violence against shopworkers needs to be properly and fully recognised in local police plans. The statistics read out earlier are shocking, but not entirely surprising if 21,000 police officers have been taken off the streets. The statistics need to be recognised in police plans. Thirdly, we need more prosecutions, sending an unmistakable message that those who commit violence against shopworkers do so at their peril. Fourthly, a clear message needs to be sent by the law. On the one hand, there is the nonsense of the £200 limit—my right hon. Friend ably advocated for tackling that—but on the other, we have a legal framework with three categories of crime and culpability and 19 aggravating factors. We need a specific offence that sends an unmistakeable message.
My right hon. Friend was also right about the importance of preventive measures. My experience is like his: some of those involved in shoplifting and violence are themselves vulnerable individuals and everything possible needs to be done to deter and deflect them from the path of crime, in particular crime against shopworkers.
In conclusion, my right hon. Friend was right to make an appeal to Government. There is common ground that such crime is completely unacceptable, but it must be tackled with the urgency it requires, including—crucially—resource and more prosecutions. I hope that when the Minister responds, he says, “We get it and we are determined to act.”
I am grateful to you, Mr Betts, for giving me the opportunity to speak. Like others, I praise my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson) for once again bringing the House’s attention to this important issue. He rightly took time out to praise USDAW, the campaigning union. It is a particularly strong campaigning union on this issue, and I acknowledge the financial support it gives me. He also rightly praised the work of the Co-operative Group, which I know well as a member of the Co-operative party. The work of USDAW and the Co-op Group has, in very different ways, served to push the issue up the political agenda, and long may that continue, given what little action has been taken to date.
The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) rightly raised the impact of retail crime on small businesses in our communities. Looking at the small businesses, as well as the big retail concerns, in my constituency, we can see that Harrow is no longer a manufacturing town. The businesses based in Harrow are predominantly retail. Many of them work on very small margins, which he alluded to, and the significant increase in shoplifting has put some of those businesses at risk. I will come back to that in a moment.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn set out, the rise in violence has had a profound impact on many of those who work in our shops. They are public servants, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) rightly said, and they deserve the protection of all of us in this place. Retail crime impacts not only on the individual shop worker or business, but on our communities. There is a sense that the area is less safe to enjoy and that businesses might leave, and the strength of district shopping centres is deteriorating, which is what drew me to this debate. During a conversation with a manager, I was staggered to hear that, in the 18 months following the announcement that the major police station in my constituency would be closed, there was a 20% increase in shoplifting. According to UKCrimeStats, the number of shoplifting offences in my constituency since 2011-12 has trebled, which is a remarkable increase, by any stretch of the imagination.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn rightly raised the issue of violent crime. In my constituency, the number of violent incidents has almost doubled, which is hardly surprising given that considerable cuts to Metropolitan police funding have resulted in 30% of police officers disappearing from the streets of Harrow since 2010. We need stronger deterrents against attacks on retail workers. I join my right hon. Friend in urging the Government to update us on the scale of the responses to the call for evidence that closed in June. I remain strongly of the view that we need a clear deterrent against violence in shops. I do not understand why a specific offence cannot be created. It is staggering that the losses resulting from retail crime and the counter-crime prevention measures that businesses have to take amount to almost £2 billion. Mothercare is the latest example of a major chain potentially having to go into administration, and that brings home the scale of the impact not only on individual members of staff, but on our communities.
Finally, I have two specific points. An extra £1 million from the Metropolitan police budget for Harrow West would enable a return to the ward-based teams of a sergeant, two police constables and three police community support officers, who could gather intelligence about crime within our area, find out who is committing it, and react more quickly when retail crime takes place. Our courts need more resources to handle cases more quickly. Working with police and crime commissioners, they need to be able to direct efforts to tackle the root causes behind some of the retail crime, including the drug dependency and mental health issues that others have mentioned.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson) on outlining the major points.
I want to say one thing to the Minister: the £200 de minimis level is now so counterproductive that it is causing as many problems as it solves. I accept that it is not easy to get a prosecution. It has to go through the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, but the problem now, as was said earlier—and I have talked to numerous people—is that I face losing shops. Perhaps £200 does not sound much, but a succession of £200 losses causes difficulties because the same businesses get hit time after time. I have had instances where people who take whatever they take wave at the CCTV camera on the way out, and a member of the shop’s staff has to decide whether to intervene, with the possibility of violence against them, or allow the perpetrator to leave. That is why the £200 de minimis level is wrong. If someone steals, they should face the possibility of prosecution, no matter what the shop’s circumstances are. It is particularly problematic for smaller shops, because they are hit much more regularly. The bigger shops have the means to bear down and prosecute in their own right if the police choose not to prosecute.
I want to commend two organisations. The all-party parliamentary group on retail crime has been very valuable. There are many all-party groups. They spread themselves around and dilute our ability to do things, but the APPG on retail crime has been valuable. I am close to the Association of Convenience Stores. I have met representatives on many occasions, and I am told that shops in Stroud have lost an estimated £184,816 because of retail crime. The appeal has to be made to police and crime commissioners, although they cannot deal with the operational stuff. We have a very good police and crime commissioner in Gloucestershire. Martin Surl has taken up this issue and made it clear that he will be supportive, but we lack police numbers. Far too often the police either do not turn up at all or they turn up very late. They are incredibly sympathetic because they know what has happened and they know about the impact on the owners and staff, but they say it is impossible to do much about it.
We need to get rid of the de minimis level. We have to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, as was said some years ago. All the issues to do with mental health and drug and alcohol abuse are integrated into the whole problem, but we cannot allow the crimes to carry on, or most of our convenience stores will disappear. That would be tragic in a rural area, because that store is often the last shop in the village, and such stores serve a community purpose. Can we therefore get rid of the £200 de minimis level? If the Minister agrees, I will be happy as I go through the election.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Betts. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) on securing it. There are not many debates in Westminster Hall when he and I are not together, and I am very pleased to participate in this one, so I thank him for securing it. I also thank him for all the hard work he did when he was a Northern Ireland Minister and I was on the council—which was not yesterday.
As I have previously highlighted in this Chamber, although the costs in my constituency are not massive, retail crime does have massive consequences. Whether someone steals biscuits from the local pound shop or creates and distributes fake money in the lead-up to Christmas, it affects our local businesses.
Over the weekend, a shop in the town centre of Newtownards contacted me about a spate of petty crime involving the theft of alcohol. Such crimes are committed by young men who do indeed wave to the CCTV camera on the way out. They seem oblivious to the possibility of getting caught, although they have changed their tactics slightly and now use young girls to go and do the same thing. The shop staff are fearful of stopping them. The ladies who mostly man the counters are reluctant to try to detain someone, for fear of violence. They did not sign up to confront people, but to work in the store and do what they do. The Library has supplied information. The issue of the £200, which the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) and others have mentioned, needs to be addressed.
The businesses on our high streets need every penny they earn. I encourage people to shop locally when possible. I once saw a sign saying that research shows that £10 spent in a local independent shop means that up to an additional £50 goes back into the local economy. That is simply because those shop owners put the money we spend back into the local community by going to local pubs and restaurants and so on, thus circulating the money and allowing the community to thrive. Some of us shop locally to sow into our local economy, so retail crime is a local issue. People abuse and steal from their own community and it cannot be tolerated.
The Business Crime Partnership launched its business crime survey in September. I look forward to reading the responses. I agree with the development manager of the Federation of Small Business Northern Ireland, Mairaid McMahon, who said:
“Crimes against small firms, contrary to what some may think, are certainly not ‘victimless’. The average cost of a crime to a business is almost £3,000…and when additional negative impacts such as reputational damage, lost time and delayed business activity are factored in, it quickly adds up to a significant barrier to growth, or in the worst cases a threat to their survival.”
That is certainly what it means for small shops. She went on to say:
“Having worked with the Business Crime Partnership we know that tackling these crimes are a priority for the justice system, but we need a stronger evidence base to ensure that resources are being targeted effectively. We encourage all businesses to complete the Survey to enable us to capture the true impact of these crimes right across Northern Ireland.”
If the Minister remains in post after the election, perhaps he could look at that survey and factor it into the process.
Aodhán Connolly, the director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium said:
“For our members the combined cost of spending on crime prevention and losses from crime to the retail industry across the UK is substantial and more importantly every day, including weekends, 115 colleagues are attacked, with many more threatened. That is why we are members of the Northern Ireland Business Crime Partnership, to make NI a safer and more competitive place to do business and that is why we are encouraging retailers and all businesses to fill in this survey.”
In short, fill in the survey, ensure that the information is there, and work off the back of that evidentially. He went on to say:
“To fight crime we need to understand how, when and where it is happening and that’s how you can help shape the response to business crime.”
This is an issue for our local businesses. To keep the high street thriving, businesses must be able to pay their bills and wages, and that can happen only if we cut down on retail crime, working hand in hand with the local police force. I was glad to hear that funding will be released for more community policing. That means that officers will be able to arrive quickly at the scenes of crimes, and it sends the message that these small crimes will not be tolerated and that prosecuting them is a priority. We must do all we can to keep our high streets thriving and our local people in employment.
I am proud that I can honestly say that I have never shopped online; I buy only from my local high streets. My wife, of course, will say, “You don’t very often go shopping with me,” but any shopping that I do is probably specific. That is usually what men do. Although I absolutely support our local entrepreneurs with online presences, my pounds are content on the high street. I have a wonderful constituency in Strangford. I do not need to expound the values of Strangford: everyone knows that it is a premier place to go shopping and has everything to offer. Members will understand why I do not need to go any further. We must play our part in tackling high street retail crime, and send the clear message that we support local businesses in spirit, financially and with the full extent of local police, hand in hand together.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson) on securing this important debate, and on all the work that he has done on this issue. I draw attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests regarding previous support from the trade union GMB. As we are in the run up to Christmas—as well as something else that is on the horizon—I pay tribute to all those who work in retail, not just at this time of year but all year round, for the important work that they do. I also pay tribute to police officers and community support officers across the country for all that they do in the fight against retail crime to keep our communities and shops safe.
As we have heard, retail crime is becoming increasingly serious and frequent in today’s society. As my right hon. Friend said, the British Retail Consortium’s 2019 retail crime survey reported that last year the total cost to retailers of crime and crime prevention was a staggering £1.9 billion, up 12% from the year before. Customer theft was also up 31% on the previous year. A survey of more than 3,000 retail workers by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, responding to the Government’s call to evidence on retail crime earlier this summer, showed that 62% of respondents had been subjected to verbal or physical abuse, and 80% believed that violence and abuse towards staff have increased in recent years.
Many thousands of retail workers are dedicated, longstanding employees who work in stores that are important assets to their communities, be they small or large. In many areas, such stores are the only place to buy essentials such as milk and bread, to withdraw cash or to send and receive post. The services that many retail workers provide and facilitate are invaluable to local communities, and they should not have to deal with retail crime of any kind, be it verbal abuse, assault or theft. Nobody deserves to go about their job in fear: fear of who may come into the store that day and what may happen; fear that they may be fired from a cruel so-called flexible or zero-hours contract for being the member of staff on the shop floor when cash or stock was lost through theft; or, worst of all, fear of what happens if the police are unable to respond to the incident.
The Government can and must do more, and commit to providing greater protection for retail workers. Constant cuts to police numbers and resources over the past decade—21,000 police officers lost since 2010—with police officer numbers at their lowest levels since the 1980s, have stretched our local police beyond measure and forced such immense pressure on them that they simply cannot attend to incidents being reported. They cannot always maintain visibility in the community, with a presence in town centres or high streets, to protect and reassure retail workers and to deter potential criminals from committing an offence in the first place. Cuts to our local councils have meant that there is now even less funding for them to work with the police and other partners to manage antisocial behaviour and reduce crime, and there are fewer youth workers, social workers and education welfare officers to work with people to ensure that they never turn to crimes such as shoplifting and vandalism.
Retail crime is a serious issue across the country. According to new national crime statistics, in my constituency of Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney 567 incidents of shoplifting were reported over the past year. Tory cuts to my local police forces, South Wales Police and Gwent Police, have had a devastating impact on the ability of officers to prevent incidents of retail crime, as they are already stretched in so many other areas. A good number of local schemes are in operation in our communities to prevent and tackle retail crime, such as Shopwatch, but that responsibility should not be solely with the communities or retail workers themselves.
The responsibility is on the Government to introduce legislation for greater legal protection for retail workers, and to give our local police forces the support that they so desperately need to respond to, and prevent, incidents of retail crime, and to reverse the appalling record on it. Today’s debate shows much cross-party support for a solution. The Government can and must do more. Hopefully we will hear some positive news from the Minister about what he plans to do to address this important issue.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson) for introducing this important debate. Even on the last day of this Parliament, it is important that both sides of the House look at the position of shopworkers in the run-up to Christmas, because crime and violence against them has got worse.
I pay tribute to USDAW, having worked on its Freedom from Fear campaign for many years, and having been instrumental in setting that up. USDAW surveyed its members recently, and found that 80% believe that crime and violence against them are getting worse. It was bad 20 years ago and, as Members across the House have described, we are now seeing more incidents of violence and threatening behaviour with weapons. That is not good enough for shopworkers, who provide a valuable service—whether on our high streets, which desperately need our support, or in community shops on the edges of towns or in villages.
I am chair of the all-party parliamentary small shops group. We hear from people across the country about the vulnerable position those staff and business owners can be in, and I pay tribute to them. As our retail shops decline, and sole shops decline as well, we see a decline in our communities. High streets are important for bringing us together. Small shops are often the only place that people in those communities get to speak to someone. A shop owner told us at one of our recent events that an old lady said to him that the only time she touched another human being was when he gave her her change. Those stores are so important to their communities and to people across the country, so it is particularly important that we see them not just as profit-making businesses, but as providing a service. Most of the shopkeepers in my constituency say that they do not do it for the money, but because they love their community, and the community values them as well.
Those shopkeepers are on the frontline. More and more prolific offenders are targeting small, isolated shops, and more and more of the shopkeepers in my constituency are having to take on and tackle offenders themselves, which is a position that nobody should be in. Both through my work with USDAW and locally, I have met shopkeepers and shop workers who have been traumatised for life by the experiences they have had to go through. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) described the case of Barry, who I know; when he spoke with my hon. Friend at the USDAW conference, it was an incredibly moving experience.
The trouble is that our justice system is letting these people down. It is not just that police numbers are decreasing and that the response to incidents is not improving: by the time that I left the union, Barry, who I have known for many years, had still not seen the perpetrators in his case brought to justice. The court case was delayed again and again, and he was left knowing that those perpetrators were out there committing more offences, and feeling that he was in danger as a witness.
In my community, we have seen the amount that police can do to tackle prolific offenders reduced. Our local magistrates’ court in Buxton closed in 2015, and the local police cells have now been closed because there is not so much need for them now that we do not have a magistrates’ court. That makes it far harder for those police who are still there to deal with offenders. The number of community orders has decreased by a third; prolific offenders travel across county lines, knowing how to evade different police forces and evade justice, and our police have had to invest enormous amounts of resources in trying to bring those perpetrators to justice.
As we know, 20,000 police officers have been lost, but I ask the Minister what his party proposes to do about the staff who are so often crucial to bringing successful prosecutions. In Derbyshire, not only have we lost just over 300 police officers, but over 400 support staff. Those police community support officers, investigating officers and detectives are often the ones who do the work to ensure that criminals are not only caught, but successfully prosecuted. Without those support staff, that work is very difficult and ties the hands of police officers. I pay tribute to the Derbyshire police and crime commissioner; this year, through additional council tax, we had the funding to hire another 120 officers and staff. We got 58 additional police officers from that, but also 62 support staff including PCSOs, investigating officers and detectives. That is making a real difference to the ability of my local police force to bring perpetrators to justice, which we must never forget is an extremely important part of policing.
This issue is not just about political headlines or the number of police officers, but about the experience of communities. It is about people feeling that they are on the frontline and are not getting the response from Government, the police or society that they need to protect them and to keep those valuable community stores running.
In the run-up to Christmas, all Members will want to pay tribute to shop workers. Those people can expect an extremely busy time, but also, unfortunately, an increase in abuse by people who are stressed, and an increase in violence and in thefts by criminals who seek to take advantage of this time of year, with the extra stock and extra money in the tills. I hope that in spite of the election, we can send a message to our communities and to police forces and shop workers everywhere that we are going to act.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I too declare an interest, in that I am a member of USDAW, the Co-op and the GMB. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson) on all the work he has done on this issue and on having secured today’s debate, which is probably the last opportunity we will have this year to debate this important subject, ahead of Christmas—when the problem will be at its worst—and, indeed, ahead of the general election. I feel that in the past four years, I have been a parliamentary candidate more often than I have been to the dentist.
Many other right hon. and hon. Members have shared stories of some of the truly terrifying situations that shop workers are put in as a result of retail crime. It is a cruel injustice that so many people across the UK go to work in absolute fear of being physically or verbally attacked just for doing their job. I pay tribute to USDAW for its Freedom from Fear campaign, which for many years has been raising awareness of this issue, both in this House and in all of our constituencies. Most of us have had the obligatory Freedom from Fear photo taken before Christmas; in my case, it is always taken in Morrisons. USDAW recently reported that 62% of shop workers have been the victim of verbal or physical abuse: that is shocking, and needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. The UK Government must step up and provide the resources to give retail workers the protection they deserve.
A step in the right direction would be for the Home Office to publish its response to its call for evidence on violence towards shop staff, which took place earlier this year. That consultation closed in June, and received over 800 responses from individual shop workers, small shopkeepers, unions and businesses, all detailing their experiences of the growing problem of violent crime. We were originally promised a response by this month, but there has been nothing so far. In light of the current political situation, I hope that some clarity will be provided before this Parliament comes to an end. I am clearly not alone in seeking that clarification, as the Association of Convenience Stores has written to the Minister calling for an urgent response. With an estimated 200,000 assaults or threats to retail and wholesale sector staff in the period since that call for evidence closed, the Home Office must stop delaying, show some leadership, and commit to introducing tougher penalties for the perpetrators of those crimes.
Retail crime has multiple victims, from the retailers who suffer the losses to the staff who face abuse that makes them fearful of turning up for work. Every MP has this issue in their constituency; in Swansea East, retailers have lost nearly £200,000 through shoplifting just this year. However, although we are all well aware of the effects of retail crime on individuals and businesses, we need to start paying more attention to its causes. All of us have been sat in a pub and witnessed someone come in with a bottle of perfume, a DVD, a joint of meat or a slab of cheese, which are quite clearly stolen goods. All too often, those people are simply desperate to make a few pounds to feed an addiction, whether to alcohol, drugs or gambling. If we seriously want to see a reduction in retail crime, we need to do something about its catalysts. Addiction services are desperately underfunded, and the Government need to rectify that by providing sustainable resources for rehabilitation programmes and diversionary activities that will support those facing addiction and therefore protect our wider community.
Many retailers have raised concerns that the scale of the problem has escalated since the coalition Government introduced a £200 threshold for low-level shoplifting back in 2015, effectively decriminalising it. With police resources stretched to their limits, it is understandable that that is happening, but that does not make it right. Simply, we need more police officers on our streets. The Government have proudly announced their plan to recruit 20,000 more officers, which I am sure we would all be delighted about, if they had not spent the last nine years inflicting a series of cuts. That effectively means that their plan to get police numbers up would only replace what they have taken out since they took office.
People need to feel safe. Police patrolling the streets in our neighbourhoods would make a substantial difference. The Welsh Labour Government have funded an extra 500 police community support officers across the country, who have helped to reduce the impact of retail crime. It would be welcome if the UK Government were to replicate that.
I hope that the Minister has truly listened to the contributions of hon. Members and that he understands that violence against shop workers is a growing problem that needs to be urgently addressed. Nobody should fear going to work, but that is the reality for many retail staff. We need a commitment from the Government about their plans to tackle the issue. Frontline retail staff in our communities deserve more than empty gestures and broken promises. We need change—they need change—and we need it now.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, albeit in a different forum from the last one we met in. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) on securing the debate about a matter that he has worked on for some time. He worked closely with my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), now the Minister for Safeguarding and Vulnerability, who took the matter seriously. I listened carefully to the contributions of all hon. Members and I will try to address some specific points that were raised.
As I hope hon. Members realise, the Government recognise the significant impact that retail crime has not only on businesses and those who work for them but on shoppers, consumers and the wider community, as we have heard from several hon. Members. That is why we co-chair the national retail crime steering group to bring together the Government, trade organisations and enforcement partners to ensure that the response to crimes affecting the retail sector is as robust as possible. We have seen the benefits that that group can achieve in its recent response to the issue of violence and abuse towards shop workers, which was overseen by my hon. Friend the Minister for Safeguarding and Vulnerability, but we know there is more to do.
The right hon. Member for Delyn raised the issue of violence and abuse toward shop staff. I pay tribute to his work on raising awareness of the issue. I am aware of his discussions with Home Office Ministers on the topic during the passage of the Offensive Weapons Act 2019 in the last parliamentary Session, to which he referred. Violence and abuse remains the biggest concern for retailers and we are determined to tackle it.
Every day, we ask shop workers to deal with whatever comes through their door, whether that involves enforcing an age restriction on certain products or confronting shoplifters. Like anyone else, shop workers have the right to feel safe at work without fear of violence or intimidation. That is why, on 5 April, we launched a call for evidence to inform our response—I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his submission. We sought information on four key areas: prevalence and data, prevention and support, enforcement and the criminal justice system, and best practice.
As was mentioned, the call for evidence closed recently. We received more than 800 responses, including many first-hand accounts from shop staff. Although Home Office officials have completed an initial analysis, we have not yet published our response. That will disappoint hon. Members who referred to it, but we want to ensure that the detailed responses received are subject to a thorough and accurate analysis. Given that Parliament is about to be dissolved, I will take the opportunity to share our initial findings with hon. Members and to reassure them that we are engaging with key organisations to consider the next steps.
An initial analysis of the responses shows a widespread belief that violence and abuse towards shop staff has increased in recent years. The most common reason given was in the context of challenging individuals committing shop theft. Many respondents felt that a lack of a suitable response from the police resulted in offenders not fearing repercussions. Many felt unsupported by their organisation’s policies and management when dealing with verbally abusive customers. A significant number of respondents stated that they felt that incidents were becoming more violent and that they had experienced threats from individuals with knives, needles or other sharp objects.
That is obviously unacceptable. Nobody should be subjected to such violent attacks, especially in the workplace, and I reassure hon. Members that we are keen to take action in those areas, and in some cases, we already are.
I will come on to that. I am not wholly convinced that we are without the tools that we need to deal with the issue, but we might need to address whether we are using them correctly.
On serious violence, we published the serious violence strategy, which has a particular focus on early intervention, in April 2018, so there has been action in that area. We allocated £22 million to the early intervention youth fund and, in the long term, £200 million to the youth endowment fund to ensure that those most at risk are given the opportunity to turn away from violence and to lead more positive lives. We launched a public consultation on a new multi-agency public health approach to tackling serious violence, following which we announced that we would introduce a new legal duty on statutory agencies to plan and collaborate to prevent and reduce serious violence. We gave the police extra powers to tackle knife crime through the Offensive Weapons Act, including new knife crime prevention orders.
Those wider measures will help, but we recognise the importance of focusing our efforts on measures that are specifically targeted on tackling retail crime. This year, the Home Office provided £60,000 for a targeted communication campaign, led by the Association of Convenience Stores, to raise awareness of the existing legislation to protect shop workers. We published guidance on gov.uk about the use of the impact statement for business, which provides victims with the opportunity to tell the courts about the impact that a crime has had on their businesses. We also worked with the police to develop guidance for staff and retailers to use when reporting emergency and violent incidents.
The right hon. Member for Delyn and other hon. Members have asked the Government to consider introducing a new offence of attacks on shop staff, or to increase the severity of existing offences. I hope that he is aware from previous discussions that powers are already available to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to deal with that type of offending and to provide protection to retail staff.
There are a number of assault offences and corresponding differences in maximum penalties. At the higher end of the scale, causing grievous bodily harm with intent and wounding with intent carry maximum penalties of life imprisonment. The sentencing guidelines on assault include an aggravating factor of
“offences committed against those working in the public sector or providing a service to the public”,
which should be taken into account by the courts when deciding what sentence to impose and may be applied to retail staff conducting their duties. In addition, the Sentencing Council is reviewing its guidelines on assault. A consultation on the revised guidelines is anticipated in 2020. I advise hon. Members to respond to that consultation with a specific focus on assaults on retail workers.
Let me turn to some of the specific points raised. Several hon. Members called for me to publish the review of the call for evidence as quickly as possible. The fact that we are going into an election will make that quite difficult, but I give my undertaking that, as soon as we come back, if I am in the job, we will try to get it out as quickly as possible. Obviously, the five-week election campaign gives officials a bit of an easier time, so they can digest the responses and get it out as soon as they can.
The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) raised the issue of facial recognition technology. Obviously, we are supporting the police as they trial the use of new technology across the country. It has become clear that facial recognition technology has significant crime-fighting possibilities. A recent court case established that there is a sufficient legal framework for its use and operation in this country, but as its use is expanded, possibly by police forces, in the months and years to come, I have no doubt that it will have to come to the House for some sort of democratic examination at some point. Thus far, however, where it is being deployed, we are seeing significant benefits from it.
I am pleased that the Minister believes that there will need to be a full debate about facial recognition technology in the House. He will be aware of concerns about personal privacy and the possibility that it is, in some respects, discriminatory against certain groups. If he and his party are returned to government, will he commit to ensuring that the House has an opportunity to have that full debate?
There has already been a debate in the House on the use of facial recognition technology, and it is obviously within the purview of Members and Select Committees and others to examine the issue. It has just been through the courts—South Wales Police has been challenged on its use of facial recognition technology, and the courts found the current framework satisfactory. I have no doubt that when we get back from this election there will be an urge for the issue to be debated in the House, given the enormous success that is being seen with facial recognition technology.
The right hon. Member for Delyn raised the issue of local police plans, suggesting that we put pressure on police and crime commissioners to include retail crime in their plans. If this was a pressing issue in the high street, one would hope that the police and crime commissioner would commit to having it in their plan anyway. However, we have created a new National Policing Board, which is looking at systemic issues across the country that should be addressed by the whole policing family in a concerted effort, and one area we are looking at is neighbourhood crime. What we put into that basket has yet to be fully agreed, and I will certainly consider putting retail crime in there.
I am very alive to the connection between drugs and alcohol misuse and the impact on shops and retail crime. First, on alcohol, I hope Members will have noticed that we are planning to roll out alcohol abstinence monitoring orders across the whole country. From memory, we have been given about £22 million to do that. The orders have been very successfully used in Croydon and in a pilot in Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and Humberside recently. They are for low-level offending and those convicted of a crime where alcohol was the compelling factor in its commission. Compliance rates with that disposal are up at 93% or 94%, and there is enormous potential there.
With drugs, we have been given some money to start to combat the awful scourge of county lines, which is causing mayhem in many small towns across the country, not least in my constituency. I hope that when we return after the election we will see even more assertive action on that.
There is more that we can do on treatment and rehabilitation for those who fall into drug addiction. We must look imaginatively at schemes around the world that can be used to divert from offending those who have been convicted of a drug offence and are out in the community on probation. I point Members to a very interesting programme in Hawaii called the HOPE programme—Hawaii’s opportunity probation with enforcement—which I would be very keen to try to establish in this country as a way to deal with people who are low-level offenders because of a drug addiction. That could be managed in a much better way than I think we are managing it at the moment.
A number of Members mentioned the £200 threshold. I hope they are aware that police can still prosecute somebody who steals something worth less than £200.
I met Chief Constable Lee Freeman of Humberside Police and raised the £200 threshold. As other Members have pointed out, it causes great concern, particularly to small shopkeepers. He pointed out that the police are flexible in how they interpret the guidance in Humberside. Will the Minister make sure that other forces up and down the country treat the matter in a much more serious way? It is very serious for small shopkeepers. The flexibility that Humberside is showing should be replicated elsewhere.
That is exactly right. If a chief constable decrees that it is a problem in their area, it is perfectly possible for them to have a policy of prosecuting thefts of a value under £200. I am certainly willing to make sure that chiefs across the country are aware of that.
Given the depth of concern expressed this morning, if I am returned to this job after the election, I am happy to look at the data and see what it tells us about the operation of that policy, now that we are four or five years in. I do not think there is any problem with us reviewing that data internally and deciding whether the policy is working, and then promulgating some kind of best practice.
A number of challenges were made on the recruitment of 20,000 police officers. The right hon. Member for Delyn asked me when they would be recruited—recruitment has already started. A number of police forces are recruiting, not least because we have 3,000 police officers to recruit from last year’s budget settlement. With the allocations to all forces, we have already signalled what the recruitment targets should be over the next 15 months or so.
We expect the first 6,000 of the 20,000 to be recruited by the end of the financial year next year, 8,000 in the year after and the final 6,000 in the year after that. It will not be a straight progression, not least because police officers tend to retire at unpredictable times. When we add in retirees, we have to recruit somewhere between 45,000 and 50,000 police officers over the next three years, which will be a huge job. Nevertheless, we have been given £45 million in-year this year to start, and I hope we will be announcing the allocations of that money relatively soon.
Some forces are going for this in a big way straightaway. I know the Met police is recruiting between 300 and 400 police officers a month at the moment, which is all good news. However, I would just counter the direct connection that a number of Members make between levels of crime and numbers of police officers, because the connection is not just about inputs; it is also about what we are doing. I remind Members that, notwithstanding the fact that we have fewer police officers today, overall crime is 35% lower than it was 10 years ago. For example, police officer numbers were much higher in the ’80s and ’90s than in the ’50s and ’60s, yet crime was much higher too. Focus and priority is as important as the number of police officers.
I always say the same thing when people tell me about under-reporting, which is that we must urge everybody to report every possible crime, because modern policing is all about data. The police respond to numbers. If they see numbers, feel the numbers and see the pattern of behaviour, they will respond. It is a bit like that old philosophical aphorism: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, did it actually happen? If a crime is committed, particularly in a large rural constituency such as mine, and it is not reported, as far as the police know, it never happened. Data is absolutely key. I urge all shop owners to report every crime.
The right hon. Member for Delyn raised the impact of serious and organised crime. He is quite right that high-profile thefts by serious and organised crime need to be addressed, not least the demolition and stealing of cash machines, which we see in quite a lot of rural constituencies, including my own. As I hope the right hon. Gentleman knows, we are undertaking a serious and organised crime review over the next few weeks, which I hope will give us some strategy and point us to the future.
I am grateful to hon. Members for what has been an important debate. I hope that I have outlined some of the work that the Government have done, and will hopefully do more of in future, to make sure that everybody—shop workers and shoppers alike—will have fun and will exchange money for presents and gifts in the run-up to Christmas, safely and happily, now and in the years to come.
I am grateful to you, Mr Betts, for chairing this session, and to the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for their responses. I will take one point from what the Minister said: if he is returned, he has agreed to review the £200 threshold on shop theft, which I know my hon. Friend will do, should she be returned to office.
This issue is extremely important and will not go away. It is about ensuring that staff who uphold our laws are protected by our laws; it is about ensuring that they live free from fear. I suspect that every retailer in the country in response to the consultation will have said that they want a separate offence and for assaulting a staff worker to be an aggravated offence. I hope that whoever forms the Government after this election will look at the consultation responses and bring forward measures. It is within our grasp now. The people who work in shops, the people who manage, run and own shops, and consumers have the same objective—to allow shop workers to be free from fear and to go about their business supported by the state, upholding the laws of the land; to ensure that members of the public who attack them face an aggravated offence; and to ensure a greater police presence on the streets if needs be, more neighbourhood policing and strong interventions to tackle some of the problems that drive people to undertake those shoplifting and attack offences in the first place.
This is an important issue. I am grateful that so many hon. Members have turned up on the last Tuesday of Parliament to put down a marker to whoever forms the next Government that this issue will not go away and will be dealt with by Parliament.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered prevention of retail crime.
Princess Royal Hospital, Telford
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Princess Royal Hospital, Telford.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. Last week the Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), said:
“Our main purpose as Members of Parliament is to seek redress of grievance for our constituents”.—[Official Report, 31 October 2019; Vol. 667, c. 509.]
That is what I seek to do today, on the last day of this Parliament and on what might be my last opportunity to speak for Telford. It is a great privilege to have the opportunity to do so.
For the past six years, Telford’s No. 1 concern has been the future of the Princess Royal Hospital. Throughout those years, I have been working with my community to get their concerns heard by the hospital management and in many debates and speeches in this place. Today is different, because in the past few weeks the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care endorsed a decision by hospital management to proceed with a plan that will mean Telford loses vital hospital services and that, simultaneously, will lead to huge investment in Royal Shrewsbury Hospital in the county town of Shrewsbury, some 30 minutes away from Telford. In this debate, I want to put on the record why my constituents feel a sense of loss and a sense of anger.
Telford is not a place that has a sense of entitlement. It is not a place that makes demands or shouts over the voices of others. It is a stoical place and has often had to overcome the odds, face adversity and keep on going. It is a former mining town and is now a rapidly growing new town, lying 20 minutes equidistant between Black country Wolverhampton and the leafy county town of Shrewsbury. Telford is remote and isolated, because it has poor transport connections and low car ownership. It troubles me that, despite the poorer health outcomes, child poverty and health inequalities that I as the MP see, the hospital management has brought forward a plan for our health that allocates NHS resource not in accordance with need, but for some other reason that has not been explained.
Like many new towns, Telford was resisted by its county neighbours when it first came into being some 50 years ago. It was dismissed as an overspill town of incomers and a blot on the landscape, never quite accepted by its rural hinterland. It was somehow always the poor relation, surrounded by rural, leafy shires and county towns. There was a snobbishness whereby Telford was supposed to know its place and be grateful for the opportunity. We were somehow never quite equal to our neighbours.
However, Telford has ambitions, and overcoming the odds is what it does. Today, Telford is an economic powerhouse of advanced manufacturing and makes a massive contribution to the west midlands economy, offering new jobs and homes. Its population is forecast to grow to 200,000 people in the next 10 years. Telford needs its A&E and its women and children’s centre—anyone who knows Telford knows that—but the hospital management has other plans.
For six years, the management has toyed with a plan to centralise services 30 minutes away. It has been dressed up as local decision making by local clinicians, but, in reality, it was decided by executives from across the country—smart suits and smart cars—with no connection to our area and no concern for our communities. Indeed, the original architect of the plan held many hospital management chief executive officer posts, from Chester and Sherwood Forest to London, and he was last reported to be earning £40,000 per month, having resigned from a previous post for a single day in order to pick up a tax-free retirement package of £252,000 and then resumed the same job the next day. Such are the people behind this plan.
Actual local clinicians opposed the plan, as did all the councillors and local MPs. Protests were held and petitions made, but the decision makers did not want to know what local people had to say. Throughout that time, there was one hope—that once the bureaucrats got to the end of their decision-making process, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care would call for an independent review to consider all the issues. I thank the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Mr Hunt), for his courtesy, consideration and kindness to me and my constituents as he listened to me and to the arguments about why the plan is flawed.
The hospital bureaucrats, whose decision this was, did not have to think about how people feel when they are told they do not need their A&E. It is not part of their role to understand our communities, our history, our geography, our identity, our emotional connectedness to our hospital, our affection for it and our pride in it. After all, they are not accountable to us; it is just one more job before the next one.
We, the representatives of the people, should care about our communities. We should care about how they feel, and about their sense of what is just. It is our job to be on the side of the people—not on the side of those who are well connected and have power and influence, who can speak to the decision makers behind closed doors, but on the side of the stoical, decent people of Telford, who play by the rules and have a right to be treated as fairly and justly as anyone else.
I will quote a constituent who has worked locally in the NHS for 15 years. He says:
“In Telford we are a group of hardworking communities with ambitions for our children’s future. When the brand new women and children’s unit was opened I was ecstatic. It was a turning point for us. I understand how health economics works—none of this proposal makes any sense, not in a business sense nor from a clinical outcome perspective. Shrewsbury is 30 minutes away. That’s too long for stroke, too long for a heart attack and too long for our children. This is a plan that bears all the hallmarks of cronyism at its rampant best. How else can it be explained? The NHS has no colours or banners”—
he is right about that—
“it supports all of us all of the time. It is something worth fighting for, for our children’s sake.”
On the point about children, I want to give voice to another one of my constituents. She wrote to me and said:
“My name is Sarah. I live in Telford. I am a mother to Alfie, who is 5 years old. Alfie has Down’s syndrome. In April 2018, at night, our son began to haemorrhage and he was taken to Telford A&E. Whilst there Alfie started to have a massive haemorrhage (blood was pouring from his mouth and nose and you could not even see his face or his beautiful blond hair). I was immediately told to run with him to Resus. There was so much blood. He was rushed in for an emergency operation to cauterise the bleed. Then our world then truly fell apart. He failed to breathe in air, post surgery. It took the theatre staff three hours to get him stable. The point of telling you this is quite simple. If A&E at PRH had been closed, Alfie would have had his 2nd and massive haemorrhage whilst still being transported to wherever they deemed to take us. I have chills just thinking of what the outcome would have been for our beautiful son. Put simply, having A&E open 24/7 saved Alfie’s life.”
I know the Secretary of State has tried his best to save our A&E from the hospital management’s plan. Indeed, he announced on the Conservative MPs’ WhatsApp group last week:
“Lucy, we’ve saved the A&E at Telford. We have just put a further £5 million into Telford’s hospital just last week.”
That would clearly be fantastic news. If it were indeed the case, I would not be standing here today; I would be writing an election leaflet proclaiming the good news to my constituents. Let us not be flippant and casual about something that is so important. My constituents want to know what an A&E local is and, importantly, whether the hospital management will agree to support it. When I asked the Minster’s parliamentary aide, my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan), whether she could find out more about A&E local, she asked her assistant to respond to me. They said that my inquiry would be passed on to the Department for a response, which, in the light of the impending dissolution of Parliament, would not come until after Christmas at the earliest, in 2020.
It was the Minister’s decision to rush out an announcement in support of the management’s plan. He chose to do so without having worked out what would happen in Telford. Having made that announcement of his own volition, it is not good enough to say, “You’ll just have to wait to find out more.” How do I explain that to my constituents? If the funding for a new 20-bed ward for winter pressures has increased from £4 million to £5 million, that is fantastic, but I want to know and be able to tell my constituents about that. Simply mentioning it in a WhatsApp group is not enough; something has gone wrong with the communication.
My mission as an MP is to stand up for my constituents and take up their needs and concerns, so I know that the Minister will fully understand why I am so aggrieved that my constituents have been treated this way. Their treatment has been shabby and disrespectful. We are talking about the issue that matters most to my constituents, which is why I have helped them to crowdfund the money and seek counsel’s opinion on whether to pursue judicial review. We have nearly hit our target—thank you Telford—but it should not have come to this. A little more respect for the people of Telford would have avoided this situation.
During this lengthy saga, a former hospitals Minister—not my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), who is here today—said to me, “They can’t all expect to have an A&E at the end of their road you know, Lucy.” My constituents have never asked for that and nor would they. They ask only to be treated as equal to anyone else in their value, worth and dignity, and that is what they deserve.
My hon. Friend and neighbour makes a powerful case, as she always does when standing up for her constituents in the House. She has given some very moving examples of the messages that she receives and of the strength of feeling in the community that she serves. Does she recognise that the debate on acute services provision in Shropshire and Telford—that is the wider area, which extends to mid-Wales—has been ongoing for decades? In all the time that I have been a Member of Parliament, the difficulty arising from indecision about the reconfiguration of acute services has led to many services being provided out of county.
My hon. Friend mentioned stroke and cardiac services. Many of those are now provided in Staffordshire, so Shropshire has already lost services and people have to make long journeys. A reason for that is the difficulty in persuading enough clinicians with sufficient seniority and experience to provide a safe 24/7 service for our constituents. Although I completely understand her regret—half of my constituents would prefer to see the Telford services remain where they are—does she not see the opportunity to resolve the crisis and to ensure that we retain quality services for our combined populations? The area that she has focused—
As a former hospitals Minister and long-serving Member of Parliament for the area, my right hon. Friend has a great level of expertise on this subject. He makes some excellent points, some of which I agree with. We are very fortunate that £312 million of Government money is being invested in the area, but I want my constituents to benefit from that, which is why we are having this debate.
If I return to Parliament after 12 December—I suspect the Secretary of State would rather I did not—I will do all I can to ensure that my constituents are treated better than they have been until now. As suggested by the Leader of the House, I will seek redress of grievance for my constituents, whether in Parliament or by working with them to challenge the decision in the courts.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) and congratulate her on securing this important debate. As ever, she spoke on behalf of her constituents with passion and determination. She and I entered the House on the same day in 2015, and I would be mortified if she did not return after the election, although I suspect she will. I know that the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, to whom she referred throughout her speech, would share my sentiments and wish for her to return to the House because she is an exemplary Member of Parliament, even though, on occasion, she may press us to go further when she is speaking up for her constituents.
I echo the spirit of my hon. Friend’s speech by thanking everybody who works in our amazing NHS for everything they do, particularly those who work in her local hospital in Telford. I know that there are strong feelings on all sides of this debate, but whatever the differences of view, everyone involved—particularly my hon. Friend—wants to do the right thing for patients.
As hon. Members will know, major service change in the NHS is complex. My right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), a distinguished former Minister of State for Health, knows that only too well and alluded to it in his remarks. Major service change involves a number of factors, and it is vital that the voices of local people and their MPs, including my hon. Friend the Member for Telford, are heard and respected at all stages. I am grateful for the opportunity to provide a brief overview of the plans and to update my hon. Friend on our progress in recent days.
My hon. Friend mentioned the Future Fit plans. The set of proposals that fall under that heading have been under development for a number of years. The case for change was first articulated about 10 years ago, and the clinically driven scheme proposed to transform services across Royal Shrewsbury Hospital and Princess Royal Hospital. A 15-week consultation on those proposals ran in summer 2018, and feedback was received from more than 18,000 responses.
The joint committee of the Shropshire and Telford and Wrekin clinical commissioning groups decided to proceed with the preferred option of the local Future Fit programme. That programme would see the Princess Royal Hospital in Telford become a dedicated planned care site and the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital become a specialist emergency care site. Under those proposals, patients would continue to be able to access 24-hour urgent care services at both hospitals, meaning that 80% of patients would continue to go to the same hospital for emergency and urgent care. The model would also see women and children’s consultant-led in-patient services provided at the Royal Shrewsbury in the future.
As has been alluded to, in March this year Telford and Wrekin Council referred the scheme to the Secretary of State, who in turn referred it to the Independent Reconfiguration Panel, which then provided its advice to the Department on 31 July.
Turning to the crux of my hon. Friend’s concerns about the A&E and urgent and emergency care, she is right that all patients should receive excellent healthcare throughout their life, no matter where they live. Any changes to services are rightly based on clinically led decisions at the local level. I am delighted that, as she mentioned, we are investing £312 million to support acute services in the local area.
The Secretary of State, following thorough consideration, accepted the IRP’s impartial advice, which looked at urgent and emergency care across Shrewsbury and Telford, and recommended that the emergency care centre for the region should remain at the Royal Shrewsbury. My hon. Friend the Member for Telford has been courteous but clear about disagreeing with that advice, on behalf of her constituents.
The Secretary of State also asked NHS England to come forward with proposals within a month on how to keep the A&E in Telford open as an A&E local, to ensure that the Princess Royal Hospital can continue to deliver the urgent and emergency care that the residents of my hon. Friend’s constituency need and value so much. That request drew on the advice provided by the IRP. Plans for A&E locals are being developed by NHS England and NHS Improvement, and the Department has been in close contact about those developments.
NHS England has now published the proposal, following the Secretary of State’s request. He and I are delighted with the development. The Shrewsbury and Telford trust has put forward a model that will enable an enhanced service that is distinct from an urgent treatment centre. The model will increase the volume of activity that can safely be delivered through the proposed urgent treatment centre on the planned care site at PRH.
I understand that the Secretary of State and NHS England have today written to my hon. Friend the Member for Telford. If I may, I will touch on what that letter says. She may well wish to come back on it, once I have let her know what it states. The Secretary of State has been clear: the A&E at the Princess Royal Hospital, Telford, will remain open as an A&E local.
In my constituency, there is concern as to what “A&E local” means. I am aware that there is 24/7 walk-in, which is fantastic, although most of my constituents do not know that, but will “A&E local” be defined in more detail? I have not yet received the letter, so will the Minister enlighten me and my constituents?
I am happy to do so. I hope that what I say will be helpful to my hon. Friend, but I am always happy to have a further conversation, if she so wishes after this debate. If she and I are both successfully returned to this place and doing the same things, I would be delighted to meet her.
The trust and local commissioners will further develop a framework of options for outside core hours. The trust has proposed a model that will increase the volume of activity that can safely be delivered through the proposed UTC on the planned care site. It proposes an emergency medicine consultant presence throughout core hours, a consultant-led ambulatory emergency care service for specific pathways, and additional diagnostic presence. That model means that the PRH will continue to provide A&E services. We are satisfied that that meets the proposed A&E local model.
My hon. Friend will wish to consider that further, and she may wish to have a further conversation with me, but I believe that the proposal is testament to the strong voice that Telford has because she listens to her constituents. It is a victory for my hon. Friend in speaking up for her constituents.
I am very grateful indeed to hear the Minister’s comments and, in particular, to see some movement—a shift indicating that we are being listened to and that Telford is not being ignored. I am grateful for that development and progress. As the Minister will understand, I may well continue to push for further progress, but it is a step in the right direction and I am grateful for it.
I am grateful. It would be a brave Minister who ignored either Telford or my hon. Friend, and I am not sure that I am quite that brave.
I believe that this is welcome news, although I know that my hon. Friend will want to consider and digest it. It also comes on top of the extra £4 million in winter capital funding going to the PRH—again, she argued for that and helped to secure it—which the Secretary of State announced last week, to reduce pressure on the A&E and to prepare for winter.
I confirm that that is capital funding for her hospital to prepare for this winter and to meet the challenges it faces.
The detail of the proposal has still to be worked up, and NHS England will work with the trust, its partners and the Royal College of Emergency Medicine to support the development of the model and a timeline for its implementation. I hope my hon. Friend wishes to be involved in that process, and that both of us will be back here to have that conversation later in the year.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) on securing this important debate. A number of constituents from the west side of my constituency rely absolutely on the Princess Royal Hospital in Telford. Will the model mentioned by the Minister include, as it does in Stafford, the reception of blue-light services—that is, 999 ambulances —in the medical sphere at least? It is important to understand that, because the ability to receive blue-light services is what distinguishes an A&E from an urgent care centre.
May I crave your indulgence, Mr Betts? My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) is retiring from Parliament at this election, so it would be wrong of me not to take the opportunity to pay tribute to him. He has been an extraordinary advocate for Stafford and, more than that, an asset to this Parliament and previous ones. He is a thoroughly decent and honourable man, and Parliament will be a poorer place without him sitting in it. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]
In respect of the point that my hon. Friend made, my understanding—I will clarify this subsequently, if necessary—is that the model will be underpinned by comprehensive pathways and protocols agreed with the ambulance services for blue-light transfer when the consultant cover is available, or diversion when not. There is, however, direct engagement with the ambulance trust. As I have said, hon. Members will need time and further discussion to consider the proposal, but I think and hope that they will agree with me that it is a useful first step to making progress.
To conclude, this is positive news for Telford, and that is down to my hon. Friend the Member for Telford, who is a strong and determined local champion for her constituents and for the town of Telford. They are incredibly lucky to have her as their representative and their voice in Parliament. I am confident that that voice will be speaking up for them in this House for many years to come. If they want a strong local voice in this House and for their hospital and NHS, every vote that they cast for my hon. Friend in the forthcoming election will deliver exactly that.
Question put and agreed to.
School Uniform Costs
[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered school uniform costs.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate, although it feels a little like we are in the graveyard shift at the end of a very long Parliament. As I said to the Minister just before the debate, it is a genuine pleasure to talk to him about education once more. I started this parliamentary Session talking about education, so to finish it this way feels complete. I want to focus on the cost of school uniforms, and I will make recommendations that I hope schools and the Minister will follow.
After nine years of cuts, benefit cuts and stagnating wages, an increasing number of parents are unable to meet the basic cost of living, and the knock-on effect of that reality is a rise in child poverty. Currently, 8.3 million working-age adults and 4.6 million children are living in poverty. The numbers continue to rise, and forecasts predict that they are set to exceed the record levels of the early 1990s, which should concern us all deeply.
Recent research has brought to light many of the negative effects that growing up in poverty has on children. Some are stark and brutal. In the most deprived areas of our country, girls can expect to live 20 fewer years of their lives in good health, compared with those in the least-deprived areas. For boys, it is 19 fewer years. Both genders are four times more likely to develop mental health problems by the age of 11.
The indignities and suffering brought about by poverty are often less obvious. Every September, we see children on their way to start the new school year looking very smart in their uniforms, and our thoughts might turn to our own, or perhaps our children’s, first day. I was a teacher, and I remember the pleasure of having my classroom windows overlook the children starting school and lining up with their brand-new book bags, which were nearly as big as them, as they stood outside, waiting to meet their new teacher.
I now see children in uniforms through a different set of eyes. I was deeply affected by the testimony of a group of mothers at an evidence session of the Select Committee on Education. They told us of the demands placed on them by the increasing cost of school uniforms. Uniform dress codes now rarely consist of a simple badged sweatshirt and dark trousers or a skirt; they now include shirts, ties, blazers, and PE kits, indoor and out, all branded and often available through only a single supplier. I was devasted by the parents’ description of skipping meals to try to meet the ever-increasing costs.
Tragically, those accounts do not represent rare and isolated circumstances. Research from the Children’s Society shows that nearly one in six families said that school uniforms were to blame for their having to cut back on food and other basic essentials. Its report, “The Wrong Blazer 2018: Time for action on school uniform costs”, revealed that families have to find an average of £340 per year for each child at secondary school—an increase of 7% since 2015. Parents of primary school children spent an average of £255—an increase of 2%.
Parentkind’s latest annual survey of parents confirms that upward pressure: 76% of parents reported that the cost of sending children to school is increasing, and more than half are worried about meeting that cost. The high cost of uniforms is in some cases maintained by school policies that insist that parents buy clothing from specialist shops, rather than giving them the choice of buying items at cheaper stores, such as supermarkets or high street chains. When parents had to buy two or more school uniform items from a specific supplier, spending was found to be an average of £71 per year higher for secondary school children and £77 higher per year for primary school children. Some schools demand that seemingly generic items, such as a pair of black trousers, a PE top or shorts, must carry the school badge or logo, which also locks parents into specific retailers.
My hon. Friend is making a very important speech. This matter was brought to my attention by my constituents when a school changed its uniform policy to have badged trousers, skirts, blazers and other items of clothing. Does she agree that schools can take matters into their own hands not only by having generic main items of clothing, but by using uniform exchanges, which not only help families that cannot afford school uniforms, but are good for the environment?
I completely agree. I will go on to talk about uniform exchanges and the impact on the environment. The House of Commons did some social media outreach in advance of this debate. Someone from Birmingham said: “My niece is from a disadvantaged school background and had to completely replace her school uniform within six months of starting a new secondary school.” Someone else wrote: “My dad needs to buy me a PE kit, which is around £80 for everything I need. I can’t do PE, and get detention every time I go to PE. I feel embarrassed going to PE knowing everyone will make fun of me not being able to afford the extreme costs.” There are many other examples.
I am interested in what the hon. Lady is saying, because I have also had people contact me. One lady said that supermarkets are an ideal place to go because she can get matching clothes. I was surprised to find that Tesco used to embroider badges on at parents’ request. It does not do it now, but the supplier will do it. Parents pay £4 for a pair of trousers, instead of something outrageous if it is from the key supplier. It is in the hands of the schools if they wish to do it.
I agree in part, but I want to put a bit of pressure on the Minister to try to force schools to ensure that uniforms are as cheap as possible, because there are alternatives out there.
This is not just about the increasing cost of uniforms; the fashionable zero-tolerance approach to behaviour is also having an impact on the education of children from hard-up families. More than one in 20 parents reported that their child had been sent home for wearing non-approved clothes or shoes, or even the wrong socks, as a result of struggling to afford the costs. That is something that came up in the evidence. Children are being sent home or are being put into isolation for the day because their uniform is not absolutely accurate. Based on Department for Education statistics on the number of children in primary and secondary schools across England, that translates to about half a million children having suffered the indignity and humiliation of being sent home from school or put in isolation—punished for no reason other than the misfortune of having been born part of a family that is living in poverty.
The pernicious nature of poverty sours even what we might remember as the fun parts of school. It is known that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are likely to miss out on school extras, such as trips or music lessons, but evidence has emerged recently showing that the growing trend of schools increasing the number of dress-up days, often as a means of shoring up their depleted funds, is resulting in an increase in the number of unauthorised absences among those pupils.
An analysis of attendance data by the Association of School and College Leaders shows a significant increase in the number of unauthorised absences among pupils on 14 December. The date puzzled the researchers until they realised that the date was traditionally Christmas jumper day. Unauthorised absences among pupils regarded as disadvantaged in the schools studied were nearly three times higher than on a typical day. For those regarded as without disadvantage, it was still nearly twice as high. At the risk of sounding like the Grinch before Christmas, I encourage schools to change Christmas jumper day to something more straightforward, such as Christmas hat day. The school could provide all the materials for the children, who could still dress up and enjoy Christmas, but it would not put off children from poorer backgrounds from attending school that day and learning, just because they cannot afford the cost of a Christmas jumper.
The fact that the embarrassment of standing out drives pupils to skip school casts a different light on the Children’s Society’s findings: about one in 10 said that the unaffordability of uniforms had led to the child wearing unclean or ill-fitting uniforms to school. I received feedback from some teenage girls about that, and they talked about the humiliation they felt at having to go to school in ill-fitting uniforms. One parent told me that her daughter was sent home because her skirt was too tight and was seen as not correctly following the school uniform code. However, the girl had grown considerably after a sudden growth spurt, and the parent was unable to afford a new uniform, especially as the need for logos makes it more expensive.
Our children are growing up in an increasingly image-conscious world where bullying has become easier through social media. As I have said, children in poverty are four times more likely to have a mental health problem by the age of 11. It seems unlikely that there is no connection between children being forced to go to school in ill-fitting or unclean uniform and their feeling an impact on their mental health.
My response to hearing the harrowing testimony from mothers at the Education Committee hearing was to organise a uniform exchange in my constituency, called RE:Uniform, which began at the beginning of summer term and ran through the summer holidays. Thanks to a network of volunteers—in particular, I thank Reverend David Speirs and Susie Steel from the Methodist Church, the Hessle Road Network and many others—items of school uniform that were no longer needed but still perfectly wearable were collected at pick-up-and drop-off points. They were washed, ironed, sorted and made available, for free, to anyone who needed them. It was a huge success—we helped more than 500 families and we intend to repeat it. That kind of scheme should be part of everyday life. Although some schools do similar schemes, one of the great things about the RE:Uniform project was that it mixed up uniform from across the city. Some areas may have a more expensive generic uniforms, and it might end up being distributed to another area of the city. That was its strength and the reason it worked so well.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate and for sharing that example with us. She is making a powerful speech. A Huffington Post journalist recently visited Moorside primary school in Halifax and published an article that reflected not only on cuts in schools but on how poverty at home had an impact on a child’s learning, through hunger in the classroom and school uniforms. The article included some incredibly powerful images of tiny children’s feet in pumps with holes in them and of holes in school uniform sleeves. Does my hon. Friend agree that while the Government do support a number of schemes to make sure that children are fed and can learn in the classroom, there is not a great deal of support for families to pay uniform costs?
I agree with my hon. Friend that the Government can do more. In fact, the Welsh Government are insisting on a limit on school uniform costs and on gender-neutral uniform. They are giving parents the power to hold schools to account if they are not acting in the parents’ interest, but unfortunately we do not have that option for schools in England. The scheme that we ran was very successful, but it could have been even more so had all schools been encouraged to take off the badges and have generic uniform, because if uniforms did not have badges, they could be shared more easily across the city.
Putting costs and poverty aside for a moment, we need to think about a sustainable future and consider the pressures on the environment and the challenges of climate change. Last Saturday I attended a fantastic event in Hull: an eco and affordable fashion show, where people had made incredibly inventive clothes out of discarded materials. I sat next to an amazing woman who called herself “the mean queen” and said she could live on hardly anything. She had knitted a bag out of the tape from a video cassette—it was absolutely amazing. I am not saying we all need to that, but perhaps we need to think about sustainable fashion and reusing things.
There is no evidence that a school uniform, let alone a highly prescriptive and zealously enforced school uniform, improves educational outcomes for any children, disadvantaged or otherwise. A perception seems to have grown over time that, somehow, the stricter the uniform, the better behaved the child, but I have seen no evidence of any correlation. Having a uniform that all parents and children can access is more likely to build positive relationships with parents and the community, and, therefore, instil a better attitude to learning at school.
The Department for Education states that it
“strongly encourages schools to have a uniform”,
and believes that
“uniform can play a valuable role in contributing to the ethos of a school and setting an appropriate tone”.
The Department insists that schools should have a uniform, but I put it to the Minister that perhaps it needs to do more to ensure that it is affordable for everyone. Currently, the Department expects schools only to “take account” of its published guidance on school uniforms. The guidance states that a school’s uniform policy should be clearly set out and subject to reasonable requests for variation, and that any changes should take into account the views of parents and pupils, but there is no mention of affordability. Specifically, it says:
“No school uniform should be so expensive as to leave pupils or their families feeling unable to apply to, or attend, a school of their choice, due to the cost of the uniform. School governing bodies should therefore give high priority to cost considerations. The governing body should be able to demonstrate how best value has been achieved and keep the cost of supplying the uniform under review.”
The evidence I have presented shows that the guidance is routinely ignored. Parents up and down the country are starving themselves to pay for school uniform. In September, Lord Agnew agreed with me that the approach of some schools to uniform was “ridiculous” and “mindless bureaucracy” on their part. He said,
“They don’t realise that actually this is an additional burden for a family that’s not well off”,
and that he was
“happy to amend the guidance.”
That was very welcome, but in the light of the fact that schools clearly disregard the guidance, the Minister should make it statutory. In response to a written question in July, the Minister said that the Department intended to put the school uniform guidance on a statutory footing,
“when a suitable legislative opportunity arose.”
I would like to think that neither my nor any other party would oppose that proposal, and that we can all unite in agreement. It could, therefore, be progressed extremely quickly, although I realise that time is getting a little tight. Instead, however, it has been put on the back shelf.
We need to poverty-proof the school day, beginning with a school uniform price cap. The Children’s Society proposes taking a similar approach to that of the Financial Conduct Authority in its capping of rent-to-own products. It proposes the benchmarking of prices and an average as the cap. That would involve a school’s regulatory body surveying the market to ascertain the cost of school uniform items and setting the cap based on that. Then, under statutory guidance, schools would be responsible not only for ensuring that they are making affordability a primary concern, but for demonstrating that their uniform policy is in keeping with the cap. In short, under the cap, would a family be able to afford the items of uniform set out in the school’s policy?
Introducing such a measure would not be without challenge. It would require some extra administrative work for schools, to ensure that their uniform cost is within the cap. Crucially, it would require an honest and accurate assessment of the incomes of poor families and the other claims on their spending, to decide what is realistically affordable for them. Recently, many decision makers have struggled to accept the true scale and nature of poverty in this country.
The measure should alleviate the unnecessary costs facing all parents. However, for millions the root cause of the problem will remain—ever-increasing poverty in our country. In response, the Labour party is prepared to reinvest in this country, to make work pay and to properly support those who are out of work or disabled. It will create a unified national education service for England, to provide cradle-to-grave learning that is free at the point of use. Fully funded, it will begin the huge task of turning around the effects of years of cuts and neglect, and will incorporate all forms of education, from early years through to adult education. That will be built on the principles that underpin the Labour movement: a society should be judged on how it treats the weakest and most vulnerable, and should believe that every child—and adult—matters.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, for what inevitably will be the last time in this Parliament. It is also a pleasure to participate in a Westminster Hall debate; I have spoken in a large number of them and I am a happy to finish this Parliament speaking in one. The third pleasure is to follow the speech by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy).
Let me start with where we agree. I would like to hear from the Minister what the plans are for the guidance on school uniforms and whether it will be made statutory. For the reasons the hon. Lady set out, I fully accept the benefit of making that guidance statutory, as I think it will help. Where we tend to differ is in our attitude to school uniforms as a whole. I regard them as important and I have seen evidence, which I am happy to make available, that schools with a school uniform perform better and their children feel much more cohesive and part of something bigger. I would hate to lose that and, thinking back to my own time at school, the feeling of collectiveness that followed from it.
However, I agree that we need to help with the cost of school uniforms, which averages around £350. That is quite a lot, particularly for families at the bottom end of the pay scale. Interesting new methods have been developed to tackle that. I will come to one of them, but my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) mentioned another: putting pressure on organisations to allow badges to be sewn on to standard clothing, which is much cheaper and is accessible to everyone.
In my experience, many schools—I have not done a calculation on this, so I will not say most—take this issue into account and have their own schemes to help disadvantaged families afford uniforms, where one is in existence. Such schemes are very helpful. However, one of the most interesting schemes I have come across uses the internet to make what are, in effect, second-hand clothes much more widely available. I see a lot of attraction in that. People might argue, “Well, it’s second-hand clothing,” but the person who founded the charity that established that scheme was clear when she said, “Well, heavens; a school uniform, whether it’s new or not, looks second hand within two weeks of being worn.” That is absolutely true, so I do not think the fact that the clothing is second hand should play a major part in preventing anyone from being able to engage in that sort of transaction, and it has a material impact on the cost of the items concerned.
This is an important issue to have raised at the end of this Parliament. As I said, it will be interesting to hear the Minister’s response about the statutory basis on which school clothing is to be founded.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, and to follow the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) on securing the debate, and on her tireless work to raise the profile of an issue that for too long has flown beneath the radar, despite having a real and significant impact on our constituents’ lives.
According to the Children’s Society, 1 million children in England live in families that get into debt just to meet the rising cost of school uniforms. One in six families blames school uniform costs for having to cut back on food and other essentials. One resident in my constituency told me she had forked out more than £120 for one child’s school uniform and PE kit. That is a staggering amount to pay, but the reasons why people have to do so are well known. Some schools require compulsory branded items, some request expensive specialist gear, and others use single suppliers and retailers—even getting a financial incentive to do so. As if that were not enough, for many struggling parents this is an annual occurrence, as their children quickly grow out of purchased uniforms, and many must pay to clothe several children.
This summer, in response to the concern among parents in my constituency, I organised the Barnsley East school uniform exchange, which was an opportunity for those who had uniforms they no longer needed to pass them on to other families in need. I was blown away by the response. Not only did we manage to provide uniforms for children and families who might have struggled otherwise, but we helped to facilitate a community’s coming together, sharing resources and helping one another out. It was a testament to the incredible generosity in Barnsley, and such was the response that we already have uniforms ready and waiting to go for the next school year, when I plan to continue the exchange.
Ultimately, however, we should not have to rely on the generosity of our friends and neighbours to help provide even the basics, especially when it comes to children and their experiences in education. Provisions and guidance to schools to ensure that uniforms remain affordable and accessible should be reinstated following their dilution under this Government, and greater ability for local authorities to keep the costs down would undoubtedly make a difference. No family should be left vulnerable, and no child left disadvantaged, because of what for too many is the extortionate price of education. Schools, local authorities and communities can come together to tackle the burden, but action must start with the Government.
It is always a pleasure to speak in Westminster Hall. I thank the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) for what he said; it is nice almost to complete this Parliament in Westminster Hall—I suspect there may be one more debate to come, but that is by the by.
I am very pleased to be involved in this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) on bringing it forward. This is a massive issue in my constituency. The Minister does not have responsibility for it, because it is a devolved matter—if the Assembly were working, it would be sorting it out—but, if I may, I would like to make some remarks in relation to Northern Ireland.
This is a big issue in my constituency simply because, as the hon. Lady and everyone else who spoke said, a number of families are in the clutches of in-work poverty. That term probably has not been used very often in the House, but it happens to people. I find there is a squeezed lower middle class, who find it more difficult than anybody else just to try to get through because they are outside the benefit system, so they feel the pain. They go to work, yet the money coming in does not satisfy the money going out, particularly in August and September every year, as parents scramble to get school uniforms.
Some retailers that are aware of the pressure on parents offer packages. For instance—nobody will know this—Crawford’s across from my advice centre on Frances Street in Newtownards has offers online for all the major schools and some others, designed to help parents get a good deal. Mr Crawford has been doing that for umpteen years, and he does it very well. However, by their nature, offers are time limited, and if someone does not have the money in August and September, they must scrape together even more to meet their child’s basic school needs.
Expensive uniforms are another form of discrimination: if someone cannot afford the uniform, they cannot attend the school. They may have the educational qualities, but can they buy the uniform? No, they cannot. Unfortunately, therefore, parents may have to make difficult decisions for children who have the educational quality. Everybody, including the Minister, wants everyone to have the same opportunity for educational achievement, but someone who is poor and does not have much income will sometimes make decisions based not on how bright wee Johnny or Sally is but on what they can afford.
In 2017, the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People published a report stating that the average cost of a school uniform in Northern Ireland is £109 per child, with yearly education costs well over £1,200 a year. I am going to mention some things that hon. Members have already mentioned, because it is important that they are on the record. Last year, a survey found that more than a third of families in Northern Ireland go into debt at the beginning of the new school year because of rising costs. A third of families in Northern Ireland go into debt just to get the uniform to get their children to school. School uniform grants are available from the Education Authority to families in receipt of universal credit or certain other benefits, but, at best, those grants cover only a fraction of the cost of the typical school uniform, and people are struggling greatly.
We should try to encourage children to be active, yet when they join a school club—hockey, football, rugby, athletics or whatever it may be—and travel to matches, they must be in their PE tracksuit with full school insignia, and then their actual playing gear and all the rest. Again, that is a method of discrimination. It can be heartbreaking for a family on the poverty line to realise that their child is good enough for the school team but that they cannot be part of it because the family cannot afford the prohibitive cost of the uniform. With full PE kits starting at £240—those are the cheaper options—and children needing one at least every other year, that is a massive cost. Let us be honest: the hon. Member for Henley mentioned how a uniform can look well used in a couple of weeks, and PE kits can get damaged as well, so that £240 may be unfortunately only the start of the cost. For that reason, some children are not taking part in school clubs, staying away not because they do not have the interest, the enthusiasm, the energy or the ability but because their mums and dads cannot afford the massive cost.
We are in 2019, and I truly thought these days were behind us, yet it is clear that children are penalised in their education because their parents work as hard as they can but have difficulty just making ends meet. I believed that was why working tax credit was created, to step in, fill the gaps and help with school uniforms and the now obligatory hockey, football, Gaelic football and rugby uniforms, as it should. Yet unfortunately in August and September, and at other times of the year, whenever parents come to see me, I see at first hand in my office that it is not working. We need more help for those who are working and yet are on the breadline—the working poor. That is a real issue.
At this stage, I wish to thank some people in my constituency who do great work. The likes of the Ards Community Network, Friends of Regent House and other residents’ groups have introduced a system, like the one referred to by the hon. Member for Henley, where used uniforms that are still in good condition can be dropped off to help those who cannot do it all. Hon. Members have referred to similar organisations. Those initiatives must be applauded and encouraged, but they highlight the failure of the system we have in place. That we need those initiatives illustrates clearly that we need help.
As a side issue, the Trussell Trust opened its first food bank in Northern Ireland in Newtownards in December 2011. I was there at the opening. It is now operating in more than 20 locations across the region. Families in crisis are up by over 13%. The welfare system is missing those people on the peripheries. I sincerely ask for a review of the school uniform grants procedure to help those on the edge.
I know that this is a devolved matter for Northern Ireland and that the Minister has no responsibility for what happens there, but hon. Members’ reflections are mirrored in my constituency as well. School uniform grants must help those who may be above the threshold on paper but in real life are struggling.
It is so important that children are happy at school. In my constituency and across Northern Ireland—I am sure this affects other hon. Members—we have some of the highest figures for young people at primary school level, and certainly at secondary school level, with mental health problems. Why is that? It is because they are not happy at school. I suggest very gently to the Minister and hon. Members that we must improve the quality of life for our children at school. We must ensure that they all have equal opportunities in education and so on. If that happens, we can make a change. My question to the Minister is this: when will that happen?
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) on securing the debate on the last day of this Parliament. It is not quite the graveyard shift, as she put it. We may be competing with the House on who finishes first—I believe the valedictory speeches have just started—and I know you are anxious to get in the final word of this Parliament, Mr Pritchard. I thank my hon. Friend for her work. She is an indefatigable campaigner on education, not just as a former trade unionist in education but as a former teacher, like me. Her passion shines through.
I thank all Members who contributed to the debate. The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) rightly said that uniforms bring a common identity. Few schools up and down the land do not have some sort of uniform. He also talked about second-hand clothes, as did my hon. Friend. I might not be forgiven for saying this, as a Mancunian MP from Cottonopolis, but we now know that cotton production is one of the greatest polluters on the planet. We must begin to think of new ways to go forward sustainably. Recycling, reuse and reduction of cotton is therefore important.
I was taken aback by the community organising project of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), putting power into the hands of people who struggle to purchase uniform individually. Bringing people together for a school uniform exchange is a remarkably good idea. If she does not mind, I may well steal it for my own constituency.
As ever, whether in Westminster Hall debates or Adjournment debates, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made some strong points. Poverty is common across our islands, and it is a form of discrimination if parents have to fork out too much for uniforms.
We know that common uniform policy reduces bullying in schools, and I saw it for myself. Sometimes as a schoolteacher I would dread non-uniform days. The school where I taught was in a very mixed area. There were some rich areas from which children would come in wearing designer Nike gear, and some came in wearing supermarket gear. Even at quite a young age, they knew the difference. That is important.
I think of my constituency, which StepChange says has 3,000 families containing 5,000 children in toxic debt—the most in England, for sure—owing about £14 million to utility companies, dependent on payday lenders and pawn brokers to get to the end of the month. They are unable to pay when their white goods break down and they are really struggling to get by. I also have the highest number of social tenants who are affected by the bedroom tax—or the spare room subsidy. This is therefore a timely debate to finish off this Parliament.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle said, nine years of austerity has been unrelenting. Universal credit is failing, driving people to debt and even destitution. For many in my constituency and up and down the land, and particularly for those in faith communities, the two-child policy for child benefit is an utter disgrace. I pray for the day of a Labour Government. If one comes about in a few weeks’ time, that is one of the first things we will deal with. If we do have a Conservative Government, I pray for the day on which they will change their mind, because it is driving people to despair.
More than 4 million children are growing up in poverty. More than 1 million are forced to go to food banks, and it is predicted to get worse. My food banks coalition came to me towards the end of August—we will all have faced this—saying, “We have run out of food, Mr Kane.” I asked, “Why have you run out of food? We have churches, civil society, supermarkets and business contributing week in, week out.” They said, “It’s school uniform buying week.” They were out of food at the Wythenshawe food bank. The Government should be hanging their head in shame that those families are in that situation.
There are also signs that our increasingly fragmented schools system hampers what we can offer our parents and children. It is a system that allows free schools and academies to act as islands, independent of their communities and the needs of the children they are supposed to support. On this Government’s watch, we have seen parent governors stripped from school governing bodies up and down the land. It is a system with no means by which parents can hold a school to account, and the Government have failed entirely to act on parents’ concerns. Academies and free schools set rigid dress codes with expensive uniforms that cannot be bought on the high street, and children are sent home from school because their parents cannot afford to meet those dress codes.
The system has exacerbated sending children home, with 10,000 children off-rolled in the last year alone. We give a charter to criminals and county line gangs when we send children home and we have no idea where they are. The system is broken. What is the Minister doing to ensure that children do not lose time in school because their parents cannot meet unrealistic demands on school uniforms? When will the Minister ensure that the Government meet their pledge to make school uniform guidance legally binding? What are the Minister and the Government doing to address the ever-increasing challenge faced by parents to pay for the basics? What will they do to ensure that support is available when they have overseen the abolition by stealth of the school uniform grant?
Time after time, Labour has pressed Ministers to take action, but yet again we are well into a school year with parents paying the price for the Government’s failure to act. The Government pledged statutory guidance in 2015, yet, four years and three Prime Ministers on, they still hide behind the excuse that they could not find parliamentary time. It is clearer than ever that parents, children and teachers need a Government that will act on their behalf—a Labour Government with a national education service. Will the Minister pledge to us today to end once and for all the perverse situation whereby poverty acts as a barrier to children attending school?
Finally, may I thank all Members who have contributed today and to the parliamentary Session? Putting one’s name on a ballot paper, from whatever political party, is a brave act: an increasingly braver act these days. I wish all Members good luck and I thank the Minister for his courtesy over the past few years. I have stood opposite him many times in many debates. I thank the House staff, the Doorkeepers and all who keep us safe and functioning in this place.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I hope it will not be for the last time, even if it is the last time during this long parliamentary Session. I echo the comments made by the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane), whose views I share. It is a worthwhile occupation to stand for election to public office in our great democracy. It is a pity that politicians are treated in the way that too many of us are. We need to do more across parties to re-establish the safety and position of politicians and how they are regarded by the public. I am sure that together we can do a lot to enhance their reputation.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) on securing this important debate and on her powerful opening speech. I am aware of the hon. Lady’s concerns, given her role as a member of the Education Committee. I also congratulate her on her work with the RE:Uniform campaign, and the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) on similar campaigns in her constituency. Such campaigns facilitate the exchange of second-hand school uniforms for many in both their constituencies. I am sure that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East, will not be the only person stealing her ideas.
The hon. Gentleman said that school uniforms reduce bullying and that when he was a teacher he dreaded non-school uniform days, which reveal too harshly who has designer clothes and who does not. That is why I am a keen adherent and supporter of school uniform in this country. Where I disagree with him is on how we ensure that poverty is reduced to an absolute minimum. A driving objective of Conservative economic policy is to reduce poverty. We have the lowest level of unemployment since the mid-1970s. There are fewer workless households and fewer children living in workless households today as a consequence of our presiding over a strong and what I would call a stable economy, which is our objective going forward. We want to maintain a stable and strong economy, keeping unemployment low and the number of jobs at record levels. That is how we reduce poverty in this country. Opposition Members should know that no Labour Government has ever left office with unemployment lower than when they came into office. People need to take that very seriously if they are as determined as we are to reduce poverty in this country.
I am ever mindful of the different aspect in Northern Ireland, but I am conscious of those who are in in-work poverty. Have the Government had an opportunity to assess the extent of that? In my constituency it is enormous, but I suspect it is the same in every other hon. Member’s.
The way to reduce in-work poverty is to have a strong economy that creates the wealth that everybody can benefit from. We introduced the national living wage to ensure that people on low wages gain a bigger share of the wealth that our economy creates. Also, we have raised the personal allowance tax threshold to something nearer £11,000 or £12,000, so that people on low incomes pay significantly less tax. Millions of people have been taken out of tax altogether. That is how to tackle poverty and low income. A strong economy with very low levels of unemployment means that wages are pushed up because of market forces.
We can all agree that the cost of school uniform is an important issue for many families. I was grateful for the opportunity to speak about it in response to a debate on this topic secured by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) last year, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss the issue again today. If schools can ensure that uniform items are available at a reasonable cost to parents, there are significant positive benefits that school uniforms can provide. The Government strongly encourage schools to have a school a uniform.
It is common for schools also to have a school dress code, and the overwhelming majority of schools require pupils to wear a uniform. A school uniform can play an important role in contributing to the ethos of a school and setting an appropriate tone. It can help foster a sense of equality and belonging for pupils and reduce pressure for pupils and parents to have to spend money on keeping up with the latest fashions or trends. It can also support discipline and motivation among pupils as part of a wider behaviour policy.
A primary purpose of a uniform is to remove differences between pupils. If everyone is dressed the same, it underlines that we are all equal. With a standard uniform in place, it is harder to tell a pupil’s background. In such ways, uniforms can play an important part in helping pupils feel safe and happy at school. Although decisions about school uniform are made by head teachers and governing bodies, and it is right that they continue to make such decisions, I encourage all schools to have uniform policies for the reasons I have outlined.
When speaking about this topic, I have consistently said that I am clear that the cost of uniform should not act as a barrier to obtaining a good school place. I want all children to be able to attend a school of their parents’ choice wherever possible. No school uniform should be so expensive as to leave pupils or their families feeling unable to apply to or attend a school of their choice. That is made very clear in the admissions code.
Looking back to when I went to secondary school—which I appreciate is some years ago now—I am reminded that the school provided a list of the uniform and equipment that I would need. The cost of all those things was a challenge for my family, and there were things on that list that we paid for that I never used in five years. Could we not do something very quickly and simply to prevent families from having to fund those costs without additional cost to the Government?
Certainly schools should be careful in requiring purchases of equipment that is not needed. It is a loose use of other people’s money by the school, so I share the hon. Lady’s concern about that. I am proud of the pupil premium, which the previous Conservative-led Government introduced. It is about £2.5 billion a year—nearly £1,000 for every secondary school pupil and about £1,300 for every primary school pupil on free school meals. The money can be used to pay for uniforms and equipment that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds might need to have.
One of the points made by some of parents was that when a school is re-brokered as a different academy trust, all the parents then have to buy the new branded uniform for that trust. If the Minister is looking at amending or improving the guidance, could the DFE not say that, in the case of re-brokering, parents will be allowed to continue to use the uniform until the pupil has grown out of it, and can simply purchase new in the new school academy, rather than having to potentially change in September and then in January?
The hon. Lady raises a good point. It is something that we will reflect on. I have often seen schools and academies, in such circumstances, provide the uniform for existing pupils, because of course it is a cost that parents will not have expected. There are many ways around the issue, but it needs to be addressed and taken seriously, as the hon. Lady says.
While school uniform can have a hugely positive impact on a school, by providing cohesion and community for the pupil population, it may present a financial burden to some—particularly to families on low incomes —as has been widely discussed in this important debate. In 2015, the Department commissioned the “Cost of school uniform” survey, which provided the most recent information that we hold on the cost of school uniform and indicated that the average cost of most items decreased between 2007 and 2015—the date of the report—when adjusted for inflation. Moreover, most parents were pleased with the overall cost and quality of their child’s uniform. More than two thirds of parents were happy with the cost of uniform and PE kit. However, in the same survey nearly one fifth of parents reported that they had suffered financial hardship as a result of purchasing their child’s school uniform. It is therefore vital that we do what we can to ensure that school uniform is accessible for all, no matter what the family’s budget.
It is for the governing body of a school, or the academy trust, in the case of academies, to decide whether there should be a school uniform policy, and if so, what it should be. It is also for the governing body to decide how the uniform should be sourced. However, we are clear that governing bodies should give cost considerations the highest priority when making decisions about school uniform. The Department published best practice guidance for school leaders on developing and implementing school uniform policy. That guidance sets out that a school should ensure that its school uniform policy is fair and reasonable for all its students. It should make certain that the uniform is affordable and does not act as a barrier to parents when choosing a school.
School uniform should be easily available for parents to purchase. In particular, the guidance specifically states that schools should seek to select items that can be purchased cheaply—for example, in a supermarket. If parents can shop around for items of uniform, that can encourage competition and enable them to buy their uniform from a retailer at a price that suits their household budget. The Department’s guidance advises schools that, in setting their school uniform policy, they should give the highest priority to cost considerations and achieving value for money for parents.
I am aware that a concern is often mentioned in this context about branded items of uniform, and how those are supplied—something that has been mentioned in the debate. We recognise that schools will often want to adopt items of uniform that are specific to that school, such as a branded blazer or tie. The Department, however, advises schools to keep such branded items of uniform to a minimum, as multiple branded items can significantly increase costs. We recommend that schools should avoid exclusive single-supplier contracts, as those could risk driving up costs. Where schools choose to enter into such contracts, which in some cases may be the best option, they should ensure that they are subject to a regular competitive tendering process to ensure the best value for money.
The hon. Member for Barnsley East raised the issue of schools that receive a financial incentive to use a specified supplier. The guidance explicitly states:
“Schools should not enter into cash back arrangements.”
It is very clear about that. If parents have concerns about the school uniform supply arrangements in relation to competition law, they can raise them with the Competition and Markets Authority. As you may be aware, Mr Pritchard, the CMA wrote an open letter to schools and school uniform suppliers, which provides more detail about its policy, and what powers it has, regarding the appointment of exclusive suppliers for school uniform.
With reference to the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), he will be pleased to know that the Government have committed to putting our best practice guidance on school uniform on to a statutory footing. Opposition Members also made that request. The Secretary of State and the CMA recently engaged in an exchange of open letters on the matter of single-supplier contracts.
We keep those issues under review. As has been pointed out, we are running out of time in this Session, but if a Conservative Government are returned with a functioning majority, I am sure that we will give urgent priority to legislating on the matter in question.
The CMA stated its approval of our commitment to place our guidance on a statutory footing when a suitable legislative opportunity arises, as I am sure it will after the general election. In turn, the Secretary of State has reaffirmed our commitment to do so, which will send a clear signal that we expect schools to ensure that uniform costs are reasonable. I should make it clear that the Government’s stated intention to make school uniform affordable does not undermine our commitment to the principle of uniform itself. Putting our guidance on a statutory footing is directly intended to ensure that school uniforms are affordable for all.
In England, some local authorities provide discretionary grants to help with buying school uniforms. It is a matter for the local authority to decide whether to offer those grants and to set their own criteria for eligibility. Schools may offer individual clothing schemes, such as offering second-hand uniform at reduced prices, as in the uniform scheme that we have heard about today. As I have said, schools can choose to use their pupil premium funding to offer subsidies or grants for school uniforms. Again, that will be a decision for the school to make.
I am enormously grateful for the support that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle has given on this issue. She has raised some important concerns, and I hope that she is relatively happy that the Government also recognise the cost of school uniform as important. We want all children, wherever they are and whatever their background, to be able to secure a good school place, and we do not want the cost of uniform to act as a barrier. The steps that we have taken underline the importance of the cost of school uniform in helping the most disadvantaged members of our society to get access to a good education. The Government have made a commitment to legislate on the issue, which we intend to honour.
I thank all Members who have taken part in this debate. There has been broad agreement on the need to have a school uniform, as it helps to disguise some of the differences in income levels between families. There is also broad agreement on where we need to go forward. Let me push the Minister a little further. He referred to statutory guidance, but I think that should also include a limit on the number of branded items that can be required, and on overall cost. Schools should be encouraged to show and share the cost of their uniforms.
I have one final little push—“If you don’t ask, you don’t get”, as I was always told—to ask whether the Minister will consider introducing grants that are available throughout England, and not linked to a local authority’s ability to pay for them. We know that local authorities have suffered cuts and cannot afford to pay for those grants, but they should be available to every child, regardless of where they live. On that slightly demanding note, I thank all hon. Members—it has been a pleasure to take part in this debate and to continue campaigning on education; and, in the words of Arnie Schwarzenegger, “I’ll be back.”
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered school uniform costs.
Renaissance of East Anglian Fisheries Study
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the recommendations of the Renaissance of East Anglian Fisheries study.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I also welcome my hon. Friend the Minister to his place. He has been very supportive of proposals to revitalise the UK fishing industry, and through the Fisheries Bill, which I hope is only temporarily stalled, he has provided a framework for doing that.
My interest is in the East Anglian coast, which runs for 208 miles from King’s Lynn in Norfolk to Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, with Lowestoft in Suffolk, in my constituency, geographically at its centre. Lowestoft is historically the fishing capital of the southern North sea, and the hope is that in the future, if we make the most of the opportunity that Brexit presents, it will be the regional hub port at the heart of a revived but modern fishing industry that plays a key role in the regeneration of coastal communities.
REAF—the Renaissance of East Anglian Fisheries—is a community-led group that has come together to produce a long-term strategy for fishing in the region. Work began in 2018 as a result of the joint endeavours of East Suffolk Council, June Mummery, Paul Lines and me. A partnership was formed between the regional industry, East Suffolk Council, Suffolk County Council, Norfolk County Council, the New Anglia local enterprise partnership, Seafish, and Associated British Ports. Funding was provided by the participating councils, Seafish and the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, via the Marine Management Organisation. East Suffolk Council has given invaluable administrative and project management support and has hosted our meetings.
The REAF report was prepared by its members, with advice from Rodney Anderson and research and analysis from Vivid Economics. The strategy builds on the insights of numerous stakeholders and expert interviews across the whole industry, as well as conversations with regulators and public bodies. Special thanks go to all those who have contributed to the project.
There is a long history of fishing along the East Anglian coast. However, over the past 40 years, its importance to the area has significantly declined, and in Lowestoft, where it used to underpin the local economy, the industry is currently a very pale shadow of its former self. Across the region, the industry covers a diverse range of fleets and activities, including a shellfish fleet; an inshore fleet catching flatfish; some offshore demersal and pelagic fleets; processing, with some international exports; port and market services; and various other ancillary activities.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for initiating the debate. Is he aware that UK vessels land some 40% of the catch from UK waters, whereas Norway and Iceland, for instance, land 83% and 90% respectively of theirs? The report to which he is referring makes it clear that East Anglia’s inshore fleet does not get a fair slice of the cake and there is scope for renewal of the fisheries employment sector in that area. It is very similar to my own area, the constituency of Strangford, and indeed my own village of Portavogie, which once had two fish processing plants. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, with the correct exit policy—the Minister will probably confirm this—we could again see business opening up and thriving in all our fishing ports and surrounding areas across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I shall cover a lot of the issues that he has raised in my speech, but I will highlight two things immediately. First, he is correct to say that, with the opportunity to land more fish in UK ports, the whole of the country and particularly our coastal communities could benefit. Secondly, the point I will be making is that although the REAF report is very much bespoke to the East Anglian area, there is no reason why similar reports could not be produced for other regions, such as the one that he represents.
The total reported value of the catch of commercial species from the southern North sea has in recent years varied between £190 million and £260 million, and only between 7% and 8% is landed by the UK fleet. Most fin fish are currently landed overseas, in ports in the Netherlands and France, with shellfish landings taking place off the west Norfolk coast and in the Essex estuaries. A varying but low number of UK-registered offshore vessels are operating in the southern North sea, but the vessels land only low values into regional ports because of their foreign ownership. The Lowestoft Fish Producers’ Organisation lands its fish in the Netherlands, not in Lowestoft.
The specialist modern vessels represent a substantial investment, made possible by access to UK waters under the common fisheries policy and through the purchase of access to UK quotas. They are said to comply with the CFP’s economic link obligation, mostly by gifting some quota to the UK. However, although East Anglia sits next to one of the richest fishing fields in Europe, very little local benefit is in practice currently derived from it.
Some Dutch demersal trawlers have used pulse fishing, which employs electric currents to force fish from the seabed—a technique that the European Parliament voted to ban with effect from January of this year, although 5% of the fleet of the North sea is permitted to continue for scientific purposes until 2021.
At present, we have a system that not only brings very little benefit to the East Anglian fishing industry, but is extremely environmentally damaging. This study’s main finding is that the UK’s departure from the CFP provides a remarkable opportunity to bring about a renaissance of East Anglian fisheries. However, that will be achieved only if our leaving the EU is accompanied by well-designed national policy and regulation that provide the framework for regional strategies such as REAF.
The report concludes that there is the opportunity to increase UK vessel quota catch in the southern North sea by seven times its value and UK vessel non-quota catch by 25%. That will together add 25 or more vessels to the UK fleet, creating jobs both offshore and onshore. Up to 13,300 additional tonnes per year of allowed catch will become available to UK-registered vessels in the southern North sea, potentially being able to be landed and processed in the UK. That will come about through a change in the way the fishing opportunity in the North sea is allocated between countries as we move to a geographic area allocation under the international law of the sea, known as zonal attachment, replacing the current basis for fish catches, known as the relative stability rule of the common fisheries policy. It is vital that zonal attachment and a requirement to land fish in the UK are the basis of any future agreement with the EU. Such a change would allocate the aforementioned sevenfold greater catch of quota stock value to the UK from the southern North sea; it would be worth approximately £28 million to £34 million at the quayside. That includes an eightfold volume increase in sole, a tenfold increase in herring and an elevenfold increase in plaice.
In addition, the economic link rule, which the UK uses to regulate the activities of vessels fishing UK fish stocks, should be strengthened so as to promote the landing of fish in UK ports. The potential benefits could increase further as fish stocks improve through effective management and as the regional fleet becomes more competitive and more efficient. In addition, there may be more opportunities to start harvesting crabs further offshore and to expand oyster cultivation.
To realise that opportunity, the REAF strategy makes 11 recommendations, which I will briefly outline. They fall into three categories of change. The first is economic change, bringing potentially rewarding and well-paid jobs to the East Anglian coast for not just the catch sector, but the whole length of the supply chain, from the net to the plate.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s strong advocacy for his fishing fleets in Lowestoft, which he has always demonstrated in his time as the Member of Parliament for Waveney. In East Anglia, we are proud of our food and drink produce. Does he agree that the opportunities he has just outlined would have an impact in constituencies further in-land, such as mine, where we have the UK’s biggest producer of sushi, Ichiban, which produces 60% of the UK’s sushi?
My hon. Friend and neighbour is right. While I concentrated on the coast, where my constituency is located, the supply chain goes much further inland in East Anglia, into those constituencies, such as his, which are landlocked, for example the merchants and the type of processing industry he highlighted. The tentacles of the industry’s supply chain extend a long way.
The second category into which the recommendations fall is environmental—the importance of promoting sustainable fishing, helping to avoid the overfishing mistakes of the past, so that we leave our fisheries to the next generation in a better state than we inherited them. The third category, linked to that second objective, is regulatory change, putting in place a local, bespoke system of management, which includes fisherman, and which avoids the past mistakes of the common fisheries policy, which was too centralised and distant at times.
In brief, the 11 recommendations can be summarised quickly as follows: introducing a new system of control in the inshore fleet through hours-at-sea restrictions and the use of gear; requiring the offshore fleet to land its catch in the UK and restricting it from fishing within 12 nautical miles of the coast; considering restricting offshore vessels to 500 hp and banning beam trawling; investing in a regional hub fishing port in Lowestoft; providing access to finance for the scaling-up and automation of the processing sector; upgrading the control regime for anglers; removing barriers to aquaculture expansion by de-risking developments and improving access to finance; setting up an apprenticeship scheme; combining the two inshore fisheries and conservation authorities and the Marine Management Organisation into a new single East Anglia regional fisheries authority; managing fishing stocks as a mixed fishery and introducing more effective controls over fishing mortality; and, finally, making more use of data to manage potential conflicts between fishermen and other marine activities, such as wind farms and dredging.
The REAF study is very much a living document. It is not a piece of academic research purely designed to provoke contemplation and debate. It sets out a range of practical recommendations that, if implemented, could bring significant benefits to local people, communities and businesses. Brexit on its own is not a magic wand that will revitalise our fishing industry, but it gives us the opportunity to start again with a clean sheet of paper, to pursue innovative and radical policies that can bring real benefits to East Anglian coastal communities. We need to get Brexit done, so that we can get on with putting in place strategies such as REAF.
So that East Anglia can get on with this work, I ask the Minister in his response to confirm support for the following first steps. First, it would be appreciated if he could ask his officials at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—who have been extremely helpful in this process—to continue to work with the REAF team, so that a strategy can be agreed for starting work on implementing the study’s recommendations. This regional approach to fisheries management will help to secure the Brexit dividend, and REAF provides a blueprint that could be used elsewhere around the UK coast.
Secondly, seedcorn funding should be provided, so that REAF can carry on into its next phase. East Suffolk Council has confirmed that it is prepared to continue to offer support and host meetings. It will convene a new REAF group and oversee the preparation of the first year’s programme of works. However, it does not have a budget to fund anything more than basic secretarial support. To take the project forward, there is a need for a full-time outreach worker, a liaison officer, who will foster, galvanise, encourage, interpret and explain. This person would spend the first six months of their time visiting ports and landing places, working with fishermen, talking to processors and hauliers, and generally obtaining further background information. This person will play a crucial role in advising the steering group about the practicalities of what is or is not happening on the ground. They will feed back to the different sectors of the industry and ensure that they continue to be fully supportive of the project. This will mean constantly getting out and about at times that suit the industry, not standard office hours. They will be the linchpin of the project. A dedicated project manager and administrative backup are also required, as well as a modest level of specialist consultancy support.
Thirdly, we need to promote a new approach to managing mixed fisheries by controlling the inshore fleet through hours-at-sea restrictions. The Minister has previously indicated that the Government will carry out an hours-at-sea pilot; we ask for that pilot to take place in East Anglia.
Fourthly, it is important that we put in place an apprenticeship scheme for those wanting to pursue a career in the industry. That will include establishing an apprenticeship training programme for future skippers, funded by the national apprenticeship levy; preparing a careers in fishing brochure to accompany the scheme; and making available finance for graduates from the scheme, to support them in acquiring a vessel and a licence. East Coast College in Lowestoft wishes to be involved in this scheme, and there is a need to forge the proposals into a deliverable project.
Fifthly, Lowestoft wants to regain its crown as the capital of the southern North sea. That will require a fishing port development study to be prepared, working in close collaboration with Associated British Ports, the owners of Lowestoft port. The scope of the project could include a new fish unloading quay, berthing and provisioning facilities, and the creation of a new fish market. This would provide the port with the capacity to handle shellfish and both inshore and offshore vessels.
Sixthly, following Brexit, there will be a need for investment in the processing sector, not just in East Anglia but nationally. A scheme needs to be set up for which East Anglian processors can apply, and it should mirror the support that Marine Scotland provides to Scottish processors. My seventh and final ask is that we start work on forming the new single East Anglia regional fisheries authority, which will provide clear and visible signs on the ground of improvement in regulatory operations.
I suspect that I have spoken for too long and I apologise. I hope that I have illustrated that we have a detailed plan for securing REAF—the renaissance of East Anglian fisheries. We now want to get on with delivering that plan, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister that he supports that local ambition and that his Department will work with us to secure what I believe is a very exciting future.
We are all very privileged to be in the final Westminster Hall debate not only of this Session but of this Parliament, as we prepare for a general election. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), with whom I have had many debates on these issues. He has been a champion for the inshore fleet, particularly around East Anglia. Of course, his constituency is also home to the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, which is the national headquarters of our fisheries science agency and has a truly global reputation.
My hon. Friend was also with me on the Fisheries Bill Committee, which he mentioned, so he is familiar with our White Paper and our approach in the Bill. Sadly, that Bill has now fallen with the end of this Parliament. However, I believe that the principles we debated in Committee will be as relevant as ever when Parliament returns and when we leave the European Union. That is why the Government are committed to bringing back a fisheries Bill.
In the original Bill, we set out a number of important approaches. Clause 1 set out a whole series of fisheries objectives, including objectives for fishing sustainably and towards maximum sustainable yield. It was also very clear that we would take control of our exclusive economic zone, which means controlling access out to 200 nautical miles or the median line.
There were also ideas to improve the way in which the discard ban works. For example, a discard disincentive scheme would create a national reserve that fishermen with out-of-quota stock could access, and they would have to pay a penalty so that there was no incentive for them to target vulnerable stocks. In addition, we would have made it easier for them to avoid their current problem of choke species. Our fisheries White Paper was also clear that we would depart from relative stability—the EU sharing arrangements—and move to a new and more scientific sharing arrangement, based on zonal attachment, to which my hon. Friend referred.
We have also been clear that as we depart from relative stability and transition to this new and more scientific approach, under which we will have additional catching opportunities, we will use a different methodology to allocate any new quota coming into the UK. Although we want to keep some stability in the short term by keeping the current fixed quota allocation units for existing quota, additional opportunities will be distributed using different criteria. We are interested in giving additional quota to the inshore fleet—the under-10 pool, as it is currently described. We may tender some quota to existing producer organisations, based on their track record of sustainability. We will also, as I have said, keep some of that quota back for a national reserve.
Into the mix of this quite exciting change for our fisheries policy comes the Renaissance of East Anglia Fisheries initiative. As my hon. Friend said, there are many groups involved, including the local authority, Seafish and a number of local groups. I commend the work he has done in holding the ring and organising many events to promote its objectives. Indeed, I was very pleased to be able to attend the launch of the report.
The historic reason why relative stability does not work for many of our coastal communities, in particular those around East Anglia, is broadly as follows. During the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, most of our fishing fleet were catching cod in Icelandic waters, we were fishing less in our own waters, and other countries—mainly near neighbours in Europe—were fishing in those UK waters. It was very unlucky for us, in the way that sometimes happens to our country, that just as we were driven out of our Icelandic fishing grounds, where we had historic rights—we were driven right out to 200 nautical miles, following our defeat in the third cod war—we had already given the European Union control of our waters. The sharing arrangements were therefore set in concrete. To compound matters, the catch data that some of our smaller vessels had was not as comprehensive and detailed as the data that other EU countries purported to have. That created an unfairness in the sharing methodology, which, as my hon. Friend pointed out, has continued to this day.
I turn now to the points raised by my hon. Friend and the report. I have to say that he had many asks, but I will try to deal with as many of them as possible. First, there was a proposal to close the inshore pool and to have instead a system based on effort or hours at sea. As my hon. Friend knows, our White Paper was clear that we want to pilot such a system. When it comes to the inshore fleet, there is a case to be made that sometimes an effort-based regime is more appropriate for those smaller inshore vessels, because they have a small amount of quota for a large range of stocks, and a quota system does not work that well for them. There are, however, drawbacks to an effort-based system. A pilot in Ramsgate about seven years ago was not particularly successful, so we need to learn the lessons. Nevertheless, I am open to doing it. A quota system will always be the right approach for larger trawlers and offshore vessels, because an effort-based regime is not the correct approach when it comes to pelagic fish, which have very large stocks.
Secondly, my hon. Friend asked that we require offshore vessels to land their catch in the UK and to restrict their fishing within the 12 nautical miles. He will be aware that we have given notice to quit the London fisheries convention. That expired in July. Therefore, when we leave the European Union, the historic access rights that some foreign vessels have had to fish within the six to 12-mile zone will expire. It is our intention that the 0 to 12-mile zone—our territorial waters—will be predominantly reserved for British vessels, and we will seek to restrict the access of foreign vessels to those waters.
We are also reviewing the economic link. That could include requiring vessels to land a greater proportion of their catch in the UK, so that what they catch is of benefit to communities such as those in my hon. Friend’s constituency. We must, however, take into account certain considerations when adopting such an approach. Last year I visited the Faroes, which required 100% of catch to be landed in the Faroes. However, their fishermen complained that that meant that they were, in effect, captured by processors and did not have other market alternatives. There are, therefore, reasons for allowing some catch to be landed outside the UK, but we are seeking to strengthen the economic link.
A number of the other issues raised by my hon. Friend relate to funding. We will replace the European maritime and fisheries fund. We have also announced a new domestic maritime fund, precisely to support fish processing and harbour and port facilities to help projects such as that under discussion.
The report proposes that the inshore fisheries and conservation authorities and the Marine Management Organisation should be combined into a single force. There is a reason why IFCAs were created. Previously they did not have an enforcement role; they had a management role and the MMO did all the enforcement. There was criticism that individual localities did not get the attention that they felt they deserved, and that is why IFCAs were given an enforcement role. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend is right that there is a case for joining up more closely the efforts of the IFCAs and the MMO. That is why we formed the Joint Maritime Operations Coordination Centre, where everybody—from the coastguard to the MMO and IFCAs—can work together to co-ordinate their assets in a single approach to the issue of enforcement.
Finally, my hon. Friend says that we should manage stocks as a mixed fishery and implement more effective controls for fishing mortality. CEFAS, which is based in Lowestoft, has done a lot of groundbreaking work. Our chief fisheries scientist, Carl O’Brien, has been a leading light in developing some of the methodologies for mixed fisheries analysis, and this is something that the UK is keen to pursue.
In conclusion, I welcome the REAF report commend my hon. Friend for his work. As for where we go from here, I stand ready to work with him in the future, should we both be returned to this place, to further develop the thinking. When it comes to administrative support for the project, I know that Seafish has been involved and I think it would also be good to engage the local enterprise partnership in the process, to help to support bids. The time will come, however, when REAF will, I presume, want to turn its ideas into a grant bid to one of our maritime funds—either an existing fund or a future one—and at that point my Department and the MMO would stand ready to assess that application. My hon. Friend will be fully aware that I cannot give any cast-iron guarantees that it will get support, but I can guarantee that it will be given full consideration. I thank my hon. Friend again for his work and I commend him for the points he raised.
Before I adjourn this sitting, I would like to thank, I am sure on behalf of all colleagues, the Clerks, the attendants and the security officers outside, the sound and broadcasting staff, who of course are never seen but do an excellent job every time we sit in Westminster Hall, and the Hansard staff for their excellent coverage of our debates. Indeed, I thank all the staff of the House in what has been a very short parliamentary Session following one of the longest parliamentary Sessions in the last 450 years of our history. I thank you all.
I can now say, for the last time in this Parliament, that the sitting stands adjourned.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No.10(14)).