Wednesday 29 January 2020
[Sir George Howarth in the Chair]
Planning System: Gypsies and Travellers
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Gypsies, Travellers and the planning system.
It is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I thank Mr Speaker for granting this debate, and I welcome the Minister to his place. I also thank other hon. Members for being present today, including Members who have long spoken out on these issues such as my hon. Friends the Members for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) and for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), and others. I declare my interest as a member of Kettering Borough Council.
I have called this debate because it is my contention that the Government’s planning policy with regards to Gypsies and Travellers is simply not working. I call on the Minister to ensure that during this five-year term of Conservative government, we finally get on top of this issue, because the policy is going in the wrong direction. Planning policy with regards to Travellers has as its aim
“to ensure fair and equal treatment for travellers in a way that facilitates their traditional and nomadic way of life while respecting the interests of the settled community.”
What I want, and what I think most hon. Members want, is for everyone in the planning system to receive fair and equal treatment regardless of their background. The present policy regarding Travellers does not respect the interests of the settled community. The Government go on to say that in respect of Traveller sites, their aim is to reduce tensions between the settled and Traveller communities in plan-making and planning decisions. I say to the Minister that far from reducing tensions, the present planning system is inflaming them, because Travellers effectively have preferential treatment within the planning system.
Does my hon. Friend agree that when we talk about the settled community, we do not just mean residents—although they can be deeply troubled by this issue—but people who are seeking to earn a living through their businesses in local communities? Within the past few days, a business has written to me to say that it is having repeated difficulties because of wrongful occupation of a business site in my constituency. I know that is not the only place where this is happening; it is a repeated occurrence.
My hon. Friend makes a superb point in an excellent way, and I entirely concur. However, the settled community does not include only residents and businesses, but Travellers. During one of his excellent debates on this issue, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire pointed out that we know from the 2011 census that three quarters of Gypsies and Travellers live in houses, bungalows or flats. Only a quarter live in caravans or mobile homes, yet Gypsies and Travellers as a whole have an existing, separate planning law for themselves that only applies to a quarter of their population. That kind of special treatment within the planning system applies to no other ethnic group.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree—perhaps he will not—that historically, planning laws have discriminated against Travellers who live a nomadic lifestyle, the percentage who are not in the bungalows he describes? Those laws have sealed up areas in which Travellers have traditionally stayed; have prevented Travellers from being able to move easily from site to site; and have created hostilities not because they have given preferential treatment to Travellers, but because they have given them discriminatory treatment. Is it not an indictment that five councils in this country have still not identified any Traveller sites, and very few have identified their full limit? That is the discrimination in the planning system, not the other way around, as the hon. Gentleman seems to suggest.
I do not think anyone has any objection to Gypsies and Travellers who legitimately want to travel, so long as when they park up, they do so lawfully, on land that they either own or have permission to park up on. The problem is that the quarter of the Traveller community who do travel all too frequently park up on land that they do not own, and where they do not have permission to be.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Regarding his last point, he will know that although the Government did not use this phrase, they effectively committed in the Conservative party manifesto to what is known as the Irish option, making acts of deliberate trespass a criminal, rather than civil, offence. However, he will also know that doing so will require primary legislation. I ask him to press the Minister to give us some timings for when that legislation will be introduced in the Commons, and to confirm which Department will be leading on it.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. I will do so straight away: I put it to the Minister that this legislation needs to be brought forward as soon as possible, so that we can address this problem head on. Of course, this has been done in the Republic of Ireland, which in 2002 changed trespass from a civil offence to a criminal offence. That is actually inflaming the problem in this country, because many Irish Travellers are not in Ireland any more; they are here.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He will know that in the Republic of Ireland, the criminalisation of trespass is part of a much wider, holistic package of equalities, rights and social programmes for Gypsies and Travellers that do not exist in this country. When pressing the Minister on the progress of this legislation, will he join me in pressing him on the flawed nature of the Home Office consultation, which was conducted during Dissolution and with questions that were, at the very least, loaded?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. Like her, I do not regard the Government’s consultation as satisfactory. I do not regard it as ambitious enough, and she is right to identify that there are issues with the Gypsy and Traveller community that we need to address outside the planning system. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire, in one of his excellent debates on this issue, highlighted the fact that Gypsies and Travellers have the lowest level of work of any ethnicity, at 47%. Some 60% of Gypsies and Travellers have no qualifications at all, whereas the figure for the rest of the population is just under 23%. He has said quite rightly that a compassionate case can be made for integrating Gypsies and Travellers into one whole assessment of their housing needs within a local area, rather than treating them as a separate group.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on introducing the debate. He is clearly trying to find a delicate balance between integration and making sure that councils do what they should be doing, and I appreciate that; it is the way I like to view this issue as well. Following on from the thoughts that he expressed in his last few words, does he agree that in order to build relationships with the Traveller community, there needs to be more encouragement for their children to attend local schools and clubs, and that we must ensure they are a valued and heard part of our community? Further, does he agree that this relationship, which is something that he and I both want to grow, will be solidified by mutual respect and a future in which the Traveller community is accepted within the wider community?
I am grateful for that helpful intervention. I am so pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of educational attainment in Gypsy and Traveller communities, because it is a national disgrace that so many Gypsy and Traveller children do not get the education that they deserve and are statutorily obliged to receive. That is the fault of local education authorities, but it is also the fault of the Gypsy and Traveller communities themselves, and we need to do far more to address that issue.
Another important thing in the hon. Gentleman’s intervention was the two key words, “mutual respect”. Mutual respect works both ways. Gypsies and Travellers demand respect from the settled community for their needs, but do not seem to respect the settled community when they park up on land illegally or build pitches without planning permission, often terrifying local communities with their presence. Of course, there are arguments on both sides of the debate, but the issue needs to be addressed. We are at the beginning of a five-year Parliament. By the end of the parliamentary Session, there will be no excuse for not dealing holistically with all the issues that Gypsies and Travellers pose for all of us.
It will be helpful to give some figures to identify the scale of the issue. The latest figures that I have are from July 2018; if the Minister has more up-to-date figures, perhaps he can supply them. In July 2018, the number of Traveller caravans in the country was just under 23,000, up something like 30% from July 2008, of which 3,100 were on unauthorised sites. Of those 3,100, just over 2,100 were on land bought by Travellers. We are talking about 3,100 caravans on unauthorised sites, 2,100 of which were on land bought by Travellers and the remainder on land that they do not own.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pointing out that it is a small minority of Gypsies and Travellers who are on unauthorised encampments. As he said, three quarters are in bricks and mortar, even if they do not wish to be. Does he think that the failure of local authorities to provide sites, whether they are transit or permanent, and the lack of provision of social housing, is a factor in the necessity for Gypsies and Travellers to stop in unauthorised areas or on land without planning consent?
There are two issues. We will probably disagree, but I struggle with the idea that local authorities should be obliged to provide such sites. I do not see why the public purse should purchase land for a particular group of people to live on. If Travellers were to purchase land and then apply for planning permission for a Traveller site—a suitable site in the right location—the local authority should give planning permission for that, but personally I do not see why the public purse should subsidise sites specifically for one ethnic group.
I apologise for having a second bite at the cherry. It is true that the provision of sites varies around the country. Basildon Council has a number of sites, but part of the problem is that the Travellers often do not want to stay on them. They want to go where they like. Providing sites is not a panacea, if the people for whom they are theoretically provided ignore them.
My right hon. Friend does not have to apologise for having a second bite at the cherry. He is welcome to intervene as often as he likes, because he is an expert on the issue. He makes an extremely good point in a thoroughly competent way.
I called for the debate because the activities of Gypsies and Travellers are a huge issue in the borough of Kettering. It is a combination of Gypsies and Travellers parking up on publicly or privately owned land without permission, and of their purchasing land in the countryside and immediately building plots without any intention of applying for planning permission. They clearly realise that the land is an unsuitable place for such a development, but they are cocking a snook at local authorities. There are therefore two issues. First, there is the trespass issue of parking up on land that they do not own. Secondly, there is the issue of purchasing land and developing Gypsy and Traveller sites with no intention of applying for planning permission.
In local plans, councils must identify land that is acceptable for private housing and for business to meet the needs of the local community. If they do not identify suitable pieces of land, the local plan will be rejected. Why can councils fail to identify pieces of land suitable for being converted into sites for the Traveller community and have their local plans accepted?
Kettering Borough Council has identified suitable sites for Gypsies and Travellers, but it is being abused by them. In the village of Broughton in my constituency, a Traveller encampment has permission for a limited number of plots, but the number of Gypsy and Traveller families living on that site far exceeds the permitted number of plots available, and is expanding all the time.
There is another case near the village of Loddington, where Gypsies and Travellers recently purchased land in open countryside. On a Friday, they moved in all the heavy building equipment, put in hard standing and started erecting plots without any kind of permission. The local borough council immediately served a temporary stop notice, which was ignored, and then a permanent stop notice, which was ignored. The development is there. Planning permission may or may not be sought. If anyone else were to dig up a field in open countryside and build a house, the local authority would intervene in the same way and the individual would stop the development, but that self-restraint does not seem to apply to Gypsies and Travellers.
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that in its local plan, Kettering Borough Council identified a number of sites, sufficient for local need, that can be purchased and that, if purchased, will be given planning permission only for Traveller sites? If he is, there should not be overcrowding, because there would be other sites for Travellers to go to. Overcrowding is surely a sign that there is not enough provision. If there were too few houses, the local plan would be rejected, unless the council identified sites that could be converted only to housing. Has Kettering Borough Council identified more sites for conversion only to Traveller sites, and for which it will not allow any other planning use? If it has not, surely it has under-provided in its local plan.
Yes, there are two additional sites for Gypsies and Travellers with up to 16 plots that are not occupied. The problem is that more Gypsy and Traveller families are arriving from other areas all the time and are overloading the existing sites. It is simply not fair on the local community in Kettering to have to provide ever more provision for Gypsies and Travellers from across the country. That is why we need the planning system to work effectively, and why we need Gypsies and Travellers to respect the law.
The Government should ensure—I would like the Minister’s response to this—that someone in breach of an enforcement notice cannot apply for retrospective planning permission until that initial breach has been remedied. The Gypsies and Travellers who have moved into the site near Loddington, who have had a temporary and permanent stop notice served on them, should not be allowed to apply for retrospective planning permission until they have restored the field to its original state when they moved in on that Friday afternoon. That would be a real disincentive and would stop Gypsies and Travellers abusing the planning system in that way.
Is it the hon. Gentleman’s view that such a change in the law should apply to any planning situation? We hear examples all the time of illegal structures being put up, alterations being made to buildings and even new buildings being built, against which the local authority takes enforcement action. Is he saying that the change should apply in all cases, not just to Gypsies and Travellers?
Yes, I would like that to be the case. It seems to me that if someone is intentionally seeking to build an unauthorised development and is subject to a temporary or a permanent stop notice, they should do what that notice says—stop the work and restore the land to its original state. To my constituents, that would seem a sensible way forward.
My hon. Friend is talking about the huge increase in retrospective planning applications. The Times ran an article quite recently showing that there were 39,200 retrospective applications over three years, and only one in eight of those was rejected. If somebody develops land without consent, there is a good chance that they will ultimately get consent. There is a huge incentive for Gypsy and Traveller encampments, because in most circumstances the land is acquired at agricultural value and once consent is achieved, it has a worth as developable land. There is a big incentive for people to try to abuse the system in that way.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. Local planning authorities should have the ability to enforce a requirement that people occupying sites without permission should not be permitted to remain on site while it is going through the planning process. That would stop the problem.
Where intentional unauthorised occupation has occurred, the requirement on the local planning authority in the decision-taking process to consider
“the availability (or lack) of alternative accommodation for the applicants”
should be removed. If a member of the settled community built a dwelling on land in the open countryside without first obtaining planning permission, the local planning authority would not, as part of the retrospective decision-taking process, consider the availability of alternative sites or be obliged to have to hand alternative sites to which the applicant could relocate. All I am asking for is equal treatment for everyone under the planning system, not preferential treatment for Gypsies and Travellers.
Often when Gypsies and Travellers find themselves in that situation, they say, “We’ve got nowhere else to go.” One of the problems for local planning authorities is that it is very difficult for them to check, when they are told that by Traveller families, whether those families own land elsewhere. We need a sensible arrangement with the Land Registry to help local authorities accurately check and verify an applicant’s other land holdings. That is difficult for local planning authorities to do, and it is something I believe the Minister can tackle.
I know that the Minister is here representing the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and the Home Office will probably have the lead on the trespass issue—I would welcome his confirmation on that. When changing the rules on trespass, can we lower the number of vehicles needed to be involved in an illegal camp before the police can act? At the moment, I think it is six; it needs to be at least two, and I would go lower.
The police need to be given powers to direct Travellers to sites in neighbouring local authorities, not necessarily just in the local authority where the trespass takes place. Officers should be allowed to remove trespassers from camping on or beside a road, not necessarily just on land, and the time in which Travellers are not allowed to return to a site from which they have been removed should be increased from three months to at least a year, and I would go further than that.
There are lots of distinguished Members seeking to contribute to this debate. I thank you, Sir George, for your indulgence. On behalf of my constituents in the borough of Kettering, I press the Minister and the Government to seize the initiative on this issue and get something done.
I am not going to impose a time limit at this point, but I would ask speakers to take into account the fact that there are seven people hoping to speak in this debate. If speakers exercise a little restraint in the length of speeches, we should be able to get everybody in with a reasonable amount of time left for them to speak. I call Andy Slaughter.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Sir George. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing the debate. As he said, we are often here to debate this subject. My view is that he looks at the issue down the wrong end of the telescope, but then he probably thinks the same about me.
The hon. Gentleman quotes statistics, and I will probably quote some of the same statistics, but he draws the opposite conclusion from the one that I draw. I do not think there is any dispute that Gypsies and Travellers are not just a deprived community in this country, but possibly the most deprived community. Some of the statistics that apply to Gypsy and Traveller communities are quite horrific. Only 3% to 4% of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller population aged 18 to 30 go into higher education, compared with 43% of the general population; 90% of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller population have experienced racism; life expectancy at minimum is 10 to 12 years shorter than that for the general population; and the suicide rate in the Traveller community is six times higher than in the general population. Those are really shocking statistics.
The hon. Gentleman said that there are different people on whom the blame could be placed, or to whom the explanation could be ascribed, but that Gypsies and Travellers would need to bear some responsibility themselves. He said that planning policy or planning law discriminates in favour of Gypsies and Travellers, and he called for harsher remedies, including the implementation of the current consultation, which would criminalise trespass. I think that is the wrong analysis. Both the history of the planning process and the current situation suggest that the opposite is true: that there is discrimination against Gypsies and Travellers in the planning process; that it is more likely that applications from Gypsies and Travellers will be refused than from the general population; and that there is a large level of discrimination and hostility, which goes into the statutory sector as well. That is what needs to be challenged, first of all. Then, perhaps, we can come back to whether there is a continuing issue.
It is right that three quarters of Gypsies and Travellers are in bricks-and-mortar accommodation. A lot of those, even if not necessarily all, would like to continue with a nomadic lifestyle but do not have the opportunity. One reason why that has become institutionalised is a relatively recent change in definition, which effectively says—it is a Catch-22—that even if someone’s ethnicity is Gypsy or Traveller, if they stop travelling and end up, against their better wishes, in bricks-and-mortar accommodation, perhaps for reasons of health, perhaps because they need to settle in an area for education for a while, or perhaps just because of a lack of pitches or stopping sites, they are no longer counted for that purpose. Suddenly the assessed needs in any local authority area go down, because of that statistical change—perhaps by 60%, 70% or 80%. The issue is suddenly no longer there. It reminds me of how my local authority, when it was Conservative controlled, solved the housing issue by abolishing the waiting list. It is not a long-term solution; it simply hides a continuing problem.
We do not have time to go over the whole history of the provision of sites and the different policies adopted by different Governments over the past 50 years, which go back to the Caravan Sites Act 1968, but the change that was introduced in 1994, which for the first time removed a requirement for local authorities to provide sites, was a game changer. Without any national requirement, and now with the encouragement of national Government not to provide permanent or transit sites, local authorities simply do not provide those sites. There is a shortage. Whatever the hon. Gentleman may say, there is a lack of such provision. Until that is remedied in some way, stopping at sites that are not authorised will continue.
I have never met members of the Gypsy and Traveller community who want to stop on unauthorised sites where facilities are not provided, and who would not prefer negotiated stopping, transit sites or the ability to use permanent sites. It seems to be commonplace to say that that must be the case. Local authorities that take their responsibilities seriously and have tried to provide a remedy—most local authorities try to escape their obligations—have found that they have either no problem or a much reduced problem with that kind of stopping.
Let me give a pointed example. Since Brighton opened a transit site and expanded the permanent site, the number of encampments in unauthorised locations has reduced by almost half. Where they do happen, a negotiated move is often done within a day. That is an example of how we can solve the issue with a carrot rather than a stick.
I could give a number of examples, but I am conscious of time.
The long debate, which is wearisome for everyone but particularly for Gypsy and Traveller communities, is about how we solve what is not a huge problem once it has been broken down by local authority area. The need for additional pitches and sites in this country will no doubt continue until we have a Government who can grasp that nettle. I am concerned that, while that rather sterile debate is going on, there is an increased attempt to vilify and criminalise the actions of Gypsies and Travellers. We saw that in the cross-borough injunctions that the Court of Appeal found to be unlawful, in a landmark judgment only last week—that was the Bromley case. It was no longer possible to stop anywhere in entire boroughs, some of which are very large. That was effectively a blanket ban that would have extended across parts of the country.
The attempt by the Government, through their consultation, to criminalise trespass in a way that goes far beyond what happens in Ireland, and without the compensatory duties to provide sites, is a regressive and intimidatory step. We need a change in approach, and we need to be constructive and positive. The last thing we need to be doing is further victimising Gypsy and Traveller communities.
It is a delight to have your eagle eye on us, Sir George, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing the debate. I will heed your advice to be short and will focus on one tiny point—as I look around the Chamber, there is a sigh of relief that I will be sitting down soon.
Mole Valley is an interesting and beautiful area covered with green belt, areas of special scientific interest and so forth. Anyone who applies for permission to build on land there has extreme difficulty, unless they are applying for land within the limited amount that is available for normal building. That applies to the settled community and to the Traveller community. Most Travellers in our area are on settled sites and are part of the community, and most of the kids go to school. The situation works normally and is accepted by the settled community.
However, we must recognise that any constituent who builds on land in Mole Valley, especially green-belt land, without permission can expect a heavy hand to apply to them. We have had a few such cases, and the properties have been completely demolished. However, some of the Traveller community—I emphasise that it is some—do not seem to believe that the laws apply to them, or they just ignore them. I will give just one example of many. It is on a green-belt pasture land site in Leatherhead. In 2003, Travellers with a distinct Irish accent arrived out of the blue and squatted on the site. They said they owned it, and they may have—I am not absolutely sure. They fenced it and put in a fast-growing hedge and a series of caravans. They put up buildings of a more permanent design than caravans. To my amusement, they put in two high, wrought-iron, electrically operated gates of the sort that one might expect to see at a manor house. It really is quite extraordinary.
Over the years, the usual series of planning applications have been made and rejected. They have been appealed, and the appeals have been rejected. Deadlines that have been set for departure from the site have come and gone. Just as a deadline approaches, new and slightly different planning applications are delivered to the local authority, sometimes hours or minutes before the deadline. The Travellers are still on the site—they have been there since 2003. The newly Liberal Mole Valley Council that was elected last May has just published its draft local plan. To the absolute dismay of the law-abiding settled community, and despite local resistance at every stage, the council has decided to designate the green-belt site as a Traveller site, in addition to the other Traveller sites that are being created.
In other words, if the Liberals have their way, 17 years of blatant abuse of the planning laws will have paid off for those Travellers, who do not travel. A proportion of the green-belt pasture land will be gone, and the series of rejections, repeals and so forth will be set aside and ignored. From what I have seen, this is the sort of behaviour that one expects of the Sicilian Mafia. One might ask why those Travellers act in such a way. The answer, of course, is because they frequently can. Nobody, including the courts, the police, the local authority and various Government Departments, seem capable of stopping them.
The Minister and his Department are running a review, which has been mentioned. It has been running for years and the time has come for some action. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering said that it will be completed within five years, but we do not want to wait that long. We are making local plans, and we need something in short order. We need the Minister to consider tightening up the legal definition of Travellers, which is too loose at the moment—many of those who squat have no intention of travelling. Extraordinarily, the claim to “need” to live in caravans frequently overcomes the normal and understandable offer of bricks-and-mortar accommodation, especially where the local authority is required to house Traveller families. That is particularly relevant where children and infants would, by normal standards, be accommodated in a better, healthier environment than a caravan or some of the out-of-the-way sites in the middle of the green belt.
Local planning authorities should be in a situation where they can force vacation of the land prior to approval or rejection of a planning application. If a house builder started building on a site without permission, a stop notice would be applied. The change should be applicable to, and enforceable on, Gypsies or Travellers —I had better change that to Travellers, because I know many Gypsies who are the most pleasant, law-abiding people I have come across. It is time we did something, because the law-abiding population—the settled community—would not test the system as they know they would be rejected, but the Traveller community abuse it.
It is a pleasure to participate in this debate and to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I thank the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) for securing the debate, and I appreciate the tone in which it has been conducted; we have not always had the restrained and thoughtful language that we have heard this morning.
I want to make just two or three points. I think hon. Members of different parties recognise that this is a matter of balancing rights and responsibilities, but I cannot agree with the hon. Member for Kettering that the balance is currently in favour of the Traveller community.
As has been noted, the travelling community has a right to enjoy a nomadic lifestyle, but law and practice are restricting—and indeed in some cases preventing—its exercise. My hon. Friends the Members for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) and for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) talked about how planning policy changes over the years have reduced the supply of sites. We have heard, for example, that the removal in 1994 of the requirement for local authorities to provide sites, and the national planning policy framework provisions more recently, have meant that local authorities are, in many cases, either not assessing need properly or not bothering to assess it at all.
In practice, although the Government have made shared ownership and affordable homes funding available for the provision of more pitches, not a single local authority has taken up access to that funding, as was revealed in a written answer from Lord Bourne to Baroness Whitaker in the House of Lords on 23 January 2019. It is clear that, whatever the law may suggest, in practice local authorities are again and again failing to make any provision or plan for Travellers in their local plans. The Government are toothless, unwilling, or both, as they are not preventing that indolent neglect of local authorities’ responsibilities.
At the same time, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith said, local authorities suggesting in their plans that there is no need have also been seeking wide injunctions to prevent Travellers from occupying land in their boroughs. The two cannot both be true. If there is need, they need to provide for it. They cannot say there is no need and fail to plan for it, and then seek an injunction to prevent it anyway. Both those things cannot sit side by side.
I am sorry to say that I very much disagree with the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) on the definition “Traveller”. It has been tightened, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith said, which has exacerbated, not reduced, problems, because it means that there is no requirement on local authorities to plan for the need of people who do not travel all the time. That de facto has obliterated the right to travel, because it means that Travellers are no longer recognised as enjoying that right. They are not counted or covered by the provisions of the definition of “Traveller”. That has suppressed the culture, rather than protecting its rights.
I appreciate that the Home Office consultation and plans on unauthorised trespass are not the Minister’s direct responsibility, but I am sure he will speak to his colleagues in the Home Office about our concerns. The proposals are for the criminalisation of unauthorised trespass, and for that to apply in the situation of very few caravans appearing on unauthorised land. As my hon. Friends said, of course people will have to use unauthorised sites if there is a lack of authorised ones. Even when they are on unauthorised sites, the powers already available to the police and local authorities are sufficient to take suitable action—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) is shaking his head, but the police themselves in their submission to the Home Office consultation said that they did not want additional powers. They believe that the powers are sufficient. I refer him to the freedom of information request submitted by Friends, Families and Travellers, which elicited that information from a number of police forces.
Does the hon. Lady not agree that, in many instances, the police are not using the powers available to them? That is part of the problem with the system. The statement that there are sufficient powers at the moment does not seem to be reflected in the action that gets taken. When unauthorised encampments turn up, the police are sometimes too afraid to take any action.
It would be unfair of me to draw attention to the massive reduction in police numbers over the past 10 years, which may be contributing to that problem, but that is not what the National Police Chiefs Council told the all-party parliamentary group on Gypsies, Travellers and Roma. It said that it believes that negotiation and communication with the community is more effective than enforcement, and that is what it tries to do. No police officer has ever told me that he or she has been afraid to engage with Travellers on unauthorised encampments. It is important that we do not make policy by anecdote.
It is really useful to have this debate. It is right, as the hon. Member for Kettering said, that we look at the responsibilities, obligations and rights of the public as a whole—the settled community and the travelling community. We must get the right balance between them. I do not believe that the balance is currently weighted in favour of the travelling community. Quite the opposite: too many of them are living in disadvantaged, marginalised situations on unsuitable—sometimes authorised and unsuitable—sites. We need a proper national planning framework that is properly managed to balance the interests of the settled community and the travelling community. I invite the Minister to think broadly about how that can best be achieved.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this debate. I declare an interest: I am a member of Sutton London Borough Council.
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that there needs to be a change. We have heard about the difficulties that the current state of affairs causes for the travelling community, especially in terms of work, health and schooling. In the previous Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) introduced an excellent Bill that would have addressed those concerns. It was incredibly well-balanced, and I would have thought that it would have had immense support in this place. I am incredibly sorry that it did not make it.
The current policy on Travellers puts an obligation on local authorities to come up with their own assessment of need, but I want to give an example from my constituency to illustrate why I think it does not work. My constituency of Carshalton and Wallington also lies in the London Borough of Sutton. It is another Lib Dem council—my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) is laughing; I think he knows what is about to come. It conducted its assessment of need when it was coming up with its draft local plan in 2016. The Roundshaw Downs site at the end of Hannibal Way in Beddington was considered for a new permanent site. After an assessment of need, the council came to the conclusion that it needed another site, despite the fact that there was room to expand an existing site down in Woodmansterne—also in my constituency.
After massive public objection and a botched public consultation, the council eventually withdrew the Roundshaw site and agreed to extend the existing site in Woodmansterne, but because of the poor way it had conducted its consultation and assessment, the planning inspectorate has not accepted that that is sufficient to see it through to the term of the local plan. Therefore, the Lib Dem council now has to come up with a further Gypsy and Traveller site plan by 2023.
As a councillor, I have on several occasions asked for assurances that the Roundshaw site, and indeed the other site being considered at the time—next to Sutton cemetery in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully)—will not be revisited because they were identified as inappropriate. However, the Lib Dems have failed to provide that reassurance. That is perhaps not surprising, given the way they have handled encampments in the London Borough of Sutton in the past.
Only a few short years ago, our borough was subject to an entire summer of illegal encampments arriving on parks across my constituency and that of my hon. Friend. As hon. Members know, that was immediately followed by rising tensions in the constituency—sometimes violent flare-ups, unfortunately—and things such as fly-tipping. In one instance, unfortunately, smashed glass was left behind on purpose in a park, which caused injuries to children and pets. Many right hon. and hon. Members will have experienced such a difficulty when encampments happen in their patches. Because of that, the unwillingness of the local police to do anything about it, and the local authority’s slow progress in beginning the process of evicting people from the sites, I believe that a change in the law needs to be made.
The first subject I want to touch on is welfare checks, which are rightly conducted to ensure that people arriving on encampments, especially children, are in good health and get access to the support they need—unfortunately, as we have heard, more often they do not, which is a shame. However, those who know the planning system and how to work their way around it also know that if there is a change in the make-up of the site—if someone new arrives—the process starts again, which causes a delay.
High Court proceedings are not exactly fast and, although faster options may be available to local police forces or local authorities, they seem unwilling or unable to use them. Once an encampment is finally moved on, it will often move to another park later that day—as we found a couple of years ago in Sutton, despite the existing site in Woodmansterne. That is clearly not sustainable and a change needs to be made. I reiterate my support for the Bill introduced in the last Parliament by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire. I suggest that the Government should consider that as a potential starting point for looking at the issue in this Parliament.
I hope that the Minister will provide some reassurance that, as we try to address the problems, work on community cohesion and address the scandals of housing, work and schooling in travelling communities, we can update support and guidance for local authorities, improve enforcement and, perhaps, replace the requirement to provide permanent sites with a requirement to provide transitory sites, to which deposits and rent can be paid to cover the cost.
The current state of affairs does absolutely nothing for either the settled or the travelling communities. We need a balanced approach to ensure that both sets of communities feel comfortable living alongside one another.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I am a new Member and this is my first Westminster Hall debate, so I came this morning with a little trepidation.
I have listened with alarm at what the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) and other Conservative Members have said. Gypsies and Traveller communities are not a problem that needs to be tackled, nor should legislation crack down on them. They are citizens entitled to equal treatment and the protection of their way of life. The dehumanising language we have heard should have no place in society or in the halls of power.
I appreciate that this debate is about planning law and relates to the Gypsy and Traveller communities, but that topic cannot be understood outside the context of the prejudice that they face. All too often, they are othered as outsiders unworthy of equal rights. As with all types of bigotry, it comes from the top down—including, I am sad to say, from Members of this House, who have in the past compared Gypsies and Travellers to a “disease” and a “plague”. Such scapegoating catches on.
A report by the Traveller Movement found that 91% of people in the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities had experienced racism because of their ethnicity. Some 70% had experienced discrimination in education; 49% had faced discrimination in employment; and 30% in access to health. More than three-quarters said that because of this prejudice, they have hidden their ethnicity to avoid discrimination.
Such bigotry—like all bigotries—has consequences: 77% of Gypsy, Roma and Travellers report having experienced hate speech or hate crime. Racist attacks are common, such as the burning of three caravans in Somerset at the end of last year and the killing of Johnny Delaney, a teenager kicked to death in 2003— his assailants reportedly shouting that he was only an “effing Gypsy”.
This prejudice has a long history: from 16th-century laws that threatened nomadic peoples with exile or death, to the Thatcherite Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which repealed the duty of local authorities to provide sites for Roma and Travellers. Since then, there have only been further reductions in stopping places and authorised sites, which has left many with the choice either to use unauthorised sites or to abandon their identity. The inadequate provision for Gypsy and Traveller communities is the principal cause of the problems that hon. Members have mentioned. It is hardly surprising that a mess is made when adequate sites are not provided for them. The advocacy group Friends, Families and Travellers argued that the main cause of unauthorised camps was
“the abject failure of the government to identify land for sites and stopping places.”
It is a mistake to blame the effect, when the underlying cause of inadequate provision is at fault. That is why the Government’s consultation document, released early last year, as well as Tory manifesto commitments, are of great concern to me. The sweeping new police powers would be unnecessary and authoritarian. Existing powers are already more than enough, as shown by the fact that the majority of police who responded to the Government’s initial consultation opposed increased eviction powers. The powers are also authoritarian. One traveller said:
“The police will have the power to kick my door in, take my home, arrest me and take the children into care. We won’t get them back because we won’t have a home.”
That is the fear that those proposals cause in the Gypsy and Traveller community.
Sorry, I will not.
The proposals do not solve a problem; they further oppress a marginalised group.
What, then, are they really about? Why was this bigotry so prevalent throughout the Conservatives’ election campaign? Was it because this is a major issue faced by working people of this country? Of course not. It is because, in the words of the chair of the Gypsy Council, the Tories are trying to
“criminalise Gypsies to hide their own failures”.
I know what it is like to be part of a scapegoated community. According to research from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, 22% of people openly express negative feelings towards Muslims, while 44% openly express negative feelings towards Gypsies. We are both scapegoated communities blamed for problems not of our making. I note that the hon. Member for Kettering, who calls for oppressive measures on the Gypsy and Traveller communities, has also demanded that the burqa be banned.
Some people—often children born to wealthy families, sent to expensive private schools and educated at prestigious universities—are intent on blaming people they deem to be outsiders. I know where the real blame lies: not with Gypsies or Travellers, migrants or refugees, Jewish people or Muslims, but with a class of people born into privilege who dominate society and use their power and privilege to deflect the blame for a failing economy away from themselves. Instead, they scapegoat others.
At a time when there is rising racism against Muslims, Jewish people and the Gypsy and Traveller community, we must all stand up to bigotry wherever we see it and recognise that our struggles are one and the same. There is safety in solidarity, which is more powerful and more beautiful than anyone’s hate.
I want to consider the policy intentions on this matter and what good outcomes look like, both for the Government and for everyone else. I hope that we agree across the House that we want to see really well-integrated, cohesive communities and to have good outcomes for all citizens—Travellers and settled alike. Critically, that depends on giving everyone, particularly children, good life chances so that they can get those good outcomes. As we know from the race disparity audit, introduced by the last Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), Traveller children have some of the worst educational, employment and health outcomes in the country.
For many of my settled residents who live close to large numbers of Traveller sites, the current situation is not a happy one. I am sent here to speak truthfully and to speak up for all my constituents, Travellers and settled alike. I receive quite a large number of emails from constituents telling me that they do not feel safe in my constituency anymore, and are looking to leave if they can afford to. A large number of businesses that regularly suffer theft, and whose staff are threatened, are very concerned. Businesspeople have recently come to tell me that they will not invest in my area.
I choose my words very carefully. There are good and bad in every community and many, many law-abiding Travellers absolutely respect the law, but I have to speak as I find and as my constituents tell me as individuals and as businesspeople in large and small businesses. It is not a happy situation for many of my settled residents, and many do not feel safe as a result.
My contention is that, unfortunately, and not because any Government wanted this to be the case, the current set of policies completely fails Traveller children, who have terrible outcomes, and causes great unhappiness and even suffering among many settled residents. What we have is not working for anyone at all. At the heart of Gypsy and Traveller policy is a fundamental muddle.
Planning policy for Traveller sites talks about “fair and equal treatment” for Travellers—absolutely: we all sign up to that—and about facilitating
“the traditional and nomadic way of life”.
The assumption seems to be that a Traveller site is needed to facilitate travelling. Why is that the case? Many of my settled constituents travel regularly. Many are caravaners, perhaps with a caravan they keep in their front garden. Indeed, many travel a lot more than my Traveller constituents do.
The situation is a muddle. To facilitate a traditional and nomadic way of life, we might need somewhere to keep caravans or somewhere safe for horses to be kept—unfortunately, a number of members of the British Horse Society have reported to me some pretty horrible incidents of cruelty to horses locally, so we need to look at that issue as well. There is a muddle because we do not need a Traveller site to enable people to travel. If we were honest, we would realise that we are prioritising the provision of sites and allowing the nomadic way of life over and above the right of Traveller children to have a good education.
I was so concerned that I asked the Children’s Commissioner for England to come to my constituency to visit one of the main village primary schools— lower schools. It has a lot of Traveller children. She went and reported back to me, in writing, that most Traveller children are not in school at all over the summer, when exams are taken, and that most stop their education in schools altogether around the age of 15. How can we expect Traveller children to be the engineers, lawyers, accountants and scientists of the future when the result of our current policy is that we do not value their education?
I have some of the best education and welfare officers in the business—I name Andrew Copperwheat in particular, from Central Bedfordshire Council—who try their very best to ensure that Traveller children go to school, but it is a losing game again and again. My constituents who volunteer in food banks tell me that it is common for adult Travellers who come to ask for food to say, “I can’t read and I can’t write”. We may think that Traveller children might get home education, but how will that happen if the parents are illiterate, through no fault of their own?
We need a little honesty. The people who speak for Travellers are the adults, but I am concerned about the outcomes for Traveller children—beautiful, wonderful children, who deserve the same chances as all of our children. When I went around six or seven Traveller sites a couple of weeks ago, I saw those children and my heart felt for them, because I could see their trajectory. Let us have a little more honesty about what “good” looks like, and let us think about what we are prioritising, whether it is right and whether we can do it better.
To cheer Members up—this has been a bit of a gloomy debate in some ways—let me say that there have been some great outcomes when my council has managed to get Traveller families into local authority housing in my constituency. The children go to school regularly, the parents have regular work and they are all making friends in the local community—people are being integrated. My constituency has proudly integrated wave after wave of Italian, Polish and Irish people happily and well over recent decades. We all pull together, get on and make a great contribution, and I want that for Travellers as well.
If Travellers are here legally, they should be part of our communities and be contributing and paying taxes; their children should be in our schools and having the amazing opportunities that all our children should have. But that is not happening at the moment. When I go around some of our Traveller sites, I see terrible housing conditions, green mould in water tanks, hot water coming out of toilets and conditions that, frankly, we would not keep animals in. That is not good enough. The legislation is not fit for purpose. Environmentally, we have sewage going into ditches, and a lot of the time the situation is not healthy. There is also a lot of sub-letting, often with violence. There are no tenancy contracts—this is sub-letting to non-Travellers on Traveller sites, enforced with vigilante violence, by quite wealthy Traveller landlords who have a lot of cash. That is not a good situation.
At the start of a five-year Parliament, I tell the Minister, who is a decent, humane and reasonable man: act with compassion. He should be progressive, do something good in this space, create brilliant outcomes for Traveller children and dial down the antipathy, the anger and the hatred between our communities. Do something that we can all be proud of in this space.
I will be mindful of your remark, Sir George. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on bringing this important issue before us, and on standing up for the concerns of his constituents, as he has done for many years. He drew attention to the failures of the planning system, which also affect constituents in the north-western part of my constituency, around the larger village of Bulkington in Nuneaton and Bedworth and the nearby villages of Ansty, Shilton and Barnacle, which fall under Rugby Borough Council. The fact that some of the issues occur on a local authority boundary adds to the complexity.
Understanding why the Gypsy and Traveller community find that part of the country a good place to be located is important. It is a little to do with how the Traveller community earn their living. Many of them have businesses that revolve around construction and property maintenance, and the big urban area where many of their customers are is Coventry, which is immediately adjacent to those villages. What adds to the complexity in the choice of location is the fact that it is in the urban edge around Coventry, where there is green belt and therefore a presumption against development. The fact that the Gypsy and Traveller community have been able to secure consents, or have developed without consent, has over time contributed to a feeling in the settled community that in some instances an advantage is being provided to that community.
All the sites in my constituency are in the green belt. The pattern of their development was described by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering. A development often takes place on a paddock, on agricultural land, frequently starting on the Friday of a bank holiday weekend, which means a delay before local planning authorities can get to the site to start enforcement action, by which time some pretty substantial works have taken place. The procedure then is that the local enforcement officer goes out and invites the applicant to submit a retrospective application—we have spoken about this issue, and I am very supportive of my hon. Friend’s comments on looking at how this ought to be changed.
Eventually, that application reaches the local planning committee, which turns it down because the development is considered to be inappropriate in the green belt. More time passes and the applicant decides to lodge an appeal. The appeal is dealt with by the Planning Inspectorate, whose decision overrides that of the elected members of the planning committee. Often, a planning inspector will grant a consent, perhaps highlighting the issue that has been covered in this debate, which is the lack of authorised pitches and concerns about where else applicant families would go. On occasion, those consents are granted as temporary consents.
I will deal a little more with the issue of retrospective applications, and with the issue of temporary consents within the planning system. I expressed concern about the nature of retrospective applications to my local planning officers, who told me that the issue is often the failure to understand on the part of the Gypsy and Traveller community.
My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) spoke about the literacy challenges in that community, but they seem on occasion to be able to afford to engage the best planning lawyers, often as a consequence of the substantial increase in value that occurs.
The issue of temporary consents affects Top Road in Barnacle, which has a complex planning history. With each subsequent application, the temporary consent gets closer to being permanent, which is a matter of great concern for residents in Bulkington.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing the debate. We may have had some idea about the nature of the debate. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Gypsy and Traveller community, the prejudices that we have heard are all too common, and they are as old as time itself. I would have expected, though, that in the Parliament that makes the laws of the land, the debate would be based far more on fact and evidence, and far less on anecdote and local constituency casework. I fully accept that there is always a need to provide balance in debates and to be honest about some of the pressures.
I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) on their contributions to rebalance the nature of the debate. I felt that I was in a different debate when we talked about a community that expects special treatment, that takes out but does not want to pay in, and that is ruining our country. It could have been a debate on Amazon or Facebook, but it was not; it was a debate about people—human beings; members of our community who deserve respect and empathy.
What is it like to be a member of the travelling community, travelling around to secure work, providing for their family and living a lifestyle that they choose for themselves? Some people do not believe that the lifestyle is legitimate. We have heard before, “Why live in a caravan if you can live in bricks and mortar?” It is as if the way we choose to live our lives is the way that everybody ought to live their lives, because our way is perfect and others’ are de facto imperfect.
There are legitimate issues that we should be honest about and debate, but those issues come from injustice, not a community that is not willing to play its part. That is where we should start. Let us have the debate about educational attainment, but let us talk about how an education system should reflect a lifestyle that requires more flexible education that follows and supports the child throughout their educational life. Let us talk about housing and provision.
We are not here to design an education system, but there could be a system similar to an education passport, in which the child’s curriculum follows them throughout the journeys they take around the country. That would at least be a start. Part of the issue is that education authorities do not talk to one another when children move from one school to another. The education experience that child might have had in one primary or secondary school is not necessarily carried on to the next. That is a big gap.
On land supply, when we talk about illegal sites, nobody supports breaches of planning law. The planning law is there for a reason, but we have to address the underlying causes. If I look at the terraced houses in Oldham and I see overcrowding, I do not blame the tenants; I look at housing supply and affordability. I see people being ripped off, paying massive amounts in private rent, but who want a decent social house that is affordable, safe and clean for their children. It is the same for the Traveller community. They want clean, safe and well-maintained sites, but all too often local authorities do not step up to their responsibilities. I say that as an advocate for local government and a standard bearer.
Too many authorities do not take responsibility. The nature of that presents in different ways, with a very different impact in a mainly urban area from in a rural area. Unfortunately, many urban authorities view the Traveller community as a problem that must be tolerated, rather than a legitimate community that should be supported. All too often the sites chosen as Traveller sites will be near the waste transfer site or the industrial estate, in the back of nowhere that we can ignore, hoping that the settled community does not kick up an objection. That is no way to treat people. What other community would we treat in that way?
We can call out bad behaviour. I get as frustrated as anybody else when a Traveller community comes in and commercial waste is left behind, but I can drive down a road in Oldham and see exactly the same from a tradesperson who does not want to pay the charges at the local tip, and who therefore leaves waste at the end of a lane or at the edge of a playing field. I do not say that the whole community of that person should be evicted as a result of the actions of an individual. That is where this debate goes wrong. We talk about anecdotes and the worst excesses of an individual member of a community, as if somehow that is the reputation of the whole. I might expect that on Facebook or an internet site, where people get angry and wind each other up, but I would not expect it in Parliament. We are here to make laws that are meant to be about rights, responsibility, balance and evidence.
Whatever we do, we need a proper joined-up strategy that covers health and wellbeing, housing, education, employment and the very real issue of the gap in life expectancy and the unacceptable levels of male suicide.
I tried to be as fair and balanced as I could in my contribution. If the hon. Member came to my constituency, he would meet many decent, tolerant constituents who would have harrowing tales to tell him about what they have experienced. That is not anecdote; it is fact, and it has gone on for well over a decade. That has to be reflected in this debate as well.
It is for the Government and local councils to be supportive and to facilitate good community relations. They do not do that when the planning, education and housing systems are stacked up to make the people we are talking about part of the problem, not the solution. The reason there are illegal encampments is that often not enough authorised sites are provided. Even so, 88% of the travelling community are on authorised sites, whether local authority or privately owned. We do not talk about that; we talk about the unauthorised ones, as if that is somehow representative of a whole community. It is not.
Those in positions of power and leadership have a responsibility to build bridges, not walls, and to bring people together. They must use the levers of government, whether about regulation, tax or spend, to make sure that we create a long-term solution. We will be having this debate in another 10 years. If the Government put in place even harsher laws, which the police will not even implement because they recognise the reality on the ground, that will not solve the problem at all. We need positive solutions, looking at communities as human beings and recognising that people have the right to live the life they ought to lead, whether as a Traveller or in a settled community.
Perhaps some cross-party support is needed. If the Government want to look at the issue from a human being’s perspective, I am sure that they will find useful participants in that conversation on this side of the House. If the Government do not want to do that, but instead build walls and further the division, they can expect very firm opposition.
Thank you, Sir George. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this thought-provoking debate. I will begin by touching on the comment by the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) about cross-party work. It is a hugely important point; it is crucial that we work on a cross-party basis and I am happy to meet him at any time to talk about these issues.
Fairness in the planning system is a matter that we take incredibly seriously. The issues raised today are not all new challenges; I have heard them raised by colleagues in past debates, and they affect my own constituency. Let me reassure colleagues that the Government are working to implement the measures we have promised in order to address unauthorised development—an issue we have talked about a lot. We have consulted on powers for dealing with unauthorised development and encampments. Some issues raised in the debate have reflected the consultation responses: concerns over fairness in the planning system; unauthorised encampments and intentional unauthorised development, particularly in the green belt; issues with planning enforcement; and, of course, the outcomes for travelling communities that we have heard so much about.
Under national planning law, national planning policies and local planning policies to guard against unacceptable development apply equally to all applicants who wish to develop. It is right to recognise that certain groups have protections in law, such as disabled people, the elderly and ethnic groups, including Travellers. Planners may also take into account the specific needs of individual groups when making decisions on development, which will be taken on their own merits. As is the case for all planning applications, planning applications for Traveller sites must be determined in accordance with the local authority’s statutory development plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise.
In 2015, we amended the definition of Gypsies and Travellers for planning purposes to remove those who have ceased to travel permanently. That was to ensure fairness and transparency in the planning system for the whole community, and to avoid any misunderstanding. Those who have ceased travelling permanently will have their needs assessed, as with any valued group in our society, and a decision will be taken on whether a site can be made available.
We have taken into consideration the responses that we received to our consultation on unauthorised development and encampments. Those responses made it clear that, in certain areas, unauthorised encampments are causing significant disruption for local residents. We have made it clear that that must be addressed. In our response, we committed to introducing a package of measures to address those issues, including proposals for stronger police powers to respond to unauthorised encampments, practical and financial support for local authorities to deal with unauthorised development, support for Traveller site provision, and support for the travelling community to improve their life chances. My Department has been working closely with the Home Office on this issue to ensure that we take a rounded approach that provides positive results for both the settled and travelling communities.
Let me address some of the concerns that were raised about intentional unauthorised development, and in particular how that is taken into account when planning permission is sought retrospectively. Planning permission should not be granted retrospectively simply because the development has already taken place. We propose to strengthen the power of local authorities to stop that happening, and we will consult shortly on a range of options for strengthening our policy on intentional unauthorised development so local authorities have stronger tools and levers to address the effects of that type of development.
I am sorry that I was not able to join the debate earlier. Does the Minister accept that this issue costs many local authorities, such as Warwick District Council, as well as businesses and the community, huge sums? Surely, a good use of funds would be to support councils to use compulsory purchase powers to buy land to set up permanent sites.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point and sharing his local authority’s experience. I am happy to touch on that shortly, but let me turn first to the green belt, which was raised by a number of Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) and for Rugby (Mark Pawsey). Our commitment to protecting the green belt is as strong as it has ever been. Changes to the green belt should happen only in exceptional circumstances, and should be fully evidenced and justified through plan making. The policy is clear that once green belts are defined, local authorities should plan positively to enhance their beneficial use, such as by looking for improvements to access and environmental quality.
We have provided £1.79 million of funding across 37 local authorities to improve their capacity to respond to enforcement issues facing their area, and we are working with the Royal Town Planning Institute to overhaul the national enforcement handbook to provide the latest best practice and expertise on shutting down illegal building while ensuring that developers obtain full planning permission before a shovel hits the ground.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) mentioned powers to require an inappropriate development to be taken down and the site restored. Does the Minister agree those powers are used far too rarely and, whether we are talking about a development by the Gypsy and Traveller community or by anybody else, there is a sense that if someone builds something, the chances of their being required to reinstate the site are pretty slender, so it is often a chance worth taking?
I thank my hon. Friend for putting that point on the record. It is something I am very happy to talk about further.
Let me touch a little more on site provision. Last February, the Government reminded local planning authorities of their planning obligations to assess the need for sites and to make transit sites available, and, crucially, about the need for joint working between authorities on the setting of pitch and plot targets. It should be emphasised that enforcement becomes much easier once an alternative authorised site exists. Making adequate site provision in plans should reduce the number of unauthorised developments and encampments, and subsequently reduce the disruption they can cause to the wider community.
As such, we have committed to finalising the 2016 draft guidance on assessing housing need for those residing in caravans. That guidance will help local authorities to assess housing need for caravans, but it is not just about ensuring provision; it is about ensuring appropriate provision. Our policy makes it clear that, when assessing the suitability of sites in rural or semi-rural settings, local planning authorities should ensure that a site’s scale is not such that it dominates the nearest settled community.
I welcome the Minister’s remarks. Before he finalises the guidance, will he be kind enough to visit Kettering Borough Council? We do not have green-belt protection; we just have open countryside. Kettering is in the middle of England. It is experiencing all these problems. I think he would find such a visit extremely informative.
I would be absolutely delighted to do so.
In our response to the consultation, we committed to introducing guidance making it clear that the Secretary of State is prepared to review cases where concerns are raised that there are too many authorised Traveller sites for the local community to support effectively. The guidance will also assist local authorities in making better decisions about whether to approve Traveller site applications, and sets out a range of circumstances for planning authorities to consider when determining such applications.
Let me touch a little on enforcement in respect of unauthorised encampments. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) has particular concerns about this issue, and I thank him for putting his points on the record. On trespass, we are absolutely aware of concerns about the effectiveness of powers available to tackle unauthorised encampments. Local authorities can of course use temporary stop notices when they are concerned that unauthorised development has taken place. Those require that any activity in breach of planning control must be ceased for 28 days. However, we want to go further, so we are minded, following consultation, to extend the 28-day temporary stop notice period.
Furthermore, on 5 November, the Home Office launched a consultation seeking views on criminalising the act of trespass when setting up an unauthorised encampment. I know that hon. Members had questions about some of the proposed amendments, which include increasing from 3 months to 12 months the period for which trespassers directed from land are unable to return, lowering from six to “two or more” the number of vehicles that need to be involved in an unauthorised encampment before police powers can be exercised, and enabling the police to remove trespassers from land that forms part of the highway. That follows the Home Office’s commitment to consult on a specific set of measures to enhance the powers police have to direct trespassers to leave unauthorised encampments. That consultation closes on 5 March 2020. A couple of colleagues asked who will have responsibility for leading that work. I can confirm that the Home Office will lead, and the Government will respond to the consultation in the autumn.
A number of Members touched on the importance of improving outcomes, so let me update the House on the work we are doing to improve outcomes for the travelling community. We are working to address the disparities faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities to ensure that they have the same life chances as other members of the community. As we heard, on almost every measure, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities are significantly worse off than the general population. We have been working on that, and we recognise that we need to go further. We are committed to developing a cross-Government strategy to tackle inequalities faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities across a range of outcomes highlighted by the race disparity audit, including housing, education and health.
I am afraid I cannot, because of the time.
We are in the early stages of developing that strategy and will engage extensively with policy makers, practitioners and, of course, the communities themselves as we take the work forward. We will provide regular updates on progress in the coming months.
I thank hon. Members again for their contributions. I understand the importance of some of the issues that were raised. I am happy to work on a cross-party basis with colleagues across the House as we take this work forward, and I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss it.
Thank you, Sir George, for your wise chairmanship. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who took part in this extremely informative and engaging debate, in which we heard quite a wide range of views. I thank the Minister both for his thoughtful response and for his pledge to visit us at Kettering Borough Council so that he can see at first hand the difficulties that the local authority faces in tackling these issues. I agree with the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon), that we need a proper, joined-up strategy to tackle all the issues involving Gypsies and Travellers, but the top priority for my constituents in the borough of Kettering is sorting out the relationship between Gypsies and Travellers, the planning system, and the settled community.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Gypsies, Travellers and the planning system.
British Overseas Passport Holders in Hong Kong
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the rights of British overseas passport holders in Hong Kong.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Sir George. I am motivated to raise this issue because, like many in the House and across the country, I have heard expressions of concern about the situation in Hong Kong and because of what we saw in the protests last year. Like many of my colleagues, I have been contacted by a number of constituents who have views on the subject but also have relatives in Hong Kong. We in this country believe that the right to peaceful protest is a fundamental political right, and it should be defended anywhere in the world. It is therefore not surprising that a number of colleagues and I have expressed shock about examples of aggression towards peaceful protesters.
I am pleased that the Foreign Secretary spoke in defence of the right to lawful and peaceful protest in Hong Kong and that that has been raised with both the Chinese and Hong Kong Governments. I am also pleased that the Government are intent on defending the principle of one country, two systems, as set out in the Sino-British declaration. That is a live international treaty, which is binding in international law; it is not a mere historic document, as some have tried to suggest. As a party to that treaty, it is a responsibility for Members of this House and for the Government to speak out when we see it at risk of being eroded. It is not just that treaty that binds the UK to Hong Kong; it is hundreds of years of shared history and ongoing cultural, economic and political links that make us stakeholders in its freedom and prosperity.
There are more than 300,000 full British citizens in Hong Kong. About 120 British companies have their regional headquarters there, and another 200 have regional offices. Hong Kong ranks consistently as one of our top export markets, helped by its ranking as one of the world’s freest economies in the index of economic freedom. Finally, many of our top judges sit or have sat on the Hong Kong court of final appeal, strengthening the rule of law.
It is not, and should not be, just about history. I was fortunate enough to lead a parliamentary visit to Hong Kong some two years ago, where we were all struck by the vibrancy and potential of the economy. In the context of global Britain, it is hugely important to ensure that Hong Kong remains one of the freest economies so we can have ongoing economic and cultural links.
We must speak up in this House when the rights and freedoms of people in Hong Kong are under threat. That duty is surely strongest towards the nearly 250,000 people who have British national overseas passports—BNO passports, as they are commonly known—as they chose to continue their links to our country after 1997. The status was created in the run-up to the handover of Hong Kong from British to Chinese rule. Individuals with that nationality are British nationals and Commonwealth citizens, but they are not British citizens, so they do not have the right of abode in the UK or the same rights accorded to UK citizens. They enjoy visa-free travel to the United Kingdom as a visitor, with a maximum of six months’ leave to enter. Should a BNO passport holder wish to live and work in the UK more permanently, they would be subject to the same immigration rules as any normal applicant.
The limited power of the BNO passport, coupled with the recent situation in Hong Kong, has led to vocal calls from some colleagues in the House, and in Hong Kong, for the rights of BNO passport holders to be strengthened and revisited.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. As he may be aware, in the last Parliament I presented a petition signed by several hundred BNO passport holders from Hong Kong calling for a review of their rights under the BNO scheme and for them to be granted consular access to gain the support they need in Hong Kong in the current situation. Does he agree that we should look again at the support we are providing through the consulate to BNO passport holders?
My hon. Friend makes two important points. First, he strengthens the point I was beginning to make: in the last Parliament a number of colleagues raised real concerns about the rights of BNO passport holders and called for those rights to be strengthened. He also talks about consular access, which I intend to raise later in my speech—the Minister will not be surprised about that.
As I was saying, there has been a call for BNO passport holders’ rights to be strengthened. There are two strands to that argument. First, as the Foreign Affairs Committee pointed out in November, there is a fear that BNO passport holders may become more vulnerable to arrest by authorities in the context of the well-documented arrests of pro-democracy demonstrators. Secondly, there are concerns about fairness. While I understand the unique nature of the colonial administration in Hong Kong and the handover to China, comparisons are drawn with the status of citizens of other former colonies. There are also concerns about those who have served in the British Army having no right to retain British citizenship or at least to reside in the United Kingdom.
I recognise, as I do many people who have raised this issue with the Foreign Secretary, the Minister and indeed the Prime Minister, that this is an extremely delicate area where the rights of individuals, historical and cultural links, live protests and ongoing diplomacy must be balanced. Therefore, I wish to air with the Minister some of the concerns raised, which she should be familiar with, and to try to get from her a view on some of those issues and on how the Government see the way forward.
The Foreign Affairs Committee recommended that
“the Government extends the right of abode to Hong Kong residents who are British National (Overseas) passport holders as a means of reassurance that the UK cares about its nationals.”
Of course, that could be achieved through a change to the immigration rules, which could allow for factoring in and adjustment of the financial and work requirements. It could also lay down provisions for family members of primary applicants. If the Foreign Office and the Government believe that full residency rights are not appropriate, perhaps a more flexible means of consideration or category of immigration entry for BNO passport holders could be considered. That could mirror the provisions for EEA nationals or set out shorter residency periods before BNO holders can obtain indefinite leave to remain. I understand that the Government are concerned that that may breach obligations under the joint declaration, but, as the Minister will know, many take a different view, arguing that such amendments do not grant a full right of abode. I would welcome the Minister’s view on that.
Alternatively, the Government could seek a more humanitarian approach—a differing, graduated or nuanced humanitarian approach—to the issue. Professor Guild of Queen Mary University of London suggested that any BNO holders in the UK who might be at risk, be considered at risk or perceive themselves to be at risk on return to the territory could be granted an extension of stay by the Home Office. There is potential for the Home Office to use graduated definitions and criteria of asylum for BNO passport holders should the protests or aggression be seen to recommence.
Finally, I hope that the Minister will provide some clarity about the point raised by my hon. Friend. While BNO passport holders are British nationals and Commonwealth citizens, as they are not British citizens the right of consular access is usually granted only in exceptional circumstances. I—and, I think, many colleagues—would like her view on what the Government’s policy might be on granting consular access to those with BNO passports.
In the aftermath of the immediate situation, some argue that there should be a conversion to full British citizenship. I am not sure that I regard that as a practical solution to the current situation, or in the long term. It would require a lengthy legislative process, raise some consequential questions for people holding British overseas territories citizenship and potentially breach the spirit of the UK’s obligations under the joint declaration. I recognise the problems with that route.
I hope that the Minister will set out her thoughts on the other issues I have raised, in the context of colleagues’ concerns that these are British nationals. While we speak up for the right to protest for anyone around the world, we have a special obligation towards these individuals.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George, and I apologise for being 10 seconds late. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) for securing this important debate. I am also grateful for the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double). I will try to respond to all the points raised.
Before I address the current situation in Hong Kong, and the implications for those with British national overseas status, it is important to set out the obligations of the UK Government towards Hong Kong citizens with British national overseas status, and where those obligations derive from. BNO status was created in 1985 for people in Hong Kong who would lose their British dependent territory citizenship in 1997, when sovereignty passed from Britain back to China. This status had to be acquired before 30 June 1997, so it is not possible to gain BNO status now. The BNO passport replaced the British dependent territories citizens’ passport. Provisions relating to the creation of BNO status were part of the package of agreements made at the same time as the joint declaration. The status entitled Hong Kong citizens to continue to use passports issued by the UK Government. BNO status does not pass to the holders’ children.
As of October 2019, there were just over 250,000 BNO passport holders, out of an estimated 2.9 million people with BNO status. Individuals with BNO status are entitled to British consular assistance in third countries, but not in Hong Kong, mainland China or Macau. BNO status holders are also entitled to visa-free access to the UK for up to six months as a visitor. However, they do not automatically have a right to remain in the UK beyond that period, and nor do they have access to public funds. Those with BNO status require entry clearance when coming to work, study or live in the UK.
Regarding former members of the Hong Kong armed services who have not received an offer of a British passport, the Government are extremely grateful to those who served in the Hong Kong military service corps. They carried out their duties with the same sense of pride and professionalism as any other British Army regular unit. They are rightly invited to take part in the Cenotaph parade for Remembrance Sunday every year. Under the British nationalities selection scheme, which was introduced in 1990 and ran until 1 July 1997, a limited number of Hong Kong military service core personnel who were settled in Hong Kong could apply to register as British citizens. The Home Office is listening to representations made on behalf of former Hong Kong military service core personnel who were unable to obtain citizenship through the selection scheme.
While BNO status is not contained within the joint declaration itself, it was established as part of the delicate balance in the negotiations that led to the Sino-British joint declaration. Full and continued respect for the provisions in the joint declaration are crucial to the future stability and prosperity of Hong Kong, and to the rights, freedoms and autonomy of its people. It is a legally binding treaty, registered at the UN. It remains in force. As a co-signatory, we have a legal interest in ensuring that China stands by its obligations. The UK Government will continue to monitor its implementation closely.
We want to see the joint declaration upheld in its entirety. We are not therefore seeking to change any one part of the package. We expect China to live up to its obligations under the joint declaration and, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, to its wider international human rights law obligations.
Hon. Members have discussed whether the rights of those with BNO status should be altered following the recent protests in Hong Kong. Our position is clear: we believe that the best outcome for people with BNO status is for them to be able to enjoy the high degree of autonomy, rights and freedoms enshrined for Hong Kong in the joint declaration. BNO status was part of the delicate balance and negotiations that were conducted, which were concluded at the time of the joint declaration. The delicate balance reflected in that package needs to be respected. That is why we believe it would not be right to change the legal status of those with BNO status at this time, but they will have our full support in exercising the rights they have as part of their status.
The UK Government continue to take their moral and political obligations towards Hong Kong very seriously. The political situation and protests in Hong Kong are a matter of serious concern to us all. We are absolutely clear that a political solution can only come from within Hong Kong. That requires two urgent steps to be taken: first, a full and credible independent inquiry into the events of the last several months; and secondly, a process of meaningful political dialogue in which all sides engage in good faith.
We have worked intensively over recent months to support a positive resolution to the protests, and to uphold the joint declaration. We continue to engage with the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has raised these matters directly with the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, and with the Chinese Foreign Minister and State Councillor, Wang Yi. He also summoned the Chinese ambassador in November.
Senior officials have reiterated our messages during regular engagement with their counterparts in Hong Kong, Beijing and London. Ministers and officials also continue to raise our concerns internationally, including at the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council.
I understood the Minister’s point about the delicate balance and that this is not the time to change any aspect of the joint declaration. However, she said that the UK Government are determined to protect the rights of BNO status holders under the joint declaration. Could she set out now—or she could write to me—how exactly the Government intend to do that in a practical way?
I will get to the end of my speech and if the answer is not there I will write to my hon. Friend with pleasure.
The Government will continue to listen to the concerns of BNO status holders. It is crucial that their rights and freedoms, as well as those of other Hong Kong residents, are upheld. We remain seriously concerned about the situation in Hong Kong, and we remain committed to seeing the joint declaration upheld. It contains the commitment that Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, rights and freedoms must remain unchanged for at least 50 years.
We will continue to work with international partners to ensure that China stands by these obligations. The undertakings made by China to uphold free speech and an independent judiciary are essential to Hong Kong’s prosperity and way of life. They are the best way of guaranteeing Hong Kong’s future success and stability, for all the people of Hong Kong, including BNO status holders, and that is something we all want to see.
Question put and agreed to.
Special Educational Needs and Disability Funding
[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered special educational needs and disability funding.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I am delighted to be leading my first debate in Westminster Hall as a new Member on this extremely important topic, which impacts some 1.3 million children up and down the country. They are often the most vulnerable and needy children in our education system.
My predecessor, Sir Vince Cable, led a debate in this Chamber on this very topic less than a year ago. The fact that I am leading a similar debate today underlines just how urgent and important an issue it continues to be, not least in Twickenham, despite funding announcements from the Government since the previous debate. Since the Children and Families Act became law in 2014, the number of children and young people with statements or education, health and care plans has increased across the country by almost 50%. The increase in my own borough of Richmond upon Thames is in fact more than 50%—the number of EHCPs there has risen from 941 in 2014 to almost 1,500 now.
That legislation was designed to put young people at the heart of the system but, as the Select Committee on Education recognised last October in a report, that ambition has yet to be realised and has been hampered by both poor administration and a challenging funding environment. We are here today to debate the latter challenge, but on the Committee’s other key point, regarding poor administration, I must acknowledge the local government and social care ombudsman’s report, published earlier this month, which strongly criticised Richmond Council’s children’s services provider, Achieving for Children, for not effectively supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities. I was horrified to read about the three cases highlighted in the report of young people missing out on support and education between 2016 and 2018 because of failures by the provider, for which of course Richmond Council is ultimately responsible.
I am pleased that the council has accepted the ombudsman’s recommendations in full—both to compensate the families impacted and to conduct a thorough audit in respect of all the children for whom Achieving for Children is responsible for providing SEND support. I will personally be keeping a close eye on the results of that audit, meeting with local SEND groups as well as senior councillors and council officers, to ensure that any issues arising are urgently addressed and that Achieving for Children is held properly accountable.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, and I declare an interest as the father of a child with special needs and an EHCP being administered by Achieving for Children. Does my hon. Friend agree that not only does that company have to improve, but the accumulated debt on Kingston Council’s balance sheet, on Richmond’s balance sheet, and indeed on those of local authorities across the country, creates a huge crisis in funding not just for SEND but for schools and local authority services across the board? It is time that the Government got a grip of this, either by shifting that accumulated debt on to central Government balance sheets or by special funding relief, because this crisis could blow up in councils across the country if they do not act.
Absolutely. My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I was going to touch on deficits later, because Richmond’s finances are in a parlous situation for that very reason.
To return to the main topic of SEND funding, many children are missing out on the support that they require and deserve, because of the enormous funding pressures on local councils and schools throughout the country. The SEND funding landscape is complicated by the fact that there are two separate funding pots. There is the high needs block for EHCPs, special schools and alternative provision; and children with moderate SEND, requiring in-school support, are funded out of core school budgets. Simultaneous demands on both have created the perfect storm. School cuts since 2015 mean that support staff have been the first to be cut. That in turn has led to increased demand on EHCPs, causing delays.
As a parent of two young children, I know that if either of them needed additional support, I and my husband would explore every single avenue open to us to apply maximum pressure on decision makers to ensure that those needs were met fully. However, many parents do not have the time, resources or confidence to navigate the complex system of appeals, ombudsmen and tribunals—even with the support of SEND advocacy groups such as the excellent Skylarks charity in my constituency. The result is that the most disadvantaged families often lose out.
I commend the hon. Lady for bringing such an important issue to the House today. I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Does she agree that part of the funding issue is that there is now a lack of educational psychologists who are able to assess children at an early stage, particularly in relation to disability, learning disability and autism, and that means that a much greater burden is placed on teachers? That cannot go on, because we are failing the children we really need to be supporting.
Absolutely. The hon. Lady makes an excellent point, which feeds into all the wider workforce debates that we are having in relation to both health and social care and the education sector.
With both schools and councils under serious financial strain, perverse incentives in our SEND funding system start to emerge. Councils expect schools to cough up £6,000 before they will consider a pupil for an EHCP, so headteachers are often more reluctant to send children for a diagnosis. When councils, schools and health services are all cash-strapped, is it any wonder that EHCPs might be bland and vague, failing to guarantee the support to which a child is entitled? That in turn may lead to further delay or indecision. And what is the result? Many children are missing out, and local authorities find themselves in dire financial straits.
One report estimates a national high needs spending deficit of between £1.2 billion and £1.6 billion by 2021. Many authorities are relying on reserves to make up the shortfall. In Richmond this year alone the SEND funding gap is £4.9 million in year. The cumulative figure will be a staggering £15.85 million by the end of this financial year. That is despite tight financial management across the wider schools’ budget to keep the high needs deficit down. Such a significant and growing deficit is unsustainable and could result in other, non-statutory council services being cut. That is merely robbing Peter to pay Paul, and we are all too aware that local authorities have absolutely no fat left to cut.
The recent Government announcement about putting £780 million into SEND funding was of course very welcome, but that does not even begin to scratch the surface. Not only was it a single-year announcement but money was not targeted at those authorities where the SEND need was greatest, because of the way the funding formula operates. That meant that some local authorities with no SEND deficits received significant additional funding, whereas others, such as Richmond, received the minimum, barely 50% of the current year shortfall, so we have half a sticking-plaster solution.
The Department has previously advised Richmond Council to ring-fence the dedicated schools grant deficit, but auditors, the Treasury and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government refuse to accept that approach. I hope that the Minister can provide further cross-departmental guidance on that point. Indeed, I would like to request that the Secretary of State for Education meets me, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney), and senior Richmond councillors and officers to find a solution to the incredibly challenging situation in which the borough finds itself.
I have spoken extensively about the impact on council finances, but we must not forget that at the centre of every tough and contested decision is a child in need of support in order to learn, develop and flourish to their full potential, and a family experiencing stress, anxiety and often financial hardship to ensure that their child has the appropriate support in place. Richmond SEND Crisis tells me that some families spend £30,000 on tribunals, sometimes remortgaging their homes to do so, and we know that many people cannot afford to do that.
Last year, four in 10 EHCPs were not finalised before the statutory 20-week deadline, according to freedom of information requests via the BBC. Many parents are resorting to home schooling because they have given up waiting for a placement in an education setting.
What are the solutions? As well as a significant cash injection, we need to remove the perverse incentives. For example, at the election the Liberal Democrats proposed reducing the £6,000 that schools are expected to pay for each child with SEND. We should not punish schools for doing the right thing. Councils need to get the basics rights on EHCPs, and they need adequate staff and resources to do so.
Finally, a national SEND strategy from the Government would encourage councils to share specialist SEND services where relevant, such as provision for deaf children. A national strategy should also set out steps to ensure that central Government, local government, schools and, critically, health and social services—which have not always stepped up to the plate on EHCPs—work together more effectively.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing her first Westminster Hall debate on this very important topic, and on her speech, in which she is making powerful points. We have all experienced the difficulties of dealing with parents and their children who have been tragically let down. On the strategy, does she recognise the need for better resourcing, and for greater understanding of all the conditions that people present with? For example, pathological demand avoidance, on the autistic spectrum, is recognised in some areas as a specific condition requiring resource and targeted support, but not in others. It would be helpful if the national strategy ensures that we are consistent across the country in identifying the range of needs and responding to them appropriately.
Absolutely. A national strategy would address this point about variability and joining up all the services required.
To conclude, every child deserves the best possible start in life. The life chances of children with SEND depend upon appropriate and adequate support, and intervention at the right time. We must realise the ambition of the Children and Families Act 2014 to put young people at the heart of SEND provision. We cannot keep cutting corners and expecting hard-pressed local authorities to pick up the pieces. It is time for the Government to step up, and to provide the necessary funding and a joined-up strategy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I thank the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for securing this important debate and continuing in the footsteps of her predecessor, who held a similar debate last year—he was very passionate about this topic.
Special educational needs and disability funding is close to my heart. I have seen first hand the powerful impact that the right school and support can have. My nephew, Joseph Gibson, has Down’s syndrome, and he absolutely loves his school and his friends at St John’s RC School in Chingford. His progress has been remarkable, as he has blossomed into a confident, funny and bright teenager. As MPs, we will all have met families struggling to get the best education for their children. There is nothing any parent wants more than for their children to be happy, safe and confident at school, and for them to make friends.
The percentage of children with special needs in West Sussex is higher than average. The system is under increasing pressure, made more challenging by the complexity of needs, which grows as we get better at diagnosing development needs and doing something to help children develop their potential.
I recently visited Fordwater School, a special needs school in my constituency that does a fantastic job supporting the most vulnerable children and young adults in my community. Sadly, the school is under huge pressures driven by increased demand and insufficient funding. It currently spends 93% of its budget on staffing, which is necessary to ensure that the children in its care are kept safe. Subsequently, budgets are super tight, and parts of the school are not fit for purpose. When I visited Fordwater, three classes were under enforced closure due to water leaks. Fortunately, the school secured extra funding to fix the roof, although not to address the underlying issue. More money is needed in the capital budget to maintain the buildings correctly. The school cares for and educates some of the most vulnerable in society, yet the facilities are simply inadequate. Their primary block is comprised of dated pre-fab buildings described as “condemnable” by the headteacher, Sophie Clarke.
This Friday, I will visit St Anthony’s School in Chichester, which is oversubscribed by two classes, putting extra pressure on resources. Despite that, it is receiving more and more admission requests. Fordwater School is in the same boat, with applications that could fill the school by half again. That overfilling is particularly challenging as many of the pupils need sensory spaces and quiet places to handle behavioural issues. Sometimes that becomes increasingly difficult as the numbers rise.
St Anthony’s School is rated “outstanding” by Ofsted, and has been for the past nine years, so it is increasingly popular. Headteacher Helen Ball told me:
“it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the provision we want with inadequate accommodation and funding.”
That is despite a recent increase in the top-up fund from £3,920 to £4,100 per pupil, as the costs that the school incurs far outweigh that increase.
My local authority, West Sussex County Council, is receiving £8.3 million more in its designated schools grant—an increase of 10.4%, which is very welcome—yet there is a spending gap of £2.4 million. The council has appealed to the Secretary of State to plug that gap, and I hope the Minister will support that. Our local need is growing, as I am sure it is in many areas. We have more and more children on educational health and care plans; the figure is up by 66% since 2015.
One example of rising costs is the home-to-school travel costs, paid by the council—they have increased by over 20% in the past two years. I have heard from several parents who are fighting hard to get an education, health and care plan assessment for their child. Many receive insufficient support through the application process, which is overly complex. We should simplify this process, to make assessment more straightforward.
To cope with the ever-increasing demand, Chichester needs capital investment to expand. We simply need more places and, in some cases, to make safe the special educational needs provision. We need to ensure that we are providing brilliant care, not just adequate care. We need more investment to do that. In the long term, that will save money. Many children travel significant distances to access the specialist support they need, due to overstretched services. One child about to start at Fordwater School will commute 40 minutes each day to attend the school’s autism centre for 16 to 19-year-olds.
I commend the hon. Lady for securing this debate. This issue is dear to my heart and I want to see change in my constituency of Upper Bann, and Northern Ireland. Does she agree that we need to create the best school environment? She mentioned the distance that people must travel. A colleague of mine in the Northern Ireland Assembly is bringing forward mandatory training on autism for teaching staff and classroom assistants. Does she agree we should implement that throughout the United Kingdom?
I agree—that is a good point. For new Members who might not know, I should say that autism awareness training is available to all Members and our staff here. We have done it, and it is also useful for surgeries to ensure our staff are trained. The more that we can help, the better. Talking about autism and understanding how to make places more autism-friendly is vital.
Having to place children outside an area because no provision is available also drives up expenditure: on average, that costs £45,000 per child, compared to £19,000 to place them in a local special school. Last December, nearly 500 children were funded out of the county. That is a massive cost, so there is a pressing business case for strategic investment in the county, rather than endless reactionary spending.
Does the hon. Lady share my concern not only about children being placed outside their area, but about the fact that many of those children are placed in unfit settings—not registered as official educational settings and, therefore, not inspected by Ofsted? Local authorities get over that through a code of conduct. Does she agree that all alternative provision settings should be registered and properly monitored, so that those children get the help they need and the education they deserve?
Yes; that sounds like a sensible suggestion, although I have not come across that problem myself. Most of the facilities the children are sent to are amazing: we do not have equivalent facilities in West Sussex. Many of them are private, which is why they are so expensive.
Our local special needs schools are clearly stretched to the limit, and that also has implications for staff. Understandably, children with certain behavioural challenges often need extra support. I would be grateful if the Minister outlined in her response any steps being taken to ensure that mental health support is available for staff, who endure much more emotional stress in the workplace than staff in many other school settings.
Understandably, the hon. Member has focused on complex needs. However, does she accept that about 10% of all pupils have speech and language difficulties, and that speech and language—oral communication—is the basis of all learning, whether in mathematics, reading or any academic subject? Yet the money given per child varies from about £30 to £300; there is very much a postcode lottery.
I chair the all-party parliamentary group on speech and language difficulties. Does the hon. Member agree that we should have a more consistent approach, focusing on the basic skills of speech and language—problems with those can manifest themselves in mental health and other issues—as well as on the more complex needs?
Yes, I absolutely agree. Such education is a life-changer. I go back to my nephew, who has Down’s syndrome: his speech is amazing now because of that type of support. As the hon. Gentleman said, frustration, behavioural issues and mental health issues can occur if someone cannot communicate to the best of their ability, so such education is absolutely vital. It is one of those things that is a business case all in itself, in enabling a young person to develop and to be the best that they can be, and in preventing other issues from developing. I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that such education is vital.
I am focusing on complex needs, but I am sure that the whole range of different needs will be covered in the debate. As they grow up, children with special needs may need additional support, including with things that most of us do not think about, such as getting on a bus, cooking dinner or being safe on the street. They may need additional support with all those things. It also seems that there is less support available as children enter their late teens or early twenties.
Chichester College has paired up with a fantastic local charity, the Aldingbourne Trust. Together they run a purpose-built shared accommodation centre called York Road, which supports students with special needs. At Chichester College, these students are learning all the skills they need in life, including healthy living, employability, cooking, budgeting and e-safety; those lessons are then reinforced by the live-in staff at their home in York Road.
The programme is remarkably successful. On their arrival at the beginning of the year, none of the students could travel independently; they relied on their parents or the local authority. However, after just two months, all of them now ride the local bus back and forth, and they have gained independence and confidence. That is transforming their lives. Relationship-building is also valuable, as many of these young adults are at very high risk of social isolation. What is brilliant is that they have all developed strong friendships with their flatmates and the staff who support them.
This intensive method of rehearsal, reinforcement and reflection works. Furthermore, it is totally in line with the Department of Education’s preparing for adulthood agenda. I urge the Minister to examine the success of the programme and consider whether such partnerships could be replicated and expanded in all other areas, because parents worry about what will happen to children who have complex special needs as they get older.
The project is fantastic, but the next step into the working world is fraught with difficulty and I hope the Government will pay more attention to that issue. Young adults with special educational needs require additional support to get into the workplace, and I would welcome greater collaboration with learning providers and employers to bridge the transition from school to work, including providing incentives for businesses to offer employment opportunities that are also social opportunities, to support that transition.
Proper support for children and young people with special needs is crucial both for the children and young people themselves and their families, and it can totally transform their life experience; in addition, offering children positive and well-rounded support reduces dependency later on in life. I urge the Government to continue to invest in these young people. That will benefit everybody.
Order. There is much interest in this debate, so I reluctantly impose a time limit of six minutes. That might change to five minutes later on; we will have to wait and see. For the benefit of all Members, particularly new Members, I point out that every intervention will add one minute, up to a maximum of two interventions per speech. We want to encourage debate, but bear that in mind should you wish to speak as well as intervene.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, and to follow the hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan), who made a passionate speech.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on securing this really important debate. Special educational needs and disability funding is an issue of deep concern for many of my constituents. As a former teacher, I have seen first hand the value of specialist support for children and young people who have special educational needs, and as an MP, I have heard countless stories of frustration and disappointment from parents who only want the best for their children.
Today, I will talk about how children with special educational needs and disabilities are being let down, excluded and denied educational opportunities because of a lack of funding. Right now, parents and pupils must navigate a fragmented and overstretched system to get the special educational needs provision that they deserve and desperately need.
Too many children are being left behind without support, due to delayed and out-of-date education, health and care plans. In Barnsley, some children have had to wait more than 33 weeks. Although that not be the norm and the borough performs above average in that respect, far too many families face long and trying delays.
That obviously has a knock-on and life-changing effect. Recently, a parent told me that their child was denied a place at a specialist school due to their having an out-of-date plan, despite the fact that over a three-year period that parent had made multiple requests to have the plan updated. Another constituent’s 10-year-old child was excluded for bad behaviour at school while they were waiting for the EHC assessment that would identify them as requiring additional support.
In addition, those pupils who attend school can struggle to get through the day. I have heard distressing stories of children being left bruised and scratched after being forcibly restrained. Inappropriate use of restraint is never a solution.
There is also off-rolling, which is the disgraceful practice of removing students from the school roll, and not because of legitimate concerns about their behaviour. Instead, such students are removed from school because it is thought likely that they will perform poorly in exams, which would impact on school performance figures. I know of an academy that temporarily excluded nearly a quarter of its pupils in the 2017-18 academic year. The competitive system of schooling, including the Ofsted framework, has led to a culture whereby difficult pupils are being excluded rather than being managed.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising the issue of exclusions, which is particularly important when it comes to academies. In Luton, school exclusions have—shockingly—tripled in the last five years, and many of the excluded children are children with special educational needs, which risks some of the most vulnerable children in society being further exposed to isolation or criminal elements. Does she agree that exclusion should only ever be the last resort, and not a tool to manage overall performance of a school or the result of a lack of funding?
I thank my hon. Friend for making that important point. She is absolutely right—it is completely clear that something needs to be done to keep children in supportive and safe learning environments.
It is also clear that the number of pupils being excluded is simply far too high; we have seen that in my local area. However, having met officials from Barnsley Council—I have an ongoing dialogue with the council—I can say that it seems very genuine in its attempts to deal with the situation, and I welcome the Barnsley Alliance for Schools and the education improvement strategy.
The efforts of local councils across the country, however, are limited by overstretched budgets and chronic underfunding. Many of the challenges in the SEN system cannot be met within the current allocation of high-needs funding. Sadly, a significant proportion of councils’ high-needs budgets is being spent on sending children and young people to out-of-borough referral units or schools. Vulnerable children are being forced to leave their school friends and travel further afield to access the support they need. Across the country, children are out of school for months, and sometimes years, because of the lack of local SEN provision and specialist school places. That is a direct consequence of councils not having the funds to provide SEN support locally.
The massive commitment of local authority resources has left SEN teams short-staffed, which in turn has left families waiting for months, if not years, to have their children’s needs assessed and a support plan agreed upon. It is an indictment of the whole system that vulnerable children are being neglected, excluded and left without the assistance they need to succeed in life.
With rising demand for SEN and disability support, councils across the country face a shortfall of more than £1 billion by 2021. In areas such as Barnsley, funding for SEN has simply not kept pace with the increase in demand and the increased expectations about provision. The current and proposed high-needs funding allocations are simply not sufficient.
Schools and local authorities need resources to ensure that vulnerable children are given the best start in life. It is clear that everyone’s best interests would be served by increasing funding to support SEN provision locally, and by having a more accountable and less bureaucratic system. Right now, children with special educational needs and their parents are being left behind, without the funding or support they deserve. We urgently need action.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on her powerful and forceful contribution on such an important issue. She has the thanks of the House for raising this issue.
I start by setting out the position in Cheltenham, where we are particularly well served, with Battledown Centre, which assesses children between the ages of two and six; Belmont School, which is for children with moderate learning difficulties; Bettridge School for children with severe learning difficulties; and the Ridge Academy for children with emotional and behavioural problems.
As the hon. Member for Twickenham said, it is hard to overstate the extent to which demand has rocketed; it is not just demand in terms of the numbers, but in terms of complexity as well. To put a little flesh on those bones, the 2019 National Audit Office report—recent data—indicated that the number of pupils attending special schools had risen between January 2014 and January 2018 by 20.2%. Furthermore, in terms of complexity, the proportion of pupils with the greatest needs had risen between 2014 and 2019 from 2.8% to 3.1%. That might not sound like a great deal, but given the extent to which they require significant resources, it is a telling point. I have picked up that point when speaking to teachers in my constituency. One told me that he had worked in a special school for something like 25 years. When he started in the 1990s, a normal pupil-teacher ratio was in the order of 16:1, but the idea of a 16:1 ratio now in a school with moderate learning difficulties is completely fanciful, because the level of complexity is much more significant.
In practice, what that means is that those schools that are supposed to be dealing with children with moderate learning difficulties are, in fact, dealing with children with severe learning difficulties, and those schools that are meant to be dealing with children with severe learning difficulties very often find it difficult to cope. What then happens? Those children end up in independent provision. Quite apart from whether that is the best place for them to be, it is incredibly expensive and ends up taking resources away from the pot.
We spend a lot of time praising public servants in this place—that is absolutely as it should be—but we should have a special regard and respect for those people who work in our special schools. They are dealing with an extraordinary surge in complexity with an extraordinary sense of professionalism, devotion and care. They have my sincere gratitude, and I dare say that of everyone here.
We have got to have a better understanding of why this surge is happening. The Government announced a review in September 2019, and that work has to include action on the specific health conditions that are driving the demand. As a society, we have to face up to an issue, which is positive, but which is sometimes uncomfortable for us to grapple with. The reality is that there are a lot of children surviving in childbirth who might never have survived before. Thank goodness that is happening, but it does mean that we as a society have to recognise that there may be knock-on consequences, which we have to resource properly.
I am pleased that the hon. Member is raising the work of the NAO. I helped to lead that inquiry for the Public Accounts Committee, and it is good work. We need to be very careful. Although there is potentially a correlation, it is anecdotal that there is a relationship between the two. It is not necessarily borne out in the data. I would be wary of making that link without the data.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to tread carefully. The central point is that we need the data. It is critical that we make these important public policy decisions on the basis of the strongest evidence. We have to go where the evidence takes us, even if it is not always comfortable to do so.
I pay tribute to the Government for the additional funding. Of course, we all want more, but it is important to recognise how significant that additional sum has been. It is something in the order of £700 million. Taken in isolation, such figures are meaningless. We have to look at the context of the overall high-needs pot of around £6 billion. The Government investment is a significant sum of money set against that. In Gloucestershire, that means that the budget has gone from about £60 million up to £66 million. I take on board the points made by the hon. Member for Twickenham about ongoing needs and the fact that some local authorities have found themselves overspending and viring money from the mainstream block to fund the shortfall, but we should not lose sight of the fact that is none the less a significant sum of money.
Of course, although it is a critical factor, it is not all about money. I pay tribute to the headteachers in Cheltenham, and Gloucestershire more widely, who have addressed the point made by the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) about off-rolling. We did have a big problem with off-rolling in Gloucestershire, but the headteachers have worked closely together and they have reduced the number of exclusions by 19% in 2018 and 42% since September 2019. That is a fantastic piece of work because, at the risk of stating the obvious, if they do not do that schools decline to manage children with SEND in mainstream education, who might then go to schools with moderate learning difficulties; those schools cannot cope, and they then shunt people on to schools with severe learning difficulties, and as I indicated earlier, they often end up in independent provision. We have to break the cycle and break that domino effect. Headteachers working together are doing so, and I commend them on that.
I have a number of asks of the Government. Will the Government look again at the expectation that mainstream schools such as, for example, Pittville School or Balcarras School in my constituency should pay for the cost of SEN support up to £6,000? That places a financial burden on schools. Although they are living up to their obligations, we should recognise the strain that that places on them. Secondly, I have indicated that we need to progress work on identifying causes. Thirdly, we need to look again at the code of practice and, in particular, the threshold for education, health and care plans. We simply cannot duck that. Finally, is now the time that we ought to look at whether clinical commissioning groups should bear some of the burden, particularly where there is increasing medical intervention? As a society, we have to grapple with those issues. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Twickenham for raising the debate and I pay tribute to the teachers who deliver so much in Gloucestershire.
It is a massive honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson), who made an outstanding speech. I am grateful to her for leading the debate.
In the run-up to the debate, I contacted all the headteachers in my constituency to ask what they wanted me to tell the Minister about special educational needs funding and provision. The collective message that came back is one of desperation. In rural communities such as ours in Cumbria, small local schools simply do not have the financial resilience to cope with the ludicrous cuts they have to face from the Government, but it is especially tough when it comes to SEN funding.
My constituency has eight secondary schools, two of which have fewer than 200 pupils; 35 primary schools, 10 of which have fewer than 30 pupils; and three primary schools smaller even than that. They are all fantastic schools. They are small because they serve sparsely populated areas that are significant distances away from one another, and small schools are the most vulnerable. One of our larger secondaries, Kendal’s Queen Katherine School, spoke for all the heads when it revealed the real financial pressure in being expected to fund the first 11 hours of education, health and care plans out of the school’s own budget. Because of the cuts that the Government have made to overall per-pupil funding, they have no reserves to provide that support.
The head of Storth Primary School sent me a copy of the letter that he had written to the county. He described the school’s reputation for being a caring and nurturing setting and how that has resulted in the school attracting more children with special educational needs. That should be celebrated, commended and rewarded. Instead, the lack of funding has made it a burden. In recent years the school has had children needing full-time 2:1 or 1:1 support, but no funding has been provided. They have been under a deficit recovery plan for five years. The head speaks of the pressure and anxiety that the staff are under and the frustration and pain of trying to provide the best possible care and education for all pupils on a budget that simply will not allow it.
A similar picture was painted by the special educational needs co-ordinator at Cartmel Primary School. The local authority recommends the school as suitable for children with an EHCP and 4.3% of its children have one, significantly above the national average. Although the school expresses its pride in its reputation, it is in danger of buckling under the funding pressure that falls on its shoulders alongside the usual strains that fall on small school budgets.
Cumbria is as vast as it is beautiful. Often in rural communities such as ours there simply is not the alternative provision available in reachable distances. The head of Langdale Primary School described how for many pupils the available special schools would require travelling extreme distances, and therefore they are effectively unavailable. She wrote with some distress that, despite the incredible hard work and enthusiasm of her excellent team, its ethos—to be wholeheartedly centred on individual children—was coming under increasing strain.
Heads in south Cumbria say that they are challenged by the lack of staffing, and in my experience that is the case. Cuts in support staff have left teachers isolated in supporting children’s needs in the classroom. St Martin & St Mary Church of England Primary School in Windermere described the extremely high criteria set to qualify for an EHCP, so only children with the most severe needs receive any funding at all. On top of that, many schools have to contend with long waiting lists for SEN referrals, followed by delayed assessments. Children are often then refused support, despite their evident need, and that leaves schools in Cumbria also having to find the resources to support the significant number of children who are in limbo, waiting for an assessment. They have needs but do not have an EHCP, and indeed they may never get one.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is completely unacceptable that families have to wait for far too long? He mentions the delays and assessment refusals, and how people have to wait a long time once assessments are granted. The statutory timescale is 20 weeks: four and a half months to wait to get an assessment. Even in my area of Hertfordshire County Council, one in five of the families do not get their assessment within the statutory period, so does he agree that the timescale should be shortened?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The situation is the same in Cumbria. The point was made earlier by the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), who is no longer in her place, regarding the lack of educational psychologists. The Government are not funding the support needed to get people to have their EHCP in the first place, and therefore schools are picking up the tab for assessments that have not been made. Nevertheless, the needs are absolutely still there.
The head of Dallam School in Milnthorpe expressed concern on another matter: the lack of resources available to access quality training and training providers to equip staff to support pupils’ mental health needs. Many of the other heads shared the concern that it damaged their schools’ ability to do the job that they are so desperate to do. The Government can talk a good game on mental health, but they are utterly failing to invest in preventive mental health with the staff and training necessary in schools to keep our children mentally well. Indeed, across the whole of Cumbria only 75p is spent per child per year on preventive mental health work, which is an outrage.
The Government are demoralising our teachers and letting down our children, because schools have to fund those first hours of provision for children with EHCPs. We therefore have a system that punishes schools that have a deserved reputation for being nurturing and for caring for their children’s needs. The Government are systematically penalising the schools that do the right thing, and that must change. I challenge the Minister today to ensure that all funding to support children with EHCPs is delivered centrally and does not come from the school’s own budget.
I am grateful to all the headteachers who contacted me—many more than I have had time to refer to here. They are all hard-working, enthusiastic and caring, and so are their staff. I am incredibly proud of all of them, but they are desperate because Government funding has put them in an impossible position. They are outstanding professionals who love their jobs, love their schools, and are driven to make a difference in the lives of the children of Cumbria, whom they serve. Imagine how unbearable it is for them to know that they cannot do what they know they should; cannot meet the needs that they know they should; cannot support the children in the way that they know they should. It is as heartbreaking as it is outrageous. Let us have no more excuses. The Government must act.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I hope that Members will forgive me if I speak for slightly less than the allotted time, but that is because Members before me have said a great deal of what I believe, and I understand the passion and feeling about the issue. I thank the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for securing the debate. She has set the bar very high for the new intake of MPs. I suspect that my hon. Friends the Members for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) and for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) and I will all pay great attention to her career, and to how we can match her skills.
My hon. Friends the Members for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) and for East Devon (Simon Jupp) have asked me to say some words on this topic. Given that across Devon we have 6,500 young children in EHCPs, 794 of whom are looked after, with 94,000 pupils and 369 schools, the issue is hugely impactful and it is necessary that we address it. I welcome the Government’s actions over the past few years, including the recent £780 million; the 2014 reforms to extend eligibility for support for 16 to 25-year-olds; delivering a further 50,000 teaching assistants; and, as has been mentioned, the further commitment to £31.6 million to train more than 600 educational psychologists. That is welcome news and should be applauded.
However, I am not here to be a mouthpiece for the Government. Although I recognise their successes, there is more work to be done. For all the positive action that has been taken over the past few years, there have also been some serious negative impacts. Within my constituency of Totnes there is undoubtedly a considerable challenge for the local authorities that have to subsidise the dedicated schools grant high needs block. The continued demand for EHCPs, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) mentioned, obviously takes up a huge amount of time, and it is difficult to get through them. That difficulty is also reflected in school transport and how that can be taken on by local authorities.
In my efforts to be brief, I shall put a few questions to the Minister. What action will the Government take to ensure that schools receive further funding for SEND children in future? Will they recognise the requirement of mixed provision and the benefit of it? Do they understand that mainstream settings can often be as beneficial as those in special schools? Lastly, does the Minister agree that providing long-term support allows for improved school budgeting and consideration for how to effectively provide for SEND children?
I have one last point about the families of those who travel abroad in the service of a Government Department and who then return and have to reapply through the EHCP programme, which is incredibly difficult. Will the Government look at how those who serve this country abroad with their families can go forward in that process when they return?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on securing this excellent debate. As a former secondary school teacher, I know that not providing properly for children with special educational needs impacts on the whole school environment. All our children deserve a good education, and at the core of that is how we deal with and provide for those who need support. It impacts on all children if we do not support those with special educational needs.
I want to draw attention quickly to the situation in Bath and North East Somerset. Like the rest of the country, we deal with a growing number of children who require SEND provision, with less funding to do so. More than 1,350 children now need support via an EHCP, compared with just over 800 in 2013. That is partly due to the widening age range of zero to 25—previously it was five to 18. However, it is also because of the expectations that SEND reforms have created, and rising levels of need in BANES. It is most likely linked to autism, and to social, emotional and mental health difficulties.
My main concern is the lack of general direction around SEND. The performance regime that schools must follow means that there is now a low incentive for inclusion in mainstream schools for children with SEND. For BANES Council, there are three things that the Government can do to improve the situation. First, they must provide the local authority with the finance it needs in the high needs budget and provide appropriate funding for the delivery of local authority services. Secondly, they can be clearer and more specific about the role of schools in supporting children with SEND, and link that to school performance and inspection regimes.
Finally, the Government should seek to reward schools that are successful in being inclusive of children needing SEND provision. There are, as has been said, perverse disincentives for doing so—particularly, for example, when children move from junior to senior school. Because it takes so long to secure the funding, often children do not get that at the end of their time in junior school, because the school itself will not benefit from the extra funding. I therefore urge the Government also to look at children’s transition from one school to the next.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson), who personally invited me, across the Chamber, to come and speak in the debate. While I absolutely agree on the need for sustainable funding for SEND services, I want to touch on the way local authorities run them.
Unfortunately for children in my constituency, the local council is not providing the leadership required. The Liberal Democrat-run council was slammed by Ofsted for its lack of leadership. In fact, the report explicitly stated that money was not the issue in that case, because Sutton Council is one of the best funded authorities, if not the best funded. I am not entirely sure where it lies on the league table now, but at the time of the report it was certainly not having much trouble with its funding.
The failure of political leadership in Sutton has meant that parents have had to band together to form the Sutton EHCP crisis group, because they do not have access to the support that their children are entitled to. That includes the failure of Sutton Council to comply with the Children and Families Act 2014. I commend the work of the group, and particularly the work of its founder Hayley Harding, who has just been nominated for an autism professionals award, in the best volunteer category. No one could be more deserving. Thanks to the group’s tireless campaigning, and the fact that they have held the council to account, there has been some—I stress it is only some—progress. Some of the findings of an investigation into the council’s failure have included an admission that past systems have not worked, and that the system is still not as good as it should have been.
Problems remain, particularly with respect to the accountability and transparency of Cognus, the arm’s length company that the council uses to process the plans. There is still substantial evidence of non-compliance with the 2014 Act. However, the big problem that we have is a failure of any political will on the part of the council to hold itself to account or deal with the problem. Frankly, I find it scandalous that no councillor has felt the need to resign over the poor standard to which Sutton’s SEND service has been allowed to fall. Time and again we hear repeated bleats that the system is not as bad as it is, and that parents are on the council’s side. At the same time, parents in the public gallery at council meetings say the exact opposite.
The council needs to take responsibility. I hope that the Minister will agree that, although we need to provide sustainable funding, we cannot allow the situation to continue in which councils fail to provide the leadership required for services. I hope that we will get the changes necessary in Sutton, and ensure that the most vulnerable children in Carshalton and Wallington get access to the support that they are entitled to.
I thank the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for bringing the issue to the fore. It is replicated across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. There will not be any region where it is not an issue. Regions including my own fail on this, and improvement is absolutely necessary.
Children are simply falling through the cracks as budgets are stretched beyond belief. Special needs services clearly do not have the resourcing needed to make the difference. In the previous Parliament, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee made it its business to carry out a study on education and health. The education study mirrored all the issues that have been referred to. One of the main findings was that Northern Ireland has faced the highest school spending cuts per pupil in the UK over the past decade—11% in real terms, compared with 8% in England, 6% in Wales and 2% in Scotland. The money set aside per pupil in Northern Ireland, at £5,500, is less than in Wales, where it is £5,800; England, where it is £6,000; and Scotland, where it is £6,600.
Today I had the opportunity to meet some people from Disability Action. They were people at secondary school or in further education. The issues for them are clear. Transport to school is important, as well as the assessment that other Members have referred to, which can take four to six weeks. In Northern Ireland it can take from four to six months, so we are worse off. Even then, there is no guarantee of getting the cash that is needed.
We have had a failure in the Assembly for the past three years. It is important now to move on. There is a Minister in place in the Assembly, who happens to be my colleague. We need sustained, enhanced funding UK-wide, for all schools, and particularly for children with special needs. I know that the Minister is here to respond on her portfolio and not on Northern Ireland, but we want to have some input on Northern Ireland in this process, and to discuss where we are.
I pay tribute to every teacher who gives up even more of their home life to consider the child who is not statemented but needs extra help, and to every classroom assistant who makes the difference for that child. I also pay tribute to every volunteer who takes training in Campaigners or the Girls Brigade and Boys Brigade, to learn how better to connect and deal with the special needs child who needs to know, as we do in those organisations, the Bible story that Jesus loves them and they have a place within every youth organisation. It is important that there is funding so that the people we charge with the education of our vulnerable and needy children can have the tools that they desperately need to enable them to achieve what they know they can, given the chance, which is that children can fulfil their potential.
I thank the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for securing the debate. I do not think that there is a more important issue in our society than making sure that every child, regardless of any disabilities they are born with, has every opportunity to achieve their full potential. Often their full potential is not just being average, but being a high achiever—I say that as someone who has dyspraxia. I was born with dyspraxia and dyslexia. When I was 12 I had the reading and writing age of an eight-year-old. I said I was going to leave school because I did not really care about it at that time—I just cared about football and that was about it—but I was able to turn things around.
I will share some insights about what I think is key. A lot of the issue in relation to people with special educational needs is to do with structure and the approach to education, but much of that is of course linked to funding. What made a difference to me was having fantastic learning support assistants who, at key moments in my life, made key interventions at the right moment. I was so lucky that that was the case. It was also crucial that I was at a school that had the freedom and flexibility to make certain decisions. Recently I spoke to a parent whose daughter has dyspraxia. For me, being taken out of French lessons was crucial. As important as it is to learn a foreign language, I was four years behind with writing and reading in English, so French was not the greatest priority. It was the same for the parent I spoke to.
It is also important to have, at the heart of teacher training, the development of a full understanding of the range of special educational needs, whether it is autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia—you name it. Of course, early intervention is crucial. The hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) made a point about Ofsted inspections, and that issue is behind many of the problems in the education system. The right incentives need to be put before schools and teachers so that they can focus on the right areas. No school should be rated good if it does not cater for everyone. No child should be left behind in our education system.
It has been an honour to speak in the debate. I only knew it was happening a couple of hours ago. My time management is not the best—perhaps it is linked to my dyspraxia—and I was only planning to speak for three minutes anyway, so I have not been negatively impacted.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on securing this incredibly important debate.
In the short time we have, I join colleagues in heartfelt thanks and admiration for those on the frontline who are dealing on a day-to-day basis with children with special educational needs. “Dealing” is not quite the right word. I used to be a teacher and know that, as has been said, those students are often the most creative and giving, intellectually, in the class. Once that potential has been unlocked, they can fly.
I often go to special schools in my constituency, and we speak about how students can feel excluded from the system. Children are pulled out of classes when they want to be included. I would love us one day to have an education system that is fully inclusive and is allowed to make accommodations on a case-by-case basis for every single child. Most teachers know what those accommodations need to be. We have heard already about the funding crisis. There is a notional SEND budget that comes out of the main schools grant. It is £6,000 from every school and it creates a perverse incentive. That has to go, which is why in the last election the Liberal Democrats suggested that it should be cut to £3,000 for each child, but the fact is we need to make sure that any child, anywhere, gets the full accommodations that they need.
In the short time I have remaining I will highlight the “h” part of EHCPs. We often talk about autism and dyslexia, but it is also meant to cover children with disabilities. The other part of the NHS that feeds into the issue is child and adolescent mental health services. I have constituents in my area of Oxfordshire who have waited nearly two years for their EHCPs. That is a direct result of underfunding in CAMHS, which the local CCG and the local authority commission together. What work is the Minister doing with other Departments to ensure that they are meeting their requirements for EHCPs?
I will quickly highlight unregistered alternative provision. What happens to students who are excluded from school? Very often those schools do not want to do that, but for the sake of other children in school, or because they simply cannot provide the resourcing needed, they move the students on, often asking for them to be home-schooled or otherwise. Why do we have a system that allows any child essentially to be pushed out of the system altogether? I can understand that the child might go somewhere else, but that provision needs to be fully registered and fully inspected. If the child is to be home-schooled, that needs to be up to a standard. My final question to the Minister is about what happened to the consultation on children not in school. We were meant to have a response by the end of the year. That is an important part and we have not seen it.
I thank the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for securing this debate. Clearly there is an appetite to discuss this important issue. I stand to speak for the third party as a former English teacher of 23 years and as a Member of Parliament from Scotland. Before I begin, it is worth pointing out that in Scotland some 27% of our school registered pupils have special or additional support needs. In England, the figure is 15%. The debate is of particular importance to Scotland, as a higher percentage of our children are affected and require extra support.
We can all agree that our children and young people must receive the support they need—we have heard much about that today from all parts of the House—and must be helped in school to reach their full potential. It is important that our systems focus on overcoming barriers to learning so that every child can enjoy a positive and fulfilling school experience. Part of that must be ensuring that children are in an environment that best suits their needs. For some children, that will be mainstream education, but for others it will require a specialist setting. Today we have heard of some of the challenges for pupils in accessing the kind, level and nature of support they need. We must remember that we are dealing with a spectrum and range of different needs when we talk about special or additional needs. That could be a learning difficulty or another kind of disability where special provision is required.
Having special educational needs can impact on a child in a range of ways, including their ability to make friends, their ability to understand things, their concentration, their physical ability, their ability to read and write and even their behaviour. The challenges faced by children with special educational needs are often lifelong. School must be a place where they feel supported and included and find fulfilment, because their lives will not get any easier when they leave school. There is no doubt that a school must have the appropriate and correct level of staffing and support to ensure that those needs are being met appropriately, as the hon. Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) pointed out when referring to his personal experience. I think his was probably the most powerful contribution to the debate, because there is nothing more important than hearing from somebody who had been through the system and seen things from that side. Even though many of the Members in the debate are former teachers, we do not necessarily see the issue through the child’s eyes.
Like the rest of the UK, Scotland faces challenges in delivering the kind of education that we all agree children with special or additional support needs deserve. I would like to take a few moments to set out some of the action being taken in Scotland to try to address the issues. Nothing I say should in any way indicate that it is job done—far from it. The challenge will continue to present itself and re-present itself with every new generation going to school.
In 2018, 14,457 staff had a role in supporting pupils with additional needs in Scotland. That was an increase of more than 1,000 on the previous year, representing a 7.7% rise. Teacher numbers also increased for the fourth year in a row. Scotland has more teachers than at any time since 2009, and the pupil-teacher ratio is at its lowest since 2013. In Scotland, there is a review of the implementation of additional support for learning, including where children learn, and its findings must be used to inform the work being taken forward to enhance the implementation of additional support for learning. The review will report in spring 2020, and it will inform and, I hope, dictate what more can be done to support children with additional needs.
While more needs to be done—I do not think anyone would deny that, and we have heard much today about the challenges—there is also, as I am sure Members would agree, some excellent practice going on in our schools. It is important to remember that, and I echo the tributes that have been paid to teachers on the frontline working hard to deliver the best support they can to children with special and additional needs. That is often in extremely challenging and difficult circumstances, as the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) and others have pointed out. In my constituency, I have seen some inspiring and inspired examples of the kind of support that can be given, such as nurture bases, including the one in Auchenharvie Academy in Stevenston in my constituency. The nurture base does what it says on the tin. It supports pupils who have special or additional needs. It helps them access and navigate the curriculum in their own particular way, it increases their confidence in doing so, and it helps them socialise into the school environment itself.
Such success stories as those we have heard about today do not happen overnight. The key is the staff working day in, day out to support pupils in the way they need to be supported. Achievement for pupils with special educational needs in mainstream secondary education and in specialist settings continues to rise in Scotland. The percentage of children with an additional support need having a positive follow-up destination has increased by 5.9% to 87.9%. The percentage of children with additional support needs leaving school with one or more qualifications has increased by 5.4% to 91%. Alongside that, exclusions in Scotland are at their lowest level since 2002-03. We have more young people in school and learning constructively, but more still needs to be done.
We have to ensure that every single young person has the positive educational experience they need and deserve, and the Scottish Government continue to work with local authorities to improve the consistency of support across Scotland through, for example, improved guidance, building further capacity to deliver effective support and improving career pathways and professional development and training for school staff on inclusive practices.
One of the issues identified following research is that almost all parents of children with special or additional support needs and almost all of the pupils felt that their needs were being met at school. Many parents felt it had simply taken too long to get their child into the right environment, and we have heard much about that today from a number of Members. This is clearly an area that needs to improve right across the United Kingdom. With a £15 million investment to further enhance capacity in education authorities and schools to support more effective responses to the individual needs of children and young people, I hope this area will become less of an issue in Scotland and before too long across the United Kingdom.
We can all agree that what we have heard today shows that not every child is being supported in the way they need to be supported to reach their potential. There are challenges across Scotland and the UK, and I have tried to set out some of the measures that the Scottish Government are taking to try to address the challenges. I hope the Minister will set out how she feels the challenges can be addressed, given some of the concerns expressed by Members across the United Kingdom.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. As many others have done, I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on securing this important debate. She has big shoes to fill, following her illustrious predecessor, but has certainly made an impressive start this afternoon.
Children with special educational needs and disabilities are some of the most vulnerable children in our country. They need help and support when they are young to help them to cope with the rest of their lives, which can be very challenging. I join the many Members who have congratulated the incredible professionals who dedicate their time and their lives to supporting those children.
There can surely be no MP who has not encountered heart-rending cases of children who have been refused the support that they so urgently need. In my constituency of Croydon North, I have been dealing with the case of a young boy with dyslexia whose family have to spend four hours a day travelling to take him to an appropriate school. Another child, aged just seven, had to be educated at home for more than a year because none of the three special schools that were close enough for him to attend had a place to offer him.
The cause of those problems, and many like them, is the severe underfunding of such services by the Government. The Conservative-led Local Government Association says that, even after the additional funding that I suspect the Minister will shortly trumpet, high-needs services face a shortfall of £109 million over the coming year. They cannot plan for what comes after that because the Government have still not announced the funding. Councils, which are responsible for those services say that high-needs funding is one of the most serious financial headaches that they face. The money simply is not there to provide an adequate service for every child who needs it.
Things have got so bad that the LGA says that councils will no longer be able to meet their statutory duties to support children with special educational needs and disabilities. That is simply shocking and unacceptable. It means that children in desperate need—children with severe disabilities—will be turned away because the Government refuse to pay for the care that they so urgently need, and that every single one of them deserves.
Ofsted, which inspects such services on behalf of the Government, tells us a very similar story. According to Ofsted, last January almost 3,500 children who needed special support were still not receiving any. Of those, 2,700 were not in school or receiving an education of any kind because of the lack of support. That is not only short-sighted but cruel. It is cruel to the children whose futures are being curtailed, and cruel to their parents, who are left struggling, angry and frustrated that their child is being denied that most basic of human rights: the right to an education.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. Does he share my concern that very often these children end up in the prison service, and is he aware of the statistic that children in custody are, on average, twice as likely to have SEND problems as those in the general population? If we intervene early and ensure that they do not go to prison, that will save the state money.
The hon. Lady makes an important point. Many of the outcomes for these children in later life are negative when they could have been positive.
The failure to fund high-needs services adequately means that lower-level support suffers as a result. The Children’s Commissioner says that speech and language services and mental health services have all suffered. Leaving children with such disabilities unable to cope means that their chance to function well as adults is taken away from them. It is fair neither on the children, who deserve much better, nor on society as a whole, which will be left to pick up the much higher costs of supporting them as adults.
We cannot just abandon these children, so I would be grateful if the Minister responded to a few specific points. Councils need the powers and funding to open new special schools where they are needed. Will she confirm that that will be part of the Government’s review? By the end of August last year, half of the 100 areas that had been inspected by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission were found to have significant weaknesses in their SEND services. They were all required to submit written proposals for improving their services. That is a shockingly high level of failure. Why has it not triggered a co-ordinated action plan across Government to bring those services up to the level required?
The inspections identified a long catalogue of failings. Here are just some of them, according to the reports: joint commissioning and service planning is weak; education, health and care plan assessment is not working well enough; too many care plans are not finalised within the 20-week timescale; designated medical officers are under-resourced; oversight of care plans is inadequate; transitions into adult health services are inadequate; families do not know where to get the help and support that their children need; more than half of parents or carers have had to give up work to care for their disabled child; more than half of parents and carers have been treated for depression, including suicidal thoughts; and too many parents and carers say that their views and experiences are neither heard nor valued.
That all comes from Ofsted and the CQC, the Government’s official inspectors for such services. Is the Minister really content to preside over services failing to that extent, because she should not be? I hope that she will not just dismiss that evidence, as previous Ministers have, or resort to platitudes about inadequate funding increases. Special needs services are in crisis. Too many vulnerable children with disabilities are living in crisis, and they deserve an urgent response from the Government to put things right.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on securing today’s really important debate. I know that she has been working particularly hard to highlight the concerns of some of her constituents regarding SEND provision and funding. I put on the record the fact that I share her concerns, and stress that the Government are taking action and will continue to do so. Our ambition is for every child, no matter what challenges they face, to have access to a world-class education that sets them up for life, enabling them to reach their full potential. We need to ensure that that is happening across the entire UK.
Funding has been raised by several Members, and is extremely important. It is part of our commitment to level up across the country, but I also stress that the issue is about so much more than just funding, as my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) mentioned. We should accept that there are large amounts of money in the SEN system, but it is important that that money is spent efficiently and effectively to really raise outcomes for these children, and to ensure that the system is child focused. We also recognise the value of the role that mainstream education plays in providing a wonderful education for children with specific challenges, as my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) referenced.
We are undertaking a cross-Government review of our SEND provision, and we must ensure that every penny that we spend helps to achieve better outcomes, so that parents and teachers have confidence in the system to deliver for these children. The review will look at how the SEND system has evolved since major reforms were introduced in 2014, and will consider how the system can be made to work better for all families, ensuring that the quality of provision and the support available to children and young people is sustainable in future.
The review will also look at the supply and delivery of support at the moment. The hon. Members for Croydon North (Steve Reed) and for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) touched on supply, which is a particular concern of mine, and of the Government. We want to ensure that support in different local areas is consistent and joined up across health, care and education services, and that high-quality health and education support is available across the country. We must ensure that all funds are spent efficiently and effectively, so that children’s needs are adequately catered for. My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) mentioned that the EHCP process is too burdensome and long, and that people can struggle throughout it. That will also form part of the review.
[Siobhain McDonagh in the Chair]
The SEND review will look at how the future system for supporting children and young people should operate, and later this year we are planning to begin a review of the formula that calculates funding allocations for individual local authorities. The hon. Member for Twickenham called for a strategy, but it is really important that we hear what the review has to say before we make our long-term plans, because they must be evidence based, and focused on delivering for these children and young people. I recognise this is not a sufficient answer for those areas that are struggling now to provide the support that parents expect and their children need.
We are, however, consulting on changes that would reduce the adverse impacts of carrying forward cumulative deficits, which the hon. Member for Twickenham mentioned, and will be responding to that consultation very shortly. We recognise the urgency of doing so, and have been developing a response in conjunction with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and with the Treasury. I can assure the hon. Lady that we will publish that response shortly, and I am more than happy to meet her in the forthcoming days.
One delicate and important issue is that of children with complex health needs, who do not have just one single health need but maybe three or four, which then impact on their education. Is the Minister prepared to set some funding and resources aside to deal with those children with complex health needs related to education, as well?
The review is encompassing the EHCPs, and is going to look at exactly those challenges in the system, including the point that was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), who said that we should look at the threshold. That is something that we will look at, and it will address whether we are giving enough support to those children who have complex and compounded problems. We will also examine the £6,000 contribution that mainstream schools have to put in; that issue was raised by a number of Members, and I know from my own constituency that it can be a challenge for school provision.
The SEND review is looking at how future systems for supporting children and young people should operate, but it is important to recognise that it is not a sufficient answer for those areas that are struggling now, as I have pointed out. I am more than happy to meet any hon. Member who has a challenge locally and go through this with them.
I represent Barnsley, which is projected to have a high needs spending deficit of nearly £6 million in the 2020-21 financial year, taking into account the extra money that the Government have given. Does the Minister accept that there is simply not enough money in the system? It is all very well to talk about all the other issues, which are important, but the money is absolutely critical.
We are looking at the deficit issue, as I have just said, and I am more than happy to meet the hon. Lady about her particular local issue.
It is important to spell out the action that we have already taken on funding. We have given the largest cash boost in a decade to increase school funding by £2.6 billion in 2020-21, followed by increases of £4.8 billion and £7.1 billion in 2021-22 and 2022-23 respectively. Next year’s increase includes £780 million of additional funding for those with the most complex SEND, representing an increase of 12% compared with this year. Although the challenges are still stark and there are a number of problems in the system, it would be unfair to say that this Government have not invested in this area, or in education. In fact, every local authority will receive an increase in high-needs funding of at least 8% per head, which is a remarkable figure. This is not just a question of funding; as I said before, it is also about where that money is going, and ensuring the money is best placed to make sure that these children have the very best outcomes that they possibly can.
I will not keep the Minister for very long. I just want to make sure that as we conduct this review and the additional funding is going in, we are not going to let local authorities off the hook of fulfilling their statutory obligations. As the example I gave from the London Borough of Sutton shows, there are occasions on which the council just is not putting in the leadership that is required. I hope that the Minister can give me that assurance.
Every local authority does indeed have statutory obligations, and as it says on the tin, it should be meeting them. As was raised by a number of Members, these children are some of the most vulnerable in our society, and their needs should be paramount and at the top of our agenda when we are setting policy and ensuring that it is delivered on the ground.
It is not the case that this is a problem up and down the country, or that the system is failing everywhere, because it certainly is not. There are a multitude of examples of excellent service for children with SEND, some of which were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester in relation to her local college; I would be delighted to visit that college in order to see the work that it is doing. As a number of Members have done, I praise the excellent staff up and down the country and the professionals who work tirelessly in this field. By focusing on the negatives, we can sometimes detract from the tremendous work that those people do.
I absolutely share that sentiment. Before we move away from what the Minister was saying about the new consultation that she will be carrying out on this issue, I wonder whether she might answer my question about where the consultation is on children not in school. Clearly, we should be seeing the results of that before we launch a new consultation that might be linked to it.
Indeed, but one review—the SEND review—will be published in the first quarter of this year, so we will then be able to make a strategy and move forward with an evidence base. The other consultation that the hon. Lady is on about is not the same as this consultation, which is completely targeted at SEND and the children who we are talking about today, and will inform our policy as we move forward.
The hon. Member for Croydon North mentioned the importance of working across Government, an issue that has been raised by a number of other colleagues. I want to reassure everybody that this area does not just fit within the Department for Education. I have regular meetings with my counterparts, and in addition, the cross-Government review takes that very fact into account.
The Minister has talked about the importance of valuing staff, and all the positive and excellent professional work they do in supporting children. I think everybody in the Chamber would agree with that, but could I draw her attention to the fact that one aspect of how we value public sector workers is how they are paid? In Scotland, a teacher’s starting salary is £32,034, but in England, a teacher has a starting salary of £24,373. I wonder whether the Minister thinks that valuing staff might be reflected by giving a better pay rise to teachers in England.
The hon. Lady will note that that was a key part of the Conservative party manifesto, which allowed us to gain our majority Government.
In conclusion, I am enormously grateful for the contributions that have been made today, and am more than happy to answer separately any questions about particular local issues. Regarding the hon. Member for Croydon North’s comment about the supply, I want to reassure him that we are taking that very seriously as part of the review. I am also grateful for the support that the hon. Member for Twickenham has given to the important topic that is on today’s agenda, raising its profile and showing the level of interest in it across the whole country. The review of SEND is crucial for making sure that we deliver the outcomes that these children deserve, and demonstrates how seriously this issue is being taken across the Government, not just in the Department for Education. I want to reassure all hon. Members that, despite the claims made today, no children shall be abandoned on this Government’s watch.
Thank you, Ms McDonagh; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, now that Mr Pritchard has left.
I thank all hon. Members who have contributed so well today. We have heard a lot of common themes from all sides, including delays in children getting the EHCPs they need; the horrendous deficit that councils are carrying, and the financial strain they are under; the strain that families are put under; and the schools that are penalised for doing the right thing. Some powerful contributions were made about exclusions and off-rolling; I was not able to cover those very valid points at the start of the debate, but they should be taken into account. The consultation that my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) referred to, which still has not been addressed, needs to be included in the Government review of SEND that the Minister discussed.
I thank the Minister, first of all for agreeing to meet my council colleagues and me, and secondly for the fact that the Government are looking at what can be done to ring-fence the deficits, so that other council services are not put at risk. I reiterate, however, that the funding that was announced was a one-year one-off, and therefore is not going to help bring down those enormous deficits—which, again, will be a cumulative £15.85 million by the end of this financial year. For a council such as Richmond, that is unsustainable, so I ask again for that provision to be examined. We have had so many reviews, including by the NAO, the Select Committee, the LGA and the London Assembly, and now there is this cross-Government review. We absolutely need action to follow those reviews—action for children, their families and local authorities—if we are going to meet these needs properly and appropriately.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered special educational needs and disability funding.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Bovine TB: Compensation
I beg to move,
That this House has considered compensation for bovine TB.
I know that the Government recognise the contribution that small abattoirs make to the food and farming sector; the previous Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs went as far as to suggest that direct Government intervention should be considered to help them survive. I am in full support of that. The closure of a small, local abattoir has a major impact on the farmers and smallholdings that use it, not to mention on the local food market, as the meat from such an abattoir travels a much smaller distance to market. There is also the loss of the skilled workmen and women who work in the abattoir.
I rise today to raise a particular anomaly in the compensation scheme for bovine tuberculosis. Correcting it will not itself save small abattoirs, but it will help. The case relates to Vivian Olds, a traditional family butchers of 120 years in St Just in my constituency, which is basically as far west as one can get in England. It has a small abattoir at the rear of the premises. Ms McDonagh, if you chose to shop at Vivian Olds—you would be very welcome; I would love to take you down there—you could be sure that the meat you purchased was locally produced, that the welfare standards were as good, if not better, than any other abattoir, and that you were getting some of the best meat that money can buy.
The case I want to raise is as follows. During the ordinary process of slaughtering a steer—a bullock—the Government vet, who is legally required to be present at the time of slaughter, identified lesions in more than one location on the carcase. Lesions are a strong indicator of bovine TB, and if they are visible at more than one site, the carcase cannot be used for human consumption—rightly so—and must be destroyed. Roughly 6% of carcases of animals removed for TB control purposes are condemned.
As you and I would expect, Ms McDonagh, the farmer did not get paid for the steer. The bovine TB scheme does not pay for an animal suspected of carrying bovine TB after it has been slaughtered, and it is not reasonable to expect the slaughterhouse to pay for the loss of the asset. On this occasion, the farmer did not agree, and neither did the judge at the small claims court, who found against the abattoir and required Mr Olds to pay in the region of £1,500, including the value of the meat and the cost of disposing of the carcase. The judge cited the fact that Mr Olds had received the goods and must pay.
The truth is that the butcher was really nothing more than a bystander in this case, which is why I believe the compensation scheme for bovine TB must change. The moment that the lesions giving rise to the likelihood of bovine TB were identified, the vet took the only decision available to him. Where there are indications of generalised TB or TB lesions with emaciation, the entire carcase and all the blood and offal is rejected as unfit for human consumption. The law rightly requires the carcase to be removed from the food chain. Mr Olds, the butcher, had no say in the matter. The owner of a small abattoir is not in the business of paying for meat he cannot use; nor can he or she afford to.
I ought to clarify that this case did not arise over the weekend in my regular MP’s surgery; it was raised with me more than a year ago. To get some form of justice, several letters have been written. The Food Standards Agency has been involved, as have Ministers from the Ministry of Justice and DEFRA. So far, a change in the compensation scheme eludes us, so I bring this matter to the Minister and the House today. I am simply asking him to change the rules relating to bovine TB to include animals removed from the food chain if evidence exists to suggest that bovine TB is present.
The Cattle Compensation (England) Order 2019 sets out the compensation rules for animals slaughtered for a number of diseases, including tuberculosis. It only provides for compensation to be paid where the Secretary of State causes an animal to be slaughtered. In practice, that relates to live animals that react to a TB test and are slaughtered in order to stop the spread of bovine TB. However, the fact remains that for Mr Olds—my local butcher—the Secretary of State caused the animal to be slaughtered. It was the legislation that required the animal to be lost from the food chain—as I say, rightly so. I ask the Minister to insert some equality into the bovine TB compensation scheme.
I represent many thousands of beef farmers in Wales who are very frustrated by the Welsh Government, who have not shown anywhere near the kind of ambition or bravery that the UK Government have shown. I was heavily involved in the original pilot badger cull back in 2013, so I know the scourge of bovine TB incredibly well. Does my hon. Friend agree that pedigree animals, which are often part of a long-thought-out genetic plan—a bloodline strategy—organised over many generations using our farmers’ expertise, often merit a higher form of compensation?
I agree, and I welcome that intervention. I believe that the Government pay the value of the meat as if it was to go into the food chain. My hon. Friend is right, and I know farmers in my constituency and elsewhere in Cornwall who have lost prize herds through bovine TB. It is a really tricky issue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) is right. In my constituency, the assessment for compensation can be wholly inadequate. For example, the economic losses to dairy farms, in the case of lost milk yield, can be further impacted by financial penalties imposed by dairies through breaches of contract when farmers are not able to meet forecasted milk yields because herds have had to be put down.
I welcome that intervention. Both interventions are important. The previous Secretary of State requested a review of the compensation scheme and the eradication strategy. As far as I understand the situation, it has reported back, and we are waiting to hear from the current Secretary of State about what the implications might be.
The National Farmers Union and other representative groups have argued for clarity, for the process to be accelerated, for better communication and for fairness. I am just arguing for fairness. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) said, there is a commitment to deliver wildlife and a farming community free of bovine TB. That is absolutely the prize to reach. Today, we are discussing the compensation scheme, which is relevant to all my farmers, including those with dairy herds.
This is where it gets a bit tricky. I recognise that the change to a bovine TB compensation scheme requires legislative change. I understand why the Government might have other things on their plate than revisiting that piece of legislation. I also know that in 2018 the Secretary of State ordered a review of the strategy for eradicating bovine TB in England. I understand that the compensation scheme is included in the review report, and I would like the Minister to indicate when the Secretary of State expects to issue her response to the review.
On the wider issue of the compensation scheme for bovine TB, which my hon. Friends raised in their welcome interventions, it would be remiss of me not to take the opportunity to ask the Minister whether, as part of his deliberations, he will consider what they said and look at improving the communication between Government bodies and the farming business. There is definitely a breakdown between DEFRA and the farming community, whether it is about surveillance testing, a TB breakdown or the details regarding when compensation will or will not be paid. Providing timely guidance gives clarity to farming businesses and instils confidence at a local level, within a complete bovine TB eradication strategy, helping to build a stronger partnership approach between the farmer and the Government or Government agency.
I know the Minister well: he knows how important it is that we continue to work closely with the farming community and landowners to ensure we can continue to drive down the incidence of bovine TB. One way would be to issue more details about the methodology involved in calculating the compensation values. We have heard about the loss of a prize herd. The compensation values would be beneficial in how they were calculated and would allow transparency in the current processes.
I mention again in closing my friendly butcher in Saint Just. It is my profound belief that compensation should also be paid to farmers when a TB reactor is identified by a vet at the abattoir. The whole process of a steer going to an abattoir to be slaughtered and then the entire carcase being lost because of Government legislation, which we support and agree with, must challenge the Government and the Minister to consider what compensation there should be, so that the difficulty that my local abattoir faced is avoided.
I hope that DEFRA does not oppose a change to the legislation. Unless a change in the compensation scheme is secured, it remains possible that Mr Olds and abattoirs large and small—especially, as we have heard, in badly affected bovine TB areas—could be affected by similar cases in the future. I know the Minister has been listening and is keen to get this right; it is a difficult and challenging issue that requires a change in legislation.
I really hope that, after more than a year of battling to resolve this particular abattoir’s issue, which is not isolated—6% of carcases are removed after slaughter because of an indication of bovine TB—there is an opportunity now to look at the matter again and simply change the compensation scheme so that farmers are compensated, at the request of the Secretary of State, when they lose animals. That is perfectly fair and reasonable, and I am delighted that the Minister is here to give us his response.
It is a real pleasure to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas), who represents a neighbouring constituency. I am very familiar with many of the farmers in his constituency, and I am aware of the abattoir he mentioned.
Bovine TB is the most pressing animal health problem in the UK. Although the recent statistics show an encouraging decline in TB incidence and prevalence rates in cattle herds in high-risk areas, there is no room for complacency. The west of England still has the highest levels of bovine TB in Europe. Over the last 12 months, over 32,000 cattle have been slaughtered for TB control reasons in England—that is an appalling waste. The disease is damaging our rural businesses and causing much distress to farmers and rural communities, and it impacts businesses operating in all parts of the food production chain, including, as my hon. Friend has highlighted, abattoirs.
The individual case of the abattoir that my hon. Friend mentioned is unusual in that the animal had not been condemned by DEFRA vets as a result of a test; it had been sent for slaughter and to be sold, but was deemed by the official veterinarian working for the Food Standards Agency to be unfit for human consumption and was condemned. The farmer then took the abattoir to the county court, which found in his favour. It is important to note that the judgments made by county courts in such situations do not set any legal precedent in the way that those made by the High Court do.
I will clarify the approach that we take to this issue. Under the provisions included in the Animal Health Act 1981, the Government pay compensation only when the compulsory slaughter of disease-affected animals is required. All cattle herds are regularly tested for TB, and most infected cattle are disclosed through that on-farm testing programme
As the Minister just mentioned, this is not just about compensation but about testing. Any cow—or any bovid, such as the bison in Nether Broughton in my constituency—that is diagnosed with bovine TB comes at a huge economic cost to the farmer, so we must get the test right. Does he agree that it is a good thing that farmers in my constituency are partnering with the University of Nottingham to develop a more accurate phage test, and that DEFRA should look into that further, because it directly affects the compensation scheme and, in particular, the viability of the farmers in my constituency?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point; none of the tests that we have are perfect. TB is a difficult, insidious and slow-moving disease that is sometimes difficult to detect. We are doing a big piece of work to try to improve diagnostics, including by looking at options such as the phage test, and in recent years our use of the interferon gamma test—the more sensitive blood test—has been more widespread.
A relatively small additional number of animals fall into the category highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives. Around 550 animals per year are picked up through routine post-mortem inspections during commercial slaughter, either because they became infected between tests or because they were missed by less than perfect tests.
Since 2006 compensation for TB-affected animals is determined through table valuations, whereby the compensation paid for the animal mirrors the average price paid on the open market for similar types of cattle. There are around 51 different table value categories, which are based predominantly on the subdivision of non-pedigree beef cattle from pedigree beef cattle, and non-pedigree dairy from pedigree dairy. There is a whole range of subcategories based on the age of the animal.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) made the important point that farmers will sometimes say that the table valuation does not represent the value of the animal. That can be difficult, and we are constantly looking to refine the tables, because the value of a small pedigree Dexter cow might be very different from that of a pedigree Hereford or a pedigree South Devon, which are larger animals. We recognise those issues and are constantly trying to refine the tables. It is also important to recognise that we went to a table valuation system, because prior to 2006 there were individual valuations for each animals. Unfortunately, however, we found that land agents would often tend to value up animals, and the taxpayer was not getting good value for money as a result of individual valuations. That is why we introduced a table valuation system. It is different in Wales, which remains on an individual valuation system.
We have had a large number of bovine TB outbreaks in Northern Ireland, especially in my constituency of Strangford. We want to make sure that the compensation scheme to which the Minister refers is uniform across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I want to be sure that, for any potential legislative changes to the compensation scheme that result from this debate, discussions will take place with the Northern Ireland Assembly and, in particular, with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, to ensure a uniform response across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Disease control and dealing with epidemiological outbreaks, including TB, are devolved matters, so each part of the UK has a different approach. In Scotland there is not currently a TB problem as it does not affect the badger population. Wales has a severe problem but is not using culling at this stage. In England we are starting to make significant progress through culling. Northern Ireland is trialling different approaches, such as “test, vaccinate or remove”, although that is rather expensive. It is a fully devolved matter that is decided by the relevant Administration—we are delighted that there is a new Administration in Northern Ireland.
To support and inform the table valuations, we collect data for around 1,250,000 animals every year from the sales of store cattle, calf sales, breeding and dispersal sales. That ensures that the table values are based on real sales data and are as accurate as possible. I take on board the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton and others about the table valuations, but I hope that she understands why we switched to that system over individual valuations.
To return to the specifics of this case, decisions on whether meat is fit for human consumption are made by the official veterinarians who work for the Food Standards Agency in the slaughterhouse. Their decisions are based on findings from the post-mortem inspections that they carry out, as enshrined in the food hygiene regulations. Those involve a set of criteria and an approach very different from what a DEFRA or Animal and Plant Health Agency vet would use on-farm.
When post-mortem inspection reveals lesions indicative of TB in more than one organ, or in more than one anatomical region, the whole carcase is declared unfit for human consumption. As my hon. Friend pointed out, that occurs in a relatively small number of cases, but I appreciate the significance to the farmer affected. About 6% of such cases are picked up in that way. However, when a TB lesion has been found in only one organ or just one part of the carcase, only the affected organ or part of the carcase is rejected. In the vast majority of cases, therefore, when an animal goes to the slaughterhouse and is not condemned entirely, there is generally a significant salvage value.
DEFRA only pays statutory compensation when it has deprived someone of their property to help eradicate a disease. The reason involves DEFRA requiring that an animal be killed as a disease-fighting requirement. DEFRA uses legal powers under the Animal Health Act 2002 to dictate that an animal must be seized, and it has enforcement powers to seize and remove an animal if, as sometimes happens, a farmer resists. In such instances, it is deemed appropriate that the farmer should be compensated.
When a farmer has an animal that has been picked up not by a test—therefore not compulsorily slaughtered by DEFRA—but only on arrival at the slaughterhouse, that situation is much more in the realm of commercial risk. An animal can be condemned for many different reasons for which a farmer would not be compensated, and it is regarded as an issue of commercial risk.
The situation can be addressed in two ways. First, in the specific case of the abattoir concerned, perhaps abattoirs need to be clear in their contracts with farmers and stipulate who is liable in the event that a carcase is condemned. If an abattoir wanted to make it clear that it would not pay for a condemned carcase, stating that in a contract could mean that the county court might find in a different way.
Secondly, we have done some work with NFU Mutual. The National Farmers Union and NFU Mutual are working on an insurance policy product to deal with such situations—either an abattoir can take out insurance to cover the cost of an animal where that happens, or the farmer could arrange to take out some insurance to cover such issues.
To go back to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), many farmers who have highly prized show-winning cattle—not just pedigree beef or dairy cattle, but ones that have a huge value—privately insure them, to top up the difference between the table value and the actual value. The commercial insurance market will help farmers to cover those costs and to protect them against loss of their prize-winning bloodstock.
I accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives about the need to share more effectively the details of how the TB compensation system works. We are looking to address that by publishing a briefing note on TB compensation, which will go on to the TB information hub operated by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board. More generally, there is always room to improve communications, so we will continue to work with the farming unions and others to meet the needs of those who deal with such difficult situations. We invested £25,000 in that TB hub website to improve information available to farmers and give them other practical advice on aspects of their TB programme.
I hope that I have been able to address some of the issues raised by my hon. Friend. He will be disappointed that I have not announced at the Dispatch Box that cases such as his will in future be compensated, but I hope he understands that to do so would be a leap from what we have always done as a nation, in particular since the Animal Health Act 1981, in which the clear concept was of a duty on Government to compensate when we required animals to be destroyed for disease-fighting reasons. Unfortunate cases in which we have not required compulsory slaughter are very much in the realm of commercial risk. It is for abattoirs and farmers through their contracts, or for both through insurance products, to cover their risk.
Finally, I make an offer to my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives, given that he is a close neighbour all the way down in west Cornwall. I am more than willing to meet the particular abattoir owner concerned and to discuss the matter with him. My hon. Friend mentioned the Godfrey review, and we will be responding to that imminently. It will include some proposals to do with TB compensation but, alas, not the one that he is seeking for me to confirm today. However, we have had a good debate and covered many different areas. Again, I thank my hon. Friend for bringing the issue to my attention.
Question put and agreed to.
Defence: Rotary Strategy
I beg to move,
That this House has considered UK defence rotary strategy.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh, and to return to a favourite topic of mine. Many hon. Members present have joined me on this topic before, which is future flying capability for the UK armed forces. At the outset, in the usual way, I refer the House to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
In November 2018, in a debate on the RAF’s centenary, I pressed the Secretary of State for Defence to start thinking about helicopters. I warmly welcome the new Minister to his place, because I know that his experience and enthusiasm for the topic will be a great asset to the Department. If I may, I suggest that this might be one of the first things in his in-tray.
I will give some brief background, although I am conscious that a number of other Members wish to speak. The UK helicopter fleet is unusually diverse. The days when our three flying services, the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm and the Army Air Corps, could boast a glittering kaleidoscope of different aircraft types—large, small, generalised, specialised—are long gone and, realistically, will not return. However, although capability in other spheres—fast jet most obviously—has seen a contraction of platform types and a concentration on one or two multi-mission types, the rotary fleet and indeed the transport fleet more generally have tended to buck that trend. There are good capability reasons for that, which we will probably touch on, mainly concerning capability and lift.
I will briefly lay out the position as it is today, because it and the background bear thinking about. There are 322 rotary-wing aircraft in the UK armed forces, across the three services. The Army Air Corps operates the Apache attack helicopter, a battlefield close air support aircraft, which will probably fall largely into a different category from those that we will debate today. It is a highly specialised strike platform that does not have the capability for any significant lift, and certainly not for carrying troops.
The Army operates one variant of the Wildcat, primarily for reconnaissance and command, with a limited air transport capability. The Royal Navy operates a naval variant of the Wildcat, as well as two variants of the Merlin: the Commando Merlin—the ex-Royal Air Force Merlin—and the naval variant, as well as some ex-Danish examples used for training only.
The Royal Air Force operates the Chinook—the heavy-lift delivery truck of the skies—and the Puma. There are a number of other types used for training or transport to a lesser or greater degree: the Gazelle, the Bell 212, the Leonardo AW109 and the Juno and Jupiter training aircraft used by the defence helicopter flying school at RAF Shawbury. That makes a relatively large number of platform types, which will present an increasing headache as they all move towards their retirement date, subject to upgrades, and need to be replaced.
I applaud the recent approach by the Ministry of Defence to many aspects of procurement policy. I have spoken about that in the House, particularly back in 2017 when calling for the combat air strategy, in conjunction with colleagues on both sides of the House. I have spoken of the dreadful historical spectacle of outstanding British defence products that have either been cancelled or have not reached their full potential, because of an historical lack of political will or long-term procurement thinking.
In 2017, we welcomed the national shipbuilding strategy, which set out an aspiration for an holistic plan to build the Royal Navy’s Type 31e frigates and support ships, and the industry backing to make them happen. Later that year, we led a call for a combat air strategy to begin considering the aircraft that will, in due course, replace the Typhoon. Because of the development period, for all those systems it is necessary to start developing replacements sometimes decades in advance. I asked the then Secretary of State in November 2018 to start thinking about helicopters, and I return to that theme today, because a similar approach would bear fruit when we start to consider the UK’s future rotary capability and where it will come from.
Let me take a quick canter across the types. The Chinook, as I mentioned, is essentially a giant delivery truck, with a lift capability of 10 to 11 tonnes. That is expected to continue in service until approximately the 2040s under the Chinook heavy lift sustainment programme. Similarly, the Apache, as upgraded and replaced with the final delivery of the second type bought but expected only in 2024, is intended to go out of service in 2040. Those two types are probably the least urgent platform types to be considered.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He always makes knowledgeable and interesting remarks.
He alluded to the Chinook being the delivery truck of our armed forces. I draw his attention to the role it played in operational theatres, picking up casualties and operating a pretty much mobile operating theatre to make sure we got casualties back to Camp Bastion as quickly as possible, to give them the best possible chance of surviving what were quite often terrible injuries. Will he join me in congratulating Boeing and the RAF on operating that aircraft or 40 years? As he says, that will have a continuing service until probably the 2060s.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; the Chinook is an extraordinarily capable aircraft. I referred to it as a delivery truck of the skies simply in reference to its extraordinary lift capability, but he is quite right that that lift capability means that it is able to take a great deal of medical facilities. Many people owe their lives to that aircraft; I pay tribute to everybody who has flown it and kept it flying over the course of many years. He is quite right to draw attention to the aircraft’s capability.
The Apache and the Chinook may need upgrades to avionics, cockpits and perhaps engines as time progresses, probably because of their expected longevity, as my hon. Friend said. It would be good to consider, as part of the strategy that I am calling for, whether any of those roles could be absorbed by other fleets as we look at upgrading or replacing capability. I suggest that the case is more pressing with medium-lift types. The difficulty with Chinook is its sheer size. While it is able to operate happily from aircraft carrier decks, it is far more challenged in urban environments, as is the Merlin—although in theory a medium-lift and smaller airframe, it actually covers much the same footprint size.
The Puma is critically important. That fleet of approximately 23 is based at RAF Benson in Henley, which borders my own constituency. I understand that it is due to go out of service in about 2025, although some service updates may keep it in service longer. In any event, we are looking at an out-of-service date for that aircraft of 2025-30—about five to 10 years away. That will have an impact on all the other types of helicopters in service.
In theory, the Merlin, which is operated by the Royal Navy, supplements that capability as another medium-lift type, but is primarily designed to operate at sea level as a naval helicopter. That means it is not ideal for some of the environments we have asked it to operate in, such as the hot and high environment of Afghanistan. Its lift capability is closer to four tonnes, meaning that while very capable, it approaches the size and weight of the Chinook but without anything like as much lift capability. Crucially, as the Minister will probably refer to in due course, some of those air frames are earmarked—approximately 10, I think—for use in the Crowsnest role, which will limit their capability for other purposes.
The impending retirement of Puma in five to 10 years’ time leaves a potential shortfall among that medium-lift capability. That is particularly the case because any incoming platform does not come up to full operating capability immediately, but has to be operated alongside the type it is replacing for a period of time. The obvious example of that in the fast-jet world is the way that Tornado and Typhoon operated alongside each other until Typhoon was able to take over all or most of the capabilities of Tornado, under the Centurion programme. The teething problems that have to be worked out—as we saw with the Hercules and the A400M—may mean a period of running in parallel, which would bring the decision point closer, bringing forward the date on which replacement would need to be considered.
The type of aircraft system or systems that we might need is very much dependent on what we envisage the need to be. Let me make a general foreign policy point, which I think many hon. Members will agree with: foreign policy goals ought to be decided first, with the military capability developed to match those goals, and then appropriate funding. It has often been the case in the past that defence capability is trimmed piecemeal in order to fit the available budget, leaving our forces ever more stretched as they try to fulfil a full-spectrum capability, from peacekeeping to expeditionary warfare, but with fewer platforms to do the work. The Minister will tell me that there is a review ongoing, and critical it is, too.
Equally serious, although perhaps a matter for another debate, is the fact that budgetary pressure on procurement of kit means that the men and women operating it do so under deteriorating service conditions, as more of the defence budget is required to deal with platform renewal. That leads to an increasing concern, as we have all spoken about many times, with retention of those men and women who fight and run our armed services.
Let me take the two aircraft carriers as an example of a microcosm of how this works. I refer to the relatively recent debate on a carrier strategy. The nation has to decide how and in what circumstances it is to use this new capability. The obvious deployment is for power projection: carrier strike, using the F35s that we are buying. If that is the case, those carriers are likely to be kept as far offshore as possible, to keep them safe from land-based threats. If so, would there be a need for organic carrier-based air-to-air refuelling capability, to maximise range or to sustain combat air patrols? What about the resupply of weapons or engine changes? Our American allies have a different approach; they have the speed and lift of something like the V-22 Osprey to resupply their smaller carriers, but I fully anticipate that the complexity and cost of a machine such as that may not be realistic for us to consider. On board our carriers, the absence of cats and traps means that a fixed-wing-capability delivery truck such as the Grumman Greyhound equally is not possible for us to have. There is the lift capability of the Chinook, as I said, but that severely limits range. That would also be available for any littoral role, which of course presents another set of challenges, particularly with regard to land-based threats. In any event, it is clear that those carriers and carrier battle groups will require a huge amount of protection. I referred to the Merlin force and Crowsnest, although of course other platforms will be required for anti-submarine capacity, which is now highly defensive rather than primarily offensive, as submarine capability was in the past.
One new factor that will have to go into the strategy is how much of the current rotary output could be conducted by unmanned aircraft. That is why I call for a strategy rather than just talking about helicopters per se. The advent of unmanned aircraft and artificial intelligence brings a whole new dimension to this picture.
Looking first at the naval picture, the role of naval surveillance aircraft is to loiter and search—to spend time looking for submarines or hostile small craft. Some of that could be done by unmanned aerial vehicles based on warships, either alongside or to a certain extent replacing—supplementing—piloted helicopters. That would have benefits in terms of cost and survivability, and it would free up manned assets for use where they are truly needed, such as for troop transport. In short, UAVs could be used for dull, dirty, dangerous tasks such as stand-off surveillance, search and reconnaissance, and long-term anti-submarine operations, but they would be a real game changer in terms of their size on a warship, payload, and persistence.
Having considered the maritime domain, it is easy to see that many of the same benefits could apply across the land domain as we look at some of the smaller helicopters used by the Army Air Corps. This technology is only emerging, and it is vital that we put a strategy in place to ensure that we are leading in the digital world—the artificial intelligence world—particularly so we do not end up having to rely on technology developed by others, who may not have our best interests at heart.
Let me say a few words before I conclude about sovereign capability and other nations. There has been a trend across defence recently towards foreign military sales and purchases, for various reasons. I do not want to critique the rights and wrongs of any of those decisions, but whereas an off-the-shelf purchase can provide a proven, established, matured capability and speed of procurement, it means we lose British sovereign capability and experience all the impacts of that in terms of defence security, investment, tax revenues and, of course, jobs.
As with combat air, I suggest that anything we do in the future is likely to be in concert with other nations, with Britain likely to add value in the high-tech sphere rather than in airframes. As with combat air, it will take time to explore the options, but we need to consider what we would want to contribute to any such future programme and what the industrial base would be. In so doing, we will ensure that we do not either miss out on making the most of everything British industry could add to that or, by failing to think about the issue in advance, failing to plan and failing to have a strategy—frustratingly, this has so often been the case in the past—have to buy off the shelf because there is an urgent procurement requirement for an operational reason.
We ought to consider who our partners might be, whether we could expand bilateral relationships and what that might mean for foreign policy. For example, France’s largest helicopter is the Super Puma, our medium-lift aircraft, so our Royal Air Force has been assisting the French in Mali and they are considering a heavy-lift acquisition of their own. One option might be to consider some sort of NATO helicopter force along the lines of the Heavy Airlift Wing, which provides three C-17s to 12 participating nations including the United States, either to provide a heavy-lift joint helicopter capability or to address the requirement for medium-lift capability that France is likely to have at about the same time as the United Kingdom.
There are other bilateral arrangements that could build on the Lancaster House principles, and all sorts of issues would need to be worked out. We would need to consider what would happen in a war-fighting rather than a peacekeeping situation, and what would happen if only one country were operating and wished to use part of the fleet. At this stage, I do nothing more than to ask for those things to be considered, because it takes time to work them through. I am conscious that I am asking not so much for a rotary strategy as for a defence/foreign policy/industrial rotary strategy. What I ask for is multi-pronged and multi-departmental—perhaps we could call it a global rotary strategy to fit with global Britain—and it will take time.
I thank hon. Members for listening. I am conscious that I raised more questions than solutions, but my aim really was just to provoke debate. I have no preference for any particular outcome, but I would like gently to press the Department to consider what the rotary fleet is likely to look like in around 10 years’ time, what it is the country wants or needs—I accept that is a foreign policy consideration as much as anything—when it will need it by, what it will cost, and the technological and industrial requirements of that. Then we will have a rotary fleet fit for the future.
Order. Can I just advise Members that if they make a reference to their interests, they need to be slightly more specific than just referring to the register? I apologise for the fact that I came in at the end to say that. I call Marcus Fysh.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) for securing the debate. He gave a thoughtful outline of some of the high-level strategic issues we need to consider. I welcome the Minister to his place. It is a great honour to have a Somerset colleague performing such an important role for the country at this time.
I absolutely agree that we need a helicopter strategy, or a rotary-wing strategy. I have been championing the issue with the Department for some time. My hon. Friend the Member for Witney made some of the arguments for that very eloquently. In my constituency, we have probably the biggest centre of helicopter manufacturing operations in the UK. It is the only end-to-end design and manufacturing aerospace capability left in the UK. It is really important for the community and, I think, the country that we preserve those design skills, for some of the reasons that my hon. Friend mentioned.
It is massively important that we have the capability to make the most of the advances that are coming with autonomous vehicles in the aerial space. Unless we preserve some of those skills and invest in them for the future, it is difficult to see how we will play a full part in the development of new technologies. As my hon. Friend also said, if we want to be global Britain, have more of an industrial footprint in the world and have more influence with our NATO allies and others, it is massively important that we have a contribution to make in the technology sphere. I welcome the Government’s focus on more spending on R&D, skills and infrastructure, and their focus on investing in regional areas such as Somerset in order to level up and take advantage of some of the installed base we have.
I thank the Ministry of Defence for its support for the helicopter industry in the UK. It does a lot of work on export promotion and on helping to demonstrate the current capabilities that we build in Yeovil. My hon. Friend mentioned some of the platforms produced there, including the Merlin, which is a heavy-lift helicopter, and the Wildcat, which is a much smaller helicopter but is very well regarded around the world. I know how much the company appreciates the MOD’s help in demonstrating what a great aircraft that is to some of its export opportunities around the world. The company currently estimates that there is potential for £11 billion of export sales. This is a real opportunity to utilise what we do well in Yeovil to advance the nation’s export interests.
It is fair to say that the Wildcat is integrated in the Navy’s defence systems. The Navy has been more inventive and creative in thinking about how that platform can be integrated in its systems, and there are opportunities for the Army to use the Wildcat creatively. If it can get a missile, it would be brilliant to have it working in tandem with the Apaches to increase frontline capability. It is worth looking at that properly.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the potential for thinking about what replaces the Puma. Leonardo has a civil helicopter platform in Italy, the AW189, which it would like to militarise, and it has suggested that it might use Yeovil for its global centre for military excellence should sufficient orders come through for the AW149—the AW189’s militarised variant. It would be worth the MOD conducting a capability review to see whether that helicopter might form part of the solution.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend that we need to look at all these things in the round, and a formal helicopter strategy would be an ideal way of conducting that. The defence industrial policy was welcome, but we must focus on rotary wing. We have heard about some of the possibilities with using autonomous vehicles on our aircraft carriers. We welcome the MOD’s collaboration with Leonardo on unmanned aerial vehicles to investigate capabilities and potential solutions to needs in that area. That, however, is a long-term programme, and unless we invest now, we cannot expect the UK’s industries to be leaders. I therefore welcome that collaboration.
We should look more at how we procure, because, as my hon. Friend said, when procurement is done reactively, there is a need to look only at headline price, which does not necessarily take into account the gross value added to an economy by long-term programme development. Leonardo, for example, has nearly 3,000 employees at its Yeovil site, but there are about 10,000 people in the supply chain, and for every £1 of headline direct value added, 2.4 times that is added through consequential impacts on the rest of the economy.
This is a really important industry. The capability it provides for our forces is important, and we really need that sovereign capability. We also need to get better at innovation. It is therefore worth looking at how we certify, because some of the certification processes take so long. In other industries in the modern world we see shortening product development cycles, so we need to ensure that certification burdens and bureaucracy do not interfere with the swift development of our military capabilities. The ability to commercialise products depends on that. Often, a defence industry skunkworks—that is the technical term for a little company trying to do something unusual—will not know whether a product may be regarded as a dual-use product until five or six years into the development cycle, by which time it may have had to spend up to £10 million getting a working prototype up and running. That is a huge risk to take before knowing what its marketability will be. There are ways in which we could change the procurement process to make the system more innovative and easy to commercialise.
On foreign military sales, we should think about whether the UK should have its own sales programme. We hear a lot about what the US does in that regard, and it is quite attractive, but the US should not be the only country able to deal Government to Government. It might be worth thinking about whether the UK should offer similar deals to friendly allies, whether France or others, and how such a scheme could work.
I absolutely agree that we must make the most of our opportunities. I support the call for a formal helicopter strategy to complement the combat air strategy, as it would help enormously our long-term decision-making processes and justifications. On that basis, I absolutely welcome the debate and thank my hon. Friend for bringing it about.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) on raising these issues, particularly how we plan—or do not properly plan—our defence strategy. It is interesting to see today many of the same faces we saw pre-election for a defence debate.
I have a particular interest in this issue, having been rescued by a Sea King helicopter on the Cobbler, on the hills of Argyll, when I was a teenager. I was hill walking with two friends, and unfortunately one of my friends dislocated her knee; the other one ran to alert mountain rescue. We were airlifted off the Cobbler by a Royal Navy Sea King helicopter. While my poor friend spent the journey in the back of the helicopter, I was taken into the cockpit and got a wonderful ride down Loch Lomond to the hospital in Alexandria. For me, what started off as a not terribly great experience ended up as a particularly memorable one. The Sea King was retired in 2018, of course, and it is right to discuss how we will replace different types of aircraft that are important to our armed forces.
In July 2016 the MOD signed a 10-year partnering agreement with Leonardo, which envisages the MOD spending about £3 billion with the company in the next decade on the upgrade and support of its helicopter fleets. Although the arrangement commits both sides to working together to achieve improvements in cost-effectiveness and innovation, the agreement is not a legally binding contract with a definite financial value attached, but an indication of support. We have hit this issue before in defence debates, because defence procurement requires long-term assurance. The UK Government should commit to long-term funding to ensure a steady drumbeat of orders, not just for rotary-wing aircraft but for different areas of our defence landscape.
The hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) mentioned that we should bring in new technology while old technology is still in use, and the importance of working in parallel. That has not always worked in the past. With the Nimrod, we know there was a gap when capability was reduced while we were waiting for P8 to come online. That is now starting, but there has been a vulnerability for several years, particularly in the north Atlantic. That should not happen. We should see where the threats and potential issues are before they strike us.
Our defence policy must also remain in step with our European allies and closest neighbours, even after we leave the European Union. The combat air strategy states:
“The UK has a unique network of capability collaborations and will work quickly and openly with allies to build on or establish new partnerships to deliver future requirements.”
There is a strong overlap between the defence interests of the UK and those of the EU. UK Government policy must take that into account despite the fact that we will leave the EU in just a few days’ time.
The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr Fysh) mentioned skills and the skills gap, which is an issue that is close to my heart. I believe that we are starting to see some progress on that. We see companies taking active positions in order to attract a more diverse workforce into different areas, but it is not enough; more has to be done. I have spoken many times about the lack of female representation across the STEM subjects—science, technology, maths and, in particular, engineering. We still do not see enough female role models or companies doing enough to go out and attract them. The importance of that is that if we are missing out on 50% of the population, we are missing out on 50% of the skills. The hon. Gentleman also talked about the importance of research and development, and spin-out products that could come as a result. As a scientist, I am never going to complain about more money being spent on R&D, so I was pleased to hear that.
The strength of our armed forces’ defences depends as much on the strength of personnel as it does on equipment. We must ensure that any steps take into account the needs and requirements of the men and women who serve in the armed forces. We have mentioned before in this place the need for some sort of representative body that can consult current and former personnel to ensure that issues pertinent to them are at the forefront of defence planning.
The hon. Member for Witney talked about strategy, which is the nub of this debate. What do we actually need? He talked about unmanned aerial vehicles and cyber aircraft. We have to be careful that we do not think that what is required in 2020 is the same as what will be required in 2025 or 2030. We must always be planning our defence capability by looking to the future. It would be naive to think that we will still need the same sort of defence in 50 or 100 years’ time as we do today, so it is important that any decision about defence planning or procurement is taken with an eye to the future.
The hon. Member for Witney talked about the possibility of a NATO helicopter force, which was an interesting idea. We do not always need to have everything here in the UK. Where can we provide specialisms? Where are our areas of pure expertise? What can we contribute to a NATO taskforce? As we look at defence procurement in the future and as budgets become increasing tight, can we look at where capability is needed and how we can contribute to that force without trying to do everything? In trying to do everything, we spread ourselves thin and inevitably some things are not done as well as others. Where is our expertise and our excellence, and what do we need in terms of rotary capability?
Finally, I again thank the hon. Member for Witney. He has a knack of securing Westminster Hall debates—I may have a word with him after this to find out the secret of his success. Hopefully he can get similar success with his rotary strategy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McDonagh. I thank the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) for securing this important debate. I have observed his commitment to our armed forces through the armed forces parliamentary scheme—I think we have both been fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel in a Merlin, a Chinook and a Wildcat, seeing at first hand what our armed forces do.
I also thank the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr Fysh), who made an important point about the value of industry and the need for skills to meet the challenges that our nation faces, and the Scottish National party spokeswoman, the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan). I certainly value the contribution that she made about continued collaboration as Britain leaves the EU.
From troop and equipment transportation to search and observation work and submarine protection, the 332 rotary-wing aircrafts in the UK armed forces play a crucial role in defending national security. I have always been clear that the Government have no higher duty than the protection of our citizens, and the maintenance of national security. Alongside that responsibility, the Government must strive for operational advantage. Key to that is maintaining sovereign capability. A national strategy for naval shipbuilding and combat aircraft has paved the way for an ambitious vision for the future in those sectors. As the hon. Member for Witney said, it is now time to talk about helicopters as part of a wider defence industrial strategy.
If the Government fail to provide a clear strategy for the protection of our sovereign capability to design and manufacture helicopters, it could jeopardise investment, jobs and the security of our nation. We have heard the case for a comprehensive, joined-up and integrated wider approach. It will allow a conversation to take place about defining a clear way ahead to preserve our national advantage. It will ensure that our highly skilled workforce continue to deliver innovation, and are at the heart of discussion, and it will bring to the forefront arguments for building British, securing us as world leaders.
For that reason, I reiterate the calls on the Government to look urgently at a wider defence industrial strategy, with rotary-wing aircrafts playing a key role. That must be part of a strategic defence and security review, and it must encompass expenditure, policy and operations across the full spectrum of defence, security and foreign affairs. Therefore, when does the Minister expect the formal process for the SDSR to get underway? In that review, when can he confirm that rotary-wing aircrafts will receive consideration tantamount to the contribution they make to the UK armed forces?
We know that future air warfare will be increasingly complex, with significant technological advancements over the lifetime of a single rotary-wing aircraft. As threats evolve, we must evolve with them. Without a comprehensive strategic defence and security review, that will be deeply challenging. I vow to continue applying scrutiny and pressure to the Government on this issue, and will continue to work alongside all Members present to ensure that rotary-wing aircrafts are given the priority that they deserve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh, on my maiden voyage as a Minister. I am slightly nervous of inadvertently spending loads of money and getting told off when I get back to the Department, but it gives me great pleasure to respond to the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) on securing it. Last Thursday, he and I had the opportunity of visiting RAF Brize Norton in his constituency. He is an eloquent and passionate supporter of the Royal Air Force and of its importance to the community that surrounds the base. It is fantastic to see today that his interest extends beyond the parochial to a wider interest in defence matters.
I should add that in my previous career I had some first-hand experience of the fantastic work of those who serve in our joint helicopter command. They have flown me in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan, on occasion with things travelling very fast to try to hit us. The courage that our helicopter pilots show while flying in combat zones and the amazing ingenuity of the engineers who keep them flying, often in challenging environments, is not to be underestimated. So, at the start of my first opportunity to speak as a Minister, I put on record my admiration for those who fly and support our helicopters on operations.
Defence already supports 115,000 jobs across the UK—one in every 220—through £18 billion of annual spending with industry. There is an opportunity for that to translate positively into the Government’s levelling-up agenda. This year, as we go through the integrated defence, security and foreign policy review, we will seek to understand the opportunity to participate in that levelling-up agenda, and to see how we can spend that defence budget to have effect in the regions of the UK where there is opportunity to invest in defence.
I am pleased to say that I have personal experience of that, having seen it with the rotary sector in Somerset. This year will see the opening of the iAero Centre in Yeovil, for which my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Fysh) campaigned vigorously. That facility will drive innovation in local aerospace and promote its ongoing competitiveness in the UK and the world. It has been made possible by Defence’s long-term investment in Leonardo helicopters and the financial commitment of Somerset County Council and the local enterprise partnership.
The centre will deliver a real opportunity for our region, but also for industry and academia to collaborate on innovation. It will be an accelerator for our region’s goals of looking at how clean tech can be employed in manufacturing and focusing on future developments in autonomy, artificial intelligence, hybrid and electric power, as well as other sustainable technology in advanced manufacturing and engineering.
Our investment in rotary will act as a catalyst for wider innovation, which is hugely exciting. Having seen how that opportunity might work in Somerset, and having recently visited other defence companies that are investing in skills and innovation in the communities in which they operate, I am clear that there is a real opportunity to exploit that further. It is a very exciting proposition and one that I am looking to make an important part of my work in this brief over the years ahead.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) made an excellent point about people in the defence industry. She is right to note that, too often, when we walk into a boardroom in a defence company, it is very male indeed, and that quite a large part of the senior workforce in those places is very male indeed.
I have noticed an interesting discrepancy between the graduate entry into defence companies, which is still very male, and the apprenticeship-level entry coming directly in at 16, which is much more balanced. That is a very interesting issue for us to explore. Why is it that male and female students look at an apprenticeship in the defence industry with equal enthusiasm, yet when we come to recruiting people out of universities into engineering roles in defence, we have less success?
Some of these companies have told me that they will actively go out and recruit a certain number of girls and a certain number of boys. That does not seem to be happening to the same extent at graduate level—maybe the women simply are not there at graduate level—but I would agree that at apprenticeship level we are seeing some improvements.
I thank the hon. Lady for her interest. The best way to accelerate the pursuit of equality in defence companies’ recruitment is for those of us in ministerial office or shadow roles—and, indeed, those with a wider interest in defence—to put pressure on them to do that. There is clearly a workforce challenge when it comes to high-end engineering. The fact that we are not good enough collectively at attracting half the population into defence roles is clearly an area for significant improvement within the industry.
Moving on to equipment, I should say that over the next decade we are spending more than £180 billion on equipment and support. That includes £9.6 billion specifically on rotary wing. However, our financial commitment to rotary is much greater, at nearly £24 billion over the next decade, including infrastructure, personnel and training, all of which will have a positive impact on local economies.
Our armed forces are obviously the biggest customer of the UK helicopter industry. I will summarise some of the investments the Government have made to date, which include more than £1 billion to develop and manufacture 62 Wildcat helicopters, £900 million on delivering 30 Merlin Mk 2 into service, about £300 million on upgrading the Merlin Mk 4 across a 25-aircraft fleet and £271 million on Wildcat support. My hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil made a point about arming the land variants of Wildcat; the maritime version will already have a missile, and I am certain that the Chief of the General Staff will have noted his suggestion that the land variant might have one too. We have also put £269 million into CROWSNEST. Finally, this year, the first of the new Apache AH-64e models will arrive in the UK and provide a step change in capability for our land forces. Through that continued investment, our rotary capability is growing.
Those developments have been made possible by our relationship with the rotary-wing industry. Airbus continues to support the Puma fleet and provide our training helicopters, which are modified in Oxford. In Yeovil, Leonardo continues to be the only UK-based company with an end-to-end design, build and support capability. It is seen as world leading in advanced rotor systems, transmissions and blade technology.
Our long-term commitment to Leonardo through the 10-year strategic partnering arrangement has allowed it to have the confidence to invest in its skilled Somerset workforce, technology and supply base. It has 2,795 highly skilled jobs, with many more in the supply chain; 114 apprentices and 33 graduates, with a further 65 joining this year; and £340 million invested in UK R&D over the past five years and around £400 million per year with over 800 UK suppliers, including 105 small and medium-sized enterprises.
We have also bought highly capable rotary platforms from Boeing and, through our partnering initiative, have secured Boeing investment in advanced manufacturing in Sheffield. Boeing, in turn, has committed to increasing UK jobs and supply chain opportunities, including UK companies’ providing 5% by value of the entire Apache AH-64e fleet.
A key part of the Government’s rotary strategy and defence industrial policy is a collaborative approach to exports. Exports will continue to be fundamental to delivering affordable equipment to our armed forces and greater value to the UK. With the support of the UK Government, industry won export orders worth £14 billion in 2018.
Rotary is an important part of that export success. We supported the export of £12.3 billion of sales of Merlin, Wildcat and Lynx, and have enabled around £8 billion of associated support business. That has allowed Leonardo to invest in skills and generate new products in the UK. Most recently, that included the export of the AW101 Merlin helicopters to Norway and Poland and sale of the AW159 Wildcat helicopters to the Republic of Korea.
I move on to the rotary strategy, which is the crux of the debate. We all know that we now operate in a more uncertain, more complex and more dynamic environment. As we develop our future operating concept for our modernised force and consider what that means for our rotary-wing strategy, we must be mindful of certain technological improvements.
This afternoon, I had the opportunity to sit down with the former director of the Defense Acquisition Program Administration and the Ministry of Defence’s former and current chief scientific adviser, to have exactly that discussion about how, with an exponential technological curve, we make the right decisions about future capability to avoid fielding capability that is already near obsolete. This is a timely discussion about what that looks like specifically in the rotary space.
We believe that manned rotary capability will continue to be a vital requirement in all environments, but it will increasingly be teamed with small unmanned systems and may in some areas be replaced entirely by large autonomous systems by the 2040s. We are innovating with industry to test these unmanned air systems and ensure that our UK armed forces can access what they need. These unmanned systems range from small vertical take-off and landing systems to very large-scale, 2 or 3-tonne unmanned air systems, which our Royal Navy sees as critical to the future maritime environment.
The Navy’s discovery, assessment and rapid exploitation team is partnering with innovative UK companies to develop small rotary or vertical take-off and landing unmanned aircraft systems technology. This includes £250,000 investment with Malloy Aeronautics to develop a tethered rotary drone. The MOD has already invested with Leonardo helicopters on rotary-wing unmanned concepts, and we continue to discuss how we might develop a UK large rotary unmanned air system that could support rotary assets in the future.
As I have explained, the environment we operate in will continue to change. This is an ideal opportunity to review our approach to rotary-wing capability ahead of big decisions on future capability. This debate has also highlighted that it is not just about equipment. The 2009 rotary-wing strategy recognised the need to change how we operate our rotary-wing capability. Since then we have rationalised our core fleet to only five platforms, providing efficiencies in how we operate, man and support these platforms, to be an effective fighting force.
Our aim is to ensure that we can mobilise, modernise and transform the way we develop and operate rotary capability across Defence. This is not just about platforms, personnel training, infrastructure and in-service support, all of which will be vital in delivering our aims; we must ensure that the enterprise is as efficient as it can be, so that we can deliver more military capability to the frontline.
Our thinking is also informed by our international partners, some of which have been discussed in the debate today. We are leading efforts within NATO to look at next-generation rotorcraft concepts and opportunities. This will help to drive consensus on what the future requirements will be and ensure that industry is ready to meet them. We are also observing the US army’s ambitious future vertical lift programme to develop a family of new-generation helicopters. There is much we can learn from the US approach and conclusions, but we have made no decisions on our future rotary requirements, or on how we would deliver them.
Our review of the rotary-wing strategy will need to inform and be informed by the Government’s overall defence and security objectives. That is why I am pleased that the Government are committed to the deepest review of Britain’s security, defence and foreign policy since the end of the cold war. I note the shadow Minister’s hope that a timeline might be confirmed soon; I am sure that news will be forthcoming. The MOD will enthusiastically participate in that review, and it will ensure that we have in place the right strategy to meet the challenges and opportunities that we face as a country in the decades ahead.
The industrial backdrop and some of the themes mentioned—skills, exports and new technologies—are applicable across our industrial base. Our refreshed defence industrial policy, published in December 2017, sets out our commitment to encouraging a thriving and globally competitive UK defence sector. We have decided in the past to adopt alternative approaches in specific areas—shipbuilding and combat air—and we continually assess our approach to other sectors to determine whether we need to develop separate strategies or whether they can form part of a wider defence industrial strategy.
This Government recognise the importance of the defence rotary-wing capability today and in the future. We will continue to ensure that our long-term strategy is coherent and encompasses the equipment, support, training, basing infrastructure and the industry that we need to deliver it. Moreover, we see this as an opportunity for the defence pound to contribute meaningfully to the Government’s levelling-up agenda. It is encouraging to note the number of local enterprise partnerships that have included defence and aerospace in their regional industrial strategies.
The rotary sector has a great story to tell, and it is fortunate to have champions in Parliament as eloquent and knowledgeable as my hon. Friends the Members for Witney and for Yeovil. It is also good to hear the considered and largely consensual contributions from the Opposition parties. I am particularly looking forward to working cross-party in defence—although I am sure we will have our moments. This is an area of policy where everybody wants the best for the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who ultimately have to go to dangerous places on behalf of our country. I am really looking forward to working with spokespeople and shadow Ministers on the Opposition Benches to make sure that, as we go through this security, defence and foreign policy review, there is an opportunity to share our ideas together, so that we can come to some sound and enduring conclusions.
Finally, there is understandable pressure from my hon. Friend the Member for Witney, who has sought this debate principally to raise an ambition for a rotary-wing strategy. My gut feeling is that in a year when we are looking more broadly at defence, security and foreign policy needs, and seeking to understand the threats that are emerging and how we will counter them across all five domains—land, sea, air, cyber and space—we first need to understand all of that and work out from it what our strategic ambition is, which is exactly what the strategic defence and security review is there to do. We need to work out what the role is for the defence pound and the levelling-up agenda, and how that contributes to a defence industrial strategy, and then look beyond that at whether there is a requirement for bespoke sector deals, or whether the wider programme actually covers what we need. I hope that my hon. Friend will be patient and will participate, just as all other colleagues will. This is going to be a fascinating time to be involved in defence policy, and I look forward to hearing the further thoughts of colleagues as the year goes on.
I have one or two comments. Thank you, Ms McDonagh, for your guidance on the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I was referring to air show tickets, which I have declared, and hospitality received through the all-party parliamentary group for the armed forces.
I thank all other colleagues for the constructive and collegiate approach they have taken to this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Fysh) has enormous constituency interest in the matter, and he is absolutely right when he speaks of R&D, skills and the potential for export sales. I had not referred to that, but he is absolutely right.
I am very grateful to the Scottish National party’s spokesperson for her story. I am not surprised that helicopters matter, given the story she told. She is absolutely bang on about the skills gap, and the importance of STEM and inspiring our young people, particularly women, given the lack of female engineers. We are all aware of that and absolutely must address it. I am very grateful to the Opposition’s Front Bencher for making, as always, constructive and collegiate comments. So much of what we are trying to do in this sphere is cross-party, and he is absolutely right about the wider defence industrial strategy, which I had not quite put into that context. I am grateful to him for doing so.
I am also grateful to the Minister for his highly constructive comments. It was an outstanding flying start, if that is not too much of an awful pun to close the debate. I am grateful to him for mentioning the Jupiter and Juno helicopters, which are serviced just outside my constituency at Oxford airport. Many of my constituents work on them and it is of enormous importance.
I applaud the Government’s investment, but it is the strategy surrounding it that I push for, and I know the Minister understands that. I entirely accept his point that a wider defence and foreign policy review is going on at present, and that the strategy may have to await that. It is simply something I put across his radar. On the wider importance of the rotary strategy within the foreign and defence review, we are in cordial agreement.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered UK defence rotary strategy.